Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Books of Zephaniah and Haggai

Zephaniah is another book proclaiming destruction, as most of the minor prophets' books are. Verse 2 of chapter 1 says "I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord." The destruction will be coming because God's people the Israelites (specifically those that live in Jerusalem) have turned to idol worship again, and they think that the Lord has no power. They "say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil" (1:12). Chapter 2 offers a solution by telling the people to "seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord's anger". And Jerusalem isn't the only place that will be eventually wrecked--the five Philistine cities, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia, and Assyria are slated for demolition, too.

But after the badness, some good things will remain for God's people. 3:13 says, "The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid." So the remaining Israelites will eventually be both godly and thoroughly protected from misfortune. Also, for all the fire and brimstone, Zephaniah contains one of the loveliest and most comforting verses in the Bible, in my opinion at least: "The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing"(3:17). I sing when I'm really happy about something, and it makes me glad that God is the same way.  :-)

The book of Haggai is 2 chapters long and deals with the prophet Haggai trying to exhort God's people to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonian captivity is over, but the Jewish people have just not put forth much effort to finish the house of God. Haggai encourages Zerubbabel the governor of Judah, and Joshua the high priest in their rebuilding efforts.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Books of Nahum and Habakkuk

Nahum's prophecy is against the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Nineveh was a big non-Israelite city that had repented and followed God after Jonah had preached against them, but now it's been something like a hundred years since that event. Nineveh is due for another judgment. Verse 3 of chapter 1 explains, "The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked", so this justice has been well-earned by the Ninevites and God isn't going to let them get by without punishment. However, even if the Lord sounds fearsome and terrifying in these circumstances, Nahum is quick to remind us in verse 7 that "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him." His mighty power can be used in a fatherly, protective way as well as in the justice-serving capacity.

Most of the three chapters of Nahum are just focused on the impending destruction of Nineveh, and on the crimes the city has committed: "Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not; The noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, and of the pransing horses, and of the jumping chariots." (3:1-2). It sounds like a horrible place, and the destruction it's about to experience is in proportion to its crimes, and the very last thought in the book is related to the grievous mess that Nineveh had become: "for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?"

The book of Habakkuk is another brief one with just three chapters, and it's more of a personal book. It opens with the prophet Habakkuk (a mysterious character about whom nothing is known) talking directly to God and lamenting about the evil behavior of the citizens of Judah and the way that God has not been answering his prayers. "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!" God tells him that the Chaldeans(Babylonians) are going to attack Judah, and that this attack will be Judah's punishment for wrongdoing. Chapter 2 delivers an important line which becomes a key part of New Testament teaching later: "but the just shall live by his faith" (2:4). I've always understood that to mean that no amount of good behavior can really put a person in a right standing with God--his standards are too high for us to meet through sheer effort. However, if we love God and all our faith is placed in him, we will have life.

Chapter 3 is actually a specially composed prayer that was meant to be sung with musical accompaniment.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Books of Jonah and Micah

The tale of Jonah is a fairly familiar Bible story that lots of children know. Mostly, people are familiar with the fact that Jonah ran away from God and God sent a giant fish to swallow him up, though the fish spat Jonah back out again. But the reality of the story is a little more complicated than the version we teach to grade-schoolers.

For one thing, this is the first story that I recall about a prophet who outright refused to preach God's messages. Jeremiah was hesitant and even tried to stay silent, and Moses made lots of excuses, but all the prophets we hear about eventually ended up going along with God's plan. Jonah is different. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire, and preach to them that they should repent over their evil ways before God destroys them. Jonah isn't even recorded as giving a reply to this command, and instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he hops a boat West to Tarshish. Like maybe if he travels in the opposite direction, God will just forget that he gave Jonah an important assignment.

Well, nothing goes according to plan and next thing Jonah knows, he's thrown off his boat and swallowed by a giant fish. Most kids' stories say a "whale", but the Bible itself says a "fish", though I'm not sure what the real practical difference is for Jonah. He still spends three days and three nights inside a large aquatic creature as it swims to Nineveh. I'm also not sure how he avoided being partially digested, but the book says that God himself "prepared a great fish" (1:17), so he could make the insides of the fish work in whatever way he wanted.

Jonah finally goes to Nineveh after the fish vomits him onto dry land. He travels all over the city, not preaching any form of redemption or possibility of repentance for the people, but stating baldly that God will destroy their city within forty days. But the Ninevites do actually repent and turn from their bad ways, and they go without food and pray to God to spare them, which he does.

And now the story really gets interesting. Most kids' versions of Jonah end right here, with Jonah learning a lesson of obedience and Nineveh learning a lesson of repentance, but the book of Jonah continues for another chapter which proves that Jonah hasn't learned anything at all. We're told that the Ninevites apologizing to God and God's decision to show mercy to them "displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry" (4:1). Jonah asks God to kill him, because he feels it would be a better fate to die than to live in a world where horrible people like the Ninevites are shown mercy. God answers Jonah with a question about why he, the Lord of everything, should not have mercy on a great city full of lost souls. Jonah's story ends here, with a repentant city, a merciful God, and an angry, jaded prophet.

The moral? Sometimes God grants mercy when we want to see justice served. We should rejoice over saved souls rather than growing bitter that bad people are not destroyed by the Lord.

Micah seems to be a bit like Amos, to me. It's a call to repentance like just about every other prophetic book, but it's also a specific message to rich people to stop oppressing the poor. Chapter 1 is about the upcoming judgment on Jerusalem. Chapter 2 reveals God's attitude toward the kind of things the powerful people of Jerusalem are doing: "Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage." These people are stealing from others just because they can, and they spend all their time plotting to do what is wrong.

Chapter 3 again confronts Israel's leaders over their practice of using and consuming the poor people under their care. Chapter 4 talks about the hope for Israel in the future. Chapter 5 is Messianic, a prophecy about the king who will come and save Israel. Verse 2 of this chapter says that this ruler will come from Bethlehem and that he is an eternal person whose existence is everlasting.

My favorite part of Micah is chapter 6, where Micah is rhetorically asking what sort of things he could give to God in order to be purified from his sin. The Israelites sacrificed animals when they sinned, but even that practiced never seemed like enough: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

There's no need to despair. God wants you to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with him. That's something within everyone's reach.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Amos & the Book of Obadiah

Amos is a farmer/herdsman, but God gives him messages to preach to Israel. In chapter 1, God talks about the judgments he is going to pronounce on the nations and cities around Israel, including Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon. These were all prosperous major cities and states at the time, but they had all done things deserving of punishment on a national scale. In chapter 2, God begins to pronounce judgment on the twin kingdoms of Judah and Israel, sort of lumping in their punishment with all the ungodly countries around them.

It seems that Israel and Judah are content with their current national prosperity, and they disdain or hush up the things that have to do with the Lord: "And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites. Is it not even thus, O ye children of Israel? saith the Lord. But ye gave the Nazarites wine to drink; and commanded the prophets, saying, Prophesy not" (2:11-12). Nazarites were people who made a special vow to dedicate themselves to the Lord (like Samson), and they had special rules governing their behavior, such as not cutting their hair and not drinking wine. So the Israelites are trying to keep anyone from devoting themselves to God or preaching his word, and they're opposed to hearing the Lord's messages.

Amos really doesn't pull any punches when he's talking to people who have done horrible things. He calls the rich women of Samaria cows because they "oppress the poor" and "crush the needy". The Lord's heart is always with the weak, the poor, and the innocent, and he does not take kindly to people who harm those that can't defend themselves. But as with every other book of judgment, God reminds his people that a day of redemption will eventually come: "In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old" (9:11).

The Book of Obadiah is just one chapter long, and it deals with a judgement on the nation of Edom, the descendants of Jacob's brother Esau. Their nation has an issue with pride, but God promises to humble them: "The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord (1: 3-4). This destruction is coming because Edom has gloated over the downfall of Israel, and taken joy in the suffering of God's people. The book of Obadiah doesn't hold out hope for the descendants of Esau; it just establishes the eventual dominance of Israel.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Joel

Joel is a short 3-chapter book, and its length is one of the reasons that Joel is classified one of the "minor prophets", though the scope of his discussion is very big. He's talking about a major plague on Israel, a plague of locusts to be exact. It seems to be more than one plague, too, like a whole series of small devouring creatures: "That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten." (1:4). And rather than just being a severe inconvenience like the giant and disgustingly loud cicada bugs that hit my home state every other decade, these insects literally eat up almost all the food in Israel. A famine begins. It's like a war is being waged against Israel and the enemy is not human, but rather a natural disaster that God is allowing to happen.

Joel himself seems pretty good at voicing the pain and severity of this plague. Now, it can sound as if all Old Testament prophets are saying variations on the same thing--turn and repent--and they are, but they also do have subtle personalities that you can pick up on just a bit. Joel seems somewhat fiery, what with all the apocalyptic imagery he uses. He does keep emphasizing, though, that the Lord wants to reunite with his people after these judgments are over: "Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil" (2:12-13). The Lord doesn't want to keep up these harsh judgments. They are necessary, but God's heart doesn't delight in punishing people for wrongdoing; he delights in showing mercy to his children.

From halfway through Chapter 2 onward, Joel talks about God blessing his people in the future, and talks about God's future judgments on the nations that oppose Israel. God is willing to punish his own people for a time, but he does not look favorably on other nations who oppress them. The last part of Chapter 2 is usually seen as a end-times prophecy, and it closes on an amazing note: "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance..." So judgement and mercy mixed, yet again. It sounds both scary and wonderful to me.

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Hosea

Hosea is a very painful book. Most of the Old Testament prophets have sad stories, or at the very least they endure some serious hardships because prophesying is never a fun job, but Hosea's story is even more heartbreaking than average, in my view. Hosea has to live through the pain of infidelity firsthand, and his suffering becomes a picture of the Lord's feelings over the unfaithfulness of Israel.

God tells Hosea to do a really unusual thing in this book. It's true that "unusual" really is the norm for God, both in the Bible and in life today, but still this is very, very out of the ordinary--God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute. Normally, I would think this would be a great idea, because I can't imagine that many women in ancient Israel were in the sex trade because they thought it was a wise and profitable career choice. I would guess that most of them were forced into it at an early age and had no other options, and that they would really be getting a much better life by marrying an honest man. But when Hosea marries his wife Gomer, it's not like Pretty Woman or something; there's no happy ending right around the corner.

Because as it turns out, Gomer really enjoys prostitution. Hosea takes care of her and provides her with everything she needs, but she cheats on him with her old lovers. Gomer has three children after their marriage, but only the first child is explicitly said to be Hosea's, and Hosea actually has to buy her back again out of prostitution. It's implied that from then on, she is faithful to him because the whole setup of Hosea's life is a living example of how the Lord feels about Israel being unfaithful to him by worshipping other gods. But God holds out very clear hope for the future and says that although Israel has behaved in a disgusting manner and has sinned against him, he will take them back and even though they've gone astray, "Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; and shall fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days" (3:5).

There are a few problems that people sometimes have with the Hosea story. Some people might think that Gomer should have gotten to do whatever she wanted--after all, she didn't ask for Hosea's love and commitment, did she? Well, I can kind of see that point of view, but the truth is that her chosen lifestyle is totally destructive. If Hosea didn't take her back, that lifestyle would have killed her. Another question is why God would put Hosea through such a sickening ordeal, when God knew what was going to happen. I don't know why, but I do know that Hosea got the chance to fully exemplify God's love for humankind, and his mercy toward those who have turned their backs on him. That's one very valuable thing about the book of Hosea, the assurance that no matter how far you have run from God, he will always be ready to take you back.

It's been years since I've read it, but I seem to recall really loving Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, which is a historical Christian romance based on the story of Hosea and Gomer.