Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ezekiel 1-12: Ezekiel Makes a Case for Performing Arts?

So now we skip to Ezekiel.  At this point in my reading, I was relieved because Jeremiah was so depressing, and Ezekiel starts on a high note, what with the awesome visions of God and the cherubim and everything.  But it goes downhill from there.

Okay, so the visions.  There are two of them, and they very closely mirror John's vision of the throne of God in Revelation.  I've heard that ancient Jewish boys were not allowed to read Ezekiel until they were 30 because these visions were considered way too transcendent to be grasped by the young mind or something like that, but I'm not sure if that's true.  Most of what Ezekiel describes, interestingly enough, is not the appearance of God but the appearance of the cherubim.  They are weird freaky creatures!  They have four faces and four wings and are covered with eyes and have something like hands under their wings and there are these wheel things with them that move when they do, and somehow their spirits are contained within the wheels.  It kind of makes me want to try drawing a picture of it just so I can get an idea of what he's talking about, because I'm really not sure how the wheel idea works.  Fortunately, though, I don't have to, because a bunch of other people already did.  I did a Google Image Search for "Ezekiel cherubim" and found some interesting stuff.  Most of them forgot to add the eyes though.

Now when God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet, it's pretty interesting what He says.  He tells Ezekiel to speak to the house of Israel whether they will listen or not (2:7 and 3:11).  But then He says that at some point He will tell Ezekiel -not- to speak to anybody.  Apparently, our responsibility to do what God tells us does not depend on the immediate results we get.

The other interesting thing about these chapters, to me, is the stuff God has Ezekiel do to get his message out. First he tells Ezekiel to build a model of Jerusalem and lay siege against it, to show that Jerusalem will be under siege soon.  Then he has him lie down next to it and not get up for 390 days (he makes food ahead of time), and then again not for 40 days, corresponding to the number of years that Israel and Judah (respectively) have been walking in iniquity, as best as I can figure.  And during that time he's supposed to eat his food baked using human, um, excrement.  Ezekiel is really grossed out by this and God says he can use animal dung instead.  But ew! all the same.  Then later, God tells Ezekiel to pack up and dig through a wall and go out into exile to show Jerusalem that's what's going to happen to him.

Can you imagine if you saw a grown man make a Lego model of your town and then start attacking it?  That would be weird.  Or if he lay in the dirt for over a year, eating only what he had brought with him?  That would be disturbing.  That was Ezekiel's job.

The neat thing about this is that God is using something besides just preaching to get a message across.  He's using visual representation and physically acting out the prophecy in a symbolic way.  Hey, that sounds an awful lot like drama!  Ezekiel has become, in a very weird sense, a performing artist prophet.

This probably isn't the number one thing you're supposed to get out of reading Ezekiel 1-12, but for me, as a performing artist, it really stuck out.  There is a growing movement in the Western Church to use creative elements to worship God or to spread the gospel or to teach a biblical lesson.  I think the reaction to it so far has been pretty mixed.  Drama is probably the most accepted art form (next to music, obviously, although there are denominations which don't believe in using musical instruments); visual art and dance, on the other hand, are a little iffy.  Don't believe me?  Go to a Catholic or high-tradition Protestant (like Lutheran or Episcopal) church and look at how much visual material there is (stained glass windows, etc.).  Then go to a lower-tradition Protestant church (such as Baptist or non-denominational) and look at how much visual material is there - I'm guessing that the most you'll see in the sanctuary is a cross somewhere.  This is, of course, because of the 2nd commandment - don't make an image to represent God so that you have something physical to worship.  Ever since the Iconoclast Controversy in the Catholic church, many Christians have been concerned that all that visual material leads to worship of that material.

Dancing, though, is probably the most iffy art there is for Christians.  For so many centuries it was denounced by the Church or important leaders within the Church, although there were always some who objected to demonizing the art as a whole.  A few years ago I read an article that's actually fairly recent arguing that dance, while not inherently evil, probably always leads to bad things - the author claimed that it was the Israelites' dancing that angered Moses and caused him to break the original 10 Commandments, and even blamed Michal's anger at David's behavior on David!  As a dancer, I found this incredibly disturbing.  Fortunately, I think that with the rise of dance ministries (more than even the rise of Christian dance companies), people in the church are beginning to see dance as simply a visual, physical way of expressing an idea or emotion, and that expression can be worship.

Anyway, so back to Ezekiel.  It's just comforting to see that the things we're just now figuring out, Ezekiel was commanded by God to do.  He was using art, as it were, to tell a story or to present a message.  That is the purpose of art - not to be worshiped or even to draw attention to itself, but to tell you something about real life.  Art has a way of breaking down barriers.  A lot of people will not listen to a sermon, or if they hear something that starts to sound like one, they'll just close their ears.  The arts have the ability to reach beyond our defenses and speak straight to our hearts, sometimes without us even knowing it at first.  That's why they're so powerful, and maybe that's why God had Ezekiel do this.

Or, you know, maybe He was saying it's okay to let your kids play in the dirt.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jeremiah 46-52: Prophecies against Other Nations

What's interesting to me about the prophets is that they have prophecies to other nations (that is, besides Israel and Judah) at all.  After all, Israel and Judah are the nations God sent them to.  So I think in a way these prophecies were for their benefit, to show them that God wasn't just picking on them, and also that the nations around them who were corrupt or whatever would get punished too.  Also there are asides in some of these that are directly for the Jews - for instance, at the end of the prophecy against Egypt God tells his own people that even though he's going to destroy Egypt, he's going to save the nation of Israel - they're going to be punished, but not wiped out completely.

The other interesting thing to me about these prophesies are that sometimes God says he's going to completely destroy a nation - such as Kedar and Hazor and Babylon - but with some of the other nations, God promises eventual restoration.  He says, "I will restore the fortunes of _____" sometime in the future, and he says it of Moab, Ammon, and Elam.  I have no idea who Elam is, but Moab and Ammon were the sons of Lot's daughters (and also of Lot . . . eww), so they were kind of cousins to the Israelites.  So that's kind of neat I guess.

In the prophecy against Babylon, God promises to return Judah to the promised land and that in those days "search will be made for the iniquity of Israel, but there will be none; and for the sins of Judah, but they will not be found; for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant."

The wording at the end of that sentence is very important for Christians, I think - "for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant."  I have been reflecting recently on the difference between a pardon and an exoneration in legal terminology.  When a defendant is exonerated, it means that it is officially declared they did not commit the crime and therefore cannot be charged for it; they are innocent.  A pardon is when a person who has already been convicted of a crime is forgiven of that crime.  It's still understood that they were guilty of the crime, but they no longer have to serve the consequences of doing it (jail time or whatever it is).

When we are saved, we are not exonerated.  God, for whatever reason, doesn't remove our pasts and make it so that we never sinned.  He also doesn't pretend like we never sinned (God doesn't pretend, I don't think). Instead he gives us a pardon: he says "yes, you did these crimes against me, but you are no longer responsible for the punishment - I'll take care of that."  He frees us from our prisons and lets us live again.  And it's not because we deserved it.

Some people might think it's unjust of God to pardon criminals, especially if they don't do anything to deserve that pardon.  God is just - he does require that the debt be paid - but it was paid by Jesus when he shed his innocent blood in our place.  God is just, but he is also merciful, and he loves us so much that he made a way to come to us when we lacked the strength to go to him.  The great thing about God is, and Jeremiah 51 makes this point, nobody can tell God he did the wrong thing and get him in trouble for it.  When I was in college, my history professor was the chair of the history department.  He would cancel class from time to time when he was going to visit his grandchildren out of state or something like that.  And nobody could tell him not to, because he was the head of his department (I guess the dean or vice president or president could've told him not to, but on the other hand he'd been there longer than any of them put together so they pretty much let him do things the way he wanted).  There's nobody above God.  He gets to make the rules.  That would be a scary thought if you didn't trust God.  If you believe that God is good and just, then it's a comfort.

In chapter 52, the fall of Jerusalem is described again, including the blinding of Zedekiah and the murder of his sons (not in that order).  But at the very end it says that Jehoiachin, who was the king of Judah before Pharaoh put Zedekiah up, finds favor with the king of Babylon (this is after Nebuchadnezzar), and the king restores him to his former title, although he stays in Babylon, and he gets to eat at the king's table the rest of his life.  I don't really know why the king of Babylon did that or what affect it had on Jehoiachin or the people of Judah, but I think it's a nice note to end such a depressing book on.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jeremiah 39-45: Consequences of Disobedience

We've now reached the part of the story where it all hits the fan, and a lot of the stuff Jeremiah has been warning and prophesying about, happens.

First, the wall of Jerusalem is finally breached after a siege that lasted over a year.  Nebuchadnezzar's men overtake the city; King Zedekiah and his whole army try to sneak out, but the Chaldeans capture them.

Now let's review what Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to do: give yourself to the King of Babylon, basically surrender, and you'll be okay.  Zedekiah did not do that.  So now what happens is actually worse, I think, than just dying would have been: Nebuchadnezzar kills Zedekiah's sons right in front of him, and then blinds Zedekiah.  Imagine that - the last thing he saw was his children being brutally slaughtered.  That is harsh.  And Zedekiah is chained up and carried into captivity with just about everybody else.  Then the walls of Jerusalem are broken down and the city is burned.

Jeremiah, for some reason, is treated differently.  Nebuchadnezzar tells Nebuzaradan, the captain of his bodyguard, to do to Jeremiah whatever Jeremiah says he should.  So Jeremiah asks to remain in Jerusalem with the new governor-type guy of Judah that Nebuchadnezzar has appointed.  His name is Gedaliah.

Now I think Gedaliah is an okay guy.  He tells the Israelites what Jeremiah was telling them all along: don't be afraid of being under the Chaldeans (that's Babylon, remember); just stay here (the few who were not taken into exile) and things will go well for you.  So a bunch of Jews who had run off actually returned to the land.

But now there's this guy named Ishmael.  I don't know who he is, but some guy named Johanan confides in Gedaliah that Ishmael is planning to assassinate him (Gedaliah), but Gedaliah thinks it's a lie so he doesn't do anything about it.  And sure enough, Ishmael goes and kills him a short time later.  He also kills a bunch of other people and takes captive all the people who are left in Jerusalem and starts to take them to Ammon.  I have no idea why.  Was Ishmael an Ammonite, or just really screwed up?  But Johanan, the guy who had warned Gedaliah, takes some men and chases after Ishmael and gets all the captives back.  So that's good at least.

But now the people who are still in Judah are a little freaked out at what's happening.  They think it will be a really good idea to go to the one country that's been their ally for quite some time, Egypt (isn't that ironic after Exodus?).  And when you think about it, that does sound like a good idea.  Jerusalem has been burned; there's basically nothing and almost nobody left in the whole country, and the ones who are there are poor and helpless and now leaderless because their king has been exiled and the leader left to replace him has just been murdered, and who knows who's going to lead them now.  Egypt is rich and prosperous and they figure they can hide out there until things are going better in Judah and they can return.

So they ask Jeremiah if this is a good idea, and promise - actually they vow - to do whatever God says they ought to do, whether it's what they want to do or not.  Kind of weird that now they say they're going to listen to God.  What I find interesting about the exchange between the Israelites and Jeremiah is that they petition him to ask "the LORD your God," as if He's not their God too, and Jeremiah replies that he will pray to "the LORD your God," as if he's reminding them that He is.  I don't know if that's the reason for the "yours" or if that's just the way they happened to say it, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

God's response to the go-to-Egypt scheme is, don't do it.  Stay where you are and I'll take care of you, but if you go to Egypt, the enemies of Egypt will invade and you're going to die.  That is a pretty straightforward answer.  Now remember that oath the Jews just took to do whatever God said?  Yeah, they totally ignore that and say they're going to do what they want to do, because they think the reason all this bad stuff has happened is because they stopped sacrificing to pagan gods.  So they go down to Egypt anyway, and Jeremiah goes with them, and while in Egypt, Jeremiah prophesies the conquest of Egypt and destruction for the Jews who are there.  The only person whose promised life is Baruch, the guy who wrote Jeremiah's prophesies down a few chapters ago.  But that's about all he's going to get.

In light of what happened to Zedekiah and Jerusalem, you'd think the people would listen to Jeremiah.  After all, he's been right so far.  And I think they go to him for help because deep down they know he's right.  The trouble is, sometimes when we've made up our minds to do something, it doesn't matter whether we know we're right or wrong; we're going to do what we want to do and nothing can stop us.  I'm starting to think this is a bad attitude to have.

The other thing I learned from this story is, sometimes God calls us into dangerous and unpleasant situations.  It made sense to go to Egypt.  It would seem, from a practical standpoint, like the wise, prudent, and safe thing to do.  But God's wisdom confounds ours, and sometimes the things He wants us to do seem like foolishness to us and those around us.  Apparently God's not concerned with whether His ideas pass our test of "this makes sense."  He wants our obedience whether obedience makes sense or not, and whether it seems like a good idea or not.  The consequences of obedience may not be fame and prosperity and riches - they certainly weren't for Jeremiah and Baruch.  But the consequences of disobedience are far, far worse.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jeremiah 30-38: More of the Same

There are two main points to this passage: 1) the future deliverance of Israel and Judah, and 2) Jeremiah gets in trouble for telling people that Babylon is going to conquer Jerusalem.  It's kind of a recurring theme in this book, if you haven't noticed.

I really like this one passage in chapter 30 though.  Check this out:
"For thus says the LORD, 'Your wound is incurable, And your injury is serious.  There is no one to plead your cause; No healing for your sore, No recovery for you. . . . Why do you cry out over your injury? Your pain is incurable. Because your iniquity is great And your sins are numerous, I have done these things to you. . . .  I will restore you to health, And I will heal you of your wounds,' declares the LORD" (30:12-13, 15, 17a).

Basically every religion or philosophy in the history of religion has treated sin/evil as a problem that we need to overcome in order to be acceptable to God.  A lot of them treat it as something caused by something external to us - pleasure, society, ignorance, lack of resources, etc., and if we could just eliminate those things, we would be perfect.  But that's really wishful thinking.  Sin is a problem that is inside of us, inside of me.  I can remove myself from situations that tempt me to sin, but I cannot remove sin from within me.  In short, I can't make myself perfect.  Neither can you.  You can try all you want, but I promise you'll never succeed.  And here the Bible says this problem, this "wound," is incurable.  That's depressing, right?  But then it says that God will heal us, will remove the sickness.  Christianity - true Christianity - is the one religion in which it is God who makes man acceptable, not man who cleans himself up for God.  God chose to meet us where we are - not halfway or three-fourths of the way or almost there - He came all the way to where we are, broken and bleeding and utterly sick inside, touched us as we were in that state, and took the plague on Himself so we could be free of it.  That's the gospel.

There's a lot in this passage about God restoring Israel, about His faithfulness to her, including the famous verse "I have loved you with an everlasting love" (31:3a).  God promises to make a new covenant with His people, putting His laws within them in their hearts, and forgiving all their sins.  Once again, the problem of sin is addressed - God gave people the Law, but they didn't follow it.  Was there something wrong with the Law?  No, the problem was with the people.  The Law was outside them, and in their hearts they were still lawless.  We don't need more laws or new laws, we need new hearts.  That is what God gives us when we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Now, this is the part where it switches gears.  In chapter 32, King Zedekiah gets really fed up with Jeremiah and imprisons him, probably because Jeremiah was telling everybody that Nebuchadnezzar would conquer them and they should surrender, and now Jerusalem is under seige.  Jeremiah calls out to God, and God responds by telling him again what He is going to do - Nebuchadnezzar is going to capture the city and burn it, this is a punishment for all the sin of Judah, there is going to be a remnant preserved, and God will restore them to the promised land and set up a righteous King over Judah (pretty sure He means Jesus).  But in the mean time, he tells Jeremiah to tell Zedekiah what's in store for him: he's going to be captured, but not killed by Nebuchadnezzar (although honestly, what happens to him is probably worse than dying).

Oh, there's an interesting story in here that I want to mention.  God tells Jeremiah to invite some people over and serve them wine.  Jeremiah does so, but they say they can't drink wine because their whole family from generations back is under an oath not to drink wine or live in houses or grow vineyards, and they've all kept it.  God blesses these people (they're called Rechabites) for their obedience and uses them as a foil, of sorts, of Israel.  Here you have a bunch of people whose ancestors gave an oath to their father not to do some arbitrary stuff that isn't even wrong to do, and they've kept it all these years.  Israel, on the other hand, took a similar oath to obey God, and not do stuff that was actually bad, and they haven't kept it all no matter how hard God has tried to steer them back on track.  It's not like it was impossible to follow God's laws - the Rechabites have illustrated that it is possible to keep an oath your ancestors made - they just didn't do it.

So then there's another run-in with Zedekiah.  Jeremiah has this other guy named Baruch (Baruch is one of the few Hebrew words I know; it means "bless" or "blessed") write all his prophecies in a scroll, take it to the temple, and read it.  Some officials overhear him and want to take the message to the king, but they tell Baruch to hide while they take the scroll to Zedekiah.  It's a good thing they told him to do this, because when Zedekiah hears the scroll read, he cuts it up and throws it into the fire and gives orders to seize Baruch and Jeremiah.  Luckily they stay hidden.

I wonder if the officials who heard Baruch really thought Zedekiah would listen to the scroll?  After all, he had just thrown Jeremiah in prison.

Later, Jeremiah is trying to take a trip, and he's captured because a guard thinks he's defecting to the Chaldeans (that's Babylon).  They put him in jail, but King Zedekiah sends for him.  This is where things get interesting.  Zedekiah is the guy who threw Jeremiah in prison and burned up his scroll, but now it starts to seem like Zedekiah actually wants to listen to Jeremiah.  The two men talk, and Zedekiah gives Jeremiah a little bit more freedom (confines him to the guardhouse) and commands him to be given a ration of bread for as long as there's any bread in Jerusalem.  Then later, some guys hear Jeremiah preaching and throw him into a cistern, which is basically a well that's gone dry (well, mostly dry).  But some guy finds out and reports it to Zedekiah, and Zedekiah orders him to be taken out of the well and has another interview with him.  We find out that Zedekiah is really just afraid of the Jews.  Some of them have gone over to the Chaldeans and Zedekiah is afraid that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, he's going to be turned over to them.  Jeremiah tells him that won't happen and that it'll be in his best interests to surrender now.  Zedekiah sounds like he believes him, but he makes Jeremiah promise not to tell anybody what they've talked about, and he doesn't follow Jeremiah's instructions because he's afraid of his officials.

I think I know what's going on here.  See, Zedekiah is not actually the rightful king of Judah.  He was set up by Nebuchadnezzar in place of Josiah's son Jehoiachin, but Jehoiachin is still alive.  I think Zedekiah is worried that if he does anything to upset the delicate balance that is Jerusalem right now, he's going to get fired, either by Nebuchadnezzar or by his own people.  I think he's worried that the people haven't fully embraced him as the real king and that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar that will be even more proof of weakness.  I think that is why he's acting like this.

The trouble is, decisions that are motivated by fear are rarely wise, especially if you know that they aren't the right decisions.  I'm pretty sure Zedekiah knew Jeremiah was right, based on what I read in this passage.  But he was afraid to do the right thing, and to me, that means he was a weak king and didn't deserve his throne.  Doing the right thing is usually very difficult and sometimes brings about lots of opposition.  Sometimes our circumstances are such that it's also risky to do the right thing.  But easy or not, safe or not, wise or not, God calls us to obedience, and God blesses obedience like he blessed the Rechabites.  Maybe if Zedekiah had more faith in God, he would've had the courage to obey Him.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jeremiah 20-29: Jeremiah in Danger

Once again, apologies for the hiatus.  When I get really far ahead in my reading I'm further discouraged from posting, so I've started just rereading the part I'm supposed to blog about until I get to blogging.  Smart, eh?  We'll see.

So this is the part where we learn a little bit about Jeremiah's life.  And it's not a very fun life.  Some priest named Pashhur puts Jeremiah in the stocks in chapter 20, and in chapter 26 people actually try to kill him.  Between those events, he apparently has to take his message of impending doom to other nations besides Israel and Judah, and I can only imagine that he wasn't entirely well received.  All in all, I think Jeremiah got a pretty raw deal as far as career satisfaction goes, and he knew it.  In chapter 20 he gives this long complaint to God, and it actually starts by claiming that God deceived him.  It talks about all the crap he has to endure from all the people who won't listen to him, and just about the terrible nature of the prophecies he's been commanded to speak.  But somehow in all that, Jeremiah finds the courage or faith or perseverance or something to say this:

"But the LORD is with me like a dread champion; Therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. . . . Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD! For He has delivered the soul of the needy one From the hand of the evildoers."  From there he goes on to wish that he'd never been born and stuff like that, but still, that he can somehow praise God in the midst of what he's been going through, is pretty amazing to me.

The other main thing that stuck out to me in this passage was that after all God has said about destruction and punishment and judgment and wrath, we get a very clear message that He is willing - wanting - to relent.  First all we see is that God promises to spare the people if they will flee Jerusalem and give themselves over to Nebuchadnezzar.  I can understand how the Israelites would not have taken that message well; it kind of sounds like treason, really.  I think that God wanted to cleanse not just the people but the land of Israel.  If you remember way back to the Law, the people were supposed to let the land lie fallow every seven years to rest, and apparently Israel did that about . . . zero times . . . which, if you know anything about agriculture, isn't actually good for the soil.  Part of the reason (not the main reason) Israel went into exile was to give the earth a chance to replenish itself.

But then if you flip over to chapter 26, God tells the people that if they repent and turn away from evil, he will not cause all the destruction He is planning.  Jeremiah tells this to the people again when they've seized him and want to kill him.  This message reminds me of 2 Chronicles 7:14, which states that if the people do evil and reap all the curses God promised in the covenant, then if they will just repent, God will hear and forgive them and heal the land.  They could have avoided the 70 years in exile, not to mention all the horrific things that happened during the conquest of Judah, if only they had repented and started following God's laws.  Why did they need to follow God's laws so much, you ask? Because they made a covenant with Him to do so.  And this covenant was binding to all generations, not just the people who stood before Mt. Sinai.  The people fully expected God to keep up His end of the bargain - they went to the temple to ask Him to save them from Nebuchadnezzar and so forth - but they didn't have any intention of keeping their end of the covenant, which was service to God.  I think this is very applicable to the way we treat God today.  We ask Him for stuff, we ask for His help, we ask for His blessing, but we do it sometimes without any intention of changing the things in our lives that we know He doesn't like.  How is that fair?

Now, since Israel has not listened to God, God is going to send them into exile, but that doesn't mean their lives have to be miserable there.  This is something I find weird and interesting: God tells the people to pray for the welfare of the city where they are living in exile, because "in its welfare you will have welfare."  I think that for those of us who are trying to understand the place of patriotism or nationalism in light of being citizens of the kingdom of heaven, this is really relevant.  This world is not our home, and the country and city we're living in isn't our home either (at least not permanently), but God has placed us here for a time, for a reason, and while we're here we are to desire the good of the place we're living.

There are a few Messianic prophesies in this passage.  The first (chapter 23) uses a shepherd metaphor, and I love the language that is used in verse 4.  In contrast to the current leaders of Israel who are destroying the flock (the people) and causing them harm, God promises one day to raise up shepherds who will care for the flock and watch over them so they won't be afraid anymore, and none of them will be missing.  I don't know if this specifically is a Messianic reference or not, because it uses a plural for "shepherds," but I just love that idea of sheep - who are one of the most paranoid animals ever (like, they're afraid of running water) - not being afraid anymore.  And also how sheep have this tendency to wander off, but none of them will be missing.  But right after this it talks about raising up a righteous Branch who will reign as king over Israel and whose name will be "The LORD our righteousness."  I love that name (without looking it up, I think that it is Jehovah Tsikendu.)  And later in chapter 24, it says that God will give the people a heart to know Him, and that they will be His people and He will be their God.  This is important because God has done just about everything conceivable to make Himself known to Israel, but so far nothing has worked, at least not for long.  The problem is that we need a new heart, a heart that seeks God.

I have to mention chapter 29 because it has one of the most famous verses in Jeremiah, Jeremiah 29:11 - "For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  Now He's talking specifically to Judah here, and even more specifically, He's referring to what will happen after their 70 years of exile are over.  But I'm sure that this verse still has bearing to all of God's people anyway.  But what I love even more are the verses that come immediately after verse 11.  Starting in verse 12 it says, "'Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,' declares the LORD."  Right now, the people do not seek God, although they do seek His blessing, and they don't serve Him with their hearts, although they do with their mouths.  God promises that the exile, this punishment for sin He is brining, will cause them to turn around and become a people who seek God wholeheartedly.  I think that sometimes God causes unpleasant and even bad things to happen to us to get our attention, but even more than that, to change us inside, to make us more into the kind of people we need to be to have a relationship with Him.  We have to seek Him and call on Him and pray to Him and search for Him, not just say we belong to Him and expect Him to show up like a genie whenever we're in trouble.  So maybe when bad things happen to us, instead of necessarily praying for the bad stuff to end, we should pray for God to teach us or change us or do to us whatever He's trying to accomplish through the bad stuff.

Finally, I want to mention one other thing that is underlined in my Bible.  And incidentally, they all have something to do with knowing God.  The first is 22:15-16, which states: "'Did not your father eat and drink And do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.  He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well.  Is not that what it means to know Me?' Declares the LORD."  This reminds me of a verse in Micah that we'll get to eventually.  It sounds like in God's perspective, knowing Him is as simple as doing the right thing (do justice and righteousness, plead the cause of the afflicted and needy) as you live your life (eat and drink).  Sometimes we over-complicate matters, I think.  We think that God's will is this abstract, really obtuse thing that we have to be super spiritual to understand.  Maybe sometimes things can be simple.  Just do the right thing, and that will bring you closer to God.  I like that.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jeremiah 11-19: Brokenness

I feel really bad about getting so behind on these things.  It's just hard to blog about the prophets, like I said before.  I feel like I'm saying the same thing over and over.  I wonder if God felt that way when saying all this stuff to the prophets?

Chapter 11 is about how Israel has broken their covenant with God.  Covenant were an ancient oath ritual thing, very formal contracts that had specific terms and often very harsh consequences for breaking the covenant.  Israel has broken their terms of covenant, which were to remain faithful to God and worship Him only, basically. Not only this, but the people actually refuse to listen to God or turn back to Him. They don't want to be part of the God of Abraham's people anymore.  For this reason, God tells Jeremiah that he is not even supposed to grieve for the destruction that will come on Israel and Judah.  That would be very hard for me to obey.

Meanwhile, some people think it would be way more fun if Jeremiah weren't around, so there are some plots against his life, but God is protecting him from anything serious so far.

In chapter 12, we see again God's disgust with his chosen people who have rejected Him.  He says He is actually going to abandon them and forsake them - whoa, what?  The Bible actually says that?  Yes, it actually does.  God uses some very harsh language in the prophets, because He is flipping fed up with chasing after people who want nothing to do with Him.  So He's going to uproot them, cut them off, make their land desolate.

But . . .

The story doesn't end there.  After God does all this, He is going to bring them back, restore them, and bless them.  And when He does, then they will follow Him whole-heartedly.  I don't know if this is a reference to the coming of Christ, or to the eventual and ultimate restoration of Israel in the Day of the Lord.  Because Messiah has come, and the people of Israel didn't recognize or accept Him.

I think that we know more about Jeremiah as a person than we do about any other prophet who wrote a book.  Jeremiah (the book) is full of prayers of Jeremiah (the person), either laments over the state of his nation, or pleas with God to remember him and deliver him from his enemies, etc.  We find out about some of the plots against him, and we also find out that God didn't let him get married or have kids.  Bummer.  There are some people in the world that it seems God calls to live a really hard life.  Jeremiah did not have a fun life. Jeremiah did not have a lot of friends.  His only delight was in God.  He says in chapter 15, "Your words were found and I ate them, And Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart, For I have been called by Your name."  If we had no joy in life, would we be able to find delight in God?  That is something I wonder about myself.  Do I give praise to God because He makes my life fun and happy and successful, or because He is goodness and joy itself?

God uses some harsh words about Israel and Judah, like I said before.  He says that even if Moses and Samuel (the epitome of obedience to God, right?) were to plead with Him on behalf of the Jews, God would not listen or have compassion on them.  And this is saying a lot because Moses did plead with God on behalf of Israel more than once, and in each of those cases God relented from the punishment He was about to give. So Judah is in a pretty bad state right now if not even Moses can change His mind.

But . . .

There is something that could change God's mind, and that something is repentance.  He says, "If you return, then I will restore you."  No matter how far gone you are - even if you've become so corrupt that Moses himself could't argue a case for you - God will forgive you in a heartbeat if you simply turn away from a life of rebellion and submit to Him.  It's that simple.  Why don't we do that more often?

Chapter 17 has a famous verse about the heart: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; Who can know it?"  My translation, the NASB, says that the heart is "desperately sick."  I think this is a better word image than what the KJV gives for the condition of our hearts.  We have a disease; it is called sin.  No matter what we do, we cannot rid ourselves of this inner illness, and what's worse, it is terminal.  Our sin is going to kill us.

But . . .

There is a cure.  There is one Doctor who knows how to treat this disease, a miracle surgeon who can take out all the nasty cancerous blackness and replace it with something good.  "Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved," says Jeremiah.  There is only one way not to die of sin, and that is to die to sin by subjecting ourselves to the rule of God in our lives.  What does that look like?  Well, it kind of looks like clay being shaped into a pot, and God gives Jeremiah a visual of this by sending him down to a potter's house.  The potter is making a pot, and as sometimes happens in pottery, the thing just isn't turning out .  If you've ever tried your hand at pottery, you've experienced this - sometimes for whatever reason, the shape becomes such that you really can't fix it no matter what you do.  So you have to smash the clay back into a ball and star over.  This is what happens with the potter Jeremiah watches - the pot is ruined, so the potter starts over with the clay and makes something new, and that works.  This is what God is going to do to Israel.  They've become spoiled; they can't be repaired or patched or reshaped anymore because it's just patches on patches and sticking your finger in a dike, so to speak.  It's not going to work.  So God has to bring Israel down to the lowest possible point - He has to break her - in order to remake her into something new.

That is the gospel.  Sin has screwed us up beyond the point of repair; you can't slap a bandaid on an amputee and expect it to help.  If we are ever to become whole, we actually first have to become broken.  It's like when you break a bone, and it heals improperly, so then you go to the doctor to get it set and he has to re-break the bone in order to put it where it belongs.  It's a horrible, painful procedure, but it is the only treatment.  Brokenness is the only means to our cure.  That is what God is doing with Israel and Judah here - He's not just saying all this stuff about forsaking and destroying because He's done with them and is going to leave them in a pile of bones somewhere.  All this doom and gloom stuff has a purpose, and the purpose is to break Israel and Judah of their pride so they will return to following God.  And it actually worked; after the exile to Babylon, Israel remained monotheistic.  It was in Babylon that the Old Testament was compiled and copied.  To this day, the Jews have a strong attachment to their religion and the God of their fathers.  Unfortunately, as a whole they missed God's biggest blessing to them, their long-awaited Messiah.

Finally, one more broken thing.  God has Jeremiah take a jar out in the open and break it to foretell that destruction is coming to Jerusalem.  Another nation will come in and conquer the city and the nation, and they will demolish Jerusalem.

What do we learn about this passage?  First of all, there is a punishment for turning your back on God.  God is serious when He lays down consequences; He really means it when He says bad things will happen to you. Think about that before hastily agreeing to follow Him - because He's going to ask a lot of you.

Secondly, though, we learn that God is merciful, and that in spite of all His anger and frustration with these crazy people, He is willing and even eager to forgive them; in fact, everything He is doing to punish Israel is for the purpose of restoration.

I wrote in my journal once that we are like broken pieces of glass, and God can take all those broken pieces and shape them into something new and beautiful.  It's not something we can do ourselves (we're the broken pieces, remember?) - it's something only God can do.  And the amazing thing is, no matter how broken you were when you started, the thing He will make you into will actually be better than what you started as.  And that's a pretty awesome thing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jeremiah 1-10: A Book of Bad News, Mostly

I know, I know; I'm so behind.  But I'm in the prophets, and the prophets are so depressing that it's hard to want to write about them.  Jeremiah is no exception.

I like the way Jeremiah starts.  The first thing that God says to Jeremiah when He calls him is "before I formed you in the womb I knew you; And before you were born I consecrated you."  Even though immediately Jeremiah protests that he's only a kid and doesn't know how to speak (sound familiar?), God says that He is going to send him and tell him what to say and put the right words in his mouth.  Do you ever pray for God to put words in your mouth?  I do, because half the time I feel like I have no clue what is the right thing to say.  A lot of the stuff God tells Jeremiah is to encourage him, which I think was really necessary, because 1) like the rest of the prophets, Israel and Judah didn't listen to him at all, and 2) Jeremiah is not only a depressing book, but he was a very sad person.  He is called the "weeping prophet" because he was so heartbroken over what happened to Israel and Judah.  Imagine, on top of that, having to tell all the people why their homeland is being destroyed, and them not listening to you!  I would have been a weeping prophet too, I think.

Here are some of the notes I wrote in my margins:

2:27 - the context of this verse is saying that people will make up an idol that they form with their own hands and believe that it created them, but then when trouble comes they turn to God and ask Him to save them.  At least I think that's what this particular verse means.  What I wrote in my margins was the date 9/11/2001.  When the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11, a lot of people turned to God.  But it didn't seem to me like that lasted very long.  We think about God whenever a disaster strikes - whether we turn to Him in repentance or anger, in genuine faith or in a temporary shift of focus, it seems like bad things can't happen without us acknowledging God in some way.

3:5 says that "you [Israel] have done evil things, and you have had your way."  In my notes I wrote: "God does not force our obedience - he'll let us do what we want - have it 'our way' - if we so choose."  This, to me, is a sobering thought.  Sometimes I think that God won't let me do what's not in His plan for me.  But I think the truth is that if my heart is really focused on doing what I want - which is a state of rebellion toward God - sometimes He will just let me have what I want, even if it's bad for me.  And maybe that is because I am unteachable when I'm like that, and maybe getting what I want and finding out it wasn't right, will put me back on the right path.  But that doesn't sound like a way I want to go.  So right now I am praying that instead of God doing what I want to do, that God will make all my desires and all my will line up with what He wants for me.  It seems like a much better way to go.

Here is a passage of hope.  3:12ff is God's call to Israel to repent.  He says, "I will not look upon you in anger.  For I am gracious . . . I will not be angry forever."  It goes on from there.  The note I wrote was: "God wants us!  Here He's practically begging Israel to return to Him.  History is the story of how God tried time after time to have a relationship with people - finally it was accomplished - through Jesus."  Unfortunately, every appeal God made to Israel fell on deaf ears.  It's just like that parable where the master sent servants to his vineyard to get the profit or whatever, and the people working the vineyard mistreated the prophets, so finally the master sent his own son to do the job.  Of course, it didn't work out so well for that son, but at least Jesus rose from the dead.

I don't have any more margin notes in this passage.  But basically God tells Judah to repent, and tells them what will happen if they don't - destruction and judgment.  Jeremiah is overcome with anguish for the fate of his people.  So God tells Jeremiah to go through the streets of Jerusalem and try to find one person - just one - who "does justice, who seeks truth," and then He will pardon the whole city.  Remember Sodom and Gomorrah?  This is why I think if Abraham had asked God to spare Sodom for the sake of one righteous man, He would have.  But apparently Jeremiah doesn't find anybody.  That's pretty sad.  So yes, destruction is coming, and the people of Jerusalem are warned to flee the city to save their lives.

What is really difficult for me to grasp is that God tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Israel because He isn't going to hear.  Sometimes, the things we want are actually against God's will, and sometimes God even tells us not to pray for something or not to pray the way we would want to pray.  That is tough to think about.  Also, I don't think we can change God's mind when He is going to do something.  We can't force or manipulate or bargain God into doing what we want.  And finally, whether or not Israel survived didn't depend on Jeremiah, but on the rest of the people, and they had no intention of listening to God, apparently.

Jeremiah writes a lament for Zion, but then he acknowledges the greatness of God and the wickedness of people.  In spite of his own sorrow, Jeremiah is committed to the will of God and he knows that God does what is right, in the end.  I like this verse here, 10:23 - "I know, O LORD, that a man's way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps."  Like I said above about wanting God to change my will - I really don't think that I have the ability to make the best decisions for myself.  Certainly not at 23.  I can't see ahead the way God can.  A few years ago I had an amazing job opportunity that I didn't take because, after thinking a lot about it, I didn't think I was ready for it and I wasn't sure I could commit to it.  The other day my mom mentioned that part of her wished now that we had gone for it (we, because I would have required my parents' help).  Did I do the right thing in not taking it?  I don't know right now; I'm not really sure I can know from where I'm standing.  I think several years from now I'll look back and see how God has directed my steps, and I'm sure I'll also see where I went astray.  It's hard to tell what straight is when you're up close to it.  That's why I need God to guide me, because only He has the perspective to tell where I need to go.

So apparently there is stuff to be learned from Jeremiah, both the book and the person, in spite of it's being an overwhelmingly sad book most of the time.  I'll try to be more regular about updating this. . . .  In my reading I'm almost to the end of Ezekiel (which is what I read immediately after Jeremiah).