Sunday, August 28, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Jeremiah

Jeremiah is a long, sad book. Jeremiah is God's prophet, talking to the nation of Israel and telling them to turn away from their sins, but as per usual, they want nothing to do with repentance.

God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet when he's still very young. God says to him (1:5), "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations". This verse is often partially quoted in order to support a pro-life stance, and though the message is intended specifically for Jeremiah, I definitely agree with the general idea of applying it to other situations. If we believe that God created the world and created us, it is no stretch to believe that he knew what we'd be like before we were born, or that he had a special plan for us. God has picked Jeremiah out to be his personal messenger to Judah, but this is not a position of ease and delight for Jeremiah--just the opposite, in fact.

Jeremiah had a hard job on many levels. For one thing, he's one of the few righteous men in the whole kingdom, and he's delivering a very unpopular message to the rest of the folks: Change your ways, or God will send enemies to conquer this kingdom. And as in the book of Isaiah, it's not as if the people of Judah have just broken a few religious/cultural rules, like working on the Sabbath or failing to keep kosher. They're doing things like burning their children as human sacrifices. In chapter 19:5, God says of his people, "They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind." That is a big deal for the Lord to say that such a thing didn't even occur to him, because it means that killing children as part of worship is such a disgusting, abominable thing that the divine omniscience didn't even consider it. Humans are capable of great perversity, and the people of Judah have certainly twisted the gifts God has given them.

So Jeremiah's message is unpopular, and besides that, he has to do some really odd things, like acting out particular parables. It's hard to mention the parables out of context and not have them sound silly, but things like wearing an ox yoke to show how the Lord's people will become slave laborers in Babylon might have come close to actually reaching his audience at the time. Unfortunately, no one ever really listens to Jeremiah. Even after their nation is conquered and most of their population is either slain or carried away to Babylon, God's people are bent on doing their own thing. So was Jeremiah's life completely futile? If God picked him out for this job even before he was born, does it prove that God made a mistake in his choice or that God was sadistic in making Jeremiah go through all the pain of fruitless preaching? I don't think Jeremiah's ministry was a mistake. God doesn't promise that if we do what he says, the world will suddenly fall into line. Just because Jeremiah preached, it didn't mean that the people were going to change their ways, but by preaching, Jeremiah gave them an opportunity to hear the truth. That makes him a hero in my view, regardless of his "success" or the lack thereof, in convincing his people to love the Lord.

Trivia: Jeremiah is originally from the city of Anathoth in the tribe of Benjamin, but he's not a Benjamite. Anathoth is one of the special priest-cities that belonged to the Levites. The descendants of Levi didn't get an actual parcel of land to settle down on, so instead they were given several cities throughout Israel. This makes Jeremiah a Levite.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Isaiah

Isaiah's a book of prophecy to Israel, and it's about 2/3rds stern warnings and 1/3rd hopeful looking toward the far future. Prophets didn't just tell the future--they spoke the words that God gave to them, plenty of which were about then-current events. Isaiah preached to Israel for about 40 years, so he had a lot to say, and his book is one of the longer ones in the Old Testament.

Chapter 1 starts off with Isaiah delivering God's message to the Israelites about their constant disobedience. They absolutely refuse to listen to God's commands, and yet they have the audacity to keep sacrificing animals to him, as if they were perfectly pious. The old sacrifices were intended to help take away the sins of the people. But since they were actively pursuing a lifestyle of sin while offering sacrifices on the side... Well, in my mind, what the Israelites were doing could be compared to having a son who goes off to college, blows his scholarship, spends all his allowance money on beer, racks up a large gambling debt, then comes home for the weekend and helps you mow the lawn. It's not that helpful. God outright says in chapter 1 verse 11--"I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs". All these sacrifices mean nothing because God doesn't want the Israelites' stuff--he wants their hearts. And their hearts are bent on doing evil at the moment: "When ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood" (1:15).

And it's not as if God's main requests are all that difficult to follow. He says, "relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (1:17), in other words, stand up for the rights and the needs of those who are weaker than you. Don't let another person hurt or rob from the innocent. But the Israelites weren't interested in showing mercy to their fellow man.

In chapter 6, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne in the temple. Isaiah is overcome with his own failings and inadequacies, and God purges him of his uncleanness. Then the Lord asks who will become his messenger to Israel, and Isaiah replies with the famous line: "Here am I; send me". Isaiah definitely takes his calling to heart and he says everything that the Lord gives him to say.

The next chapters up through 39 deal with judgement and future troubles. But then there's a big shift in tone at the start of chapter 40 which continues through the end of the book: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God" (40:1). Comfort? I thought the Israelites were getting punishment and judgement for their evil deeds? Well, yes, they are and they did. But the comfort comes afterward, because God still loves his people. And a lot of these verses are messianic in nature, meaning that they deal with the future Messiah who will come and save his people from their sins. In Judaism, these passages are often called the Songs of the Suffering Servant and are thought to be about the sufferings of Israel as a nation, but in Christianity, the servant is seen as Jesus, particularly in chapter 53, which reads like this:

53:3: He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4: Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5: But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

This perfectly describes Jesus' suffering, taking all of humanity's sins upon himself so that we could be reconciled with the Lord. Isaiah is a difficult book to read in many ways, because it's not always easy to sort out the historical context from the future prophecy, but it's very dear to my heart, particularly the messianic parts.

You can read the King James Version of the first chapter of Isaiah HERE

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Song of Solomon

Solomon, King of Israel, is known for his wisdom--most people have heard the story about him suggesting that a baby be cut in half so that he could determine who the baby's mother was. Solomon is also known for his endless riches, for building the glorious temple in Jerusalem, and for being the son of David. What he's less known for is his association with the book that bears his own name--the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, depending on your Bible. It's generally agreed that the book is about Solomon courting and marrying a shepherdess (referred to as "the Shulamite," relating to her town of origin). It's an 8-chapter poem focused on romantic and erotic love, and it's often seen as being an allegory of God's love for his people.

The Song of Solomon has multiple speakers, almost like it's a stage play. The man, the woman, and the chorus take turns talking. Some Bibles try to separate the speakers and mark their lines as "Lover," "Beloved," and "Friends," but many versions don't bother with the distinctions, which can make it difficult to figure out who is speaking to whom at times. The pronouns help with discerning the man and woman, but sometimes there's a quick sentence where the POV changes to some 3rd party, and you have to watch carefully to note when the change occurs.

The many lovers' compliments that the couple exchanges may make some readers scratch their heads in confusion. This is supposed to be super-appealing love talk, but sometimes the metaphors and comparisons do not sound remotely delightful. The woman compares her beloved to "a roe or a young hart," (2:9) with roe and hart both meaning "deer". There is a culture gap at work here because these days, we don't often compare our favorite guy to a deer, even though the deer is a strong and graceful animal. Then the man has a series of even stranger compliments for the woman, one of which is "thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead" (4:1). You lost me at "goats", Solomon. But the important thing to understand about these phrases is that in the context of the culture and time period, they were very high compliments indeed. The man and woman are praising each other in very infatuated, descriptive terms and we can still understand the intent of their dialogue even when we can't quite relate to the specifics.

There's a lot of Ships-Passing in-the-Night going on in the Song of Solomon, where the man and woman are frequently separated and looking for each other, or dreaming of separation, or taking precautions against being parted. These people adore each other, and it's evident in every chapter. The final chapter concludes, "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" (8:7) The love between two people is a powerful thing, and even the Bible notes its vehemence.

The Song of Solomon isn't often preached or taught in churches (at least the ones I've been to), partly because it contains an uncomfortable amount of references to physical love. The couple in this book are very blatant about praising each other's bodies and a bunch of their allusions and references can't be viewed as anything other than sexual. The "church" attitude toward sex tends to be very uneasy, and the general mindset seems to be "Don't have sex. Don't talk about. Don't think about it. YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT IT, AREN'T YOU?" But the reserved, proper church attitude and God's own attitude don't exactly line up. The Song of Solomon shows erotic love the way God meant it to be--something immensely enjoyable which benefits both people and strengthens their relationship, and which also occurs within the context of marriage. Reading the Song of Solomon is a real joy and relief if you happen to have met a lot of dried-up, miserable married people. It doesn't have to be like that! God's word shows us an excellent example of a married love that is very physical and is "as strong as death" (8:6).