Psalm 43 Calling for God’s Love among a Loveless People

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Psalm 43

1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
 from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?
3 O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
 
As mentioned in the previous psalm, Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 are often linked together and may have originally been one psalm. They share a common refrain, which is the final verse of Psalm 43, and when linked do share a common theme and this is the only psalm within the second book of the psalter (see previous chapter) that does not have a superscription (introductory line telling who wrote it or how it is to be sung). I will initially talk about Psalm 43 separately but will conclude by looking at Psalm 42 and 43 together as a unit.

The Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated steadfast love and reflects the relationship that God has established with God’s people, is used at the beginning of this psalm as a negative description of the people the poet asks for God’s defense from. They are literally a people without hesed, a people outside the covenant with the God of Israel, a people who either do not know or who do not respect the relationship that God has offered to the psalmist and their people. Perhaps this psalm comes out of the experience of exile in Babylon where the covenant people are isolated from their home and their temple surrounded by people who worship other gods, or perhaps the psalmist lives among a people who has forgotten who they are. Whatever the context of the psalm the speaker speaks from a place among a people not shaped and formed by the steadfast love of God and isolated with a person or people who through lies and unjust practices have placed the psalmist in need of deliverance. The poet calls for God’s steadfast love among a loveless people.

In harmony with the previous psalm, the speaker feels isolated from God by their situation and oppression. In Psalm 42:9 the psalmist can ask ‘why have you forgotten me?’ and in verse two of our current psalm we hear the question heightened, ‘why have you cast me off?’ or translated differently ‘why have you rejected me?’ (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 404) The ability of the enemy to continue to, in a military metaphor, to press in upon them has left them mournful. God is supposed to be their refuge and yet the boundaries that God is supposed to enforce for the psalmist continue to be violated by the aggressive enemy who is making their life miserable. The deliverance that the poet seeks rests in the hands of a God who appears to have left the speaker in this loveless place.

The answer to a people without steadfast love is the faithfulness of God. The word translated by the NRSV as truth is the Hebrew word ‘emet which is frequently translated as faithfulness. In a situation where the speaker is surrounded by a people without hesed (steadfast love) and where they are experiencing the rejection of God, the psalmist still calls for God’s light and ‘emet (faithfulness) to emerge in their place of darkness and faithlessness. God’s faithfulness can lead them home to God’s temple, to this place where they feel distant from due to exile or a people who has forgotten who they are. Yet, it is God who holds the future for the psalmist. It is God who will bring them out of their current oppression and isolation. The answer to a people without love is God’s steadfast love. The answer to oppression is the God who provides refuge. The answer to their current darkness is God’s light and faithfulness. The long for the time when they can return and sacrifice and sing in joy to God. They reside in hope that they will soon experience the return to God’s house that they seek.

The final verse echoes the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Even in the isolation of the poet, in their experience of oppression by an enemy and rejection by God they can hope with all their being that God will not allow their experiences in the time of their song to remain forever. God is the one they can hope in, praise and will in God’s time bring help.

Both together and separately, Psalm 42 and 43 speak from the experience of a time where God seems distant and the situation of the psalmist is dire. Yet, even amid isolation and perceived rejection these are dialogues of faith where the poet continually returns to the question “Why are you cast down?” They trust in the experience of God’s faithfulness from their past and they hope for God’s faithfulness in the future. They continue to come back to the God who is their hope and their help for the future. They will not remain among a loveless people without the steadfast love of God forever. They will again return to the altar of God and with the faithful ones express their joy as they dwell in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

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Psalm 42 Thirsting for God in an Arid Time

Drought land against sunset background Image from https://cis.org/Population-Immigration-and-Drying-American-Southwest

 Psalm 42

<To the leader. A Maskil of the Korahites.>
1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

The forty-second Psalm begins the second book of the Psalter which runs from Psalm 42-72. In addition there is a significant change in the way that God is addressed in Psalms 42-83: in the first forty-one psalms God is typically addressed by the name of God (YHWH, translated LORD in most English translations) while this group of Psalms is sometimes referred to as the Elohistic psalms because God is normally called Elohim (the Hebrew word that is the is translated God, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel or used generically as a god depending on the context). Finally, this Psalm also begins one of two collections of Korahite Psalms, written by a group of Levites and not by David. The Korahites are mentioned in the line of the Levites for the first time in Exodus 6:24 and in 1 Chronicles 9:19 we hear that the Korahites “were in charge of the work of the service, guardians of the threshold of the tent, as their ancestors had been in charge of the camp of the LORD, guardians of the entrance.” Psalm forty-two and forty-three may have been one psalm originally but I will treat them separately here and then when I look at Psalm forty-three, I will also consider the two Psalms together.

Psalm forty-two begins with an image that has been set to song, but the song while beautiful misses the emotion and direction of the psalm. The initial verse of As the Deer by Jerry Sinclair sets the scene:

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you
You alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship you (Worship and Praise , 1999, p. 9)

Yet, Psalm forty-two is a song about separation from God rather than closeness. Unlike the imagery of the As the Deer, where the deer is satisfied by the waters and the worshiper sits safely in a space where they can worship God our Psalm turns on the question “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” The song is beautiful and has a place within the language of worship but so does the honest and hauntingly beautiful language of the psalm where the speaker finds themselves in an exile, spiritual or physical, in a world that has changed around them leaving them isolated from God and from the worship of the community.

Water imagery comes up multiple times in this short Psalm, beginning with the metaphor of a deer longing for a flowing stream being matched with the individuals longing for God. God’s presence becomes as essential as the water needed to sustain life but like a deer in an arid land coming upon a dried-up streambed the psalmist is in a relational desert where God is unavailable or distant. As the waters they sought have remained elusive they have been fed instead by a well of saline tears that come from their own body. Later in verse seven the speaker returns to the memory of the depths of God’s steadfast love imagined in the image of the deep, large waterfalls, and waves that break upon the shore or the side of a ship. Once God’s presence was so abundant that it threatened to overwhelm the speaker but now, they are left in a wilderness with only their own tears for nourishment.

The taunting question of the adversaries of the speaker, “Where is your God?” intensifies the experience of the speaker’s own isolation from God. The question appears first in response to the tears of the psalmist but later is expanded to become a wound that threatens to be fatal. As the psalmist has been denied the presence of God, they need for life the taunting of their opponents intensifies the perception of distance. The psalmist can cry out, “Why have you forgotten me?” The poet could not forget God anymore than they could forget to drink, and yet is appears to the poet that God has forgotten them at this moment in time. They can examine the distance between the past when they could lead the great throng in procession and the present when they feel isolated from God, oppressed and wounded by some in the community and longing for that time when they shall again praise their God who is their rock and their help.

This Psalm, and the next Psalm, act as an internal dialogue of faith in a time when God seems distant. The speaker returns multiple times to the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope for God; for I shall again praise him.” Even in the experience of isolation the psalmist trusts that their current reality is not the final answer: they have been overwhelmed by the abundance of God’s steadfast love that crashed over them like the waves that break upon the shoreline, they will not walk in the parched wilderness forever. Their inmost self longs for God and they will come upon God’s waters again, their tears will be wiped away and their adversaries will be silenced. The parched feeling of being isolated from God will eventually pass, the refrain reminds the speaker that God will not remain distant forever, will not forget them and even amid their struggle they can still hope for a return to the waters they long for.

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The Book of Revelation

Herz-Jesu-Kirche, westseitige Teiansicht der Pendentifkuppel,Shared under Creative Commons attribution-Share alike 3.0 Germany

From April-early December 2018, I wrote reflections as my practice of attempting to learn more about the book of Revelation. The reflections, now complete can all be reached by the links below:

Transitioning into Revelation
Revelation’s Interpretation Through Time
Revelation 1 Opening Revelation
Revelation 2 The Messages to the First Four Churches
Revelation 3 The Messages to the Final Three Churches
Revelation 4 The Throne Room of God
Revelation 5 The Lion is a Lamb
Revelation 6 Opening the Seals
Revelation 7 Restraint and Praise
Revelation 8 God’s Action Unsealed
Revelation 9 The First Two Woes
Revelation 10 The Angel, The Scroll and the Prophet
Revelation 11 Pausing for Hope, Witness and Worship
Revelation 12 The Woman and the Dragon
Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast
Revelation 14 The Harvest of God
Revelation 15 A Song Before Wrath
Revelation 16 The Final Cycle of Judgment
Revelation 17 Unmasking Babylon
Revelation 18 The Lament Over Babylon
Revelation 19 Celebration and Conflict
Revelation 20 The Final Victory
Revelation 21 The New Jerusalem
Revelation 22 Amen. Come, Lord Jesus
Reflections After Writing Through Revelation

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Reflections After Writing Through Revelation

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, between 1635 and 1640

It seemed to me like it took forever to work my way through the book of Revelation, partially because of the length of several of the posts, partially because it was hard work and partially because this was a time when I’ve had less time for writing and reflection due to the constraints of work. In reality, this journey began at the beginning of April and reached its conclusion at the end of November, a span of approximately thirty-five weeks. At my ideal pace it would take approximately twenty-five if I could work through a chapter a week (plus an introduction, in Revelation’s case some historical interpretive work and the conclusion which you are currently reading), but that doesn’t account for things like Easter, vacation, etc. It also doesn’t account for the sheer length of some of the reflections, some reached eight pages single spaced, and the other reality is that Revelation is just a more challenging piece of scripture because of the history of interpretation (or in many cases the spaces in history where the book has been ignored) and the reality that almost every single image in Revelation pulls upon a wealth of imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). Looking backwards, I’m honestly surprised I completed this in the time period I did.

On the one hand, there is some relief at completing these reflections. I have a far greater appreciation for the book of Revelation as a whole, yet it was a challenging book to write about. It is hard work to listen to the imagery as closely as Revelation demands the reader listen to hear the echoes of imagery that would be unfamiliar to most modern readers of scripture. It is hard work to attempt to go back into what we know of the late first century Roman empire and imagine how these visions would have been heard by their first readers. It is also hard work not to leave the meaning of these visions for the original reader but to wonder how they might reshape our imagination of our own time and place. Revelation asks, like most prophetic works do, some very uncomfortable questions which I’ll make a little more explicit below. It is a political work, in the sense that it comments upon the powers and the principalities that have aligned themselves in opposition to the reign of God.

On the other hand, I learned a lot going through this. Revelation continued to force me back into both the work I’d already done on books like Exodus, Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, but it also took me into two books I’m less familiar with: Ezekiel and Daniel. If I’d have done things nice and orderly like I imagined I would’ve worked through both Ezekiel and Daniel first, but then I may have never made it to Revelation, and people tend to be more curious about Revelation than Ezekiel. I have a little greater sympathy for the path that many modern readers have taken through Revelation, I can understand the appeal of wanting to directly attribute the imagery of Revelation to one’s own time or the immediate future and use Revelation, and other books, as a way of decoding the timeline of God’s return; of determining who is among the righteous and who is among the unrighteous, and much like the whore of Babylon could allure even the prophet the violent imagery of Revelation has proved alluring to many modern readers. Yet, I am more convinced than ever that their reading is not only deeply flawed but ultimately dangerous since it never considers that they may indeed be those, like some addressed in the letters to the churches in Pergamum, Thyratira and Laodicea that in various ways compromised their actions to better fit into the practices and demands of the culture around them.

Revelation recasts imagery from throughout scripture and reuses it in new and surprising ways. This is the way that scripture, and particularly the Hebrew prophets, work. Basic themes like creation, God’s liberation of the people in the Exodus, the construction of the tabernacle or temple become images that are reinterpreted and reused to address the struggles of the day. For an American example, the image of entering the promised land was used as a paradigm for the early settlers of the United States (and conversely a way that portrayed the Native Americans were paralleled to the various peoples who were wiped out in the book of Joshua to make way for the chosen people-just because an image is used doesn’t mean that it is always used properly). Yet, during the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders could invert this imagery where those who had imagined themselves in the role of the chosen people now occupy the role of Pharaoh. Revelation makes these types of reversals too: The small communities of the faithful now occupy the role of Israel, taking on the roles of being a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, and a treasured possession.

This is where the reflection becomes political: but Revelation is a political document in its own time and to use it today necessarily is a political act. Revelation reimagines Rome in various unflattering ways: Rome is Babylon (the nation that conquered Judah, destroyed the temple, and brought the people into exile), a beast, a whore, and several other images. In the number of the beast (which refers to emperor Nero) we see Revelation link Rome to this particular emperor. Nero is viewed by most modern and ancient historians in an unfavorable light: he was viewed as corrupt, many believed he started the great fire of Rome to rebuild his palatial complex and he also used Christians as scapegoats for this fire. John in recording Revelation wants us to hear that Nero is not the exception: this is what Rome is! Writing in the second year of the Trump presidency this was an uncomfortable resonance. I would like to believe that Trump is the exception, that we as a people are better than the person who occupies the office but if Trump really is what America represents (and I know some of my colleagues in other faiths, races and nationalities may see this more clearly than I may want to) then Revelation holds up a mirror to consider in what ways does my own nation resemble the beast, the harlot, and Babylon the conqueror. This continual internal deliberation over the course of this year has been uncomfortable, especially attempting to pastor a congregation that was as divided as the country in general was about the state of the nation.

Ending this series of reflections, I think Revelation needs to be read precisely because of the discomfort that it causes. Revelation continually prods its readers to repent, to choose the wise path of fidelity to the Lamb and God rather than the well-worn highway of too closely identifying God and nation. I know I have read Revelation against the grain of the way it is normally read: my reading has been far more gracious in the sense that instead of focusing on the damage and destruction I have paid attention to the pattern of divine restraint (something I learned in working through Exodus); my reading has attempted to be honest about the discomfort that Revelation causes and yet hear it as a book of hope. Revelation, after walking through it, is a book I respect and yet, it is not one of my favorites and that is OK. I can see how Revelation fits within the larger witness of the scriptures, I can appreciate the difficult and uncomfortable reflections it continues to give me to ponder and I can also understand why Revelation’s usage across the history of the church has been sporadic at best. Revelation as an image, and as a book, is much harder to hear today. It may have been as clear for its initial hearers as a political cartoon is in our current time, but we must reach back across the centuries to attempt to hear it in the same way. Revelation expects a lot of its hearers as it continually alludes to images from across the width and depth of scripture. It’s hard work, but work that we as Christians, myself as a pastor, and the church needs desperately to do to attempt to reclaim this book as a part of the cannon of scripture and to listen to what the images speak to us today.

 

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Revelation 22 Amen. Come, Lord Jesus

John Martin, The Celestial City and the River of Bliss (1841)

Revelation 22

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”

7 “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; 9 but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”

10 And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

16 “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19 if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

20 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

Revelation’s place at the end of the Christian scriptures places this final chapter as the final word among a collection of writings and experiences of God’s relationship with God’s people and the world. The story began with creation and in the second chapter of Genesis we encounter humanity in a utopian dream of a garden where there is adequate food and a harmony among the created order. We close the final chapter of the bible with a return to a utopian scene, but this time the garden is situated in the New Jerusalem combining both urban and rural elements. The tree of life, lost to humanity in the story of Adam and Eve, now returns in a scene that combines elements of a naturally occurring phenomenon of trees growing along a riverbank with the city planning of streets and the agricultural cultivation of an orchard. This new garden of Eden within the new Jerusalem which stands at the juncture of a new heaven and new earth closes the vision of Revelation. Cities are no longer a feature of a world that is east of Eden, or outside God’s description of the world should be. It is a city where the water of life and the fruit that will heal the nations flows out of the city itself in contrast to Rome where the riches and produce of the nation flowed inward to feed the Caesar and his empire. This image of a great city becomes the producer of the fruit and leaves that will feed and heal the nations rather than the consumer of the fruit and riches of the nations.

This vision in Revelation builds upon both the images of Genesis two and three and even more closely continues to follow Ezekiel’s vision of a renewed Jerusalem in Ezekiel 41-47. In Ezekiel’s 47th chapter we hear about the waters flowing from the temple flowing out towards the sea and renewing the waters of the sea and allowing them to be filled with fish and creatures. Along the banks of these waters are trees that produce food every month and their leaves have healing properties. Revelation’s vision expands the horizon of Ezekiel’s: Ezekiel hopes for the renewal of the people of Judah and Israel from the place of exile, Revelation expands this hope to encompass the nations. The new Jerusalem is for the countless multitude who bear the name of God on their foreheads and not only Israel is healed, but now the trees of life provide their fruit and healing to all the nations and the redeemed of all nations can drink from the waters of life.

The book of Revelation ends with a combination of injunctions from various speakers that take us back to the beginning of the book. In verse six we have an unidentified speaker confirming the trustworthiness of what the hearer has just heard. We know from the letters to the churches in chapters two and three that there were multiple people claiming the authority of prophecy to advance different interpretations of what faithfulness entails. Here we are taken back to the opening verses of Revelation one where the source of the vision is ultimately from Christ, but an angel was sent to bring the message to John to communicate to the seven churches, and by extension to the church.

We are reminded several times in this passage that Christ is coming soon. In the letters to the churches they were encouraged to persevere or repent because Christ was coming soon and here in this final chapter, we hear four separate times the refrain that Christ is coming soon. For the original hearers of the message undergoing persecution it may have reinforced their resolve to continue in the faithfulness of their calling. Churches in the centuries after Revelation have wrestled with this delay in multiple ways. Some have simply bypassed this, along with much of Revelation, and have continued to live out their faith in a way that makes sense in the expectations of the culture they are a part of. Other churches have constructed themselves around timelines and expectations where they believe their current generation are the ones that Revelation was written to and they are living in the last days and that they will soon see the destruction and hope of the book unfold. Throughout my ministry and throughout this reflection I’ve attempted to walk a middle path between these options. There is a story told about Martin Luther, who did believe the events of his time could be possibly signals of Christ’s return, about how he would respond if Christ was coming tomorrow. His response is told as, “I would plant a tree.” Now Luther probably didn’t say this, but it does reflect a way of looking at the world that is helpful—a life lived in the expectation and hope that Christ will come but not living in the panic and fear that seems to come with people who become focused on dates and timelines. I believe it is helpful to remember that for the early Christians the return of Jesus was looked upon as a hopeful time.

Revelation has been consistently focused on repentance, on people turning away from the places where they have trusted in idolatry or placing trust in the might and power of the Roman empire and returning to place their trust in God and Jesus. Keeping the words of this prophecy would be consistent with eliminating actions that, in Revelation’s view, compromise the faithfulness of the hearer. From the letters to the seven churches onward we have been called to choose the path of wisdom rather than foolishness, God rather than the promises of the empire. Yet, with all calls to repentance, the people who wash their robes may include people who previously would have been outside the community of the saints. Revelation’s hope is for a countless multitude from all nations gathered together in the city of God and the presence of God. Yet, there is a reluctant realism that the ‘evildoer will continue to do evil and the filthy will still be filthy.’ Ultimately, for the holy they are called to remain holy, the righteous are called to remain righteous, those who have washed their robes are to remain clean. Within God’s kingdom there is no place for the falsehood, idolatry and other vices that the people of God have encountered in the empire of Rome.

In the spirit of expectation, the book is not to be sealed, in contrast to Daniel’s visions which were to be sealed up until the end (Daniel 8:26 and 12: 4). For Revelation the time of the end is near and longed for. Revelation views itself as a final cry in the wilderness for the people to see, hear and turn to the Lord. The words of Revelation are to be read and acted upon and preserved. Here at the end of the book there is are several declarations of the authority of the book and a call for the hearer to respond. In the history of the church, Revelation has frequently been overlooked or left to the artists and musicians. Recently, Revelation’s position in some churches has shifted to become almost as important as the gospels.  Revelation may not be central for me as the gospels, Paul’s letters and even significant portions of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) in my life and reflections of faith but it does deserve to be heard and wrestled with.

I finish this set of reflections at the beginning of the season of Advent in 2018, and I find that fitting. To end the book of Revelation with its repetitive call “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” when we as a church begin to look both backwards to the Incarnation and echo with our Jewish ancestors, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears” but we also look forward to when our Lord returns with songs like the African American Spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning.” Revelation has a challenge a call and a hope for all readers: a challenge for there are many places where we also have compromised with the cultures that we inhabit and have trusted in the promises of our own nations and cities; a call to return to the Lord, our God who is gracious and merciful, to repent and hear the good news of the kingdom of God’s approach; and a hope that the world as we see it is not the end, that God still has a vision which stretches and expands beyond the point where my limited imagination can contain. Over the past year I have allowed Revelation to evoke and challenge me, I have attempted to understand the visions it has to offer. The danger of this type of reflection is that in my own ways I attempt to moderate or tame these visions or lock them into a time in the past. Yet, my hope is that I can stand with the Spirit, the bride, the hearers and the thirsty and join in the cry for Jesus to “come!”

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Revelation 21 The New Jerusalem

Alonso Cano, Saint John the Evangelist’s Vision of Jerusalem (1636-1637)

Revelation 21

 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
 
 “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

15 The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. 18 The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.

22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

As we approach the conclusion of this long journey through Revelation, I’m going to begin with a story I’ve used several times in teaching and preaching. I believe the story originated with Kelly Fryer based on her experience in college, but the overall point is very insightful for the bible as a whole, and this passage in particular.

There once was a college class on theology where the students were being the way that college students can sometimes be: they were talking and not paying attention to the instructor, interacting with their phones and tablets instead of taking notes and just generally being a handful for the instructor. Unable to garner a lot of attention for the topic the instructor was trying to present he erased the writing on the board and drew a single arrow pointing downward. This change caught the attention of the students and the professor ended by saying, “This is what we will be talking about next time we gather for class. I will see you then.” He then dismissed the class. This perplexed the students and they talked about what the downward pointing arrow might mean: “It means that the standards of society have fallen,” “it means we are all going to fail,” or since it was a theology class “does it mean we are going to hell?” When the class resumed the professor asked the students what they thought the arrow might mean and they responded with several of their thoughts. The professor politely explained that their answers, while creative, were not what the arrow was communicating. The arrow stands for the message he hoped they would take away from his class, “God always comes down.”

The narrative throughout scripture is of a God who desires to dwell among God’s people, whether walking in the garden with Adam and Eve, in the tabernacle in the Exodus, or in the incarnation in the gospels, God’s desire is to descend to dwell among the people of the earth. Here in the final two chapters of Revelation we see this descent of God viewed in ways that taps into several images from the prophets. Within the narrative of Revelation, it also presents a stark contrast between two possible choices and futures, between a future where the people choose the ways of Babylon (Rome) with all its allures and the future presented here when the peoples choose the way of wisdom and find themselves observing the coming of the new Jerusalem. Throughout Revelation we have alternated between those who rejoice with the countless multitude in heaven and those who worship the beast and the reader has been encouraged to courageously endure with the saints the persecutions and struggles rather than being cowardly or faithless and embracing the values and practices of the empire.

The opening line of the chapter echoes Isaiah 65:17, which states that God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth after the devastation and suffering that the people of Israel suffered in their exile in Babylon. Now with the destruction of the ‘new’ Babylon and the forces behind it this promise is reimagined within the context of God’s final descent and victory. Revelation never pictures the earth being destroyed, other than the disasters and conflicts that are a part of Revelation’s story, but the new heaven and new earth are an extension of God’s faithfulness and love for the earth rather than an elimination of the old creation and a replacement by the new. The new heavens and new earth may also reflect the healing of memory from the trauma of the treatment the saints received during persecution and may echo Isaiah 43: 18-19 when it says, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”

Henry John Stock, God Shall Wipe Away all Tears from Their Eyes (1912)

The voice from the throne captures the hope of the passage by combining several images of hope together into a single statement. For the people of Israel, the hope of God’s dwelling among them goes back to the tabernacle where God dwelled with the people during their journey through the wilderness. This image gets reimagined in the prophets, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where God’s covenant is renewed, and the people of Israel will again claim their identity as God’s people and God will renew God’s commitment to be their God. The language follows Ezekiel 37: 27, “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God wiping away the tears of the people is one of my favorite lines in the passage and echoes Isaiah 25: 8 where after destroying the shroud that is cast over the nations and swallowing up death, God wipes away the tears from the faces of God’s people and removes their disgrace. John sees a time when the pain and suffering of the present are ended, and the renewed creation can be a place where God’s long-awaited presence and promises are fulfilled.

The one seated on the throne, God, speaks and commands that the words of God are recorded for those who will receive this recorded vision. The making of all things new recaptures what immediately proceeded by the voice from the throne and again echoes Isaiah 43: 18. The identity of the one on the throne as the Alpha and Omega is a recurring title we first encountered in Revelation 1:8, which uses the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to encapsulate the statement that God is the beginning of all things and the ending of all things. God holds all the things of heaven and earth within God’s realm and power and the future depends upon God’s provision. God next promises the gift of the springs of the water of life, first mentioned in Revelation 7: 17 and will flow as a river from the throne of God in the following chapter. We are also brought back to a continual theme throughout Revelation when we are told ‘those who conquer’ will inherit. Conquering in Revelation is redefined in light of Christ’s conquest as remaining faithful despite persecution. Beginning with the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2: 1-7 and throughout the book we have been exhorted to conquer and promised a reward for remaining steadfast. Now that reward comes in the form of adoption and inheritance. The language moves the relationship of God from being “I will be their God and they will be my people” to the familial language, “they will be my sons and daughters (children)” With this kinship which is extended is also a share in the inheritance of God.

In contrast with those who conquer and inherit are those who do not conquer and receive a different inheritance. The list of vices in verse eight begins with the cowardly and the faithless and then continues with items that frequently occur on these types of list of vices that do not belong in God’s kingdom. Revelation, like wisdom literature in the Bible, presents us with a choice between what it considers wisdom and folly. To choose wisdom is to remain faithful to Christ and to turn away from the promises of prosperity offered by the Roman empire if they will compromise their values and accommodate some of the practices of the society. The choice of folly, in Revelation’s view, is the choice of accommodation. This is viewed as both cowardice, within the military metaphor of conquest, and idolatry, or faithlessness. This list of vices represents a different set of values than those embodied in this realized kingdom of God and there is no place within the city of God for things like murder or fornication or lies.

I intentionally waited to discuss the appearance of the New Jerusalem now metaphorically occupying the space of the bride of the Lamb since it is mentioned at the beginning of the chapter but is described in verses nine through twenty-seven. We are immediately reminded of the contrast between Babylon (Rome) who is portrayed as a harlot and the new Jerusalem decked out as a bride by the presence of the angel who had carried one of the bowls which contained the last plagues (Revelation 16). Previously these angels saw the rivers turned to blood, the sun to darkness and plagues of sores but now one of these angels points us to a city where there is the water of life, the light of God’s glory and healing for the nations. The description of the city touches on numerous images throughout scripture. For several of the prophets there was a hope for a rebuilt city of Jerusalem, the closest representation to our image would be the square city mentioned in Ezekiel with its twelve gates (Ezekiel 48: 30-35) but the city described here dwarfs anything imagined previously. The city is a cube of massive proportions, 1,500 miles in width, depth and height. For perspective, 1,500 miles is roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Houston, and the highest point on earth is roughly 5 ½ miles above sea level. The envisioned city is unimaginably large. This is a city imagined which could house all the nations of the earth and bring them into proximity with God. The walls are also incredibly thick, almost seventy-five yards, with twelve gates made of pearl guarded by twelve angels. Cherubim were described in Genesis as guarding the way to the tree of life, but here they stand at the gates that allow entrance to the city where these trees live, yet there is nothing left to threaten the city, the people or the trees. The foundations are built on stones that are similar to the list of the stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:17-20 and Exodus 39: 10-13) and many of these stones also appear in the lamentation over the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28: 13, where the king is placed among God’s created things in the garden of Eden and covered with most of these precious stones. The size, the jewels, the golden streets and city all combine to stretch the imagination, yet the one thing not present in the city is a temple. The temple, and the tabernacle before it, brought a little bit of heaven to earth yet now heaven and earth seem to dwell together in the city for God dwells in it. There is no need for there to be a place to mediate the presence of God for God’s glory provides the illumination to the city and God has come down to dwell among God’s people.

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Revelation 20 The Final Victory

William Blake, The Angel Binding Satan (1805)

Revelation 20

1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.

4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.

7 When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. 9 They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

In a book full of images, metaphors and declarations that have inspired a plethora of theological interpretations and have divided interpreters perhaps none has been as divisive in recent theological movements as the image of the millennium of peace where the devil is confined that we encounter in this chapter of Revelation. The image of the millennium has often been linked, as I will discuss briefly below, to expectations of the advent of an utopian era brought about either by the spreading of the gospel to the ends of the earth, or by the continued social progress toward equality, or by the inbreaking of God’s reign bringing about the long awaited peaceful kingdom imagined in places like Isaiah 2: 2-4. Yet, Revelation is remarkably terse in its description of this time, it is an extended pause between the defeat of the beast from the previous chapter and the binding of Satan here and the final handing over of the Devil, Death and Hades into the lake of fire. In a strange set of visions this is a strange chapter which, like the rest of the book, is permeated with images from scripture recast here in a new form.

The history of the interpretation of this chapter can fill pages in a detailed commentary and would be tedious for all but the most determined readers, yet some appreciation of how the church wrestled with this passage is highly beneficial. Many early interpreters did anticipate some manner of futuristic millennium, whether Irenaeus view of six thousand years of creation followed by a millennium of rest (based on the seven days of creation) or Victorinus futuristic interpretation where the New Jerusalem of the next chapter would descend, and the nations would serve the saints in a time of incredible bounty. Most interpreters from Tyconius in the middle of the fourth century onward assumed the millennium was the present age of the church. As Christianity was now the dominant religion in the Roman empire it was increasingly viewed that Christ in his life, death and resurrection had bound Satan, and though there were still struggles, the church was now an extension of Christ’s reign. There was a great diversity in spiritual interpretations of what the passage means, but in general the age of the church was viewed as a time where the church reigned without a massive life or death struggle with the forces of the devil. Most of the reformers of the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century rejected belief in a future millennial kingdom. Luther believed that the conflicts of his time were the final struggles before God brought about the final judgment and that the forces of the papacy and the Turkish armies were the Gog and Magog mentioned in verse seven. Calvin, Bullinger and Cranmer all rejected a future millennial kingdom. By the eighteenth century the idea of a future millennial kingdom was popular, but with the optimism of the time, the Christians of Europe and America believed they would bring about this kingdom through the spread of the gospel. By the nineteenth century the term postmillennialism was given to the idea that the millennium would begin once the ideals that would lead to this time were accomplished. For example, reformers like Alexander Campbell (founder of the Disciples of Christ) and Charles Finney tried to bring about social changes like control of alcohol abuse and the abolition of slavery in addition to the continuing spread of the gospel as tools to bring about the millennial age. At the same time, in contrast with the optimistic view of history proposed by the postmillennials, a view known a premillennialism emerged where the conditions on earth would become worse until Christ returns inaugurating the conflict that will lead to the millennial age. This view would give birth to traditions like the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses but would also reach its most popular reception in the approach of John Nelson Darby. Darby’s schema views Revelation, in combination with several other portions of scripture, laying out a path which leads to the end of the age at Armageddon, with is understood as a literal battle, and afterward when Satan is bound the Jewish people accept Christianity and people live long and prosperous lives. The above discussion is heavily indebted to the much longer and more detailed examination of Craig R. Koester in his commentary on Revelation. (Koester, 2014, pp. 741-750)

The chapter begins by locking the Devil in the abyss, an action that looks back to two earlier portions of Revelation. In chapter nine a star, likely referring to an angel, is given the key to unlock the abyss. Here the angel is given the key to lock the abyss again and to seal the devil inside it. This also continues the fall of the devil which what narrated in chapter twelve as Michael cast the devil from heaven to the earth. The devil, who has been the force behind the beast and all its conspirators, is finally exposed, bound and removed from its place as a tormentor of the earth and a threat to creation. No reason is given for the thousand-year limit on the devil’s confinement other than the statement at the end ‘he must be let out for a little while.’

In the devil’s absence those who God has judged favorably now reign. As Revelation 3: 21 promised the hearers in Laodicea, “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on the throne.” In another of Revelation’s great reversals those who received a negative judgment from God’s opponents, judgments that may have resulted in their execution, now receive a positive judgment from God by sharing in God’s reign. In the imagery of Revelation this is a first fruits of a larger resurrection that occurs at the end of the imagined millennium, but those who are highlighted here have already conquered and Death, Hades and the Devil (all personified here) have no power over them.

Revelation pulls imagery from throughout the Hebrew Scripture (or Old Testament as many Christians know the first two thirds of their scriptures) but the prophet Ezekiel continues to be a source of images that are echoed here in Revelation. Ezekiel 38-39 introduces us to Gog, the land of the prince Magog who attacks Israel and is overthrown by God and here Revelation takes both Gog and Magog and turns them into nations or groups from the four corners of the earth that one final time come to threaten the saints under the influence of the devil. In a military metaphor they surround the camp of the saints to make war upon them but, like the previous battle against the beast in Revelation 19, the saints do not fight, and God consumes these forces and then the devil is thrown into the lake of fire.

After the casting of Satan into the lake of fire comes the resurrection of all the dead. In a courtroom like scene the dead once raised are judged by how they have lived but also entirely by God’s standards. As Craig Koester states:

Revelation presents a tension: People are judged according to their works, yet they are saved by the favor connoted by the scroll of life (Boring; Harrington). Judgment is not a purely human affair in which those whose good deeds outnumber their evil deeds are saved and the rest condemned. Neither does God simply redeem some and condemn others. (Koester, 2014, p. 792)

Revelation, like most of scripture, dwells with the paradox that how one lives matters and the final sovereignty of God to determine any judgment that people would receive. The scope of God’s redemption may be wider than the limits that humans would place upon it. Throughout Revelation the hearers have been encouraged to resist the evil in the society around them and to repent when they fail. Yet, there is an acknowledgment in Revelation of the allure of the society and perhaps the multitude of people may eventually see and wash their robes so that they too may take their place among the uncountable multitude. Even with this image of final judgment, the hope of Revelation is to lead its hearers to repentance rather than resignation.

Many people come to Revelation searching for certainty, attempting to divine the exact path of the future and this has led to multiple conflicts and divisions in the church. I’m not comfortable with any of the premillennial/postmillennial patterns of interpretation nor the view of living within the millennium of many earlier Christians for various reasons. Trying to lock down history and say that this is the age where the Devil and the force of evil are imprisoned does not seem to reflect the reality of the pain and suffering in the world, and while Revelation simply assumes the reality of suffering and persecution it does imagine an ending to it. I can’t share the optimism of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Christians who felt that they could bring about the millennial age by evangelism and social change, nor can I embrace the pessimism and persecution complex of many postmillennial interpreters. Yet, perhaps there is wisdom in attempting to step back from the trees to see the forest. Revelation as a book was designed to bring hope to its hearers in a time of persecution and struggle and here, at the end of the struggle, is a time of peace and hope. They could hope, as we do, for a time when God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. To paraphrase Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, in fact God’s kingdom comes and God’s will comes about without our work and our prayers, but we pray that that kingdom and that work may come about in and among us. However, the ending of the age unfolds, as a Christian I believe that falls within God’s hands. God’s judgment will not be by my standards and yet, God’s will in its own time and manner will be done. When evil can at times seem so pervasive or powerful, I can find hope that God has not abandoned or forgotten the world. Ultimately, Revelation points the faithful to lives of repentance not resignation, hope instead of hopelessness, and to yearn for the promised resurrection and the healing of the world which we get to imagine in the coming chapters.

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