Isaiah 48

The themes swirl around again.

Judah and Israel are hard and deceitful, despite holy words.

The punishment, the exile, is God’s judgement

The return from exile will be God’s blessing. It’s a refining process.

He was before all the idols, and he is doing a new thing that will surpass them.

Again we get a hint, which will be fleshed out in further chapters, of the still mysterious third person of God “from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit…”

He calls Israel to listen. The chapter concludes with a reminder of the extravagant blessing in the wilderness, streams of water gushing from rock.

The last words are an encouragement or a warning “there is no peace for the wicked”.

Is it directed to the Israelites or the conquering armies?

Generally this section has made the case for God against the doubts and fears of the Israelites.

It is not a narrow question or a passive one. The case for God requires a response from us all.

Writing this on Christmas Day 2017, looking at the global phenomenon of Santa. Baby Jesus is still a more uncomfortable Christmas image, one that demands things of people that they aren’t sure they want to give.

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Isaiah 39

The end of the king Hezekiah story and the start of the rest of Isaiah. It’s Isaiah’s sad role to spend half his time prophesying about the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom, and half the Babylonians, who conquered the South. 

What a time to be alive!

Hezekiah is given 15 more years to live and the rare knowledge of the time of his own death, and a sign from God that it is true. 

He is one of the most godly Kings, but he does not do much good with his extra time. 

He has a son who ends to being one of the worst Kings, and he actually invites the Babylonians in and brags about all his treasures to them, giving them all sorts of intelligence about the kingdom.

Worst of all perhaps when Isaiah tells him that the Babylonians will enslave his people, he is simply relieved that it will happen after he is dead. He’s sort of given up, maybe he’s burned out of the responsibility of being king.

In the last chapter he sang “The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.”

He had it right then, living in gratitude enjoying wisely and with pleasure the time you have, that is a good way to live. The number of your years is in God’s hands, your use of the time is your responsibility.

Isaiah 37

King Hezekiah consults Isaiah about the Assyrian threat. Isaiah knows God’s mind, that the Assyrians won’t take Jerusalem. Indeed he knows the specific fate of the Assyrian envoy: he’ll die at his son’s hands.

He also knows a great pruning of Israel is coming from which only a shadow will survive, which he also refers to in his poetic response. And he is aware that even the Assyrians’ victories are God given, for all their arrogance.

We get a great affirmation of Jehovah above idols of wood and stone. There is an image of the people born in other countries being like weak doomed grass that takes root on the roof, which I found very poignant.

The story set me thinking about the relationship between knowing God’s mind and prayer.

The people and the king pray that God will hear the taunts of Assyria and act. Hezekiah is answered in those terms “God has heard your prayer”.  But Isaiah knows God’s mind all along.

People tear their clothes in fear and despair when they hear of the Assyrian threat because they know it might be God’s judgement, or maybe because they don’t believe God is really in control of such a fierce force of evil.  They ask for help, and this time they get it in terms they asked.

When the Babylonians returned less than a generation later, not so much.

God always responds like God. A bit like Jesus’ random encounters during his ministry… A catastrophic tower collapse may be talk of the day, or he may be at a wedding with inadequate catering, see a dead fig tree or meet a sick person.

And he thinks presumably “what would Jesus do”? And his responses fit the moment and the larger plan of salvation, and teach us til today about the nature of God.  And it answers prayers then and now. It doesn’t really make a difference if its random or part of a master plan, because it all sings a consistent tune.

God is the same in the minutiae and in the grandeur, in the fleeting moment and in the millennia.

Because his truth and his character are eternal, unchanging. And he loves our faith, our prayer.

Isaiah 28

A condemnation of the tribe of Israel who made up most of the southern kingdom. 

Mainly a diatribe against drunkenness. I sometimes use drink to escape, and we had an old school friend of my wife’s due from alcoholism this year. Wine is so familiar but so dangerous. My older body cannot process it as well as a younger one.

They talk about that here, describing drink’s ability to impair judgement in the short term and fade ability over the long term.

Like the “2 ways to live” tract, it talks about swapping the crown of drunkenness for God’s crown, and promises that his strength will replace what wine has taken away: beauty, wisdom and determination.

Drunkenness is a symbol and a symptom of self obsession, of pride, ironically, given that it can humiliate. I’m ashamed of how much I feel I need it sometimes, I know that I perversely decide to drink too much sometimes. It makes me lazy. 

The rest of the chapter seems to be about fresh starts. He mentions how drunkenness has turned the priests into spiritual babies, and how he will have to teach again slowly, bit by bit, and maybe by strangers.

It’s about self discipline, the slow path back from the easy drift into bad habits. But bit by bit he will give us strength to change. It’s a merciful passage.

He talks about different grains requiring different forms of violence to produce, crushing wheat, beating cumin with a rod, Dill with a stick. But in all instances, it ends, it doesn’t go on forever. We all have our own way back.

And he powerfully reminds the reader of why it is worth it. God is the cornerstone, he will sweep away the refuge of lies and build a solid building in your heart. He will annul your covenant with death. 

Alcoholism, like so many self destructive behaviours, is like a pact with death. You see it so often in the lives of the rich and famous, and we saw it close up this year.

Pray for wisdom obedience and insight to see myself.

2 Kings 14

The Lord doesn’t let the culture and the land completely die, but by now Israel and Judah are hopelessly weak and average kingdoms.

They break the pattern of obedient Kings being blessed and evil Kings failing and having shorter reigns.

Amaziah is king in Judah, and he loves Jehovah. But, the writer sadly notes, not like David. He doesn’t move decisively against other religions. He has a bit of a victory, but then launches into a failure civil war and his successor has to rebuild.

The king of Israel is not a follower of Jehovah but wins the civil war and God is merciful to his son, restoring some of their prosperity and land.

The theological signficance of the kingship seems to be slipping away, and we are just getting reports of the waxing and waning of ordinary politics.

It’s depressing. You forget how much God can do with even a tiny amount of faith, you start to crave a tiny bit of faith.

Give me the faith to respond in unpredictable ways to the promptings your word and spirit father, and not live a life of transparently ordinary motivations.

Deuteronomy 30

Choose life. 

Moses’ sermon is reaching a climax and that phrase could be a two word summary of the book. 

I love his description of the law not being hard to reach, it is on their lips, in their hearts and in their choices. For me this describes the experience of positive Christian living, what you say and do reflecting your heart and vice versa.

Their consequences are clear, blessings and curses. They are to choose life. 

I’m going to try it out as a phrase to reach for when I need wisdom or guidance. Choose life.

Deuteronomy 24

I can’t say Moses or whoever edited him has a strong sense of organisation. This is such a mixed bag of rules:

– not remarrying a spouse you have divorced

– absenting newly married couples from military service for a year, a mercy for the wife particularly.

– ban against taking someone’s livelihood as security on a debt

– ban on enslaving fellow countrymen

– obedience to the levites instructions for skin diseases

– kindness in enforcement of debts to the poor.

– bring a considerate employer, not exploiting those desperate to work

– not holding a whole family guilty for the crime of one

– kind treatment of the weak and vulnerable, remembering you were all slaves

– deliberately leaving some of the harvest for the fatherless, widows and foreigners.

Looking at it summarised, there is such a strong theme of Social justice, of caring for the weak. 

And these rules were indeed followed by righteous people we will meet as the Bible proceeds. It’s love, God’s love, in action for real. I have more opportunities to do this than I take up. 

I need to recognise how important this is.

2 Samuel 9

David finds and honours mephisbosheth, who is Jonathan’s son, grandson of Saul. He returns to him much of Saul’s property and treats him as a son, having him dine at his table from then on. 

We last saw mephisbosheth in the narrative when he was fleeing the royal palace as a child, his nurse dropped him and he became lame in both feet.

This kindness is unusual and unnecessary behaviour for a king, and it shows again his respect for the lord’s anointed, Saul, his love of jonathan, and of course it springs from the sincere love of God that both men had. 

It’s a powerful thing when Christians act, do. When we behave with generosity contrary to the normal self serving dictates of a position, against our own best interests, it makes our love of God real.

Pray that god gives me way to behave counter intuitively.

1 Samuel 31

The tragic end of Saul and his family. Jonathan too! That hurts.

It’s been gonna happen since Samuel predicted it in chapter 15. Saul has been raging, fighting fate, and terrified of it. 

They lose to the philistines attack. His sons killed in the battle, Saul takes his life. Several Judean towns flee and the philistines take the territory. 

So ends a book that has been an amazing political and human narrative.

What does this say about God? It’s classical, you can’t run from God. Can’t fight him. 

The words of one of Bob Dylan’s christian songs spring to mind “surrender your crown on this blood stained ground, take off your mask”

1 Samuel 12

Samuel’s coronation address. It’s so real, he is very old and makes no bones about having been opposed to having a king. His coronation message: god is king.

He reminds everyone of his record for honesty.

He recites the history of Israel, jumping from Moses to Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and the most recent (last chapter) delivery from the ammonites. This underscores his theme that the peoples faithfullness to God is their salvation, not the status of their leaders.

Then he performs a miracle, calling down thunder and rain at will. It is the harvest season and the weather is clear which makes it a very freakish weather event. He explicitly makes it a demonstration of their sin in wanting a king other than God.

It works and the people ask for his intervention to stop God killing them on the spot.

He says that is not going to happen today, but pleads with them to serve God with all their hearts. Having a king will make no difference to the judgement that will come if they are not faithful. Both they and their king will be swept away.

That’s some coronation speech. 

The kingship winds up having more lows than highs, too. It follows the same depressing trajectory as judges but on a grander scale.

We are all caught in a circle of sin and rebellion. This pattern where we promise to be faithful to God but fail over and over.  God has much more right than us to be cynical of it.

But one response to our own cynicism is to delegate out our responsibility. To trust an earthly king in the form of an ideology, a charismatic leader, a movement. Like Israel’s king, we can have them but they can’t supplant God. They won’t save us. We must be faithful in God as our king.