Reading Through the Bible, Monday, Memorial Day, September 5. Ezekiel 10-12

    The images described by Ezekiel are difficult to get your mind around: wheels that intersect and move the chariot of God in any direction without turning for example (10:9ff).  We are supposed to try and imagine them, to see their magnificence, but we will find it futile and exhausting.

    Why?

    Because Ezekiel is trying to write about being in the presence of God in the temple, and writing about the presence of God is at once magnificent – and awesome.  There are two points you shouldn’t miss: First, with these images, God’s movement is being described.  The Lord moves from the temple to the door of the temple (10:4).  Then He moves to the entrance of the East gate.  Finally, He moves from the city to the mountain east of the city (11:23).  The whole scene is that of God slowly leaving the place of His long presence.

    Second, keep in mind the message of God: The Babylonians have taken captive much of Judah, and the captives believe they have been abandoned by God.  The real faithful, they believe, are those left behind.  And those left behind believe it too.  God, however, is saying that those left behind have been abandoned by Him.

    Just because things seem to be going your way is no real sign of God’s blessing.  Blessing comes to the obedient, but it is not always a sign of God’s approval.

Reading Through the Bible, Sunday, September 4. Ezekiel 6-9

    When the book of Ezekiel opens, the writer has been an exile in the land of Babylon for five years, It is about 592 B.C.  This is the year Ezekiel would, at age 30, have begun his duties as a priest.  Instead, all he had hoped to do, all he had trained to do, is lost.  He will never serve in the temple.

    It must have been a bit like going to college to become a medical doctor, doing your internship, perhaps some training in a speciality, and then being exiled to another country where your license to practice medicine is invalid.

    Instead, God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet.  The book opens with a heart-stopping vision of the Lord.  God calls to Ezekiel and tells him to speak to his fellow exiles and this is an important point: Whereas Jeremiah spoke to those left behind in Judea, Ezekiel speaks to those who were led away.  When Ezekiel prophesies against the “mountains of Israel,” he is not speaking to those who dwell in Israel.  He speaks to those who live in Babylon about those left in Israel.  They (those in Israel) are a “rebellious” nation, obstinate and stubborn, adulterous and wicked.

    The exiles might imagine themselves in the worse shape because they are exiles.  But through Ezekiel, God assures them that those in Israel are rally worse, and they are to receive the full measure of God’s wrath.  If there was ever any doubt that God was in charge, the Lord would allay that doubt.  Everyone would know that He is the one and only “Lord.”  This assurance appears for the first time in Ezekiel in chapter 6, but it becomes a repeated refrain throughout the rest of the book.

Reading Through the Bible, Saturday, September 3. 2 Kings 24-Ezekiel 2-5

    There were three Babylonian invasions of Judah.

    In 605 B.C., Babylon went to war with Egypt and God’s people were caught in the middle.  Judah had sided with Egypt, and for that transgression, the King of Babylon defeated Judah as well, taking some of her princes as hostage back to Babylon.  It wasn’t just unfortunate happenstance.  God had planned it.  Among the hostages was Daniel, who wrote the book which bears his name.  He wrote in Babylon, and his book is a reminder of how God rules over the nations of men and can bless His people no matter where they live.

    In 597 B.C., Babylon once again went to war with Egypt, and once again, Judah sided with Egypt.  This time, in defeating Egypt and Judah, the king of Babylon took hostage the King of Judah, replaced him with another, and took more hostages.  Those in captivity did not believe they would stay long.  They earnestly believed they would be delivered, and the source of deliverance would be their kinsmen back home in Jerusalem.  They believed their sins had separated them from God and His people and the Promised Land.  Those left behind in Jerusalem must be the truly righteous, they thought, because they were not in captivity!  In time, they would come rescue their brethren.

    Ezekiel offers his readers in Babylon insight into what was truly going on in Jerusalem.  If they were expecting deliverance from that quarter, they will be disappointed.  The sins of Jerusalem’s inhabitants are every bit as bad, and more so, than any they have committed.  There will be no deliverance by them.

    Ezekiel was a priest in the temple of God.  Taken captive at age 30, he would have only just begun his priestly service.  He speaks and writes to his countrymen who are exiled as he is. Exile is not being homeless.  “Rather, it is knowing that you do have a home, but that your home has been taken over by enemies.” It is not being without roots.  “On the contrary, it is having deep roots which have now been plucked up, and there you are, with roots dangling, writhing in pain, exposed to a cold and jeering world, longing to be restored to native and nurturing soil. Exile is knowing precisely where you belong, but knowing you can’t go there – not yet.  In exile, life cannot be “business as usual” (Ian Duguid, The NIV Application Commentary: Ezekiel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999) p. 48).

    The book is divided by dates into 13 sections.  Watch for the date changes in your readings.  They do not always signal a subject change, but they are good markers for your readings.

    Ezekiel is important to us because Christians are also “in exile” (1 Peter 1:1,17; 2:11).  This is not our home.  We are looking for a better city, a city whose architect and builder is God. Ezekiel tells us how to live until we finally get to “go home.”

Reading Through the Bible, Friday, September 2. Lamentations 4 – Ezekiel 1

    As I write this (August 10, 2011), riots are the news in England.  Civilized people are speaking out against the destruction and looting by their fellow countrymen.  Civilian brigades are being formed for protection and clean-up.  Everyone is asking: “Why is this happening?”

    Some reply: “It’s happening because of the displacement of the poor.  They have no where to go and no one to help and no hope for the future.  In their frustration, they are lashing out.”  Others reply: “These are just hooligans who, using social media to organize, are wrecking havoc wherever they can.”

    There’s a bit of both of these answers in Lamentations (though no social media).  Written from his observations of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, some used the occasion to serve their baser instincts – pointing out the sinfulness God knew was there.  Others simply gave in to the pressure and deprivation they felt and were trying to survive.  Either way, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

    Reading Lamentations 4, we are struck again by an incident mentioned already in chapter 2: the eating of children by their starving mothers.  It is a thought too repugnant to dwell on long.  Remember first: all this happened because of the punishment sent by God.  How could a just God cause all this?

    Remember second: It didn’t have to be this way.  God has been calling to His people for change for three centuries.  They have ignored Him.  What is happening now is that, under pressure, Jeremiah (and we, his readers), is seeing the true character of Judah.  God did not push them to this.  The events only reveal what has been developing all along.

    Pressure does that to us: it reveals who we really are.  Those whose hope is in the Lord will may not fare better in difficult times (Jeremiah certainly didn’t), but they will look better and act better and their reward will be better.

Reading Through the Bible, Thursday, September 1. Lamentations 1-3

    Jeremiah was the Old Testament suffering servant of the Lord.  He witnessed the destruction of his own people, his home town, and watched the bodies stack up like so much cord wood.  He knew his people deserved their punishment, but their suffering pained him to the depths of his being (which you see in several places in Jeremiah). 

    Lamentations is devoted in its entirety to the grief of Jeremiah (and therefore God, whose grief Jeremiah represents).  Each of its five chapters is, in Hebrew, an acrostic.  Each chapter but the third has 22 verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each verse begins with a succeeding letter.  In chapter 3, because it has sixty six verses, the first three verses begin with the first Hebrew letter, the aleph, the next three the second letter (Hebrew “bet”) and so on.

    The grief of the prophet is profound.  Think about it like this: A piano player has only so many keys.  Whatever he plays must be played with what he has.  So a grieving poet has only 22 letters.  He must write with what he has.  But, as a troubled piano player might stumble through his performance, so the poet, twice, stumbles in his poem (you see it plainly in the Hebrew text), mixing the order of letters in the middle of chapter 2 and chapter 4.  By chapter 5, his talent fails him.  Though he sticks with 22 verses (for the 22 letters), he no longer follows the successive order of letters.

    Jeremiah wrote: “Oh, that  my   head  were a spring of water  and  my  eyes a fountain of tears!  I would weep day and night  for the slain of  my  people” (Jeremiah 9:1). The phrase is repeated somewhat in Lamentations 1:16, and Lamentations is Jeremiah’s suffering cry, a human reflection of the pain of God over His children who have decided to abandon the way of a blessing Father for the highway of fools.

Reading Through the Bible, Wednesday, August 31. Jeremiah 50-52

    As we come to the end of Jeremiah, the judgment against the nations is concluded with a pronouncement against Babylon.

    Throughout the book, the prophet has warned of the coming of the Babylonians.  They will be successful against the people of God because of the sins of God’s people.  Habakkuk will cry: ‘But the Babylonians are worse than we are!’  But it will not matter.  Babylon is the servant of the Lord to punish His people.

    How are God’s people supposed to respond?  The prophet directed in chapter 29: “Build houses [in Babylon] and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

    But it wasn’t to be forever.  Babylon itself would be conquered – and strangely enough, it would be conquered because she had so mistreated God’s people.  God’s people might settle down in Babylon, but it is not to be their home.  The time will come to flee.

    This world is not our home.  It’s just where we are until the Lord brings it to an end.  We know a time of flight is coming.  We must not be so settled and attached to this world that we cannot leave it with joy when the time comes, for we go to our real home, the dwelling of our heavenly father.

Reading Through the Bible, Tuesday, August 30. Jeremiah 47-49

    Beginning with Jeremiah 46, we enter a section of six chapters where judgment is pronounced on the kingdoms of the world – specifically the ones around the land of Israel.  The material is very similar to what we have already seen in Isaiah 13-23 and what we will see again in the books of Ezekiel and Amos.  As Robert Davidson, former Professor at the University of Glasgow observed: “Prophets from Amos to Jeremiah insisted that to believe in the Lord is to believe in a God who has the whole world in His hands, a God who is the ruler of all nations.  This is a God whose purposes all nations exist to serve, whether they know it or not; a God whose universal standards of justice and righteousness nations, including Israel and Judah, ignore at their peril.”

    But there is something else in this section.

    Have you ever wondered why the Lord didn’t address the nations of Greece or the people living in what today we call Spain, or those in the British Isles?

    The people of the nations addressed in Jeremiah and the prophets are not the only people.  They are, however, the only people who surround the people of God, interact and influence them.  It’s not that the Lord doesn’t know about such people or care how they live.  But the focus of the Lord is on His people.  The ones mentioned in these chapters are mentioned because they are on the periphery of God’s people.  To this day, the Lord’s longing and eyes are focused on His people.  Such a notion should bring comfort to Christians, and perhaps not a little unease as well.

Reading Through the Bible, Monday, August 29. Jeremiah 44-46

    The fall of Jerusalem was followed by assassination, political intrigue, and kidnaping.  Specifically, concerning the kidnaping, Jeremiah, along with others, was forced to accompany the rebel leaders to Egypt.  They did so, of course, against the better advice of Jeremiah.

    For ages, the people of Israel and Judah had been offering sacrifices to other gods.  At the Lord’s reproof, some of the people had stopped their idolatry, but it was too little too late.  The Lord destroyed their nation.  But the people chose not to see it that way.  They saw it as the retribution of the false gods they had abandoned.  When they arrived in Egypt, bought in to the culture of the Egyptians (including their gods), they began to prosper.  So when Jeremiah spoke out against what they were doing, they simply said he was wrong.  Their troubles had not been the result of idolatry.  They had been the result of a lack of idolatry.

    You see how convoluted things get.

    Unless one knows the will of God, knows the nature of God, is familiar with his ways, it’s easy to be deceived.  Without the knowledge of God, deception comes easily.  We can convince ourselves that the sins we are committing are actually in our best interest, and are really the will of the Lord.  But truth is not determined by whether we feel justified in our actions: it is determined solely by the eternal plan and will of God and our destiny is determined by whether we know and follow that plan and will.

Reading Through the Bible, Sunday, August 28. Jeremiah 40-43

    In 588 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar came for the third and final time against Jerusalem.  After besieging the city for two years, he broke through its walls in 586, burned what was left of Judah’s capital, ransacked and destroyed the temple and carried off everybody and everything of value.  Including Jeremiah.

    Six miles north of Jerusalem at Ramah, the prophet was recognized by the commander of Babylon’s imperial guard and set free, urged to seek the protection of the appointed governor, Gedaliah.

    Following his own advice, it would have been better for Jeremiah to have gone on to Babylon.  But that doesn’t seem to have been an option for Jeremiah.  Gedaliah attempts to unify the remaining three groups of people: the very poor, those who have run to the hills to escape the Babylonians (when God had told them plainly to take refuge with the Babylonians), and soldiers who were likely carrying on a futile guerrilla warfare with the Babylonian garrisons (who found them to be little more than an annoyance).  Jeremiah appears to become a pawn in the hands of these people.  God has not really abandoned him, but he has no place of authority.  He is but a spokesman for God.  Continuing our reading, it feels like God has left him to twist in the wind.  But really, he is, like us all, but a servant of the Lord, carrying out his duties until finally the Lord calls Him home.

Reading Through the Bible, Saturday, August 27. Jeremiah 36-39

    I am more than a little amazed by the temerity of people in power.  Not long ago, I attended a seminar hosted by a congressman.  Knowledgeable speakers were brought in to help us with the topic.  But the congressman himself showed late, and then only to interrupt a speaker to offer his welcome to the gathering.  He then left, obviously too busy to spend time either speaking or listening at his own seminar.  I wondered whether the topic was beneath him, or whether he was already an expert on that topic (he knew little about it actually), or whether it was just a ploy to curry favor with his constituents.  He certainly didn’t curry my favor.

    Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary, wrote down all the messages of the Lord from Jeremiah.  He then took them to the temple to read to the people.  But the officials couldn’t be bothered to show up to hear the reading.  Instead, they asked for a private audience and though they took Jeremiah’s warning to heart and shared them with the king, their elitist attitude should not be ignored.  But by the end of the story, you know where they got it.  As the king listened to Jeremiah’s words in his own private audience, he took the scroll, a piece at a time, and burned them in his warming fire.

    Jeremiah replaced his book, and this one included an additional warning that the house of Jehoiakim the King would be forever rejected by the Lord.

    No one is too great to bow before the Lord.