The Bible in a Year – 29 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

29 June. Psalms 17-20

Reading these four psalms is a game of “spot the odd one out”. It is not difficult.  Numbers 17, 18 and 20 are all about God giving victory to one person or army against another – although there are differences, as they seem to be responses to quite different circumstances.


PS 17 is the cry of a man under pressure, who calls on God to be on his side because he is the underdog, he is the one trying to do what is right while all around him are unscrupulous people who will do anything to get the better of him.  Ps 18 is a song of relief, written from the safe place after being rescued by God, looking back on how he did in fact deliver the righteous person from their enemies. The imagery used to depict God’s saving power is that of storm and earthquake when the battles is at its height, and that of one soldier training another for victory.  Ps 20 is written from the sidelines of battle, or perhaps before approaching the enemy, quietly confident that God will give victory to one’s own side.


In between these is Ps 19, very different in character.  It celebrates how God is found in both the natural order and in the Law (that is, sacred writings).  Joseph Haydn famously set the first verse (“The heavens are telling the glory of God”) to music in his choral masterpiece The creation. Many people testify that it is in contemplating the natural world, whether galaxies or the equally amazing scenes viewed in a microscope, that they have come to understand the divine presence behind the visible world.


Others find their inspiration in meditating on the Bible or other religious writings, which lead not towards the outer world but the inner world – contemplation of one’s own spiritual life.  And that naturally leads to self-examination: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults”.   The last verse is often used by preachers to ask God to guide their thoughts and words:  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).


So whether in the heat of conflict, before or after it, whether gazing up at the stars, down into a microscope or into one’s own mind and heart, God is to be found in many ways.  He is never entirely absent from us and will take any opportunity to reveal himself.



The Bible in a Year – 28 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

28 June. Psalms 9-16

More than any other part of the Bible, the Psalms are an expression of human experience, with its full range of emotions and attitudes.  Take the first two of these: in Psalm 9 the writer (or should we say singer?) is confident of God’s justice, that God is “a stronghold in times of trouble” and will give the wicked what they deserve.  But Psalm 10 immediately following starts with “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”  The singer this time sees evil flourishing without being punished.


Why the stark difference?  In the next Psalm (11), the question “how can you say to me … what can the righteous do?” is answered by “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven”.  It is the contrast between those who have faith that God is always at work even when we cannot see the end result, and those who only go by what they see around them.   It is not for us, even if we are righteous, to do God’s work of judgement for him, we only need to trust.


Even those who do have great faith, like King David, cannot always keep it up in practice.  In the very short Ps.13, he goes from despairing at God’s absence to expressing trust in God’s love and salvation.  But the last of this set (Ps.16) is full of trust and peace in God’s presence.


The Bible in a Year – 27 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 June. Psalms 1-8.

The Psalms – all 150 of them – are so diverse and rich in meaning that it is going to be difficult to write just a few paragraphs about each batch of them.  Some days I may write a little about each one, other days pick a single psalm to explore.  If I have missed your favourite, do let me know why you like it!  I will be using the ‘protestant’ rather than ‘catholic’ numbering of the psalms, since that is what I am more familiar with, and sometimes I will quote from the traditional translations rather than the modern (NRSV). But let’s start with the first one.


Some Bibles give each psalm the Latin title by which it was known in the days when they were regularly changed by monks and parish choirs in that ancient language.  The first is known as Beatus vir  – “Blessed is the man”.  Modern translations render this as “Happy are those (… who do not follow the advice of the wicked)”.  Right at the start of this collection of wisdom poetry and sacred songs is the assertion that the route to true happiness is not through “success”, wealth or even good health, but in moral virtue.  Those who follow God’s way are like well-watered trees: strong, resistant to anything life can throw at them, and (though the psalmist would not have realised this) producing life-giving oxygen to sustain human life.  The wicked by contrast are “chaff” – straw in the wind – and of no use to anyone.


Psalm 2 is the bold statement of the king in Jerusalem that he is God’s son and that through him God will bring victory over those who conspire against him.  No doubt written by or for one of the kings of Judah, probably David to whom several of the psalms are attributed, but Christians see this as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, whom God addressed audibly as “son” at his baptism, and whose “reign” from Jerusalem started with his resurrection.


Psalm 4 is one of those regularly sung at Compline (the last prayer time of the day in the monastic tradition), owing to its last verse: “In peace will I lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Combined with verse 4 “When you are angry do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent”, this helps us to relax and forget our worries at the end of the day.


Psalms 5, 6 and 7 are among the many written in times of anguish by David (or others) who were in terror of their enemies.  From them we learn that God is never with those who wield terror and threats, rather he is with their intended victims, for he is the defender of the weak and oppressed.  Never forget that, and always consider which side you are on in times of dispute.


Psalm 8 is definitely one of my favourites.  For a rare moment in the Bible, which normally pays little attention to the skies (perhaps as a reaction against the sun-worship and astrology of other religions), we are reminded that this earth is just a tiny part of a vast and wonderful creation, the whole purpose of which is to bring praise and glory to its creator.  The writer of this psalm could not have begun to imagine the vastness of the universe as scientists now describe it, but even so he or she was over-awed by creation and moved to worship.  So should we be.


The Bible in a Year – 26 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

26 June. Malachi chapters 1-4.

This is the last book of the Old Testament (at least in Protestant bibles). The reason for putting it last is that it contains so many references to a coming “messenger” who would put right all wrongs.  These verses have often been used in Christian writings and worship as referring to Jesus Christ: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (3:1); “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (4:2); “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5).


As with all such application of the Old Testament to the New, we have to be aware of the context, which is God’s condemnation of those who seek privilege and recognition among his people but actually live selfishly, showing hypocrisy in their offerings and infidelity even in their marriages.  They no longer even aspired, let alone reached, the ideal of a leader of the faith community: “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction” (2:7-8).


Understood this way, the main purpose of the coming of the Messiah would be to sweep away the Temple system for good, for it had been so abused. Given the issue this week of the report on the way the Church of England leaders protected a paedophile bishop rather than seeing justice done for his victims, this should be a reading to strike fear into the hearts of those responsible for leadership in the Church.


Another verse from Malachi that is loved by Christian preachers is this one: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse … see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (3:10).  It is often quoted to encourage people to give a fixed amount (ten, or even thirty, percent of their income) to the work of the Church.  But it should be seen in the context of a system in which the tithe of grain was actually the food for the workers in the temple, as part of the much wider laws of Moses.  Now that we are freed from that legalistic framework, the Christian principle of giving is that of the “cheerful giver”.  God’s blessing may indeed be felt more keenly by the one who gives a lot away, but that should not be out of a sense of duty, rather a response to being set free by Jesus to live more simply and without the cares of the world.  Not easy to achieve, but that should be what we seek.

The Bible in a Year – 25 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 June. Zechariah chapters 8-14.

In the first couple of chapters of this section, Zechariah’s prophecy follows the now familiar pattern of promising to restore Israel’s fortunes with Jerusalem as its capital, and judgement on their enemies.  It is within the latter – the triumph of the Jews over the surrounding nations – that there come perhaps the most-quoted  verses of this book of the Old Testament: “your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey …  he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:9-10).  That is because Jesus was seen to fulfil them, probably quite deliberately, when he entered the city the week before he was crucified.  Those who thought of the whole context of Zechariah’s message may have been encouraged to think in terms of military strength, but these verses are actually about God’s ultimate purpose of achieving peace on earth.


Earlier, we read the following: “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (8:4-5).  Again, this is a vision of a peaceful city, one in which its most vulnerable citizens (the old and the young) can live without fear.  Even in our societies today we are far from achieving that. It is more common for the old to live in “sheltered” accommodation as much for their safety as for the nursing care they may need, and for children to be kept indoors for fear of assault or abduction, than for them to be able to sit or play unsupervised in the street.


So was the prophecy a false one?  No, but it has always been the understanding of the Christian church that only when Jesus comes a second time in glory will true peace be established.  Zechariah seems to have foreseen that too, for in the last chapter his prophecy becomes ever more apocalyptic (telling of the last days), when the mountains near Jerusalem would split in two to allow the citizens to escape from a coming disaster, after which “the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him … And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” (14:5,9).


The Bible in a Year -24 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 June. Zechariah chapters 1-7.

Zechariah is not to be confused with yesterday’s prophet, the similar sounding Zephaniah, although the latter is mentioned in his writings, and they lived at the same time.  Whereas Zephaniah’s style of prophecy was like many others in hearing the word of the Lord in both judgement and mercy, Zechariah was a prophet more like Ezekiel, or for that matter John the Divine (author of Revelation) who saw symbolic visions.


Such visionaries are rare, and given an understanding of the spiritual truths “behind the scenes” of human life.  So in his visions Zechariah saw angels and spirits of various kinds, represented as people, horses or other animals.  Some of these were God’s messengers, sent to “patrol the earth”, and surprisingly they report that the whole world is at peace (1:11) – a rare situation, then as now. It reminds us of Noah’s dove which brought back an olive branch to show that the flood had receded and new life could start.  Here it seems that the report of world peace is the sign for God to start a new movement, of the Jews back to their homeland.


Another of the visions reveals Satan to be stood next to Joshua the high priest accusing him, so that he felt dirty before God.  That is always the devil’s accusation, to make us feel unworthy of God.  So another angel is told to dress him in fine clothes and a clean turban, and he is tasked with rebuilding the temple.  Coming out of the vision, Zechariah does something practical and has a crown made for Joshua as a physical symbol for the whole community of the spiritual truth that he had understood.


The lesson from this? That whatever accusations people or spirits may level at us of being unclean and unworthy, in God’s sight, if we trust in him we are quite the opposite – not only clean but honoured, and called to God’s service in whatever way he has chosen.


The Bible in a Year – 23 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

23 June. Zephaniah.

Another short prophecy, like many of the others before the fall of Jerusalem.  The difference here is that the prophet is identified as “Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah”, in other words the great-great-grandson of one of the greatest kings of Judah – a member of the royal family.  That was no guarantee that his prophetic words would be heeded, for as Jesus said, “no prophet is welcome in his home town”.


Obviously the statement at the beginning that God would “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” is not to be taken literally, but it does remind us of the promise to Noah after the flood that God would never do anything so drastic again. In fact this is negated in 3:11-13 where it is made clear that although the “haughty” would be destroyed, while the humble and lowly would be honoured and spared. What it means is that the destruction of Jerusalem would be so traumatic for the Jewish people that it would seem like the end of the world.  The description of this event as “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish” (1:15) became the dies irae, dies illa in the Latin requiem mass, a prayer for God to rescue us from the “day of wrath and doom impending” – we always need to remember that God’s love expects us to obey him, and those who do not risk his anger.


Like many of the other prophets of this period Zephaniah alternates between prophecies of destruction – both for Judah and for her enemies including Nineveh (Assyria) – and those of salvation for a remnant of the chosen people. And it ends with a song of praise.

Haggai 1-2

For the last few weeks we have been looking at the prophets who came before the fall of Jerusalem and predicted its downfall.  Now we jump to the end of the exile, seventy years later, and Zerubbabel (who was a kind of pretender to the throne) who led the first group of settlers to return.

The commentary explains that Zerubbabel set about rebuilding the temple, but the work was delayed for several years for political reasons. Haggai comes on the scene at the end of this period, and criticises the leaders of the community for living in “panelled houses” while the Lord’s house had been neglected.  He therefore inspires them to resume rebuilding the Temple, and explains that God’s blessing on their crops would result from their obedience, whereas during the years of stagnation they had also experienced crop failure.

The Bible in a Year – 22 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

Two books of the Bible in one post today!

22 June. Nahum.

Nahum’s prophecy is brief (barely two pages in my Bible) and to the point – Nineveh the capital of Assyria would be destroyed, and Judah could rejoice.  This does seem to contrast with the story of Jonah, in which his preaching to the people of Nineveh to repent was so successful that they did just that, and were spared from destruction.  Maybe (assuming Jonah to be based on historical events, which is not certain) they did repent but soon went back to their old ways, and Nahum tells of the city’s eventual destruction. If that is the case then it is a lesson for us all, for while God is indeed known for his compassion, patience and forgiveness, the other lesson that is clear from Nahum is that his anger at wilful sin is in great contrast to his mercy. There comes a point in the life of many individuals and nations when their thoughts and deeds are so hardened against the possibility of repentance that they cut themselves off from God’s mercy for ever.  Either they will reap the consequences of that in this life, or the next.


22 June. Habbakuk.

If Nahum (the other prophet covered by today’s reading) saw clearly the clear distinction between those who deserve God’s favour and those who deserve his wrath, Habbakuk sees earthly events from different perspectives.  At first he takes a human perspective, crying out to God at the injustices he sees all around him, as we well may at this time of terrorism, corruption and may other evils.  When would God put things right?  When would justice be done?  We all want a solution as quickly as possible.  That is only human.


But in the second part of the book he is privileged to see God’s perspective on the situation.  He understands that for God, the right time for action is not always now, or even soon.  That God will restore what is corrupted and punish evil is beyond doubt: but when, and how, are not for mortals to understand.  “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3).


Finally, Habbakuk is moved to praise God in a psalm-like prayer which acknowledges God’s presence in the events that shape and shake the world, whether wars or natural disasters.  This attitude of trusting God for the present and the future, and praising him even in the most difficult of times, does not come easily.  But it is a mark of the true believer.


The Bible in a Year – 21 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

21 June. Micah

Micah, like the other prophets of his time, foresees both the imminent destruction of the Israelites’ cities and way of life, as punishment for the violence and corruption in them, and also the eventual restoration of the Jewish faith in their homeland in a new form, “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God” (6:8, adapted).  But here, instead of a series of images of disaster followed by those of return, the two are much more intermingled.  The wrath and mercy of God are not shown on an either/or basis – the eternal Father is not angry with his children’s behaviour one day and loving towards them the next, as a human parent might be.  At any one time he is both angry with our deliberate sins, and compassionate towards us. Jesus, of course, being (as we believe) both human and divine, showed both these attitudes.


In fact, several of the passages in this book are traditionally taken to be prophecies relating to Jesus. In particular the reference to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, as the home of a future ruler, “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2).    In other words, someone born in a particular place and time but also eternal.


Another frequently quoted passage, and a possible Messianic reference is found in 4:2-23 – “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.    Here the role of Jerusalem is seen as under God’s direct rule and the source of wisdom and peace for the whole world, which is what the Christian Church (the “new Jerusalem”) is supposed to be.


Less well known is this saying: “I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture; it will resound with people.  The one who breaks out will go up before them; they will break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king will pass on before them, the Lord at their head” (2:12-13).  This image of the king leading his people out like a shepherd echoes both Psalm 23, and also John 10:1-18 where Jesus speaks of himself is similar terms. It seems that Micah understood quite clearly the way in which God would come among us.

The Bible in a Year – 20 June (2)

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20 June. Jonah

The legend of Jonah is one of those Old Testament stories beloved of Sunday School teachers because of its vivid description of Jonah being swallowed and regurgitated by a great fish (often incorrectly called a whale).  Only the most literal minded of readers would take this as a true story: it is much like one of Jesus’ parables, and to be taken allegorically like them.


Jonah, in fact, shares some things in common with Jesus: firstly, as he slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.


Secondly, Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day when he was resurrected.


Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?