Gleanings from the Bible: Zephaniah

It’s interesting that Zephaniah, who was probably associated with the royal line and appears to have been a man of some social standing, states about the people of the earth, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath.”

“The Day of the LORD” is mentioned frequently in the prophets. A day anticipated by many as an in-breaking of God into history to bring about change and to restore the fortunes of his people. Perhaps it was similar to the prayers and expectations of many Christians today for revival in the church and a restoration of Christendom. With prophets such as Zephaniah however the Day of the LORD would be a day of reckoning for his people. In this case it looks like a universal judgement akin to the Genesis Flood…

“When I destroy all humankind on the face of the earth.” (1:3)

“I will bring such distress on all people.” (1:17)

“…the whole earth will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth.” (1:18) (see also 3:8)  

Of course it is quite likely that the mention of the nations, the “whole world” and all humankind, are references to Zephaniah’s known world, the nations that he specifically mentions: Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, Judah and particularly the “world” power of its day, Assyria. Nevertheless, if we fast-track to the last chapters of Revelation we do see an expectation that the whole world will eventually face the judgement of God at the final Day of the Lord.

As Christians pray for God to do something new, to bring about revival in our own time, we should perhaps be mindful that such renewal comes about through pruning and discipline and the pain of judgement. Revival comes by the way of true repentance.

Zephaniah, in common with other prophets paints a terrible picture of punishment on a world that has rejected Yahweh for worthless idols, greed, injustice and extreme violence, and yet beyond the outpouring of God’s anger is the preservation of the remnant (3:12).

There is always a faithful remnant throughout biblical history, and the scriptures suggest that there always will be. If this is true then we may expect that ultimate truth will not lie with the majority of the world (perhaps not even with the majority of organised nominal Christianity?), but with those who worship God in Spirit and in truth, as revealed through Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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Gleanings from the Bible: Habakkuk

It seems ironic that people often blame God for all the things that go wrong in the world (“Why does God allow so much injustice and suffering?”) and then blame him again when his steps in to exact justice. Perhaps we don’t always recognise God’s judgement in the world and we are too quick to say, “No, that couldn’t be God. He just doesn’t act in that way. My God is all loving and wouldn’t hurt anyone.” We do of course have to be very careful about linking suffering with acts of judgement (see my earlier blog on Job for example). But this is where the prophets come in. They interpret world events theologically, as they affect God’s People. They have revelation from God and speak accordingly.

Nevertheless, in this case, Habakkuk presents the same questions that we might ask. “Why aren’t you listening? Why don’t you save me? Why do you put up with wrongdoing? Why do you allow justice to be perverted?” And God’s answer is that he is sending the Babylonians to sort out the evil that pervades Judah.

This is hardly a satisfactory answer for Habakkuk. “Why would you use them! A ruthless law unto to themselves! How can you associate with them and replace one evil with and even worse one?!” And God’s reply is, in essence, “Have faith.”

See, the enemy is puffed up;
his desires are not upright –
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness. (2:4)

…the nations exhaust themselves for nothing… (2:13)

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (2:14)

In fact Babylon would not escape justice any more than Judah did. God may use Babylon for his ends, to bring justice and punishment from evil, but Babylon would still be held accountable their cruelty and oppression.

We know from history and the book of Daniel (see my earlier blog on Daniel) that Persia would replace Babylon, Greece would conquer Persia, and Rome would conquer the divided Greek Empire, but out of the Roman Era would come a Saviour, who would usher in God’s everlasting Kingdom.

Habakkuk lived in turbulent times but as he worked through the issues he could finish his prophecy with…

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

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: 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.