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.

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Gleanings from the Bible: Amos

Amos prophesied during the reigns of Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah, some time before both went into Exile. That might explain the unrelenting message of doom, calculated to shake both kingdoms out of their complacency. Israel, we learn from chapter 4, had already undergone some suffering – Lack of food, drought, destruction of crops, disease and warfare, afflictions often distributed apparently randomly. Yet this list is punctuated by, yet you have not returned to me, declares the LORD.  The unmistakeable assumption is that God is Sovereign and the first cause of all these disasters, great and small and that their purpose, at least here, is to turn people, in the midst of their distress, to seek God.

It must also be saying that beyond all the suffering of this world the greatest tragedy is never seeking or finding God! What it cannot be saying, and this is affirmed by Scripture, is that God behaves capriciously or vindictively. As I have indicated before, God’s purpose is first and foremost restoration…

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the LORD God almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.
(5:14-15)

Indeed Amos 9 also finishes with reparation for the remnant.

It’s not a popular thought that humans do not ultimately control the events of the world and their own circumstances, but for those who seek and find God it is an exceedingly comfortable thought. It brings meaning to seeming chaos, even though we may not always understand it. It brings reassurance in the knowledge that the One we have found is the one who has control of our lives and wants the best for us.

Is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God then just another psychological crutch to help us cope with the unpredictability of living? Well only if it isn’t true. But I for one have found it to be true, in both my experience and study.

The prophets exhort people to seek God. The downs of life often come our way in order to turn us to do the same. In a world of instant gratification we can too quickly give up or worse, rebel against God. Searching with all your heart, beyond everything else,  is worth the effort.

Seek the LORD and live! (5:6)

Gleanings from the Bible: Joel

“The Day of the LORD (Yahweh)” seems to be prominent in the short book of Joel. Through Scripture it is used to indicate a time or times when God intervenes in humankind, often in judgement. In Joel “The Day” seems to include a couple of interventions.

The first refers to a locust plague, which would decimate the land. This could well have been a literal plague or it may have been a parable for the Babylonian invaders and the Exile. On balance though the former seems quite likely.

The plague and drought are followed by restoration and after that we have a passage which is quoted on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) by Peter, who associates it with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that day…

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…
…I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Pentecost, in its own way, was a “Day of the LORD”, but rather than a single event it was the beginning of ongoing outpouring (“in those days”). “Those days” are the age in which we now live and in Joel’s words they will then manifest in…

wonders in the heaven and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and dreadful day of the LORD.

Pentecost, with the outpouring of the Spirit, was a blessing, so this dreadful day would seem to refer to the future and final Judgement Day.

The good news is that in these days in which we live, following Christ’s death and Resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit but prior to Christ’s Second Coming in Judgement, there is the opportunity to be ready for The Day…

And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
there will be deliverance…

Many Christians today have jettisoned any thought of hell or judgement from their theology in an attempt to make the Faith more palatable to their unbelieving contemporaries (I can be prone to this myself). They are happy to talk of love and mercy and grace, but punishment and righteousness and holiness and justice often drop out of their vocabulary. I am mindful of the fact that, in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the false prophets who told people what they wanted to hear and painted a rosy future prior to the devastating Exile, which had been accurately predicted by God’s prophets – a small minority in Israel and Judah! We may not get many “Likes” for warning people about the coming Day of the Lord but it surely should be our passion to see our friends and neighbours safe on that day.

Gleanings from the Bible: Hosea

Is God into judgement or into love and mercy? Our answer to that question will determine how we respond to those who fail in church life, whether the lay or the leadership. It’s easy to see that we can find ourselves towards either end of the spectrum – harsh and unfeeling at one extreme or weak and irresponsible at the other.

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle and it seems to me that the prophecy of Hosea gets the balance right.

The theme of marriage is used to illustrate the Covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. Israel is likened to an adulterous wife, chasing after idols and the heinous practices associated with them (13:2). Israel has made vows to worship and serve Yahweh alone and there are consequences for breaking those promises and the conditions associated with them. Both the leadership and the people are culpable. God is justifiably angry…

            “I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals
she decked herself with rings and jewellery
and went after her lovers
but me she forgot,”
declares the LORD. (2:13)

However, in the following sentences we read…

            “Therefore I am going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her…”
“There she will respond as in the days of her youth…”
“In that day,” declares the LORD,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master’…” (2:14-16)

The very act of judgement can be seen clearly as discipline to restore Israel to all that will make life abundant, stemming from her devotion to her Maker, Lord and devoted Husband.

            “I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the LORD.  (2:19)

The wrath of God (his justifiable anger and judgement) are seen clearly as an act of discipline where, “I long to redeem them…” (7:13). That longing of God for Israel is laced through the text contrasting with the withholding of compassion until the (often horrifically severe) judgement is meted out: “I will have no compassion…” (13:14b), “The people of Samaria will bear their guilt” (13:16), “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (11:1), Return Israel to the LORD your God (14:1), “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely” (14:4).

The Christian church has often struggled to get the balance right between judgement and mercy. Too often a lack of rigorous discipline has allowed destructive attitudes and activities to flourish and at others it has been so harsh, unfeeling and unrelenting as to drive people away for ever. I remember that someone once said something to the effect that, when you preach about Hell you should only do it with tears in your eyes.

May God give us the strength to not retreat from church discipline but to apply it with wisdom and a heartfelt love and longing for the restoration of the people concerned. I am sure we will have much healthier fellowships as a result.

Gleanings from the Bible: Ezekiel

Ezekiel is an unusual book. A mixture, which includes a call that reads like an extract from a science fiction novel, the usual prophecies declaring judgement and the future restoration of Jerusalem, an inspiring vision of the dry bones becoming a living army and then a long, detailed description of a Temple yet to be built.

The vision of God, at the beginning, is out of this world but appears to be full of the sort of vivid symbolism one finds in Revelation. Ezekiel’s call is to prophesy lament and mourning and woe (2:9), to point out that Israel/Judah had not kept God’s laws but rather conformed to the standards of the nations around them (11:12) and to foretell a time when the scattered people of Jerusalem would return and receive a new spirit within them – a heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone (11:19 & 36:26).

It strikes me that that is what should happen when the Christian receives the Spirit of God. A revolution, a transformation from the inside out. I once heard someone put it this way: Our lives are like a bowling ball with a bias that tends to take us in our own direction, governed by our own will. When God’s Spirit indwells us it is if the bowling bowl was turned over so that the bias takes us the opposite way, towards God and his will for our lives. The heart of flesh has a new sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit.

RENEWAL

The renewal image is expanded with the shoot taken from the top of the cedar (the Davidic line (17:1-3) and planted so that birds find shelter in its branches (an image of the Kingdom of God picked up by Jesus in Matthew 4:32). It is further expanded by the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in chapter 37. When hope is completely lost, God breathes new life into the situation. It is interesting that he enlists Ezekiel’s cooperation in the revival. “Prophesy to these bones and say to them…”

RESPONSIBILITY

God’s spokespeople are saddled with great responsibility then. Ezekiel is also enlisted as a watchman in chapters 3 and 33. If he does not speak out he is accountable for the fate of those who might have heard the warning. It instantly reminds me of Romans 10:14-15, “How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” Christians have a calling by virtue of the Great Commission (Matthew 28). We should be capable of giving a reason for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15).

JUDGEMENT

Ezekiel’s message of judgement went beyond the People of God. Chapters are given over to the destruction of Tyre for example. But it seems probable to me that the message would not have been presented directly to the inhabitants of those nation’s and may rather have been for the benefit of the Jews with Ezekiel in Exile in Babylon. And I might add, to bolster the faith of the Exiles in God’s overarching control of history, rather than to satisfy their emotions of vengeance or triumphalism. We must remember that chapter 18 tells us that God responds to those who repent and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

GOG

It has been suggested, with some good reason, that chapters 38 and 39 are a separate unit. Certainly we seem to be projected beyond the immediate return of the Exiles to Jerusalem, and the style of writing has changed to distinctly apocalyptic (similar to Revelation, where Gog is also mentioned in a great battle after the millennial period of peace).

Gog (not readily identified) appears to be an enemy leader from Israel’s north who gathers other nations to fight Israel in a huge battle which ends (as in Revelation) with a comprehensive defeat of those forces of evil.

If taken literally then this would appear to take place somewhere near the end of time prior to the Judgement Day. If understood spiritually this could refer to the death and resurrection of Christ and the victory over sin and death (which is the way some people interpret the Battle of Armageddon mentioned in Revelation). Or once again it could refer to some spiritual end-time battle.

I am conscious that, when Israel was reconstituted as a nation after the Second World War, many saw a fulfilment of these chapters in the huge return of Jews to the land, and are therefore expecting a rising of nations for a final battle against Israel. It could be, but     since the apocalyptic style carries a great deal of symbolic imagery we have to approach interpretation with care and with the recognition that a good deal of speculation abounds on the subject.

Best then to at least see that the overall thrust of these chapters is to affirm that God has control of the nations, both to raise up and destroy, and that the victory belongs to him. Whatever else is happening around God’s people, they are with God and can stay calm in the knowledge that they are on the winning side. The overthrow of evil will come to fruition. That is the message here and it is the message of Revelation.

THE TEMPLE

Chapter 40 of Ezekiel seems to pick up from the end chapter 37 and deals with the restoration of the Temple and the re-division of the Promised land amongst the tribes of Israel.

Since we have chapters of detailed dimensions of a Temple that has not been built, what should we make of it? Three broad possibilities occur to me.

  1. I grew up with the idea that one day an earthquake would demolish the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and Israel would build a fourth temple on the site, after the design given to Ezekiel.
  2. God gave instructions to Ezekiel which were not carried out, as historically so many instructions weren’t. It’s another case of people not really listening to the prophets. What they finished up with were inferior buildings.
  3. Ezekiel’s Temple represents an ideal couched in concrete pictorial terms. Rather like the end-times pictures we have of the Kingdom of God in writings such as Isaiah and again in the symbolic language of the final chapters of Revelation.

The first two theories are not impossible but I think I favour the third. I can’t imagine why God would mandate a sacrificial system in our future, given that Jesus Christ is portrayed as the once-for-all sacrifice that is effective for dealing with the problem of human sin in a way that animal sacrifice could never be.

The way the Land is divided in chapter 48 is in strips one above the other, quite differently from the original division of the Land under Joshua. Here again may be the portrayal of a future ideal where the divisions are set out neatly with a comparatively huge central area set apart, where the sanctuary is just on the north side of Jerusalem.

In the final chapters of Revelation we also see the imagery of the New Jerusalem, which contains no Temple. This New Jerusalem is obviously a symbol of the People of God and there is no Temple because God and Jesus Christ are the Temple – God dwells amongst his people.

Whatever else Ezekiel’s Temple may indicate, that is where the People of God are heading. God amongst his people is the reassuring reality.

Gleanings from the Bible: Isaiah

Isaiah is a magnificent work, speaking of Judgement, Restoration, and New Creation. It spans the warning time prior to the Exile, gives encouragement to the Exiles in Captivity and looks to a glorious future kingdom. It even points, quite remarkably, to Jesus as God’s Servant-Messiah. Whether written by one two or even three authors, there is a cohesion that spans the book as we have received it. In this blog we only touch on a few of the book’s treasures.

Isaiah’s commissioning is an inspiration in itself. It embraces a realisation of his own sinfulness and that he is a member of a sinful nation. But it also shows his  willingness to do whatever God wants of him, despite the discouraging nature of the task. God tells him that the message will harden the hearts of the listeners and when Isaiah asks, “For how long?” he gets the answer, “Until they are completely ruined!”

A Book of Judgement

Isaiah’s call introduces him to the fate of most prophets. No-one wants to listen to bad news, particularly when they are being held accountable!

I don’t think that things have changed. Anything resembling criticism of society, its trends, lifestyles, “rights” and so on, especially if it comes from a biblical perspective, brings (ironically) an avalanche of counter criticism, condemning such judgemental attitudes! The result is that people are often afraid to speak out on issues that might be controversial and instead stick to the safe (read, majority) opinions which they are sure most of their friends will “like”. A related result is that the Christian church, while safely criticising politicians, will very often follow the crowd, rather than challenge it. The warning of 7:9 is pertinent…
“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

This was the sort of predicament that Isaiah faced, and yet he stood up and spoke out. He criticised the meaningless offerings, injustice and oppression of the most vulnerable (1:17), superstitions, divination and pagan customs (4:6), those who monopolised land (5:8), those who chased after drink, who turned values upside down and presented lies as truth (5:20). He accused Judah of being like a vine that produced bad fruit (5:1-7). He was scathing about idolatry (44:12ff) and called on Israel to wash their sins away.

     Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow,
though they are red like crimson
they shall be like wool. (1:18)

And herein lies an important observation. The prophet shares in the condemnation of the people. The judgement comes not from him but from God. The prophet can take no delight in his pronouncements. Moreover the aim of judgement is restoration. It is an act of punishment (of justice) but also an act of discipline.

 A Book of Encouragement and Restoration

Even in the first 39 chapters, which are predominantly about the judgement of Judah and other nations, God holds out hope for the future, beyond the devastation of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon…

     I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
      your rulers as at the beginning.
     Afterward you will be called
     the City of Righteousness,
     the Faithful City. (1:26)

     The Lord will have compassion on Jacob;
     once again he will choose Israel
     and will settle them in their own land. (14:1)

     Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
     therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
     For the Lord is a God of justice.
     Blessed are all who wait for him! (30:18)

By chapter 40 there is an even greater sense of encouragement…

      Comfort, comfort my people…
      Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. (40:1)

There is the promise of a return couched in the language of the Creation and Exodus stories. “Don’t look to the past. I am doing something new!” Out of the wilderness and chaos God would use the great Persian King, Cyrus as his servant to make a way back to the Promised Land, through a desert now running with water and brimming with life. Here is a Creator who knows what will happen and causes it to take place, in stark contrast to a created idol, which is powerless to know or do anything!

A Book about the Messiah

But Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to an even greater hope. That of a Messiah, a servant of God and a deliverer and saviour for the nations. References are scattered through the book. Even while telling Isaiah that he will destroy Judah and Jerusalem, God rather cryptically adds…

     But as the terebinth and oak
     leave stumps when they are cut down,
     so the holy seed will be the stump in the land. (6:13)

Now he could just be referring to the small remnant left behind from the Exile but as we continue to read, we find references picked up by the New Testament in association with Jesus Christ…

     The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…”
… He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God…” (9:2-7)

     A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse [the line of David]
…The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him…
…with righteousness he will judge…   (Chapter 11)

     The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news… (61:1-3)
quoted by Jesus as referring to himself

 

Then there are the so-called “Servant Songs” (eg 42:1-7, 49:1-7, 50:4-9). It’s not always clear with whether in each case it refers to the prophet, to Israel or to the coming Messiah. What is clear is that the Messiah fulfils the servant role, where Israel failed to be a covenant and witness to the nations. When we arrive at chapters 52-53 it would be hard to apply the words to any other than Jesus Christ, in one of the most moving pieces of poetry found anywhere in the Bible and one that has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I cannot edit it any more than I have…

     Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
          his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
          and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
          and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
     For what they were not told, they will see,
          and what they have not heard, they will understand.

   Who has believed our message
          and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
          and like a root out of dry ground.
   He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
          nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
          a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
   Like one from whom people hide their faces
          he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
          and bore our suffering,
          yet we considered him punished by God, ”
          stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
          he was crushed for our iniquities;
          the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
          and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
          each of us has turned to our own way;
          and the Lord has laid on him
          the iniquity of us all…
He was oppressed and afflicted,
          yet he did not open his mouth;
          he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
          and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
          so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgement he was taken away.
   Yet who of his generation protested?
   For he was cut off from the land of the living;
          for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
          and with the rich in his death,
          though he had done no violence,
          nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
          and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
          he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
          and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
          he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
          by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
          and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, n
          and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
          because he poured out his life unto death,
          and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,
          and made intercession for the transgressors.

A Book about the Future Kingdom

And it is on the strength of the ministry, the life, death and resurrection, of the Messiah that Isaiah can look forward still further, beyond the return from Exile, beyond the first coming of the Messiah to the culmination of God’s Kingdom. Again, there are references throughout the prophecy, but more particularly towards the end of the book…

     See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth. (65:17)

     Before they call I will answer;
          while they are still speaking I will hear.

     The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
          and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
          and dust will be the serpent’s food.
     They will neither harm nor destroy
          on all my holy mountain,”
          says the Lord. (65:24-25)

We will see some of this language picked up in Revelation, when all will be put right and people of every nation will stand before God and acknowledge him. Justice will be done and peace will finally reign. In this life however we do well to heed Isaiah’s exhortation:

Isaiah 55
     “Come, all you who are thirsty,
          come to the waters;
          and you who have no money,
          come, buy and eat!
     Come, buy wine and milk
          without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
          and your labour on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
          and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
          listen, that you may live.
   I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
          my faithful love promised to David…

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
          call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
          and the unrighteous their thoughts.
   Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
          and to our God, for he will freely pardon…

 12 You will go out in joy
          and be led forth in peace;
          the mountains and hills
          will burst into song before you,
          and all the trees of the field
          will clap their hands…