Zechariah 9-14: The Return of the King

I think everyone, deep down, is a secret monarchist. Look at the messianic hope that people put into presidents and prime ministers, the expectation that one election can change the course of humanity itself. On a more positive level, look at our fairy tales. So many of them involve people in a troubled time remembering the glory of a fallen kingdom and waiting eagerly for its return. For all of our chest-thumping about freedom and independence, our most hidden desire is for someone not only to save us but to rule us. Of course, if we place that hope in a mere mortal, it more often than not leads to dictatorships, cults, and catastrophe. Even so, what if that soul-deep desire was not a product of the fall, but rather the fundamental fact of our nature? What if the hope for those of us living under the tyranny of sin and despair is not freedom, but a righteous king? To believe this is to walk in opposition to the ruling ideology of our age, which values personal freedom and individual rights over all else. To seek the King, on the other hand, is to admit to reality: “you who were once slaves of sin…having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17-18). We are no longer prisoners of despair, but “prisoners of hope” (Zech. 9:12)

To be honest, I found much of this section of Zechariah a bit baffling. What follows are my scattered thoughts on his messianic message and the hope it might bring us today. More than almost any other minor prophet, interpretations vary, so take what I say with numerous grains of salt.

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Chapter 9: We begin with another one of those paradoxically hopeful passages of destruction. The Lord promises to deliver His people from their enemies, those evil nations currently at rest (recall Zech. 1:12). But nature abhors a vacuum, and power will not rest for long. So, with dramatic timing, the true king arrives to the sound of rejoicing. However, he arrives not in glory on a stallion, but “humble and mounted on a donkey” (v. 9). This, of course, was fulfilled by Jesus on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:5). centuries earlier, Zechariah warned God’s people that the king who would save them was not a military leader. Even today, we often confuse pride and aggression with strength. But Jesus demonstrates the power of humility, of a king so mighty that He need not puff Himself up. His rule will be one of love, not fear — “he will speak peace to the nations” (v. 10). The judgment of the pagan nations is not final — it is merely a wake-up call to repent and return to the true king. God calls us out of the waterless pit of despair to become prisoners of hope.

The conclusion of this chapter is generally thought to prophesy the Maccabean revolt and triumph over the Greek oppressors in 142 B.C. But taken more broadly, it is a reminder that the Lord fights for His people. No oppressor, from the Babylonians to Alexander the Great to Satan himself, can stand before the Lord of hosts. Notice that God compares us to “jewels of a crown” that “shine on his land” (v. 16). We are the light of the world, priceless pearls in God’s crown. Far from being slaves in this kingdom, we are precious members of the royal family (Gal. 4:7; 1 Pet. 2:9).

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Chapter 10: Why do we need a king, anyway? Well, we are sheep and sheep are dumb. “The people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd” (v. 2). For lack of a righteous shepherd, we have only “empty consolation”, led by fake gods and guided by false dreams. If we instead follow the Good Shepherd riding on the donkey, “[we] shall fight because the Lord is with [us], and [we] shall put to shame the riders on horses” (v. 5). He will whistle for us to gather us like a shepherd gathers his sheep (v. 8). This peace is much more than just the defeat of enemies and the lack of war. It is a true shalom of strength, rejoicing, and salvation. It is the promise of a return to our true home. For those of us that are passing through a “sea of troubles” (v. 11), these are comforting words indeed. Christ will calm the storm and bring us through these times. Indeed, we are called to abide in His kingdom right now, to “walk in the name of the Lord” (v. 12). Walking in Christ’s name means living under His authority and allowing Him to live His life through us. Jesus says, “abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4). That is the only source of true strength, true hope, and true peace.

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Chapter 11: I have no idea what to do with this chapter. Clearly, God is condemning foolish and greedy shepherds who have abandoned His people. Zechariah deposes three unjust shepherds and holds rods representing His Favor and the Union of Israel and Judah. However, the people became impatient with Zechariah, so he abandoned his post and broke the staffs of Favor and Union. We have here a reference to casting thirty pieces of silver into God’s house (v. 13), a prophecy fulfilled by Judas Iscariot (Matt. 27:9-10). Perhaps the unjust shepherds here represent those who will reject the Lord’s anointed, both the “shepherds” of Zechariah’s time and the Chief Priests and elders of Jesus’ time. The only obvious lesson here is that there is a high price to pay for those who use positions of authority to lead God’s people astray.

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Chapter 12-13:1: The Lord declares that He will use His people to condemn the world. No wonder the Jews have been so unpopular throughout history! At the head of the Lord’s army will be a descendent of the house of David (hint, hint), who will raise even the most feeble citizen of Judah into glory. Since we Christians are heirs of covenant, whether Jew or Gentile, these promises are for us, too. Any foe that comes against us will be destroyed (v. 9).

In verse ten, the tone suddenly shifts to mourning, weeping, and pleas for mercy. What happened? The people are looking upon “him whom they have pierced” (v. 10). John 19:37 explicitly links this with the crucifixion of Jesus, which brings sorrow and mourning to the Jews who rejected Him. I think the key to interpreting this passage is 13:1: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” The death that brought such sorrow also provides salvation from sin. The cross, an instrument of death, has become for us a fountain of living water bubbling up to eternal life (Jer. 2:13; John 4:14). Thus, the two halves of the chapter hold together. Through the sorrowful mystery of Christ’s death, tragedy is turned to triumph and defeat into absolute victory. The suffering servant is also the humble shepherd-king and the warrior who defeats the enemies of His people. Only Christ holds all these seemingly-contradictory identities at once. This is a King worthy of our worship and devotion.

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Chapters 13 & 14: Zechariah joins the chorus of the minor prophets in condemning idolatry and false prophets. In order to cleanse the nation of idolatry, the Lord paradoxically strikes down the Good Shepherd. Jesus cited verse seven himself, predicting that the disciples would abandon Him when He was arrested and killed (Matt. 26:31; Mark 14:27). Yet this time of trauma would allow the Lord to refine his people like silver or gold, and to restore His relationship with them. Chapter 13 ends with an explicit promise of the restoration of the covenant due to the sacrifice of the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:11).

Chapter fourteen comprises another vision of the “Day of the Lord”. To be honest, I found this chapter just as befuddling as chapter eleven. Whether this prophecy references a historical convulsion of Jerusalem (lots of candidates there) or the coming of the Messiah or the end of the world or some combination of the above is anyone’s guess. I will not bother to get into the weeds of the various interpretations and just leave it at the overarching message. God will destroy those who stand against Him and will restore and establish Jerusalem. He will sanctify everything in the city, right down to the bells on the horses (v. 20). This Jerusalem links nicely with St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. Instead of having a temple, the whole city will be a temple (compare v. 20 to Rev. 21:22-23). Instead of living in a palace, the king will live among His people. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). With Advent fast approaching, let us watch and pray for the return of our triumphant, humble king. Maranatha!

Zechariah 1-8: Visions of God’s Kingdom

This is part twelve of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version.

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18). This is one of the animating questions of Jesus’ life. As the incarnate Son of God, it was His mission to convey the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God to mortals who could not possibly comprehend it. How could He ever hope to succeed? His solution was elegantly simple: He told stories. The gospels tell us that He never spoke, at least publicly, without using parables (Matt. 13:34; Mark 4:34). Only by analogy, by allusion and inference, can we begin to understand our infinite God and His inscrutable ways. It makes perfect sense, then, that so much of prophetic literature, from Zechariah to Revelation, includes visions. Our Lord is a storyteller and these visions act as metaphors to open our eyes to the narrative that is unfolding around us. They are windows into spiritual reality.

Zechariah prophesied at the same time and in the same context as Haggai. The exiles have returned to Jerusalem, but the process of rebuilding is slow and discouraging. Returning to former glory seems impossible and God feels distant and ineffectual. But Zechariah’s message is simple and clear: God is still working. Though we cannot always see what He is up to, we must have faith that He has not abandoned us and that He is still on His throne. The Lord will accomplish His purposes — our job is simply to have faith and to follow where He leads.

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Chapter 1: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you” (v. 3). As we have seen so much in the minor prophets, the theme of this book is repentance. If we feel that God is distant, it is not because He has run from us, but vice versa. As faithful as He has been to His promises of judgment and destruction, He will also be faithful to the covenant and His promise of restoration.

The first vision is of four horsemen, which should bring immediately to mind the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Revelation 6. They are not identical either in color or in function, but I would argue that they are meant to be the same horsemen. The Greek word apokalupsis (whence “apocalypse”) means “unveiling” or “revealing”. So these horsemen go about the earth to reveal the true nature of things. In this case, the horsemen discover that “the earth remains at rest” (v. 11). Such rest displeases the Lord, however, because it means that nations at ease have caused trouble for his people. As always, God promises to defend His people, and He will bring them comfort and peace (vv. 16-17). Though the Four Horsemen herald conquest, war, famine, and death, God’s people shall be spared if they remain in Him.

The chapter ends with two more visions of four — horns and craftsmen. Horns in the Old Testament represent power and authority and thus the downfall of the four horns at the hands of the four craftsmen represents the defeat of the powerful empires that have long oppressed Judea. The number four here is significant, representing completeness. From the four corners of the earth (i.e. the four compass points; Rev. 7:1) to the four rivers of paradise (Gen. 2:10) to the four living creatures around the throne of God (Eze. 1:5; Rev. 4:6), this number represents God’s creative power and absolute sovereignty. Using the number four here reminds the Jews (and us) that God both created and ordered the world and no earthly power can stand against Him.

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Chapters 2-4: Rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem was slow and grueling work, made all the harder by frequent attack from enemies. But the Lord makes this awesome promise: “I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst” (2:5). Indeed, the physical walls of Jerusalem don’t really matter in the long run because the true spiritual Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem, will encompass all of humanity: “many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people” (2:11). This vision encompasses both the work of Christ and the descent of the Holy City as recorded in Revelation. In each case, God is reassuring us that His protection will be around us and His glory will be within us. Thus, silent and reverent awe are the only proper response (2:13). Zechariah echoes the promise made by Moses to God’s people before they crossed the Red Sea: “the LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Ex. 14:14).

The next vision is a courtroom scene where the angel of the Lord is the judge, the high priest Joshua is the defendant, and Satan (the “accuser” Rev. 12:10) is the prosecutor. Satan has a claim over Joshua, who is clothed in filthy garments. But Joshua has a lawyer: the Lord Himself. As St. John reminds us, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). Christ’s sacrifice breaks Satan’s hold over us and we become “a brand plucked from the fire” (3:2). The exchange of filthy robes for white vestments here reminds me of the father of the prodigal son putting clean clothes on the returning boy (Luke 15:22), and, of course, on how we all wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb to make them white and clean (Rev. 7:14). God clothes us in garments of salvation, righteousness, and praise (Is. 61). What a beautiful picture of Christ’s saving work. Thanks be to God!

Another aspect of the prophesies about Joshua and Zerubbabel is that spiritual authority (indeed all true authority) comes from God. Only by following the Lord can Joshua hope to be successful (3:7). Ultimately, authority lies with the “Branch”, or, in other words, the Messiah (Is. 11:1; Jer. 23:5). Only under His rule will sin be completely removed and lasting peace granted to the land, everyone under their own vine and fig tree (recall Micah 4:4). As for us, it is “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (4:6).

We encounter the number seven in the vision concerning governor Zerubbabel. Seven also represents completeness (see, e.g., the seven days of Creation). This may also be a literal vision of the restoration of the temple, because the temple menorah has seven lamps on it (see Ex. 25). God promises that Zerubbabel will succeed in restoring the temple and that He will flatten any obstacle that will come in his way (4:7). Once again, if we are doing the Lord’s will, He will give us the means to accomplish it. The verse that jumped out at me here was verse 10: “for whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice.” Our parish had a prophecy said over us when we were first established to not despise the day of small things and I think it still applies. God uses small things and simple people to accomplish miracles. Joshua and Zerubbabel must have felt wholly inadequate to the task set before them. Yet God compared them to fruitful olive trees that provide endless oil for God’s lampstand, which lights the whole world. Don’t belittle your potential impact on the world, either individually or corporately, because of your size or influence. By the Holy Spirit, we have all the power we need.

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Chapters 5 & 6: All this hope and mercy does not mean that the Lord has stopped condemning sin. The flying scroll, representing the Law, still judges the wrongdoer, and punishment for the unrepentant is sure. The woman in the basket, symbolizing Wickedness, may be analogous to the fertility goddess Asherah. However, I can’t help but think of the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17. Either way, this woman represents the false hope of spiritual fertility that evil presents to us. Lest the Lord be accused of misogyny, notice that it is two women who remove the basket with the wicked woman away from God’s people. In any case, this is all highly symbolic language and not meant to represent actual people, female or male. The good news here is that God can and does keep a lid on evil and will remove it from among us (as long as we don’t go chasing after it!).

The final vision mirrors the first, with four horses pulling four chariots (the colors align with Revelation this time). Again, God promises to conquer all of the enemies of His people. The word for “winds” in 6:5 is ruach, the same Hebrew word for “spirit”. Thus, God’s conquering chariots defeat not only our physical enemies but our spiritual foes as well. After doing so, God will establish Zion under the Branch, that is, under Christ. Jesus is the one who will sit on the throne as priest and king (6:13). Even “those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the Lord” (6:15). Thus we see how even the Gentiles are included in God’s promises and God’s kingdom. And how can we participate in these glorious promises? “Diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God”.

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Chapters 7 & 8: In chapter 7, Zechariah turns into Amos for a bit. The Lord has grown tired of ritual religion that is divorced from righteous living. The land became desolate because the people mistreated one another. If you want to know whether a society is godly, just look at how they treat the most vulnerable: widows and the elderly, orphans and the unborn, immigrants and refugees, the poor and the marginalized. If we make our hearts “diamond-hard” (7:12) and refuse to help the less fortunate, we cannot expect to receive the blessings of God. Our society is in such bad shape because we have prioritized the young, rich, and healthy over those whom the Lord has called us to serve. May we repent of our callous ways and pray for the Lord’s heart instead (Ez. 36:26).

This section of Zechariah ends with a beautiful vision of Jerusalem restored. People live to a ripe old age in peace, and children play in the streets. God will bring back all of the exiles to live in His city and He will be their God. When God promises a “sowing of peace” (8:12), He is not just talking about agricultural abundance. The Lord will bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in our lives if we will but abide in Him. “Fear not, but let your hands be strong” (8:13). I feel that this is a word for today: though there is much to fear, let us work with strong hands in faithful confidence that the Lord is with us. Only let us remember God’s charge to speak the truth, to render righteous judgments, and to (if possible) live at peace with all (Rom. 12:18). In short, “love truth and peace” (8:19). If we do this, we will surely fulfill our calling to be the light of the world (Matt. 5:14-16). By working for a just society in the assurance that God is the one working through us, we will become living visions of God’s kingdom.

We will conclude with Zechariah 9-14 next week.

Haggai — Work, For I Am With You

This is part eleven in my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version.

Imagine the scene. Cyrus, King of Persia, has allowed you to return to your homeland after 70 years of exile. You cannot contain your relief and joy — it truly is a miracle. Everything you have prayed for and worked for has finally come to pass. You travel back home, accompanied by your entire family, singing and dancing and feasting. Then you arrive in Judea and the reality sets in. You are going to have to rebuild everything — your house, your farm, your social networks — from scratch. To paraphrase Vaclav Havel, the poetry of revolution quickly gives way to the prose of daily life. Cut to a few years later. Prosperity seems as far away now as ever. Crop yields are meager, the livestock are not multiplying, and your building projects seem to have stalled. What went wrong? You thought everything was supposed to be better now. Why is there still so much suffering? Where is God? Haggai is written in response to such questions.

The book of Haggai is all about priorities. We can get so busy building a life for ourselves and chasing after money or status or security that we forget the very purpose of our lives. If God is at the center, everything else falls into place; if He is not, everything falls apart. It’s really that simple. This book also demonstrates that it doesn’t take a long time to make a change. Haggai’s prophecies take place over the course of four months (late-August to mid-December) in 520 B.C. In that time, the people recommit to God and He promises blessing and abundance. Though prodigal wandering can last years, repentance can happen in an instant.

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Chapter 1: Although the people do not think it is time to rebuild God’s temple yet, the Lord says simply “consider your ways” (alternate translation: “how’s that working out for you?”). “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little” (v. 9). How often does that happen to us! We spend our time pursuing temporal things at the expense of our spiritual life only to find ourselves deprived of comforts both spiritual and temporal. To quote C.S. Lewis again: “aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither”. Or to quote a higher authority: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). If we make honoring God in both worship and daily living our first priority, we will begin to see other areas of our life improve as well. I don’t think this is because God takes any pleasure in punishing us for disobedience (and He certainly doesn’t need our acclimation), but I believe that a life lived toward God is doing what we were created to do. Life goes better when God-directed simply because we were designed to worship Him and doing so fulfills our deepest purpose.

The Jews, to their credit, listened to Haggai and began to rebuild the temple. In response, God simply says “I am with you” (v. 13). This is an important thing to remember. God often calls us to do difficult or counter-intuitive things. But if we are faithful, the Lord promises to be with us through it all and to bless us. Heck, God didn’t abandon us even at our most sinful! How much more will His presence surround and guide us when we walk in His will. Furthermore, it says that the Lord “stirred up the spirit” of the people and her leaders (v. 14). He will not only be with us as we do His work, it is He who will give us the strength to accomplish it. In the end, it is not we who do the work of the Lord, but the Holy Spirit working through us.

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Chapter 2: It can be easy to grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9). If we are just trying to get back to the way things used to be, we can lose heart easily, especially if we recall former glories. To that God says “Be strong, all you people of the land…work, for I am with you…my Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not” (vv.4-5). We must believe that the Lord knows what He is doing and not give in to fear and discouragement. Let us continue to do the good work we are called to do in full assurance that it is not in vain. Indeed, God promises that “the latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former” (v. 9). What God is creating is more beautiful and stronger than we could possibly imagine. He doesn’t just want to get things back to “the way they used to be”. He wants to transform our lives and our Church into something new and spectacular. And on top of all that, He promises to grant us peace (v. 9b). If we remain faithful to Him, we will find that peace which our souls long for, a deep and eternal shalom. What a beautiful and hopeful promise!

This next section is a little troubling. It seems to suggest that while defilement is contagious, holiness is not. On the one hand, this is true: sinning is easy; righteousness takes work. But on the other, I think that interpretation is a bit simplistic. Haggai seems to be warning the people against a form of works-righteousness here. If they believe they can be made holy just by rebuilding the temple, they are sorely mistaken. It’s not that what they are doing is “unclean”, but that sin is not washed away so easily. Only through God’s saving act, only through the blood of Christ, are we made clean, not through any work we do, no matter how holy. The fact that even building the temple has not improved their material lot (vv.16-17) is indication enough that the Lord is under no obligation to reward certain behaviors. Even so, God promises to bless the people with grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives, even though all the trees remain bare (v. 19). If we plant seeds of righteousness, we must have faith that they will bear fruit. God wants to bless us (even though He doesn’t have to), and He promises to do so if we remain in Him.

Haggai ends with God’s promise to shake the kingdoms of the world and raise up Zerubbabel, governor of Judah. God will defeat the enemies of His people and bestow honor on those who follow Him. That is the significance of the signet ring, a sign of God’s royal approval on His servant Zerubbabel. In bestowing this honor, God demonstrates His faithfulness to the house of David. For indeed, Zerubbabel is listed as an ancestor of our Lord in both Gospel genealogies (Matt. 1:12-13; Luke 3:27). Thus, the faithfulness of this single man blesses the entire world to this day, as out of his line came the Savior of the world. We can never know the larger impact of our small acts of obedience. We are the Body of Christ and thus called to be his regents on this Earth. God has made us like a signet ring and has chosen us as His beloved children. So let us not grow weary in doing good and work, for the Lord is with us.

Zephaniah — Seek Humility

This is part ten of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version.

What virtue is missing the most in our world today? There are many candidates: chastity, temperance, forbearance, compassion. But if I had to pick just one, it would be humility. Far from being condemned, we are actively encouraged to be prideful, particularly in ways that set us apart from others. We are told to have pride in our country or our race or our religion or even our sexuality. Now sometimes such pride can be simple admiration or even self-respect. But, as Americans, I feel we left that virtuous form of “pride” behind a long time ago. Now we are each convinced of our own righteousness at the expense of whatever group we wish to demonize. This is the root of so much which is toxic in our culture, our politics, and, alas, our churches. Just think of how you feel about the word “meekness” and how it compares to Jesus’ teachings (Matt. 5:5, cf. Col. 3:12). We view humility as a form of weakness or resignation. It is quite the opposite. Pride demands to be seen and heard, like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Humility, by contrast, is a simple recognition of reality, of how small and dependent we truly are. That’s the crux of it: to be humble is simply to see ourselves as we actually are, as creatures before an infinite creator. To accept that fact is to begin the journey toward all the other virtues. Without humility, godly living is impossible.

“As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.124). The cure for pride is not self-hatred, but a changed focus — it means looking up. Which brings us at last to Zephaniah. As with most of the minor prophets, Zephaniah warns of coming disaster and the “day of the Lord” for both Judah and her neighbors. God is bringing this disaster because of the injustice and irreligion He sees in both His people and their enemies. But the root of the problem is that they have forgotten the Lord and believe (in their pride) that they can live without Him. All of the problems in their society (and ours) flow from that singular poisoned spring.

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Chapter 1: Judah is condemned, as per usual, for worshiping false gods. However, it jumped out at me that God condemns those “who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him” (v. 6). Even if we are not actively seeking false gods, the simple neglect of prayer and worship is enough to lead us astray. Virtue is not simply the lack of vice and the commands of God are not just a list of “don’ts”. “Be silent before the Lord God” (v. 7) is a command both to be humble and to listen to God. This listening spirit has gone missing in the Church in our day. We are like those “who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill’” (v. 12). We do not have the faith that God can actually change things, that He is still on His throne. So we try to take our lives into our own hands with disastrous results. We seek other ways to protect ourselves, be it money or power or tribal loyalty. But all such things will pass away. God promises in this chapter that we shall never enjoy that which we build through pride and injustice. “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord” (v. 18). This verse refers both to money and to pagan idols. In the same way, if we trust in riches or in any other idol to save us, we will be destroyed.

I can’t help but feel that we are experiencing a minor version of the catastrophic judgment portrayed here. God is coming as a consuming fire and shaking the earth. That which is built on the sure foundation of His Son will stand, but all else will fall. For too long we have lived in the pride of our riches and power, yet God has shown great patience with us. But I fear that He may be required to use more drastic measures to get His people’s attention, to turn the heart of His bride back to Him. May we continue to pray for mercy and turn to Him willingly so that He may relent from sending calamity and bring us into a time of peace.

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Chapter 2: In the midst of a terrifying series of apocalyptic prophesies, Zephaniah offers this guidance: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord” (v.3). We will all end up on our knees before God, either willingly or unwillingly. Those who do so willingly are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) because they have already died to themselves. This is why Jesus proclaims the poor in spirit and the meek blessed and grants them both heaven and earth (Matt. 5:3, 5). Indeed, Scripture tells us that God’s judgments, far from destroying the meek, “save all the humble of the earth” (Ps. 76:9). Thus, the Lord calls on his people to “gather together” (v. 1) and recommit themselves to Him. Humility is best lived out in community with other believers where we can remind each other of our vows to God and keep each other accountable. In this way, the Church herself will be a life raft through the coming storms.

The remainder of the chapter reminds us that vengeance is the Lord’s (Rom. 12:19) and that He will bring ungodly nations and peoples to justice. An important concept here is the “remnant” (vv.7 & 9). God’s destruction is not total. He leaves behind a remnant of the humble and the faithful to rebuild and replant, just as He saved Noah and his family from the flood. God does not destroy ungodly nations without a larger purpose. He destroys in order to rebuild, and His faithful people are those who have the honor of doing so (Ps. 149:6-9). Again, we see that the problem is pride that leads to violence and injustice (see v.10). Notice how Nineveh declared “I am, and there is no one else” (v. 15). But there is only one “I AM” and it is not a man or anything mankind builds. This is why pride is considered the greatest sin, for it arrogates to ourselves God’s sovereignty. To quote C.S. Lewis again: “it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (MC, p. 122). Indeed, it was pride, the desire to be “like God” (Gen. 3:5), that led to the Fall itself. To recognize ourselves as mere creatures before our creator is the first step in reversing the tragic effects of the Fall.

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Chapter 3: Why are our leaders so corrupt, our courts so perverted, and our churches so unethical and ineffectual? Perhaps it is because we, like Judah, listen to no voice and accept no correction (v. 2). Because we do not listen to the Lord’s voice, we follow anyone who yells loud enough to be heard. Because we do not trust in God’s providence and love, we place ourselves in the hands of charlatans and hucksters. The Lord has not abandoned us — we have simply put our trust in officials, judges, prophets, and priests who are not following Him (vv. 3-5). So, God has “laid waste [our] streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate” (v. 6). I can’t help but think of the eerily empty streets at the beginning of the Covid lock-downs. The Lord hopes that such drastic measures will get our attention, but, at least in Judah’s case, the corruption continued. May we instead wait on the Lord (v. 8), looking to Him rather than those false prophets in which we have put our hope.

And here, at last, Zephaniah brings words of hope. He promises to convert the nations. If the theme of the book wasn’t clear, He reiterates that He will remove the proud and “will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly” (v. 12). Notice that the main quality of the humble is that they speak truthfully (v. 13). To live in humility is simply to live in the Truth. If we do so, the Lord promises to take way our judgment (v. 15) and to replace our mourning with singing. The beautiful conclusion to the book, often read at the Easter Vigil, speaks for itself. Though God scatters us, He will also gather us back in, quieting us with love as a mother quiets her child. Far from being aloof to our plight, God arrives in joyful salvation, exulting over us with singing. He will replace all the false idols of silver and gold with “treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (Luke 12:33). He will “change their shame into praise” (v. 19), exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. It will be just as Our Lord’s mother promised us: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:51-52). These are promises of God that we must hold to in trying times. We do not see the fulfillment of this yet, but let us in the meantime wait upon the Lord and seek humility.

If you would like to read more of my thoughts on Zephaniah, click here for my previous blog post on Zephaniah 3:16 and overcoming fear.

Habakkuk — Live by Faith

This is part nine of my series on the minor prophets. All of the Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version

Every great story follows a familiar three-act structure. We are introduced to the dramatic question in the first act (“will the boy get the girl”?), complications and conflict arise in the second act (“the boy loses the girl”), and the story resolves in the third act (“the boy gets the girl and they live happily ever after”). Along the way, the protagonist learns something about themselves or the world that means they are a different person at the end than they were at the beginning. Habakkuk, with its three chapters, is a perfect little three-act play with two characters: the prophet and God. Their dialogue deals with nothing less than the fate of Judah, yet the most important change is within Habakkuk. God’s plans and God’s ways do not change, but Habakkuk’s attitude does. This book represents a beautiful picture of what an honest, intimate relationship with the Lord looks like. God is not afraid of our questions or our emotions. But the answers he provides may prove to be unexpected, and, ultimately, life-changing.

*****

Act 1 (Chapter 1:1-11): As I said, every story has a dramatic question. Habakkuk puts his pretty succinctly: “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” (v.3). It’s a familiar question, one I’m sure we’ve all asked. Everything is falling apart around us, we are beset by enemies on all sides, the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, and all the while God is just sitting there doing nothing. Our prayers seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Why would God let such a good country like Judah fall apart? We may be asking a similar question right now about our own land and, indeed, about the Church. It is encouraging that the Bible, far from dodging this question, tackles it head on. God appreciates honest cries from our hearts and even our complaining!

God’s answer, the exposition and inciting incident of Act 1, is to simply point out that He has not, in fact, been doing nothing. “I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told” (v. 5). You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, saith the Lord. God is always on the move, usually in unseen ways, working out His will by means that we could not imagine. He promises to deal with injustice in Judah by means of the Babylonians. Since Judah allied herself with an ideology of “might makes right”, she has a big surprise in store. The Lord compares Babylon to predatory animals (v. 8) and to violent storms (v. 11). Be careful if you desire justice and pray for the Lord to intervene: you might get more than you bargained for!

*****

Act 2 (Chapter 1:12-20): The second act is the bulk of the story where the conflict occurs and the climax is reached. In response to the Lord’s revelation, Habakkuk is nonplussed. Again, he states the problem concisely: “why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (1:13). The cure seems worse than the disease. If God cannot stand Judah’s injustice, how could He possibly countenance Babylon’s violence? We do begin to see a slight change in the prophet here, as he begins to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all (1:12) and man’s dependence (1:14). Even so, it seems that a nation which worships its own wealth and uses it to oppress others is hardly a nation that God would bless. I love 2:1, where Habakkuk basically struts a little bit, saying he will wait around for God’s answer to his really tough questions. I can only hope that the Lord got a good chuckle out of that.

I also love God’s reply. “Write this down, buddy,” he says. Although He may seem to work slowly, God’s judgment “will surely come; it will not delay” (2:3). He will judge the Babylonians in due course, but the prophet must be patient. In the meantime, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). This little phrase, almost an aside, became the linchpin of St. Paul’s theology of salvation by grace through faith (see, e.g. Rom. 1:17). This phrase also spurred on Martin Luther in his convictions, sparking the Protestant Reformation. It could have a similarly revolutionary impact in our day. We cannot change the past and we cannot see the future. All we can do in times such as these is to live by faith, trusting that God is working out His purposes and that we will be blessed if we remain in Him. Though all may fall around us, those who build their house on the rock will withstand the storms of life (Matt. 7:24-25).

As for the Babylonians, they are doomed. What is it exactly that has sealed their fate? Well, greed for one thing. I’m reminded of the time someone asked oil baron billionaire John D. Rockefeller how much money was enough. His reply: “just a little bit more”. Of course, such avarice leads to violence and theft and oppression. I love the image of the greedy man with the house on the hill, away from the problems of the plebian masses below (I can’t help but think of the Hollywood Hills). How often can we shut ourselves out from the suffering of others, using our comfort as a shield? It is this house that is built on sand (Matt. 7:26-27), and like the county built with blood (2:13), it will come to nothing. Then comes another of those pithy gems that dot this book: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). God will make Himself known in time, though such knowledge will be unbearable for those who do evil.

As is so often the case in the minor prophets, the Lord pinpoints the source of injustice in false religion. The Babylonians worship of man-made idols instead of the one true God has led them astray. God mocks them, just as they once mocked other nations. Ask your idols to save you now! We, too, must be careful about what we worship. Wherever we put our trust is the real location of that which we worship. Is it in our bank account or our family or in the government or in our own abilities? What wooden thing are you vainly trying to wake up and what stone are you trying to teach how to walk? (2:19) Perhaps the source of much of our suffering and frustration is our constant desire for things that are less than God. They disappoint over and over again, yet like an addict we keep returning to them, sure that this time it will be different. Such idolatry leads to selfishness, greed, anger, and much else that wounds the soul. May we smash the idols of our hearts, whatever they are, and turn to the living God.

Then, in the final verse, we reach the climax of the story: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). In some ways, we have come full circle. Habakkuk accused God of just sitting there, and God is kind of saying “yep!”. But He is sitting on a throne. Do not confuse the Lord’s physical absence with inaction. Instead, He is waiting on us to be silent, to give Him the attention and honor that will allow Him to do His work. Once we recognize the Lord’s sovereignty, we too can be freed to do the work He has called us to do. Until then, we are still serving those same stupid idols as before. God has been in control all along; we just need to stop complaining long enough to recognize it.

*****

Act 3 (Chapter 3): This beautiful prayer provides the dénouement or resolution of our story. Habakkuk has moved from anger to befuddlement and now stands in awestruck wonder. He remembers the great works the Lord has done in the past and waits in eager anticipation for the manifestation of God’s power in his own day. Needless to say, verse five jumps out: “Before him went pestilence and plague followed at his heels.” Plague is often a sign of the Lord’s judgment. Even if the individuals who contract disease are not necessarily guilty of sin, they have fallen victim to the collective punishment God has wrought. Indeed, this whole prayer indicates how the spiritual is reflected in the natural, from earthquakes (v. 6) to floods (v. 7) to violent storms (v. 9). The reference to the sun and moon standing still in verse eleven recalls the story of Joshua’s victory at Gibeah in Joshua chapter 10. This should remind us that the Lord’s control over the natural world is for our benefit, even if it can seem at times capricious or overly harsh. As Habakkuk himself says, “You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed” (v. 13). Even so, it’s hard not to be fearful and anxious when we see nature in such distress and the suffering of those around us. It is difficult to wait on the Lord when just waiting looks like a death sentence.

As with all great stories, Habakkuk ends where it began, with the prophet in the midst of suffering and waiting on God. Yet, though the situation has not changed, Habakkuk has. He looks around at empty fields full of dead cattle and sheep and he decides not to complain. Amazingly, he does the exact opposite: “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (v. 18). Habakkuk has learned to trust God in all circumstances, even (or especially) when he doesn’t understand the “why”. How can he possibly do this? Because the Lord is his strength. Only by putting his entire trust, indeed his entire life, into God’s hands will he be able to overcome the suffering that he experiences. This final verse of the book was made famous by Hannah Hurnard’s classic book Hinds’ Feet on High Places. In the book, the protagonist, Much-Afraid, is accompanied on her journey by the companions Sorrow and Suffering, who help her to stave off her greater enemies like Resentment, Self-Pity, Pride, and Craven Fear. At the end, Much-Afraid is transformed into Grace and Glory and she finds that Sorrow and Suffering are now Joy and Peace. But just like her, we must follow the Shepherd through sorrow and suffering to find the grace and joy and peace that He has promised. There are no shortcuts to the kingdom of God. In the meantime, the righteous shall live by faith.

Nahum: Our God is For Us

This is part eight of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version.

Up to now, I have been reading the minor prophets in light of what their warnings say to the Church and to us personally. Nahum provides a different perspective. His prophecy is against the great empire that oppressed God’s people, the Assyrians. Of course, one could apply such a prophecy to the empire of the United States (see, for example, my previous blog post on Nahum), but today I’d like to see how the minor prophets can comfort the afflicted. For we are beset by enemies without and within. There are familiar enemies like poverty and addiction and loneliness and fear. Some must suffer under abusive parents or spouses or bosses. All of us are assaulted by the enemy of our souls and his lies (for he is the “father of lies” [John 8:44]). In that context, a God of vengeance, far from being terrifying, brings comfort and hope. We pray with the psalmist: “O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!” (Ps. 94:1). We all, down to our bones, desire to see justice done, for the good man to prosper and the wicked to be confounded. Nahum shines with this promise, with the love of a God who will defend His bride from all who would do her harm.

*****

Chapter 1: “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power” (v. 3). God’s anger is not like ours. He does not act impulsively, but rather provides every chance to repent. For when He does arrive, all resistance melts away like wax before a flame (v. 5). He will not relent forever. Yet we have this reminder: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (v. 7). Like Aslan, the Lord is not safe, but He is good. Those who turn to Him and trust in Him will be protected, while those who continue in wickedness will be destroyed. Note all of the imagery in this chapter about flooding, whirlwinds, and storms. This is probably a direct rebuke to the false gods of Nineveh, which were said to control the weather and be responsible for the unpredictable flooding of Mesopotamian rivers (v. 14). Putting hope in false gods of any kind will ultimately lead to calamity. Worse, there are those who plot against the Lord and against those whom he has anointed and called (Ps. 2:2). To that, God says he “will make a complete end” (v. 9). As the psalmist reminds us, “the desire of the wicked will perish” (Ps. 112:10). We have nothing to fear from evil because our God is for us (Rom. 8:31).

“And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart” (v. 13). What a beautiful promise of freedom! We are bound to sin and suffering and death. But it need not always be so. Listen to the words of Our Savior: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). We are all yoked to something. But we can choose to take up the easy yoke that Christ provides and learn that serving him is, as the prayer book says, “perfect freedom”. God’s Law does not bind or subjugate us, but it allows us to flourish and blossom into who God created us to be. This is why Nahum reminds Judah to “fulfill your vows” so that the evil man will be “utterly cut off” (v. 15). If we follow the Lord and allow His rule over our lives, we will experience peace and salvation. This is the good news that the messenger dashes across the mountains to bring us (v. 15; Is. 52:7). The messenger Nahum comes to declare God’s victory over evil and death and the establishment of His kingdom of love, justice, and peace.

*****

Chapter 2: I love the image of God as “the scatterer” (v. 1). Just as He destroyed the Tower of Babel and scattered humankind in their pride (Gen. 11), so does the Lord promise to scatter the people of Nineveh. And so does He promise to scatter all who gather to plot against His people even in our day. Moreover, He calls for us to gird ourselves for battle. We are to participate in spiritual warfare “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). We are to put on the whole armor of God and join Him in His fight against the evil one. Now, of course, Nahum is talking about literal soldiers here, and those soldiers probably represented the armies of the Medes and the Babylonians that would destroy Ninevah in 612 B.C. Indeed, one method God uses to bring down the wicked is to divide them against each other. But that does not mean that we should just sit back and wait for the Lord to do all the work. We must do our part and gird ourselves with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. If we do this, nothing can stand between us and our God. The enemy may make a lot of noise, crying “Halt! halt!” (v. 8), but there is nothing he can do to stop the Lord’s will from being accomplished.

“Behold I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts” (v. 13). What a terrifying statement! On the one hand, it’s obviously bad to be on the wrong side of an omnipotent deity. On the other, it gets worse. The name used for God here, Yahweh Tzavaot, can be literally translated “the Lord of armies”. God not only has Himself and His people, but also the whole company of angels and archangels: “Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!” (Ps. 103:20). I am reminded of the story of Elisha, when the king of Syria sends his entire army to kidnap the prophet. Then this happened:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” [Elisha] said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha.

2 Kings 6:15-18

Those who fight on our side greatly outnumber those who fight against us, if only we have the eyes to see it. And notice how confidently Elisha prayed and how quickly he was answered. May we do likewise.

*****

Chapter 3: What is the Lord’s indictment against Nineveh? They love war, conquest, and plunder. They oppress others for their own gain. But mainly it seems to be this: “the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms” (v. 4). There are layers to this verse. First off, of course, there is literal prostitution and sexual immorality, which is bad enough. But this was also ritual prostitution, done before false gods to grant fertility and favor. The problem isn’t primarily sex but false religion. Also, this “prostitution” leads other nations astray in that they must swear loyalty to Assyria and her false gods. Lastly, I think there is a link here to the whore of Babylon in Revelation 17. This “great prostitute” leads the whole world astray into worshiping falsehood and is drunk on the blood of the saints. Yet the beast that she rides will devour her (Rev. 17:16) just as the evil done by Nineveh led to its destruction. The great prostitute rears her ugly head in every generation, and in every generation she is humiliated and overthrown by the Lord of hosts (see v.5-10). Her seemingly impenetrable fortresses will fall as easily as ripe fruit from a tree (v. 12). Never fall for the lie that evil will be victorious in the end; the wicked lions that roar in our midst are actually little more than paper tigers (see 2:11-12).

Nahum ends with a familiar image for us veterans of the minor prophets: locusts. Just as locusts devour all before them, so does the Lord promise to ruin the sham “prosperity” in which the Assyrians live. In one way, God is showing mercy to Nineveh by giving them advance warning and a chance to prepare themselves for disaster (v. 14). I love that Nahum compares the leaders of Nineveh to locusts who fly away and leave the common folk with the devastation. The downfall of a society like this happens from both within and without. “Your shepherds are asleep,” says Nahum, a devastating critique. Those who are called to lead the people should be watchmen on the walls, protecting and defending those under them. Instead, the “shepherds” live in lazy luxury, leaving the sheep to be slaughtered. May that not be said of us or (God forbid) of the Church! But let it be a reminder to us, on this Election Day, not to put our hope in political leaders for salvation. Only the Shepherd of our Souls, the one who made us and loves us, will abide with us through any calamity. So do not be afraid, for this truth remains: our God is for us.

Micah — What Does the Lord Require?

This is part seven of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version.

How do you measure success? What does it mean to live a good life? These questions are as old as mankind itself. How we answer them determines the direction of our lives. In our own day, success usually equates to self-actualization and self-fulfillment. Those core American values of liberty and “the pursuit of happiness” articulated by Jefferson over 200 years ago still dominate our thinking. We measure success by the accumulation of wealth and our worth is tied up with our career (what’s the first question that we ask of strangers: “what do you do?” i.e. “what is your job?”). We do pursue romantic relationships and family, but the success of these ventures is often measured by how fulfilling they are to us as individuals. Our spiritual pursuits consist of whatever makes us feel good, whatever hodgepodge of beliefs and practices that will allow us to feel “spiritual”. Politics are about finding a tribe to which we can pledge loyalty and ritually denounce the other. Do you see the common thread? Success and the good life is all about me, about my needs, my desires, and my rights. The values of community, kindness, faithfulness, humility, and sacrifice are nowhere to be found. The prophesies of Micah are a message for our day.

Micah prophesied to a country that was following false religion and accumulating wealth at the expense of others all while believing that they lived in God’s favor. Israel and Judah believed that their status as the chosen people exempted them from the consequences of injustice and impiety. This book is a salutary shake-up for those who complacently believe that the grace of God gives license for sin. But it also contains some of the most beautiful promises of God’s salvation in Scripture. If we are willing to humble ourselves and become as sheep before the Shepherd, He can lead us out of our selfishness and spiritual homelessness and into lives of true fulfillment, joy, and service to others.

*****

Chapters 1 & 2: Chapter 1 mainly exists to get Israel and Judah’s attention. It’s a reminder that in order to make us into the people He wants us to be, He must utterly destroy that which does not belong. See especially verse 7, where God promises to destroy their idols and to burn up their material wealth. Wealth and idolatry are fees fee paid to a prostitute and the fulfillment she provides is fleeting at best. Micah proclaims this judgement with weeping (v.8). This should be our reaction to the injustice and irreligion found in our society. We should not stand in self-righteous judgment over others, but rather should repent on their behalf with weeping, declaring the word of the Lord with love and compassion (Eph. 4:15).

If we accumulate anything (wealth, relationships, prestige, etc.) on the backs of others, the Lord promises to take it all away and give it to others, even to the apostate (v. 4; cf. Luke 12:13-21). I love the wry bit of humor in verse 6: “Do not preach”—thus they preach—“one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.” We don’t really want to hear what the Lord has to say because we know it will convict us. This is why Jesus frequently said, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear”. The same word will build up the upright even as it condemns the wicked. God is not our enemy, but we can make ourselves His adversary by setting our lives against His clear instruction. Micah continues to lay on the sarcasm: “If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, “I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,” he would be the preacher for this people!” (v. 11). I hear this today in the desire of people in our culture to “return to normal”. We want a preacher to tell us that we can go back to our selfish, consumerist lifestyles having learned nothing from the cataclysms of 2020. But if we are willing to listen to correction, this chapter ends with a promise of restoration and rest under our Good Shepherd.

*****

Chapter 3: The stark, cannibalistic imagery beginning this chapter reminds us how our actions can have devastating effects upon others. If we do not heed the cries of those in need, why do we expect the Lord to hear us when we call to Him? (v. 4) Think of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Of course, part of the problem is that there are so many preachers who say what our itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3), who declare peace when there is no peace (v. 5; Jer. 8:11). You can always find someone who will tell you what you want to hear. That is why it is so vital to measure the words of a “prophet” against Scripture and seek the guidance of a church “filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might” (v.8).

False prophets arise because the problems of greed and false religion are linked. The “prophets” in Micah’s day were professionals, telling the king flattering lies in exchange for a comfortable wage (v.11). Much of the American church has been infested with such simony (Acts 8:9-24), with religious leaders more interested in access to political power and money in the bank than with Christ’s ministry. American Christians seem to believe that our country is chosen by God and therefore “no disaster shall come upon us” (v. 11). At the risk of ruffling some feathers, I will point to someone like Jerry Falwell, Jr., who believed that his personal immorality didn’t matter because he supported the “right” politics, even to the point of associating one of the most important Christian schools in the country with full-throated support for Donald Trump. Falwell had the opportunity to speak prophetically into President Trump’s life, to call out the ways in which he strayed from the gospel even while he praised the President’s positions on abortion and religious liberty. Instead of being a leader, Falwell became a follower, subsuming his faith under the Republican party. Let me be clear: this is not a Republican vs. Democrat thing. It’s about where our ultimate loyalty lies and how we live out our calling to be prophetic voices for Christ in every aspect of our lives. The downfall of someone like Falwell should be a cautionary tale for us all.

*****

Chapters 4 & 5 : What a beautiful word this is! In the midst of all our current turmoil, in the uncertainty of who will be in charge after the coming election, we have this timely reminder: “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains” (v. 1). God is still in charge; Jesus is still our King. His rule is predicated on peace and justice, and He will provide a place of peace for us in the shadow of death (v. 4; Ps. 23). As a huge fan of the musical Hamilton, I can’t help but hear George Washington singing verse four of Micah as he resigns the presidency. Washington willingly gave up political power in order to bring the hope of peace and prosperity to the American people. Would that we had more leaders like him! In any case, it is not George Washington but God who provides for us the vine and the fig tree. I love that Micah specifically says that it is the “lame” who will make up the remnant that God will restore; it is they who will “walk in the name of the Lord our God” (v. 5, see vv.6-7). Just as Jesus calls the least of these to feast at his table (Luke 14:12-14), so is the Church made up of those the world rejects. This view of success and the good life stands in direct opposition to the desire for wealth, status, and power that the world offers. Instead, we are offered a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28) and a King who will reign “forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Hallelujah!

When God called David to be king of Israel, he was just a shepherd boy from the little town of Bethlehem, overlooked even by his father. Yet is was this very humility that made him the perfect leader. So it is with our Shepherd-King. Far from overlooking Him, God the Father proclaims His son as King and Savior, yet also as the humble shepherd of His people. And He is our peace (5:5; cf. Eph. 2:14). Whatever trials we may face, we can find peace in Christ and the promise of restoration. Notice in 4:10 where Micah says that “you shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued”. It is in the midst of suffering and exile that our salvation can be found. God does not always save us out of trouble — sometimes He saves us within it.

Even God’s destruction is a mercy. His promises in 5:10-15 to destroy Israel’s military might and knock down their idols are actually a promise of deliverance. Those nations that listen to the Lord and accept His judgments will be restored. Those that do not will be utterly annihilated. This is true on the individual level as well. Sometimes our personal struggles are the result of God rooting out that which does not belong in our hearts. That can really hurt and it certainly feels like an attack! But the result is a new creation, a heart filled with justice, kindness, and faithfulness.

*****

Chapter 6: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” (v.3) God’s love shines through in these words of exasperation. How often we must exasperate him similarly with our constant bellyaching even as we are surrounded by blessings on every side, not least the salvation of our very souls. Again, God’s judgments do not come from a place of hurt pride or human anger, but from a lovesick heart that just wants a relationship with His people. This is the prelude to the verse we all know and the centerpiece of the book.

Finally, we come to the answer of the questions I posed at the beginning of this post. Micah’s view of success and the good life means following the Lord. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (v. 8). To seek justice as a society, to treat each other as individuals with mercy and kindness, and to do all things in faithfulness to God is the only path to a good life. Note that Micah sets this in opposition to mere religious practice. Any attempt to win God’s favor through conspicuous piety is pointless and hypocritical (see Matt. 6:1-18). This is made clear by the remainder of the chapter, where God reminds His people that He punishes those who oppress others and serve false gods all while paying mere lip-service to the Lord.

“You shall eat, but not be satisfied…you shall put away, but not preserve…you shall sow, but not reap…you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine” (vv.14-15). Here is the selfish reason to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly: other pursuits always prove fruitless. Pursuing anything less than God will lead only to disappointment. Wealth, sex, power, prestige, “spiritual-but-not-religious” living, and all the rest will only leave us feeling empty. True fulfillment comes, paradoxically, from self-sacrifice, from dying to all the things the world says we “need”. We must instead commit ourselves mind, body, and soul to the Lord, and the loving our neighbors as ourselves.

*****

Chapter 7: This autumnal lament rings true in our day. Similarly to Micah, we often feel that all is lost, that the godly have perished, that our leaders are all corrupt. We see a society where the bonds that tie us together have been severed, where no one trusts each other. Even families are divided against each other, and we treat those closest to us as if they were enemies. Of course, Jesus promised that His coming would bring such division (compare v. 6 to Matt. 10:34-39) because loyalty to Him challenges other competing loyalties. In the divisive times in which we live, we must be willing to say “I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my Salvation” (v. 7). Despite the dire state of affairs, Micah ends with hope. Those that the Lord punishes He also redeems. His chastisement is the discipline of a loving father (Heb. 12:7). Such discipline leads to honor in the end, to the vindication of God’s plan and the humiliation of His enemies. In fact, our redemption will be a light to those who do not believe (v. 12 & 16), bringing to nothing their pointless striving and their plans for evil. While the nations rage, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision”(Ps. 2:4). There is nothing this world can do to derail God’s plan.

The book ends on a note of compassion and forgiveness. The ultimate goal of all this punishment and judgment is restoration. He wants to completely eradicate everything that comes between us and Him, casting our sins into the depths of the sea (v. 19). Ultimately, success and the good life comes from a loving relationship with God the Father found in our Good Shepherd, Jesus (John 10). And what does the Lord require? You know the answer: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

Jonah — God’s Profligate Love

This is part six of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version.

Jesus finally got fed up with the crowds and even with the Jewish authorities treating him as some kind of magician or circus act. “Show us a sign,” they prattled on, less concerned with the work of God than with seeing a show. At last, Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matt. 12:39-41 cf. Matt. 16:4, Luke 11:29-30). This dual explanation of the “sign of Jonah” demonstrates the dual message of this book. First off, Jonah represents a grumpy, petulant, and very reluctant Christ-figure. Secondly, Jonah’s mission is a demonstration of the breadth of God’s love and the depth of His grace and mercy. If He even loves Nineveh, there is hope for the most desperate of sinners.

The book of Jonah is the only pure narrative in the minor prophets, and it’s a little comic gem. Simple and vivid enough for a child to follow, this story contains the wisdom and insight of classic myth and Jesus’ parables. I’m especially encouraged that God, rather than being filled with wrath, is gently amused at Jonah’s shenanigans. Indeed, the book is a comedic masterpiece, and I will not do it the disservice of analyzing the humor (E.B. White — “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind”). Instead, I will be looking at what this little parable has to teach us about living as Christians in the 21st century.

*****

Chapter 1: Faced with the dangers and caprice of the ocean makes sailors a superstitious bunch. In the movie Master and Commander, the crew members turn on a senior officer named Hollom when the ship becomes becalmed. They blame him for their bad luck. The ship’s rationalist doctor, Stephen Maturin, is befuddled: “[Hollom] thinks he’s been cursed.” Realization blooms on Captain Jack Aubrey’s face: “Sailors can abide a great deal, but not a Jonah”. The doctor balks: “My God, you believe it, too”. “Not everything is in your books, Stephen,” the captain replies. Disobedience to God has consequences beyond just ourselves. When Jonah goes on the run, even the natural world revolts against him. And when we run away from the call of God, we can expect things to start falling apart for us and even the innocent around us.

Jonah-as-Jesus-figure begins here. Like Jesus sleeping in the boat during the storm on the sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35ff), Jonah decides that a wild storm at sea is a good time for a nap. Of course, Jonah, unlike Jesus, is trying to run from God, as if hiding in the belly of the ship will keep the Lord from finding him. The sailors, like the disciples, wake their sleeping companion up, hoping that his prayers will save them. The sailors then cast lots to determine who to blame for their misfortune. Is it a stretch to compare this to the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments at the crucifixion (Matt. 27:35)? Either way, it is determined that Jonah, like Jesus, must be sacrificed to save the whole. Jonah, in his one act of true bravery, offers to be hurled into the sea, a certain death sentence. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). So the sailors cast Jonah into the sea and, just like in the gospel story, the wind and the waves miraculously cease. And just as Christ’s miracle (and Christ’s sacrifice) convert the skeptical, so does Jonah’s sacrifice lead to the conversion of the unbelieving sailors. Even though it was entirely inadvertent, Jonah had shown God’s love for all and preached the good news to the Gentiles.

The final verse of this chapter demonstrates God’s grace and mercy. Being swallowed by a “great fish” would be a bad day for anybody, but it is still preferable to drowning. The fish was sent by God not to punish Jonah but to save him. Jesus specifically analogizes Jonah’s time in the fish to His own time in the grave. Christ’s death also looked like bad news at the time, but it was actually the vehicle of God’s salvation. Perhaps we ought to view our own misfortunes the same way. Maybe the very thing that most bedevils us is the instrument of God’s will in our lives. Whatever great fish may have swallowed us could be salvation from a worse fate and the method by which God will deliver us to our life’s purpose. Like Jonah, we ought to use the occasion of even the most dire misfortune as an opportunity to repent and return to the Lord.

*****

Chapter 2: Throughout the Old Testament, the Sea represents chaos and death. Just as God called the entire cosmic order out of the primordial waters of the chaotic “deep” (Gen. 1:1), He calls each of us out of sin and darkness into righteousness and light. As the Psalmist prays, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (Ps. 130:1-2). We all live in the shadow of death, stalked by the inescapable fact of our mortality. It is only in times of crisis that we are forced to truly face how powerless we are. God uses such times to call us back to himself. Like Jonah, sometimes we must hit rock bottom in order to look up. To his credit, Jonah does not give in to despair. He sees that the Lord has not abandoned him to his circumstances and turns to God with, of all things, thanksgiving: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (v. 9). This verse is a model of repentance. We thank the Lord for His mercy and offer our lives as a sacrifice to Him. We recommit ourselves to the vows we have made, particularly our baptismal covenant (indeed, this chapter is a sort of baptism for Jonah, as he enters the water and sinner and emerges to serve the Lord). Lastly, we declare the good news of the Lord’s salvation, recognizing our total dependence of God’s grace. When we do this, God will deliver us to the mission field that He has for us. Only a God with a sense of humor would use a vomiting fish as a picture of the power of resurrection.

*****

Chapters 3&4: Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, represented everything the Jews despised: paganism, conquest, hoarding of wealth, sexual impropriety, and overweening pride. Jonah was surely not the only one of God’s people who wanted to see the great city destroyed. Indeed, most would have considered an attempt to preach to the Ninevites to be a waste of breath. Any similarity to the current denizens of Washington, D.C. is, I’m sure, purely coincidental. Yet Jonah has barely started to prophesy when the Ninevites throw on sackcloth and call a fast. This has to be the most successful eight-word sermon in history! Even the king gets in on the action, calling for an end to violence and a commitment to the God of Jonah. Quite often, God has already prepared the mission field for us, making our job easier than we might initially fear. Those who we think are the greatest enemies of the gospel may just be waiting to see Christians who are actually following Christ. Once they see Jesus in us, we may find that we are knocking at an open door.

Do we really want to see God’s blessing on those we despise? In this political season, it seems that we want to see the utter destruction of our enemies. Even if it is meant metaphorically, we use the language of annihilation to talk about how we want to see our political opponents treated. Like the sailors in Master and Commander, we seek out scapegoats like poor Hollom to blame and cast out. Be honest: how happy would you be to see the person you dislike the most accept Christ? It may be specific people like Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg or Xi Jinping or Kim Jong Un or the members of the Sackler family. Or it may be some group of people like terrorists or child traffickers or racist policemen or anarchists (etc., etc., etc.). Can you truthfully say that you want to see these people receive the blessings of God? God does not desire the death of sinners (Ez. 18:23), and He calls upon us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). He really is profligate with His love, lavishing it anyone who will accept it. To view others with the eyes of God is to see everyone, everyone, as beloved by God and welcome into His family. More often, we act like Jonah, pouting and screaming at God when we see the good fortune of those we think He should punish.

The comic scene with the plant that concludes Jonah encapsulates the message of this book. Just as Christ used the quick life and death of a fig tree to demonstrate God’s power (Mark 11), so does the Lord use the life and death of a plant to show Jonah His sovereignty. Jonah selfishly cares more for the plant than he does for his fellow human beings. How like us. For we only seem to care about misfortune when it befalls us, and our minor inconvenience troubles us far more than our neighbor’s tragedy. Thus, the Lord points out with a mocking twist that Nineveh has “much cattle”. Jonah may not care about the people of Nineveh, but perhaps he’d have some compassion for the cows? The book of Jonah reminds us how often we don’t see others as being as fully human. We paint them with a broad brush, putting them into categories of religion or race or country or political ideology. But every person is created by God as a precious individual, with all the beauty and complexity that we recognize in those we love. Treating others this way is a necessary prerequisite to loving our neighbors as ourselves. I will leave you with a quote that sums this up better than I could hope to:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal….And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”, p.46

Obadiah — Every Day is the Day of the Lord

The is part five of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version.

“Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Gen. 27:4-5). This is Jacob’s “blessing” on his son Esau, the best he could do after Esau’s twin brother Jacob stole the blessing meant for the firstborn. In response, Esau plans to kill his brother and Jacob goes on the run. While they would eventually reconcile (Gen. 33), Esau’s descendants would settle east of the Jordan river, “away from the fatness of the earth”. The land would come to be called Edom and the grudge of brotherly jealously against Jacob/Israel would be carried down through the generations. Generational curses are real, and what starts as a small dispute can turn into all-out warfare. Thus, when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Edom took the opportunity to loot and pillage and just generally gloat. Esau’s murderous rage, his life of the sword, lived on in his descendants. Sin without repentance breeds hubris and hubris breeds calamity. Obadiah is a brief and pungent warning against the danger of arrogance and violence against those the Lord has chosen.

In the previous three books, we have seen how the Lord uses the armies of unfaithful nations to humble and correct His people. That should not, however, be seen as an endorsement of those countries or, indeed, of conquest in general. This happens in our own day as well. Sometimes the Lord uses the powers-that-be to judge the Church and those who use the Church’s power for personal gain. The scoffers and mockers see this and, in their arrogance and ignorance, attempt to paint all Christians with the same brush. “Hypocrites!” they cry. Because we do not live up to the standards of Christ, it all must be a load of garbage. Of course, it’s easy to cry hypocrisy when you hold no firm moral views yourself. You can’t be a hypocrite if you don’t believe in anything. I really have no patience for those who make up their ethics as they go along standing in judgment over those who try to live by a moral code, however imperfectly (and don’t get me started on atheists telling me how to interpret the Bible). I have (it should be clear by now) major issues with how the Church in America has failed to live up to its calling, and I feel that the judgment that we are under is fully justified. But the Church is my family, and I will not for a moment let those outside her walls heap calumny upon Her without offering a defense. Winston Churchill once said, “when I am abroad I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the Government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.” I feel we should have a similar attitude toward the Church. This is not to say we should sweep our problems under the rug when outsiders point them out. We should simply defend the Church as the Bride of Christ, chosen and adored by the Father. It is easy to stand outside the Church and point out Her flaws. I would much rather do the hard work of cleaning Her up and adorning Her for the Bridegroom.

“For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (v. 15). This verse reminds me of Jesus’ warning: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2). This is the practical result of the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12). Ultimately, how you treat others is how you will be treated. This is why the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we will only be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Standing in judgment over others (or, worse, reveling in their misfortune) sets us up to fail in exactly the same way. This is why humility is a sign of strength and not weakness. Judging the faults of others is easy, while doing the hard work of empathy and compassion is the work of a lifetime. Love requires us to treat all people as brothers and sisters, to understand that we are all equally guilty and equally precious before God . We will all stand before Christ’s judgment seat (2 Cor. 5:10), every one of us saved only by grace.

I thought I’d take the opportunity of this short book for a brief digression on “the day of Lord”. The phrase appears in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Zephaniah, Malachi, and, of course, Obadiah. Clearly, it’s an important prophetic concept. When we hear “the day of the Lord”, we immediately think of the Final Judgment, and indeed that is how it is used in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Pet. 3:10). But prophecy is like an onion, all layers (and it can make you cry). In general, the day of the Lord is a day of judgment, though who is being judged depends on the context. In Obadiah, the day of the Lord refers to God’s judgment over Edom. In Amos, on the other hand, it refers to the Assyrian conquest of Israel. There is a messianic tone to many of these prophecies, as God’s punishment of the ungodly is juxtaposed with His promise of restoration and a new covenant. Therefore, in Christ, every day is, in one way or another, “the day of the Lord” (note that we are currently living in “the Year of Our Lord” [Anno Domini] 2020). So what does that mean for us? Simply that the day of the Lord comes for all, regardless of race or creed or country. We have all sinned and we all stand under God’s righteous judgment. But, thanks be to God, when the greatest “day of the Lord” came, he came to us as a newborn baby. In the end, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).

That is the ultimate hope found in Obadiah. “Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion, to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (v. 21). God has conquered and rules us in justice and righteousness. But He also rules us as a Savior, adopting us into His royal family (Gal. 4:5-7). Jesus is King, and His kingdom is ruled by love. The Mount Zion from which He rules is not the literal Jerusalem (“my kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36]), but rather the New Jerusalem, whose advent we await with eager anticipation (Rev. 11:15). Through the rise and fall of kingdoms, through governments both good and evil, through war and pestilence and famine, through even death itself, this truth remains: Jesus is King and Jesus saves. Though we may be troubled by the state of the world, Christ reminds us to “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Nothing, not the wicked nor our own sins nor even death, can stand between His love and our hearts (Rom. 8:38-9). Let us hold on to that hope today and all the days to come, for every day is the day of the Lord.

Amos — Hate Evil, Love Good, and Establish Justice

This is part four of my series on the minor prophets. All Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version.

False dichotomies are the bane of 21st century discourse. All ethical choices are presented as “either/or”, with us or against us. Unfortunately, life is rarely so black-and-white, and the desire for easy answers can blind us to the nature of reality and (more importantly) to God’s will. One of the great false dichotomies in the Church is the line between personal holiness and social justice. On the one side, you have Christians who focus on individual salvation and holy living, particularly sexual ethics, and decry those who call for social justice as missing the message of the gospel (and they’re also closet communists). On the other side, those who work for social justice see those who stand for Biblical morality as selfish (and they’re also closet fascists). Amos cuts across this divide by basically saying, “why not both?” In fact, you cannot extricate personal holiness from social justice. A society where individuals reject God will by its nature be unjust. Without a commitment to God’s law, social justice is just an empty slogan, a naked power grab, and a cudgel with which to beat those with whom you disagree. Without working for social justice, individual faith becomes narcissistic, devoid of meaning, and perverted to our own ends at the expense of others. Amos is a classic “afflict-the-comfortable” prophet, and if you have become complacent, he is here to shake you up, no matter which side of the false dichotomy you find yourself on.

I’ve always loved Amos. In addition to the beauty of his language, he’s also basically an Old Testament version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is a simple shepherd who boldly speaks God’s word to kings and courtiers. The Lord loves to use the least of this world to humble the great. I am reminded of the words of that peasant girl from Nazareth: “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). In this election season, when so many of us feel powerless to effectuate meaningful change in our country and our world, may Amos give you hope that God works through even simple shepherds to accomplish His purposes.

*****

Chapters 1 & 2: This book starts out just as the rulers of Israel and Judah could hope: God condemns the enemies of His people. The pagan rulers of Edom, Ammon, and Moab will be brought low by God’s justice. It is an assurance in our own day that those who persecute and oppress the people of God will be brought to account. But then in chapter two, Amos goes from preaching to meddling. He declares that the same wrath God pours out on the pagan nations will also be poured out on His own people. What is interesting to note here is the different reasons for God’s displeasure. The pagan nations are condemned for unjust conquest and what we would now call war crimes. These are sins against common morality, the sort of wrongs that are so blatant as to be decried by most people. Israel and Judah, on the other hand, are condemned “because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes” (2:4). God’s people are held to a higher standard of conduct because we bear His name and we know His commandments. The sins of Israel are greater than those of their neighbors because they know better and yet live the same way.

“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned” (2:6-7). Here we see how personal moral failings lead to social injustice. The desire for wealth, leisure, and sexual license result in the oppression of the poor. The sexual impropriety is not just incest — it probably is a reference to temple prostitution at pagan shrines. Thus, the unjust social order is directly related to false religion and attempts to manipulate God. Indeed, in verse 8 it specifically mentions that they drink wine in God’s temple that was purchased with unjust fines. In verse 12, this goes a step further, as people demand that the Nazirites betray their vows to God and command the prophets to shut up. This is how religion can be the most useful tool of the devil. Through empty practice, we can believe that we are serving God even as we live sinful lives, oppress the less fortunate, and reject God’s word. We ought to carefully examine ourselves and be willing to listen to words of correction brought by the Lord’s prophets.

*****

Chapters 3:1-4:5: With thunderous, poetic rhetorical questions, Amos reminds us that the Lord is still the Lion of Judah (Hos. 5:14; Rev. 5:5). People resort to oppression and violence because they believe that such power will bring them security. But the Lord is King and no earthly power, not kings or judges or presidents, can stand against Him. Once again, the prophets remind us that is not our enemies but the Lord who brings calamity (see 3:6). The Assyrians may not have followed the Lord, but they were following the Lord’s commands when they scattered the people of Israel. As I said in the post on Joel, we like to blame others for all of our problems, but we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Verses 14 and 15 again link the problems of false religion (“the altars of Bethel”) with oppression of the poor (“houses of ivory”). Each leads to the other in a vicious cycle that breeds societal and personal destruction.

I don’t mind when God compares me to a sheep, but when he calls me a cow (4:1) He’s gone too far! In all seriousness, the really insidious aspect of wealth is how it can blind one to the suffering of others. We can sit in our comfortable houses eating our food and getting drunk all while the poor starve at our gates. It is all too easy in our digital age to only read news that comforts us and reinforces our beliefs about ourselves and the world. We can blind ourselves to oppression or, more likely, only see the oppression done by our political and social enemies rather than that which is done by those like us. This reinforces our cow-like complacency in our own moral superiority and keeps us from doing the work of loving our neighbors. Yelling at people on social media is so much more fun that seeking the Lord and serving the least, lost, and lonely that we come into contact with. Sometimes the greatest barrier to serving God and our neighbor is simple laziness.

*****

Chapter 4:6-5:17: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” So said C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. I cannot help but think of this quote when reading how God brought drought, blight, locusts, pestilence (!), and invading armies to His people. He was trying to shake them out of their complacency and give them an opportunity to repent. Each time, however, it ends the same way: “yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord”. But if they will not come to God, He will come to them. In a terrifying phrase, Amos declares “prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (4:12). A lot of Christians seem eager to meet God, yet I would only do so with much fear and trembling. God is love, but God is also righteous. I can only echo Thomas Jefferson when he said that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever”. I love how both 4:13 and 5:8 demonstrate the majesty and justice of God, how His beauty and His power manifest together. To meet God is to be utterly transformed. Meeting God will kill us, but hopefully, by His grace, it will result in a new and better life.

Amos reminds us that we will never truly enjoy unjust gain: “you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (5:11). This reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) who builds ever bigger barns for his excess crops only to die before he can enjoy him. The moral of the story: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

The verse that best summarizes Amos is 5:15: “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” This holistic spirituality of personal rectitude and societal reform reflects God’s desire to see His kingdom manifest on earth. This is what it means when we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The Lord desires that earth reflect heaven. This is not a call to blind utopianism, but a sober and serious call to do the work that the Lord has set before us, always aware that imperfection is our lot on this side of paradise.

*****

Chapter 5:18-27: This is probably the most famous passage in Amos and one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture. Again, Amos rebukes God’s people for desiring God’s judgment and the “day of the Lord” (more on that tomorrow). God has no time for empty religious practice. He will not accept offerings made to Him in the spirit of quid pro quo. Songs sung from mouths of hypocrisy are just noise to Him. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. That verse has special resonance for Americans since it rung out in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August of 1963, which calls Americans then and now to work for racial harmony and justice for all. However, if I were to recommend one thing to read in light of our current racial divide, it would be his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from May of that year. This letter to white Christian leaders defends the practice of “nonviolent direct action” to remedy social wrongs. My favorite passage could have been pulled straight from Amos and is worth quoting in full:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Unless we serve as a prophetic voice in the world, our religion is of little use: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27). There it is again: true religion unites personal holiness and service to others.

*****

Chapter 6: Two quick notes on chapter six. In verse five, it mentions that Israel “like David invents for themselves instruments of music”. Sometimes we can delude ourselves into thinking that we are under God’s blessing because we’re doing something similar to a Biblical or saintly figure or simply following tradition. But we must beware of “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Keeping up religious appearances is not the same thing as pursuing holiness. Secondly, I love the scene in verses nine to eleven where a spooked person declares “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord” after calamity strikes. It’s like he’s the bogeyman or Voldemort. Our culture, both in and out of the Church, acts similarly. Actually preaching the gospel makes people uncomfortable. Best to just not bring Him up. Yet here is Amos calling us once again to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

*****

Chapter 7: The Lord often relents from bringing calamity, especially when we pray, but His judgments stand forever. Thus, though He does not bring fire and locusts, He holds up a plumb line to Israel to see if they line up with His commandments. We must not assume that just because we are saved by grace that the plumb line is not also held up to us. We must allow Holy Scripture and the Church to hold us accountable. Let us build our lives on the solid foundation of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph.2:20) and grow toward the Father in a true, plumb vertical.

We finally get a glimpse here of Amos the man (sadly, there is no indication that famous Amos made cookies). Israel’s king, whom Amos had said would die by the sword, wanted the rabble-rouser out. Go back to where you came from! Amos replies, with startling sincerity, that he is a nobody, but God called him to prophesy anyway. And then he goes on prophesying all the more. This is what speaking truth to power looks like. There is no pretension or defensiveness, neither false modesty nor braggadocio. He just preaches God’s word and lets the chips fall where they may.

*****

Chapter 8: “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we many offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances” (v.5) How often do we “do our duty” hoping that it is good enough to appease God? We go to church and do our prayers and even volunteer, but only as much as we have to so that we can get back to what we really want to do. This is not what God means by seeking good and not evil. There is nothing wrong with recreation and making money. But our lives are to be an integrated whole, all of it sanctified to God and sacrificed to His service. By separating our lives into the holy and the secular, we can justify sinning in the secular by atoning in the holy (e.g. I can be a little dishonest at work because I tithe). However, our entire life affects other people. For example, our consumerist lifestyles are built on the back of slave labor in the third world. We know that the Chinese run literal concentration camps, but are we willing to stop buying goods from them? On a smaller scale, how do you treat those who are below you on the economic scale? The way some (alleged) Christians treat grocery store clerks and fast-food workers says a lot about their actual commitment to the gospel. If you mistreat the wait staff at your after-church meal, then I would read Amos very carefully because it’s directed at you.

The scariest judgment of God is not locusts or plague or fire, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (v. 11). If we continually refuse to listen to God, He could decide to stop talking. If we go through life assuming God will always bail us out of the consequences of our bad decisions, we will have a rude awakening. It’s not so much that God will stop talking to us as we will be too far away to hear. The solution is, as always, repentance, turning around and running back to Him. As a sign that once hung in my dad’s office used to say: “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?”

*****

Chapter 9: “If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heave, from there I will bring them down” (v. 2). Remind you of anything? “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Ps. 139:7-8). In that psalm, the context is joyful — we are never too far from God. But in Amos, the song switches to a minor key. There is no escaping from God if you wish to do wickedness or oppress others. Even your thoughts and dreams are not a refuge. The day of Lord comes for all. Whether that will cause for rejoicing or terror is up to you.

The book ends with a great shaking and a great rebuilding. Like the house built on sand (Matt. 7:26-7), God will blow away anything not built on the foundation of His Son. We are going through just such a shaking now. But let us hold on to the promise of restoration. In the ruins of the lives we thought we would live we will find the building materials for a new and better life and a new and better Church. As always, God promises abundant life to those who trust in Him. So what do we do in the meantime? Simple (though not easy): Hate evil and love good and establish justice.