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!

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: 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.