Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Jerusalem

23rd October 2016 Joel

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
Pieter Bruegel "Harvest"
Pieter Bruegel, “Harvest” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Joel 2:23-32

23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. My people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other, and my people shall never again be put to shame.

28Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


I was intending completing the reflection on Joel when I was asked to focus on the gospel passage from Luke, so here’s a bonus.

Joel? Who’s Joel? How many of us can pick up a Bible and quickly find Joel without referring to the index?

The book of Joel is divided differently in the Hebrew from how it is done in English, so who decided that we English speakers are better at organising scripture than the original owners of that scripture? This segment opens with abundance in the wake of desolation. You might think “bad year, good year”, but that’s not the case. One verse about the locusts eating all the crops – and everything else – does not do justice, if that’s a fair word to use in the circumstances, to the years of famine brought about, according to scripture, because of the Hebrew people not paying attention to God. I can imagine God thinking “why do you humans go off on your own ways so often and so far that I have to send you plagues, famines, sheer desolation, and more to get you even to the starting point of looking to me for your blessings?” I don’t want to count the number of times that God’s chosen people went off the rails and had to be brought back by some horrors being inflicted on them. It would be depressing! How many times should I forgive my brother: seventy times seven? If that were God’s limit then we’d be in strife very soon.

God, of course, is willing to forgive us for our blatant transgressions, far more than we are willing to forgive others for their transgressions against us. As a consequence, God is now willing to provide food in abundance, joy for all, and a wonderfully new experience in that close relationship we have with our maker. Never again will the Hebrew people be put to shame; until, or course, they forget that God is in the midst of Israel, or that He is the one and only God. That’s a different story, which we know in the 21st century AD but they didn’t in the early 5th century BC.

The declaration that God will pour out His spirit on all flesh is familiar to those of us who have read or heard the Pentecost passage from Acts [Acts 2:14-21] where this excerpt from Joel is quoted as near to verbatim as we can get with one passage in Hebrew and the other in Greek. In Joel, there is no indication of when this will occur other than “afterwards”; in Acts, Peter adds “in the last days”. What we see in the declaration is that God will pour His spirit on all humans – the text says all flesh, but the list is only of various groups of people – with no boundaries. That is, there will be no discrimination on the grounds of gender, age or social status. The spirit will be poured on sons, daughters, old men, young men, slaves, let me add wives and mothers, and all shall, not will, prophesy. It’s amazing that this list was written more than 400 years before Paul’s famous “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” if we take the King James rendition, though the Greek actually says “neither is there male and female”. [Galations 3:28]. It was clearly understood, even in the time of Joel, that God’s will was for equality, not segregation or subversion. If that concept was understood 2500 years ago, why do we still have opposition to women taking leadership roles in the churches?

In days when there was no understanding of the physical process of eclipses, the idea of the sun being turned to darkness, and the moon being turned to blood would have elicited fear of the end time whenever there was one – and we now know that they occur several times every year. Have we become complacent because we have a scientific understanding of eclipses? Quite likely.

If we are approaching the end time, and nobody really knows, have we done enough to reach out to those people who have little or no contact with God, remembering that “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”? Some would answer that it is up to God to extend His grace to those who have had no contact with, or knowledge of the existence of God, and that we cannot reach out to everyone in every country because we don’t have the resources. That might be true, but does it exonerate us if we leave those who live close to us, and those with whom we work, ignorant of the loving grace of God?

18th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 79

1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
4We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.
5How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name
7for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
8Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
9Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


We continue through a period of lament, with not only Jeremiah, but also the psalmist bringing the desperation of the people into focus.

Once again, as with Psalm 14, the wording suggests, on the surface, that the cause of the problem is “the nations”. “They” have defiled the temple; “they” have laid waste to Jerusalem. ‘Who is “they”?’ we might ask. If we consider that “we” are doing, or trying to do, what God wants us to do, then “they” includes anyone who is not doing the right thing. In a world where the Hebrew people were supposed to set themselves aside from the peoples around them, and keep to the commandments – better translated as commitments – thought to have been brought to us by Moses, and not to be defiled by the ways of those other peoples, any moves to adopt the ways of non-Hebrews could be seen as going against the will of God. It was the role of the temple leaders to guide the Hebrews away from the pitfalls of other religions, and their way of life, but when the leaders failed to keep the people honest to their task disaster would befall the nation. Time and again the prophets would rail against bad leadership, and against the “false prophets” to whom some leaders turned for justification. If we take the line that failure to honour the commitment to God’s teaching will bring about disaster, then the destruction of the temple and the flattening of Jerusalem in 586BC, which is probably at the heart of this passage, shows that the people had strayed significantly from the ways of God, and the leadership was very much involved in that errant behaviour.

Scripture doesn’t just tell us what happened in the past, but it teaches us how to address issues which affect us today, many centuries after those passages were written. It’s more than a historical record of events from which we can learn: it’s an insight into how we can avoid the problems of the past revisiting us. Given that, what can we learn from this section of one psalm?

First, the Hebrew people were supposed to keep to their faith and not be influenced by the ways of life of those around them, where that would put them in conflict with God’s will. The people were required to be distinct from those around them. Customs associated with their faith took precedence over customs of the others, so mode of dress, days of worship, commitment to worship, decisions about what was good for the community had to be consistent with their faith teaching. Orthodox Jews still maintain a diet free from pork, even though the real reason for its exclusion in biblical times – the way it rapidly becomes unsafe to eat if not treated properly – has been overcome. As Christians, how often are we distinguishable from the rest of the community? How often have we stood up against incursions into the day of rest? When people come to church are they getting the same sort of experience as they would get in any other organisation around? Do we make a commitment to our faith journey such that others are touched by what can be achieved, or do we depend on the church establishment to provide everything, and expect it to be free? Are our churches any better at dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct than other organisations, or businesses? If the answer to any of those questions is “No” then we might be falling into the same pitfalls as the Hebrews were before the destruction of the temple, and we might find that our temple is destroyed. Are we prepared to stand up for our faith, and pick up the pieces after our church institutions come crashing down around us, or are we going to speak up, and act, to repent and change our ways before such destruction happens?

The section of Psalm 79 set for the 18th of September ends with a call to God to help us, to forgive our sins, and guide us back to a righteous relationship with our Creator. This should be an important part of our daily prayer life.

11th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Jeremiah 4:11-18

11It will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse — 12a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. 13Look! He comes up like clouds, his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles — woe to us, for we are ruined! 14O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved. How long shall your evil schemes lodge within you? 15For a voice declares from Dan and proclaims disaster from Mount Ephraim. 16Tell the nations, “Here they are!” Proclaim against Jerusalem, “Besiegers come from a distant land; they shout against the cities of Judah. 17They have closed in around her like watchers of a field, because she has rebelled against me, says the Lord. 18Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The set text omits verses 13-18 and adds verses 21-28.

Psalm 14

1Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
2The Lord looks down from heaven on mankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
5There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
6You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
7O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


The principal aim of these reflections is to look at one passage of scripture from the selection set down for the Sunday before I post my comments. However, the selection of readings is supposed to have a common thread, and sometimes that thread requires a look at more than one passage. Today is an example.

The author of Psalm 14 is clearly expressing negative comments about the “fools” who do not believe in God and follow the teachings of scripture: the Lord looks down to see if anyone is wise and seeking after God, but “they” have all gone astray. Who are “they”? It’s incredibly easy for us to separate the wheat from the chaff and include ourselves on the “good” side of that separation, then label everyone who isn’t with us as against us. Sometimes that separation takes on a self-righteous tone which demeans us. Some years ago an Anglican bishop I knew was invited to the ordination service for a Roman Catholic deacon. Though the service included Holy Communion the Anglican bishop was not allowed to take the bread (or wine) because he wasn’t “Christian”, that is, he wasn’t baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. At my son’s baptism we had Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church clergy participating, and the sermon made a point that we were not making a new Anglican but a new Christian. Far too often I hear comments along the lines of “you don’t do things the way we do, so you’re not Christian” even if the last bit is by implication, rather than direct statement. Psalm 14 rails against those who did things differently from the established trend, but the author wasn’t a prophet, rather a hymn writer. When we look at what a prophet was saying about the situation we are faced with a quite different scenario. Within verses omitted from the set text for the week – why they were excluded begs other questions – Jeremiah shouts “O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” [v14], “Besiegers come from a distant land” [v16], and “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you” [v18]. Once again the prophet is crying that the leaders are just as corrupt as any of those against whom they rail. Isaiah put it another way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” [Is 53:6]

It’s very easy for us to think that these passages refer to times in the history of the Jewish communities, but, as with all scripture, there is a message for us in the 21st century just as much as there was when Jeremiah was writing, mostly in the 7th century BC. What this combination of passages calls on us to do is to look at ourselves and see if we are guilty of classing ourselves as “good” and others as “bad” when the labels could easily be reversed. Have we lost track of what we are called, by God, to do in this world? Have we put ourselves above others as better Christians? Have we failed to recognise the Christ in others and looked for ways to denigrate those who are different from us, or approach our task of worship differently? How many false prophets have we allowed into “the Church”?

I have no doubt that sexual misconduct by those who have been able to get into influential positions in the church, either as clergy or lay leaders, is contrary to the message of love which comes from God, at least as perceived by the vast majority of Australians, but I truly wonder if we have been like the hireling who deserted the flock of sheep when a wolf attacked [John 10:12]. Only a tiny proportion of those entrusted with God’s work in the various denominations has failed to honour that task, yet we have allowed a very negative response from the non-church-going public to cloud the very good work done by the majority, and we have allowed those many good Christian leaders to be tarred with the same brush as those who have brought disgust.