Old Testament Lectionary 6th Sept Trinity 14 Isaiah 35:4-7a

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

We begin by noting two somewhat strange things about this passage. The first is that it reads much more like Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) than Isaiah of Jerusalem, in whose section of the whole book is it placed. It seems as though this chapter has become detached, although the bigger context demonstrates well why this might be an appropriate place for it. The second strange thing is why on earth our dear friends the lectionary compilers have whipped an odd three and a half verses out of a chapter which makes perfect sense, and which falls neatly into two halves midway through our passage.

In a bigger context still chapter 35 contrasts dramatically with the preceding chapter, an announcement of God’s judgement. Edom in particular is singled out for punishment, and there are vivid pictures of a thriving land reverting to desert under the Lord’s vengeance. By contrast, therefore, the Israelites in chapter 35 are to experience two events: God himself coming among them (v 1-6a) and the nation’s return from exile as the desert once again becomes fruitful (v 6b-10).

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One key word which links all these thoughts together is the word ‘vengeance’ in v 4. We usually tend to see rescue and vengeance as two equal and opposite things, which show God as nice and nasty respectively. But the Hebrew word naqam is more nuanced than that: it refers to judgement and punishment by a legitimate authority, and so that justice can be restored for those who have been treated badly. Sometimes you can’t have justice and liberation without punishment: Moses as well as Isaiah knew that.

Like many prophecies there is something of a telescope effect here. Just when are we to expect the fulfilment of these words? On an immediate level the text clearly refers to the return from exile in Babylon, and the language of highways and blossoming deserts is unmistakably linked to later passages such as chapter 40. But the healing of v 5-6 sounds more Messianic and even eschatological. Does ‘entering Zion’ in v 10 refer merely to the return to Jerusalem, or does it seek fulfilment much further ahead in the heavenly city? The Bible often uses this multi-staged approach, and seems to remain deliberately vague. Sometimes the small positives in our lives can point to a much bigger and eternal reality, and hope can sustain us and spur us on in our discipleship.

Note also the language of separation implicit in this passage, as it is throughout the Bible, making life very difficult for universalists. The fearful, the weak, the blind, deaf and lame are to the be recipients of God’s favour, while the unclean wicked fools will be excluded. Only the redeemed, those whom God has rescued, will enter Zion. We need to make sure that through Christ our Messiah we are those who will receive the restitution part of God’s naqam, and not the punishment.

Image: By Rennett Stowe from USA (Desert Flowers  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary June 14thrd Trinity 2 Ezekiel 17:22-24

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Last week we considered the need of God not just to tweak his ruptured world but to re-create it from scratch, but in this poem or parable from the prophet Ezekiel we see that in the meantime God is not above a bit of tweaking. This poem is about both the sovereignty of God, but also the continuation of the remnant of Israel after the time of exile which forms the backdrop for this oracle.

As humans we are very happy for God to act in what we would call ‘positive’ ways, but less so when things begin to go pear-shaped. Nowadays we have a Devil to blame for life’s disasters, but the fiercely monotheistic Jews were reluctant to allow anyone or anything apart from Yahweh any spiritual authority. Good and bad both came from the hand of God, and if his ways and purposes are inscrutable, we simply have to have faith that he knows what he is doing. He is perfectly entitled both to plant and prune, to make flourish and to make wither, to plant and to uproot. He is the one who reverses human fortunes by his mighty hand, bringing down rulers from their thrones, but lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty, as Mary was later to sing. If my fortunes suddenly plummet, it might just be that I was a bit too rich, and a bit lacking in humility.

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So Israel in exile had to accept by faith that what had happened to them was all somehow contained within God’s good purposes, just as we have to when life kicks us in the teeth. Believing that God’s will can contain our dark times is not, of course, the same as saying that they are directly his will for us: Christians do believe in evil, and, as we saw last week, in the consequences of sin. But this parable speaks also of God’s purposes beyond suffering. A nation which feels like a tree which has all but lost its life, rather like the Mediterranean cypress which I grew from seed but which doesn’t seem to like the Lincolnshire climate, can be encouraged by the thought that from the smallest cutting God is able to replant, and that in time new growth can result. A key word here, as any gardener will know, is the word ‘tender’ in v 22. The Hebrew rak means soft and pliable, both physically and of heart. It’s no good trying to replant woody stems, usually. Cuttings come from small and pliable sprigs, and it is the sadder but wiser nation which will be restored, just as the tough and rigid one had to be cut down and punished.

But the second motif, which probably guided our compilers to this somewhat obscure little passage, is that of the birds finding shelter, picked up in today’s gospel. It is the universality of bird-life which is striking here (‘birds of every kind’ v 23): in Mark 4 the point is the size of the tree growing from such a tiny seed, but Ezekiel may have a different purpose, reminding Israel once again of her vocation, which goes back to Abraham, to be blessed and to be a blessing. In God’s kingdom there is room for all; among God’s people there is a mission to all. Re-creation will happen, but the more people ready for it, the better.

Image: “Cedar Tree (7853418286)” by Smabs Sputzer from Stockport, UK – Cedar TreeUploaded by Kurpfalzbilder.de. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

Old Testament Lectionary April 19th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14-20

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

This week we have another Easter-tide celebration of the victory of God, this time from around 700 BC, wedged in between the ministries of Isaiah of Jerusalem and Jeremiah. Whilst the book itself tells us that it is set in the reign of king Josiah, and is therefore a dire warning not just of exile but even of the possibility of utter annihilation for Israel, our passage is markedly different in tone, leading scholars to suggest that it might be a later, post-exilic addition to the book, celebrating (as does Deutero-Isaiah) the fact that punishment is over, sentence has been commuted and the people are free.

But there is a subtle change of tone from that of Deutero-Isaiah. Zephaniah does talk about forgiveness and restoration, but he talks much more about the victory of God over oppressive enemies. God, the king of Israel, the mighty warrior, has triumphed, and has rescued his battered and wounded people from all those who would hurt and harm them. The setting of the passage in the Easter season by our lectionaryists (I just made that word up) gives the cross and resurrection a much more Johannine feel. For John the victory comes on the cross, and not on Easter Sunday morning[1]. The cross is not a temporary triumph for human evil, which God has to undo by raising Christ from death (cf the frequent use of the term ‘but God’ by Luke in the Acts speeches). John’s Christ is not a sacrificial victim slain to atone for sins. He is the true king being crowned not after the cross and in spite of it, but on it. His cry ‘It is accomplished!’ says that it is all over, done and finished with.

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Zephaniah’s words of comfort to the exiles have this same kind of ring about them. Their need is less forgiveness and restoration than rescue. God comes not like a shepherd to regather his wandering lambs, but like a warrior to save them from the marauding wolves. The reign of God is less about forgiving sin than about defeating the Enemy behind it.

But Zephaniah takes it even further than this. In the one purple passage from this book, in 3:17, a text well loved by charismatics, God the mighty warrior is seen rejoicing and singing over his people. Considering the number of biblical passages about us singing to God, this comes as a fascinating reversal and a beautiful truth about the feel of our salvation, as opposed to a forensic account of how it works. In a famous passage in his 1990 book The Forgotten Father Tom Smail describes a rather grudging and grumpy acceptance of the returned prodigal son who is allowed back into the family home but only just, and must now carry on all interactions through his brother, as no personal contact is allowed with the father directly. Zephaniah neatly gives the lie to this approach, which I have found is surprisingly common among Christians who kind of know that they are forgiven but somehow can’t seem to manage to believe that God actually likes them in any way. Zephaniah tells us that God delights in us, and some of us need to hear that.

[1] You can hear me teaching on this here

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jeremiah

This far through our odyssey we’re beginning to get a broad overview of OT history. We’ve seen the judges and the monarchy, the decline and fall of Israel and the exile in Babylon, and then Ezra and Nehemiah’s return and rebuilding in Jerusalem. This big picture will be helpful to keep in mind as we explore the remaining prophetic books, each of which will be positioned somewhere in this story.

Jeremiah has the reputation of being the most miserable of the prophets, and it is easy to see why. His ministry crossed the time before and into the exile, and his words fall pretty much into two halves, firstly warning the unrepentant Israelites that it has become too late for repentance: they simply have to accept their punishment at the hands of Babylon and suck it up. Then, as Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off, he turns to speaking to the ruling classes in exile, telling them that God was still in control and would fulfil his purposes through them if they just kept the faith. Meanwhile the peasants who remained in the now devastated Judah were encouraged simply to accept their lot and wait patiently for God’s salvation.

This is familiar stuff – Jeremiah was roughly contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem, and had a similar if much harder message. Isaiah believed that repentance and salvation were still possible, while Jeremiah’s message was that the nation’s apostasy had gone beyond the point of no return. But there are two things which make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the high proportion of biographical material. Most of the prophetic books give at least some detail about the prophet himself, but Jeremiah has given us not just many narrative details of his career, but also some very poignant outpourings of his own emotions as he is ignored, rejected and persecuted. We also feel something of his pain as the city he loves is razed to the ground by foreign invaders, although nowhere near as much as we are going to feel next week. We are reminded that we are reading about a real person, whose calling from God meant that his life was one of almost complete rejection. The promise from God in 29:11 that he had plans to prosper the people, and that he would not harm them, a purple passage owned by Christians down the years, certainly didn’t seem to be fulfilled in Jeremiah’s own life. We are reminded of the cost of Christian ministry, and the fact that in his love for us God is not committed to giving us an easy life if we obey him.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

The other significance of Jeremiah’s prophecy is its strong relevance to today’s culture. He ministered at a time when society was literally crumbling and giving way to a new order. Culture-watchers have defined the late 20th century, with the death of enlightenment modernism and the tectonic shift to postmodernity and beyond as a time which parallels the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the settled lifestyle which had been Israel’s since the days of the judges. We watch with Jeremiah at the end of an era; we feel his pain, confusion and uncertainty, and we hear his reassurances that the unchanging God is still somehow in charge, even if, like his original hearers, we find it all a bit hard to believe. Jeremiah makes good reading for Christians who feel that the world is going to hell in a handcart. He validates our grief but yet holds out to us the offer of hope.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Isaiah Part 2

I said last week that it is generally reckoned to be the case that what we call the book of Isaiah is actually three books by three authors widely separated in time. Isaiah of Jerusalem, who is responsible largely for the first 39 chapters, warned the people about the danger of exile if they didn’t buck their spiritual ideas up, and of course they didn’t, and exile was indeed their lot.

We have already mentioned the exile when we were looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, but may I invite you for a moment to think yourself into the situation of those whose home city had been besieged and ransacked, and who had been carried off, with great violence, to become slaves and prisoners in a foreign land many hundreds of miles away. What must that have felt like? What hardships did they have to endure? And, perhaps worse, what theological agonising did they spend their time in? This certainly felt like punishment from God: Isaiah had been right all along.

But what are we to do about it now? Maybe our God simply wasn’t powerful enough to prevent Nebuchadnezzar from conquering us. Is there any point praying to him now? After all, we’re not in his patch any longer; maybe we should try praying to a god more local to here, Bel, Nebo or one of those the natives worship. And even if we could get through to Yahweh from 500 miles away, is he going to forgive us? Isaiah wasn’t wrong, if we’re really honest. We were a pretty rotten lot to God, after all he’s done for our people in the past. Maybe we’ve crossed the line. So is there any basis for hope? Or have we blown it once and for all with God? Have we broken our covenant relationship in a way which simply can’t be mended?

You can just imagine the agonised debating which took place, and the increasing despair with which they faced nearly 70 years of silence on God’s part.

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Then suddenly, just as all hope must have virtually evaporated away, a new voice was heard in the land. A new prophet had been raised up by God, and his message was as different from that of Isaiah as chalk from cheese. Although we have 15 chapters of his work, actually it is only the first seven words which are really significant. We know nothing about the guy, except that scholars have christened him ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ which you must admit is catchy.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

It is almost impossible to grasp the depth of relief with which people would have received these words, but to them the centuries would have echoed with resonances. From the earliest times the deal, the covenant with God and his chosen people had been expressed in the terms ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people’. You can find that phrase again and again in the OT. And now, in the midst of despair, the prophet was saying to those exiles ‘The deal is still on!’ Comfort my people, says your God. He goes on to explain that Israel’s’ sins have been paid for exactly: the word ‘double’ in 40:2 doesn’t mean twice as much as they really deserved, but double in the sense of people who are exactly alike. The punishment has fitted the crime exactly, no more, no less. The prophet then spends the next 15 chapters answering all their theological questions: of course Yahweh is still God, even in Babylon. God only allowed them to go into exile so that it would stop the degradation of their national life: in fact there is no other god, only him. He is the God of all creation, and these so-called Babylonian deities are nothing more than dead scraps of wood: how dare you think that he’s powerless? And the best news of all is that the people will return, the ruins of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and they will know blessing after their hardships. All the themes of the book are there in the first chapter, but all of it is well worth a read through, particularly by those who feel themselves to have a God who has given up on them.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ezra

Ok, let’s begin with a little quiz to see if you’ve been listening.

Have a glance (you don’t even need to read it all) at Ezra chapters 2, 8 and 10. So which stream of writing does this book belong to? That’s right – it’s those boring Priests again with their lists of funny names and tedious attention to detail. We’re going to find the same in our next book, Nehemiah, in chapters 7, 10 and 12, so that looks like a priestly work too. These two books tell a complimentary story of what happened when the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, and much scholarly dispute has raged about the exact chronology of the two books and the relationship between them, not least as the character of Ezra plays a major part in the book of Nehemiah. But leaving that aside, the two books are basically about rebuilding, Nehemiah, as we’ll see next week, with the city walls of Jerusalem, and Ezra with the worship and right ordering of society.

Ezra was a priest and a teacher of the law, so when King Cyrus, who had conquered Babylon right at the end of 2 Chronicles, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, he was sent along to help them rediscover the Law’s teachings, which had been so long neglected, even before the exile. This necessitated the rebuilding of the Temple, so that the right sacrifices could once again be offered. This work went ahead, and soon the altar was functioning again, although it was not long before subterfuge and opposition from ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin’, almost certainly Samaritans, remnants of the old Northern Kingdom who had become tainted by their syncretistic religion and intermarriage, halted the work. Finally, with royal help from King Darius of Persia, the Temple is completed and rededicated, and the Passover is celebrated. Once the physical building had been completed Ezra is sent to rebuild the spiritual life of the nation, but he soon discovers what he believes is the root cause of a major problem: the people had intermarried with the surrounding nations, a concern, you’ll remember, of the Deuteronomic historians. When you took a foreign wife you almost always took her foreign gods too, so all kinds of practices contrary to Yahweh’s Law had become part and parcel of their lives.

Ezra turns to prayer, and confesses to God the people’s infidelity, and as he does so, using, interestingly, the first person, the people catch his broken heartedness and join in with the confession. Eventually the foreign wives are sent packing, but not before the careful chronicler has written down a list of all the guilty parties.

We can read this book as being about the primacy of worship, about the need for integrity as we worship, and the opposition which will surely come as we seek to live with that integrity. We’re going to see a load more opposition next week, and some pretty dirty tactics, and I am reminded that in a church where political correctness has removed most of the language of spiritual warfare from our liturgy and hymnody, we can easily lose sight of the battle which rages all around us. But then as Keyser Soze said: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’

I personally love the idea that what the community really needed, perhaps more than it needed carpenters and stonemasons, was Bible teachers. In the next book we’re going to see the power of the teaching ministry in action, but I find it interesting that for all their concern about the right ordering of worship the Priests have written up not the story of a superstar worship-leader but a humble scribe. Maybe today’s church could listen to that a bit more.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Chronicles

Our next few books are going to be the same but different. We’ve met the Dueteronomic Historians, who, from the vantage point of the Babylonian exile, were able to reflect on the period of the monarchy and explain what went wrong. I now need to introduce you to a new strand of literature, that coming from what is called the ‘Priestly’ source (P). Generally reckoned to date from the 5th Century, Israel had returned from exile to Jerusalem, and were living under Persian rule. The same period of history is written up, so it will feel a bit as though we are rewinding, but the interests and style of the Priestly writers are completely different from those of the Deuteronomists. Imagine two lectures or sermons, one given by a hellfire preacher passionate about the gospel, and the other by the archive curator of your local museum of history. That’ll give you some idea of the flavour of our next few books. In fact we have met P before, as some of the sections of the first five books (the ‘Pentateuch’) look as though they come from this source. The main concern is the careful documentation of facts and figures, the listing of people involved, and liturgical details of worship. P is not as easy to read, which is why it is often neglected. In fact the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are simply a long list of names, starting with Adam and going right through to Saul and his family. (You are allowed to skip this bit, although if you like funny Hebrew names this is a rich trawling-ground. I particularly like Zelophehad.)

The actual story is picked up in chapter 10 with the death of Saul and the crowning of David, and continues to the preparations for the building of the Temple and David’s death. There are some well-told stories, but there are regular interruptions for more lists, of David’s key soldiers, various people involved in the building of the Temple, priests, musicians and Levites, and so on. In places it feels as though you’ve somehow put down the Bible and picked up the phone book instead.

But in spite of this rather archivy approach, the books contain some deeply spiritual and significant passages. David’s psalm of praise in chapter 16, written to celebrate the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, is a highspot of worship. The exploits of his mighty warriors in chapter 11 make great reading, especially for blokes, and David’s touching call to the people to give generously to the work on the Temple, and his own leading by example, is a great stewardship passage from which to preach. This is not merely a historical record: like everything in the Bible is has a theological point of view. The Priests are keen to exalt the place of worship in the community, to trace its origins back to David, to demonstrate how much care and attention ought to be paid to it, and perhaps therefore to raise awareness among those returned from exile but more intereste in home improvements than the worship of God. A fascinating insight into this period can be found in the writings of Haggai, who found a nation at comfortable ease, living in their panelled houses rather than working  on the Temple of God. This book is a call back to the priority of worship, to the careful attention which must be given to it, and to the reverence with which God is to be treated.