The Bible in a Year – 30 April

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

30 April. Isaiah chapters 5-8

The first few verses of chapter 5 are a short parable of God as vineyard owner and his people as the vineyard itself – provided with everything necessary for good fruit but actually producing “wild grapes” (presumably inedible, or at least no good for winemaking). This imagery is taken up in several other places in the Bible, including several of Jesus’ own parables.


The vision of the Lord in the Temple in chapter 6 is one of the best known passages of the book, and the words “Whom shall I send?” … “Here I am, send me” the subject of many a sermon on vocation and mission in the Church.  It seems to be a sudden revelation to Isaiah that the Temple, the centre of Israelite worship, itself matters for nothing and would eventually be destroyed  – it is the presence of God among his people that matters.  At this time, though, and until the reign of Josiah, the people of Israel seem to have continued in a very syncretistic and sacrifice-based form of religion.


This vision is said to be “in the year that King Uzziah died”.  Uzziah is not mentioned elsewhere, but from the clue in 7:1 (“Jotham son of Uzziah”) it seems to be an alternative name for Azariah (see 2 Kings 15 – a ‘good’ king).   After his death, Jotham who had already been prince-regent took over and reigned for another 16 years, but was succeeded by his son Ahaz who returned to idolatry and in whose time the assault on Judah by foreign powers began.  So there is a considerable gap in time between the oracle in chapters 6 and those in chapters 7 & 8 “in the days of Ahaz”.


The oracles to Ahaz and Isaiah in chapters 7 and 8 demonstrate that God’s judgement was coming soon: Isaiah was to father a son by the “young woman” (or prophetess, 8:3) and his name would be either Immanuel (“God with us”) or the longer “Mahershalalhashbaz” (“speed the prey, hasten the spoil”), as a sign that the Assyrian hordes would devastate the land of Judah before the child was weaned or learnt to speak, in other words within a couple of years, according to God’s plan.  I will not at this point enter the sometimes heated argument whether the alternative translation of the “virgin” being with child in 7:14 is evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew in his Gospel. It is enough that Isaiah should have had a revelation for the people of his own time.


The Bible in a Year – 29 April

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29 April. Isaiah chapters 1-4

The reading plan I am following has gone from Genesis through to 2 Kings (with the exception of Ruth which is a later story). It now jumps forward in the Bible as we have it, but just slightly back in the order of events, to the first part of the book of Isaiah in which the exile of Judah to Babylon is prophesied.  The book is believed to have been written down during the exile, but Isaiah himself (if he was a historical figure) lived earlier, probably in the 8th century BC.


After the almost relentless histories of kings and battles, plots and feuds over several centuries (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) it is a relief to find in these opening chapters of Isaiah a more poetic approach to religion, even if the message is a hard-hitting one.  It seems that Isaiah was the first prophet to really understand firstly that the God of Israel (Yahweh/Jehovah) was not merely the greatest, but the only deity in existence; and secondly that “pure” or “true” religion is not about rituals and sacrifices, or even obeying religious laws, but about living in harmony with God and mankind.  We see this as early as Isaiah 1:13-17 (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. … cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”).


Even this early in what is a long book, there is the promise of future peace, and one of the most famous of Biblical visions: “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.” (2:4). That is a prediction of future times after Israel has been restored, and much suffering would come before then. But it is important for anyone threatening punishment for wrongdoing to offer the chance of redemption and the promise of restoration for those who acknowledge their wrongs and turn their backs on evil.  That is as true for the parent, schoolteacher or prison governor as for God himself.





The Bible in a Year – 28 April

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28 April. 2 Kings chaptesr 23-25

The last chapters of Kings make terrible reading.  Taking a purely historical reading, after about 700 years of occupying more or less of the ‘promised land’ of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, God’s chosen people, are removed from it by force.  Unlike the first captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, this time a generation later it is the new superpower of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar who come to Jerusalem and capture it in two successive sieges.


‘Good’ king Josiah had known that destruction was coming, for it had been prophesied, and he did his very best to repent on behalf of the people, carrying out the Mosaic law to the best of his ability, reinstating the festival of Passover that had been quietly neglected for many generations, and destroying all the idols that had been placed, not only on hilltop shrines but even in the Temple of God itself.


Such iconoclasm is not uncommon when religious zeal is at work – think of the Reformation in 16th century England, where what started as a protest against the excesses of Catholicism ended in the wholesale destruction of the abbeys and priories, and the whole way of life that went with them.  Not only the abbots and their monks, but everyone employed on their farms would have suffered.  It must have been equally destructive in Josiah’s time – the list of his targets included “the women who did weaving for Asherah”.  In both cases the intentions was to ‘restore pure religion’, but in neither case did it lead to peace.


For even those reforms of Josiah were not enough, apparently, to satisfy God, for even if the king had genuine faith in him, the people did not. Destroying people’s way of life does not “win hearts and minds” as the US naively thought their invasion of Iraq would.  As prophesied, Josiah himself died (in battle) before the destruction of Jerusalem, but under his grandson Jehoiachin, the first siege started. Jehoiachin capitulated quickly and let the Babylonians take his own family, the leaders of society, artisans and all the treasures of the temple away.  But at that stage the city itself, and the common people of the land, remained.


The Babylonians allowed Zedekiah of the royal family to reign as a puppet king in Jerusalem, but when he rebelled against the occupying power, they started an 18-month siege which he resisted.  This time the whole city and its temple were destroyed and the remainder of the population except the “vine dressers and tillers of the soil” were taken away.


Which of these kings had the right approach?  Josiah who aimed to restore true religion to the remnant of Israel in an attempt to get God back on side (but actually destroyed the way of life of the common people), or Jehoiachin who capitulated to the enemy, or Zedekiah who resisted to the bitter end?  In the face of conflict, do we try reform at home, appeasement, or resistance? It’s not an easy question: between them these three kings let the nation be destroyed.

The Bible in a Year – 26-27 April

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26-27 April. 2 Kings chapters 18-22

The kingdoms of the Near East have always had shifting allegiances. Through the history of Israel,  Egypt in particular was sometimes an enemy, sometimes an ally.  The same was true of other powers such as Assyria (roughly what we now call northern Iraq – its capital Nineveh was on the site now occupied by Mosul). Judah was allied with them until the time of Hezekiah (c. 700BC) whose reign we now come to.


The Bible reckons Hezekiah a very good king for two reasons – he finally got rid of the pagan shrines which previous kings had tolerated, and he broke of dependency on Assyria, trusting in God to give Judah victory.  The Assyrian king Sennacherib was not happy about this and threatened to capture Jerusalem as he had already done to Samaria. At this point we first hear of Isaiah, best known for the separate book of his prophesies elsewhere in the Old Testament. His oracle against Assyria on this occasion emphasises that both victory and defeat are planned by God – his will is paramount.  That might seem simplistic to us, but in the culture of the time where all  events in human life were assumed to be influenced by gods or spirits of some kind, it would make sense. Sennacherib returns to Nineveh and is murdered there. The time had still not yet come for Judah’s defeat.


Next comes the kingdom of Babylon – southern neighbour to Assyria. After Hezekiah is granted an extra 15 years of life by God (I will pass over the miraculous reversal of the sun’s shadow, which we cannot begin to explain) he welcomes envoys from Babylon and boasts of his riches which presumably he must have amassed quite quickly by taxations, after previously, giving away all the silver and gold he could find to appease the Assyrians.  But Isaiah realises this is a mistake and prophesies that in his sons’ time they and all their riches would be taken captive by these same Babylonians.  Amazingly, Hezekiah is complacent, even at the thought of his sons being captured, reckoning that “peace in his time” was all that mattered.  That is either extreme cold-blooded self-interest, or a cowardly shrinking from risky actions, or the sort of short-term thinking (“my poll ratings matter more than the best interests of the country”) that often causes political problems.


In chapter 21 we read of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh who was everything his father was not.  He reigned for 55 years from the age of 12, but all that we read of his reign is evil. He reinstated the pagan shrines that had been torn down, turned to the occult, and even placed an idol in the Temple of the Lord. He also “shed innocent blood”. This long and bloody reign contrasting with Hezekiah’s provokes God to declare that Judah’s time is up. Like the rest of Israel, their apostasy has gone so far as to break the covenant that God had always kept.


After a brief two-year reign by Amon, we come to Josiah, another child anointed at the age of only eight.  He followed the good works of his great-grandfather whom he had never known.  After 18 years he instructs reserved funds to be used to repair the temple, and in the process something even more important happens: the book of the Law is discovered.  Sometimes we may assume that the people of Israel always knew God’s commandments (even if they often did not keep them) but this passage reads as if for a long time (maybe since Hezekiah’s time, maybe longer) the people had merely been following custom and did not know or understand God’s laws.  Josiah is savvy enough to know the significance of the book.  God’s word to him is that it is too late to save the people from the fate he had ordained for their idolatry, but Josiah would be allowed to die in peace before Israel as a nation was removed altogether from the promised land.

The Bible in a Year – 25 April

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The kingdom of Israel has by this time (the late 8th century BC, about 250 years after king David’s time, and perhaps a hundred years after Elisha) become increasingly unstable. Chapters 15-17 list six kings of Israel over a 40 year period, although one lasted only a month and two others less than two years. In the time of king Menahem the Assyrians appear on the scene for the first time, and are paid off, but that can be done only once.  A few years later they come back, this time taking Galilee and other areas of Israel. At this time, incredibly, Judah makes an alliance with the Assyrians against Israel, showing just how irrepairable has become the split between the two parts of what was once a single nation under God.


In Hoshea’s reign the Assyrians return a third time, this time capturing the Israelite capital Samaria, and taking large numbers into captivity. Chapter 17 acts as a summary of why  all of the original kingdom of Israel with the exception of the tribe of Judah has gradually been lost to enemy invasions as a direct result of the sin of idolatry over the six centuries or so since they entered the promised land.    But Judah’s time would come.

The Bible in a Year – 24 April

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24 April. 2 Kings chapters 12-14

The next few chapters give a list of kings of Judah and Israel, many of whom only reigned for a short time before they were killed either in battle or by internal rivals. It was clearly a very unsettled time in the history of both kingdoms.


But at the start of this section is an extended story of how the money that was supposed to be set aside for repairing the temple in Jerusalem had not been used for that purpose for many years. Instead, it seems, it had been either used to make yet more silver and gold items (as if they did not have enough already) or simply taken by the priests for their own purposes.  So king Jeohash of Judah (confusingly, Israel had a king of the same name bout the same time) made a sealed chest to ensure that the money was set aside for the right purpose, and had the temple properly repaired.  The gold and silver, meanwhile, were used to pay off the Aramaeans and avoid another war for a while.


This interests me as my professional role involves repair of church buildings.  Local congregations are always advised to make sure their buildings are wind- and watertight and generally in good repair as a priority. In the Church of England they even have a legal obligation to have a surveyor or architect inspect the building every five years and make a list of repairs needed.  But it is all too common to find that a congregation goes for at least one, sometimes several five year period without carrying out any of the recommended repairs, while still finding money for other purposes.  Sadly, it often ends up with the church building needing hundreds of thousands of pounds spending on it, and being proposed for closure.


The worship of God, of course, does not require special buildings, and many Christians meet in people’s homes, hired halls, or conference centres depending on their numbers.  And if we do have church buildings, they should not be the prime focus of our activity – the work of the kingdom of God happens out in the community as much as in church.  But if we do have church buildings, God is interested in them being fit for purpose, be they great temples or tin shacks.

The Bible in a Year – 23 April

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23 April. 2 Kings chapters 9-11

Several years earlier, God had told Elijah (1 Kings 19:15-17) that he was to anoint Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel – two countries that were at war on-and-off throughout this period of history – and that between them these two kings and Elijah’s successor Elisha would kill all the worshippers of the false god Baal.  Now this prophecy comes true, although Elijah had been taken up to heaven and it is Elisha who anoints the two kings.  He sets Jehu – an army commander – against the previous king Joram, and Jehu is a ruthless man who starts by having all seventy of Ahab’s sons killed, along with Jezebel his widow, and king Ahaziah of Israel. He then proceeds to destroy the temples of Baal in the two main Israelite cities of Jereel and Samaria along with those who worship there. The job of killing all Ahaziah’s family is carried out by his mother who intends to reign as queen in her own right, although one baby is rescued by his aunt and seven years later proclaimed king by his own supporters. Hazael meanwhile “does his bit” by wiping out the Israelites living east of the Jordan.


In all this we are told that God’s will is being done because the false Baal worship is being wiped out from the land.  It is uncomfortable reading when we think of a God of peace and mercy who commands “you shall not kill”. But the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the story of God choosing the descendants of Abraha and Isaac as his special nation, provided they follow his teaching and worship him alone.  He saves them from all their enemies, both external and internal, so those Israelites who follow false Gods – whether commoner or king – are subject to God’s judgement.  How do we explain that?


The last verse of the prophecy to Elijah tells us that just seven thousand true worshippers of God would remain in the land in Elisha’s time. God’s chosen people were coming close to being wiped out. If this purge had not happened, the true faith, so vulnerable at times, may not have survived to this day, either in the form of Judaism as we know it today, or Christianity whose founder was descended from the house of David. Fortunately they are both peaceful religions for the most part, but both still face challenges to survival in a largely hostile world. Jews still face unfounded discrimination, and Christians in many parts of the world including England worry about the younger generation which seems to have no interest in organised religion.


The ‘false god’ of our time is not the Phoenician deity Baal, but (as the Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded us) ‘mammon’, that is the lure of wealth and material comfort which can be just as damaging to true religion.  “Dethroning mammon” requires not Jehu’s armies of chariots and swordsmen, but prayer and teaching, and the example of lives devoted to God.  Many times God’s people have been close to extinction but many times God has stepped in when all seemed lost, and saved them in some unexpected way. We need to have faith in this Easter season that he will do so again.


The Bible in a Year – 22 April

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22 April. 2 Kings chapters 5-8

These chapters cover mainly further stories about the signs and miracles of the prophet Elisha during the wars between Israel and Aram (Syria). We read how he healed the Aramean commander Naaman, prevented attacks by the Arameans but saved the lives of some of their men, thus achieving a lengthy truce, and saves the people of the Israelite capital Samaria from total starvation by causing the Arameans to think they were being attacked. Eventually he visits the Aramean king Ben-Hadad, and prophesies to Hazael that he will become king, knowing that he will do so by murdering his master.


Clearly Elisha had considerable powers of telepathy or clairvoyance, as many of these miracles rely on him reading people’s minds, knowing what was happening elsewhere or would shortly come to pass. There have always been people with such gifts, still inexplicable to science, and which are therefore generally understood as “spiritual”. The exercise of these powers other than in the name of God is frequently condemned as sinful in the Bible, and is still regarded with suspicion by many people of faith today, as ‘occult’ powers that some people think come from the Devil.  But when used in God’s name, such people are called prophets, and Elisha is one of them, who seems to have been the head of a “company of prophets” although their gifts may not have been so spectacular.


The other thing that strikes me about these chapters is the role played by servants and other ‘unimportant’ people in the stories. It is an unnamed slave girl who tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet in her own country who could heal him; Elisha’s servant Gehazi who goes out to tell Naaman Elisha’s words (which angers Naaman) and Naaman’s own servant who persuades him to act on them.  When Samaria is besieged, it is four men with skin diseases, ritually unclean and forced to live outside the city wall, who take the initiative and discover the enemy camp empty, thus saving the whole city from starvation.  Sometimes it is those with the least official authority who, acting in faith and with courage, make the most difference.

The Bible in a Year – 21 April

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21 April. 2 Kings chapters 1-4

After the death of Ahab, the book of 1 Kings ends, and today we start on 2 Kings.  The authors of this part of the Bible must have had the same sense of the cliffhanging ending as the scriptwriters of a TV drama or the author of a trilogy. “What will happen to Israel after their evil king is shot in the chest with an arrow? Find out when the next book comes out!”


In chapter 1 we hear of Ahab’s successor Ahaziah, But the only story is that of his death from an accident. God refuses to let him survive it because he seeks advice from a false god.  It’s interesting to contrast the attitudes of the three army captains sent to bring Elijah to the king – the first two command him to come down, and they and their men are consumed by holy fire, but the third approaches humbly and requests Elijah’s presence, and survives. The lesson presumably is that God is above any earthly king, and so the servants of the earthly king must act as servants to the prophet who is himself a servant of God. This title “servant of the servants of God” is one traditionally held by the Popes, and the present Pope Francis seems to live up (or down) to it, unlike some of his predecessors in past centuries who acted more like despotic rulers themselves.


The scriptwriters release a spoiler at the start of chapter 2, which begins by telling us that Elijah will be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.  This miracle, foreshadowing Christ’s ascension, occurs on the far side of the Jordan. To get there, Elijah parts the waters (as Moses and Joshua did before him), taking Elisha with him.  Elisha’s wish to receive a “double portion of Elijah’s spirit” is granted, and after the ascension he parts the waters of the Jordan on his return. Elijah’s other disciples seek him in vain, for like Jesus he had gone for good.  No wonder that people subsequently expected Elijah to return in glory, and wondered whether Jesus or John the Baptist might be him.  But Jesus was seen on the mountain with Elijah to prove that they were different, and it is now Jesus who Christians expect to return in glory.


Elisha starts to perform miracles, not all of them for the benefit of other people – being short of hair myself, I am intrigued by the summoning of bears to kill the crowd of small boys who mocked him for being bald.  Is that really a crime deserving death? Apart from that one, the others were ‘signs’ like the miracles of Jesus, to tell something of God’s nature.  Bitter water made drinkable, water provided for the Israelite army, an endless supply of oil, resurrecting the dead son of a poor woman who had fed him, a poisonous stew made palatable, and finally (a story that Jesus must have had in mind when he fed the 5000 people with twelve barley loaves) feeding a hundred people with twenty loaves.  Note the prevalence of food and water in these miracles: when Jesus, who promised the water of life and the bread of heaven to his followers, tells us to pray “give us this day our daily bread” (or “our bread for tomorrow” as some translations have it) he really means it, both spiritually and physically!


The Bible in a Year – 20 April

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20 April. 1 Kings chapters 21-22

In chapter 21 we get another clear example of the sort of unscrupulous leaders that Ahab and Jezebel were.  Ahab offers to buy Naboth’s vineyard for himself (at least he didn’t grab it by force) but Naboth refuses to sell, as indeed was his right, and the king was not above the law.   Although Ahab reluctantly accepts this, his wife does not, and arranges for the execution of Naboth on false charges, following which Ahab takes the land for himself without reference to Naboth’s heirs.  His godly nemesis Elijah turns up (showing extreme bravery and faith, since he had barely escaped Jezebel’s clutches last time) and predicts a bloody end for them both as punishment for such a breach of human rights.


Chapter 22 tells us that after many years of war between Israel and Judah, there is an interval of peace, largely due to Jehoshaphat King of Judah, who unlike his predecessors was inclined to co-operate with the northern kingdom and not fight against it.  In fact, in chapter 21 he and Ahab are allied in fighting the Arameans.  But this is not a defensive battle: it is Ahab’s pre-emptive strike to try and recapture the territory of Ramoth-Gilead which he considered rightly belonged to Israel.  The prophet Michaiah warns of defeat, but Ahab listens instead to the majority voice of the false “prophets” who always encourage him. Ahab then tries another bit of trickery, going into battle incognito and hoping that his ally Jehoshaphat will draw the enemy fire.  But when God predicts disaster, disaster will come – this time by the hand of an archer who does not even realise he has shot the enemy king.


Both these stories of attempted land-grabs by Ahab, whether of a vineyard close to home or a territory across the Jordan, show a hunger for power that manifests itself in a desire for control over ever increasing areas. We see this throughout history in the actions of megalomaniacs such as Napoleon and Hitler, but also in everyday life when companies take each other over, often to the detriment of ordinary shareholders and customers as standards of service and product quality are subordinated to the hunger for ever-increasing profits.  We also see in the campaign against the Arameans the “Falklands effect” where politicians whose popularity is waning may use a rallying cry of “take back control of [wherever]” as a way of boosting their popularity (assuming, of course, that they win).


God’s interest, as always, is in the human rights of the ordinary man and woman – Naboth the peaceful winemaker, or the people of Ramoth-Gilead who did not (as far as we know) call for deliverance from the Syrians who governed their territory at that time.  Through prophets such as Elijah and Micaiah God even makes this clear to the rulers concerned, but they rarely listen, such is the grip of evil over them.