Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Zephaniah

Zephaniah was an approximate contemporary of Jeremiah, prophesying not long before Judah was exiled to Babylon, but in many ways his book has similarities with Amos. it is about the univ3ersal judgement of god, not just on those who are his ‘chosen people’, but on all the nations. The Philistines (2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (2:8-11), Egypt (2:12) and Assyria, who had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2:13-15) are all to get their come-uppance from God as he executes his judgement on people. Some of the nations’ crimes are spelled out: Moab and Ammon have insulted God’s people, always a dangerous thing to do, and Assyria have been presumptuous and complacent. We’re not told what Egypt or Philistia have done, although we know that they have both at different times oppressed God’s people.

But the plot thickens: in 3:6 we are told that God has already wreaked destruction on other nations. He expected that Judah would see this and make the connection with her own sin. Seeing the anger of God expressed on others ought to have led her to repentance herself. But no, and therefore she too will be subject to his judgement. But there is still time: if people can only read the signs of the times, watch what God is doing to other nations, make the links and come in penitence to him there is the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. That ‘perhaps’ motif, which we encountered in Joel 2:14, is present here too.

So the book is, like Amos, a corrective to people who think that because they are God’s chosen people they are immune from punishment and can do exactly what they like. Instead they should gather – this is more corporate than individual – seek God, humility and righteousness. If they do that, perhaps God will spare them when he judges everyone else.

The book ends, though, as so many of the prophetic books do, with a promise of redemption. History tells us that this promise did not prevent exile and punishment, but it did heal it. The language is not of rescue but rather of restoration. Scattered people will be gathered, purified and re-created as a truthful, honest and fearless nation. In the one verse which anyone knows from this book, we have the beautiful picture in 3:17 of God rejoicing and singing with delight over his people. The Mighty Warrior has almost been overcome with delight and compassion.  The shame and contempt which the nation has received, not just from Moab and Ammon but also from many other nations will be removed, to be replaced with honour and praise from all who see them.

It is very tempting to read OT books like these individualistically: Jesus has saved me and so all this stuff applies to me as one of his people. It is good to remember that the Bible thinks ‘corporate’ far more than it thinks ‘individual’. If we read this book against the current world scene, and think national rather than personal, it provides some severe warnings about presumption, oppression and national penitence.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Joel

Hosea and his other chums among the minor prophets are easy to date, but Joel is harder. The main story is about the nation being attacked by a locust plague so devastating that to the prophet it feels as though the apocalypse has started. You can see why, with the sun blocked out across the land, vegetation completely destroyed (and remember that this isn’t just about food now, it’s also about seeds for next year), and relentless armies still coming. What is unclear, though, is whether this was an actual physical plague or one merely seen in a vision or dream. Sadly history tells us nothing which would help us to locate this plague in a particular era, and scholarly opinion as to the dating ranges for several centuries from the 9th to the 2nd.

However, the message of Joel is not dependent on us getting the date exactly right. With prophetic insight he saw this plague of locusts as a picture of the coming judgement of God on an apostate nation, judgement which would be equally severe and all-encompassing. But he not just a messenger of doom: he suggested practical action which could avert the disaster, and he saw beyond it to future hope for a repentant people.

Swarm of Locants

The first two chapters alternate between descriptions of the tragedy and calls to penitence. The first account of the locust-storm describes its effect on the land and its produce, but ends in v 12 with a deeper interpretation: the withered land is also a picture of the withered hearts of the people. Drunkards are called to weep because there will be nothing more form them to drink, but the more serious call to action is aimed at the priests, whose responsibility is twofold: to cry to God in penitential and desperate prayer, and to summon the people to do the same. This is priestly ministry indeed, as they stand between the people and God to intercede for them, but so great is the disaster that the people too must tear open their hearts in shame and fervent prayer.

In chapter 2 there is a further description of the locusts, but now they have taken on a much more sinister and apocalyptic look, as they are painted as a great conquering army, leaving not just devastation but also fire in their wake. What is worse, it is the Lord himself who is leading them in their mission of punishment.

The solution, then, is radical and heartfelt penitence, but in somewhat agnostic fashion the prophet suggests that there might just be hope (v 14). But in 2:18 the Lord indeed responds, and promises not just physical restoration of the land and its crops, but also a spiritual harvest, in the purple passage from this book, which was seen by Peter and the others on the day of Pentecost as a prediction of the coming of the Spirit.

But Joel’s vision is even more far-reaching, and chapter 3 looks to the final judgement of all people, when those who have remained faithful as God’s people will be rewarded with a bountiful land while those who have acted against Israel will be punished and devastated.

Joel’s words are challenging on many levels, but as a priest I find his call to take the lead in intercession and penitence very significant. The problem may be, though, that as a nation on one level we have not been threatened with the level of disaster which the locusts, real or spiritual, brought with them. We shall see next week that our land is in a place much closer to that of Amos’ time, when self-satisfaction rather than fear is the predominant mood. Far be it from me to hope for a national disaster, but there is no doubt that it would certainly focus the mind, and hopefully the prayer too.

Image: By Iwoelbern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 18th Ash Wednesday Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

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

An extra for you this week for the occasion of Ash Wednesday. I’ve chose to comment on the Joel passage as I like it better!

One of my big beefs with the way in which we so often use the OT is about reading it as though the only purpose it had was to prophesy stuff about Jesus, or to provide spiritualised insights for 21st century Christians. This passage reminds us that these words were first addressed to real people, with a real relationship with God, but in a very different time and culture. People with a real and pressing crisis to face. The first rule of hermeneutics, or interpreting Scripture, is that

‘a passage can’t mean anything which the original writers didn’t mean the original readers to understand by it’.

So what was going on back in Joel’s day? We know from the context that the nation had been subject to a massive attack by locusts. If you’ve seen this happening on David Attenborough-type programmes you’ll know the devastation which these little creatures can cause, but what we don’t often realise is that it is much more serious than that. All the crops being stripped doesn’t just mean no food: it also means no seed to plant for next year. This isn’t just a tricky situation for a while: it could literally mean the death of the nation. What are people to do?

File:Australian Plague Locusts.jpg

The prophet knows very well what they should do: they should repent. He clearly sees this devastating plague as a divine punishment, or at the very least a removal of divine protection. So in the strongest terms, this book is a call to deep, heart-rending repentance, at a national level.

Nowadays, of course, we don’t really have big disasters like that, at least not in the developed world. If we did get attacked by locusts we’d probably spray them with something or other and it would all be OK. And the idea that a prophet could get the nation to do anything at all is laughable.

So we do our repentance a bit differently. It’s all about me and God, my bad temper, the fact that I let out a rude word when I hit my finger with a hammer, and those days I missed reading my morning Bible passage. Not earth-shattering sins, but it’s good to have a little clean out once in a while, isn’t it, and Lent seems a good time to do it and to try harder to be nice.

I can’t help but contrast the way we think of Lent with the gut-wrenching desperation of Joel, crying out to God for their very survival. I can’t remember the last time I heard a priest weeping with penitence during public worship, or such a commitment to intercession that it even takes precedence over food and sex. I wonder whether the personalised and individualised observance of Lent which is the stock-in-trade of the C of E is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs while the ship of state that is contemporary Britain is sinking before our very eyes.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Samuel

1 Samuel ends with the death of King Saul, who has lost the plot spiritually: 2 Samuel begins with David, his successor, lamenting over his death before taking the throne, first in Hebron, anointed to rule over the tribe of Judah, and then eventually in the newly-captured city of Jerusalem to reign over the whole nation. There is of course some infighting between Saul’s supporters and David’s, but pretty quickly things settle and David begins what will go down in history as the golden age for Israel. Two key events have great significance for David’s reign. Firstly the Philistines are defeated. For years the nation, which, like Stoke-on-Trent, was an agglomeration of five cities, have been thorn in Israel’s side: we have already seen the trouble they got Samson into, and David’s defeat of their champion Goliath. But from now on they get hardly a mention, as they cease to be much of a problem ever again to Israel.

 As a result of this, secondly, the Ark of the Covenant, that important symbol of God’s presence with the people, which had been captured and carried off by the Philistines, is brought back to its home, which is to become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, it seems almost disappointing that David himself did not build the Temple, but we are told that it was his idea. So his reign becomes symbolic of everything going right at last, with royalty and worship established in the new ‘City of David’.

 

But it isn’t very long before the ‘warts and all’ picture of David begins to emerge. Under the surface we have a king with not enough to do turning lustful eyes towards another woman, leading to intrigue and murder. Meanwhile conflict between various individuals demonstrates something of a leadership vacuum, leading eventually to rival claims to the throne, even from within David’s own family. The book ends with David ready to step down, and the next episode of the history begins with David old and frail, although still sharp enough to make sure that his son Solomon succeeds him.

 

So what we have is 2 Samuel is a portrait of a strong and godly yet flawed leader. The Bible is never a book of pure hagiography, and whitewash is never applied to its characters. Yet what we do see is David’s basic integrity: when confronted with his sin he repents quickly and thoroughly, and right to the end of the book he is still a worshipper at heart, someone who celebrates and depends on his courageous friends and colleagues, someone who has God’s desires for the nation deep in his spirit. That fact that he loses the plot sometimes should only encourage us, because we do that too, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people, or that our attempts to live the Christian life are all in vain. In fact David, hero though he was and remains, struggled with all the things which trouble us: sex, family conflicts, the use of power, personal enemies – all the stuff of daily life. Like David we will not always get it right first time: like David may we always have the grace to deal with what we do wrong, coming quickly to God in penitence and receiving quickly his forgiving and redemptive grace.

OT Lectionary Lent 1 Mar 9th Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Just what is sin?

Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’

We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.

File:Diaphragmatic rupture-cat.jpg

The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.

There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.

There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere[1], is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.


Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)

OT Lectionary Ash Wednesday March 5th Isaiah 581-12

Why ‘ashes’?

On Ash Wednesday in many churches around the world Christians will have ashes placed on their heads as they enter into the season of Lent. But why ashes? What do they symbolise?

It is common knowledge that in the OT ashes (along with sackcloth and sometimes dust) were used when in some way or another the chips were down. The first reference like this is to Tamar in 2 Samuel 19 who, having been raped by Amnon, tears her ornate robes and puts ashes on her head. But even before this Abraham acknowledges his unworthiness to intercede to God in Gen 18. There are several other references throughout the OT: is it possible to tease out the symbolism and understand more clearly what we are saying by what we do on Ash Wednesday?

File:US Navy 080206-N-7869M-057 Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives the sacramental ashes during an Ash Wednesday celebration.jpg

The first reference is to mortality. To put it bluntly, that’s how we’re all going to end up. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ says the minister as ashes are administered, just as God spoke to the fallen Adam and Eve. Don’t get any ideas above your station, because at the end of the day you’re going to end up the same as everybody else. The Christian gospel, of course, tells us that this isn’t actually the last word, but it never does any harm not to think more highly of ourselves then we ought, and to remember that without the breath of God in us we’re nothing at all.

Tied in with this is the motif of poverty. Hannah recognises in her outpouring of praise in 1 Samuel 2 that the ash-heap is the place where the needy find themselves, among the spent residue of life that has no further use or purpose. God alone is able to raise people from the ashes and restore them, as Job was to discover when God did just that, taking him from the ashes where he sat and giving back to him much of what had been taken from him. Isaiah echoes this in chapter 61, where the ashes of poverty and devastation ashes will be replaced by a crown of beauty, just as the oil of joy will replace mourning, our third symbol. Mordecai, for example, in Esther 4, learns of the edict that all the Jews are to be annihilated, and shows his deep distress and sorrow by tearing his clothes and covering himself with sackcloth and ashes, a common motif in times of anguish.

Sometimes the anguish which calls for ashes comes from what others have done, but our fourth symbol is about distress at what we have done ourselves, when ashes become a sign of penitence. It seems strange to us to show that we’re sorry by putting ash on our heads, but maybe there’s a link to the other motifs: we’re desperately upset because of who we are and/or what we’ve done; we recognise that it has made us poor and useless, and it reminds us that try as we might to live a good life we’re only human and in the end death will get the better of us.

So with all this richness of meaning we can understand a bit more clearly why Isaiah has such a down on insincere penitence. ‘Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?’ he asks, ‘for lying on sackcloth and ashes’ whilst continuing in the very sins for which we evidently have not an ounce of sorrow or penitence, and which we only pretend to be upset about (58:5). Real penitence requires all that ashes symbolise, and not just the ashes themselves. If our sin doesn’t get to us that much, there’s not a lot of point in using ashes as an empty ceremony.