Gleanings from the Bible: Jonah

Of all the lessons we could remember from the book of Jonah, the part which has caught people’s imagination and prompted most discussion is one of least importance.

I have no problem believing that the God who created the universe could prepare a large fish to swallow a man and preserve him intact, but it’s hardly the point of the story. There is far more to Jonah than that.

Jonah was sent to his enemies.

The Assyrians were a terrible threat. They were the superpower of the region that eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took them into exile, scattering them to such an extent that they never really recovered their identity. Those ten tribes were lost. And it is to Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris River, that Jonah is sent to call on its king and inhabitants to repent.

Jonah goes on a cruise

Jonah appears to be heading for Spain, the opposite end of the Mediterranean, a sea cruise instead of a hot, dry, dusty inland slog. This is not simply a case of ignoring God’s command or failing to hear his voice.  It’s open rebellion!

God’s will is irresistible

It’s not that we can’t say “No” to God, it’s just that when we do there are consequences! It seems that God will apply extra pressure on some people to get the job done. The person who is sensitive to God’s promptings can never feel at peace when he or she is not complying. Jonah knows instantly why the storm is threatening their lives. He’s not casting around wondering, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”

The fish is an act of grace

It seems as if Jonah has abandoned himself to his fate when he asks to be thrown overboard. He realises that he can at least save the lives on board the ship and that he cannot escape God’s displeasure. I suppose he expected to die as a punishment.

But God preserves his life, gives him time to reflect and realign his life, and puts him back on land for a second chance.

The point of the story

So Jonah travels to Nineveh, and preaches a message of repentance to his enemies, hoping that the citizens will take no notice and be wiped out by God. Amazingly though, they do repent and God spares them, just as he spared Jonah. And Jonah is furious!

And here is the confession which shows us Jonah’s heart…

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”  What is Jonah saying? “You, God, are merciful, but I am not!” Jonah is not like his God. He is angry enough to want to die! He is more angry over a shade tree dying, leaving him exposed to the sun, than he is about a whole city being destroyed.

God’s statement at the end sums it up…

Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?       

The Application

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is has always been obvious, but rarely acted upon, that the message of God’s Kingdom is for the Gentiles as well as the Israelites. The good news of God’s kingship was meant to be blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), friend and enemy alike. And now the inheritors of the Old Testament Covenantal promises are given the same task of taking the gospel into the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20). To the family member that you haven’t spoken to in ten years, to the neighbour who throws rubbish over your fence, to the Asian family playing foreign music loudly across the road, to the Muslims whose faces you can’t see, to the homeless people occupying the park, to the criminals of every sort in the local gaol, to the extremists in the Gay Community, who tried to put you out of business because you did not approve of their lifestyle.

We may feel angry

but God says,

Should I not have concern?      

Who are we like in this story?     

Gleanings from the Bible: Obadiah

Obadiah addresses Edom, Judah’s neighbours south of the Dead Sea, and warns them that the Day of the LORD is near, a day of judgement. Edom is accused of gloating over Judah’s demise in the face of what was probably the Babylonian conquest and Exile. Confident in their own security Edom would have meted to them what they had meted out. Their deeds would return on their own head!

It’s a classic case of the perpetuation of bad feelings and the results of unforgiveness. It seems to have continued for almost 1500 years, starting with Esau selling his birthright to Jacob, and Jacob deceiving their father, Isaac into blessing him rather than his older brother. Since then, despite the wary meeting of the two many years later, no love was lost between the two peoples descended from them. Even at best it was an icy standoff.

How different it might have been in that family, riddled with deception, if Jacob could have trusted God to give him the inheritance instead of scheming to take it, or if Esau had recognised his own foolishness and truly forgiven Jacob, or if somewhere along the line their leaders could have come together and formed an alliance of peace.

The world is full of conflicts which are the result of centuries old disagreements, perpetuated by alienation and mistrust. And we throw up our hands in despair that they will ever find the peace out of the wars and destruction. Of course it does take forgiveness but it also takes humility, the ability to suffer short-term loss of face to gain long-term reconciliation.

And while we despair over the conflict areas in the world, upon reflection we see ourselves in those situations. When we treat the foreigner as alien, less civilised, less law abiding, something other than us. Or when we do the same with other Christian denominations or dioceses, perpetuating decades old rifts with our anecdotal gossip of how someone treated us so badly all those years ago. When we tar all those people with same damning brush, believing that nothing good can come from their direction.

It is so well known now that grace and forgiveness are powerful agents for peace, not just between people and nations, but also within oneself. And yet we still harbour thoughts of vengeance, like holding on to a bad habit that gradually destroys everyone involved, or like a suicide bomber killing others and himself (but with no resurrection to a beautiful garden flowing with rivers).

Obadiah finishes his short address with, And the kingdom will be the LORD’s.

That’s where it will end. God’s Kingdom will triumph. But the final triumph was achieved through the ultimate loss of face, the ultimate humility, of Christ humbling himself, taking on the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

And so as Paul exhorts us, Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Colossians 2)

 

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: 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: Lamentations

Over my lifetime I have lived in sixteen houses for various periods, ranging from several months to eighteen years. I also hold both UK and Australian passports. Throughout my life I have always had a sense of impermanence, of temporary ownership. Even living now in our own retirement house I am only too aware that again, at some time, we will probably move on. So I personally find it somewhat difficult to put myself in the shoes of those for whom land and place are of paramount significance. For me, my attachment to places has had more to do with the people that I have known and returning to that place after they have gone is like visiting an empty shell, populated only by memories.

Trying to identify with Lamentations is made more difficult by the knowledge that their exile was not the end for Judah. There would be a return to the Land, even if it was only  their children and grandchildren who would make it. Furthermore there is also the assurance, through the prophet Jeremiah, that God is still with them as they seek him in the foreign land. There is ample evidence in the Old Testament that Yahweh is the God in and over all the nations, not just Israel and Judah.

If Jeremiah (as tradition has it) did write Lamentations then, knowing all this, it is remarkable that he has captured the passion and grief of the exiles in such a meticulously constructed poem…

Zion stretches out her hands
but there is no one to comfort her.

Your wound is as deep as the sea.
Who can heal you?

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals
All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.

Then again, Jeremiah may have had more reason to grieve than most. His ministry, his warnings had been rejected. He knew that the Exile could have been avoided, but even down to the very end, when all his other predictions had come to pass, his people had ignored him and tried to flee to Egypt. Now he could only hopelessly stand by as life fell apart for them.

And yet… in the middle of all this loss and emptiness, Jeremiah again holds out the message of hope…

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion:
I will wait for him.”

At the lowest moments in life, when we have failed and brought shame and disaster on ourselves, when the future looks impossibly bleak and when we have lost all that we hold dear. For the refugee, the bereaved, the destitute, the betrayed, the lonely and the outcast, the LORD, Yahweh, is the ever-present, constant anchor in a turbulent world. Say to yourself, “Yahweh is my portion; I will wait for him. His compassions never fail.” And believe it!

Gleanings from the Bible: Jeremiah

Jeremiah is an example of the truth that you can be whatever God wants you to be. Although another reluctant starter, God assures him…

“Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I
command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” (1:7).

Like Moses, it was as if he had little choice. God touched his lips and he was ready to go.

We sometimes forget, as Christians, that we already have a call, encapsulated in the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations…  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20). To receive Christ as Saviour is to receive the anointing of his Spirit, who gives us the words we need. We cannot opt out any more than Jeremiah could!

 …his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in,
indeed, I cannot. (20:9)

Just as Isaiah prophesied judgement, so did Jeremiah, though you get the impression that the latter suffered more for it, even expressing the wish that he’d never been born! (chapter 15). Although God held out the assurance that, if Judah would change her ways and actions, deal justly and not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, shed innocent blood or sacrifice to Baal, they could continue to live in the land, the rulers and people resolutely ignored the message, right up until they went into captivity to Babylon!

When we look at the world today we realise that human nature has not changed and this message is still just as relevant. We may no longer sacrifice to Baal, but instead offer the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people on the altars of materialism, power, fame and fortune. Recently in Australia we sought to help balance our budget by significantly decreasing overseas aid.

As with Isaiah, there is still a strong note of hope. Seventy years was allotted for the Captivity and as always the aim of the judgement was repentance and restoration…

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I  will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. (29:11-14)

Jeremiah put his money where his mouth was and, with disaster looming on Judah, he bought a field in obedience to God and in anticipation of the return.

Until the return (and let’s face it, not many of those who heard Jeremiah speak would see out the Exile) Jeremiah exhorted the people to seek the peace and prosperity of the countries where they would be carried off.

Even today that’s good advice, not only to refugees but also to Christian people who can be so busy criticising governments and their leaders that they forget to pray positively for them. If we want to see change, we must pray as the beginning of our action!

Beyond the return God promises that, a righteous Branch, a King who will rule wisely, would be raised up, to be known as The LORD Our Righteous Saviour (23:5-6).

Also there would be a new covenant where…

I will put my law in their minds
and write it in their hearts. (31:33)

The implication is a transformation whereby people are motivated to live in obedience to God and act in the spirit of the law rather than simply living to the letter and minimum that the law demands. It reminds us that we can achieve little of lasting worth without the Spirit of God within our minds and heart.

It remind me of a prayer from the Anglican Prayer Book…

Almighty God,
who alone can bring order to our unruly wills and affections:
give us grace to love what you command
and desire what you promise,
that, in all the changes and chances of this uncertain world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joy is to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.