Hosea 13

A classic tough love chapter. It’s full of dire prophesy, and it’s moving because of the universality of hardship that befalls the human race, and because of the conflicted pain it causes our creator. The poignancy here is in the core irony that God’s blessing breeds contempt for him.

God sandwiches the following promise between saying there will be no compassion, and that he will be wild as an attacking lion:

“I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;

    I will redeem them from death.

Where, O death, are your plagues?

    Where, O grave, is your destruction?

Verse 14

God can’t stop saving us even as suffering and mortality are unleashed on us.

The palm Sunday sermon I listened to online yesterday addressed this question of judgement and suffering. He said that since Jesus, there is not direct old testament-style punishment for sin. Our promise is that Jesus has taken all the punishment, we are not punished as our sins deserve. At all.

So you are left with simple cause and effect. This flu that has swept the world has transferred from animals. Could happen any time.

God’s wisdom about how to live is still relevant. The pattern of living described in places like proverbs and in Jesus’ teaching is still the key to happiness.

And there will still be some sorting of the sheep from the goats – Jesus taught. The ultimate wisdom is to repent and acknowledge Jesus as lord.

I have a strong sense of how underestimated wisdom is from these old testament readings. Young people rebel against religion as being rule bound. And then life teaches them that the closer they live to essentially god’s model of stable loving, trusting relationships of honesty and kindness, the better life actually is.

The period of earthly judgement that so much of the Bible is given to was a one off, where God assigned judgement to things that go wrong all the time anyway, like sucumbing to invasions and losing wars. And the larger truth of God’s saving nature underlies the message the whole time, bursting out of the short term pain.

The point of the prophets was to show that the spiritual is more solid than the concrete. That is in every book. We know there were lots of prophets who didn’t make the Bible. Perhaps it was this key foretelling of the truth of the reign of grace that unites those that did.

Blessing still breeds contempt, the pain and suffering that is part of life in this broken world still produces some of our finest moments of generosity and self sacrifice.

Beauty out of pain. It’s all too much but it’s starting to hang together in a crazy kind of way. As the death count climbs daily from this one disease, this single global frailty.

Ezekiel 2

After a dazzling vision of God arrives last chapter God speaks and appoints Ezekiel to be a prophet.

At the end of the chapter, God will give Ezekiel his sermon, his message. A scroll of lament, mourning and woe. Not an easy script.

It’s instructive how he prepares Ezekiel for this awkward message. In contrast with the burning splendor of the vision, there is a big dose of pragmatism and expectation management.

First preparation is to fill him with the holy spirit.

I’m actually running prayers at work today, it’s a half hour session each Thursday. I remember St Paul wrote of preachers with bad motives that, well, at least the gospel was peached. So the preacher doesn’t have to be perfect, not at all. But what a great starting point to be asked to be filled with the spirit.

Then God tells him to expect the people to be stubborn and not listen; and to carry on regardless. It is enough that they will know a prophet has been among them… Low expectations.

How lame is your church sometimes? Well, sometimes it’s enough that it just there.

He tells him he’ll be surrounded by thorns, briars and scorpions, not to be afraid. Expect fear, tune out to it. Keep listening to God, more than the rising panic.

Then God hands him his poison pill message.

God understands what he is asking of us. Not many are called to be Ezekiel, but it’s on the cards. And that’s why we have the spirit.

I pray that prayers go well, fill me with the spirit.

Psalm 144

This quite a personal prayer, David reflecting on God while preparing for war. He not on the run, he’s a king now. But he’s still the same guy, the sum of so many complex parts.

He returns to some of his favourite themes, ideas expressed over and over in his poetry. I felt like we are getting a lot of David in this psalm.

He calls God a rock, a solid basis for his preparation to fight, and a refuge, his safe fortress.

How often has he returned to calling God his refuge? God as a safe place to escape must be his number one image.

Such a helpful thought pattern to learn… Stressful times turn you closer to God, not further away. He learned as a fugitive in his youth to hide in God as he hid in caves.

He’s still the same David inside, though he’s a brave king and warrior on the outside, he does not do bravery in his own strength.

He talks about scale and perspective. Man is so insubstantial, like a breath, a shadow. Yet God thinks of him. He paints a grand picture of God’s heavens to contrast the teensiness of man, as he’s done many times.

And this time God will be active, splitting the clouds, reaching down in lightning and power to intervene in his war and scatter the enemies. But beyond God’s help or otherwise in the current fight, he’s thinking about God’s mindblowing capacity to care for mankind at all.

Then the image of himself playing a new song to God the deliverer on the 10 stringed lyre. The warrior, happiest playing music and singing.

The song will be of abundance and blessing.

It’s a bit of a greatest hits, we’ve done psalm 40 (he set my feet on a rock), psalm 8 (oh what is man, why do you think of him?) and ended where psalm 23 does (goodness and mercy will follow me all my days…)

Psalm 133

Another gloriously brief psalm, with two images of God’s blessing.

The first is the most luxurious image they could imagine, of getting some expensive fragrant oil and letting it dribble down your head, over your beard. Not something I’ve done, sounds a bit messy. When they talk about it reaching the collar, I get a bit of 21st century cleaning panic “will that stuff come out?”

But I can imagine the soothing feel of the slow oil, relaxing each head muscle it progressively touches, along with the scent, a signal of indulgent extravagance in a world that probably often smelled pretty bad.

Then the image of lrael’s most verdant place, mount Hermon, blessed with super heavy dew, sharing it’s blessing with Zion.

This is what unity among God’s people is like. Oops.

Don’t tell God what its actually like. Do you think he knows?

These images of blessing contrast with the toxicity of the church, my home (at times), the general stress of living, political discourse, which increasingly seems to involve socially conservative Christians defending their turf.

I’m planning a possible song called “the Christian left”, a little play on political power blocks and the biblical concept of the remnant… Who will be the last Christian left?

King David of course knew all about disunity, he had the most dysfunctional family imaginable: rape, political coups against him, being exiled by his own son. Not a happy camp.

We had a therapy-recommended family fun night on Sunday. It did really work to give us some laughs. Maybe we need a church fun night.

Plus it’s winter, and everyone has the flu.

In some senses the churches have got closer as they have got smaller. I remember the intense criticism of Hillsong by the Anglicans back in the day, and that has subsided.

Now we are living through footballer Israel Folau’s moronic religious freedom wars – he lost his contract because he tweeted about gay people going to hell.

Forget the merits or otherwise of his situation, I know a shit stirrer when I see one. Among believers as well as non believers. He even has the Hillsong guy counselling him to back off! What is his objective?

I’m not feeling the oil dribbling down my head, not one bit.

So I’ll pray, pray for unity. For the cognitive overload of dissent to be replaced with a calm focus on God’s word, his promises, his hope. Hope! Starting with me.

Ecclesiastes 5

Don’t promise, don’t question, don’t dream.

The teacher can’t help but toss out wonderfully memorable, profound observations about most aspects of life as he dismisses them. But dismiss them he does.

Despite being clearly a person of learning and refinement, the structure of his book sometimes reminds me of an angry old alcoholic ranting to nobody at a train station: “And another thing: politicians. Liars the lot of them. And kids today: no respect…”

It’s a whinge list. Erudite, nuanced, but a whinge list.

In chapter 5, first up: extravagant promises, vows to God, that you don’t keep.

I think I get the scenario. Their religion involved pilgrimages to the temple to offer sacrifices atoning for sin. In a moment of religious ecstasy, and/or showing off/fake public piety, you make a big promise to God that you later regret. Easy target – loud, hypocritical religion.

But he also throws dreams in there… “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God”.

Don’t dare to dream?

Then he says not to be surprised by oppression, because it’s not isolated injustice, it’s systemic injustice, going all the way up to the mindless, bottomless, greed of the king. It’s too big to fight. There’s nothing you can do but observe it, presumably. It would be sort of socialist if it weren’t so defeatist. Perceptive observation, dismissed.

The rest of the chapter is about the dissatisfaction of labouring and scheming for fleeting wealth, which death mocks; compared to the dreamless heavy slumber of a working class labourer.

It ends with a perceptive, yet cynical little sermon: wanting more won’t make you happy, learn contentment with what you have be it a little or a lot, and exhaust yourself during the day with honest work so you don’t question or dream, and life will be as good as it can get.

I think it’s time to grapple with the phrase “under the sun”.

It appears many times in the book: a condition, the context, of most of the observations. In the book the refrain is like “and another thing” of the old drunkard’s rant. “And I saw this meaningless thing under the sun”.

Quick Google scan, the consensus is that it’s somewhere between the literal “on earth” and the metaphysical “without God”.

I visualise it like those science pictures that show bands around the earth of atmosphere and stratosphere. The band closest to the earth is “under the sun”, the realm of time and the realm of the physical, flesh: that which can be perceived through the senses. Even in this realm we will experience something of God and eternity… enough to drive us mad, as it said. But not much.

Above that is heaven, which is referred to when discussing eternity in chapter 3 (“a time for every purpose under heaven”). The realm of God, relatively unknown and eternal. The supernatural, things that last, the kingdom of God.

Jesus said to pray every day for ways to reduce the discrepancy between the eternal order and the world as we know it: “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”.

St Paul picked up ideas from parts of Greek philosophy about spirit and flesh and was inspired to put up with temporary difficulties because he saw the long term eternal nature of Christ: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.

In many respects, despite Easter, we are still in the world of Ecclesiastes, under the sun. Imperfect people acutely aware that the world falls short of what if could be. Still seeing God through a glass, darkly.

All three reactions are probably still part of a normal believer’s life at different times, coping strategies for chronic personality traits or current temptations:

– Ecclesiastes: observe the madness around you, but don’t let it drive you too crazy. Enjoy the things that are good, do a good days work and sleep sound.

– Jesus: do what you can, with God’s help, to make things better. Start building heaven on earth: tell the good news, fight for justice, model love.

– Paul: try to disregard the flesh, suffering will pass. Tune out to the world, tune into eternity.

1 Chronicles 10

After nine chapters of genaeology, we get to historical narrative.

It’s the story of the death of king Saul, he killed himself when all was lost after his sons were killed in a battle with the Philistines.

No hint as is told in Samuel of what a beautiful soul Jonathon was.

The emphasis here is that his line ended, snuffed out in a single battle. It’s described as God’s punishment for not being faithful to the Lord particularly for looking for guidance from the spirit world.

Definately the headline version, given what a tortured soul he was, and the epic and unusual struggle between him and David.

David’s faithfulness in that story made it spiritual, made it about Saul and God, because David would not fight. He’s a big part of the reason there is no ambiguity about Saul’s sin.

Jeremiah 43

Last chapter was a cliff hanger. Has Judah learned nothing, will they ignore Jeremiah and make the mistake of going to Egypt?

Yes. They accuse Jetemiah of trying to trap them. Off to Egypt.

When you are God, Deus ex machina plot twists are too easy.

Once the poor ragtag remnant of the chosen people have willingly returned to Egypt, symbol of Israel’s slavery before Gods salvation, Jeremiah reveals it.

He hides stones in the entrance to the royal Egyptian palace and says that they will one day be part of the Babylonian Empire. Yes it’s a Jonah style escape, no escape at all.

Babylon will follow them, Egypt offers no protection, in fact they will be worse off as absconders.

I’m trying, very unsuccessfully, to write a song about weakness, about being weak enough to trust God. The Cross is an image of weakness.

Make me weak Lord! The thing is that trusting our own strength rather than God’s is cowardly. Weakness requires courage. The judeans simply werent brave enough to stay in Judah. They had God’s word but the strength of their own judgement overrode it.

Struggling with self discipline at the moment. As Keith green said, I wanna go back to Egypt.

Numbers 25

After the mountain top. 

We’ve had two chapters of praise for the blessedness, prosperity and might of the Israelites and the one true God by their enemies’ seer, full of God’s spirit. Now we return to the Israelites camp and the contrast could not be greater.

This is such a biblical theme. We had it after Sinai, and after Jesus’ transfiguration. 

They are weak messy and compromised by worshipping foreign Gods and breaking their strict moral code with the Moabite women.

This is a strange chapter where some of the story seems untold. A leader of the tribe of simeon brazenly brings a midianite woman to a gathering of the people. He and the woman are named, she’s the daughter of a Moabite leader, so it’s probably a political and religious alliance as well. 

They are both killed by spear in their tent by a priest, who earns eternal honour by the deed. At the same time there is reference to a plague, which takes 24000 people and is stopped by the killing. Not sure if it’s a disease born by the Moab people or judgement from God or both. 

In any event, it’s a tragic and dramatic contrast to how God sees them though the spirit in the previous chapter.

The Bible is a book full of mercy, but it is merciless in showing us how corrupt the human race can be. So much grace, so much need of it.

Numbers 12

Aaron and his wife Miriam try to consolidate their power to challenge Moses, claiming that God speaks though them too.

God gives Miriam a skin disease. Moses pleads for her and after 7 days she is healed and clean.

What’s with Aaron, Moses’ brother. He escapes punishment yet again, even though he led the calf challenge to God.  Does the high priest believe or not?  Maybe he is a good man who sometimes hears the politics of the situation louder than god’s voice. Maybe he’s identifying an unrest in the people, a swelling demand for more traditional strong leadership.

God’s tribute to Moses, given in the presence of Aaron and Miriam, is remarkable. He is more than a prophet, who are spoken to in dreams. Moses sees God’s form and hears his voice direct.

This chapter has the verse I remembered and quoted in the last chapter. He is a humble man, the most humble on the face of the earth.

Genesis 34

Jacob has not stayed with his family despite essau’s warm welcome, or gone where God told him to, bethel. He’s gone off by himself and the decision brings disaster. 

His daughter is raped. Dinah, the girl, and Jacob should have known this was a possiblity, she went wandering by herself in a foreign town with very different attitudes to sex.

The boy responsible is the favoured son of a wealthy man, and fancies he loves Dinah. Jacob doesn’t react negatively to the rape at all, which stokes the anger of her brothers. He negotiates to make it right in a way by allowing her to become the boys wife.

Jacob’s sons insist the foreign men be circumcised, but two of them revenge kill them all while they are weak and recovering. The rest plunder and pillage their stuff and take all the women and children. 
It’s an unbelievably evil episode, wrong in so many ways all related to Jacob’s poor choices and ignoring God. He seems to have no leadership of his family, they complain that their sister was treated like a prostitute, but they pervert and prostitute their religion using it as a cover for violence and greed.

Jacob’s response is to tell them how much danger they have put the whole family in by declaring war on the whole country. It’s way too late by then.  

God does not speak in this chapter, but his law is misused by violent greedy men.

The last time God spoke, he changed Jacob’s name to Israel. But significantly he is called Jacob again straight away here. He has disengaged from God. He is still struggling with God, as he was when he literally wrestled with God in human form in the last chapter.  He needs to get back to that place where he is asking for god’s blessing.