The Bible in a Year – 29 August

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

29 August. Daniel chapters 3-4

In chapter 3, three of the four Jewish exiles – but not Daniel himself – are thrown into the furnace for having refused to worship the golden statue that the king set up, and also refused the opportunity to recant.  They are saved by an angel (or maybe the incarnation of God himself, for the one “like a son of man” is a title Jesus took for himself). Nebuchadnezzar, in a fashion typical of this style of writing, immediately changes from persecuting the Jews to proclaiming theirs the official religion of his empire (as we saw in Esther).

 

Miracles aside, this is a story of true witness. We are not told whether the golden statue is of Nebuchadnezzar himself – though it might have been, since dictators are prone to having statues of themselves erected in their lifetimes – but whether it was that, or the image of a Babylonian god, to worship it (or the king himself) would for the Jews have been to break the greatest commandments.  These men passed the ultimate test of faith, which led to what should have been their martyrdom.  In every age there have been people of any religion whose faith has been strong enough to lead them down this path, and they are rightly honoured. But true martyrdom is always about suffering for peacefully holding to one’s principles in the face of violence and intolerance; those who claim as martyrs people who have killed others “in the name of God” fail to understand what a martyr really is – a peaceful witness to truth.

 

In our liberal society, we agonise over whether followers of one religion should be allowed to display symbols of their religion (be it crosses, turbans, painted faces or veils) or to be ‘witnesses’ in the sense of proselytising (explaining their faith to others with a view to conversion).  Sometimes the decision is reached that such symbols or witnessing should not be allowed in public places in order not to offend others.  This is regrettable, but it is a long way from state-sponsored torture.

 

In chapter 4, which is probably not to be seen as chronologically following the earlier one, Nebuchadnezzar sends another edict around his empire telling how he had another apocalyptic dream, that Daniel interpreted as predicting his downfall and madness (eating grass like oxen) until he should honour God’s authority. Again, this comes to pass (not immediately, but a year later) until after seven years of such exile and madness the king repents and ends up worshipping God.

 

This is harder to understand. Perhaps the lesson is that megalomania such as that displayed by Nebuchadnezzar and many other dictators and emperors over the centuries is itself a form of madness, and needs to be treated by an opposite extreme – an addiction to excessive power being removed only by the “withdrawal symptoms” of excessive humility. From a theological perspective, any action or attitude that causes us to rebel against God’s will might be seen as a form of insanity, and an appropriate form of penitence is the antidote to it.

 

These two chapters together – telling of martyrdom and witness, of rebellion against God and humble penitence – point us to spiritual principles that apply to every believer, to some degree. The challenge facing you if you are a person of faith is hopefully less life-threatening than that facing the three young men, but you may still find there are times when you are put on the spot to justify your faith-inspired actions (or refusal to act as instructed). Your ‘insanity’ or mine is hopefully much milder than that of Nebuchadnezzar or other despots, but nevertheless we need to be willing to confront it, and accept whatever form of penitence God considers necessary to bring us back to our senses.

The Bible in a Year – 9 August

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

9 August. Job chapters 14-16

Job continues his rant against God, though now it becomes more of a grumble. Unlike trees that can sprout new growth after being cut down, he says, humans will not live again on this earth after they die. So he asks God not to look on us in our imperfections, but instead allow us to enjoy this life in peace (14:6), and for himself to be sent to Sheol (in other words, to be allowed to die) so that he will not feel God’s gaze on him.  That is the position of the agnostic, who believes in the possibility of God’s existence but prefers to ignore it and get on with life, while recognising death as the finality it is, bodily speaking.

Eliphaz then speaks again, and his charge is one to be taken seriously: “But you are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God” (15:4).  For those of us who do believe in an actively loving God, it is sad to see people turning away from him, letting the circumstances of life draw them away from the same God who also wants them to enjoy his love and compassion even in bad times.  But unfairly, Eliphaz then goes on to compare Job with those who do not believe in God at all, who “trust in emptiness, deceiving themselves; for emptiness will be their recompense” (15:31). Emptiness – maybe a similar concept to the “vanity” of Ecclesiastes –  is the faith of the atheist, the very opposite of the idea of a world created by a loving God and filled with meaning.

Eliphaz calls Job’s speeches “windy” and Job returns the jibe.  How can he and his friends understand Job’s position when they are not sharing his experience?  He feels to have been “set up as a target” by God – an accurate assessment of the spiritual battle that was revealed in chapter 1 – yet he still does not lose faith in the God whom he can still describe as his witness in heaven, who will vouch for him (16:14).  That is the difference between the atheist or agnostic and the true believer – one who will never cease to trust in God’s essential goodness, even when it seems one is on the receiving end of God’s anger.

The Bible in a Year – 31 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

31 July. Proverbs chapters 16-18

We continue with three more chapters of Solomon’s brief sayings.  I am going to focus on a few that tie in with the book I am reading at present.

 

“Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the Lord. “ (16:20); “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. “ (17:22) “The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit—who can bear?” (18:14). These all address the problem of human happiness.  The book I am reading is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind “by Yuval Noah Harari.  Towards the end, he considers whether human progress and civilisation have made people happier.

 

By looking at happiness as a relative concept (experience relative to expectation) rather than something absolute, he concludes that it is not.  On that view, the people of Solomon’s time, most of whom lived what we would now call a deprived existence (unheated homes, untreated water, no sewerage, high infant mortality, and the ever-present threat of war) would actually be no less ‘happy’ than an ordinary worker living in Britain today. That is because, if his understanding of psychology is correct, each person is genetically predisposed to be either happy (the “cheerful heart”), unhappy (the “broken or downcast spirit”), or somewhere in between.   Temporary circumstances such as a birth or marriage on the one hand, or illness or bereavement on the other, may make a short term difference, but after a while we revert to our default level. Fortunately I am one of the happy ones.

 

These proverbs seem to be saying something similar, with one difference.  Harari, although of Jewish background, takes an agnostic and utilitarian view of religion, seeing religious beliefs as myths that help people get through life and form communities, rather than representing any real truth. But for those who do believe, happiness is associated not just with a genetic predisposition but with “trust in the Lord”. To believe that there is an ultimate power who created you, loves you and guides you through good and bad times – that is more than even a “cheerful heart” can bring

The Bible in a Year – 14 July

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.

14 July. Psalms 90-96

Psalm 90 is unlike most of the others.  For a start, it is described in the heading as a prayer rather than a song, and attributed to Moses rather than to David or one of his contemporaries. Presumably by their time (several hundred years after Moses) it had been handed down orally before being written down and set to music.   Also, it seems quite different in its theme, more in line with the “wisdom books” of the Bible such as Ecclesiastes.   If Moses did compose it himself, it may have been at the end of his long life, looking back on the generations he had seen born and die in Egypt and then in the wilderness.

 

He considers how even a long human life – 70 or 80 years – is a mere moment in God’s eyes, as fleeting as dust, and “a thousand years are as a day”.  In fact, if God is eternal, the creator of time itself, then there is no difference to God between the nanosecond lifespan of the most unstable atom, and the several-billion-year existence of a star.

 

What matters, says Moses, is not quantity of life but quality.  The life of 80 years may be “all toil and trouble” (v.10), but more important is that we ask God to “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v.14).  He is concerned more for the next generation (v.16) than his own.

hen&chicken

Psalm 91 is about God’s protection, and includes the image of God guarding us under his wings. Surely that should be “her wings” –  it is the mother bird who protects her young, as I saw only recently with this 2-week-old-chick.  Even so, it is hard to have faith that “Because you have made the Lord your refuge … no evil shall befall you” (v.9-10), as experience shows that people of faith suffer no less than others.  Even Jesus, when he was tempted by the Devil to put into practice verses 11-12 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”, he sent the Devil packing with a retort that we must not put God to the test. God’s protection is not to be treated link a cloak of invisibility or some other super-power, but rather about him not letting anything destroy what really matters – faith itself.

 

Psalm 94 has a similar theme, that true wisdom takes the long view that faith and obedience are a better way of achieving long-term justice and peace than going along with short-sighted fools in violence and short-term gain.  But Psalms 92, 93, and 95 are joyful songs of praise.  In fact Psalm 95, known from its opening word as the “Venite” (“come!”) is still said or sung at morning prayer every day in the Anglican tradition.

 

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 – 15 June

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

15 June. Hosea chapters 1-7

There are two interesting points even in the first chapter of this action-packed book of prophecy. Firstly, Hosea was a prophet, a man of God.  And yet God’s first call to him was to do something that would make him ritually ‘unclean’: to marry a sex worker and have children by her.  What does that tell us?  Principally, that in God’s sight anyone can be redeemed, and that love is the way of redemption.

 

The concept of “making an honest woman” [or man] of someone by marrying them may seem archaic or patriarchal, but the principle is still valid that for those whose lives are broken by their own upbringing or the circumstances of life, patient, forgiving, accepting love is the only way out.  In chapter 3 this is spelled out – Gomer has been bought by Hosea to redeem her from prostitution, as God had redeemed his people from their sins, and she was therefore expected to remain chaste during their marriage, as Israel was expected to remain faithful to God.

 

To understand the rest of the book we need to note that in this wandering through the Bible, we have jumped back a couple of centuries in time from that of the exile of Jerusalem to the time of Uzziah (which dates Hosea’s prophecy to the same era as that of Isaiah).  The northern kingdom of Israel is about to be punished, but not yet the southern kingdom of Judah.

 

The second thing we learn, then, is that their first three children were to be called Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, and Lo-Ammi. Names are vitally important in the Bible, and we need the footnotes in a modern translation to explain them.  These children were called “God sows”, “Not pitied” and Not my people”.  Explanation for the latter two is given in the text, as God would love Judah but not Israel, and just as the husband of the prostitute would love her children as his own, so God as the husband of Israel (who had been unfaithful to him) would love her descendants, i.e. the generations to come.

 

Chapters 4 and 5 set out the ways in which Israel has been unfaithful: idolatry of course, but also “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery and bloodshed … drunkenness and orgies”.  In other words they have broken every one of the commandments given through Moses which are the basis of civilisation to this day.   Chapter 7 adds to this the charge that Israel relied on the military support of Egypt whence their ancestors had been rescued by God, rather than on God himself.

 

In and among all this, chapter 6 offers a sudden and refreshing change.  Its opening verse, “Come, let us return to the Lord” is one that echoes down the ages, an offer that is always open.  The results of turning to him are many: he has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up; after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him” (6:1-3) The latter verse may be understood as a reference to the resurrection of Christ.   And: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings (6:6) is another them found running through the words of the Prophets.   Repentance, love, faith, understanding: these are the only antidotes to sin.

 

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 5 May

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

5 May. Isaiah chapters 28-31.

Isaiah’s prophecies in chapter 28 condemn not only the political leaders of Israel and Judah but also their priests, who all alike are pictured as being drunk and out of control.  The priests teach the law by rote, as if that is what matters in itself, rather than striving for the ‘rest’ (fellowship with God) to which to law is meant to lead us. Because of this, and the lies and falsehoods that the leaders resort to in an effort to preserve at least themselves from danger in a time of war, God’s judgement will come.

 

The parable of the farmer at the end of the chapter compares those who continually beat others down with religious rules to someone who ploughs the field constantly without ever actually sowing crops, and uses heavy equipment to crush the most delicate herbs. This temptations to resort to legalism (applying rules rather than compassion and common sense) and to make tradition more important that relevance, is ever present in any religion. Rules are to lead us to love of God and neighbour, never ends in themselves, and tradition should be a living thing, not a fixed way of doing things that can never change.  When Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) he may have had passages like this in mind, as well as the many uses in the Old Testament of a yoke as the symbol of oppression.

 

In chapter 29 the focus turns to Jerusalem itself, whose eventual destruction is again prophesied.  But throughout these passages are hints of the “remnant” of which Isaiah writes elsewhere, the faithful few believers who will carry on the true faith following the devastation of cities and peoples.  As with the story of the destruction of Sodom, it only takes a few people who hang on to faith in bad times in order for it to flourish again in better times.

 

Chapters 30 and 31 are a polemic aimed at the leaders in Jerusalem who thought that a military alliance with Egypt would enable them to resist the Assyrian empire.  But Isaiah’s consistent message is that God had appointed the Assyrians to carry out his judgement, and resistance was futile. It was too late now for the nation as a whole to turn back to God, although some individuals might.  But as so often in the prophets, images of judgement and destruction are interspersed with reminders that God is still the merciful parent (the leaders of Judah are his ‘rebellious children’) who will always, eventually, have compassion and bring his people back.  But it will only be when they cast away all their idols that the Assyrians themselves will be defeated, and then by God and not by swords.

 

The Bible in a Year – 1 May

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

1 May. Isaiah chapters 9-12

At least two passages here have been much used in Christian thought as prophecies of Jesus Christ: the beginning of chapter 9 (“The people who walked in darkness…”) with its reference to the child from Galilee who will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”; and the start of chapter 11, the “shoot of the stock of Jesse” (i.e. a descendant of King David) who would rule Israel in peace for ever.  These certainly tie in with what we know or believe about Jesus.

 

The danger, of course, lies in quoting isolated verses: these short passages are set within larger passages of verse that clearly relate to the politics of Isaiah’s time.  More objective commentators consider that the prophecies of a saviour or messiah in this book are really pointing to King Cyrus of Persia under whose rule the Jews eventually returned to Jerusalem.

 

This, however, is no reason why these prophecies could not have had a deeper meaning as well.   And the opening verse of chapter 9 – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, light has shined” – is true whenever anyone turns to God in faith.

The Bible in a Year – 22 April

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

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 – 19 April

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

19 April. 1 Kings chapters 18-20

I have been looking forward to these chapters, for they contain some of my favourite Old Testament stories: the defeat of the prophets of Baal, and Elijah’s subsequent encounter with God in the cave, from which we get the line of a well-known hymn: “speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm!”  I have read this many times, and preached on it at least once.

 

But as is so often the case with the Bible, however often you have read a passage, something new strikes you each time.  This time it is chapter 18, verses 33-35. On the top of Mount Carmel, when Elijah builds his altar, he orders twelve jars of water to be poured into the earthen trench around it.  Now, this was the third year of a drought, so severe that the King went out into the countryside personally to look for any remaining bits of grass to feed his animals (18:5).  How, on top of a mountain in a drought, did they find twelve jars full of water? And even if they did, would it not have seemed a terrible waste of a precious resource?

 

It reminds me of one of the stories we have heard read in Holy Week as we do each year, of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, when a vast amount of costly perfume is poured out.  Judas objects to the waste of money, but Jesus says that the woman (sometimes assumed to be Mary Magdalene) has done the right thing. Likewise, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only, irreplaceable son when God asked him to do so (bt at the end of the day God provided a ram instead).

 

What these three stories have in common is that sometimes God calls us to lay down in faith what is most valuable to us, even to the point of folly (the water of life in a drought; a lifetime’s savings in liquid form; the only son).  And God will reward that act of faith by providing what is needed:   the ram instead of Isaac, everlasting life instead of worldly goods, and for Elijah an all the people of Israel, abundant rain that started falling within hours of the sacrifice.  The divine fire that fell to consume the sacrificial bull was only a sideshow: the true miracle was Elijah’s obedience and God’s provision of water for his people.