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Monday, February 20, 2017

What Did The Refugees Hear?

We're reading bits from Isaiah in our Bible study this week, remembering how these same passages would have been read by refugees in Babylon, and looking at how they apply to us today. Was Isaiah one prophet or many? Do we care? The words and the meaning are the same...

(41) What Did Isaiah Say?

There are passages in Isaiah that sound very similar to passages in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Obadiah. Scholars suggest:

1.       Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Obadiah, being familiar with Isaiah, used similar words when they saw Isaiah’s prophesies come to pass.
2.       Editors/prophets at the time of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Obadiah expanded passages from Isaiah in the light of later events.
3.       Parts of Isaiah were written in the time of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Obadiah, by prophets from the school of Isaiah, rather like painted masterpieces come from the school of famous painters.
4.       Isaiah lived to a very very great age.
5.       Isaiah really did prophecy the names of kings to come in a later generation.

What matters more—knowing which argument is true, or knowing that the words are in the Bible and therefore truly represent God’s word?

Which is easier—arguing about Bible interpretation, or reading the Bible?

Isaiah makes various prophecies about Babylon.
1.       Read Isaiah 13:1, 9-10. What time do you think this refers to?

2.       Read Isaiah 13:11-14. What time might this refer to?

3.       Read Isaiah 13:17-19. The Medes invaded Babylon and deposed its rulers. What have silver and gold to do with invasion? Do wealth and politics always make a bad combination?

4.       Read Isaiah 14:3-15. Isaiah combines Jewish teaching with Babylonian mythology – Lucifer is the Day Star, Venus, god of the morning; in mythology Lucifer attempts to ascend the mountain to the throne of Baal but isn’t big enough to sit there. Dead gods were sent to the Babylonian netherworld, and Baal’s throne was empty because the god of the dead had captured Baal. Is it okay to use the language of legends in conveying spiritual truths? (Read Acts 17:23)

Would you expect Isaiah to be pleased to see Babylon’s demise? Would we be pleased to see our enemies fail?

1.       Read Isaiah 21:2-5 Why is he dismayed? Should we be delighted or dismayed at the fall of God’s enemies?

2.       Read Isaiah 21:6 Why do we need a watchman?

3.       Read Isaiah 21:11-16. Dumah was an Ishmaelite city. Some scholars suggest Isaiah’s successors make this prophecy in response to taunting from the Ishmaelites. Does verse 16 mean within a year of the prophecy, or that the fall will start and end within the period of a year?

4.       Read Isaiah 33:1. Have we seen this happen in modern times? Could this make us more likely to echo the prayer of verse 2?

5.       Read Isaiah 33:5,10,14-16. What does “exalted” mean to you?

6.       Read Isaiah 33:17-22. Do we look toward Zion? What do we “see”?

Isaiah’s prophecies extend to all nations.
1.       Read Isaiah 34:1-2. Where do you imagine the prophet might be as he says these things?

2.       Read Isaiah 34:3-4. Does this remind you of end-time prophecies? Why? And why might end-time prophecies be made at this time?

3.       Read Isaiah 34:5-6. Why might Edom (and its capital, Bozrah) be named here? In what ways might we be like Edom?

4.       Read Isaiah 34:9-10. Does this remind you of Sodom and Gomorrah? In what ways might we be like Sodom and Gomorrah?

Isaiah’s prophecies aren’t all doom and gloom
1.       Read Isaiah 33:9, 35:2. What was (and still is) special about Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon?

2.       Read Isaiah 35:5-6. Who quoted this in the New Testament and why? Do the blind see? Where do miracles fit with modern faith?

3.       Read Isaiah 35:8. What comforts you most about this? And what doesn’t?

The author of the later chapters of Isaiah, from chapter 40 onwards, is sometimes referred to as the “second Isaiah,” because much of what is written seems to refer to the return from Babylon (including the name of King Cyrus Isaiah 44:8, 45:1,13). But the message of God’s love and God’s plan remains the same, as it does throughout the whole Bible. Whenever the verses were written, they would have been read as words of comfort to Jewish refugees in Babylon.

1.       Read Isaiah 40:1-2. Why would this message have resonated with the refugees? In what sense does it resonate for us today? Are we refugees?

2.       Read Isaiah 40:3-5.  Who applied these words to himself? In what sense were John the Baptist’s listeners refugees?

3.       Read Isaiah 40:6-8. In what sense does this comfort you? It what sense doesn’t it?

4.       Read Isaiah 40:9. We hear this quoted in Handel’s Messiah. Remember that lifted up, exalted theme? What might this have meant to the refugees? What does it mean to you?

5.       Read Isaiah 40:11. Would people have thought of this when Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd?

6.       Read Isaiah 40:12-14. Does this remind you of Job? Are measuring and calculating good things?

7.       Read Isaiah 40:15. How important is our nation?

8.       Read Isaiah 40:18-19. How do we describe God – to ourselves, to our children, to our neighbors…?

9.       Read Isaiah 40:26. We’re lifting up our eyes again. What does lifting up your eyes do to you – spiritually, physically, emotionally…?

10.   Read Isaiah 40:27-29. Are we ever tempted to imagine God doesn’t see our need? Why? What can we do about it?

11.   Read Isaiah 41:1-4,25. Why is it so hard to remember that God is in control?

12.   Read Isaiah 41:21. Why is it so hard to believe that we really are allowed to question God? (And so are our neighbors and kids.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

When All Is Lost...

Doing these studies in the prophets has really driven home to me how long it took for Jerusalem to fall. But now we've reached that in-between time, when the people are exiled in Bablyon, the city and Temple are gone, and the future looks seriously uncertain and bleak. Exiled from my basement (and office), with chairs and sofa gone (where I used to read, take notes, eat lunch etc), and unsure how long it will take for me to get "home," I'm unsettled, but nothing like so unsettled as those Jewish refugees. I'm tempted, in bleaker moments, to wonder why God would care about my minor problems when so many people suffer so much. Then I remind myself, he cares about me and everyone else, and he really does have the whole world, history, present and future, safe in his hand. It just doesn't always look that way until it is history. So here's some history and prophecy, all tied together.

(40) Ezekiel – when all is lost

Jerusalem has fallen. The survivors are exiles in Babylon. Daniel works with Babylonians in the royal household. Ezekiel lives and works among the Jewish refugee community. And King Jehoiachin is a prisoner, taken captive with his household and family when Nebuchadnezzar placed his brother/uncle Zedekiah on the throne. (Uncle Zedekiah didn’t fare quite so well—he was blinded before being taken prisoner.) What did everyone think would happen next?

Read 2 Kings 25:27-30, Jeremiah 52:31-34. Nebuchadnezzar will eventually be followed by Evil-Merodach (Man of Marduk). The all-powerful Babylonian empire will begin to stumble. But this won’t be visible to the Jewish exiles.

Ezekiel has prophesied the death and destruction of Jerusalem and its neighbors. Now God’s words have come to pass. What do you think Ezekiel might talk about afterward (or what might God talk to Ezekiel about)? (Try to answer before looking at the passages.)

Near Cambridge, England, we have the Gogmagog hills—strange name?
1.       Read Ezekiel 38:1-7. Gog might be the Asian King Gyges (correct dates, wrong name), a city somewhere, the Scythians (because they came from the North—wrong name, right direction), or… or it could be an imaginary name of an imaginary foe—the bad guys. What do you think? And what names might be used today for an imaginary powerful foe?

2.       This prophecy has been used to remind God’s people in many times and places that God will prevail. How do we remind ourselves that God will prevail?

3.       Read Ezekiel 38:10-12. The people want Ezekiel to remind them that they will be re-established peacefully in God’s Promised Land. Instead, it sounds like they’re being told they’ll be attacked again (by Gog) after being re-established. How might that make them feel?

4.       Why should we never trust in human governments, armies and powers?

5.       Read Ezekiel 38:14-16. Why does God keep allowing bad things to happen?

6.       Read Ezekiel 38:18-23. Which images remind you of Revelation?

7.       Read Ezekiel 39:3-6, 9-10. Who will win?

8.       Read Ezekiel 39:11-15. Do you suppose 7 is symbolic? What else might be symbolic?

9.       Read Ezekiel 39:17-18. Symbolic perhaps? What might it mean? Do you remember the feast in Revelation? (Read Revelation 19:18. Why might the first readers of Revelation have recognized the reference?)

10.   Read Ezekiel 39:27-29. How can we be sure to remember this promise? How does it relate to end times?

Read Ezekiel 40:1. The changeover from Nebuchadnezzar to Evil-Merodach is still in the future. Babylon is still powerful, but Ezekiel sees it as beginning to fall. He’s given a vision of the future where restoration of the land is followed by failure and restoration again. Now he gives an image of the restored temple. Before reading, do you imagine this will be a blueprint for rebuilding a temple, or a vision of end-times perfection?

1.       Read Ezekiel 40:2-4. Who do you think the “man” is? What purpose do the cord and rod serve?

2.       Read Ezekiel 40:5-7. A (long) cubit is a little less than two feet. Reading without trying to do the math, what are the dominant images and symbols here? What might be the significance of all this measuring? And of “long”?

3.       Read Ezekiel 40:16. What might be the significance of beauty/decoration?

4.       Read Ezekiel 40:17-20. What happens in the outer court of the temple?

5.       Read Ezekiel 40:28-31. What happens in the inner court? (Herod’s temple had the gentile courtyard, the women’s courtyard and the priest’s courtyard, but the outer and inner—women’s and priests’—courts are the important ones.)

6.       Read Ezekiel 40:38-39. Why might Ezekiel be particularly interested in what is offered where?

7.       Read Ezekiel 41:1-4. Where is our most holy place?

8.       Remembering Ezekiel’s earlier vision of the Temple (Ezekiel 8), what has changed (or will change)?

The temple is not just a building, and Ezekiel doesn’t just get a guided tour.
1.       Read Ezekiel 43:1-5. Remember Ezekiel 10:18-19. What is the significance of the East gate?

2.       Read Ezekiel 43:10-11. How do (or should) measurements make us ashamed?

3.       Read Ezekiel 43:18, 25-28. Why would Ezekiel be particularly interested in sacrifices? And what is the significance of 7 (again)?

4.       Read Ezekiel 44:1-3 The East gate of Jerusalem (city, not Temple) was sealed shut by Suleiman in AD1540 and is in Arab territory today, a fact that obviously influences modern interpretation of these verses. How do you think the first listeners might have interpreted them? Who might they have believed was the prince? What about when they started building the new temple?

5.       Can you come up with your own personal interpretation of a gate—maybe a gate in your spiritual life—being sealed shut so only the prince can enter?

6.       Read Ezekiel 44:6-9. How does knowing that prisoners of war were used as temple servants affect your interpretation of this?

7.       Read Ezekiel 45:1. What does dividing the land remind you of? Why might Exodus, establishment and exile be a repeating theme in the Bible?

8.       Read Exodus 45:7-10. Does this alter who you think the prince might be?

9.       Read Exodus 46:1-2. Are the offices of king and priest combined or separate? Who combines them?

10.   Read Exodus 47:1-2. Does this sound symbolic? Does it remind you of Genesis and Revelation (Read Revelation 22:1-2)?

11.   Read Exodus 47:13-14, 48:1-2…. Does this mean the original allotments in Joshua and Judges were wrong, or is it just a reminder that God allots space perfectly? (Note Judah moves into the Northern part. There’s some suggestion that closeness to the Temple is determined by purity of blood!)

12.   Read Exodus 48:35. Are we there yet? Can we measure the walls or the time remaining?

13.   Today we don’t worship in temples but we do still value gold. What sort of visions might God give to our prophets?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Does 2017 feel a bit like a disaster?

2017 feels like a crazy year to me. We've been trapped by snow, inundated by rain, demoralized by water flooding our home, isolated by lack of phone, TV and internet (maybe that was a good thing), concerned for the health of friends in the US and UK, overwhelmed by politics (yes, lack of internet probably was a good thing), and generally... well... just not entirely happy about the state of 2017. But the Israelites must have felt worse as Jerusalem fell, so it's good to finally get back to our Bible studies and see a world not so very different from our own. Everything's out of control except... the truth is, God is, was and always will be in control.

(39) Ezekiel’s Visions and Obadiah’s Anger

It looks like there were three (or four) separate sets of exiles sent to Babylon, though they probably (for the most part) ended up living in the same area, close to the river mentioned in Ezekiel 1.

1.       Which famous prophet was probably part of the first exile?

2.       Which one would have been part of the second?

3.       What happens to cause the third/fourth exile?

4.       What happened to Ezekiel between his exile and the final exile? Read Ezekiel 33:21. Do you remember the significance of someone coming from Jerusalem? (Read Ezekiel 24:25-27.)

Ezekiel’s visions start when he’s around 30 years old, as he prays near the Chebar River. His wife dies and, instead of publically mourning her, he is called to present a series of silent parables, predicting the fall of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, in private, he preaches to small groups who came to him for advice. Does this remind you of someone else, speaking in parables and explaining to a select small group what he meant?

1.       Read Ezekiel 12:3-6. What part of the fall of Jerusalem does this model?

2.       Read Ezekiel 12:17-19,27-28. Why would they have hoped this was far in the future? Would it make you feel better to think a disaster would happen later rather than sooner?

3.       In Ezekiel 33:21-22 Ezekiel is given a voice to preach publicly again. Read Ezekiel 33:31-33. Do the people listen? Are we listening?

With Jerusalem overthrown, Jerusalem’s neighbors might be expected to rejoice.

1.       Whose fall, or what country’s fall, might cause us to rejoice?

2.       Has the fall of any regime made us rejoice in our lifetimes?

3.       What effect does being pleased at another’s misfortune have on us? Is it good or bad for us?

4.       God is not planning to spare Jerusalem’s neighbors, any more than he is going to spare Egypt. Do we have any reason to imagine he will spare us pain?

Ezekiel preaches against each of Judah’s neighbors in turn. As you read, try to imagine why these words might be directed against us, or against nations we care about, rather than just against our enemies.

1.       Read Ezekiel 25:1-4, 8-9, 12-13, 15-16, 26:1-7. What do we remember Tyre for? (Read 2 Samuel 5:11, Isaiah 23:3, Matthew 11:22) Why might Tyre be getting a longer message than the other places?

2.       Read Ezekiel 27:10-24. What image of Tyre and Sidon do you get? Why does it matter—why is it so completely described in Ezekiel’s lament (and in the Bible)?

3.       Read Ezekiel 28:1-3, 9-10. There are actually two Daniels—the well-known prophet and the Daniel of contemporary legend—holy, royal, wise and bitter; both might be intended in the passage. Who might people say they are wiser than today? What might people say in our modern world, rather than “I am a god”?

4.       Read Ezekiel 28:25-26. Peace will come, eventually. What peace do we look forward to? What peace might people in other parts of the world be looking for today? Where does peace come from?

5.       Ezekiel prophecies doom on Egypt, just as Jeremiah did (Ezekiel 29:1-2 and on). Read Ezekiel 31:17-19. What would be wrong with dying with the uncircumcised? Read out of context, how might one interpret verse 19?

6.       Read Ezekiel 32:22,24,26,29,31.  Is our world any less violent?

Ezekiel and Jeremiah aren’t the only prophets speaking out at the end of Jerusalem. But before we look at another one, what do you think Daniel is doing all this time? Read Daniel 4:37-5:1. He doesn’t live among the exiles. He doesn’t go to Ezekiel for advice. He doesn’t appear to condemn God’s enemies. But he is following God’s plan. Should we expect God’s plan for ourselves to be applicable to our neighbors?

Obadiah preaches specifically against the Edomites. There’s no specific date to the book, but it mentions the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people, and the prophet appears to quote from Jeremiah, making scholars think it was written around the time of Jerusalem’s fall. The Talmud suggests Obadiah was an Edomite convert and friend of Job.

1.       Who are the Edomites descended from? What have they done to oppose God’s people in the past? (Read Numbers 20:17-20)

2.       Read Obadiah 1:1,10-14. How tempting is it to join the winning side, and mock the losers?

3.       Read Obadiah 1:17-20. What is going to happen?

The Jews in exile could either remain Jewish or become assimilated into the surrounding cultures. Their lives might model how we should be “in the world but not of the world,” and their prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi—together with Ezra and Nehemiah will teach us a lot. But first, back to Ezekiel…

1.       Read Ezekiel 33:1-6 Are we watchmen? Would we want to be watchmen?

2.       Read Ezekiel 33:12 What does this mean? Does verse 14 make it clearer?

3.       Read Ezekiel 33:16-17 Does this remind you of the New Testament? Does God change?

4.       Read Ezekiel 33:20 Is God fair?

5.       Read Ezekiel 34:2,6 Who are the flock and who is the shepherd? Has this changed?

6.       Read Ezekiel 34:11,13,16 Was salvation just for the Jews?

7.       Read Ezekiel 34:17 What does this remind you of? What would Jews of Jesus’ time have remembered when Jesus spoke about the good shepherd?

8.       Read Ezekiel 35:2,5,10,14-15. Where or what was Mount Seir? (Read Genesis 36:8, Numbers 24:18, Joshua 24:4)

9.       Read Ezekiel 36:1,5,8-11. Why will God rescue his people?

10.   Read Ezekiel 36:17,22-23. Why does a good God allow bad things to happen?

11.   Read Ezekiel 36:25-27. Do God’s promises change?

12.   Read Ezekiel 37:1-3. God speaks through Ezekiel in parables. Is it true that parables make the message memorable? Do you remember where this story is going?

13.   Read Ezekiel 37:16-17,21-22,24-26. What would they have believed this prophecy meant? What do you think it means? Has it been fulfilled?

We’ll look at Ezekiel’s later prophecies—end times and Christ times—next time…