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Category Archives: Behind the Bible…

In “Behind the Bible…” I want to present intriguing ideas or information that I find helpful for understanding and applying God’s word.

Have you read Nahum lately?

Nahum 1:1-3:19

Have you read Nahum lately? He’s another of the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament who dealt with Nineveh, but his obedience was quicker than Jonah’s answer to God’s call. Nahum is regarded by some scholars as a sequel to Jonah. The Ninevites repented when Jonah preached, but their turn around was temporary. Years later, God raised up Nahum to condemn them and announce their doom.

Other scholars see Jonah as more of a short-story that deals with what God would do if Nineveh, Israel’s enemy, repented. It’s meant to explain the merciful nature of God. His grace reaches even people we hate. But Nahum’s prophecy is considered more realistic for the historical times. He proclaimed Nineveh’s end which was caused by its persecution of God’s people and others in the ancient world.

It seems to me that we need to separate the two prophets in our minds as well as in history. Jonah does have the character of a good story about a moral truth as opposed to a report of an historical, literal event. Nahum is a prophetic message in line with the rest of the Old Testament prophetic writings. His message both condemned the Assyrians (Nineveh was their capital city), and consoled the Israelites who suffered much at their hands.

In chapter one of his prophecy, Nahum expresses the vengeful nature of God. “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet” (Nah. 1:3, NIV). God is mightier than the forces of nature. A nation that is ruthless toward its neighbors, conquering them as Assyria had done, will experience his wrath.

In chapter two, Nahum narrates the coming siege of Nineveh. The city gates will be overrun. “Nineveh is like a pool whose water is draining away” (Nah. 2:8a, NIV). No one can stop her from being pillaged. The Almighty Lord is opposed to Assyria and her conquest. He will repay her plundering of other nations by plundering her.

In chapter three,  Nahum decries Nineveh as a “city of blood” and announces God’s unchangeable decree. The city will die. “‘I am against you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame’” (Nah.3:5, NIV). Nineveh could not be cured; she has been injured fatally.

Nahum presents God as an unstoppable terror to sinners. Those who treat their fellow human beings tragically will come to a tragic end themselves. This is not a book of grace, but wrath and judgment. Why? Because the Lord, despite his willingness to forgive, cannot forgive sin that continues and overwhelms with no genuine repentance on the part of people.

Is this a book for Christians? Definitely, it is written for any and all who wish to deal with God as he is, rather than as they wish him to be. God is holy and righteous. He cannot tolerate evil, and he will punish those who perpetrate evil on the earth. Sin is a genuine experience among humans, and God must eradicate it from our characters. For Christians, Peter spelled out an judgment’s reality: “…it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pt. 4:17, NIV).

Our judgment is  tempered by grace. Can you imagine what it would be like to meet the just Judge of humanity without grace to buffer his harshness? Nahum will teach you.

 

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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Have your read Micah lately?

Micah 1:1-7:20

Have you read Micah lately? He’s a minor prophet whose writings are good reading during Advent, because he foretold the birthplace of Christ. When King Herod the Great wanted to know where the Messiah was expected to be born, the chief priests and teachers of the law inspected scripture and answered by quoting Micah 5:2, 4, which cited Bethlehem. But Micah is also good to read during Advent because his prophecy raised the same issues as Jesus raised in his preaching. Both spoke of neglecting God and his ways in favor of greed and false religion. Both called for repentance and a genuine religious experience.

Micah was a native of the southern portion of God’s chosen nation. He came from the town of Moresheth in Judah, but he spoke to the northern kingdom, Israel, as well as Judah. He preached against dishonesty, idolatry, coveting, greediness, witchcraft, and treachery. He saw the elite of the nation as leading the way to moral corruption, kings and their families, prophets and priests. He complained, “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us” (Mic. 3:11, NIV). Announcing the nation’s sense of false security, he revealed how it fell away from God, and Micah called for repentance and a change of heart as well as behavior.

Yet Micah forecast a reformation among the people and their leaders. He proclaimed hope for the future: “Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light. Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the Lord’s wrath, until he pleads my case and upholds my cause. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness” (Mic. 7:8-9, NIV). Micah was a prophet who saw both disaster and deliverance.

His hope extended to the righteousness of the nation and its citizens. They’d become the center of teaching about the Lord, and the world would stream to Jerusalem seeking peace, beating their swords into plowshares. Micah announced God’s rule: “I will make the lame my remnant, those driven away a strong nation. The Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion from that day and forever. As for you, watchtower of the flock, stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem” (Mic. 4:7-8, NIV). Christians see this prophecy fulfilled in the coming of Christ, partially when he first arrived, fully at his second coming.

From Micah, we learn what religion is all about: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8, NIV).

If you haven’t read Micah lately, now is an excellent time to study his wisdom and proclamation.

 

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Have you read Jonah lately?

Jonah 1:1-4:11

The prophet Jonah got me into trouble once. I preached a series of sermons on his prophecy, and I made the “mistake” of referring to the whale as a big fish. But I was simply quoting the Bible translation we used in the pews. A woman in the church became angry with me for changing the Bible. She was in charge of VBS that year, and we covered the story of Jonah and the whale. As an award to the teachers, which she made sure I received, she gave out pins in the shape of a whale.

But Jonah’s message is so much more than a debate over what kind of aquatic animal swallowed him. The prophet was a Galilean, same as Jesus, and he tried to run from his call as a prophet by taking a ship to Tarshish, Spain, all the way across the Mediterranean Sea. This guy wanted to get away from the Lord, as far as he could! But he succeeded in running smack into God, and he had face up to his divinely given responsibility. He was supposed to preach repentance and salvation to the Ninevites, archenemies of his nation.

Jonah is about the unlimited grace of God. He cares for all humanity, and reaches out to every one of us all the time. The Lord wants to redeem us from our own bad behavior and morally corrupt nature. The mercy of God is far-reaching and encompasses even the people we would exclude.

This is not the ordinary way of seeing the Old Testament. Many people think the Old Testament God is a beast, eager to chew on anyone who strays from a narrow path. But the Lord is a God of grace in the Old Testament just as he is in the New. The prophecy of Jonah revealed this about God, as do other writers from the first two-thirds of the Bible. God is merciful. He is merciful to righteous and unrighteous.

He is not, however, nothing but mercy. The threat of judgment is firm in Jonah’s prophecy. If the Ninevites didn’t repent, they’d come under his wrath. Jonah’s own life was an illustration of the truth, too. He could not escape the Lord’s anger. He went into the water and the belly of the huge fish. His “leafy plant” was chewed up by a worm, also a punishment, although it was meant to lead Jonah to discover God’s compassion. The Old Testament God is not what people expect. He’s so much more.

Jonah’s character was a mixture of muscle and frailty. He walked in faith, and he vacillated in commitment. He was both a godly man and obstinate. He could be obedient to the Lord, though it might take a reprimand from God to get him to behave. He was childish and childlike. Jonah was a lot like me, and you, and many people.

Jesus said that the only sign people would have is the sign of Jonah. Matthew explained that as a reference to the resurrection, because Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days (see Mt. 12:39-42). But Luke took a different approach. He pointed out that it was the prophet’s preaching and the Ninevites’ repentance which is the sign. He didn’t hint at the resurrection. Perhaps the sign Jesus referred to was the amendment of life and attitude that comes when people who hear the gospel preached also repent.

It seems to me that’s what Jonah learned and taught.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Have you read Obadiah lately?

Obadiah 1-21

Have you read Obadiah lately? If you haven’t, it won’t take you very long because this prophecy is only 21 verses long! That’s right, one short chapter.

How’d this guy even make it into the Bible? His writings hardly seem long enough to be of any use. Well, remember that God can use anybody and anything to guide his people into his will. So reading Obadiah should tell you, first of all, that as unimportant as you are to the world at large, you still count with the Lord.

Obviously, we know little about this prophet. He didn’t even address God’s people with his prophecy. He focused on one of its neighbors, an enemy, Edom, a nation that took advantage of the fall of Jerusalem to raid Judah and to harass the few people who were left. In face of the Edomites’ haughtiness, the prophet Obadiah spoke for God: “‘Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,’ declares the Lord” (Obad. v.4, NIV). His message, in part, revealed the Lord as Judge and Deliverer of all peoples. Edom would answer for its crimes.

Obadiah announced that a “day of the Lord” was coming and all nations would answer to God for their behavior. “…your deeds will return upon your own head” (v. 15d). Sin will not be ignored by the Lord. He deals with it among all the world’s inhabitants. No sinner can escape his righteousness.

The prophet also announced that God’s people would be avenged. “Jacob will be a fire and Joseph a flame; Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors from Esau. The Lord has spoken” (v. 18). The Lord would use those whom others ruined to ruin their enemies. Another lesson from Obadiah is that the sufferer wins. The one who causes suffering will, in turn, endure the weight of their own wrongdoing. In the end, “…the kingdom will be the Lord’s” (v. 21c).

It’s important to know that the Edomites were relatives of the people of Israel. They had descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother. The ancestors of each nation were brothers; they were Abraham’s descendants together. This brings us to the heart of the Old Testament’s struggle to create a nation holy and pleasing to God. Obadiah is a prophet who spoke to those who needed to hear: The Lord judges all people, including his own chosen ones and all related to them. Divine judgment is no respecter of persons.

You might want to read Jeremiah 49:14-16 in comparison to Obadiah verses 1-4, and Jeremiah 49:9-10 in light of Obadiah verses 5-6. See how the two prophets spoke to people in the Lord’s name. Jeremiah said similar things to Edom as Obadiah proclaimed. God was deeply distressed with how these neighbors and relatives dealt with each other. He warned them both over the years before and after the exile to mend their ways, or he would have to judge them harshly.

Even after the ministry of Jesus Christ, our God continues to be a “consuming fire,” yet as the author of Hebrews instructed us this is a reason to come to God with thanksgiving, worshiping him “acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28-29, NIV). If we learn this lesson, we’ll appreciate the prophet Obadiah all the more.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Have you read Amos lately?

Have you read Amos lately? It’s a good prophetic book because Amos was an average person who was called by God to proclaim a tough message to people who lived selfishly in prosperous times. Amos was a shepherd and dresser of sycamore-fig trees. He was a working man, a regular “Joe” whose conscience was moved by the Lord. He saw the selfish character of human beings in other countries and in his own. He was so moved that he spoke out against the “me-ism” of his day.

One by one, he indicted Israel and Judah’s neighboring nations for their self-centered conquests and horrible treatment of the peoples around them. Then he turned the tables of Israel, the northern half of God’s people, and Judah, the southern portion, indicting both for being led away from the Lord, for beating down the poor, for sexual sins, and other immorality.

Through Amos, God called nature to witness his people’s sin. He summoned the Philistines from Ashdod and the Egyptians to observe their judgment. He  ordered, “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria; see the great unrest within her and the oppression among her people” (Am.3:9b, NIV). His people didn’t understand what was right; they amassed goods and weapons for protection, but their refuges would be plundered. God recounted how he sent famine and disaster, yet they hadn’t heeded his warnings. Israel was about to encounter their God, the Judge, and the meeting was to be calamitous.

In chapter 5 of his prophecy, Amos urged Israel to think and to repent with honesty. “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is” (Am. 5:14, NIV). National confidence felt as if God would not forsake them. All was well. It was not, and the Lord would stand against them if the people did not mend their ways. The people felt the day of the Lord would vindicate them, but Amos did not think so. “Why do you long for the day of the Lord?” the prophet asked. “That day will be darkness, not light” (Am. 5:18b, NIV).

The complacent were warned, and Amos delivered a series of visionary episodes which were designed to announce God’s measurement of his people. A brief section of the book of Amos recounted how he was opposed by a priest at Bethel because his message opposed the king and called for repentance and change. Then he resumed his warnings, ending with an announcement of what later became a reality—the Dispersion. Israel was to go into exile! But she would be restored in time to come (see 9:9-15). Even in judgment, there was hope.

On one hand, Amos’ character shows how God can use an ordinary person to call for change in a society. On the other hand, Amos’ plea reveals the Lord’s lasting desire to redeem his wayward people, along with his willingness to discipline them for a greater good. The prophet Amos raises our view of God to a higher level. The Lord is both compassionate and a God of judgment. Amos prepares us to learn from Jesus Christ, who was also of humble origin yet showed us a God who was both our heavenly Father and a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29; cp. Mk. 9:47-49).

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Have you read Joel lately?

Have you read the prophet Joel lately? Many people nowadays don’t like to read the Old Testament prophets because they think they were pessimists, and too much negativity runs about our world today. They prefer a happier biblical resource, like Mark, which in reality is a book that’s fairly negative in its message about the disciples. So not reading Joel because you perceive his message as probably too negative for you is on flimsy footing.

We’re not certain when Joel lived, but his home base was probably in Judah, the southern portion of the holy land after Solomon’s kingdom was divided. Judah’s reputation was good, at first, since it was faithful to the Lord. As time moved on, however, the nation grew less loyal in its allegiance. So Joel rose to speak God’s will to the community.

He began his prophetic ministry around the time of a locust invasion, when Judah’s crops and livelihood were nearly ruined by the insects. Joel saw this invasion as a picture of the coming invasion of Judah’s enemies, which he interpreted as an act of judgment by God. A drought soon followed the locusts, adding to his sense of judgment. His message called for repentance and change, a return of loyalty to the Lord. Perhaps God’s judgment might be averted.

A major idea in the book of Joel is “the day of the Lord,” which appears in 1:15, 2:1, 11, and 3:14. In 2:31, this day is called “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (NIV). This day of terrible judgment was close at hand, and “…it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (1:15, NIV). Signs of its coming were visible in the scarcity of food, seed, and grain. The nation’s food supply was in jeopardy. This signaled God’s wrath. Plus, enemy armies gathered to march as the locust had marched, scaling walls and plunging through defenses. This was a time to tear your garments in remorse. “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13, NIV). This was his hopeful message. If people repented, God might relent. Disaster was avoidable.

Joel promised a time of blessing by God if the people and nation repented. The bounty of nature could be restored (see 2:20-25). Also, Joel’s most memorable prophecy shouted hope to the nation. The Holy Spirit would come upon the repentant people. The day of the Lord could be, not a time of judgment, but a time of renewal when “…I will pour out my Spirit…” (2:29). There might be portents in the sky (the moon turning to blood), but all who should happen to call on the Lord’s name would be redeemed (2:32).

Joel’s message for Judah is clearly one of hope. The nations at large will be judged but God will protect those faithful to him. He will live on Mount Zion. Judah and Jerusalem will be blessed with inhabitants for eternity (3:20).

Joel is a hopeful prophet, whom you would do well to read.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Have you read Hosea lately?

Today, I begin a series of blogs on the minor prophets of the Old Testament. They are more like the blogs I envisioned when I set up this category. I hope you’ll find the brief introductions to the prophets helpful, and that these blogs inspire you to read a much misunderstood and neglected part of the Old Testament.

 

Have you read Hosea lately?

Have you read the biblical prophet Hosea lately? He’s called a minor prophet by Biblical scholars, not because he’s insignificant, but because his writings were not extensive. Yet Hosea is significant.

Israel had fallen away from God. The nation was no longer loyal nor faithful. People were involved with other gods because they had entwined themselves with the worshipers of those deities. Their national identity as the Lord’s people had been forgotten. Business ethics had gone to pot. Family relations were broken down. People were dying young, crops were failing, and war clouds surrounded. This sounds strangely contemporary, doesn’t it?

Hosea was called by God to do an amazing thing…to marry a prostitute. He was to take her as a wife knowing what sort of woman she was. He was to have children by her and love her deeply. Yet Gomer was to prove faithless to Hosea. Nevertheless, he was to take her back into his life. His marriage became a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with the Lord, and through Hosea, God was telling Israel that the nation needed to repent, mend its ways, and return to its first love—the Lord.

Hosea’s prophecy was not about telling the future, as so many people think prophecy is. It regarded Israel’s falling away from God, its backsliding into sinfulness, and its need to change. Hosea’s prophecy is a call for the nation to return to the one who loved Israel. God was waiting patiently for his “wife” to become faithful again. Hosea announced the Lord’s longsuffering, his desire to have Israel home, and his willingness to receive the disloyal nation back to himself.

The spirit of Hosea’s prophecy is contained in these verses, although not all he had to say to Israel was expressed so positively. On God’s behalf, Hosea declared,

Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. (Hosea 2:14-15, NIV)

The Lord was hopeful for his people’s return and summoned them to rejoin him in a wonderful relationship of love and loyalty.

If you haven’t read Hosea in a while, or if you’ve never read his prophecy, maybe this is a good time to delve into it.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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