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Strolling Through the Book of Lamentations September 29, 2017

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I recently strolled through the Book of Lamentations with the aid of a commentary by Calvin.

This post includes a summary of Lamentations and my thoughts on that challenging – yet important – book.

Summary: In this book, the author presents a plethora of laments concerning:

  • the decline and fall of Jerusalem and Judah
  • the desecration – and destruction – of the temple by the Babylonian soldiers
  • the executions of nobles
  • random killings by the Babylonian soldiers
  • widespread famine
  • the suffering of infants – and their deaths at the hands of their mothers
  • widespread rapes
  • child slavery
  • the exile of his compatriots
  • the glee of the enemies of Judah in response to her downfall
  • the insults of those who oppose his ministry.

Yet he asserts that these calamities are the natural result of the sinfulness of his compatriots, as God cannot ignore their evil deeds.

Thus, he exhorts his compatriots to:

  • reflect on their evil deeds
  • repent of them
  • beseech God to forgive them of their sins.

It should be noted that he wrestles with God throughout this book. On the one hand, he:

  • struggles with the fact that God has brought these calamities on His people
  • wonders if these calamities constitute an overreaction on His part
  • wonders if He has permanently abandoned His people.

On the other hand, he:

  • declares his confidence in God – given His permanence
  • entreats Him to punish the enemies of His people – especially the Edomites
  • entreats Him to punish those who oppose his ministry
  • entreats Him to restore His people to His favor.

Thoughts: This book contains many haunting phrases, including, “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals” and “He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away.” Perhaps one could argue that anthropomorphisms are a valuable tool in the hands of a poet. On a related note, I wish that I could read Hebrew – as that would have given me an even greater appreciation of this book. For example, each of the first four chapters constitutes an acrostic poem in Hebrew; the beauty of that structure is lost in translation, though. Clearly, it is praiseworthy when the Holy Spirit works through His servants to leverage the power of language for His glory.

In verse 10 of chapter 3, the author compares God to a bear and a lion. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Harsh is the complaint when Jeremiah compares God to a bear and to a lion. I have already said that the apprehension of God’s wrath terrified the faithful of that day so much that they could not sufficiently express the depth of their calamity. We must also bear in mind that they were expressing themselves in a human way. They did not always curb their feelings but said some things that they deserved to be rebuked for.

Calvin’s thoughts raise the following question: when we, as believers, wrestle with God in our prayers, what constitutes appropriate dialogue in that context? Clearly God has given us the ability to think and reason; how much latitude, then, does He allow us in terms of questioning His will? He knows that we are not omniscient and that we lack His ability to see the future; does He account for those limitations when evaluating our difficulties in comprehending His will? How can we properly struggle with God in our prayers while maintaining our confidence and trust in Him? One must wonder if God disapproved of at least some parts of this book…

This book is replete with jarring images of the pain and suffering that pervaded Judah after the Babylonian invasion. While these images make for unpleasant reading, one thought is that they provide us with a better understanding of the infinite holiness of God. While we cannot measure the extent of His holiness, we can learn more about it in light of His response to sin. Indeed, it is evident that the people of Judah had committed a plethora of sins before the Babylonian invasion. Each of these sins had offended His infinite holiness – compelling Him to respond in a manner that defended His holiness. As modern-day readers, this book should spur us to ponder the extent of His holiness; moreover, in light of His permanence, we should consider whether our words and deeds properly reflect His holiness.

Overall I found this book to be a challenging read, as it contains seemingly contradictory messages. On the one hand, the author expresses his confidence in God in verses 21-24 of chapter 3:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.

On the other hand, the author seems to express doubts concerning God and His faithfulness in verses 19-22 of chapter 5:

You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

Perhaps these seemingly contradictory messages are included to highlight the emotional turmoil within the author as he wrote this book. While the power of the Holy Spirit was upon him at that time, he was not immune to human weaknesses and frailties. As modern-day readers, we cannot ignore the extent of his pain concerning the downfall of his nation. On a related note, those of us who live in First World countries may have difficulty feeling empathy with the author. We often hear of calamities in less prosperous nations, yet since we often do not know those who have been directly affected by these events, it is relatively easy for us to gloss over them.

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A Message About Babylon September 1, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 50-51.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah to declare His comprehensive judgment on the Babylonians.

He states that they have committed the following offenses:

  • worshiping false deities – especially Marduk
  • displaying pride and arrogance – especially in relation to their military and their economy
  • plundering the land that He gave to His people
  • genocide against His people
  • desecrating the temple.

He then asserts that their nation will be invaded by the Persians. At that time, He will use the Persians as His sword to:

  • expose their false gods
  • cause them to be paralyzed with fear
  • slay their mercenaries
  • plunder their land
  • commit acts of genocide against them.

Their demise will elicit horror – and scorn – from neighboring countries.

He intersperses words of comfort to His people. In particular, He asserts that He will:

  • preserve them as a nation during the Persian invasion of Babylon
  • enable them to return to the land that He gave them
  • enable them to praise Him as their deliverer from Babylon
  • enable them to praise Him for His justice in punishing the Babylonians
  • establish a new covenant with them.

Jeremiah concludes by instructing a staff officer, Seraiah son of Neriah, to proclaim this message of judgment in Babylon itself.

Thoughts: This lengthy passage displays the holiness of God, as He proclaims His comprehensive judgment on those who attempt to besmirch His name by plundering the land that He gave to His people and committing acts of genocide against His people. It should be noted that while the language in this passage is reminiscent of previous passages that describe His judgment of other neighboring nations, a novel feature of this passage entails the five references to “the north.” These five references compel the reader to recall His declaration in Jeremiah 1 that, “from the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.” As Babylon had brought judgment on Judah from the north, the Medes and Persians would bring judgment on Babylon from the north. This demonstrates His justice; He properly repays the Babylonians for their offenses.

On a similar note, this lengthy passage offers additional encouragement to believers around the world who endure persecution. These verses remind them that God does not turn a blind eye to their sufferings; indeed, He will vindicate them – displaying His holiness in the process. As believers, we trust that just as He vindicated the people of Judah – through the successful invasion of Babylon by the Persians – He will vindicate His people who suffer for His name. As a believer who is not being persecuted for their faith, I believe that this passage compels me to continue to pray for my brothers and sisters who lack the legal and social protections that I enjoy. I pray that they would have the strength to glorify His name in the midst of their sufferings, and I pray that God would grant them a significant reward in the next life.

In verses 61-64 of chapter 51, we see that Jeremiah commands Seraiah to proclaim God’s message of judgment in Babylon itself. I am curious as to whether the Babylonians learned of this message of judgment – whether they witnessed Seraiah’s declaration or heard it secondhand. If so, how did they respond to the forceful words in this message? Did they place their trust in their deities and the strength of their empire, dismissing this message as mere bluster from a vassal state? Did they attempt to punish Seraiah – and, by extension, Jeremiah – for their treasonous declaration? Did they recall this message when their land was invaded by the Persians? Did they ever acknowledge the sovereignty of the God of Judah?

A Message About Elam August 29, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 49:34-39.

Summary: In this passage, God proclaims His comprehensive judgment on the Elamites.

He will compel their enemies to:

  • massacre them
  • drive the survivors into exile.

Yet He concludes with a note of encouragement, stating that He will eventually restore the Elamites to their land.

Thoughts: I am also curious as to why God pronounced His judgment on Elam in this passage. Had the Elamites attacked Israel and/or Judah? Did the Elamites render assistance to Nebuchadnezzar during his invasion of Judah? Was God primarily punishing them for worshiping false gods? Did He intend to send a powerful message to His people that they should not place their trust in any entities other than Himself? Had Israel and/or Judah been tempted to form an alliance with the Elamites? How did His people respond to the news concerning the downfall of the Elamites? When did He bless the Elamites and restore them to their land?

A Message About Kedar and Hazor August 26, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 49:28-33.

Summary: In this passage, God proclaims His comprehensive judgment on Kedar and Hazor.

He will compel Nebuchadnezzar to attack these nomads. Indeed, the Babylonians will:

  • defeat them
  • plunder them
  • ravage their territory.

Thoughts: I am curious as to why God pronounced His judgment on Kedar and Hazor in this passage. Had these nomads attacked Israel and/or Judah? Did they render assistance to Nebuchadnezzar during his invasion of Judah? Was God primarily punishing them for worshiping false gods? Did He intend to send a powerful message to His people that they should not place their trust in any entities other than Himself? Had Israel and/or Judah been tempted to form an alliance with these nomads? How did His people respond to the news that these nomads had been defeated?

A Message About Damascus August 14, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 49:23-27.

Summary: In this passage, God proclaims His comprehensive judgment on the kingdom of Syria.

He will cause the denizens of Hamath, Arpad and Damascus to be paralyzed with fear – before they are slain by their enemies. Moreover, He will compel their enemies to raze their cities.

Thoughts: Here, we see that God plans to judge the kingdom of Syria. Calvin offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 23:

The Syrians had from the beginning been very hostile to the Israelites and had often attacked them. The kings of Israel then made a treaty with the Syrians in order to attack their fellow Jews in Judah. In this way the Syrians caused great trouble to the Jews and were friends to the Israelites until both kingdoms were attacked by the Babylonians.

This passage is yet another reminder of the futility of not placing one’s ultimate trust in God Himself. Israel – and Judah – repeatedly sought deliverance from their enemies by forging alliances with their pagan neighbors; while these alliances may have yielded short-term benefits, the people of God were inevitably ruined by their long-term costs. Here, God demonstrates to His people that He is sovereign over their pagan neighbors – and their false deities; moreover, He will exercise His sovereignty over their pagan neighbors by destroying them. Thus, His people should acknowledge His sovereignty in their words and deeds. As modern-day believers, this passage challenges us to consider whether we, too, acknowledge His sovereignty in our words and deeds.

A Message About Edom August 12, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 49:7-22.

Summary: In this passage, God proclaims His comprehensive judgment on the Edomites.

He states that they have offended him with their pride and arrogance.

Thus, He will compel foreign powers to crush them by sacking their cities. Moreover, He will enable their attackers to drive the survivors into exile.

Their demise will elicit horror – and scorn – from neighboring countries.

Thoughts: Here, we see that God punishes the prideful and arrogant Edomites. Calvin offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 7:

Here Jeremiah turns to the Edomites, who were inveterate enemies of the chosen people although they should have been kindly disposed to them, for both had Abraham as their ancestor. The Edomites gloried in their holy descent and also had circumcision in common with the Jews. It was a most impious cruelty for the Edomites to show such bitter hatred toward their blood relatives.

This passage reminds me of a particularly challenging section of Scripture: Romans 9:10-13, where God states that Jacob would be blessed at the expense of Esau – according to His sovereign choice. Those who are familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau may have difficulty comprehending the rationale for God’s favor toward Jacob – as he essentially deceived Isaac on two separate occasions to obtain the blessings that were intended for Esau. One thought on this point is that since God is sovereign, our inability to comprehend His sovereignty does not detract from it. As He is perfect, His perfection cannot be marred by the failings of our imperfect minds. While He gives us considerable latitude to wrestle with Him on thorny issues, in the end He calls us to worship Him and acknowledge His supremacy – despite our inability to grasp it.

In verse 11, we see that God commands the Edomites to place their orphans and widows under His protection. Calvin offers some insights on this point:

The prophet goads the Edomites when God says, mockingly, that he will protect their orphans and widows.

One of the questions in my NIV Study Bible actually concerns the meaning of this verse; the answer that is provided in that text references God’s intention to mock the Edomites as a potential explanation in that regard. Thus, I am curious: did God actually intend to harm the orphans and widows of the Edomites? If so, did He intend to prove that the sins of the Edomites were so great that He had to punish their entire community? Also, if God did harm these orphans and widows, did they ultimately enter His kingdom? Admittedly, it is difficult to reconcile this verse with our understanding of God and His concern for those who are disadvantaged. Indeed, in this book we see that He punishes the people of Judah for their mistreatment of those who are disadvantaged.

A Message About Ammon August 9, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 49:1-6.

Summary: In this passage, God proclaims His comprehensive judgment on the Ammonites.

He states that they have committed the following offenses:

  • worshiping false deities – especially Molech
  • displaying pride and arrogance – especially in relation to their economy
  • occupying the land that He gave to His people.

Thus, He will compel foreign powers to crush them by sacking their cities. Those who survive this calamity will mourn and wail, yet He will not stay the hand of their enemies. In fact, He will enable their enemies to exile the survivors from their land.

Yet He concludes with a note of encouragement, stating that He will eventually restore the Ammonites to their land.

Thoughts: Here, we see that God charges the Ammonites with several offenses. Now this book contains an additional offense on the part of the Ammonites against the people of Judah: we know from verse 14 of chapter 40 that Baalis king of the Ammonites plotted the murder of Gedaliah son of Ahikam. That offense drives home the point that the Ammonites deserved to be punished by God. Now I am curious: was Baalis affected by God’s punishment of his subjects? Also, how did God restore the fortunes of the Ammonites? Did they acknowledge His sovereignty at that time? Did they confess their sins before Him and repent of them?

A Message About Moab August 5, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 48.

Summary: In this passage, God proclaims His comprehensive judgment on the Moabites.

He states that they have committed the following offenses:

  • defying Him
  • displaying pride and arrogance – especially in relation to their military and their economy
  • worshiping false deities – especially Chemosh
  • scorning His people.

Thus, He will compel a foreign power to crush them by sacking their cities and ruining their vineyards. Many of them will be slain; moreover, the survivors will mourn and wail, yet He will not stay the hand of that foreign power. In fact, He will enable that foreign power to exile the survivors from their land.

Yet He concludes with a note of encouragement, stating that He will eventually restore the Moabites to their land.

Thoughts: In verse 7, we see that the Moabite deity “Chemosh will go into exile, together with his priests and officials.” I view this verse as an assertion of the supremacy of God. Indeed, He worked through the unnamed foreign power in this passage to demonstrate the relative impotence of Chemosh – to the extent that this deity is poetically described as being banished from its territory. This verse is also a valuable reminder to modern-day believers that God is superior to the false deities who wield their influence throughout this fallen world. He will defeat these false deities – in His timing – and put all those who place their confidence in them to shame. Thus, we should be on our guard, lest we unwittingly place our confidence in these impotent deities.

In verse 47, we see that God promises to “restore the fortunes of Moab.” This promise is similar to His words of encouragement to the Egyptians in verse 26 of chapter 46, where He states that “Egypt will be inhabited as in times past.” Note that He does not offer words of encouragement to the Philistines in chapter 47, though. Thus, I am curious: why did God decide to extend His grace to the Moabites and the Egyptians – while withholding it from the Philistines? Were the Philistines guilty of more egregious offenses than the Moabites and the Egyptians? Was God displaying His divine sovereignty through these words of encouragement? How did the Moabites and the Egyptians respond to God’s grace in the wake of their judgment?

Here, we see that God charges the Moabites with a litany of offenses, including pride and arrogance. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 30:

Whenever the ungodly boast, we should not be afraid, bearing in mind what the prophet teaches here. He says that this pride stems from their derision of God, but that it will not help them at all in their lives.

As a believer in a First World country, I am often tempted to boast of the advantages of my nation. For example, I could cite:

  • the strength of our military
  • the successful technologies that we have developed
  • the postgraduate programs that attract talented students from other nations.

Yet this passage – and, indeed, history itself – demonstrates that any prosperous entity will eventually be surpassed by another entity. Prosperous entities will experience a reversal in their fortunes. Thus, modern-day believers in First World countries should consider questions such as:

  • can we look beyond the advantages of our respective countries and maintain our focus on God?
  • are we aware of the difficulties experienced by believers and non-believers in other nations?
  • how can we leverage the advantages of our respective countries to advance His kingdom plan?
  • will our contributions to His kingdom plan transcend the inevitable decline of our nation?

Freedom for Slaves June 15, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 34:8-22.

Summary: In this passage, God pronounces judgment on His people. This stems from the following sequence of events:

  • the Babylonians had been besieging Jerusalem
  • the people of Jerusalem – along with King Zedekiah – made a covenant before Him that they would free their Hebrew slaves
  • the people of Jerusalem freed their Hebrew slaves
  • the Babylonians withdrew from Jerusalem – leading to a (temporary) cessation of their siege
  • the people of Jerusalem re-enslaved those whom they had freed.

In particular, by re-enslaving those whom they had freed, they have violated His command in Deuteronomy 15:12.

Thus, He declares that He will cause the Babylonians to resume their siege of Jerusalem. The city will fall, and many of His people will be slain.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the people of Jerusalem reneged on their promise to free their slaves after the Babylonians (temporarily) withdrew from their city. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Since King Zedekiah had been warned about this, he called the people together and, with everybody’s consent, proclaimed freedom to the slaves as God had commanded. But this was done in bad faith, for soon afterwards the slaves were taken back into slavery, and so treachery was added to cruelty. From this we see that they not only wronged their own brethren by imposing on them perpetual slavery, but they also wickedly profaned the sacred name of God, for they were violating a solemn oath.

This disappointing turn of events caused me to ponder the vows that we often make to God during trials – where we declare that if He will rescue us from our troubles, then we will honor Him for the rest of our lives. Yet we swiftly break our promises after He rescues us from our troubles. Clearly God knows that we cannot honor our vows – so why does He choose to rescue us from our troubles? Perhaps He has decided to adopt a long-term perspective when dealing with us. He knows that sanctification is a process, and He is willing to accept some amount of backsliding on our part. What He desires is that we also adopt a long-term perspective when dealing with Him; instead of making rash vows, we should maintain our confidence in Him and His sovereignty.

This passage also furnishes another example of God’s concern for those who are less fortunate. Indeed, His zeal for those who are less fortunate is displayed throughout this book, as He repeatedly charges His people with mistreatment of the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner. Perhaps this passage should remind us that, as modern-day believers, we must continue to serve as His conduits of blessing to those who are less fortunate today – lest He level the same charges at us that He presents in this book.

The False Prophet Hananiah May 18, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 28.

Summary: In this passage, the false prophet Hananiah son of Azzur attempts to discredit Jeremiah – declaring that God will:

  • deliver Judah from the oppression of Babylon within two years
  • bring all of the exiles in Babylon – and the articles of worship that Nebuchadnezzar looted – back to Judah at that time.

Jeremiah responds by appealing to God, declaring that He will reveal the veracity – or lack thereof – of Hananiah’s proclamations.

Hananiah refuses to retract his statements; moreover, he demonstrates his stubbornness by breaking the wooden yoke on Jeremiah’s neck.

Later, God responds by condemning Hananiah for his false prophecies and asserting that Babylon will oppress Judah for more than two years. After two months have passed, Hananiah receives the ultimate punishment for his blasphemous deeds when God slays him.

Thoughts: I found this passage to be fascinating, as it sharpens our understanding of the opposition that Jeremiah endured throughout his ministry. In particular, we see that Hananiah spoke with authority, utilizing phrases such as “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says,” “declares the Lord,” and “This is what the Lord says.” Jeremiah – and other genuine prophets of God – also utilized these phrases during their ministries; thus, we have a better sense as to why the people of Judah had difficulty discerning God’s voice at that time. They needed to distinguish between genuine and false prophets, and one obvious – in retrospect – approach was to ask: whose prophecies came to pass? In this case, since the exile in Babylon lasted for seventy – and not two – years, we see that Hananiah was a false prophet.

In verses 5-9, Jeremiah responds to Hananiah’s proclamations. The sidebar in my NIV Study Bible includes the following note:

Was Jeremiah being sarcastic? Probably. Some feel Jeremiah genuinely wanted the temple and the nation restored. But it’s more likely there was a sarcastic edge to his reply.

Calvin offers some related thoughts on Jeremiah’s response in his commentary on verses 5 and 6:

It was therefore Jeremiah’s object to turn aside the false suspicion under which he labored, and he testified that he desired nothing more than the well-being of the people…”May it happen in this way. I would willingly retract, and that with shame, all that I have predicted so far, so great is my care and anxiety for the safety of the public. For I would prefer the welfare of all the people to my own reputation.”

Thus, Calvin does not appear to detect any sarcasm in Jeremiah’s response. When I meet Jeremiah in the next life, I hope to query him on this point and learn more about his interactions with Hananiah – and other false prophets. Did he ever pray to God that they would repent of their sins and seek His forgiveness?