Reading the prophetic texts during Advent (Isaiah 11; Advent 2A)

For much of the year, the lectionary presents us with a First Reading taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. (The exception is during Easter, when a reading from Acts stands as the First Reading.) I am regularly asked, “why has this reading been chosen?” In Epiphany and the “ordinary” season of the Sundays Epiphany after Pentecost, the reading is consecutive—or almost consecutive—following the narrative of a designated book, or set of books, in order. So there is not necessarily any obvious, or intentional, link between the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel readings.

For the seasons of Lent and Advent, however, the selection of each Sunday’s First Reading and Epistle is made with a deliberate intention to connect with the Gospel for that Sunday. So the way the lectionary is built itself includes a bias towards seeing the Gospel reading as the primary focus, and the other readings as feeding into that focus. Nevertheless, the immediate connection with the Gospel for this Sunday—an account of the fiery apocalyptic preaching of John the baptiser (Matt 3:1–12)—is not immediately evident.

The First Reading offered for this coming Sunday is an oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A) in which a vision of universal harmony is expressed: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid … the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isa 11:6–8).. It follows from the earlier reading last Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A) in which a similar vision is expressed: the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4).

In last week’s passage, the peoples of the nations stream in to Jerusalem, where they ascend to “the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob”. There, in the Temple, they will receive instruction in “the ways of the Lord” so that they will “walk in his paths” (2:3). Presumably this instruction will come from the priests of the Temple, for they were the authority figures who would “teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek 44:23; see also Mal 2:7). In disputes between people where the understanding of the law is at stake, “they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (Ezek 44:24).

In this week’s passage, we are told of a promised figure, who will arise to lead the nations into that time of peace: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). That figure will exude “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:2); he will judge with tsedeqah, righteous-justice, and mishor, equity (11:4). The proposing of this promised figure is a significant development from the prophetic word we heard last week.

This “shoot” from Jesse will advocate for “the poor” and “the meek”, and stand firmly against “the wicked” (11:4). This is precisely the stance that the prophets had previously advocated (Amos 27; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4–6; Isa 3:14–15; 10:2; 25:4; 26:6; 29:19) and would subsequently express (Isa 41:17: 58:7; Jer 22:16; Ezek 18:11–13; 22:29–31; Zech 7:9–10). It is consistent with teachings in The Law about justice for the poor and punishment for the wicked.

This “shoot” will be girded with righteous-justice, for which the prophets have consistently advocated (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4). The “shoot” will also exhibit faithfulness, a quality that the prophets have valued (Hos 2:20; 4:1; 14:8; Isa 16:5), because its presence amongst the people reflects its centrality in God’s own nature (Isa 38:19; 65:16; Jer 31:3; 32:41; Zech 8:8).

Thus the “shoot from Jesse” will demonstrate two qualities that feature strongly in Hebrew Scriptures: fidelity to “the fear of the Lord” (11:3; see Job 28:28; Ps 19:9; 34:11; 111:10; Prov 1:7, 29; 9:10; 14:27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17; Isa 33:6) and the “knowledge of the Lord” (11:9; see Gen 2:9, 17; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:16; Ps 94:10; 119:66; Prov 1:7; 2:5; 5:2; 8:10; 9:10; 10:14; Hos 6:6; Hab 2:14; Mal 2:7).

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This oracle thus sits firmly within the stream of prophetic speech about what God desires amongst the people of Israel, calling them to be faithful to the Law and walk in its oaths. Yet its presence in the Christian lectionary at this time of the year directs our attention to a way of reading it as a prophecy that foretells the coming of Jesus. Indeed, each of the Hebrew Scripture readings during Advent and at Christmas offer us a similar invitation to understand them as saying, “this is what the prophet of old said, and we can see that these words are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus”.

How are we to deal with this hermeneutical invitation, guiding us to interpret words spoken 800 years before Jesus as clear and direct statements about what Jesus himself will be like, and what he will do? I started pondering this question in my blog on last week’s passage from Isaiah; see https://johntsquires.com/2022/11/22/on-reading-scripture-during-advent-drawing-from-the-ancient-prophecies-isaiah-2-advent-1a/

After reading this blog, one person responded to me by quoting scripture and posing a rhetorical question that appears to resolve the matter. “‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ — Luke 24:27 As followers of Jesus, is this not our interpretation of the Bible?”

Well, yes. And, no. So, let me explain.

I think that we need to be careful in the way that we say that “this passage is about Jesus”. There is one way of saying this that drives us towards claiming that “when the prophet said these words, he was looking forward in the future to the coming of Jesus and predicting him”. That is to say, prophecy is understood as foretelling; looking into the distant future and predicting what God will be doing at that time. And so, these words are about Jesus.

I think that this way of reading texts actually does violence to them. It runs roughshod over the original context in which the words were spoken. It ignores, and perhaps even obliterates, the original context (in the time of Israel) for the sake of highlighting the later context (in the time of Jesus). And in the course of doing this, it actually wrenches the passage out of its earlier Israelite context—within the society that developed into Judaism—and forces it into a later Christian context.

This can actually lead to a form of supercessionism; a way of claiming that the Jewish texts, and the Jewish way of life and faith, are superceded by Christian faith and understanding; that Judaism is “old” and no longer relevant, because Christianity is “new” and now the way that God relates to us.

I don’t subscribe to this interpretive approach; Judaism is a living faith in its own right, with its own sacred texts. Those texts maintain an integrity in their own right, within that faith context, and should not be forced into a different, dogmatic Christian framework. My church does not hold to this way of reading things, either. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/

Nor do I subscribe to the notion that prophecy is always and only about foretelling. The ancient prophets were not just fixated on “what would happen with Jesus”. Prophecy may be about foretelling—and not always centuries into the future, but also about the time soon to come as the prophet spoke. But prophecy is also (and perhaps primarily) about forthtelling; speaking the word of God into the immediate context, addressing issues of concern in the political and social life of the people.

That is to say, prophecy is multilayered, multivalent, open to a range of interpretative options. It is not to be reduced to one line of sight, but should remain open to the richness of interpretive possibilities it offers.

Another person who respond to my blog said, “God can accomplish two things at once. He can send a prophet that speaks words that the people in a specific time and place need to hear, while at the same time those words can speak to us now.” Not exactly how I would say it; but I agree that any passage in scripture, and any communication from God, can indeed convey meanings at different levels of understanding.

(And one thing I have learnt from my years in dialogue with the Jewish community, representing my church in that dialogue, is that Jewish interpreters are open to a wide range of meanings, and the process of exploring those meanings raises questions and possibilities that invite even wider understandings!)

So I would say that Isaiah 11:1–10, and the other Hebrew Scripture texts offered during Advent, need, firstly, to be understood in their own right, in their original historical and religious context; but secondly, are able to be understood as setting out features which we find, much later, with the benefit of hindsight, are manifested by Jesus. In that sense, the ancient forthtelling for the society of the day also is capable of being understood as foretelling into the time of Jesus.

The prophet of old was looking for someone to act in ways that would be faithful to God’s way and helpful for society of the day, holding to the standard of righteous-justice that God desired. That way of acting is indeed the way that Jesus behaved; he was faithful to God’s way, demonstrating righteous-justice in his own actions, and calling his followers to live in accordance with that same righteous-justice. The words of the prophet tell us significant things about Jesus. But let’s not make it “all about Jesus”. It’s not.

On reading scripture during Advent: drawing from the ancient prophecies (Isaiah 2; Advent 1A)

“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isa 2:3). These are words in the section from Hebrew Scripture that are offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the first day of Advent (Isa 2:1–5). How do we deal with the words of a prophet, speaking eight centuries before Jesus, when they are set for the season in which we look forward, with expectation and hope, to the coming (again) of Jesus, at Christmas?

Perhaps these words sit here, at the start of Advent, because they express a vision of the universal relevance and impact of faith in God, grown amongst the people of Israel, and brought to a fuller expression in the person of Jesus? The claim that “many peoples” will come to Jesus points to his universal impact. The notion that these “many people” will seek to learn the ways of the Lord and walk in his paths is a comforting and inspiring statement by the prophet.

This passage, too, is well-known for the prophet’s vision that divine judgement will take place “between the nations … for many peoples” (2:4a); as a result, those people “shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4b). This oracle, shared with the contemporary prophet Micah (Mic 4:1–4), foresees that these nations “shall not learn war any more” (2:4c). It’s a wonderful vision—sadly, one that is still awaiting fulfilment, even 28 centuries later.

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares,
a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich
in the United Nations Art Collection

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In the coming weeks, we will be hearing and considering other words from this prophet who lived eight hundred years before Jesus; words that the church has heard, and taken, and restated, and declared that they speak about Jesus—predictive prophecy, enabled by the Spirit, spoken well in advance of the time of their fulfilment. After the vision of universal peace this coming Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A), the following Sunday we will hear a similar oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A), in which another vision of universal harmony is expressed.

The two passages sit curiously alongside the Gospel passages of the prediction of apocalyptic turmoil by Jesus (Matt 24:36–44, Advent 1A) and the fierce apocalyptic preaching of John (Matt 3:1–12, Advent 2A). Whilst the Gospel passages foresee disastrous events, the Hebrew Scripture passages look to universal peace.

The other two Sundays in Advent contain further oracles spoken eight centuries before Jesus by the prophet Isaiah. One comes from the later part of the long opening section of Isaiah (chapters 1–39), and once again offers a vision of restitution and harmony; a period of time with abundant blossoming (35:1–2), divine salvation (35:3–4), restoration of full health (35:5–6), an a highway, “the Holy Way”, where “no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it” (35:9). The whole vision is framed with joy and singing (35:2, 10; see Isa 35:1–10, Advent 3A).

This passage sits, more easily, alongside the Gospel reading for that Sunday, recounting an incident in which Jesus was asked about John the baptiser (Matt 11:2–11; Advent 3C), in which he talks about events taking place even in their midst: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:5).

Finally, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the lectionary takes us to the very familiar prophetic words, “the Lord himself will give you a sign; look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14), a part of a longer prophecy that Isaiah speaks directly to King Ahaz (Isa 7:10–16), Advent 4A).

Alongside this, of course, is the Gospel passage where this famous prophetic utterance is cited (Matt 1:18–28, Advent 4A)—albeit, in a version that clearly mistranslates the Hebrew ‘almah (young woman) as the Greek parthenos (virgin)—a rendering that has become firmly fixed into the Christian traditions about the birth of Jesus.

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A brief footnote: two of these passages (Isa 7 and Isa 11) come from the famous three passages early in Isaiah that are regularly connected, in Christian tradition, with the birth of Jesus. The third passage (Isa 9) is designated by the lectionary as the first reading for “the Nativity of the Lord” on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (Isa 9:2–7). Together, the “young woman shall conceive” (Isa 7), “a child has been born for us, a son is given” (Isa 9), and “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isa 11) provide a natural collection of ancient words pointing to the good news of the Christmas story.

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That said: we need to be very careful in how we speak about these passages. Whilst they seem, to us Christians, to fit naturally within the context of our Advent expectation about the coming of Jesus, we need to remember that we are taking passages from scriptures that are sacred to people of another faith, which existed long before the Christian faith came into being as a system of belief; indeed, long before Jesus himself was born.

We know “in our heads” that Christianity emerged from the Jewish faith—but often we act as if this newly-formed religious system now stands in the place of Judaism, as the body of belief to which the Lord God, the ancient of days, now relates and responds; and that Judaism itself is now obsolete, no longer relevant, superseded. Presenting readings from Hebrew Scripture as if they speak directly and clearly about Jesus, continues such an attitude.

Judaism is not, of course obsolete; there are still millions of people holding the beliefs of Judaism and keeping the practices of Judaism around the world—in Israel, in the United States, in Australia, and in any other countries. The Jewish faith has not ended; Christian believers have not superceded Jews as God’s chosen people. God’s covenant with Jewish people continues; as Paul declared so clearly, “God has not rejected God’s people” (Rom 11:1), “the gifts and the calling of God [to Israel] are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). “Salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:11), but even so, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), for “as regards election, they are beloved” (Rom 11:28).

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/10/god-has-not-rejected-his-people-all-israel-will-be-saved-rom-11/

Indeed, there is much in common amongst these two faith. Jews and Christians each orient our belief towards the same God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Christians believe that this God is the same as the God of Mary and Jesus, of Peter and Paul, of Priscilla and Phoebe, and the God in whom we believe. We need to give due acknowledgement of that reality in our worship and preaching.

Supersessionism is a term used to describe the way that the Church, through the centuries, has simply taken over Jewish elements (such as scripture, the covenant, the Ten Commandments, Pentecost, the Passover Seder—and these “Advent texts” from Isaiah). We have “baptised” them so that believers have the view that these are Christian elements, without any sense of their Jewish origins—and their continuing place in contemporary Jewish life.

The Assembly of the Uniting Church issued a statement in 2009 regarding our relationship with Jews and Judaism. It affirmed the integrity of Judaism as a living faith, and made a commitment to engage in constructive relationships with Jews. It encouraged members of the Uniting Church to value Judaism as a living faith, and not to engage in acts or demonstrate actions that indicate a belief that Judaism has been superceded. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581

We should not therefore speak, sing, pray, or act in ways that are disrespectful to Jewish practice and beliefs, and in contravention of our strong commitment as a church to work constructively with our Jewish sisters and brothers. That should be an important guideline in the way we approach these “Advent texts”, even as we have our eyes firmly fixed on “the coming of Jesus”, which we celebrate at Christmas.

See also

New heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65; Pentecost 23C)

The Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday comes from the third main section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66). This section of the book differs from the two main sections that precede it—the pre-exilic section (chapters 1–39) and the section as the exile itself is drawing to an end (chapters 40–55).

The prophet begins this third section with a familiar prophetic announcement which sets forth the classic prophetic programme, with the classic divine assurance: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). The section offered by the lectionary (Isa 65:17–25) sets out how that justice will come to be, through the vision of “new heavens and a new earth”.

Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), this section of Isaiah sets out 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). This is what God’s justice looks like!

Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase (“a house of prayer for all people”) 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. What went wrong, we may ponder, for the church to dig itself into the corner of exclusivism and judgementalism that unfortunately has characterised too many manifestation of church?

The particular passage that is provided for this coming Sunday is almost at the end of the book. It offers a wonderfully climactic vision to this section of the book—and indeed to the whole of Isaiah. The prophet has continued to explain what it means to adhere to the way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires.

The promise is that Israel will have 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 can see the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8, for example.

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. Edom is a symbolic portrayal of the Babylonian Empire, which had been dominant in the middle eastern world of the day for some time—yet it had recently been subsumed by the Persian Empire (under whom the people of Judah were able to return home). The punishment was on the horizon, either the horizon immediately in view, or the horizon that had just passed. Edom (Babylon) had been conquered—a happening interpreted by the anonymous prophet as divine retribution.

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)—the passage provided by the lectionary this week. It is a wonderfully climactic, all-encompassing vision. Not only will Jerusalem enjoy prosperity, but “the wealth of the nations [shall be] like an overflowing stream” (66:12).

The vision of this penultimate chapter is global; it is for “all people” (picking up the hope of Isa 40:5), for “all the nations of the earth”, as both Jeremiah (Jer 33:9) and Haggai foresee (Hag 2:6–9), for “all flesh” as Joel predicts (Joel 2:28–29), for “every living creature”, as the final vision of Ezekiel portrays (Ezek 47:7–12). The “new heavens and new earth” (Isa 65:17) are for everyone of Israel (Isa 65:18–19), indeed, even for all creatures, “wolf and lamb, lion and ox” (Isa 65:25).

This vision is, of course, taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). That provides a globally wondrous vision to end the writings of the renewed covenant. The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah, the foundation for the vision of the seer at Patmos, has incorporated 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. All the allusions together make this a fine conclusion to the visionary prophetic stream of the first covenant.

And yet, 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 in the oracle at the start of this prophet’s work (in chapter 56) 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! It’s a good way to end the series of readings from the prophets we have followed during the past few months.

I am with you (Haggai 2; Pentecost 22C)

In recent months, the lectionary has been offering us passages from the prophets, the second main section of TaNaK, which is the Jewish name for the collection of scrolls, largely in Hebrew (with a tiny section in Aramaic in the prophet Daniel), which are known as the Old Testament by most Christians.

I prefer to call this collection of documents the Hebrew Scriptures—technically, not quite accurate, but a better option, I believe, than the title that labels these works as “old”, with the implications of out-of-date, no longer relevant, or (worst of all) superseded by something that is “new”. As it is quite unfair to label the scriptures of a living faith, Judaism, as “superseded”, I prefer to take the option of a descriptor which refers both to the language of the documents (well, most of them), and the cultural origins of the documents, as coming from the ancient Israelite culture of the Hebrews.

So, within the central section of these documents are the scrolls of the Prophets (nevi’im, in Hebrew). These books (using Christian terminology) date from a number of centuries, before, during, and after, the central historical era of the Exile (from 587 BCE until the various returns to the land of Judah in the 530s, 520s, and beyond). It is from this section of the scriptures that we have been offered a series of readings in recent months—starting with Amos and Hosea, touching on Isaiah, covering many key parts of Jeremiah, and then moving into a series of “minor prophets” (Joel, Habakkuk, and Haggai), before concluding with Isaiah 65.

See

There are four prophets whose activity can reasonably be dated 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. The third section of Isaiah (chapters 56—66) are widely considered to have originated around this same period of time, as the exiles returned to the land and undertook the task of rebuilding its society and its buildings. The prophet Malachi is not dated, but is generally considered to have been written fairly soon after Haggai and Zechariah.

The people from Judah who had lived as exiles in Babylon for five decades were permitted to return to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by decision of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Deutero-Isaiah described as God’s “Messiah”, Isa 45:1). 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).

What is it, then, that Haggai says to the people? His prophetic words 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) and encourages the people to “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house” (1:8). In the oracle offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1:15b—2:9), Haggai declares that “the latter splendour 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).

“I am with you, says the Lord of hosts”, the prophet affirms, “according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt; my spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Hag 2:4–5). The prophet offers a word of hope to a people who have suffered and who are anxious about what the future may hold for them.

Haggai then goes on to relay 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). It is undoubtedly with this motif of hope that the selected passage has been chosen for the lectionary, as we come to the final Sundays after Pentecost at the end of Year C in the cycle of seasons. It leads well into the vision of “new heavens and a new earth” that we will read the following Sunday (Isa 65:17).

The righteous live by their faith (Habakkuk 2; Pentecost 21C)

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to hear two sections of the prophet Habakkuk (Hab 1:1–4, 2:1–4). Habakkuk is a shadowy figure, known, really, for only one statement—just half of one verse. That short statement, “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b), 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). So it appears in significant writings if the early Christian movement.

From an ancient Israelite figure about whom very little is known, this one short phrase has played such a foundational role in articulating a central tenet of Christian faith. It runs from Paul’s assertion that “the righteous live by their faith”, through Augustine’s affirmation that we are justified by grace through faith, to Luther’s central claim of “sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia”, into the contemporary evangelical doctrine of “justification by faith alone”.

Habakkuk was one of a number of Israelite prophets who were 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. In this context, Habakkuk declares, “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself at the rampart” (Hab 2:1). From his watch post, 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).

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). The threat of Exile looms large for this prophet.

In the context of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity, the affirmation that “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b) 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).

That God is using foreigners to deal with Israel is a striking theological development—one that is at odds with the traditions that emphasise Israel as a chosen nation, holy and set apart, dedicated to the Lord; the nation alone through whom the Lord God works. That this God will use foreigners is a theme found also in the later writings of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40–55), where Cyrus, the Persian ruler, is acclaimed as the one chosen by God, the Messiah, to allow the people of Judah to return to their land (Isa 44:24–45:13).

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 strong throughout Israelite history, and then continues to sound out, as we have seen, throughout the 20 centuries of Christian history.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh (Joel 2; Pentecost 20C)

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to hear a section of the prophet Joel. It is a passage which contains words well known to Christians, as the words about dreams and visions and prophesies (Joel 2:28–32) are quoted by Peter when speaking on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–21).

The words that Joel speaks to the people of his day begins with lament; he calls for repentance amongst the people of Judah as the day oft he Lord approaches. 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?

Lament, as we have noted, is the opening note sounded by Joel, as he calls on the “ministers of God” to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13). This call 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 the words which are offered to us in this Sunday’s first reading; words which have been given a central place in the later story of the Christian church. Here, the prophet 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). Events following on from that day, as recorded in Acts, show how those words come to be fulfilled in the movement initiated by Jesus and his followers. And in the early days of this movement, in a letter written by Paul, the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” is reiterated (Rom 10:13, quoting Joel 2:32; and note a different version quoted at 2 Tim 2:19).

The day of the Lord that is envisaged by Joel (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.

Whenever the prophet spoke these words, the promise of hope holds good in each of these scenarios. And that promise of hope has been taken up in the movement that was initiated by Jesus, in Peter’s Pentecost speech—which provides a programmatic announcement of what then takes place as the good news spreads from Jerusalem and Judea, into Samaria, and out to the ends of the earth. God’s Spirit continues to be active. And so, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.

A new covenant with the people (Jeremiah 31; Pentecost 19C)

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. He is rightly known as a prophet of doom and gloom.

And yet, 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).

He goes on to report that the Lord says to the people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, for “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away” (31:1–2).

This grace was made known to the people in the affirmation that God makes, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3).

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). This covenant will give expression to the love and faithfulness of the Lord, which is how God’s grace is to be known by the people. This renewal of covenant is offered in grace; the requirements of the covenant make clear and tangible the grace-filled relationship that the people have with their God.

Clear appreciation for the grace that is offered to the people by the laws which guide the people to keep the covenant can be seen in the affirmation of the Torah as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise the simple … right, rejoicing the heart … clear enlightening the eyes … pure, enduring forever … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired than gold … sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7–14), and then by the majestically grand affirmations of Torah in the 176 verses which are artistically-arranged into acrostic stanzas of Psalm 119 (“happy are those … who walk in the way of the Lord … I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight”, vv.1, 174). The laws shape the way that the covenant is kept; the covenant gives expression to the steadfast love and grace of God.

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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 it is renewed again 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 yet 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).

The covenant will be renewed yet another time, after the lifetime of Jeremiah, when 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) and the leaders of the people made “a firm commitment in writing … in a sealed document” which they signed (Neh 9:38–10:39). So renewing the covenant, recalling the people to their fundamental commitments made in relationship with God, is not an unknown process in the story of ancient Israel.

However, the particular expression of renewal that Jeremiah articulates is significance, not only for the exiled Israelites, but also centuries later, for the followers of the man from Nazareth who came to be recognised as God’s Messiah. Jeremiah’s articulation of the promise of a “new covenant” 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).

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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 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). Here, Jeremiah makes use of a phrase that recurs in key places throughout Hebrew Scripture, where it crystallises what the Israelites appreciated about the nature of God. The Lord is said, a number of times, to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). This is the Lord God who enters into covenant, time and time and again, with the people.

There is a strong sequence of affirming, hopeful oracles which characterise this section of Jeremiah, from “the days are surely coming … when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors” (30:3) to “I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy on them” (33:26). All of this is done because, as the Lord declares, “only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David” (33:25–26). It is the covenant which holds the Lord and the people together.

So Jeremiah offers a clear sign of hope for the future; 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).

This oracle, also, is significant for the later community that developed from the followers of the man from Nazareth; the promise of a “righteous branch for David” becomes the title “Son of David”, which is then applied to Jesus in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 10:47–48; 12:35; Matt 1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; 22:42; Luke 18:38–39). The whole sequence of oracles in this section of Jeremiah is of key significance for followers of Jesus in later ages.

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.

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.

*****

See also

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.

See also