Gleanings from the Bible: Zechariah

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

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

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

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

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

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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: 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…