The Bible in a Year – 30 May

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

30 May. Ezekiel chapters 1-3

What a dramatic start!  Unlike some of the other prophets of the Old Testament, we hear nothing of Ezekiel’s past, but are presented with both a first-person and third-person accounts of his earth-shaking vision.  Full of vivid imagery of light, noise and motion – wheels, eyes, flashes of lightning, the faces and feet of humans and animals, angels’ wings –  clearly Ezekiel was struggling to put into words what could not really be described. This was the ‘shekinah’ or glory of God, a privilege which few people have ever had (Moses, Jesus and his disciples Peter, James and John among them).


The whole of the first three chapters is taken up with his two encounters (or ‘epiphanies’) with this glory. Before we get to read the details of God’s prophecy through Ezekiel to his captive people in Babylonia, we have to understand the instructions given to Ezekiel by God in this vision. Eight times the Jewish exiles are called a “rebellious house”, and it is clear that they are unlikely to act on whatever God’s instructions to them are going to be.  It is also clear that they would oppose Ezekiel, and would be like “briers, thorns and scorpions” to him (those things that prick, scratch and sting).  Nevertheless, Ezekiel would be failing in his calling and duty, and held guilty by God, if he did not pass the instruction on.


In a much smaller way, that is the challenge facing all people of faith.  If we believe we have a message for the world from God then we must deliver it, however much opposition we might face.  This week the Archbishops of England have asked all the churches to pray for their communities, and in particular for the spreading of the Christian message among them, under the title “Thy kingdom come” (words taken, of course, from the Lord’s Prayer as taught by Jesus).   Unlike Ezekiel who had no support for his one-man ministry, church members can come together for mutual support in prayer, speaking and action.



The Bible in a Year – 28-29 May

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28-29 May. Jeremiah chapters 50-52

After prophesying the conquest of several countries by the Babylonians, Jeremiah now receives a prophecy against Babylon itself, that he would “do to her as she has done to others” (50:15).  Covering the whole of chapters 50 and 51, it leaves no doubt that the Babylonians, although God had allowed them to punish Judah for its sins, would receive punishment themselves. And their punishment would be devastating. Whereas in Jerusalem it was the rulers and middle classes who bore the brunt of the Babylonians’ attack and were carried captive, in Babylon everyone would be destroyed – warriors, shepherds, farmers as well as governors and officials, old and young, male and female (51:21-23).


But what had Babylon done so terribly to deserve such punishment?  Most of this prophecy is about the detail of what would happen to them rather than the reasons for it.  Their sins are not described in detail, although we are told that they opposed the Lord (50:24), showed arrogance (50:31), listened to false prophets (50:36), and committed idolatry (51:17).  Clearly they were no saints, but nor do they seem to have been different from any of the other cultures around them. In a time when monotheism was the exception not the rule, and when the dominant world view (both inside and outside Israel) was a tribal one, with unelected leaders expected to accumulate wealth and achieve military victories, they were just like other nations.


The prophesy against Babylon finishes with “The words of Jeremiah end here”.  The final chapter, then, is a later editorial addition and explicitly so.  It is in fact almost word-for-word a repeat of the last chapter of 2 Kings, and describes in factual prose not the fall of Babylon but that of Jerusalem.  This is presumably to emphasise that the prophecies of the end of the exile were given by Jeremiah even before it had begun.   It is not difficult for anyone with an eye on world events to predict what might happen in a year or two, but only someone genuinely receiving a prophetic word from God can accurately predict what will happen seventy years on.

The Bible in a Year – 27 May

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27 May. Jeremiah chapters 46-48

Until this point the main thrust of Jeremiah’s prophecy has been about the captivity and future restoration of Judah.  But now the revelations he has turn to the surrounding nations.  Many of them, he foretold, would be conquered by the Babylonians, including Egypt; while Egypt would itself have first conquered the Philistines.


The picture is therefore of a whole world (at least, the world known to the writer) in turmoil as one nation makes war against another.  And always, the innocent suffer.  As I write, there is turmoil in the near east as several groups battle for the country of Syria, leaving millions dead and other millions fleeing for their lives to refugee camps or other countries.  Libya and Egypt (to name but two others) are likewise divided into many warring factions. This week a Libyan has committed a terrorist attack in Manchester, England killing 22 people, and a similar number of Christians were murdered in Egypt by Islamist attackers.


We cannot see now where God’s hand is in all this.  No sane person who believes in a God of love and mercy could accept that any individual death was God’s fault, and yet in a fallen world where man constantly threatens violence against man (and woman), the Bible’s message is consistently that God’s hand is behind the bigger picture, as he issues judgements on entire ethnic or religious groups for their sins.  We rightly pray for the victims of terror, for justice to be done and for security forces to do all they can to prevent future attacks.  But when we pray for peace, and for God’s kingdom to come, we are in effect also putting ourselves in his spotlight for judgement.  Is my lifestyle bringing forth the kingdom of justice, or is there anything in it that promotes injustice?  Maybe not directly but indirectly through the effect my lifestyle choices of purchase and travel have on the environment or on the economies of developing countries, for example?


Yesterday was Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, and the Archbishops of England have asked all churches to pray over the next ten days for the mission of the church in our land.  These days we don’t think of mission so much in the narrow sense of making individual converts to Christianity (though that is part of it) but in a wider sense of helping to steer the wider culture towards being the kind of peace-loving, justice-seeking society that God would have it be.

The Bible in a Year – 26 May

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26 May. Jeremiah chapters 42-45

In these chapters, Jeremiah goes with a group of Jews to Egypt, but reluctantly.  They were supporters of Ismael, who had led a coup against  the Babylonian puppet governor Gedaliah.  It seemed reasonable: retaliation by the Babylonians seemed inevitable if they stayed around.  But Jeremiah had a word from God that they would actually be safer if they stayed, because God would protect them if they remained in Jerusalem to keep the Jewish faith alive, whereas in Egypt they would not have God’s protection and would eventually either die of famine or be killed when the Babylonians reached Egypt.


Nevertheless they insisted on going to Egypt.  The reason soon became clear: these people, though Jews in name, actually worshipped a false goddess whom they called Queen of Heaven, and had no intention of dropping their allegiance and returning to worship the true God.  And the incident highlights two common human traits:


The first is not to believe what we are being told.  If our mind is set on one course of action then it is very hard to accept any argument against carrying on with it.  The rebels in this story asked for God’s guidance through Jeremiah and were given it, but it was not what they expected.  When they were told to abandon their plans and stay in what seemed a dangerous situation, it was too much to take, even though the instruction came from God himself.   How much harder it is to accept a lesser authority telling us that we have got the wrong idea, whether it is the doctor telling us that new guidance on ‘safe drinking’ is more restrictive than it used to be, or a spiritual director suggesting that our gifts should be leading us towards a very different type of ministry.


The second trait is that of seeing cause and effect where there is none.  The argument of the rebels for continuing to offer incense to the ‘Queen of Heaven’ is that when they did so before, they had prosperity, and when they stopped doing so (presumably because the religiously conservative king Hezekiah stopped them) they suffered war and famine.  Jeremiah’s interpretation is quite different: the Queen of Heaven was no real deity, and the war and famine were God’s punishment for idolatry; if they went back to worshipping Yahweh in their “promised land” then they would remain safe, if not exactly prosperous, whereas if they went back to idol worship then they would again receive God’s punishment.  But no, they insisted on going to Egypt and back to their old ways of worship.


Who is your Jeremiah? Who is telling you awkward truths about yourself that you find it hard to accept or act on?  And who is your ‘queen of heaven’, the established ways of living that are actually harming you?


P.S. I should add here that the ‘queen of heaven’ worshipped by these syncretistic Jews is nothing to do with the adoration of Mary the Mother of Jesus as ‘Queen of Heaven’ by Catholic Christians.  That is another discussion altogether and one I am not going to get into here.

The Bible in a Year – 25 May

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25 May. Jeremiah chapters 38-41

In chapter 38, Zedekiah (the Jewish king appointed by the Babylonians) first told some of the men at his court that they could do what they liked with Jeremiah, but then when he heard that Jeremiah had been lowered into a pit to starve, had mercy on him at least to the extent of having him brought back up so that he could question him.  Zedekiah seems at one point to have accepted Jeremiah’s advice that it would be sensible for him to surrender to the Babylonians rather than hold out to the bitter end and be killed with the rest of his people (although he instructed Jeremiah not to tell anyone this); yet when the siege actually took place (chapter 39) he failed to act on this, and tried to escape from the enemy, only to be taken captive, and blinded after being forced to watch his own sons murdered.  Such was the violence of those times (and unfortunately, still of our own times in places like the ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo or in Syria).


Zedekiah seemed to have the same kind of hating-but-fascinated relationship with Jeremiah that Jezebel had with Elijah, Herod with John the Baptist, Pilate with Jesus, or perhaps Catherine the Great with Rasputin.  These monarchs must have had enough of a conscience to have known that the holy men who troubled them had the moral high ground and that their criticism of the king’s or queen’s conduct was right; yet they clung to power without having the courage to mend their ways, for the last thing a ‘strong’ leader wants is to be seen to be weak, and changing your mind or acknowledging when you are beaten is seen as weakness not strength.  It is only with God’s perspective on things, as Jeremiah had, that ‘giving in’ can sometimes be seen as the right and courageous thing to do.


We see this in a smaller way in politics when a politician announces a policy that they think is right, but then find opponents even in their own party telling them the policy is a foolish one.  Some have the courage then to moderate or abandon the policy, which the media tend to decry as weakness, but may actually be a sign of strength; while others refuse to make the ‘U turn’ and press on with their intentions until they are forced out of office.



Chapters 39-41 tell of the actual captivity of most of the people of Jerusalem and Judah, and the bloody power struggle that went on after the captivity between Gedaliah (Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet ruler) and the remaining army officers of Judah.  In all of this, Jeremiah finally gets his reward as he is freed by the Babylonians from among the captives, and allowed to return to Judah a free man.

The Bible in a Year – 24 May

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24 May. Jeremiah chapters 34-37

The book of Jeremiah, as I have noted before, is confusing because it is not in chronological order.  For instance chapter 37 records how Zedekiah was installed as a puppet ruler of Judah by the Babylonians, but earlier, chapter 34 opens with Zedekiah already in post.  In it, this turncoat king does something extraordinary: he applies one of God’s commandments which the Jewish people had ignored for centuries, that they must not keep any of their fellow men or women as slaves – or at least not for longer than 6 years and only if the servant in question had voluntarily sold themselves into slavery (presumably to pay off a debt).


But no sooner had the slave-owners complied with the law than they tried to recapture the freed slaves. The law of God meant so little to them that even when enforced by the authorities, they tried their best to get round it for their own advantage.  God’s response was to ironically tell them that for denying others their freedom, they themselves would be ‘free’ from God’s protection and would be killed.  So often people see religious rules as purely restrictive when in fact they represent a form of protection: to follow God’s way is to receive his protection against falling into the sort of sin that rebounds on oneself.  The more people in a society who live by faith, the healthier that society will be. And the more who ignore God’s laws, the worse it will be for everyone.  It’s a lesson that is forgotten in each generation and has to be re-taught and re-learnt, often the hard way.


In chapter 35 the Recabites are held up as an example. They seem to have been an ascetic tribe within Israel, continuing to live a nomadic and austere lifestyle even when the rest of the people had been living the ‘good life’.  They might be compared to Quakers or Amish, for example, or the monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Although to others their self-denial might have seemed pointless, in fact their faithfulness to God was contrasted with the self-seeking of the majority.  We need such people in our society today.  Where can they be found?  There are some small Christian communities who live in this counter-cultural way, but if anything they are to be found more in secular movements and communities where sustainability of food, energy and the environment are more likely to be the aim rather than obedience to God.  But why not both?  Why are more Christians (or people of other faiths) not living this way?  It’s a challenge and one I know I must face myself.


In chapters 36-37 (going back to the previous reign of Jehoiakim), the king calls for the scroll that Jeremiah has had written of all his prophecies to date, and because he will not accept their message he burns it.  Burning sacred writings is always a provocative act, yet Jeremiah was a man of peace, and rather than retaliate himself he merely emphasised that the king was provoking God to wrath, and had a second copy of the scroll made for posterity, while he himself was put in prison.  It is not easy to walk the way of non-aggression in the face of such opposition.  Few people manage it; Jeremiah and Jesus were among those who did.

The Bible in a Year – 22-23 May

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22-23 May. Jeremiah chapters 30-33

The prophesies in these chapters summarise the bittersweet message of Jeremiah: the bad news is that God’s punishment on them can be put off no longer, for such blatant sins as sacrificing children to false gods and setting up idols in the Temple could not be pardoned even by the all-loving One.  The good news, that he would not visit their sin on future generations, who would be allowed to return and rebuild.


So sure of this is Jeremiah (chapter 32) that he spends his own money on the apparently foolish act of buying agricultural land outside the city, even as the enemy army is besieging it and even as he himself is being held in custody for the crime of speaking against the king.  And so sure is he that he has the deeds to the land put in a safe place in front of witnesses, as proof to future generations that his prophecies had come true.  It is not enough to know what God’s will is in a certain situation: to prove it, we need to act, even at a cost to ourselves.


The other point to note is the frequent reminders of God’s covenants – the one with all humanity that the established order of earth and sky, day and night and the seasons would never fail, and that with the descendants of Israel (Jacob) that he would always love them.  God makes a further promise in 33;14-18 that there would never fail to be a descendant of David on the throne of Israel – a promise which taken literally is of course no longer true, but in Christian theology this has always been seen as a reference to Jesus, who since his resurrection has been reigning in spirit not only in Israel but over all the earth.

The Bible in a Year – 21 May

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

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

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

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 – 19 May

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

19 May. Jeremiah chapters 18-22

There are two references to the potter in this reading (a common enough occupation in ancient times). First in chapter 18 Jeremiah sees how the potter re-works a faulty or broken pot into a new one.  The parable is not interpreted but it seems obvious – God will take what is broken (the nation of Judah) and re-form it a generation later.  The acted parable of the smashed pot in chapter 19 has a similar meaning – in the sight of the rulers Jeremiah smashes the pot after prophesying disaster. Only this time there is no re-working, for the rulers are the most guilty of all and they will not be among those who return.


Increasingly through the course of the book we read of opposition against Jeremiah, for his outspoken words against all the people but especially the king and priests.  When he is insulted, put in the stocks and even threatened with death, he turns to God in complaint, at one point (18:19-23) even praying for the downfall of his enemies and their families.   Like the ‘imprecatory psalms’ it seems that even the holiest of people can reach a point where they can no longer love their enemies but have to give vent to natural emotions of anger and hate.  There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we do not let those emotions take us over, but as soon as we can turn back to praising God (chapter 20).