Archives for November 2019

Psalm 138:1–5; Hosea 13,14; Revelation 4:9–5:10

Originally published 12/01/2017. Revised and updated 11/30/2019.

Psalm 138:1–5: This psalm of thanksgiving opens what we might call over-the-top enthusiasm, although when praising God I think over-the-topness is exactly right. Words fail us when we really see God and attempt to comprehend what he has done for us:
I acclaim You with all my heart,
before gods I hymn to You.
I bow to Your holy temple,
I acclaim Your name
for Your kindness and steadfast truth,
for You have made Your word great across all Your heavens. (1, 2)

One wonders who these small-g gods are. My theory is that the psalmist praying in Jerusalem in its final corrupt stages before being conquered by Babylon. Perhaps the streets were littered with idols that our psalmist knows are merely impotent pieces of wood.

While we have read many psalms of supplication where God remains frustratingly silent, here God has answered quickly and imbued our psalmist with joyous strength:
On the day I called You answered me,
You made strength well up within me. (3)

Which certainly makes our psalmist joyous—and in that joy he envisions a time when the entire world will know and praise God:
all the kings of the earth will acclaim You, Lord,
for they have heard the words of Your mouth.
And they will sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the Lord’s glory. (4, 5)

This is one of those places where the psalms do such a marvelous job of stretching our imaginations to see what one day will be true. Just as the psalmist did not inhabit a world where all praised God neither do we. But I don’t think that diminishes the joyous thrust of these verses that remind us we can look forward to God’s restored creation, where all people from leaders and kings on down worship and praise the one true God.

Hosea 13,14: The final chapters of this book continue God’s monologue where he appears to vacillate between handing Israel the punishment it deserves as over against the inherent love he has for his people and his inextinguishable hope that they will one day repent and return to him. Chapter 13 opens with an angry God:
Now they sin more and more;
    they make idols for themselves from their silver,
cleverly fashioned images,
    all of them the work of craftsmen. (13:2a)

But the situation is far worse than images made of silver:
It is said of these people,
    “They offer human sacrifices!
    They kiss  calf-idols!  (13:2b)

That there is child sacrifice is a reminder of the pure evil that this idol-worship has engendered among formerly God-fearing people.

Then, God seems almost nostalgic about the people he cared for and who followed him:
I cared for you in the wilderness,
    in the land of burning heat.
When I fed them, they were satisfied; (13:5, 6a)

But now…. Now God’s anger emerges white hot in similes of ferocious, flesh-eating predators:
So I will be like a lion to them,
    like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs,
    I will attack them and rip them open;
like a lion I will devour them—
    a wild animal will tear them apart. (13:7, 8)

But as always, there is the promise of God’s rescuing salvation if these people would simply repent, expressed here in a well-known verse:
I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
    I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
    Where, O grave, is your destruction? (13:14)

But this brief intermezzo is followed an immediate swing back to an angry description of the gruesome fate awaiting an unrepentant Samaria:
They will fall by the sword;
    their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
    their pregnant women ripped open.  (13:16)

Chapter 14 opens with yet another call to repentance:
Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.
    Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
    and return to the Lord. (14:1, 2)

All it will take to return to God and be forgiven is a simple vow—to “take words with us.” Which words Hosea then helpfully supplies for the remainder of the chapter. This passionate book ends with what I take to be the author’s message and the point of everything that has preceded this final verse:
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them. (14:9)

Indeed! This is the bifurcation of humanity: those who follow God understand—and accept—what God is saying and look to God to lead their lives. But those who reject God, these words—and as we see in John, the Word himself—are stumbling blocks that they dismiss as errant nonsense.

What Hosea saw around him more than 2000 years ago we see around us today. Our human pride and its manifestation that we do not only do not need God to guide our affairs, we can pretend that he doesn’t even exist. We have foolishly convinced ourselves that we can do it all on our own. This is the great constant of fallen humanity. The humanity that would not listen to its prophets and to which he sent his own Son to rescue.

Revelation 4:9–5:10: Worship before the throne of God concludes when “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever.” (4:10)  John provides us the words of the hymn they sing:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they were created
    and have their being. (4:11)

I’m pretty sure these words have been set to music by someone somewhere.

Suddenly all is quiet in the room as John sees God on his throne holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel asks who is worthy to open the scroll. John’s sadness at the fact that no one steps up causes him to cry, but one of the elders leans down and tells him, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” (5:5)

Suddenly John sees a slain lamb which has “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (5:6) The lamb takes the scroll, which causes a new round of worship to occur: “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.” (5:8) John, who must have been a musician or lyricist in his former life, provides us another worship song—this one about lamb’s sacrifice:
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (5:9)

It’s really not that difficult at this point to figure out that the slain lamb represents Jesus Christ. And that the recurring ‘sevens’ represent the seven churches to whom John is writing. However, other scenes yet to come will prove more difficult to figure out…

My view of this scene and this entire book is that it is a coded or symbolic message to the seven churches John is writing to. These churches already are or shortly will be enduring persecution by the Roman authorities as they see the popularity of this new Jewish sect as a threat to Pax Romana. In short, Revelation is a subversive book and John is writing in deliberately symbolic language for the simple purpose of protecting its recipients should it fall into the hands of the Roman authorities. They would read it and because they would see it as the nonsensical scrawlings of an obscure political prisoner, dismiss it out of hand. In short, I think Revelation is a coded message to the seven churches about Roman persecution and the great promise of Jesus Christ. And we should read it in the context of the fraught times in which John is writing.

I do not believe Revelation has anything to say about events yet to come, nor that it is predicting anything beyond what was happening in Asia at the end of the first century CE. This view is doubtless anathema to many evangelicals, but so be it. It’s still a lot of fun to read.

Psalm 137; Hosea 10,11,12; Revelation 3:19–4:8

Originally published 11/30/2017. Revised and updated 11/29/2019.

Psalm 137: This beautiful psalm, so full of sadness yet remarkable beauty, was doubtless composed shortly after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The opening verse teems with fond remembrance of a former joyous life for the psalmist and his friends—and all that has been lost:
By Babylon’s streams
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion
On the poplars there
we hung our lyres. (1, 2)

This psalm has doubtless been sung down through the centuries by Jews who have been exiled from their homeland. It has an emotional force that for me, anyway, is unequaled in all the book of Psalms.

And now in a cruel irony the Babylonians ask them to sing a song that only intensifies the pain of remembrance of what once was:
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song
and our plunderers—rejoicing:
‘Sing us from Zion’s songs. (3)

But in the intense pain of memory is almost too much for our poet:
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not recall you,
If I do not set Jerusalem”above my chief joy. (4-6)

It is this vow that rings down through the ages in the traditional Jewish toast, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The pain of loss metastasizes from bitter memory into hateful anger as our psalmist recalls how the Edomites encouraged the Babylonians to completely destroy Jerusalem:
Recall, O Lord, the Edomites,
on the day of Jerusalem, saying:
‘Raze it, raze it,
to its foundation! (7)

Hatred intensifies into a desire for revenge in one of the most notorious verses in all the Psalms:
Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,
happy who pays you back in kind,
for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashes
your infants against the rock. (8, 9)

If we ever needed an example of how a psalm can describe the deepest possible emotions of despair it is right here. It’s worth noting that emotion, including the most intense possible anger and hatred is channeled through poetry and song and not in violent action.

Hosea 10,11,12: Hosea describes an Israel that has wandered far from its promise to follow God as he catalogs their various idols, weaving in the promise of their eventual destruction:
Their heart is deceitful,
    and now they must bear their guilt.
The Lord will demolish their altars
    and destroy their sacred stones.  (10:2)

The northern kingdom of Israel and its idols will (and did) meet a bitter end:
The people who live in Samaria fear
    for the calf-idol of Beth Aven.
Its people will mourn over it,
    and so will its idolatrous priests,
those who had rejoiced over its splendor,
    because it is taken from them into exile.
It will be carried to Assyria
    as tribute for the great king. (10:5, 6)

As always, it all boils down to human pride:
But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors, (10:13)

Despite the manifold sins of Israel, God still loves them:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?

My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.  (11:8)

Hosea composes a fascinating interior dialog as God debates to himself:
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities. (11:9)

But, God continues, there are still the manifold sins of these stubborn, wayward people that must be dealt with:
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
    Israel with deceit.
And Judah is unruly against God,
    even against the faithful Holy One. (11:12)

Then again, God continues to reflect, these people have always been rebellious, starting out with their patriarch, Jacob. It’s in their very nature:
The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah;
    he will punish Jacob  according to his ways
    and repay him according to his deeds.
In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel;

    as a man he struggled with God.
He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
    he wept and begged for his favor. (12: 2-4)

Nevertheless, Hosea writes,  God demands repentance and obedience.
But you must return to your God;
    maintain love and justice,
    and wait for your God always.  (12:6)

The chapter ends on a grim note of an angry God who will mete out the punishment these stubborn people deserve:
But Ephraim has aroused his bitter anger;
    his Lord will leave on him the guilt of his bloodshed
    and will repay him for his contempt. (12:14)

What’s fascinating to me in these chapters is how God seems to oscillate between anger and love, which is a pretty human quality. The Old Testament God is a God of many emotions—displaying far more human qualities, even vacillation, than the God of pure justice and love we encounter in the New Testament. There, God’s emotions are expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Revelation 3:19–4:8: Like Hosea, John knows that God demands repentance. And in a verse that is a favorite among evangelicals John gives us the famous image of a patient Jesus who comes to us and awaits or decision to “open the door of our hearts” and ask Jesus in and to begin a relationship with him: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (3:20)

Continuing with the door metaphor, John, having completed his message to the specific churches, enters through a door into the very throne room of heaven: “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” (4:1) And thus begins the most fantastic and creative narrative in the Bible, exceeding even Daniel’s visions.

The very first thing John sees is a throne but its splendor is such that he cannot really identify who is sitting on it, only that “A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.” (4:3) The throne is surrounded by 24 other thrones “and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (4:4)  Many people interpret these as the 12 disciples and 12 Jewish patriarchs.

It’s certainly a noisy place: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing.” (4:5) We meet the four living creatures, not very dissimilar to Daniel’s vision: “The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle” (4:7)  We can be sure that John was quite familiar with that book.  The 6-winged, eye-covered creatures are leading a never ending worship, singing,
Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
” (4:8)

Much ink has been spilled in trying to interpret the 24 elders, the seven spirits of God, and the four creatures, whose faces by the way, now represent the four gospels. As for me, I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the fantastic images.

Psalm 136; Hosea 8,9; Revelation 3:7–18

Originally published 11/29/2017. Revised and updated 11/28/2019.

Psalm 136: The Moravians must be doing catch-up by assigning us all 26 verses of this psalm. However, since every other line is “for His kindness is forever,” its content is really only 13 verses worth. With the repeated refrain following every line, it’s clear that this psalm of thanksgiving was sung antiphonally—much in the same way that many congregations today read (or sing) psalms responsively

The theme of the opening stanza is God’s creativity and his steadfast faithfulness:
Acclaim the greatest Master
for His kindness is forever.
Who alone performs great wonders,
for His kindness is forever. (3,4)

The stanza following reprises God’s creation of the universe as it parallels the Genesis story (we’ll omit the refrain):
Who makes the heavens in wisdom,
Who stamps firm the earth on the waters,
Who makes the great lights,
The sun for dominion of day
The moon and stars for dominion of night. (5-9)

Then, the psalm recounts Israel’s national story: its escape from Egypt:
Who strikes Egypt in its firstborn,
And brings out Israel from their midst,
With a string and an outstretched arm,
Who split the Reed Sea into parts,” (10-13)

Then, the wilderness journey and the conquest of Canaan, including naming the kings that they defeated:
Who struck down the great kings,
And killed mighty kings
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
And Og, king of Bashan,
And gave their land as an estate,
An estate for Israel His servant, (17-22)

The poet remembers how God rescued Israel:
Who recalled us when we were low,
And delivered us from our foes. (23-24)

Having moved through the creation story and Israel’s history, the psalm closes on a general thanksgiving for God’s providence:
Who gives bread to all flesh,
Acclaim the God of the heavens. (25-26)

The ultimate effect of this psalm is unity. Depsite individual differences, all Israel was united in acknowledging God’s action in creation and their national history. One cannot come away from this psalm without a feeling of strength and patriotism. I think if we Americans could somehow sing our own national history in unison as the Jews did here there would be greater understanding of where we came from, who we are, and a reminder that we have much more in common than the politics that rips us apart.

Hosea 8,9: Hosea continues his prophetic narration in God’s voice as  he catalogs Israel’s collective sin of idolatry and its failure to follow God’s law—as well as its hypocrisy:
Israel cries out to me,
‘Our God, we acknowledge you!’
But Israel has rejected what is good;
    an enemy will pursue him. (8:2, 3)

For their egregious sins, God’s punishment is inevitable as it is memorably decsribed in the famous verse,
They sow the wind
    and reap the whirlwind.  (8:7)

Both Israel and Judah are relying on their own efforts rather than trusting God. Out of this pride of self-sufficiency will come the whirlwind of destruction:
Israel has forgotten their Maker
    and built palaces;
    Judah has fortified many towns.
But I will send fire on their cities
    that will consume their fortresses. (8:14)

Needless to say, there’s a contemporary lesson here: Human pride and its attitude that God is superfluous will inevitably bring nations—including this one—to a bad end. Which is the entire point of chapter 9 as Hosea, still speaking in God’s voice, outlines Israel’s dreadful fate:
Do not rejoice, Israel;
    do not be jubilant like the other nations.
For you have been unfaithful to your God;
    you love the wages of a prostitute
    at every threshing floor. (9:1)

And for its manifold sins,
The days of punishment are coming,
    the days of reckoning are at hand.
    Let Israel know this.
Because your sins are so many
    and your hostility so great,
the prophet is considered a fool,
    the inspired person a maniac. (9:7)

Notice the personal note there. Obviously Hosea was considered to be a lunatic for speaking the truth. Which is exactly how we discount dire warnings today. I wonder how long we can get away with that same attitude to those speaking warnings about the dire path we as a culture are headed down? Will we meet the same fate as Israel? The final verse of this chapter describes exactly what happened in AD70 and the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem as the Jews lost their homeland and the centuries-long diaspora and persecution began:
My God will reject them
    because they have not obeyed him;
    they will be wanderers among the nations. (9:17)

Even prophecies that appear to be lunacy can come true.

Revelation 3:7–18: The churches at Philadelphia and Laodicea are today’s targets. Like Hosea, John seems to be speaking in God’s (or actually, I think, Christ’s) voice, describing the conditions at Philadelphia: “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (8) Sounding just like Ezekiel or Hosea, there are apparently some false believers “of the synagogue of Satan,” who will meet their deserved fate: “I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.” (9) But notice how different their fate will be under Christ rather than the angry OT God: they will “acknowledge that I (Christ) have loved you.” The terms of the New Covenant are certainly preferable to the old!

There’s an apocalyptic interlude here as John, eager to get on writing about his visions, promises Jesus’ imminent return to earth: “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.” (11) And he gives us a hint of what will come in greater detail at the end of this book: “the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God.” (12) In effect, he’s telling the church to stay tuned. And of course 2000 years later, we are still waiting. But as always, we must remain alert.

John is less complimentary about the church at Laodicea, as he famously notes it is stuck in the middle between faith and apostasy—” I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (15, 16) The problem here is that the members of this church have deluded themselves, thinking they are all set theologically and “do not need a thing.” But it’s clear that this church has forgotten about compassion for its neighbors as we hear an echo of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (17) In short, they are focused on the things that really don’t matter but ignoring the things that do.

Which pretty much describes too many churches today, I’m afraid.

Psalm 135:13–21; Hosea 5,6,7; Revelation 2:24–3:6

Originally published 11/28/2017. Revised and updated 11/27/2019.

Psalm 135:13–21: This psalm continues to praise an eternal God who shows mercy:
Lord, Your name is forever,
Lord, Your fame for all generations
For the Lord champions His people,
and for His servants He shows change of heart. (13, 14)

Against this image of graceful magnificence, our psalmist describes the pointlessness of idolatry in words that certainly seem apropos today’s American culture:
The nations’ idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
A mouth they have and they do not speak,
eyes they have and they do not see.
Ears they have and they do not hear,
nor is there breath in their mouth. (15-17)

The psalmist reminds us how these lifeless statues may look human but unlike God-created humans they are blind, deaf, and dumb.  Today, we have advanced (or declined) beyond the need for gold and silver made into small statues. Instead, we worship gold and silver itself. Wealth and power have become the great measure of a person’s wealth. But in the end trust in these dead objects or objectives is pointless. Our psalmist reminds us that when we trust only in dead things, we are transmuted into the very dead objects we worship:
Like them may their makers be,
all who trust in them. (18)

And like those statues, wealth and power are a mere simulacrum—a pathetic and ultimately dead imitation of God’s true purpose for our lives.

The psalm concludes with a hearty praise chorus, reminding the singers that the true and living God lives in Jerusalem:
House of Israel, bless the Lord,
House of Aaron, bless the Lord.
House of Levi, bless the Lord.
Those who fear the Lord, bless the Lord.
Blessed is the Lord from Zion,
Who dwells in Jerusalem.
Hallelujah!  (19-21)

May we also remember at this time of thanksgiving how richly God has blessed us—not by our idols, but by the living God through Jesus Christ.

Hosea 5,6,7: The Moravians are certainly not looking to linger in this rather strange prophetic book that uses prostitutes as its central metaphor:
Their deeds do not permit them
    to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
    and they do not know the Lord.“(5:4)

There is a certain despair that hovers over this book as Hosea names the primary sin of the people: pride:
Israel’s pride testifies against him;
    Ephraim  stumbles in his guilt;
    Judah also stumbles with them. (5:5)

Hosea outlines some of the historical events that occurred when Judah was under siege by Babylon, noting that without God, human efforts are futile:
then Ephraim went to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king.
But he is not able to cure you.

Hosea, seemingly shouting into the wind, says there is only way that Judah can be rescued and that is by turning to God, who promises that,
I will return again to my place
    until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
    In their distress they will beg my favor: (5:15)

Which is just as true for us today. As we can see easily from current events, human pride and the wanton exercise of power untethered from faith in God leads ultimately to downfall.

We encounter a remarkable verse in chapter 6 as Hosea continues to plead with Israel to repent:
After two days [God] will revive us;
    on the third day he will raise us up,
    that we may live before him. (6:2)

That third day rescue by God is certainly a parallel to Jesus’ three days in the tomb and then resurrection, although we know that Hosea wrote those lines with no knowledge of what was to come. Only God knew that.

But Hosea’s main purpose here is to call priests and officials to account as chastises them in the strongest possible terms:
As robbers lie in wait for someone,
    so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    they commit a monstrous crime. (6:9)

His diatribe against the priesthood continues on into the next chapter with a new simile: an over-heated oven:
As robbers lie in wait for someone,
    so the priests are banded together;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    they commit a monstrous crime.

For they are kindled like an oven, their heart burns within them;
    all night their anger smolders;
    in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire” (7:4, 6)

Just as the psalmist excoriates those who worship idols, Hosea tells us that the efforts of these priests and officials will come to naught because they have not turned back to God. Another reminder that human effort—especially speech—that ignores God is ultimately doomed to failure:
They turn to that which does not profit;
    they have become like a defective bow;
their officials shall fall by the sword
    because of the rage of their tongue.
So much for their babbling in the land of Egypt. (7:16)

So much truth for our own time…

Revelation 2:24–3:6: John advises those in the church at Thyatira to hang in there despite those members espousing corrupt theology, or as John puts it more colorfully, ‘the deep things of Satan,’ (2:24) Instead, they are to “only hold fast to what you have until I come.” (2:25) Inasmuch as John was a political prisoner on an obscure island in the Aegean Sea, his arrival could be a long time coming…

There’s a coded promise taken from the Old testament that God will eventually overthrow the clay pots of the Roman empire and reign in its place:
I will give authority over the nations;
to rule them with an iron rod,
    as when clay pots are shattered— (2:27)

Which eventually came true under Constantine some 200 years after John wrote. I wonder f the church at Thyatira held out that long?

If John was reasonably kind to the people at Thyatira, he has fewer nice things to say about the apparently comatose church at Sardis: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” (3:1) Doubtless, there are lots of comatose Sardis-like churches floating around today.

In a reference to Jesus’ final warnings to be alert, it looks as everyone there has forgotten his promise that he will return: “Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” (3:3) But it’s not quite clear to me if the “I” in this sentence is referring to John or to Jesus. I’ll go with Jesus on this one.

Apparently the faithful remnant at Sardis who have hewed to orthodoxy is quite small: “Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” (3:4) That’s a nice metaphor: heterodoxy as soiled clothing. There’s doubtless a lot of soiled clothing in American churches. The pertinent question of course, is my own clothing soiled?

Psalm 135:1–12; Hosea 2:16–4:19; Revelation 2:12–23

Originally published 11/27/2017. Revised and updated 11/26/2019.

Psalm 135:1–12: This lyrical psalm of thanksgiving rejoices that God has chosen Israel (aka “Jacob” in this stanza) as his special people:
Praise Yah for the Lord is good,
hymn His name, for it is sweet.
For Yah has chosen for Himself Jacob,
Israel is His treasure. (3, 4)

It’s worth remembering that God has chosen us through Jesus Christ. I grew up in a church that talked about the necessity of people making “decisions for Christ.” The clear implication was that it was we who choose to accept or reject Jesus Christ. Not until I was in the Lutheran church did I come to fully understand that it’s exactly the other way round. Jesus has chosen us first. We may accept or reject, but we can never be so arrogant as to assume we’re in control of our destiny.

This sense of God being in control over all creation is intensified in the verses that follow:
All that the Lord desired He did
in the heavens and on the earth,
in the seas and all the depths. (6)

Not only does God reign over nature, but as the psalmist recalls, it is God who created the circumstances that resulted in Israel’s release from Egypt through the plagues and the Passover:
[It was God] Who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
from humankind to beast,
Sent forth signs and portent in the midst of Egypt
against Pharaoh and all his servants. (8,9)

Likewise, it was God who conquered the inhabitants of Canaan that enabled Israel to settle there:
[It was God] Who struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—

And gave their land as an estate,
an estate to Israel, His people.” (10, 12)

We would do well to look around and see exactly how God is enabling us in our quotidian lives. There’s no question he’s at work in ways we cannot appreciate or even comprehend.

Hosea 2:16–4:19: God continues to speak to Hosea using the striking metaphor of Israel being God’s wife. A day will come, God promises, where the Baals are gone forever and “ I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.  I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” (2: 19, 20) This metaphor suggests where the NT writers developed the metaphor of the Christian church being the “Bride of Christ.”

For Israel, God’s greatest promise is fulfilled when after they reject the small-g gods, God will say to them, “You are my people”; / and he shall say, “You are my God.” (2:23)

God then commands Hosea to go hire a prostitute and after he pays her 15 shekels, tell her, “You must remain as mine for many days; you shall not play the whore, you shall not have intercourse with a man, nor I with you.” (3:3) Likewise, Israel, which the prostitute represents here, “shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim.” (3:4) After this time of erasing the small-g Gods from its collective memory, Israel will finally return to the one true God: “Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.” (3:5)

Chapter 4 is a long poem that recalls Israel’s descent into idolatry with an intense focus on the evils of Baal worship, including,
the men themselves go aside with whores,
    and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin.” (4:14)

But perhaps the greatest sin is that the people worship false idols becaise they have not stopped to think about the deeper implications of what they are doing. They worship Baal because they have not remembered what God has commanded:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
    because you have rejected knowledge,
    I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
    I also will forget your children.” (4:6)

These verses are an ominous parallel to today as the cultural knowledge of the Christian roots of western civilization and the creation of the scientific method are being forgotten and being replaced by the false idols of technology and celebrity. Alas, ignorance of the kind Hosea describes is growing and festering all around us.

Revelation 2:12–23: John continues his messages to the individual churches in Asia. He commends the church at Pergamum—a city “where Satan’s throne is“—for “holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me,” (14) even when one of their members, a certain Antipas, was martyred. Nevertheless, he continues, “I have a few things against you,” (14a) His complaint is that there are some “who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” (14b) This is proof that some idols just never go away—including today in our age of individual spiritualism and the Oprah gospel that we can find all the resources we need if we just look deeper inside ourselves.

Moreover, there “are some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”  (15) Which I take to be an aberrant, even heretical form of Christianity. In short, the heresies that infected the church then still infect parts of the church today.

John takes the same “here’s-what-I-like-about-you-but-you-have-some-problems” approach to the church at Thyatira. They have sterling qualities—“your love, faith, service, and patient endurance” (19)—but apparently are also in the thrall of a certain female prophetess: “you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants  to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (20) I’m guessing that Jezebel wasn’t her real name and that John is making his point in pretty harsh terms.

Like Thyatira, too many churches today are held in thrall by false prophets. The entire edifice of the prosperity gospel and those popular televangelists who claim to heal people or preach a sunny self-actualization message come to mind.

Psalm 134; Daniel 12:8–Hosea 2:15; Revelation 2:1–11

Originally published 11/25/2017. Revised and updated 11/25/2019.

Psalm 134: This very succinct psalm appears to be directed to those worshippers who remain at the temple overnight:
Look, bless the Lord,
all you servants of the Lord,
who stand in the Lord’s house through the nights.
Lift up your hands toward the holy place
and bless the Lord. (1, 2)

Perhaps these are the people who tend the fires that are never extinguished, or even perhaps the those who cleaned the public areas at night. It’s a helpful reminder that churches require tending to: maintenance, security, cleaning—all the things that go on behind the scenes to ensure a place to worship that reflects our desire to present our very best to God.

Moreover, these folks also worship God through their quotidian but highly necessary tasks and are worthy of our complete respect. With the psalmist we should say to them when we encounter them,
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
He who makes heaven and earth. (3)

Daniel 12:8–Hosea 2:15: Perhaps the Moravians just want to torture us one last time with one last snippet from the frustrating book of Daniel before allowing us to move on to the minor prophets…

This weird chapter of this very odd book ends with one last pronouncement and one final, highly specific prophecy by the angel as Daniel stands down at the bank of the Tigris. The angel’s pronouncement is eternally true: “Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.” (12:10) Which certainly seems like an apt description of our present governmental leadership. Except I’m not sure there are any wise men—or even mature adults— remaining in Washington DC.

The final prophecy is strikingly precise, which I suppose is what the authors did in order to give it one final air of authenticity. Or perhaps they wrote this after the fact: “From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days.” (12:11, 12) Once again, my take is that this os a prophecy (or perhaps a recounting) of the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (2290 days hence) and his eventual overthrow by the Maccabean revolt (3335 days). Or maybe it means something completely different…

But what the angel says to Daniel in the book’s last line seems also appropriate for all of us who have struggled to understand this puzzling and often frustrating book: “But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days.” (12:13)

And so we meet Hosea which opens just as weirdly as the book of Daniel concluded. God commands the prophet, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (2) Hosea, being a obedient prophet, marries a certain Gomer who bears him a son, whom God commands Hosea to Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.” (1:4)

Then Hosea fathers a daughter to be named “Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” (1:6) A third child arrives and God commands, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” (1:8) I’m pretty sure that unlike Hosea I would strongly resist having to give my children whose names that are essentially an early form of tweeting a message to all Israel…

But even though God is truly angry at Israel, he always holds out hope of the nation’s eventual redemption: “in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (1:10)

Chapter 2 is a long poem which appears to be written in God’s voice. A disobedient wife is a metaphor for the nation of Israel and will be duly punished by an angry husband. [We need to remember not to inject our modern values and behaviors on this ancient poem, but it is nonetheless disturbing]:
I will strip her naked
    and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
    and turn her into a parched land,
    and kill her with thirst.
Upon her children also I will have no pity,
    because they are children of whoredom. (2:3, 4)

And then the (in)famous line:
For their mother has played the whore;
    she who conceived them has acted shamefully. (2:5)

As usual, the problem is Israel’s predilection to worship small-g gods and their associated evil rites such as child sacrifice. But even worse, they have forgotten the true God:
I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
    when she offered incense to them

    and forgot me, says the Lord. (2:13)

Nevertheless, as always, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the curses:
Therefore, I will now allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
    and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. (2:14, 15)

The lesson here is that even in their hideous apostasy, God never ever gave up on Israel—and he never ever gives up on us.

Revelation 2:1–11: Chapters 2 and 3 are seven brief  sermons, one each to each of the seven churches of Asia. What’s strikes me on reading this is that every one of the seven churches could read what John wrote not only to themselves but to the other six churches as well. I wonder how each church felt having its dirty laundry aired to a bunch of other churches?

The first letter to the church at Ephesus commends them for “your works, your toil and your patient endurance.” (2) and that they do not tolerate “evildoers.” But everything is not hunky dory: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (4) There is a clear lesson here for us: there’s no point in even having a church if it is not a loving church. What Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13 applies to every church. [I wonder if the church at Ephesus was aware of Paul’s letter before the NT was compiled into a single volume a few centuries after these letters were written.] Alas, I suspect that a majority of congregations today could easily have these same charges leveled against them.

Next comes the church at Smyrna and John does not mince words: “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” (9) We assume the affliction and poverty is not about economic issues but about an absence of love. John warns them of tougher times yet to come—doubtless persecution by the Romans: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (10, 11)

My take is that of we in the church are focused on trivialities and not on Jesus and on love for each other, we will be unable to stand up against political pressure of both the prevailing culture and the state. I suspect that the American church will bear more than a passing resemblance to the church at Smyrna in the years to come.

Psalm 133; Daniel 11:20–12:7; Revelation 1:9–20

Originally published 11/24/2017. Revised and updated 11/23/2019.

Psalm 133: This compact psalm celebrates the pleasures of a group of men, perhaps priests, in fellowship together:
Look, how good and how pleasant
is the dwelling of brothers together. (1)

Of course in today’s culture we would be looking suspiciously at a group of men gathered around enjoying each other’s company, especially when we we read the simile that follows:
Like goodly oil on the head
coming down over the beard,
Aaron’s beard that comes down
over the opening of his robe. (2)

Apparently anointing one’s head with olive oil was a luxury of the time. Today we call that aroma therapy. This verse also reveals that Aaron (and I suspect all high priests that succeeded him) had a very long beard…

Our psalmist emphasizes the pleasure of the anointing by using another simile that reminds us that God is behind this pleasure, just as God is behind all the pleasures the psalmist enjoys—and that we enjoy:
Like Hermon’s dew that comes down
on the parched mountains
For there the Lord ordained the blessing—
life forevermore. (3, 4)

This psalm is truly an oasis and reminds us that sometimes we should just sit back and enjoy the blessings God has given us—a highly appropriate theme for this Thanksgiving season.

Daniel 11:20–12:7: This endless speech by the angel explaining what Daniel’s vision meant certainly provides ample fodder for those who like to speculate what may happen at the end of history. There are ongoing battles between the king of the north and the king of the south. —and further amplification about the desolating abomination and its charismatic leader: “Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate.” (11:31) Happily, though, not everyone will be fooled by the pretence of this leader: “He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action.” (11:32)

There seems to be a pretty clear description of the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes: “The king shall act as he pleases. He shall exalt himself and consider himself greater than any god, and shall speak horrendous things against the God of gods. He shall prosper until the period of wrath is completed, for what is determined shall be done. (11:36)

Finally, this tyrant’s rule comes to its end: “At the time of the end the king of the south shall attack him. But the king of the north shall rush upon him like a whirlwind, with chariots and horsemen, and with many ships.” (11:40) And the sycophants who followed him will abandon him to his fate: “He shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.” (11:45)

This all makes me wonder if this passage—especially about the “people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action” is a reference to the Maccabean revolt, 167 to 160 BCE.

There is a sudden shift in chapter 12 to what many evangelicals believe is a description of the 7 year Tribulation that will occur at the end of history, including a resurrection of the dead—everyone, both good and bad: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (12:2) I have to admit it’s difficult to square this section with the end described in Jesus’ Olivet discourse (Matthew 24-26) since it’s clear that no resurrection of the dead has yet occurred. IN the end (so to speak), I think it’s pretty foolhardy to rely on this cryptic passage as a clear forecast of what will occur at the end of history.

Daniel is sternly instructed to “keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.” (12:4) I have to confess that it certainly feels like there is an abnormal amount of “running back and forth” in our present American culture as it abandons its Christian roots. Of course that phrase has been levied against all kinds of horrors down through history.

Revelation 1:9–20: John of Patmos describes exactly how he was inspired to write this book—and like what is to come in subsequent chapters, it was quite a dramatic encounter. What we should take as an angelic proclamation came to him a what I take to be a trance-like state: “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” (10)

OK, there have been lots of angelic visitations, including the really long one we’re reading about in Daniel. But what John describes next is unprecedently dramatic—it kind of makes Daniel’s vision down by the Tigris River look pretty wimpy: “Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,  and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.” (13) John goes on to describe the Son of man’s appearance: white hair, eyes like a flame, feet like burnished bronze and holding seven stars. But then what I think is the most dramatic if ather bizarre image of all: from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.” (16)

John’s vision is clearly that of Jesus Christ, who as heavenly visitors always do, first reassures John “Do not be afraid.” Christ continues, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” (18) If we ever needed a description of the unfathomable power of the resurrected Jesus it’s right here.

The Son of Man helpfully interprets part of the vision: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (20) Unfortunately, as this book continues, Jesus will not show up to interpret things. We’ll be left pretty much on our own to decipher John’s writing.

Psalm 132; Daniel 10:8–11:19; Revelation 1:1–8

Originally published 11/23/2017. Revised and updated 11/22/2019.

Psalm 132: This psalm celebrates David and his unflagging efforts to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, which Alter informs us is recounted in narrative in 2 Samuel 6 and 7. The psalm’s opening verses describe David’s single-minded dedication:
Recall, O Lord, for David
all his torment
when he swore to the Lord,
vowed to Jacob’s Champion: (1, 2)

And then in David’s voice, his fierce commitment:
I will not come into the tent of my home,
I will not mount my couch,
I will not give sleep to my eyes

nor slumber to my lids
until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling for Jacob’s Champion. (3-5)

“Jacob’s champion” is a name for God I’ve not heard before and it must refer to the incident in Genesis where Jacob wrestled with God—and God won. It’s worth remembering that as far as the Jews were concerned, God was not omni-present but quite literally dwelled in one place: the Ark, hence the requirement for a permanent holy place for the Ark to rest.

David succeeds in the task and there is great rejoicing:
Rise, O Lord, to Your resting place,
You and the Ark of Your strength.
Let Your priests don victory,
and let Your faithful sing gladly. (8, 9)

At this point, the psalm recalls how the Davidic dynasty was God-ordained in recompense for David’s fierce trust in God:
The Lord swore to David
a true oath from which He will not turn back:
‘From the fruit of your loins
I will set up a throne for you. (10, 11)

Crucially, the psalmist reminds us that the dynasty remains in power only,
If your sons keep My pact
and My precept that I shall teach them,
their sons, too, forevermore
shall sit on the throne that is yours. (12)

Of course by reading the Histories, we know how well that turned out…

The psalm then returns to the topic at hand, which is that as long as the Ark remains at Jerusalem, all will be well. Writing in God’s voice, the psalmist asserts that all will be well:
This is my resting place evermore,
Here I dwell, for I desired it.
I will surely bless its provisions,
its needy I will sate with bread. (14, 15)

Alas, it’s tragic that the great promise of this psalm was undermined by the failure of Israel to continue to worship God. But we need to remember that God didn’t abandon his side of the promise. And that David remained the greatest of all Israel’s king as the psalmist reminds us in the final verses written in God’s voice:
There I will make a horn grow for David,
I have readied a lamp for my anointed,
His enemies I will clothe with shame,
but on him—his crown will gleam. (17, 18)

Daniel 10:8–11:19: For me this passage is much more valuable as a description of Daniel’s emotions—mainly fear— than the content of the vision. An angel appears to Daniel and encourages him. Like most angelic visitations, there’s the invocation not to be afraid: “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” (10:12)

But Daniel replies, My lord, because of the vision such pains have come upon me that I retain no strength. How can my lord’s servant talk with my lord? For I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.” (10:16, 17) Once again, the angel encourages Daniel, “Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!”  (10:19)

With Daniel apparently recovered, there’s a really long discourse about kingdoms rising and being broken apart. There is a king from the south who makes an alliance with a king from the north via an arranged marriage. The princess will have a son, and “He shall come against the army and enter the fortress of the king of the north, and he shall take action against them and prevail.” (11:7)  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone out there has tried to make this a prophecy about Jesus, but that seems pretty farfetched to me.

Anyway, our eyes glaze over as we read of still more there are lots of battles, another marriage and ultimately defeat: “Then he shall turn back toward the fortresses of his own land, but he shall stumble and fall, and shall not be found.” (11:19)

This is one of those places in the Bible where one can only wonder why it’s there. It must have had significance to the author’s contemporaries, but it seems a futile effort to try and sort all this out and align it to actual events, most of which I’m pretty sure have been lost to history.

Revelation 1:1–8: As if the puzzlement of the book of Daniel weren’t enough, we now embark on the wild ride that is Revelation. A political prisoner named John (certainly not the same John of the eponymous gospel or epistles) writes to seven churches in Asia.

The opening verse tells us immediately that this is a prophetic work and that the words come form heaven via an angel: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” (1)

The instruction of how to communicate this book to others is also clear. It is to be read aloud: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” (3)

Things start out calmly enough as John reprises the Gospel message in an opening invocation: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made  us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” (5b, 6) 

But then our author shifts his view up toward heaven and the second coming, giving us a brief introduction to the apocalyptic feast to come:
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” (7)

This sense that we about to encounter something greater than mere theology is intensified when he writes about God’s eternality over all things: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (8) We are left with the feeling that just as God knows no boundaries in spacetime, so too, what John is about to write will also transcend the boundaries of the quotidian world in which we live.

Psalm 131; Daniel 9:1–10:7; Jude 1:11–25

Originally published 11/22/2017. Revised and updated 11/21/2019.

Psalm 131: This psalm evokes a humility before God that all of us would do well to emulate:
Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
nor have my eyes looked too high,
nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me. (1)

This is pretty much the opposite state that our ambitious culture espouses. “Reach for greatness;” “Be whoever you want to be,” we tell our youth. We judge financial success and celebrity as the ne plus ultra of achievement. But this kind of achievement leads inevitably to self-centeredness and pride. And as we watch celebrities and politicians implode due to accusations of sexual harassment, we all should learn the lesson that pride and a sense that one has power over others inevitably leads to a fall.

Instead, we need to follow the psalmist:
But I have calmed and contented myself
like a weaned babe on its mother–
like a weaned babe I am with myself. (2)

Think about that image: a contented humility that brings the peace of a baby asleep on its mothers shoulder. Am I calmed and contented with myself? Am I humble? Too often I have considered myself to be pretty good, pretty smart, pretty accomplished. This psalm is a wake-up call for me. And would that it be a wake-up call for our culture.

Daniel 9:1–10:7: We arrive at a welcome interlude from bizarre visions and interpretations as Daniel  prays for Israel’s forgiveness—a prayer that seems completely appropriate to American society today: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.” (9:9, 10) He continues, observing that ” this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his  fidelity.” (9:13)

We can see Daniel down on his knees, begging God to forgive Israel, clothed in the humility of the psalmist above: “We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” (9:19) Something we need to remember: grace comes from God, not by anything we ourselves have said or done.

Alas, the interlude of prayer ends all too quickly and we are back to vision-land. Gabriel comes to Daniel in a vision and tells him his prayer will be answered because “you are greatly beloved.” (9:23)

Gabriel tells Daniel that for Jerusalem there will be an interval of seven weeks “from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince” (9:25a) Then “for sixty-two weeks [Jerusalem] shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.” (9:25b) But at the end of this 62 weeks, “[Jerusalem’s] end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.” (9:26)

As if this isn’t enough, this anointed prince will “make a strong covenant with many for one week,” For half a week things will be normal activity at the temple, but then the anointed prince will place “abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.” (9:27)

Much has been made of the 7, 62, and 1/2 weeks, usually employing the conventional interpretation is that a “week” equals 7 years. This vision again seems to refer to Antiochus Epiphanes who by virtue of sacrificing a pig in the temple did indeed create an “abominable desolation.” But many conservative evangelicals interpret this vision is a prediction about the Antichrist and events such as the Tribulation that will occur at the end of history, i.e., events still to come. But I go with the Antiochus Epiphanes interpretation.

Today’s reading ends with yet another Daniel vision: “I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (10:5, 6) Even though Daniel is amidst a crowd he (unsurprisingly) is the only he who sees and hears this vision. 

I guess we’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens next….

Jude 1:11–25: Jude is on a tear as he excoriates those who are corrupting the Christian community to which he is writing. He cites three OT examples of the fruits of corruption: “Woe to them! For they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.” (11)

Then, he launches into some of the more colorful metaphors we encounter in the New Testament as he struggles to communicate just how awful these apostates are: “They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.” (12, 13)

At this point he gets downright apocalyptic, citing Enoch’s curse against these corrupters who will meet a very bad end. Out of breath and metaphors at this point, he calls them “grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” (16) Let’s hope we never get in Jude’s cross-hairs…

He concludes this passionate letter by addressing those who have remained faithful and giving advice that is pretty much the author’s message: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” (20, 21)

Equally important, we are to be merciful to others: “have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” (22, 23) In other words we are enjoined to have mercy on people we intensely dislike and/or we see as hopeless sinners. 

These words of advice are a pretty good encapsulation of the faithful Christian life.

However, the implication that we have to do good in order to “keep yourselves in the love of God” suggests that God will cease loving us when we sin or stray from him. On the contrary, I think God always continues to love us; it is our own actions that pull us away from him. But there’s just a skosh too much Catholic works righteousness for me here in this epistle. Jude is clearly not a Lutheran who sees grace in all that God does. 

Psalm 130; Daniel 7:23–8:27; Jude 1:1–10

Originally published 11/21/2017. Revised and updated 11/20/2019.

Psalm 130: This psalm opens with the stark image of a man seeking God when he is very near to death:
From the depths I called You, Lord.
Master, hear my voice. 
May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea. (1, 2)

The psalmist is grateful—as we should be—that God does not actively seek out to punish sinners as that would be too much to bear. Rather God is a God of forgiveness:
Were You, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,
Master, who could endure?
For forgiveness is Yours,
so that You may be feared. (3, 4)

This is something that too many of us forget when all they see is a God of punishment and vengeance when something goes wrong or a personal tragedy strikes. Tis psalm reminds us that those qualities are not God’s essence.

As usual in a psalm of supplication, there is also the frustrating reality of God’s silence. Here, our psalmist beautifully conveys the intensity of hope—hope that God will hear and forgive:
I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped,
and for His word I waited. (5)

This anticipation consumes the poet’s entire being:
My being for the Master—
more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn. (6)

Of course the question for me is, do I wait upon God with such intensity? The answer is clearly ‘no.’ I may pray, but the anticipation of God’s answer does not become the singular focus of my life. I think  that can happen only when I relinquish my own ego and desire for control and let Jesus take over my life. Alas, I am still very far away from that.

The psalm’s focus shifts from the cries of a single man to the entire nation of Israel, which hopes for forgiveness for its collective sins:
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
for with the Lord is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him.
And He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs. (7,8)

If we substitute the name of our particular Christian community for ‘Israel,’ I think we can see just how important collective confession becomes—and why it should be at the beginning of every time the community comes together to worship.

Daniel 7:23–8:27: It seems only proper that Daniel—the great interpreter of king’s dreams—would have his own dream interpreted for him. The watcher, or whoever is interpreting the dream, focuses on the fourth beast—the one with iron teeth:
As for the fourth beast,
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth

    that shall be different from all the other kingdoms;
it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.” (7:23)

In any event, the talking horn—what some see as the Antichrist—will work against all that is holy:
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
    and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his power
    for a time, two times, and half a time. (7:25)

My own take is that this is a description of the subjugation of Israel under the Greek empire featuring Antiochus Epiphanes and his attempt to suppress Israel’s worship. This is the period when most scholars agree this book was written. Nevertheless, many prefer to interpret Daniel’s dream as a forecast of the end of history—or at least have a lot of fun doing so.

Not content with a bizzaro dream, Daniel then has a vision down by the riverside of a powerful ram, which is “charging westward and northward and southward. All beasts were powerless to withstand it, and no one could rescue from its power; it did as it pleased and became strong.” (8:4) A goat with four horns then tackles the ram. Then—you guessed it—another little horn which “grew as high as the host of heaven. It threw down to the earth some of the host and some of the stars, and trampled on them.” (8:10)

The reference to suppressed worship at the temple seems quite clear: “it took the regular burnt offering away from him and overthrew the place of his sanctuary.” (8:11) Daniel now hears “the Holy One” speaking and he asks, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?” (8:13) The answer is strangely precise: “For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.” (8:14)—or about six years.

Daniel is frustrated that he cannot interpret his own vision: “I tried to understand it.” So the Holy One (God?) sends the angel Gabriel to explain, who suddenly makes it quite clear that the vision is about the end of something. “Understand, O mortal, that the vision is for the time of the end.” (8:17) The end of history? The end of Israel? The end of something else?

Gabriel then explains, “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. The male goat  is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king.” (8:21) Greece then breaks apart and “a king of bold countenance shall arise,/ skilled in intrigue…By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand  and in his own mind he shall be great..” (8:23, 25) Inasmuch as the Roman empire arose after the Greek empire, one wonders if this is the a prescient forecast of the Caesars to come.

Gabriel concludes that the vision “refers to many days from now.” (8:26)

Needless to say there have been numerous of attempts to fit contemporary history into this scenario of end times. But again, I think it’s a reference to the Greek conquest of Israel and the desecration that happened under that oppression. But if you’d rather try to fit all these signs and symbols into a scenario for the end of history, have at it.

Jude 1:1–10: We know very little about Jude beyond surmising that he was an apostle that like Paul, Peter, James, John, et al was writing against those who would corrupt the early church. I’m pretty sure Thomas Hardy had this short book in mind when he titled one of his novels, “Jude the Obscure.” That title certainly seems to fit here. But then so would “Jude the Angry.”

Whatever church it is to which he is writing, Jude is quite direct. Apostasy is afoot: “I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (3, 4)

Jude does not pussyfoot around. He cites some dramatic examples of how God punished wrongdoers: Even though God saved the Israelites, “he afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” (5) Likewise, he points out, Sodom and  Gomorrah “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (7)

Something that in his opinion is just as awful is apparently going on at this church and Jude does not mince words: “Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones.” (8) He goes on to accuse these miscreants not only of slander but worse, slander born out of ignorance: “But these people slander whatever they do not understand, and they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct.” (10) Apparnetly the problem of fake news is nothing new. People have been making things up all along…

I suspect one of the reasons that this little letter is in the Canon is that it is a great example of the intensity with which the original battles were fought over what aspects of Christian belief were orthodox and what were not. The first verses of this short book are a statement by the winners of the orthodoxy battles. This reminds us that the stakes continue to be very high and subsequent generations must stick to the strait and narrow and avoid Jude-like accusations of apostasy.