Haggai Overview

Haggai’s message is about how the truth about the future should inspire and disturb priorities in the present.

It’s set late-ish in the Israelite’s story, after Babylon has smashed their land and culture, and Persia has taken over Babylon’s Empire with a more reasonable approach of letting the Israelites resettle Jerusalem and re-establish their religion.

Haggai is a player in Nehemiah, the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

He tells the truth, based on revelation of God in the scriptures from the past: the people are rebuilding their houses and not the temple. It’s a call to reversal of their beliefs, but just re-occupation of their homeland.

Then when they are hypocritical, he tells a parable based on Levitical infection laws, saying their greedy morality will infect the house of God, and that rather the task wild infect then to revisit their own standards.

They are disappointed at the size of the new temple compared to the grandeur of Solomon’s. Again he turns to scripture, but this time to point to the future, the revelation of the Messiah and the covenant, that their temple and their Pele would be the Salvation of the world, God’s blessing poured out.

Trust his word. Obey. Don’t worry that what you are doing seems pathetic, God uses love for him, sincere faithful responses to the moment, in ways we can’t imagine.

Use what you know of God to make your contriburion to making the moment match what he has promised the future will be like.

1 is time! To build the temple. They may think they can’t afford it, but you never do think you can afford God if your priorities are wrong

2 they may think the temple is a shadow of its former self, but God will use their willingness to do what they can, their obedience, in ways they can’t imagine.


Micah Overview

It’s a bit about how God uses calamity to reconcile or sinful natures with his promises.

It alternates condemnation of how utterly self serving and corrupt Judah has become with promises of future blessing.

Bad leaders, corrupt prophets who tell lies for reward rather than truth. Compared to the remnant, the ignored but sincere few on whom the future will be built.

The empty religious practices compared to lives that display actual justice, humility and mercy.

The city of Jerusalem, which will be destroyed, compared to the new Jerusalem, to which all peoples will be invited.

God, speaking through Micah, links this series of contrasts, saying one is needed for the other. He puts himself on trial to argue why he must bring destruction on the corrupt society in order that the promise of the covenant to Abraham, of a vast outpouring of blessing, could be kept.

It’s an argument about God needing to be cruel to be kind… Or is it using the cruelty to bring about kindness? Strongly messianic, rather like a mini Isaiah. Though the scene of God arguing his own case seems rather unique to this book.

I thought a lot about the siege mentality of the modern church, responding to losing its influence by trying to wrest the power and prestige back, rather than accepting that from the remnant comes the blessing, Jerusalem has to be destroyed to be rebuilt, in a paradigm we won’t recognise. From tiny Bethlehem comes the King.

1 A prophesy to the southern kingdom, Judah. They have been worshipping Samaritan Gods. This asserts the power and might of Jehovah to melt the ground like wax if he wishes.

2 the easy part verses the narrow path, those who like the shallow populist prophets, some particularly evil and exploitative people.

3 Judah is a corrupt kingdom. They follow the shape of religion, bit the people are starving from inequality. I muse on God’s use of kingdoms.

4 let God make Christianity great again, not us. A vision of Jerusalem as God sees it, a comfort that all is not lost though the present is so uninspiring.

5 a further vision of Judah laying waste to the Assyrians.. a wonderful promise, a change of power. And it comes from Bethlehem, a wonderfully prescient vision.

6 be just, love mercy, walk humbly. It’s like God puts himself on trial to ask if he is loving

7 sweetness and sorrow longing for summer fruit when the people are like briars and thorns, lacking kindness, everyone for themselves. Micah decides to wait for God instead, queue messianic visions.

Jonah Overview

Such a great book about loving your enemies. So well told.

How good a starting place is Jonah’s attempt to escape his God-given mission?

How great an ironic picture of winding up with nothing but God is his prayer from the belly of a fish?

Then the rhetorical conclusion: aren’t you glad when I show mercy to your enemies? Your brutal oppressors? Sure I took away your umbrella, but that’s not the important thing here …is it?

I LOVE THIS BOOK. What it shows of God’s patience and mercy.

To the wicked… and to those who supposedly love him. To the proud: Jonah, and anyone prepared to be humbled: king of Nineveh.

So gentle, so funny really. Ending with God’s lesson in how to preach to the converted: just ask questions.

Its comes back to me often, it’s a really acutely clear, easy to follow yet nuanced, counterintuitive, revelation about God’s love.

1 Jonah, unwilling prophet, escaping God on a boat. A wild storm from God: he realises he must be thrown overboard, and the fish gets him.

2 prayer from a fish, from anything but God to nothing but God, praise as life ebbs away, then vomitted to dry land

3 Jonahs message saves Nineveh, the Assyrian capital He hates it, he’d rather love God’s justice than his mercy.

4 Jonah, camped out for the schadenfreude show of Israel’s enemies destroyed, instead witnesses mercy plus God kills the plant giving him shade! Ends with God rhetorically questioning his ‘right’ to anger

Amos Overview

It is a book about recalcitrance. Amos is called from nowhere to deliver a message to a complacent, greedy, prosperous, lazy populace.

Not interested.

He’s the meat in the sandwich between them and God. As the chapters wear on he pleads with the people to take his ever more desperate cries seriously; and with God not to be too harsh on them because they are weak and can’t take it.

Fire and locusts arrive in chapter 7, and worse in the unremittingly bleak 8. But they just turn on him.

It is about being distinctive, standing out from the morality around you. Their gospel is not Jesus, yet, but justice and fairness, and respect for Jehovah. They don’t respond, they are indistinguishable from the surrounding cultures that have no special revelation of God.

But, as the book ends in the inevitable destruction, the death that comes to us all, there’s a hope held out of a new promise of abundant blessing to all nations.

Death terminates our time on earth for all of us. Use it to respond, be prayerful and courageous no matter how lowly you are

1 Amos is an angry shepherd, telling the neighbouring countries they have tried God’s patience too long. This concrete truth telling now also exists as spiritual truth telling in our hearts

2 condemns Moab, Judah, and then at the centre, and closest to his heart, Israel. They have a lazy, greedy corruption. He compares them to a cart, bogged down in sin, going nowhere.

3 complaining about the deep complacency of the Israelites, easy application: how saved do WE behave?

4 prosperous Israelites living in Samaria will face full on judgement, they’ll turn to their false gods but they won’t help.

5 It’s like parent talk, trying everything to try and get a recalcitrant child to obey. Good just wants us to be decent

6 God wants us to be distinct from those around us. The Israelites were no different from those around them, not “grieved for the affliction of Joseph”

7 Amos’ prayer and courage. His prayer is a catalyst for God’s mercy when the people are punished with locusts and fire. Then the King blames him, and he courageously speaks the truth: he’s a nobody sent by God.

8 His bleakest vision, end of the line, they’ve wasted all their chances of repentance. I contemplate that you must disturb.

9 the inevitability of destruction, God riches the earth and it melts. A small ray of hope talks about a restored City, abundance for all nations that will not fail. We die, God’s eternal, trust him.

Joel Overview

Israel has a terrible plague of locusts. Joel brings a depth of theological study of the old testament scriptures to discuss the problem.

First he writes eloquently and at length about the plague. He did not want to seem unsympathetic, even though he has a much more complex story to tell.

On a simple level, he tells them to repent. The temple has stopped functioning with the plague, but he tells everyone to pray to God for mercy.

His scripture study uses the locust situation to launch into cosmic revelations about God.

God has an army of judgement that is like the dark cloud of locusts, but much worse.

God’s call to repentance is much broader than just the short term problem. He wants to love them, he’s slow to anger and quick to forgive, joel reminds them, quoting exodus.

And he promises prosperity, many times more than what they lost in the plague, if they will learn from the suffering to rely on him, to swallow their pride.

So having said there is a whole spiritual dimension: of judgement and forgiveness, that is so much more significant than the physical coming and ending of the plague, he then uses scripture to look further into the future of God’s blessing.

He sees the plague like army of God bringing justice to all nations. Judgement of the whole world.

And rather than a just time of prosperity, he sees all creation remade, a new Eden.

And rather than just forgiveness, he sees the spirit, poured out, living in our hearts. God dwelling with us, but in a temple.

So by looking at God’s saving promises, Joel sees hope, to encourage the sufferers of the locust plague, but also on a cosmic and global scale.

One of the ways he links the ideas is by talking about the day of the Lord. Which is coming, which will seem unendurable, like the plague, but will end with justice and creation made new, and God’s dwelling being with man. It’s all about timing, and not despairing in the present.

So allow God his time, his days. Accept his judgement, trust his justice.

When things seem impossible, trust in the day of the Lord. It’s terrible, it’s wonderful. Who can endure it? Those on whom the spirit is poured, those who use God’s judgement to rend their hearts, not just their clothes.

Is climate change a day of the Lord? Is the church, bruised and damaged by scandal and irrelevance, heading for a day of the Lord? It is in his hands.

1 A dramatically described locust attack

2 the locust attack it’s not gods preference. He wants to pour out his spirit. This passage is quoted at Pentecost.

3 a worse judgement than the locusts is coming, but also a day of justice. Rend your hearts, not your clothes, it’s all about the heart.

Song of Songs overview

This book is 100% love poetry seemingly designed for performance with a male and female couple, and a chorus of ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ and/or family and friends. There is a lot of the female voice, perhaps the highest percentage-wise of any book in the bible: she’s either speaking or being spoken of.

It’s famous for not having a clear narrative structure. But there are themes that run through, and patterns.

It’s bracketed beginning and end with a sense of a young girl contemplating love. Perhaps it’s all the memory of a girl who’s been though it, provided as advice or learning about love. About being determined to love on your own terms, without shame, deeply, wonderfully and satisfyingly.

When this theme returns in the last chapter it’s stronger: a great song of praise to the burning power of love …and a proto-feminist determination not to be exploited by it.

The chapters between are about an affair: love found & lost, found & lost; then found and kept. The old one two three, each cycle more intense.

There is a metaphor of the girl as a vineyard, that becomes a shared garden of love; then a village, a kingdom in spring. Then back to taking about a vineyard again in the last chapter.

Spring is announced with urgency. They go regularly to check the budding of blossoms. The boy invites her several times to run away to it. Nature is used as an escape, to evoke being wild and free and uninhibited, and then at turns the nurture of mother and family.

The contrast of the tended, walled garden, having it scents fanned out by the wind, escaping to nature; runs through.

Food, scents, ripe fruit, spices.. it’s heavy with this imagery. It’s a rich and heady feast of love!

God isn’t mentioned once. But the love is too perfect for this world. It’s embraced enthusiastically as part of the created order. The cycle of growing and maturing, leaving your parents and joining to another, and the gender equality of it all took me back to Eden, the male and female both being imprints of God’s image.

And by extension to all that is revealed about the love of God from fall to reconcilation. The way that lovers’ obsession becomes a little beautiful universe of their own, is a little picture of God’s obsession with us in the actual universe.

I’m at a tired time of life. This goaded me, almost against my will, to look afresh at the two most important relationships in my life, my God and my own beloved Kelly. It left me dreaming of running away to the spice laden mountains.

1 poetic images of young love given a biblical context which I face uncertainly, praying for passion myself.

2 their love as a banquet and running though the hills. An unattainable dream of life that drives you to think of God’s promise of perfect love

3 about searching for love and not giving up til you’ve found the real thing, which is like our spiritual life too.

4 the giving and recieving of praise of the girl by her beloved. An image of strong and equal passion

5 she plays a bit hard-to-get and instantly regrets it. Exploring the profound connections between romantic love and God’s love in scripture

6 back together, a two chapter description of the girl’s beauty and their love. Here it’s intimate, overwhelming and grand. It’s spring, a garden, a private kingdom. I get overwhelmed.

7 the girl dances, the praise of her becomes more physical until they jump into love making. Love is their universe

8 a return to the themes of the opening chapters, praise of the burning power of love and being wise about who and when you love.

Song of Songs 8

The blaze in every soul.

This is the chapter I return to the most.

I was moved, I always am, by the culminating praise of love itself:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Followed by the wonderful ownership of her person and her sexuality by the girl: “my own vineyard is mine to give”. I love that passage, it’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It says it all about who and what God created us to be. About the nature of his love for us.

It’s one of two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. There’s so many things it barely mentions.

It only incidentally refers to marriage, but it is all about monogamy. Passion is jealous, and the giving to each other is absolute, it has no place for casual sex.

It’s not prudish, no sir-ee… but it’s prudent. It acknowledges what unique greatness is unleashed, and what is at stake, when one loves deeply and completely.

And it has more in common in some ways with God’s love than earthly relationships. How often is he described as a jealous God? We’re told to “love him with all your heart, mind and soul”.

This book is all about young love: the blaze of romantic obsession, the power of attraction, delight in the newness and overpowering nature of it all; the yearning.

It doesn’t talk about the different beauty of long marriages: that survive hardship and changes, that bring up children and learn to adapt as life throws u-turns, that forgive failure and weakness, and face getting old, undesirable and sick together.

It made me sad and conflicted. I had to force myself to read it. I’ve loved it, but I had to take it slow, in doses. It’s made me feel inadequate, second best. I haven’t been in the mood, so to speak.

What does it mean for my relationship, which is at a very different phase? It’s a bit like the crummy feeling other people’s perfect lives on Instagram can give you.

I’ve had lot of valuable thoughts about God’s love, but maybe just as valuable is remembering and rekindling some of the intensity of that first love with my life partner. It’s certainly made me think about that. Complex feelings at the intersection of spirituality and physicality.

The open ended invitation at the very end, to come away and be like a gazelle and a young stag on the spice laden mountains… Maybe the whole thing has been a remembrance? Maybe that invitation is for us who need reminding of what it is to be young.

Song of Songs 7

The third long description of the girl’s beauty. It was described in 4 and 6, though this flows on from 6, so it probably counts as one super long description.

Indeed in the last verse of 6 she started dancing and she continues into 7. The praise is still not so much visual as multi-sensory and emotionally evocative…

He calls her tummy a mound of wheat and her navel a glass of wine because she’s satisfying like fine food and drink to him.

Her nose gives her a strong, regal bearing, but I’m guessing isn’t literally shaped like the tower of Lebanon, looking towards Damascus.

But compared to last chapter it gets decidedly physical. This is all about the delights of her body the sight, the feeling, the scents, the joy of being with her.

Today’s musical comparison is Ravel’s Bolero… The book is reaching its climax, so to speak, a slow build at least over these two chapters to the place where he leaps into the dance with a declaration that he’s going to climb the palm tree of her body and grab those coconuts, those bunches of grapes, her breasts, and she responds with a “yes drink deep of my wine”.

They talk of spending the night in countryside budding with spring: vineyards, pomegranates, Mandrakes and delicacy. … Her vineyard became a garden became countryside, villages, bursting with spring life.

Reminds me of that great John Donne poem about his love and he in bed as the sun rises. Other than their love ‘nothing else is’. He first tells the rising Sun to go away and bother someone else, but when it hits their room full on:

“Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.”

Love is the centre of the universe.

Song of Songs 6

This passage is easy on one level yet impossible on another. You have to squint I think and step back from the detail.

At the distant level three phrases went through my mind:

“Whose garden?”

“You’re the one”

“The grandeur”.

In the emotional flow of it, last chapter she feared she may have lost her beloved. Now he’s back, and they are closer than ever.

Whose garden? The vineyard was introduced as her inmost private self, and her sexuality. Now the garden is also his. There are a variety plants. It’s a place owned by both of them, their shared inmost being and sexuality.

She flips the love declaration from earlier in the book. First it was “my beloved is mine, and I am his”. Now it’s “I am my beloved’s and he is mine”.

They are deep in trust and closeness, losing track of where one stops and the other starts.

You’re the one. He describes his love for her. It overwhelms him, he has to look away she’s so beautiful. She is unique to him, forget even the King’s harem of the most gorgeous women in the kingdom, none can compare.

The grandeur. She’s not just gorgeous, she’s majestic. Reminded me of “…we could be royals” the song by Lorde (what is it about her music and this book?).

He compares his love to… the glitziest and the most spiritual cities, Tizrah and Jerusalem. To banners of troops. To the dawn, the moon, the sun and the stars.

He is transported from the garden, all a-bloom with spring to the noble chariots of the capital, her calls her a female version of Solomons name: “Shulmalite”.

It’s that wedding day feeling: you are inseparable, your partner is the best in the world, and your romance is one for the ages.

This is not a diary or a blog. It’s not documentary. It’s a poetic script, designed for some sort of performance, including parts for a chorus of friends to link the sections. It’s Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde (But not tragic).

It’s this idealised abstraction of relationships – a supercut I said earlier, a better picture of love than our actual relationships can sustain.

I do still cry at weddings, taken aback by riskyness of their promise of love before God, treasuring all the more my beautiful Kelly sitting beside me. It doesn’t have to work out as wonderful as it did for us. And still never perfect perhaps, but what richness in the discoveries together, such as I could never have imagined.

What am I saying? I don’t know… It’s a bit too much this book. So unrelenting in focus, like consuming a whole plate of Turkish delight in one sitting.

All of these wisdom books are: Ecclesiastes is too much existential angst, proverbs has too many proverbs, psalms has more than enough measures of praise and despair for a lifetime: you never finish psalms. And Job: God himself is just too much.

It’s like God said “ok lets do this, let talk life, death, love infinity, all the obsessions of your imaginations,” but because he is God, the brew is always verging on too strong too heady for us. “100 ways to blow our tiny minds”. There’s an album concept for these books!

Praise God I suppose. I bow to a stronger force. You really are the source, the richest take on all these things. You win!

Song of Songs 5

Classic rom com material here. When telling a story of love there has to be incident. Misunderstandings, mis-timings, love thwarted, gratification delayed.

Her beloved comes to her door as she lies in bed “asleep but with heart awake” and she has pause… Must she get up, put on robe and walk around getting dirty feet?

Something about him thrusting his fingers through the hole of the door latch however, makes her heart pound for him. We’re a few centuries before Freud, but even the usually reticent commentators observe that the original language has quite obvious double entendres at that point.

She gets up, but too late he’s gone. Queue yearning for love lost. She searches for him, and this time is assaulted, she beaten to the ground and her robe taken. Is it just me or echoes of Christ?

“What’s so special about this guy?” A chorus of friends asks. I visualise the “tell me more, tell me more…” refrain from Grease.

She responds with “hopelessly devoted to you”. A long section where she compares him with every wonderful thing on the planet. A phrase in that section “altogether lovely” got thrown into the middle of a classic Hillsong song “here I am to worship”.

It’s a cliche to mock overly romantic “Jesus is my boyfriend” Christian songs. I recently stumbled across a quiz where you had to guess whether phrases came from contemporary Christian songs or Fifty Shades of Grey. It was remarkably difficult.

The connection between romance, marriage, sex, and the love of God goes deep however, because I suppose God’s love is so great that every kind of love we experience is a glimpse, an aspect of it.

The description of marriage, two become one flesh, from Genesis is employed as an insight into the profound mystery of how Christ loved the church by St Paul. He plays with ideas of the separation of flesh and spirit within parts of Greek philosophy, but this older text, proudly taking it’s place in the canon of scripture begs to differ.

The desires of the flesh can enslave us, for sure, we see it everywhere. But God’s abundant blessing overflows to the pleasures of this life, and they are part of our experience of his love.

The yearning, the pounding hearts, the extravagant appreciation of another, the intensity of passion. It is all of, and from, God, and it’s wonderful. And I’ve lost quite a bit of it.

May I be mindful, may I be joyful, and appreciate the wonderful women I have to share my life with – couldn’t imagine someone better for me, that’s for real. We’re both surviving ATM. She’s under more pressure than me. The stoic times can chip away the joy. But when it ends, let it end, not become the normal.

50 Shades of Grey or Contemporary Christian Music Lyrics? A Quiz