An uncreated city for all nations: Zechariah 2

As human beings attempt to achieve, they build up themselves at the expense of others.  They build cities full of corruption to protect themselves by their own power.  They take land from others, imagining it to be their own.  They strike at their enemies to establish their glory.

The Lord can only end this cycle if he establishes his own people in his own city in his own land.  Thus he called the final remnant of the people – Israelite and non- – to come back to the land. If someone tried to prevent them, then they would pay the consequences.  The Lord called his new people into his new city — and neither people nor city would be limited by human institutions.

Jerusalem not constructed by humans

The newest “version” of Jerusalem cannot be constructed by humans–only by the Lord (vv. 1-5 [5-9]; the verse numbers in brackets refer to the reference in the Jewish Bible).  In another vision, Zechariah saw a mason, ready to measure and rebuild Jerusalem.  One angel raced to the one speaking to Zechariah imploring, “Go and tell that man!”  The mason did not understand the plan.

The city would not be built.  The city would remain as the pasture land with no limit.  It would teem with life such that no walls could contain it.  As for protection, the Lord himself would protect the city as a wall of fire.  Recalling the unconsumed burning bush of Moses, and the flame of fire that led the people through the wilderness by night, and the purifying flame of the blacksmith, the Lord manifested his protection through flame.  Nothing could limit the prosperity of this city, and no enemy could take away from it.  Significantly, no human–only the Lord–could build such a city.

All nations should come to the Lord’s city

The Lord implored all to come to dwell in his city. Even though the Lord sent Zion into Babylon, he invited them back to the land (vv. 6-9 [10-13]). The Lord would protect them along the way.  He would reverse the previous order, and anyone who would profit from Zion’s weakness would only hurt themselves (literally, their own “eye”).  The previous cycle of defeat and captivity would end.

Not only did the Lord invite Zion, but also the nations, to the city (vv. 10-13 [14-17]).  In the previous passage, Zion was lifted up again, at the expense of the nations.  At first, we might see a continuation of the teeter-totter of being lifted up and brought back that the Lord has affected throughout the Book of the XII.  Immediately, though, the Lord invited the nations to come and be lifted up.  The Lord would come to dwell in the midst of the city, but he would be bringing the nations who were “bound” to the Lord.  Significantly, they would not come as second-class citizens but as the Lord’s people.  As the Lord promised way back in the beginning of the Book of the XII (Hosea 1), the Lord would make his people out of those who are not his people.  Once this occurred, he chose Judah as his land again (v. 16 [12]). This creation of a people out of no people silenced all flesh and demonstrated the Lord’s glory: the ability to make something out of nothing.

The Lord without limits

Only the Lord can construct the heavenly, eternal, eschatological dwelling.  The Lord invited his people out of exile.  As the nations attached themselves to him, they would come to dwell in the city as he came to dwell there.  He would live in a city that only he could build, with a people that only he could create or conceive.  As we saw in Zephaniah the humble of all nations would become the people of the Lord; in Haggai that the temple could only be built by the Lord’s prompting.  Here the city of the Lord could only be built by the Lord.  The people of the Lord would come from all nations with no other affiliation besides him.  This new phase of history and creation silenced all flesh.

The Lord’s plan for the nations: Zecharaiah 1

Everything is tranquil in Zechariah 1, the calm before the storm. The people knew that the Lord would overthrow the nations, but were disappointed in a lack of action.  Zechariah received visions, explained to him by a heavenly being, that illuminated him with the overarching scheme of history.  In this chapter, the prophet learned that the Lord will soon engage the final act: the ultimate defeat of the nations and gathering of his people.

Apocalyptic literature

The first 5 1/2 chapters of Zechariah (1:1-6:8) are written in a genre called “apocalyptic literature,” which posits that history is a series of eras that follow a scheme known only in the heavens.  The Book of the Revelation of John in the New Testament is a well-known example of this genre, but the ancient world produced hundreds of such works, and many survived as “pseudepigrapha,” or works purported to be written by another author (eg, Apocalypse of Abraham, Apocalypse of Adam, Apocalypse of Moses).

In the first half of Zechariah, the apocalyptic genre reinforces that this last section of the Book of the XII describes the eschaton or last days.  In Zephaniah, the eschatological people were called to gather; in Haggai, the eschatological temple was commanded to be built.  In Zechariah, the angel interpreter (common in this genre) reveals to the prophet (and us, the readers, as “flies on the wall” of the heavenly discourse) the nature of history and the times he’s living in.  Time and history have a clear structure, and Zechariah finds himself in the end of an era.

The Lord’s word is eternal

In spite of the people’s actions, the Lord proved that his word extends beyond them (vv. 1-6).  This prophecy took place in year 2, month 8, which is the same time as the prophecies in Haggai 2, so during the building of the temple.

The Lord was angry with their fathers, but now the people had an opportunity to repent.  In Hebrew “repent” comes from the root שוב shuv, which literally means “turn.”  The Lord recommended that the people turn from how they had been doing things, and the Lord, for his part, would turn from how he has been doing things. When he was angry with and warned the fathers, the fathers did not change their ways.  The consequences of conquest by countless enemies were well known to Zechariah’s contemporary audience.  The fathers died, the prophets died, but the word of warning and of consequences remained.  Those who knew about the events had to admit that the word came to pass, and the recipients and messengers of the word passed away.  No one could deny that the Lord’s word determined their destiny.

The Lord comes with thunder — but it’s still quiet

The Lord promised to overturn the nations in the last day, so that the humble will come to the Lord–but the land is at peace (vv. 7-12).  This prophecy took place in year 2, month 11, day 24, that is two months after Haggai’s last prophecies.  Building the temple has been underway, but nothing has changed.

Zechariah engaged again with an angel to ask about a vision of horses sent by the Lord to roam the earth (vv. 8-12).  The riders came to roam the earth, to walk throughout the earth.  They reported that all the earth was tranquil, that there was no sign that the latest kingdom (Persian) was being overthrown.

With peace throughout the world, why did the angel cry for the Lord to show mercy to Jerusalem and Judah?  It was too quiet!  The Lord promised to show mercy by overturning the nations, yet they saw no sign of overturn.

In the next section (vv. 13-17) the angel explained that the Lord was still planning. The Lord loved Jerusalem and Zion, and was upset with the nations who added to the evil the Lord had planned.  He was not yet ready to act, however.  The Lord promised that the nations deserved punishment; while the Lord planned on punishing his people by means of the nations, the nations had taken it too far.  The Lord then changed the subject from the nations to state that the temple will be rebuilt, his presence would be in it, and the land will abound (v. 16; see Haggai). The Lord would be favorable again towards them (v. 17).  Even though the riders did not see any “action” in the arrival of the eschaton, the Lord affirmed that his plans were coming to fruition.

The next image illustrated the Lord’s intentions (vv. 18-21 [2:1-4 in the Hebrew Bible]).  Often apocalyptic literature depicts future actions through animal metaphors.  The Lord sent smiths to hew off the horns of the Gentile enemies.  He planed to render them impotent for their violence towards Judah.

Last chance

The last days were upon Israel.  Their fathers did not take their opportunity when the prophets offered it to them.  Zechariah’s audience knew the consequences.  The Lord assured them that even thought they saw no evidence that the world order was changing, he had a plan: a temple with his presence and recompense on the nations.  The people saw the final, apocalyptic storm coming–would they choose to brave the coming storm or seek shelter in the Lord?

The Lord intervenes to sanctify his people: Haggai 1-2

In the eschaton, or, the last times, the Lord will gather his people, as we read in Zephaniah, and he will rebuild his temple, as we read in Haggai.  Even though the humble gathered as a people, they could not make themselves holy.  The Lord instituted the temple as the means for the people’s sanctification.  Yet he had to ensure that the people did not become puffed up and ruined as they had done with the previous temple (see Jeremiah 7).  The Lord played an active part in this phase of history as he directed the rebuilding and decoration of the temple and the sanctification of his people.

Haggai hangs events on specific dates, unique to what we have seen so far in the XII.  While previous books, such as Habakkuk, make specific dating difficult, the author of this book explicitly ground its story in external events.  The events Haggai discusses take place over about four months (beginning of month 6 till the end of month 9), during the second year of King Darius of the Persian Empire.  Thus all dates in this book refer to a time in the reign of King Darius.  The dates will link Haggai’s prophesies with Zechariah’s apocalyptic visions in the next book, as well as with the reign of the Persian emperors.

Lack of prosperity came from prioritizing the houses of the leaders

In year 2, month 6, day 1, Haggai spoke to Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest, to emphasize to them the link between the people’s lack of prosperity and the ruin of the temple. In 1:2-6 the individuals holding power were not interested in rebuilding the temple, but the Lord explained that their problems are the result of their desire for a life of comfort and neglect of the Lord’s house, and that theses problems will continue if the neglect continues.  (Ezra 4 says that construction was stopped because people of the land conspired with Persian authorities to stop the construction.)

In contrast to the ruins the temple found itself in, 1:7-11 depicted the beauty of the houses of the rulers.  The Lord shamed the rulers into focusing on rebuilding his house by contrasting the beauty of their houses and the ruin of his house.  The leaders should focus on building the temple–“the house”–rather than hide in their own houses.  Their incorrect priorities resulted in the the Lord withholding rain and prosperity.

The rulers re-prioritize

The leaders and people jumped quickly to working on the temple–an unusual response (1:12-13). After reading many chapters of obstinate disobedience from the people over the past many chapters, this quick, obedient response comes as a surprise.  (This is one reason I believe that the Book of the XII should be read as a single scroll.  In the context of the other books in the XII, the only other time we saw such obedience was among the Ninevites responding to Jonah.)  The Lord declared that he is with them–another rare response.

Even though the rulers began building the temple, the Lord was the ultimate source for building (1:14-15). About one month after the last word of the Lord from Haggai, in year 2, month 6, day 24, the Lord “roused the spirit” of Zerubbabel and Joshua and the people to work on the temple.  The reader of Haggai knows, therefore, that the Lord initiated building his temple at the hands of Israel at that time.  The Lord played a part in this surprisingly different reaction by the people,   The people did not change; the Lord changed.  He was ushering in the eschaton through the people.

The Lord’s presence is impressive enough

A month after the last word from Haggai, in year 2, month 7, day 21, the Lord declared that his presence in the temple would be its most impressive and important feature (2:1-5).  Since Darius came to power about 65 years after the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians, someone around 70-80 years old at this time would have remembered the splendor of the first temple.  The new temple evidently did not impress them.  In spite of appearances, the new temple would be more impressive because the Lord’s presence rested in it.  In Ezekiel 11, the Lord removed his presence from the city; in Haggai he reestablished his presence.

Moreover, the Lord recreated the splendor of his house his own way (2:6-9).  In Exodus, the Lord’s people managed to loot the Egyptians and carry away their booty without wielding a single weapon, and in this way he showed his greatness.  In Haggai, he would have the nations return the riches to the temple.  Ezra 6:5 stated that Cyrus declared that the temple gold and silver be returned from Babylon.  Thus the Lord filled the temple with his splendor and continued as the source of the action.  As he motivated Israel to rebuild, he motivated the nations to supply the riches.

Only the Lord can purify

Two months later, on year 2, month 9, day 24, the Lord proved through the notion of purity that he must be the source of change in the people.  The situation described in 2:11-13 demonstrated that holiness cannot spread, but uncleanness can.  A spiral towards more and more uncleanness resulted, displayed by the people’s lack of prosperity.  Practically this meant that without a system for bringing holiness to the people, the offerings they offered were unclean, and the people remained in their unclean state.  Because they were unclean, they did not prosper (2:14).

Up to this point, the Lord cursed what the people did, but now he decided to bless it (2:15-19).  As the people laid the foundation of the temple, blessings would come to the people because the Lord changed his approach to intervene directly.  Why the Lord changed his approach–Haggai did not explain.  The necessary source of holiness, the temple, was established, ending the continuous spiral of uncleanness and poverty.

Later that same day, the Lord further spoke through Haggai to declare that he will defeat all the nations (2:20-23).  The Lord will overturn all the nations with their armies and they will destroy each other.  In addition, he established Zerubbabel as his “signet,” his image and seal.  In the ancient world, the signet ring was used to sign documents and seal goods.  To bear someone’s seal was the ancient equivalent to the modern power of attorney; you could function as someone else legally.  So as Zerubbabel worked in the world, so the Lord did, as well.  Since Zerubbabel was the one who submitted and built the temple according to the Lord’s will, the reflection of the Lord’s came through the humble submission of will.  (Perhaps it is significant that Zerubbabel is not a king–only a governor.)

Submitting to the Lord’s will

The people suffered because they could not make themselves holy.  They did not have enough, and poverty was increasing its hold on them.  Rather than shore up what they had in their panelled houses, they were commanded to rebuild the Lord’s house.  This time, though, the Lord changed his approach, intervening directly and ushering in the eschaton.  Since the Lord would be there, the temple would be a source of holiness for them.

The Lord initiated this new phase of history.  He influenced the rulers to begin building. He would instill it with his presence.  He would decorate it with the nations’ riches.  He would bless the people and sanctify them.  This temple would not arise from humans’ hands except for the Lord’s influence and power.  The governor, Zerubbabel, would be the image of the Lord in the land, as he was the one who submitted to following the Lord’s will to rebuild.  As the humble would constitute the Lord’s people in Zephaniah, so humility would inhabit the temple in the Lord’s presence.

The sign of the Lord’s humble people: Zephanaiah 3

Zephaniah begins the end of the Book of the XII, so the eschatological themes in Zephaniah take on greater importance.  Up to this point in the Minor Prophets, we saw a cycle of destruction.  Then, in the last book, Habakkuk questioned why the Lord would allow such a cycle.  The Lord answered him there briefly, but the rest of the answer begins with Zephaniah.  In chapter 1 of Zephaniah, the Lord spoke of bringing down everything, but saving a few through grace; chapter 2 described gathering the eschatological people of the Lord.  Here, chapter 3, the prophet described the final triumph of his humble people.  Overall, Zephaniah paints the portrait of his people in the end times.

Here in chapter 3, we read how some people never learned their lesson: they remained proud even after being chastised. When the Lord comes to judge, the humble ones of every nation will submit to the Lord. The Lord will remove the proud from Jerusalem, which will become the capitol of his people, the humble ones. Their very punishment and shame will become their pride—by being humbled they will be exalted.

Consequences of rejecting the Lord

In the beginning of this chapter, in verses 1-5, the prophet described the actions and attitudes that resulted in the city from their rejection of the Lord.  He calls the city יונה yonah (v. 1).  This word can be a verb, “wrong (someone)” (eg, Ezekiel 18:7).  The RSV and JPS translated according to this meaning.  It can mean “pigeon” or “dove” (as the Septuagint read it), which the biblical writers associate with mourning or despair (eg, Ezekiel 7:16; Hosea 7:11; 11:11).  Finally, it is the name of the prophet who directly rejected the Lord, Jonah.  In a time of mourning, the city rejected the Lord (v. 2), like Jonah, and found herself in horrible despair.

The city left the Lord, as we saw in ch. 1; only the humble will become the Lord’s people (ch. 2), so here we read the alternative as the city’s leaders use their power in corrupt ways.  Power made the officials hungry without limit, like lions and wolves (v. 3), and the prophets, who are called to be faithful to the Lord’s word, were rebellious, and the priests, who are to teach holiness, instead profaned the holy (v. 4).  The Lord, however, stood as the righteous one in the midst of the city, highlighting the wrongdoing and injustice of the city (v. 5).

Destruction is the sign to the people

Even though the Lord destroyed nations and great cities to teach the people his control over all powers, the people still did not learn (vv. 6-7).  The cities that represented such power became empty (v. 6).  The Lord said, “Indeed you will fear me!”  In Hebrew, though, the word for “me” can also be read as “my sign,” so we can translate, “Indeed you will fear my sign.”  For the people the Lord taught about himself through the sign of destruction that he showed them.  Nevertheless, they ignored the lesson and continued in their disobedient, unenlightened ways (v. 7).

On the last day, the final sign by destruction will arise and individuals from all the nations will come to praise the Lord (vv. 8-10).  On the day of judgement, the Lord will arise as a “witness,” though this word, with a different vowel, could also be read as “forever.”  So the Lord will arise “as a witness” or the Lord will arise “forever”; in either case the Lord’s sign of destruction will stand forever.  Once the nations are purified by fire, their mouths will speak only the pure speech of the praise of the Lord (vv. 8-9).  Those from beyond the known world, beyond Cush, will come to worship the Lord and be spared destruction from the Lord’s fire by his grace (v. 10).

Hence, the remnant of Israel, from ch. 2, who will dwell in the Lord’s city, will also dwell with the righteous of all nations (vv. 11-13).  When no more proud people remain in the city, only the humble will be found there.  As we saw in Nahum, the Lord is the shelter from the storm of the Lord where the humble find refuge.  The remaining members of the city–the remnant–will act and speak with humility.  As pride is banished, so the city’s shame goes.

Joy and an end to fear

As the Lord demonstrated that he is the master over every earthly power, once he declares his people innocent, they do not need to fear anything more (vv. 14-20).  He commanded them to rejoice (v. 14).  The Lord turned away the judgement against the people, so he had no more basis for bringing evil upon them again (v. 15).  They did not need to be afraid because the Lord is the supreme warrior and their ultimate ally and savior.  Their enemies will be destroyed, as well (vv. 16-17).

The Lord will transform the weak and humble of the people (vv. 18-20).  Those who humbled them he will remove (v. 18), and then he will make the humble into praise and renown (literally, “a name”) (v. 19).  The Lord will make his final point or “sign” by gathering these humble, lame, defeated individuals of all nations into a single people, in his holy city.  The sign will display the Lord’s strength in two ways: his abilities to destroy the strength of the most powerful of the world and to make a people out of those who had no power.  He will make you into a sign, O humble people!

Learn from the sign and you will be a sign

Once the people departed from the Lord, their wickedness and rebellion mushroomed.  Consequently, the Lord destroyed them; yet the people did not learn.  At the same time, people from the other nations came to learn from this sign, this teaching, from the Lord.  These ones learned humility from the Lord who is the master of all.  In the end, the humble who recognize the Lord’s sovereignty will flock to the Lord’s city, where he will protect and save them.  The people of humility, whom he commanded to gather in ch. 2, will remain in the shelter of their savior, the Lord.

The cycle is coming to an end where nation A oppresses B, the Lord puts down nation B, and then nation A becomes the oppressor, and the Lord puts down nation A.  He has to find the nation who will learn the lesson and refuse to become the oppressor through humility.  Habakkuk, the prophet previous to this book, questioned the meaning of the cycle of destruction, but finally gained the humility that allowed him to decode the Lord’s teaching.  In the book of Zephaniah, the Lord is looking for those who follow in Habakkuk’s footsteps and will comprise his eschatological people.

The Lord selects his people, the humble: Zephaniah 2

The Lord’s people will triumph—but who are the Lord’s people?  They are those who accept the Lord’s mercy in humility.  As opposed to those in 1:12-13 who believe that the Lord can neither do good nor evil, these humble ones understand that their survival proves the Lord’s mercy.  They are “martyrs” or witnesses that the Lord can and does do evil–by destroying the civilizations of the known world–and does good–by saving the humble ones who accept the Lord’s power.

Humility accepts the Lord’s mercy—he was leveling everyone and he could have not spared you.  Haughtiness assumes one’s own power—you don’t see any problem, so you assume you have it all under control.  This is only a dream, and the Lord destroys to awaken the people.  They can live and thrive as the Lord’s nation only if they submit to his ultimate power.

The Lord’s people must gather

Danger is coming, as the Lord announced in ch. 1, so ch. 2 begins with the Lord warning his people to be humble and gather together (vv. 1-3).  Gathering together displays the people’s humble recognition that the Lord’s day of judgement is approaching.  By listening to the prophet’s warning, they come together as one, humble people.  The resulting gathered individuals will comprise a humble nation that the Lord will favor.  One must decide now to join this people by heeding the warning.

The people will triumph like Israel in Joshua and Judges

While the most common reference to Torah we find in the Book of the XII points to Exodus, this chapter refers to Joshua and Judges as the Lord conquers the land again–this time, from the Philistines, the principle antagonist in Judges.  The first phase is destroying the Philistines (vv. 4-7).  The Philistines lived in a five-city confederation called a “Pentapolis,” consisting of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.  In this passage the first four are destroyed (Gath is not mentioned in this passage), and the prophet describes their fates through word-play on their names:

  • Gaza will be “abandoned”.  This plays on the Hebrew name for the city, ‘azah, and “abandoned,” ‘azuvah;
  • Ashkelon will be a “desolation”.  There is not much of a word-play here, unless one infers a potential play on the root sh-q-l, meaning “weigh.”  This verb sometime comes in the context of judgement, but that is not clear here;
  • Ashdod will be “destroyed”.  The name Ashdod, includes the root sh-d-d, meaning “destroy”, and the text says they will be “driven out”;
  • Ekron will be “uprooted”.  The clearest word-play comes here as the city name includes the root ‘-q-r which means “uproot”, just as the Lord threatens.

The cities thus live up to their “nature” as revealed by their names; their names “prove” that they were destined for destruction.  Beyond the fate of the Philistine cities, the Lord holds the whole area in his sites.

  • Woe to the dwellers of the “sea coasts”.  The literal translation of this phrase is “region of the sea.”  The word for “region” is xevel, which can alternatively be translated as “destruction”.  The latter meaning produces the phrase, “Woe to the dwellers of the destruction of the sea”, which fits this context well;
  • The nation of the Cherethites will be “cut off”.  The nature of these people is obscure, but their name includes the root k-r-t, meaning “cut (off)”.

The Lord contextualizes the process of destruction through the image of the displacement of the Canaanites.  The reference to Joshua comes as the prophet equates “Canaan” with the “Land of the Philistines.”  The people will conquer the Philistines as the Israelites conquered Canaan in Joshua.

A final, dark play on words concludes this section.  The Lord will “visit them” and will “return” on them their “payment.”  The ambiguity expresses the dual nature of the Lord’s judgement: either a visit will be good news with a beneficial payment, or bad news with harsh payment.  The sentence is unclear as judgment has not taken place.

Pride: The nemesis of the Lord’s people

The Moabites and Ammonites display the central characteristic of the Lord’s enemies–pride–and the Lord’s humble people will inherit their land, as a result (vv. 8-11).  The insults and haughtiness against the Lord’s people merit utter destruction, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moreover, it will be the “remnant” of Israel–those that humbly gathered in the beginning of the chapter–that will destroy them.

The language describing the Moabites’ and Ammonites’ sin is ambiguous.  They “boast about their border,” but the word for “boast” here means “make large; grow”, so the boast also sounds like a land-grab: they grow (themselves) over their borders.  Since the land belongs to the Lord, and he has given portions to all the nations, the Moabites and Ammonites rebel against this deity by attempting to take what the Lord gave to another nation.

As a result of the Moabites’ and Ammonites’ sin, the remnant of Israel will inherit their land.  The humble will now inherit the land that was previously owned by the proud.  Only the Lord among all the deities will remain in this place.

Israel, as the Lord’s people, are defined by gathering humbly.  The Lord’s enemies are recognized as proud, insulting the humble, and growing beyond their allotted borders.

The land belongs to the Lord

The Lord will take over the entire world (vv. 12-14).  In the US we have the expression “from sea to shining sea” that signifies the country in its entire expanse.  “From Cush to Assyria” functions the same way for the ancients.  For the ancient world, Cush lies in the extreme southwest of civilization, along the Nile river, while Assyria lies in the extreme northeast, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  The Lord will destroy the entire expanse of the Near East, from river to river, from Southwest to Northeast.  He will return the world to its natural state, destroying civilizations and reducing Nineveh to nothing.  No longer a home to the most powerful people in the world, these cities will house wild animals–with no humans to shoo them away.

Verse 15 ends the chapter with a statement of ultimate pride: “I, and nothing else besides me” (אני ואפסי עוד).  This is the statement of the rich and comfortable, who have no concern, who believe themselves to be masters of their own destiny.  Like those in 1:12-13 who say, “The Lord will neither do good nor do evil,” they don’t think that the Lord can have any effect on their lives.  By spreading complete destruction, the Lord hopes to teach about reality: that he can do good and do evil, that there is someone besides the rich and comfortable, so that the people can become humble and decide to submit to becoming members of the Lord’s people.

Choosing humility

The people must choose between reality, that the Lord is all-powerful and can spare you from destruction, and fantasy, that they can protect themselves from destruction.  The Lord will bring destruction across the known world, erasing its civilizations.  If one is spared, survival results from the Lord’s mercy; he did not have to spare you.  He will restore the land to its original state, and offering it as an inheritance to his people, the humble recipients of mercy whom he spared.  His people, though, will consist of those who are willing to submit to him, recognizing his ultimate ability to do good and evil.  Comfort beguiles the people, thinking that they have control.  Thus they have a choice: submit to the Lord’s ultimate power or attempt to control their own destiny and rebel.

How do the people reject the Lord?: Zephaniah 1

Zephaniah, like the other prophets among the 12, asserts the Lord as the entire system of the universe.  He is, as I always tell our class, the bad and the good, the storm and the shelter from the storm (from Nahum 1).  The first chapter of this book presents Zephaniah as a brash insider, a relative of the royal family, yet two generations younger than the king.  He fiercely attacks the lukewarm faith of the rich, who believe that they have secured their own well-being.  Because of these people’s lack of complete trust in the Lord, the same god will bring war and violence to teach them that he alone can save and protect them.

A genealogy begins the chapter, laying out the prophet’s royal lineage (v. 1).  Zephaniah is the great-great grandson of the famous king, Hezekiah, and he prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, the grandson of Hezekiah.  So Zephaniah was prophesying to his grandfather’s cousin (technically, Zepheniah’s first cousin, twice removed).  The Bible does not mention Amariah, son of Hezekiah, elsewhere, so it could be that Zephaniah’s relative, Hezekiah, was different from the king’s grandfather with the same name; the name was relatively common.  Nevertheless, the image of a young prophet confronting his esteemed, elderly relative, as well as a blue-blood speaking against his own family, begins the book with a significant reversal of the reader’s expectations.

The Lord levels creation

To begin the prophet’s speech, the Lord “levels” all of creation, both in the sense of “flattening” creation through destruction and of “equalizing” everything.  First, he reverses the process of creation by wiping out humans and land creatures, then birds, and then fish (vv. 2-3; compare Genesis 1).  Then he emphasizes destroying all of humanity in v. 4, reminiscent of the same action in the flood in Genesis 6.

Second, every human–Israelite and Gentile–receives equal treatment, which would have scandalized an ancient reader.  Every inhabitant of Jerusalem and Judah will be destroyed.  The Baals will be destroyed, and the name of every priest–significantly, priests both of the Baals and of the Jerusalem temple–along with them (v. 4).  The Hebrew text says “every remnant of Baal.”  King Josiah was famous for eliminating the Baals and the high places of Canaanite worship from the land.  Since the king is already old, his reforms already took place–and did not succeed entirely.[1]  The prophet thus indicts Josiah for not completing his reform.  Zephaniah scandalously condemns both the reform of this “good” king and the “legitimate” priests of Jerusalem.

Third, the Lord condemns every shade of disloyalty towards him (vv. 5-6).  Those who soundly reject the Lord and bow down to the heavenly host and those who hedge by swearing both to the Lord and to Malcam (probably an Ammonite deity); those who have turned away from the Lord altogether; and those probably should turn to him, but don’t bother; all of these are under judgment.

The Lord would like to have you for dinner . . .

In light of the impending destruction and the condemnation the people have brought upon themselves, the Lord is preparing a feast–but are the people the guests or the main course (vv. 7-11)?  In the ancient world, the feast was not simply about killing an animal, but also about cooking and sharing the animal with the family and community.  So preparing a feast at first sounds like good news: an invitation to a feast.  The Lord sanctifies them so that they can partake in this holy meal.

Or does he sanctify them to serve them as the main course?  While he prepares the feast, he is punishing the king’s officials and sons for dressing like foreigners, ritually recognizing foreign deities by “stepping over the threshold,” and sowing violence and rebellion in the court.  Here it sounds like the slaughter will take place among the people, not on behalf of them.  The Lord’s wrath will first come as an economic crisis, eliciting howls and groans from the people, from which their money cannot preserve them.  The Lord will not serve but consume the rich and wicked.

Rejection of those who are comfortable

Once the Lord removes the obviously bad people from the land, he will search out the lukewarm for destruction (vv. 12-18).  He will search through every corner of Jerusalem for the people for whom the Lord is irrelevant, who don’t believe the Lord will act (v. 12).  These people are the comfortable ones, and the Lord will destroy their homes and vineyards through war and violence (vv. 13-17).  The prophet emphasizes that wealth will not help them when the whole land is “consumed” (v. 18).  The wealthy are comfortable with their wealth, unconcerned with what the Lord does; they believe have secured themselves.  As violence comes upon them, they realize the false nature of what they believe to be a safe existence, free from the possibility of being derailed by the Lord.

Equality under the Lord

The Lord plans to equalize the classes.  The rich will learn that their wealth cannot preserve them when confronted by the Lord.  Moreover, they will learn that the Lord, while he is the source of the battle and violence to come, is the only shelter from destruction.  The Lord is the entire system: he is the storm and the shelter from the storm.  They would like to think that the storm comes by itself, and wealth–with its foreign alliances, houses, and comfort–is the shelter from the storm.  The Lord plays no part, in their minds.  As a result, the Lord has to teach them that he brings the violence and he can protect them from it.  The prophet challenges his own royal family with the hope that complete dependence on the Lord for all things may result from this violent action–if they learn their lesson.

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[1] Cutting off the priests of Jerusalem along with those of the Baals proved too scandalous even to the translators of the Greek Septuagint, who translate this verse as, “…and I will cut off from this place the names of the Baals and the names of the priests,” which would have been interpreted as the priests of Baal, without reference to the Jerusalem priests.

A Psalm of Victory in Defeat: Habakkuk 3

Among the minor prophets, Habakkuk displays more personality than most because we see an evolution in his thinking.  He moved from questioning the Lord in chapter 1 to relying utterly on him in chapter 3.  He speaks of the cycle of the Lord’s actions the defeat of the Babylonians at the hand of the oppressed ones whom they defeated, which builds on the reader’s previous experience of the Assyrians’ defeat of the haughty Israelites, and the Babylonians’ defeat of the haughty Assyrians.  The Lord brings in an army to defeat the haughty, and then the army becomes haughty.  And repeat.  Breaking the cycle, the Lord himself came for the final battle against the foreign gods and the prophet took his place as one of the lowly so that he can ultimately experience victory from the Lord through the Lord’s glory.

The odd terminology of this chapter made an impression on readers.  Words like “shigionoth” (v. 1) and “selah” (vv. 3, 9, 13) are left untranslated in most Bibles because they are technical musical terminology.  Significantly, these words appear most often in the Psalms.  The odd vocabulary of this chapter gives it a particular tone, evoking the Psalms and the that book’s typical themes of defeat and victory.

The Lord appears on the scene quickly and fiercely in the first verses of chapter 3 (vv. 2-7).  The prophet first declared the great work of the Lord, about which he listened in fear and requested mercy (v. 2).  We next see an epiphany, like we saw in Michah 1 and Nahum 1, when the Lord came from the mountains in greatness (v. 3) and bright (v. 4).  He arrived not with life, though, but with death through pestilence and sickness (v. 5).  He surveyed his creation, and startled the nations, mountains, and hills (vv. 6-7).  With his terror demonstrated by weapons and great size, the Lord arrived as a great warrior.

The Lord is prepared as a warrior to fight in the primeval battle against the waters and chaos, whose armies are the nations (vv. 8-15).  In Babylonian mythology, the creation of the heavens and earth came about when the champion of the gods, Marduk, raised an army to defeat the horrific troops of the god of the rivers, Apsu, and the goddess of the salt waters, Tiamat.  In Habakkuk 3, the Lord acted like Marduk, but on his own and without an army rode against the “rivers” and the “sea” (vv. 8-9).  All of nature trembled to see this battle among the forces of nature (v. 10).  Even the sun and moon–important Babylonian gods–froze in fear before the weapons of the Lord (v. 11).  He tromped through the nations–the troops of the other gods–to give victory/salvation to his own anointed king and defeat the waters (vv. 12-15).

This image of war terrified the prophet (v. 16), but he hoped in the Lord despite appearances (vv. 17-19).  The prophet was not cheering on the Lord as he came in victory but was afraid.  He understood that the Lord is a whirlwind, as we saw in Nahum 1:3, that takes out anything in its path.  In our own times, even if someone believed that hurricane Katrina struck our shores to express divine wrath, even the most pious believer would take shelter in fear.  Habakkuk knew that the Lord is essentially dangerous, expressed in v. 2 by his request that the Lord remember mercy in his wrath.  Nevertheless, Habakkuk settled on hoping in the Lord as the only real victory (vv. 17-19).  Even in the face of utter drought and famine, he promised to rejoice in the Lord (vv. 17-18).  The Lord will provide him strength (v. 19).

This change of heart came abruptly and its naivete is troubling.  Why would the prophet hope in this destructive, terrifying deity?  Doesn’t he sound like the abused wife giving her husband “one more chance” to be kind?

Just like in the Psalms, Habakkuk recognizes that he must be the humble one if he wants to be victorious.  The Bible seeks to make the case for the Lord as the only (relevant) deity.  As a result, everything must come from the Lord, the good and bad.  Ultimately, the destruction that the Lord causes brings down the haughty and raises up the lowly; the defeated receive victory, and the victorious are defeated.  If the lowly remember that they are lowly before the Lord, that they were raised up in charity, they will have nothing to worry about.  Logically, then, the Lord is irresistible, and the only ones who would resist are those who put faith in their own strength.  Those who do not resist, put faith in the Lord’s strength.  The Lord, as we saw in Nahum, is the whirlwind and also the shelter from the whirlwind.

The glory of the Lord is that he can make something out of nothing.  He targets the powerful because they think they have produced something.  He emasculates them by claiming that he was the one who allowed them to produce something and by proving his point by taking away by violence what they thought the produced.  Moreover, he uses the weak to do so, further demonstrating that he alone controls their fate.  Once the weak are on top and believe that they have produced something, the cycle continues.  In this chapter, the prophet describes the final battle, when the Lord evens all the scores and ends the cycle.

Condemnation to Babylon, warning to Israel: Habakkuk 2

Chapter 2 of Habakkuk answers the prophet’s questions of chapter 1.  Habakkuk asked in ch. 1 how long the Lord would afflict them and why he would use such rotten means of affliction.  Here in ch. 2 the Lord explained that the cycle of oppression is not about the participants but about their attitudes.  If anyone trusts in the Lord, they will be safe; if not, their selfish ambition will prove their downfall.

After reading through the chapter in class, the participants couldn’t help but notice the coming word of judgement, especially in v. 3.  But when is it coming?  Will it tarry or not?  The verse is unclear.  Another item confused people, that is, who is being addressed precisely.  At times, Babylon is addressed as “he,” such as in v. 5, but elsewhere as “you,” such as in v. 7.  Sometimes, the “you” can start to sound like Israel.  Reminiscent of Nahum’s word from the Lord, Babylon is condemned directly, but Israel is warned indirectly.  Combining these two ambiguities–the time of judgement and the addressee of the judgement–Habakkuk accuses Babylon for now while he warns Israel about a potential future where Israel takes on the condemned traits of Babylon.

Habakkuk received the word of judgement wherein only those who trust in the Lord will be safe.  The chapter began with Habakkuk awaiting the answer to his questions (v. 1), and followed with the Lord’s answer (v. 2).  The Lord wanted to be absolutely clear, commanding the prophet to post the word on a billboard.  The word will come, sooner or later (v. 3).  Then the word finally came, and it separates the one who is proud and not upright from the one who shall live because he trusts in the Lord (v. 4).  Whether you trust in yourself or in the Lord determines your fate.  Just as the Lord is the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3), he is also the protection from danger (Nahum 1:7).

Those who victimize others on the way up will themselves eventually fall victim to their victims.  In a more concrete way, the one who steps on people to their rise to the top will have to answer to those they stepped on (vv. 5-8).  The ambitious Babylonians became proud and as insatiable as death (v. 5).  The poor whom the ambitious one put down along the way will end up to be his undoing (vv. 6-8).  The ones he took collateral from will take from him; the ones who were plundered will plunder him.  The means of success for the proud man will be the means of his downfall.

Once the proud person builds himself up, he entrenches himself to stay safe but condemns himself in the process.  He gathers in resources–coming from the poor people mentioned above–so that he can build a safe home for himself, like an eagle with a nest in a cliff (v. 9).  Then he teaches his children to do the same (v. 10).  His house, though, testifies to his pride and covetousness and exploitation (v. 11), and the scope of this testimony extends out to the city established by the same greed and love of gain (v. 12).  A safe, protected house built with these ill-gotten gains ironically condemn him to judgement.

The Lord leads the uprising of the people against the powers that be, not to help out the poor but so that all can know his glory (vv. 13-17).  He leads the weak to destroy the powerful so that “knowledge of the glory of the Lord” spreads throughout the world (vv. 13-14).  This news is not necessarily good.  We see a similar scene in Numbers 14, where Moses talked down the Lord, who wanted to wipe out the Israelites because of their rebellion; at that point, the Lord ominously parallels the signs (plagues) he made in Egypt and his glory (Num 14:22).  The Lord’s glory is that he uses the weak to shame the proud.  Normally, the proud survive off of the shame of the weak; soon the proud will be shamed by the Lord because of the violence caused by the proud (Hab 2:15-17).  The Lord ultimately lifts up the lowly against the proud so that the earth will know that no pride can hinder his glory.

Finally, the Lord compared the works of proud, human hands with the Lord himself (vv. 18-20).  People create idols so that they can take a life of their own.  Then they sit at the feet of their idols waiting in wonder for wisdom (vv. 18-19).  In reality, they are inanimate, incapable of creation or teaching.  In contrast, the Lord sits invisibly, in silence, and evokes true wonder (v. 20).  His wonder, though, comes not from sitting in awe, but remembering the deeds of the above verses.  One keeps silence before the Lord because he is more powerful than any person, group of people, or force in the world.  He defeats the strong through the weak, reversing the way of the world, and revealing his glory; even the fantasy of the proud cannot make the inanimate animate.

Since the time of judgement is still undetermined, anyone can still be subject to it.  In addition, the ambiguity convicts the Babylonians of pride and ambition, and whose sentence will be carried out by their victims.  At first, Israel may see this as good news.  Since judgement has not come yet, Israel still could potentially fall into the same sin as Babylon.  Should they begin to trust their ambition and the work of their own hands more than the Lord, they could find themselves destroyed by the whirlwind, rather than protected from it.

Bully on the Playground

bully Habakkuk draws its reader right in, questioning the Lord’s dominion over the enemies of war, famine, poverty, and injustice.  What kind of Lord won’t listen and won’t save?   Habakkuk doesn’t mess around with niceties, listing the Lord’s steadfast love, mercy, patience, justice, and strength.  He goes straight for the jugular.

And teaching Habakkuk to young children can be especially difficult in a land that strives to create a safe and fair world for its children.  Habakkuk is essentially asking the Lord,  “How could the playground bully be doing the work of the Lord?  The bully is mean and unfair and “bent on violence.” (1:9)

A boy named Peter studied the children at play.  From the park bench where Peter sat, he sized up the playground bully, and Peter watched him like a hawk.   The playground bully threw rocks at the spinning carousel, stood at the top of the slide and wouldn’t let anyone pass without a “leaf ticket,” and always beat his friends in a race to the best swing.   And Peter’s Mom didn’t even notice when the bully started kicking Peter’s ball that he left on the edge of the playground.

“Why doesn’t Mom do something??!   It’s my ball!  How can she let that bully do whatever he wants?”  fumed Peter.

“Peter,” Mom turned away from her conversation with the other ladies.  “You can get up from the bench now and come out of time-out.  Go apologize to the little girl you pulled off the see-saw.  Then why don’t you go play with that boy over there who’s kicking your ball around with the other kids?”

Will Peter ever learn?

 

 

 

Why establish justice with the unjust?: Habakkuk 1

We continued to discuss the theme that has been developing in the past several books (Jonah, Michah, and Nahum), that the Lord is the entire mechanism of affliction and comfort, the storm and the shelter.  Habakkuk continues to argue this point, but while questioning the Lord’s methods.

This book takes place after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, also known as Chaldeans.  After the stern punishment by Assyria in Micah, and the Lord’s retribution against the pride of Assyria in Nahum, the Israelites likely thought things would go smoothly.  Hence the shock of Habakkuk in the first chapter: “How long?!”

A crisis arose at the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple.  Either the Lord willed his house to be destroyed or did not will it.  If he did not will it, then a force superior to the Lord must exist.  This answer is left unaddressed.  If the Lord willed its destruction, what would be his reason?  The book of Habakkuk addresses this question, trying to figure out why the Lord would allow such death and destruction and why by means of the Chaldeans.

One of the questions that arose after we read through the chapter is whether Habakkuk changed his point of view.  The prophet began asking questions of the Lord, receives a response, and then continues questioning.  In other words, after the Lord answered the prophet’s question, did Habakkuk progress in his thinking as he continued to interrogate the Lord?  Did Habakkuk learn anything from the Lord’s response?

The prophet began his questions wondering why the Lord doesn’t care that justice has been turned on its head (vv. 2-4).  When Habakkuk cries out, the Lord doesn’t respond.  The land is full of violence and devoid of justice, yet the Lord refuses to act.  The Lord seems to have abdicated his position as one who establishes justice.  The universe is unfair, and the Lord is letting it happen.

Unexpectedly, the Lord extolled the fighting ability of the ones perpetrating this violence, though they are not flawless (vv. 5-11).  First, the Lord depicted the greatness of his action of raising up a fantastic force (vv. 5-7), and then he illustrated the swiftness of the Chaldeans (v. 8).  These fighters fought without worry about any leader or fortification (vv. 9-10).  However, the weakness of these warriors arose from their pride: they attributed their success to their own god (v. 11).

Habakkuk responded with more questions–why would the Lord use wicked people to establish his justice (vv. 12-17)?  Once the prophet established that the Lord is eternal and he does not want to eliminate his people completely, he admitted that this attack is judgement and correction for Israel (v. 12).  Then Habakkuk ran into a problem.  The Lord cannot even look on anything wicked, yet used the unrighteous Babylonians to destroy his people (v. 13).  The Lord created people like fish, and now the Babylonians are “fishing” them to eat (vv. 14-15).  Instead of accepting their subservience to the Lord, they worship their nets–and the Lord keeps letting them fish with abundant success (vv. 16-17).

Between the first and second round of questions, Habakkuk changes in that he becomes more specific.  He complains at first that the Lord is allowing injustice to prevail.  The Lord then focuses on the instrument he chos; in the second round of questions Habakkuk admits the justice behind the action, but questions the Lord’s choice of instruments.  If the Lord is in control of the whole system, how can he be just yet employ the unjust?  “I can understand why you punish us, O Lord, but why by THEM?!”

The prophet waits for a response for his last question.  In 2:1, the prophet–reminiscent of Jonah 4–stands and waits for the Lord’s response.  The Lord may be in control of the entire system, but why does he use the unjust and wicked to manifest his will?