Friday, September 9, 2011

Hezekiah’s Reprieve (II Kings 20:6)

Whose life was lengthened by fifteen years because he prayed? King Hezekiah (II Kings 20:6)

As his nation was under siege from Assyria, Hezekiah, king of Judah, became mortally ill (II Kings 20:1-11; II Chronicles 32:24-26; Isaiah 38:1-8). The prophet Isaiah had the unenviable task of informing the king that he must prepare to die - “set your house in order (II Kings 20:2; Isaiah 38:1 NASB).” The prophet’s pronouncement seemingly left no hope for the king. Hezekiah responded as he done previously, with prayer, protesting his allegiance to God (II Kings 20:3; Isaiah 38:2). Though he did not explicitly pray for an extended life, Hezekiah implicitly refused to accept the prophet’s verdict. God answered swiftly and definitively as before Isaiah had even left the premises, he returned and announced that God had promised to extend Hezekiah’s life by fifteen years and would also defend Jerusalem (II Kings 20:4-6; Isaiah 38:4-6). In conjunction with the king’s recovery, the prophet laid a cake of figs on the king’s boil (II Kings 20:7; Isaiah 38:21).

The specific nature of Hezekiah’s illness is never revealed aside from the presence of the boil or inflammation (Sh@chiyn, II Kings 20:7; Isaiah 38:21). Though it would be labeled folk medicine today and is uncharacteristic of Isaiah’s ministry, the application of figgy pudding was not an uncommon treatment in the ancient world.

Hezekiah handled his bad news with prayer. This was his practice (II Kings 19:14-19, 20:2; II Chronicles 30:18-19, 32:24; Isaiah 37:14-20, 38:2-3). Likewise, we are advised to pray habitually (Luke 18:1, 21:36; Ephesians 6:18) as God cares (I Peter 5:7). As such, can we assume that it is God’s desire to heal unless we have heard otherwise?

If you received a death sentence, what would you do to “set your house in order”? What would your prayer be were you given Hezekiah’s prognosis? Does Hezekiah’s prayer change God’s plans? Why is the folk medicine incorporated into Hezekiah’s recovery?

Given that the death sentence is repealed and the only variable that has changed is Hezekiah’s prayer, it would appear that something happened during his prayer that reversed his fortune. Hezekiah’s prayer appealed to his own good record:

“Remember now, O LORD, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight.” (II Kings 20:3 NASB)
After praying, Hezekiah wept bitterly, indicating sincerity (II Kings 20:3; Isaiah 38:3). Hezekiah’s boasts were not mere arrogance, they were true. Though he was the son of the wicked king Ahaz (II Kings 16:20, 18:1; I Chronicles 3:13; II Chronicles 28:27), Hezekiah had done “right in the sight of the LORD” (II Kings 18:3 NASB), “trusted in the LORD” (II Kings 18:5 NASB) and “clung to the LORD” (II Kings 18:6 NASB). Hezekiah had a good track record with God.

Hezekiah’s illness is a type story, a recurring tale (Robert L. Cohn [b. 1947], 2 Kings (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 140). It marks the fourth time in Kings that an ill king was given a prophetic oracle regarding his fate as Jeroboam (I Kings 14:1-18), Ahaziah (II Kings 1:1-16) and Ben-hadad (II Kings 8:7-15) endured similar trials. In each of these instances, a king inquired of a prophet about an illness and received a death sentence in response. Hezekiah’s predicament diverges from type as in his case instead of the king seeking the prophet, the prophet sought the king and no intermediaries were necessary. Hezekiah is given equal footing with the prophet. The bad kings’ death sentences held while the good king reversed the oracle.

In both of these analyses, Hezekiah’s own righteousness accounts for God’s favorable response. Jesus affirmed that rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45) and that illness is not necessarily an indicator of sin (John 9:2-3). Many righteous people with terminal illnesses pray today and receive no such reprieve.

Why is Hezekiah’s prayer effective when so many similar prayers are not? Was Hezekiah’s prayer answered due to his own righteousness?

After his recovery, Hezekiah wrote:

Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness;
It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back. (Isaiah 38:17 NASB)
Hezekiah did not see God’s mercy as a response to his worthiness.

The fact that the promise of Hezekiah’s extended life correlated with the guarantee of peace despite the Assyrian threat (II Kings 20:6; Isaiah 38:6) may indicate that Hezekiah’s prayer was answered not just for his benefit alone. Hezekiah’s illness affected the state. Some have noted that at the time of his affliction, Hezekiah had yet to produce an heir as his son Manasseh, who succeeded him, was born three years after this sickness (II Kings 21:1; II Chronicles 33:1). Some have also seen a parallel between Hezekiah and his nation as both were facing death and received extended life through repentance. Both would eventually die but as Hezekiah would not die to his current illness, Judah would also not perish at the hands of its contemporary oppressor (but rather the Babylonians).

The Bible does not record why Hezekiah’s prayer was effective, only that his life span was extended by fifteen years. He also received more than he asked for as God also gave his nation clemency.

What purpose did Hezekiah’s illness serve? Who benefitted from Hezekiah’s extended life? Have you ever known someone who miraculously survived a prognosticated terminal illness? Has God ever exceeded your request in answer to prayer?

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NASB)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

10 Commandments, 2 Places (Ex. 20 & Deut. 5)

In which two Old Testament books are the Ten Commandments recorded? Exodus (20:1-17) and Deuteronomy (5:1-21)

The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are foundational laws given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-21). They appear twice in the Old Testament, both times in the Law, in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Moses first communicated the Ten Commandments after descending from Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17) and then reiterated them in his final discourse to the people (Deuteronomy 5:1-21). This is not surprising as Deuteronomy is a retelling of the law. The name Deuteronomy means “second law”. Churches have given preferential treatment to the version given in Exodus.

The Ten Commandments are referred to elsewhere in the Bible as the ten devarim (“statements”) which is why they are grouped as a unit of ten (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4). Early English Bible translations Tyndale (1530) and Coverdale (1535) referred to them as the “ten verses”. The Geneva Bible (1560) appears to be the first English translation to use “tenne commandements”, which established the precedent for the King James Version (1611). Various religions and denominations number the commandments differently. (To see different ways in which the Ten Commandments have been grouped, click here.)

There are subtle differences in the two versions of the Ten Commandments. One glaring dissimilarity is seen in the rationale behind keeping the Sabbath, the fourth commandment. The first version cites the precedent of God resting on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:1-3). Exodus reads:

“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11 NASB)
In contrast, Deuteronomy explains:
“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15 NASB)
Compare and contrast the two versions of the Ten Commandments. What differences do you notice? Does it bother you that there are different reasons given to explain the fourth commandment? Which is the real reason for observing the Sabbath?

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) explained that Deuteronomy did not need to repeat the reference to creation in recording the fourth commandment as Deuteronomy itself refers back to the command from Exodus with the words “as the Lord your God has commanded you (Deuteronomy 5:12 NASB).” Instead, Moses revealed an additional motive for the command.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) gave equal weight to both rationales for the Sabbath command. He explained, “God commanded us to abstain from work on the Sabbath, and to rest, for two purposes; namely, (1) That we might confirm the true theory, that of the Creation, which at once and clearly leads to the theory of the existence of God. (2) That we might remember how kind God had been in freeing us from the burden of the Egyptians - The Sabbath is therefore a double blessing: it gives us correct notions, and also promotes the well-being of our bodies (Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 406).”

The two explanations given for observing the Sabbath do not contradict one another. One action can be completed for more than one reason, hence the expression killing two birds with one stone. A person eats to sustain life but might also eat to enjoy a good meal or to celebrate an event. Why did they eat? All reasons might be equally accurate.

Jesus resolved that God instituted the Sabbath for humanity’s benefit - “ The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27 NASB).

What examples can you find of people performing one action for multiple reasons? In what ways does the Sabbath benefit humanity? Do you observe the Sabbath? If so, why?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Jesus of Nazareth in Nazareth (Luke 4:17)

Which prophet did Jesus quote when He first proclaimed His ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth? Isaiah (Luke 4:17)

Though each Synoptic gospel documents Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:16-30), Luke emphasizes the event by making Jesus’ homecoming the first extensively narrated act of his public ministry. The gospels all concur that the congregation initially approved of Jesus’ message (Matthew 13:54; Mark 6:2; Luke 4:22) before taking offense (Matthew 13:56; Mark 6:3; Luke 4:29). Luke records that in order to leave Nazareth, Jesus had to evade an attempt on his life as the crowd attempted to throw him headlong off of a cliff (Luke 4:29-30)!

Luke is also the only evangelist to record Jesus’ sermon text: the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19). Though it is doubtful that Jesus read just the small selection from Isaiah recorded in the gospel, the essence of the Scriptures he read is preserved. The Scripture Luke chronicled is a medley from Isaiah composed predominantly of a representation of Isaiah 61:1-2 (technically Isaiah 61:1-2a) with one clause from Isaiah 58:6 (Isaiah 58:6d). Luke’s version is neither an exact rendering of the Hebrew text nor the Greek version (Septuagint) of the Isaiah passages.

The passage, as Luke records, it reads:

The Spirit of the LORD us upon me,
Because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19, NASB)
The two passages from Isaiah were likely combined thematically as the same crucial word is featured in both: aphesis. The word means “release from bondage or imprisonment” and is seen when Jesus says he is “to proclaim release to the captives” and “set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 NASB). Combining the two passages from Isaiah emphasizes the theme of liberation that characterized Jesus’ ministry.

Why did Jesus select this particular passage from Isaiah to present to his hometown audience? How does the passage represent gospel - “good news”? Have you ever heard a minister preach a sermon at her home church? Have you ever faced difficulties in returning home?

The passage represents Jesus’ mission statement, a manifesto of sorts, as it describes the ministry Jesus was called to carry out. Isaiah 61 describes the restoration and mission of God’s people after the exile. Jesus’ connection to the passage is seen as after reading the Scripture, he announced “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21 NASB).”

In what ways did Jesus fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy? If you had to select one Old Testament passage to describe Jesus’ mission, what would it be? What passage of Scripture do you most identify with? Do you have a personal mission statement?

“You can’t go home again” - Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The King is Dead (I Chronicles 10:12)

How long did the men of Jabesh-gilead fast after Saul’s death? Seven days (I Chronicles 10:12)

Israel’s first king, Saul, and three of his sons died while battling the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (I Samuel 31:1-6; I Chronicles 10:1-6). Israel was numbed by the defeat and the disconsolate army retreated (I Samuel 31:7; I Chronicles 10:7). The death of the royal family would have been perceived as cataclysmic, equivalent to modern U.S. calamities like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The battle also marked a hapless end to a tragic life that began with vast potential (I Samuel 9:1-2).

As was military custom, the Philistine soldiers pillaged the carnage for spoils of war and while stripping the dead, they found Saul’s body (I Samuel 31:8; I Chronicles 10:8). The king would have been easily identifiable due to his exceptional height (I Samuel 9:2, 10:23) and distinguishable armor (I Samuel 17:38). Not surprisingly, the Philistines made a religious claim about the event, crediting a victory to their gods over the God of Israel (I Samuel 31:9; I Chronicles 10:9). They stripped Saul, decapitated him and graphically displayed the king’s remnants throughout the land placing his armor in the temple of Ashtoreths, his body on the wall of Beth Shan and his head in the temple of Dagon (I Samuel 31:10; I Chronicles 10:9-10).

Upon learning of this humiliation, the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead infiltrated nearby Beth Shan under cover of night and recovered Saul’s body, reverently burning his bones and burying them beneath a tree (I Samuel 31:12-13; I Chronicles 10:12). Cremation was highly rare in ancient Israel but it may have been done to insure the safety of the body. For this deed of valor they were highly praised by Saul’s successor, David (II Samuel 2:4–6) who would later have Saul’s body exhumed for proper burial in his native Benjamin (II Samuel 21:12-14).

After completing this rescue, the people of Jabesh-gilead fasted for seven days (I Chronicles 10:12; I Samuel 31:13). They publicly mourned their fallen leader. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) compares, “The prospect of public grief is a scarce practice in our society, where we are so engaged in self-deception, pretending that everything is all right.” (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 218).

The people of Jabesh-gilead risked life for the dead. Was this wise? Are there other historical or literary examples of retrieving a corpse from enemy hands for proper burial? Did the ancient view of the afterlife influence their decision? Why did the people of Jabesh-Gilead take this risk? Why did other Israelites not also retrieve Saul’s head and armor? How do you grieve? Which is healthier, the grieving process in ancient Israel or modern America?

Only the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead and eventually David and his men fasted when they learned of the fallen king’s passing (I Samuel 31:13; II Samuel 1:12; I Chronicles 10:12). Saul’s approval rating was low as his behavior was often erratic. The threatened monarch attempted to kill his perceived rival, David (I Samuel 18:10-11, 19:1, 9-10, 11-14), and even his own son, Jonathan (I Samuel 20:33), and later brutally commanded the slaughter of 85 priests (I Samuel 22:17-19). His last irrational act was consulting a medium (I Samuel 28:7-19). After recording Saul’s death, I Chronicles summarized that “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse (I Chronicles 10:13-14 NASB).”

Even so, the people of Jabesh-gilead were not afraid to be linked with the dead king when so many others were. Forty years earlier, Jabesh-gilead was the site of Saul’s first victory (I Samuel 11:1-11). Though the exact site of Jabesh-Gilead is debated, it was a town east of the Jordan River within the borders of the half tribe of Manasseh and in full view of Beth Shan. Jabesh-Gilead appears to have been aligned with the tribe of Benjamin as the people of Jabesh-Gilead did not join an earlier expedition of Israelite tribes against Benjamin at great personal cost (Judges 21:8-14) and when Nahash the Ammonite took Jabesh-Gilead, they appealed to a Benjamite - Saul (I Samuel 9:21, 10:21; I Chronicles 12:2, 29; Acts 13:21). After a day’s march, Saul routed the Ammonites and freed the city (I Samuel 11:6-11). It was a kindness Jabesh-gilead never forgot.

Some have wondered why the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead were not at the battle at Gilboa in the first place as they were counted among Israel (I Samuel 11:3-4) yet apparently failed to heed Saul’s summons to war (I Samuel 29:4). There is a possibility that their support of the king waned. Even if this is true, they would not allow their former hero to be disgraced in death.

How does the Jabesh-gilead rescue of Saul parallel his previous rescue of them? Does everyone deserve to be mourned by someone? Who will you mourn and who will mourn you? Whose past kindness have you forgotten?

“A man’s indebtedness is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.” - Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887-1948)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Marry Gomer, Feel God’s Pain (Hosea 1:3)

Who married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim? Hosea

Hosea was among the first writing prophets and the book bearing his name is the first of the twelve minor prophets canonized in the Bible. The Talmud claims that he was the greatest prophet of his generation (the eighth century BCE), an era which also included Isaiah (Pesachim 87A). Though he addressed Judah, Hosea was primarily concerned with the condition of the northern kingdom of Israel (whom he calls “Ephraim” 26 times) and the threat of a disaster that silently approached. (The Assyrians would eradicate the northern kingdom in 722 BCE). Though the book primarily denounces Israel for apostasy and warns of pending judgment, it also contains a promise of restoration (Hosea 3:4-5; 14:4-7). The book, however, is best known for the story of Hosea’s unstable marriage to the harlot, Gomer (Hosea 1-3).

Uncharacteristically, when the word of the Lord first came to Hosea, it was not to give him a message to relay but a personal instruction to marry a harlot (zanah). (I am betting this took him by surprise.) The command reads, “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD (Hosea 1:2 NASB).” As such, Hosea’s first act as prophet was to marry a prostitute. (Pretty Woman stole its plot line from God.) God did not specify which harlot he was to marry but Hosea did as he was commanded and married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:3). (I wonder how Hosea expressed why he was interested in her...) The marriage produced three children all adorned with names that served as status updates regarding God’s relationship with Israel: Jezreel - “God sows” (Hosea 1:4-5), Lo-ruhamah - “No compassion” (Hosea 1:6-7) and Lo-ammi - “Not my people” (1:8-9). It has been suggested that the paternity of the two youngest children was questionable (Hosea 2:4). Despite God being so involved in his love story, Hosea is not mentioned once in Eric Ludy (b. 1970) and Leslie Ludy (b. 1975)’s When God Writes Your Love Story: The Ultimate Guide to Guy/Girl Relationships...

Have any other notable people married prostitutes? Why did God ask Hosea to do this? How do we explain God’s commanding his prophet to marry someone with whom he is “unequally yoked” (II Corinthians 6:14)? Have you or anyone you know ever felt called to marry a specific person or someone from a particular profession? When have you felt led by God to do something you did not want to?

Hosea used his own marital experience as a symbolic representation of God and Israel. In doing so, Hosea is believed to be the first prophet to use marriage as a metaphor for the covenant between God and Israel. The theme would recur in the work of later prophets (Isaiah 62:5; Jeremiah 3:8). Like Hosea, Jeremiah’s own marriage was scripted by God, but in his case the command was to not marry (Jeremiah 16:2).

Hosea’s first three chapters are devoted to the prophet’s marriage to the prostitute, alternating between his personal narrative and how those events paralleled God’s relationship to the nation with God portraying the dutiful husband and Israel the unfaithful wife. Hosea’s home life reflected the adulterous relationship which Israel had built with polytheistic gods and Hosea could truly empathize with the deity for whom he spoke. Through his marriage, Hosea could feels God’s pain.

Like Hosea’s selection of Gomer, God had contracted with an unreliable partner when he selected Abraham and his descendants. Even though Gomer ran away from Hosea and partnered with another man, he continued to seek her redemption (Hosea 3:1). Likewise, God had also refused to break covenant with Israel in spite of the nation worshiping other gods (Hosea 2:23, 3:1). Hosea manifested God’s love and patience for as the prophet searched for his wayward wife, found her and restored her, God would also not abandon Israel (Hosea 3:1-5). As such, the prophecy of Hosea is foremost concerned with God’s unending love towards a sinful people.

In what ways is marriage like one’s relationship to God? In what ways can you relate to Hosea? What does the fact that God would instruct Hosea to marry an unfaithful woman (and presumably make him miserable) say about the intent of marriage?

“The real purpose of marriage may not be happiness as much as it is holiness. Not that God has anything against happiness, or that happiness and holiness are by nature mutually exclusive, but looking at marriage through the lens of holiness began to put it into an entirely new perspective for me.” - Gary L. Thomas (b. 1961), Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy, pp. 22-23