Psalm 145:1–7; Zephaniah 3; Haggai 1; Revelation 17:1–8

Originally published 12/20/2017. Revised and updated 12/19/2019.

Psalm 145:1–7: Alter informs us that this is the only psalm that’s specifically called “a song of praise,” although there are certainly many other psalms that praise God—and the last six psalms in this book are all praise songs. This is also an acrostic psalm with each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (except for ‘nun.’)

Rather than parsing theological meaning let’s just sit back and enjoy the music and words. (Oh, and just to note, there are no endless repetitions in this song of praise, which cannot be said of too many contemporary praise songs.)
Let me exalt You, my God the king,
    and let me bless Your name forevermore.
Every day let me bless You,
    and let me praise Your name forevermore.
Great is the LORD and highly praised,
    and His greatness cannot be fathomed.
Let one generation to the next extol Your deeds
    and tell of Your mighty acts.
Of the grandeur of Your glorious majesty
    and Your wondrous acts let me treat.
And the power of Your awesome deeds let them say,
     and Your greatness let me recount.
The fame of Your great goodness they utter,
     and of Your bounty they joyously sing. (1-7)

Notice how the second line of each verse begins with ‘and.’ One comes away with the sense of breathlessness that God possesses so many magnificent qualities it is impossible to list them all.

The other fascinating thing here is how God’s qualities and human worship are so deeply intertwined, which is demonstrated by the verbs in each verse.  We “praise” (2); we “extol” ( 4); we “treat” (5); we “reconut” (6); we “utter” (7) and above all, we “sing.” As is always the case in Psalms, it is speaking and singing aloud. God is so great we cannot keep our joy hidden inside. We speak and sing aloud in community.

Zephaniah 3: At this point we can see that all these prophets used basically the same formula: castigation of Israel, castigation of other nations, the possibility of rescue for a few God-Followers, and occasionally a song of joy  This chapter contains all four prophetic forms:

1. The wickedness of Israel or Judah or Jerusalem. specially of its leaders. judges, other prophets(!), and priests:
The officials within it
    are roaring lions;
its judges are evening wolves
    that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless,
    faithless persons;
its priests have profaned what is sacred,
    they have done violence to the law. (3, 4)

2. The punishment of surrounding nations that have had the temerity to try and oppress the Jews, usually expressed as the end of history or the “Day of the Lord.”
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all the heat of my anger;
for in the fire of my passion
    all the earth shall be consumed. (8)

3. The salvation for the remnant  of Israel—those (few?) who follow and obey God:
For I will leave in the midst of you
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord
   the remnant of Israel;
they shall do no wrong
    and utter no lies, (12, 13)

4. A song of joy usually describing God’s rescue and usually set far in the future, typically at the end of history—a theme John of Revelation takes up with creative vengeance. The concluding verse of this short book is especially affecting—especially for those who have been oppressed or are feeling abandoned by God:
At that time I will bring you home,
    at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
    among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
    before your eyes, says the Lord. (20)

Perhaps it would be fun to craft a book of prophecy using this formula that would be appropriate to our own culture…

Haggai 1: Like Zephaniah, Haggai is set in a specific time and place: “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai” (1a) This little book is remarkable in that it identifies exactly to whom Haggai is delivering his prophetic message as verse 1 continues: “to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest” (1b)

Haggai’s challenge is to tell the officials and high priest, who have assiduously taken care of their own needs before the people they ostensibly serve, that it’s time to get on with rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonian invasion—and that officialdom is basically doing nothing: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? ” (4) These people and their behavior certainly have modern versions of themselves in Washington DC…

Haggai then makes an economic argument that by having failed to rebuild the temple they are stuck in mediocrity and frankly, even poverty when things could be so much better: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” (6) He’s forcing them to examine the root cause of that less than optimal situation—and forcing them to consider that their inaction has had negative consequences.

Haggai points out that God has withheld rain and brought economic woe for one simple reason: “Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.” (9, 10) Of course at the prophetic level, this is a metaphor for the spiritually thirsty people themselves who cannot worship God properly.

Unlike just about every other prophet (and maybe because he wasn’t shouting excoriations at them), the people take Haggai’s message to heart: “then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord.” (12)

At last! A prophet who is willing to have conversation by sitting down and simply telling them what god has said rather than shouting in their faces. And what do you know: people respond. Haggai’s a prophet I wouldn’t mind inviting to dinner.

Revelation 17:1–8: Following his old testament prophetic lead, John uses that favorite metaphor: the nations as a whore. One of the seven bowl-pouring angels tells John: Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” (1,2)

This obviously (to me anyway) a barely disguised reference to the Roman empire. John goes on to be even more specific: “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.” (3, 4) I’m pretty sure that the woman is in fact the Roman emperor. 

If his readers haven’t figured out the metaphor by now, John then gives them another broad hint: “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (5) Any Jews in his audience would quickly put two and two together: in the same way the original Babylon conquered Jerusalem, so too, Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 CE.

There is one more pretty obvious statement: the woman, i.e. Rome, is persecuting Christians: “And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.” (6)

John is amazed at all this and the angel looks quizzically at him and speaks as if John is being an idiot: “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.” (7) But then, rather than being direct in the way we thought he was about to be, the angel speaks in a riddle: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.” (8) The concatenation of verb tenses—”was,” “is”, “is about to”—suggests that the beast/ Satan has always been present in human affairs, but that at some future date will finally meet his justly deserved end. And although the Roman empire may think of itself as eternal, it too will meet its well-deserved destruction. Which of course it did. As do all empires—including modern ones.

Psalm 144:9–15; Zephaniah 1,2; Revelation 16:12–21

Originally published 12/19/2017. Revised and updated 12/18/2019.

Psalm 144:9–15: While the first half of this psalm celebrates asks for victory over enemies, this second half celebrates the fruits of peace. This celebration opens with a song of gratitude for rescue:
God, a new song O would sing to You,
a ten-stringed lute I would hymn to You.
Who grants rescue to kings,
redeems David His servant from the evil sword. (9, 10)

A parenthetical final request to be free of the predations of enemies interrupts the celebration in what is possibly to be a scribal error that basically repeats verse seven and seems to have been inserted in the wrong place:
Redeem me and save me from the foreigner’s hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is the hand of lies. (11)

The celebratory psalm then continues at verse 12, rejoicing over children and includes a gorgeous simile about beautiful daughters:
While our sons are like saplings,
tended from their youth;
our daughters, like corner-pillars
hewn for the shape of a palace. (12)

Alter informs us that the “corner-pillars” are posts at the corners of a building, evidently carved into beautiful and sinuous shapes that his daughters resemble. The blessings of peace overflow in the land:
Our granaries are full,
dispensing food of every kind.
Our flocks are in the thousands,
ten thousands in our fields,
Our cattle, big with young.
There is no breach and none goes out,
and no screaming in our squares. (13, 14)

That there is no screaming in the squares refers to the terrors of war, which are now finally gone. This psalm ends on an idyllic note with these images of a secure peace and a happy people:
Happy the people who has it thus,
happy the people whose God is the Lord. (15)

This beautiful description of a land at peace is what we so desperately hope for but alas, lies always just beyond our grasp because of the evils and lies we humans persist in committing. Only in God can such peace be imagined, much less found.

Zephaniah 1,2: At least we get a description of who Zephaniah was and the time during which he prophesied, which was “in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (1)—one of Judah’s more righteous kings. That said, Zephaniah dishes out the pretty standard foretelling of bad things to come. As prophets do, Zephaniah speaks in the voice of God, who is pretty angry, appearing to regret that he’d promised Noah that he would not again destroy humankind:
I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;

    I will sweep away the birds of the air
    and the fish of the sea.
I will make the wicked stumble
    I will cut off humanity
    from the face of the earth, says the Lord. (1:2, 3)

And that includes Judah, which as usual, persists in its idol worship:
I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests. (1:4)

Zeph continues in the same vein, predicting that
The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
    the warrior cries aloud there. (1:14)

This is a pretty standard description of doom, which John obviously builds on in Revelation with many more dramatic flourishes:
That day will be a day of wrath,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
     a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements. (1:15, 16)

Trumpets seem to be the instrument of choice when it comes to announcing the end of history. In any event, something Zeph reminds the people—and that we need to remember— is that the wealth will not protect them:
Neither their silver nor their gold
    will be able to save them
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath. (1:18a)

The second chapter opens as Zephaniah demands repentance as the only possible escape from this terrible fate:
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
    who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the Lord’s wrath. (2:3)

He goes on to inform us that Judah is not the only doomed nation predicting destruction for the Cherethites (2:4), the Philistines (2:5), and the Moabites (2:8), the Ethiopians (2:12), the Assyrians (2:13) As always, it is pride and smugness that leads to downfall:
Is this the exultant city
    that lived secure,
that said to itself,
    “I am, and there is no one else”?
What a desolation it has become,
    a lair for wild animals! (2:15)

Inevitably, the prophetic foretelling of doom is interrupted parenthetically with the hope of rescue for the remnant that has remained faithful:
The seacoast shall become the possession
    of the remnant of the house of Judah,
    on which they shall pasture,
and in the houses of Ashkelon
    they shall lie down at evening.
For the Lord their God will be mindful of them
    and restore their fortunes. (2:7)

As I read this depressing catalog I can envision no other end for our own empire that is so smug in its self-righteousness because general repentance certainly does not seem to be anywhere on the horizon.

Revelation 16:12–21: Bowl number six dries up the Euphrates river, which results in the bizarre image of “three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet.” (13) John explains that these are “demonic spirits performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty,” (14) which will be occurring “at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.” (16)

The narrative is interrupted by a parenthetical insertion that Jesus is coming again “like a thief” and that we had not only better stay awake but keep our clothes on and be ready to move.

John is certainly building a sense of urgency here. And that’s probably because the seventh angel “poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” (17) Which certainly seems like an echo of Jesus’ last words on the cross. Only this time the thing that is done is history as the world ends in cataclysm: “And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. “(18), which causes “the great city” (presumably Rome), to be split into three parts.

At last, and sounding exactly like Zephaniah, John writes that “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” (19) which for me can be nothing else than the Roman empire itself. Just to make sure the destruction is complete, John adds a final touch, again echoing one of the original plagues visited on Egypt so many centuries ago: “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.” (21)

I’m pretty sure John’s readers at the seven churches were lapping up his descriptions of Rome’s destruction with great enthusiasm—not too different than we who sit in theatres and just as enthusiastically watch movies that include dramatic shots of widespread destruction as our hero triumphantly emerges from the rubble. John didn’t have our media technology, but his imagery is unforgettable. If he were alive today I’m pretty sure he’d be a screenwriter and director.

Psalm 144:5–8; Habakkuk 2,3; Revelation 16:1–11

Originally published 12/18/2017. Revised and updated 12/17/2019.

Psalm 144:5–8: Well, you’ve got to give this psalmist credit for one of the more creative supplications against his enemies that we’ve yet encountered:
Lord, tilt Your heavens and come down,
but touch the mountains, that they smoke.
Crack lightning and scatter them,
send forth Your bolts and panic them. (5, 6)

In short—and sounding like one of the last scenes in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’— only a full-fledged theophany, a demonstration of God’s overwhelming power to literally move heaven and earth, will suffice for these vile enemies. It’s also an interesting way to ask for their destruction without directly asking God to zap them. Rather, they will meet their much deserved demise by virtue of God acting through nature. Pretty clever.

At the same time, our psalmist writes, he seeks rescue from the floods that God’s action has created. But all these natural disasters notwithstanding,  above all our psalmist wants desperately to be rescued from the snare of his lying enemies:
Send forth Your hand from on high,
redeem me and save me from the many waters,
from the foreigners’ hand,
whose mouth speaks falsely,
and whose right hand is a right hand of lies. (7,8)

Notice how God’s powerful hand is contrasted to the deceiving right hand of the psalmist’s enemies. In that culture, the right hand was the hand of power and truth. The psalmist’s enemies have corrupted that all-important symbol with their lies. Which is also why we need to be vigilant. It’s too easy to be swept into the lies of politicians whose soothing but deceptive words appear to have our interests at heart when in fact it only their power they seek. Nevertheless Jesus changed the rules about loving rather than hating our enemies, so as much as we would like, we probably should not pray for a natural disaster to take them out.

Habakkuk 2,3: God answers Habakkuk’s complaint of the previous chapter:
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so that a runner may read it.” (2:2)

However, God’s vision speaks of the end” (2:3a), which I take to be the end of history. This means we should be patient:
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
    it will surely come, it will not delay. (2:3b)

This is the same advice Peter gives us when he says that as far as God is concerned, a thousand years is but a day.

Habakkuk’s voice-of-God speech has some interesting and trenchant observations, the first is inevitably about pride that corrupts conscience (here, ‘spirit.’):
Look at the proud!
    Their spirit is not right in them,
    but the righteous live by their faith. (2:4)

And what is also surely just as true a warning today—and again it is about leaders (and politicians):
Moreover, wealth  is treacherous;
    the arrogant do not endure.

    like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,

and collect all peoples as their own. (2:5)

An entire poem about the woes about to rain down on the arrogant leaders follows:
Because you have plundered many nations,
    all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—”
You have devised shame for your house
    by cutting off many peoples;
    you have forfeited your life. (2:8, 10)

And in a verse particularly apropos for our current time:
Is it not [trying to escape] from the Lord of hosts
    that peoples labor only to feed the flames,
    and nations weary themselves for nothing? (2:13)

Wow. That verse pretty much sums up our current culture of outrage with cable TV news and social media only fanning the flames of hatred and dissension. The poem goes on to describe the costs of violence and futility of  idols and ends on the all-important reminder that we are creatures of God and it is God whom we must obey:
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth keep silence before him! (2:20)

Chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer, which is pretty much a psalm of praise in which God rescues Israel from its enemies, as e.g.:
You came forth to save your people,
    to save your anointed.
You crushed the head of the wicked house,
    laying it bare from foundation to roof. (3:13)

This chapter is more proof that human nature is immutable and wickedness is endemic. But Habakkuk also reminds us that we need to remember that God still rules even when the culture seems to be collapsing around us. It is in this obscure little book that so trenchantly observes our own time where we find enormous encouragement. God still rules and because of that reality  we can rejoice:
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights. (3:18, 19)

Revelation 16:1–11: Here come the seven bowls of God’s wrath about to be poured out on the earth. This section certainly echoes the plagues that God brought on Egypt in the efforts to release the Israelites. John seems to be really enjoying himself as he describes the woes about to visit those who have rejected God. It’s pretty much like what we just read in Habakkuk, but with more dramatic flourish. The first five bowls come in order as a kind of anti-creation story as God dismantles his creation:

  1. Foul and painful sores “on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.” (2)
  2. Everything the sea dies.
  3. Rivers and springs turn to blood (just like Nile did).
  4. The sun comes close to the earth and is “allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God.” (8, 9)
  5. the bowl is poured “on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony.” (10)

Even so, “and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.” (11)

We should point out that John interrupts himself between bowls 3 and 4 for a the inevitable, albeit brief, moment of worship: “I heard the angel of the waters say,

“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,
    for you have judged these things;
because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!” (5, 6)

This judgement is validated by the voice behind (in?) the altar in the throne room of heaven:
Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
    your judgments are true and just!” (7)

While John has certainly left vengeance in God’s hands, he is at pains to point out that the wicked justly deserve whatever woes that come to him. And frankly, he seems kind of happy about it. Just like Habakkuk did.

There are two more bowls to come, as John points out again and again that no matter their suffering, the people who worshipped the beast/ Satan never repented. We humans are stubborn fools, aren’t we?

Psalm 144:1–4; Nahum 3; Habakkuk 1; Revelation 14:17–15:8

Originally published 12/16/2017. Revised and updated 12/16/2019.

Psalm 144:1–4: This David song praises God as shelter and deliverer using military metaphors:
Blessed is the Lord, my rock,
Who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for the fray.
My strength and my bastion,
my fortress and my deliverer.
My shield in which I shelter
Who tramples down peoples beneath me. (1, 2)

God not only trains for battle but as the last line in verse 2 indicates, our psalmist believes he participates in battle. While I am not anxious to have God “trample down” those who oppose me, I’m with the psalmist in feeling that God does indeed stand at my side when I face difficult times—metaphorical battles, if you will. I certainly felt God at my side as I lay in the lead-lined room receiving radiation for my cancer. He was and is indeed my strength and bastion.

In the next two verses, the tone of the psalms shifts to philosophical reflection with a line that is strongly reminiscent of Psalm 139 and almost directly quotes Psalm 8:4. In his unfathomable greatness, why would God even care about humankind
Lord, what is a human creature that You should know him,
the son of man that You pay him mind? (3)

Our psalmist touches on our ephemerality in the next verse, again a theme we see often in the Psalms:
The human is like unto breath,
his days like a passing shadow. (4)

He recognizes the vast gulf between God the Creator and we, the created. As verse 4 indicates, this gulf exists in time as well as space. Out 70 or 80 years is but a mere breath in a universe that is 13 billion years old. Logic says that we humans are so small and insignificant—especially when we gaze out at the vastness of the universe—that God would pay us no heed. Yet, not only does God pay attention to us, and as the earlier verses indicate, protect us, but there is the stunning reality that God loves us. For me, this is proof that we are indeed God’s greatest creation—his creatures imago deo.

Nahum 3: This obscure prophet is certainly the most cinematic of the minor prophets as he describes the horror of destruction of the city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, which he calls “City of bloodshed” (1):
The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
    galloping horse and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging,
    flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
    heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
    they stumble over the bodies!
Yet she became an exile,
    she went into captivity;
even her infants were dashed in pieces
    at the head of every street;
lots were cast for her nobles,
    all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. (2, 3, 10)

Perhaps the most striking image in this chapter of horrors is the metaphor of Nineveh as prostitute:
I am against you,
    says the Lord of hosts,
    and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let nations look on your nakedness
    and kingdoms on your shame. (5)

Who knew that the Bible contained such metaphorical imagery? Clearly, this book was written by an angry prophet. He is certainly capable of writing memorable lines of pure sarcasm at Nineveh’s pretensions to power as he speaks in God’s voice:
Look at your troops:
    they are women in your midst.
Your guards are like grasshoppers,
    your scribes like swarms of locusts
settling on the fences
    on a cold day—
Your shepherds are asleep,

    O king of Assyria;
    your nobles slumber. (13, 17, 18)

This short but dramatic book ends with the announcement that every other nation is eager to witness Assyria’s downfall for one simple reason:
All who hear the news about you
    clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
    your endless cruelty?” (19)

While the theology and potential life application of this book escapes me, it certainly would be a good source of colorful insults.

Habakkuk 1: This chapter seems like it belongs in Psalms since its opening verses certainly parallel a typical psalm of supplication in their barely disguised complaints against God’d silence and inaction:
Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save? (2)

I like Habakkuk because he’s not afraid to ask God the tough questions. In what would serve nicely as a contemporary description of our world today, especially in the Mideast, our prophet queries God:
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
    and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
    therefore judgment comes forth perverted. (3,4)

But unlike in the Psalms, here God replies to Habakkuk:
Look at the nations, and see!
    Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
    that you would not believe if you were told. (3)

Habakkuk goes on to describe how God is “rousing the Chaldeans,/ that fierce and impetuous nation.” (6) And their arrival will not be a pretty sight:
Dread and fearsome are they;
    their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,

    more menacing than wolves at dusk; (7, 8a)

Habakkuk responds to God’s announcement with the same  puzzlement that we ask today: the eternal question of why God allows evil to apparently triumph over good:
Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
    and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
    and are silent when the wicked swallow
    those more righteous than they? (13)

To which I guess there will never be a definitive answer. But we humans will keep seeking the answer.

Revelation 14:17–15:8: We encounter more angels holding sharp sickles, who are commanded by an angel lurking inside the altar: “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” (14:18) Lest we think this angel is merely harvesting grapes, the grapes are a metaphor for humans who will be cut down and thrown into in an awful wine press and “the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (14:20)

As far as I can figure out this is John’s vision of the destruction of the Roman empire. Although goodness knows, enough blood has been shed in wars across the centuries to supply the grim river of blood he describes here.

As we’ve observed, bad things seem to come in sevens—and here are seven plagues. But happily, they “are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.” (15:1) John holds off on describing the nature of the plagues but instead turns his attention to the image of a “sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.” (15:2)

As usual, victory results in worship and here this large multitude of conquerors breaks into song, specifically “the song of Moses, the servant  of God, and the song of the Lamb.” (15:3) Given the juxtaposition of Moses and the Lamb, who is obviously Jesus Christ, John evisions a great coming together of Judaism (Moses) and Christianity (the Lamb). But this has not happened yet.

Nevertheless, they all sing a hymn of praise together. When the song is ended more sevens appear: “the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen. Each of the seven angels is handed “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever.” (15:7) The temple is filled with smoke and “no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.” (15:8)

I have a feeling we’re about to find out what kinds of plagues the bowls contain. But I have to ask: if God has already triumphed over evil as it appears he has, why are there still plagues to come. Once again, John’s logic and timeline remain a mystery to me. Personally, I think he’s just having a good time to see how wild his imagination can run—and to drive anyone who reads his letter crazy. And it was certainly a very effective way of keeping his seditious writings from being interpreted by the Romans.

Psalm 143:7–12; Nahum 1,2; Revelation 14:6–16

Originally published 12/15/2017. Revised and updated 12/14/2019.

Psalm 143:7–12: In the last half of this psalm our poet utters some pretty standard supplications, one of which is for God to answer his plea on his preferred timetable before he turns into someone too closely resembling his enemies:
Quick, answer me. O Lord,
my spirit pines away.
Do not hide Your face from me,
lest I be like those gone down to the Pit.
Let me hear Your kindness in the morning
for in You I trust. (7, 8a)

That’s an interesting if theologically questionable request. Do we really turn into bad people if God does not answer our prayers on our preferred schedule? I suppose the more anodyne interpretation here is that our poet reciprocates his faithfulness, drawing its power out of God’s own faithfulness.
Let me know the way I should go,
for to You I lift up my being.
Save me from my enemies, Lord;
with You is my vindication (8b, 9)

In fact, he is asking God for guidance to make the right decision, which is certainly something we can pray for, too. I know I would benefit if I prayed for God’s guidance more often than I do.

In an echo of Psalm 119, our poet looks to God as his teacher—what I suppose today we would call a “life coach:”
Teach me to do what will please You,
for You are my God.
Let Your goodly spirit guide me on level ground. (10)

The psalmist circles back around to his plea for God’s rescue from whatever situation—the details of which he does not describe—he finds himself in and to rescue him from his unnamed enemies:
For the sake of Your name, Lord, give me life,
in Your bounty bring me from the straits. (11)

And no psalm of supplication would really be complete without a final wish for God to annihilate one’s enemies (sarcasm intended):
And in Your kindness devastate my enemies
and destroy all my bitter foes,
for I am Your servant. (12)

I have to admit that the idea of God’s kindness being expressed as devastating one’s enemies is rather disturbing. I’m glad Jesus pretty much put an end to the prayers that tout the supplicant’s goodness and faithfulness while wishing doom on one’s enemies.

Nahum 1,2: The introduction of this short book is that it is “An oracle concerning Nineveh.” (1:1) While its themes are doubtless similar to the other minor prophets, it’s interesting that the target of God’s wrath is neither Israel nor Judah. All we learn about who Nahum the prophet was is that he is from some place called Elkosh. This prophet wastes no time or words announcing God’s anger is about to be directed against someone or some place:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and rages against his enemies. (1:2)

As usual, the poetry swings between destruction and salvation. As our psalmist has observed above, if we are faithful to God, he is faithful to us:
The Lord is good,
    a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him,
even in a rushing flood. (1:7)

Nahum seems to be directing his message at some kind of conspiracy:
From you one has gone out
    who plots evil against the Lord,
    one who counsels wickedness. (1:11)

But even though Judah is the target of this conspiracy, God will still strike down the conspirator:”I will make your grave, for you are worthless.” (1:14). Judah appears to be Nineveh’s target and God will indeed preserve the nation:
Celebrate your festivals, O Judah,
    fulfill your vows,
for never again shall the wicked invade you;
    they are utterly cut off. (1:15)

It is in chapter 2 that we learn that while God will protect Judah, the enemy is Nineveh. Nahum uses some pretty dramatic images to describe its downfall due its temerity to take on a nation protected by God:
The chariots race madly through the streets,
    they rush to and fro through the squares;
their appearance is like torches,
    they dart like lightning. (2:4)

Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
    Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
    all faces grow pale! (2:10)

The chapter concludes with Nahum speaking in God’s voice: “See, I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions; I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall be heard no more.” (2:13) As we know, Nineveh is indeed no more. But I have to ask: did Nahum’s prophecy come true after Jonah’s visit to them when the great city repented? In order to merit such definitive destruction this would mean that Nineveh fell back into its old evil ways when tried to conquer Judah.

Revelation 14:6–16: As we have observed before, Revelation oscillates between scenes of evil and destruction and scenes of God’s intervention and worship. This time it’s three angels making prouncements. The first angel announces, “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live  on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (6) The day of judgement apparently has arrived and the angel shouts, “in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (7)

A second angel arrives, announcing, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (8)

A third angel, sounding very much like an Old Testament prophet, announces that all who have worshipped “the beast and its image, [will] receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger.” (9) And so on.

For me, this passage about the there angels pronouncements is John telling the churches that one day in the (hopefully not too distant) future Rome will fall and God’s kingdom will be triumphant. Persecuted Christians hearing this would feel themselves to be grateful that the end of history has arrived and their enemies would suffer their just fate. To a certain extent this is exactly what happened when the emperor Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of Rome around CE 330.

But in the meantime, John reminds his churches, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” (12) He includes an additional encouragement for those who have been martyred for their Christian beliefs: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” (13)

John then looks up and sees “a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14) This must be Jesus himself, who, as we say in the Creed, “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

This event appears to be at the end of history which still lies in our future as much as it did in John’s. The earth has reached its saturation point and the angel calls to the one sitting on the throne, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” (15) I’m guessing that all those who worshipped the beast rather than God are about to get their well-deserved comeuppance.

This section is definitely an echo of what we read in Nahum today when Nineveh was destroyed. As always, John uses his fertile imagination to make the scene orders of magnitude more dramatic than Nahum or most of the other OT prophets.

Psalm 143:1–6; Micah 6,7; Revelation 13:11–14:5

Originally published 12/14/2017. Revised and updated 12/13/2019.

Psalm 143:1–6: Although this David psalm of supplication abounds in the stereotypical language and images we’ve seen many times before, it nevertheless contains some original ideas:
Do not come into judgement of Your servant,
for no living thing is acquitted before you. (2)

Not only God’s greatest creation—humans—are capable of sin but it appears that all living creatures, are imperfect. But it certainly is humankind that has the lock on truly creative sinfulness—even though many among us think of themselves as “good,” even sinless people.

As usual, there is the theme of pursuit by one’s enemies, which since this psalm is dedicated to David was certainly the case in a reference that directly calls to mind David hiding from Saul in the cave:
For the enemy pursued me,
thrust my life to the ground,
made me dwell in darkness like those long dead. (3)

We get a sense of the terror that close encounter engendered:
And my spirit fainted within me,
in my breast my heart was stunned. (4)

Yet even in that dreadful situation, our psalmist, speaking in David’s voice, recounts how he reflected about all the good things God had already done for him—which is certainly a psychologically effective way of taking one’s mind off the terrors at hand:
I recalled the days of old,
I recited all Your deeds,
of Your handiwork I did speak. (5)

I’m not sure that if my life were threatened that I would be quite so reflective, but I have to admit this is good advice on how to quiet our fears by realizing that God is indeed close to us—especially in our moments of greatest peril.

David recounts how he came to God in prayer—and perhaps is the inspiration for those people who stretch their arms above their head when praying:
I stretched out my hands to You—
my being like thirsty land to You. (6)

I really like the image of us being dry ground awaiting the rain of blessings and protection from God. We can soak up his faithfulness and goodness like the parched land until we are overflowing in blessing.

Micah 6,7: As in the book of Job, Micah describes a courtroom scene. As in Job, God is the lawyer for the prosecution:
For the Lord has a case against his people;
    he is lodging a charge against Israel.”(6:2)

Israel sits in in the witness stand as God asks a simple question:
My people, what have I done to you?
    How have I burdened you? Answer me. (6:3)

God then becomes the witness, cataloging all the marvelous things he has done for Israel—his chosen people:
I brought you up out of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
    also Aaron and Miriam. (6:4)

It is in this testimony that we encounter what I think is the most important verse in this book:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8)

There it is: our mission statement. All God asks of us is to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with God. My, how desperately our society needs to hear and reflect on and put into practice these profound words. We’re pretty good at demanding justice as witness the recent uproar over accusations of sexual harassment or the case before the Supreme Court of the baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. But mercy is rare nor do we see many people walking humbly with God.

Israel, like us, has failed in every dimension of this simple command as God continues to pile up his relentless catalog of Israel’s manifold sins. Among them ill-gotten gains, doubtless collected by cheating the poor:
Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
    and the short ephah, which is accursed? (6:10)

God then leaps out of the witness box onto the judge’s bench:
Therefore, I have begun to destroy you,
    to ruin you because of your sins. (6:13)
Therefore I will give you over to ruin
    and your people to derision;
    you will bear the scorn of the nations. (6:16)

Chapter 7 changes point of view and we now hear the despairing voice of the prophet himself:
What misery is mine!
…The faithful have been swept from the land;
    not one upright person remains.
Everyone lies in wait to shed blood;
    they hunt each other with nets.” (7:1, 2)

Without trust among the people (or of its leaders), society disintegrates:
Do not trust a neighbor;
    put no confidence in a friend.
Even with the woman who lies in your embrace
    guard the words of your lips. (7:5)

Which I think is exactly where our own culture is headed. Trust and the idea of giving others the benefit of the doubt. But as with Israel, hope remains:
But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
    I wait for God my Savior;
    my God will hear me. (7:7)

Hope exists only in waiting on God. Later in the chapter we come to a terse description of where we are headed. It is not nature that will destroy us, but our deeds:
The earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants,
    as the result of their deeds. (7:13)

Many people doubtless use this verse as God’s warning against humankind’s destruction of the environment, and that is certainly a fair way to read it. But it is far more than anthropogenic climate change. Our many sins will bring individuals and society at large to a bitter, chaotic end. We have seen this before many times in history.

Like the psalmist, Micah knows God also forgives is there is repentance as the chapter ends with hope. Hope that God will forgive us—and in confession we know that we are forgiven because God wants to have a relationship with us. God indeed demands justice, but God’s judgement is surrounded by mercy:
Who is a God like you,
    who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
    of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
    but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
    you will tread our sins underfoot
    and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (7:18, 19)

God will indeed have compassion. The question asks itself: is my compassion to others as strong a my willingness to judge them?

Revelation 13:11–14:5: O goody. Another beast emerges from the bowels of the earth, apparently a successor to the 10-headed beast with the fatal wound that was healed. It is a apparently a world leader who has “deceived the inhabitants of the earth. [And] ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.” (13:14) This certainly seems to be a reference to several Roman emperors, all of whom demanded to be worshipped as a god.

This second beast also famously requires that all people “great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (13:16) John tells us the number is 666—and that “it is the number of a man.”  Recalling that we have read about seven seals, seven trumpets, etc., seven appears to represent God’s work, which is why for many people, seven is “a perfect number,” i.e., God’s number. Therefore the succession of 6’s represents for me, anyway, the human attempt and failure to be God-like. Six may be close to seven but it will never be perfect the way seven is perfect—and the way God is perfect.  The triple sixes may simply represent successive tries by Roman emperors to be  gods—and as far as John is concerned—proving only that they are imperfect and false. 

Those who read Revelation as a forecast of things to come have spilled a lot of ink trying to match the beasts with actual people. Hitler, Stalin, etc. And now that we have reached the era where identifying chips actually can be implanted in people the idea that we are all marked does not seem quite so far-fetched.

Chapter 14 opens with the scene of  “the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1) We have another worship scene as the 144,000, “sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders.” (14;3a) Only this time, who can worship is restricted: “No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” (14:3b) These folks were apparently all males: “These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” (14:4)

Much has been made of this number, and it was the theological basis of the original Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed they were the chosen few. I think the number simply represents a large number based on the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes of Israel, which we could read as John’s expressed hope that Christians and Jews would one day be united.

Or, there may be no particular meaning at all; it is simply part of John’s fervid imagination and we should not read too much into it. As Groucho Marx famously remarked apropos Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just as cigar.”

Psalm 142; Micah 3–5; Revelation 12:7–13:10

Originally published 12/13/2017. Revised and updated 12/12/2019.

Psalm 142: This supplication psalm opens with a very specific superscription, “A David psalm, when he was in the cave” (1) hiding from Saul. The psalmist is writing in David’s words and there is a an almost panicked urgency here in David’s voice for God to hear and act, his distress amplified in the repeated words and lines:
With my voice I shout to the Lord,
with my voice I plead to the Lord.
I pour out my speech before Him,
my distress before before Him I tell,
when my spirit faints within me,
You, You know my path. (2-4a)

David explains that he is trapped and there is no obvious way of escape. No one is at hand to rescue him. In fact, it appears no one even knows he is missing, which are dire straits indeed:
On the path on which I walk
they have laid a trap for me.
Look, on the right and see—
there is no one who knows me.
Escape is gone for me,
no one inquires for me.  (4b, 5)

David does not merely converse with God nor does he merely raise his voice. He shouts at the top of his lungs, reminding God that he has been faithful and being clear that it is now God’s turn to be faithful:
I shouted to You, O Lord.
I said, You are my shelter
my lot in the land of the living.
Listen close to my song of prayer,
for I have sunk very low. (6, 7a)

He reminds God that he is one against many and that his strength is fading. But if God rescues him, he will be sure to tell everyone that it is God who rescued him:
Save me from my pursuers,
for they are too strong for me.
Bring me out from the prison
to acclaim Your name. (7b, 8a)

And when he is rescued, his friends and allies will gather around him and all will worship God:
For the righteous will draw round me
when You requite me” (8b)

This is a model prayer for a desperate situation. It also reminds us that it is perfectly OK to shout at God and implore him for rescue. God does not need polite reverent phrases. And, as we know from David’s story, God rescued David and in fact even gave him a chance to kill the Saul who fell asleep in the same cave, But David followed God and did not murder his enemy. God’s rescue was sufficient for David. As it should be for us. And David proved his faithfulness to the point fo becoming Israel’s greatest king.

Micah 3–5: Micah’s relentless screed against “the leaders of Jacob,” i.e., Judah, and especially its erstwhile prophets in their exploitation of the people is downright grisly:
Should you not embrace justice,
you who hate good and love evil;
who tear the skin from my people
    and the flesh from their bones;
who eat my people’s flesh,
    strip off their skin
    and break their bones in pieces;
who chop them up like meat for the pan,
    like flesh for the pot? (3:1-3)

Unlike his fellow prophets writing about the Northern Kingdom, Israel, the greatest sin here does not appear to be idolatry, but the perversion of justice that will lead to the destruction of Judah:
Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
    you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
    and distort all that is right;
Therefore because of you,
    Zion will be plowed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
    the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets. (3:9, 12)

Nevertheless, like all good prophets, Micah envisions a restored and righteous Israel “in the last days” where,
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
…we will walk in the name of the Lord
    our God for ever and ever. (4:2, 5

For us Christians, however, the highlight of this book is the promise of a Messiah who arises from Bethlehem:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.
He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. (5:2, 4)

It does not take a theologian to figure out who is referenced here, and as I recall, the this prophecy is mentioned in several gospels. I’m especially struck by the line, “whose origins are from of old,/ from ancient times” which reads directly to John 1 as the Word that was with God at the beginning of time.

Revelation 12:7–13:10: With the appearance of the red dragon, war breaks out in heaven: “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.” (12:7) The red dragon, now identified as Satan himself, “who leads the whole world astray. …was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” (12:9) Notice that Satan is far from dead and that he now lives on earth.

In Revelation, every disaster or battle is followed by an interlude of worship. This interlude takes the form of a voice from heaven that reads specifically, I think, to Rome’s persecution of Christians:
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
    who accuses them before our God day and night,
    has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony. (12:10b, 11)

Meanwhile, back on earth, the dragon/Satan pursues “the woman who had given birth to the male child.” But in a scene right out of a fantasy novel (this book being a progenitor of the genre), the “woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness” (12:13) where she will rest for “a time, times and half a time” (I think that’s 3 1/2 years). At which point Satan spews water and tries to drown her, but “the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.” (12:16)

Satan is pretty angry at this turn of events and goes off to “wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” (12:17) This is one of those rare places where John makes it very clear that Christians will suffer persecution under the aegis of Rome, the Red Dragon, which as far as John is concerned, is Satan himself.

As if a red dragon pursuing a woman isn’t enough, John treats us to a great beast with “ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name” (13:1) arising out of the sea. The multi-headed beast is empowered by Satan and seems to me to be a clear reference to a succession Roman emperors—each one represented by a head—one of which has a “fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.” (13:3)

This beast rules for 42 months—and therefore yet again this is one of those places where many Christians believe this is a forecast of the Great Tribulation yet to come at the end of history. In any event, the beast is quite successful in its war against Christians: “It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. ” (13:7) The beast rules the entire world. In addition to what I think is a clear reference to the Roman empire, it has been identified as various historical figures who have sought to rule the world, the most recent being Hitler and during the Cold War, the Soviet Union.

This section ends with John citing a poem or song that reads like a tautology:
If anyone is to go into captivity,
    into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
    with the sword they will be killed. (13:10a)

In other words, dear Christians, accept your fate. What will happen will happen. And again in a rare moment of clarity, John advises his readers, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.” (13:10b) Which is not dissimilar to the patient endurance required to stumble through this book…

Psalm 141:5–10; Jonah 3,4; Micah 1,2; Revelation 11:15–12:6

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

Psalm 141:5–10: Our psalmist seems to go off the rails in his efforts to assure God he is more righteous than any other person, as e.g.:
Let the righteous man strike me,
the faithful rebuke me.
Let no wicked man’s oil adorn my head,
for still my prayer is against their evils.” (5)

The psalmist appears to be fine with other righteous people doing him harm or saying bad things to him, he will nevertheless remain faithful to God. On the other hand, he continues, even kind acts by evil people, such as anointing him with oil, remain completely unacceptable because they are evil. He’s not exactly a paragon of forgiveness and grace.

He goes on to heap curses upon evil people and yet he still wants to be heard by them:
Let their leaders slip on a rock,
and let them hear my words which are sweet.
As when the earth is parted and split,
our bones are scattered in the mouth of Sheol. (6, 7)

Sorry, but these verses just makes no sense to me. Alter informs us that the Hebrew for these verses is “badly mangled,” so I guess he came up with a best guess.

The conclusion of the psalm is much more understandable if only for its conventional wishes for God to keep him safe from the wiles of his enemies:
For to You, O Lord, my eyes turn.
In You I take refuge. Expose not my life
Guard me from the trap they laid for me
and the snares of the wrongdoers.
May the wicked fall in their nets.
I alone shall goe on. (7-10)

The last line is striking. I take it to mean that even if if all his erstwhile friends abandon him and therefore abandon God he will still remain faithful.

Jonah 3,4: One has the feeling the Moravians were being quite leisurely about their assigned readings and then figured out they had a whole pile of minor prophets to cover in the waning days of this 2-year course of reading. So they are really rushing us through the final books.

Back on dry land, our chastised prophet does in fact finally go to Nineveh, which is an impressive place: “a very large city; it took three days to go through it.” (3:3) I’m sure Jonah, who was expecting great resistance from the inhabitants to his message about God, was more than a little shocked when “Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, [and] he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (3:6) The king promptly decrees that “everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8, 9) Indeed, God does spare Nineveh.

The lesson here is pretty obvious: God will often do the things we least expect. In practical terms it means we should boldly witness to others. Who knows? They may respond positively because the Holy Spirit has already prepared their hearts to hear about the Good News.

However, God’s compassion for Nineveh really angers Jonah. So much so that he’d rather die. God rather reasonably asks his prophet, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4) God then famously grows a bush to provide shade for Jonah, which he really likes. Then God allows a worm kill the bush, leaving Jonah in the blazing sun, causing him once again  to want to die.

God’s object lesson is simple: it wasn’t Jonah who grew and then killed the bush. And it wasn’t Jonah who softened the hearts of the king of Ninevah. We would do well to remember with Jonah that things such as repentance are God’s doing, not ours. There’s also a subtext here that God loves everyone, not just his chosen people. Our psalmist above certainly could have benefited from this object lesson…

Micah 1,2: Sounding very much like his colleagues Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, Micah issues a warning that God is angry at both Judah’s and Samaria’s idolatrous apostasy and punishment awaits:
Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country,
    a place for planting vineyards.
I will pour down her stones into the valley,
    and uncover her foundations.
All her images shall be beaten to pieces,
    all her wages shall be burned with fire,
    and all her idols I will lay waste;
 (1:6, 7)

A long poem, describing various details of God’s forthcoming punishment, occupies the remainder of chapter 1. Things get more interesting in chapter 2 as man’s plans are contrasted with God’s plans. Micah starts out by announcing that most human plans are fundamentally evil:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
    and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
    because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
    houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
    people and their inheritance. (2:1, 2)

God, on the other hand, has a different plan for these conspirators:
Now, I am devising against this family an evil
    from which you cannot remove your necks;
and you shall not walk haughtily,
    for it will be an evil time. (2:3)

Nothing has changed, has it? Powerful men still make plans to defraud and oppress. But God holds the trump cards. Which of course is the entire point of the book of Revelation. No matter how bad things get, God will one day rescue us. And that is what Micah tells us that God has plans for the remnant of Israel:
I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob,
    I will gather the survivors of Israel;
I will set them together
    like sheep in a fold,
like a flock in its pasture;
    it will resound with people.(2:12)

The chapter ends on a messianic note about God’s even greater plans, which we Christians can take as clear foretelling of the coming of Jesus Christ—highly appropriate during this Advent season:
The one who breaks out will go up before them;
    they will break through and pass the gate,
    going out by it.
Their king will pass on before them,
    the Lord at their head.

Revelation 11:15–12:6: At last! The seventh trumpet sounds. And rather than dispensing further evidences of God’s wrath, it becomes the opening note of yet another worship scene: “there were loud voices in heaven, which said:

 “The kingdom of the world has become
    the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
    and he will reign for ever and ever.” (11:15, 16)

[That last line should sound familiar to Handel fans of the Hallelujah Chorus.] The 24 elders join in worship, also singing:
We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
    who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
    and begun to reign. (17)

The chapter concludes with an outright theophany that shakes the earth: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” (11:19)

But worship quickly ends and we encounter two of John’s more potent symbols:

  • A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (12:1), who is about to give birth.
  • An “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.” (12:3)

The woman gives birth “a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” (12:5a) The dragon is poised to snatch the child as soon as it is born.  But before that can happen, “her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne;” (12:5b)

Up to this point the symbolism seems straightforward. The woman is Mary, who is about to give birth to Jesus. But there’s some difficulty with that interpretation. In John’s telling, Jesus ascends to heaven as a baby rather than a 33-year old. Logic is certainly not John’s strong suit… The red dragon seems to be a clear reference to either the Jewish authorities who wanted Jesus dead, the Roman army, Satan, or all of them.

However, all this neat theorizing seems to come to naught with the last verse of today’s reading: “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.” (12:6) So the woman and child seem suddenly to be something else. Perhaps the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the wilderness is a reference to the wilderness journey of Israel. In addition, we have another reference to what many have taken to be the 3 1/2 year long Great Tribulation.  No wonder everyone’s confused about this book—and anyone who claims not to be confused is just in denial.

Psalm 141:1–4; Obadiah 1; Jonah 1,2; Revelation 11:1–14

Originally published 12/11/2017. Revised and updated 12/10/2019.

Psalm 141:1–4: This David psalm deals with the righteous comportment of a man of God when he is tempted by evil. The stanza opens with a pretty standard request for God to listen to the psalmist, noting along the way that he is in an attitude of reverent prayer. One detects a scintilla of impatience as he repeats himself asking God to hear him:
O Lord, I call You. Hasten to me.
Hearken to my voice when I call You.
May my prayer stand as incense before You,
my uplifted hands as the evening offering. (1, 2)

I like the image of prayer as an incense offering—and if I thought about that image when I’m praying I think my prayers might have a greater attitude of quiet reverence.

The psalmist turns to the matter of the ever-present temptation to speak cruelly—and I think this would include cutting sarcasm, which is alas one of my more creative skills. So, I need to pray what our psalmist prays here:
Place, O Lord, a watch on my mouth,
a guard at the door of my lips.
Incline not my heart to an evil word
to plot wicked acts with wrongdoing men,
and let me not feat on their delicacies. (3, 4)

The clear point here is that we can pray to God for something as simple as “guarding our words.” These verses remind us that words have tremendous power for good and alas, for evil. There’s an implied slippery slope here: evil words lead easily to wicked acts “with wrongdoing men.” In other words, it’s tempting and easy to join the whining, noisy crowd—which is certainly what Facebook and Twitter political threads are all about. We need to pray for God not only to guard our lips but also our posts.

Obadiah 1: Poor Obadiah. His short little book doesn’t even rate a day’s reading to itself. Although upon reading it we probably can be grateful Obadiah didn’t write more.  Like Revelation John, Obadiah has a vision. It’s all about the nation of Edom whose pride tells them that they should go to war against Israel. Obadiah tells them it’s not a good idea, speaking, as prophets always do, in God’s voice:
I will surely make you least among the nations;
    you shall be utterly despised.
Your proud heart has deceived you,
    you that live in the clefts of the rock,
    whose dwelling is in the heights. (2, 3)

History demonstrates again and again that haughty pride brings down empires. One thinks about our own American empire when Obadiah declares:
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
says the Lord. (4)

The image of the soaring eagle crashing to earth seems symbolically apropos.

Obadiah goes on to tell Edom that it will be utterly destroyed because of its aggression against Israel:
For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob [Israel],
    shame shall cover you,
    and you shall be cut off forever. (10)

As always, the problem is pride and its close relative, gloating:
But you should not have gloated over your brother
    on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
    on the day of their ruin; (12)

Obadiah reminds Edom that even though it will decimated Israel will still stand:
But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,
    and it shall be holy;
and the house of Jacob shall take possession of those who dispossessed them. (17)

As for Edom’s fate, “there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau.” (18) And here we are more than 2500 years later. Israel exists. Edom is but a dusty echo in an obscure prophet’s writings.

Jonah 1,2: We do not need to recount the story here. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, who immediately sets off in the opposite direction by boat. The storm comes and the sailors cast lots to find out that Jonah is the storm-causing culprit. Jonah offers to be thrown overboard and the sailors happily comply. The “large fish” swallows Jonah, where he spends three happless days.

What they didn’t emphasize to me in Sunday school is that “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.” (2:1) It’s a beautiful prayer written in the first person as Jonah,
called to the Lord out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
…As my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple. (2:2, 7)

And with his repentance comes Jonah’s salvation: “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” (2:10)

Clearly (to me anyway), while there was doubtless a real Jonah, the story of the fish is highly symbolic. That the Jonah story speaks of being entombed in a living version of Sheol for three days is of course a precursor to Jesus’ three days in the tomb. And as the Jonah fish story ends with his salvation, we are reminded that it is Jesus’ resurrection that has brought us salvation.

The Jonah story is not over—his rescue and salvation is merely the beginning of his story. As our salvation is merely the beginning of ours. The big question for Jonah is what will And an equally big question for us: what do we then do with our salvation?

Revelation 11:1–14: We encounter an echo of Ezekiel’s over-long description of measuring the dimensions of the temple here as John is handed a “measuring staff” and told, Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there,but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.” (1, 2) I take this command as a signal from John that the churches may have to worship in secret while Rome persecutes the church f0r 3 1/2 years. Those who think that the events in Revelation are yet to come, interpret this period as the first half of the Great Tribulation, which lasts 7 years.

Two prophets are appointed by God with “authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” (3)

These prophets, symbolized by two olive trees and two lampstands, have the power to create drought and famine and can “strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.” (6) After this period “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them,” (7) Their bodies remain unburied in “great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Which means it has to be Jerusalem. Their deaths cause great rejoicing “and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.” (10) Which when you think about it is pretty much what Christmas in the broader culture has become: self-centeredness and exchanging gifts.

But then the dead prophets are resuscitated after 3 1/2 days and told to “Come up here” and return to heaven At that point a great earthquake occurs and “a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” (13)

OK, I give up. I cannot untangle this story, but one thing is clear: the earth is a battleground between the forces of good and evil. And for John: between the Roman empire and the church.

Psalm 140:7–14; Amos 8,9; Revelation 10

Originally published 12/09/2017. Revised and updated 12/09/2019.

Psalm 140:7–14: Our psalmist continues his supplication to God—”Hearken, O Lord, to the sounds of my pleas” (7)—whom he addresses as “Lord, Master, my rescuing strength.“(8). Then he gets down to business with the specifics of his plea regarding the conspirator:
Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked,
do not fulfill his devising. (9)

OK, so far not too extreme. He just wants the conspiracy to fail, which is eminently understandable. But then he prays for basically for their plot to explode in their faces and for it to do to them what they have planned against him:
May the mischief of their own lips
cover the heads of those who come round me. (10)

Then it gets personal:
May He [God] rain coals of fire upon them,
make them fall into ravines, never to rise.
May no slanderer stand firm in the land,
may the violent evil man be trapped in pitfalls. (11, 12)

One has to admit that falling off a cliff is a pretty original way to want to see one’s enemies perish. The psalm concludes with the psalmist’s confidence that God will act—and we learn that he considers himself “lowly” and “needy,” which kind of puts paid my earlier theory that the psalmist was speaking for David:
I know that the Lord will take up
the cause of the lowly, the case of the needy. (13)

Once again we are confronted with a psalm full of wishes for bad things to happen to one’s enemies—wishes that Jesus has cancelled when he tells us to love our enemies. Nevertheless, a psalm or prayer (which is what this psalm is), is the perfect place where we can lay bare our emotions—just as our psalmist has done here. When confronted by a conspiring enemy, I think we would entertain similar thoughts to what our psalmist has expressed—but we also know God may not fulfill our wishes for bad things to happen to our enemies.

Amos 8,9: At this point, God’s anger against Israel is palpable, as he continues to speak through the prophet:
The end has come upon my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord God;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
    cast out in every place. Be silent!” (8:2, 3)

The reasons for God’s anger are numerous, but here Amos focuses on how the poor and needy have been cheated by greedy merchants:
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
    and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    and selling the sweepings of the wheat. (8:5, 6)

Clearly, some things never change. Amos then describes a fruitless seeking for spiritual sustenance that sounds very much like today:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
    when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
    and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
    but they shall not find it.” (8:11, 12)

I wonder of the time has come here in America that like Israel we are enduring a famine “of hearing the words of the Lord?” With the current scandals around men using their power and prestige to intimidate and oppress women, we see that having set aside Judeo-Christian values to pursue hedonistic pleasure has resulted in a famine of morality. And we also see people around us seeking spiritual sustenance from places like the ersatz theology of the Oprah Winfrey’s of the land. But as Amos states, “they shall not find it.” There is only one place where the word of the Lord can be found and that is in the Word of Jesus Christ.

The first half of chapter 9 is a dramatic description of the destruction of Israel, which of course came to pass:
I saw the Lord standing besidethe altar, and he said:
Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,
    and shatter them on the heads of all the people;
and those who are left I will kill with the sword;
    not one of them shall flee away,
    not one of them shall escape.” (9:1)

Amos goes on to describe how Israel will seek to hide from God’s wrath and all efforts will be of no avail. Even “though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, /  there I will command the sea-serpent, and it shall bite them.” (9:3)

But as always, God promises that not all of Israel will be destroyed:
The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the face of the earth
    —except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,
says the Lord.” (9:8)

The chapter ends with God’s promise to restore David’s kingdom, presumably at the end of history:
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
    and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
…I will plant them upon their land,
    and they shall never again be plucked up
    out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.” (9:14, 15)

As we have observed elsewhere, God seems almost tormented, swinging between a plan to destroy utterly and a plan for rescue. This is a quality of God that we do not see once Jesus has come into the world. It seems that Jesus’ incarnation not only saves us, but in some inexplicable way it also brought equanimity to God himself.

Revelation 10: Things seem to calm down a bit as John sees “another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.” (1) This angel is holding a “little scroll.” He shouts, causing seven peals of thunder. John remembers that he “was about to write, but [he] heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” (4) So, we don’t know what the meaning of the thunders is, which I have to admit, doesn’t particularly bother me.

If we’ve been paying attention we know that so far only six trumpets have been sounded and we await the seventh. The seventh trumpet holds a tantalizing promise: “in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled, as he announced to his servants[a] the prophets.” (7)

But no trumpet yet. Instead, John tells us he is instructed by the voice from heaven to take the little scroll out of the angel’s hand and to eat it. Which he does: “So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.” (10)

Many fruitless efforts have been made to interpret what eating the scroll means. My own take is that it is a symbol of John receiving the authority to write additional prophecies, and he will spend the second half of the book describing to us. As the scroll tasted sweet but created a sour stomach, I’m pretty sure it means that there is both good news and bad news to come.

A random note on all the sevens: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, etc. I think the sevens here in Revelation mirror the seven days of creation described in Genesis. Only that  these sevens describe God’s “uncreation,” if you will. In any event, I appreciate the sense of symmetry of the compilers who placed Revelation as the final book of the NT.