The Bible in a Year – 6 October

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

6 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 35-36

Yesterday I explored the journey to faith of king Josiah, remembered by those who wrote down this account of the kings’ lives centuries later as one of the greatest and most holy of them all.   Chapter 35 records just two events from the remainder of his reign – the great Passover feast, and then his foolish decision to declare war against Egypt (even though the Pharaoh expressed his unwillingness to enter into battle). He died in battle, and was mourned.  And that was the end of the last of the great kings of Judah.

Coincidentally, and most appropriately, as I was reading the last chapter of Chronicles I was listening on the radio to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ symphony, one in which the joy of the previous movement gives way to descending scales of ever-increasing gloom, until the theme dies away into tearful silence.  That is how the people of Judah must have felt in the 22 years following the death of Josiah.  Four kings among his sons and grandsons followed with short reigns, each of them conquered and captured by the Egyptians or Babylonians, until finally under Nebuchadnezzar Jerusalem was sacked and burnt and all its leading citizens taken into exile for seventy years.

It seems to be a natural and inevitable fact that just when any nation or empire thinks it is at the height of its powers, something happens to topple it.  Natural disaster, plague, financial collapse, enemy conquest or internal revolt – all these can be understood by historians in terms of human nature, or by mathematicians in terms of chaos theory. But in the Bible, it is always the hand of God that is seen in these events.

God speaks in as many ways as the disasters that overtake societies and their leaders.  We are told that he spoke through the Egyptian Pharaoh, but even holy king Josiah “did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God” (35:22).  In the following years he sent prophets (including the great Jeremiah), “because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling-place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (36:15-16).

Who are today’s prophets, who will tell us, as we may genuinely need to hear, that the glory days are at an end, and sad and difficult times will follow?  There are the secular prophets who tell us that we have squandered the earth’s resources and upset its climate, so that our environment and its weather patterns are changing to our harm.  There are economic experts who tell us that the financial collapse of 2008 may only have been the tremor preceding an even greater quake.  And as I suggested on 2 October, there are political pundits who will predict the break-up even of peaceful ‘empires’ such as the USA and European Union.  But do we also need to listen for the Jeremiahs of our day who will tell us that our neglect of the practice of religion (by which I mean not so much attendance at church, as the Biblical commands to love our neighbour and walk humbly before God) will likewise result in a disaster for our society?

Unlike Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, though, Chronicles does not end with the ruins of a conquered city, but with a tantalising glimpse of what happened seventy years later, when God declared that his people’s sin was paid for and their release could be announced.  With our merciful God, there is always a happy ending – if we wait.

The Bible in a Year – 21 May

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21 May. Jeremiah chapters 26-29

Chapter 26 records how, early in his ministry, Jeremiah was threatened with death because unlike the ‘false prophets’ such as Hananiah (chapter 28) he was giving the honest truth, namely that the policies and practices of Judah’s political and religious leaders were offensive to God and unless they repented would lead to the downfall of the nation.  Rulers seldom like to hear that.  The common people however knew that Jeremiah was a genuine prophet and called for his life to be spared (26:16); others recalled that an earlier prophet, Micah had said much the same thing and was believed (26:18); and finally Ahikam son of Shaphan [King Josiah’s secretary, see 2 Kings 22:3] supported Jeremiah’s cause, so his life was spared – unlike that of Uriah, we are told, another prophet who had been murdered by the ruling elite.

 

All this sounds much like what Jesus encountered several centuries later: the common people mostly welcomed him, even when he gave difficult teachings, because they recognised him as sent from God.  It was, again, the political and religious rulers who conspired against him and eventually persuaded enough of the people to call for his execution.   Uriah’s equivalent in this comparison would be John the Baptist, whose outspoken criticism of Herod was fatal for him; and Ahikam’s counterpart would be Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee who unlike his colleagues believed in Jesus.

 

The difference was, that Nicodemus kept his support for Jesus secret until it was too late.  It was all very well providing the spices to preserve Jesus’ dead body (John 19:39) but if he had spoken up for him sooner, would Jesus’ life have been spared?  We will never know.

 

The lesson, then, is that if we see an injustice being done, initiated or tolerated by the people in power, the right thing to do is to speak up about it – to be a whistle-blower, as we say nowadays.  Such people may well lose their place in the corridors of power as a result, but if it results in the career or maybe even the life of someone innocent being saved,  they are doing God’s will. “Anyone who received a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward (Matthew 10:41) – the prophet’s reward being honour in the Kingdom of God, even or especially if he or she has suffered on earth for their obedience.

 

Finally among these chapters, 29 jumps forwards n time again to after the exile and records Jeremiah writing to those taken by the Babylonians with his prophesy that it would be 70 years before God would relent and let their descendants return to Jerusalem.  In the meantime they were to settle in their land of exile, assimilate and pray for the people of that land.  It would in fact be a preparation for the much longer diaspora of the Jews from AD70 until 1948 during which time most of them remained faithful to God despite repeated discrimination and at times persecution.  The fact that Jeremiah seems to have stayed in Jerusalem at least meant that he was at a safe distance from those who were the subject of his message.

The Bible in a Year – 20 May

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20 May. Jeremiah chapters 23-25

As the day of exile draws nearer, Jeremiah’s words become still more urgent.  The forthcoming fate of the people is spelt out more clearly, and in chapter 23 Jeremiah singles out the ‘prophets’ for particular condemnation, for they take their own ideas and dreams and tell them out in the name of the Lord.  That is clearly ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’ – breaking one of the ten commandments.  But more than that, it is leading people astray by giving them false hopes of peace and not giving God’s true message of punishment which is what he has given to Jeremiah.

 

In chapter 24 the story jumps forward to after the exile has happened, and a difference is made clear: the people who are taken into exile (generally speaking, the educated classes and skilled workmen), although they are not guiltless, will be allowed to return (or rather, their descendants will, after 70 years), but the king, priests, and so-called prophets who are more guilty than the ordinary people will not – they were killed and not taken alive.

 

Confusingly, chapter 25 then jumps back in time to the beginning of Jeremiah’s prophecies, when the captivity is first predicted, and seventy years given as its length.  That was much longer even than the forty years of the Israelites’  ‘exile’ from Egypt before they were given the land of Canaan, and suggests that the sins of idolatry, greed and so on in Jehoiachin’s time were worse than among the people of the Exodus.

The Bible in a Year – 9 March

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9 March. Deuteronomy chapters 30-31

As Moses completes his summary of the law, he once again presents it as a choice for the people: to obey means blessing, prosperity and life; to disobey (especially in ‘turning to other gods’) means curses, poverty and death.  He does his best to present it, to use a contemporary term, as a “no brainer”, or to put it another way, “what’s not to like about serving God?”  To choose to believe in God and take the commandments seriously is to follow a path that will result in a happier life not only for oneself but for the whole community, because the more people who do, the less hatred, crime and injustice there will be.

 

But it is a choice.  And Moses is all too aware, as is God himself, that in practice the people will, most of the time, choose to ignore God, and follow their own desires.  The scene is set for the next thousand years in which the ‘chosen people’ will rebel and return, again and again.  When Moses prophesies (30:4-5) of exile and return, he may have been given a vision of the exile to Babylon several hundred years in the future, or maybe even the greater diaspora in which the Jewish people would have no home in the promised land for nearly 1900 years.

 

How would he have felt about that?  To be told at the end of forty years of hard work leading the people to this point when they could claim a permanent inheritance, that soon after his death they would forget all he had taught them and go their own way. But always God gives a longer view, a hope that beyond rebellion is the call to return, beyond sin is the promise of forgiveness, beyond betrayal there is the possibility of restoration.  That applies as much to individuals as to the whole nation.  If I turn way from God, I know he will still accept me back, whether it’s the next day or much later in life.  Praise God for his constant love!