Archives for December 2019

Psalm 1; Genesis 1:1–2:3; Matthew 1:1–17

Originally published 1/1/2016. Revised and updated 12/31/2019

Psalm 1: There is no other book in the Bible that explores every aspect of life, especially the gamut of its emotions and the fact that our choices have consequences. No other book deals as intimately with the relationship between God and human beings. No other book describes quite so well how God is both Creator but also Participant in his creation; that he remains active in every affair of nature and every affair of our lives. But perhaps above all, the Psalms come back again and again to our moral choice: choose good by following God’s teaching and walking with God or choose to consort with evil and suffer the negative consequences. 

This first psalm opens with that moral choice: “Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,/ nor in the way of offenders has stood, / nor in the session of scoffers has sat.” (1)  The moral man neither walks nor stands nor sits with the wicked. Instead, “the Lord’s teaching is his desire.” (2a) We Christians tend to think of our relationship with God as one established in friendship (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus, etc.). For the psalmist,  though, life is much more about being taught by God and rehearsing those teachings over and over: “and His teaching he murmurs day and night.” (2b). In other words, learning God’s law and following that path of righteousness is our highest duty in our relationship with God.

When we elect to do that, the rewards are great as the very first metaphor in this book makes clear: “And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,/ that bears fruit in its season,/ and its leaf does not wither./ and in all he does, he prospers.” (3) When we elect to walk with God we not only grow and flourish, we are rewarded. This deuteronomic formula is the foundation of the moral philosophy of the Psalms.

The contrast with the fate of the wicked is stark: “Not so the wicked,/ but like the chaff the wind blows away.” (4) Even though it often seems the wicked are winning, eventually, they “will not stand up in judgement.” (5a) and they will be excluded from the “band of the righteous.” (5b) The reason is simple. There are but two paths in life: one  following God and one following our own desires: “For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous,/ and the way of the wicked is lost.” (6)

Genesis 1:1–2:3: This first of the two creation stores that open the first book of Old Testament (OT) scripture begins with the establishment of what we might call the Great Pairs: heaven and earth, light and darkness, day and night, water in the sea and water in the air which becomes sky: [“Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” (1:6)], land and sea.

Creation is incredibly fecund as the pairing continues: trees yield both fruit and seeds, then there come creatures on land and birds in the sky; then wild and domesticated animals. And finally, God created humankind in his image, also as a pair: “male and female he created them.” (1:27) Here in this creation first story there’s no Adam and Eve. The word “humankind” (or “mankind”) implies plurality. The author (or authors) of this story seem to have no problem suggesting that humankind arrives as a plurality, as many, not just as two individuals.

God then hands creation over to humankind, blesses them, and instructs them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (1:28) This is our duty: to be stewards of the earth. Alas, how much of creation humankind has wantonly destroyed, always with the justification conjured by the words “subdue” and “dominion.”

This first creation story focuses on natural creation and informs us that humankind is part of that God-created natural order. We humans started out intimately connected to creation, but our technology has increasingly separated us from that intimate connection with the rest of creation. Finally, we are coming to realize that by ignoring this connection and focusing only on subduing and dominating creation has had woeful consequences just about everywhere we look.

But here in Genesis, at the beginning, God launches a perfect creation and “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (1:31) And then God rests. Not because he’s tired but because creation is complete in every sense of the word. There is simply no further work to be done.

Matthew 1:1–17: Jews did not believe in an afterlife. Sheol was simply an underworld of the dead. There was no connection to God in the afterlife. Instead, deceased Jews lived on in the memory of their progeny. Which is why having children was so important. Without children one would simply be forgotten as if he had never even existed.

Genealogy, therefore, was crucial. Knowing one’s roots was an essential part of one’s identity.  Matthew is writing to a Jewish community and it’s essential that he establish Jesus’ bona fides as the Messiah. Without that, everything else he writes would be essentially meaningless because Jesus would have no ancestral bona fides to make the claim as Son of Man. Thus, the genealogy is the first thing Matthew writes, asserting, “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (1) Matthew uses the three crucial hinge points of Israel’s history: Abraham, David and the Babylonian exile on which to build his genealogical structure.

We meet all the famous OT characters, as well as some of the obscure ones. From Abraham to David we meet Issac and Jacob and then Judah and his descendants, including Boaz, Ruth, Jesse, David. We also encounter three famous OT women: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. And then David’s heirs, both good (Solomon, Hezekiah) and bad (Uzziah, Ahaz). In the exilic period we encounter Zerubbabel, who plays a big role in Zechariah’s prophecy, and Zadok the priest.

There’s a beautiful mathematical purity that Matthew points out here: “all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” If we think of the number seven being representative of “spiritual perfection,” and the number three of the Trinity or as some have it, “inner sanctity,” then Matthew’s 14 generations times 3 connotes a line that is sanctified spiritual perfection doubled. This is just one more reason why Matthew can so confidently assert that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

Psalm 149,150; Malachi 2–4; Revelation 22:8–21

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

Psalm 149,150: I commend the brilliance of the editors who compiled Psalms to end this amazing book that describes every human feeling; that contains every cry to God for rescue; every complaint about a too-silent God; and which again and again celebrates God as Creator of all nature and above all, as Creator of humankind.

We also encounter over and over the underlying theme of the entire Old Testament: God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the lowly—and his anger at those who ignore them. But above all else, we see how to worship God—and that is the theme of these final two psalms.

The stanzas of these two psalms express an all-encompassing joy:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
His praise in the faithful’s assembly.  (149:1)

Let them praise His name in dance,
on the timbrel and lyre let them hymn to Him. (149:3)

Let the faithful delight in glory,
sing gladly on their couches. (149:5)

But also in this psalm there lurks a darker note of wrong-headed triumphalism:
For the Lord looks with favor on His people,
he adorns the lowly with victory.
Exultations of God in their throat,
and a double-edged sword in their hand,
to wreak vengeance upon the nations,
punishment on the peoples,
to bind kings in fetters,
and their nobles in iron chains,
to extract from them justice as written–
it is grandeur for all His faithful. (149:6-8)

Israel was God’s chosen people and this psalm clearly celebrates a military victory of some kind. Or more eschatologically, perhaps they are celebrating a victory at the end of history. To me, these final verses read like a condensation of the end of John’s Revelation. After many great trials and persecution, the people of God are finally victorious.

Psalm 150, on the other hand, is untrammeled joy and is a fitting conclusion to all that has gone before. In the end. It’s all about praising God. “Praise” is repeated eleven times in the six short verses—leaving little doubt that joyous worship is our highest obligation—and pleasure—before God:
Praise God in His holy place,
praise Him in the vault of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts,
praise Him as befits His abounding greatness.
Praise Him with the ram-horn’s blast,
praise Him with the lute and the lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance,
praise Him with strings and flute.
Praise Him with sounding cymbals,
praise Him with crashing cymbals.
Let all that has breath praise Yah.

In the end, we do not come before God with our theological insights or deep commentary. We come before God in joyful worship. If we take nothing else away from reading and pondering these 150 psalms, we must take that.


Malachi 2–4: Perhaps by this time the people who compiled the Moravian redaings came to realize that there is a great deal of repetitiveness in the minor prophets. Malachi sounds very much like those prophets who preceded him as he rehearses the usual themes of God’s anger and the promise of a better world to come for those who remain faithful to God.

1. God is angry at the desertion of the people and their preference to worship idols and there will be punishment. Malachi gives us a memorable metaphor: “I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings,” (2:3)

2. God’s anger is primarily directed at the religious and political leaders, who have led the people astray: “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi.” (2:7, 8)

3. The priests and leaders are first order hypocrites: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. ” (2:13)

4. Then, a theme we haven’t encountered before: the duty to remain faithful to one’s wife: “So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord…. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.” (2:15)

5. Then, there is the messianic section. Here, it is a prediction of a messenger coming to prepare Israel for God’s arrival: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” (3:1) We certainly witness this in the role of John the Baptist as the messenger and the appearance of Jesus at the temple.

6. God will judge and punish those who have ignored the needs of the poor: “I will draw near to you for judgment; … against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me.” (3:5) We have encountered this command over and over in reading the Old Testament and the Psalms. Oppression of the poor and the powerless is a running theme of history down to the present day and I think God is trying to get our attention about this.

7. At the end of history—the “Day of the Lord”—those who have remained faithful to God will receive their just reward: “on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” (3:17, 18)

The final chapter of the Old Testament bears striking resemblance to the last chapters of Revelation. At the end of history, the wicked will be punished and fire will be involved: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” (4:1)

But those who fear God will be saved: “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (4:2) The righteous will finally triumph over evil: “you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet.” (4:3) This is a day we are still waiting for.

Malachi has one final admonition to his audience: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” (4:4)

The Old Testament ends on a promise: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:5,6) No wonder some people thought Jesus was Elijah returning to earth.

But as we know, God had a far greater surprise in store when he sent his son some 400 years after this last prophet speaks his final words.

Revelation 22:8–21: His often bizarre visions complete at last, these final verses are John’s epilogue and benediction. Once again, John attempts to worship the angel who brought these visions to him. But the angel demurs: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (9)

Here at the very end of the book we learn that angels are our fellow servants. And based on our readings in the Old Testament, we can certainly agree that John speaks in a prophetic voice. The angel has it right when he says, “you and your comrades the prophets.” And just as the final psalm ends on our highest calling—to worship God—so too, this book with the angel’s imperative, “Worship God!

As long as Jesus has not returned, the same old bifurcation between good and evil will continue to exist on earth as the angel reminds John and us, “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” (11) In the midst of evil, we, who consider ourselves to be righteous, are commanded to do the right thing and to always remember that there is still holiness in this broken, fallen world. And we ourselves must remain holy.

Suddenly, a new voice breaks in: See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (12, 13) It is Jesus who has the last spoken words in the Bible: It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (16, 17)

It is Jesus’ invitation to each and everyone of us. Jesus is the healer, the water of life that we receive through baptism. And his invitation still stands some two millennia later to all who will simply listen and respond. As John stated much earlier in this book, Jesus is already standing just outside the door of our heart. The eternal question hangs in the air: will we invite him in?

John’s Revelation concludes with the author’s warning: “ I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (18, 19) I think John knew instinctively that his visions would stir endless debate. Which they surely have. But just think how boring this last book would have been if it didn’t stir controversy and confusion.

But there is nothing confusing about the penultimate verse as Jesus says, “The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” (20) To which John and we can only reply, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

And so we wait.

Sola Deo Gloria.

Psalm 148:7–14; Zechariah 13:7–14:21; Malachi 1; Revelation 21:9–22:7

Originally published 12/29/2017. Revised and updated 12/28/2019.

Psalm 148:7–14: The conclusion of this psalm is a masterful catalog of living creatures as well as what we think of as inanimate objects. Our poet begins in the deepest parts of the ocean and ascends to humankind from high rank to low—all of whom praise God—in one of the longest sentences in the Psalms:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
Fire and hail, snow and smoke
stormwind that performs His command,
The mountains and all the hills,
fruit trees and all the cedars,
wild beasts and all the cattle,
crawling things and winged birds,
kings of earth and all the nations,
princes and all leaders of earth,
young men and also maidens,
elders together with lads. (7-12)

We self-centered humans tend to think that we alone are God’s creation and that all nature  is more or less a byproduct that exists solely to serve our needs. But here it’s clear that all of God’s creation stands on an equal footing before him. The strong implication to me is that while we may be God’s highest creation, made in his image (imago deo), we must reverently stand in respect for the entire natural world. Reflecting on the magnificence of all creation is what leads naturally to worship as we—together with all of nature—praise him. Which is exactly what our psalmist goes on to say:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for His name alone is exalted.
His grandeur is over earth and the heavens.” (13)

The psalm concludes with a reminder that Israel is God’s chosen people and they would do well to follow and to praise God:
And may He raise up a horn for His people,
raise of all His faithful,
of the Israelites, the people near Him.
Hallelujah! (14)

When I am out in nature doing photography, I can admire the grandeur of what God has created from the tiniest flower to the cliffs of Zion. It is then this that psalm reminds me that we humans are but one element of God’s glorious creation.

Zechariah 13:7–14:21: As this book continues its oscillation between God’s promises and the consequences of God’s anger,  we encounter an oracle that brims with anger at the metaphorical shepherd, who is doubtless an unfaithful king—of which Judah had many.  At some point two-thirds of Judah will perish and the reminder will be put to a severe test to see who among them remains faithful:
And I will put this third into the fire,
    refine them as one refines silver,
    and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name,
    and I will answer them.
I will say, “They are my people”;
    and they will say, “The Lord is our God.” (13:9)

Happily, they appear to pass the test.

The final chapter of this mysterious book is a John-like vision of the end times. I’m pretty sure John was familiar with this passage since there are parallels of battle and the creation of a new Jerusalem. First, Jerusalem is destroyed with God’s permission. But, “Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.” (14:3) Something similar John’s new Jerusalem is reestablished under God’s direct rule: “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem…it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” (14:8, 9)

We even have a hint of what John turns into a heavenly city that descends to earth: “But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s wine presses.” (14:10) Moreover, it will become an eternal city: “it shall be inhabited, for never again shall it be doomed to destruction; Jerusalem shall abide in security.” (11)

Zechariah then foretells more bad events, which I will skip over. Eventually, all the nations will come to worship God. But I have to admit to the feeling that Zechariah’s scroll got messed up somewhere along the way and try as they might, his editors never really straightened things out. The book ends rather confusingly and abruptly with “And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”(14:21), which certainly brings Jesus’ cleansing of the temple to mind. Or not…

Malachi 1: Our prophet opens by making it clear that the descendants of Esau, who I take to be the Edomites, are not as well-loved as the descendants of Jacob, i.e. Israel. In fact, they’re pretty much cursed by God: “If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says: They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.” (4) Wow. No hope there. Malachi drops the subject and moves on to other concerns…

Like other prophets before him, Malachi chastises the corrupt priesthood: “You say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised.” (6, 7)

Like all the other prophets, Malachi writes as the voice of God. And his take makes God something of a complainer: “Oh, that someone among you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hands.” (10)

God points out that “my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (11) so the obvious conclusion is that Israel should offer God only the best. But instead, he accuses them, ” you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it  may be despised. ” (12)

Malachi/God points out that the priests are complaining about having to make sacrifices: “What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts.” (13a) and then in disobedience to the Law, they cheat by offering blemished and inferior animals for sacrifice, keeping the good stuff for themselves. He reminds them, “for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations.” (14) The chapter ends with the feeling that bad things are about to happen.

Revelation 21:9–22:7: Never one to leave well enough alone, John spends the remainder of chapter 21 describing the new Jerusalem. His description is reminiscent of the temple measurements in the concluding chapters of Ezekiel. Like everything else in this book, John’s vision is that Jews and Christians together worship God. The new Jerusalem has twelve gates—four on each side, “and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites;” (21:12) And it has twelve foundations, “and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (21:14). We presume that Judas’s name is not among the twelve.

The new Jerusalem is quite big: a cube 1500 miles on a side. What’s really intriguing is John’s lapidary catalog, which includes jasper, transparent gold, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, amethyst, and pearls.

Logically enough, this Jerusalem has no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (21:22) The sun and moon are not required since the city is lit by God’s glory and “its lamp is the Lamb.” (21:23) Finally,  its inhabitants are the faithful (the wicked having been earlier tossed into the sea of fire), and “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (21:27)

As if this weren’t enough, John goes on to describe the river of life, “bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (22:1, 2) lined by twelve fruit trees, whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.” (22:3) 

John’s lengthy description ends with the famous words, “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (22:5) Which I have to admit is a pretty great promise. Darkness has been banished from the new Jerusalem.

John then reminds his readers of his own bonafides as the angel tells him to write,“These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” (22:6) In other words, John asserts, he’s an eyewitness and he has not made these visions up. One really wants to believe him; the imaginative scope of this book is unlike anything else in the Bible—or in literature as a whole.

Psalm 148:1–6; Zechariah 12–13:6; Revelation 20:11–21:8

Originally published 12/28/2017. Revised and updated 12/27/2019.

Psalm 148:1–6: This majestic psalm of praise celebrates God and his creation. It begins in heaven itself as the psalmist gives us a glimpse of just who is there:
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise Him on the heights.
Praise Him, all His messengers,
praise Him, all His armies. (1, 2)

Here, messengers are obviously angels, but the paintings and popular conception to the contrary, I doubt they are winged and haloed beings. Somewhere in the Bible there’s a verse about us having “entertained angels unawares,” i.e. they look like us. Remember that Abraham and Sarah entertained three angelic beings that looked just like them. I’m guessing, though, that God’s armies are populated by those fearsome looking seraphim with multiple wings and lion’s faces.

Our psalmist comes to earthly creation, effectively paralleling the Genesis account. But here it is not just that God has brought creation into being, but that creation itself worships God. Our psalmist begins with God’s physical creation above our heads:
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise Him, utmost heavens,
and the waters above the heavens.  (3, 4)

I presume the “waters above the heavens” refers to clouds and rain and that the phrase “above the heavens”  refers simply to the sky above.  All these seemingly inanimate objects exist for the same reason we humans do: they—and we—were created to praise and worship God:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for He commanded, and they were created.
And He made them stand forever, for all time.
And he set them a border that could not be crossed. (5, 6)

So, what is this border? I think it’s the boundary between God’s visible creation, which includes what’s above are heads, and Heaven itself, which we cannot see in the same way as the sun, moon, planets, and stars.. Of course John’s Revelation attempts crosses this border in its almost hallucinatory effort describe the fundamentally indescribable. I prefer our psalmist’s statement that there os a border between God’s physical creation and Heaven, and leave it at that.

Zechariah 12–13:6: Zechariah continues with his vision of a great army arrayed outside Jerusalem—effectively the same image as John who describes Satan’s armies preparing for battle outside the new Jerusalem: “And all the nations of the earth shall come together against it. On that day, says the Lord, I will strike every horse with panic, and its rider with madness.” (12:3, 4)

Zechariah writes that Judah will be triumphant in this battle and will “devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem.” (12:6) Very good things will then happen to the people of Judah, who must have been hanging on Zechariah’s every word at this point: “On that day the Lord will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, at their head.” (12:8) Zechariah seems to be getting carried away when he starts comparing the house of David to God.

Or is he? There is indeed someone from the house of David who is in fact God: Jesus Christ. And in the section that follows, it appears that the people of Judah will have executed their messiah: “I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one  whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10)

That Jesus was pierced with a sword while on the cross is certainly suggestive here. However, there was certainly no compassion expressed by the inhabitants of Jerusalem before the cross, while Zechariah describes a woeful mourning by all: “The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves;” (12;12)

Chapter 13 opens with what seems to be a clear reference to repentance and baptism occuring on the Day of the Lord: “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (13:1)

Zechariah describes a general cleansing: “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit.” (13:2) He goes on to state that the many false prophets will disavow their own prophecies and realize they are no more than farmers: “will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; …each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.” (13:4) 

John certainly seems to have picked up this same false prophet theme in the person of the Antichrist.

Revelation 20:11–21:8: John describes what some have called the “great white throne judgement,” which we refer to in our creeds, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” John gives us the details of that judgement. The dead, who arrive from out of the sea and from “Death and Hades” will be judged first “according to their works, as recorded in the books…according to what they had done.” (20:12, 13) In an echo of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew, this is the separation of the sheep from the goats and “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (20:15)

This judgement scene is why Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others are anxious to have their children baptized so their name is written in the book of life. More evangelical types such as Baptists believe that a “personal decision for Jesus Christ” at the “age of accountability” is the means by which their names are written into the Book of Life.

The judgement complete, John “saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (21:1) And in perhaps one of the strangest images in the Bible (and given John’s descriptions in this book, that’s saying a lot), John “saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:2) And we arrive at one of the more famous lines in this book that describes what heaven as experienced in the new Jerusalem will be like—and it will be far different than the lives John’s readers are experiencing in their quotidian lives. This is nothing less than God coming again to dwell among them:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away. (21:3, 4)

How encouraging this image must have been to the churches suffering persecution. And amidst the sturm und drang of our own culture, these are certainly words we can hang on to also.

John gives all the credit for what is a brand new creation to Jesus, who is sitting on the great white throne: “See, I am making all things new.” (21:5a) And to provide evidence of John’s bona fides he writes that it is Jesus who has given John the authority to write this book: “Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (21:5b)

John’s take on the Good News, the evangelicum is right here as Jesus himself states, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (21:6, 7)

The binary nature of being either for or against God is crystalline here. John, still speaking in Jesus’ voice, offers a final sentence on the fate of evildoers: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless,[the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8) As if dying once is not enough, these evil-doers are condemned to a second death. I wonder if he’s referring not only to the culture in general, but evildoers within the church?


Psalm 147:15–20; Zechariah 10,11; Revelation 20:1–10

Originally published 12/27/2017. Revised and updated 12/26/2019.

Psalm 147:15–20: Our psalmist is describing the winter in the Judean hills, always reminding us that God is in charge of nature in three brilliantly evocative verses rich in creative simile:
He pours forth snow like fleece,
   scatters frost like ash.
He flings His ice like bread crumbs.
   in the face of His cold who can endure?
He sends out His word and melts them,
   He lets his breath blow—the waters flow.” (16-18)

Sitting here in warmth but looking out into the dark and cold pre-dawn morning, these verses beautifully describe a cold, windy winter’s day. But God does not allow winter to remain. The fresh breezes of spring—God’s breath—melt the ice and the streams flow once again. These verses are also a metaphor for us: We may be frozen in our worries or our self-absorption, but it is God’s breath—the Holy Spirit—that comes to us an melts our icy hearts, replacing it with the fresh waters of baptism and our daily walk with God.

The two concluding verses remind the Jewish people of Israel’s special status as the unique beloved of God:
He tells His word to Jacob,
   His statutes and laws to Israel.
He did not thus to all nations,
   and they knew not the laws. (19, 20)

This is a succinct summary of the Old Covenant. Happily in the New Covenant under Jesus Christ this last verse is no longer operative. People of all nations have received the Good News. And as Paul points out in his letter to Rome, the Law is no longer how God relates to us, but he relates instead in love through our intercessor, Jesus Christ.

Zechariah 10,11: Chapter 10 is a poetic oracle that opens by castigating Judah’s prideful, greedy leadership, especially its so-called prophets, which have failed in their duties to the people. In short, Judah has been a land of lies and inept leadership because they have trusted in idols rather than God:
For the teraphim [idols]  utter nonsense,
    and the diviners see lies;
the dreamers tell false dreams,
    and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
    they suffer for lack of a shepherd.” (10:2)

Because of their dereliction, God plans to punish the leaders but promises a new beginning for the people of Judah who have returned from the foreign lands of exile. 
I will strengthen the house of Judah,
    and I will save the house of Joseph.
I will bring them back because I have compassion on them,
    and they shall be as though I had not rejected them;
    for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them. (10:6)

However, God is not going to just wave his magic wand and restore the status quo ante. There will be suffering as Judah turns back to God, but as Zechariah points out, these tribulations will strengthen them:
They  shall pass through the sea of distress,
    and the waves of the sea shall be struck down,
    and all the depths of the Nile dried up.”
I will make them strong in the Lord,
    and they shall walk in his name,
says the Lord(10:11a, 12)

I can imagine that these words were of great encouragement to the Jews who did indeed return and retake Palestine after World War II. However, Israel today is basically secular, Not all of Zechariah’s prophecy has yet come true.

In chapter 11, Zechariah, speaking in God’s voice, describes a bitter end to history: “I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord. I will cause them, every one, to fall each into the hand of a neighbor, and each into the hand of the king; and they shall devastate the earth, and I will deliver no one from their hand.” (11:6) Once again, we can see source material for John as he embellishes Zechariah’s prophecy in Revelation.

Zechariah sarcastically calls the failed leadership of Judah “the sheep merchants,” suggesting the leaders were more interested in transactions that increased their wealth as over against effectively leading the people to follow God, who are now “doomed to slaughter.” (11:7). God elaborates his point with a metaphor of two shepherds. The first shepherd, obviously God himself, has two shepherd’s staffs: one named Favor (i.e., his preference for Israel) and the other, Unity, for a reunited Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  But according to Zechariah, God breaks both staffs.

God then demands that the sheep merchants give him his wages and they dole out 30 shekels of silver, which he tosses into the treasury, amid more sarcasm, “this lordly price at which I was valued by them.” (11:13) Which is exactly the “lordly price” that the priests in Jerusalem paid Judas to betray Jesus.

The chapter ends on an ominous note describing how God is “now raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs.” (11:16) This doleful prophecy came true in the form of the Greeks and their leader, Antiochus Epiphanes, who invaded and ruled Jerusalem during the “silent 400 years” between the end of the Old Testament and Jesus’ arrival on earth. I think it is also more source material for John as he describes the false leader working for the beast.

Revelation 20:1–10: John describes the famous millenium of peace when the angel “seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended.” (2) However, John continues, “After that he must be let out for a little while.” This is the basis of belief of “postmillennialists,” who believe Jesus will come to earth and reign for 1000 years before the final 7-year tribulation (“a little while”) comes to pass. 

Lest we wonder what will be happening during those 1000 years, John asserts that the martyred dead who resisted the Antichrist and remained faithful will come back to life and enjoy the Millenium: “I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus  and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” (4) These folks “will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.” (6)

At the end of the 1000 years, Satan returns and deceives the nations “at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea.”(8) ‘Gog & Magog’ refers to the traditional enemies of Israel. Needless to say, many over-interpreters believe this to be the Arab states that surround modern-day Israel. I don’t think that’s what John had in mind. I think he is trying to encourage those seven churches to persevere under the Roman tyranny for a great reward eventually awaits them.

As these evil forces surround “the beloved City,” which I take to be the New Jerusalem, “fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (9, 10) And this is where we get our picture of a fiery hell, perhaps most memorably illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch:

In the end, God alway defeats evil.

Psalm 147:7–14; Zechariah 8,9; Revelation 19:9–21

Originally published 12/26/2017. Revised and updated 12/25/2019.

Psalm 147:7–14: As always, worship is our response to the incredible reality of who God is and what he has done for us:
Call out to the Lord in Thanksgiving,
hymn to our God on the lyre. (7)

Our psalmist cannot contain himself as he continues his catalog of God’s mighty works, this time turning to nature and how God sustains all life, beginning high in the clouds with the rain descending to earth and its creatures:
Who covers the heavens with clouds,
readies rain for the earth,
makes mountains flourish with grass.
gives the beast its food,
in the raven’s young who call. (8, 9)

Nature also provides for humankind—not just sustenance, but military might and technology. But man’s use of these powers does not impress God. Our mightiest acts are puny compared to God’s:
Not the might of the horse He desires,
not by a man’s thighs is he pleases. (10)

I take “might of the horse” to be a reference to a soldier riding a horse in battle and the reference to thighs as a veiled hint at sexual prowess. But power and might are not what pleases God. Instead, it is living a righteous life and worshipping him:
The Lord is pleased by those who fear Him,
those who long for for His kindness.
Extol, O Jerusalem, the Lord,
praise Your God, o Zion. (11, 12)

For when we love and worship God and hew to his path of righteousness, blessings—both physical and spiritual—will surely come:
For He strengthens the the bars of your gates,
blesses your children in your midst.
He bestows peace in your land,
He sates you with choice wheat. (13, 14)

How well we would do to remember that true blessings come from God, not from humankind’s hands. All of man’s works—especially his technology— bear a light side and a dark side. Only God can bless us without cost and without a downside.

Zechariah 8,9: The remnant of Israel has returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Jerusalem is a mess and Zechariah proclaims that God will bring better days to this once great city: “Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city,” (8:3) There are good things to come as Jerusalem is repopulated: “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” (8:4, 5) 

As the people stand amidst the ruins, this restoration seems impossible . But God asks them, “Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?” (8:6) Of course we know the answer to that question.

God calls the people to work: “Let your hands be strong” (8:9) And he establishes the principles of restoring a God-fearing nation: “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16, 17) Which is a pretty good recipe for any culture that wishes to flourish. Alas, as I look at this list I see an American culture in its inevitable decline.

As we know, both the city and the temple were rebuilt. And even today, Jerusalem remains at the center of God’s concerns—and a flashpoint for Israel’s many enemies.

So there’s always the next chapter. Chapter 9 is a pretty routine polemic against Israel’s many enemies. These include

  • the land of Hadrach,
  • Damascus (some things never change),
  • Hamath,
  • Tyre,
  • Sidon,
  • Ashkelon,
  • Gaza,
  • Ekron,
  • Ashdod (where “mongrel people will settle”)
  • Philistia,

Besides destruction there is also a messianic promise, which is dramatic and militaristic. But what is most striking about this messianic king, who is yet to come is:
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (9:9)

Obviously, the symbology of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was not lost on the religious leaders who certainly knew what Zechariah had to say about the Messiah.

Unsurprisingly for a prophet, Zechariah turns all apocalyptic at the end of history:
Then the Lord will appear over them,
    and his arrow go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the trumpet
    and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. (9:14)

Nevertheless, he ends on an optimistic note of Israel’s rescue, which in Revelation, John has transformed into the rescue of the Church:
On that day the Lord their God will save them
    for they are the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
    they shall shine on his land. (9:16)

And the promise of new hope of a restored people. Not just at the end of time, but in the immediate future as well:
For what goodness and beauty are his!
    Grain shall make the young men flourish,
    and new wine the young women. (9:17)

Which is exactly what God did under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. All the people of Israel restored the city with strong hands.

Revelation 19:9–21: John is so taken by the scene of worship that the angel has showed him that he falls to his feet to worship the angel. Not surprisingly, the angel replies, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (10) Because there is yet another vision to come. This one much more joyful than the ones that have preceded it.

John looks up and sees a white horse: “Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” (11) This rider “is clothed in a robe dipped in[f]blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” (13) Here’s one of those places where “the Word of God” would mean nothing to Romans who happened to read John’s manuscript, but it would have profound meaning for Christians. The “word of the Lord” tells them that the rider is none other than Jesus Christ himself.

This is a far more aggressive vision of Jesus Christ than any we have seen up to this point. In fact it all sounds as if it were lifted right from Zechariah: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” (15) I think the sword is actually the Holy Spirit. Paul uses this same metaphor for the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 6.

Just to make sure we know exactly who John is describing, he adds one more detail: “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (16) …And another line for Handel as he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus.

Needless to say Jesus triumphs over evil. The dead bodies of the defeated army become carrion: with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” (17, 18)

The beast and the false prophet are also captured, who are famously “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” (20) Everyone else is killed by the rider and the sword of the Spirit. In the end, only the birds who “were gorged with [the fallen soldiers] flesh.” (21) remain.

Although John’s description of Jesus’ triumph is breathtaking, it is startlingly militaristic. But then again, this is the end of history and evil will not go quietly into the night.

Psalm 147:1–6; Zechariah 6,7; Revelation 19:1–8

Originally published 12/25/2017. Revised and updated 12/24/2019.

Psalm 147:1–6: This magnificent psalm covers all the psalmic bases with gorgeous language in these opening six verses.

  1. Praising God is good:
    For it is good to hymn to our God,
    for it is sweet to adorn with praise. (1)
  2. God resides in Jerusalem and rescues Israel:
    Builder of Jerusalem, the Lord,
    Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in. (2)
  3. God is the source of comfort and succor to all his creatures who suffer, whether physically or emotionally. It’s worth stopping at this verse and just soaking in the incredible gift of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate today, who indeed has come to bind up our wounds:
    Healer of the broken-hearted,
    He binds their painful wounds. (3)
  4. God knows the vastness of the universe because he is its Creator and he knows us by name just as he knows the stars by name:
    He counts the number of the stars,
    to all of them gives names. (4)
  5. God is the powerful source of all wisdom:
    Great is our Master, abounding in power,
    His wisdom is beyond number. (5)
  6. And in keeping with the great underlying theme of both the Old and New Testaments, God places his caring priority on the poor and downtrodden and ensures justice—no matter how long delayed— will surely prevail:
    The Lord sustains the lowly,
    casts the wicked to the ground. (6)

A beautiful psalm describing God’s manifold qualities on which to reflect this Christmas Eve…

Zechariah 6,7: OK, I was wrong. I though Zechariah would end with the symbolic number seven, but here we have an eighth vision. This one as bizarre as any that preceded it: four chariots emerge from between two bronze mountains drawn by horses of different colors: red, black, white and oddly enough, dappled gray. Zechariah’s angel informs him that they are the four winds: black to north; white to west; dappled to the south and, we presume, the red to the east. Their mission is to patrol the earth and the angel “cried out to me, “Lo, those who go toward the north country have set my spirit at rest in the north country.” (6:8) So, I guess the angel’s home was somewhere in the north. But beyond that, there’s not much more to say other than that God’s patrol is on the lookout in all directions.

Zechariah is then commanded by God to collect silver and gold from some exiles newly arrived from Babylon to fashion a crown to place on the head of “the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak” (6:11) [We don’t learn if the exiles were rather unhappy to have their gold and silver confiscated.]

We then have a messianic prediction that Joshua will become a Branch “that shall build the temple of the Lord; he shall bear royal honor, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.” (6:13) I don’t think it would be unrealistic to interpret the Branch as the Christian church that emerges out of Judaism and that hopefully Jews and Christians will one day find peace with each other.

More prosaically, it is a prediction of the reconstruction of the destroyed temple, which task was led by Nehemiah: “Those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the Lord; and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.” (6:15)

Chapter 7 leaves the land of visions and we see a more typical prophetic message written as usual in God’s voice. This one condemning hypocritical fasting in Jerusalem while other Jews were in exile at Babylon: “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?” (7:5)

Which is an excellent question to ask ourselves during this Christmas season: are we celebrating for ourselves and the good feelings that ensue from giving gifts and being dutiful consumers? Or are we celebrating the birth of our savior? It’s so easy and comfortable to be a hypocrite!

Zechariah is commanded by God to make a crown “and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak; say to him: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord.” (7:11b, 12). As the author of Hebrews makes clear, we now have a new high priest, Jesus Christ, whom, as the song has it, we crown with many crowns.

No prophecy would be complete without a reminder of God’s priorities: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (7:9, 10) This is certainly the question that we have to ask—and answer—ourselves.

But will our answer be what God said about his people? “But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets.” (7:11, 12) These qualities of refusing to listen and stubbornness certainly characterize our age as well. As Zechariah reminds his listeners, God was displeased and “scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known.” (7:14) We can certainly be grateful once again for the gift of grace through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Revelation 19:1–8: These verses are an echo of the worship scene we witnessed in chapter 4 but with more music and lyrics:
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
   for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
    who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants. (1, 2)

But then a voice comes from the throne—and I’m pretty sure it’s the voice of Jesus Christ, who intones,
Praise our God,
    all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
    small and great. (5)

We know from our Creeds that Jesus sits at the right and of God and this verse is a potent reminder of that reality.

And sure enough, as the camera draws back and we hear the collective voice of what I take to be the entire church—that vast cloud of witnesses—building in strength and volume, singing and praising God:
For the Lord our God
    the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
    with fine linen, bright and pure— (6, 7, 8)

Those first three lines should be familiar to anyone who has heard or sung Handel’s Messiah. I believe it is this verse that Handel set to music on one of the greatest pieces of music ever written—one that I think is worthy to be sung in heaven itself.

Psalm 146; Zechariah 3–5; Revelation 18:11–24

Originally published 12/23/2017. Revised and updated 12/23/2019.

Psalm 146: The editors of Psalms stuck all the psalms of praise at the back of the book, so here’s another one. I’ll just hit on its highlights.

Do not trust in princes,
in a human who offers no rescue.
His breath depart, he returns to the dust.
on that day his plans are naught. (3, 4)

Talk about an immutable truth! And yet our post-Christian American culture, having rejected God, seeks “the good life” and equity for everybody through human endeavors, particularly the government, which they call on to solve every problem. But all human endeavor is intrinsically flawed, and as our psalmist notes, eventually comes to naught.

In the end, he observes, only God, who acts via the people of God,
does justice for the oppressed,
gives bread to the hungry,
the Lord looses those in fetters. (6,7)

Good intentions and money poured at a special problem are insufficient. It is the human heart which must be transformed.

Our psalmist makes the obvious point that “the Lord loves the righteous” (8) but also,
The Lord guards sojourners,
orphan and widow He sustains. (9a)

It is always gratifying to see this all-important theme emerge just about everywhere in the Old Testament. Frankly, providing succor to sojourners (immigrants), widows and orphans, and the poor is just as important as saving souls for Jesus Christ.

There is only one eternal constant in the universe. Everything else is change and ultimately mortal—even the universe itself:
The Lord shall reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Zechariah 3–5: Zechariah’s fourth vision is of the original Joshua with “Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.” (3:1) Joshua is dressed in dirty clothes and the angel commands other angels (I presume) who are standing around to take off his dirty clothes and replace them with clean ones, whereupon the angel tells him, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” (3:3) I take Joshua as a symbol of the Jewish religious leaders having been corrupted by Satan and idolatry and dressed in the filthy rags of guilt.

Then there is a messianic forecast as the angel says, “I am going to bring my servant the Branch. For on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” (3:9) I don’t know about the stone with seven facets (Revelation John should have used that somewhere!) but as for the guilt being absolved in a single day, we could certainly see that happening as the crucifixion of Jesus.

But wait. There’s more. In a fifth vision, Zechariah sees “a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it.”  (4:2) More Revelation source material since both lampstands and bowls show up in John’s visions!

These are surrounded by two olive trees. The angel explains that “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (4:6) which I consider to be the theological heart of this book. God does not have to act by power or might, although he is certainly capable of doing so, but quietly and in completely unexpected ways via the Holy Spirit. And we can certainly say that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God’s greatest demonstration of an unexpected, non-powerful way of changing the world, even though Jesus’ own disciples would have preferred Jesus to choose power and might in order to overthrow the established order.

The sixth vision is pretty amusing: a gigantic flying scroll, which seems to be some sort of symbol of God’s justice: “This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land; for everyone who steals shall be cut off according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off according to the writing on the other side.” (5:3) One wonders if the sinner is to read the scroll or that given its enormous size, that it simply smacks the sinner on the side of his head.

The seventh vision (echoes of John again!) is a woman sitting in a basket. The angel explains that, ““This is Wickedness.” So he thrust her back into the basket, and pressed the leaden weight down on its mouth” (5:8) Two winged women appear and lift the basket “between the earth and the sky.” (5:9) The angel explains that the winged women is taking the basket “To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it; and when this is prepared, they will set the basket  down there on its base.” (5:10)

Wow. You can’t make this stuff up. But with apologies to the inerrancy crowd, you can’t take this literally, either.

Revelation 18:11–24: John rather logically believed that the overthrow of “Babylon” would result in economic catastrophe, causing “the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore,” (11) He creates a lovely catalog of consumer goods no longer available for sale: “gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.” (12, 13) Notice the last item: slaves.

John is really is relishing the agony of these now-destitute merchants and even writes a little poem for them:
Alas, alas, the great city,
    clothed in fine linen,
        in purple and scarlet,
    adorned with gold,
        with jewels, and with pearls!
For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! (16, 17)

The service industry is equally devastated: “And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?” (17, 18)

But as for believers, the destruction of Rome is a whole different story: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.” (20) whereupon an angel tosses a millstone, representing commerce, I think, into the sea and sings a song that ends with the grisly verse reminding the merchants and everyone else,
for your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
    and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
And in you  was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
    and of all who have been slaughtered on earth. (23, 24)

Which is why we shouldn’t put our trust in worldly goods. And it’s a brilliant description of the revolutions that have shaken cultures down through history.

Psalm 145:17–21; Zechariah 1,2; Revelation 18:1–10

Originally published 12/22/2017. Revised and updated 12/21/2019.

Psalm 145:17–21: Our psalmist continues to sing God’s praises as he makes his way through the Hebrew alphabet. These final verses reflect his utter confidence in God on every front:
Just is the Lord in all His ways,
and faithful in all His deeds.
Close is the Lord to all who call Him,
to all who call Him in truth. (17, 18)

We’ve read many psalms that proclaim God’s justice and his faithfulness, but the idea of God’s close proximity is a fresh thought for me. We are not shouting across an intergalactic distance when we pray and call on God. Our psalmist knows that God is in the same room right next to him—and so should we. But notice: God is close to those “who call Him in truth.” Hypocrites, who only appear to be praying are well-known to God and the clear implication here is that God will not be close to them. The key to calling on God is to call on him with open honesty, no hidden agendas, and above all, a willingness to abandon our own agenda and preconceived notions about what God should do. We must let God do what he will.

If we truly love God and come to him in complete honesty, he will listen; he will rescue; he will bring joy:
The pleasure of those who fear Him He performs,
and their outcry He hears and rescues them. (19)

We must always keep in mind that God’s rescue may not be the one we have in mind. But rescue of one kind or another will always come. As for the wicked, they will meet their deserved fate—again not always on the timetable or the manner we would prefer. But those who reject God are condemned to sit out eternity in separation from God’s love. Truly a horrific fate:
The Lord guards all who love Him,
and all the wicked He destroys. (20)

This is not necessarily destruction by an external enemy. Often, the destruction occurs within the heart of person who has rejected God’s love.

This beautiful psalm ends as it began—in communal worship with praise on our lips:
The Lord’s praise let my mouth speak,
and let all flesh bless His name. (21)

No more need be added.

Zechariah 1,2: We can see where Revelation John obtained some of his original material from this penultimate book of the Old Testament. Unlike Haggai, who seemed much more down-to-earth, Zechariah has visions.

The book opens, as prophetic books always do, with the word of the Lord coming to Zechariah. Here Zechariah tells anyone who would listen that “The Lord was very angry with your ancestors” (1;2) and that they should repent. There’s another chance, God is saying, “Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed,… Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.” (1:4) Although those ancestors were stubborn, Zechariah tells his listeners (assuming there were any) that “they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do.” (1:6) The clear implication is that the present generation to whom Zechariah is speaking had better pay attention to history.

At this point Zechariah starts describing his visions. As if to prove the legitimacy of these visions and that they occurred in a real pace and in a real time, the author gives us the precise day on which the first vision occurs: “On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah.” (2:1) The first vision is a man riding on a red horse, who “was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.” (1:8) Well, what do you know: four horses. Unlike John’s horsemen bringing doom to the earth, these four horse-mounted angels are “those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.” (1:10)

The angel tells Zechariah that God is “jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion,” and he is “extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.” (1:15) That’s certainly a telling indictment for today as well as nations increasingly ignore God and the world as a whole seems only to be making things worse. Nevertheless, there is a marvelous promise of restoration of Jerusalem—perhaps the model of John’s New Jerusalem: “I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts… Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.” (1:16-17)

The second vision is of horns laying around on the ground and Zechariah asks, ““What are these?” (1:19a) . As we know from other readings, horns represent the power of a nation and the angel answers Zechariah’s question: the horns are Judah’s historical enemies that have invaded, apparently down through history: “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” (1:19b) Then the angel shows Zechariah four blacksmiths(!) who have “come to terrify them, to strike down the horns of the nations that lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” (1:21) In other words, the nations that attacked Judah will themselves be destroyed by these angelic blacksmiths who are working for God. Which of course, if we examine history, is exactly what happened.

Zechariah’s third vision is a man with a measuring line who “measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” (2:2) (Shades of Ezekiel!) Apparently God needs to know the circumference of Jerusalem since he himself “will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it.” (2:5)

Before we get to the fourth vision, there is an intermission as Zechariah tells the exiles in Babylon, “Up! Escape to Zion, you that live with daughter Babylon.” (2:7) The simple reason is that God plans to destroy Babylon: “I am going to raise my hand against them, and they shall become plunder for their own slaves.” (2:9) This act will (rather naturally) occasion great rejoicing: “Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. ” (2:11) And Jerusalem will once again be God’s residence: “The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” (2:12)

What’s striking here is just how much material John lifted from this book and then embroidered for his own purposes. Even the structure of visions interrupted by interludes of worship are found right here.

Revelation 18:1–10: It’s remarkable how much this reading in Revelation resembles the one in Zechariah. An angel comes and announces exactly what was promised in Zechariah: Babylon is to be destroyed:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
    It has become a dwelling place of demons, (18:2a)

Of course John’s Babylon is Rome. And just like in Zechariah, the other nations have been corrupted, certainly in an economic sense:
all the nations have drunk
    of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
    and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power  of her luxury.” (18:2b, 3)

Similar to Zechariah, there is also a call for God-followers—here Christians—to reject Rome and its culture at least in spirit and practice. As we shall see in a subsequent chapter, they should come to the New Jerusalem:
Come out of her, my people,
    so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
  for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
    and God has remembered her iniquities.” (4,5)

The angel makes it clear that Rome will fall and it will fall quickly because of its manifold sins:
therefore her plagues will come in a single day—
    pestilence and mourning and famine—
and she will be burned with fire;
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. (8)

As Rome falls, John predicts, the other nations will stand and watch and “weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning;” (9) And in famous lines that could apply to our own time,
Alas, alas, the great city,
    Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come. (10)

Needless to say, many attempts have been made to cast this entire section as the yet-to-come downfall of some modern empire.  I’m sure that as America becomes ever more post-Christian and ever more resembling Rome in its decadence, these interpreters believe this must certainly be a prophecy for our own time. I think have a valid point.

Psalm 145:8–16; Haggai 2; Revelation 17:9–18

Originally published 12/21/2017. Revised and updated 12/20/2019.

Psalm 145:8–16: I’m sure the editors who compiled the Psalms in this order put this terrific psalm near the end of the canon because it is both magnificent poetry and a wonderful summary of many psalms that preceded it. And naturally, it contains some well-known verses, perhaps none more famous than this paean to God’s greatness, his kindness, and his mercy:
Gracious and merciful is the Lord,
slow to anger, great in kindness.
Good is the Lord to all,
His mercy is over all his creatures. (8, 9)

My, this certainly seems like a different God compared to the angry God of the prophets. But God, being God, can be experienced from an infinite variety of perspectives because he is even greater than the summation of every conceivable human thought and feeling and action. Needless to say, I prefer this perspective to the God the prophets write about..

This being a psalm of praise, our poet captures the qualities and actions of our response to God’s beneficence in our worship:
All Your creatures, Lord, acclaim You,
and Your faithful ones bless You.
The glory of Your kingship they say,
and of Your might they speak
to make known to humankind His mighty acts
and the grandeur of His kingship’s glory. (10-12)

Notice that following worship we witness God’s glory to all around us, “making known to all humankind,” which was exactly Jesus’ command at the end of Matthew’s gospel about going into the world with the Good News.

But this psalm also recognizes that we are fallen creatures who fail all the time. And we can be assured that God will rescue us and sustain us because God is a God of hope:
The Lord props up all who fall
and makes all who are bent stand erect.
The eyes of all look in hope to You
and You give them food in its season,
opening Your hand
and sating to their pleasure all living things. (14-16)

We fall and God picks us up again. When we are hungry we are fed—which Jesus carried out in real space and real time when he fed the four thousand and the five thousand.

And God’s generosity includes not just we humans but as the second line of verse 16 notes, God takes care of “all living things”—another reminder that God cares for all creation, which is something we should remember when we’re tempted to destroy nature. The earth is here for far more than humankind’s immediate gratification. We must never forget we are God’s creatures and that we must be stewards of all creation.

Haggai 2: God sends Haggai to ask Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and  Joshua, the high priest, if anyone remembers what the temple looked like before it was destroyed. And rather than yelling at these men as most prophets would do, Haggai brings a message of hope from God—exactly what our pslamist has just been talking about: “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” (4, 5)

Even in the midst of the ruined temple, God reminds them that he is there and will take care of them. And that will happen pretty dramatically as God promises some sort of earthquake that will result in “the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor,” (7) God goes on to make a pretty wonderful promise: “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” (9)

The tone shifts and we see Haggai standing before the high priest asking him a seemingly irrelevant question, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” (13) The priest answers in the affirmative and Haggai moves into angry prophet mode: “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.” (14) and that even when God “struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me,” (17)

But now that the people have repented God promises, “From this day on I will bless you.” (19) Here we have a clear view the deuteronomic Old Testament God: there is always a quid pro quo under the terms of the Old Covenant: disobey and I’ll punish you; repent and I’ll reward you.

Haggai then goes to Zerubbabel and announces that just as God is bringing blessing to the religious side of the nation by the rebuilding of the temple, he will do likewise in the political sphere as Haggai promises that God will “shake the heavens and the earth, and overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; ” (21, 22) Moreover, Haggai tells Zerubbabel, he will become God’s anointed governor: “I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the Lord of hosts.” (23)

This is one prophetic book that ends on an upbeat note. And we can read about what happened in the book of Nehemiah and Ezra as both the temple and Jerusalem were rebuilt. It was a fraught task but the men persisted in the face of many obstacles and God did indeed bless them.

Revelation 17:9–18: Perhaps there’s some unintended irony here that in the midst of this confusing passage, the angel states, “This calls for a mind that has wisdom.” (9) as he proceeds to explain all these symbols to John.

I don’t think the angel does a particularly good job as a confusing disquisition follows that involves seven heads being “the seven mountains on which the woman is seated.” (9b) Which may be a reference to Rome. Then there’s some business about five kings having fallen, one living and one yet to come, but which will also “go to destruction.” (11) Then there’s the business about the ten horns being ten future kings who “yield their power” to the beast/ Satan and they “will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them.” (13)

The angel’s explanation creates even more confusion as he tells John that “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” (15)  The ten kings, allied with the beast, “will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” (16) Assuming that the whore is Rome, John seems to be predicting the eventual downfall of the Roman empire.

The angel tries to clear things up when he says, “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (18) Again, this seems like a reference to Rome.

But not everyone agrees. I remember hearing some interpretation of this passage many years ago that interpreted the ten kings as the European common market (what is now the EU) and the beast as Russia—all of which were defeated by the US because God was on our side. This is just one example of the interpretive free-for-all that this passage has created down through the ages. All I can do is sit back and watch in some amusement as people try to interpret that which cannot be interpreted.