Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ezekiel

Hold on to your hats folks – this is where prophecy gets seriously weird. Although Isaiah of Jerusalem wins the prize for the Bible’s first streaker (a prize later taken from him by St Mark) Ezekiel wins every award for strange behaviour. A rough contemporary of Jeremiah, his ministry also spanned the time running up to the exile and continued with the displaced Israelites. His writings look as though they might come from a priest, with a great concentration on God’s holiness and an emphasis on the Temple and its worship, particularly in his final four chapters which set out a vision for the renewed temple. The first 33 chapters warn the people that exile and punishment are inevitable, but then as Ezekiel joins the exiles in slave labour his message becomes one of comfort, hope, and a new vision for the future.

But while Deutero-Isaiah presents his prophecies in beautiful language, Ezekiel is more often to be found acting them out, using symbolic behaviour to communicate with the Israelites. Even his original call is strange: the vision of what has been described as a flying saucer is one of the most famous, and most weird, sections of the book. He is straight into his symbolic ministry: he has to eat the scroll which he sees in a vision, with words of mourning and lament on it, and then he has to enact the siege of Jerusalem using a lump of clay, and iron pan, and a stove fuelled by human poo, whilst lying still for 430 days. Following that he has to give himself a haircut, weigh out his hair into three parts, and do various things with it all round the city. I’m guessing that his public image might have left a little to be desired.

Raphael. Ezekiel's Vision.

Yet his message, whether or not anyone got it, is the same as that of his contemporaries: by their behaviour the people have offended against the holiness of God, and so are due for the most severe of punishments. God has turned against his own people, and his glory, the symbol of his presence among them, is seen departing from the temple. There is a change of gear as chapter 34 begins, in another purple passage in which God decries the false leaders of the nation and promises instead that he himself will be their shepherd. The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is yet another promise of restoration, and the book closes as God’s glory returns in chapter 43, the Temple and its altar are restored, the priesthood rededicated, and the Temple symbolically becomes a place of healing and refreshment for all. The city itself will be renewed, and the new name of it, with which the book ends, is THE LORD IS THERE.

Like much prophecy there is a sort of telescope effect which means that it is difficult to see when the fulfilment came or will come, but clearly, as we discovered from Trito-Isaiah, the restored Jerusalem was not quite the place of perfection predicted. This inevitably leads us to look further into the distance, and to see in Ezekiel’s words something of the time when God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth will have been fulfilled. A weird book indeed, but one of great encouragement and hope.

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 – 2 Chronicles


It is as we move into volume 2 that we can see most clearly the difference in concerns of the Priestly strand as opposed to the Deuteronomists. We said that their version of the history was concerned less with answering the question ‘What went so wrong that we landed up in exile?’ and much more with keeping accurate records for official purposes, and with the correct ordering of the Temple and its worship. So Solomon, the builder of the Temple, gets an undue amount of space, as do the liturgical details of its dedication. His prayers are recorded presumably verbatim, and the roles of the priests and other worship professionals are given great prominence. Solomon’s pre-eminence is further enhanced with accounts of his wealth and splendour, and the visit of the Queen of Sheba who comes to admire it all.

Then the kingdom splits, and as you might expect it is the South, home of the Jerusalem Temple, which gets far more attention. Chronicles doesn’t appear to be all that interested in what is going on north of the border, and even in the accounts of the Southern kings there is a clear bias shown. The books of Kings concentrate on the bad kings and their outrageous apostasy: Chronicles is far more interested in the good ones, the ones who attempt to bring reform and renewal. So Asa, an early reformer, who gets just 15 verses in 1 Kings 15, warrants three whole chapters in 2 Chronicles 14-16. Attention is given to Joash, Josiah and particularly Hezekiah, but of course the inevitable happens: a difference of emphasis can’t bring about a different ending, and Jerusalem falls to Babylon in the final chapter.

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The Priests couldn’t change the ending, but they could see beyond it, with their slightly later dating. In the final 4 verses of the book we get some information which dates from decades afterwards, as Cyrus of Persia comes to power, the Cyrus who is going to allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and begin the rebuilding of the Temple, although that’s next week’s tale. We haven’t quite finished with the Priestly writings yet: they’re going to continue with two further books. But although the ending is inevitably tragic, the Priests are able to see beyond it and find the seeds of new hope.

2 Chronicles is an easier read that volume 1, with a lack of boring lists of names, but to me the value of the Priestly writings, where they tell essentially the same story as the books of Samuel and Kings, lies in the completely different perspective from which they view things. I am challenged, as I think about my life and times, to ask myself about my perspective. Am I more interested in the villains or the heroes? Do I more readily see the disasters or the successes, of myself and others? Is my trajectory a downward rush towards disaster, albeit with a few small but temporary peaks along the way, or is it a story of hope, of reformation, of ultimate victory? Temperamentally am I a Deuteronomist or a Priest? It is easy to see God’s unfolding story from either direction, but as a bit of a misery I find that Chronicles has a hopefulness about it which can at times provides a great tonic for me when I am tempted to see sin more clearly than holiness, and the slide down rather than the climb up.


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.

Old Testament Lectionary December 21st Advent 4 2 Samuel 11:1-16

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

Our passage today is about two houses: the physical house of the Jerusalem Temple, and the dynastic house of David the King. The first is easily dealt with. The fact is that Solomon built it, but you can’t help but get the impression that it is a bit of an embarrassment to the writers that it wasn’t David himself, who in so many ways epitomises the golden age of Israel. So to have David getting the idea to do it but then being told by the prophet that in fact God wants Solomon to carry out the work is a win-win situation.

But more difficult is the royal and dynastic house which God promises to build on David’s line. This passage is full of promises, promises built on recollections of the past. God called and used David, he has been faithfully present throughout his ministry, and he has led the nation down the years. Whilst it obviously wasn’t his will to build a physical house at this point, he did intend to continue David’s royal line for ever: the text is full of promises to that effect. Note that the promises are completely unconditional: elsewhere God’s promises are dependent on the continued faithfulness of the people, and their avoidance of idolatry, but not here. There is one small clause, conveniently filleted out by our lectionary compliers, in v 14, which says that if one of David’s descendants does go off the rails God will punish him at the hands of human oppressors, but that will not invalidate the promises or remove his love and favour from him.

So of course the huge question is simply put: why did God not keep his promises? Why is the ongoing story in 1 and 2 Kings a story of rebellion, depravity, and final abandonment by God to the Babylonian exile? Why are the extravagant and unconditional promises in this chapter not followed up in real life?

It is true to say that God’s favour does to some extent form a buffer between the nation and punishment. Without this favoured relationship one gets the impression that they would have been in exile much sooner, but God is patient and faithful, and withholds punishment as long as he can. But the fact remains that the promises of this chapter don’t seem to be fulfilled as the history of Israel unfolds.

Maybe that’s why this text is set just before Christmas, when the church focusses on the calling of Mary to bear the Christ to a waiting world. Great David’s greater king is soon to appear, and in him the royal line continues, and will continue for ever, although like his ancestor David it will take a while before he is recognised and acknowledged as king, and he will have to face opposition and violence before he is crowned through his victory on the cross.

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The take home from this, I think, is that sometimes the stream of God’s promises flows underground. We can lose sight of it, and it appears to have drizzled away into the soil and come to nothing. But then when we least expect it, it can spring up again as the flow continues. Like that famous but somewhat twee footprints poem, there are sometimes only one set of prints in the sand. The challenge is to keep believing that the river of God’s purposes and promises continues to flow when we can’t actually see it for ourselves.

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In the words of Tim Vine:

“My precious child, I love you and will never leave you, never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I thought it would be fun if we both hopped.”

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Kings

After David’s old age his son Solomon succeeds him as king, although not without some more intrigue as his brother Adonijah makes a claim to the throne. Solomon starts well, building the Temple which David apparently had it in his heart to build, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to its final resting place (at least until Indiana Jones got his hands on it), and asking God for wisdom rather than riches, which meant that he got both. But as is so often the case, the seeds of his own destruction were present right from the start. His reign ended in national disaster, and we can, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, see the beginnings of this malaise early in his reign. There is the matter of his many wives and concubines, which of course flies in the face of the Deuteronomist’s concern for purity and separation. And in 5:13 Solomon conscripts labour to get the Temple built; in 9:15 this is described as ‘forced labour’, and in 11:28 Jeroboam is put in charge of this workforce.

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Jeroboam later meets a prophet who tells him that he is going to reign over 10 tribes, which does not please Solomon, so he flees into exile in Egypt until after Solomon’s death. Solomon’s son, rather confusingly called Rehoboam, takes over the throne, but pretty soon Jeroboam takes the 10 northern tribes and splits the kingdom. There are two issues: Rehoboam decides to continue his father’s policy of conscripted labour, except that he is going to be a lot more vicious with them than Solomon was. Jeroboam is proclaimed king by the disgruntled northerners, and, in order to make the split complete, and to keep his people from going back to Jerusalem to worship, he sets up two rival sanctuaries, at the extreme north and south of the northern kingdom in Bethel and Dan. As far as the Deuteronomist is concerned this is the ultimate sin, offending so deeply as it does again the law of centralisation of worship which we encountered in the book of Deuteronomy. From now on all the successive monarchs are going to be judged on whether or not they perpetuated worship at these rival shrines. It is significant that not only is the location of these shrines wrong: they are also centred around two golden calves. Sound familiar? So God’s requirements about where he is to be worshipped are broken, as is his prohibition of idolatry.


From now on we have two parallel stories with accounts of the reigns of the kings of Judah, in the south centred around Jerusalem, and of Israel, in the north based in Damascus, a troubled place to this day. But for all its apostasy the northern kingdom was not abandoned by God: his prophets were active, and the stories of Elijah and later Elisha show his desire to stand against evil and to call the people back to himself. There is outright confrontation with the evil king Ahab and his even more evil wife Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal, and again as Ahab tries to confiscate a vineyard belonging to Naboth.


Again the twin themes of the Deuteronomist can be seen as controlling factors in the way this history is written up. We can also see the power of bad seed to grow bad crops and bad fruit, and the tragic story reminds us of the need constantly to purify ourselves and our motives, lest something unhealthy and unholy grows from our well-intentioned but unwise motives. But there is even worse to come – don’t miss next week’s thrilling adventure.

OT Lectionary 2nd Feb Candlemas Malachi 3:1-5

As is so often the case, we have to read back a little way in order to understand this passage in its own context. In fact a new section begins in 2:17 with the prophet telling the people that they have worn God out with their complaining. Apparently the idea was gaining currency that because they couldn’t see bad people getting the comeuppance they deserved, God must be approving what they were doing. They looked for a God of justice, a God who would punish evil and reward goodness, but instead all they found was a God who let nasty people get away with it. So we hear again the eternal question ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

When someone says something about us which is just so blatantly untrue and unfair, we can’t help but respond to put them right. That’s exactly what the prophet does in God’s name. He will indeed do something. After an introductory herald, the Lord will appear in his Temple. The word ‘suddenly’ contains a hidden sense of threat, as though God is going to catch out the wicked red-handed, with their smoking guns.


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The picture then changes to two related images: that of a refiner of metal, and a launderer. The idea in both is of getting rid of impurities, either by burning them away or washing them clean. But interestingly it is not the ‘wicked’ who are to be subjected to a good scrubbing or burning, but the Levites, the religious leaders who ought to have known better. In fact their corrupt lifestyle has meant that the sacrifices of the people have not been acceptable to God. But after they have been refined the Levites will be able, as in the past, to offer acceptable sacrifices. So what have they been up to? The list in v 5 seems pretty unbecoming at the least for religious leaders, but of course sounds remarkably up-to-date.

So what are we to make of this passage? It is difficult to see a single fulfilment for it. The lectionary’s use of it for Candlemas, when Jesus is presented in the Temple and meets Anna and Simeon seems only marginally appropriate: although Simeon could prophetically spot the coming judgement, the violence of the Malachi passage seems far from a small helpless baby. The reference to ‘my messenger’ (Hebrew ‘malachi’), along with the message of judgement, suggests much more John the Baptist followed by the cleansing of the Temple (early as in John’s gospel rather than the Synoptics’ Holy Week), although none of the gospels pick up Malachi as an OT reference.

So maybe this passage, rather than being a ‘prophecy’ about John and Jesus, provides us with a warning never to attribute to God characteristics which fly in the face of all we know about him really, and never to allow our standards of behaviour to fall below what would be pleasing to him. This is a call to holy thinking and holy living, and a promise of refinement and cleansing for those who seek it.