Psalm 140:1–6; Amos 6,7; Revelation 9:12–21

Originally published 12/08/2017. Revised and updated 12/07/2019.

Psalm 140:1–6: This David psalm of supplication has a certain formulaic quality about it. It’s at a high level of abstraction that does not really reveal much about the psalmist nor the precise nature of the threats he faces. The same goes for his enemies who are violent, plot evil, are troublemakers, and speak lies. Nevertheless there’s some vivid imagery and similes:
Free me, Lord, from evil folk,
from a violent man preserve me.
Who plot evil in their heart,
each day stir up battles.
They sharpen their tongue like a serpent,
venom of spiders beneath their lip. (2-4)

Frankly, this description could apply to any number of contemporary politicians, tweeters, and cable news hosts.

Having described his plight, our psalmist turns to God asking for protection, explaining that he is apparently the object of a conspiracy. While we can be pretty sure that David himself did not write this psalm, perhaps the psalmist is referring to a specific political plot by some court official or military leader that was directed against him. The metaphor of a net covering a trap in the woods is particularly striking. It’s certainly a hazard that would have been well known to the shepherd who became Israel’s greatest king:

Guard me, Lord, from the wicked man’s hands,
from a violent man preserve me,
who plots to trip up my steps.
The haughty laid down a trap for me,
and with cord spread out a net.
Alongside the path they set snares for me.

This psalm is certainly proof that conspiracies are as old as humankind and as contemporary as the political scheming we see around us daily.

Amos 6,7: In what could easily be a description of modern American culture, Amos chastises the self indulgence and consequent unawareness that doom awaits in the very near future. Nor is it impossible to see Amos’s words as being directed against the infamous “1%” of his time—and applicable to ours:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
    and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
    and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (6:4-7)

The sin of these indolent folks is always the same: pride that has corrupted justice, which as always they have corrupted to their personal advantage:
Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow the sea with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    taken Karnaim  for ourselves? (6:12, 13)

Their reckoning comes in the next chapter—and where we can see some of John’s source material for his book of Revelation. Being John of course, his version is far more embellished than Amos’s rather straightforward descriptions.

First, there are locusts: “This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).” (7:1) Then there is fire: “This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.” (7:4)

God’s third object lesson is one we don’t see in Revelation: “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.” (7:7a) God goes on to tell Amos,
See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (7:7b, 8)

So, why a plumb line metaphor? I think the answer is pretty obvious, God is measuring Israel against his Covenantal standard and Israel is severely out of alignment. Hence God’s loss of patience and his threat to destroy the nation.

We suddenly arrive at narrative rather than poetry. It seems that a certain Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, complains about Amos to King Jeroboam of Israel, accusing him of conspiracy because of his prophecy that Jeroboam will die. Amaziah advises Amos to “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there.” (7:12)

But Amos denies that he’s a prophet, but is  only “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” chosen by God seemingly at random to go prophesy to Israel. Then, Amos uncorks a devastating prophecy about Amaziah himself:
Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’ (7:17)

Unfortunately, Amaziah’s reply is not recorded. But then again, perhaps he was left speechless. I know I would be… Give Amos credit where it’s due: he certainly spoke truth to power.

 : As if it were not already obvious, John interrupts his narrative to tell of “The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.” (12) Oh, good. I can hardly wait…

The sixth trumpet blast releases four bound angels, who we assume are agents of Satan, “who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. ” (15) The means of all this destruction is an army of 200 million (16). John, who seems rather obsessed by horses, doubtless because he had seen the Roman cavalry, describes the horses and riders of this army in grotesque detail: “the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths.” (17)

The creative contrast of sapphire to sulphur is one of those places where we can only shake our heads in wonder at the imaginative details of John’s apocalyptic vision. The OT prophets Joel and Amos look absolutely boring by comparison.

The army is impressive, but once again it’s the horses that capture John’s imagination as the true agents of destruction: “For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.” (19) Perhaps John had witnessed a battle, perhaps even Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem that had pitted the power of the Roman cavalry against the hapless, unarmed civilian population.

Then, in another echo of the OT prophets, John observes that the destruction of a third of humankind apparently did not phase those who remained: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.” (20) This is certainly an echo of Joel and Amos who’s prophecies were basically shouting into the wind.

At first read this may seem incredible. But then all we need to do is think about the present: how we go on with our quotidian lives even as other people in far off nations are the victims horrors almost beyond imagining.  John is simply describing fallen human nature—thus it has ever been and ever will be until the end of history.

Psalm 139:17–24; Amos 5; Revelation 9:1–11

Originally published 12/07/2017. Revised and updated 12/06/2019.

Psalm 139:17–24: Our poet reflects on God’s own thoughts, and as he considers God’s omnipresence, realizes that they are far too numerous to count:
As for me, how weighty are Your thoughts, O God,
how numerous their sum.
Should I count them, they would be more than the sand.
I awake, and am still with You. (17, 18)

I confess I have rarely reflect on what God may be thinking, but as we read in the OT prophets God’s thoughts are many and more interestingly, like our own thoughts, they are often conflicted. As we have read in Joel and now in Amos, his thoughts recorded by the prophets are oscillating between Israel’s deserved punishment and its rescue because they are his people to whom he has made a great promise.

The tone of the psalm shifts from this boundless reflection on God’s creative magnificence to an almost wistful supplication, as he reflects on how much better the world would be if it were purged of evil people:
Would You but slay the wicked, God—
O men if blood, turn away from me!—  (19)

What is especially painful for him is that they are hypocrites who pretend to love God while their thoughts and actions are exactly the opposite:
Who say Your name to scheme,
Your enemies falsely swear.
Why, those who hate You, Lord, I hate,
and those against You I despise.
With utter hatred I do hate them,
they become my enemies. (20-22)

What’s unique here is that unlike other psalms of supplication, the poet’s enmity is directed against those who hate God, not those who necessarily hate the psalmist. It is their disrespect and plotting against God that cause the poet to cry out for God to destroy them. I know that when I encounter statements that are so blatantly hostile to God or even the idea of God that a certain hatred wells up in my own heart. Yes, I know Jesus has called us to love our enemies, but as our poet observes here, I think it’s even more difficult to love those who clearly hate God—or in today’s world, reject the idea of God altogether.

This marvelous psalm ends with the famous verse asking God to know both our heart and mind to detect and (I presume) root out any contrary feelings or thoughts about God’s presence and his power:
Search me, God, and know my heart,
probe me and know my mind.
And see if a vexing way be in me,
and lead me on the eternal way. (23, 24)

The question I have to ask is, do I allow God to probe my deepest feelings and innermost thoughts? Or do I prefer to keep them hidden from him? Of course as this psalm makes eminently clear, God’s presence is inescapable. So we would do well to join the psalmist and welcome God into our hearts and minds.

Amos 5: This chapter is a poetic lamentation for Israel’s manifold sins, and it is suffused with hopelessness:
Fallen, no more to rise,
    is maiden Israel;
forsaken on her land,
    with no one to raise her up. (2)

Amos forces us to notice that Israel faces a simple but stark choice:
Seek the Lord and live,
    or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
    and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. (6)

God pleads with Israel do but one thing:
Hate evil and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (15)

It’s the same choice for us today isn’t it? Sure, we can say we hate evil and love good. But God is asking us to put that love for good into action and to establish justice—and although it’s not overtly stated here, that’s to establish justice for the poor and oppressed. I’m good at saying nice things and professing love, but my actions too rarely back up my words.

Amos turns his attention to those around him who wish for the end of history, the Day of the Lord, telling them it is not going to be what they expect using some pretty dramatic imagery:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
     as if someone fled from a lion,
    and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
    and was bitten by a snake.” (18, 19)

This is not a pleasant end. Lots of people today think we are at the end of history. But like Israel then, the world has pretty much rejected God. As Jesus makes clear in his Olivet discourse, there will be judgement at the end of history and for most people it will not be a pretty sight.

The chapter ends on a depressing note:  therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.” (27) Which of course is exactly what happened.

Revelation 9:1–11: With the blast of the fifth trumpet we move from plausible explanations of what the first four trumpets represent to even more imaginative imagery which is difficult to square with natural phenomena. A star falls from heaven to earth, which readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost (and a lot of conservative moderns) consider to be a fallen angel, although as we find out at the end of the reading, is not Satan. This fallen angel “opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace…Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.” (2, 3)

These locusts with scorpion tails are instructed not to damage the earth (which is somewhat ironic since the first four trumpets have already done a pretty good job of that). Rather they are to torture “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (4) for five months. (And I’m sure people are trying to figure out the symbolism of five months since ‘5’ is not a popular number in Biblical numerology.) The torture will result only in unendurable agony but not death for those afflicted.

Never content to leave well enough alone when it comes to vivid details, John describes  “locusts [who] were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.” (7, 8)  It seems clear to me that the locusts are John’s idea of an even greater, darker force than Rome and the those being tortured here are Roman military officials who are persecuting Christians. John is clearly enjoying describing the agonizing payback they will receive.

Notice, too, this locust/scorpion army arises from the depths of the earth, not from heaven, so it is clearly a greater force of evil than even the Roman evil. At the end of this grim description John tells us that the “king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” (11) In John’s cosmology then, there is Apollyon that is in charge of awfulness under the earth. I’m guessing that in the hierarchy of evil, Apollyon is subservient to Satan.

Psalm 139:13–16; Amos 3,4; Revelation 8

Originally published 12/06/2017. Revised and updated 12/05/2019.

Psalm 139:13–16: Our psalmist moves to the most remarkable section of this psalm as he describes God’s ongoing creative act of bringing a child into being within its mother’s womb:
For You created my innermost parts,
wove me in my mother’s womb. (13)

The verb, ‘wove,’ is exactly the right metaphor for how we develop from a few cells into a fully-formed human being ready to face the world. Moreover, our psalmist realizes that each child is a distinct and unique individual that emerges from the womb as an independent being:
I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart,
wondrous are Your acts
and my being deeply knows it. (14)

Even though we have vastly more technical knowledge than the psalmist about exactly how a baby comes into existence, the act of gestation is nevertheless just as wondrous to us as it was to him. We are not evolutionary accidents. Rather, we are the result of God’s great and wonderful design. He truly does know our every cell on down to the DNA that resides in every cell within us.

For me, the most profound part of this verse is that “my being deeply knows it.” I see this as our innate quest to seek and know God. Even the most die-hard God-denier or atheist cannot fully extinguish the sense that there is something greater—call it God—that is connects with the essence of our being—a part of us that longs for a transcendence that only a relationship with God can provide.

Picking up on the theme of God’s omnipresence, the psalmist acknowledges that God was present even in the womb:
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in a secret place,
knitted un the utmost depths. (15)

This is all the more reason to realize that the creation of human life by two human beings and the carrying of a child by its mother is at its core a sacred act—a reality that is ended by “choice” at an enormous physical, psychological, and spiritual cost to the mother and that God’s greatest creative act—has been destroyed by human intervention.

The next verse is a remarkable description of exactly how we come into being:
My unformed shape Your eyes did see,
and in Your book all was written down.
The days were fashioned,
not one of them did lack. (16a)

For me, ‘Your book’ is the poetic anticipation of what we would discover centuries later to be DNA. Fetal development is a continuous process across the entire 9-month term. Each day of a mother’s pregnancy encompasses a specific area of growth of the child within her and the process proceeds according to a precise genetic plan (“The days were fashioned /no one of them did lack“). The unintentional foreknowledge expressed by our psalmist of how God has designed us and how God brings us to life is truly awe-inspiring.

Amos 3,4: Like the true prophet he is, Amos does not mince words as he communicates God’s anger: “Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt.” (3:1)

A long poem of prophecy follows, suffused with the tension of a God who will indeed punish cultural wrongdoing:
Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“An enemy will overrun your land,
    pull down your strongholds
    and plunder your fortresses.” (3:11)

This is immediately contrasted with the God who wants to rescue, expressed first in a metaphor of shepherd rescuing only a few remains of a sheep devoured by a lion, and then in the startling metaphor of  Israel  as furniture from which only a remnant will be saved:
This is what the Lord says:

“As a shepherd rescues from the lion’s mouth
    only two leg bones or a piece of an ear,
so will the Israelites living in Samaria be rescued,
    with only the head of a bed
    and a piece of fabric from a couch.” (3:12)

In the next chapter, Amos is especially incensed at idle women and his words to them would probably be legally actionable in today’s fraught political environment. As usual, their greater sin is that the needy and poor has been oppressed by them:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
    you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
    and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (4:1)

He forecasts an especially gruesome punishment for them:
The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness:
    “The time will surely come
when you will be taken away with hooks,
    the last of you with fishhooks.” (4:2)

Amos continues to express God’s anger at Israel’s hypocrisy and describes God’s futile efforts to get them to repent, as e.g:
I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps,
    yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord. (4:10)

Even when he rescues them, the people do not repent:
You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire,
    yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord. (4:11)

Perhaps more than any other prophet Amos clearly communicates a frustrated God:
Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel,
    and because I will do this to you, Israel,
    prepare to meet your God.” (4:12)

I wonder how frequently my words and actions frustrate the God who despite it all still loves me.

Revelation 8: When I was in college I saw Igmar Bergman’s film, “The Seventh Seal” a number of times. I’ve always been fascinated by the image of the knight playing chess with death. But I digress…

The lamb opens the seventh seal and rather than all hell breaking loose as with the first six seals, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (8:1) During this ominous silence seven trumpets are handed to seven angels. But before those trumpets sound there is yet another worship interlude as another angel, this one holding a golden censer, is “given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne.” (3) After prayers rise to God, the angel throws the censer to earth and all natural hell breaks loose: “there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” (5)

In the midst of these natural cataclysms, the trumpets sound one by one—and John describes the effect of each trumpet in turn.

The first trumpet represents destruction of nature by fire (not dissimilar to what’s happened all over the west these past few years): “a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” (7)

The second trumpet appears to be a volcanic eruption: “something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea.” (8) This appears to cause  some sort of red algae growth in the sea that chokes off aquatic life. It is so deadly that even ships are destroyed.

The third trumpet blows and a meteorite falls to earth, causing enormous destruction: “a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.” (10) John gives it the name “Wormwood” since it poisons water supplied. That name certainly inspired CS Lewis when he wrote “The Screwtape Letters,” as that is the name he gave to the junior devil to whom the letters are directed.

The fourth trumpet brings on what appears to be a simultaneous solar and lunar eclipse: “a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.” (12) Inasmuch as hurricanes are unknown in the Mediterranean, I’m sure that’s the only reason John didn’t describe one. But all the other events described here are doubtless based on actual events that probably occurred at certain points during John’s lifetime. Of course as an apocalyptic writer, he exaggerates for effect as dramatic indicators of the end of history.

All of these awful events appear to destroy only a third of the earth. I presume John uses this fraction to indicate that the earth still survives the events so that some more awful things can happen in subsequent chapters of this book.

The trumpet blasts halt and a talking eagle appears, announcing “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (13)

I’m sure more drama is about to ensue…

Psalm 139:7–12; Amos 1,2; Revelation 7:9–17

Originally published 12/05/2017. Revised and updated 12/04/2019.

Psalm 139:7–12: Our psalmist’s imagination soars as he reflects on God’s omnipresence. In verse 7 he asks rhetorically if there is any place where God is not already there—or if there is any possible place God would try to escape from:
Where can I go from Your spirit,
and where from before You flee? (7)

The answer is obvious as our poet attempts to imagine himself flying to the very ends of the earth, if not the universe—and even to the Jewish place of death:
If I soar to the heavens You are there,
if I bed down in Sheol—there You are.
If I take wing with the dawn,
if I dwell at the ends of the sea,
there, too, Your hand leads me,
and Your right hand seizes me. (8-10)

The key though here is that not only is God present, he is actively part of our lives. He is the God who leads us through our lives, including even to the place of death. And he is the rescuing God no matter in what straits we might find ourselves.

Our psalmist then attempts a kind of thought experiment, trying to envision a place of opposites where darkness is a kind of perverse light as he wonders if some kind of eternal night could exist in God’s all-encompassing presence:
Should I say, ‘Yes, darkness will swathe me,
and the night will be light for me,
Darkness itself will not darken for You,
and the night will light up like the day. (11, 12)

In short, wherever God is, there is light. I’m sure Jesus had these verses in mind when he said, “I am the light of the world.” Of course it’s difficult to hide from a God who is the very definition of light. which is what Peter discovered that fateful night when he denied Jesus in the darkness and dawn’s rooster revealed not only the physical light of the rising sun, but God’s spiritual light that fully revealed what he had done. Despite our attempts to escape God, even to the point of denying him, these verses remind us that God is omnipresent and inescapable.

Amos 1,2: The editors assembling the Old Testament provide very precise details about who Amos was and when he prophesied: “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash[a] was king of Israel.” (1:1) Well, it certainly proves that God chooses his prophet from unlikely places—and after David here is another shepherd.

As usual the prophet speaks in God’s voice—and God is not speaking quietly:
The Lord roars from Zion
    and thunders from Jerusalem; (1:2)

Amos describes the punishments that will rain down on those neighboring tribes and nations that have attacked Israel, which include Damascus, the king of the Valley of Aven; Gaza, the king of Ashdod, and Moab:
Moab will go down in great tumult
    amid war cries and the blast of the trumpet.
I will destroy her ruler
    and kill all her officials with him, (2:2, 3)

And yes, these kingdoms have long vanished from history.

But wait a minute. Not just Israel’s neighbors will be punished. Judah and Israel are included in this ominous list. Their sins are the usual ones:
For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
    and have not kept his decrees (2:4)

And the northern kingdom of Israel will be punished as well. What’s interesting here is that these are economic sins:
For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals. (2:6)

Israel’s sins are especially egregious as we read a catalog of wrongdoing that begins (as it does so often) with injustice against the poor:
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed. (2:7)

Other sins include incest (7b) and misuse of property (8) as well as Israel’s rejection of both Nazarites and prophets:
But you made the Nazarites drink wine
    and commanded the prophets not to prophesy. (2:12)

Amos tells us that unsurprisingly all these sins have made God fairly angry and there will be consequences that sound pretty much like the final defeat of Israel’s army at the hands of the Assyrians.
 The swift will not escape,
    the strong will not muster their strength,
    and the warrior will not save his life.
The archer will not stand his ground,
    the fleet-footed soldier will not get away,
    and the horseman will not save his life.
Even the bravest warriors
    will flee naked on that day,”
declares the Lord. (2:13-16)

The moral here: if you’re a Gentile, do not get on the wrong side of God by attacking his people. If you’re Judah and Israel, do not disobey his clear commands. Or there will be consequences.

Revelation 7:9–17: John’s vision is an echo—and a fulfillment—of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on that fateful Palm Sunday.  We meet the people who have been saved: there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (9, 10)

John must have been a frustrated hymn writer because he keeps inserting worship scenes with lyrics:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!” (12)

One of the 24 elders asks John if he knows who these people are and then tells John, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (14) Which I interpret as the martyrs executed by the Romans when John was writing.

More conservative churches assert this great multitude is the sum total of Christians saved down through the ages and who have survived the Great Tribulation which occurs at the end of history. Whether martyrs past or martyrs down through history, they engage in the great underlying theme of this book: worship.  And in this worship song lies the thrilling promise for all of us who follow Jesus:
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (17)

In Jesus we have the greatest of all promises: we will rest beside the springs of living water, which is Jesus himself—and sorrow will finally be banished.

Psalm 139:1–6; Joel 2:15–3:21; Revelation 6:9–7:8

Originally published 12/04/2017. Revised and updated 12/03/2019.

Psalm 139:1–6: This truly profound and introspective psalm reflects on how God knows our innermost thoughts and how our own knowledge—no matter how vast we may think it is—is ultimately limited. There are things we will never understand. (And I’m glad that the Moravians are not going to rush us through these marvelous verses.)

As Jesus points out some centuries after the psalmist about how God knows how many hairs are on our head, our psalmist realizes that God’s knowledge about our being is effectively infinite. After all, God is the Creator and we are the created:
Lord, You searched me and You know,
It is You Who know when I sit and I rise,
You fathom my thoughts from afar. (1, 2)

In fact, God knows more about us than anyone else does—including ourselves. We may think we have self-knowledge, but it is a scintilla of what God knows about us:
My path and my lair You winnow,
and with all my ways are familiar.
For there is no word on my tongue
but that You, Lord, wholly know it. (3,4)

Now there’s something to reflect on: God knows what we are going to say and he knows when we’ve said it—no matter how stupid, or worse, no matter how cruel. The psalms deal again and again with how words can be used as a weapon against others. And I certainly know that from personal experience. If I but thought about the fact that God knows what I’m going to say before I say it, I think my words to others—especially those whom I love—would be much kinder and gentler.

Our psalmist offers the reason God knows everything about about us. We are his wholly-formed creatures:
From behind and in front You shaped me,
and You set Your palm upon me. (5)

We are truly created imago deo; God has pressed his palm into our human clay. The question is, will I in turn reflect the image of God or my own self-centeredness?

Knowledge is too wondrous for me,
high above—I cannot attain it. (6)

And as created beings, we are limited. We will never know what God knows—or really who God is. We can see and feel him only from our very blinkered perspective. And we will never know everything, despite our best efforts. God has given us the intelligence to understand much about our world—from quantum particles to DNA up to the breadth of the cosmos. But we will never fully comprehend God despite our unceasing efforts. Which may be why so many people would rather reject the idea of God altogether.

Joel 2:15–3:21: Joel encourages the priests to cry out to God:
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord.
    Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?” (2:17)

And God answers with a promise of restoration:
I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
    an object of scorn to the nations.” (2:19)

But we get the feeling that this will really not happen until the Day of the Lord, i.e., at the end of history. Joel, speaking in God’s voice, proclaims in the most famous lines from this book:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (2:28, 29)

In short, the Holy Spirit will come to everyone in Israel.

Joel then reveals an apocalyptic vision, which as we shall see, John lifted and put in Revelation:
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (2:31)

Continuing this apocalyptic thread—and another theme that John picks up in Revelation— is how all nations will be judged. Only here it is how these nations treated Israel, while John expands his view to include those which have oppressed Christians:
There I will put them on trial
    for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel,
because they scattered my people among the nations
    and divided up my land. (3:3)

War will come and Joel exactly reverses Isaiah’s famous saying, [“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isa 2:4)] as he writes that God will command the people to take up arms:
Beat your plowshares into swords
    and your pruning hooks into spears. (3:10)

Which is exactly what humankind has done down through the centuries to today. In the end, Joel predicts, Israel will win the battle and God will mete out his vengeance on those who have oppressed the nation:
Then you will know that I, the Lord your God,
    dwell in Zion, my holy hill.
Jerusalem will be holy;
    never again will foreigners invade her.

Judah will be inhabited forever
    and Jerusalem through all generations.
Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged?
    No, I will not.  (3:17, 20, 21)

If we ever needed an example of prophetic proclamation designed to encourage the people who are discouraged and downtrodden, Joel is certainly our man.

Revelation 6:9–7:8: The slain lamb opens the fifth seal and John sees “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” (6:9) As in Joel, they ask for vengeance, but are “told to wait a little longer” until more martyrs are “killed just as they had been.” (6:11) To me, this verse is a clear indication that John was at once trying encourage the persecuted churches, but as he made clear earlier, more persecution was on the horizon.

The sixth seal is opened and John vividly describes a natural disaster that certainly seems like an earthquake: “the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig treewhen shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (6:13, 14) This event creates widespread panic and “the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” (6:15) as the chapter ends on this grim note. I think this is a clear reference to the Roman empire and that natural forces would prove even greater than its apparent might. The explosion of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of the cities below it come to mind. Just like today: we foolishly think we have mastery over nature until a hurricane or an earthquake wreaks destruction.

In the next chapter John turns his attention to what I take to be the restoration of Israel similar to what Joel has promised—only with even more tantalizing (and controversial) details. An angel announces that further earthly destruction is on hold “until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (7:3) John then gives us a list that enumerates that each of the 12 tribes of Israel will see 12,000 people “sealed,” totalling 144,000.

I think too many people have read far too much into these numbers—most notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that the first 144,000 JW believers are the ones who will go to heaven. They then had to come up with a creative explanation of what happens to the people not in that original 144K cohort as they racked up more believers of their peculiar theology. This is an example of the trouble you get into when you take these numbers in revelation (and elsewhere in the Bible) too literally. For me, the 12 x 12,000 is simply a symbol of a large and perfect (notice the square root) number that is God-inspired. In short, John is telling us, Israel will be restored at the end of history—exactly what Joel and others have promised too.

Psalm 138:6–8; Joel 1:1–2:14; Revelation 5:11–6:8

Originally published 12/02/2017. Revised and updated 12/02/2019.

Psalm 138:6–8: Our psalmist reminds us that even though God is infinitely greater than we are and even though he may seem far away, he knows our entire being—our thoughts, our actions, our words, our relationships. And this includes “the lofty”—which would be the high and mighty of the land. However, I also take them to be those who presume to see themselves greater than God, or those who think there is no God and that they mistakenly think they can get away with anything they desire:
For high is the Lord yet the lowly He sees,
and the lofty, from a distance, He knows. (6)

In a verse that’s not quite as poetic, but highly reminiscent of Psalm 23, our psalmist speaks of God’s all-encompassing protection and more crucially, that God rescues the poet from the wiles of enemies out to ruin him:
Though I walk in the midst of straits,
You give me life in spite of my enemies’ wrath.
You stretch out Your hand,
and Your right hand rescues me.” (7)

What is true for the psalmist is equally true for us. Since God knows our entire being, he is fully aware of those who would do us harm. God is truly our Great Protector.

The final verse again reminds us of God’s ineffable faithfulness. The last line is a reminder that we are indeed God’s creatures—his handiwork—and we will never be abandoned by the God who created us:
The Lord will requite me.
O Lord, Your kindness is forever.
Do not let go of Your handiwork. (8)

Joel 1:1–2:14: All we know about Joel is that he is the son of a certain Pethuel. This prophet wastes no time in describing a catastrophe in Israel that is greater than any before or since:
Has anything like this ever happened in your days
    or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell it to your children,
    and let your children tell it to their children,
    and their children to the next generation. (1:2, 3)

Joel describes the invading enemy as a seemingly unending plague of locusts. And yet Israel appears to be oblivious to the danger as Joel shouts into the wind to a society consumed in excess:
Wake up, you drunkards, and weep!
    Wail, all you drinkers of wine;
wail because of the new wine,
    for it has been snatched from your lips. (1:5)

Disaster stalks the land as Joel tells the priests in the temple to “put on sackcloth” and famine stalks the land—doubtless arising from the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon:
Has not the food been cut off
    before our very eyes—
joy and gladness
    from the house of our God?
The seeds are shriveled
    beneath the clods.
The storehouses are in ruins,
    the granaries have been broken down,
    for the grain has dried up. (1:16, 17)

Famine is followed by invasion. This disaster can mean only one thing to the prophet: the end of history and the dawning of the Day of the Lord as he pronounces certain doom:
Let all who live in the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is close at hand—
a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and blackness. (2:1, 2)

Joel’s language is cinematic as he describes the invasion:
They plunge through defenses
    without breaking ranks.
They rush upon the city;
    they run along the wall.
They climb into the houses;
    like thieves they enter through the windows. (2:8b, 9)

But even in this time of catastrophe, there is hope as Jeol implores all who would listen:
Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.” (2:12)

We arrive at the theological heart of Joel’s pleas in the most famous verse in this short book:
Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity. (2:13)

Like our psalmist today, Joel knows God’s faithfulness. Above all, God is a God of limitless love. All we need to do is repent. But we cannot fully return to God with just our words or even with our actions. We must return with our whole heart, our entire being. As Oswald Chambers has it, we must abandon our entire being to God.

Even with this promise, there is a bit of doubt for Joel. But this is a doubt based in the idea that perhaps Israel’s sins—and our sins— are too enormous for even God to forgive:
Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing— (2:14)

This final verse tells me that even though God is always faithful we human creatures will still doubt. The reality for me is, absent a scintilla of doubt, there can never be true faith.

Revelation 5:11–6:8: The slain lamb—Jesus Christ—has taken the sealed scroll and there is immediate worship as “many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” (5:11) join in and all sing a new hymn together—words that inspired Handel:
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!” (5:12)

John’s account of the great throne room worship scene concludes as all creation joins in singing: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” (5:13)

With the worship scene concluded John turns his full attention to the opening of the seals. The first four seals each bring forth one of what we know as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

  • “a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” (6:2)
  • Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. ” (6:4)
  • there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.” (6:5)
  •  “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.” (6:8)

Needless to say there’ve been numerous interpretations. Mine are:

White horse: The Roman empire
Red horse: the invasion of Jerusalem by Titus in 70CE, which had occurred before John wrote this book.
Black horse: Slavery and economic oppression
Pale horse: exactly what it says: death.

But then again, it could be a lot of different things. One thing I am sure of: it is not a forecast of future events.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even prophecies that appear to be lunacy can come true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much truth for our own time…

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

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

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

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

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

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