Monday, April 21, 2008

Rejoice Over Me With Singing (Zephaniah 1-3)

Back in the days of my High School youth group, there was a praise song we used to sing called “Zephaniah 3:17”. The chorus (adopted from that passage) implored the Lord to “quiet me with your holy love, and rejoice over me with singing.” It was a cheesy but sweet song, especially when sung with dozens of young people around a campfire with a lone acoustic guitar leading the way – sort of an evangelical Christian “let it be”.

Though I mean no disrespect for campfire praise songs (which have probably done my soul more good than I know), I can’t imagine that this was really the tone the prophet Zephaniah had in mind.

The book of Zephaniah opens with this:
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.

“I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
Here God is bringing back the imagery of the Flood in Genesis. I really can’t get over the horror of that story. Many today dismiss it as a wrathful and unjust picture of God, but this misses the real tragedy – that man has made himself a cancer on creation that it warrants the destruction of the entire project.

Only here God is talking specifically about Judah:
I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests, those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom, those who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.
Zephaniah goes on to talk about the terrible the day of the Lord. The judgment will come on Judah, and upon all the surrounding nations. Egypt, Assyria, Moab, and the land of the Philistines will all be swept away by his fierce anger:
In the fire of his jealousy,
all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
I think this is a perfect example of the pitfalls of reading the Bible with either wooden literalism or dismissive allegorization. Clearly the Babylonian scourge didn’t actually wipe out all the inhabitants of the Earth. Clearly the birds, fish, beasts, and people lived to see another day. But it is every bit as clear that a cheap spiritualization does violence to the text. Like in the Genesis story itself, you miss the point if you see these events in anything less than cosmic terms.

The exile of Israel isn’t just something that feels like the end of the world – it really is the end of the world. Israel is man’s representative and the platform for the world’s redemption. If the light of the world is darkness, then the darkness is great indeed!

It is here, at the end of all things, while peering into the abyss, that we hear the words which inspired the praise song:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes.
Though their evil is such as to render the goodness of creation forfeit, there is no pit so deep that Israel’s God is not deeper still. There are no lengths to which he will not go to save them. Though they see the world crashing down around them for their faithlessness to God, it is God’s faithfulness to man that will be the final word.

However, unlike the sentimentality of the praise song, this salvation isn’t something that can be focused on apart from the terrifying judgment of God. As we saw with some frustration earlier, Josiah’s reforms were not enough to stay his anger. On the contrary: the salvation of God is found in enduring the curse for the joy set before them.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Method to the Madness (Micah 1-7)

The book of Micah begins with the classic prophetic judgment on Israel and Judah. God makes his case against them clear: they have not loved him with their whole heart; they have not loved their neighbors as their selves. But Micah has a distinctly different tone from the two other prophets I have read. While Amos and Hosea show us the Lord’s wrath and fury, Micah shows us his grief.

Of course there is plenty of prophetic anger in the book, but the picture is, more than anything, that of a stern parent in the hour of discipline. He is resolute to punish his people for their sins, and so he must deafen his ears to their cries. Yet, the goal is not destruction but purification. His eyes are always towards the goal – that of Israel’s vocation as the instrument of the salvation of the world.

Here, in one of the most memorable passages in all the prophets, we see a vision of what God intends for man:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
They were meant to be the light for the world, and right now they stumble in darkness. God had shown them what is good – to act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him – but they continually chose the evil. This has been the story from the beginning.

Not entirely though. The prophet remembers the great king David, whose faithfulness brought Israel closer than ever to that central vision. Now he points forward to another David, who will complete this task:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.

And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

And he shall be their peace.
At this moment his decision is to send them into exile. This suffering, however, is that of the birth pains of a woman; it is for a purpose. The Lord is not rejecting them utterly. Though their intentions of their hearts are evil from their youth, he will never again set out to destroy them.

In the concluding chapters, Micah offers up a model prayer which both acknowledges the sin of Israel and the fact that God intends to glorify them in the end:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.

I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication.

He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
The pattern of redemption continues to unfold. Through exile will come restoration. Through punishment will come purification. Through death will come resurrection.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Act of Adultery (Hosea 1-14)

The prophet Hosea has one of the most outrageous callings in all of scripture: marrying a whore. The Lord instructs him to take Gomer as his wife, and to let her adultery be an incarnation of the idolatry of Israel.

What follows is some of the most passionate and anguished oracles in all of scripture.

The book of Hosea is a veritable whirlwind. The Lord doubles over with rage at their continual prostitution with other gods. Hell hath no fury like a lover scorned:
Now I will uncover her lewdness
in the sight of her lovers,
and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.

I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs;
I will tear open their breast,
and there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild beast would rip them open.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
Such murderous fury features throughout the oracles. Yet for each violent rant there is a pensive memory where the Lord recalls his love for Israel. Like a parent of an impossible teenager pausing to remember the sweet moments of childhood, God finds his wrath slowly melting away:
In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed;
he wept and sought his favor.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them up by their arms

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?

My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
The Lord fumes back and forth – one moment declaring that he will destroy them altogether, and the next moment revealing that all this suffering was only an effort to call them back to himself. I really don’t know if there is a god in all of the religions and myths of man that comes even close to the intensity of love that the Lord has for Israel. He aches for mankind so strongly that nothing short of the furious anger and desperate longing of a faithful husband seeing his wife pursue another man will suffice as a prophetic symbol.

This all reminds me of the incident in the book of John where the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. Echoing his own sermon on the mount, where he declared “you have heard it said, but I say,” they ask him:
In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?
Jesus tells them that the one without sin may throw the first stone. It’s a classic exposure of hypocrisy, but I can’t help but think of Hosea and Gomer. For Israel has the Law of Moses, and, far from giving them cause for pride, it only exposes their shame. Their idolatrous and unrighteous hearts should have taught them to identify with the whore, not look down on her. In telling the woman to go and sin no more, Jesus proves himself to be the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. His love for Israel is the love of their God – the love that calls the wayward adulterous home again.

Hosea captures this beautifully:
Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Follow your king, oh Israel. The path lies through the wrath of God and out the other side.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

On This Mountain or in Jerusalem (Amos 1-9)

Having finished the book of Kings, I now turn to Amos, the earliest of the prophetic books. He writes during the reign of Jeroboam II, the king of Israel, who was one of the milder evil kings.

I’m struck almost immediately of the difference in focus between the author of Kings and the prophet Amos. The book of Kings is almost entirely concerned with two things – idolatry and worship at the high places. All kings and eras are judged against this standard, and the exile and judgment is said to be due to these sins.

What a contrast to the message of Amos!

Oh, it’s not like Amos commends idolatry or worship on the high places. Nor am I suggesting that there isn’t a connection implied in the scriptures. But listen to the reasons Amos gives for the roaring fury of the Lord:
because they have threshed Gilead
with threshing sledges of iron.

because they delivered up a whole people to Edom,
and did not remember the covenant of brotherhood.

because he pursued his brother with the sword
and cast off all pity,
and his anger tore perpetually,
and he kept his wrath forever.

because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead,
that they might enlarge their border.

because he burned to lime
the bones of the king of Edom.

because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
The Lord is angry because he wants to see justice done by man, and instead sees the earth filled with violence and the intentions of man’s heart evil continually. The nations stand condemned for their cruelty. The people of God stand condemned for their oppression of the poor.

It is here that we see the effects of each man doing what is right in his own eyes. Here we see the true fruit of the sin of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat. The high places and the altar at Bethel are more than just an arbitrary breach of protocol. It is the difference between worshipping what they do not know, and knowing the Lord. As in Genesis, estrangement from God leads to enmity among brothers. Upon cutting himself off from Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord, Israel quickly falls into injustice and makes his worship an abomination:
I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The oracles of Amos are a whirlwind of anger, threats, grief, pleading, and hope. The Lord is absolutely livid at the wickedness and unfaithfulness of Israel. He promises to grind them into the dust with relentless fury. And yet he longs for it to be otherwise. If only they would turn to him, all would be well. Finally, he points forward to the restoration of David, in whom all Israel will be saved.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Book of Kings

Having been established on the firm foundation of the house of David, the nation of Israel acts out the tragic fall of man in its national history. Having fallen into disobedience, the family of Israel is split into two kingdoms at enmity with each other. The court history of each kingdom (Israel especially) is a bloody mess of coups and horrific purges. Despite the warnings and witness of the great prophets, Israel and Judah fall into idolatry, and are driven by God into exile from the paradise of the land of promise.

Volume One
  1. The Son of David (1-3)
  2. In All of His Splendor (4-10)
  3. Unless the Lord Build the House (11-14)
  4. Salvation is of the Jews (13)
  5. A Dry and Weary Land (15-19)
  6. Folly From God (20-22)
Volume Two
  1. Chariots of Fire (1-7)
  2. Driving Like Jehu (8-13)
  3. The Sum of All Fears (14-17)
  4. Salvation Belongs To Our God (18-20)
  5. The Necessary Suffering (21-25)

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The Necessary Suffering (II Kings 21-25)

The book of Kings concludes with Judah’s worst idolatry, sincerest repentance, and most catastrophic disaster. It begins with Hezekiah’s son Manasseh. Though Hezekiah was characterized as a good king in the mold of David, his son is a different story:
Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.
It is the last straw.

The prophets announce the judgment of the Lord:
Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.
In this final rebellion, the people of Judah are taking upon themselves all the sins of their fathers. Judgment hangs over them. But then, it also seems we’ve seen this all before. When the Lord was ready to destroy all creation, Noah found favor in his sight. When he planned to wipe out Sodom, Abraham pleaded for the city. When he was ready to annihilate Israel in the wilderness, Moses interceded on their behalf. When the angel of the Lord prepared to strike Jerusalem with the plague, David called judgment on his house alone. When the kingdom of Israel was deep in idolatry, Elisha arose and brought rain to a parched land. I cannot help but expect the hero to arrive at the last minute and save the day.

And so he does. King Josiah institutes reforms on a scale the nation had never seen. He destroys all the idols. He abolishes the worship on the high places. He restores the Passover, which apparently had not been practiced since the days of the Judges. He calls an assembly of the people and renews the covenant with the Lord.

The book of Kings writes of Josiah:
Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.
Time and time again the Lord has proven himself slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression. In situations like this, I’ve grown to expect forgiveness and restoration. So it’s with shock that I read this:
Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”
Because of Josiah’s faithfulness, the Lord is willing to stall his great judgment until the king himself has died. But even this faithful king cannot secure forgiveness for Judah. After Josiah’s death the Babylonians finally come crashing down on the poor kingdom like a sledge hammer. An oppressed Judah foolishly tries to gain independence, which provokes them to burn the temple and the city, tear down their walls, kill King Zedekiah’s sons in front of him before stabbing his eyes out, and drag the people into exile in chains.

This ending has always been very troubling to me. I understand that Judah deserves punishment, but why now? Why immediately following Josiah – a king mighty in deed and word before God and all the people? Surely they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Isn’t this ruin and exile exact opposite of what we’ve grown to expect in the face of a righteous man interceding for the people of God?

It’s all very perplexing, and the author of Kings doesn't seem to have a coherent explanation. So let’s turn now to the prophets, and listen to what they have to say.

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