54. Haggai

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 54. Haggai

Hag 1:13  Then Haggai, the LORD’s messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: “I am with you,” declares the LORD.

How different each of these prophetic books are, from Jonah a story about a prophet, to the likes of Micah with strident calls to repent, to Nahum with words against a single city, to Habakkuk with a conversation with God about evil, to Zephaniah, again with strident calls to repent, and now to this little two-chapter book covering four practical, personal prophecies spoken within a three month period to the returning exiles who had started out rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem but who, for a variety of reasons, gave up and needed some motivation. This book is that motivation.

Ezra had summed it up: the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet… prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. Then Zerubbabel …. set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 4:24, 5:1,2)

When you open your Bible to the two pages that cover these two chapters of Haggai, a quick scan over them reveals quite easily that there are four time dates indicating four ‘words’ that Haggai brought (1:1, 2:1, 2:10, 2:20)

Haggai’s first word is a wakeup call to the governor and the high priest (1:1). Haggai first confronts them with the prevailing attitude: “These people say, `The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.” (1:2) but then challenges them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (1:4) So that is the state at the moment but that in itself is not enough to get them under way again. They need some more motivation, so he brings it: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” (1:5,6) i.e. this life is not working!

But sometimes people argue and debate and question and query, so to make sure there are no doubts about what is going on He elaborates: “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.” (1:9-11)  Oh my goodness!  The reason it’s not all working is because the Lord has blocked off the supply of His blessing on us!!!! So He tells them what to do: “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD.” (v.8)  So the people respond (v.12) and it is followed by a simple follow-on word: “I am with you,” declares the LORD.” (v.14)

Haggai’s second word is mostly a word of encouragement for the governor, the leader of the people, and the high priest: “now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. `Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, `and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. `This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (2:4,5) Why can these two leaders be strong? Because God reassures them He is with them, and His Spirit is with them, because that’s what He said He would do when He first drew them out of Egypt centuries before.

But then comes a word that seems to leap the centuries: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: `In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. `The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. `And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.” (2:6-9) Now there is no record of the Spirit filling this new Temple as he had done the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple, but the Lord always fulfils His word, often in ways we did not foresee. This particular temple was not spectacular until Herod the Great added on to it and transformed it into a mighty edifice which even carried Jesus’ disciples away. I do so like Mt 24:1 – “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.” The temple of God in human form, truly glorious for those who had eyes to see, was walking away from the stone edifice that impressed so many people. Good one! In AD70 that temple was destroyed and now the words of the apostle Paul echo down through the centuries to us: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16) We the Church as a whole are God’s Temple, the place where His glory should be revealed.

Haggai’s third word reminds them that until now it had been hard going but now, “From this day on I will bless you.” (2:19). Haggai’s fourth word is a specific word for the governor, that the Lord will shake nations but He will take Zerubbabel and make him like His signet ring. Now signet rings of rulers were used to create the imprint of a seal and a seal was a guarantee. The Message Version puts it beautifully: “I will set you as a signet ring, the sign of my sovereign presence and authority.” Wow! Zerubbabel, you are God’s authority, the sign of God’s presence in this new day. What an encouragement to this leader. He concludes, “for I have chosen you.”

What a resource this book is for preachers: “I am with you.” (1:13) “My Spirit remains among you.” (2:5) “From this day on I will bless you.” (2;19) “I have chosen you.” (2:23) The apostle Paul said of personal prophecy, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3) and these verses certainly conform to that description, and these four words are exactly the four words the Lord says to His children today who are inheritors of all of His blessings through the work of Christ on the Cross, and the indwelling Spirit.

These words should speak to all those who unwisely say, “Spiritual gifts are not for today. We no longer need them now we have the completed canon of scripture.” Oh yes we do. We each need, from time to time strengthening, encouraging and comfort and I would be the first to say that the written word of God does that, but there is nothing like having that ‘now’ sense of the Lord God Himself speaking such encouragement directly into your spirit by His now word. Just like with these returning Israelites, it has the power of motivation that words alone does not have. We need both word and the personal Holy Spirit input, and foolish is the person who denies it.

53. Zephaniah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 53. Zephaniah

Zeph 3:14,15   Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment,

If you want an example of a gory prophet, Zephaniah is it – judgment all the way – until you get to the latter part of chapter 3. We have chosen the above verses because they come in stark contrast to most of what has gone before. Unusually, we are told Zephaniah comes from a royal line (1:1a) and prophesied during Josiah’s reign which lasted 640-609 but as he speaks of Nineveh yet to fall (2:13), and as we’ve seen previously that happened in 612, it seems he was speaking against Judah in the early part of Josiah’s reign before his reforms took place.

Now there is a problem that arises when you read Zephaniah and it is his use of the phrase “the day of the Lord” which he uses 3 times (1:7,14×2)  and then refers to this particular day at least a further seventeen times. The question has to be asked, does he intend us to understand that this day is the Final Day of Judgment often referred to in Scripture or does it mean a specific day when He is going to deal with Judah. The fact that he is so close to the coming fall of Jerusalem suggests that it is the latter. (But he doesn’t only speak against Judah (e.g. 1;4), he also speaks against the Philistines (2:4,5), against Moab and Ammon (2:8,9), Egypt (2:12) and Assyria (2:13))

The difficulty is the all-encompassing language. For example, I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,declares the LORD.” (1:2) and “when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.” (1:3c). It is only helped when he refers to Judah in the next verse and we see that this extensive cleansing is coming to Judah in the near future, to come against their idol worship (v.4-6,9). But then again in 1:14-18 there is apocalyptic-sounding, end-time-sounding language that ends, “In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.”  It is difficult to know if chapter 2 was spoken at the same time or is a separate prophecy that speaks to a “shameful nation” (2:1) but it goes on to speak to all those groups we observed at the end of the previous paragraph. Similarly we read, “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.” (3:8)

The judgments of chapter 2 are clearly against specific regional people groups (nations, states, cities) which concluded with a longer warning to Nineveh which was certainly approaching its end in 612, just a few years off. That much was clearly for that time of history and, as we know, was heralding the impending doom of Jerusalem, possibly less than 20 to 30 years off (a small time in God’s economy.)  It was a confusing time so we should perhaps not be surprised if there is any lack of clarity here. The prophet senses great gloom and doom, and so it would be, for the Exile was possibly the single greatest event in Israel’s Old Testament history after the Exodus. If his words seem extreme it is more likely to be that he catches something of that awfulness that was soon to come, rather than be speaking into the End Times.

Although there is no immediate indication of it, chapter 3 must be against Judah for he could not speak of anyone else with reference to prophets, priests and the sanctuary (3:4) and with the Lord within her (3:5). Although the whole book has its origin in the Lord, in chapter 1 we saw Him say at least seven times “I will,” (1:3-6,8,9) declaring His intent personally. Now when we come to chapter 3 that use of “I” is repeated again and again from verse 6 onwards.

“I have cut off nations …. I have left their streets deserted” (v.6) was supposed to be a warning to Judah, as if to say, ‘Look what I’ve done to other rebellious nations!’ but to no avail: “I said to the city, `Surely you will fear me and accept correction!’ …. But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.” (v.7) So, “Therefore wait for me.. for the day I will stand up to testify (or plunder them), I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them.” (v.8) i.e. OK, keep watching what I am about to do to the other nations through Nebuchadnezzar (for that is what happened) – but it will come to you also (see ‘the whole world’ v.8c)

Then follow what appears as three reducing stanzas, 9-13 (5 verses), 14-17 (4 verses) and 18-20 (3 verses), about His redemption: v.9-13 the nations will be purified, the scattered remnant restored and Jerusalem purged, v.14-17 the joy of Jerusalem, v.18-20 the Lord’s final assurance of His plans for restoration.

If you are like me, you are possibly feeling drunk with information of the impending judgment on Jerusalem through a number of these prophets. Yes, in each case there is this hope that the Lord is working through this impending judgment to bring His people through to the good of knowing Him in an idol-free people. Whenever you read about the Exile remember it is simply a stage before the restoration of Israel to their land as a people purged from centuries of idol worship, a stepping stone, if you like, to a new day, a day through would stretch some four hundred years until the Son of God appeared in their midst. The Exodus had been a prolonged stepping stone from slavery to nationhood within their own land, and now the Exile a stepping stone from an idolatrous nation to a purified nation.  Both events are of mega-magnitude so it is not surprising there is so much said in the prophets about this latter event. What does it all say? The Lord is sovereign, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship Him.

52. Habakkuk

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 52. Habakkuk

Hab 3:17,18   Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

These two verses of faith declaration by Habakkuk must be two of the best known ‘highlight verses’ in the Old Testament, so obvious are they as they beam out like a lighthouse. They are even more remarkable – not only because they are verses of great faith – because of all that goes before in this short 3-chapter book. Habakkuk as a book differs from many of the other prophetic books in that it contains no prophecy spoken out as such but comprises a question from Habakkuk, an answer from God, another question from Habakkuk (chapter 1) and another answer from God (chapter 2) and then simply a prayer (chapter 3). To see the strength of these verses above, we need to see Habakkuk’s two questions and, even more, God’s answers.

Habakkuk struggles with the problem of evil or, to be more precise, why God tolerates evil. Habakkuk’s first question (which comes as four questions) is: How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (1:2,3) He spells out the wrongs he sees around him: “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted,” (v.4) or, as the Living Bible sums it up, The law is not enforced, and there is no justice given in the courts, for the wicked far outnumber the righteous, and bribes and trickery prevail.” This is not what you would expect of the holy people of God, so why is God tolerating it?

God’s first answer comes: “Look at the nations and watch– and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people.” (1:5,6) He doesn’t actually say it but it is clearly implied, He is going to use the Babylonians to chastise and purge Judah and Jerusalem.

This provokes Habakkuk’s second question: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13) i.e. You are a holy God. How can you use evil people to correct your people? Chapter 2 is God’s answer but before it comes, we see Habakkuk declaring his intention to just keep on waiting until an answer comes.  I wonder how many of us persevere or simply state our intent to persevere until we get an answer from God?  “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give when I am rebuked”. (2:1) I have used the alternative given in the footnote here because it rings true. What temerity is shown by this prophet pushing God!

OK, says the Lord, write down what I’m about to tell you (v.2) for it is coming soon (v.3) Yes, I see the Babylonian king and yes, I see he is puffed up and arrogant (v.4,5) and just keeps on invading and taking over more and more nations. Yes, I see all that, (implied) but he is going to get his comeuppance and will be plundered even as he plunders (v.6-8). Woe to anyone who plots the ruin of other people (v.9-11) or use violence to achieve their ends (v.12) for I, the Lord, have decreed their activity is futile (v.13) and my glory will be seen across the earth as (implied) I deal with them! (v.14). Woe to this leader who brings about the downfall of others, for he will be pulled down (v.15-17) They trust in idols which is folly because an idol is just lifeless carved wood (18,19). Instead, you foolish people, recognize that God is supreme and He reigns from His holy temple (v.20). Now in all that, the Lord doesn’t directly answer Habakkuk but He does give him the answer, “Yes, I know, but I am God and I will deal with those unrighteous ones who initially I use to chastise my people. I will hold them accountable for their wrong thinking and wrong actions, even though I make use of them.” We see the Lord making use of men’s sinful attitudes and actions in bringing about Jesus’ death on the Cross (see Acts 2:23). He may make use of such actions but He does not condone them.

Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter 3 acknowledges the Lord’s greatness, particularly all he knows of their history with the Lord (3:1,2). He remembers all of God’s activities in bringing about the Exodus (3:3-13), bringing plagues when needed (v.5), parting waters when it was needed (v.8), He dealt with Pharaoh (v.13), who he killed in the sea (v.14,15).

OK, he now says, I’ve heard all this and I tremble before the Lord’s might and I will wait patiently until He brings this chastising upon Israel to deal with all these wrongs I have seen (v.16). I will trust the Lord so it doesn’t matter how bad things seem – lack of fruit from the land, loss of cattle or sheep (v.17), and I will show that trust by praising the Lord, by rejoicing in Him (v.18) knowing that although the means appear hard and sometimes terrible, He does all things well, and this thought makes me leap with joy and I have a sense of security that the deer bounding about on rocky crags shows (v.19).

The first challenge must be over the depth of our relationship with the Lord. Do I know Him and understand His ways in such a way that I can rest secure in whatever He does on the earth, even though at times those things seem ever so slightly incomprehensible?

So, to recap, this is a prophet who has expressed his concern over the sins that he sees around him. He has cried out to the Lord to do something and the Lord answered, “Yes, I am but you may not like it!” And, no, he didn’t like the thought of his Holy God using unholy peoples for His ends, the cleansing of His people. But, the Lord explains, in this fallen world there will be wrong attitudes in arrogant men and women, and those attitudes will lead to wrong deeds, but when the occasion calls for it, the Lord will use all of that to bring about, in the long-term, salvation (cleansing) of His people so that they can move back into a good place again with the Lord and receive His blessing – but don’t worry, He will hold accountable those He uses with their wrong attitudes and deeds, their time will come!

Which leads us to look at our world today and, here in the West, we see decline in respect for the Church and the rise of unrighteous leaders and we are left wondering. Is it that the Lord is allowing us to be squeezed so that in desperation we will call out to Him, out of our own local houses in order to become the people who truly reflect the teaching in all aspects – righteousness and power and revelation, care and compassion – that is seen in the New Testament?  May we learn quickly.

51. Nahum

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 51. Nahum

Nah 1:3   The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.

Trying to find a ‘highlight’ in Nahum is hard going. Our verse above might be it! There are echoes here of the Lord’s words to Moses: the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Ex 34:6,7) As we read the three brief chapters of Nahum it is God’s power that Nahum has in mind more than anything else. God is going to get Nineveh!!!

Nineveh we’ve already encountered with Jonah. It was the capital of the Assyrian kingdom (not to be confused with Syria), originally built by Nimrod (Gen 10:11).  Assyria crops up a number of times in Scripture and so it is important that we understand something of this nation against which Nahum prophesies. As a nation it started developing about 800BC and really started expanding in the 700s BC, destroying Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel in 722BC. As such it had been used as God’s tool of judgment. Nineveh had been established as its capital  in 705BC and Nahum prophesied about 630BC. As we will come to see, it was destroyed in 612BC, and  that is the remarkable feature of this little prophetic book.

In the Scriptures we come across a number of Assyrian kings: Tiglath-Pileser invaded the northern kingdom about 740BC (2 Kings 15:19), Shalmaneser attacked the northern kingdom and eventually carried them all off in 722BC (2 Kings 17:3,6).    Sennacherib attacked Judah in 710BC (2 Kings 18:13). Jonah had announced its destruction earlier (Jon 3:4), but the people repented and the destruction was temporarily averted. Not long after that, however, Nineveh reverted to its extreme wickedness, brutality and pride. The brutality reached its peak under Ashurbanipal (669-627), the last great ruler of the Assyrian empire. After his death, Assyria’s influence and power waned rapidly until 612, when Nineveh was overthrown. So much for history, now the word of the Lord that came some eighteen years beforehand.

We have seen Nahum’s starting point is to declare the Lord’s greatness and the verse before our one above declares, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.” (v.2) Well, yes, that is true as Ex 34:14 testifies, but only after the words about ‘abounding in love’ etc. But Nahum has picked up something in his spirit and it is all about destruction and judgment by the all-powerful Creator God who can make rivers run dry and mountain quake etc. (1:4-6). But he does keep perspective for he then declares, “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” (1:7) That is standard Hebrew basic theology, if we may put it like that.

But that is immediately followed by the first of three highly significant words: “but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh.” (1:8) i.e. by implication Nineveh does not trust in the Lord and, by further implication, is against the Lord and will therefore reap His judgment. His condemnation is clear: “From you, O Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the LORD and counsels wickedness,” (v.11) and when a few verses later he says, “Although I have afflicted you, O Judah, I will afflict you no more’” (v.12b) we realise and remember that Assyria had been a tool used by the Lord to discipline Israel (northern & southern kingdoms), but that time is over: “Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed.” (v.15) The Lord is going to bring an end to Assyria which will be a relief to Judah.

In chapter 2 He warns Assyria to prepare to be attacked (2:1) for Israel will be restored, never to be attacked by them again (v.2); soldiers and chariots are on their way (v.3,4) and will lay siege to Nineveh (v.5) but, and watch this, “The river gates are thrown open and the palace collapses.” (2:6) the rest of the book speaks about their downfall. Now let’s note the wonder in all this.

Nineveh was a great city with great walls and had the water of rivers surrounding and protecting her. The Medes, Persians and Scythians came against it but the walls were too great for them. After a 3 month siege heavy rains raised the river levels to such an extend they broke into the city and the walls collapsed. Nineveh fell by an act of God – just as He said!

In chapter 3 we read his derision of them: Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river was her defense, the waters her wall.” (3:8) Thebes in Egypt had water as their defence, they had alliances with other nations and felt secure; look at what happed to them! Thebes had fallen in 664/663. The same thing is going to happen to you. You are going to get into a fearful state where you will go into hiding from the enemy. Nineveh was under siege from invaders for three months before she fell but fall she did, exactly as Nahum prophesied in 1:8, 2:6 and then 3:8. There they are, three little indicators of how this mighty city, the capital of this declining nation, is going to fall, never to recover. The Lord spoke it, and it happened exactly as He indicated. That is the glory of this little book.

There are some basic lessons here. First, God IS loving but God will hold the ongoing unrepentant accountable. Second, it doesn’t matter who it is or how strong and impregnable they may appear, they are not so before the Lord. Third, don’t worry about years passing before words from the Lord are fulfilled; so often He waits until the time is just right and then He acts. Such are the lessons of which Nahum reminds us.

50. Micah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 50. Micah

Mic 4:2,3   I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

After the story telling of Jonah we are back to pure prophecy in Micah. Recently, within a TV gardening programme, I saw a luxurious garden of an apparently famous lady gardener in England, now in her eighties.  The buildings in this garden she had created used to be stables and the ground outside occupied for decades by horses. Thus the ground was saturated with horse manure which over the years broke down within the earth making some incredibly fertile soil producing such luxuriant plants. Now I think some of the prophetic books of the Bible are like this and Micah is a classic example. Within this splurge of prophetic condemnation of Israel and Judah, common to so many prophets, (with good cause) this muck, this judgmental prophecy, which has good origins but causes such a stink in the nostrils and unpleasant reading, also manages to be the ground for some incredibly wonderful and beautiful plants that break through in the midst. Words of faith, words of hope, both break through to provide light in the darkness of such prophecy.

God’s word comes to Micah in the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah,” (1:1) another of the prophets prophesying somewhere either side of 700BC. He predicts the fall of Samaria: “I will make Samaria a heap of rubble,” (1:6 fulfilled 722/1), as well as invasion of Judah (1:9-16) and, even more amazingly, speaks of the Exile some 150 years off: “You will go to Babylon; there you will be rescued.” (4:10)

We should not be put off by such warnings of such future happenings because in the middle of the book, chapter 4 is a highlight chapter, that starts by speaking about “the last days” (4:1) when the world will turn to Israel for hope (4:2), God will judge all peoples (4:3a) and a time of peace will follow (4:3b), a time of wellbeing where all worship the Lord (4:4,5), a time where the lowly, the rejected, the exiles, are gathered to be the Lord’s people (4:6,7), and Israel and Jerusalem be restored (4:8). After this ‘last days’ talk, the prophecy comes back to the present centuries where there will be turmoil and eventual exile and subsequent restoration (4:9,10). Coming further back, returning to the very present, other nations are against Israel but will fall because of Israel, because they do not understand the Lord’s plans. (4:11-13) It is a spectacular panorama of history! Such are some of the ‘big plants’ that grow out of this overall unpleasant ‘horse yard’!

But there some others as well. Although so much is this prophecy denouncing Israel and Judah (e.g. 1:5), there is also the hope of restoration (whether it is after the Exile is unclear but the picture lends itself to that): “I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.” (2:12,13) Is the ‘pen’ Babylon out of which they will break free at the Lord’s leading and return to their own land.

Yet there is much condemnation of the wrongs of His people: “Jacob’s transgression …..the sins of the house of Israel,” (1:5), of Samaria, “she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes.” (1:7) i.e. Israel in the north appeared to prosper by her association with foreigners and not the Lord. They plan iniquity (2:1), they steal from one another (2:2), they prophesy falsely (2:6), violence and injustice is common (2:8,9), their rulers practice injustice (3:1-3), judges and priests take bribes (3:11), there are occult practices and idolatry (5:12-14), they have forgotten the Lord and His goodness to them down through the centuries (6:3-5), there is no one godly and upright left (7:2), and there is family disharmony (7:6),

Because of all this judgment will come: God is coming (1:3), Samaria will fall (1:6), the children of the people of north and south will go into exile (1:16), disaster will come (2:3), what they have will be taken away (2:4), God will distance Himself from them (3:4-6), the land will be ‘ploughed by an enemy’ Jerusalem will fall (3:12), Assyria will invade (5:5), the destruction has already started (6:13), they will be further ruined (6:16), such is the ‘muck of this stable yard’.

And yet life springs out of it, there are ‘plants’ from the Lord in the mist of this. For example, a ‘Messianic glimmer’, out of Bethlehem will come a ruler (5:2), a teaching that led the wise men to Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem, (Mt 2:3-8) and this ruler will shepherd his flock and bring peace (5:4,5). Or there is that famous little word of guidance, a summary of what God wants from His people: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)

And yet the greatest of the ‘plants’ bursting forth in this unlikely place of judgment, comes right at the end – the prophet’s declaration of what he knows of the Lord: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago.” (7:18-20) He extols the Lord’s uniqueness, a God who pardons and forgives and who delights to show mercy, yes, a God who will bring judgment but always does it to purge and purify and bring forth a righteous remnant, and that remnant will know the blessings promised to Abraham. In this midst of all the muck, this is the glorious truth that upholds the prophet and which should also uphold us. God is good, God is love, God is righteous and all He does is with the goal of us experiencing these characteristics of His in our everyday lives. May it be so.

49. Jonah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 49. Jonah

Jonah 4:2,3   I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah is a delightful little book. It is simple and straight forward and although it is in the middle of a lot of other books filled with prophecy, this one has none as such for us; it is a story about a prophet! It has four parts and four corresponding chapters and each one reads like an episode out of an old fashioned radio drama, ending with a sense of, “Wow! What’s next?” I’ve chosen the two verses above as our highlight verses simply because there is such an inconsistency in them which is seen again and again in the story, that they sum up Jonah and reveal him as the very human and fallible figure that he is.

To see the context of these two verses we need to scan over the story. Chapter 1 might be titled, “Jonah does a runner and rues the day”. In that he hears a prophetic word from the Lord (1:1,2) that he is called to pass on to the occupants of Nineveh, he is a prophet. Nothing else about him or his time-period comes from the book but he is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 indicating he was a recognized prophet somewhere about 780BC. It is written as historical narrative.

However prophets are just human beings and this one doesn’t like the sound of this call. It is a call to go to Nineveh which was on the Tigris in the north east but instead he catches a boat heading West (1:3). Now it is a funny thing about us human beings. We know the truth but somehow we often fly in the face of it. For instance Jonah knew all about God, as we’ll see later, and he would know that God is everywhere and you can’t escape Him, and yet Jonah tries to do just that. You can’t run away from God!

The other thing about God is that He knows best and He loves us and wants the best for us, even if we have to go through tough times to reach it. So he sends a storm, not just any storm, but a perfect storm, so that the ship even threatened to break up (v.4), and each of the pagan sailors start crying out to their pagan gods (v.5).  Jonah, however, is down below, sleeping the sleep of the just – or perhaps the sleep of the exhausted escapee! The captain wakes him (v.6) and the superstitious crew start drawing lots to find out who is the cause of this storm (v.7) and, lo and behold, the lot falls on Jonah. Interesting!

They ask him who he is (v.8) and he then confesses his testimony: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” (v.9) To cut a long story short, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard if they want to save themselves (v.12) which is a remarkably sacrificial approach really. This goes against all their beliefs but they eventually do it and so in the middle of the night, in the middle of the most horrendous storm out at sea, Jonah ends up overboard. End of story. Well, not quite: “the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” (v.17) End of chapter, end of episode 1 of our radio series. Tune in next week to see what happens!

If episode 1 was filled with action, episode 2 has none except Jonah praying inside the fish, glimpses of which are quite enlightening. Speaking of his plight as a result of what the Lord had done, he declares, “I said, `I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.” (2:4) Now he must have written this down some time after the events and whether it is true that that was what he said, or what he later felt he ought to have said, the fact is that he knew that resurrection, was one of the thing of which the Lord was capable. In the awfulness of the insides of this fish he had prayed: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” (2:7) and then added, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.” (2:8,9) Great!

That is quite remarkable for he speaks about God’s grace that is available to believers and as a believer in repentance mode, he will know God’s salvation. At which point, “the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (2:10) End of chapter, end of episode 2. What will happen now?

Now a bedraggled and, no doubt, a wreck of a man who is past caring, goes to Nineveh, proclaims the message of repentance and the city repents. Easy. So, as the previous episodes had concluded with an act of God, so does this one: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10) End of an action packed and highly dramatic episode. End of story.

Well, not quite. Jonah, we said, is a very human prophet and he is now fed up. Come on Lord, you could have wiped out this miserable bunch of pagans in this city (4:1,2). Why did you bother with them? Why did you bother sending me? Because you clown they wouldn’t have repented and been saved and been changed if you hadn’t brought God’s message to them!

Jonah, possibly still a bit overwhelmed by what had happened to him, isn’t thinking very clearly. He states what he knows about God from the books of Moses: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (4:2b) Well, yes that is true but He only ‘relents’ when there has first been repentance and for repentance to come, someone has to face them with the truth.

But Jonah, so often a bit like us, gets caught up in it and forgets the very basics: God IS love and in His compassion isn’t looking for destruction. As Ezekiel said, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23,32) [That ought to have been a highlight verse in Ezekiel, if not in the Bible!]

So the Lord gives Jonah a little lesson as he sits in the shade of a vine outside Nineveh later. The Lord made a worm eat at the roots of the vine and it died – and Jonah got angry. And thus we come to another highlight of this book: “the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:10,11) i.e. we get upset about really minor issues. We need to get refocused to come in line with God’s heart; He gets upset over lost people. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk 19:10) Us, and the people around us!

48. Obadiah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 48  Obadiah

Obad v.3,4   The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, `Who can bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars,

from there I will bring you down,” declares the LORD.

The reader who comes to Obadiah for the first time might be excused for reading it and then thinking, “That’s it? Where’s the rest? Why are these two pages worthy of being included in the canon of Scripture?” These questions are even more pertinent when you realise that verses 1 to 4 at least appear almost as copies of Jeremiah 49:14-16. Did the Lord inspire him? Did Jeremiah inspire him? Did the Lord through Jeremiah inspire him? Questions even arise over the date of his writing. The only clue appears in verses 11 and 12 where Edom is accused of sitting back smugly when Judah and Jerusalem were pillaged. This together with the Jeremiah parallel would suggest some time after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC, and yet, it has been suggested before 553BC when Babylon came against Edom.

But then there is the very subject matter of these mere 21 verses – Edom. Edom was a territory in the mountains to the south east of the Dead Sea. Descended from Esau (see Gen 36:1,9,43), these blood relatives of Jacob (Israel) had historically opposed Israel, from the earliest days when they refused to let Israel pass through their land (see Num 20). When Judah and Jerusalem were ransacked by Nebuchadnezzar, it would appear that they looked down on them with no compassion and themselves felt they were impregnable in their mountain fortresses.

When the prophet refers to The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks,” (v.3) it may be that he was speaking more specifically than just the fact that they lived in the mountains for Sela was the capital of Edom and perhaps later Petra, and both Sela and Petra mean “rock” or “cliff”, It was this pride that the Lord specifically spoke against (v.3,4) and because of that they too would be pillaged with nothing being left (see v.5,6). There in the mountain caves they hid their riches (v.6), but their friends and neighbours will turn against them (v.7). They thought they were so clever, so wise, but all that would be brought to an end (v.8). Their warriors, so adept at coming down from the mountains and marauding others, will be cut down (v.9).

And why is all this happening?  “Because of the violence against your brother Jacob.” (v.10) Because, “you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them.” (v.11) They clearly derided Judah and laughed over that had happened to them: “You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble.” (v.12) Indeed they should not have gone down from their mountain fortresses and traveled up country to join in their downfall: “You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor look down on them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster.” (v.13) But it was worse, for they had picked off random survivors: “You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble.” (v.14)

Yes, the Lord had seen and catalogued all of their activity against His chosen people, and for that reason He was holding them accountable and declares this general principle in respect of His people: “The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head.” (v.15) There it is spelled out so clearly for all history to see: what you do to Israel will be done to you! And if bad was done to Israel, destruction will come to those who bring it (v.16). Jerusalem will be blessed (v.17) and be the cause of the downfall of those who oppose them – starting with Edom! (v.18) Those who are presently in exile will return and will triumph and this land will be theirs (v.19-21).

So why did we choose v.3 & 4 as highlights in this shortest book of the Bible? Because pride and a false security (not based on the Lord) was at the heart of their actions, which led them to look down on God’s people and even work for their destruction, and this the Lord will not tolerate!

For us, it may not be so much that we either look down on or even speak against Israel (although both are wrong), so much as in this materialistic world we can gain a sense of false security from our ‘things’ and our affluence (certainly compared to large parts of the world) and even our history, and in so doing we fail to trust the Lord. True security only comes from truly trusting and knowing the Lord.