ARCHIVE: Stay-at-Home Scripture Study
by Henry Brinton
Zephaniah, By Henry G. Brinton
Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of King Josiah in the seventh century before Christ. The prophet announced God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, saying that God would cut off “the name of the idolatrous priests” (Zeph 1:4), but he also predicted judgment on enemy nations, saying that “Moab shall become like Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah” (Zeph 2:9). The short book ends with a song of joy, one that promises, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17). The divine warrior says, “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast” (Zeph 3:18). Then God promises, “I will bring you home” and “restore your fortunes” (Zeph 3:20).
At the heart of this good news is the promise that “The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst” (Zeph 3:15). Zephaniah wants the people to know that they will be living coram Deo — an ancient Latin phrase which means “in the presence of God.” That is what most people seek when they attend a service of worship, and it is why most services include songs of praise, an assurance of forgiveness, a word of hope, and prayers for healing. In coram Deo worship, people come into God’s presence so that they can be restored to wholeness and strengthened for service. The Book of Zephaniah is instructive to us because it contains these elements of worship.
Songs of Praise. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion,” says Zephaniah; “shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart” (Zeph 3:14). The first command of the prophet to the people of Israel is to come into God’s presence and rejoice with song. Most coram Deo worship services begin with people singing their thankfulness and adoration.
Assurance of Forgiveness. When we stand in front of our perfect God, we are reminded of our imperfections, which is why worship moves quickly to a prayer of confession and assurance of forgiveness. “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,” says Zephaniah (Zeph 3:15). And because we, as Christians, believe that Jesus has taken our sins upon himself for all time, this assurance of forgiveness is eternal. “The LORD is in your midst,” says the prophet, “you shall fear disaster no more” (Zeph 3:15). When we are living coram Deo, we know that our forgiveness is forever assured.
A Word of Hope. No worship service is complete without a word from the Lord, one that gives inspiration, such as, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love” (Zeph 3:16-17). At the heart of this verse is the promise that God is with us and that we will be coram Deo, in the presence of God. The prophet Isaiah delivers this same assurance when he says that a young woman “shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14), which means “God is with us.” This verse from Isaiah is later quoted by the angel who tells Joseph that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18-33). All of these verses are words of hope that remind us that God is with us.
In my novel City of Peace, a pastor named Harley Camden read a scripture verse to his congregation after a very traumatic week in the small river town of Occoquan, Virginia. “Hear the words of scripture,” he said. “‘Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.’ Here in Occoquan, we have sat in darkness, but the promise of our faith is that God’s light shines in the darkness.” Pointing to the stained-glass window behind him, he said, “Look at the face of Jesus in our window. Such calm in the middle of a storm. Jesus says in today’s scripture that ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ I believe that: The kingdom of heaven has come near, right here in Occoquan. It isn’t fully present, but it has come near.” Harley felt a rush of affection for the people sitting in the well-worn old pews, and as he looked around he remembered the church’s original name. It had been called Emanuel Baptist, and the name Emanuel meant “God is with us.” He suddenly realized that God was truly with them.
Prayers for Healing. The final element of worship in a coram Deo church is prayers for healing. “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,” says God through the prophet Zephaniah, “and I will change their shame into praise” (Zeph 3:19). When we come into the presence of God, we ask for healing because we believe that God desires our complete restoration. God’s wants us to be returned to fullness of life and strengthened for service. “I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD” (Zeph 3:20). This passage from Zephaniah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it ends with a strong affirmation that God is with us and the future will be good for us. The prophet tells us that God is in our midst as “a warrior who gives victory” (Zeph 3:17), and because of this we can worship and live as people who are coram Deo, in the presence of God.
1. What does it mean to you to be coram Deo, in the presence of God?
2. Which element of a worship service is most important to you, and why?
3. How is your life impacted by the promise that God is with you?
April 20, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Habakkuk, By Henry G. Brinton
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Most scholars place the book of Habakkuk near the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, also known as the Babylonians. This is based mostly on verse 1:6, which mentions God rousing the “Chaldeans” against the Israelites. Babylon had conquered Assyria a few decades earlier, and was now attacking neighbors such as Israel. Some might find it odd that the book of Habakkuk is called the “oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” (Hab 1:1), since English speakers tend to think that oracles are heard instead of seen. But the Hebrew word hazah, “saw,” means “to have a vision” in the prophetic sense. This visual language continues when God says to Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it” (Hab 2:2).
The Book of Habakkuk begins with a dialogue between the prophet and God, with Habakkuk complaining, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help …. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore justice comes forth perverted” (Hab 1:2, 4). Then God responds, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4). Habakkuk’s complaint raises the question of theodicy (from the Greek words for “god” and “justice”), asking why the wicked prosper at the expense of the righteous. In this case, “the wicked” could be outside invaders such as the Chaldeans, people who “surround the righteous” (Hab 1:4). The prophet is calling for God to assert divine sovereignty, along the lines of the words of Nahum, and God answers by calling for the righteous to trust God to work for a better future.
The phrase “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4) has particular significance for Christians, since the verse is used by the apostle Paul in his argument about justification: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). So who are the righteous? In Habakkuk, the righteous are people such as Job, who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Such righteousness continued in the New Testament in people such as Dorcas, who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Job and Dorcas were not self-righteous — holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, and smug. No, they were truly righteous, which means being in right relationships. And what does it mean to live by faith? In the Hebrew scriptures, Abram was the first to show faith in God. After God promised to give him an enormous group of descendants, “he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, was made right with God by his willingness to believe God. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul picks up on this and says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3).
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther made Paul’s insight the center of his theology, one which asserted that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus. Luther wanted to be a good and righteous person, so he confessed his sins frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time. But after confessing his sins, he would leave the church and remember other sins that he needed to confess. This frustrated him, and he realized that he could not become righteous by human effort alone. Then he read the line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that says, “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:17) — a line based on Habakkuk 2:4. In a flash, Luther realized that he was not made righteous by his good efforts, but by his faith in Jesus Christ. “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise,” said Luther. “This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.” The Reformation began when Luther made this discovery about the role of faith in making us right with God. “If you have true faith that Christ is your Savior,” he said, “then at once you have a gracious God, [and] you should see pure grace and overflowing love.” Luther was inspired to preach the gospel, a word which means “good news,” because he saw that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16).
The words of prophet Habakkuk inspired both Paul and Martin Luther, and they can inspire us today. In the time of Habakkuk, the invasion of the Chaldeans was coming and the present felt out of control. Similar distress was felt in the times of Paul and Luther, and in our time today. But through it all, God gives us “a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3). Habakkuk’s vision speaks of the importance of righteousness and faith, in every time and place and situation. It tells us that God is in control, and that proud and arrogant people will not triumph in the end. Habakkuk’s message is that “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4), and that right relationships are based on trusting God. This is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reminds us that we can be right God and with the people around us when we live by faith.
1. When have you seen evil people prosper and righteous people suffer?
2. Where do you see examples of right relationships today?
3. What does it mean to you to be righteous and live by faith?
April 19, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Nahum, By Henry G. Brinton
Our God is an awesome God, according to Nahum. What do you think? Join the conversation through a comment below.
Nahum is just three chapters in length, and the first describes the LORD as “avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). The second and third chapters focus on Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and Nahum predicts the destruction of this “city of bloodshed” (Nah 3:1). The first verse of the book identifies it as “an oracle concerning Nineveh” (Nah 1:1) — the word oracle comes from the Latin orare, “to speak,” and describes a word from God delivered by a prophet. “This particular connection makes the poetry of Nahum into a celebration of the fall of Nineveh,” says Walter Brueggemann. Since Assyrian military power was uncommonly harsh and brutal, “the undoing of the empire and the fall of its capital city of Nineveh must have evoked great relief and joy.”
The “LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries,” says Nahum. “The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nah 1:2-3). Here, the character of God is “announced as the one who seek vengeance,” observes Brueggemann, “and who will ‘make a full end’ to those who resist [God’s] sovereignty.” God’s vengeance is not arbitrary violence, but “an imposition of divine sovereignty on a recalcitrant subject.” The power of God is seen in nature, when “the mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it” (Nah 1:5). Nahum sees God as sovereign, the supreme ruler of all that exists. In the words of a contemporary praise song: “There’s thunder in His footsteps / And lightning in His fists (Our God is an Awesome God) …”
“Who can stand before [God’s] indignation?” asks Nahum. “Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire” (Nah 1:6). “There is something deeply appealing about a vision of a retributive God who finally comes to set things right,” says professor of religion Francisco García-Treto, “to subdue the unruly powers, and to establish sovereign rule over the nations. There is great comfort in the conviction that evil will be brought to a final reckoning.” Nahum knows, however, that the sovereign God is not all anger and wrath. “The LORD is good,” says the prophet, “a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood” (Nah 1:7-8). The anger and wrath of God is directed specifically toward those who have oppressed the people of Israel, and Nahum says that God “will make an end” to Nineveh; “like drunkards they are drunk; they are consumed like dry straw.” (Nah 1:9-10). He believes that it is ultimately impossible to oppose God or to frustrate God’s plans.
Overall, the book of Nahum focuses on two qualities of God that are often misunderstood: Vengeance and wrath. If used to describe the emotions of God, these words make God sound demonic. But if they are applied to God’s work of justice, they can be seen in a positive light. In biblical thought, “God’s vengeance is an expression of his holiness,” says David Ewert of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. Typically “understood as God’s way of redressing wrongs,” vengeance is “directed at those who oppose him and who refuse to acknowledge his commands.” Vengeance is designed to turn wrong into right, and to advance God’s work in the world. Closely related to vengeance is the wrath of God, which is always directed toward injustice. When abolitionist Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”in 1861, she saw God’s wrath at work in the Civil War: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword / His truth is marching on.”
An accurate understanding of Nahum requires that you see God’s work from the perspective of an oppressed person, such as a slave during the Civil War. Otherwise, the wrath of God seems excessively harsh. But if you put yourself in the position of a slave, then God’s judgments make perfect sense, and you find inspiration in words such as: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, / While God is marching on.” Since the people of Israel had suffered oppression, the wrath of God was experienced by them as a welcome relief. They understood that God’s anger was a part of God’s divine justice, and that the wrath of God could have positive results. From beginning to end, the Bible teaches us that God answers the cries of his faithful people and saves them from destruction.
This passage from Nahum is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reminds us that God is on the side of those who are victims of unjust people or institutions. The harsh words of Nahum are a warning to us that we should not turn into oppressors, because God punishes those who oppress the weak, the different, and the unpopular. “His wrath is poured out like fire,” says Nahum, on those who oppress God’s people (Nah 1:6). Throughout the Bible, God is judgmental of human power and pride, but supportive of those who trust in God and God’s ways.
Questions: Where do you see the sovereignty of God most clearly? What are your reactions to passages that speak of God’s wrath and vengeance? How do you believe that God works for justice in the world?
April 18, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Micah, by Henry G. Brinton
The little town of Bethlehem is featured in this passage from Micah, but what is its significance? Join the conversation with a comment below.
The Book of Micah, named for a prophet from Moresheth in the land of Judah, begins with prophecies of doom directed toward Israel and Judah. Because the leaders of the people “abhor justice and pervert all equity,” Micah says that “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins” (Mic 3:9, 12). But the book also promises restoration, and the fifth chapter speaks of a shepherd-king who will come forth to rule Judah. Micah anticipates a new ruler from the little town of Bethlehem, a rural savior who is not a part of the wealthy Jerusalem establishment. “Micah accents the rapacious economic practices of the landed community that exploits the vulnerable,” notes Walter Brueggemann — landowners who violate the will of God “for economic justice in the community.”
But what is the particular significance of Bethlehem, described by Micah as “one of the little clans of Judah” (Mic 5:2). In short, it is a “thin place,” where the reality of heaven comes very close to earth. In The New York Times, writer Eric Weiner recalls the Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, “but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” A thin place is a “locale where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine.”
Off the west coast of Scotland is a thin place called the Isle of Iona, settled by St. Columba in the year 563. This rugged and rocky island became the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, and a Celtic Christian community has existed there in various forms for the past 1500 years. On this rocky island, the power of God is felt in the wind that reminds of you of the story of creation, in which “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The rough water around the island makes you think of the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:5-31), and the rebirth that comes through Christian baptism. A visit to Iona puts you in touch with the elemental and the eternal.
In similar manner, the little town of Bethlehem is a thin place. Micah says: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2). Bethlehem is a small place, like the rocky Isle of Iona. It is the home of David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. And it is, of course, the biblical birthplace of Jesus. Two questions appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine before Christmas one year: “Who was Jesus?” and “Why Bethlehem?” Inside the magazine, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explored the historical truth of the early life of Jesus. He wrote that the story of the Christ-child “can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen.” Specifically, what really does happen in the lives of those who believe that the Christmas story conveys a greater truth? What really does happen when we see Bethlehem as a thin place, with very little distance between heaven and earth?
Bethlehem is a place we can experience the eternal and see God at work in the world. Ruth was a Moabite woman in Bethlehem who became the ancestor of King David. He was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14), a person who was as flawed as any one of us, but who had a passion for God. David became the ancestor of Jesus, the one who brings heaven and earth together. His “origin is from old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2), like the rocks of the Isle of Iona. Jesus was born in a thin place where God’s activity becomes visible, where we can catch a glimpse of the divine. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” says the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” so “God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven.”
Another truth of Bethlehem is that Jesus comes to rule with a unique kind of strength. He is “one who is to rule in Israel,” says Micah. “He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD” (Mic 5:2, 4). Jesus is a king who rules like a good shepherd, keeping his flock well-fed and secure. Coming from Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” he nourishes us with his teachings, his example, and his gifts of forgiveness and new life. Bethlehem also teaches us that Jesus “shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace” (Mic 5:4-5). Jesus shall be great, but he achieves this not by being a political leader or a conquering general. Instead, Jesus is “the one of peace,” the one who continues to challenge us, in the words of Micah, to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Mic 6:8).
Bethlehem is a thin place, where heaven and earth come together. Jesus enters human life in this particular spot, to show us that God is at work in the world. He reveals the kind of God we serve, and then grows up to rule over us as a man of peace, justice, kindness, and humility. This passage from Micah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reveals that the barrier between heaven and earth is really very thin, in the place called Bethlehem and the person named Jesus. The town whose name means “house of bread” is a fitting birthplace for Jesus, the one who is “the bread of life” (John 6:35).
Questions: What is a “thin place” in your life, where heaven and earth come together? When you think of Bethlehem, what important images come to mind? Where are the distinctive strengths of a leader who is a shepherd-king?
April 17, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Jonah, by Henry G. Brinton
Much more than a fish story, the Book of Jonah explores what it means to repent. Join the conversation through a comment below.
The Book of Jonah is a fish story, the only book among the twelve Minor Prophets that is presented in narrative form, but it is also much more. Although the prophet Jonah is best known for being swallowed by a large sea creature and spit onto land, the central message of the book is repentance. The book begins when “the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’” (Jonah 1:1-2). This was a tough assignment for Jonah, a seemingly impossible mission. The prophet was being sent to the capital of Assyria, a powerful enemy of Israel, and was being asked to preach against it. So Jonah bolted in the opposite direction, taking off for Tarshish in an effort to escape the presence of the Lord. He hopped on a boat, encountered a storm, was thrown overboard, and was swallowed by the famous fish.
Can we blame Jonah? Being a prophet to Nineveh was a dangerous job, on par with being a timber cutter today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumberjack ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs in America, with an annual fatality rate of about 100 deaths per 100,000 workers. But timber cutters are only part of the story. Between 1980 and 1997, more than 100,000 people died in work-related accidents, and these deaths occurred in the construction industry (19 percent), the transportation industry (17 percent) and in manufacturing (15 percent). Mining, agriculture, trash collecting and job-related auto accidents also ranked high.
There are at least 30 verses in the Bible about the killing of prophets, and Jonah knew the danger. That’s why he fled from the presence of the LORD and ended up in the belly of the fish, where he spent three days and three nights, offering a prayer that ended with the words, “Deliverance belong to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9). Jonah was spewed out on dry land, and then God said again, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2).
After hearing God’s command a second time, Jonah repented — he changed course and went to Nineveh. Still smelling fishy from his three days in a sea creature, he entered the dangerous city and walked for a day through just a third of it. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he shouted (Jonah 3:4). This stinking, sticky prophet cried out against the city’s 120,000 residents, not knowing if they would hear him, heed him, or tear him to pieces. To his surprise, the Ninevites believed in God and repented of their sins. Even the king of Nineveh rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes. He called everyone in the city to turn from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands (Jonah 3:8). When God saw “how they turned from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:10), God changed course. Instead of overthrowing them, God let them live.
So what is the message of the Book of Jonah for us? It has nothing to do with surviving for three days in the belly of a fish. Instead, it teaches us about how to repent, which means to turn ourselves around and serve a God of overflowing grace. We learn from Jonah about the danger of focusing on our own agenda and having pre-conceived notions about how God is supposed to function and operate in the world. Instead, when we reverse course and become obedient to God — even after a time of running in the opposite direction, as Jonah did — we find that our efforts result in life, not death. Obedience to God can open up new possibilities for renewal and regeneration.
The problem with obedience is that it is a tough sell. You hear the words “be obedient,” and it sounds as if you are being asked to eat your vegetables and exercise 30 minutes a day. There’s just nothing exciting about it, nothing to get you pumped up and inspired. In addition, obedience to God can be difficult because it challenges us to put the interests of others ahead of our own, turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and pick up our cross and follow Jesus. When we say yes to God’s commands, we don’t know where God will send us or what God will ask of us.
But notice what happened when Jonah turned himself around and practiced obedience. The “people of Nineveh believed God,” the king called for the people to turn aside from their violence and evil ways, and “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them” (Jonah 3:5, 10). Jonah didn’t get it right the first time, but he took advantage of his second chance and changed the fate of a great city. This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it shows us that Jonah’s willingness to obey God and proclaim a message to Nineveh resulted in new life for himself, and for the people and animals of Nineveh as well. When we follow Jonah’s path, we discover that obedience leads to renewal instead of wreckage, enrichment instead of exhaustion, and life instead of death. The first step is always repentance, turning ourselves around and walking in the way of God.
Questions: When have you tried to evade a difficult challenge, and what happened? What is the biggest barrier to repentance? How can it be overcome? How do you respond to the call to be obedient?
April 16, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Obadiah, by Henry G. Brinton
Justice in wartime is the concern of the prophet Obadiah. Join the conversation through a comment below. Obadiah 10-16
The book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament, just a single chapter in length. Because the prophet Obadiah frequently mentions Jerusalem, Judah and Zion, he was probably working in the southern kingdom of Judah (Obad 11, 12-13, 17, 21). His name means “servant of the Lord,” but nothing is known of his personal life and he is never quoted in the New Testament. In the book, the kingdom of Edom and its northern neighbor Judah are portrayed as brothers, with a sibling rivalry like that of Esau and Jacob, grounded in the Book of Genesis.
The dating of the prophecy is difficult to determine, although it seems to follow an Edomite assault on Jerusalem, described in Obadiah 10-14. As a result of this assault, “Thus says the LORD God concerning Edom … I will surely make you least among the nations, you shall be utterly despised” (Obad 1-2). This punishment is based on the violence and inhumanity that Edom showed in its attack on Jerusalem. “For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were like one of them” (Obad 10-11). In particular, Edom is criticized for acting as “one of them” — as one of Judah’s enemies — when Edom should have treated Judah as kin (Deut 23:7).
God’s judgment, according to Obadiah, is tied to three particular failures by Edom. First: Gloating. “But you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune” (Obad 12). Second: Looting. “You should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity” (Obad 13). Third: Mistreating fugitives and survivors. “You should not have stood at the crossings to cut off his fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (Obad 14). Because of these crimes, “the day of the Lord is near against all the nations,” says Obadiah. “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, all the nations around you shall drink; they shall drink and gulp down, and shall be as though they had never been” (Obad 15-16). Edom is forced to face the logical consequences of its actions and be annihilated, in line with the words of Jesus, “the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt 7:2).
So, given the existence of hostility between close neighbors — in the ancient world and today — what can we learn from Obadiah about standards for behavior? Some of the lessons of this book fall into the Christian tradition of “just war theory.” According to the 13th-century thinker St. Thomas Aquinas, at least three conditions must be satisfied in order for a war to be considered “just”: It must be waged by lawful public authority in defense of the common good; it must be waged for a just cause; and it must be waged with the right intention — not vengefully nor to inflict harm.
So, was the assault of Edom on Jerusalem a “just war”? Clearly, it was not. The attack violated a number of standards for acceptable warfare. In a just war, looting is not allowed. “Private property must be respected and may only be taken when necessary to conduct the war,” writes Catholic Brother Lawrence Mary. “Looting is not justified.” Edom violated this standard when it “looted [Judah’s] goods on the day of his calamity” (Obad 13).
In a just war, there is no mistreating of fugitives and survivors. “Prisoners of war should not be tortured or placed as human shields to protect one’s own troops,” says Brother Mary. “Citizens must never be deliberately targeted. When prisoners are taken, they must not be harmed even if the enemy fails to make promised concessions or violates previous agreements.” Edom violated this standard when it “stood at the crossings to cut off [Judah’s] fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (Obad 14).
In a just war, there is no gloating. According to Catholic theologian George Weigel, the peace that follows war “coexists with broken hearts and wounded souls. It is to be built in a world in which swords have not been beaten into plowshares, but remain swords: sheathed, but ready to be unsheathed in the defense of innocents.” When a time of war results in peace, there is no room for gloating, boasting or rejoicing on the day of another person’s ruin (Obad 12) — instead, participants live with “broken hearts and wounded souls.” We continue to live in a world in which there is hostility between neighbors, and we need standards for managing conflict.
This passage from the book of Obadiah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it tells us that God will always judge nations that wage wars in a manner that tolerates gloating, looting and the mistreatment of innocent people. Fighting often brings out the worst in people, but warfare does not require barbarity. Human rights must be protected, according to Obadiah, even in the middle of armed conflict.
Questions: When is gloating, looting, and mistreatment of innocent people tolerated today? In your opinion, is war ever just? What conditions must be satisfied? In today’s global war on terrorism, what particular challenges arise?
April 15, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Amos, by Henry G. Brinton
Justice and righteousness are central to Amos, but what do they mean? Join the conversation through a comment below.
Amos was a prophet who rose out of “the shepherds of Tekoa,” and he spoke “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1). His book begins with a series of prophetic judgments against foreign nations, and then offers words against Judah and Israel. The fifth chapter is a lament for Israel’s sin, followed by the prediction that the “day of the LORD” will be a dark day (Amos 5:18). Amos announces that God despises Israel’s festivals and gains no delight from its “solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of fatted animals are no longer acceptable to God, nor are the “noise of your songs” and “the melody of your harps” (Amos 5:22-23). Instead, says God through the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Three times in the book, “Amos utilizes the defining phrase ‘justice and righteousness’ as the core prophetic concern,” says Walter Brueggemann. “A characteristic use of this phrasing is by Martin Luther King, Jr., a familiar cadence of his rhetoric later utilized in his memorial in Montgomery. This phrasing of Amos has become the impetus for prophetic faith and ground for prophetic critique of social systems that disregard and violate this most elemental command of [God].
”According to biographer Taylor Branch, the prophet Amos was King’s favorite biblical authority on justice. In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 people, King said, “We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The crowd responded to the emotion of the prophet Amos, and Branch reports that King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared speech. Some of the people on the platform urged him on, and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out as though she were in church, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” Branch says that King began to preach, and his words “went beyond the limitations of language and culture to express something that was neither pure rage nor pure joy, but a universal transport of the kind that makes the blues sweet.” His “Dream” message took him from Amos to Isaiah, and he ended with the words, “I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted.
”Janis Rosheuvel, the executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women, loves the image of justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. “I remember a trip to Niagara Falls with friends, standing in the mist of that thunderous wonder where over six million cubic feet of water falls over the crest line every minute on average. I recall also a trip with my father to our homeland, Guyana, where we stood atop Kaieteur Falls, one of the world’s highest single drop waterfall, and marveled at its majesty. Whenever I am in front of a vast body of water I am shaken by its fierceness. I am made instantly humble and afraid of water’s awesome potential.” Rosheuvel says that she connects the powerful flow of water to the energy needed by people of faith to bring an end to racism and white supremacy. In the face of every injustice, Christians are challenged to let “justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).But what exactly does Amos mean by justice? “When we hear the word ‘justice’ we may think of a criminal getting the punishment he deserves,” writes pastor Steve Hollaway. “But the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, has as its root meaning fairness and equity. When it is applied to criminal cases, justice in the Old Testament means that the judge does not take bribes and does not treat the poor worse than the rich. Most of the time, the word mishpat has to do with justice for those we might call underprivileged: widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.” If we fail to show fairness to any underprivileged or marginalized people, we are failing to do justice, and the same is true if we defer to privileged or well-connected people.
In similar manner, the word righteousness is often misunderstood. “We probably think of righteousness in terms of personal morality: being honest, sexually pure,” says Hollaway. “But the Hebrew word tzadeqah is something very different. … In the Old Testament it means something more like living in a right relationship, treating everyone with fairness, generosity, and equity.” Justice is taking action to make things fair, while righteousness is making an effort to live in right relationship.Both mishpat and tzadequah are at the heart of social justice, which is why Amos challenged the people of his day to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). His words continue to push us to make things fair in our society and to live in right relationship with one another, a challenge that stands before us in every time and place and situation. This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because its call to justice and righteousness will continue to thunder in our ears, like the mighty waters of Niagara and Kaieteur Falls.
Questions: What feelings arise in you when you see rolling, flowing waters? How are you challenged to practice justice in daily life? Where can you improve, in your life, “right relationship” with God and others?
April 14, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Joel, by Henry G. Brinton
The prophet Joel issues a warning about the coming of the Day of the Lord. What does it mean to you? Join the conversation through a comment below.
The book of the prophet Joel begins by describing a destructive locust attack on the country, one that was connected to the coming of the Day of the Lord. The prophet looked around and saw “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Locusts were covering the land “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” These devouring insects were like “a great and powerful army,” and Joel predicted that “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come” (Joel 2:2). The people of Israel were challenged to repent — to change their ways and return to God with fasting and mourning.
In ancient Israel, the Day of the Lord was preceded by locusts, but the national disaster could have been caused by frogs, gnats, flies, boils, or hail — whatever would get the attention of the people. Today, we might be hit hard by a flood, a drought, a power outage, a virus, or a Wall Street crash. Many times through history, reports The Atlantic magazine, people have looked around and felt that the end was near. In the 20th century, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury predicted that we would have to colonize Mars because of a global nuclear war. Then, on December 21, 2012, the Mayan Apocalypse was supposed to occur.
Those were bold predictions, but none of them happened. Astrophysicist Adam Riess says that “the universe has at least 30 billion good years left,” and our sun should last for another four to five billion years. “As for the Earth, its life span depends on how well we take care of it.” With such widespread failures to predict the future accurately, what are we to make of Joel’s expectation that “the day of the LORD is coming, it is near” (Joel 2:1)? This prophet called for national repentance, warning that a great locust plague was a sign of the beginning of the judgment of God. But Joel’s prediction was not in error, like the Mayan Apocalypse of 2012. He saw locusts and was right to call for people to respond with repentance and prayer.
The very same is true today. Regardless of the particular events going on around us, the power of the Day of the Lord is that it grabs our attention and offers us the possibility of transformation. Our challenge is to shift our focus from the outside to the inside, and to follow the guidance of Joel in making the choice to return, learn, gather and pray. First, we return to the God who says, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). To return to God is to repent — to turn around and go in a new and opposite direction. Novelist Ron Rash tells haunting tales of the American South, especially the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. “Evil always rises up,” he says. “And yet there are always people who fight against it. I am fascinated by the war between what is best in our natures and what is worst.” When we repent, we fight against evil, return to God, and turn toward what is best inside us.
After returning, we learn about the nature of our God, one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). These are the exact words used to describe God after the people of Israel sin by making a golden calf: God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). Merciful, not wrathful. Slow to anger, not quick to condemn. Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, always working for good in our lives.
Then we gather as God’s people, knowing that a transformed life must be lived in community. “Gather the people,” says Joel; “Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast” (Joel 2:16). Gregory Boyd is an introverted pastor who has discovered that he really needs to be with others. He is now part of an extended group of about 30 people that meets once a week. “We are made in the image of the triune God, whose essence is loving community,” he concludes. “We are created for community.” Each of us is made in the image of the God who is — in God’s own self — a sacred community made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Finally, after returning, learning, and gathering in community … we pray. Between the vestibule and the altar, Joel calls for the ministers to pray, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery” (Joel 2:17). Such a prayer is called an intercession — asking God to act in the lives of others. In Joel, the ministers are asking God to spare the people, but other intercessions can request healing, strength, peace, or help. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says that intercessions should “be made for everyone … so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2:1-2). At the end of the day, we are supposed to pray for ourselves and others, asking for God to heal us and help us. Instead of feeling dismay, we pray — pray for God to transform us into the people that God wants us to be. This passage from Joel is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it speaks of a “day of the LORD” that motivates us to return, learn, gather, and pray. This is a day that leads to real change, for the better.Questions: What meaning do you attach to the Day of the Lord, in the past and today? How is repentance, for you, a return to God and to what is best inside you? Where do you find significance in gathering in community for prayer?
April 13, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Mark, by Henry G. Brinton
The word gospel means “good news,” and the Gospel of Mark contains the best news ever.
Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and scholars believe that it was the first of the biblical accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Since most of the stories in Mark can also be found in Matthew and Luke, it was probably the foundation on which these other two books were built. The first eight chapters of Mark contain an account of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, and the second eight tell of events at the end of his ministry, on the way to Jerusalem and in it, including his death and resurrection. The story of the resurrection in Mark ends rather abruptly in most versions, after an announcement of the news that Jesus “has been raised” (Mark 16:6). Unlike the other Gospels, there is no story of an appearance of Jesus to his followers.
The word gospel means “good news,” and can be defined in a number of ways. The good news can be the entire story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which is why the first four books of the New Testament are called Gospels. It can be the good news that Jesus declared when he said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Or, since the story of Jesus might have been lost without the miracle of Easter morning, the good news can be understood as the announcement of the resurrection: When three women entered the tomb, a young man in a white robe said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6).
We need good news, now more than ever. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, fear and anxiety immediately swept across the country and around the world. But then a new YouTube channel called Some Good News, or SGN, was launched. Created by actor John Krasinski of The Office and Jack Ryan fame, the SGN program was an immediate hit, trending #1 on the Internet. Some of the good news featured by Krasinski included people showing support to health care workers from their apartments in cities around the world, clapping and cheering out their windows. He shared a story about a homeowner leaving a gift on the porch for a delivery driver, and another about a man who purchased 100 lobsters in Maine to help a local fisherman. Krasinski talked to a teenager who returned home from her last chemotherapy treatment and was surprised by a group of friends welcoming her back, while maintaining a safe social distance. “I cried for a very long time after watching that, just pure joy,” Krasinski told her.
When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome headed to the tomb on Easter morning, they weren’t expecting pure joy. They were bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus, a dismal and depressing task, and as they walked in the early-morning light they worried about how they would muscle the heavy stone away from the entrance to the tomb (Mark 16:1-3). They were surprised to see the stone rolled away — that was Some Good News —and when they entered the tomb they spotted a young man, dressed in white, which alarmed them. The mystery man tried to calm them, and then announced that Jesus had been raised. That was some truly unexpected Good News! Then he said, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). The second piece of good news was that Jesus was going ahead of them and would be waiting for them in the future.
We can be grateful that the Bible reports the good news of the resurrection to us, because this story does not appear in any of the other publications of the day. None of the records of Jewish leaders or reports of Roman generals contain an account of Jesus rising from the dead. Easter is a day like any other in these records: Criminals were crucified, uprisings were squelched, and the iron fist of the Pax Romana kept everything under its heavy-handed control. But the Gospel of Mark contains the good news is that Jesus is alive and is waiting for us in the future. That’s a story too big to be overshadowed by reports of death, disaster, and conflict. When Jesus was raised, he actually succeeded in putting death to death. He smashed the status quo, and turned the tables on those who saw violence and corruption as unchanging constants in the world that we live in. When Jesus left the empty tomb, all bets were off and all expectations shattered.
At the core of the Christian message is the gospel of Jesus Christ: The good news that Jesus is alive and leading us to a better future. This news was true when the women visited the empty tomb, and it is true today. Whether we are facing a time of grief, a period of personal pain or an experience of hopelessness or desperation, we can look to a Lord who is alive and well and inviting us to follow him. This news, the good news of the empty tomb, trumps all the reports of death and destruction that tend to dominate our daily headlines. This passage from Mark is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reports to us that Jesus has been raised, Jesus is ahead of us, and Jesus will lead us forward. This news is real, compelling and positive — the greatest example of Some Good News ever reported.
Questions: Which definition of “gospel” means the most to you, and why? How does the resurrection of Jesus change the status quo? What is the significance of Jesus waiting for us in the future?
April 12, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Hosea, by Henry G. Brinton
The prophet Hosea and his family seem to self-destruct, but they have a lesson for us. Join the conversation through a comment below.
Hosea was a prophet during the reigns of five kings, Uzziah through Jeroboam, and his book appears in the Bible as the first of the twelve Minor Prophets. Themes of infidelity and punishment appear throughout the book, including the opening chapter in which Hosea’s marriage and children represent the unfaithfulness of Israel and God’s response. At the beginning of this section, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hos 1:2). God wanted Hosea to create a living, breathing example of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. In a sense, the Lord was nominating Hosea and his family for a Darwin Award — a dubious distinction given to people who self-destruct in the most remarkable manner.
Not as glamorous as an Oscar or an Emmy, the award is named in honor of Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of natural selection. The awards commemorate those people who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it, usually doing so in an extraordinarily stupid manner. For example, a man was crushed to death on a stairway at the Sammis Real Estate and Insurance Office in Huntington, New York, while he was stealing the office’s 600-pound safe. He apparently violated the cardinal rule of hauling massive objects: Never stand on a step lower than the one the safe is on. Adding insult to injury: The safe was empty at the time of the incident. Any death of a human being is tragic, of course, but this one falls under the category of gallows humor. Winners of Darwin Awards are cautionary tales that remind us that life is fragile and our actions have consequences.
So why would Hosea and his family qualify for such an award? Hosea “went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the Lord said to him, ‘Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel …. She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. … When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hos 1:3-9). Like other Darwin Award recipients, Hosea’s tale is a story of self-destruction. Obedient to God’s call to take “a wife of whoredom” (Hos 1:2), Hosea marries the prostitute Gomer and she bears three children. Since she is “an adulterous wife” (Hos 1:2, NIV), there is no guarantee that the children are part of Hosea’s gene pool, which sets up the prophet and his family for mocking and abuse.
On top of this, the names of his kids are descriptive and depressing: Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi. The daughter’s name, Lo-ruhamah, means “Not pitied,” since the child was to be a living reminder that the Lord no longer had pity on the house of Israel because of its sin. The second son’s name, Lo-ammi, means “Not my people,” and the boy was to be a stark sign of the breaking of the covenant relationship between the Lord and Israel (Hos 1:4-9). This remarkable behavior is initiated by God, who may be venting some anger and frustration over the fact that the people of Israel had been loving other gods. “Hosea’s profound insight into God’s covenant with Israel arises from his own bitter experience of his wife’s infidelity,” writes Old Testament Professor Gale Yee. “God is perceived metaphorically as the aggrieved husband, and Israel is the selfish, unfaithful wife.”
Of course, we — like Israel and like Hosea’s wife Gomer — do any number of stupid and self-destructive things in our relationship with God. We find ourselves unable to resist the lure of objects, habits, and behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others. We make selfish choices that rupture the relationships we have with God and the people closest to us. We discover that we all need grace. And fortunately, God provides it. This passage ends with Hosea saying, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea … and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’ (Hos 1:10). Restoration comes not through our words and actions, but through the grace of God. Even in our times of unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to us.
The prophet’s personal life begins with outwardly self-destructive behavior, but it ends with a vivid illustration of God’s redeeming love. Hosea predicts that Israel will suffer public shame like a harlot, because it has committed adultery with the gods of Canaan. But God will lure Israel back and renew God’s relationship with her, taking Israel as his wife “in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hos 2:19). This isn’t Darwinian — it’s divine. This passage from Hosea is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reminds us that remaining faithful to God is the best path to avoiding destruction, as well as finding safety, growth, peace and ultimate happiness.
Questions: Where are the consequences of unfaithfulness seen most clearly around you? What kind of behavior is most destructive to relationships? How does grace and love heal ruptures in relationships, human and divine?
April 11, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Daniel, by Henry G. Brinton
Perfect moments can be found, even in trying times. Please join the conversation through a comment below.
This book is named for the prophet Daniel, who was taken into exile in Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem. Stress was high for Daniel and his fellow Israelites, and many wondered what it meant to stay true to the God of Israel in a place so far from home. “By the rivers of Babylon,” they lamented in Psalm 137, “there we sat down and there we wept …. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4). Daniel was promoted in the king’s court for interpreting dreams, but was later thrown into a lion’s den for persisting in prayer. Then he had “a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed” (Dan 7:1). His vision was of four great beasts representing kingdoms of the world, along with an “Ancient One” (Dan 7:9, 13).
Daniel found hope for a difficult time by focusing on the end of God’s story. In his vision, God is the “Ancient One” who sits on a throne blazing with fiery flames. God’s clothing is white as snow, his hair is like pure wool, and a stream of fire flows out from his presence. The court around him sits in judgment, and the divine record books are opened (Dan 7:9-10). This is an “apocalyptic vision” — an unveiling or revelation of God at the very end of time. God quickly renders judgment on the empires of the world, destroying one and leaving the other three powerless (Dan 7:11-12).Then appears “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13). God gives to this son of man “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him .… and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14). For Daniel, this vision was a perfect moment, one that gave him hope for the future. It revealed that God is always working to bring order out of chaos and victory out of defeat.
The same is true for us. No matter how many horrors confront us in the news, God is always working with God’s people, in every time and place and situation. The exiles in Babylon might have understood Daniel’s son of man to be the angel Michael, since Michael does battle for Israel a little later in the book (Dan 10). But Christians see Jesus Christ as the Son of Man, the one who comes at the end of time as “King of kings and Lord of lords,” a rider on a white horse who judges in righteousness and makes war with evil (Rev 19:11-16). He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” according to the book of Revelation. “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Rev 1:4-7).
For Israelite exiles in Babylon, first-century Christians in Rome, and 21st-century men and women around the world, the message is the same: God is in control. The forces of chaos and cruelty may take an occasional battle, but they cannot win the war, because the Lord of heaven and earth is alive and well and having an ongoing impact on human life. God’s son Jesus has come to us once, and he will come to us again, to wipe the tears from our eyes and establish a new heaven and a new earth. He comes to show us that God desires an everlasting relationship with us, one that cannot be disrupted by mourning or crying or pain … or even death itself (Rev 21:1-4).
In the end, it’s all about relationships: Relationships with God and with one another. A man named Eugene O’Kelly sensed this, which is why he spent so much time with friends and family during the last hundred days of his life. At age 53, O’Kelly seemed to be in excellent health, traveling and working long hours. But then a visit to his doctor revealed that he had an aggressive brain cancer that would kill him in 100 days. He had focused on building and planning for the future. “Now,” he said, “I would have to learn the true value of the present.”
Like the prophet Daniel, O’Kelly discovered that challenging times can be the best of times. A man of faith, he decided to “unwind” relationships with people in his life, taking the time to have final conversations with those who had meant a great deal to him. He also went searching for what he called “Perfect Moments” — times of lingering over a fine meal, enjoying a deep conversation, taking the time to soak up the beauty of nature over the course of an afternoon. Then he died, reports The New York Times, just as his doctors predicted. He leaves us with the challenge of living with the end in mind, and learning the true value of the present.
Whether we have brain cancer or not, whether we are having good days or not, we can do our best to have quality conversations with family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors. We can work on our relationship with God through regular worship and by serving others in the name of Christ. We can look to the future with confidence and anticipation, trusting that our Lord is involved in our lives in an active and ongoing way, always working for healing and restoration and peace. Like the prophet Daniel and Eugene O’Kelly, we’ll marvel at how many perfect moments we can have right now. Daniel’s vision of the Ancient One is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it tells us that God is always working to bring order out of chaos and victory out of defeat, in every time and place and situation.
Questions: How does a focus on the end of time give us hope for today? Where do you see God working to bring order out of chaos? When have you experienced “Perfect Moments” in your life?
April 10, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Ezekiel, by Henry G. Brinton
Is there a part of your life that feels like “dry bones”? Join the conversation through a comment below.
In 1954, a singer named Big Joe Turner gathered with a group of rhythm-and-blues musicians in New York City. In the offices of Atlantic Records, they pushed the furniture to the walls and recorded a song called “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” It was quickly picked up and recorded by Bill Haley and His Comets, and then by Elvis Presley. The song became Haley’s first gold record, a best-seller for Decca in 1954, and an important piece of rock history. Six decades later, people still Shake, Rattle and Roll.
But Big Joe Turner was not the creator of this distinctive sound. Going back many centuries, we find the prophet Ezekiel, taken into exile in the city of Babylon more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. While in captivity, the prophet sees seven visions which include messages of judgment on Israel because of their idolatry, messages of judgment on the other nations of the world, and promises of future blessings for the people of Israel. Sadly, the 37th chapter of Ezekiel begins in a lifeless place. The passage seems more like a judgment than a blessing when the prophet reports that the hand and the spirit of God “set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (Ezek 37:1-2). The “Valley of Dry Bones,” writes Walter Brueggemann, is “a metaphor for Israel in exile with no prospect for the future.”
Bones. Dry bones. No signs of life. No rock-and-roll drum beats. God says to Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet, seeing no evidence of vitality, simply says, “O Lord GOD, you know” (Ezek 37:3). For Ezekiel, life for these bones does not seem possible. They are dry, and we all know what dry feels like. Dry is when you are finding no career path in your 20s, struggling to get pregnant in your 30s, feeling distant from your spouse in your 40s, losing your job in your 50s, worrying about retirement in your 60s, and suffering the death of your partner in your 70s. Mortal, can these bones live? It doesn’t seem possible. The bones are so dry.
But the prophet knows that nothing is impossible with God. “O Lord GOD,” he says, “you know.” God gives a command to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (Ezek 37:3-4). The prophet is told to deliver the word of God to the dry bones because this word has the power to create something new, to bring life to the dead. Since the beginning of time, God’s word has shown creative, life-giving power. In the first chapter of Genesis, God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light — the word of God creates a new reality, bringing light into darkness (Gen 1:3). Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that “my word … shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that for which I purpose” (Isa 55:11). “In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. All things came into being through him” (John 1:1, 3).
Throughout the Bible, the Word of God has life-giving power, and Ezekiel is willing to trust this Word. In the middle of his own dry, dusty, lifeless experience in exile, he is willing to put his faith in the God who says to the bones, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek 37:5-6).
God promises to cause breath to enter the bones — literally, God causes ruah to enter. Ruah is the Hebrew word for breath, and it also means wind and spirit. Ruah is the breath that inspires God’s creative words (Psalm 33:6). Ruah is the “breath of life” that is snuffed out by the great flood (Gen 6:17). Ruah is the “wind from God” that sweeps over the face of the waters at the beginning of creation (Gen 1:2). Ruah is the “holy spirit” that we need in order to feel the presence of God (Psalm 51:11). God puts it into us so that we can live. Ezekiel reports, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (Ezek 37:7). Through the power of God, the bones begin to Shake, Rattle and Roll.
God says to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’” (Ezek 37:11). God commands Ezekiel to assure them that he will open their graves, bring them back to life, and return them to their homeland in Israel. “I will put my spirit within you,” promises God, “and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act” (Ezek 37:14).
This promise is true for us as well, when our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it shows us that God’s Word and God’s breath-wind-spirit can give us new life, as individuals and as communities. When dry bones begin to rattle and join together, we discover together that hope is stronger than despair, death is never final, and sadness can give way to joy. Shake, Rattle and Roll. Much more than a song, it’s a sign that God is always raising us to new life.
Questions: When has your life felt like dry bones? How have you experienced the life-giving power of God’s Word, if at all? Where do see a connection between breath, wind and spirit?
April 09, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Lamentations, by Henry G. Brinton
God’s faithfulness is great, says Lamentations, even in times of suffering. What do you say? Join the conversation through a comment below.
Lamentations is located immediately after the book of Jeremiah in the Christian Old Testament because of the traditional understanding that the prophet Jeremiah was the author of the book. But in the Jewish Bible, Lamentations is in the third and final section, grouped with other writings. The book is a series of five expressions of grief called laments, and in 1923 Thomas Chisholm wrote the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” as a meditation on Lamentations. Chisholm was born in 1866 in Kentucky, and was ordained into the Methodist ministry at age 36. Shortly after his ordination, his health failed and he had to leave the ministry. He moved to Indiana and then New Jersey, where he opened an insurance office. He began writing poetry and sent a number of poems to William Runyan, a friend and colleague in ministry. Runyan wrote the tune called “Faithfulness,” hoping that it would carry the message of the poem “in a worthy way.”
The well-known refrain of the hymn says: Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! / Morning by morning, new mercies I see. / All I have needed thy hand hath provided. / Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me! Chisholm’s words are a poetic adaptation of Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
The hymn one of the few hymns among the 1200 poems written by Chisholm that is still in use today. He wrote it as a testimony to God’s faithfulness through his very ordinary life. “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now,” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that he has given me many wonderful displays of his providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” Believing that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” Chisholm addressed God directly with the words, “Great is thy faithfulness.”
Since God’s mercies never come to an end, the writer of Lamentations goes on to say, “The Lord is my portion … therefore I will hope in him” (Lam 3:24). In this case, writes professor of Old Testament Kathleen O’Connor, “hope is a decision of the speaker based on remembrance of divine mercy.” The writer knows that we live our lives forwards, but we can only understand them backwards. Lamentations goes on to affirm that “the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him” (Lam 3:25). But a life of seeking God is no guarantee of freedom from suffering. “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth,” he writes, “to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults” (Lam 3:27-30). The writer’s “waiting here is expectant, and it is filled with suffering,” says O’Connor.
Not surprisingly, many Christians associate these verses with Jesus and his suffering. After all, he was the one who bore a cross and was “filled with insults.” But the passage ends on a more hopeful note, with the assurance that “the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lam 3:31-33). A balance is struck in these verses between the God who “causes grief” and the God “who will have compassion.” In the end, God may be the cause of grief, but he does not “willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Perhaps God allows suffering to occur, but he does not will people to suffer.
This chapter of Lamentations raises important questions about divine power. O’Connor asks, “Is God the source of or able to prevent historical tragedy? Or is God in some sense limited by the world and its ways?” The writer of Lamentations may be pointing to “a God who suffers with, who empathizes with, who is pained by the destruction of the people.” This understanding of God is certainly revealed in the life of Jesus, one who suffered terribly in his own life, and who felt compassion for those in pain around him. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat, and when “he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them” (Mark 6:34). The word compassion comes from the Latin com, “with,” and pati, “to suffer.” When Jesus shows compassion, he literally “suffers with” the people around him.
The Book of Lamentations does not answer the question of how a good God allows pain and suffering to exist in the world, but it does affirm that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22-23). This passage is one of the Bible’s Greatest Hits because it tells us that God’s steadfast love and mercy are eternal. In a world of suffering and lamentation, we can gain comfort from the knowledge that God suffers alongside us, and that God’s faithfulness to us is always great.
Questions: Where do you see signs of the faithfulness of God? What is the significance of suffering in the life of faith? How does the love of God help you to cope with pain?
April 08, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Jeremiah, by Henry G. Brinton
In depressing times, we need a New Deal. Join the conversation through a comment below.
The prophet Jeremiah called the people of Israel to repent from their unfaithfulness, and announced judgment because they had broken their covenant with God. He prepared the people for exile in Babylon, but also anticipated that they would return and that God would make a new covenant with them.
But what is a covenant? The word is ancient and biblical, and it describes a promise-based relationship. Today, the phrase “covenant of marriage” is used to describe a relationship based on vows, one in which two people promise to be faithful to each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” God uses some of the language of marriage when God says that the new covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD” (Jer 31:32).
Such promise-based relationships have their origin in the covenant God made with Abraham, “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous” (Gen 17:2). God was faithful to this covenant with the people of Israel, saying, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exo 6:7). Later, God extended the covenant to “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” (Isa 56:6). In effect, this covenant was a deal in which God said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people. I’ll love, comfort, honor and keep you. Forsaking all others, I’ll be faithful to you forever. All I ask is that you do the same for me.”
Well, you can guess what happened: God remained faithful, but the people did not. They broke the deal and worshiped other gods, despite the fact that God loved them like a husband loves a wife. Fortunately, God did not abandon the people of Israel, but instead chose to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … I will put my law within them [says the LORD], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:31, 33). When the people broke the covenant, God offered a new deal. It came as a surprise, bringing the powerful love of God into the very center of human life. The people had done nothing to deserve it — it was a completely free gift, a gift of grace.
There are times when we all need a new deal. Maybe we have broken a promise to ourselves and engaged in self-destructive behavior. Maybe we have betrayed a spouse or a friend, and fractured a relationship. The old deal is shattered and we need something to help us to start over. The American people discovered this in the 1930s and 40s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered his “Fireside Chats,” radio broadcasts that were offered in an informal, conversational tone. Until that time, presidents were largely cut off from the American people, and they seemed to be very distant from the average person. But then FDR, who had campaigned on a “New Deal for the American people,” spoke with sincerity and compassion about a New Deal that would replace the old deal which produced the Great Depression. After his first chat, “he was inundated with fan mail from listeners who felt they now knew him intimately.”
Into our spiritual depression, God promises a New Deal. Speaking to the people of Israel and to us, God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). God promises to move the law from a piece of paper to the center of the human heart. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” says the LORD (Jer 31:33). The loving bond between God and people will be renewed, like a renewal of vows between spouses.
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me” (Jer 31:34). Knowledge of God will suddenly shift inward, and all of us will have a deep and personal relationship with God. “I will forgive their iniquity,” says God (Jer 31:34). With this new relationship will come forgiveness of sin and a chance to move forward, fully accepted by God.
For Christians, the terms of this New Deal are made clear in the one who put God’s new covenant in human form: Jesus Christ. The law was given through Moses, says the Gospel according to John, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:17-18). When we believe in Jesus, we enter into a new covenant with God. We accept his promise of forgiveness and eternal life, and offer our own promise to follow Jesus in faith, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.”
This passage from Jeremiah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it promises us that God is always reaching out to us in love, inviting us to enter into a deep and personal relationship with God, one that is truly heart-to-heart.
Questions: What does the “covenant of marriage” mean to you? When one party breaks a deal, how can the relationship be restored? How does Jeremiah’s new covenant connect with Jesus, if at all?
April 07, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Isaiah, by Henry G. Brinton
Why would God give Isaiah a vision of a “house of prayer for all peoples”? Join the conversation through a comment below.
The book of Isaiah is the first of the prophetic books, which make up the final section of the Old Testament. In each of these books, God spoke through the prophets to reveal the divine will to the people of Israel, and to call people to return to God’s way. Although the prophets sometimes spoke about the future, they are not to be seen primarily as fortune-tellers. Instead, they are best understood as truth-tellers, bringing words of challenge and comfort to the people of God.
Isaiah lived in the eighth century before the birth of Christ, during the reigns of King Ahaz and possibly King Hezekiah. The first part of the book, through chapter 39, pronounces judgment and doom, while the end of the book, chapters 40 through 66, contains prophecies of hope and restoration, including the words: “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). Chapter 56 is in this final portion of the book, and it may have been written by a follower of Isaiah in the sixth century before Christ. The chapter addresses “a dispute about inclusion and exclusion in the community,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “after the great restoration from exile had been accomplished.”
The chapter speaks of God’s covenant being extended, for the first time, beyond the people of Israel. “Happy is the mortal who does this,” said Isaiah, “the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil” (Isa 56:2). Any mortal who keeps the sabbath and refrains from evil can now be part of God’s covenant community. This insight by Isaiah was revolutionary, because the purity code of Deuteronomy excluded two particular categories of people: Eunuchs and foreigners. Deuteronomy said that no one who has been castrated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord,” nor shall any “Ammonite or Moabite” (Deut 23:1, 3).
But Isaiah offered a new vision of community, one in which all people who honor the Lord in their actions are to be included. Speaking through Isaiah, God said, “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant … I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4-5). The tragedy of the eunuch was that he was cut off, literally — no chance of having children to carry on his name. But now, if the eunuch was faithful, God would give him an everlasting name. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants,” says Isaiah, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer” (Isa 56:6-7). That’s remarkable, isn’t it? Those who had once been excluded are now included, because they honor God in their actions and relationships. They are accepted because God wants to be worshiped in “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7). God’s place is now open to everyone who keeps the sabbath and holds fast to the covenant.
What a radical shift this was. Suddenly, the community of faith was not limited to people of the same nationality, and being admitted to the assembly of the Lord did not require being a man or a woman in a traditional family. Through Isaiah, God called for barriers to fall in the religious community, which began a movement of inclusiveness that only accelerated when Jesus began his gracious and loving ministry. A strong connection exists between Isaiah and Jesus, since people often see Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies (e.g. Isa 7:14), and Isaiah is the prophet that Jesus quotes the most (eight times). “Many of Jesus’ miracles are worked for outsiders,” writes historian Garry Wills in his book What Jesus Meant. The miracles of Jesus teach lessons about the reign of God, and “one of the main lessons is that people should not be separated into classes of the clean and unclean, the worthy and the unworthy, the respectable and the unrespectable.” Jesus himself fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isa 56:8).
This movement of inclusiveness matters deeply to God, and it is found throughout the whole of Scripture. Sometimes it sneaks up and surprises us, as it did to a rabbi named Jonathan Sacks, soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rabbi Sacks said that he used to think that the greatest command in the Bible was “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). But then he realized that this command appears in only one place in the Hebrew Bible. More significantly, he said, “in more than thirty places it commands us to love the stranger.” That’s tough. Love the person who is not like us, who has a different skin color, sexual orientation, or cultural background. The challenge of inclusiveness was lifted up first by the prophet Isaiah, and it continues to be a goal for people of faith today. The words “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:7) is one of the Bible’s greatest hits, because it calls us to focus our efforts on welcoming and including all of God’s children in the community of faith.
Questions: Which groups are still excluded from many faith communities, and why? What does it mean to you to be in a “house of prayer for all peoples”? What are the challenges we face when we try to love the stranger?
April 06, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Song of Solomon, by Henry G. Brinton
The Song of Solomon is both sensual and spiritual. When we dare to open this book, we discover new adventures, possibilities, and outlooks. Join the conversation through a comment below.
Song of Solomon 2:8-14
The Song of Solomon, also known as “Song of Songs,” is a book of love poetry with two main characters: The female lover and the male lover. Their expressions of human love are meant to reveal the presence of God in all of life, even the most personal and intimate of encounters. Still, the Song is controversial. “The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire,” writes Lisa Miller in Newsweek. “The obsession is mutual, carnal, complete.” The man studies his lover’s eyes, hair, neck and breasts, until he arrives at “the mountain of myrrh” (Song 4:6). “You are altogether beautiful, my love,” he says; “there is no flaw in you” (Song 4:7).
The female lover responds in kind. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,” she says, “and my inmost being yearned for him” (Song 5:4). “Biblical interpreters have endeavored through the millennia to temper its heat by arguing that it means more than it appears to mean,” writes Miller. “It’s about God’s love for Israel, they have said; or, it’s about Jesus’ love for the church. But whatever other layers it may contain, the Song is on its face an ancient piece of erotica, a celebration of the fulfillment of sexual desire.”
Some Jews and Christians have objected to the book, even seeking to remove it from the Bible. But the Song of Solomon is not a dirty book. Instead, the passionate longings of its characters give us important insights into the nature of human desire, and the nature of God’s desire for us. Our Lord does not simply tolerate us, weak and fallible creatures that we are. Instead, God has a passion for each one of us, and a hunger to be intimately involved with us. This song is filled with vivid descriptions of the human body, intimate relationships, and sensual love.
“The voice of my beloved!” says the female lover. “Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows” (Song 2:8-9). You can hear her desire and her admiration. Then her beloved speaks and says to her, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song 2:10-11). It is springtime, and this young man’s thoughts are turning to love. The flowers are appearing on the earth, the time of singing has come, the fig tree is putting forth fruit, the vines are in fragrant blossom (Song 2:12-13). Such a sensual scene: Bright flowers, sweet songs, succulent fruits, and fragrant vines. The richness of life and love could hardly be more obvious or desirable. “With springtime,” says biblical scholar Renita Weems, “comes belief in new adventures, new possibilities, and, most of all, a new outlook on life.”
These are the promises of the Song of Solomon, including both the sensual and the spiritual. When we dare to open this book, we discover new adventures, possibilities, and outlooks. First, adventure. In the book of Genesis, Abraham sends a servant back to his homeland to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant travels many miles, and at the well of a city he prays that a young woman will offer him water. When Rebekah appears and does this, the servant knows that his prayers have been answered (Gen 24:42-49). He asks for the permission of Rebekah’s family, and then he takes her home, where Isaac takes “Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her” (Gen 24:67). The journey of God’s people, from the book of Genesis onward, has always included the adventure of entering new territory, seeking and finding partners, falling in love and building a family.
Next, possibilities. Jesus knew that many religious people have a problem with the sensual parts of life. But he was no ascetic — he ate and drank with friends, and enjoyed the pleasures of touch, taste, smell and sight. When his critics saw him eating and drinking, they said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt 11:19). But Jesus understood that there were possibilities for connections across dinner tables, so he practiced radical hospitality, eating with outcasts so that they could discover God’s desire for a relationship with them. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). The Song of Solomon is a colorful picture of healthy human connections — physical, emotional and spiritual.
Finally, a new outlook on life. When we imagine Christ leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills, we see a Messiah who has a burning desire to be with us. When we read of a servant crossing a desert to find a wife, or a Savior reaching across a table to welcome us, we understand that our God is doing everything that can be done to make a connection with us. The result is a new outlook on life, one in which we see ourselves as people who are desired by Jesus Christ and Almighty God. Not just accepted, but deeply desired. We are their love, their fair one, the one they invite to “come away” and enjoy eternal life. This passage from the Song of Solomon is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it beckons us with the words, “Let me see your face, let me hear your voice” (Song 2:14). We are invited to show ourselves, speak, and spend our life with God. The Lord wants us to surrender to this desire and to live with God forever.
Questions: How does human desire reflect God’s desire for us? What is the importance of adventure in the life of faith? Where do you see new possibilities in your relationship with God?
April 05, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Ecclesiastes, by Henry G. Brinton
Where do you see narcissism in the world, and what harm does it do? Join the conversation through a comment below.
Ecclesiastes is a wisdom book which contains the words of “the Teacher” or “the Preacher,” identified as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Eccl 1:1). The book addresses the ultimate questions of life and death, beginning with the observation that “all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). The Teacher — called Qoheleth in Hebrew — takes a cold-eyed look at the world, and he certainly isn’t the philosopher to consult if you need some cheering up. “All is vanity,” Ecclesiastes insists: All is worthless, meaningless, absurd; as solid as vapor, fog and steam. The Teacher surveys society and spots extreme pride in human appearance and accomplishments. He looks around and sees narcissism — defined as excessive self-love and admiration.
According to Psychology Today, narcissism can range from an annoying tendency to a serious clinical disorder. We aren’t talking just about people who imitate the character Narcissus, the handsome young man of Greek mythology who withdrew from the world, content to gaze forever at his own reflection in a pool of water. People with this kind of vanity are pathetic but basically harmless.
No, real-life narcissists desperately need other people to validate their own worth. “It’s not so much being liked,” says Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University. “It’s much more important to be admired. Studies have shown narcissists are willing to sacrifice being liked if they think it’s necessary to be admired.” Vain people want to be admired for being unique, even though Ecclesiastes knows that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).
This craving for admiration is a red flag, one of the clearest warning signs of narcissism. So how can we spot this tendency in ourselves and in the people around us, and what can we do about it? We can take instruction from the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, who examines all the human deeds that are done under the sun and concludes, “All is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 1:14). At first glance, this seems to be a depressing picture of human life. It’s hard to accept that absolutely everything is meaningless. But on a deeper level, the Teacher is saying that we do not gain self-worth from our accomplishments. “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” he asks. Nothing. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Eccl 1:3-4).
He also implies that our self-worth does not come from our possessions. “All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (Eccl 1:8). We look around at things we want, and our appetite is rarely satisfied. Ecclesiastes says that we shouldn’t be admired for our human deeds or our possessions. Instead, our worth comes completely from being children of God. Everything else is vanity.
In addition, we cannot remain at the center of things forever. “The people of long ago are not remembered,” says the Teacher, “nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (Eccl 1:11). Narcissists don’t like this, because they like to be seen and remembered. The Teacher says, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 1:14). The truth of human life is that our days are numbered, and our deeds and accomplishments are going to fade away when we’re gone. Ecclesiastes knows that the cycles of nature will continue whether we are living in the world or not: “The sun rises and the sun goes down … The wind blows … All streams run to the sea … they continue to flow” (Eccl 1:5-7).
Scripture says that we’re created from the dust of the earth, and to dust we shall return. In the first of his letters, Peter says, “All flesh is like grass … The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Pet 1:24-25). Both the Teacher and Peter have a profound insight into the transience of human life — we grow and wither like grass, while the word of the Lord endures. Moving beyond vanity begins when people discover that they cannot find self-worth in accomplishments or possessions, nor can they remain at the center of things forever. Only when narcissists ask why their lives feel so empty do they take a step toward truly life-giving relationships with God and with the people around them.
Jesus teaches us that God — not ourselves — should be at the center of our lives, and that the greatest of commandments is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He goes on to say that a second commandment is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). To focus on God and neighbor is the opposite of narcissism and is also the antidote to vanity.
This passage from Ecclesiastes is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it teaches us that the solution to narcissism isn’t self-hatred. Instead, it’s a set of healthy relationships with God, with self, and with the people of God around us. In a world of vanity, vapor and steam, this is where we can find a solid, meaningful life.
Questions: Where do you see narcissists in the world, and what harm do they do? Why are accomplishments and possessions a poor measure of self-worth? How are we helped by focusing on relationships with God and neighbor?
April 04, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Proverbs, by Henry G. Brinton
Wisdom is a woman in the Book of Proverbs. What is she saying to you? Join the conversation through a comment below.
The question of how to live a good life is at the heart of the Book of Proverbs, a collection of short, pithy sayings. The book begins with words about wisdom and knowledge, and the eighth chapter describes wisdom as a woman, a female figure who takes her stand in the middle of human society and cries out, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live” (Prov 8:4). In this chapter, Wisdom offers her insights to everyone who is willing to listen, and she promises wonderful gifts to anyone who will embrace her — gifts of intelligence, truth, instruction, knowledge, justice, righteousness and wealth (Prov 8:5-21).
Wisdom doesn’t give her gifts only to undergrads at Harvard, or techno-geeks at Microsoft, or think-tankers in the Nation’s Capital. Her cry “is to all that live” (Prov 8:4). Wisdom is generous to all who are willing to open their hearts and minds to what she offers, and today she pours her gifts into the auto mechanic who analyzes car problems with uncommon intelligence; the grandmother who knows the truth about what makes people tick; the elementary school teacher who can both instruct and inspire her students; the counselor who shows real knowledge about the workings of human relationships; the attorney who has a passion for justice; the high-school student who resists peer pressure; and the entrepreneur who finds that she or he can do well by doing good.
Wisdom will speak only “noble things,” and all the words of her mouth “are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them” (Prov 8:6-8). Her gifts are “better than jewels,” she says, “and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Prov 8:11). When we look at ourselves, and at people around us, we realize that wisdom is reserved not only for people with the most distinguished diplomas and powerful professions — in fact, the nightly news reveals that there is plenty of folly and foolishness at the highest levels of academics, business and politics. True insight is available to all people everywhere who are willing to open their hearts and their minds to the wisdom of God. “I love those who love me,” says Wisdom, “and those who seek me diligently find me” (Prov 8:17).
Such people are smart bricks in the “spiritual house” that God is building in the world (1 Pet 2:5). They are “living stones,” building blocks that are “chosen and precious in God’s sight” (1 Pet 2:4). They are like the smart bricks that actually exist in the world of modern high-tech construction, building materials that can serve as a very good metaphor for the people of God. Invented by Professor Chang Liu at the University of Illinois, the smart brick is filled with electronic sensors that can continuously monitor the structural health of a building. Such a smart brick can be a real asset in terms of routine maintenance and safety in emergencies, because it allows engineers and emergency personnel to acquire real-time information on a building’s structural integrity.
Smart bricks are a good image for us to keep in mind as we ponder our role as people of God in the world today. Smart bricks understand how the world is put together, because they are in touch with Wisdom, who stood beside God “like a master worker” in the original ordering of creation (Prov 8:30). She was created by the LORD at the beginning of God’s work, “at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Prov 8:22-23). Here, Wisdom is an agent of God the Creator, says Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, ordering creation in such a way that it is “permitted to function in abundant, life-giving ways.” Smart bricks are committed to building up, not breaking down. They are constructive, not destructive. They stand together and work together, instead of splitting apart and shattering the efforts of others. They join the wisdom of God in rejoicing in God’s “inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:31).
Many people see a connection between Divine Wisdom and Jesus, the one who is the Word of God in human form. Wisdom was present at the beginning of God’s work, and “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Wisdom was a master worker, and in similar manner “all things came into being through [the Word]” (John 1:2). Wisdom delighted in the human race, and “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Although Divine Wisdom and Jesus the Word are not identical, they share the mission of helping the human race.
Each of us, in our own ways, can follow the example of Wisdom and Jesus in building up instead of breaking down. We can be constructive, not destructive. We can stand together and work together, instead of splitting apart and shattering each other’s efforts. This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it tells us that Divine Wisdom shares her life-giving gifts with us — gifts of intelligence, truth, instruction, knowledge, justice, and righteousness. With the Wisdom of God inside us, we can build a better world. One brick at a time.
Questions: Where do you see examples of Divine Wisdom in the people around you? What does it mean to you to be a “smart brick” in God’s spiritual house? How do you try to follow the example of Divine Wisdom and Jesus?
April 03, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Psalms, by Henry G. Brinton
In these stressful times, we need the assurance that God is changeless. Join the conversation through a comment below.
The Hebrew title for this book is Tehillim, which is translated as “praises.” Together, this collection of praise songs served as the hymnbook of the people of Israel. “The Book of Psalms has no plot to summarize, no narrative to recall,” writes professor of Old Testament Tyler Mayfield. “It is a collection of 150 prayers and songs that give praise to God, Zion, and the king; give thanks to God and ask God for deliverance; announce trust in God; and petition God.”
Although these songs and prayers have great breadth, they also have depth. The most famous is Psalm 23, which describes God as a shepherd who cares for us in every time and place and situation. This God is eternally faithful to us, surrounding us with steadfast love in both life and in death. From a geometric point of view, you could say that the God of Psalm 23 is a circle, encompassing all of life with perfect symmetry. And while this might seem like an odd description of God, it connects nicely with both human desires and the structure of the universe.
According to scientific research, symmetry is inherently attractive to the human eye. At a very young age, children are drawn to people with similarity between the left and right sides of the face. On top of this, the universe appreciates symmetry. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Frank Wilczek says that “the world is a piece of art,” distinctive for “the outstanding role of symmetry.” He points to a shape found throughout the universe — the circle — which is symmetrical because “you can rotate it around its center and it will remain a circle.” In physics and mathematics, the principle of symmetry can be described as “change without change.”
The shepherd of Psalm 23 is, like the circle, an example of “change without change.” God is symmetrical in the sense that God is the same from any angle: A shepherd who “makes me lie down in green pastures … leads me beside still waters … restores my soul … leads me in right paths” … and then a host who prepares “a table” and anoints “my head with oil” (Psalm 23:2-5). What is true for the circle is also true for God: The circle rotates, but still remains a circle. God is active as a protective shepherd and as a gracious host, but still remains God. Change without change.
Psalm 23 is also a circle that turns through a number of daily activities. This is “a psalm about living,” says biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “for it puts daily activities, such as eating, drinking and seeking security, in a radically God-centered perspective.” The psalm takes us through the cycle of life, and challenges us to put God at the center. “The Lord is my shepherd,” says the psalm, “I shall not want.” In the ancient world, kings were supposed to be the shepherds of their people, and in the circle of Psalm 23, God is portrayed as the greatest of shepherds, providing food in “green pastures,” drink from “still waters,” and guidance in “right paths” (Psalm 23:1-3).
The circle keeps turning, from food to drink to physical safety, and, in all of these areas, God gives us everything we need. Through all of the changes of life, God consistently provides for us, even in the most challenging and stressful of circumstances — serious illness, betrayal by a friend, marital problems, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” says the psalm, “I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Bible scholar McCann says that this verse is “the structural and theological center of Psalm 23,” reminding us that even in “the most life-threatening situation, God’s provision is sufficient.” This verse describes the character of the shepherd who is at the center of the circle. Everything else revolves around it.
As the circle of the psalm continues to turn, God transitions from a caring shepherd to a gracious host. Once again, God’s goodness remains constant while the situation changes. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” says the writer of the psalm; “you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5). In this section, the host does exactly what the shepherd did at the beginning of the psalm — provides food, drink and protection. Change without change.
Through all of the difficult and disturbing changes of live, we are cared for by a changeless God. Although we face threats to our physical, emotional and spiritual health, we have a God at the center of our lives who gives us the assurance that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:6). God offers us a symmetrical life — one in which today’s threats are balanced by God’s help, today’s needs are balanced by God’s gifts, and tomorrow’s uncertainties are balanced by God’s promises. Psalm 23 is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reveals to us that God is eternally faithful to us, change without change, and that God is constantly at work in our lives, giving us everything we need.
Questions: How have you experienced God as a shepherd and a host? In a changing world, what does it mean to say God is changeless? What is the value of having God at the center of your life?
April 02, 2020
Self Quarantine Bible Study
Job, by Henry G. Brinton
What does it mean to be a creature in relation to the Creator? Join the conversation through a comment below.
Job is the first of five poetic books, the beginning of a new section of the Bible that includes Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The Book of Job is the story of a blameless and upright man who experienced the loss of his property, his children and his health, throwing him into a profound personal crisis. Although Job had lived a righteous life, he suffered for no reason that he could discern, and the book raises the question of why really bad things happen to truly good people.
His wife responded to his situation by saying to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). A group of friends accused Job of wrongdoing, and suggested that his suffering was a punishment for sin. Then God shifted Job’s perspective by inviting him into deep reflection about who he was is in relation to God, without giving quick or easy answers.
We need to do this kind of deep work, now more than ever. In the world today, our electronic devices are constantly calling out to us, but research is revealing that we really should make an effort to avoid distractions. In his Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam profiles Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport says that when we let text messages, phone calls, emails or Facebook messages guide our workday, we’re weakening our ability to do the most challenging kind of work — what Newport calls “deep work.” This is the work that requires sustained attention, such as writing a report, solving an engineering problem or doing significant research.
The solution to distractions, according to Newport, is to do what we can to set aside long portions of many days to focus on deeper thinking. This means no social media, limited email and strict limits on appointments. The result is a life that is richer and more human than a life of robotically responding to emails and messages.