Choose life: loving, obeying, holding fast (Deuteronomy 30; Psalm 119; Epiphany 6A)

The season of Epiphany is marked by an emphasis on light, a symbol of the manifestation or revelation of God in Jesus. (Epiphany is from the Greek word for “shine forth”—thus, a manifestation, a revelation.)

The note of revelation through light was sounded in the announcement of an unnamed post-exilic prophet found in the Hebrew Scripture reading for The Feast of the Epiphany: “arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:1, 3).

It was continued in the words of another, earlier, unnamed prophet in the Hebrew Scripture reading for Epiphany 1, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, in words sung to The Servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, 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” (Is 42:6–7).

Then, for Epiphany 2, we heard a repetition and extension of that imagery of light, in the second song sung to The Servant: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). There was also a repeated indication of the worship that kings will bring: “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you” (Isa 49:7).

The motif of illumination continued on Epiphany 3, as the prophet Isaiah, some centuries earlier, foresaw the significance of the birth of a child in the royal line: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isa 9:2).

For Epiphany 4, the focus shifted to the way that people were to respond to the revelation of God’s ways, made known in the words of the prophets, through the testimony of The Servant, and even through the birth of a child. So, Micah proclaimed, “the Lord … has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

Then followed, on Epiphany 5, the advice of the anonymous post-exilic prophet whose words are collected in the last section of the book of Isaiah. Ne advises the people to enact the fast that the Lord chooses: “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” (Isa 58:6–7).

Immediately following this, the prophet returns to the Epiphany theme of illumination: “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isa 58:8). These ways of acting are, as I have explored, central to the covenant between God and Israel; the prophet itemises a series of practical behaviours that would signal that Israelite society was founded on the justice and righteousness that God required through the covenant. That is how they were to respond to the illumination of the light, given to them time and time again. See

So each week, an excerpt from a prophetic text has undergirded the key feature of the ongoing season of Epiphany. Of course, the prophets weren’t speaking about our Christian season of Epiphany; but the compilers of the lectionary have chosen these passages, quite deliberately, to provide an ongoing focus each Sunday throughout this season.

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This coming Sunday, by contrast, there is no mention of light, or dark. However, the passage chosen from Hebrew Scripture (Deut 30:15–20) does continue the motif of justice, as articulated by prophets before the Exile (Micah 6) and on return to the land, after exile (Isaiah 58). We are offered an excerpt from the final speech of Moses, the great prophet, as it was attributed to him by a writer many centuries later from the time he is alleged to have lived—the unknown author of the book of Deuteronomy.

When Josiah was King of Judah (from 640 to 609 BCE), he instituted a series of reforms (probably 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).

This book set out the requirements of the Law; when it was discovered, Josiah realises that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant, and that God will punish them. He consults the prophet Huldah, who advised King 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).

It is thought by some scholars that the book found in the money chest was Deuternonomy, or perhaps an earlier version of the book we now have. (The name, Deuteronomy, comes from two Greek words, meaning “second law”—perhaps a reference to the fact that in this book so many of the laws stated in Exodus and Leviticus are restated a second time.) There is no doubt that this book sounds a single, insistent theme, requiring that the people of Israel listen to the words that God gave Moses to speak to them, that they listen and obey, putting the instructions and commands into practice in every element of their daily lives.

Indeed, a key statement in this book is recited to this day by faithful Jews, reminding them of their obligation to respond to God’s gift: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4–5, known for the first word of these verses, the Shema).

So this passage continues: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut 6:6–9; see also 11:18–21).

This central commandment is to be remembered and enacted at every time of the day, in every situation and place. Throughout this book, the people are regularly reminded to “keep” the commandments (4:2, 40; 5:10, 12, 15, 29; 6:2, 6, 17, 24; 7:9; 8:2, 6, 11; 10:13; 11:1, 8; 13:4; 16:10, 13, 15; 26:17–18; 27:1, 9; 28:9). They are told to “obey the voice of the Lord God” (8:20; 13:4, 18), the Lord who speaks through the commandments (11:27–28; 12:28; 15:5; 26:17; 27:10; 28:1–2, 13, 15; 30:2, 8, 10, 16). Loving the Lord God is at the heart of these commandments (6:5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). In this way, the people “hold fast” to God (10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20).

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In the passage offered for this coming Sunday, this requirement of diligent listening and faithful obedience is sounded for the final time in this long book; the people are instructed to “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19–20).

And so, the benefits of such listening, obeying, and holding fast are set forth: “if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess” (Deut 30:16).

We have already discussed how Torah (the Law) was widely appreciated and deeply valued amongst the people of Israel, such that psalms and prophetic voices could exclaim, “happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” (Ps 112:1). See

It is worth noting that, in Hebrew, the same word (Shema) is translated into English by two key terms—most often, as “hear” (as in Deut 6:4), but on occasions, as “obey” (as in Deut 11:27–28, and other places in this book). The sense of obey, then, is to hear, register, and put into practice what has been heard—thus, to obey. Hearing is not simply an act of the ear; it is an act of the whole being, moving from what the ear registers to what the mouth says, the hands do, the heart shows. That is the full sense of the instructions that are given in this speech by Moses at the end of his life (according to the narrative setting of the whole book; see Deut 31:14; 32:48–52; 34:1–8).

In the verse prior to this section, the people are reminded of how they are to relate to God: “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (30:14). Hearing God, obeying the commandments that God has given, and living God’s way, are all immediately at hand—indeed, they are within the people. This is much like Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant, when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33), or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, when God promises, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezek 37:14).

Indeed, this positive appreciation of the Law is picked up well in the Psalm offered for this Sunday, namely, the first stanza (verses 1–8) of the longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119. This psalm offers lavish and continued praise for Torah—identified variously as “the law of the Lord” (v.1), “his decrees” (v.2), “his ways” (v.3), “your precepts” (v.4), “your statutes” (v.5), “your commandments” (v.6), “your righteous ordinances” (v.7), and once again “your statutes” (v.8). These terms recur in each stanza of this lengthy, extended psalm of 178 verses, along with the familiar “your word” (vv.9, 11, 16).

The blessings of hearing and obeying this law are also set forth in this opening stanza of Psalm 119: those who hear and obey are blameless (v.1), blessed (vv.1,2), they do no wrong (v.3), keep the precepts diligently (v.4), have steadfast ways (v.5), will not be opus to shame (v.6), praise God with an upright heart (v.7) and are not forsaken by God (v.8). Similarly appreciative phrases recur through all 22 stanzas of this psalm.

“Choose life, that you may live; loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19–20). “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps 119:1). Or, as Jesus declares, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19).

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Justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6; Epiphany 4A)

This Sunday, the selection of Hebrew Scripture that is offered by the lectionary comes from the book of the prophet Micah (Mic 6:1–8). This book is best known for a number of oracles, including a verse (6:8) that is included in this Sunday’s reading.

The first well-known oracle is the the vision of universal peace that Micah 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).

Second, there is an oracle best known because it is quoted in Matthew’s Gospel: “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). 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 independently to tell stories that, in quite different ways, adhere to this requirement (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4).

The third oracle of Micah which is well known—the one offered in this Sunday’s lectionary—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).

In its immediate literary context, the verse stands as a climax to the case being mounted by the prophet, as he instructs the people,of a Israel what they are to do: to do justice, offer kindness, and live with humility. This verse has gained a life of its own; it is regularly quoted to support people of faith undertaking acts of social justice, and it adorns a multitude of t-shirts as a succinct “quotable quote”.

This verse has 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 historical context for this verse is instructive. 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 did 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 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). He 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).

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.

The passage that appears in this Sunday’s lectionary offering thus provides the key to behaviour for the people of Israel in their situation of turmoil and upheaval. The prophet calls them back to fidelity to the covenant. His words stand also as a clarion call to people of faith in subsequent times who stand in the heritage and tradition of Micah: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”. May this be how we live!

Appropriating prophetic passages in the season of Epiphany (Isa 49; Epiphany 2A)

Every Sunday throughout the Christian year (save for the six Sundays in the season of Easter), the Revised Common Lectionary provides a passage from Hebrew Scripture as the First Reading in the set of four readings for that Sunday. (During Easter, a passage from Acts stands as the First Reading, providing stories from the early years of the movement which Jesus founded.)

Each year, during the season of Epiphany, the First Readings relate to the prophetic figures of ancient Israel. In Year A (this year), almost all of them are drawn from the book of Isaiah the prophet, with one from Micah and one from Deuteronomy (where the link is with Moses, the great prophet).

Each year, the Feast of Epiphany includes Isaiah 60:1–6 as the First Reading. In this passage, the prophet foresees that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3); he specifies that when they come to the light of the Lord, “they shall bring gold and frankincense,

and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isa 60:6). The reason for reading this on Epiphany is obvious—it correlates well with the story in Matthew of when the magi came to visit Jesus, and “they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt 2:11).

The first Sunday after the Feast of Epiphany is always the day on which the Baptism of Jesus is recalled. One year (Year B) places the beginnings of the priestly creation account (Gen 1:1–5) alongside this Gospel story. In the other two years, passages from Second Isaiah are offered; in Year C, this is Isaiah 43:1–7, which includes the affirmation, “do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine; when you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa 43:1–2). The presence of water in both of these passages seems to be the reason for their linking with the baptism of Jesus.

This year, Year A, the prophetic excerpt is the first of four songs that are linked explicitly with the Servant (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). In this first song, the Servant is designated as the one in whom God delights (42:1); the phrase recurs in the message of the voice from the cloud which speaks at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that he is the one “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).

The song also affirms that the Servant has God’s spirit within him (Isa 42:1), something which is directly enacted in the baptism of Jesus when he “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16). It is clear, therefore, why this passage has been selected for this day.

On the ensuing Sundays, we are offered two further sections from Isaiah (Isa 49 and Isa 9), a famous passage from Micah 6, another passage from Isaiah (Isa 58), and then a section of the lengthy speech attributed to Moses after the covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 29–30), in which he speaks like a prophet: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses; choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19).

The four prophetic passages that appear in weeks two to six this year offer some striking words from the times of ancient Israel. Their inclusion in a key lectionary of the Christian churches alongside Gospel passages recounting the early period of the public activity of Jesus invites us to appropriate these passages as pointing to Jesus as God’s chosen one (messiah).

This is particularly evident in this Sunday’s passage (Isa 49:1–7), where a number of elements have been interpreted as predictors of the role that Jesus undertook. There are six different elements in these seven verses which can be seen to serve as such predictors, pointing forward to Jesus.

The one who sings this song is declared by God to be God’s servant (49:3), in the same way that Jesus is acknowledged as servant (Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30). The song was originally composed and sung during the Exile in Babylon, as the prophet looked to a return to the land of Israel and the resumption of Israel’s role as God.

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This servant has an awareness that he has been chosen before his birth for his role (49:1, 5), a sense that is conveyed in the Gospel narratives that variously indicate God’s plan and purpose for Jesus was conveyed to his mother (Luke 1:32–33), his father (Matt 1:21), and then both parents (Luke 2:34–35, and 3:38). The sense of a purpose for Jesus that was determined long before his activities in Galilee and Jerusalem is also evident in the prologue to the book of signs (John 1:9–14) and in a later controversy reported in that book (John 8:42, 58).

The servant is the one in whom God would be glorified (49:3), pointing to a key theme in the book of signs, where the function of Jesus is to glorify God (Jon 17:1–5). The servant will gather Israel back to God (49:5), “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel” (49:6). This is the mission that Jesus declares when he asserts that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:24), and is inherent in his charge to the disciples, “you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30).

This particular servant song also includes two key statements which figure prominently in the orderly account of the early church which is told in two volumes and is attributed to Luke. First, the servant is told by God, “I will give you as a light to the nations” (49:6)—an image that is picked up by three evangelists. Simeon declares that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:38). The Johannine Jesus affirms of himself, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). And the Matthean Jesus then extrapolates the image, telling his disciples, “you are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14).

Then, the servant is told that God has given him that light “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). This phrase occurs in the definitive statement of the risen Jesus, in the second Lukan account of the ascension of Jesus, when he charges his followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8); the phrase recurs when this servant song is later quoted by Paul (Acts 13:47).

When we look back at this text, through the prism of Jesus, we can see just how well it seems to speak of Jesus. In Christian understanding, he was indeed the Servant, chosen by God, glorifying God in his life and his death, recalling Israel to their covenant with God, and shining as a light that would bring the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. The text looks to be a clear prediction of Jesus.

And yet, interpreting this passage and other ancient Israelite prophetic passages as predictive of Jesus is a strategy that we should undertake with care. Christians have a bad track record of taking Jewish texts and Christianising them, talking and writing and thinking about them as if they were always intended simply to be understood as Christian texts. But first of all, they were Jewish (or, to be precise, ancient Israelite texts).

So the original setting of such passages needs always to be considered—the historical, social, political, cultural contexts in which they came into being, as well as the literary genre being used and the linguistic and literary conventions being deployed. Obliterating the original setting and acting as if the text was intended for a time many centuries later, is unfair and unethical.

Indeed, Christianising Old Testament texts can well become the first step in a dangerous process, as we firstly remove Judaism from our interpretive framework, and then treat the prophetic text as having nothing to do with Judaism, and everything to do with Christianity. This is the pathway that can lead to supercessionism—a view that Christianity has superseded and indeed replaced Judaism—and even antisemitism—actively speaking and acting against Jews and Judaism. And having arrived at such a destination, we are reinforced in our pattern of ignoring and obliterating the earlier meanings in the text.

Texts (whether biblical or other literature) are always multivalent—that is, open to being interpreted in a number of ways, offering multiple ways of understanding them. That’s why we have sermons, and don’t just read the biblical text and then put it down. We keep it before our minds, and explore options for understanding and appropriating it. Ignoring the multiple layers of meaning inherent in biblical passages is a reductionist and self-centred way of undertaking interpretation. Reducing the prophetic texts to predictive declarations solely about Jesus is a poor interpretive process.

See also

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”.

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