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Seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29; Pentecost 18C)

The Hebrew Scripture reading which the lectionary offers this coming Sunday is largely a letter—from Jeremiah, to some fellow-Jews, but written in the name of Jeremiah’s God. It is this letter which invites us to consider some important aspects of how we live our faith.

Jeremiah wrote this letter twenty-five centuries ago, a long, long time ago. Does this letter still hold relevance to us, today? Jeremiah wrote in the ancient Hebrew language, running from right to left across the page. It is most likely that the letter was written on a scrap cut from a roll of papyrus, or possibly leather; but there was no neat sheet of paper with carefully-inscribed words, or neatly-typed paragraphs, carefully folded into an envelope, such as we would expect of a letter today.

And not only does it look different, this letter was written to a very specific group of people, who were quite different from us. It was addressed to people in a very different situation from most of us; a group of people who had grown up in Israel, but were now refugees, sent into exile, forcibly removed from their homeland, mourning all that they had lost, and now trying to come to grip with their new life in the faraway land of Babylon.

Do you remember Psalm 137? By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept? This would have been the way that many of these people responded when they arrived in Babylon. And the fact that this Psalm is still in our Bible tells us that the people sang this song, for a long time; it was not just a top-40 wonder for a few weeks or months, but it was sung over and over, and became one of the sacred songs of the people for generations—through into our own time, in fact!

So this letter seems a somewhat unusual choice for the focus of our attention today, as the way in which the word of the Lord might possibly address us, in our settled, comfortable lives. What could it possibly have to offer us, as we reflect on our faith in the world of the 21st century?

And yet, the words have a distinctively contemporary, relevant feel about them. They speak of ordinary life, of family and home, of a life which is comfortable, settled, and peaceable. They speak of building relationships, undertaking good, honest work, and living with responsibility for those under our care. Hear again the heart of the letter: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Perhaps the heart of Jeremiah’s letter is in this simple phrase: seek the welfare of the city. This was the word of the Lord which addressed the disturbed and dispossessed Israelites who had tearfully followed their deposed Israelite King Jeconiah and his court into exile under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, wondering what awaited them there in this strange land. Could it be that this is also the word of the Lord which addresses comfortable, settled Australians, enjoying the fruits of hard work over many years, living in a time of ongoing material prosperity?

Some knowledge of the original language of the letter might be relevant as we ponder this matter. In the last verse of the letter, Jeremiah three times uses the one Hebrew word that probably most of us have heard and would recognize: the word shalom. Each time the NRSV translates this word in this letter, it uses the English term welfare. We know this word, perhaps more familiarly, through the slightly different translation, peace.

And perhaps we are also aware that the ancient sense of shalom encompasses not just peace (the absence of conflict), but also wholeness, fulfillment, security, satisfaction, a co-operative spirit, a sense that all is well with the world. This is what the fearful exiles were being encouraged to work towards.

What would it have meant for those homesick Israelites, long ago, to have been prepared to seek the welfare [the shalom—the peace—the wholeness] of the city?

I think that it might have meant things like this: Get ready for a long period of time away from “home”; there will be no quick fixes, no easy answers, no instant gratification. You are here, in this strange land, for the long haul. Settle down, make your peace with the locals. Be prepared to make this the new “home” for yourselves and your descendants.

I wonder how would we feel if that were the situation we were facing? It could mean: Be prepared to work co-operatively and constructively with the very people who have inflicted pain and suffering on you and your people. They dragged you away from home and set you to work in this strange place. They are the ones who forced you into this bad situation. They are “the enemy”. But God is telling you to work with them. To co-operate with your enemies. To love your enemies, perhaps? To co-operate with those who hold different points of view from yourself—in precisely the way that various groups in our society are learning that they must do.

The word of the Lord presents a serious challenge, then, to the exiles in Babylon.

Even more than this; Jeremiah delivers God’s message to the people in very specific ways: Be prepared to marry and raise families with people from outside of your group … be prepared to marry these strange, alien, unfamiliar people. You won’t be able to keep on marrying your own people, those who have come with you from Israel; the gene pool is too small for that to work for too long. So get yourselves ready, to marry a foreigner. You are the ones who are going to create a multi-ethnic community, a multi-cultural society.

And perhaps, then, the challenge to the people of Israel, in exile, was for them to lift their eyes above their immediate grief and pain, and do what was good, what made for peace, for the whole city. Through Jeremiah, God was telling them: Set your goals, not on the basis of what is good for me as an individual, but rather on what is best for the whole community. Seek the shalom of the city; the whole collection of human beings who are gathered in this one sprawling metropolis.

What was this city, in which they found themselves? It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world in the 17th century BCE, and again between 612 and 320 BCE— and of course it is during this latter period that Jeremiah was writing.  Babylon was probably the first city to reach a population above 200,000—a figure which seems relatively small to us when we think about cities, but which would have required complex administration and organization to ensure that, just as a start, all 200,000 inhabitants were fed each day. So seek the shalom of the city means that the Israelites were being challenged to immerse themselves in the largest population, the most vibrant and diverse community of people, at that time, in the ancient Near East.

And this is the point at which I believe this ancient Hebrew letter comes alive and speaks to us with a message of relevance for our own times and our own place. Seek the shalom of the city in which you live, work, relax, shop, and worship. How might we seek the welfare of our own cities?

City life, today, is marked by its diversity, its complexity, its ambiguities and uncertainties. This is particularly so as the nature of particular suburbs and areas change over time. Once quiet dormitory suburbs for people working in the city, in nearby business centres, can change, as different groups of people move in. As times change, the old certainties of suburban life no longer hold; the predictable patterns of comfortable middle-class lifestyle are challenged. We cannot ignore these changes; we cannot hide our faith from engagement in what is taking place around us.

Perhaps a different ethos emerges in the quiet dormitory suburb, as the area transforms into a regional transport hub, is filled with medium-density housing, caters to a greater concentration of students and aged people. All of these features can be gleaned from census material; all of these factors, and more, need to be part of the deliberations for a local Congregation as they consider those vital questions: who are we? what is our ministry? what might our ministry be? what sort of leadership is required for us to develop accordingly? These are questions that all Congregations should ask on a regular basis.

In the city, says Jeremiah, the people of God are to seek the welfare, the wholeness, the shalom, of the whole population. It is a charge that we ought to hear as a clear and direct word to each of us, and to the Congregation where we are active, as we seek to contribute to the welfare of the city. What do we have to offer, as the people of God in this time, in this place?

The Uniting Church is committed to being a church that takes seriously the context in which we are located. Our Basis of Union set out to ensure that we were formed as a church that was relevant to our Australian location—not simply a colonial copy of an English or Scottish church, but an authentically Australian church. I was privileged to be trained in theology in the early years of this church, when living out our faith in the Australian context was of paramount importance.

In past years, I have been part of Congregations that have sought to engage in active ways with people in their local communities: through a weekly School for Seniors programme; by offering a weekly meal at no cost to people in the local community who are poor, or lonely; by volunteering with the telephone ministry Lifeline; by engaging with local artists in a programme called Arts in Action; by fostering constructive relationships with Indigenous students and their families; by supporting partnerships with people in the third world and developing robust micro-businesses; by undertaking training in the Sydney Alliance and engaging with local community groups on specific, focussed projects; by being active in a local environmental advocacy group, Climate Change Australia. These are but some examples of the many ways that our church has long been committed to seeking the welfare of the city.

So we, today, face the challenge of responding to the changing circumstances of our time, when fewer people claim an active belief and participation rates in church activities are much less than in the “glory days” of decades past. We might well be seeking to create new ways of being communities of faith; looking for new opportunities to make connections with people in our immediate locality; exploring the means for ensuring that our city is one which is marked by fairness and justice; and shaping a church which is committed to finding new and creative ways of expressing our faith in our own locality.

The Uniting Church is a participatory church. At every level, there are opportunities for people to play all sorts of roles, in contributing to the work of the church. We are not dominated by one group, a clergy-led church, or a male-led church, as some other denominations might appear to be. We affirm the equal role of people, regardless of their gender—males and females can exercise leadership and offer ministry; regardless of their race; regardless of their age. We believe that the Spirit is at work amongst people who are striving for justice, seeking fairness, working to create equity in the lives of other people.

As a Uniting Church, we are an inclusive church that values the contribution that each and every individual can make. We are also a church that values the commitment of groups of people—that is why we meet together, act together, and share with other groups who also act together, in organisations such as Sydney Alliance or Climate Change Australia or other local enterprises. As we work alongside others, we offer a way of understanding life which is guided by moral principles, shaped by ethical commitments, and always informed by standards based on our faith commitment. That is something of a distinctive quality which we bring.

Whilst our faith does not solve every problem or resolve every dilemma, it does equip us to think carefully and to act with integrity as we engage with others. In these ways, we can surely attend to the challenge that Jeremiah provides, and seek the welfare of the city (or town, or village) where we are.

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See also

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The Sydney Alliance is an organization which has been created in recent years, as one attempt to seek the welfare of the city of Sydney, to strive to make this city a better place to live for those who have lived here a long time, and for those who are recent arrivals to the city. It has a commitment to seek justice and fairness across the city. The Uniting Church is one of the foundation members of the Sydney Alliance, along with a number of community groups, trade unions, and other religious groups drawn from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

The website of this organization describes it in this way:

“The Sydney Alliance is a citizens’ coalition whose vision is to provide our community with a voice to express common values and aspirations for a fair and just Sydney.  The Alliance is broadly based across religious organisations, community organisations and unions establishing relationships that respect diversity, while building a cohesive society.  The Alliance is a non-party political organisation. Its primary purpose is the ability to act for the common good to achieve social change in our communities.”  

The way that the Sydney Alliance operates is through building bridges, engaging in dialogue between organisations, and seeking to find opportunities for its members to participate in reshaping the society of which we are a part. Why should the Uniting Church join itself with other organisations in our society in this way? Why should we commit time and energy to involvement in this kind of coalition, with a wide range of people who live alongside us in the city? Some of these are people who seem familiar to us—Catholics, nurses, teachers, members of the Cancer Council, bus drivers, public servants.

Some are people of nodding familiarity, perhaps, although we don’t know many of them very well—Jews, Asian women, hotel employees, members of the climate action network. Some are perhaps strongly alien to our regular lives—people from the Indian community organization Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Australia, from the United Muslim Womens Association (complete with traditional Islamic female attire), from the Federation of African Communities Council. These are the people with whom our church is joining in this new, emerging Alliance.

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It’s not over until it’s over. And at the moment, it’s not over.

Where is “the fat lady”? We know that, as the saying goes, “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”. So where is “the fat lady”? And has she sung?

Our state and federal leaders appear to think that she has been centre stage, singing her heart out. They are acting as if it is, indeed, over—that the passing of the virus through community spread has diminished, so that we can get back to “business as usual”. (Business being the operative word in government considerations about this matter—business, not health, not wellbeing, but business.)

“It’s not over until the fat lady sings”. It’s a terrible saying, actually, playing on unhelpful stereotypes about body shape and body size. The saying originated, it is often claimed, as a reference to the large-sized women who sang lead parts in operas. (Perhaps the large body size relates to the large lung capacity that is required to perform operatic arias?)

Wikipedia helpfully refers to Wagner’s grand opera cycle, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, and specifically, the last part of that long cycle, Götterdämmerung. It hypothesises that “the ‘fat lady’ is thus the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who was traditionally presented as a very buxom lady. Her farewell scene lasts almost twenty minutes and leads directly to the finale of the whole Ring Cycle. As Götterdämmerung is about the end of the world (or at least the world of the Norse gods), in a very significant way ‘it is [all] over when the fat lady sings’.”

Others claim that it was a saying first uttered by an American sports commentator, who used the phrase at the end of a university athletics meeting in 1976; or at the end of a 1978 NBA playoff. Or perhaps it is a variant form of the phrase, “It ain’t over till it’s over”, attributed to the famous baseball player, Yogi Berra, at a baseball game in 1973.

Whatever the origin, the saying (in its various forms) is widely known. And, as far as I am concerned, it is very relevant to our current time. For we are now at a point when many people are acting, in relation to the COVID pandemic, as if “it’s over”. I hear this in what people say; I see it in how people behave—low levels of mask wearing, low levels of social distancing, less attention to ensuring that physical contact is minimised, less attention to diligent hand washing and to sneezing into your elbows, and high levels of assuming that we are back to “business as usual”. Goodness, now there is even no requirement that people stay at home when they are sick; saying that people “just need to self-regulate” is a recipe for disaster, especially amongst people who rely on the income they get each week to ensure that they “make ends meet”.

The plain truth is that it’s not over—and that it won’t be over for quite some time. And the costs of the continuing impact of the virus are many. First, we should not forget that deaths from COVID are continuing; they take place at an unacceptable rate; the latest figures show that 323 people across Australia died as a result of COVID in the week ended 21 September—that’s 46 each and every day. A week later, and the number of deaths was slightly lower, at 282, but still at a high level—that is still just over 40 people still dying each week; or 6 a day; or one every four hours.

Deaths in Australia due to COVID-19
Week ending 28 September 2022

One person dying every four hours. Think about that. All Ministers and lay people who conduct funerals and provide follow-up support to bereaved families know the deep and enduring emotional impacts that the death of one loved one can incur, spreading across the wider family, friends, and others connected with them through their life. That’s already a significant cost, both in terms of lives taken as well as in terms of ongoing emotional impacts, for one death. Imagine that recurring every four hours, constantly, without pause, day after day. That’s a huge cost in emotional, psychological, and thus medical ways. A huge cost for society.

You can access statistics relating to COVID since early 2020 at https://covidlive.com.au/nt

Second, the consequences of Long COVID continue to be documented as medical studies take place; the Mayo Clinic notes that the long-term effects of “post-COVID 19 syndrome” include “fatigue, fever, respiratory symptoms, including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath and cough, neurological symptoms or mental health conditions, including difficulty thinking or concentrating, headache, sleep problems, dizziness when you stand, pins-and-needles feeling, loss of smell or taste, and depression or anxiety, joint or muscle pain, heart symptoms or conditions, including chest pain and fast or pounding heartbeat, digestive symptoms, including diarrhea and stomach pain! blood clots and blood vessel (vascular) issues, including a blood clot that travels to the lungs from deep veins in the legs and blocks blood flow to the lungs (pulmonary embolism), and other symptoms, such as a rash and changes in the menstrual cycle”.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-long-term-effects/art-20490351

That’s a wide range of issues which can each be very significant, causing longterm difficulties, and in some cases, contributing to an early death. That’s a second major cost.

Third, rates of absenteeism provide a striking indicator that the impacts of the pandemic are still with us. In February, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that “more than one in five (22 per cent) employing businesses had staff who were unavailable to work due to issues related to COVID-19”

https://www.abs.gov.au/media-centre/media-releases/staff-absent-22-businesses-due-covid-19

In April, the Australian Financial Review reported that “absenteeism rates sitting 33 per cent higher than long-term averages, analysis of MYOB’s payroll data reveals”.

https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/workplace/havoc-as-absentee-rates-surge-by-a-third-20220408-p5ac52

By July this year, this had grown to “absences already running at 50 per cent above average levels, as the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 variants drive a new wave of infections and hospitalisation”.

https://www.afr.com/policy/health-and-education/bosses-brace-for-a-month-of-record-sick-leave-20220710-p5b0h9

The media delighted in showing lengthy lines at airports because of staff shortages; perhaps many of us have experienced slow service at local cafes because of the same reason. The cost of extra sick leave payments is just one component of the cost in this regard. It is said that during pre-pandemic times, the “regular rates of absenteeism” cost Australian businesses around $32.5 billion a year. With increased rates of absenteeism, that cost has surely risen.

Of course, now that the requirement to isolate at home whenever a person is symptomatic has been removed, we will surely see further disruption to business enterprises—since people dependent on their wage will go to work when “just a little bit off”, and if infected with the virus, they may be infectious, and thus may well spread illness to their fellow workers—thus resulting in more people off, more time lost. I can see this. Why can’t our leaders see this?

All of which leads me to the conclusion that “it’s not over until it’s not over”—and clearly, “it’s not yet over”. We need to ensure ongoing protection from the virus in our day to day life. Of course, one hugely important way to provide strengthened protection against the COVID-19 virus is to be vaccinated— and to have each of the “booster doses” as they become available. It’s clear that widespread vaccination has contributed to a slowing of the spread of the virus.

Sadly, however, the rate of deaths due to COVID continues to be of concern. That’s simply because people who are more at risk of infection—the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, those with multiple medical conditions, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—are thereby more likely to have a bad response to the virus, with more medical complications, and higher death rates.

I’ve found a recent study which sought to compare the efficacy of vaccination amongst healthy people with the efficacy amongst immunocompromised people. It measured the level of seroconversion, which is the capacity of the system to repel the virus. The study concluded that “the immune response to the influenza vaccine might not be as strong in immunocompromised patients, yet they appear to derive some benefit from vaccination. These findings reflect what is now being experienced with covid-19 and vaccination.”

See “Efficacy of covid-19 vaccines in immunocompromised patients: systematic review and meta-analysis”, https://www.bmj.com/content/376/bmj-2021-068632

All of which means that vaccination is a wise move, but it in no way guarantees that a person once vaccinated will definitely not suffer ill effects; and a person with medical vulnerabilities, such as having an immuno-compromised system, will still be vulnerable to illness, serious medical,complications, and death.

Which means that we need to continue all those precautions that we learnt in early 2020: wear a mask; practise good hygiene; wash your hands; sanitise with alcohol-based hand rubs; maintain social distancing; don’t touch your face; cover your mouth or nose with your arm, not your hand, when you cough or sneeze; stay t home when you are sick; close the toilet lid before flushing. All of these things, even though they are not “mandated”. All of these things, because it is just common sense to continue to take great care. Because it’s not over. Not by a long shot. There is no fat lady, not yet. It’s not over.

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Prophetic acrostic (inspired by Lamentations, for Pentecost 17C)

The lectionary reading for this Sunday contains selections from two acrostic poems in the book of Lamentations. The first reading is Lam 1:1–6, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people”, a lament about the desecration of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian invaders. The psalm offered is Lam 3:19–26, probably because it contains a counterpoint to this lament in the famous words of hope, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23).

An acrostic poem begins each line with each letter of the alphabet, in order, line after line. It is an aide-de-memoire for recalling the lines of the poem in order. Thus, in Hebrew, which has 22 letters in its alphabet, Lam 1 has 22 verses, each new verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. There are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations; chapter 3 has 66 verses, so each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter.

There are other acrostic poems in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalms 9 and 10 together, Psalms 25, 34, 37 (2 verses per letter), 111 (two letters per verse), 112 (also two letters per verse), 119 (which has 176 verses, meaning eight lines for each of the 22 letters!), and Psalm 145. There are also acrostic poems in praise of the eset chayil: “a woman of valour, who can find? she is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10–31), and in the oracle of judgement at Nahum 1:1–9, “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies”.

Psalm 34 in Hebrew,
showing its acrostic structure

In recognition of the selections from acrostic poems that are provided by this Sunday’s lectionary, I have written my own attempt at an acrostic poem, including some of the key motifs that we encountered in the recent course on The Prophets.

Anger burns fiercely in your potent words,

Burning, raging, searing into our hearts;

Compassionate, merciful, you say that you are

Drowning out all our anxieties and fears. Yet,

Every breathe of inspiration that comes,

Flowing with energy, abounding in intensity,

Greets my heart with a stunning announcement:

How can I pardon you? while sin abounds

I cannot let it pass by, I cannot forgive!

Justice you desire, justice you call for,

Kindling a sense of righteousness in my heart,

Leading me along the paths of equity.

May this be how we live, how we are,

Nurturing all that you want us to be.

O Lord of hosts, look down on our lives;

Pity our inequities,

Pardon our transgressions,

Quieten our hearts,

Quicken us with grace.

Restore us to righteousness,

Revive our hearts,

Send again your spirit;

Strengthen and sustain us,

Teaching us the way that you would have us walk.

Under your guidance, we will be faithful,

Vowing to serve you in all of our ways.

When we are judged righteous,

Excelling in your ordinances,

You will delight in us,

Zealous for your ways.

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Guard the good treasure entrusted to you (2 Tim 1; Pentecost 17C)

This week, the lectionary takes us to the second letter addressed to Timothy (2 Timothy). This letter, one of three known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles, comes closest in form to the authentic letters of Paul amongst those three letters.

2 Timothy has an opening address (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–7) and closing greetings (4:19– 21) and benediction (4:22) which follow the pattern found in the letters that are widely accepted as authentic to the historical Paul. The body of the letter (1:8–4:18) contains exhortations to Timothy to follow the example of Paul (1:8–14; 3:10–4:5) and to carry out his role as a teacher (2:1–13), and warnings regarding false teachers (2:14–3:9).

There are personal notes from Paul (1:15–18; 3:10–11; 4:9–18), including a most notable mediation on his achievements and expression of hope regarding his future beyond death (4:6–8). These sections give the letter much more of an “authentic” feel than 1 Timothy and Titus, although there is debate about their origin and purpose.

Some scholars claim they were fragments of earlier authentic letters inserted into this framework late in the first century; others assert that they prove that Paul himself wrote this letter. See

Some features give the letter the quality of a “farewell testament”, in which the life and achievements of Paul are summarised for his followers. Compared with the other two “pastoral” letters, there are no instructions regarding church order, a greater frequency of personal comments, and a more personal tone throughout the letter.

The opening section of this letter, which forms the second reading in next Sunday’s lectionary offerings (1:1–14), exhorts Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13), and “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (1:14). Sound teaching refers back to the reference in the earlier letter to Timothy, “the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:Tim 1:10–11; also 4:6), as well as to “the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” that Titus is told will ensure “sound doctrine” (Tit 1:9).

Those other two letters advocate such “sound teaching” in polemical contexts. In 1 Timothy, it is to counter the influence of “the lawless and disobedient, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane” (1 Tim 1:9); in Titus, it is to contradict “many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision” (Tit 1:9). In 2 Timothy, those being combatted by “sound teaching” are “those in Asia [who] have turned away from from me” (2 Tim 1:15), including two specifically named, Phygelus and Hermogenes; later in the letter, there is mention of “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who “oppose the truth” (3:8).

Each letter indicates that churches were involved in entrenched contested and argumentative situations; the need for “sound teaching” is clear in such situations. The articulation of formulaic statements, as well as the development of a more structured leadership, makes sense in these times.

It points to the way that the church will develop in the future, with more clearly defined leadership and authority structures, as well as clearly-articulated statements of doctrine which mark “what is right” and can then be used to exclude “those who are wrong”—what scholars have called the development of “ early Catholicism”.

So it is that the initial inclusive community ethos that Paul reflects (“all are one in Christ”) shifts to communities with increasingly demarcated boundaries. This is evidenced throughout 2 Timothy: “guard the good treasure” (1:14); “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); beware of those who “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” and thus “oppose the truth” (3:7–8); shun those with “itching ears [who] will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires” (4:3).

So knowing who is inside, and thus who is outside, becomes increasingly important—in contrast to Paul’s own encouragement to his converts to engage with outsiders at every opportunity (1 Thess 4:9–12; 1 Cor 14:20–25; Col 4:5–6).

See also

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How lonely sits the city (Lamentations 1; Pentecost 17C)

Last week’s Hebrew Scripture passage was full of hope. Jeremiah, under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), was planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation. He arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:6–15). He tells the people of Judah that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling the land and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). He demonstrates a firm, unwavering trust in God.

This week, the lectionary turns our attention to the book of Lamentations, which comes immediately after the book of Jeremiah, and which, by tradition, is attributed to Jeremiah, even though these is nothing at all in the text that makes this connection. Jeremiah, remembered for being a gloomy naysayer, seems to be a good match for this depressing text—the loss of hope and the growth of despair amongst the people is evident throughout the five chapters of Lamentations, and nowhere more than in these opening verses (Lam 1:1–6).

The passage sounds notes of mourning, with bitter tears and a sense of betrayal, hard servitude and enduring distress, a sense of suffering and loss of privilege, all contributing to a deep malaise, as the poet has sunk down into the depths of despair. Perhaps the link with Jeremiah can be validated by referring to one of his early pronouncements: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22).

God echoes this mournful attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1); then later, in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and still later, in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).

The weeping that Jeremiah and God display is expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). All five chapters of this book express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced by the people of Judah might come to an end.

However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure”(5:22).

Lamentations contains beautiful poetry, carefully crafted, skilfully compiled; it is aesthetically powerful, its form conveys a message spoken deep from the depths of human emotions. This opening chapter, like three of the four which follow, is an acrostic poem—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. (The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.)

The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.

In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).

The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11). As we read through the poems, we hear a constant, depressing cry: why have you let this happen, O Lord? why have you done this to us, O God?

These five poems bear many similarities with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?

The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.

One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)

These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.

Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.

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God, merciful and gracious: themes in The Prophets

That God’s grace is central to who God is and how God relates to human beings, is a fundamental claim in the writings of Paul. This affirmation is key to the extended theological,discussion we find in Romans, Paul’s longest letter, where Paul affirms that those who believe “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

After citing the example of Abraham, justified by “the righteousness of faith” (4:13), which means that the promise rests on grace (4:16), Paul explains that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (5:1–2).

So Paul rejoices that “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, [has] abounded for the many” (5:15), and he tells the Romans that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). It is God’s grace which marks the life of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah—the Messiah who, in an act of supreme graciousness, “while we were still weak, at the right time [this Messiah] died for the ungodly” (5:6).

Even when considering his unbelieving brothers and sisters in Israel, Paul insists that “God has not rejected his people” (11:1), for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29); accordingly, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5), demonstrating that God remains persistently faithful to God’s people, for “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6). God’s grace is the key.

This key theological motif is signalled in the standard greeting that we find at the start of every one of Paul’s seven authentic letters—“Grace to you and peace”, or some minor variant (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; and Phlm 3). The greeting appears as well in many of the other letters collected in the New Testament (Col 1:2; Eph 1:2; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim Q:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3; Rev 1:4).

A blessing of grace also closes each of Paul’s authentic letters (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; Phlm 25) as well as a number of other letters (Col 4:18; Eph 6:24; 2 Thess 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 4:22; Tit 3:5; Heb 13:25; 2 Pet 3:18) as well as the very last book of the New Testament (Rev 22:21). Each time, it reminds us of this central theological claim about God: God is a god of grace.

In reporting on the activities of Paul, the writer of Acts notes that his preaching told of the grace of God (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 20:24, 32). Indeed, in a rare moment of theological concordance, Peter is said to have concluded his speech to the council in Jerusalem with a characteristically Pauline flourish, affirming that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).

So God’s grace is central to early Christian understandings of God—and the fourth evangelist places it front and centre in his portrayal of Jesus, “the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us”, known to us as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). (None of the Synoptic Gospels employ the precise term; many commentators, however, influenced by the predominance of grace in Pauline theology, interpret the way that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins—Mark 2:10 and parallels; Luke 23:34; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38—to be an expression of God’s grace.)

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as being seated on “the throne of grace”, which we are to approach “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). The letter attributed to James affirms that God “gives all the more grace”, citing the text that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, quoting Ps 138:6), whilst 1 Peter closes with a claim that was is contained in that letter reveals something of “the true grace of God” (1 Pet 5:12). That God is gracious is a fundamental theological claim in the New Testament.

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This is not a new insight into the nature of God, however. Centuries before, faithful Israelite people had grasped the same insight and expressed it in clear and unambiguous ways. The prophet Joel attests that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

The same note is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

It is the very same affirmation about God which an explicit priestly writer placed on the lips of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6).

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), once the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship of the Lord in the Temple, informing the people that “the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chron 30:8–9).

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah affirmed that God pledges to the exiled people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, and then affirms that “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness”, and continues by restating that “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer 31:1–3).

These are the opening words of the chapter that contains Jeremiah’s most famous oracle, in which God promises, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34). That is deep, deep covenant love, expressing God’s thoroughly grace-filled character.

Later still, as the people returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, praising God as “a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a cry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another psalm, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in yet another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this God, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom people of faith turn in regular prayers of supplication and petition.

So we need to let go of the archaic and inaccurate claim that “the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath, the God of the New Testament is a god of love”. God, in both testaments, with equal intensity and equal integrity, is a God of love, abounding in steadfast love—a God of grace, indeed!

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Alongside this strong prophetic affirmation of the grace of God, there is a similarly-strong thread that insists that God will judge the people of God in accordance with their faithfulness, or infidelity, to the covenant that God has made with them. Thus, alongside the God of grace in texts of the Hebrew prophets, stand many texts about the wrath of God, to be delivered on The Day of the Lord. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/09/12/the-day-the-end-themes-in-the-prophets/

How are we to reconcile these two aspects of God? That is the task that our biblical witness invites us to undertake for ourselves!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

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The Final Minor Prophets: Malachi, Jonah, and Joel

The Uniting Church Basis of Union declares that we are followers of Jesus, and that in Jesus, God made a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. It is righteousness and love which is at the heart of God, and it is righteousness and love which is at the centre of the work that Jesus undertakes. That is the perpetual dynamic that expresses the essential nature of God—and, indeed, that describes the demands and requirements of living with others in society.

We have considered prophets from Miriam in the story of the Exodus, through Deborah in the prime of the judges, through the time of the divided kingdoms (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and others), after the conquest of the northern kingdom, as the southern kingdom continues (Huldah and Jeremiah) into the time of exile in Babylon (Jeremiah, still, as well as Ezekiel and Second Isaiah), and on into the return to the land after exile (Third Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah). Today we move beyond those periods into the ongoing life of post-exiled Israel.

Each of these prophets wrestles with this dynamic; how does God express deep seated covenant love to show his mercy, whilst holding the covenant people to the terms of their agreement, living in a just and righteous manner, and executing punishment for their failure to uphold what that covenant requires. Righteousness and mercy, judgement and grace, belong together in an unbroken whole within God. That is the dynamic that each prophet is aware of, and that each prophet articulates in the oracles the speak to their people.

As the later Jewish writer Ben Sirach, a scribe and sage in the 2nd century BCE, wrote: “Do not say, ‘His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners” (Sir 5:6). That phrase, “both mercy and wrath are with him”, articulates the tensions inherent in the developing Jewish understanding of God.

The final group of prophets that we consider now are also grappling with that same dynamic. The tension between mercy and anger, between gracious forgiveness and fierce punishment, between righteousness and love, runs through these books. How do they deal with this?

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The prophet Malachi was active after the Babylonian Exile, soon after Haggai and Zechariah had been prophesying. The city and temple had been fully restored and worship was now active in the temple. In this context, Malachi called the people to repentance, starting with the priests, whom he attacks for their corruption (1:6–2:9); “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts; but you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts” (2:8–9).

He then turns to the religious profanity of the people; “Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god” (2:11), and instructs them to “take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (2:16). God threatens punishment in graphic terms: “I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence” (2:3).

Malachi then identifies a range of ways by which social inequities are practised; God threatens, “I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (3:5). He notes that people regularly shortchange the Lord with incomplete tithes (3:8–15); rectifying this will result in blessings from God (3:10–12).

The prophet looks to the coming of a messenger from God (3:1) who will bring judgment “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:2–3).

The fierce imagery continues with a description of “the day [which] is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). The motif of “the day” has run through the prophets, from before the exile (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15), during the years of exile (Jer 35:32–33; 46:10), and on into the years after the return from exile (Joel 2:1–3, 30–31).

What is required of the people is clear: “remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (4:4). Adherence to the covenant undergirds the claims of this prophet, as indeed it does with each prophet in Israel.

This short book ends with a memorable prophecy from Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:5–6). These words are picked up in the Gospel portrayals of John the Baptist as the returning Elijah (Matt 17:9–13; Luke 1:17), turning the hearts of people so that they might receive the promise offers by Jesus. Whether Malachi himself understood these words to point to John and Jesus, of course, is somewhat dubious.

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The final two “minor prophets”, Jonah and Joel, are hard to locate within the timeline of Israel. Whether Jonah was an actual historical figure is hotly debated; in fact, the four chapters of this book tell a rollicking good tale, that makes us suspect that it was, in fact, “just a story”, rather than actual history.

The large city in this book is Nineveh (Jon 1:2; 3:1–10); it was the capital of Assyria (2 Ki 19:36; Isa 37:37) and we learn at the end of the story of Jonah that it had a huge population of more than 120,000 people. The story thus appears to be set during the period of Assyrian ascendancy, in the 8th century BCE. But many of the literary characteristics of this book reflect a later period, perhaps even a post- explicitly time.

It is true that 2 Kings 14:25 mentions that God speaks through “Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet” during the time of Jeroboam II (about 793–753 B.C.), but this was a time before Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. There is no other indication that this individual was the prophet whose story is told in the book of Jonah, for it does not provide any specific dating; nor does the mention of Jonah in 2 Kings indicate how he exercised his prophetic role.

The charge that Jonah is given is a stock standard prophetic charge: “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2; cf. Amos 1:3; Isa 6:9–13; Jer 1:9–10; Ezek 2:3–4; 3:18–21; Nah 1:2–3; Hab 2:2–5; Zeph 1:2–6). The response of Jonah is like some of those prophets: an initial reluctance to accept the charge (Isa 6:5; Jer 1:6; and see Moses at Exod 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10).

However, whilst other prophets accede to the divine pressure to take up the challenge and declare the judgement of the Lord to a sinful people, Jonah holds fast to his reticence—when commanded to go northeast to Nineveh, he immediately flees in the opposite direction, boarding a ship that was headed west across the Mediterranean Sea, to Tarshish, “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3).

The escape of Jonah from the command of the Lord may be deeply troubling; but the narrative spins the story into burlesque, as “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea”, all the cargo on the ship is thrown overboard, and then Jonah (blissfully sleeping, apparently unaware of the great storm—as if!) is interrogated by the sailors, and eventually offers himself as a sacrifice to save the boat (1:12).

The sailors try in vain to save the ship; realising that this is futile, they throw Jonah into the sea—and immediately “the sea ceased from its raging” (1:15). Then, adding further incredulity to the unbelievable narrative, “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah” (1:17). The three days and three nights that he spends “in the belly of the fish” before he is vomited onto dry land (2:10) add to the comic exaggeration.

The psalm that Jonah prays from inside the fish (2:1–9) and the successful venture to Nineveh, where even the king “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (3:1–10) apparently demonstrate that Jonah should have obeyed the command of the Lord in the first place. However, Jonah’s response continues the exaggerated response of a burlesque character; “this was displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1).

Jonah’s resentment and his plea for God to take his life (4:2–4) and his patient waiting for God to act (4:5) lead to yet another comic-book scene, as a bush grows and then is eaten by a worm and Jonah is assaulted by “a sultry east wind” (4:6–8). The closing words of the book pose a rhetorical question to Jonah (4:9–11) which infers that God has every right to be concerned about the lives of pagans in Nineveh. The last laugh is on Jonah; indeed, he has given his readers many good laughs throughout the whole story!

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The final prophet for us to consider is Joel, who speaks words of lament and calls for repentance amongst the people of Judah. Nothing in this book provides any clues as to the time when Joel was active. The identification of the prophet as “son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1) gives no clue, as Pethuel appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures—indeed, the name Joel, itself appears nowhere else. The name appears to combine the divine names of Jah and El, suggesting that it may be a symbolic creation. Was Joel an historical person?

Joel calls on the “ministers of God” to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13); this reminds us of the response of the pagans in Nineveh (Jonah 3), whilst his remonstrations that “the day of the Lord is near” (1:15) echoes the motif of “the day” already sounded by other prophets (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15; Jer 35:32–33; 46:10).

This day forms the centrepiece of Joel’s undated prophecies, as he describes that day as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:2), when “the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10). He describes the response of the people “in anguish, all faces grow pale” (2:6).

However, Joel adheres to the constant thread running through Hebrew Scriptures, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). Because of this, he yearns for the people to “turn with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12), sensing that there might be hope of restitution for the people.

Joel calls for the people to gather (2:15–16); the oracle that follows paints a picture of abundance and blessing (2:18–27), affirming that “my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).

The prophet then speaks words which have been given a central place in the later story of the Christian church, when he foreshadows that the blessings of God will be manifest through the outpouring of the spirit: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions; even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28–29). This promise is specifically for “all flesh”; this universal vision informs the whole outward impulse of the movement of followers of Jesus, after the day of Pentecost, which Peter interprets as being a fulfilment of this prophecy (Acts 2:14–21).

The day of the Lord that is then envisaged (2:31) will signal a significant reversal for Israel. The Lord laughs at other nations (3:1–8), a reversal that pivots on a turn from despair to hope, from the threats of judgement to a glorious future (3:9–21). Joel repeats the irenic vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares (3:10; see Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3); he sees a ripe harvest (3:13), the land will drip with sweet wine, and there will be milk and water in abundance (3:18). The voice of the Lord “roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake” (3:16; cf the similar pronouncement of Amos at Am 1:2; 3:8).

The last word of this book, “the Lord dwells on Zion” (3:21), provides assurance and certainty for the future. These words of hope promises a peaceful future for the nation. When Joel might have been speaking these words cannot be definitively determined; it could have been under the Assyrian threat, during the Babylonian dominance, in the time of exile, or after the return to the land—the promise of hope holds good in each of these scenarios.

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Houses and fields and vineyards again (Jeremiah 32; Pentecost 16C)

Jeremiah is usually associated with doom and gloom, as we saw in last week’s lectionary offering: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer 8:18, 22). In the reading for this week, however, offered by the lectionary (Jer 8:18–2, 9:1), Jeremiah is optimistic. Even though he is being held under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), he is planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation.

Jeremiah arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:7, 16). He is a child of Judah, and here is sending down his roots even deeper into the land that God had given his ancestors. He believes that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling Judah and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). This attitude is thoroughly grounded in trust in God.

Jeremiah “serves as an examplar for exiles by acting with obedient hopefulness in the face of invasion and captivity”. The land purchase “begins the fulfilment of the visions of 30:1–31:40.” It is located at “the nadir of Judah’s story, during the bleakness of invasion” (587 to 586 BCE by our reckoning). (Quotations from Kathleen O’Connor, Oxford Bible Commentary, 515)

On the surface, the purchase appears futile, as Jeremiah foresees the dominance of the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, their king; this dominance shall remain, it seems, for some time, “until I attend to him, as the Lord declares” (32:5). So the prophet insists that the transaction take place, as a sign of hope in the future amidst the despair and devastation of his present.

This is what scholars call a “prophetic sign-act”, one of a number that Jeremiah enacts: wearing a linen loincloth, then hiding it, recovering it, and finding it “ruined, good for nothing” (13:1–7), a sign of the punishment to come on Judah (13:8–11); living as a celibate (16:1–2) as a sign of the exile to come (16:3–9); and pointing to the work of the potter, shaping a vessel, spoiling the vessel, and remaking it (18:1–4) as a sign of the way the Lord will treat Israel (18:5–11). Indeed, the last word of Jeremiah is to have his words written on a scroll which is thrown into the Euphrates River (51:59–63), to indicate that “Babylon shall sink, to rise no more”. (51:64).

The redemption of this parcel of land is a “prophetic sign-act” offering hope. It is reminder of the commands about the land found in Leviticus 25, where the Lord is said to have declared that “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me, you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). The last concept is picked up in New Testament texts describing the people as aliens (1 Pet) and looking to the promise of a heavenly city (Heb 11).

The Levitical decree sits in the chapter concerning the Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:1–7) and the Year of Jublilee (Lev 25:8–55), a time of cancellation of debts and restitution of the land, a liberating sign of the liberating God who is to be worshipped; “the people of Israel are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 25:55). The redemption of the land by Jeremiah, acting through Baruch, signals an ongoing commitment to the covenant which the people had with the Lord God.

The purchase of land demonstrates a trust in the promise spoken in the preceding chapter. Jeremiah famously speaks about the new covenant; his words, however, are often spiritualised—the law is not written on stones, but written in the hearts of the people (Jer 31:31–33), the knowledge of God is not to be taught, but will be innate—“they shall all know me” (Jer 25:34).

By contrast to this common spiritualised interpretation, Jeremiah intends that this new covenant is to be lived in all of life; it is not simply a promise for an ethereal future, but it is to be a tangible reality in the immediacy of life in the present. So Jeremiah enfleshes the promise through the purchase of land. It is an incarnation of action some centuries before Jesus!

Interestingly, although the lectionary shifts the order of these passages, the purchase of land in Jer 32, signalling the promises made in the oracles of Jer 30–31, is placed immediately after the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to come to terms with their situation in exile: “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, take wives and have sons and daughters … multiply there [in Babylon] and do not decrease” (Jer 29:1–9). They, too, are to express their covenant faith in the realities of everyday life, even if they are in exile in a foreign land.

The details of this commercial transaction, involving money, property, and a deed of purchase (vv.9–12), are important; they indicate that how we treat our possessions, the land on which we live, the land which we own, reflects our faith. Jeremiah knows the trust of Lev 25:24; the land is of God—in this case, it has been given over to the family of Jeremiah as a trust, for them to care for. That trust is to “last for a long time” (v.14).

So the story invites us to consider how we exercise our responsibilities in property matters, how we live on the land, how we show that we believe that the land is of God. (It sits well alongside the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary, from Luke 16, which also emphasises the importance of responsible dealing with property and material things, in the life of faith.)

Our attitude to the land is actually a live current issue in Australia, as we mark the turning of an era (as the Queen dies, so the King reigns). Signs and symbols of British imperialism in this Great Southern Land remind us that, although the land was, and is, and will remain, central to the lives of the First Peoples of this continent, British colonisers have invaded, settled, massacred, and imposed a foreign way of life on those First Peoples. For them, being on country is being in spirit—connected with the spirit of the ancestors, living in harmony with the spirit of the creator God. There are resonances, surely, with the close connection to the land that Jeremiah here exhibits.

So in our context, the fact that Jeremiah buys the land is a challenge to our expectations that we can simply assume and take control of these lands. The fact that Jeremiah exchanges a contract for the land reinforces the importance of our dealings with real estate, property, finances, and people. His property transaction attests to the promise of the Lord to a besieged and soon-to-be exiled people, “ houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15). The sign, to us, is clear: what we do with our material, physical lives ought to reflect the spiritual hopes and commitments that we have as people of faith.

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On godliness, dignity, and purity: the life of faith in 1 Timothy (Epiphany 16C)

This Sunday we are offered an excerpt from the final chapter of the first letter to Timothy (1 Tim 6:6–19). The letter is attributed by tradition to Paul, but more likely, I believe, it was written by a student of Paul some decades after his life. The author draws on the authority of Paul to lend weight to the teachings that he provides in this letter.

We have seen that the central concern of this letter appears to be to ensure obedience and pass on the essential teachings of the faith in order to refute the false teachers. This ideal is very different from the one Paul reflected in 2 Cor 11: the dangers of life, the centrality of suffering. Paul lived in the tension between this world and the next, full of expectation that Jesus will return soon (1 Thess 1:9–10; 1 Cor 7:26–31; Rom 8:18–25).

Here, however, the belief in an imminent return of Jesus has passed (6:14–15); the demands for unqualified and unquestioning adherence to “the truth” are based in obedience to the resplendent figure of Jesus, in the heavenly realm, who “alone has immortality, and dwells in unapproachable light” (6:15–16).

Paul had enthusiastically testified to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus; but this letter asserts, “no one has ever seen or can see” him (6:16).

This picture of Jesus offers a pointer to how the theology of the early church was developing. The groundwork for disputes over correct doctrine and heresy was here being laid for the debates of the early church councils in subsequent centuries.

Associated with this emphasis on right belief is an intensifying of ethical demands on the believers; what is important is to teach moderation, prudence and order. The instruction to Timothy to “keep yourself pure” (5:22; see also 1:5; 4:12) reflects Paul’s criticism of impurity (Rom 1:24; 6:19; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; 1 Thess 4:7) and advocacy of purity (Phil 1:10; 4:8; 1 Thess 2:10). The offering of prayers “so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2:2) also evokes Paul (compare 1 Thess 4:11).

Yet a number of terms point to significant differences from Paul’s authentic letters: the use of the term “godliness”; the inclusion of numerous moral qualities required of leaders which are either unique to the Pastorals (temperate, sensible, serious, manage, double-tongued) or found only rarely in other Pauline letters (noble, hospitable, above reproach); the emphasis on financial responsibility; the way that “conscience” is used (1 Tim 3:9) and the striking phrase, “fight the good fight” (1:18; 6:12). The letter takes strides beyond the teachings set out in Paul’s authentic letters.

Most controversial of all is the section of this letter instructing women (2:8–15). Almost every element of the passage stands in contradiction to what Paul has stated. The “dress code” (2:9) is not something that would be written by Paul, as is the emphasis on “good works” (2:10). The demand for silence and submission (2:11) is reminiscent of 1 Cor 14:34 (which may well not have been written by Paul) but is counter to the guidelines for women when speaking in worship (1 Cor 11:2–16), as is the directive that women not teach (2:12).

The interpretation of the Genesis narrative (2:13–14) is strikingly different from the way that Paul treats it at 1 Cor 11:8–12 and Rom 5:12–21. The assertion that a woman “will be saved through childbirth” (2:15) is likewise contrary to Paul’s emphasis on faith and grace as the means by which salvation is granted. For more on the difficult passages in letters attributed to Paul where female subjugation appears to be in view, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-2-six-problem-passages/

The passage in 1 Tim 2:8–15 appears to be attacking excesses within the community of faith, but it does so by insisting upon good order, obedience and submission—qualities which are held in high regard throughout this letter.

The author instructs Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (6:11). The list is slightly evocative of the list of “gifts of the Spirit” that Paul provides at Gal 5:22–23, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, although the list in 1 Tim 6 is not linked in any way with the Spirit. That is typical of this and other letters which came from later in the first century, some decades after Paul himself was writing letters.

In Paul’s authentic letters, the Spirit is an important element. Paul retains from his Jewish upbringing a sense of the Spirit as a manifestation of divine energy; the Spirit is God’s gift to believers (Rom 5:5) and thus the source of life and peace (Rom 7:6; 8:2, 5–6). In Hebrew Scripture, the Spirit is seen to breathe over the waters of chaos as God’s primary agent in creation, to gift the elders appointed by Moses, to anoint the prophets and to inspire their pointed words of warning. In Paul’s understanding, the Spirit gifts believers with a multitude of gifts (1 Cor 12:4–11).

Paul also imbues the Spirit with an eschatological role—first, the Spirit acts by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 1:4; 8:11) and then by adopting believers as “children of God” (Rom 8:14–23). The Spirit is a marker of life in the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17). The kingdom, for Paul, remains a future promise, to become a reality within the eschatological timetable (1 Cor 15:23-26).

Paul speaks with passion about how the creation groans in the present time of distress (Rom 8:18–23), as believers hold fast to their hope in the renewal of creation (Rom 8:17, 21, 24–25; see also 1 Cor 7:28–31). The role of the Spirit in this period is to strengthen believers by interceding for them (Rom 8:26–27).

Paul reminds the Romans that they are “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9); this is reminiscent of his guidance to the Galatians to live “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 22–25) and his exposition to the Corinthians of the gifts which are given “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1, 4–11). The understanding of the gifting of believers by the Spirit, articulated in the first letter to the Corinthians, has played a significant role throughout the history of the church over the centuries.

The life of faith, lived “in the Spirit”, is therefore to be characterised by “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul immediately explains that this requires believers to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). After making this bold programmatic statement, Paul devotes significant time (in Rom 12–15) to spelling out some of the ways in which this transformation might take place. The Spirit effects transformation, which then governs the behaviour as well as the words of believers. The dynamic, pervasive role,of the Spirit is evident at many places in Paul’s authentic letters.

In the first letter to Timothy, by contrast, the almost total absence of the Spirit is striking. Only two explicit references to the spirit occur. The first is completely formulaic; the claim that Jesus was “vindicated in spirit” sits second in a series of six clauses which set out some key aspects of “the truth” to which Timothy is to be bound: “the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). The Spirit is not an active, energising force in this formula; rather, the spirit is the static realm in which Jesus was “vindicated”.

This formula is followed immediately by the claim that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith” (4:1). Once again, the context and the terminology drives incessantly towards the affirmation of “the truth”; those revealed as renouncing the faith are condemned for “paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” as well as their teachings that “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (4:1–3). The revelation by the Spirit points away from these doctrines and practices and orients decisively towards “the truth”.

For discussion: What do you make of the discussion above, setting out the differences between the authentic letters of Paul, and the first letter to Timothy? Do you think that there was a different author for this letter?

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As I watched visions in the night, I saw one like a human being (Daniel)

In this series on the prophets of ancient Israel, the figure of Daniel is something of an anomaly. He does not say “woe is me”, as many of the priests do. He does not stand and declaim words of divine judgement on the people for their sinfulness. He does not deliberately use symbolic actions to dramatise his message, as do many other prophets, although his book is replete with many symbols that invite—indeed, require—interpretation.

Whilst he does speak of the wrath of God (Dan 9:16), this to be executed “later, in the period of wrath” (8:19; 11:36). Like other prophets, he does affirm that “the God of heaven” exhibits mercy (2:18; 9:9) and prays seeking that mercy from God (4:27; 6:11). He also affirms the covenant of Israel with their God (11:28–35), although this is set in the context of specific timeframes: a period of seventy weeks (9:24), including a period for “a strong covenant with many” for one week (9:27), followed immediately by “an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out on the desecration” (9:27).

Daniel himself is never “called to be a prophet”, as we have seen in other prophetic books; he is introduced as one of a number of “young men without physical defect and handsome, endowed with knowledge and insight”, who were chosen “to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:3–5). Indeed, the Israelite Daniel is given a Babylonian name, Belteshazzar (1:7; 4:8), and his entire story takes place in the Babylonian court.

(The Chaldeans were part of the Babylonian Empire; centuries earlier they had settled beside the Euphrates in what became the southeastern edge of the Babylonian Empire. Abraham is said to have come from Ur, a city in the region of the Chaldea; see Gen 11:31; 15:7.)

The story of the prophet Daniel is thus set outside Israel, in the time of exile, after the conquest of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 587 BCE (Dan 1:1–2; see 2 Kings 25). Daniel had been chosen to serve in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 605 BCE to 562 BCE (Dan 1:3–7); when the Persians took control of the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE, Daniel continued to serve in a position of some power.

Scholars believe, however, that the story is told at a much later time, after the exile—perhaps even during the time of Seleucid superiority in the second century BCE. Two centuries after they had returned to the land of Israel, rebuilt their Temple, restored their cities and towns, and living under Persian rule, the people of Israel were over run by the troops of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, as he swept across the eastern Mediterranean region as Far East as modern day India. A new foreign power, and a new attitude towards the religion and customs of Israel.

Initially the interaction between Israelites and Macedonians was one of integration. Greek became the language of trade; syncretism marked the religious life of the people, as they adopted Greek customs. But when Antiochus Epiphanes came to power over the region, he introduced an altar in the temple to receive pagan offerings—something which, in Israelite eyes, was known a “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14; 1 Mac 1:54). This appears to be clearly described in the final vision, recounting how forces “shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress, abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate” (Dan 11:31).

A clear reflection of the exile experience is that an extended section of the book (2:4b—7:28) is written in Aramaic, a language which evolved from Hebrew because of the influence of Babylonian culture and language on the exiled Israelites. The rest of the book (like all the rest of Hebrew Scripture) is written in Hebrew. Whereas Aramaic became the common language of Jews even when they were living back in Israel (and this was the case by the time of Jesus), Hebrew was preserved as the holy language of scripture.

Curiously, the book has two distinct parts, which overlap this linguistic division; each part is likely to have originated in a different time after the exile. The first six chapters recount stories about Daniel, who was serving in the court and enjoyed friendly relations with the monarch; the style is one found in other legends about courtiers and dream interpreters. Chapters 7–12 comprise a series of apocalyptic visions which appear to contain some very direct references to events that took place in the second century BCE. These chapters come “from the mouth of Daniel”, as it were, rather than being stories about him (as in chapters 1–6).

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This first half of the book of Daniel contains a number of dramatic scenes. In these first six chapters, we find some striking stories about Daniel (given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar) and his companions, each of whom are also given Babylonian names (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). While Daniel and his companions are serving in the Babylonian court (1:3–18), a number of dramatic incidents are narrated.

One striking aspect of Daniel is that he provides interpretation of the king’s two dreams (chapters 2 and 4). To the intense frustration of King Nebuchadnezzar, none of his wise men are able to explain the meaning of the first dream about a huge statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay; he is on the brink of having them all executed (2:12–13) when Daniel intervenes.

It is then that we learn that Daniel has been gifted by God to be “a revealer of mysteries” (2:47), and he is able to explain what each element in the dream signifies (2:24–45), and to assure the king that “the dream is certain, and it’s interpretation is trustworthy” (2:45). As a result, Daniel is promoted and his three friends are installed in responsible and powerful positions (2:46–49).

However, under the influence of “certain Chaldeans” (3:8), the three friends of Daniel are denounced and are cast into the fiery furnace by an infuriated king (3:19–21). Miraculously, the three men survive this ordeal; King Nebuchadnezzar “was astonished”, called the three mean out of the furnace, blessed them, and condemned those opposing them to be “torn limb from limb, and their households laid in ruin” (3:24–30).

The king subsequently has a second dream, and the narrative follows the same pattern: the king is afraid, he calls his wise men, they are unable to provide any explanation, and then Daniel is asked to offer an interpretation, because “you are endowed with a spirit of the holy gods” (4:18). Once again, Daniel’s interpretation is offered—but what he foresees for the king fails to please him; and just twelve months later, “the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar” and he becomes mad: “he ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws” (4:33).

This time of madness fortunately is soon lifted. Nebuchadnezzar prays to God: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives forever” (4:34–35), praising God “for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice” (4:37). What follows is an account of “a great festival for a thousand of his lords”, organised by Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar—but during the festivities, those present demonstrate their pagan traditions, as they “drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (5:1–4).

During the feast, fingers of a human hand wrote on the wall of the palace (5:5–9). The king’s advisors were (once again) unable to understand what what written; Daniel is brought in and offers an interpretation of “the writing on the wall” (5:10–31), warning the king of the end of his kingdom: “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”, so the kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians (5:25–28). So it was that Daniel was clothed in purple and accorded a high ranking in the kingdom (5:29); but Belshazzar was killed that night, leading to the accession of Darius (5:30–31).

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Daniel was thus thrust once again into the murky arena of national politics (then, as now, a fraught environment!). Whilst Daniel exercised his role as a satrap under Darius the Mede, a conspiracy was formed against him as opponents looked to bring him down. When he is caught praying to the Lord God, despite the interdict of the king (6:1–15), he is thrown into the lion’s den (6:16).

The next morning, the king hurries to the den, and finds Daniel alive; his prayers have miraculously saved him (6:19–22). Daniel is released from the lion’s den and rescued from danger (6:23–28); Darius issues an edict praising “the living God” whose “kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end; he delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth” (6:26–27).

If the story was written (as is thought by many) during the time of the Seleucids, its depiction of a foreign ruler who is positively disposed towards Israel’s God is striking. Under Antiochus Epiphanes, the colonising forces of the Macedonians “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant; they joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac 1:14–15). Antiochus not only erected an image in the temple (the “desolation of sacrilege”), but even had the scrolls of Torah collected and burnt—many centuries before the Nazis did this (you can read the details of his rule in 1 Mac 1:41–64).

The author of Daniel is writing political literature as political critique. We know that Antiochus provoked a political uprising led by the Maccabees, the sons of Matthias (1 Mac 2—6)—figures later upheld as heroes by the Zealots in the time of Jesus. The book of Daniel provides a rationale for the zealous ideology of the Maccabees, seeking to put in place a righteous leadership in Israel.

Carol Newsom observes that “in several narratives in the book of Daniel, the king humbly confesses the sovereignty of the God of the Jews, acknowledging that he rules by the will of God” (“Political Theology in the Book of Daniel: An Internal Debate”, Review andn Expositor, vol. 109, 2012, pp.557–568). Prof. Newsom continues, “other parts of the book depict the gentile king as being part of God’s plan, but a part that will ultimately be destroyed as incompatible with divine sovereignty.” We see this clearly in view in chapters 1—6.

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By contrast, Prof. Newsom observes that when we read on into chapters 7—12, we encounter “the most negative view of gentile kingship, finding it to be monstrous and utterly evil. Although one can understand the different perspectives based on particular historical circumstances, a more fruitful hermeneutical approach is to read the different perspectives in Daniel as a never-fully-resolved conversation about the good or evil nature of political power, a conversation that continues to this day.” In this way, the book of Daniel is quite timely and relevant.

In this second half of the book (chapters 7–12) we read a series of visions seen by Daniel. The opening vision of the four beasts (7:1–8) famously contains a description of “one like a human being [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven [who] came to the Ancient One and was presented before him” (7:13–14). This vision appears to inform the later words of Jesus, when he predicts that people “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) and tells the Jerusalem Sanhedrin that they will see “‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:62).

The involvement of the angel Gabriel (chapters 8 and 9) brings the decree of “seventy weeks … to atone for iniquity” (9:20–27) and opens up a full-scale apocalyptic scenario, with battles, floods, the rise of a warrior king, shifting alliances amongst the various kings, more battles, the besieging of a city, the dominance of a “contemptible person”, the profaning of the temple and violation of the covenant in Israel, the disrespecting of “the God of gods” (10:1–11:39).

It also leads to a grand vision “at the time of the end” (11:40–12:13) when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2), thereby providing a key Hebrew Scripture text which is used in discussions of the resurrection as reported in the New Testament.

The notion of “The End” has been developing in prophetic literature, emerging from the earlier prophet’s declarations about “The Day of the Lord”. This theme will continue to be developed and expanded in apocalyptic texts both in Second Temple Judaism and in earthly Christian texts in the New Testament and in works of the following century or two. See

At this time, a “man in linen” declares that “when the shattering of the power of the holy people [namely, Israel] comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished” (12:7). The language is reminiscent of the extended apocalyptic response that Jesus gives when his disciples ask him, “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

Daniel, the supreme interpreter, has been able to make sense of all that has gone before; at this point, however, he “heard but could not understand” (12:8). The “man in linen” informs him that “the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the ends (12:9); Daniel is dismissed and the story ends. The ending invites readers to “make sense” for themselves of what they have read—and so, apocalyptic speculation continues unabated to this day!

More importantly, perhaps, is the observation that apocalyptic speaks not only into the future, but especially into the present time of the author; and therefore, the political edges of the narrative and especially of the apocalyptic visions portray what is needed to remain faithful to God in the challenges of those times. That dynamic translates into a challenge for us, today.

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There’s a good discussion of politics and religion in the book of Daniel in this article: https://spectrummagazine.org/sabbath-school/2020/daniel-and-empire-then-and-now

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Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8; Pentecost 15C)

The prophet Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37).

King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Sure enough, after Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE, they pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell of Judah in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements.

Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.

“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.

Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). That is the passage that is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday. The grief of the times led Jeremiah to an expression of utter despair: “is there no balm in Gilead?” (8:22).

The region of Gilead was the mountainous northern region of Transjordan, the land to the east of the Jordan River—an area which now is in the nation of Jordan. Whilst it was not part of the land of Canaan, it was promised to “half the time of Manasseh” (Deut 3:13; also Num 32:40). A medicinal perfume was made from a balsam shrub that grew in the area; it is noted in the Joseph story as being carried by a company of Ishmaelites who “came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Gen 37:25).

This balm is also included in the present which Jacob later sent to the ruler of Egypt: “a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds” (Gen 43:11). According to Josephus, the Queen of Sheba brought “the root of the balsam” as a present to King Solomon (1 Ki 10:10; Antiquities of the Jews 8.6); the balm was later noted, admiringly, by a string of writers (Pliny, Tacitus, Florus, and Diodorus Siculus). It forms a saying in contemporary life, referring to a certain cure,

Jeremiah continues after this oracle of woe to denounce the worship of idols that the people perpetuate (10:1–16) and their breaches of the covenant (11:1–17). As a result, his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20). He declares that God condemns others who are prophesying; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18).

The prophet then dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).

The message of Jeremiah up to this point is stark, confronting, demanding: turn around, reshape your life, repent—or suffer the consequences. It’s no wonder that he felt aggrieved and despairing; who would respond? It’s a message that remains confronting and demanding for us, today. How do we respond?

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A ransom for all: a formulaic claim (1 Tim 2; Pentecost 15C)

This week the lectionary offers us an excerpt from the second chapter of the first letter to Timothy, attributed by tradition to Paul, “a herald and an apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7). The passage is 1 Tim 2:1–7.

Just before making this authorial statement, the author offers one of the assorted short, formulaic statements about “the faith” that pepper the three pastoral letters: “there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5–6). (The other instances of such formulaic statements are at 1:15; 3:1; 3:16; 4:9–10; 6:15–16.)

Ransom is a term that we associate with the forced kidnapping of a person and the demand for a payment in order for them to be released. This is not the way the term is used in biblical texts, where payment in return for release of a captive is not in view. Rather, the orientation is towards the idea that there is a significant cost involved in the process of ransoming.

The Greek word used here is antilutron, a compound word comprised of the prefix anti- (in the place of) and the noun lutron. This noun also appears in a saying of Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The noun lutron comes from a verb, lutrein, which means “to release”. It was a common term for the payment needed to secure the release of slaves, debtors, and prisoners of war. The noun, translated as ransom, occurs in the Septuagint. It identifies the price paid to redeem a slave or captive (Lev 25:51–52) or a firstborn (Num 18:15). It also indicates the price to be paid as recompense for a crime (Num 35:31–32) or injury (Exodus 21:30). In these instances, it translates the Hebrew word koper, which has the basic meaning of “covering”.

Another form of that word appears in another form in the name of the Great High Holy Day in Judaism—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1–34; Num 29:7–11). On that day, as the cloud of incense covers the mercy seat (kapporeth, Lev 16:13), the mercy seat is smeared with the blood of the sacrificed bull (16:14) and then the blood of the goat which provides the sin offering (16:15). According to Leviticus, it is these actions which “shall make atonement (kipper) for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16).

The process of atonement in the Israelite religion was to cover up, to hide away from view, the sins of the people. This is developed to some degree in the fourth Servant Song of Deutero-Isaiah, when the prophet honours the servant because “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). His life was understood as “an offering for sin” (53:10) which “shall make many righteous” (53:11). Indeed, as the Song ends, it affirms that “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Song resonates with the language and imagery of righteous suffering as the means of dealing with, and perhaps atoning for, sins.

That notion is further expounded in a later text which provides an account of the way that a righteous man, Eleazar, was martyred as a means of ransoming the nation during the time of upheaval under Antiochus Epiphanes (175–167 BCE). “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them”, he prays; “make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc 6:28–29).

The idea then appears in New Testament texts which describe the effect of the death of Jesus for those who have placed their trust in him. Paul uses ransom language tells the saints that they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). He also uses apolutrosis, a compound word but from the base word lutrein, to describe the redemption which was accomplished by Jesus, both in a formulaic way (1 Cor 1:30) and in a more discursive manner (Rom 3:24; 8:23).

The term recurs in later letters which likely were not written by Paul (Col 1:14; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30), as well as in the Lukan redaction of the final eschatological speech of Jesus (Luke 21:28). In another late first century work, providing an account of Paul by an author at some remove from him, the book of Acts, Paul was said to have declared of the church that God “obtained [it] with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).

It was the combination of such passages that led the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria to develop an idiosyncratic theory of the atonement (the way that Jesus enables God to deal with human sinfulness). Origen’s ransom theory of atonement reads Genesis 3 as an account of Adam and Eve being taken captive by Satan; this state was then inherited by all human beings. The death of Jesus is what enables all humans to be saved; the means for this was that the blood shed by Jesus was the price paid to Satan to ransom humanity (or, in a variant form, a ransom paid by Jesus to God to secure our release).

However, none of these texts require this overarching theological superstructure to make sense of what they say. Origen’s ransom theory held sway for some centuries, but was definitively rejected by the medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury. It is not a favoured theory of atonement in much of the contemporary church (though it is still advocated in various fundamentalist backwaters). Certainly, none of this should be attributed to the saying we find at 1 Tim 2:5–6.

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The Day, The End: themes in The Prophets

Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).

That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).

Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).

Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).

Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).

Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).

Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).

And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).

Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).

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The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).

And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).

Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).

Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.

Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.

The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.

Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).

This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.

Attention to The Day which will bring The End continues in Jewish literature that was written in the Diaspora, amongst Jews that remained in the lands outside Israel, as well as by Jews whose ancestors had returned to Israel from the late 6th century onwards. Jews continued to write apocalypses (3 Enoch; Apocalypse of Abraham; Genesis Apocryphon; and a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Interest in “the end times” appears also in Christian literature, both in words attributed to Jesus (Mark 13; Matt 25–25; Luke 17 and 21) as well as statements in various letters written by leaders in the movement initiated by Jesus (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29–31; 15:21–28; and all of 2 Thess) and in the seven letters found early in the book of Revelation. This interest continues on into other documents from the first few centuries that are not canonical (Didache 16; Barnabas 15; Apocalypse of Peter).

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I have chosen you … rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion (Haggai and Zechariah)

Alongside the writings of Trito-Isaiah, there are a further two prophets whom we can date to the specific time soon after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The books of Haggai and Zechariah each open with a specific date, both placing their activity in the time of Darius, King of Persia. Malachi is not dated, but is generally considered to have been written fairly soon after Haggai and Zechariah. (The remaining “minor prophets”, Jonah and Joel, however, contain no such indication as to their date.)

Haggai and Zechariah are located in the period when the exiles in Babylon are returned to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by decision of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Deutero-Isaiah, you may remember, described as God’s “Messiah”). In his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).

Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship is reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law is read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).

Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).

Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).

The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire together ensure that the temple is restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).

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What is it, then, that Haggai and Zechariah say to the people? The prophetic words of Haggai are nestled within a relatively brief narrative telling of this return to Jerusalem; they were delivered over a short period of time from “the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1) until “the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius” (Hag 2:10, 20).

In the course of those three months, Haggai condemns the people for failing to rebuild the ruined temple while people live in “paneled houses” (1:4), encourages the people to “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house” (1:8), and then declares that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (2:9).

Haggai then relays an ominous word of the Lord: “I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade” (2:21–22). Yet this short book ends with a positive note for the future, promising to make Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles to return to Judah, “like a signet ring, for I have chosen you” (2:23).

(An excerpt from Haggai appears in the lectionary on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.)

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Zechariah dates his opening prophecy to “the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (Zech 1:1), which places him as a contemporary of Haggai. Zechariah begins witha familiar prophetic refrain: “return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:3), noting that when this message was presented to earlier Israelites, “they repented and said, ‘the Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do’” (1:6).

What follows this opening salvo is a report of eight visions (1:7—6:8). They are dated to “the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (2:7), two months after the final prophecy of Haggai. The visions combine glimpses of hope with reminders of the need to remain faithful to the covenant: “if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). The fourth vision (3:1–10) includes the figure of “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew) standing at the right hand of Joshua, to accuse him (3:1).

At the conclusion of the eighth vision there follows words of condemnation (7:1–7) and punishment (7:8–14), citing classic prophetic notes: “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9–10).

Then come words of promise (8:1–23): “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3). Once again, prophetic injections are offered: “speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16–17).

An oracle pronouncing judgement on other nations then follows (9:1–8), followed by a joyful celebration of the restoration of Judah (9:9–11:3), introduced by a rousing shout of joy: “rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). This verse is well-known, of course, from its quotation in the story of Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem (Matt 21:5).

The remaining chapters continue the note of exultation about the future, reworking the motif of “the day of the Lord” so that it signals joy for Jerusalem and terror for other nations (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; 14:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21). A triumphant note of universalism is sounded: “on that day “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9) and “all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14:16).

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Gathering the outcasts, envisaging the new creation (Isaiah 56–66)

The third section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66) begins with a familiar prophetic announcement: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), the book demonstrates what this justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles.

The prophet sounds a vivid counter-cultural note in the midst of the events of his time. He begins with the promise to foreigners and eunuchs that “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5). This is a striking contrast to the narrative provided in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell of the return to the city, the rebuilding of the walls, the renewal of the covenant and the public reading of the Law, the rededication of the Temple—and actions designed to remove foreigners (especially women) from within Israel (see Ezra 10; Neh 13).

Ezra and Nehemiah exhibited a zealous fervour to restore the Law to its central place in the life of Israel. Ezra, learning that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2), worked with “the elders and judges of every town” to determine who had married foreign women; the men identified “pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (Ezra 10:19). (So much for the importance of families!)

Nehemiah considered that this project to “cleanse [the people] from everything foreign” (Neh 13:30) was in adherence to the command that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them” (Neh 13:1–2; see Num 22—24). The restoration of Israel as a holy nation meant that foreigners would be barred from the nation.

The oracle at the start of the third section of Isaiah stands in direct opposition to this point of view; “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:6–7).

Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase in the action he undertook in the outer court of the Temple (Mark 11:17). Later, the welcome offered to the Ethiopian court official by Philip, who talked with him about scripture and baptised him, a eunuch (Acts 8:26–38), is consistent with the prophetic words, “to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4–5). (From the earliest days, the church practised an inclusive welcoming of diversity that was consistent with this prophetic declaration.)

Other words in this last section of Isaiah also resonate strongly with texts in the New Testament. The ingathering of the outcasts (56:8) and the flocking of all the nations to Zion (60:1–18) together are reflected in the prediction of Jesus that “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

The statement that those coming from Sheba “shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60:6) most likely informed the story that Matthew created, concerning the wise ones from the east who came to see the infant Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt 2:11).

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Further oracles set out exactly what the justice that God desires (56:1; 61:8) looks like. The extensive worship of idols (57:1–13) will bring God’s wrath on the people; “there is no peace, says my God, for the wicked” (57:13). Rather, “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” chooses “to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” (57:15).

Because God indicates that “I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry” (57:16), the prophet conveys what the Lord sees as the fast that is required; not a fast when “you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers” (58:3), but rather, a fast “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (58:6–7). These words resonate with the actions of “the righteous” in the well-known parable of Jesus, as they gave food, water, a welcome, clothing, and care to those sick or imprisoned (Matt 25:31–46).

The prophet laments that “there is no justice … justice is far from us … we wait for justice, but there is none … justice is turned back … the Lord saw it, and it displeased him” (59:8–15); he declares that, as a consequence, God “put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (59:17)—a description that underlines the later exhortations to the followers of Jesus to “put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–17).

Because the Lord “loves justice” (61:8), the prophet has been anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God” (61:1–2)—words which are appropriated by Jesus when he visits his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18–19); “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, Jesus declares (Luke 4:21).

Adhering to this way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires, means that he will give Israel a new name: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4). We have already seen the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8.

By contrast, vengeance will be the experience of Edom; using the image of trampling down the grapes in the wine press, the prophet reports the intention of God: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:1–6). So vigorously does God undertake this task, that he is attired in “garments stained crimson” because “their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes” (63:1–3). Once again, the prophet speaks in graphic terms about the consequences of sinfulness.

Confronted with this display of wrath and vengeance, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The book ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23). (This passage appears in the lectionary on the 23rd Sunday flyer Pentecost.)

This vision is taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah incorporates a number of references to earlier prophetic words: building houses and planting vineyards (65:21) recalls the words of Jeremiah (Jer 29:5–7); the image of wolves lying with lambs and lions “eating straw like the ox” recalls the vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:6–7).

The promise that “they shall not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain” (65:25) recalls that same vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:9), whilst the next promise about not labouring in vain nor bearing children for calamity (65:23) reverses the curse of Gen 3:16–19. The story of creation from the beginning of Genesis is evoked when the Lord asserts that “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … all these things my hand has made” (66:1–2); these are the words which Stephen will quote back to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 7:48–50) and will lead to his death at their hands.

Even to the very end of this book, the judgement of the Lord is evident; the prophet declares that “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire; for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (66:15–16).

Nevertheless, the glory of the Lord shall be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (66:20). The universalising inclusivism that was sounded at the start of this prophet’s work is maintained through into this closing oracle. In “the new heavens and the new earth which I will make … all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:22–23). The vision lives strong!

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An example to those who come to believe (1 Timothy 1; Pentecost 14C)

The first letter to Timothy contains a basic letter framework: a short opening address (1:1–2) and a brief closing exhortation and benediction (6:20–21), but no thanksgiving or personalised greetings. The body of the letter alternates between condemnation of false teachers (1:3–2:15; 4:1–5.2; 6.2b–19) and instructions for good order within the church (3:1–16; 5:3–6:2a).

These instructions relate specifically to leaders who are identified as overseers (3:1–7), servants (3:8–13), widows (5:3–16) and elders (5:17–19); these led to orders of ministry within the later church (bishop—priest—deacon). That threefold structure is not exactly evident in this, or other, New Testament texts; not until the letters of Ignatius of Antioch in the early decades of the second century do we encounter this precise structuring.

(See the letters of Ignatius to the Magnesians 2: “with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ”; and to the Smyrnaeans 8: “wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.)

So the first letter to Timothy is actually a treatise, addressing two key matters: living a blameless life and believing the right doctrine. The purpose of the letter is to order the community to ensure that this way is followed; the figure of Paul is set forth as the exemplar in these matters (1:16) and Timothy provides a further example (4:12). The offices of overseers (bishops), servants (deacons), elders (presbyters), and widows are in place to ensure that people live a godly life and adhere to the true faith.

The letter has begun with a warning about “certain people” who teach a “different doctrine” that the author characterises as involving “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith” (1:3–4). Some chapters later, the author sounds a more strident note, with a description of “liars” who follow the teachings of “deceitful spirits” and “demons” (4:1–2), expressed in “profane myths and old wives’ tales” (4:7). To accept such teachings, it is claimed, is to “follow Satan” (5:15).

Paul himself, in his own letters, can demonstrate a caustic tongue and a critical attitude towards those who advocated differently from himself. In writing to the Galatians, for instance, he accuses them of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers (Gal 3:1); he attacks them for biting and devouring one another (5:15); he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah (5:2–4; 6:12–13). In his letter to Philippi, Paul mounts a strenuous invective against “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2), whom he later calls “the enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18–19).

In his second extant letter to the Corinthians, he caricatures the “superapostles” as fools (2 Cor 11:19) who boast beyond their limits (10:12–18), preaching “another Jesus than the one we proclaimed … a different spirit from the one you received … a different gospel from the one you accepted” (11:4). He sees them as “ false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13); they have fostered “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” as well as “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness” amongst the Corinthians (12:20–21). These are not words designed to foster a gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

The same ethos appears in this letter, to Timothy; but the polemic is intensified, the arrows are sharpened, and the affirmations are hardened into strong dogmatic assertions. In contrast to the “different doctrine” of others, the letter writer believes in “the sound words of Jesus” (6:3) and “the words of the faith and of sound teaching” (4:6); he passes them on to Timothy “through the laying on of the hands of the elders” (4:14).

In this letter, the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:11) is formalised as “the faith” (1:2, 19; 3:9, 13; 4:1, 6; 5:8; 6:10, 12, 21) or “the truth” (2:4, 7; 3:15; 4:3; 6:5). This faith is summed up in short, succinct sayings which are “sure and worthy of full acceptance” (4:9; we can see examples at 1:15; 2:5–6; 3:1; 3:16; 4:9–10; 6:15–16).

This is a step or three beyond the more fluid and flexible ethos of the authentic letters of Paul, where he is working out his theological commitments in the context of the cut-and-thrust of contextual debate. Here, “the faith” is a complete package, standing in its own right, to be believers, or rejected. The formulaic sayings state the dogmas that mist now be accepted.

These sayings are set within a defensive framework, for as Timothy receives a message of “faith and truth” (1:18; 2:7), he is to “guard” it (6:20) to ensure that he can hand it on to local leaders (4:6, 11), for this how they will be saved (4:16). The church is “the household of God” which acts as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (3:15). The leaders described in chapter 3 must ensure that the communities they serve will reject any differing viewpoints and “hold fast to the mystery of the faith” (3:9).

So we see that the central concern of the letter is to ensure obedience and pass on the essential teachings of the faith, under the leadership of designated office bearers in local churches, in order to refute the false teachings and immoral lifestyle to which they have been exposed.

See also

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The Season of Creation, every September

When the Common Lectionary was created in 1983, it followed the pattern of the Roman Catholic Lectionary Mass (1969), with seasons focussing on the traditional calendar of the church year: Advent in preparation for Christmas, then Epiphany; Lent in preparation for Easter, then Pentecost Sunday. This took half of the calendar year (from late November to late May or early June, depending on the moveable dating of Easter each year).

For the other half of the year, there was a long period of “Sundays in Pentecost”. They were also called “Ordinary Sundays”, in recognition of the fact that they did not fall in the special seasons already noted; or “Proper”, derived from the Latin proprium, which referred to the parts of the liturgy which changed according to what was proper, or appropriate, to the day.

The Revised Common Lectionary (1992) continues this pattern, and is followed in many churches around the globe. Although created by a task force that was almost all-male (Gail Ramshaw was the only female member) and almost entirely Protestant (John Fitzsimmons was the sole Roman Catholic member), this lectionary is now used by almost 50 major Protestant denominations around the world.

In 1989, the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I (head of the Eastern Orthodox Church) declared 1 September to be a day of prayer for the natural environment. In 2008, the World Council of Churches invited all churches to observe a Time for Creation from 1 September to 4 October—the day which had long been kept as the feast day for St Francis of Assisi.

In 2019, Pope Francis adopted the Season of Creation for Roman Catholic worship. And so, in many churches around the world, September is now designated as a time to focus on Creation—a truly ecumenical festive season, involving Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches alike.

Saint Francis, of course, is remembered for his simplicity of living, as well as his care for the natural environment. His Canticle of the Sun (found in modern hymnals—AHB 3, and TiS 100, for instance) is a well-loved poem which praises all the elements of the natural environment and the cycle of life.

The current issue of With Love to the World, which I edit, is designated as the Creation issue. It starts before September and runs on into November; but at the heart is the Season of Creation. This year, we are extending the Season of Creation through the whole issue. Each week, three passages from Hebrew Scripture, chosen for what they say regarding the creation, are placed alongside the regular four passages from the lectionary.

Commentaries on each passage are offered from a different contributor each week, along with questions for discussion, a song that matches the theme, and a focus prayer for each day. There is an introduction to the additional biblical passages used in the Creation 2022 issue on my blog at https://johntsquires.com/2022/05/29/the-season-of-creation-in-with-love-to-the-world/

And there is a stunning cover photo, contributed by the Revd Sophie Lizares, who ministers in a Uniting Church congregation in Perth.

Contributors have been asked to focus on questions relating to care of the environment, living sustainably, and demonstrating responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources, as integral to the life of discipleship to which we are all called. It is an experiment in reading the passage each day with focus issues in mind. My hope is that this way of proceeding in this issue will prove valuable to subscribers to With Love to the World.

With Love to the World can be ordered as a printed resource for just $24 for a year’s subscription (see http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Ordering-and-paying-for-Website-7.vii_.2020.pdf) or it can be accessed on phones and iPads via an App, for a subscription of $24.49 per year (go to the App Store or Google Play).

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Comfort and hope: return from Exile (Isaiah 40–55)

“Comfort, comfort all my people”, sings the prophetic voice which opens the second major section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40—55). Widely considered to be written in a period later than the time when the earlier sections are located, this section of Isaiah is called Deutero—Isaiah, signalling that it is the second main section of the book. (The third main section, chapters 56—66, is called Trito—Isaiah.)

The comfort sung about by the prophet signifies the situation of the people: their forebears had been taken into exile by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and now a new generation (perhaps four to five decades later) yearns to return to the land of Israel, given to the people in ancient times, as recounted in the foundational myth—story of the Exodus. Other parts of the Hebrew Bible reflect the anguish of the people during their time of Exile (Ps 137 is the most famous instance). Deutero-Isaiah, however, focuses consistently on the hope of return to the land of Israel.

Looking to the new power of Persia to permit this return, the prophet of this later period speaks with hope and joy, to the people living in exile, using vivid imagery and dramatic scenes of promise and confidence. A joyous, positive tone runs right through the oracles in this section of Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing”, says the Lord; “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43:19). “I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground”, the Lord continues; “I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” (44:3).

The return to Israel is depicted in vivid scenes: “I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff” (41:15). It is especially envisaged as a re-enacting of the Exodus through the Red Sea; “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert” (43:19–20); “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (43:2).

The imagery reaches back to the start of Genesis; “the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord” (51:3). Indeed, the Lord as creator is emphasised a number of times (40:28; 43:7, 15; 44:2, 24; 45:12, 18; 48:1).

Key to this promised return to the land of Israel is Cyrus, the Persian ruler, who lived from about 600 to 530 BCE. Cyrus led the Persians to dominance in the region from around 550 BCE onwards. The Persian Empire stretched around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) in the west to the Indus River in the east.

A defining feature of Cyrus is that he respected the religious practices and cultural customs of the lands he conquered. The evidence for this,policy comes from an artefact known as the Cyrus Cylinder, made of clay (and now broken into a number of pieces). The Cylinder was found in modernity in 1879 during an expedition under the auspices of the British Museum, near a large shrine to the chief Babylonian god Marduk.

The Cylinder articulates the policy which undergirded the decision of Cyrus to allow the exiles in Babylon to return to the land of Judah (2 Chron 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–10). The Cylinder does not refer directly to Judah or Israel, but it does include the line, “the gods, who resided in them [a list of cities across the Tigris], I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time, and the gods of Sumer and Akkad … I caused them to take up their dwelling in residences that gladdened the heart”.

Because of this policy, Cyrus is most strikingly described by Deutero-Isaiah as the Lord’s anointed one (45:1), the one of whom the Lord says, “he is my shepherd and he shall carry out all my purpose” (45:28). The prophet affirms that the Lord says, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward” (45:13). (The Hebrew word used, mashiach, is the same used to refer to the one anointed as Messiah at Dan 9:25–26; it is translated into Greek as Christos, from which Jesus is known as the Christ.)

Choosing a foreigner, the ruler of the dominant empire of the time, to carry out the will of the God of Israel, is a bold claim indeed. It is a striking development in Israel’s theology, especially since an intensified nationalism—indeed, xenophobia—is evidenced in literature from the time when people have returned (Ezra and Nehemiah, in particular).

After the return to the land under Cyrus (2 Chron 36:22–23), the narrative books which follow immediately, Ezra and Nehemiah, recount the details of this return as the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ez 3, 5–6), the Law is read in the city and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 8—10).

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Because of this word of good news about the fate of the exiles, God is regularly described as Redeemer (Isa 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:1, 17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8). God is also regularly named as “the Holy One” (Isa 40:25; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14, 15; 45:11; 47:4; 49:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5), picking up a title found already in other texts (1 Sam 2:2; 2 Ki 19:22; Job 6:10; Ps 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:17, 20; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3).

Later, Jesus is described in ways that use both terms: as “the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21; see also Rom 3:24; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:7, 14; Col 1:14; Tit 2:14; Heb 9:11–12), and as the “Holy One” (Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:20).

Within these oracles of promise and hope, the theological understanding of monotheism is clearly articulated for the first time in the history of Israel. “Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one” (44:8). The phrase, “there is no other (god)”, recurs a number of times in this section (42:8; 45:5, 14, 21, 22; 46:9).

This is in contrast to the way that the God of Israel had previously been portrayed, as “among the gods” (Exod 15:11; Judg 2:12; Ps 86:8), with the commandment to have “no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7) distinguishing this God from those other gods whom Israel was clearly forbidden to worship (Deut 6:14; 7:4; 8:19; 11:16; 13:1–18; 17:2–5; 18:20).

Time after time, the straying of Israel to worship these ”other gods” resulted in punishment sent by the Lord (Josh 23:16; Judg 2:11–23; 10:13; 1 Sam 8:8; 1 Ki 9:6–9; 11:9–13; 14:6–14; 2 Ki 17:7–8, 35–40; 22:14–17; 2 Chron 7:19–22; 28:25; 34:24–25; Jer 1:16; 7:16–20; 11:9–13; 16:10–13; 19:4–9; 22:6–9; 32:29; 35:15–17; 44:1–19; Hos 3:1—4:11). Monotheism was not in view in earlier, pre-exilic literature.

As a consequence of this development, if the Lord God is the only god, then the Lord must take responsibility for all that takes place: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (45:7). This affirmation creates problems; if God causes both good and bad things to happen, he is accountable for all that takes place.

Over time, this theological development would lead to the development of another theological milestone: the creation of an opposing force who would be held responsible for all evil. The accuser from the heavenly court, delegated by God to prosecute cases (Job 1:6–12; 2:2–8; 1 Chron 21:1; Zech 3:1–10) would become Satan, tester of Jesus (Mark 1:13), fallen heavenly being (Luke 10:18), and “deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9; 20:2–3).

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Deutero-Isaiah is fundamental, in other ways, for the theological developments that we find in the New Testament. Scattered through this section, we find four Songs of the Servant—three relatively brief (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11); and the fourth, best-known within Christian circles, a longer description of the servant who “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The resonances that this longer song has with the passion narrative of Jesus are crystal clear. The song is explicitly linked with Jesus six times in the New Testament (Matt 8:14–17; Luke 22:35–38; John 12:37–41; Acts 8:26–35; Romans 10:11–21; 1 Pet 2:19–25); furthermore, so many of the details of the passion narrative are shaped in the light of this song, along with a number of psalms of the righteous sufferer. (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/)

The list of connections with details in the passion narrative is impressive. The prophet describes the marred appearance of the Servant (52:14); he is despised, rejected, and suffering (53:3), bearing our infirmities (53:4), and wounded for our transgressions (53:5). The Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7), suffering “a perversion of justice” (53:8), not practising violence or speaking deceit (53:9), and is buried with the rich (53:9).

The Servant gives his life as “an offering for sin” (53:10), carrying the iniquities of many (53:11), making them righteous (53:11), bearing the sin of many (53:12), making “intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). The role that the Servant plays in relation to sin, for the sake of the many, shapes the important saying of Jesus, that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Deutero-Isaiah as a whole is the most-quoted part of Hebrew Scripture in New Testament texts. Another element in the Servant songs shapes the way that Luke envisages the story of Jesus and his followers. The Servant is given “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6), as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

The phrase is cited at critical moments by Simeon (Luke 2:32), Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (Acts 13:46–47), and Paul alone when on trial in Caesarea (Acts 26:23). Jesus foresees that witness to the good news will take place “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Further, the Servant is given as “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:6–7), words which resonate with the later scriptural citation spoken by Jesus in Nazareth: “the Spirit … has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).

The author of the fourth Gospel also made much of what was spoken to the Servant, “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:6), a description of what happens to Jesus which recurs regularly in this book, when “the Son of Man has been glorified” (John 13:31; see also 7:39; 11:4; 12:16, 23, 28; 13:32; 17:10).

The prophet reports the decision of the Lord: “I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath, and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors” (51:22). Accordingly, any oracles of judgement and threat of punishment are directed squarely towards Babylon, (43:14; 45:20-47:15), not Israel (54:9).

The closing oracles of this section of Isaiah promise abundance and peace to the exiles, looking towards their return to the land. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out … you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns” (Isa 54:2–3). Israel is invited to “come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1), with the assurance that “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (55:10–11).

Deutero-Isaiah ends with a portrayal of cosmic joy as the exiles prepare to return to Israel: “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12). All will be well.

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No longer as a slave: Paul, to Philemon, about Onesimus (Pentecost 13C)

There can be no doubt that Paul functioned in a leadership role within many of the early communities of faith. He presented himself—and was accepted and recognised by others—as a father-figure within that movement.

In his shortest letter, addressed to Philemon—which is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday—he explicitly styles himself as “father” of the runaway slave, Onesimus (Phlm 10). This is obviously not a physical claim; rather, Paul is laying claim to the role that he played in converting Onesimus; and perhaps also to the role which he wishes to play, in guiding the community of faith which meets in the house of Philemon and Apphia.

This letter reveals something of the cultural context in which Paul operates; and something of his own expectations regarding his role within the Jesus movement. It is Paul’s shortest letter; it largely follows the pattern of a first-century letter in most respects. There is an opening set of greetings, encompassing Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the church gathered in their house (Phlm 1–3), followed by an expression of thanksgiving for the love and faith of this group of believers (4– 7).

The letter omits the traditional conveying of news in order to come straight to the point with Paul’s central petition: “for this reason…I appeal to you… welcome him” (8–22). Paul is sending the slave Onesimus with an expectation that he will be received by Philemon and company in the spirit of the gospel: “not as a slave, but as a beloved brother” (15–16).

The letter does not address the structural issues inherent in a society in which slavery is a reality. Paul simply accepts that Onesimus is, and will remain, a slave; but he exhorts Philemon to treat him with equity, as a brother. Modern sensibilities about the injustice of one human being “owning” another human being, as a piece of property, are far from the awareness of Paul, Philemon, and all slave-owning people in the society of that day.

The letter ends in typical style, with Paul’s farewell by the sending of greeting from others with him, and pronouncement of a blessing upon those who hear the letter read to them (23–25).

The situation of writing appears to overlap with Paul’s situation as portrayed in Col 4:7–18. Paul himself is a prisoner (Phlm 1, 9, 23; Col 4:18) in the company of Epaphras (Phlm 23; Col 4:12); the precise location of his imprisonment is not revealed. Close by are Mark and Aristarchus (Phlm 24; Col 4:10) as well as Demas and Luke (Phlm 24; Col 4:14). Onesimus and Tychicus are Paul’s emissaries to Colossae (Col 4:7–9); this appears to place Philemon and his fellow believers in or very near to that city, as Paul sends Onesimus to them (Phlm 12).

The letter functions as a personal commendation of Onesimus. Paul sends him to Philemon with his strong support; he is “my child” (10), “my own heart” (12), “a beloved brother” (16). When he arrives, Paul exhorts Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (17). Paul undergirds these words with the declaration that he will personally rectify any wrong caused or repay any debt owed to Philemon by Onesimus (18). The stance he takes is that of a benefactor, acting to ensure the best interests of Onesimus.

This is just a short letter, and it lends itself really well to an exercise in reading (that I used each time I taught Paul) that exposes the way that the presuppositions we bring to a text can really influence the way that we understand that text.

First, read the the letter as the character of Philemon. How do you receive the letter? What are the most important things that Paul says in this letter? What does it inspire you to want to do?

Now read the letter as the character of Onesimus. How do you receive the letter? What are the most important things that Paul says in this letter? If you were the runaway slave, what would you do?

Then, compare how you responded to the letter as each character. What, in the light of all of this, do you want to say back to Paul?

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I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while: the God of the prophet Ezekiel (2)

Ezekiel the priest; Ezekiel the ben adam, the human one; Ezekiel was captured by the Babylonians in 599 BCE, sent into exile, but nevertheless was seized by the spirit, given visions from the Lord, and charged with speaking the word of the Lord not only to the people with him in exile and to those later taken into exile in 587 BCE, but also to those who remained in the land of Israel after the Babylonian conquest at that time. His dramatic, vivid visions, and his potent, articulate proclamations, make for exciting—and troubling—reading.

See part one at

After Ezekiel is granted his numerous visions by the spirit, he often enacts them with tangible items. He sees the siege of Jerusalem, and portrays it with a brick and iron plate (4:1–8). He sees the destruction of Jerusalem, and uses a sword to shave his hair, to dramatise this (5:1–17). He sees the ravaging of the altars of idols throughout the land, and claps his hands and stamps his feet to demonstrate the destructive anger of the Lord at this (6:1–14).

“On the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month”, says Ezekiel (with his relentless priestly eye for detail), “as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there”. He describes the “figure like a human being” that he sees, and in characteristically careful detail he describes the scene unfolding before him; a scene of “the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary”, as God laments (8:1–18).

So extensive are these abominations that God concludes, “I will act in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them” (8:18). As a result, “the glory of the Lord” leaves the temple and is taken by the cherubim up and away from the earth (10:1–22). Those in exile are informed that their exile is due punishment from the Lord (11:1–12), but also that after sufficient punishment, they will return to the land (11:14–25). The “glory of the Lord” remains absent from the city until, in the final sequence of his visions, Ezekiel sees the new temple, built in the city, and “the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezek 43:1–5; see also 1 Ki 8:11; 2 Chron 7:1–2; Exod 40:34–35; and cf. Isa 6:1, 4; Rev 15:8).

One of Ezekiel’s visions uses typical prophetic imagery to portray Israel as a female child, abandoned by her parents, but taken in by the Lord, who waited until she was  at an age for love, and then he “spread his cloak over her” – that is, he seduced her (16:1–14). He then complained, “you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by”, worshipping other gods, even engaging in foreign rituals of child sacrifice (16:15–34).

As a result of this, God threatens that he will execute a fulsome punishment. The blame is placed squarely on Israel, depicted as a woman engaging in countless acts of adultery—even though, in the patriarchal society of the time, the male priests, kings, and elders were the ones responsible for the decisions to erect images of other gods and to encourage the worship of pagan deities.

Only after he visits his punishment, does God then say, “I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:35–43). And so, God promises forgiveness; “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60; also 37:26), echoing the exact phrase also used to describe the covenants with Noah (Gen 9:16; and perhaps Isa 24:5), Abraham (Gen 17:7, 13, 19; 1 Chron 16:17), and David (2 Sam 23:35; Isa 55:3), and indeed with Israel as a whole (Ps 105:10; Isa 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5).

The character of God in this sequence of events is deeply troubling, and takes us to the heart of the issue; both deep loving kindness and savage wrath are part of this God’s nature. The prophet gives consideration to punishment as retribution (18:1–32), the need to abstain from idolatry (20:1–32), and judgement on idolatry and injustice practices (“father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you”; 22:1–23). In each case, God wrestles with the tension between executing judgement and withholding wrath, between upholding justice and demonstrating covenant love.

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A dramatic enactment ensues, when Ezekiel proclaims that God declares judgement on “the bloody city”, saying “set on the pot, set it on, pour in water also; put in it the pieces, all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder; fill it with choice bones; take the choicest one of the flock, pile the logs under it; boil its pieces, seethe also its bones in it … heap up the logs, kindle the fire; boil the meat well, mix in the spices, let the bones be burned” (24:1–14). The meat being placed into the pot is nothing other then the residents of “the bloody city”. The savage imagery is brutally confronting.

Yet judge the falls not only on Jerusalem; Ezekiel declares God’s judgement on the Negev (20:45–49) and, in an extended series of oracles, on Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt (chs. 25–32). The repeated words, “raise a lamentation over … “ (19:1; 26:17; 27:2, 32: 28:12; 32:2, 16) and the relentless reference to “the day” (26:18; 27:27; 30:2–3, 9, 18; 31:15; 32:10) drive home the message that God’s justice brings persistent terror and requires harsh punishment. “The day of the Lord is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (30:2–3)—the motif appears regularly through the prophets, and into later apocalyptic literature.

As the destruction of Jerusalem occurs (33:21–29), Ezekiel berates “the shepherds of Israel”: “you have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:4).

Where is God during this time of exile? Ezekiel affirms that God is present: “I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:11–12). The extended oracle ends with the affirmation, “you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God” (34:31). The mercy of God is bound up with the justice of God. The resonances with Psalm 23, as well as the sayings of Jesus in John 10 and the well-known parable of Jesus found in Luke 15 and Matt 18, are clear.

There follows an extended blessing on Israel (36:1–38) and the vision of bones brought to life in the valley (37:1–28), followed by visions relating to Gog and Magog (38:1–39:20; and see Rev 20:7–8). Finally, the exile ends, and Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of Israel to their land (39:21–29); “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God” (39:29).

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The issue of being in exile, away from the land that the Lord God had long ago given to the people of Israel, was a difficult situation for those who sought to remain faithful to the covenant with the Lord God. This matter exercises Ezekiel. He knows that exile is the consequence of Israel’s idolatry and infidelity (5:1–7:27). “Alas for all the vile abominations of the house of Israel—for they shall fall by the sword, and by pestilence … and any who are left shall die of famine” (6:11–12), say the Lord; “I will make the land desolate … then they shall know that I am the Lord” (6:14). Exile, it would seem, is a fair punishment.

The sense that the psalmist expresses—“how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4)—is not a view that Ezekiel would have agreed with. Whilst the psalmist grapples with the loss of all that is familiar and valued—no temple, no familiar rituals, no priests, not being in the homeland—Ezekiel is able to find spiritual nourishment in his exile. The many visions he sees and oracles he proclaims attest to the robust nature of his own spiritual life!

Indeed, it appears that there were some who had been able to remain in Judah who maintained that the exiles had forfeited their place within the people of God, for “they have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession” (11:15). Ezekiel disputes this, stating that the Lord God has said, “though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone” (11:16). The promise is that God will not abandon the people in exile, nor regard them as no longer his people.

As a sign of his confidence that God will maintain his commitment to Israel, Ezekiel tells in detail his vision of the new temple that would, he believed, be built in the land (40:1–43:27), as well as the role of the Levitical priests in that temple (44:15–31) and various provisions that would be in force after the return to the land (45:1–46:24).

The priests in this temple would be charged with the range of expected duties relating to the sacrifices and offerings, but Ezekiel also indicates that “they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean; in a controversy they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (44:23–24).

This detail is quite telling; it shows that Ezekiel considered priests to be learned in Torah and to have judicial responsibilities, making decisions about adherence to holiness prescriptions. This is the role that prophets took to themselves, instructing the people about the ways that they keep God’s justice and the ways that they fail in this; it is also the role that the scribes and Pharisees exercise when we encounter them in the New Testament. In the opinion of Ezekiel, the law of the Lord continues to be completely relevant and vitally important, through all the trials of the times in which he lives.

A final vision details the water flowing from the temple, the abundant trees growing beside the river, and the food sources for the people (47:1–12). The portrayal of the river evokes the scenes of Eden, where “a stream would rise from earth, and water the whole face of the ground” (Gen 2:6; cf. Ezek 47:1), providing fertile ground for the Garden of Eden, in which “the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9; cf. Ezek 47:7–12), and from which four rivers flow in abundance (Gen 2:10–14).  The vision of Ezekiel offers a wonderful ecologically vibrant scene!

This vision ends with an affirmation that Israel will be a broad, inclusive society: “the aliens who reside among you … shall be to you as citizens of Israel … in whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance” (47:21–23). Ezekiel ends by reporting how the land will be divided schematically amongst the twelve tribes (48:1–35), in the way that the book of Numbers provided a systematic allocation of the land prior to the conquest of Canaan (Num 34:1–15). And so, from the first verse to the last chapter, Ezekiel’s book provides careful, schematic, detailed information, as befits a prophet who is a priest.

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See also

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In my mouth, it was as sweet as honey: Ezekiel the prophet (1)

Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). The opening verse of the book exhibits characteristic priestly concern to document details; in this case, a very precise date is recorded: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month”. The year correlates with what we know as 593 BCE. No other prophet gives the precise day of his seeing “visions of God”!

Six years earlier, Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.

A 14th century fresco of the chariot in Ezekiel’s vision
from Pomposa Abbey, Codigoro, Italy

A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision—the scene is reported in scrupulous detail, with many references to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19) and the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6).

Then, “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). The creatures with wings that touch perhaps evoke the golden cherubim overlooking the mercy seat in the Tabernacle (1 Ki 6:23–28), while the wheeled chariot may have been inspired by the chariot that carried the ark of the covenant in procession (2 Sam 6:3).

However, the four creatures, each with four faces and four legs, sparkling “like burnished bronze” (1:6–7), with the appearance of a human being, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (1:10) are unusual. Their presence has invited much speculation about their significance. In the early centuries of the Christian church, these four figures were interpreted as symbols for the four Gospels included in the New Testament. They are found also in the first vision of the seer John, in exile on Patmos, many centuries later (Rev 4:1–8).

Similarly, the description of the crystal dome over the heads of the creatures (1:22) and the sapphire throne with a human form seated on it (1:26) signal to us that this prophet has a vivid imagination, and that there will be much symbolism in the oracles that lie ahead! The remainder of the book continues relentlessly in this style; exotic scenes, vividly imagined, described in detail, conveying a consistent theological perspective.

The point of this dramatic opening comes immediately, when Ezekiel reports a further vision, of a scroll (2:1–10) which he is immediately commanded to eat (2:8, 3:1–3). This second vision is at the heart of the call that Ezekiel receives, to “speak my very words to them [the people]” (2:7; 3:4). Ezekiel the priest has become Ezekiel the prophet.

These words “of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10) nevertheless taste “as sweet as honey” to Ezekiel (3:3). However, he knows from the start that the task he has been given will be difficult, for “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (3:8). They will not listen to him. The scene is set for the difficult career of this prophet-in-exile.

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A key issue for Ezekiel relates to whether God continues to be the God of the people of Judah who are in exile in Babylon. Ezekiel offers a development in understanding that God continues to care for the people even when they have no land and no temple, when they can no longer “go up to the house of the Lord” and offer sacrifices.

Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).

This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10). The scene is a dramatic reworking of the creation scene in Genesis, when God creates humanity out of the dust, breathing “the breath of life” into human beings (Gen 2:7).

The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; for Ezekiel, however, it is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling).

Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).

That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).

The Lord God addresses the prophet Ezekiel in a distinctive way; 94 times, he begins his words to the prophet with the Hebrew phrase ben adam—traditionally translated as “son of man” (meaning a human being), in the NRSV rendered as “o mortal”. We could simply say, Ezekiel, o human one. My NIV has the footnote, “the phrase son of man is retained as a form of address here and throughout Ezekiel because of its possible association with “Son of Man” in the New Testament”. Certainly, this distinctive address in Ezekiel resonates with the use of this distinctive phrase in the Gospels (although another scriptural usage, in Dan 7:14, offers a different take on this phrase.)

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Continued at

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I will not be afraid; what can anyone do to me? (Hebrews 13; Pentecost 12C)

The letter to the Hebrews is perhaps best known for its teachings about Jesus as High Priest, and the ending of the system of sacrifices. But it is more in the nature of a long sermon than a letter; indeed, the author characterises it as a “word of exhortation” (13:22).

Preachers, of course, regularly exhort their congregation. This section of the letter exhorts the Hebrews to love (1), offer hospitality (2), remember prisoners (3), honour marriage (4), be content (5), follow good leaders (7), not be carried astray (9), offer praise to God (15), and do good (16). That’s quite a sermon, just in 16 verses!

And, like a good sermon, there is a scripture passage to provide the basis for the sermon (13:6); in this instance, probably Ps 118:6, “with the Lord on my side I do not fear; what can mortals do to me?”. The version quoted in this sermon-letter refers to God as our “helper”, reflecting a common description of God (Ps 10:14; 30:10; 54:4; 72:12; 113:7–9; also Deut 33:7, 26, 29; Judg 6:6, 22; 2 Ki 6:27; 14:26–27; 2 Chron 14:11; 20:4; 25:8; 32:8; Neh 6:16). The fact that God helps us is a model for us to emulate, helping those in need and those in relationships with us.

Each exhortation in these verses draws on scriptural precedent. We shall consider each in turn. They provide a neat list of ten injunctions for the Christian community.

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(1) The first, an encouragement to love (13:1) is, of course, a central Hebraic tenet: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5; also 10:2; 11:1; 30:6) and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18; also 19:34; Deut 10:19).

These two exhortations are affirmed by Jesus as “commandments” (Mark 12:28–34) and further refined inwards, in his instruction to “love one another” (John 13:34–35; 15:12) and also outwards, in the charge to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:43–48). Paul continues the motif (Rom 12:9–10; 13:8–10; 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:14, 22; Phil 2:2; 1 Thess 4:9–10), as does James (Jas 2:8) and the writer of 1 Peter (1 Pet 1:22; 2:17; 3:8; 4:8) and, of course, the writer(s) of the Johannine letters (1 John 3:11–18; 3:23; 4:7–8, 11–12, 19, 21; 2 John 5; 3 John 6).

(2) Hospitality (13:2) was a fundamental cultural practice in ancient Israel; there are many stories of the hospitality offered by people such as Abraham (Gen 18:1–15), Rahab (Josh 2:1–16), and David (2 Sam 9:7–13), and offered to Moses in Midian (Exod 2:15–25), Elijah in Zarephath (1 Ki 17:10–24), and Elijah in Shunem (2 Ki 4:8–17). Welcoming hospitality is commanded in relation to aliens in Israel (Lev 19:33–34) and is advocated in relation to exiles returning to the land (Isa 58:7).

Punishment for not offering hospitality is meted out to Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:1–29); the prophet Ezekiel observes that “the guilt of your sister Sodom” was that the people “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). The severe punishment inflicted on the concubine of the Levite in Gibeah (Judg 19:22–30) occurred in a situation where hospitality was offered (19:18–21) but then violated by “the men of the city, a perverse lot” (19:22).

Jesus knew the importance of generous hospitality, as is evidenced by parables relating to meals (Matt 22:1–10; Luke 14:7–14, 15–24); indeed, he advocates offering hospitality to those unable to return the offer, as required by reciprocity customs (Luke 14:12–14). One of his best-known parables explicitly commends those who offer food and drink, welcome and clothing, to those in need (Matt 25:31–46).

Jesus expects that his disciples will receive hospitality when they move from village to village (Mark 6:10–11; Matt 10:11–14; Luke 9:4–5; 10:5–11). Hospitality is often enjoyed by Jesus, at table with Pharisees (Luke 7:36–39; 11:37; 14:1), and by Paul and his companions, in Philippi (Acts 16:14–15, 33–34). Explicit instructions to offer hospitality are found at Rom 12:13, 1 Tim 5:10, and 1 Pet 4:9.

(3) The invocation to “remember those who are in prison” (Heb 13:3) recalls the Psalmist’s pleas with God to hear “the groans of the prisoners” (Ps 79:11; 102:20) and the affirmations that “God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity” (68:6) and “the Lord gives food to the hungry; the Lord sets the prisoners free” (146:7).

Prophets in the school of Isaiah declare that God has chosen his servant “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:7) and send the spirit onto the prophet “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isa 61:1). Later, the prophet Zechariah relays the Lord’s promise, “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (Zech 9:11).

(4) Instructions to “honour marriage” (Heb 13:4) reflect the central concern of ancient societies, including Israelite society, to ensure the survival of the family name and the continuation of the people. To this purpose, laws concerning marriage are provided in Exod 24:1–25:10 and Num 36:1–13. The prophet Jeremiah, writing from his exile in Egypt, encourages the exiles in Babylon to “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:6). Marriage was valued, even (especially) in exile.

(5) Keep your lives free from the love of money” (Heb 13:5) is the next command. We perhaps know this command best from the (often-misquoted) saying in a later Pauline letter, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Luke accuses the Pharisees of being “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14); the right use of resources is a fundamental teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:21) and is developed as a major thrust in Luke’s narrative of the life of Jesus (Luke 4:14; 6:20, 24; 12:15, 33; 14:13, 21, 33).

Hebrew Scripture contains regular injunctions about the just distribution of resources amongst the people, remembering especially those in the most vulnerable position in society—widows and orphans, and foreigners living in the land. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/

The Year of Jubilee, during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17) is placed within the laws outlined in Leviticus as a central feature of Israelite life. During this year, debts are to be cancelled and society is to be “reset” to ensure that those who have much will not accumulate more, and those who have little or nothing will be able to accumulate some resources. Whether this actually ever happened, or was just an ideal, is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, the ideal certainly speaks to the injunction not to be “lovers of money”.

(6) By contrast to the other items in this list of ten, the exhortation to “be content” (Heb 13:5) might well reflect a more hellenised outlook on life; this specific injunction is found in the much later writings of Ben Sirach (Sir 29:23; see also 26:1–4).

(7) The writer encourages the Hebrews to remember their leaders, consider their way of life, and “imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). This is not specifically and distinctively Israelite, for all cultures have leaders; yet the long story of Israel is shaped by the various leaders who are in place, who lead the people through key moments. Early on, there is Moses, leading the people out of Egyptian bondage and through the long wilderness wandering; then Joshua, leading the people into Canaan to take the land; Deborah, leading the people against the forces of King Jabin of Canaan; and Nathan and David, steering the people towards a unified and prosperous kingdom.

The story continues with Nathan and Solomon, consolidating that prosperity and expanding the reach of the kingdom; Josiah and Huldah, confronting the entrenched idolatry and social inequity of the nation, and effecting a thoroughgoing reformation and renewal; Ezra and Nehemiah, leading the people back into the land, rebuilding structures and renewing the covenant. And throughout all of this story, the leadership of the prophets was significant at key moments. The example of such leadership is central to the sagas retained and retold in the scriptures of the Israelites.

(8) “Do not be carried astray by all kinds of strange teachings” (Heb 13:9) perhaps reflects something in the situation of the people to whom this “word of exhortation” was sent; if so, it reflects a situation which is echoed in other New Testament letters (Gal 1:6–9; 2 Cor 11:3–4; Col 2:20–23; 1 Tim 1:3–7; 6:3–5; 2 Tim 2:23–26; 3:6–9; Titus 1:10–12; 3:3; 1 Pet 2:25; 2 Pet 2:15–16).

Paul specifies that the Corinthians were “led astray to idols” (1 Cor 12:2), and this is the sense in which the word is used regularly in Hebrew Scriptures. Moses, in his Deuteronomic reworking, warns the people of Israel, when they observe the wonders of the heaven, “do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them” (Deut 4:19; see also 13:13; 30:17).

The psalms lament that people have gone astray and do not do good (Ps 14:3), for they “go astray after false gods” (Ps 40:4) and, says the Lord, “they do not regard my ways” (Ps 95:10); they “go astray from my statutes” (Ps 119:118), they have “gone astray like lost sheep” (Ps 119:176). Indeed “the wicked go astray from the womb, they err from their birth” (Ps 58:3). Thus, as the proverb states, “the way of the wicked leads astray” (Prov 12:26).

Many prophets note the straying of Israel. Hosea declares that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (Hos 4:12), Amos observes that Judah “has been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked” (Amos 2:4), Micah decries “the prophets who lead my people astray” (Mic 3:5), while Ezekiel muses, “will you defile yourselves after the manner of your ancestors and go astray after their detestable things?” (Ezek 20:30)

Deutero-Isaiah exposes the follow of idol worship, in that idols cannot see or understand (Isa 44:18), and so for the one who worships such an idol “a deluded mind has led him astray” (Isa 44:20). Isaiah accuses both Egypt (Isa 19:13) and Assyria (Isa 30:28) of having been led astray; Deutero-Isaiah then accuses Babylon of having been led astray (Isa 47:10), whilst also confessing that in Israel “all we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa 53:6).

Jeremiah reminds the people of when the prophets of Baal led them astray (Jer 23:13, evoking the story of Elijah told at 1 Kings 18) and echoes Deutero-Isaiah in claiming that “my people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray” (Jer 50:6), while Ezekiel notes that “the consecrated priests, the descendants of Zadok, who kept my charge, who did not go astray when the people of Israel went astray” will be the priests to take charge of the new temple he foresees (Ezek 48:11).

So the command not to be carried astray clearly reflects a regular refrain from Hebrew Scriptures, as do many of the other injections in this chapter of Hebrews, as we have noted.

(9) A later exhortation in this list, to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb 13:15) is also a fundamental teaching in Hebrew Scripture. The psalms, of course, are replete with indications of the praise given to God: “in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you” (Ps 22:22; see also 9:2; 35:18; 43:4; 119:7; and see Exod 15:2; Isa 25:1; Sir 51:11, 22; and at the close of the Prayer of Manasseh).

The instruction to “praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings” (33:2) is echoed in Ps 43:4 and expanded in Ps 150:1–6. Many later psalms beginning with the exclamation, “praise the Lord!” (106:1; 111:1; 112:1; 117:1; 135:1; 146:1; 147:1; 148:1; 149:1; 150:1), whilst some end with the same exclamation (105:45; 106:48; 115:18; 117:2; 135:21; 146:10; 147:20; 148:14; 149:9; 150:6).

(10) Finally, towards the end of the list, the instruction to “not neglect to do good and to share what you have” (Heb 13:16) evokes God’s lament, reported by Jeremiah, that God’s people “are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good” (Jer 4:22; see also 13:23). Isaiah instructs the people, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17) and that instruction is repeated in a later period by Ben Sirach (Sir 12:1–2, 5; 14:13) as well as in some of the psalms (Ps 34:14; 37:3, 27; 51:18). The psalmist also reflects that is it in the nature of God both to be good and to “do good” (Ps 119:68).

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The many fundamental scriptural exhortations that are collated in this passage thus combine to demonstrate that the church, at its best, can be a community of mutual support, care, and assistance. That is what the author of this “word of exhortation” wishes to convey from the saints in Italy to those unnamed saints who receive this communication.

If these saints remain faithful in all of these ways, they continue in obedience to the Lord who, as scripture attests, is “my helper”. Keeping faithful to the ways of this God will ensure that “I will not be afraid; what can anyone do to me?“ (Ps 118:6, quoted at Heb 13:6).

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See also

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Apologetics and apologising: two ways of being church

Over the last few weeks I have been watching yet another church engage in the painful and difficult process of disagreeing publically about matters that are held strongly by the various proponents involved, with the inevitable trajectory of increasing rancour and ultimate schism becoming clearer each day.

We have already seen the slow-burn amongst Methodists over recent years that has led to the formation of the so-called Global Methodist Church earlier this year. The GMC was launched as a sectarian schismatic movement, splitting from the United Methodist Church, on the basis of—you guessed it—sexuality.

See my earlier post on this:

I’ve already discussed the attempts over many years to do the same within the Uniting Church in Australia—from the early efforts of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) through the Reforming Alliance (RA) and on into the self-styled Assembly of Confessing Churches (ACC). Each of these conservative splinter groups sought to enforce their narrow and retrograde understanding of matters pertaining sexuality on the whole UCA—with persistent, and increasing, failure.

My posts on these various groups are at

and

As I’ve explored these two church contexts, one in Australia and the other in the USA, I have noticed how the proponents of the conservative theological perspective buttress their claims with a particular way of reading scripture, and with a particular mode of theological argumentation that slots well into the field called Apologetics.

That’s the name given to a way of arguing that sets out a collection of beliefs that are held by a certain group and advocates that this cluster of beliefs represents right doctrine, the true faith, what Bible-believing Christians hold to, or some other catchphrase that revolves around being right—and others, holding different viewpoints, being wrong. It’s a style of speaking and writing that often, in these kinds of situations, takes on a hard edge—moving from assertions about beliefs, to a much more aggressive manner of apologetic argumentation.

(I should indicate that I have nothing against Apologetics; done well, it can be a helpful process, and indeed, being able to engage apologetically ought to be a basic skill for anyone undertaking a missional engagement with people in society. And I should confess that the research that I did, many years ago, for my PhD thesis, was focussed on a set of ancient documents that are often described as being apologetic—including the writings of Flavius Josephus, and the two books in the New Testament attributed to Luke, namely, the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles—two fundamental apologetic works in the Christian canon.)

In recent weeks, I’ve been an interested observer “from the sidelines”, watching an aggressively dogmatic style of apologetic argumentation that has been taking place within the Anglican Communion. The holding of the recent Lambeth Conference in the UK was the focus for the surfacing in the public arena of this aggressive argumentative apologetics (which we know was always active under the surface).

Episcopal leaders from Anglican churches around the globe gathered (or, at least, were expected to gather—not all of them came) in Lambeth, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discuss designated matters and to issue “Calls” to the Anglican Church around the world, relating to these topics.

Sexuality, of course, was the most contentious area to be discussed; and so it transpired, with some bishops refusing to attend, some bishops decrying the stance of other bishops, and some bishops seeking to find a way forward that all could hold to. It was a fraught, and ultimately failed, enterprise. The battle-lines, drawn so strongly before Lambeth 2022, remained in place; so much so that, this week, the head of the breakaway schismatics in Australia, GAFCON Australia, has announced the formation of a new Diocese, “an Anglican home for those who feel they need to leave their current Dioceses”. Doctrinal Apologetics are, in my mind, clearly driving this development.

I’m not making further substantive comment on the trench-warfare of my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion—I am most grateful to friends and colleagues who have posted numerous articles, commentaries, statements, and analyses, of what has happened before, during, and now after the Lambeth Conference. Nothing, it seems, was clarified, other than perpetual disagreement will continue.

The best that those of us outside that denomination can do is to offer prayerful and personal support to those who continue to press for a compassionate and relevant approach to matters of gender and sexual identity.

It is worth noting that there has been a local manifestation of this issue within Australia—it has, of course, been “alive and well” for many years, and has recently come strongly to the surface in the wake of the recent General Synod of the Anglican Church in Australia (ACA), and the formation of the Southern Cross Diocese, an action that has created, de facto, a new denomination in Australia, outside the formal structures of the ACA.

However, as the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia has said in his statement about this development, “in a tragically divided world God’s call and therefore the church’s role includes showing how to live together with difference. Not merely showing tolerance but receiving the other as a gift from God.” See https://adelaideguardian.com/2022/08/18/a-statement-on-the-launch-of-the-company-the-diocese-of-the-southern-cross/

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Alongside the experience of watching Anglicans agitate and argue about sexuality, I’m engaged in a parallel, but rather different, process, within my own denomination. It’s a process that also arises out of consideration of sexuality—well, both gender identity and sexual attraction and behaviour, to be perfectly clear. It is characterised, not by a process of apologetic argumentation, but rather by a process of listening, engaging in conversations, and developing resources that will be fit for a specific purpose.

I am referring to the fact that, within the Uniting Church, there is currently a Task Group which has been established by the Assembly Standing Committee, to prepare for the offering of an Apology to members of the LGBTIQA+ people in Australia.

A proposal to offer such an apology was presented to the National Assembly in 2018, as a result of which the Task Group was established, with a view to having a final report to give to the Assembly when it meets in 2024. (Yes, things move slowly in this church, as in other churches!) The Apology, it is envisaged, will apologise for the church’s role in the silence, rejection, discrimination and stereotyping of LGBTIQ people, couples and families.

The Task Group is currently engaged in a series of listening encounters with members of the LGBTIQA+ community within the Uniting Church, to hear the views of such people about the proposed apology. I was present earlier this week as three members of the Task Group met with members of the Rainbow Christian Alliance, which meets monthly at Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Canberra, a congregation which is an open and affirming church.

The work of the Task Group was explained, and there was opportunity for LGBTIQA+ people who were present in person and online to make comments about their experiences in the church, and their hopes for the process of formulating and delivering the apology.

The conversation was respectful, caring, and person-centred. There was an indication that the Uniting Church had recognised how words and actions from many church people over many years have caused hurt, grief, and despair. There was a recognition that we need to demonstrate that we see, hear, acknowledge, value, and honour LGBTIQA+ people in their own right, as they are, without reservation, and certainly without in any way pressuring them to change.

It struck me during this time of conversation how different the two approaches are; those who take an aggressively apologetic stance towards people who hold a different point of view, and seek to prosecute their case through debate and argumentation, are presenting a very different model of church to that offered by the process of listening to LGBTIQA+ people in order to develop an apology to them.

(I’m not saying that we in the Uniting Church have got this right—not at all—just that we are aware of the need to take care in our stance, and to shape a careful and compassionate path; and that we are trying to do this with good intentions and in partnership with LGBTIQA+ people.)

Given all the negativity that currently exists in society in relation to “the church”, I think it is important that we carefully consider how we present ourselves to people in that wider society. A posture of compassionate listening and respectful conversation, and the offering of a deeply-felt apology, is surely what we need for our times.

*****

The ecumenical group Equal Voices has prepared an Apology for consideration by people of all denominations; see https://equalvoices.org.au/apologise/

Australian Catholics for Equality have prepared a liturgy for making an apology to LGBTIQ people, at https://australiancatholicsforequality.org/prayer-reflections/order-of-service-for-lament-and-apology-liturgy-to-lgbtiq/

On the 2016 comments of Pope Francis about the need to apologise “to gays and others who have been offended or exploited by the church”, see https://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/26/world/pope-apologize-gays/index.html

On the Apology that was subsequently offered by one Roman Catholic Church in Sydney, see https://www.starobserver.com.au/news/sydneys-catholics-apology-to-lgbti-people/151997

For the 2019 apology from the Adelaide Anglican Diocese, see https://adelaideanglicans.com/safe-ministry/apology-to-lgbtiq-communities/

For the 2017 apology from the Perth Anglican Diocese, see https://equal-eyes.org/database/2017/10/14/australia-perths-anglican-church-offers-heartfelt-apology-to-lgbt-community

On the symbolic action undertaken in 2014 to signal an apology by a local Anglican Church in Melbourne, see https://www.stmarksfitzroy.com/lgbti-community

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Unless you are angry with us beyond measure (Lamentations)

In one of his oracles, Jeremiah expresses the deep anguish of God for the people: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22). The Lord echoes this attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1).

This weeping recurs in later chapters: in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).

This weeping is also expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). Tradition presumes that the author, who is never identified, is the prophet Jeremiah; many scholars, however, believe that there were a number of authors whose work has been collected into this single short book.

The five chapters of Lamentations express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced might come to an end. However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (3:22).

There is a tight numerical and alphabetical arrangement throughout this book. The first four chapters are acrostics—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.

The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.

In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).

The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11).

Since the city lies in ruins (2:5, 8), people put on sackcloth and throw dust on their heads (2:10); they hear songs of taunting (3:14, 61) and their enemies wag their heads and clap their hand at them, as they hiss and gnash their teeth (2:15–16). We might notice the allusion to this verse in the passion narrative (Mark 15:29–30; Matt 27:39–40) and the overtones of judgement in the gnashing of teeth in apocalyptic parables of Jesus (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).

The people are rejected (1:15; 5:22) and filled with bitterness (3:5, 15) and wormwood (3:15, 19); their flesh and skin waste away (3:4). Permeating all is the anger of the Lord (2:3, 21, 22; 3:43, 66; 4:1); his wrath is intense (2:2; 3:1; 4:11) and he sends his fire to consume (1:13; 2:3, 4; 4:11). The fiery God of vengeance that we see in Jeremiah as well as in other prophets, is alive and well in the book of Lamentations.

And yet, despite this dominance of divine wrath and fury, a beautiful fragment which praises God sits in the middle of the book: “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22). This poetic expression introduces a brief oasis of hope (3:22–33) in the midst of many lines of anguish, grief, and anger; God is praised for showing mercy, faithfulness, and compassion.

Sadly, this mood does not hold; the poems lapse back into questioning God and lamenting God’s inaction in the face of the people’s suffering. To be sure, God has been right to act in this way: “the Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18); “as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity” (2:17); what took place was “ for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed the blood of the righteous in the midst of her” (4:13).

In the middle poem, there is a call to repent: “let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord” (3:40); but then, a plea for God to intervene and change his mind: “you have taken up my cause, O Lord, you have redeemed my life; you have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause.” (3:58–59). However, this poem ends with a savage plea for God to deal with the Babylonian conquerors: “Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord, according to the work of their hands! Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the Lord’s heavens!” (3:64–66).

The final poem is an extended lament on the situation of Israel, framed with prayers of petition: “remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (5:1); “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored” (5:21)—although the final pessimistic word laments, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). So the series of poems closes on this note of utter desolation.

These five poems bear many similarities, not only with the “confessions of Jeremiah”, but also with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?

The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.

One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)

These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.

Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.

See also

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A reticent prophet: called, equipped, and sustained (Jeremiah 1; Pentecost 11C)

This is a sermon that I wrote and presented for Project Reconnect for this coming Sunday, Pentecost 11. The video of the sermon is at https://projectreconnect.com.au/2022/07/21/21st-august-2022-pentecost-9-the-prophet-jeremiah

Project Reconnect is a worship resource that is published weekly to help congregations with their worship service. It includes a PDF information sheet with video messages, music resources and discussion starters. (The website notes, “downloads are free but we would appreciate your donations to help continue our work”; see https://projectreconnect.com.au)

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Prophets. Not profits as in financial gain, the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something. But prophets, as in the chosen messengers of God, empowered by the Spirit, equipped to declare the word of the Lord to the people of God.

If your mind goes to prophets, perhaps you might think of Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”; or Micah: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”. Perhaps you think of Elijah: “the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but in the sound of sheer silence.” Or is it Isaiah who comes to your recollection: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I’m not surprised if one of those famous prophets was the person you immediately thought of. We have heard from some of them in the Old Testament readings in previous weeks, so they may be fresh in your mind.

But in today’s reading, we hear about the call that God placed on another person, a somewhat reluctant prophet: Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was not itching to respond to God, when he received the call to become a prophet. He was not very old; some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. We might have sympathy for Jeremiah on this account; he was young, hardly at an age that we would recognise as qualified and equipped to be a public spokesperson for God!

So when he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means, “alas” or “woe is me”. Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all.

Maybe you might know how he feels: when we are asked to do something difficult, something demanding, something challenging, that is beyond what we feel that we are able to achieve. For you, that might be the challenge of running a marathon, or being invited to speak in public to a large crowd, or learning a new language. Big challenges, lots of hard work, too much to consider. For me, I can think of a few challenges that really freak me out: climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge (I don’t handle heights very well at all), letting a snake coil around me (that’s a petrifying thought), touching a spider (we just aren’t going to go there in any way!)

Jeremiah was incredibly reticent; like Moses, he was not going to take up this invitation in any way. Moses declined the offer of becoming the spokesperson for God: “who am I, to go to Pharaoh? what could I say to him?” but God persisted, and Moses relented. Likewise, with Jeremiah; initially, he says, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”, but God persists: he will support the young man Jeremiah, just as he supported the young man Moses.

But I think that we have this story from the opening chapter of this book, in our reading today, not because it shows us that God will help us overcome our fears about challenges set before us. It think that it is not Jeremiah’s words that we are to focus on. It is, rather, the words that God speaks to Jeremiah which should ring in our ears.

It is the encouragement for the task that God promises—and later delivers—that must stand out for us. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’”, the voice declares; “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” God gives the right words for the appropriate time. That is remembered when Jesus later tells his disciples that the spirit would enable them to speak, even in the midst of difficulties (Luke 21:13–15).

And then, we hear the words: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” In typical style, the first word of God to the human being chosen for a specific task is, “do not be afraid”. When God appears to human beings—in a vision, as an angel, in a voice from the heavens, in a response to prayer, as a niggling, unsettling feeling, in words of advice or guidance from a friend—however God might appear to us, it can be an experience that evokes fear, awe, anxiety. Who is this, speaking to me? How am I to respond?

“Do not be afraid”, said the Lord, to Abraham, in a vision (Gen 15). “Do not be afraid”, he said, to Isaac, at Beersheba (Gen 26). “Do not be afraid”, to Moses, in the wilderness (Num 21), to Joshua, facing the combined might of a great army (Josh 11), to Elijah, also facing a great army (2 Kings 1); “do not be afraid”, Isaiah says, on behalf of the Lord, to king Hezekiah (Isa 37); “do not be afraid”, the voice of God says to the prophet Ezekiel, when he was called to his role (Ezek 2), and to Zechariah (Zech 8). It is a common refrain throughout the stories of the people of Israel.

And we hear the same phrase repeated in New Testament stories, when God speaks to Zechariah, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Mary, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Joseph (Matt 1), to Simon Peter (Luke 5), to Paul, Silas, and Timothy, in Corinth (Acts 18), and to the ageing prophet John in exile on Patmos: “do not be afraid” (Rev 1). It is God’s consistent and encouraging word to those who encounter the intensity of divine presence, the enormity of divine challenge, the inescapable call to follow, to believe, to declare the word of the Lord: “do not be afraid”. It is God’s word to each of us.

So the word of God to Jeremiah is clear: “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” And Jeremiah is willing to respond; to accept the challenge, to take up the call, to stretch himself and step into a new experience.

What Jeremiah would encounter in the decades that followed, was pretty heavy stuff. He didn’t know that at the time that he accepted the call to be God’s spokesperson. He persisted, held strong, remained faithful throughout all the difficulties that ensued for the people of Israel, as they were attacked, besieged, defeated, and then sent into exile, away from their homeland, off into a strange, foreign country. Jeremiah held fast; he remained faithful to the call that God had placed upon him through all of this.

And God held fast to him through all these tragic events. Jeremiah received the support, the guidance, and the encouragement from God through this all, as the people of God were taken from their beloved land, and sent far away into exile. God remained faithful.

So we give thanks to God, for God holds fast, God remains faithful, God does not let go, no matter what. That gracious, faithful commitment to us is the heart of the good news that we know, that we proclaim, that we live in our lives: the ever-faithful God who is with us, the ever-present God who is for us.

For this, we say: thanks be to God!

*****

1. What do you think about the idea that a teenager could be the chosen voice of God?

2. How do you deal with difficulties on your walk of faith? How do you listen for what God might be saying to you at such a time?

3. Think of a challenge that faces your congregation or faith community. How might you work together to discern what God is calling you to do?

4. Jeremiah was called to speak to all the people—the whole community—in the public arena. How do you make your voice heard in the public discussion of important issues today?

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It may be that they will listen (Jeremiah 26–52)

Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. As the book moves on from the poetic oracles of chapters 1–25, to a series of prose narratives in chapters 26–45, some key events in the life of Jeremiah are reported.

First, we learn that Jeremiah is called to “stand in the court of the Lord’s house and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word” (Jer 26:2). His message is about their failure to walk in the law that God had given them (remembering that the discovery of “the book of the law” and the subsequent reforms under Josiah had taken place just a couple of decades earlier. The response from the ruling class is not positive—in fact, Jeremiah is threatened with death (26:7–11). He argues his way out of this sentence (26:12–24), but the threat of death will return in a later chapter.

To dramatise the judgement placed on Israel, as well the surrounding nations of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon, Jeremiah wears a yoke (27:1–22), telling the people of Judah to “bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live” (27:12). Rather than seeing the foreign power as an enemy, Jeremiah exhorts the people to submit them, in what will be a hard, but not permanent, arrangement. This marks a change in theology that we will see also in Deutero-Isaiah, where the foreign power is seen to be an agent of God.

Accordingly, he sends a letter from the Lord “from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:1), instructing them to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters; … multiply there, and do not decrease; seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:5–7). Life goes on in exile; God has not abandoned the people.

*****

In the midst of his despair, Jeremiah sees hope: “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it” (30:3). In this context, Jeremiah indicates that the Lord “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:31–34).

The renewal of the covenant was not a new idea in the story of Israel. God had entered into covenants with Abraham, the father of the nation (Gen 15:1–21) and before that, in the story of Noah, with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you … that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood” (Gen 9:8–11). The covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–6), accompanied by the giving of the law (Exod 20:1–23:33), is sealed in a ceremony by “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:1–8).

The covenant with the people that Moses brokered is renewed after the infamous incident of the golden bull (Exod 34:10–28), then under Joshua at Gilgal, as the people enter the land of Canaan after their decades of wilderness wandering (Josh 4:1–24). It is renewed again in the time of King Josiah, after the discovery of “a book of the law” and his consultation with the prophet Huldah (2 Chron 34:29–33), and it will be renewed yet again after the exiled people of Judah return to the land under Nehemiah, when Ezra read from “the book of the law” for a full day (Neh 7:73b—8:12) amd the leaders of the people made “a firm commitment in writing … in a sealed document” which they signed (Neh 9:38–10:39).

However, the particular expression of renewal that Jeremiah articulates will prove to be critical for the way that later writers portray the covenant renewal undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6–18; Heb 8:8–12). Especially significant is the claim that this renewed covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke” (Jer 31:32), for God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33). It is a covenant which has “the forgiveness of sins” at its heart (31:34)— precisely what is said of the “new covenant” effected by Jesus (Matt 26:28; and see Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).

To signal his confidence in this promised return, Jeremiah buys a field in his hometown of Anathoth from his cousin Hanamel (32:1–15). The narrator notes that “the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him” (32:2–3). Nevertheless, the purchase serves to provide assurance that the exiled people will indeed return to the land of Israel; “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).

Jeremiah exhorts the people to “give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (33:11), because in the places laid waste by the Babylonians, “in all its towns there shall again be pasture for shepherds resting their flocks … flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord” (33:12–13). As the people return to the land, the Lord “will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). The title “Son of David” is later applied to Jesus in three Gospels (Mark 10:47–48; Matt 1:1; 12:23; 15:22; 21:9, 15; Luke 18:38–39).

*****

As Jeremiah was “prevented from entering the house of the Lord” (36:5), he dictated his prophecies to a scribe named Baruch (36:4) and instructed Baruch to “read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation” (36:6). Baruch does so; in response, King Jehoiakim burns the scroll (36:20–26), so Jeremiah repeated the process with Baruch (36:32). Subsequently, the prophet was imprisoned in the court of the guard (37:11–21) and then in a cistern (38:1–6), before being rescued from the cistern, on the king’s orders, by Ebed-melech the Ethiopian (38:7–13).

Jeremiah informs King Zedekiah of the imminent capture of Jerusalem (38:14–28); this is duly narrated (39:1–10) and Jeremiah is set free by King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon (39:11–18). After speaking further oracles, the prophet is sent into exile in Egypt (43:1–7), where he continues to berate the exiles for their idolatry. “I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good”, the Lord asserts; “all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left” (44:27).

The final chapter in this narrative sequence reports the anguish of the Lord: “Woe is me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest”; and then the judgement of the Lord: “I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted—that is, the whole land … I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the Lord” (45:1–5).

The book concludes with a series of prophecies against foreign nations in chapters 46–51 (the Egyptians, Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites, then Damascus, Kedor, Hazor, Elam, and Babylon itself), before ending with an historical appendix telling of the capture of Jersualem (chapter 52), which is drawn largely from 2 Kings 24:18—25:30.

See also

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Huldah, a prophet, gifted by the spirit (2 Kings 22; 2 Chron 34)

In Jewish tradition, there are seven women identified as prophets (Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther). Concerning Huldah, we know of only one of her prophetic acts, when she gave advice to King Josiah (2 Kings 22–23; see also 2 Chron 34).

However, this single piece of advice was extremely important; it guided Josiah to undertake the thoroughgoing reforms of religion in Judah that characterised his reign. “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors” (2 Chron 24:33).

Huldah’s husband, Shallum, had a prominent position in the royal court. He was the keeper of the king’s wardrobe (Jer 34:5); he therefore had daily access to the king and was able to meet him in relative privacy. He was better placed than most to talk with the king and advise him. Huldah was therefore among the inner circle surrounding King Josiah.

According to rabbinic tradition, Huldah was a relative of Jeremiah (Megillah 14b). The last thing said in Hebrew scripture about Rahab and Joshua is that “Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared; her family has lived in Israel ever since” (Josh 6:25). The rabbis, however, maintain that Joshua and Rahab married, and that their descendants included Hilkiah, Jeremiah, Huldah, Seraiah, Mahseiah, Baruch, and Ezekiel. That’s quite a family!

The significance of Huldah is that it was she, a woman, who was consulted by the king, and she, a female prophet, whose guidance led to a pivotal reform in Judah. Claude Mariottini writes that “Huldah’s oracle is significant because she is the only woman prophet who proclaimed a message about future events. She begins her speech, like the other male prophets, claiming that her words were the words of God: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel.’ This expression is the messenger formula that was used by the Old Testament prophets to introduce their oracles. As a prophet, Huldah saw herself as a messenger of God set apart to speak in God’s name.” (see https://claudemariottini.com/2013/09/17/huldahs-oracle/)

Josiah reigned from 640 to 609 BCE, with the reforms noted above taking place during the late 620’s. What drove the reforms was the discovery, in the midst of the restoration of the Temple, of an ancient book of the Law, at the bottom of a money chest that had recently been raided to pay for renovations to the Temple (2 Ki 22:8–10). The book set out the requirements of the Law; Josiah panics because he realises that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant, and that God will punish them.

Josiah repents in contrition, consults with Huldah, and then implements extensive reforms. Many scholars believe that the book referred to in 2 Kings 22 could well have been what we know as a Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law”. This book was supposed to have been lost during the wholesale destruction of anything to do with worship of the Lord God, from the previous two kings, who were hostile to worship of Yahweh during their reigns.

Did the fact that the consultation with Huldah is reported without any “excuses” or “explanation” mean that there were female prophets at the royal court, as a matter of regular practice? The group that came with Kimg Josiah included the priest Hilkiah, two men identified as “Shaphan the Secretary and the king’s servant Asaiah”, as well as the sons of Shaphan and Micaiah, obviously another court official. This was an impressive group of high-status people.

Later tradition claims that Huldah proclaimed her prophecies at a place in Jerusalem now called Huldah’s Gate. The main theme of the incident involving her could be seen to be, “listen for God’s voice, wherever it comes from”. You can read the rabbinic traditions about Huldah at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/huldah-prophet-midrash-and-aggadah

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See also https://margmowczko.com/huldah-prophetess/

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Jesus, justice, and joy (Hebrews 12; Pentecost 11C)

We have had two weeks where the lectionary has offered us selections from the long chapter where various figures from the history of Israel are cited as examples of faith (11:1–12:2). “By faith, Abel … … by faith, Enoch … … by faith, Noah … … by faith, Abraham … … by faith, Isaac … … by faith, Jacob … … by faith, Joseph … … by faith, Moses … … by faith, the people … … by faith, Rahab [at last, a woman!] … … and what more should I say? for time would fail me to tell … …” All by faith.

That sequence culminated in the affirmation that this long list of faithful people is brought to a head by the faith of Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). All the faithful testimonies of these predecessors are gathered up by Jesus and “perfected” in his role as the chosen high priest, offering himself as the ultimate sacrificial victim, to effect atonement for the sins of the people. (See the links at the end of this post for how this point of view of worked out through this book.)

The anonymous writer continues to expound on how he understands what Jesus has effected; through submission to the discipline of God (12:3–6), Jesus is able to make available “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11) for people,of faith to enjoy and appreciate. Such readers (or hearers) are encouraged to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet” (12:12–13), and to “pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14).

The section of Hebrews now offered for this coming Sunday grapples further with how that holiness might be accessed and lived by people of faith in the time of the writer—and by extension, by us, in our time. In doing this, three key words are used: in coming to Jesus, they have come to a joyful gathering, and they have also come to the justice of God which is made manifest in that gathering (12:22–24).

Here’s a sermon that I have preached at a number of places over the years, when this passage appears in the lectionary. (Yes, I confess to being a sermon-recycler!)

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As the author addresses the implicit the question, “what have you come to?”, he declares, you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering (12:22). The implication is that by gathering to worship, believers come to a kind of Mount Zion, on the high place, at the high point of the week, when the saints of God, the angels in festive dress, gather together to celebrate and to encounter the living God.

This is the place where we come to renew our friendship with God; where we encounter the living God. The words which long ago were written to an unknown group of people, called simply the Hebrews, addressing them with exhortation, might well apply equally to us, as well. Come, and meet with God.

So what does that mean, in practice, for us?

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I

You have come to the joyful assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. The first reason for joining in worship is to share with others in a celebration of JOY.

If you read this verse in the original Greek, you will find a word that is translated as assembly, or perhaps as gathering. The Greek word translated in this way is ekklesia – the word that is often translated as church, the Greek word from which get ecclesial, referring to churchly matters.

So, in the mind of the anonymous author of this word of exhortation to the Hebrews, there is a close link between coming to church, and entering into an experience of joy. That is because joy was a central element in the faith of Israel, and joy is a central aspect of the Christian faith.

The theme of joy is one that we regularly find in the Bible. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, is an exhortation that we find in a number of the Psalms. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, is a line in another familiar psalm. The joy of the whole earth is Mount Zion, the ancient Jewish pilgrims would sing, according to another psalm.

Later in the Biblical story, when Jesus was born, we learn that an angel appeared to the shepherds, and said to them, I bring you good news of great joy. The birth of this child was seen as a joyful event – as is the birth of each and every child, surely. But the birth of this child was a particularly joyful event, because he would be regarded as the Saviour of the world.

Jesus, as an adult, told a story of the man who discovered a hidden treasure when he was digging in his field. The discovery of God’s kingdom is filled with just as much joy as there was in the heart of that man, when he found that treasure. Joy is a theme that runs right through the stories of the Bible.

But let’s backtrack to the words of the angel, when he spoke to the shepherds: don’t be afraid, for I have good news for you, which will bring great joy to the people. Sometimes the response to the Gospel can be one of fear. The shepherds were afraid of the angel, just as the people of Israel had been filled with fear when Moses had gone up to the top of Mount Zion, to speak with God. Fear runs throughout the story of the people of Israel, a constant companion alongside joy; fear of God, fear of God’s otherness, God’s strangeness, God’s holiness; fear of God’s might and power.

Now, fear is not necessarily a completely negative element; in fact, in the way that the Bible uses the term, fear can be a very positive quality.

Fear can mean a sense of awe; an attitude of reverence and adoration of the one who is greater than all of us. Yet fear, that positive acknowledgement of God, can turn sour; it can become plain, sheer unadulterated fright; it can mean being so petrified of the other person that you cannot utter a word.

The people of Israel had, at times, imagined God to be so remote that they were unable to speak to him, except through Moses, who had to make careful preparations and then climb all the way to the top of the mountain, to meet with God; or later, only through the High Priest, who had an appointment to meet with God just once each year, on the Day of Atonement, and even then, in private, right inside the Temple, in the Holy of Holies. It was, ultimately, a form of fear which drove this meticulous and careful system of engagement between God and the people of Israel.

It is in the book of Hebrews, that an alternate message to this is proclaimed; for in Hebrews, we are told, Jesus takes on the role of that High Priest, but he enables us to meet God face-to-face, to speak directly with God. Jesus is our priest and mediator, according to this long “word of exhortation” to the Hebrews. And so, the fear which turns to dread and fright, is replaced by a fear which produces adoration and awe; a fear which is transformed in to joy.

But where does this joy come from? Our passage offers us some clues.

Joy comes from the knowledge that we are God’s firstborn. The firstborn occupy a special place, for God; the firstborn are those chosen for salvation. This ranking of being first comes, not from the order of our physical birth, but from our birth into relationship with God. Once we enter into a fullness of relationship with God, we are all regarded as being firstborn daughters or sons.

And God has chosen to save the firstborn. The story is told about when the people of Israel were in captivity in Egypt, at a time when Pharaoh determined to kill all the newborn sons of the Hebrew people; but the story takes a twist, as all the firstborn sons of Egypt were then killed. The firstborn sons of the Hebrews had been saved; God had passed over the houses marked by blood, as they were Israelite houses. Moses, then, decreed that all the firstborn males were to be dedicated to God in a special way.

This story, the account of the first Passover, has become a pattern for how it is with God; as we signify our obedience to God, and place our trust in God, as we become one of those whom God has chosen and saved, so we are dedicated as firstborn; we become a living, walking, breathing sign of the goodness of God; we ourselves become occasion for joy!

And further, according to Hebrews 12, we are given joy from the knowledge that our names are written in heaven. That is another way of saying that God has acted for us; God has saved us and granted us a new quality of life. So, we have an assurance from this action undertaken by God; our names are written in heaven, and we are joyful.

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II

You have come … to God, who is judge of all human beings, and to the spirits of righteous people made perfect.  There is a second reason for coming to worship God.

The writer of our passage is no heavenly-eyed mystic who has lost touch with reality; he is no charismatic character who has been taken in the Spirit to the seventh heave; no, he is a realist, who understands that it is fine to preach joy and celebration, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of the faith.

We might well ask, how can we be so full of joy in a world in which so nay people know nothing of joy at all? What right do we have to be joyous, when people die tragically in unexpected accidents, when millions are starving for want of food, when thousands are tortured and oppressed unjustly, when stories of terror and uprisings and mistreatment appear daily on our news? Is the Christian faith out of touch with these dreadful realities of life in our times?

The answer from this passage of Hebrews is clear: no! The writer suggests that there is more involve in coming to church than just an expression of joy. We have come … to God, who is judge of all human beings; to God, the JUDGE, who raises before us a standard of justice and righteousness.

We have come to join in common cause with God who judges on the basis of loving and righteous standards. This is in line with what I read in the Basis of Union, which declares that we are followers of Jesus, and that in Jesus, God made a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. It is righteousness and love which is at the heart of God, and it is righteousness and love which is at the centre of the work that Jesus undertakes.

By gathering in worship, we are saying yes to the God of justice, we are standing as a light in the darkness of the world. In worship, we consider and pray for the peoples of the world, praying for the Gospel to be made manifest in situations of injustice. In our prayers, we yearn to shine the light of righteousness and love on situations of oppression and inequity.

By coming to worship the God who is our judge, we are stating that we are committed to living, ourselves, in accordance with his standard of gracious righteousness, of loving justice. In our prayers, we reach out, far beyond our own immediate circle, to encompass those far from us who are in need of God’s justice in their situation today.

So, when we come to worship, we do not enter into this building in order to retreat from the world in which we live; we do not lay aside all the concerns and involvements of our own lives; but we enter into the presence of God, now fully alert to the needs of God’s people, now fully aware of the hurts of so many people, and trusting in our relationship with God, that it will encourage us and enable us to live in accordance with the justice of God.

God is a just judge, whose will is to ensure that the new order of righteousness and love is brought to fruition in our own lives, in our own situation, in our own times.

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III

And finally: you have come … to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than does the blood of Abel.

There is a third reason for coming to worship God; it is here that we meet Jesus face-to-face. Jesus is the one who offers a direct and immediate connection with God. Jesus. In the terms of the book of Hebrews, is both our priest and our mediator.

Jesus is the one who offers us JOY, bring us into relationship with God. Jesus is the one who reminds us, again and again, that when we come to God in joy, we are called into relationship with one who is JUST.  Through the life and death of Jesus, God grants us the gifts of joy and of justice. The author of this passage draws on a well-known pattern of actions to describe how this happens. In the world of the first century, for the Jewish people, the daily pattern of sacrifices taking place in the forecourt of the Temple in Jerusalem, reminded the people of the justice of God, and of the joy which God offers.

In Hebrews 12, we read that it is the sprinkled blood of Jesus which enables us to draw near to God. In the shedding of his blood, Jesus demonstrated that, in the purposes of God, death is not a futile thing. There is a reason and a purpose in our living; there is a firm hope for us, beyond the grave. On the cross, the blood of Jesus was shed for everyone; Jesus submitted to the powers of sin, he gave up the dominion over his life, he shed his blood and died. Yet the story goes on. The shed blood does not lie, impotent, on the ground. Just like the blood of Abel, there is power in the blood of Jesus. When Abel had been slain by Cain, his blood cried out of the injustice which had been committed.

When Jesus was slain by the Romans, there was injustice once again; his blood signified not only the offering of his life, given up in death, but also the possibilities that his sacrificed life offered to all who followed after him. The shed blood had within it the life power of Jesus; that is how the ancient Israelites understood the power of shed blood, for according to Leviticus 17, the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.

So all the language about the blood of Jesus in Hebrews, and in traditional theology, is founded on this understanding. The life power of Jesus was inherent in his blood; when that blood was shed in his death, his life power was released into the world in order to make atonement; and that life was made manifest in the resurrection which followed in three days.

So, we can see how the argument is developed in this book that the sprinkled blood of Jesus is the source of our joy, for it assures us that God is in charge, that there is hope beyond this life, that the obedience of sacrifice will be vindicated through the gift of new life. And the sprinkled blood of Jesus is the basis for our seeking after justice, for the resurrected Jesus was the firstfruits of the new creation, the representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. God acts to remove the destructive power of sin, and to establish a new, just, order in society.

And so, we come to worship today, seeking to celebrate in JOY, and to pray and work for JUSTICE, because these things have been sought for by JESUS himself. He calls us to join him in the new society of joy and justice; he bids us be with him on the mountain of God, where joy reigns supreme over fear; where justice is seen and enacted; where we can be with Jesus, our priest and mediator, the risen Lord, source of joy, the one who sits at the right hand of the Father to rule in justice.

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See also

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Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 11–12; Pentecost 10C)

The excerpt from chapters 11 and 12 of the letter to the Hebrews, offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, concludes a long chapter of forty verses, providing a long list of the many witnesses who have lived their lives by faith. There was is a reference to Abraham and Sarah in the section we heard last week, but there is also mention of Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua and Rahab, Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—people who lived through many adventures, women who were faithful throughout their lives, martyrs who met an early death and rulers who bore responsibility for leading a nation.

These people are all drawn from the pages of our shared scriptures, the “heroes of the faith” from the stories of the Hebrew people. The excerpt offered this coming Sunday by the lectionary (Heb 11:29–12:2) canvasses many examples of faith, culminating in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the final example of faith which we are offered is the most familiar figure: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).

Faith, it is stated, is about what we cannot see, and what is not immediately evident in tangible ways when we look around us. We cannot point to an object, and claim: “there it is”. We cannot hold up a particular item, and say: “look at it ..? do you see it?” Because faith, in the end, is about what we value inside ourselves; it is about the qualities we hold dear, the principles by which we live.

And yet, in the stories offered in this reading, we are invited to consider what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen”. This is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.

And in the story of Jesus, that faith becomes tangible, visible, knowable—a story filled with many details, a multitude of scenes, encounters, teachings, travels—all providing material that enable us to perceive of Jesus as a real, tangible human being, a fine example of faith.

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Three images of Jesus dominate the extended sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews: Jesus as the pioneer of salvation, the great high priest, and the perfecter of faith.

These images are combined at key points (2:8b–11a; 5:7–10; 12:1–2), as they are developed in an interconnected fashion throughout the book. Their common point is the author’s focus on the death of Jesus on the cross (2:9; 5:7–8; 12:2). It is this “suffering of death” which transforms Jesus from his state of being “lower than the angels” to being “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9).

In his death, Jesus is the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Through his death, Jesus “brings many children to glory” and is made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10). This image recurs in the claim that Jesus was made perfect after “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8–9; see also 7:28; 12:2). It is this claim which undergirds the call for believers to “go on toward perfection” (6:1; see also 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).

The image of Jesus as the perfecter of faith is also related to the third image, of Jesus as the great high priest (4:14; 7:11). This image is firmly grounded in his humanity. Jesus shares “flesh and blood” with God’s children (2:14) and became like these humans “in every respect” (2:17). He has been “tested as we are” (4:15) and is chosen to be priest from among mortals (5:1, 5).

Yet this image also allows a place for the transcendent nature of Jesus. When he is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), Jesus is understood to be the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (4:14) and is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26).

As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (8:1), he is able to enter into the holy place of “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11–12) to offer the sacrifice which “makes perfect those who approach” (10:1, 14). This sacrifice brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).

Paradoxically, Jesus both stands in the place of the priest slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously lies on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). Although the details of the imagery are confused, there is a consistently firm assertion developed through this image: Jesus is the assurance of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 10:22).

A sense of hope thus permeates the sermon, with references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19), “the confession of our hope” (10:23) which is undergirded with the assurance that it is offered by God, for “he who has promised is faithful”. (See other references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).

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Throughout the sermon, the author of Hebrews presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message, beginning with an opening exhortation which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13). In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16).

More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24–25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17). A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon (13:1–19). These exhortations are delivered in a sharp, staccato style, one after the other, in short, sharp bursts.

By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. The poem, as we have noted, offers many examples of faith from amongst this cloud of witnesses, culminating in

Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40).

By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).

The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).

As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people; as Moses and the people escaped slavery and trod the long wilderness path to Canaan; as people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, quenched raging fire, endured so, so many battles; as people were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death and were killed by the sword; as others were persecuted and tormented; and as Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.

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See also

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To pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to build (Jeremiah 1–25)

Continuing my series of blogs on the prophets: today, Jeremiah, who was called to be a prophet at an early age (Jer 1:4–10). Some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, while others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. When he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6).

Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means “alas” or “woe is me” (see also 4:10; 14:13: 32:17; and also Joel 1:15). Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all. See my sermon on this passage at

Yet Jeremiah faithfully carried out the task committed to him; it is thought that he was active from the mid-620s in Judah, through into the time of exile in Babylon, from 587 BCE onwards—that is, over four decades—although Jeremiah himself was exiled, not into Babylon, but into Egypt (Jer 43:1–7).

The task he was given when called to be a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God on the people of Israel, for continuing to ignore their covenant commitments. The Lord tells him, “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16). As encouragement, he urges the young man to “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you” (1:17).

Jeremiah proclaims both God’s judgement and God’s hope for repentance by the people. This dual focus appears in God’s instructions to Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). In his later years, in solidarity with the people who have been “plucked up” into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah urges his people to make the best of their time in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city” (29:5, 7). Many centuries later, a clear allusion to that same oracle is made by Simeon as he meets the infant Jesus: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).

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The overall progression of the book is chronological, as it be­gins with the call of Jeremiah (ch.1) and ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem (ch.52). Nevertheless, the arrangement of the book is more topical overall, rather than chronological, since oracles on the same topic are grouped together even though they may have been delivered at different times. There are various theories as to how the book was put together; most scholars believe that someone after the lifetime of Jeremiah has brought together material from collections that were originally separate.

Indeed, A.R. Pete Diamond concludes that “like it or not, we have no direct access to the historical figure of Jeremiah or his cultural matrix”; we have “interpretative representations rather than raw cultural transcripts”, and thus he argues that the way we read this book should be informed by insights from contemporary literary theory, and especially by reading this book alongside the book of Deuteronomy, as it offers a counterpoint to the Deuteronomic view of “the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh” (Jeremiah, pp. 544–545 in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003). Whereas Deuteronomy advocates a nationalistic God, Jeremiah conceives of an international involvement of Israel’s God.

The chronological disjunctures can be seen when we trace the references to various kings of Judah: in order, we have Josiah in 627 BCE (Jer 1:2), jumping later to Zedekiah in 587 BCE (21:1), then back earlier to Shallum (i.e. Jehoahaz) in 609 BCE (22:11), Jehoiakim from 609 to 598 BCE (22:18), and Jeconiah in 597 BCE (22:24), before returning to Zedekiah in 597 BCE (24:8) then back even earlier to Jehoiakim in April 604 BCE, “the first year of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (25:1)—and then further haphazard leaps between Zedekiah (chs. 27, 32-34, 37–38, and 51:59) and Jehoiakim (chs. 26, 35, 45) as well as the period in 587 after the fall of Jerusalem when Gedaliah was Governor (chs. 40–44). It is certainly an erratic trajectory if we plot the historical landmarks!

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The topical arrangement is easier to trace: 25 chapters of prophecies in poetic form about Israel, 20 chapters of narrative prose, and six chapters of prophecies against foreign nations. Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.

“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.

Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). As Jeremiah denounces their worship of idols (10:1–16) and breaches of the covenant (11:1–17), his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20).

Others prophesying are condemned by God; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18). The prophet dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).

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The punishment that is coming to Israel is a cause of great grief for Jeremiah, and so he is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” (see 9:1; 13:17; 22:10). He doesn’t sit easy with the terrors associated with the execution of God’s justice in the nation—perhaps we can resonate with the angst of this ancient figure?

The most common criticism that I hear of Old Testament passages is about the terrible violence of the vengeful God—an element of Israelite religion that seems quite at odds with so much of modern sensibilities. Jeremiah gives a clear and potent expression to this image, when he has Jeremiah report that God says, “I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:5–6).

A number of passages in the first main section of this book are seen to reflect this angst about a powerful, vengeful God—they are often called “Jeremiah’s confessions”, as he confesses his pain and grief to God, and prays for a release from his condition (see 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14; 15:15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12; 20:14–18). These “confessions” share stylistic and thematic similarities with the “psalms of lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90 (psalms of communal lament), and Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142 (psalms of individual lament).

“Woe is me”, or “woe to us”, is a common phrase in Jeremiah’s oracles (4:13; 4:31; 6:4; 10:19; 13:27; 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 45:3; 48:46). It is the same term that we found in Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:5) and oracles (Isa 24:16), Hosea’s declarations (7:13; 9:12), Micah’s prophecies (Mic 7:1), and Ezekiel’s utterances (Ezek 13:18; 16:23; 24:6, 9). All lament the imposition of divine justice in ways that wreak havoc amongst the people.

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Jeremiah conveys the specific timetable of God’s judgement in explicit announcements: first, “the whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11); then, “after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:12).

The result of this is conveyed in another oracle, when God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (23:3). The end result, it seems, will be positive; but the process of journeying to that desired end will be difficult, to say the least.

The seventy years noted in these prophecies (25:11–12) has occasioned some debate amongst the scholars: was this a prediction of exact years, an approximation of the length of time of the exile, or a symbolic statement, typical of biblical numbers, which should not be taken literally? (such as, 40 years means “a long time”, 1,000 means “very many”, seven means “complete” or “fulfilled”, and so on).

Many conservative commentators (and especially Seven Day Adventists) who take biblical texts literally, spend much time and ink in wrestling with this issue! One such commentary or, for instance, notes that, if this is an exact period of 70 years, it could be: (a) from the initial attack of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon against Jerusalem in 605 BCE, to the return of the Jews under Cyrus of Persia in 536 BCE; or (b) from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE to the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.

He continues by noting that some scholars claim that “these years were in actuality shortened by God’s mercy, since when one works backwards from 539 B.C. (the occasion of the capture of Babylon), it is obvious that none of the traditional starting dates—605 B.C., 597 B.C., or 587/86 B.C.—provides a time period of exactly seventy years”. Some other suggestions include that “these years represent a lifetime, since Ps 90:10 presents seventy years as a normal human lifespan”, or that “the expression [is] simply a term that referred to the period of desolation for a nation”, as it is used in that way in an Esarhaddon inscription concerning Babylon. (Ross E. Winkle, in an article in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 1987, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 201–202)

Jeremiah invites our consideration in a number of ways. He continues the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. He begins a development which sees the role of Israel’s God as stretching beyond the bounds of Israel. He expresses personal emotional angst with regard to the aggressive, power-based actions of God. And, as we shall see next week,

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Strangers and foreigners on the earth (Hebrews 11; Pentecost 9C)

This week and next, the lectionary leads us into distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews: a lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each witness attests to a vibrant faith in God.

The author begins this paean (a song of praise) with a tightly-worded definition of faith, using complex technical terms which were used in philosophical discussions: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (11:1–3); after the consideration of numerous instances of such faith, the section moves to a climactic vision of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–2).

The language of 11:1–3 is most unlike Paul’s usual terminology—one of the clear clues that undermine the claim that Paul wrote this letter. That claim, made by some patristic writers, debunked by others, cannot be substantiated. This is an anonymous work by an unknown writer. See

Whoever wrote this letter—described at the end as a word of exhortation (13:22)—accorded great value to scripture (the works that we have collected as the Old Testament in our Bibles). In arguing the case for Jesus to be seen “as much superior to the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs [the prophets]” (1:3), the author initially draws from a number of psalms to make the point (1:5–13).

In subsequent sections, we find that the author discusses Ps 8 (Heb 2:5–18); compares Jesus with Moses using Num 12 and Ps 95 (Heb 3:1–19); combines two psalms (Ps 2:7 and 110:4) to identify Jesus as “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 4:14–5:10); and then returns to the story of Melchizedek from Gen 14, linked with Ps 110 (Heb 6:13–7:28).

In a lengthy discussion of the priestly role of Jesus (Heb 8:1–9:28), Lev 26 and Jer 31 are considered; in a further discussion (Heb 10:1–39), Ps 40 is canvassed, along with Jer 31 once again, and the famous prophetic assertion, “my righteous one will live by faith” (Hab 2:3–4, cited at Heb 10:37–38; we find it also at Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11). See emails at

Such faith is expounded with a series of lyrical descriptions of the faith of numerous scriptural figures—Abel, Enoch and Noah (11:4–7), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8–12, 17–21), Moses, the people at the Red Sea, and Rahab (11:22–31), judges, prophets and kings (11:32–34), and many others (11:35–38). Each of these figures shared the same fate: “they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one”, and yet they each “died in faith without having received the promises” (11:13–16; see also 11:39).

Two pages from Papyrus 13 (dated 225–250 CE),
containing Hebrew 2:14–5:5; 10:8–22; 10:29–11:13; 11:28–12:17

Faith is described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen” (11:1). Such faith is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.

The portrayal of the figures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob in this reading is striking: “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they made it clear that they were seeking a homeland” (11:13–14).

In other words, as they looked at the people and the places where they were living, these ancient people of faith held out a firm hope for the ultimate goal that lay beyond where they found themselves at that time. In the end, they were not going to be bound by the restraints and demands of the immediate, observable present. They had a faith which swept beyond the immediate; for their faith was in the promise that God had extended to them.

Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham: each could look at their neighbours, and see the dislocation, hurts, and needs of their society. But as they looked at their neighbours, they were able to grasp the ways in which they might change those situations; they sensed the ways in which they might offer compassionate hope, and begin to transform their companions.

In other words, they looked with the eyes of faith; what they saw was far more than the flesh and bones, the tents and animals, in front of their eyes. They were able to see what might be; they were able to live in faith because of their belief in what was to be. They held fast to the belief that there was “a heavenly country”, and that God had “prepared a city for them” (11:16). It was this faith, in what God was calling them to do, and to be, which motivated and sustained them in their journeys through life. They were future-oriented people, partifipating in a pilgrimage towards a future goal.

Indeed, this view of things has been at the heart of the identity of the Uniting Church, over the four decades since it was formed. In the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church is described as “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.” This attitude of openness and expectation towards the future is one that runs throughout many of the paragraphs of the Basis of Union. It is at the heart of who were are as a church; it is the essence of our DNA as a community of faith.

The same attitude of openness towards the future is also articulated at the very end of the Basis of Union, in the final paragraph: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

This positive and hopeful orientation towards the future resonates with what we read in the word of exhortation of Hebrews, concerning the people of faith from past eras. To return to Sarah and Abraham: “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15), the writer warns. But they were not fixated onto the past; rather, they were oriented towards the future. It was not the land they had left, which motivated them; it was the promise of what was to come, that guided them. That was the essence of their faith.

As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.

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‘Here I am; send me’: the prophet Isaiah (Pentecost 9C, 10C)

In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.

We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.

The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.

The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).

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Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).

Isaiah, by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891)

The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).

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In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.

The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).

The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.

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There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).

Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.

There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).

Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?

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Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.

Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.

However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).

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Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).

The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).

Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).

In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).

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The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.

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Faithful and righteous, as God wreaks avenging wrath: Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah

The lectionary is currently taking us on a journey through various prophets found in the Old Testament. It is currently offering passages from the prophet Hosea, for last Sunday, and next Sunday. Concurrent with this, Elizabeth and I are leading a series on The Prophets, in which we cover most of the prophetic books in the OT—at least, more than are covered in the lectionary sequence.

As I’ve posted already about Amos and Hosea, and also about Micah (see the links below), this blog relates to four “minor prophets” who, like Amos, Hosea, and Micah, are labelled as “pre-exilic prophets”.

That term indicates that these four prophets—Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah—were each active in the few decades leading up to the conquering of the southern kingdom by Babylon in 587 BCE, and the removal into exile of the people as a result of that event. Obadiah is most likely to have been active just after the exiles started to leave (verses 11–14 could well refer to the fate of Jerusalem).

Each book is short; the first three have three chapters each—63 verses in Zephaniah, 56 verses in Habakkuk, and 47 verses in Nahum—whilst Obadiah has only one chapter of 21 verses. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (in that order) are grouped together in the canon; Obadiah appears before them, coming after Amos and before Jonah and Micah. The arrangement of books amongst The Twelve (the minor prophets) is not by chronology, nor by theme; the precise reason has occasioned a still-unresolved scholarly debate.

Each book contains the prophetic rhetoric that we have met in the earlier northern kingdom prophets: calls for justice, criticism of oppressive actions, and threats of intense punishment from a wrathful God. Most of them also contain glimpses of hope.

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Habakkuk says “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself at the rampart” (Hab 2:1), from where he declaims the words of judgement given to him by God: the wealthy will be called to account by their creditors, violent terrors will arise, and “the cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory” (Hab 2:15).

The Prophet Habakkuk, a detail of the Interior Mosaics
in the St. Marks Basilica, Venice; 12th century

Amidst these thundering pronouncements, Habakkuk does offer hope, declaring that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14), and imploring the people, “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20). He affirms that God’s “glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (3:3)—but that glory will swiftly lead to “the days of calamity” (3:16).

Habakkuk is best known for just one part of one verse, “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b), for this verse stands as the text upon which Paul developed his important theological statement in Romans: “in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). As well, Paul quotes this verse in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:11) and the verse is cited in the “word of exhortation” sent to the Hebrews (Heb 10:38).

In the context of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity, this verse is the word that God gives to the prophet, responding to his complaints about what sufferings are taking place. God is “rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation,who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own” (1:6), and through their dreadful and fearsome activities, God is “destroying nations without mercy” (1:17).

Habakkuk laments and complains; God instructs him to “look at the proud—their spirit is not right in them”, and to be assured that “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The theme of righteousness that is signalled here by the prophet is a central motif in Hebrew Scriptures. It appears in the ancestral stories concerning the key figures of Abraham (Gen 15:6), Saul (1 Sam 26:23), David (2 Sam 22:21–26; 1 Ki 3:6), and Solomon (1 Ki 10:9).

Further, Job exults in his righteousness (Job 27:6; 29:14) and the psalmists petition God on the basis of their righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:8; 112:1–10). Righteousness is praised in assorted proverbs (Prov 1:3; 8:20; 11:4–6; 12:28; 15:9; 16:8; 21:3, 21) and figures in numerous prophetic oracles (Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3). The message given to Habakkuk holds throughout Israelite history.

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Nahum starts with a clear declaration: “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). He expands on this with a series of images showing how God’s power is manifested in punishments (1:3–11). Idolatry, once again, lies at the root of the problem: “Your name shall be perpetuated no longer; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the cast image; I will make your grave, for you are worthless.” (1:14).

The Prophet Nahum, 18th century Russian Orthodox icon
(Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church,
Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia)

His oracle contains a long and troubling list of “devastation, desolation, and destruction” (2:10) which is enunciated in dramatic imagery: chariots and horsemen charging, piles of dead bodies, and the debaucheries of a prostitute (3:1–4). Because of this, says God, “I will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame; I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle” (3:5–6).

The people who are the recipients of Nahum’s words are not from Judah, for he addresses the people of Nineveh (1:1), the capital of Assyria. Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and conquered Thebes in 663 BCE (3:8–10); there, as in other places, they demonstrated a savage brutality. However, in 612 BCE the Assyrian dominance had given way to the new power, the Babylonians (this seems to be reflected in 3:7).

Nahum holds firm to the claim that that God will punish Nineveh: “the fire will devour you, the sword will cut you off, it will devour you like the locust” (3:15). The die is cast; “there is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal” (3:19). His final words are scathing: “all who hear the news about you clap their hands over you; for who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (3:19).

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Zephaniah also does not mince words; his opening statement is “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord” (Zeph 1:2), cataloguing a complete cosmic catastrophe. “Be silent before the Lord God, for the day of the Lord is at hand”, he exhorts (1:7). Those who complacently assert, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (1:12), will find that their trust in that mantra will be shattered, for “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast” (1:14).

The Prophet Zephaniah, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
of Antioch and All the East

The familiar declaration of the “day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom” (1:15) shapes the oracles that Zephaniah delivers; the prophet itemises the punishments on Israel’s enemies (2:1–15) and on Jerusalem herself (3:1–7). On “Canaan, land of the Philistines”, God declares, “I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left” (2:5). To the south-east, “Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever” (2:9).

Looking north to Assyria, Zephaniah hyperbolically claims, “what a desolation it has become, a lair for wild animals!” (2:15). In Jerusalem, corruption is rife: “the officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning; it’s prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law” (3:3–4).

Yet he ends with a declaration of hope (3:8–13) and a psalm-like celebration of the ultimate restoration which God promises: “sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (3:14), for this will be a time when “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth … when I restore your fortunes before your eyes” (2:19–20).

The prophecy echoes what Micah, a century before him, had seen: “I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted: the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation” (Mic 4:6–7). It’s a wonderful vision!

It also resonates with Isaiah’s vision of when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa 35:5-6)—a passage which itself inspired the way that the ministry of Jesus could be reported: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).

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Finally, in the shortest book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Obadiah repeats the message of his contemporaries about the punishment of God; however, he has in view the people of Edom, to the south of Judah (1:1), whom God will make “least among the nations” (1:1–4). The oracle of judgement that Obadiah delivers is directed to the Edomites, who helped to capture Israelites who were fleeing when the might of the Babylonian army took control of their territory (2 Kings 24–25).

Because they share a common ancestry with Judah—the Edomites descend from Esau, the Judahites from Jacob (Gen 25:21–26, 30)—God is angered with them for not assisting the fleeing Judahites (see the repeated “you should not have …” in verses 12 to 14).

Obadiah describes the day when “strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem” (1:11), when the Edomites gloated over the misfortune of the Judahites, looted their cities, and “handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (1:12–14). For these people, too, there is “a day of the Lord” in which retribution will be enacted (1:15–16). Punishment is severe and complete: it shall be “as though they had never been” (1:16).

Yet, as with other prophetic voices, Obadiah too foresees that God will not abandon his holy people; the book ends with a short recitation of the geographical areas which are to be allotted to returning exiles, and “those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (1:17–21). There is still hope.

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Footnote: Ten of the Minor Prophets, and all four Major Prophets, appear in the Revised Common Lectionary—some of them (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) appear many times. The two Minor Prophets who miss being in the lectionary are Nahum and Obadiah. 😢

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Justice and kindness, and walking humbly (the prophet Micah)

Continuing my series on the prophets in ancient Israel … this blog relates to Micah. Although this prophet offers significant passages for reflection (as noted below), no excerpts from this book appear in the Year C sequence of Hebrew Bible readings on the Prophets. (There are three excerpts at other times in the lectionary, as noted below, but none of Micah appears in the current sequence of readings from the Prophets.)

The prophet Micah is introduced in the opening chapter of the book bearing his name, as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah” (Mic 1:1). This places him in the second half of the 8th century BCE. As he was active in the southern kingdom, he does not directly experience the conquest and exile of people in the northern kingdom in 721 BCE, although he must have been aware of the disasters falling his countrymen to the north. His prophetic activity is thus a couple of decades after Amos and Hosea.

Indeed, the southern kingdom of Judah directly experienced a military attack from the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701, attacking several towns in Judah (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16) before retreating from Jerusalem. As Micah says, “the sins of the house of Israel” (1:5) have reached down and infected the house of Judah; “her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem” (1:9, 12).

Under Hezekiah, the economic patterns in Judah changed from a reliance on barter, to an international trading society. Literacy rates rose, and the size of Jerusalem grew to be a large city with a population of around 25,000—which is considered to be about five times larger than the population of Jerusalem under Solomon!

Associated with this growth was the development of corrupt practices and the rise of hypocrisy amongst the people. The rulers in Jerusalem “give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us’” (3:11).

Micah, like many other prophets, conveys God’s deep concern about the way that some in society were profiting unjustly from their mistreatment of the poor. He rails against those who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (2:2). Their haughty demeanour will swiftly turn to lamenting, as they cry out “we are utterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me!” (2:4).

In another oracle, he dramatises the state of the people, attacking the heads and rulers of the people as those “who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (3:1–3).

Micah decries their selfish actions in very specific terms: “its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” (3:11). (This particular condemnation of leaders in Judah appears in the lectionary towards the end of the Pentecost cycle in Year A, to accompany the strident words of condemnation of the leaders of his day, uttered by Jesus in Matt 23:1–12.)

Still later, Micah remonstrates with the people for “the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed” (6:10). He conveys God’s displeasure: “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:11–12). He laments that “the faithful have disappeared from the land” (7:2); of those who are left, he says, “their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice” (7:3).

The people are accused of following “the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab” (6:16)—two kings who are condemned for their idolatrous and evil ways (on Omri, see 1 Ki 16:25–26; on his son Ahab, see 1 Ki 16:30, 22:37–39).

Micah, like Amos before him, declares that punishment will come on the people in a time of deep darkness: “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation; the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” (2:6; cf. Amos 5:18–20). Because of the evil deeds of the heads and rulers, “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (3:12).

In a future time of anger and wrath, says the prophet, God will wreak vengeance: “I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots; and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds; and I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers; and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you” (5:10–15). The disdain with which the people have treated their covenant with the Lord, described in some detail here by the prophet, will merit this savage punishment.

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Although this is a short book (with only seven chapters), Micah is best known for a number of his oracles; first, the vision of universal peace that he utters: “many nations shall come and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:1–4). This oracle is found also in Isa 2:2–4 (although because of the canonical order of books, the Isaiah oracle appears first in reading order). For an interesting discussion of “which came first, Isaiah 2 or Micah 4 ?”, see https://abramkj.com/2012/12/11/which-came-first-isaiah-or-micah-comparing-isaiah-22-4-with-micah-41-3/)

In Matthew’s Gospel, another oracle from Micah is cited: “you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel” (5:2–6; see Matt 2:6). This oracle is set in the lectionary for Advent 4 during Year C.

In the context in which Micah speaks these words, they refer to a coming ruler of Judah. In Matthew’s narrative, the prophetic word provides support for the notion that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3–5; also John 7:42), which then means that the story of the birth of Jesus needs to take place in Bethlehem. Two evangelists work hard to tell stories that, in different ways, adhere to this requirement (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4).

The third oracle of Micah which is well known appears within an extended scene that reads like a lawsuit being prosecuted in court. It begins with the charge: “rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice … for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1–2). Then it moves through some argumentation, before the famous rhetorical question is posed: “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). This oracle is offered by the lectionary at Epiphany 4 in Year A.

This verse has gained a life of its own; it is regularly quoted to support people of faith undertaking acts of social justice; and as you can see, it adorns a multitude of t-shirts as a succinct “quotable quote”.

It has also been the inspiration for many organisations bearing the prophet’s name—locally, there is Micah Australia (“empowering Australian Christians to advocate for global justice”; see https://www.micahaustralia.org), which is part of the Micah Challenge International (birthed by the World Evangelical Alliance and Micah Network; see https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2015-03/micah-challenge-international).

The closing verses of this short book reiterate the central nature of God, in the mind of this prophet, and indeed of many of the authors of the material in the Hebrew Scriptures: “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? [God] does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency” (7:18). This recalls the recurring scriptural refrain that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; see also Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; as well as 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).

Many scholars consider that this more hopeful ending (7:11–20), and indeed some other parts of the book, come from years well after the time of the prophet Micah (indeed, some date some oracles to a time when the exile was ending, in the 520s BCE). Yet the way the book is presented conveys the message that Micah does not give up; despite his fierce words of judgement, he inspires the people to hold on to hope.

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Undoing the stereotype of “the vengeful God of the Old Testament” (Hosea 11; Pentecost 8C)

As we follow the various readings from the Prophets during this season after Pentecost in Year C, we encounter a striking passage this coming Sunday. It contains an impassioned love poem, in the words of God, concerning the people of Israel (Hosea 11:1–11).

The poem depicts God as a human being, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent.

This is a striking passage. It confronts us in two ways: first, by depicting God in human form, and second, as it is a passage in the Old Testament which depicts God in a way that is quite different from many other passages that are often cited, where God’s anger with Israel bubbles over into aggressive punishment. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard this aspect of God used to characterise (or, indeed, caricature) the God of the Old Testament as violent and vengeful.

First, let’s consider the depiction of God in ways that indicate the deity is acting like a human being. Even thought there are clear injunctions against having any images (or idols) representing God (Exod 20:4, 23; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Num 33:50–52; Deut 5:8; 27:15; Isa 42:17), God is nevertheless portrayed in the scriptures as being human-like.

In Deuteronomy, Moses had reminded the the Israelites of what had taken place on Mount Horeb (Sinai of Exodus 19): “the Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12). He continued, “since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deut 4:15–18). That’s a comprehensive list of what is prohibited!

Nevertheless, at many places in Hebrew Scripture, God has eyes and ears (2 Chron 6:40; 7:15; Ps 34:15; Dan 9:18), a mouth (Deut 8:3; 2 Chron 36:12; Isa 1:20; 34:16; 40:5; 58:14; 62:2; Jer 9:12; 23:16; Mic 4:4) and nostrils (Deut 15:8; 2 Sam 22:9, 16; Ps 18:8, 15; Isa 65:5), as well as hands (Exod 9:3; 16:3; Josh 4:24; Job 12:9; Ps 75:8; Isa 5:25; Ezek 3:22) and feet (Gen 3:8; Ps 2:11–12; 18:9; Isa 63:3; Ezek 43:7; Nah 1:3; Zech 14:3–4).

God speaks (Gen 1:3; Exod 33:11; Num 22:8; Ps 50:1; Ezek 10:5; Jer 10:1; listens (Exod 16:12; Ps 4:3; 34:17; 69:33; Prov 15:29), and smells the aroma of sacrifices as smoke rises to the heavens (Gen 8:21; Lev 1:13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 11, 16; 4:10, 31; 6:15; 8:21; 17:6; cf. Lev 26:31). God even whistles (Isa 7:18) and shaves (Isa 7:20)!

This depiction of God in human form is despite the polemic of Psalm 115, which derides idols as “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.” (Ps 115:4–7; see also Deut 4:28; Isa 44:18; Hab 2:18).

The God with eyes and ears, then, laughs (Ps 2:4), has regrets (Jer 42:10), feels grief (Ps 78:40) and joy (Isa 62:5; Jer 32:41; Zeph 3:17). God experiences jealousy (Exod 20:5; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:19–21; Josh 24:19; Job 36:33)—jealousy so intense that his wrath “burns like fire” (Ps. 79:5). “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces”, says Nahum (Nah 1:2).

Which brings us to the stereotype I noted above: that the God of the Old Testament was always violent and vengeful. To be sure, we can see intense flashes of God’s anger in incidents told in the historical narratives (Num 25:1–9; Deut 28:15–68; 29:19–28; Judg 2:11-23; 2 Sam 6:1–11) and in the regular refrain, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against XX” (Exod 4:14; Num 11:33; 12:9; 32:13; Deut 6:15; 7:4; 11:17; 29:27; Josh 23:16; Judg 2:14, 20; 3:8; 10:7; 2 Sam 6:7; 24:1; 1 Ki 16:7, 13, 26, 33; 22:53; 2 Ki 13:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:19, 26; 1 Chron 13:10; 2 Chron 21:16; 28:25; 33:6; Ps 106:40).

The prophets proclaim that judgement will fall with a vengeance on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5) whilst the psalmists invoke the wrath of the Lord upon their enemies (Ps 2:5, 12; 21:9; 56:7; 59:13; 110:5–6), note that God’s wrath punishes Israel (Ps 78:49, 59, 62; 88:7, 16; 89:38; 90:7–11), and petition God to turn his wrath away from them (Ps 6:1; 38:1; 79:5; 89:46). Such punishment is the consequence of breaking the covenant (Lev 26:14–33; 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:31–32; Jer 5:7–9; Ezek 7:1–4).

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However, this is not the sum total of God’s character in Hebrew Scriptures; there is much more to be said about God. The prophets, for instance, not only proclaim the coming “day of the Lord”, but also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Mic 4:1–7; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).

The psalmists praise God for the steadfast love (heșed) that he expresses to Israel (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–10; 26:3; 31:7, 16, 21; 33:5, 18, 22; 36:5–10; 40:11; 42:8; 44:26; 48:9; 51:1; 52:8; 57:3, 10; and so on) and prophets recognise this same quality in God (Isa 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Dan 9:4). As Jeremiah sings, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22).

Micah asks, “who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?” (Mic 7:18). The answer to that question is sounded again and again in the refrain, “the Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2).

This steadfast love (heșed)—also translated as loving kindness, or as covenant love—is a consistent characteristic of the God found in the pages of the Old Testament, along with the God who executes judgement and inflicts punishment. Like human beings, the God of Hebrew Scripture is complex, with multiple characteristics, exhibiting a wide range of behaviours.

Hosea 11 not the only passage where the deity is depicted as acting a human being. God is occasionally imaged as a woman, such as in the palmist’s comparison, “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until [God] has mercy upon us” (Ps 132:2–3).

God is described as being “like a woman in labour; I will gasp and pant” (Isa 49:15); she gives birth (Deut 32:18) and comforts her child “as a mother comforts her child” (Isa 66:13). The psalmist compares themself to “a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Ps 131:2). Such female descriptors for God emerge in the New Testament as Jesus evokes the image of “a hen [who] gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34), as well as in the parable of the woman searching for her lost coin (Luke 15:8–10).

In the love song of Hosea 11, God exudes heșed, loving kindness, or covenant love. In return, God expects that Israel will demonstrate that same covenant love (Hos 4:1), for “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). The prophet calls to the people, “return to your God, hold fast to covenant love (heșed) and justice (mishpat), and wait continually for your God” (Hos 12:6).

The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people; it stands in stark juxtaposition to the many passages that describe the anger of the deity. It reminds us that the mercy of God, expressed in deep covenant love, must always be held alongside the justice of God, expressed in angry punishments meted out when that covenant is broken. Indeed, Hosea describes the covenant relationship between Israel in this manner: “I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hos 2:19).

Mercy and justice are two sides of same coin, two key aspects of the character of God. Accordingly, God requires of us both mercy and justice, as Jesus notes: “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).

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Making (some) sense of the death of Jesus (Colossians 2; Pentecost 7C)

The section of the letter to the Colossians that appears in the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Col 2:6–15) contains some intriguing phrases. It offers a portrayal of Jesus that stretches beyond what we find in the earlier, authentic letters of Paul. There, Jesus is a Jewish man, chosen by God, designated as God’s Son, raised from the dead, and designated as Lord (see, for instance, Gal 4:4 and Rom 1:1–4).

In this letter, Jesus becomes the one “in whom the fullness of deity dwells” (2:9; also 1:19). There is no evident sense of the humanity of Jesus; he is swept up into the mystical-philosophical world of “elemental spirits” (2:8) and deals with the “rulers and authorities” of that dimension (2:15). Indeed, in the previous chapter, the writer of this letter (whom I don’t believe was Paul) praises Jesus in full blown terms: “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15–16).

(For my thoughts on the authorship of this letter, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/07/08/the-word-of-truth-according-to-colossians-1-pentecost-5c/)

In contrast to the expressions that Paul provides about the community of believers being “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27), in this letter, the mystical speculation grows; “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17); and indeed, rather than the whole body being Christ, here Christ is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (1:18).

So when we see the figure of Christ placed into this mystical-speculative-philosophical context, we know that we have moved quite a way from the thoughts about Jesus that the apostle Paul dictated in his letters; we have entered a world that scholars call proto-Gnosticism. Gnostics were those who—to put it very simply—believed that salvation came, not through faith, but by means of knowledge. The one who knows is the one who is saved.

Thus, in this letter written to “the saints and faithful ones in Colossae” (1:1), knowledge is emphasised (1:9–10; 2:2–3; 3:10). The author sends this letter to the Colossians to encourage and strengthen them in their knowledge. Paul, by contrast, commends those to whom he writes for their faith (Rom 1:5, 8; Phil 1:25; 1 Thess 1:2–3).

To be sure, the anonymous writer of this letter, drawing from Paul’s practices, does commend the Colossians for their faith (Col 1:4), but it is his prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9), that they may “grow in the knowledge of God” (1:10), that they may “have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2–3).

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So, this letter is somewhat different from the style and theology of the seven letters authentically written by Paul. Another way in which is is different from the thoughts set out in those letters, can be seen in verses 3–15 of chapter 2.

First, let’s note that the verses immediately before this do seem to correlate with Paul’s way of thinking. The notion of “spiritual circumcision” (2:11) bears similarities with the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 2:3), or “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Although, Paul does also dismiss circumcision as being “nothing” (1 Cor 7:19), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal 6:15). Perhaps in those verses he is dismissing physical circumcision as it gets in the way of “spiritual circumcision” ?

And the description of being “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Col 2:12) does seem similar to the statements that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … we have been buried with him by baptism into death … we have been united with him in a death like his” (Rom 6: 3–5).

Although, once again, it has to be noted that the sequence in Romans 6 looks to a future union with Christ in his resurrection, whereas in Colossians that union is now present, having been achieved by a (perhaps recent) past event: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). So there is a subtle difference; a development in thinking beyond that of the authentic Paul.

It is in what follows, however, that a striking difference emerges. In verses 13–15 the letter writer considers exactly what was achieved by Jesus when he was crucified. In Paul’s authentic letters, he draws on what many consider to be a very early, pre-existing formulation which seeks to convey just what Jesus did when he submitted to death on the cross, when he gave up his life.

In those letters, Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).

This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.

But not in the letter to the Colossians. A different understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus is offered. A different way to explain how God forgives us our sins, how we have atonement made for our transgressions, how we are reconciled with God. The language used, and the concepts referenced, are quite different. And this opens the door to a different way of understanding and appreciating the death of Jesus.

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This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?

One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.

Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.

Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth such a fully-developed theory of atonement. In true systematic theology style, verses have been plucked from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts.

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The explanation in Col 2:13–15 is quite different. Here, the author sees the scene of the crucifixion in his mind’s eye; but rather than relating what was happening there to the Jewish sacrificial system, the vision of the author draws on other imagery. The scene envisaged is much more like a triumphal procession, as seen in the Roman Empire, when captured slaves were paraded through the city streets as captives, and the people celebrated another great victory of the Empire.

The cross, the place where Jesus was nailed and hung until he died (most usually from suffocation), is not envisaged as similar to the place in the Temple where the sacrificial animals were burnt, or even where the blood of the slain animals was smeared (the language of Rom 3:25 draws on on this quite explicitly). It is seen as a public place where “legal demands” (dogmata, 2:14) are nailed for all to see; a public place where those “legal demands” are erased. The language here is about “stripping bare” so that the inequity of those demands is revealed for all to see.

As a result of this, what Jesus is doing on the cross is “disarm[ing] the rulers and authorities”, removing their power, rendering them ineffective (2:15). The Greek word translated as “make a public example of” in this verse, points to a scene of public shaming. The only other place it is used in the New Testament is Matt 1:19, where it refers to the “public disgrace” of Mary being revealed as pregnant without a husband. It would be a moment of intense shaming for her, such that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her” in this way was planning to “dismiss her quietly”, in accordance with custom—until an angel of the Lord intervened!

So the “legal demands” have been “disarmed” or (in another possibility) “divested”, in a process of “making a public example”. As a consequence, what the author sees as Jesus hangs, naked, whipped, gasping for water, dying on the cross, is nothing other than a celebratory triumphal match (“he made a public example … triumphing over them” (2:15).

Who does Jesus triumph over? The “rulers and authorities”—most likely the same as the “thrones, dominions, rulers, powers” referred to earlier (1:16), or the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:10). The crucifixion has been the location for God’s cosmic battle— remembering that Hod is the subject of the whole clause of 2:13–15.

These “rulers and authorities” are most likely the same entities referred to in Colossian’s companion letter, Ephesians; “all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21), “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10); “the rulers … the authorities … the cosmic powers of this present darkness … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), that are best combatted by “tak[ing] up the whole armour of God” (Eph 6:13–17).

Almost a century ago, a theologian named Gustav Aulen wrote a hugely-influential book, Christos Victor, in which he put forward a theory of atonement quite different from the sacrificial-victim, ransom-theory, penal-substitutionary-atonement line of thought. This passage fuelled his argument. The crucifixion, Aulen proposed, declared the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sinfulness and death; it was the way that God declared victory over demonic forces.

Later, an American biblical scholar named Walter Wink took this theory, re-engaged with the relevant biblical texts, and proposed that the victory won by God was not simply over spiritual beings in a heavenly realm, but actually a gritty, this-earthly battle with the systems and forces within society that embedded sinfulness in our very way of living. Wink wrote an influential series, Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999), in which he wrote about the myth of “redemptive violence”.

So this short passage in Colossians is very important. It opens the door to a different way of thinking about the crucifixion. It invites us to take seriously our earthly context, and to consider how we are engaged, along with Jesus, in executing the work of God, to disarm the rulers and authorities, publically expose them, and triumph over their evil force.

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For more discussion of the atonement and the way that the New Testament writers understood this, see

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Cords of kindness, bands of love: the prophet Hosea (Pentecost 7C and 8C)

As we continue to follow the prophets in the readings from Hebrew Scripture that the lectionary offers, we hear from Hosea this coming Sunday (Hos 1:2–10) and the following Sunday (Hos 11:1–11). The two passages offer quite a contrast.

In the first selection in the lectionary, the opening chapter of the book, we hear about the prophet’s own situation. Hosea receives direction from God as to how he is to behave. The actions he undertakes provide a series of signs to the people of Israel concerning their fate (1:2–10). The future looks grim. In the second section offered by the lectionary (11:1–11), the prophet speaks on behalf of God to the people, reminding them of God’s persistent love for them. There is hope for the future, he tells them.

Jeroboam II from Guillaume Rouillé’s
Promptuarii Iconium Insigniorum
(published 1553)

Hosea was active as a prophet in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, over six decades, from the reign of Jeroboam II to the time of Hoshea. He seems to reflect an awareness of the war between Syria and Ephraim, a northern tribe (see 5:8–15), but his oracles do not indicate any knowledge of the defeat of the northerners by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and their subsequent exile (2 Kings 17).

The name Hosea means “salvation”, and the oracles in this book provide occasional glimpses of that desired outcome (1:7; 2:24; 6:2–3; 10:12; 11:3–4, 8–9; 13:4–5) before the final oracle assures Israel, “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (14:4–9). The love song of chapter 11 represents the height of this aspiration. However, the predominant tone of the book is a relentless condemnation of Israel for her sins. This fate is signalled in striking fashion in the opening chapter, through the names of Hosea’s children. They indicate exactly what fate is in store for the people.

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The opening chapter presents a challenge to orthodox views of morality and the nature of God. God commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (1:2). Let’s note that: God commands behaviour that is generally regarded as immorality!

Hosea’s wife is named as Gomer, from the verb gamar, which means “to complete or bring to an end”. Is she the one to bring to completion the salvation to which Hosea looks? The promiscuity of Gomer is noted at 3:1; Hosea wins her back with “fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine” (3:2). Her behaviour seems to signal the infidelity and then return to God of the Israelites (3:3–5). Hosea regularly pleads with Israel to “return to the Lord” (2:7; 4:5; 6:1; 12:6; 14:1–2).

Not only does Gomer signify the behaviour of Israel; the names of her children are similarly significant. The first son, Jezreel (“God sows”) signals punishment (1:4). A daughter, Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) signals God’s continuing refusal to forgive Israel (1:6). A second son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) seals their fate, it would seem: “you are not my people and I am not your [God]” (1:9). The names tell a story; a story that does not bode well for Israel.

Wrath infuses the whole book, from the opening series of names and in the indictment set out in legal form, “the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land” (4:1), with the threat from God that “I will punish them for their ways, and repay them for their deeds” (4:1–11). It is present as the prophet tells of the wrath poured out on Ephraim like drowning water (5:8–11) and in his words about God’s smouldering anger over idol worship (8:1–6). It climaxes in the threat of destruction and the removal of the king (13:9–11). Paradoxically, for a book bearing the name “salvation” (Hosea), the message is consistently about punishment for wrongdoing.

The metaphor of Gomer’s behaviour as a whore (1:2; 2:5; 3:1) permeates the book: the divine accusation is that Israel has “played the whore” (4:10–14; 5:3; 9:1), that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (4:12; 5:5), that “they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom” (4:10–11), that because of this whoredom, the nation is defiled (6:10).

Yet in the opening chapter, Hosea strongly affirms that all is not lost; there is hope. “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea”, says Hosea, “which can be neither measured nor numbered” (1:10a)—and more than this, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (1:10b). The new name for the people signifies the promise that Israel will be saved; “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give to her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (3:14–15).

*****

This fluctuation between the threat of punishment hanging over Israel, and the alluring words of love that God speaks to her, takes us into a deeper level of concern, for this is precisely the kind of behaviour that is experienced by women caught in abusive relationships. Is the Lord nothing more than a manipulative, power-wielding tyrant of a husband, inflicting damage, driving his woman away in fear, then pleading for his woman to come back to him, offering all manner of blandishments and promises of transformation? “Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up” (6:1)

How we answer that question determines how we read the second passage offered by the lectionary (11:1–11). Is this a truly loving, gracious, ever-forgiving God? or a violent, devious, never-changing tyrant?

Certainly, the larger context of the prophetic literature and of the whole sweep of the story told in scripture encourages us to see God in a good light. This is surely the God who is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6, and a number of other places in Hebrew Scripture). Hosea plays out in one specific time what God and Israel enact time and time again, over the centuries.

Indeed, the words of promise (“after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”, 6:2) were even cited by church fathers and scholars as the place in Hebrew Scripture which provides a prediction of the gospel affirmation, “he was raised on the third day” (2 Cor 15:4; and see Acts 10:40; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46).

These words were not, of course, intended to point forward in this way in the time of Hosea; they are poetically non-specific (“after two days… on the third day” is typical Hebraic parallelism with a linguistic variation), and are spoken by Hosea into the context of his own time, as an insight into the divine offer of hope that he senses, for the Lord “will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:3). This is forthtelling, and not foretelling.

So the “cords of human kindness … bands of love” (11:4) depict God in an anthropomorphic manner, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent. The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people, to set alongside our concerns about the nature of God.

As we noted in considering the prophet Amos, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s, while Hosea was still alive. Two decades later, after Hosea’s death, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).

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See also

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Pondering the prophets (during Pentecost Year C)

Elizabeth and I are leading a weekly study on The Prophets, because excerpts from these books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary as the Hebrew Scripture selection each week during the current church season (the long season of Pentecost). See

Our study series kicked off last week with two sessions of robust, engaged discussion (one on Thursday morning, the same session repeated on Thursday evening). I’ll be blogging material relating to this series and these readings 8n coming weeks.

The concept of a prophet was widely-known in the ancient world. Marvin Sweeney writes that “prophets were well known throughout the ancient Near Eastern world as figures who would serve as messengers or mouthpieces for the gods to communicate the divine will to their human audiences.”

He notes, in particular: “Mesopotamian baru priests who read smoke patterns from sacrificial altars, examined the livers of sacrificial animals, read the movements of heavenly bodies … ecstatic muhhu prophets from the Mesopotamian city ofMari drew blood from themselves and engaged in trance possession as part of their preparation for oracular speech … the assinu prophets of Mari were well known for emulating feminine characteristics and dress as they prepared themselves to embody the goddess Ishtar of Arbela to speak on her behalf … Egyptian lector priests (see image) engaged in analysis of the worlds of nature and human beings in preparation for the well-crafted poetic compositions that gave expression to the will of the gods”. (“The Latter Prophets and prophecy”, pp.234–235 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, ed. Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney, CUP, 2016)

Egyptian lector priests

The Hebrew Prophets typically claim that the word of the Lord came to me and pepper their speeches with the interjection, thus says the Lord. They often report visionary experiences which provide the divine authorisation for what they speak. Some are reported as having had ecstatic experiences where they travel out-of-body and, they say, see things from God’s perspective. A number of prophets engage in symbolic activities which underline the message delivered by their words. Woe to you is a standard introductory phrase, leading to condemnations on nations or people for their sinfulness.

Adherence to the covenant of the Lord lies at the root of all that the prophets say—they recall Israel to their distinctive task of being a holy people, dedicated to the Lord. “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”, Isaiah declares (Isa 42:6); “cursed be anyone who does not heed the words of this covenant”, cries Jeremiah (Jer 11:3); “I pledged myself and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine”, Ezekiel declaims (Ezek 16:8).

Daniel prays, saying, “Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong … turning aside from your commandments and ordinances” (Dan 9:4–5). Amos announces that Israel has “rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes” (Amos 2:4); Hosea denounces the people, for “you have forgotten the law of your God” (Hos 4:6); Malachi berates the people in the name of God, for “ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them” (Mal 3:7).

Similar declarations of the sinfulness of Israel, turning away from the covenant, recur in other prophetic books (Isa 30:9–11; Jer 2:20–22; Ezek 18:21–22, 24; Hos 8:1; Mal 2:4–17). So many of the oracles of judgement pronounced by the prophets are built on the assumption that the sinful behaviours being described indicate that Israel and Judah have turned from the covenant and are ignoring the commandments that God gave.

Ezekiel also notes that God says “I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60), whilst Jeremiah says that God promises “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–33). Hosea declares that God promises, “I will make for you a covenant … I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18).

The prophetic call for repentance is heard often (Isa 1:27; 45:22; 59:20; Jer 15:19; 18:11; 22:1–5; 35:15; 36:5–7; 44:4-5; Ezek 3:19; 14:6–8; 18:21–32; 33:8–9; Mal 4:4–6). This call is based on the premise that God will relent, and redeem those who turn from sinful practices. Sadly, Jeremiah notes that “the Lord persistently sent you all his servants the prophets”, but “you did not listen to me, says the Lord” (Jer 25:4-7). The work of a prophet is often thankless.

In the course, we are exploring each of the named prophets in our Bibles: the four Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea—Joel—Amos—Obadiah—Jonah—Micah—Nahum—Habakkuk—Zephaniah—Haggai—Zechariah—Malachi); the latter ones are collected together in one scroll by Jews, who call this The Book of The Twelve. Some merit more detailed attention than others (because their works are longer), but all of them share a common concern to “set right” the people of Israel and Judah.

We have noted that there are others in scripture who are declared to be prophets, but who do not have a book dedicated to them. We’ll be paying some of them some attention as we work through the books. The first prophet mentioned in scripture is Miriam, the sister of Moses, who led the women of Israel in song, to celebrate victory over the Egyptians; the short Song of Miriam (Exod 15:20–21) was then attributed also to Moses, and placed at the head of a much longer song in his name (Exod 15:1–18).

Such musical leadership is recognised as an act of prophecy in the story of Saul: “you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy” (1 Sam 10:5). Both males and females were able to serve as musicians who prophesied (1 Sam 18:6; 1 Chron 25:1–8).

Miriam is described as a prophet at Exodus 15:20 and again at Micah 6:4. She shares this designation with Deborah, who is introduced as a prophet “who was judging Israel” (Judg 4:4);. Deborah sits under a palm tree, the place for exercising judgement (Judg 4:5). However, the function of a “judge” was more akin to that of a military leader—a tribal elder who led military activities to protect their tribe from enemies and to establish justice within their group.

Deborah exercises such military leadership against Sisera, who led the army of King Jabin of Canaan. She recruits Barak to lead the fight (Judg 4:6–7); persuaded by her oracle, Barak insists that he will not fight unless Deborah goes out with him (Judg 4:8). When the Israelites gain victory over the Canaanite general (Judg 4:23–24), Deborah sings a song to celebrate her victory (Judg 5:1–31), maintaining the musical connection already noted in Miriam.

After the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan, Samuel and Nathan figure significantly in the historical narratives about Israel. Samuel anoints Saul as the first king (and one interesting story about Saul ends with the question, is Saul also among the prophets? (1 Sam 19:18–24). Nathan, of course, is the prophet who promises David that “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:14). This is the oracle that assures the Davidic dynasty in Israel.

Nathan also is the one who confronts David about his adultery with Bathsheba, ending his famous parable of “the poor man [who] had nothing but one little ewe lamb” with the scathing denunciation: “you are the man” (2 Sam 12:1–7). Still later, Nathan tells the dying David of the plot by Adonijah to become king (1 Ki 1:11–14), leading to David’s final machinations which saw Solomon appointed as king (1 Ki 1:15–53) and the death of Adonijah (1 Ki 2:13­–25).

Later in the time of the divided kingdoms, Elijah and Elisha serve as prophets to call the king to account for the sinfulness of the court, and of all the people. Elijah spectacularly defended Yahweh against the might of the prophets of Baal, who were being worshipped in Israel, even by King Ahab. The prophets of Baal were unable to call down fire for the sacrifice (1 Ki 18:26–29), but Elijah, building an altar and drenching it with water, was able to call down “the fire of the Lord [which] fell and consumed the burnt offering” (1 Ki 18:30–40).

Elisha raised the son of a Shunnamite woman (2 Ki 4:8–37), turned a poisoned pot of stew into an edible meal (2 Ki 4:38–41), and fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley (2 Kings 4:42–44); these stories evoke Jesus.

Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Ki 2), passing his mantle to Elisha. The last words of the prophet Malachi indicate that Elijah would return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5–6); this prophecy plays an important role in New Testament texts. Just as it is not said that Enoch dies, but “walked with God, because God took him” (Gen 5:21–24), so this ascension of Elijah is believed to indicate that he did not die.

The final words uttered over Elisha were the same as those uttered over Elijah: “my father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Ki 13:14; cf. 2 Ki 2:12). His miraculous power lived on after his death; it is said that the body of a Moabite soldier killed in battle was thrown into his grave, and immediately “he came to life and stood on his feet” (2 Ki 13:20–21).

We might also include the woman of Endor as a prophet; despite the condemnation of divination (Deut 8:10–11), this woman provides Saul with guidance at the point where traditional means have failed. She consults with the ghosts; she sees “an old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe” (1 Sam 28:14), and Saul recognises this as the ghost of Samuel. The deceased prophet thus directs the terrified king (1 Sam 28:15–19).

Later, we meet Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikva, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34). Both narratives tell of the reforms that took place under King Josiah, when a “Book of the Law” was discovered, and the king ordered that its prescriptions be followed. It is striking that Huldah, a female prophet, was consulted in relation to this book (not a male prophet). In a detailed oracle (2 Ki 22:16–20; 2 Chron 34:23–28), she speaks the word of the Lord to the king. Huldah validates the book that has been discovered.

Another female prophet is the wife of Isaiah, noted (without name) at Isa 8:3, who become the mother of one of Isaiah’s children; all of these children are given to be “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts” (Isa 8:18).

There were many more prophets active alongside Elijah and Elisha. Throughout the historical narratives, there are regular refences to “the prophets” (1 Sam 10:11–12; 1 Ki 18:4, 13, 20; 20:41; 22:6, 13; 2 Ki 23:2), “my servants the prophets” (2 Ki 9:7; 17:13, 23; 21:10; 24:2), a “band of prophets” (1 Sam 10:5, 10), a  “company of prophets” (1 Sam 19:20; 1 Ki 20:35; 2 Ki 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1), 2 Chron 18:5, 12), and “all the prophets” (1 Ki 19:1; 22:10–12; 2 Chron 18:9–11).

Indeed, later Jewish tradition refers to the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people. The relevant section of the Talmud reads: “In fact, there were more prophets, as it is taught in a baraita*: Many prophets arose for the Jewish people, numbering double the number of Israelites who left Egypt. However, only a portion of the prophecies were recorded, because only prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down in the Bible for posterity, but that which was not needed, as it was not pertinent to later generations, was not written. Therefore, the fifty-five prophets recorded in the Bible, although not the only prophets of the Jewish people, were the only ones recorded, due to their eternal messages.” (Talmud, Megillah 14a)   [* A Baraita is an ancient teaching that was not recorded in the Mishnah]

That would make the sum total of prophets a whopping 1,200,000 prophets! (This assumes the number of 600,000 “men on foot” as given at Exod 12:37—a gross exaggeration, by any account—-and also overlooks the complicating comment, “besides children”, and the complete omission of any reference to women!) We can at least say that there were more people undertaking prophetic activity than are named or designated in the scrolls of Hebrew scriptures. Whether each of them would meet the criteria that is set out for a true prophet (Deut 18:15-22), we will never know!

The seven female prophets are identified by later rabbis as Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hilda, and Esther. To read a brief contemporary Jewish discussion of the seven female prophets, see https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4257802/jewish/The-7-Prophetesses-of-Judaism.htm

In the New Testament, the words of Joel that Peter cites on the Day of Pentecost indicate that the gifting of prophecy continues in this new era: “God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17–18).

So we find Anna described as a prophet (Luke 2:38), as is Zechariah (Luke 1:67) and his son, John the Baptist (Mark 6:15; Matt 11:9; 21:26; Luke 1:76; 7:26; 20:6), while Jesus himself is recognised as a prophet (Matt 14:5; 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 6:14: 7:40–42; 9:17).

There were prophets active at the time of Jesus, as we see in his saying about welcoming a prophet (Matt 10:41). The movement that continued after the time of Jesus had prophets active such as the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) and Agabus (Acts 21:10), as well as those gifted by the Spirit with the gift of prophecy (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 28–29; 13:2; 14:1–5, 22–25, 29, 37; Eph 2:20; 4:11; 1 Tim 4:14), although the activity here described as prophecy may well differ in significant ways from what is found throughout Hebrew Scripture.

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See also