Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Daniel

The book of Daniel is short, but crammed with action. A lot happens in its 12 chapters. The first chapter gives us a little of Daniel's background, and it's amazing. Daniel is a teenager when the kingdom of Judah (which is what's left of the kingdom of Israel) is carted off to captivity in Babylon. Daniel and a lot of other young men are drafted into a special type of government service because they are of royal blood and are intelligent, attractive people. So Daniel had everything that would have set him up for a good life--noble birth, good looks, strong mind--and instead of getting to use those skills in his home country, he and his friends are instead becoming very high-ranking slaves in Babylon. But Daniel doesn't bemoan his fate.

As soon as Daniel and his friends are settled in their new government apprenticeship program, they run across a problem--the food they're being served is forbidden to Israelites. Daniel respectfully requests that he and his companions be allowed to eat vegetarian meals instead, and God gives him favor with the person who's making the meal decisions. This early encounter sets the pattern for a lot of things that Daniel does later. He's always wise and gracious in everything he does. You never see Daniel losing his temper like King David or bragging like Joseph. He has a special purpose in life, and God uses him to deliver many important messages.

One story that most people remember from the book of Daniel (other than, you know, Daniel in the Lion's Den) is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar makes a giant gold statue and commands everyone to worship it, but these fellows worship the true God of Israel and make it clear that they aren't going to bow down before a big piece of metal. As punishment for their disobedience, the king has the guys thrown into a fiery furnace, a gigantic oven of flames that should kill them instantly. Instead, the king looks into the furnace and sees some completely unharmed men walking around--it's actually four men instead of three, "and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God". Someone holy and divine is protecting these guys from the flames. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego come out of the furnace unburned, and they are promoted to high offices in Babylon.

Except for the lion's den issue, most of the rest of Daniel deals with his prophetic dreams, some that applied directly to circumstances in Babylon, and some that were intended for the future. Many of Daniel's prophecies connect to the ones found later in the New Testament book of Revelation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Ezekiel

Ezekiel is a rather difficult Old Testament book to talk about, mainly because Ezekiel's prophetic visions are somewhat weirder than average visions. Average prophets (if you could even apply that word to prophets) kept foreseeing doom and telling people to repent, but now the doom has already come. The worst has happened, and the nation of Israel is already being held in captivity in Babylon. Offhand, I would guess that Ezekiel's visions are weirder than anyone's have been heretofore because he's on the final frontier--his country has been decimated and removed to another place, so it seems natural that he gets his message from God kicked up a notch.

Ezekiel is by the river Chebar in Babylon when he says, "the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God." And what he sees is kind of brain-frying. There's a fiery whirlwind, and inside he sees four cherubim. Far from looking like those chubby diapered cupids in Renaissance paintings, cherubim are described as having four faces; a lion, ox, eagle, and man. Something like this, perhaps:

Yes, it's kind of scary. Angels are nowhere near as tame as they've been portrayed in the media, it would seem. And beside the flying cherubim is a "wheel within a wheel", which might look something like this:

I'm just using Google Images to give a general idea of what other people think this vision might have looked like. If he hadn't been divinely inspired, Ezekiel would have had one hard time describing this stuff, and it's not even over yet. Above all this craziness is bright man seated on a throne. It's the Lord, and he tells Ezekiel that he (Ezekiel) is being sent as a prophet to the Israelites in captivity. Here's another picture that gets some major details wrong about the cherubim, but still shows a rough outline of what happens:

In Chapter 2, verses 3 and 4, God says to Ezekiel: "Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God". That's very heartbreaking, that Israel still won't listen to the Lord, even after they've been nearly destroyed.

So Ezekiel preaches repentance to the people, because God has set him up as a "watchman," meaning that he's sort of a lifeguard. It's his job to warn people when they're doing evil and risking the wrath of God, which is shown in 3:17-19--"Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul." Ezekiel is being held personally responsible if he does not point out to people that they're on the slippery slope of severe consequences. That's a huge responsibility, there.

The end of Ezekiel actually looks toward a hopeful future for Israel, when God shows Ezekiel visions of a new Temple, which really had to be very comforting after all the traumatizing things Ezekiel had witnessed and lived through. This is a common theme in books of the Bible--once the judgement has passed, there is always a chance for redemption.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Lamentations

This book comes right after Jeremiah, and is written by Jeremiah the prophet. As you'd expect, it's a book full of lamenting. It's like a funeral song, written for the entire city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is given a female persona, and the speaker is mourning over everything that has happened to "her". This book is written in a poetic acrostic style in Hebrew (a bit of the poetry does come through in English), and it could almost be subtitled "Weeping Through the Alphabet", because it comes up with detailed and complex ways to mourn over everything that has gone wrong with Jerusalem.

In chapter 1, we're told that "all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies." So Judah's alliances aren't helping any. Their country has been smashed and wrecked, and everyone has turned against them. Most of Judah's citizens have been carried away into slavery in a foreign country, and the situation could scarcely be more dire. The reason for all this trouble is found in 1:8-"Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed". I think that might be the saddest thing for Jeremiah--not just seeing this beloved city after its decimation, but knowing that everyone inside was so evil that they deserved this. It's like when someone you love does something truly horrible, and then it hurts you to see them suffering the consequences, but it also hurts to know that they would do such an unthinkable thing in the first place.

The picture of Jerusalem shown in Lamentations is downright scary. 2:5 says, "The Lord was as an enemy: he hath swallowed up Israel, he hath swallowed up all her palaces: he hath destroyed his strong holds, and hath increased in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation." That's so heartbreaking. The city that the Lord loved--and even went so far as to have his holy temple there--has become so disgusting that he turns himself against it and acts as Jerusalem's enemy.

Chapter 3 is the most personal of the chapters, with Jeremiah talking about his own individual sorrows, but then at verse 21 and onward, we see a hopeful change in the tone for a while: "This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him." This scripture is where we get the hymn "Great is Thy Faithfulness". Even though Jerusalem has been broken to pieces, God has not consumed the pieces. Jerusalem will be shown mercy in the future, and this utter rejection will not last forever.