Day 265: Amos 4-6; Complacency

So today’s reading continues along the theme of yesterday’s reading as Amos continues to talk about the judgment that is coming upon the people of Israel.  Amos really has very feel words of comfort for the Northern Kingdom, who has done evil in the eyes of the Lord since its conception.  Again, this is a nation whose kings were not judged to be good or bad, but were rated on a scale of how bad they were; some being significantly worse than others, but none reaching even a level of being neutral.

Speaking of being neutral, as we continue to read Amos we see that he takes aim on the “neutral” people of Israel today too.  When I use the term neutral, I am referencing those that are “complacent in Zion” as Amos says.  While I know that they terms ‘neutral’ and ‘complacent’ are not entirely synonymous, I think that they tend to get used in this way in our cultural context.  Many of us tend to talk through life being a neutral, one that just tries to balance out the good and the bad so that we don’t end up on one end of the spectrum or the other.  Perhaps we give an extra $10 in the offering plate for the people we cut off on the highway this week.  Maybe we say an extra prayer for the mean thought we had about our spouse early this week.  Whatever it is, what we are trying to do is remain neutral, not swaying to the left or the right.  Rather than going after the sin in our lives or even the brokenness that we see around us, we remain complacent, thinking that the world is a generally good place or is, at the very least, neutral.

This was the kind of lifestyle that Amos was leveling his attack against in chapter six of today’s reading.  In Israel and Judah there were many people that had built for themselves a good life with much wealth and comfort.  They lived as if they didn’t have a care in the world, even if there were poor people living at their gates, and they were prospering off of the backs of others.  As long as they gave their sacrifices from time to time, God will see that they were good and would continue to allow them to do.  I’m sure that every now and then they gave a little bit to the poor too, just for good measure.  Generally though, they saw things as being pretty alright around them, and turned their gaze away from the needs around them.  They were… complacent.

The prophet, however, seeing things through the eyes of God, do not a little sin here and there as being ok.  In fact, every little sin is abhorrent to God.  For the prophet, society was not “generally good” it was a disaster!  People that tried to cover their complacency with false piety were an abomination before God.  Not only did God not want their fraudulent sacrifices, He was going to remove their place of comfort.  They too would experience the true brokenness of the world.

God does not stand for sin and thus no sin is a small sin in the eyes of God.  What God says here, to those who have been blessed with material wealth, is that those who have the power to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the needy and don’t are just as guilty as those who are benefiting from oppressing them.  Sadly, in many cases the complacent and the oppressor are one and the same.

We too can learn from Amos’ words here.  Do we turn a blind eye to the poor?  Do we build comfortable lives for ourselves in gated communities so that we don’t have to see the need around us?  Society is spiraling into sin at an alarming rate, but as long as there is some good that is happening, we’re just generally remaining neutral right?  God says “NO!”  This is not the time for Christians to remain complacent.  The Church has been silent for far too long.  We need to stand up for those in need, lest we too be removed from our place of comfort!



Day 264: Amos 1-3; Intro to Amos

As we move into the prophet Amos, we a meet a prophet that was sent to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  Though Amos was “one of the shepherds of Tekoa,” a city very close to Jerusalem, the Lord sent him into Israel to deliver the message of God to them.  From a chronological standpoint, Amos became a prophet around, but a bit before the prophet Hosea, who was also called and sent to the Northern Kingdom.   Unlike many of the other prophets, there is very little comfort in Amos’ message to the people of Israel; he is pretty much all judgment all the time.  We will see a little section at the end that speaks of restoration, but mostly Amos drives home the point that Judgment is coming, it is coming for specific reasons, and it will all encompassing.

Because today’s reading has a lot to do with the announcement of the Judgment that is to come, something that we have heard many times before, I think it is important once again to talk through the mind of the prophet and look at the specific language that he, and other prophets use in their writing and speaking.  We talked about this on our last day of the book of Ezekiel, but would do well continue to remember this because it is clear that the prophets have a language and a way all their own.  Abraham J. Heschel would say that we have no language in common with the prophets and he wouldn’t be too far from the truth.  Amos, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others speak in sweeping accusations using grandiose language and vivid imagery that is often even questionable for children.  In fact, in many Bible classes for kids of all ages, the prophets tend to be a brushed over group of writings because of their R rated commentary of Israel and Judah.

There is, however, a good reason for this.  Prophets don’t simply use crazy language for attention’s sake, like a CEO in a meetings uses curse words to make a point.  The prophets are speaking from the very mouth of God.  Indeed the prophets hold a very unique office in the Hebrew culture, being those who have one foot in the throne room of God and the other foot in the throne rooms of kings and on the streets of cities.  These prophets are called by God, often times taken up in visions like Daniel and Ezekiel, seeing another side of reality, and going so far touched on the mouth and given words to say like Isaiah and Jeremiah.  They have been called to be a watchman, to bring the Word of the Lord to God’s people and the surrounding nations, but also bring laments of the people before God as well.  He hearing God’s Words, and spending time in God’s presence, they begin to see things as God sees them, with the burning and passionate love that God feels for His people.

So why all of the strong language then?  Why all the judgment?  Why did we spend yet another day reading the announcement of the coming judgments once again?  The answer is, strange as it may seem to us, God’s unrelenting love for His people and creation.  Sin, this corruption of all that God had made good, has caused creation and God’s people to fall and to continue to turn away from Him.  Yet God loves His people and is continually working towards reconciliation and redemption.  Sometimes this means punishing His people though, for the sins they have committed and for their continual denial of Him.

Amos’ words today relate to us a cycle of sinful behavior, continual actions that have cause people to reject God and follow their own will.  The judgment that is coming will break this cycle.  We too, at times, find ourselves in this cycle.  The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans about this:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

God knows that we are stuck in this cycle, unable to help ourselves out of it.  The sin must be punished and the cycle broken for us to escape from it.  For the people of the Old Testament, this was done through sacrifice.  In the death of one there would be life for the other.  For us, the ultimate expression of this is in Jesus Christ.  Paul continues in Romans 8 by saying,

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

As we continue to read the prophets, keep in mind that the people whom God loves so passionately are continuing to turn away from Him.  What’s worse is that they cannot help themselves out of the pit that they have dug for themselves.  Yet God doesn’t leave them there; there is hope and though these people won’t live to see that day, it has come and the Kingdom of God is here.  God has reconciled His people to Himself through Jesus Christ, and in this time, as we wait for that to be completed, we live according to the Spirit who continues to teach and reprove us, sanctifying us each day, that we may become more and more like Jesus.



Day 263: Joel 1-3; The Prophet Joel

From a timeline perspective, the prophet Joel is likely to be one of the earliest, maybe even one of the first of the many prophets that are to come to the people of Israel and Judah.  Joel himself was a prophet to the land of Judah, though not much is really known about where and exactly when his ministry took place.  What is clear from his writing is that he is speaking to a people that are headed down a path of destruction and God is warning them to turn around quickly.  The message of Joel is quite a bit simpler in comparison to most of his prophetic cohort in the Bible.  There are very little details about the exact nature of the judgments that are to come upon Israel and Judah if they continue to sin, but contained within these three chapters is the still timeless message of God’s judgment against sin and His justice and mercy on His people as well.

Joel’s message contained in this book is really short and too the point, but the meaning and the message itself is but a prelude to the many messages that God was going to send to His people.  He begins with a a very vivid image of what the judgment of the Lord looks like.  As an army of locusts comes and devours everything in its path, so too will the judgment of the Lord will consume all sin and wickedness in its path.  Everything will be sadness and mourning on that day, when God’s righteous judgment breaks out against the wickedness of His people.  Again and again Joel uses images to describe both what the people are doing and how they will react when this time comes.

Yet it isn’t all gloom and doom.  Like all the prophets that will come after him, Joel delivers God’s warning and God’s desire for His people to turn from their sins.  He even points them to the way that they need to come to repentance.  The interesting thing about these things, putting on sackcloth and calling a fast is not that they are the right actions that the Lord will accept as appropriate for their sins, but because of the inner anguish and repentance that they show.  When people in those days put on sackcloth, it was because they were truly sad or lamenting something that was going on in their lives.  Fasting also is more about what is going on inside of a person than the physical act of not eating.  In these first messages to His people God is point out that He doesn’t want actions… He doesn’t need sacrifice… God wants a repentant heart!

This is true of us today as well.  Too often we find ourselves thinking that somehow we can earn our way into the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps if I just do these three good things they will make up for the one bad thing that I did the other day.  As we read further in Joel and hear about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the outpouring of the Spirit onto His people, we see that it is not us who impress God, but God who has mercy on us.  The Lord may judge the nations and that judgment may be swift and righteous, but is also full of mercy.  We see this in the very last lines of Joel, and the ESV kind of makes these particular lines confusing if you ask me.  God is saying here that all of His people’s enemies will be laid waist and the blood of the innocent people, those made innocent by the grace of God, will be avenged and they will once again inhabit their land and be holy once again.



Day 262: Hosea 10-14; Judgment and Love

These last few chapters of Hosea seem to go back and forth between Judgment and God’s love for His people.  First we hear about how God loves Israel and doesn’t want to give her up.  Hosea, speaking the Word of the Lord, uses imagery of a loving parent teaching His child to walk.  Yet even after the tender loving care that the Lord gives Israel they still have rejected Him and have gone off and worshiped other gods.  We see here God’s inner struggle, His heartache for His people.  “How can I give Israel up?” He cries.  “I will not let them go back to the Egyptians, to be enslaved and undone once again.”

Then, almost as if there is a sudden mood swing, the Lord indicts Israel and Judah for their wayward actions.  From its very beginning the Lord begins to lay out for them the many reasons that judgment is coming upon them.  They have claimed their riches for themselves, making money with “false balances.”  In their prosperity they have taken the glory for themselves, saying that they had gotten here under their own power.  On top of that, they have not listened to the Words of the Lord and have walked away from Him, following instead the gods of the nations around them.

Back and forth we seem to go as we read through the prophets.  In one breath we hear of judgment for the sins of God’s people and in what seems like the same breath we hear of God’s love and the hope for the future that is coming.  Why does it seem like God is being kind of bipolar here?  I think it comes from the fact that we think about these words in ways that are not very helpful to us here.  We often think of judgment as being a bad thing, punishment for things done wrong.  When I was a child I was grounded or disciplined for the things that I did wrong.  As a child, I saw this discipline as a bad thing because it took away something that I wanted.  I guess its really hard to see love in those moments.  We think of love as being this happy, running through the fields to your mate, kind of thing; Hollywood stuff and whatnot.  Love is that thing that puts butterflies in our stomachs and makes us giggle uncontrollably or something like that.  With these thoughts, Judgement and love do not seem to be compatible at all.

Yet our cultural presuppositions to these words hardly do them justice, especially when these words are reflecting exactly what God is doing.  Like a wayward child, Israel has run off, disobeyed, and done considerable harm to themselves in the process.  What they are doing is not good for them, for the people around them, or for their relationship with God.  Yet, like all parents, God continually loves His children because they are just that, His children.  The truly loving parent does not allow their children to stay muddy after playing in the mud, or even eat a meal with dirty hands, they clean them up and, over time, teach their children how to clean themselves up.  In the same way, the loving parent does not allow their child to continually do bad things, dangerous things, or anything that might harm the child.  Sometimes a simple explanation will suffice in turning the child away from an action, but there are times when a child must be punished in order to teach and protect.  This is not something that is (or should be) done in anger, but something that is done out of a deep love for the child.  Love this deep means that, even if there is a little pain for a while, in the long run they know and understand that the child will be better for it in the long run.  Neither enjoys the process in the moment, but when discipline is done in love, both will be the better and stronger for it in the long run.

Amazingly, this analogy doesn’t even go far enough to truly express the love of God in this instance, which really is directed at the people of Israel but has overtones for the entire universe.  God, in this seeming monologue towards the people of Israel comes to it, as He has done with the other prophets as well, making the point that there is no way that this people will ever be able to save themselves.  And then it comes… did you hear it?  The reference to the coming Messiah:

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?

God knows that His people, nor any person in all of humanity will be able to truly live in the way that He would have them live.  It is simply not possible.  Sin has so completely invaded our lives and our wills that we cannot, no matter how much we learn, how much we desire, or how hard we try, live the perfect life that God calls us to live.  So what then?  God, being the faithful, loving, gracious God that He is, realizes the fullness of the covenant by fulfilling our end for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  No human could or can do what He did, living the life that we could not and dying the death that we deserved so that we can live the life that God so desires of us and receive the grace and forgiveness in its fullness.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15,

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.



Day 261: Hosea 5-9; You Reap What You Sow?

The old saying “you reap what you have sown” is the main message of Hosea’s prophecy in today’s reading.  In so many words, Hosea has rehearsed for the people the entire story of Israel from God’s first calling to Abraham all the way up to the present day… and it wasn’t pretty.  As we read this story and reflect on it, we see that there are really very few times in which the Lord says of Israel, “you followed me well and obeyed my commands.”  Most of the time God is maintaining His relationship with Israel, His side of the covenant while they are still being unfaithful.  That is, however, the nature of the covenant… the nature of any covenant actually, and it is why God’s relationship with His people is covenantal in nature.

There is a difference between a contract and a covenant, a very large difference.  We enter into contracts all of the time.  A contract is an agreement between two parties that describes the actions and expectations of each party to fulfill some sort of a goal.  The contractual obligation depends on the actions of both parties for it to be valid.  If either party breaks the terms of the contract, then it is considered null and void and the other person is free to leave the contract and not have to fulfill his or her obligations.

A covenant is different though.  While there are still two parties, the terms and goals of the covenant are dependent on only one party which is usually the person making that covenant.  For the covenant to remain in place, only the one making it need be faithful.  Of course there are expectations that the other party adhere to the terms of the covenant, but the overall validity of the covenant does not depend on both parties, only the covenant maker.

In Israel’s case, God is the covenant maker.  He is the one who called Abraham and made a covenant with him that “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  Over the years, the covenant took on more meaning and complexity, but ultimately God is still their God no matter what happens or what the people do.  Now, there are stipulations that are placed on the covenant like if the people don’t follow the Law they would be punished, but never would the covenant be nullified.  This is the nature of God’s dealing with His people.  He knows that they will never be able to hold up their end of the bargain, that they are imperfect and could never live up to the standards of holiness that God set before them.  God knows that His people face trials, temptations, and all other manner of worldly things that would draw them away from Himself.  A contract with them would have never worked.  But God, the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, would have no problem covenanting with them; His very nature is that of mercy and grace even in the light of unfaithfulness.

Hosea, like many of the other prophets, has declared that the people of Israel and Judah would face judgment for the sins that they have committed.  This, as we have said many times, is something that is set up in the Law as the result for what the people have done.  As Hosea points out in such a vivid metaphor, “you sowed the wind, now you will reap a whirlwind.”  And so they did.  In fact, the Northern Kingdom would never again be itself.  The “Samaritans” that live there are considered to be a sort of ‘half-breed’ Hebrew in Jesus’ day.  But even in their punishment, God never says “I am no longer your God” for that would be against the covenant and completely against the character of God.  Even when the people do not follow Him, God is still God and He is still their God as well.



Day 260: Hosea 1-4; Hosea, Prophet to Israel

Today we take a chronological step backwards in time to before the time of Isaiah, the exile, and even the judgment of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  Here we encounter the prophet Hosea, one of the few prophets that we read about as being sent to the kingdom of the north to deliver God’s call to repentance.  If you remember back with me a ways, you’ll remember that Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722 B.C. after a long line of unfaithful, idolatrous and wicked kings.  As a matter of fact, if you remember the books of the Kings, there wasn’t a single good king in the whole existence of the Northern Kingdom, also known as Samaria and Ephraim.  There was only one king that would have been considered “less bad” than the others, but when you have to measure kings on a scale of less bad vs. more bad, you know that its a very bad situation.  For more information on the kings of Israel and its destruction, check out the “Destruction and Exile of Israel.

Hosea the prophet, Russian icon from first qua...

Hosea the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hosea has a somewhat unique story at the beginning of the book that has to do with his wife and the names of his kids.  God calls Hosea to take a wife from among the prostitutes, an act that would have been… frowned upon in those days to say the least.  Yet Hosea obeys God marries Gomer and ends up having three children with her.  Each of these children are named symbolically for reasons which the Lord spells out to Hosea.  Yet it seems that Gomer, despite her marriage is continually unfaithful to Hosea.  By the Law, this is a sin and a crime that is punishable by divorce at the least and death at the worst.  However, the Lord commands Hosea to go and love his wife despite her adultery, to redeem her and take her home once again and Hosea obeys the Lord.

On the whole, this seems like a very odd story for a prophet, but if we take some time to think about what the prophets were and how they functioned, it may start to make sense.  Ezekiel was commanded to lay on his side for a certain amount of time to represent the length of the judgment for Israel and Judah.  Here Hosea’s actions are also representing things that are going on in the life of Israel.  We have heard the language used here before as well, the people of God are often referred to as His bride and their actions against God are always considered synonymous with prostitution.  The people that God called to Himself to be His people were constantly unfaithful to Him, running off after other gods.  Yet like Hosea and Gomer, God does not simply allow His beloved to run away.  He does not leave her to her prostitution, to her whoring, but He goes to her and brings her back to Himself.  He cleans her up, washing the filth from her body and makes her clean once again.  No more will she wallow in her own filth, desolate and alone.  The language of Hosea 2 is beautiful, God speaking about how He is going to allure her back and speak tenderly to her.

Does it remind you, perhaps, of your own experiences with God?  He never leaves you in the pit of despair, nor will he allow you to wallow in your own sin.  Always calling, always speaking tenderly, bringing you back into His arms and redeeming you.  This is the story of Israel, but it is the story of our lives as well!  God is relentless in pursuing us and will never let us go.



Day 259: Daniel 10-12; Daniel's Visions of the Future (Part 2)

Today’s reading continues the visions that Daniel has regarding the future and times to come.  As we get to chapter 10, we are nearing the end of Daniel’s life.  By some estimates he would be about 80 years old by now which may have been the reason that he was still in Babylonia rather than returning with the exiles to Judah.  In any case, while he is still in Babylonia he has yet another vision, one that is again very similar in nature to that of John’s revelation that is recorded for us.  What we are reading about, as the messenger explains to Daniel after the vision, is the future that Israel was to experience in an empire that continuously changed hands and passed from leader to leader over the next several hundred years.  The messenger describes the rise of Medo-Persia, Greece and then its divided kingdom, and finally of Rome.  This happens over the course of about 500 years and, like the visions in chapters 7-9 that we read yesterday, is a kind of expansion on the dream of the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had.

While we certainly don’t have time to go through all the events that happen in this time period, and I certainly don’t really want to bore you with an unnecessary history lesson, I think that there are some events that happen here that are important as they are the fulfillment of different parts of Daniel’s dream.  So, at the risk of seeming lazy, I’m going to link some events and names that are important to this time in history.  The links will be to wikipedia sites so you can take it for what its worth.

Babylonia
Medo-Persia
Greek (Macedonia) Empire
Roman Empire

Darius
Cyrus the Great
Alexander the Great

Diadoche (Division of the Empire of Greece into the 4 Kingdoms)

Antichus III
Ptolemy V
Seleucus IV
Antiochus IV Epiphanes (probably one of the most interesting and pivotal people of the inter-testamental period of 2nd Temple Judaism.  Led to the Maccabean revolt)

Like chapters 7-9, the last chapters of Daniel have been subject to a great deal scrutiny and study and have been cited in a number of different doctrines regarding the true meaning of Daniel’s visions and the end of time.  We need to remember that Scripture is not to be read as if it was some sort of a code that is to be broken.  The Word of God is not meant to be difficult to understand, as if God was revealing Himself through the Scriptures in a way that is difficult to figure out.  That statement itself is a contradiction.  The word “revelation” literally means to reveal in a way that is understandable, and that is what Scripture is… the Revelation of God to humanity.  We need to remember this as we read through Scripture… This doesn’t change just because we are reading the prophets and their obscure visions.  Even here, God is revealing Himself to His people.  They will be going through a great deal of change and upheaval even while they are back in their homeland, but we see here that God is in control of even this.  While it might seem like the world is going crazy around them, God is still at work in these trials.

Perhaps we can learn something from this too.  While we would probably like to hear that there are hidden meanings that we can spend years and years trying to unpack, I think the words of comfort and truth that are contained here are much more important.  We live in a world today that is volatile and corrupt.  It seems like every day some new war, uprising, bombing, killing, or accident has taken the headlines by storm.  If its not that, we end up hearing about corruption in government and business, poverty, disease, and injustice everywhere.  Yet even in this God is in control and is at work.  The governing nation of the world turned over four or five times in about 600 years, yet through it all God was at work to bring about redemption.  He is still at work, even now in the turmoil of this world, to bring about the ultimate redemption at the end of time, when evil will be defeated and the Lord will set up His throne on earth and all things will be made new and right.



Day 258: Daniel 7-9; Daniel's Visions of the Future (Part 1)

Chronologically speaking, this first of the visions of Daniel at the end of his book happens before the incident of the writing on the wall in chapter 5.  The reason that this makes a difference is that we are moving backwards in time to before the Medes and the Persians would have taken over the Babylonian empire, which happened at the end of chapter 5.  As we begin reading chapter 7, we enter into the final part of the book of Daniel in which he writes down his dreams and visions that he has later in his life.   Daniel’s dreams are often seen as bizarre and probably even strike us as strange and incomprehensible.  Some of the things that he is seeing are things that we would wake up from and be thinking about all day because we just didn’t understand the strange images in our head.  In fact, Daniel too didn’t understand all of the things that he saw, and he is often perplexed and troubled over his visions.

Fortunately, in many of these visions, God Himself provides an explanation for Daniel.  Some are similar to the Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue, but more specific in what kingdoms and rulers would come when.  Other dreams, however, seem to be focused on a more distant time, later in history when the “Ancient of Days” appears and judges all the kingdoms of the world and all its people.  Visions such as this are very similar to what we see in the book of revelation with its beautiful and sometimes even scary imagery of the times that are to come.

There are some Christian denominations that have taken these visions of Daniel and combined them with bits and pieces of other parts of the Bible to try to draw together theories and even theologies of what the end times will look like for us on earth.  Some have even placed names and meaning on some of the different images in Daniel’s visions as being specific countries, rulers, and even events in our contemporary context.  In these theologies, much of what Daniel sees is considered to be taken as literal, something that doesn’t seem to be possible all the way through and therefore doesn’t work on a consistent basis.  Its difficult to say, when interpreting the Bible, that some of it is literal and some of it isn’t… however I don’t think that the argument of a literal or symbolic reading of the Bible is Daniel’s point here at all.  Daniel is faithful recording what the Lord is showing him about the future events and telling it to the people of Israel who are lost in exile and displaced and alone in a foreign land.  The message that Daniel has for them?  Hope.

All of Daniel’s visions are centered around the “Ancient of Days” and what he does.  God shows Daniel and others what is to come in the near future.  Earthly kingdoms will change hands; new people will come to power.  In fact, there will be lots of turmoil that goes on from a political standpoint and it appears that the people of Israel will be caught in the middle of it.  I’m sure they weren’t to thrilled to hear this.  However, God shows up in each of these visions as one that is much more powerful than the kingdoms and rulers of men.  In fact, God sits as both the author and the judge of everything that is to come and, though the people of God may suffer for a while and have to deal with difficult life on earth, ultimately everything is under His control and He will bring all things to the resolution He has in mind: Restoration.



Day 257: Daniel 5-6; The Writing on the Wall

While I’m not entirely sure if it is from this particular Biblical narrative that the saying “see the writing on the wall” comes from, the meaning of that particular idiom is fairly similar to that which God was communicating to king Belshazzar on that particular evening.  What strikes me as interesting in this story is that the son did not learn at all from the father.  In these last two days we have seen four instances where king Nebuchadnezzar was humbled before God; when the God of the Hebrew captives proved to be stronger than the king of the world at that time.  Yet Belshazzar comes to power and makes the same mistakes as that of his father with much more dire consequences.  Yet this isn’t something that we haven’t seen before is it?  And I think therein lies one of the themes of today’s narratives.

Belshazzar's Feast depicts a vision described ...

Belshazzar’s Feast depicts a vision described in the biblical Book of Daniel. –31&src= Daniel 5:1–31 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we get to that though, there are two stories here about what it means to follow God and the consequences, whether good or bad, that come from our actions.  King Belshazzar inherits the grandest of all kingdoms, likely from his father, and rules for a time.  During this time it is clear by what we read here that he is certainly not a Godly king, nor does he do anything to follow the God of the Hebrews.  In fact, in this party that he throws, he orders that they take out the items from the Temple of God that they can use them for the feast, ultimately desecrating them more than they already are.  It is at this time that the “hand of God” appears and the news is given that his kingdom is about to fall and he is about to die.

Daniel's Answer to the King

Daniel’s Answer to the King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In sharp contrast to this, we are once again given the example that Daniel sets in chapter 6, refusing to pray to anyone but God.  Even when this trap is set for him, one of the most honored and trusted of King Darius‘ advisers, he does not yield and is punished by human standards.  Yet here God clearly knows the heart of Daniel and Daniel trusts that his faith and faithfulness to God will be seen and honored, whether in this life or the next.  You can almost hear the words of Paul here, “to live is Christ and to die is gain…”  Ultimately Daniel’s faithful actions lead to his being saved from the human punishment that they tried to inflict upon him.

That brings up back to Belshazzar.  He placed his trust in his own power, the might and glory of his earthly kingdom.  He did not realize that it was all given to him by God.  Yet on the night when he celebrates all of his earthly power, God shows up and writes the words:

MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN

God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

Your Kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

While I’m sure Belshazzar did everything he could on earth to keep his kingdom and his power, there is no amount of earthly power that can overcome that of Heaven.  The same power that saves the faithful also punishes the wicked for there is no earthly power that can overcome God.

This brings us back to the kings actions with the knowledge of his father’s humility.  There is no doubt that Belshazzar knew of the things that happened during the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar.  Indeed, those stories I’m sure were fresh in his mind on the night his kingdom was lost.  It is a shame that he didn’t learn the lessons of the people of Israel.  For hundreds of years their kings had done the same thing, not learning from the lessons of their fathers and now they were exiles, removed from their land, their kingdom taken from them.  Soon Babylon, or at least the Babylonian kings would share their same status: Exile.  It is the Lord who sets up and removes the kingdoms of the earth.  There is no power except that which is established from heaven.  I think the governments of today, caught up in their squabbling and power grabbing, need to remember the true source of their power, the only one that has allowed them to be where they are.  Its too bad that Truth isn’t as clear as the writing on the wall.



Day 256: Daniel 3-4; The Fiery Furnace and The Tree Dream

Today’s reading continues in the narrative of the prophet Daniel.  On the whole, Daniel is just as much narrative in genre as it is prophetic.  But, let Ezekiel’s strange actions that were meant to be symbolic of what was going to happen to Israel, the actions of Daniel and his three friends are also telling of the way that the people of Israel should live before God, even in exile.  I think this is seen more prominently in what is one of the most popular Bible stories, especially in the prophets: The Fiery Furnace.

When faced with the challenge to commit idolatry and engage in the very thing that had brought the people of Israel into exile in the first place, or risk their lives by worshiping only the one true God, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stayed true to their faith.  There was no question in their mind about their loyalty to the God of Heaven.  Even when they were bound by the military and set face to face with their impending destruction, they unwavering denied their last chance to save themselves.

Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego and the Fiery Furnace Photo Credit: www.aeroventure.com

Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego and the Fiery Furnace
Photo Credit: www.aeroventure.com

Fire is often used in the Scriptures as a symbolic reference as that which cleanses and purifies.  When refining metals, fire is that which consumes all of the impurities, or “dross” as the forth verse of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” so eloquently states.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

While talk about symbolism often brings with it questions of the truth of the passage, I think that the truth that is communicated in this narrative is much greater than whether or not these events actually happened.  My point here really doesn’t center around the veracity or the factual nature of the events of this narrative, but about the truth that the communicate.  These three people chose specifically to obey the law of God, not turning from it or bowing to any other gods or images and because of that, when they passed through the fire, they were not consumed because they remained pure and steadfast in their faith.  What I am not saying here is that they were perfect, because like all humans, they were not.  However, what I am saying is that they remained faithful to God even to the point of death and in that, God protected them from that which threatened their lives.  This is indeed the example given to the people of Israel and to believers everywhere, we must not forsake God but rather submit ourselves to Him fully and completely.

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream Tree Photo Credit: www.deviantart.com

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream Tree
Photo Credit: www.deviantart.com

The second dream of Nebuchadnezzar is also a part of today’s reading.  The dream of a tree is not quite a well known, but the interpretation that Daniel gives the king shows once again the strength of God and His power over that of the nations of the world.  A tree is a symbol of a great man which is, in this case, the king himself.  We see this in other places in the Bible as well.  The one that comes to mind for me is that of Psalm 1, where they blessed man is “like a tree planted by streams of water.”  In contrast, ordinary people are like grass, the masses of the world which blow to and fro in the wind.  An even greater contrast is to the wicked which are blown away by the wind.  However this great tree cannot stand before the Lord and is cut down (although not destroyed).  In some ways this could be seen as the people of Israel as well, a great tree that has been chopped down, yet from the stump a new tree will be born.

In light of the dream and its interpretation, Nebuchadnezzar does not do anything to change.  To that end, we see the dream fulfilled in its entirety a year later.  Then and only then does the king humble himself before God.  These two narratives are set up next to each other perhaps as a contrast to what happens when one faithfully follows God and what happens to those who choose to ignore Him.



Day 255: Daniel 1-2; Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar's Dream

The life of the prophet Daniel took place concurrently with that of Ezekiel and Jeremiah.  Both Daniel and Ezekiel would have been taken with the first wave of captives that were taken around 605 B.C.  With Ezekiel being a priest and Daniel being of noble blood, it is possible that they would have even known each other.  However, unlike the other prophets that we have read so far, Daniel does not include messages of judgment against the people of Israel or the surrounding nations.  In fact, Daniel is more of an example of what it meant to live faithfully for God while in exile.  While others that had been taken captive willfully defiled themselves before God by eating food that was sacrificed to idols, Daniel and his three friends remained true to their faith and to God, and for this God blessed them.

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream of the Statue Photo Credit: http://pastorjeffdickson.blogspot.com

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of the Statue
Photo Credit: www.pastorjeffdickson.blogspot.com

As a book, Daniel also provides key prophesies about the future.  In many ways, when many people think about prophesy, they think about some of the obscure prophesies of the future that we will read in the latter part of this book.  Many of these have to do with the immediate and somewhat distant future of the region, about the change of power between nations, and the coming of the Messiah.  Sadly, there are many people that think that Daniel is actually a book to be decoded and that in some way it will give us clues and hints to the second coming of Christ and things like the Rapture and Tribulation.  While again, I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar, in studying a lot of these interpretations, their failing lies in the fact that they do not consider the whole unity of Scripture and take single verses out of context to prove their own theories.  Like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all these writings must be considered within their greater context, historical, cultural, and Biblical, so that we can have a better picture of what God is trying to tell us through the writings of Daniel.

Fortunately for us, there are some things that come up in Daniel that are actually given interpretations on the spot.  For these, it is important for us to listen to what God reveals through Daniel so that we do not ourselves misinterpret them.  These interpretations also give us insight into other visions and dreams that come about later in the book.  The first of these dreams that we encounter is that of Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon.  For people in this day and age, dreams were a great deal more significant than they are for us.  Many considered dreams to be messages from the gods, which explains why a king would surround himself with advisers, wise men, and even magicians, to help interpret signs and dreams.  After having his dream he presents his “wise guys” with an impossible request; impossible that is for any human and the man made gods they worshiped.  However, to the God that knows all and sees all is able to reveal this to Daniel without any problem.

Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the statue Photo Credit: www.andrew.sterling.hanenkamp.com

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue
Photo Credit: www.andrew.sterling.hanenkamp.com

What Daniel reveals is that the dream Nebuchadnezzar has is about the future and about the his kingdom and those to follow.  Each of the kingdoms, it seems, decrease in splendor while increasing in strength.  Gold is one of the more malleable of metals, Iron the least.  Gold is one of the most precious metals, Iron the least.  While Daniel doesn’t give us too much of an interpretation of what nations the metals stand for, modern interpretations indicate:

  • Gold stood for the Babylonian Empire spanning 606 B.C. to 539 B.C.
  • Silver stood for the Medo-Persian Empire spanning 539 B.C. to 331 B.C.
  • Bronze stood for the Grecian Empire spanning 331 B.C. to 146 B.C.
  • Iron stood for the Roman Empire spanning 146 B.C. to 476 B.C.

Most of the disagreement comes from the meaning of the “Iron mixed with clay” that the feet of the statue were made out of.  Some would say, with good reasoning, that this stand for the “revived” Roman Empire which was actually the latter part of the Roman Empire which was divided into smaller provinces and eventually fell to the influence of multiple other nations.  Other interpretations state that the feet represent the “10 nations” of Europe that existed after the Roman empire.  Still others think it represents the current days that we are in and that somehow things like the United Nations is a clear fulfillment of this prophecy.  While I don’t think that you could say with any confidence that the U.N. is a “clear fulfillment,” I can say with marked assured that the point of the dream is not the statue at all… it is the Rock.

The Rock that is not formed by human hands comes in and smashes the statue to oblivion and then is set up on earth like a massive mountain.  The interpretation of the Rock is also very clear: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold.”  Daniel speaks here of the Kingdom of God, not a kingdom set up by humans, but one that God Himself will establish here on earth.  God has revealed to Nebuchadnezzar and to all people the ultimate plan for this world and it does not involve human kingdoms, but heavenly ones.  The Lord, the only King and Head of this World, will set up His Kingdom here on earth, a process that began with the first coming of Jesus and will be completed when He comes again in His glory.



Day 254: Ezekiel 46-48; The River of God

Like the postings from the last 5 or so days, today’s reading is about the restoration of the world.  As we were talking yesterday, we started to touch on the restoration of the land and the life.  If you remember, to the judgments and to the Levitical laws that were given to the people of Israel to follow, when the judgment of God happened, the people would be removed from the land.  This we saw in the exile of the people of Israel.  What we also remember is that the land would be laid bare and be given its Sabbath as well.  The reason for this actually has greater implications than just a discussion about the land, it has to do with the greater effects of disobedience on the world.

Remember with me that the worldview of the Hebrew people was quite a bit different than that of our contemporary culture.  Where we see a huge dichotomy between the secular and the divine, they saw everything as being wholly and inescapably linked together.  This means that every action that took, whether for the good or for the bad, had repercussions beyond themselves and their “personal relationship with God.”  When the a person sinned, their relationships with everything and everyone around them were interrupted.  Indeed they needed to make recompense for this sin to make things right, that recompense being a sacrifice and the spilling of blood.  So, when a people like the nation of Israel sinned collectively, their relationship with the world suffered as a whole.  As the moral fabric of society went down hill so did the health of the land in which they live.

The Prophets Abraham J. Heschel

The Prophets
Abraham J. Heschel

In many ways, this is only intensified by the words of the prophets.  I’ve been fortunate to start a class that is studying specifically the prophets.  We are reading a book by Abraham J. Heschel, a Hassidic Jewish Rabbi from the 20th century whose book on the prophets has already enlightened my view, even in the first chapter.  Heschel writes that the language of the prophets is so very different than ours, speaking in broad sweeping strokes, seemingly huge exaggerations, and accusations of great magnitude.  The prophet does this because of the unique place that he (or she) stands in, seeing things through the eyes of God in many ways, and also feelings things the way God feels them.  For God, there is no sin that is too small.  We may think that society is doing ok; that there are good things and bad things, but it all levels out in the end.  For the prophets it is a tragedy of epic proportions.  Why?  Because of the sin and corruption and the damage it does everywhere to everything.  I would highly recommend picking up this book; Heschel is an amazing writer.

It is into this world, the world of a broken land and broken people where sin and its consequences have devastated everything.  It is to this land and this people that the Lord has spoken His words of restoration and hope through Ezekiel and the other prophets as well.  For as much as the prophet speaks in broad exaggerations about judgment, the Love of God and the Restoration that He brings knows no bounds.  The ultimate vision of this is given to us here in Ezekiel and again in the book of Revelation when both the prophet and the apostle witness a river flowing from the throne of God.  It is the river of life and it flows out of the city of God into all the land bringing life to everything everywhere.  Again this takes us back to some of the last words of God in the Bible, “Behold I am making all things new…”  While the Hebrew people wouldn’t have heard these words directly from Ezekiel, they would have gotten the picture from what Ezekiel has described to them.  This is their hope and ours, that one day God come and restore everything in this world, that we will be able to eat from the tree of life and drink from the river of life, and never again will we face sin, death, sorrow, or loss.

Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus!

 



Day 253: Ezekiel 43-45; The Glory of God Returns

As we continue to walk through the systematic restoration process that is taken place, we come now to a point where we see two things being restored at the same time.  But first, let’s recap a bit.  After the judgment on Israel, the Lord spoke out against her leadership, the “shepherds” of Israel, showing them their fault in not caring for the sheep.  But, being the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and compassion, God the True Shepherd says that He Himself will go out to the mountains and the fields, into the nations of the world to find His sheep wherever they wander.  It is the Lord who will clean them up and renew them.

Not only will God renew the people of Israel, God will also remake them both body and spirit  and will “breathe life into them” and “give them a new and steadfast spirit.”  They will be a people reformed and renewed by God’s grace, brought back from the depths of the valley to once again be His people.

More than that, we read that yesterday God is going to restore the Temple which was destroyed.  While we don’t know for sure whether or not we are talking here about a physical restoration or a a sort of symbolic restoration, but what we do know is that in this time of restoration the worship of the Lord will resume and the people will once again look to Him in Worship.  No longer will the people seek the strength of other gods; no longer will they prostitute themselves to anyone that they find.  They will look to God, worship God in the truest way, the way that God called them to.

Today we take one more step in the complete restoration that God will bring as we see the presence of God return to the Temple and to the people of Israel.  This too has its unique interpretations, but as we read this we can hear the canonical echoes from Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.  The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.

This is the ultimate end to the restoration that the Lord is bringing about, the culmination of all that God is working toward.  Ezekiel’s visions of God’s presence, the same vision of God that he had at the beginning of this book, is telling of the end goal that God is working for which is also seen in revelation.  We see things restored to their rightful state.  It isn’t that God is going to destroy creation and start over, it is that He is working in creation to bring about the fullness that was and will be again.  And when this happens, He will again dwell with us, His presence with ours for all of eternity.



Day 252: Ezekiel 40-42; Restoration of The Temple

The last three readings that we have in the book of Ezekiel have to do with Ezekiel’s vision of restoration that the Lord gave him.  Ezekiel writes that he was taken in a vision back to the land of Israel where he stood on a great mountain and witnessed a great many things which include a restored temple, the return of the glory of God to the Temple (tomorrow), and the restored land (2 days from now).  These visions come on the heels of Ezekiel’s vision from yesterday in which we witnessed the restoration of the people of Israel and the defeat of Israel’s enemies.  All of this, from the talk of God, the True Shepherd, bringing his people back to their land all the way through the end of the book is a vision of the systematic restoration of God’s people and eventually the whole world, making everything as it should be.

Today we read about the restoration of the Temple of the Lord.  In some ways, this should remind us of the directions that the Lord gave Moses for building the Tabernacle, or the plans of David for the first Temple.  Yet as we read Ezekiel’s account of the Temple that he witnessed in his vision, we should notice the absolute perfection of everything that he sees.  Everything is exact, everything is absolute.  We are inundated with numbers and measurements, all significant and exact.

There are a lot of potential interpretations that could come of this vision.  Historically this has been interpreted in four main ways:

  1. This is the Temple that was meant to be built during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and God was giving Ezekiel the directions on how to build it.
  2. This is a literal temple that will be rebuilt during the millennial reign of Christ.
  3. This temple is symbolic of the true worship of God by the Church right now.
  4. This temple is symbolic of the future, eternal reign of God at the end of time when God’s presence fills the earth.
(this image file is erroneously named) The Vis...

(this image file is erroneously named) The Visionary Ezekiel Temple plan drawn by the 19th century French architect and Bible scholar Charles Chipiez. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each of these interpretations have their own reasoning and perhaps their own proofs for why they say that.  I think though, what each of these fails to take into consideration is the context in which this text is found.  As I said, today’s text is found within the greater context of restoration that the Lord will bring about.  The key here is that is indeed God who is bringing about the restoration.  We have seen throughout the writings of the prophets that there is nothing that mankind can do, nor God’s own people to save themselves or restore themselves.  When we spoke of God being the Shepherd, it is because His sheep aren’t going to bring themselves back.  It is the Spirit that needs to breath life into the bodies created from the dry bones.  Ultimately, it is God that has to truly bring about the restoration that is talked about here as well.

So what is the restoration going on here?  The restoration of the worship of God.  The sheep have been gathered by the Shepherd.  Life have been breathed back into the bodies of His people.  A new and right spirit has been placed in their hearts.  Now, in response to God’s restoration, they have come to God’s house to worship Him in the fullness of His grace!  Once again we find a bit of our own story here.  We too have been restored in this manner.  The Shepherd found us in our wanderings and breathed new life into us.  Now, we are able to join with the Body of Christ and worship God in the fullness of His grace.  Praise God!



Day 251: Ezekiel 37-39; The Valley of Dry Bones

Today’s reading continues on from the transition that we made yesterday from judgment to restoration.  This happens by way of a very familiar vision that Ezekiel is given by God: the vision of the valley of dry bones.  As I read through this today, I was struck by the amount of detail that Ezekiel uses when he describes the bones that he is seeing.  These aren’t just random bones, or just a few bones, but what appears to be piles and piles of old, dry bones.  You certainly don’t have to know much about biology to know that these original owners of these bones have been dead for a long, long time.

Yet God asks Ezekiel a seemingly ridiculous question in the midst of these bones, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  Anyone who knows anything knows that these bones cannot live, but Ezekiel’s answer shows a massive amount of faith.  I’m sure he knows that, all things being equal, these bones surely cannot live… but Ezekiel is also in the presence of God and in the presence of God all things are not equal…

A command is issues and Ezekiel responds in faith, prophesying to the bones, and they begin to come together.  I’m imagining it happening like a movie scene: Ezekiel starts prophesying and at first there is nothing… He keeps speaking… and suddenly there’s a little rattle and a tiny little bone starts to move.  Emboldened, Ezekiel speaks louder and more passionately and more and more bones start moving, flesh starts appearing, and before he knows it Ezekiel is standing in the midst of hundreds of lifeless bodies standing at attention.

This is, in so many ways a vision of Israel’s story both past and future.  In the valley of Egypt, when all seems lost, after 400 years of forced slavery, Moses is sent by God to deliver a message.  At first it doesn’t seem like anything is going to happen; many people doubted, but Moses continued and God showed His strength to pharaoh.  With a glimmer of hope some people began to believe and the dry bones of Hebrew slaves began to come together.  The same will be true for the people of Israel, dejected and alone in exile.  Here Ezekiel prophecies to them… could they begin to start believing again?  Could they turn from their ways and live again?

Something is missing though.  Flesh alone does not make a person alive… and God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to the Spirit to bring life into these lifeless bodies, for God will indeed make these bodies live again.  And indeed they did, just as they did in the wilderness of Sinai and as they will when they return from Exile once again.

We see something of ourselves once again in these prophesies as well.  Paul writes in Ephesians that we to were dead in our transgressions and sins, nothing but dried up old bones.  But through the grace of Christ, and the Holy Spirit which was poured out to us, we have been given flesh and life!  The Spirit has been placed in our hearts as well, that we may live for God as He has called us to live.  What a beautiful picture of the reality of grace that we live in!