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.

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…

Gleanings from the Bible: 2 Samuel

Following the death of Saul at the end of First Samuel, Second Samuel takes up the reign of David. I used to think that David just took over the throne relatively smoothly but as we read the account we realise that the underlying tensions between the tribes supporting Saul (principally his own tribe, Benjamin) and David’s tribe (Judah), prolonged the process considerably and led to bitter civil war.

It reminds me of what can often happen in parishes that have several church centres. Each one has its own identity and its own powerful identities. The minister may bring unity to the groups and they may cooperate as things go well, but there exists an underlying rivalry rooted in property or status or some long-past fallout. When any stressful situation comes to the parish, usually in the form of change, the cracks between the centres become apparent and old rivalries flourish.

Even with the experience and wisdom of David and his reliance on Yahweh to guide him (2:2ff) we read that “war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time” (3:1). It took a weakened house of Saul and the realisation that at least David was dealing honourably towards them (3:36) to bring about a unified kingdom. Later, towards the end of Solomon’s reign and with Rehoboam’s distinct stupidity, tribal divisions would surface again, leading to permanent disruption.

Aber’s (Saul’s general) reality check to Joab (David’s general) continues to be relevant to warring nations, churches and families to this day,

“Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realise that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”  (2:26)

So it is chapter five before David rules all Israel and he mostly does it well. Most notably, he doesn’t rush into action without asking God first (5:19). God is pleased with him and makes a covenant promise that he will always have a successor on the throne, a promise fulfilled in his descendent, Jesus Christ (Christ or Christos, is of course the Greek for the Hebrew, ‘Messiah’ meaning ‘Anointed One’ or ‘King’).

David is commended because he sought God’s will and approval not because he was perfect. He would listen to wise advice but during his life he shed much blood, could be vengeful, made some poor decisions without consulting God and committed adultery and murder. Not a pretty picture!

A superficial reading of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and arrangement for Uriah to be killed in battle, may give the impression that David got off fairly lightly. After all we wouldn’t allow leaders to continue with that record would we? (Well maybe some would. We’ve seen leaders get away with some appalling deeds unchecked, haven’t we?)

As you read on you realise the dire consequences of David’s actions and the serious judgements God brings on him. Yes, he continues as king, but it all seems to go downhill from there. The child dies, Amnon rapes Tamar, Absalom kills Amnon. And David, perhaps diminished by his own sin, seems unable to mete out firm justice, thus enabling revenge and anarchy within his family. Absalom’s conspiracy seems to demoralise David further. This once decisive man of action cannot deal with Shimei throwing stones and dirt at him as he flees Jerusalem (16:5-14) and defers to the decisions of others (18:4). It is his general, Joab, who becomes the de facto leader in this period, calling David to order for neglecting those who fought for him during the coup.

And yet David returns to the throne. He still seeks God and he recognises his failure.

As we seek to learn from history it may be possible for church leaders who have erred to be restored to ministry at a later time, but cheap repentance won’t do. There is always a cost involved.

Let’s not take away from David his noble acts, his faith in God, and his recognition of his own sin. He is a towering figure in Israel’s history and the uniting of the nation. But let us also learn from his failures and not use them as an excuse for our own.

Gleanings from the Bible: Judges

Judges graphically presents the results of succeeding generations turning their backs on God. The repeated cycle includes judgement by invasion from neighbouring nations, Israel crying out to God, God raising up a charismatic leader to unite Israel against the enemy, victory at God’s hand, peace, and then falling away from God again. The period is summed up in 17:6, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as they saw fit.”

What is portrayed here, then, is not just judgement by warfare but the moral degeneracy that comes to a nation without God. There are repeated acts of extreme violence. The acts of Samson (for example) and the land-grab by the Danites (note 18:6 where the priest states that the venture has God’s approval but this is implicitly countered by 18:27ff, which elicits sympathy for a people who had lived in defenceless peace and goes on to state that the Danites immediately set up an idol in their new land). Next follows the taudry tale of the Levite and his concubine with echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah, where no-one comes out looking well. Civil war is the result with great losses on both sides, after which the keeping of a vow is seen by the Israelites as more important than the seizing of the virgins from a neighbouring city state while putting everyone else to the sword.

With this sad account Judges ends with a repeat of 17:6, “Everyone did as they saw fit.”

Judges presents an era crying out for some law and order. At one level it seems to be justifying the appointment of a king. But we know that that was no guarantee of peace and good morality, for many of the future kings led the people astray into all sorts of vile practices. No, Judges clearly shows us what happens when people abandon God and do whatever they want.

A warning for today?

As we look around the world we see many western nations still living off their Christian heritage and values (which is not to claim that they have always been lived out those values well). Today those nations are gradually becoming more secular and increasingly Christianity is being openly ignored, rejected or even vilified. When God’s law is rejected and people cease to seek God, then laws will change to accommodate popular opinion (often governed by those with the loudest voice in the media) and people will generally do as they see fit. In our western world individuality, my choice, self, and ‘what’s-in-it-for-me?’ are the catch-cries of a generation. Yet, as a buffer against decline, there are still many Christians regularly praying to God for their governments, children and grandchildren.

But what happens if the children turn their back on God? Who will pray for their children and grandchildren in the future? I believe that our society has not declined further simply because God, in the background, continues to respond to the prayers of Christian people (Judges 2:10ff). Unfortunately the fact of this decline will not be seen until it is too late and only by people who are able to compare their present to the way things were. (An unfortunate tendency here is for a society generally to be like the old ‘frog in the kettle’ where the heat increases so gradually that the frog doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.)

But cast your eyes beyond the western nations. See where godlessness reigns and law and order has broken down. See what happens when doing what you see fit prevails! Countries live in chaos and corruption as individuals seek what is best for themselves. And even more troubling, who can say they are wrong? Are they not merely following their inbuilt tendency towards the survival of the fittest?

After all, if the Creator is removed and the whole of life has just come about by chance, then there is no meaning to aspire to and the only guide to right and wrong is what generally works to bring about a reasonably happy community. But then again, who cares about the happiness of others (except for the people I like) if I can be strong or deceitful and get my own way?

History is strewn with the bodies of the victims of this philosophy. The book of Judges has sounded out fair warning for future generations, as had the words of Moses and Joshua before. Tragically it would seem that each generation would rather learn from its own experience.

Gleanings from the Bible: Deuteronomy

I am not going to get into a discussion as to whether Deuteronomy is to be ascribed to Moses (with a postscript added about his death) or to those who returned from Exile over four hundred years before Christ, except to note that there are some noteworthy arguments for both positions.

What is of concern is, in that on the brink of the Promised Land with the second reminder of the law, we have the commands of God to execute judgement on the inhabitants of the land – which from our perspective looks a lot like genocide (Deut 9:1-3)!

Let me make some observations about this ‘invasion’.

  1. It is easy for us, those who live in relatively peaceful circumstances with a well- developed justice system and numerous options for dealing with criminals, to judge earlier societies (and even current ones existing in different circumstances from ours) through the lens of our own experience.
  2. I note that the inhabitants of Canaan worshipped gods in ways which are universally abhorrent, notably including the horrific sacrifice of children! (Deut 12:31)
  3. Despite the evils perpetrated through these religions it is also obvious that they had a seductive influence on the Israelites, demonstrated through the era of the Divided Kingdom (see 1 & 2 Kings). Israel, who was supposed to be a good example of God’s good laws to the surrounding nations, allowed the surrounding nations to entirely corrupt her.
  4. Today we recognise the concept of a “Just War,” one feature being a conflict waged in defence of others. We also recognise (though this has proven less easy to justify in practice) that a pre-emptive strike may save more lives in the long run. The commands in Deuteronomy, to kill the inhabitants of Canaan can only be justified if they are from the Creator God who knows all things and is God of all nations. They are not an excuse for power hungry conquerors. Rather they were specific commands, for a specific purpose, at a specific time!
  5. During the conquest of Canaan it is interesting to see that there was still mercy for individuals who put their trust in the God of Israel.
  6. I note then the way in which God’s commands to Israel are circumscribed (this includes all God’s commandments not just those concerning war):-
    1. Israel was not to fail to keep the commands, nor to add to them! (Deut 4:2)
    2. By keeping God’s commands Israel would demonstrate the greatness of God (Deut 4:6-8).
    3. Israel is warned that judgement also awaits her if she steps out from under God’s rule. (Deut 4:25ff)
    4. God’s desire is to see his people prosper. (Deut 5:29)
    5. God’s love for Israel was not because they were numerous but out of faithfulness to the promises given to their forbears. (Deut 7:7-9)
    6. The reason for the invasion:-Deut 9:4-5 NIV  After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
    7. Deuteronomy 20 gives some specific instructions concerning war and should be understood in the light of the other observations made here.

A Few Other Notable Laws

  • The Cancelling of debts and the exhortation to give generously in order to reduce poverty (Deut 15).
  • The freeing of servants and provision for them (Deut 15)
  • The exhortation to follow justice (Deut 16:18-20)
  • The “eye for an eye” law limiting revenge and acting as a deterrent (Deut 19:16-21)

There are, of course, many more laws because “Deuteronomy” is literally the second (account of the) law. Some of the laws I have mentioned before. They presented a code which was head and shoulders above the laws of the city kingdoms Israel would replace and a limitation on the excesses of behaviour that existed generally. But they also presented a challenge, a choice between life and death. To choose life was to keep God’s law and teach it to one’s children, but death and destruction came through neglecting, not just the law but more importantly, God who had instituted it for their survival and prosperity. The history of Israel reveals the outworking of those choices, as does the history of the world!