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Listen up Israel,

You’re surrounded by evil people who commit great atrocities of war, greed and avarice. God’s fury is coming to them. Are you pleased to hear that news?
Now, your wayward brother, Judah…Those people have wandered away from what God explicitly taught them, just like their fathers. God is going to light a fire amongst them. Are you pleased to hear this?

Now…What about yourself?
You have experienced victories over your enemies recently. You have money and you prosper. But don’t be so quick to equate prosperity with blessing, or with divine approval.
Ask yourselves: how did we come by this wealth? Was it by obeying God’s laws of old? The sword of justice cuts both ways.
Don’t you know what God hates? He hates idolatry. He hates to see people flagrantly abusing the gift of sex. He hates injustice and self-satisfied iniquity. You witnessed God’s judgement on other nations for these things, but He saved you and showed you great patience. You have been a blessed people. But you have thrown that blessing in His face, and he will bring you low. Repent! Do you think He takes pleasure in seeing this happen to you?

You think that because of your name, the tides of invading empires have receded from you? Look farther out, you shortsighted fool, and see the tidal wave that is growing. God have given you ample warning. The tide? It obeys God! And it will sweep in and uproot you. Everything you enjoyed, everything you took pride in will be swept away. Everyone who thought they were secure will find themselves destroyed. Perhaps then you will see God for who he really is, in his holiness, standing beside His altar.

But look Israel, where the flood waters have receded, a verdant land will grow. God is a good God, and has a purpose which will not be upset by your failures.

Israel, be the people God intended you to be. Long for the day when your sins will be behind you, once and for all.

Joel is a short prophetic book which evocatively describes the ravages of a “locust army”. Locust swarms represent a massive catastrophe for any agrarian society, and the prophet Joel uses this image to represent forthcoming judgement, on “the day of the LORD”.

The language is poetic, the text is difficult to date exactly, little is known about the author…It is no surprise that the exact interpretation of this book is the subject of some scholarly debate. For more on the interpretative challenges of Joel, the ESV study bible offers a more thorough overview here.

The prophetic ideas of judgement and salvation are central, and Joel expresses the idea that God will judge, but he will also protect and deliver His people in the midst of devastation and catastrophe.

How does a nation survive if the Holy God is in their midst? Where Holiness is, there is judgement and wrath at sin.  Joel uses powerful pictures to express the gravity and extent of the problems that sin creates for us.

But because God is one who keeps his covenants, He offers grace and hope for the repentant: He will be a “stronghold” and a “refuge” for His people. (3:16-17)

We’ll be starting to read the book of Hosea in a couple of days.

Here is one of my favourite songs, from one of my favourite songwriters, Andrew Peterson.

Well every time I lay in the bed beside you,
Hosea, Hosea,
I hear the sound of the streets of the city.
My belly growls like a hungry wolf
And I let it prowl till my belly’s full.
Hosea, my heart is a stone.

So please believe me when I say I’m sorry,
Hosea, Hosea,
you loveable, gullible man.
I tell you that my love is true
Till it fades away like a morning dew.
Hosea, leave me alone.

Here I am in the Valley of Trouble.
Just look at the bed that I’ve made:
Badlands as far as I can see.
Well there’s no one here but me,
Hosea.

Well I stumbled and fell in the road on the way home,
Hosea, Hosea.
I lay in the brick street like a stray dog.
You came to me like a silver moon
With the saddest smile I ever knew.
Hosea carried me home again.
Home again.

You called me out to the Valley of Trouble,
Just to look at the mess that I’ve made,
A barren place where nothing can grow.
One look and my stone heart crumbled–
It was a valley as green as jade.
I swear it was the color of hope.
You turned a stone into a rose,
Hosea, Hosea.

Hosea

Well I sang and I danced like I did as a young girl,
Hosea, Hosea.
I am a slave and a harlot no more.
You washed me clean like a summer rain
And you set me free with that ball and chain.
Hosea, I threw away the key.

I’ll never leave.
Hosea, Hosea.

painting of daniel in the den of lionsDaniel

What constitutes a betrayal? The book of Daniel begins as a historical narrative which wrestles with that question, and the issues of God’s judgement, and His saving power. It recounts the experience of the conquest of the Jewish people by the Babylonians – a temporary judgement, and a time of discipline through divine indignation – from the point of view of four princes of Israel. Chastened by the experience of exile, Daniel and his companions drew the line at disobedience. The dietary laws of the Jews were non-negotiable for them because they did not wish to be defiled in God’s sight. To modern eyes, this looks like hair-splitting. After all, their small country was enslaved in exile, and the Jews allowed their most noble sons to be assimilated into Babylonian culture through education. Why not just eat the food their new masters provided? Was it worth causing a fuss to preserve an identity that had already passed? Surely this was the end of Israel? Daniel is the story of why purity prevails. It is a tale of heaven and earth.

The way that God gave Daniel and his schoolboy companions victory in this seemingly small area is the precursor to a greater story: the faithfulness of men faced with death. The most memorable parts of Daniel are its great set-pieces. The account of the fiery furnace is a great example of faith which does not count the cost, as is the similar narrative of how Daniel faced the den of lions. Both incidents point to God’s faithfulness, and remind us of Jesus, who not only faced the prospect of harm, but died so that he could rescue his people from their faithlessness. Jesus features in the prophetic part of the book too, as

“ one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”

There are many highlights in the parts of the story which take place on earth. Perhaps the most dramatic section of the historical part of the book records the response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to Nebuchadnezzar. The king asks a rhetorical question: who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands? But he receives one of the great answers in all the bible:

“…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

The words “but if not” are truly amazing. Our God is able, but even if he does not save us… These men have grasped the value of God, and have placed it above their own lives. They are in the hands of the Ancient of Days, described by Daniel later in the book:

“As I looked,
thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.”

The intervention of God in Nebuchadnezzar’s life, through dreams and interpretation brings the king to this pass:

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”

Besides these dramatic vignettes, and strange role reversals, Daniel narrates the fall of empires through his account of the handwriting on the wall, and the accession of Darius and Cyrus. The first section of the book ends with the words “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” This prosperity is explained with in the context of the experience of his repentance and faith. The cataclysm of history is a metaphor for the deeper reality of faith and faithlessness.

The prophecies which make up the remainder of the book are hard to understand. Indeed they are so hard, that at several points Daniel himself is unaware of their meaning. This, by the way, is a great reason to suppose that they are trustworthy. The first and second visions are explained, but Daniel even says: “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.”

Whether or not the prophecies are clear, their thematic drift is intelligible, and the interpretation given within the book is coherent and straightforward. The important thing about them is that they have been given. That is, they explain what they explain.(Who knows what we will one day understand of them?)

The ninth chapter is a prayer of repentance and faith, which is tremendously encouraging, as, in the next chapter, Daniel is called: “man greatly loved” and is told not to be afraid. Why should he be unafraid? The context is visions of God in judgement, and the Son of Man with all authority. Fear is absolutely reasonable: if anyone has offended that great goodness, how can they stand? The reason given is that “from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” This is a good word, and worth taking note of. God our Savior, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

If you get into the prophetic section, then like as not, with Daniel you will say “I heard, but I did not understand.” Daniel asked: “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He was told, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.” Bits of the affairs of heaven spilled over into the earth.

Edgar de Blieck

Psalm 104

O worship the King, all glorious above,
O gratefully sing His power and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

The earth with its store of wonders untold,
Almighty, Thy power hath founded of old;
Established it fast by a changeless decree,
And round it hath cast, like a mantle, the sea.

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.

O measureless might! Ineffable love!
While angels delight to worship Thee above,
The humbler creation, though feeble their lays,
With true adoration shall all sing Thy praise.

Ezekiel: Damn Well Listen

ezekiel introduction dry bones becoming fleshEzekiel is a tough read.

If you tell people that you wake up every morning and have a “quiet time” for bible reading, they probably imagine you with a kind of ready-brek glow, reading words of wisdom and tranquility, with a saintly half-smile on your lips. Ezekiel takes that “thought for the day” portrait and rips it up.

“Behold, I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate, into the hands of those from whom you turned in disgust, and they shall deal with you in hatred…and the nakedness of your whoring will be uncovered…A cup of horror and desolation…you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards, and tear your breasts…” (Ezekiel 23)

We almost have no frame of reference for this kind of language. It is vulgar to our western sensibilities. What can be the purpose of it? Do we treat it as the ravings of a lunatic…like those straggly guys wearing “end is nigh” signs? Is Ezekiel just a shocking performance artist, a kind of twisted entertainer whose message is essentially impotent?

The book of Ezekiel fundamentally challenges you if your purpose in reading the bible is simply to have a spiritual cupcake for an enhanced sense of wellbeing.

Ezekiel forces us to consider: how does God get through to people who repeatedly brazenly ignore him? Have you any idea of the magnitude of the sin when a person intentionally defies God in this way? What experiences do we have to which this might compare? Ezekiel goes to great pains to show us. Ezekiel is even called to go beyond using mere words, and has to act out his prophecies, in order that his listeners might see, taste, smell and touch the message which God has for his rebellious people. God, though angry with these people, wants to ensure they have every possible chance to contextualise and understand his message to them.

God suddenly kills Ezekiel’s wife: not to punish Ezekiel, but to use the very language of death to communicate his message. Ezekiel is told not to mourn her loss, that the people might see how they themselves are acting this way towards God. They risk losing their glorious God, just as Ezekiel lost his wife. Why do they not mourn?

God has a serious and profound message to communicate to mankind. It is the message of the gospel: it is ultimately a message of the greatest hope. But we cannot ignore that a significant part of that message is about sin, rebellion and unfaithfulness, and these things must somehow be confronted and dealt with.

Ezekiel is like God using an expletive to get his people’s attention. To what lengths will God have to go to get yours?

“As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I take no delight in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezekiel 33:11

Lamentations - DisasterSuffering is an issue which profoundly characterizes the human condition. We have many questions about suffering, frailty, guilt, sin and death and the bible has much to say about these things. The book of Lamentations is an often neglected response to these issues.

How do we respond when God brings catastrophe on our lives? Or, as a Christian, do you think you are exempt from that, so long as you keep believing that God will protect you?
Some Churches teach a muddled theology of suffering, suggesting that we prosper according to how much faith we have, and suffering, disease or tragedy are only the result of a failure in our faith. Like so much false teaching, this thinking has a grain of truth, but is dangerously skewed. If this is your outlook, and disaster strikes you, you have no way of dealing with it: it will damage not just your physical wellbeing, but your faith as well. And rightly so, because a false faith that cannot save you is as bad as (or worse than) no faith at all.

Jesus said that his followers would have to take up their cross and follow him, confirming that suffering would be as much a part of a Christian’s life as it was for Christ himself. But if we look at the book of Lamentations, we find the same truth playing out. It is written for those people in Israel who were “the remnant”, who experienced the full force of one manifestation of the terrible “day of the Lord”, escaping with their lives, only to live with the terrible grief and memory of what was lost.

All the good things that were associated with being God’s covenant people, the community, the temple, health, security and prosperity…all these things were removed from them because of Israel’s endemic unfaithfulness. God’s wrath at sin is kindled, and is displayed in a terrible way. Even those faithful to God felt this wrath. The writer of this book feels that judgement and loss keenly.

But what about the greatest loss of all? There is a loss from which no recovery is possible. It is a loss that is beyond the losses of the many gifts that God gives us, and it is the loss of God himself. We turn our backs on God many times, but what if he were to turn His back on us? The exiled people of Israel were doubtless inclined to ask that question. If they had put their faith in the gifts of God with no regard to God himself, then they would truly have felt devastated when it all turned to ashes.

It’s important to remember that the people in Jerusalem were religious people. They had a degree of cultural pride in their heritage, in their observances, in the name of their god. They showed that they didn’t really understand their calling by their growing unfaithfulness, but how aware were they of this situation? What would it take for us to learn the difference between faith in religion, and faith in God? Disaster, when sent by God, does not make us desperate, but rather it reveals our desperation.

Despite the totality and depth of the suffering which God’s people have experienced, the message of Lamentations is that God has not given up on his promises. The message is that God’s faithfulness goes deeper even than this kind of judgement, and we read that in Chapter 3:21 onwards.
When Jesus taught his disciples that they could “turn the other cheek” he was thinking about Lamentations 3:30 “Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults”. Those who realise that “The Lord is [their] portion” (3:24) are able not just to endure all suffering, but find blessing in the midst of it.

We have the book of Lamentations that we might, through profound poetry, experience in our imaginations the kind of disaster that reveals our desperate need for God. Perhaps God will spare us from similar tragedy in our own lives. We need not seek it, but Lamentations shows us that we can find profound value in even the deepest of suffering, because we know that God has remained faithful to those who repent and seek his face.

There was one man who did not need tragedy to teach him what God’s love was worth. He knew the joy of communion with the Father in all its fulness, and he knew every blessing that came with it. But Jesus Christ entered and endured the deepest of tragedies: separation from God. He did this so that we, like the remnant of Israel, might have a firm hope in the forgiveness and faithfulness of God.