Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Writing on the Wall (Daniel 5:25)

What message did Belshazzar see on the wall and ask Daniel to interpret? Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin (Daniel 5:25)

In his first appearance in the Bible, the Babylonian king Belshazzar hosted a drunken feast (Daniel 5:1). The ruler beckoned goblets looted from the Jerusalem temple and toasted his gods (Daniel 5:2-4). The revelry soon took a turn for the macabre when a disembodied hand crashed the party (Daniel 5:5). The hand inscribed a short, esoteric message on the king’s wall (Daniel 5:5, 25).

“Now this is the inscription that was written out: ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.’” (Daniel 5:25 NASB)
Most translations leave the divine graffiti untranslated to maintain the original audience’s confusion. While the first three words are the same in all translations, the last term typically either follows the Masoretic text (upharsin, ASV, CEV, KJV, NASB, NKJV) or renders the term parsin (ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or peres (MSG). They are actually synonymous as in Hebrew the conjunction “and” is added to nouns as a prefix so upharsin simply means “and parsin”.

After Belshazzar’s men failed to decode the inscription (Daniel 5:7-12), the increasingly agitated king summoned the prophet Daniel to interpret the message (Daniel 5:13). Daniel gave it to Belshazzar straight, informing the monarch that the words were as ominous as the gesture that wrote them (Daniel 5:18-28). The prophet delineated the cryptic words:

“This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENE’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. ‘TEKEL’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. ‘PERES’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:26-28 NASB)
Norman W. Porteous (1898-2003) summarizes, “The mysterious hand had written not so much in warning as in judgment.” (Porteous, Daniel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 81). For Belshazzar, the party was over.

There has been much discussion regarding the meaning of the words written on the wall. Apart from Daniel’s elucidation, the terms themselves are merely words strung together in such a way that some have even posed that apart from the prophet’s reading they are gibberish. The most common theory is that the nomenclature corresponds to coins.

W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) explains:

since the late nineteenth century, a great number of scholars have accepted the theory that the three words are weights of coinage: MENE signifying a mena, TEKEL simply an Aramaic spelling of shekel, and PERES a reference to half a mena. Even though such a series is peculiar in the sense that the ratio between the three coins is something like sixty to one and thirty (the middle term, shekel, being the least valuable of the three or four coins), a great many scholars nonetheless have agreed that the riddle is based upon such a series and that Belshazzar is presented a mysterious inscription which in modern terms might read, “(A half dollar), a half dollar, a penny, and two bits.” (Two bits would be more appropriate than “a quarter” since the word parsin is apparently a duel form of the word peres, “half.”) (Towner, Daniel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 75)
David Instone-Brewer (b. 1957) has speculated that the hand wrote in cuneiform numerals and that Daniel translated them into Aramaic (“Mene Mene Teqel Uparsin: Daniel 5.25 in Cuneiform”, Tyndale Bulletin 1991 42.2 pp. 310-316). Even if the words were recognizable, the onlookers did not hold the key to decipher their meaning and their significance was lost on the observers (Daniel 5:7-9).

Why would God accompany such a dramatic straightforward gesture like a disembodied hand with an equally esoteric message? Why does God not act so demonstratively in the modern world? Does Daniel have any sympathy for the recipient of his oracle? Why is mene written twice when tekel and parsin are transcribed only once?

The stunned king was given a death sentence and God’s word was final. Stephen R. Miller (b. 1949) comments, “‘Mene’ was written twice to stress that the divine decision was certain of fulfillment. So the message literally reads ‘Numbered, numbered, weighted, and divided (Miller, Daniel (The New American Commentary), 165).”

Zdravko Stefanovic (b. 1957) adds, “Although Daniel has read the words as nouns, in his interpretation he treats them as verbs—given here [Daniel 5:26] in the perfect tense. The use of the prophetic perfect suggests finality (Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise: Commentary on the Book of Daniel, 195).”

The prophecy against the doomed king was quickly realized. That very night Belshazzar was slain, and Darius the Mede assumed the throne (Daniel 5:30-31).

The idiom “the writing is on the wall” as a portent of doom entered the English lexicon from this passage (Daniel 5:1-31). It was seen as early as 1720 when Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) utilized it in his poem “The Run Upon The Bankers”.

When have you seen the handwriting on the wall? How did you respond?

“Man is a strange animal. He generally cannot read the handwriting on the wall until his back is up against it.” - Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Set Apart To Being Together (Hosea 6:1)

Which prophet said, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heals us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up”? Hosea (Hosea 6:1)

Hosea prophesied about Israel’s unfaithfulness towards their faithful God. Though this theme is consistent throughout, during the course of the book the scene shifts at the outbreak of the Syro-Ephraimitic war (Hosea 5:8-7:16). This conflict resulted in the northern kingdom of Israel falling to the juggernaut Assyrian army.

James Luther Mays (b. 1921) pinpoints:

The references to contemporary events in Hosea 5:8-6:6 fit the situation in Israel during the time after the Assyrian attack had begun, just before and after 733. The sayings are addressed to both the northern and southern kingdoms, with the former called Ephraim throughout. (Mays, Hosea: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 87)

Amidst the wartime material, Hosea includes a famous song of penitence (Hosea 6:1-3) which reflects the belief in God’s ability to resurrect the nation’s life. The song begins:

“Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.” (Hosea 6:1 NASB)
Hosea 6:1-3 is closely connected to the preceding chapter (Hosea 5:11-15) as the song alludes to festering wounds (Hosea 5:13) and “torn us” continues the analogy of God acting the lion (Hosea 5:14-15).

James Limburg (b. 1935) explains that these verses (Hosea 6:1-3):

Contain a song of penitence, picking up the medical imagery of Hosea 5:13 and expressing exactly what was called for in Hosea 5:15. Rather than going to “Dr. Assyria” for help...the people of Israel are urged to seek help from the true Physician, the Lord. If they repent, their fortunes will be reversed, just as surely as the dawn comes each morning and the showers come each springtime! (Limburg, Hosea-Micah (Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 27)
In addressing their predicament, the prophet asserts that the biggest national crisis is not the imposing Assyrian army but the peoples’ relationship with God. As such, the song urges Israel to seek assistance from God instead of military alliances. James Merrill Ward (b. 1928) speculates that “the expectation...that the healing will take place on the third day [Hosea 6:2] implies that the occasion is a pilgrimage festival at the central sanctuary (Ward, Hosea: A Theological Commentary, 118).”

The primary problem with the song (Hosea 6:1-3) is not its theology but its sincerity (Hosea 7:14). In his acclaimed novel, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, Timothy B. Tyson (b. 1959) writes, “If there is to be reconciliation, first there must be truth (Tyson, 10).” The biggest issue regarding Israel’s song of penitence is whether the prayer conveys truth.

J. Andrew Dearman (b. 1951) explains:

The question is whether Hosea 6:1-3 is the speech of the people that the Lord longs to hear while waiting in his place (Hosea 5:15), and is thus composed by Hosea to represent true repentance (if only Israel would embrace it!); or whether Hosea 6:1-3 is something that Israel is proposing but in an inadequate way. A decision between the options is difficult. With regard to the witness of the book, the result is crystal clear: whether repentance is inadequately expressed or offered as advice to Israel, the people failed the loyalty test. (Dearman, The Book of Hosea (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 191).
Based upon God’s rejection (Hosea 6:4-7), most conclude that Israel’s song of penitence was not wholly sincere. Ehud Ben Zvi (b. 1951) wrestles, “On the one hand, Hosea 6:1-3 represents what postmonarchic Israel should think and do. As an interlude, it provides an important teaching to the community. Nothing in the text per se suggests that Israel is insincere in Hosea 6:1-3. Yet within the literary context Hosea 6:1-3, in a seemingly unexpected manner, leads to YHWH’s negative response in Hosea 6:4-7 (Ben Zvi, Hosea (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 144).”

D.A. Carson (b. 1946) adds, “Hosea 6:1-3 sounds rather more like genuine repentance that is urged but not followed, than like the empty words of insincere hypocrites. Whatever the interpretation, clearly God is not impressed with mere words and religious observance (Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God's Word, 31).”

Some have seen subtle clues behind the song’s beautiful words that betray its true motives. The Israelites’ concern is healing, not cleansing; happiness, not holiness; an improved circumstance, not a matured character. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) inspects: “The essential elements of a true confession are missing in Hosea 6:1-3. First, there is no reference to sin. There is an acknowledgment of the consequences of Israel’s sin...A second missing element is a personal relationship with God. This is seen in the mechanical way the people conceive of God’s restoring them (Boice, Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment, 147).”

Who is speaking in this passage? Does Hosea 6:1-3 represent true repentance? What clues reveal the speakers’ earnestness? Do national events still reflect spiritual realities?

While the motives behind Israel’s song of repentance are questioned, the passage’s theology is not. The prophet offers a message of hope - the relationship between Israel and God is still salvageable. Gary V. Smith (b. 1943) clarifies, “This hope is based on his [God’s] earlier promises to restore those who turn from their evils ways and repent (Hosea 2:16-23, 3:4-5; cf. Deuteronomy 4:25-31, 32:39) (Smith, The NIV Application Commentary: Hosea, Amos, Micah).”

The passage hints that if God tore the Israelites, it was so that they could be mended. Some bones must be broken before they can properly heal. The Israelites could become strong in the broken places. The possibility existed that they were set apart to be together.

Caleb Oluremi Oladipo (b. 1955) writes of Christianity’s role in the improbable racial reconciliation in South Africa:

In South Africa...the Church was in captivity under apartheid, and the unjust social structures were reinforced and legitimated under the banner of Christianity...At the same time, the constructive roles of mission in Africa cannot be ignored...What is clear is that the Christian faith has renewed its destiny in South Africa, providing an opportunity for a society fractured by the racist ideology of apartheid to come together. (Oladipo, The Will to Arise, ix).
The same religious text that had been wrongly used to divide a nation was also properly used to reunite it.

If God could reunite South Africa, is any relationship unsalvageable? What is the most improbable reconciliation you have witnessed or heard of? Was Israel torn so that it could be better mended? Is a person’s relationship with God ever unsalvageable?

“I would hope that understanding and reconciliation are not limited to the 19th hole alone.” - Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Citizen Paul: Trusting The System (Acts 24:7)

What was the chief captain’s name who rescued Paul from the mob in Jerusalem? Lysias (Acts 24:7)

When Paul’s nephew learned of an assassination plot on his uncle’s life, he immediately alerted the imprisoned apostle (Acts 23:12-16). In turn, Paul sent the lad to Lysias, the commander responsible for him (Acts 23:17-19, 26). Lysias acted swiftly and went to great lengths to ensure his prisoner’s safety (Acts 23:22-35). At Paul’s trial the prosecutor, Tertullus, lamented:

But Lysias the commander came along, and with much violence took him [Paul] out of our hands, ordering his accusers to come before you. By examining him yourself concerning all these matters you will be able to ascertain the things of which we accuse him.” (Acts 24:7-8 NASB)
Lysias ensured that Paul received due process of law.

While Lysias was certainly largely responsible for Paul’s safe arrival to his trial, Tertullus’ implicating of Lysias does not appear in all of the early manuscripts. J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) explains, “The so-called Western text of Acts adds the following after ‘and we seized him’ (Acts 23:6): ‘and we would have judged him according to our law. But the chief captain Lysias came and with great violence took him out of our hands, commanding his accusers to come before you.’ It is not readily explainable why later copyists would have struck these words had they been a part of the original text of Acts (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 445).”

Outside of his intervening on Paul’s behalf, Lysias is unknown in the Bible. The text does inform that he was also referred to as Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26). I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) speculates:

Claudius will be the Roman name which he adopted when he became a citizen, and was probably chosen because it was the reigning emperor’s name. Lysias will then be his original Greek name, which became his cognomen on his assumption of Roman citizenship; it may indicate that he came from the Greek-speaking coastal area of Samaria. (Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 371)
Lysias was a man of authority, a chilarchos, a position translations variously interpret as “commander” (CEV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT), “tribune” (ESV, NRSV, RSV), “chief captain” (ASV, KJV) or “captain” (MSG).

Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) describes:

The chiliarchos (“leader of a thousand”) is the head of a “Cohort” (speira) which ideally consisted of a thousand soldiers, though the numbers in reality could vary. Since this unit could muster two centurions and some four hundred and seventy soldiers as an escort for Paul’s journey to Caesarea (Acts 23:23), it must have been at full strength. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 382)
Despite being relatively high on the chain of command, in the Bible, Lysias is a middle man. He intercedes on Paul’s behalf by writing a letter to his superior, governor Felix (Acts 23:26-30).

Has anyone ever written a letter of recommendation on your behalf? Who has interceded for you? Why does Lysias go to such great lengths to aid a prisoner? Lysias could not afford to lose a prisoner, but especially not one of Paul’s social standing. Most commentators concur that Lysias acted as he did in part due to social convention, namely that Paul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37, 38, 22:25, 26, 27, 29, 23:27). Lysias himself admits that the turning point in his attitude toward Paul came when he learned that the prisoner was a citizen (Acts 23:27).

Not only was Paul a Roman citizen, but a lifelong one; an important factor in the relationship between jailer and prisoner. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) notes: “Since it was customary to take the name of the emperor in whose reign citizenship was acquired, the tribune’s name, Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26), may suggest the time of his purchase, namely, during Claudius’s reign (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 194).” As Claudius was a contemporary ruler, Lysias’ citizenship was likely a relatively new development.

Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) speculates,

That Paul was a Roman citizen by birth...threatened great damage to Claudius Lysias’ person and career...a severe breach of social convention would have been involved if a more “honorable” Roman citizen had been mistreated by one who had merely bought his citizenship...Probably Lysias had worked his way up through the military ranks but would have been barred from the rank of tribune because he was not already a citizen of equestrian rank. He solved this problem through a bribe. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 681.)
In short, most believe that Lysias aided Paul in deference to his higher social status. If this is the case, not much has changed in two thousand years.

Throughout the plot to ambush him, Paul trusted the government and in fact, worked the system for passage to Rome. When the conspirator’s plot reached him, the apostle trusted his captors to do the right thing. This seems consistent with Paul’s public stance on the Christian’s relationship to the government (Romans 13:1-7).

Paul lived by the system and he would eventually die by the system as well. Tradition asserts that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero at Tre Fontane Abbey.

Have you ever changed your attitude towards someone based upon acquiring a new piece of information about them? Do you trust the system to work for you? Should you? Would Paul have trusted the government as much had he not been a Roman citizen? For Paul, was trusting the government an extension of trust in God?

“The trust of the people in the leaders reflects the confidence of the leaders in the people.” - Paulo Freire (1921-1997), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 169