Ezekiel 14

I’ve taken ages to read this chapter! I’ve had a lot of ideas and projects in my head. Every time I start to read it, my mind flies off somewhere else.

It’s about God’s toughness, it’s about calling out what needs to be called out.

Israelite leaders have assimilated to life in Babylon. Then Ezekiel turns up with his year long art installation about the judgement of Jerusalem. Clearly it can’t be ignored, so they come to him to see what he has to say.

They get no word of Jerusalem or prophesy from the Lord other than the condemnation of their own hypocrisy and idolatry.

I read about Greta Thunberg, the 17 year old climate change activist who lead a protest outside the white house, but when invited to speak to the president refused, because she doesn’t speak to people who don’t accept the science.

That’s where Ezekiel is at here. And if he does prophesy to them, he’ll be complicit in their idolatry.

Then there is a lacerating image of the four judgements God is bringing on Jerusalem: sword, plague, wild beasts and famine.

Noah Daniel and Job would barely get out with their own life from any one of these, let alone save anyone else, let alone all four judgements at once.

Yet when Ezekiel and the others already in Babylon see the new exiles, the ones who do get out, they will understand. They will understand that God’s is in control.

I have a somewhat careering sense all of the plans and projects around. My family faces end of year stress. Years can be a marker of challenges and lack of progress, as much as opportunity. I have a to do list that feels well beyond me.

But things could be a lot, a lot worse and God could still be in control. I need to let the word of the Lord determine what first things will come first.

Ecclesiastes 6

“The few and meaningless days we pass through like a shadow”

This chapter doubles down on the themes of wealth and destiny. Wealth being pointless if you can’t enjoy it.

He contemplates a world where a rich person can die unloved and unnoticed, and says bitterly that even a stillborn baby would be better off, because, essentially, at least they never knew disappointment.

Seriously bleak stuff.

And on destiny he gets Job-like, thinking about the inequality of God and man. We can’t change our destiny, we can’t argue the case with God. He’s bigger than us. We’ve nowhere to turn.

Then the closing verses have the line I quoted at the top: we slip through life like a shadow. The last chapter wrapped up with a bit of a neat formula for living that would provide a degree of comfort. This chapter won’t give you an inch.

The authorship question is interesting here I think.

If it’s Solomon, talking like Job, it’s a poor-rich-guy narrative. So sad to live in luxury, and have everything you want!

But if it’s the later period, post exile, it is written by and for a broken people after a period of hideous persecution and cruelty towards the Jews. That would make this a work of post traumatic despair, like Dadaist art after world war One, or the cynical film noir of Hollywood in the late 1940s, or the lost-soul-of-Europe existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre, Camus and Kafka.

If it’s Solomon himself, I suppose it’s a rare journey, since as we are perhaps experiencing now, long periods of peaceful prosperity tend to numb people to spiritual matters.

I thought that as I watched a news item puff piece reporting on Easter. Lots of montages of kids looking for chocolate eggs. We appropriate the innocent delight of kids to feel good about life, but if we’re telling them Easter means no more than extra serves of chocolate, are we doing them a favour? The complications of life are hurtling towards those sweet, open little faces.

Do we have a theory of a meaningful existence to give them to replace the ones – and I include lots of religions in this – we are perversely overlooking? If you’re gonna dump religion, what else have you got? Long weekends? Chocolate?

Either way life works out: reaping a windfall from, or being buried by, the random injustice of this world, both undermine your peace and give you no lasting sense of security.

But actually, fear not! Love and justice triumphed.

At Easter, Jesus conquered death.

Ecclesiastes 4

Here the teacher, our guide on this journey in search of meaning (and/or into the mind of a depressed person), looks at 4 big topics.

He makes thoughtful observations on each, but they all leave him numb in terms of larger significance. It’s still all meaningless.

The topics are justice, work, relationships and fame. The last particularly seems to include some wry self mockery.

He finds injustice, oppression simply appalling. He says it would be better to die, or not to be born at all, rather than experience a world that contains such evil. This verse is actually used as evidence that the real king Solomon didn’t write this book… It’s in the “…said no actual king ever” territory. It’s brief, but he is devastated.

On work, he’s a fan of what we would now call work-life balance. Laziness leads to ruin, but too much work destroys your tranquility. Indeed he seems to say working less will make life feel less meaningless – the first concession I think we’ve had to the possiblity of a somewhat satisfying life. And touching that tranquility is the opposite of meaninglessness… It’s a restless search, he’s deeply dissatisfied.

I appreciated how he said ambition springs from envy. Yesterday I confessed to mildly resenting my relative lack of career success, today a little gift/prompt from the holy spirit.

What he says about relationship highlights the question of tone. I can’t tell if he’s being rhetorical and ironic.

It’s the “two are better than one” quote often used at weddings. But it probably applies to platonic friendships too… (At least I hope so, since he moves on to three strands being stronger again… Oh Solomon!)

He says relationships are good because they make you wealthier, stronger, better able to defend yourself and warmer at night. No mention of love? We’re a long way from where st. Paul got to when he held up marital love as the closest spiritual equivalent we can comprehend of Christ’s love for the church.

Or is his omission of love deliberately leaving the elephant in the room? Is he asking “is that all there is?” or is he stating “That is all there is!” Ironic or cold? I don’t know!

On kingship, which I think also suits fame or celebrity… he tells the age old story of a star is born. The old king who’s lost touch, the new king who everyone follows. Twist: they are the same person. He switches the first person from being the old king in decline to remembering being the young king on the up and up, challenging the previous king in decline. Neatly illustrating his theme of endless, pointless cycles.

So what does it tell us of God? Nothing! To such a perverse degree that his absence is suffocating, God is the elephant in the room. It’s no accident that every human culture has reached for him. Thinking about his absence too much gets you to an aggravated, inflamed sense of cruel pointlessness that is so wrong, you ‘d rather you’d never been born.

In contrast, we gathered around a bonfire under the old old tree at church to sing and wash each other’s feet yesterday, re-enacting what God’s love is like in a human form. Intimate and unglamorous.

Ecclesiastes 2

I omitted to mention yesterday that the book has a bit of a citizen Kane structure.

There is a narrator. In the movie there is an investigator looking into the life of Kane. Ecclesiastes is bracketed by the narrator, beginning and end, setting up and wrapping up the first person narrative of the “teacher”.

The teacher is either King Solomon himself, or a later fictional invention of a Solomon-like character, similar to how citizen Kane is a lot like the real life magnate Randolph Hearst.

There are certain anachronistic language anomalies in the text which mean the fictionalised Solomon theory has gained a lot of traction with Bible scholars of late, though most chronologies of the Bible list it as written during Solomon’s time. I just think of the teacher as Solomon.

The teacher talks through the sort of dilemma movie stars or retired entrepreneurs face. You make a lot of money young. You never need to work again. How do you spend life?

You can live for pleasure, which he illustrates with enticing vividness. Even though part of you knows it’s shallow.

Or you can do a great body of work. You don’t have to do that to survive, you just do it for the work.

You can be more successful, even though you already never need to work again, just for the buzz of being successful, for the power.

He calls all meaningless. Which means by extention, he’s calling the wildest dreams of humanity, our most ideal fantasy lifestyles, meaningless.

The word from the original text, “hevel” is a richer word that has a metaphoric comparison to smoke or vapour. It includes the idea that it looks substantial, but when you try to grasp it, there is nothing there. Also the idea of obscuring clarity, of an enigma.

He says having done both shallowness and wisdom, shallowness is worse. But both end in death, even if you are wise all your life, you may well hand everything you have achieved over to an idiot after you die, which Solomon in fact did. What do you actually gain by being wise?

He hasn’t explored social conscience in this chapter, living for others. I don’t know if he does later on. But in terms of living for yourself, he concludes, it barely makes a difference if you are a shallow, indulgent hedonist or a successful disciplined achiever. It promises satisfaction, but you don’t get it.

Watched the series return of Game of Thrones last night. It will be fascinating to see how they resolve it.

It drew you in with all these characters all with different takes on what drives you in life being made a mockery of – it’s famously random scythe killed off the pleasure seekers, the ambitious, the pure, the dutiful, the corrupt, the self interested, the philanthropists. It’s constantly showed how meaningless our plans can be.

But it sustained you with a meta story woven in the background, of supernatural forces of fire and ice from which the characters find a greater purpose. These have taken us, as we near the end, to the point of a meaningful narrative arc, a resolution, a sense of destiny which contradicts the trademark provocative meaninglessness.

So how does it end?

Needless to say, I’m already loving this Ecclesiastes ride, bring on chapter three!

Proverbs 1

It’s an anthology of wise sayings. I have misgivings about whether reading it in this format will work. A bit like reading the phonebook, one letter of the alphabet per day.

I’ll make a rule that I’ll try to listen to the ones that describe me more than the ones that describe people I disapprove of.

The first chapter is clear enough. Says what it is, then a carrot and stick.

If you are heading down a bad path… And we’re talking being somewhat of a bandit here, this is a way back. An invitation to rethink your selfish existence.

And it won’t end well. This was my favourite verse: ‘Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it’

I’ve seen breaking bad, I believe it! This section promises that wisdom will give you hope.

The next section personifies wisdom as a woman pronouncing disaster in the public square for those who will not listen. ‘I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you—when calamity overtakes you like a storm’

… You get the gist, strong words for thick skulls. Trying to talk young people out of being galoots here, subtlety not required.

I could use some wisdom, I’m sure there’s plenty for middle aged fools as well. I feel so frustrated writing all this good teaching for kids at work but being tongue tied and short tempered with my own kids at home.

Father, I wanna be wise!

Isaiah 29

Plan and meta plan. Disaster and recovery.

You think you have it bad, you forget God

Then God acts, and you wish you had it bad like you had it before, because now you realise you are on the wrong side of the universe.

And in that broken state, grace and mercy glimmer and become possible.

So it starts talking about a siege of Jerusalem, and then all the seiges.

Then how blind they are that they can’t see it is all God’s judgement.

He uses metaphors of double incomprehension.

So he says their concern about the seiges is like a hungry man dreaming of eating, and when they realise it’s God’s judgement will be like them waking up and realising they actually are hungry.

God’s truth is like a sealed book to them, and when the seal is broken they realise they can’t read.

I think this is written during the time of Hezekiah, which was like a pause before the final fall of Jerusalem. They use the time to practically prepare for the seige, like making a better water supply.

Isaiah’s message is that they desperately need to view their problems as spiritual. He describes their preparations as like clay saying to the potter “I’m the boss!” All the literal fortifications in the world won’t stop God.

It’s like a Matrix moment, they need to wake up from their dream of a life to realise they have no life, and only then can they start to learn what life is and start to find their way back.

Our pastor was taking about telling people about God this week, a subject that puts fear in my heart. I am the world’s least confronting person. It’s why I wrote this blog, all the things I find hard to say to my friends, to my family even. Maybe I need to see myself as cool like Morpheus in the matrix.

“Take the red pill.”

Judges 17

I know nothing of Micah, the judge not the prophet. I don’t know where the story is going but it starts with the same mixed up spirituality that seems to define Israel in this wayward time, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

So he finds some money his mother thought she’d lost and they make an idol for their home shrine. He’s well off and has religious urges and knows something of Jehovah. He fashions an ephod, a priestly garment which seems to have become a worship object. We saw that practise negatively noted in Gideon’s story.

He makes one of his sons a priest and then a real Levite (the priest tribe) passes by, so he engages him to be a live-in priest.

So far so weird. We learn nothing much about God. Indeed as the book has gone on, god’s presence seems more and more remote. They all seem so lost.

Our culture is in a strangely similar place… Losing its religion. Judges feels oddly familiar, despite its savagery at places. Of course, the savagery is still with us too.

God gave us an easy way to know him in Jesus. The Israelites’ Jehovah is not how humans like to think of their Gods. Not concrete, not in a box. We have less excuse.

Haggai 2

So the temple is a ruin and they have started building, long path ahead. Will the glory days ever be back? Do our tiny steps to climb an impossibly huge mountain make a difference to God?

Yes, they do!

It makes all the difference in the world. The Israelites have gone from being cursed and defiled to world shakers. Putting a few stones on each other towards the new temple has unleashed god’s plan of love and grace that will embrace all mankind.

God doesn’t need our strength or our achievements, he wants us to seek him. Turn to him. Acknowledge him. This is what the Israelites have done by responding to the call to build the temple, and it makes all the difference in the world.

It’s a hugely encouraging chapter. Do what you can, where you are. Trust and obey, as the song says, god will do the rest.

Lord I thank you for the simplicity of the Christian life, its a great thing knowing someone else is in charge of the big picture.

Ezra 6

The decree of Cyrus authorising the temple building is produced, Darius doubles up on the support that the previous king gave to the project, authorising supplies be given that show a nuanced understanding of the Israelites religious practices. It’s a major win.

The local governors obey. The temple is done and Passover is celebrated to dedicate it. The faithful include the returned exiles and the local Israelites who seek God by separating themselves from the gentile practices.

I do believe this attitude of seeking is more important than the specific obedience involved.

The chapter ends with scenes of huge joy and celebration.

Father may I seek you regardless. And may I know and enjoy blessing when I see it.

Nehemiah 10

The people, priests, leaders, make a promise to follow the law. High in the list is racial purity, they won’t let their children marry outside the race. Also tything and the year of jubilee, cancellation of debt every 7 years.

Turning over a new leaf, new year’s resolutions. In middle age is tempting to be cynical about the prospect of change, because you have done it and failed so often by then.

I’m fairly deep in cynicism this week because I am facing up to disappointment in the direction the new minister is taking our church, and our domestic arrangements feel stuck on the tread mill.

There are lots of things we need to change but reasons why so many cannot. Frustration everywhere. And the daily grind turns unyieldingly on.

Nehemiah is a depressing book if you are feeling like that because you know it doesn’t work. They don’t keep the law, Jerusalem falls again.

But what they are doing is pleasing to God. I’m working on a song based on Psalm 24, which talks at one stage about the high standards required for meeting God: clean hands, pure heart, no idols. But then it switches and says God blesses those who seek him.

That’s what the Israelites are doing here, seeking God. Responding. That makes it about the moments, the journey, not the destination. Seek.