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?     

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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.

Gleanings from the Bible: Daniel

Daniel is rather like a “Boys Own” adventure. Lots of action and some weird encounters with dreams and angels.

The Date?

The action occurs during the Babylonian/Persian exile. Daniel was one of the first to be carried off from Judea. Many scholars have accepted that it was written about 160 years before Christ in the intertestamental period as an encouragement to the Jews who were at the time being overrun by Syria. Some of the driving force behind this argument is the disbelief that the book could tell the future in the way that it claims and therefore must have been written after the events. I can see that chapter 11 in particular seems to have more detail than is usual for an Old Testament prophecy but, without going into extensive detail, there are still convincing arguments for the earlier date, and there remain outstanding prophecies, which are still not explained away by a later date.

God’s Kingdom

Either way, the message is the same. God’s Kingdom is not only more powerful than any other kingdom, but it is eternal. And its subjects, who remain faithful, will eventually prevail. It is the message of not just Daniel but the whole Bible and we will see it again in Revelation, where God’s people are exhorted to persevere and receive the crown of life.

The evidence of the power of God’s Kingdom is in Daniel’s ability to explain the king’s dream when no one else could; the deliverance of Daniel’s friends unscathed from the furnace; Nebuchadnezzar reduced to madness because of his pride; Daniel’s survival from the lion’s den and the “writing on the wall” preceding the fall of Babylon. In each case the might of Babylon and Media Persia are seen to bend to the foreknowledge and power of Daniel’s God.

A Future for the Jews in Captivity

As well as the “Court Scenes” there are the interpretations of dreams and visions, which have to do with the future of the Jews, scattered by the Exile. In short they acknowledge Babylon, followed by Media Persia, followed by Greece, followed by Rome, during which time God’s Kingdom is established to go on to fill the earth and put an end to all the other kingdoms. The Roman Empire is not mentioned by name but seems to be an obvious conclusion in the dream of the statue (chapter 2) and the vision of the beasts (chapter 7). The angel’s explanation of the future of the Jews in terms of “weeks” (chapter 9) has led to a plethora of interpretations, one of which, by starting with Artaxerxes’ decree to Nehemiah and working with a 360-day year and accounting for leap years, arrives at a date close to Christ’s crucifixion for the establishment of God’s Kingdom. Whether we are meant to take the numbers quite so literally is open to debate but the fact of Christ establishing the Kingdom seems clear enough.

Tantalising Insights.

There are other interesting morsels in Daniel. For example, when the impressive looking man appears to Daniel by the Tigris, he says this…

“ …your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.  Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”  

This all seems to be going on in the spirit world where nations appear to have angels assigned to them and battles take place, with reference to (and contingent upon?) earthly goings on. This insight into the interaction between the heavens and the earth leaves us wanting to know more and seems to lend weight to the power of prayer. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s observation,

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  (Ephesians 6:12).

The Encouragement of Daniel

Whether you lived under the power of Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome or Syria, or indeed whether you live today under an oppressive regime, which seeks to suppress your Christian faith, the book of Daniel stands as an example of courage, integrity and faith in the face of powerful adverse forces. It says, “Despite your circumstances God is in control. It is he who moulds history and not Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander or Caesar. It is not the USA or Russia or China or North Korea or even powerful multinationals who will determine the future of the world — or your personal circumstances. If you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, who has established God’s Kingdom through his life, death and resurrection, then you too shall rise for your reward at the end of days (12:13)”

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.