Ready for Paul?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Meeting some major minor prophets

This week our Bible study moves on to look at the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. I guess, at last, we're looking at "minor prophets," but they had some major things to say at a time when major things were happening. They seem to have had some major things to say about the future too.

(44) Haggai and Zechariah issue a call to rebuild

The Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem and tried to rebuild the Temple. The foundations were laid (Ezra 3:10-11) but work stopped around 535BC and didn’t restart until around 520BC.

1.       Read Ezra 3:10-11, 4:24-5:1 Have you ever started something for God then encountered a long unproductive pause?

2.       Read Haggai 1:1-4 How do we know whether it’s time to wait or time to work?

3.       Read Haggai 1:6 How well does this describe modern Western society?

4.       Read Haggai 1:7-8 How important is it to have beautiful churches, beautiful music, well-kept church gardens, etc?

5.       Read Haggai 1:9 What might the returning exiles have hoped to find or achiever in Jerusalem? How would this contrast with reality? Would they blame God or the survivors or both? (Archeological evidence suggests Israel lost 90% of its population. The city was deserted in ruins. The land wasn’t harvested. Returnees would have found wild animals, weeds and mountains of debris.) Who do we blame when life doesn’t live up to our expectations?

6.       Read Haggai 1:12-13. What did they fear? What do we fear?

Haggai encourages the people with God’s message:

1.       Read Haggai 2:4-5 What reminds you that God’s spirit will never leave you? What reminds us to “work”?

2.       Read Haggai 2:6-9 Does this refer to the Temple they are building, or to some future time? Who will come?

3.       Read Haggai 2:10-14, Matthew 15:11. What makes us, our lives or our world impure? How easily does impurity spread? And what frees us from impurity. (Read Haggai 2:19)

Zerubbabel the governor and Jeshua/Joshua the high priest will have to work together in the rebuilding. This can be used as evidence that we shouldn’t separate church and state. What might we use as evidence that they should be separated (see last question)?

1.       Read Zechariah 1:1-4 Zechariah prophesies at the same time as Haggai. What external events might make us feel God is calling us to return to him? Have you ever felt or witnessed a “come back to me” call?

2.       Read Haggai 2:22-23 Zechariah spoke to the people. Haggai speaks to their secular leader. What might it mean to be God’s signet ring? Is there a more modern image that would carry a similar meaning?

3.       Read Zechariah 3:1-5 Zechariah has a vision of their spiritual leader standing before Satan—“the adversary,” closely related to the character in Job. Do you remember Jesus’ parable where someone was clothed in cleaner garments? Or the message about white robes in Revelation? Who makes us clean?

4.       Read Zechariah 4:6-7 Who rebuilds – priest, governor or God?

Zechariah received visions filled with symbols and parables, many of which are echoed in Revelation, so now we’ll go back to the beginning of the book.

1.       Read Zechariah 1:7-11. How many horses are there? Read Revelation 6:1-8. How do the horses compare? (Note, the older language has fewer words for color.)

2.       Read Zechariah 1:12, Jeremiah 29:10. Does the number of years have to be accurate or can it be symbolic? What might 70 mean?

3.       Read Zechariah 1:14-17, 2:1-2. Who else wrote about measuring lines and temples? (Read Ezekiel 40:3)

4.       Read Zechariah 1:18-20. Who else wrote about horns? (Read Daniel 7:7-8. Do you think reading Zechariah first might make it easier to understand Daniel?)

5.       Read Zechariah 2:4-5, Ezekiel 38:11, Revelation 21:22-27. The city in Revelation does have walls (but open gates). What might tie Jerusalem without walls, and the heavenly city without a Temple together?

6.       Read Zechariah 2:6-13. So… are non-Jews friend or foe (verse 11)? And how hard is it to “be still”?

7.       Read Zechariah 3:6-10.
a.       Who is often referred to as the branch? (Read Luke 1:76-79 – the word for rising sun or dayspring is also used for branch.)

b.      Why seven eyes? (Read Revelation 5:6)

c.       Why vine and fig tree? (Read Micah 4:4, John 1:48)

8.       Read Zechariah 4:1-3 Bowls and lampstands were part of the Temple vessels. Olive trees are a sign of blessing. Read Revelation 1:12, 11:3-5, 16:1. Visions that sound strange to us would have sounded relatively normal to their first hearers. What things do Christians say that sound strange to non-believers just because they’re missing the context?

9.       Since Zechariah immediately mentions Zerubbabel (verse 6), the olive trees are believed to represent Joshua (the priesthood) and Zerubbabel (kingship – he’s descended from David and he’s in charge). In Revelation, when the witnesses prophesy and are called the olive trees, they combine the offices of prophet, priest and king. Who is the one true prophet, priest and king?

10.   Read Zechariah 4:11-14, Revelation 11:3-4. Do you think the first readers of Revelation would have caught the reference? How was their world similar to the world of the returnees? How might ours be similar?

11.   Read Zechariah 5:1-3. What might a scroll make people think of?

12.   Read Zechariah 5:5-11. Shinar was the land of Nimrod (Genesis 10:9-10). It was the center of early civilization. Abraham’s family came from there. Babylon is there. It became a byword for the place of exile, hence the place where wickedness dwells. Does this mean Babylon (Iraq) is always a center of evil, or can symbol be different from reality?

13.   Read Zechariah 6:1-3 Horses again! Read verses 6-8. What was North of Jerusalem?

14.   Read Zechariah 6:9-15. Crowning Joshua combines the offices of priest and king. Could it prefigure combining prophet priest and king? Could “those from afar” prefigure Gentiles becoming part of God’s people?

The Temple was eventually rebuilt, but not without difficulty. Meanwhile Daniel was still in Babylon – soon to enjoy a night in the lion’s den. Ezekiel may still be among the exiles. Esther is preparing to be a queen. And the prophet Malachi is probably just writing down his visions. But, back to temples…


How long does it take us to get from a foundation of Christianity to truly believing our bodies are the Temples of the Spirit (Read 1 Corinthians 6:19)?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Two Peoples Divided By A Common Faith?

I'm enjoying reading familiar verses from Isaiah in a different light. Sometimes we're so sure are own interpretations are the only possible ones, and so we divide when we really ought to unite. But it's not new--it's human, and the Bible story tells the wonder of when human meets divine--real world, real people, and real God!

(43)Deutero-Isaiah and the Return

Nbonidus and Belshazzar were coregents over Babylon. The citizens were tired of Nabonidus’ long absence and refusal to worship. They were also tired of Belshazzar’s excess, so when Cyrus marched in (550BC), the Babylonians greeted him with celebrations in the street. Meanwhile the Israelites were still the downtrodden poor. How might they have viewed regime change? In the light of last week’s study, what or who might have influenced their views?

Jewish tradition keeps the book of Isaiah as one volume, but splits the authorship into Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah—a second prophet speaking at the end of the exile. Deutero-Isaiah is split into three parts: Chapters 40-48 written before the return, 49-57 written after the first wave of exiles return, and 58-66 when redemption seems slow in coming. We looked at chapter 49 last time. 
Read Isaiah 49:1. Why might you think it was written in Jerusalem rather than Babylon?

Read 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, (Jeremiah 29:10) and 2 Kings 25:27-30. What similarities or differences do you notice in how the two histories end?

The Persian Empire thrived on respecting the values and religions of its subsidiary nations. Allowing the Israelites to go home was standard policy, but also God’s will. How easy or hard to we find it to see God’s will in secular events? Remembering the exile was also God’s will, do we find it easier to see God’s hand in good events than in bad ones? How might we see God’s will more clearly?

Returning Jews would find their land occupied by non-Jews, half-Jews, and proud surviving Jews. How might the groups be expected to view each other?

1.       Read Isaiah 50:1 The Jews viewed themselves as God’s wife and God’s children. How do we view ourselves in relationships to God? Do problems make us view that relationship differently?

2.       Read Isaiah 50:4-5 Which segment of the Jews might say this of themselves? Who might it apply to in the New Testament?

3.       Read Isaiah 50:10-11 How might this be applied to the wisdom of the present day?

4.       Read Isaiah 51:1-2 What Rock do we look back to?

5.       Read Isaiah 51:4-6 We read this as prophecy of salvation and end-times. What might the original listeners have heard?

6.       Read Isaiah 51:4,7,9,17,52:1 What’s the connection between listening and being awake?

7.       Read Isaiah 52:4-6 When did God’s people go to Egypt? And who will go to Egypt? Why might the pattern be important?

8.       Read Isaiah 52:7-10 Can you read it without hearing music? How do you suppose the first listeners heard these words?

9.       Read Isaiah 52:13-15 We believe the servant is the Messiah. Who else might this have referred to? Does prophecy usually have only one meaning or many meanings? (Jewish tradition prefers the servant as nation, or as a suffering part of the nation, since Deutero-Isaiah is not believed to refer to an individual Messiah. Where might Christian interpretations of passages be dogmatic—“never refers to”— rather than inspired?)

10.   Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Can you list all the references to Christ?

11.   Read Isaiah 54:6-8. How would this comfort the Israelites (see question 1)? How does it comfort us? And has it happened yet? What about 54:10?

12.   Read Isaiah 54:11 Where else do we see precious jewels mentioned as part of a city?

13.   Read Isaiah 54:14 Does this refer to the past or the future for us? Why would listeners returning to Jerusalem have viewed it as imminent? Are we tempted to view things as coming soon when they might be gifts of the far future?

14.   Read Isaiah 55:1-5. How do you interpret these verses?

15.   Read Isaiah 55:6-7. Could this be viewed as a call to the non-Jews and partial-Jews of Jerusalem? Equally could Isaiah 55:8-9 be a reminder to the returnees that God’s plan is bigger than theirs? In what sense do we still need both these reminders—that those who don’t belong can belong; and those who do belong don’t know it all?

16.   Read Isaiah 55:10-11. How does this comfort you?

17.   Read Isaiah 55:12-13. Can you read this without singing?

18.   Read Isaiah 56:1-2. Do you remember why Jeremiah and the other prophets said the nation would be handed over to Babylon?

19.   Read Isaiah 56:3-5. Did this happen when the Temple was rebuilt? Who were still kept out in Jesus’ time? Who do we still try to keep out?

20.   Read Isaiah 56:7-8. Who quotes this in the New Testament? When and why? (Read Jeremiah 7:11, Matthew 21:13)

21.   Read Isaiah 56:9-12. Deutero-Isaiah sounds a lot like the first Isaiah. Has Israel been changed by its exile? Or might this refer to the people left behind?

22.   Read Isaiah 57:3-7. Isaiah goes on to list the same sins as before, including child sacrifice and prayer to gods on mountain tops. Which would be easier for the returning refugees – to follow the customs of those left behind, or to keep to God’s true laws?

23.   Read Isaiah 57:16-18. Which would be easier for the returning refugees – to totally reject those sinners left behind, or to accept that God heals and forgives? Why is it easier to remember God forgives us than to remember he forgives our neighbors?

24.   Read Isaiah 57:19-21. Is this where no rest for the wicked comes from?

Read Ezra 1:1-8. Almost a second Exodus, the Israelites return to the Promised Land.

1.       Read Ezra 3:1-5. They start as they mean to go on, with public worship since there’s no Temple. When and how might we worship in public instead of in church?

2.       Read Ezra 3:8 Why does it take so long to start building the Temple (see verse 3).

3.       Read Ezra 3:10-13. How would this have looked to the outsiders? How do we look to outsiders?


4.       Read Ezra 4:1-3, 24. What went wrong? What would Isaiah say? Are we ever guilty of delaying the growth of God’s kingdom?


Monday, February 27, 2017

Subversive words in Babylon

Some of the passages from Isaiah are so familiar we almost miss the words. They're beautiful and powerful poems, but they're also a record of real speeches proclaimed on real city streets. Reading them while looking at the exile in Babylon makes me see them through different eyes. Perhaps I'll see the world through different eyes too.

(42) Prophecy, Rebellion and Subversion

What if reading the Bible were subversive? What if its message contradicted the rule of secular authorities—or of the religious establishment? Would we pick and choose which bits to read aloud, and leave out passages that might be “misunderstood”? Or do we already pick and choose, to suit our own preference?

Isaiah has lots of wonderful passages, well suited for choruses and reminders of God’s power. But it also has passages which would have seemed terribly subversive in Babylon. Let’s start with the good and see what follows.

1.       Read Isaiah 42:1-9 then look at 1-2 So… someone who doesn’t scream and shout. That sounds good…

2.       Look at Isaiah 42:3-4 Is this subversive or comforting? They’re probably okay quoting it…

3.       Look at Isaiah 42:5-9. What “new thing” might the refugees have imagined? Are they really safe listening to this?

4.       Read Isaiah 42:10-13 Not so quiet anymore. Can you imagine the listening crowds beginning to disperse?

5.       Read Isaiah 42:14-16 Does this remind you of Exodus? Are we blind? What paths might we need to be led along?

6.       Read Isaiah 42:17-20 What might we not be seeing or hearing in today’s world? Do we choose to be blind and deaf? Do we choose to trust things that aren’t God?

7.       Read Isaiah 42:21-25. What happens when God’s people don’t listen? What happens when they do?

8.       Read Isaiah 43:1-3 When did the Israelites walk through rivers and camp near a fiery mountain?

9.       Read Isaiah 43:5-7 Why might this mean more than just the Israelites? Read verse 9

10.   Read Isaiah 43:10-13 In a land of many gods, living under a hierarchy of gods, why is this so subversive? Is it subversive today? How do we balance using the language and symbolism of culture with the purity of faith and the uniqueness of God?

11.   Read Isaiah 43:19 What did the refugees see as the “new thing”? What do Christians see?

12.   Read Isaiah 43:22-24 Should we be surprised they don’t respond better? The Israelites may not have built a temple in Babylon, but they would still have worshiped God—quietly. Faith says Isaiah’s message is wonderful – we’re going home! But pragmatism says don’t speak out or you’ll be tortured and killed. And doubt says it might never happen. How should we balance faith, pragmatism and doubt?

13.   Read Isaiah 44:1-5 Temple slaves were important and influential in Babylon. They wore the name of the god they belonged to on their head or on their hands – “I am Marduk’s” etc. This passage would remind the Israelites that they belonged to God. What reminds us?

14.   Read Isaiah 44:6-8. Hearing and reciting these verses was seriously subversive. Religion and politics were inextricably intertwined in Babylon, and there were many gods who all served Babylon’s god. Would verse 7—Who is like me?— be subversive today? Why or why not?

15.   Read Isaiah 44:9,12,13,15,18-20 We read this reverently, but try to imagine it shouted on a street corner next door to the shop selling idols. God is speaking very directly to his people. How have you experienced him speaking directly into your circumstances?

16.   Read Isaiah 44:24-45:1 God chose the invader, the destroyer of their present peace? How would that make God’s people feel? How attached are you to the status quo?

17.   Cyrus is recorded as claiming that Marduk chose him. Is he serving two gods?

18.   Read Isaiah 45:14 Why would this be subversive? What about verse 18 – is that going to cause trouble too? Who are the Israelites not trusting if they try to keep this quiet? Do we really trust God in times of social unrest?

19.   Read Isaiah 46:1, 5-7 Can you rephrase this so it’s clear that our modern idols (fame, fortune, power…) are worthless?

Cyrus is advancing. Babylonian life is changing. The Israelites had lived as lower-class refugees, providing labor for the rich and pampered – doing the jobs no-one else wanted to do? Should they stand with their overlords against a new oppressor, or should they trust that the Marduk-worshipping oppressor is really directed by God? Can we apply this dilemma to modern life?

1.       Read Isaiah 47:1-2, 6-7 What image do you get of Babylonian and Israelite society?

2.       Read Isaiah 47:12-15. Can you hear God’s scorn for their folly? The Babylonians studied the skies scientifically and developed great calendars. But they also believed in astrology—hence the need for great calendars. What about our society?

3.       Read Isaiah 48:1,5-8 Do we believe we have heard and understood everything? Or do we believe that God is still revealing himself?

4.       Read Isaiah 48:17-19,22 How would you describe your peace?

5.       Read Isaiah 48:20 Has God ever called you to “Go forth” before the obstacle (in this case Babylonian authority) was removed?

Isaiah’s message is not just for refugee Israelites, and not just for the approach of their release. In Isaiah 42:6,7 Israel was reminded of her call to be a light to the Gentiles, to free foreigners from blindness, but Israel became blind. Then the Babylonians came. And now the Persians are coming…

1.       Read Isaiah 49:1-6 Who is the servant? Israel, a leader of Israel, Daniel, the Messiah…, or all of these?

2.       Read Isaiah 49:8-13 What images do you recognize from other parts of the Bible?

3.       Read Isaiah 49:14 Is it surprising that the refugees feel forsaken? When do you feel forsaken?

4.       Read Isaiah 49:20-21 Can you imagine modern refugees feeling this way?

5.       Read Isaiah 49:23,25-26, Daniel 5:1-4 How does Daniel’s description of the feast seem now we’ve read about Babylonian culture for a while?

6.       Read Daniel 5:5-12 How is Daniel’s position different from the other Jews? And how is Daniel’s soothsaying different from the other Babylonians?

7.       Read Daniel 5:18-23 How is Belshazzar’s behavior similar to the faithless Israelites?

8.       Read Daniel 5:26-29 Why is Daniel rewarded?

9.       Read Daniel 5:30-31 Why isn’t Belshazzar spared?


10.   Where might we view ourselves in this story?