The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 March

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27 March 2018. Daniel chapters 9-12

Chapters 10 and 11 are titled “A time of wrath” and describe the vision Daniel is said to have had concerning a coming time of war and persecution.   Unlike some of the earlier visions there are no fantastic creatures here like the multi-horned beasts of chapters 7 and 8.  Instead we have all-too-human rulers, men of power and greed.  They are not named, though some of them are titled “King of the North” or “King of the South”.

The Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes identify many of these kings by name and dates of their reigns: the kings of the North are Alexander and his followers in Syria, and those of the South the Ptolemies of Egypt.  This does make historical sense of the story, which covers a period from 306 to 165BC, a period of 140 years or about five generations.  But given that the book was written in the 2nd century BC and Daniel was supposed to have prophesied in about the 6th century about events that took place in the 3rd, one does wonder how much was written with the knowledge of what had already happened, even if Daniel did have a prophecy that was passed own orally through this time.

The purpose of the revelation to Daniel, though, like the purpose of the revelation to St John in the first or early second century AD (i.e. the Apocalypse), was to encourage God’s people at a time of persecution by showing that there were powerful angels and archangels at work striving on behalf of goodness and justice, even when it seemed that evil had swept them away.

For the ordinary believer caught up in political and military upheaval it must often seem as if God has abandoned them to the forces of evil. But the presence of the Archangel Michael, whose name is translated as “Who is like GOD?” (10:13), serves to confirm that Daniel, and anyone else who continues faithful to God through times of trouble, has the power of God on their side.  Throughout the times of trouble there is the promise that there will be a restoration of justice and righteousness under a future saviour, and even resurrection of the dead (12:2). These are the promises that kept the Jewish people hopeful until the arrival of Jesus Christ, their true saviour.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

26 March. Daniel chapter 6

Not a new thought today – I am re-posting with a few amendments what I wrote on 30 August last year, as it is relevant to Holy Week.

A pattern, perhaps not obvious at first, is seen in the story of the lions’ den when compared with the events of Holy Week (the last days of Jesus’ life).  Daniel. like Jesus, is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler (Darius in Daniel’s time, Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ day) tries to get out of what the law demands, knowing that the man before him is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails (as it did when calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus) and the innocent man is reluctantly condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus, Daniel did not actually die, the lions miraculously sparing him.  But just as Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb and sealed with a stone, so Daniel is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king, like Mary Magdalene and her friends, comes fearing the worst, but like them hears the voice of the one they thought was dead.

The outcome of both stories is much the same: King Darius is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith, and the Apostles come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

This story was written probably about 150 years before Jesus, yet it seems to be as much a prophecy or foreshadowing of what would happen to the Messiah, as it is a coded history of the various tyrants who had persecuted the Jews up to the time of the Macabbeans (which is how a historian would read the book of Daniel).  For that reason, as well as his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Daniel is regarded as one of the prophets.


The Bible in a Year – 18 November

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18 November. Luke chapters 10-11

When people ask for a “sign” to prove that Jesus was truly the Son of God, he refers them to the story of Jonah.  Why Jonah?  He shares some things in common with Jesus: perhaps most obviously in the storytelling, as Jonah 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.

That explains Jesus’ next comment, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (11:32). How else was Jesus greater?  Well he rose from the dead.  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, but 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?

The Bible in a Year – 10 November

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10 November. Mark chapters 12-13

Mark chapter 13 is one of the strangest in the Gospels, or at least the hardest to interpret.  It concerns prophecies about the future that Jesus made a few days before his death.  In commenting on Matthew’s version of this  I explained that the prime meaning seems to be aimed at the  early Church which certainly suffered persecution and wars in its first few centuries, but that Christians have always understood a second meaning of an eventual “end of time” or “second coming” when we, the followers of Christ, will be saved from the final destruction that will come upon humanity. Once again, this is too big a subject to explore in depth here but I will offer a thought.

Jesus was, of course addressing Jews, and his intention seems to have been primarily renew their faith for the future by replacing the sacrificial system of the Temple with his own sacrifice for redemption and reconciliation.  That is why he told a scribe who agreed that loving God and neighbour was more important than burnt-offerings and sacrifices that he was ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (12:34).  Without denying that Jesus’ death and resurrection were effective also for Gentiles, that seems to be secondary in his teaching.  Therefore we should think of the Jews first in interpreting these prophecies.

So when Jesus speaks of a time of persecution and hardship such as there has never been or will be again, to be followed by a “gathering of the elect” (13:14-26), it is not surprising that some people see the events of the mid-20th century when the persecution of Jews under Stalin and Hitler was followed by the re-creation of the state of Israel with millions making Aliyah (a pilgrimage of return to the holy land).  That is quite different from the traditional Protestant Christian understanding of a bodily return of Jesus to separate believers from non-believers. That’s not to say they might not both be true and valid interpretations of the prophecy, as well as the immediate one for the people of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time and for his followers in the next few generations.  History has a habit of repeating itself, and the mystery of God and his saving acts reappears in many forms.

At the end of this passage Jesus gives a clear warning that we must not lose sight of: whichever interpretation we might put on this, we may well be wrong, and be caught out suddenly when either persecution or salvation comes suddenly.  “Keep awake” is the message of Jesus, and the theme of Advent, which is fast approaching.


The Bible in a Year – 21 June

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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 – 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 – 7 May

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7 May. Isaiah chapters 36-41

To repeat the last paragraph of yesterday’s post: the commentary I am following suggests that the natural break in the book of Isaiah between the prophecies of exile and of return, usually understood as being between chapters 39 and 40, could equally well be between 33/34 or 35/36, depending how you look at it.  So today’s six chapters most likely cover that turning point.


Chapters 36 to 39 (apart from the “writing of King Hezekiah after he had recovered from his illness” in 38:9-20) are history rather than prophecy, and are a slightly abridged version of 2 Kings 18-20. So for comment on that, see my earlier blog post


Chapters 40 and 41 on the other hand are a return to prophesy, addressed to Israel as a whole. For all their sins and the punishment that God has brought by destroying their temple and their way of life, he will not destroy them completely.  As with Noah, as with the people of the Exodus, enough will survive to return and revive the worship of God in Jerusalem again.


This prophecy comes, however, not after the story of the exile to Babylon – we are not there yet – but after the first invasion of Judah by Sennacherib in 701BC. The final capture of Jerusalem was not to be for over a hundred years yet; Hezekiah would live longer but not see it, as Isaiah prophesied.


At one of the low points in my life, when I seemed to have lost the sense of God’s presence, he gave me a sign: that of the turning of the tide.  Those who watch the tide cannot easily tell the moment it is at its lowest point.  It is enough to know that, when things seem to have got as low as they can get, there will be a turning, an increase, a returning of the waters. And in God’s time things would, and did, get better.


If we maintain the metaphor of the turning tide, Chapter 40 is like the Severn Bore roaring upstream, leaving its watchers in no doubt what is on its way. Many of the words are familiar from the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah”, as John the Baptist who came as a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus was understood to be fulfilling the role of “one in the desert calling, prepare the way of the Lord”.  It seems the terror to be wrought on the people of Judah was such that God had to promise them the happy ending even before the worst had come.

The Bible in a Year – 2 May

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2 May. Isaiah chapters 13-17

These prophecies take poetic form, and like all poetry are to be taken symbolically more than literally.  I had to turn to a commentary to even begin to understand these (and other parts of Isaiah) – for the record, it’s Barry Webb’s book in the “Bible Speaks Today” series.


According to Webb, what is important is not the specific prophecies against specific political units of the 8th century BC (Babylon, Assyria, Edom, Philistia and Egypt). Indeed he thinks “Babylon” stands for any empire that opposes God.  Rather the overall thrust of the whole of chapters 12-27 is a reminder that however chaotic, destructive and frightening world events may seem to be (in the course of about 200 years, first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians would first conquer and then be conquered), the will of God is supreme. God can use and then cast aside any earthly power in the course of bringing his ultimate plan (redemption of the world) to fruition.  Along the way there will be casualties, innocent as well as guilty. Only in the world to come will all of earthly history make sense and God’s righteous judgment be given.


We need to bear this in mind at a time when the “powers that be” are being shaken up again.  The near east (and especially Syria) ravaged by conflicting powers, each apparently as bad as the others; the European  Union looking increasingly unstable; Russia back in the hands of an autocrat and even the USA with a president who plays loosely with democracy; and North Korea threatening nuclear war.  We can only pray with increasing urgency “God’s will be done”.


The Bible in a Year – 1 May

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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 – 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.