Gleanings from the Bible: Malachi

The last book of the Old Testament is an encouragement and a warning to the existing generation of that day to not allow their faith to slide or be lost. The present state of worship was in bad shape and a tumultuous 400 years would follow before the events of the New Testament saw God dramatically intervening, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even since the return from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, expressions of worship had slidden into perfunctory patterns, devoid of real depth and meaning. Much of Malachi’s condemnation is therefore directed towards the priests and as such could be a warning to leaders of Christian worship everywhere.

I’ve noticed it often in Anglican worship (both high and low church) where the liturgy is said in a rapid monotone, without expression or any apparent reflection. Where the trappings associated with Holy Communion seem almost to be flung around without any thought of their significance. Like the rolling stone that gathers no moss engagement with God or the Spirit never seems to have a chance to stick. Surely we do a disservice to both God and his people when we fail to read or recite with expression and when we are offhand with symbols which are meant to remind us of the depth of God’s love for us.

The priests also seem to have lapsed when it came to preserving the teaching which had been entrusted to them. Instead of preserving knowledge their teaching was causing people to stumble. This morning I was reading the same sorts of warnings from Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3-4). Teachers who had become weary of sound doctrine, always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth, having a form of godliness but denying its power. I may have said it before, but I often wonder whether the powerlessness and sterility of some expressions of worship and doctrine have created a boredom, which has given rise to the searching and experimentations of so-called Progressive Christianity, a conglomeration of faith which in its more extreme forms has departed from Christianity altogether.

But Malachi’s complaint goes further. Worship, of course, involves us beyond Temple, Synagogue or Church walls. It is expressed in our day to day attitude. Malachi reminds us of what an insult it is to offer God the leftovers of our life. His example is sacrifice on the altar, but ours could be the loose change on the collection plate or the paltry time we give to God in prayer, or our reluctance to heed his calling for us to get involved in his work, all because we have just too many other things to occupy our wealth, time and talents. Only when we truly engage with God do we find the spiritual blessings that really satisfy. Only when God is at the centre of our lives can we know balance and fulfilment. Only when God is first can we realise the purpose of humankind to glorify him and enjoy his presence.

Malachi, like other prophets, speaks of the Day of the Lord. A day is coming when justice will prevail, where good and evil will be seen for what they are, where comprehensive healing will come with righteousness.

That day arrived with the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It will reach its fulfilment in the day that he returns, and in the meantime we must examine ourselves and heed the call, ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty (3:7).

And there it is. It is not just by going through the motions and it is not by creating new and innovative doctrines. It is by returning to Yahweh Almighty as revealed to us in the Scriptures and now, more particularly in Jesus Christ. For that is where the exciting  life-changing transformation really takes place!

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Gleanings from the Bible: Zechariah

Zechariah is about encouragement. Helping the Jews returning from Babylon to realise that God is in control and there is a bright future in his hands. The great nations, who have overcooked God’s punishment of the Exiles, would meet with their own demise, Jerusalem would flourish, Yahweh would live among them and there appears to be a Messianic promise to one of the leaders, Joshua, of one to come, who would “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” (3:9)

A verse that stood out for me was 4:6, “’Not by might nor by power but my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” It was oft quoted by the leaders in the holiness church I attended in my teens (a sort of Charismatic, second blessing independent fellowship of Believers). It expressed the longing we had for God to do something dramatic, while acknowledging our helplessness to bring it about. We were a small group having little impact on the surrounding community.

In some ways I think that Zechariah was trying to do what those church leaders were trying to achieve – encouraging a small people to think big, because they had a big God, in control of history, in control of the great nations of the earth. Yes, the Temple they were rebuilding might seem to be a shadow of the former one that was destroyed by Babylon but they were not to despise the day of small things 4:10. Evil would be carted off in a basket from Jerusalem to Babylon, where it belonged (5:5-11), while Jerusalem was to practise justice, mercy and compassion, whereby God’s blessings would come upon her (chap 8).

There are more indications of a Messiah – the king righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey (chap 9), the cornerstone from Judah (chap 10) and Jerusalem looking on the one they have pierced (chap 12), all picked up in the New Testament. And yet, with the promises of restoration, not all would be rosy. Chapters 13 and 14 talk of the nations fighting against Jerusalem. These events seem to be precipitated by the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the sheep – a quotation that Matthew applies to the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane. Whether the ensuing disasters then apply to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD or to some culmination of events in our own future is open to speculation. I remember that the Six Day War, when the Arab nations united against reconstituted Israel, aroused much interest in end-time prophecies at the time.

However these events may eventually pan out, whether in the spiritual realm, the physical world or indeed both, we should understand from the prophecies that it is Yahweh who is God over the nations of this world and who controls the destiny of his people, whether it includes national Israel or those who have come to know God through Jesus, the Christ. That knowledge should fill the faithful with confidence and the desire to be the People of God, not just in name but also in the way we live, with justice, mercy and compassion, trusting God to bring about his victory over all things.

Gleanings from the Bible: Haggai

Evangelical Christians today will often downplay the importance of church buildings. We say, “The Church is the people. God does not live in bricks and mortar. Even the Old Testament (with its emphasis on the Temple) affirms that! God’s people are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians affirms that the individual and the gathered believers are the temple of the Spirit. Jesus was the dwelling place of God and all this understanding supersedes the notion of holy things and holy places. ‘Church’ buildings are a means to an end and not things to be venerated or attract unnecessary expense.”

Now there is some truth in all of that. There are too many times when buildings have been valued above people, before mission and in preference to Jesus’ affirmation that people would worship God, neither on the mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth (John 4). But there is another side to all of this.

Haggai, speaking to the 50,000 or so who had returned from Exile and were rebuilding Jerusalem, tells them that it’s high time they got around to rebuilding God’s house, the Temple. The problem was one of attitude. They were so busy fixing up their own houses that they had no time to dedicate to the place of prayer and sacrifice in deference to the One who had yet again delivered and re-established them in the Promised Land. Their priorities were inward-focussed rather than God-focussed. Haggai warned them that such an attitude was resulting in spiritual and material poverty of life. Put God first and they would experience his presence and the enrichment of their lives.

I remember some years ago visiting an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, who kept quite a regimented day, of almost the monastic kind. On one occasion he was about to preside at a Holy Communion service and realised with horror that his shoes were not quite clean. Although they looked all right to me, he had to go off and clean and polish them before leading in worship. I admit that I was somewhat bemused at the time by what I felt was an example of over-zealous legalism. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that cleaning his shoes and observing set times in his day were his way of honouring God and showing his respect for his Creator and Lord. “After all,” I thought, “I would make sure my shoes were clean if I was meeting say, the Queen. Why not then dress appropriately to lead people in worship before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?” Should we not also want to treat with respect the places and the objects that we have set aside and dedicated to the worship of Almighty God?

Now I know that there has to be some balance in all of this. We don’t want to forget that God is both our friend and Father and that Jesus is our brother as well as our Lord. But we do need to be careful, I think, not to become so familiar and off-hand with God that our worship spaces and holy tables become like the junk room in our house, with just another piece of battered old furniture pulled out when we need extra benchtop space – the same benchtop space we use to remember the enormous love of God expressed in  the agonising death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in our place, for our sins.

So it comes back to our attitude and motivation. Does our lifestyle, our body language, our maintenance of ourselves and our buildings, how we present ourselves and the way we offer corporate worship — do these things reflect that we, in Paul’s words, have presented our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God? (Romans 12:1-2).

These are things to think about, not that we should fall into legalism, but that we should respect God and respect those who express their respect differently from us.

Gleanings from the Bible: Zephaniah

It’s interesting that Zephaniah, who was probably associated with the royal line and appears to have been a man of some social standing, states about the people of the earth, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath.”

“The Day of the LORD” is mentioned frequently in the prophets. A day anticipated by many as an in-breaking of God into history to bring about change and to restore the fortunes of his people. Perhaps it was similar to the prayers and expectations of many Christians today for revival in the church and a restoration of Christendom. With prophets such as Zephaniah however the Day of the LORD would be a day of reckoning for his people. In this case it looks like a universal judgement akin to the Genesis Flood…

“When I destroy all humankind on the face of the earth.” (1:3)

“I will bring such distress on all people.” (1:17)

“…the whole earth will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth.” (1:18) (see also 3:8)  

Of course it is quite likely that the mention of the nations, the “whole world” and all humankind, are references to Zephaniah’s known world, the nations that he specifically mentions: Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, Judah and particularly the “world” power of its day, Assyria. Nevertheless, if we fast-track to the last chapters of Revelation we do see an expectation that the whole world will eventually face the judgement of God at the final Day of the Lord.

As Christians pray for God to do something new, to bring about revival in our own time, we should perhaps be mindful that such renewal comes about through pruning and discipline and the pain of judgement. Revival comes by the way of true repentance.

Zephaniah, in common with other prophets paints a terrible picture of punishment on a world that has rejected Yahweh for worthless idols, greed, injustice and extreme violence, and yet beyond the outpouring of God’s anger is the preservation of the remnant (3:12).

There is always a faithful remnant throughout biblical history, and the scriptures suggest that there always will be. If this is true then we may expect that ultimate truth will not lie with the majority of the world (perhaps not even with the majority of organised nominal Christianity?), but with those who worship God in Spirit and in truth, as revealed through Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Gleanings from the Bible: Habakkuk

It seems ironic that people often blame God for all the things that go wrong in the world (“Why does God allow so much injustice and suffering?”) and then blame him again when his steps in to exact justice. Perhaps we don’t always recognise God’s judgement in the world and we are too quick to say, “No, that couldn’t be God. He just doesn’t act in that way. My God is all loving and wouldn’t hurt anyone.” We do of course have to be very careful about linking suffering with acts of judgement (see my earlier blog on Job for example). But this is where the prophets come in. They interpret world events theologically, as they affect God’s People. They have revelation from God and speak accordingly.

Nevertheless, in this case, Habakkuk presents the same questions that we might ask. “Why aren’t you listening? Why don’t you save me? Why do you put up with wrongdoing? Why do you allow justice to be perverted?” And God’s answer is that he is sending the Babylonians to sort out the evil that pervades Judah.

This is hardly a satisfactory answer for Habakkuk. “Why would you use them! A ruthless law unto to themselves! How can you associate with them and replace one evil with and even worse one?!” And God’s reply is, in essence, “Have faith.”

See, the enemy is puffed up;
his desires are not upright –
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness. (2:4)

…the nations exhaust themselves for nothing… (2:13)

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (2:14)

In fact Babylon would not escape justice any more than Judah did. God may use Babylon for his ends, to bring justice and punishment from evil, but Babylon would still be held accountable their cruelty and oppression.

We know from history and the book of Daniel (see my earlier blog on Daniel) that Persia would replace Babylon, Greece would conquer Persia, and Rome would conquer the divided Greek Empire, but out of the Roman Era would come a Saviour, who would usher in God’s everlasting Kingdom.

Habakkuk lived in turbulent times but as he worked through the issues he could finish his prophecy with…

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

Gleanings from the Bible: Nahum

Here it is again. A prophecy against the capital city of Assyria – Nineveh. Notable because Jonah had already taken the warning of destruction to them – and they repented!

Assuming (with some good reason) that Jonah ministered around 800 to 750BC then Nahum’s message chips in after the fall of Thebes to Assyria (mentioned in 3:8) in 663BC and before the eventual fall of Nineveh in 612BC. Assyria had already destroyed Samaria in 722-721BC and now had its sights set on Judah.

Reading simple accounts of the rise and fall of great powers sometimes sounds so clean cut, so academic. They fail to convey the cruelty, the loss of life, family and home, the sheer bloodiness, pain and grotesqueness of it all! Nahum finishes his prophecy with the comment about Assyria – “for who has not felt your endless cruelty.”

The Medes’ and Chaldeans’ (Babylon’s) sacking of  Ninevah and the establishment of the Babylonian Empire is described in a way that matched the conquests of Assyria itself. “Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses” (3:3). And this, Nahum tells us, was the vengeance of God, his anger and his wrath.

Some would want to jump in at this point with, “Aha! You see! God is a vengeful and bloodthirsty monster. Christ tells us to turn the other cheek but this God is something else!”

A number of points should dissuade us from this view. The first is to take Nahum in the context of Scripture and remember the point made to Jonah after he had wanted the city destroyed, “And should I not have concern for Nineveh,”. We are assured throughout the Bible that God only resorts to judgement after long years of patience and mercy.

The second point is that a god who never acts with justice is no god at all, but Yahweh (the LORD) will not leave the guilty unpunished (1:3). God will forgive, of course, where there is repentance (Jonah’s Nineveh was evidence of that) even while sin still has its consequences, but he will act angrily against unrepentant violence.

A third point is that anger is not always a bad thing. We should be angry about injustice, oppression and the horrific violence perpetrated against people who are just trying to get on with their life. Not the wild, out of control anger that beats the air without achieving anything effective, nor the violent anger that strikes out indiscriminately and uninformed. God is not like that. His anger is passionate but controlled, directed, effective and just. It comes after many warnings. Hence in this case, we have the prophets Jonah and Nahum.

A fourth point is that as Creator, God does have a right to deal with us as he wants since he knows the end from the beginning – but we do not! It means that, though we in western society value our individuality so much, we do not have the individual right to administer our own justice, except with those over whom we have been given legitimate authority and then within legitimate boundaries.

The latter point could lead us into a long ramble through the hills and valleys of what ‘legitimate’ might mean in the context of a harsh dictatorship, what constitutes a legitimate authority, questions concerning a just war and the defence of others, and so on. But the bottom line is, when it comes to God, he is the ultimate authority. He will do what is right and we are encouraged to trust him for what we do not understand.

The LORD is good.
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end to Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The destruction of Nineveh was but temporary relief for wayward Judah, for a few years later God would act against them too, as the conquering Babylonians carried them off into Exile. But for Judah there would be a return, a purified remnant. God’s plan was still unfolding. Through that remnant a Saviour would come for all the nations.

Gleanings from the Bible: Micah

Micah prophesied at a time when Israel and Judah were both coming under threat from the power of Assyria. The North would soon fall, while Judah would survive to later become victim to Babylon. In common with other prophets Micah’s condemns Samaria and Jerusalem for their idolatry and social injustice. Though amongst the condemnations I was amused to read, If a liar and deceiver comes and says, “I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer, that would be just the prophet for this people!”  Not without its relevance today?

The way of life perpetuated by these peoples meant that God seemed far off. They will cry out to the LORD but he will not answer them… Therefore night will come over you without visions…  They will all cover their faces because there is no answer from God (3:4, 6, 7). Could it be that our own lives as Christians become so compromised by our way of life that we rarely see God at work or even experience his presence?

As always amongst God’s prophets, along with the message of doom is the message of future hope. Chapter 4 talks of The Last Days when Jerusalem is restored as a world centre of learning about God, a time when peace would reign, and a place of worship even as the other nations worshipped their own gods.  ‘The Last Days’ is one of those expressions that can have multiple applications. For Judah it would be a return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple. We could apply it to our own era as we await Christ’s Return (in that even now Jerusalem is seen as a religious centre for the world). But the ultimate fulfilment is at Christ’s Return. The Christ, who perfectly embodied all that the Temple and Jerusalem should have been. Christ, the meeting place with God, the fount of knowledge and learning about God, the one we come to and gather around, the Prince of Peace.

This Christ would also be from the line of King David and in Micah’s day, addressing a greatly diminished Samaria and Jerusalem with Assyria’s sword hanging over them, they needed to be reminded of the covenant God had made with David, that he would always have a descendent on the throne.

Hence the passage that is frequently read at Christmastime, 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. God is able to raise up a leader from insignificant places and in downtrodden, seemingly hopeless circumstances. He did so with David. He will restore Judah. He will raise up the Messiah.

And now we are exhorted, To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Even as a society may deteriorate and fall apart with families turning against each other (chapter 7), as for me I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Saviour; my God will hear me.

The prophecy ends on a high note of expectation (7:18-20) but you can read that for yourself!