A contemporary of Haggai, prophesying during the reign of Persian king Darius over Israel, Zechariah ministered after the exile as the national life was being restored. His book falls into two halves. In chapters 1-8 he is urging the people to complete the rebuilding of the Temple, but while Haggai uses logic to persuade the people that it will be good for them if they get on with it and receive God’s blessing once again, Zechariah uses a series of somewhat strange visions to the same end. This is much more right-brain stuff than the cold logic of Haggai, but what shines through it is God’s desire to bless his people.
The nature of the second half of the book is much more like your trad prophetic oracle, predicting the downfall and judgement of Israel’s enemies and the coming of God to be among the people.
The language, certainly of the first half of the book, is apocalyptic, which we first discovered in the book of Daniel. The weird visions, the angelic guides who interpret for him, the number symbolism: all this set this book firmly in the apocalyptic tradition. It is therefore uncertain as to the exact chronology of the fulfilment of these oracles, but has been interpreted as a messianic text. Certainly there is much which could be seen to link to the life of Jesus: the passage about mourning in 12:10ff, the thirty pieces of silver and the potter in 11:12ff, the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the flock in 13:7ff. Those writing up the events of Jesus’ life and death had plenty of language here with which to tell their story.
The key point here is the universal reign of God and his final victory. The foreign nations will either be destroyed or will come to worship the one true God. Whilst the book bristles with interpretational problems, which we simply can’t do justice to here, the message is clear: God will reign, so live in ways which will honour and obey him. But these images of a conquering king are interspersed with the imagery of shepherding a vulnerable flock with care and compassion. As such the book reveals the paradox of our God as a caring pastor and a fearless leader.
It raises the question of which version of God we prefer. Currently the fashion seems to be for a ‘nice’ God who is politically correct, who loves us ‘unconditionally’ (where can you find that in the Bible?), and above all who, like all good postmodern people, is tolerant. In past ages God was much more of a warrior, but that idea is well out of fashion now. Zechariah holds out to us a vision of both, and calls us to hold the two in tension. But one thing is certain: his ultimate victory for those who are his people.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
We may not often shoot messengers nowadays, but we very often want to silence them. ‘The first responsibility of a leader i s to define reality’ according to American businessman Max de Pree, but sometimes communities just don’t want reality defined. They prefer the status quo, however sick it might be. It appears that Amos’ vision of the plumbline is the last straw which causes Amaziah, the priest of the sanctuary at Bethel, to report him to the king and to try to put an end to his prophetic ministry, at least around here.
What is so offensive about a plumbline? The vision begins with God standing next to a wall which has been built correctly, and warning Amos that he is about to test the nation of Israel by the same standard. The implication is that it will found to be out of true. We already know that – every paragraph of the book so far says the same thing, in different ways.
But the big question is this: what do you do with a wall which you discover is out of true? I’m no bricklayer, but my guess is that it’s pretty hard to straighten it out, particularly once the cement has set. I suspect that tweaking bricks is an impossible task. The only possibility is a drastic one: demolish the whole thing and build it again properly. So Amos’ prophecy against Israel isn’t just a warning of judgement: it’s a warning of total destruction. God spells this out: both the sanctuaries for worship and the reigning family of Jeroboam will be spared no longer.
Various tactics are used against Amos, as they continue to be today against any leaders who try to bring unpalatable truths to the powerful stakeholders in the community. They misunderstand him: in v 12 they assume he is merely doing this for a living, failing to see the call of God burning within his guts. They dob on him to the king like schoolkids who have fallen out in v 10, and they try to bully him with the threat of the king’s anger behind them (v 13). And they simply tell him to go away and leave them alone (v 12). I, and others who have been bullied during the course of Christian ministry, will know these tactics only too well.
But Amos has a higher calling than local politics. In the only bit of biography we have in this book, he explains that he was just a working man, but when the call of God to a prophetic ministry hits you, you have no choice but to obey, whatever the cost. When God speaks, you simply can’t disobey, any more than you can fail to be afraid when a lion roars in your ear (3:8).
The other interesting thing about this passage is that it merely the third of three oracles of judgement in this chapter. In the previous two God’s threats of locust and fire are met with intercession by Amos, which causes God to relent and allow more time. But the third time there is neither intercession nor mercy. It appears that it is possible to exhaust the patience of God. How close we are to that in our nation no-one knows, but in the meantime our prophetic calling as God’s people continues to be one of announcement and intercession. ‘Who knows: God may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing’ (Joel 2:18).
It’s an ill wind which blows nobody any good. Imagine, in the middle of world War II, a prophet standing up and announcing God’s judgement on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bad news for the Nazis, but a great relief for France, Poland, the UK and the rest of Europe. That’s what Nahum is doing as he predicts the destruction of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians. The nations who had suffered at the hands of Assyria’s legendary brutality and cruelty would be cheering this prophet, whose name means ‘Consolation’.
All we know about the guy is that he came from Elkosh (1:1), but since we have no idea where Elkosh is that doesn’t help much. It has been identified with what became Capernaum (literally ‘the village of Nahum’) but we just don’t know. We can, however, date this book fairly accurately, since we know that Nineveh was in fact destroyed in 612 BC. We also know that the destruction of Thebes, to which he likens Nineveh’s downfall (3:8-11), took place in 633 BC, so we have a fairly narrow window. His message is one of unremitting judgement on the city, for its violence, described graphically in 3:1-4, and in particular for its attacks on Israel.
What is interesting about this book, though, is the comparison with Jonah, which probably dates from 150 or so years earlier. We saw that Jonah was called to preach to a city even then legendary for its evil, and that when he was obedient to this call (eventually), the city repented and turned to God. Yet within a few generations the Assyrians are up to their old tricks again, and this time there is neither repentance nor, according to Nahum, any chance of it. Whilst Jonah preached God’s mercy, Nahum preaches only destruction.
So this book raises all kinds of questions about God’s judgement and mercy, the permanence or otherwise of repentance, and ultimately the famous ‘Once saved always saved’ controversy in the Christian church. History shows us that in spite of her earlier repentance after Jonah’s ministry Nineveh had again become renowned for her brutality, and that the averted destruction did happen in the end. What we don’t know is whether the people’s earlier repentance was genuine or not, although God seemed to think so at the time. So Nahum’s message reminds us that each generation has to choose afresh whether or not it is going to serve God, and that repentance on behalf of our children is not possible. It also reflects the reality that sometimes people do lose the plot and slide back from an earlier commitment to God. It may also be that the reference to ‘witchcraft’ in 3:4, which is not developed any further by Nahum, points to some spiritual disease in the land which, without healing, simply causes the behaviour to manifest itself again in future generations. We can see this dynamic at work in all sorts of ways, for example in churches which repeat patterns of sinful behaviour keep occurring, although manifested by a new set of people. Deep repentance and healing, of the kind advocated by people like Russ Parker is necessary to break sinful cycles.
Fortunately we live the other side of the cross from Nahum, so there is never, in this life, a point where judgement completely rules out the offer of mercy. We still have the responsibility of making sure that our repentance sticks, but even when it doesn’t we have a God to whom we can return, again and again.
 Notably in his Healing Wounded History (London: SPCK, 2012)
Image: “Adad gate exterior entrance north3” by Fredarch – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Adad_gate_exterior_entrance_north3.JPG. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Micah was an approximate contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Amos and Hosea, in the 8th Century and the lead up to the Babylonian exile. We have already seen how different prophets, facing the same situation, felt very differently about the root cause of the issues God was calling them to address. We saw Hosea complaining about unfaithfulness and lack of love for God, while Amos concentrated more on social injustice. Micah gives us a third take on this period, although his words are more in line with those of Amos. Like all the prophets of this period he warns people about coming judgement, and blames their deliberate and planned oppression of one another. National leaders and false prophets, who say what the people want to hear rather than bringing challenge to them, are equally condemned. Religion is comfortable, big business, and deeply compromised and therefore abusive.
But of his contemporaries Micah is perhaps the prophet most clearly able to see beyond tragedy and punishment to redemption and new hope. He has quite a lot more carrot than stick. He talks about ‘the last days’ (4:1 etc) when the Temple, set on the mountain of the Lord, will become a centre of worship and truth, not just for Israel but for many nations. As people gather to meet with the true God, so his teaching will go out, and warfare and conflict will be replaced with peace and prosperity. The poor will become rich, the sick healthy, the weak and grieving nation will, paradoxically, become mighty warriors.
In chapter 5 this future vision becomes even clearer, as a new ruler for Israel is prophesied, who will come from the insignificant village of Bethlehem. Whether or not this is to be read as a clear prophecy about Jesus the coming Messiah, two things are significant: Bethlehem’s background as the place from which David, Israel’s greatest king, hailed, and the fact that it is the back of beyond as far as prestige and power are concerned. I wonder if we are meant to see a contrast between the current regime of powerful and oppressive religious leaders, based at the ‘cathedral’ of the Jerusalem Temple, and the future leader whose background is insignificant and who will shepherd the people rather than oppressing them.
The last word comes from the other purple passage of this book, 6:6-8, which sets out what the people have to do in order to please God: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. These kinds of behaviour and mindset are worth for more to God than extravagant sacrifices. The universal picture of salvation is reprised in the final paragraphs with a picture of the warlike nations who have oppressed Israel crawling out of their dens to find forgiveness and true faith in God.
Micah’s work delicately balances warning and hope, judgement and restoration, and Israel and the rest of the nations. It warns us of the dangers both of oppressive religious systems, injustice to others, and a belligerent attitude to the world around. God’s salvation is for all, even people ‘not like us’. It encourages us to righteous living and reverent worship.
Image: “A cross in the sky of Bethlehem (8316854980)” by Lux Moundi – A cross in the sky of Bethlehem. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Don’t you just love politicians? If they get something right they take the credit, but if they get it horribly wrong they just blame the previous government from the other side of the House, who, while they were in power, got the country into such a mess that it is taking ages for us to undo it and right all the wrongs of their administration. School children have a slightly less mature version of this: when caught out in some mischief the response can all too easily be ‘He made me do it, Miss!’
The people of Israel, in exile far from home in Babylon, are playing this game too. You can’t blame us, Ezekiel, for getting ourselves into this mess. It was all those previous generations who ignored God and lived evil and idolatrous lives who went off the rails, while we are now paying the price. That’s the meaning of the common proverb of the time about eating sour grapes.
Ezekiel needs to refute this opinion, and its underlying implication that God just isn’t fair. It’s easy to feel like that at times, but for God’s people the starting point must be that if there’s a dispute God must be right and we must be wrong, otherwise he is not God in any normal sense of the word. ‘Will not the judge of all the earth do right?’ asks Abraham in Genesis 18, obviously expecting the answer ‘Yes!’ But God is not just fair, he is merciful too, and again and again in this passage he holds out hope for forgiveness, if only his people will return to him in repentance.
This passage teaches us much about sin, guilt and forgiveness, much which many of us still need to learn. Firstly, that God remains unconvinced by the blame game. Ever since Adam told God that Eve had given him the fruit to eat, and she blamed it on the snake, the human race has tried to wriggle out of a sense of guilt and shame by putting the responsibility for it elsewhere. But this doesn’t wash with God, and never has. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die’, he explains in v 4.We all have individual responsibility for our actions, and we can never put the blame on someone else.
Secondly, it teaches us that we have choices to make, and that we must bear their consequences. Of course this doesn’t work in the short term, or else the Bible wouldn’t contain those agonising passages about why evil people appear to prosper while the innocent suffer. But in the scope of eternity our choices matter, whether they be choices to sin or to repent.
Thirdly, this text speaks, as we have said, of the mercy of God. Against the commonly–held view that God is only there to have fun smiting people at any excuse, Ezekiel affirms that God takes no delight in the death of anyone but, as the liturgy puts is, he would rather they turned from their wickedness and lived. God is neither a spoilsport nor a monster, and genuinely holds us his creatures in love, although never the indulgent kind in which it doesn’t matter what we get up to.
Therefore, the text seems to ask, why on earth don’t we take advantage of that mercy? Why is it so deeply embedded into human nature that we’d rather moan at God and blame others than simply turn round and accept his forgiveness? Why does it seem the hardest thing in the world to put our hands up, admit our wrong, receive forgiveness and restoration? Have you noticed how often on the telly someone who has had something horrible happen to them or their family tells us that they feel ‘bitter’? And how rarely and how notable it is when someone expresses forgiveness to the perpetrators, someone like Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen? Why hang on to sin and bitterness when forgiveness is so much easier and more rewarding. If Christians haven’t learnt that lesson, what hope is there for the rest?
Two words can sum up the thrust of today’s OT passage: grace and mercy. Joseph’s brothers, those who left him half-dead and then sold him into slavery, are worried because now that Dad has died the respect which Joseph has had for him might run out and he might wreak an awful revenge on them from his position of power. So, whether out of fear for their lives or genuine repentance (it’s hard to tell which from the text – maybe it was a mixture of both) they grovel before him asking that he will forgive them. Joseph’s response shows both grace and mercy, but something else besides which we will come to in a minute.
And old children’s song helpfully tells us that
‘Grace is when God gives us/the things we don’t deserve’
‘Mercy is when God does not/give us what we deserve’
Joseph shows both to his brothers, putting away their sins against him, and promising to provide for them into the future. It would be interesting to speculate just what his tears in v 17 were about. Gratitude that they had finally apologised to him? Horror that they should think him capable of such revenge? Maybe, but I wonder also whether his tears were about glimpsing the bigger picture. Showing grace and mercy are human activities, and very good ones too, but behind it all Joseph is able to see the hand of a loving and powerful God.
He has already made the point, in chapter 45, that what they intended as harm for him was used by God to a greater purpose. He repeats the point here, as evidence that to take the path of revenge would be to go counter to God’s larger purposes. I think there is something here for those of us who suffer, and something for those who must forgive.
Let’s begin with forgiveness. I have written elsewhere[i] about an important paper on the nature of forgiveness, so I won’t repeat is here. but I am interested that Joseph does three things. He looks their sin fair and square in the face and calls it what it is – ‘You intended to harm me’ v 20. No excuses: he tells it like it is. Secondly he refuses to take revenge, even though it was well within his power to do so. The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have heard is ‘Handing back to God the right to punish those who have hurt us’. Most of our angst and bitterness comes from the fact that we would like to take revenge ourselves, but most of the time we don’t have the ability to. To give back to God the right to punish sets us free from all that agonised bitterness.
But then Joseph goes one step further: he ‘spoke kindly to them’ v 21. Much of the time this is a step too far. We can forgive people, if we use the definition above, without having to trust them, or even to like them. Much of the time the wisest way is simply to avoid them. But Joseph somehow manages to maintain relationship with those who were so cruel to him.
I think that third step is optional, so don’t beat yourself up if you simply can’t be around those who have hurt you so much. However, the first two are essential.
And once we gain the perspective which comes from having genuinely forgiven, that makes it easier to seek God’s larger purposes. I know how much this hurt, but what did God give me, or build into me through it. what is there, in the harm intended by others, which he has turned to his purposes?
[i] Leach, J God’s Upgrades … My Adventures (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2014) p 168ff.
Coming soon – my new Wednesday blog ‘Through the Bible in Just Over a Year’ – 600 words introducing each book of the Bible, and how we might read it today as Christian disciples.
There is an interesting dynamic of ‘tipping points’ in today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Firstly, chapter 33 forms a kind of pivot point between 1 – 32, which are predominantly about judgement, and 34-48, which have much more to say about restoration. As though to emphasise this great pivot the news comes to Ezekiel in v 21 that ‘The City has fallen!’ We can’t really imagine the significance of this for the exiles, but the destruction of 9/11 doesn’t come close. It is as though we heard that Westminster, Canary Wharf and Canterbury Cathedral had all been blown to bits in a single act of warfare.
So this passage sets before the people the need for repentance, and the role that the prophet has in calling them to it. The image of the ‘watchman’, one which Ezekiel commonly uses, relates to those placed on city walls to give early warning of imminent attack. But the danger here is less about the physical destruction of their home capital, and more about the internal eating away of their society by the cancer of immorality and godlessness.
But there is a smaller, more subtle pivot in the centre of the passage for today. By the time we get to v 10 the people apparently need no further calls to repentance: they are only too well aware of their offences and sins, and the results of them. Ezekiel’s word to them must now be different. No longer is he to give a warning of judgement: now his message is one of hope and restoration, and repentance as the way to it.
This corrects two common caricatures we may have unconsciously slipped into regarding prophets and their God. So often we think of those with prophetic giftings as miserable people who can only speak of gloom and destruction: indeed many modern-day prophets only serve to reinforce this caricature. This in turn can lead us to the belief that God himself is a miserable punisher. One of my bosses used to say that the job of the Holy Spirit is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, and we have something of that here. To presumptuous and self-satisfied sinners God’s word is a harsh one, but to those who realise their own need of repentance he speaks mercy and restoration. This of course can’t help but raise the question ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What would God want to say to me?’ Clearly to speak words of peace to sinners who are completely unrepentant is as useless and counter-productive as calling to repentance those who are already broken-hearted. But so often all we want is to hear God saying to us that everything is just dandy.
There is also an interesting question here about how this passage might relate to evangelism. In the past it was thought to be all about calling sinners to repentance: indeed that is the thrust of most of the preaching recorded in Acts. But now the fashion has changed, and in a society which doesn’t really ‘do’ sin our call is more likely to be about comfort than confrontation. Maybe we need to rethink what the call of God on our generation really is.