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Thursday with Tabitha

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Thursday with Tabitha


Introduction by Tabitha Smith

I met Jesus when I was 11-years-old. God had blessed me with a believing family and I sung in church choirs from the time I could read. But I didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus until a certain day in 1990. I'd gone to a violin exam, which was being held in a local church. Waiting nervously for my turn to perform for the examiners, I picked up some leaflets that were sitting on a table in the church foyer. I read one of these leaflets on my own later that day. The message of Jesus dying and rising again for the sins of all people was not brand new to me, as I'd heard it many times before, but at that moment, it was like I heard it and understood it for the first time. I cried my 11-year-old eyes out and then asked my mum if I could get my own Bible. Of course, she agreed! I’ve always identified very strongly with the words in Amazing Grace, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see”, because that’s exactly what it felt like. I made the decision to follow Jesus from that day onwards.

Over the last couple of decades God has been teaching me from the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit and many great human teachers. It’s gradually become clear to me that my primary spiritual gift is teaching. I feel very privileged to be able to share in the ministry of Partakers.

Over the next few months I'm going to be taking a tour through the books of the minor prophets. I reckon that if you lined up the Bibles of a sample of believers (myself included!) and looked at the pages that looked least worn and thumbed you would find that the minor prophets account for a substantial proportion of the most pristine pages! Even those prophets that we feel more familiar with, like Jonah, have often only featured in our Christian lives in the form of Sunday school stories. Well, it's time to do something about that! The books of the minor prophets are full of incredible truths which will help us to understand the character and heart of God. If you've ever felt intimidated or confused by these particular books in the Bible then I hope you will join me as I give an overview of each book and I really hope you'll be inspired to have a closer look at each one for yourself.

The minor prophets are no less important than the major prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) but their prophetic books are shorter in length and therefore referred to as 'minor'. The books of the minor prophets were written over a long time span, ranging from the eighth century BC to the fourth or fifth century BC. We're going to look at them in roughly chronological order, which is a little different to the order they appear in the Bible. The dating of certain books, such as Obadiah and Joel, is uncertain and scholars disagree about when these books were written. So please forgive me if the order in which I tackle the books is not the precise order that you expect!

It's first helpful to consider what the role of a prophet is. When we think of the word 'prophecy' we often think about predictions relating to the future. Now, the prophets did sometimes speak about things that had not yet happened, but much more often they spoke about present events and announced God's thoughts and messages to the peoples of Israel and Judah. Prophets were not generally regular teachers of God's word (that was the task of the priests). Instead prophets were raised up at particular times and for particular situations, to speak God's words to the people. They were able to see things and understand things that other people could not.

As we look at the 12 books of the minor prophets we will see some common themes emerging. The prophets repeatedly spoke of the fact that God had chosen Israel for a covenant relationship; they declared the sad truth that the majority of Israel had sinned against God and turned away from him; they warned about coming judgement; and they declared the promise of renewal and restoration that would follow judgement, both in the immediate future and at the end of history.

As we study each book we need to first look at what book meant to the people who first heard the message. When we have understood this we can then consider how each book speaks to us today. Our first study will begin next Thursday in the book of Jonah. I hope you'll join me then!

Tabitha

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Malachi

Welcome to the last installment in our series about the minor prophets. Our final book is Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. There is something very exciting about this book! Perhaps it’s the sense of anticipation contained within it. The first book of the New Testament lies just over the page! But before we get there, Malachi has serious words from God to convey to his people. The name Malachi means “my messenger” and this theme is picked up during the prophecy. It is likely that Malachi was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, writing in the mid 5th century BC.

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To recap the history briefly, Judah had been permitted to returned from exile in Babylon in 538 BC by king Cyrus of Persia. Haggai and Zechariah had encouraged the people to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. God had promised his people great restoration and he had promised that he would dwell among them, but the political and social environment of the day remained very difficult. Judah was small in land area and in population; the second temple was an inferior shadow of the former magnificent temple; Judah was allowed some freedom to self-rule but they were still under the ultimate control of Persia and they endured a lot of hostility and opposition from their neighbours.

The people had become cynical and disillusioned and their worship had suffered as a result. Malachi’s prophecy is a loud wake-up call to the nation, urging them to turn back to God and renew their covenant commitment to him.

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The prophecy consists of a series of charges that God brings against his people. God then anticipates the way the people will question the validity of the charges, defensively asking how they can be true. In each case, God explains why his accusations are valid.

The book opens with God’s declaration that he has loved his people. The people ask, “How have you loved us?”, showing their cynicism about God’s steadfast covenant love for them.

 

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God’s first accusation against the people is that they are the ones who have not shown love, failing to honour God and despising his name. God outlines in more detail some examples of this in their behaviour.

The priests have been offering sacrifices that are offensive to God. The only animals acceptable for sacrifice in the temple were healthy, whole animals without sickness or defect. The priests were responsible for checking the condition of the animals that the people brought for sacrifice. They had neglected this duty and compromised their standards to allow the offering of blind, lame and diseased animals at the temple. God would rather that the temple doors were shut and no offerings brought at all rather than these half-hearted, second-rate offerings be made.

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The people were trying to cheat God by keeping back the better animals for themselves and bringing the ones that were not fit for anything else to the temple. To use a lesser analogy, one way that we show our love for another person is the care we take over choosing a gift for them. How offended would your husband, wife, or friend be if you promised them a perfect gift, and they knew you’d bought it for them, and then on their birthday you gave them a second-hand, slightly damaged and rather dirty gift instead and kept the perfect one for yourself? How much worse it is to bring a defective offering to God, when the issue at stake isn’t someone’s birthday gift but the very serious issue of offering a sacrifice for sin!

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In chapter 2 God makes a second accusation, this time regarding the way the people have abused the marriage covenant. Firstly, they have intermarried with people from pagan nations, who worship idols. Secondly, they have adopted a casual attitude to divorce, with men sending their wives away simply because they stopped feeling affection towards them. The people were perplexed and distressed that God appeared to have withheld blessing from them, not accepting their worship. God explains that their disobedience in regard to his standards for marriage is a part of the reason for this.

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Another accusation follows quickly: the people have continually questioned God’s justice and doubted his ability to make just decisions. They have accused God of letting evil people get away with everything.

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In chapter 3 God announces the coming of a messenger to prepare the way before him. The arrival of the messenger will be followed by the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple. In Old Testament history, the completions of the tabernacle and the first temple had both been followed immediately by the dramatic, visible presence and glory of the Lord filling the worship place. This hadn’t happened after the completion of the second temple but God promises that he will arrive suddenly, fulfilling the people’s desire for his presence in their midst. But God warns that this will not be a day of delight for all. As in the book of Amos, God tells his people that the coming of the Day of the Lord will bring judgement. The people of Judah had assumed that they were immune from judgement by nature of their identity as God’s people but God makes it clear that they will still be judged according to their faithfulness to him. Judah will be refined and purified through judgement.

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God then accuses the people of stealing from him by not bringing him the proper tithe of their offerings. Similar to the situation with the animal sacrifices, the people were keeping back more than they should have done, causing offence to God. This charge is leveled against the whole nation, not just the priests. God challenges the people to test him, declaring that if they would only bring the whole tithe to him, he would bless them abundantly in return. The behaviour of the people in regard to their offerings demonstrates their lack of trust in God’s gracious provision. In chapter 3 verse 14 the people sum up their spiritual destitution by declaring that it is futile to serve God.

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However, God takes note of a small remnant of faithful people who continue to worship him properly with a right heart. He carefully records their names to ensure that they are preserved.

The book ends in chapter 4 with the promise of the coming Day of the Lord, when evil will be judged and destroyed and those who have been faithful to God will be restored and healed. Malachi says:

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“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2 ESV)

The final words of the book declare that Elijah the prophet will come before the Day of the Lord. And there the Old Testament ends. So what happens next?

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After Malachi put down his pen, there followed 400 years of prophetic silence. Seismic events occurred in the political and social landscape of the Middle East and Europe, and empires came and went. Then one day, an obedient priest called Zechariah had an extraordinary encounter with an angel of God whilst serving in the temple in Jerusalem. The angel announced the coming birth of Zechariah’s son, who was to be called John. After John’s miraculous birth to his previously infertile older mother, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied over his newborn son. His song is recorded in Luke chapter 1. Strikingly, in verses 76-79 he says:

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“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 ESV)

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At last the promised sunrise of salvation was coming! When John the Baptist started his prophetic ministry, many Jews wondered whether he might be Elijah, returned to earth again, as Malachi had prophesied. John declared that he was not Elijah.

However, John was the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy about the coming messenger who would prepare the way for the Lord. Jesus himself identifies John as the promised Elijah. In Matt 11:11-15 he says:

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Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:11-15 ESV)

In fact, this is just what the angel had promised Zechariah about his future son:

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And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)

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Shortly after John’s birth, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. The new parents took their little baby to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to God, as the law required for a first-born son. Mary and Joseph were quite surprised to be greeted by Simeon, a devout man who was waiting for the promised Messiah. Simeon was filled with the Holy Spirit and declared:

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“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

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The Lord had suddenly come to his temple, in the rather unexpected guise of a human baby. Simeon knew that this was the fulfilment of God’s promise.

No-one anticipated how Jesus would bring about that salvation. Even his own disciples didn’t understand it despite Jesus explicitly telling them that he would be killed and then raised from the dead and that he had to die for the sins of the world.

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The forgiveness of our sins no longer depends on us offering sacrifices of animals to God. Praise God that we can have forgiveness of our sins through our identification with Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross!

But now we are called to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1)! Our whole lives are now meant to be lived as an act of sacrifice and worship to God. Perhaps Malachi’s words about half-hearted, inadequate offerings need to stir us today! If our attitude to our service to God and our giving of resources is focused on what we can get away with keeping, rather than what we delight to give, Malachi challenges us to consider how we are honouring God.

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I really hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I’ve learned so much by reading and studying these fascinating books of prophecy and I’ve come to appreciate them in a whole new way. I pray that you’ve been encouraged to read them with me.

 

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Joel

This is our penultimate podcast in the minor prophets series! This week we are looking at the book of Joel. I had some degree of dilemma about where to place Joel in the roughly chronological order of the series and that’s because the estimates of when the book was written vary widely from the 9th to 4th century BC. After looking at the content of Joel’s prophecies, I decided to go with the scholars who argue that Joel was written after the exile to Babylon, dating it somewhere around the year 500 BC. Joel evidently has knowledge of Judah and Jerusalem and it seems likely that he was from Judah himself. His name means “Yahweh is God” and we are told that his father was called Pethuel. Other than that, we know little about Joel himself.

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Joel is similar in style to several of the other minor prophetic books, being written in the form of oracles of judgement and salvation, mostly in poetic style. Joel appears to have written during a time of national calamity for Judah. Key themes of his book are the Day of the Lord, the need to repent, the promise of God that he will dwell in the midst of his people, and the future promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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Chapter one contains a vivid description of the invasion of the land of Judah by a locust swarm. Locusts are grasshoppers that breed very rapidly and fly in swarms when their population density is high enough. They can migrate large distances when in a swarm and they consume vast amounts of vegetation when they land. A swarm of locusts is a potential disaster for any farmer as it can decimate crops and vineyards, leaving virtually nothing behind.

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Joel describes exactly this sort of devastation in chapter 1 verses 1-12. Everything is laid bare, even the bark of the trees is stripped. The priests of Judah are instructed to lament and fast because they can no longer offer the proper sacrifices at the temple because all the grain, wine and oil are gone. The animals are suffering from lack of food and verses 19-20 indicate that there is also a drought occurring at the same time. Joel’s prophecy warns the people that the Day of the Lord is near. This could refer to the immediate day of the locust invasion, or to a future day of God’s judgement on the nations, or perhaps to both.

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Just when it seems that things couldn’t get worse, chapter 2 reveals that it can get much worse! The second chapter contains a terrifying description of an invading army, marching unstoppably across Judah. There are a number of opinions about the nature of this army: some believe that Joel is still describing the locusts, using more graphic imagery; others say that Joel is describing a human army invading Judah; or a third interpretation is that the army described is the Lord’s army, coming to judge the world on the Day of the Lord in an epic final conflict. Whichever is the case, this army is fearsome, purposeful and not hindered by any obstacle. Joel also describes other apocalyptic signs, which are found in other parts of the Bible when describing the Day of the Lord: the sun, moon and stars are dimmed and the earth is shaken.

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Yet, even in spite of this predicted calamity, it is not too late. In chapter 2:12-17 God calls his people to repentance and entreats them to return to him. Joel describes God as a God of mercy and grace, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God desires to see real change in the hearts and souls of his people, not just outward signs of repentance (like the tearing of clothes), but a genuine change of heart.

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“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13)

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The priests are urged to consecrate the whole congregation, even including little babies and newly weds. No one is exempt.

In response to the people’s repentance, God promises to restore Judah again, refilling the wine and oil vats and replenishing the threshing floors. God has judged his people but he has also brought deliverance and restoration to them. In chapter 2 verses 28-29 we find a prophecy about the future outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)

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We see this prophecy fulfilled after Jesus’ death and resurrection when God pours out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Peter quotes from this section in his speech to the crowd on the day of Pentecost – you can find this in Acts 2.

Just after this prophecy in Joel, we find the declaration that in those days,

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“…everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Joel 2:32)

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Paul quotes this in Romans 10:13 in his explanation of the universal availability of God’s salvation to anyone who calls on the name of Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background or previous religious credentials, or lack of them.

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In chapter 3 God promises that he will judge the nations and restore the fortunes of his people. He will dwell in the midst of his people and be a source of security and refuge in the midst of the judgement to come.

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Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel. (Joel 3:14-16)

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The picture is one of great contrasts. As in other prophetic books, like Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord brings judgement and fear to some and relief and restoration for others.

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What messages can we take from the book of Joel today?

Firstly, we can celebrate the fulfilment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28-29. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on all believers, both young and old, men and women. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us - to help us, equip us, guide us and comfort us. In the early church, one of the things that helped to convince the Jewish believers that the Gentiles were also welcomed into God’s kingdom was the clear evidence of the dramatic work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Salvation is indeed available to all people, to anyone who calls on the name of Jesus.

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I was particularly struck by God’s plea for the people to rend their hearts, not their garments. This reminds me of David’s prayer in Psalm 51:

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The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

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We can be so easily taken in by outward appearances, and we can spend a lot of time cultivating our outward appearance to portray the right image to the world around us, or to our fellow believers. But God is interested in the states of our hearts. He sees the real you and the real me, all of the time.

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When David was being chosen from the sons of Jesse to be anointed by Samuel, the prophet declared that:

 

…the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

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David came to know this truth very deeply for himself. He tried to hide lies and adultery and murder from other people but he could not hide from God.

We may also try to hide the parts of our lives, or the aspects of our character that we are embarrassed or ashamed about, but God knows us better than we know ourselves. Nothing is hidden from his sight. As our loving Father, he longs for us to acknowledge these things before him and rend our hearts in response. Nothing will come as a surprise to him - he already knows!

We can try all sorts of things to fix our own hearts and we can sometimes convince ourselves we’ve done quite a good patching up job. But in truth, only God can perform the heart transplant we need. He is the one who can renew our hearts and clean us from the inside out. And his invitation stands open to anyone who would call on his name. So we can pray along with David:

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Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

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Join me next week as we look at the final book in our series – Malachi - the last recorded prophetic voice before John the Baptist!

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Zechariah

This week we’ve reached the book of Zechariah. After spending a couple of weeks in the very short books of Obadiah and Haggai, I found Zechariah to be quite a contrast. It’s a much longer book with 14 chapters, and the style of prophetic writing is quite different too. There is so much that we could choose to look at in this complex, beautiful book, but it would be beyond the scope of this podcast to look in detail at all the prophesies that Zechariah received. Instead I’ll start with a brief historical background and an overview of some of the main themes of the book, and then I’ll focus on some of the prophecies that were fulfilled most clearly in the life of Jesus. We’ll end with some thoughts to take away for our own lives.

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Zechariah came from a priestly family. We are given the names of his father and grandfather, Berechiah and Iddo. His grandfather’s name appears in Nehemiah 12:4 where he is listed as one of the Levites who returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in about 538 BC, according to the edict of King Cyrus of Persia.

Zechariah’s prophecy starts 2 months after Haggai’s. The book is made up of a collection of nine visions followed by other prophetic oracles. These take the form of individual units, which don’t follow a clear narrative pattern. The style of the prophecy is futuristic, and sometimes quite obscure to the modern reader. Many of the prophecies bear similarities to those found in the book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, and they need to be approached in a similar way, with careful appreciation of the symbolism involved.

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As we learned last week, some of the exiled people of Judah had returned to Jerusalem after King Cyrus permitted them to do so. They had started to rebuild the temple and the walls but they had become discouraged by opposition. They were also facing difficulties in their everyday lives, including high taxes under the Persian rule. Worship of God and obedience to his law were quite low down on their list of priorities.

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The book of Zechariah opens with a call from God to the people to repent and return to him:

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Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 1:3)

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The people do repent and turn back to God, so God keeps his promise. There then follows a series of visions that Zechariah receives during the night. The visions contain God’s promises of restoration for his people, forgiveness, removal of sin and idolatry from the land, and the blessing and expansion of Jerusalem. 

God calls his people back to sincere and genuine faith. He wants them to be just, merciful, mindful of the vulnerable and honest in their dealings with each other (Zech 7:8-10).

The book of Zechariah does contain some messages of judgement for the enemies of God’s people, and for those who do not respond to God’s call to return to him, but the majority of the book is made up of promises of hope and restoration. God promises to turn the former times of fasting into times of feasting for his people (Zech 7:18-19).

In the second half of the book, we find prophecy relating to the coming King of Zion. He is portrayed as a divine warrior (Zech 9:1-8) and also called The Branch. In chapter 11, God promises to replace the evil shepherds of his people, the corrupt leaders, with a good shepherd. These are all prophecies about the coming Messiah.  

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There are up to 54 passages in Zechariah that are alluded to in 67 places in the New Testament, mostly in the book of Revelation. In addition, there are a few specific prophecies in Zechariah, which find their fulfilment very clearly in the life of Jesus. The gospel writers quote these verses from Zechariah in their accounts. We’ll look at these verses now.

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Firstly, Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

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Matthew and John both refer to this verse in their gospel accounts of Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matt 21:5, John 12:15). They understood that Jesus was deliberately fulfilling prophecy, making a clear statement about his identity as the promised Messiah.

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In Zechariah 11:13 we read a slightly odd statement about the good shepherd being valued at 30 pieces of silver, and these pieces subsequently being thrown back into the house of the Lord, to the potter. In Matthew 27:9 we see that Matthew draws on the words of Zechariah and Jeremiah and applies these to the actions and fate of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. When Judas saw what was going to happen to Jesus, he tried to give the blood money back to the priests, who refused to take it back. Overcome with remorse and guilt, he threw the 30 pieces of silver back into the temple and went and hanged himself. The priests and elders bought a field known as the Potters Field with the money and it was used as a burial place for foreigners.

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In Zechariah 12:10 we read: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)

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John takes this verse and applies it to Jesus’ crucifixion. In John 19:31-37 we read about the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side to verify that he was dead after his crucifixion. John then quotes Zechariah, “they will look on him whom they have pierced” and sees the action of the solider as a fulfilment of this prophecy. There are other Old Testament passages which speak prophetically about the manner of the Messiah’s death, notably sections in Isaiah 53 and in Psalm 22. The details are quite striking, particularly bearing in mind that crucifixion did not come into use as a means of execution until several hundred years after Psalm 22 was written.

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Finally we see Zechariah 13:7 quoted by Matthew (26:31) and Mark (14:27) in their descriptions of Jesus’s disciples deserting him and fleeing from the garden of Gethsemane.

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“Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”. (Zechariah 13:7)

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The verse in Zechariah is describing the good shepherd and how he will be struck down. Matthew and Mark both see the scattering of the disciples in the scattering of the sheep.

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The book of Zechariah ends on a note of victory and triumph with God reigning over the whole earth and Jerusalem finally dwelling in peace.

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There are two short verses from the early parts of the book that I want to consider. The first is Zechariah 4:10. In this section, God is encouraging Zechariah that he will empower Zerubbabel and his fellow workers to complete the rebuilding of the temple. God says: For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. (Zechariah 4:10a ESV)

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Sometimes it can feel as if we live in a day of small things. The ordinary routines and rhythms of our everyday lives can seem quite insignificant. There is a temptation to always be looking ahead to what the next big thing will be or feeling despondent about an apparent lack of excitement or significance in what we do. Sometimes we have our mountain top experiences and spiritual highs in special events or significant achievements, but the reality is that life is lived in the in-between times. In the days of small things.

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God knows all the days of our lives and each day and moment can be used for his glory. But not if we’re despising the time. Our awesome Creator and Sustainer is the source of our every breath and his gift of life to us is not to be taken lightly. In the times that are difficult, painful or seemingly futile, we can cling on to Jesus’ promise to us that our Father God cares about us more than we can imagine. He even knows the number of hairs on our heads (Matt 10:30).

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The second verse is Zechariah 3:6. God gives Zechariah a message to encourage Zerubbabel. He wants him to know that the rebuilding of the temple will be accomplished and he says: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech 3:6)

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There are times when we will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles or daunting mountains of opposition. The Holy Spirit can empower us in ways we could not imagine and those mountains can become plains in front of us. We need to be prepared for God to work in ways we do not expect but if we have faith in his promises to us, the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit is available to help us and that is far better than any human power or might.

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I’ll close with Paul’s words to the Ephesians: Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

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Haggai

Hello, welcome back to our minor prophets series. This week we are looking at the book of Haggai. This is another short book, consisting of just 2 chapters.

 

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As with several of the other minor prophets, we don’t know much about Haggai himself. We can be quite sure about the dating of the book though, because Haggai included precise dates for the oracles he received from God. These details place the book in the year 520 BC, and between the months of August and December. Haggai was a contemporary of the prophet Zechariah.

 

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In 539 BC Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered and overthrew Babylon. One of the first things Cyrus did was make an edict that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the temple. This action was predicted by the prophet Isaiah and recounted in the first two chapters of the book of Ezra.

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About 50 000 Jews, including Ezra, returned to Jerusalem in 536 BC and they began to rebuild the city. Ezra encountered significant opposition to his work and the building work stalled. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem 13 years later to spearhead another major push to rebuild the walls. His building team managed to complete the building of the walls but they also faced hostile opposition and the population of Jerusalem was still relatively small and vulnerable. The people had a dramatic experience of repentance and revival under Nehemiah’s leadership but after he’d left them to go back to his job in Babylon the people quickly slipped into sinful ways.

 

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By the time we reach the prophecy of Haggai, 16 years have passed since the origin return of the first exiles to Jerusalem.

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King Darius is ruling the kingdom of Persia, which now includes the territory of Judah. The people of Jerusalem have settled back into their city and they have built houses for themselves. But there is a problem. They have left the temple in a state of decay and ruin.

 

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God sends his word via Haggai to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua, the high priest:

 

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 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.”

(Haggai 1:2)

 

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The people have busied themselves in the building of their own houses but they have procrastinated about rebuilding God’s house, the symbol of God’s presence amongst them. God explains to the people that because of their indifference and neglect of his house, he has frustrated their efforts to be fruitful and productive in their farming and manufacturing. They have been working hard to produce clothes and food but yet they cannot seem to get warm or satisfied. God cannot stand by and allow his house to be neglected in this way whilst the people simply pursue their own interests.

 

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Once the people hear this and realise the source of their failure, they obey God and commence the work on the temple. They have physical work to do and also emotional work to do, turning their hearts back towards God. The people respond with respect and fear of God and God reassures them:

Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD's message, “I am with you, declares the LORD.” (Haggai 1:13)

 

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Some of the people of Jerusalem would have been old enough to recall Solomon’s temple in the days before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. Once the building work got underway it became obvious to them that the rebuilt temple would be nothing like the old temple; it would be much plainer and far less glorious. So God sends word to Haggai again to encourage the people.

 

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‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.

(Haggai 2:3-5)

 

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God speaks with great comfort and love to his people and assures them that he is not going to leave them and they have no need to be afraid. God promises that he will fill the temple with the treasures of the nations and, more than that, he will fill it with his very presence, making it more glorious than the first temple.

 

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God’s next word is to the priests, three months after the rebuilding began. He reminds them that something that is ceremonially clean cannot make an unclean thing holy by touching it, but something unclean is capable of defiling something holy. In the same way, the ruin of the temple has rendered all of the offerings of the people unholy and inadequate. Although God has punished his people by limiting the fruitfulness of their produce, he promises to bless them again, once the temple is rebuilt.

 

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The final part of the book is addressed to Zerubbabel the governor.

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On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2:23)

 

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Zerubbabel was a descendent of king David. In this section God is confirming his promise to bless his people, and eventually the whole world, through the house of David. A signet ring was a used to make a mark in wax or other soft material as an official seal and sign of royal approval and authority. God sets Zerubbabel over his people as his chosen instrument. And, lo and behold, if we look ahead into Matt 1:12-13, we find Zerubbabel’s name in the genealogy of Jesus.

 

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So what can the prophet Haggai teach us today?

Firstly, although the focus of the prophecy is on the rebuilding of the temple, the message is not primarily about a building, it’s about a relationship. God was concerned with the neglect of the temple because it was a sign of the people’s neglect of their relationship with God. God is not pursuing and saving and loving bricks – he’s interested in people.

 

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Sometimes we are called to embark on literal building projects for the sake of God’s kingdom. There is often hard physical work to be done and practical things to be arranged, but the point of it is to bring people into a relationship with God. It’s all for his glory and his name.

 

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Sometimes our labours are less about bricks and mortar and more about learning and teaching or writing and blogging. Sometimes they are about planning or hosting events or arranging meetings and conferences. These things can be very important in building up the body of Christ, but they are not to exist simply for their own benefit. It is not primarily about the well-written lesson or sermon or book or blog. Neither is it just about the successful event, the well-attended talk or the popular conference. It’s about a relationship with the creator of the universe. No matter how hard we slave away under the guise of working for God, if we’ve neglected our relationship with him, the works will be useless. God wants our hearts and our minds first of all. He wants our love. We cannot prove our love in our works, we need to experience it as a reality in our relationship with God, and from this our works will follow.

 

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Paul says it like this in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

 

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Secondly, God wants our work for him to take a place of highest priority in our lives. When Jesus teaches his disciples about worry, he tells them to stop being so concerned with what they are going to eat or drink or wear. He then says:

 

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But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

 

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Jesus says that God knows what we require and he understands our physical needs, but if we will only make his kingdom work our first priority, he will see to our other needs as well. Haggai reminds us that all things come from God in the first place, so it really is quite foolish to hang onto our stuff so tightly, when it all came from God’s generous hand in the first place. 

 

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Finally, Haggai reminds us that a more glorious temple is coming, and in fact has already come. Haggai spoke God’s prophecy about a temple that would be filled with God’s glory, more glorious than the first temple. When Jesus died on the cross the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The way to God was opened and there was no longer a need for God’s people to meet him within the confines of the physical temple, through the mediation of a priest.

 

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The old temple became obsolete and the new temple is now made up of living stones, the individual believers in Christ. Peter describes it like this:

 

You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

(1 Peter 2:5)

 

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In the book of Haggai, God promises to the people of Judah that he is in their midst. In the book of Revelation we see the ultimate realisation of this promise. In chapter 21 of Revelation the apostle John writes about his vision:

 

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I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.

(Rev 21:22-26)

 

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Next week we’re going to be looking at some selected highlights from the longer book of Zechariah. It’s one of the Old Testament prophetic books that is quoted numerous times in the New Testament and there is some incredible prophecy that we see fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Join me again next week to find out more!

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Thursday with Tabitha


9. Obadiah by Tabitha Smith

This week we’ve reached the little book of Obadiah. He was the most minor of the minor prophets, in that his book is the shortest! In fact, it’s the shortest book in the whole of the Old Testament with just one chapter, containing 21 verses.
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Obadiah means “one who serves Yahweh”. We’re not told anything else about the prophet himself. In the course of the prophecy, the fall of Jerusalem (which happened in 586 BC) is referred to as a past event and the fall of Edom (which happened in 553 BC) as a future event. So it is likely that the book was written between these events.

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To understand the background to Obadiah, we need to head back to Genesis, to the account of the brothers Jacob and Esau. These two non-identical twins were born to Isaac and Rebekah. Even from their birth, they showed signs of not exactly getting along. Esau was born first, all red and hairy, and Jacob followed after him, grasping his heel. They grew up to be very different. Esau was a skilled hunter, favoured by his father, whilst Joseph was an introverted man who preferred to stay with his mother in the proximity of the family tents.


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Jacob famously tricked the hungry Esau out of his birth rite and later stole his father’s blessing by disguising himself as his older brother and fooling the elderly, blind Isaac. So Esau swore revenge on his brother and fully intended to kill him. Rebekah helped Jacob to escape and he fled to the territory of his uncle Laban. There he met and married his wives, Leah and Rachel. Esau, who was also called Edom, married several wives, including an Ishmaelite woman (that is, a descendent of Abraham’s first son by the slave girl Hagar).

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Jacob and Esau did meet again some years later, and much to Jacob’s relief and surprise, Esau didn’t kill him on the spot but appeared to have forgiven him. Jacob still didn’t trust him though, and he took his family off in a different direction to avoid having to be in close proximity to his brother’s family.


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Jacob had 12 sons by his two wives and their two servants. His 4th son, one of Leah’s children, was Judah, and from his line the tribe of Judah came into existence. From Esau’s line came the tribe of the Edomites.


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The Edomites lived in the hill country of Seir. This was a mountainous region about 1500m above sea level. Their territory appeared to be impenetrable and they felt quite safe in their high dwellings. In Numbers 20 we read that after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites asked the Edomites for permission to pass through their territory along the King’s Highway. The Edomites refused, adding to the tensions between these two tribes. However, in Deuteronomy 23:7-8, God commanded the Israelites that they should not hate an Edomite in view of the brotherly connection between the two tribes.

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Edom was defeated by king Saul in the 11th century BC and subdued again by king David 40 years later. Edom became a vassal state of Israel but it was never completely de-stroyed.


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Fast forward to the time of Obadiah, and we find that the tribe of Judah, the sole remnant of the original 12 tribes of Israel, had been conquered and the capital city of Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians. During the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, some of the Judeans had tried to escape from the city and flee into the surrounding coun-tryside. The Edomites, rather than helping their neighbours and brothers in the time of their distress, sided with the foreign invaders and handed over the fleeing Israelites to the Babylonians. Psalm 137:7 recalls how the Edomites gloated over the destruction of Jeru-salem:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”

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The main theme of Obadiah is the judgement of the Edomites for the way they betrayed the people of Judah during the Babylonian invasion.


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The first 15 verses of the book are addressed to the people of Edom. God scorns the pride and arrogance of the Edomites, who say to themselves, “who will bring me down to the ground?” (v3), referring to their perceived safety in their high mountain region. But God will bring them down and they will be punished for their evil deeds. The prophet mixes both past tense and future tense verbs when describing Edom’s fate. This is a technique that can be found in prophetic writing, when future events are sometimes described as if they had already happened.


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God’s message through Obadiah is that Edom will be completely destroyed, with not a trace left behind. The main charges against Edom are found in verses 12-14: "But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress. Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress."


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The judgement is summarised in verse 15: "As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head."

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The final part of the book relates to the people of Jerusalem. God promises that he will preserve a remnant of his people who will survive the exile and reclaim the land that is theirs, according to his plans and promise. To the devastated people of Judah, this would have been an incredible promise of hope. It seemed, to all intents and purposes, that their future was doomed and that God’s promises to Abraham had come to nothing. But God promises that Judah will become like a raging fire once more, whilst Edom is reduced to stubble. Judah’s time of judgement for her own sin would be over, and then God would judge her enemies.


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The final words of the book, in verse 21, declare that “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.” The promised land of the Old Testament foretells the reality of the greater promised land, which is the coming kingdom of God. Matthew’s gospel in particular speaks of this prom-ised kingdom, which Jesus ushered in during his time on earth. The whole of the Bible is the story of this ultimate kingdom, reaching its climax in the book of Revelation. The king-dom of God is already here, but it is not yet fully here. That won’t happen until Jesus re-turns.

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In chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, the writer recounts the names of the men and women of the Old Testament who trusted in God’s promises to them regarding the coming kingdom.

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He then writes in verse 13-16: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.


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This city is the new Jerusalem, the heavenly kingdom. Jesus used several metaphors to try to help his listeners grasp the nature of the kingdom of God. He described it as a tiny mustard seed which grew into a huge tree, or as a tiny amount of yeast which could make a whole batch of dough rise. From tiny, seemingly in-consequential beginnings, something great grows. When all seemed lost to the exiled people of Judah, God says “just wait and see what I will do”. And the glory of the final kingdom is made all the greater by the trial of the journey.

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You and I are invited to be part of this coming kingdom of God. No matter how small and insignificant we might feel in the great plan of God, and no matter how dire our circumstances seem to be, we can be assured that God’s kingdom is coming and we can be part of it. It is surprising and mysterious, hidden and yet revealed, wonderful and awesome. It is something new, something different, something glorious. It is possible for the wisest brains to miss it completely whilst little children understand and embrace it.

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God is doing a new thing and he invites us to come and see. The prophet Isaiah recorded God’s words to his exiled people:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)


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Some 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem and declared:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

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Even the seemingly obscure prophecy of Obadiah is part of Jesus’ great story. It’s all about him. Between the lines of prophecy about Edom and Judah we see the greater picture of God’s redemption plan and his justice, mercy and grace. When the risen Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus and explained to the amazed disciples how the Law and all the prophets spoke about himself, I like to think that he said a bit about Obadiah.


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We’ve got four more books to look at before this series draws to a close, and there are lots more interesting things to come as we look at Haggai, Zechariah, Joel and Malachi. Join me next week if you can!

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Thursday with Tabitha


8. Habakkuk by Tabitha Smith

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This week we’ve reached the book of Habakkuk. There’s an awful lot of wisdom and truth packed into the three short chapters of Habakkuk’s prophecy.

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As a brief recap to the historical context, Judah was under the control of the Assyrians at this time in history. The Assyrians were still powerful but their grip on the empire was showing signs of weakening and there was a growing awareness of the rising threat of the Babylonians. In Judah there had been a succession of very evil kings including Manasseh and Amon, and then a brief period of spiritual revival under king Josiah. Generally, the people of Judah were not following God as they should have been. They had been distracted by the pagan nations around them and they were joining in with idol-worshipping practices. Their false prophets were claiming that there was no need to worry because God would not judge his own people. So the nation was living in a state of spiritual blindness.

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We don’t know much about the man Habakkuk himself. The way he writes his prophecy is unusual. It reads like a personal diary or journal and it takes the form of a conversation between Habakkuk and God. The intended audience was the people of Judah, but they are not directly addressed. The time of writing was around 620 BC so Habakkuk was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Jeremiah.

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The book opens with Habakkuk crying out to God with a desperate question. The Message translation says it like this:

“God, how long do I have to cry out for help
    before you listen?
How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!”
    before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil,
    stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out,
    quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces.
    Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung
    and stand justice on its head.”


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So Habakkuk asks the age-old question - God, why don’t you do something? Why are the bad guys getting away with it?

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God comes right back at him with an answer he isn’t expecting. This would also have been something of a nasty surprise to the people of Judah who would have read Habakkuk’s words. God tells him that he is raising up the Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans) to be his instrument of judgement on the people of Judah. The Babylonians were a nation of awesome and ruthless military power and an invasion by their army would have been an utterly terrifying prospect. God paints the picture of the dreaded and fearsome Babylonians setting their faces towards Judah.

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Habakkuk replies to God with a sense of disbelief about what he’s just heard. He asks God how he can possibly use such an evil nation as the Babylonians to judge another people who are less evil. Habakkuk then sits and waits for God’s response.  God replies again and tells Habakkuk to write the vision down as a mark of its importance and the certainty with which it will come to pass.

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In the oracle that follows, God reveals to Habakkuk the bigger picture. He says in effect, yes, the Babylonians will come and yes, they will be my instrument of judgement on Judah. BUT, they will go too far in their punishment of Judah and so they too will be judged and held accountable for their deeds. The Babylonians are described as those who plunder, cheat and kill unscrupulously. They get drunk and take pleasure in the sadistic humiliation of their defeated enemies. Well, says God, they will reap the due rewards of their deeds and they will be judged.

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In Habakkuk 2:16, God declares to the Babylonians: “The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!

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The second chapter ends with the words “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” I imagine Habakkuk sitting, or perhaps lying face down, in stunned silence at the revelation he has just received.

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In the final chapter we see Habakkuk going on an amazing journey of spiritual growth. God’s words have seized his faith and imagination and he now pours out a dramatic description of the image of God he sees, coming in awesome power and majesty to judge the earth.

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In Habakkuk 3:16 - “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.

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Habakkuk is overcome by strength-sapping, gut-wrenching fear when he thinks about what lies ahead but he chooses to sit and wait for God to do what he has promised.

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So in 3 chapters we have seen Habakkuk go from earnest and desperate questioning of God to a position of awestruck faith and certainty in God’s sovereignty. Habakkuk’s prayer to God has not changed God, it has changed Habakkuk.

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We’ll come back to the very final prayer of chapter 3 in a moment. But what have we learned from Habakkuk so far?

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Firstly, that it is OK to ask God questions and to cry out to God about what we see happening in the world. When we don’t understand we need to ask God to help us. The answers God gives us may not be what we expect!

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Secondly, we learn again that God is sovereign and in control of all the events of history. He is just and good and he will not leave any evil unpunished. Nobody is getting away with anything.

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Thirdly, we learn that God can use even the most evil people and the most terrible circumstances to bring about his plans. God does not engineer the evil - people are responsible for their own decisions and actions, but God is always in control of the events of history. Joseph summarises this principle well at the end of the book of Genesis when he addresses his brothers: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

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The crux of the book of Habakkuk is found in Habakkuk 2:4 -  “the righteous shall live by his faith”. This verse is quoted no less than 3 times in the New Testament by different authors to illustrate different aspects of the life of faith (You can find it in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).

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Habakkuk learns that the secret to finding security and true joy in life is to trust in what God has promised. Faith is not a feeling, it is a deep confidence in what God has said. The writer of Hebrews expresses the same truth in Hebrews chapter 11:1:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

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This does not mean that faith guarantees comfort or safety. Faith may have to survive in situations of complete desolation and want. And this is the place Habakkuk is able to reach at the end of his prophecy. In his final prayer he says: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk 3:17-18

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So Habakkuk says, if God never does another good thing for me, and never provides me with any other provision for the whole of my life, he is still absolutely worthy of my praise for the rest of eternity.

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And this is the key for us too. If God never blessed us with another thing in the whole of our earthly lives, Jesus would still be enough to rejoice about for the rest of eternity. We have more than enough to give thanks to God for to allow us to find joy in all circumstances. If we can trust in his purposes, even when we cannot fathom them at the time, we will discover the way to irrepressible hope and strength, which is the essence of joy. It doesn’t mean we’re always happy, or that we cannot mourn and weep when terrible things happen. Distress and sorrow are absolutely appropriate responses to evil and disaster. But joy is a deeper undercurrent that can co-exist with even the deepest sorrow. It is the knowledge, in the depths of our souls, that God is good, there is hope, death is defeated and Jesus is alive. There is purpose and meaning in our lives because we are made to live in relationship with God for eternity.

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Like Habakkuk we will then discover that God can lift us above our earthly perspective and give us a glimpse of the bigger picture. As Habakkuk says in his final words of the book: “GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:19)
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Thursday with Tabitha


7. Zephaniah by Tabitha Smith

This week in our series on the minor prophets we are looking at the book of Zephaniah. Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Nahum and possibly Habakkuk and his prophecy was written during the reign of king Josiah of Judah. Josiah reigned between 640–609 BC. The prophecy includes reference to the future destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, so it was likely written before the date of this event, which was 612 BC. The little territory of Judah was the only surviving part of the original people of Israel. The northern kingdom of Israel had been overthrown and Judah was under the control of the Assyrians.

King Josiah was a good king who undertook significant religious reform in Judah, trying to turn the people back from worshipping idols to worshipping their God. Josiah’s father, Amon, had been a wicked king, and his grandfather, Manasseh, was one of the worst kings in the history of Judah, doing evil in God’s sight and turning the people away from God. The king before Manasseh was called Hezekiah. We read his story in the book of Isaiah.

Zephaniah 1:1 provides us with Zephaniah’s family history. This is traced back as far as his great, great grandfather, Hezekiah. It is possible that this was the same king Hezekiah, meaning that Zephaniah came from a royal family.

One of the main themes of the book is the coming of the Day of the Lord. This is a phrase that appears many times in the Bible, referring to a day of judgment that would bring terror for God’s enemies and blessings for those who belong to God. Many prophetic oracles in the Bible have an element of immediate historical fulfilment in the day they were written, and another more distant application in a time yet to come. Zephaniah’s writings are no exception.

In Zephaniah 1, the prophecy launches straight into a devastating description of coming judgement. This is portrayed as an apocalyptic event, reversing the very order of creation and sweeping away both man and beast. But the focus zooms in very quickly to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, and in Zephaniah 1:4 we learn about some of the things the people of Judah were doing to incur such judgment: they were worshipping Baal, worshipping the heavenly bodies, pretending to worship God but trusting instead in the pagan god Milcom. They were turning away from God and ignoring him entirely.

God levels two main accusations against his people. The first is one of syncretism. This means mixing acts of service to God with pagan religious elements. In chapter 1 verse 8 the king’s sons and officials are described as wearing foreign clothes, probably associated with other religions, and in verse 9 the curious reference to people ‘leaping over the threshold’ probably refers to another pagan custom. You can read about the possible background to this practice in 1 Samuel 5:1-5.

The second accusation of God against his people is that they have become complacent in sin. The Judeans had started to think that God didn’t really involve himself in their daily lives, so it didn’t really matter how they lived. They had reduced God in their minds to a distant, impotent deity. The prophecy describes God going through Jerusalem personally, with search lamps, to find these complacent people and punish them.

The second half of Zephaniah 1 contains a fearsome description of the Day of the Lord as a day of great darkness, distress, wrath and ruin. Nothing will be able to protect human beings, not all the wealth they have collected. They will be reduced to nothing.

Thankfully, the book doesn’t end there! In Zephaniah 2 the people of Judah are told that repentance is still possible. This is surely good news after the terrible picture painted in chapter 1. The people are warned that the day of judgement will come quickly so they need to gather together and repent, to humble themselves and seek God.

Zephaniah 2:3 proclaims:

“Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his just commands;
seek righteousness; seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the anger of the Lord.”

The word ‘perhaps’ might initially suggest that Zephaniah has doubts about whether God can indeed forgive any of the people. But in fact, this statement shows that Zephaniah understands and respects God’s sovereignty. God is able to forgive, but whether he does or not is entirely up to him. Any mercy he shows to the repentant is still entirely undeserved grace.

The rest of Zephaniah 2 contains a series of oracles of judgment against the nations that surround Judah, the enemies of God’s people. The cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron are Philistine cities to the west, along the Mediterranean coast. Moab and the Ammonite territory lie to the east. The Cushites originate from Ethopia and Egypt in the south, and Assyria lies to the north. The comprehensive description of judgment extending to the four corners of the known world includes the promise that God will return parts of these lands back to Judah and there is a hint of restoration to come.

However, before the people get too complacent again, Zephaniah 3 contains a hard-hitting denouncement of the city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The people of God need to learn that they are not immune from God’s judgment of sin and they are just as accountable, if not more, than the pagan nations around them. The charges against the judges, officials, prophets and priests of Judah are pretty damning. They are corrupt, polluted, defiled.

Zephaniah 3:5 proclaims that:
“The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
each dawn he does not fail.”

So judgment is inevitable and unavoidable. God must be just and repay sin with punishment. But there is good news to come. Zephaniah 3:9 suddenly introduces a startling promise of hope. God says that there will be a day when he will change the speech of his people and make it pure again. The people will call out to God once more, they will serve him and he will restore them. A picture of unity, peace and holiness follows.

The last 6 verses of the book contain the most glorious and beautiful image of God delighting and rejoicing over his restored people. The judgement is finished, the shame is gone and restoration is possible. God does not delight in judgment, he delights in being in the midst of his people.

Zephaniah 3:17:
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

This final prophecy seems to refer to a future time of unity and peace for God’s people. In the short term, Judah was punished and judged when the Babylonians overthrew the Assyrians. Jerusalem was taken, and many of the people were carried off into captivity. After the exile, there was a degree of restoration and some of the exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and its walls. But the picture of complete peace and restoration was not yet fulfilled. The gathering of all God’s people, the salvation of those who are lame and broken, and the rehoming of the outcast, is something we can still look forward to.

So what do we take away from the book of Zephaniah? We are reminded of the reality of the Day of the Lord that is still to come. Jesus warned that this day of final judgment would come suddenly, like a thief in the night, and many will be unprepared. We don’t want to be like the complacent Judeans, thinking that God wouldn’t involve himself in the reality of human affairs. Jesus is coming back!

The humble people amongst the remnant of Judah hoped that their repentance might not be too late. They threw themselves upon God’s mercy. For us, living in the light of Jesus’ cross, it is because of Jesus that we can know with assurance that we do not need to fear this coming Day of the Lord. If you have believed and trusted in Jesus, there is no “perhaps” about it. Jesus has taken upon himself the judgment that would have been yours and mine and we can be certain that there is no more condemnation.

The Day of the Lord will be a day of stark contrasts. This day will be terrible for those who have lived lives separated from God, in denial of him or in opposition to him. But for those who have humbled themselves and chosen to live under his authority, it will be a day of great joy, when God comes to dwell in the midst of his people. God will sing to us, his people! He will rejoice over us. What an amazing thought! The choices we make now have eternal consequences.

I’ll finish with the words that James writes in his New Testament letter: "You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, 'He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?' But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.' Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you!" (James 4:4-10 ESV)

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Thursday with Tabitha


6. Nahum by Tabitha Smith


Nahum prophesied about the destruction of the city of Nineveh, the capital of the nation of Assyria. If Nineveh sounds a bit familiar, it might be because you’ve listened to the first instalment in this series about the book of Jonah! In some ways, Nahum is like a sequel to Jonah.

 

The date of writing of Nahum can be narrowed down to somewhere between 660 BC and 630 BC. We can deduce this because of the historical events that Nahum refers to during his prophecy (unless of course you don’t believe in predictive prophesy!). Like Micah last week, we don’t know anything about Nahum apart from the fact that his home town was called Elkosh. It’s not certain where this was, but it was probably in Judah because at the time of his prophesy, the kingdom of Israel had ceased to exist.

 

The ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians in about 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom of Judah had not suffered the same fate, despite an attempted siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib of Assyria shortly after the fall of Samaria. Instead, the Kingdom of Judah had become a sort of vassal state to Assyria. The Assyrian kingdom had been established by acts of terrible violence, torture and cruelty and forced deportations of thousands of people, under the leadership of Tiglath-pileser III. His campaigns were ruthless and highly successful, conquering most of the known world at the time.

 

Nineveh was a great city, the capital of Assyria. Jonah had been sent by God with a message of warning to Nineveh, telling of God’s imminent judgement on them for their evil behaviour.

 

At that time, much to Jonah’s surprise and disgust, the people of Nineveh did repent and God spared them. However, a century later, we see that the repentance did not last, and Nineveh has fallen back into evil, idolatry, violence and depravity.

 

Nahum’s key message is that God is going to judge and overthrow Nineveh. Nahum means ‘comfort’ and his message would have brought comfort to the people of Judah who were living under Assyrian oppression.

 

Nahum is written in the style of ancient war poetry. The first verse of the book tells us that Nahum received the prophecy in the form of a vision. The way he writes his book is like the eye-witness account of a war correspondent. God is pictured as a divine warrior, coming to judge the Assyrians for their evil deeds. God had used Assyria as a tool of judgement on his own people, but the Assyrians were held accountable for the wicked nature of their conquests and the ways they had lived their lives in alienation from God.

 

In chapter one, the book opens with a poetic description of God on the war-path. God is described as jealous (for his honour and his people), wrathful, righteously angry and all powerful. Even the rock-solid mountains melt before him and the seas dry up completely. Nothing and no-one can stand against him. At the same time, God is also described as slow to anger, good, knowing those who seek him, compassionate and seeking his people’s freedom from their oppressors. The message that Nahum proclaims is simultaneously terrible and wonderful, and it all depends on the reader’s perspective and relationship to God.

 

At the end of Nahum 1, Judah is urged to keep the feasts, i.e. the celebrations of their history that remind them of God’s salvation purposes and commemorate his saving works for them in the past. Judah will be restored once more.  We should not miss the significance of this - the Messiah would one day come from the remnant of Judah.

 

Nahum 2 launches into a prophetic account of the overthrow of Nineveh. The imagery is vivid and it’s almost as if Nahum is present in the city, watching the events unfold. The invading army arrives in the outskirts of Nineveh and the call goes out to ‘man the walls’ and take up arms. The invasion comes with speed and devastation, chariots thundering and swords and spears flashing and glinting in the sun. The invading soldiers are clothed in red with red shields, possibly indicating the original colour of the shields or their staining with blood. Siege towers are built and the river gates are opened to flood the city and destroy the royal palace.

 

It’s helpful here to consider what we know from historical accounts of the overthrow of Nineveh. Nineveh was attacked by a coalition of armies, principally of the Medes and Babylonians, in 612 BC. The city was sieged for a period of time which may have been as short as a few months. The invading armies closed the gates of the river Khoser, which flowed through the city, allowing the water to build up. The gates were then opened, unleashing a flood on the city which destroyed much of the important architecture and allowed the invaders to penetrate the city walls and finish the overthrow of the city.

 

Nahum 2 contains more vivid images of the invasion with graphic descriptions of the piles of dead bodies in the streets of the city. God asks Nineveh whether she has considered herself better than Thebes. Thebes was a great city in Egypt which was invaded by the Assyrians in about 664 BC. Thebes had appeared to be immune to attack with a natural sea defence and many allies. However, the Assyrians had conquered the city. They were now going to get a taste of their own medicine.

 

The book ends with Nahum surveying the aftermath of the siege and invasion. The final words are a taunting song declaring the finality of the destruction.

 

The ruins of Nineveh can be found today near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul. They were not discovered until the 19th century - prior to this all reference to Nineveh disappeared from the pages of history. When the ruins of the city were uncovered, many unburied skeletons were found. The city was razed to the ground. Nahum’s prophesies were fulfilled.

 

The book of Nahum reminds us that God is all powerful, omnipotent. He is not a tame god who is passive and powerless but he acts on behalf of his people. He is a God of justice who cannot pass over sin and evil but he must act justly to uphold his own honour and the welfare of his chosen people Israel. Moreover, God had promised to spare a remnant of his people, specifically from the tribe of Judah, in order that the Messiah, the deliverer, would come from his people. The future of the people of Israel often seemed under threat but God always faithfully preserved and restored a remnant to preserve the line of Abraham.

 

God is able to work even the most impossible of circumstances and most wicked of people into his sovereign plan. The seemingly ordinary list of names in the genealogy of Jesus described in Matthew chapter 1 encompasses accounts of infertility, prostitution, bereavement, displacement, adultery, murder and exile. God truly is able to make all things work for the good of those who love him, according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

 

God can even use wicked and pagan people in order to judge his own people and work for their ultimate good. In a few weeks’ time we will look at this issue in more detail as we look at the way Habakkuk wrestled with this.

 

Whatever opponents or battles you face in your lifetime, none of them are too big for God to handle. The military might of the Assyrians was legendary and they built one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. Yet even they were relegated to the pages of history, the ruins of their prized capital city lying undiscovered for centuries. Our perspective is so limited. We struggle to comprehend the span of human history, and yet humans are such a brief vapour, like the dew that evaporates from the morning grass. Peter says in the first chapter of his first letter:

 

All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1:24-25

 

All earthly things will pass and only God will endure. Yet, incredibly, he cares about each one of us and knows every detail about us.

 

The whole of history is centred around the life of Jesus, God in the flesh, who came to rescue us.

 

Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He stands in authority above all human institutions and authorities, both the good and the evil ones. His kingdom is incomparably greater than the most mighty of human kingdoms and yet it is established in an upside-down order where the first are last and the last are first. We pray “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” because Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. One day his kingdom will be unified and complete. Then, as Paul says ‘at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11).



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Thursday with Tabitha


5. Micah by Tabitha Smith

Micah came from the town of Moresheth in Judah, southwest of Jerusalem - other than that, we are not told anything else about the man himself. The book doesn’t tell us how God called him. His name can be translated as a question which asks: Who is like Yahweh?


Micah’s prophesy came during the years of kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah (who ruled between 750 BC and 687 BC). Hosea and Isaiah prophesied at roughly the same time. The main themes of Micah are God’s judgement and forgiveness. In this book we will discover the prophesy about Jesus’ birthplace and meet the Messiah as the Good Shepherd.

 

The book opens with a pronouncement against Jerusalem and Samaria, announcing to them that God is bringing his witness against them, like a kind of lawsuit. In the same way that a prosecutor outlines his case, God will bring charges against his people and back them up with evidence.

 

From chapter 2 God starts to set out his case. His people have dealt cruelly and unjustly with their fellow-men. Out of greed and jealousy they have desired what belongs to others and taken it for themselves - both houses and fields. False prophets have arisen amongst the people, speaking words that do not come from God. The prophets speak what the people want to hear, for their own pride and gain. In Micah 2:11, Micah sarcastically says that a prophet who promised plenty of alcoholic beverages would be just the kind of prophet the people desired!

 

The rulers of Israel are criticised for doing evil, abusing the people they are supposed to be ruling and despising justice. The leaders accept bribes, the priests preach for money and the prophets accept cash for false fortune telling. The whole society is twisted and corrupt, so far from the way God intended them to be. Judgement will fall on Jerusalem and Samaria in the form of invading armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians.

 

In chapter 4 the mood suddenly changes to one of future promise. In Micah 4:1, Micah says that ‘in the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all peoples will stream to it’.


The phrase, ‘in the last days’ is often found in prophetic writing and it usually refers to a time in the future beyond the present era, sometimes referring to the time of the coming of the Messiah. Micah foresees a time when God will restore Jerusalem and make it a focal point for the gathering of the nations. Instead of climbing to high places to worship pagan false gods, the peoples will make the ascent to the dwelling place of God and worship him alone.


Micah 4:3 is quite famous; in it Micah prophesies that the nations  of the world will ‘beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ Unprecedented peace will come to the world in the last days when the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, ushers in his new kingdom. These same words are found in the book of Isaiah 2:4. It is possible that Isaiah and Micah used a shared source for this, or one may have borrowed this thought from the other.

 

In chapter 5 we find intriguing prophesies about the coming Messiah. Micah5:2 is often read at Christmas time. It says “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.


King David came from Bethlehem and was an unlikely choice to be king by external worldly measures. Bethlehem was a small town with nothing really going for it.


Several hundred years later, the greater David, the Messiah, Jesus, was born in this same small town. The Jews anticipated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, based on this prophecy in Micah. Yet they didn’t recognise him when he arrived as he didn’t come in the way they expected. Ironically, it seems that the Jews alive at the time of Jesus knew him as the carpenter of Nazareth in Galilee, ignorant of the fact that his birthplace was in Bethlehem. You can read more about this in the 7th chapter of John’s gospel.

This coming Messiah is pictured as one who will shepherd his flock, his people, and bring them unprecedented peace.

 

In chapters 6 and 7 God continues his lawsuit against his people. The charges now include corrupt business practices, disloyalty and betrayal within families, violence and falsehood. The downfall and destruction of Jerusalem is foretold.

However, there is the promise of hope and restoration. In Micah 7:9 the city of God speaks with a prophetic voice: ‘Because I have sinned against him, I will bear the Lord’s wrath, until he pleads my case and establishes my right. He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness.’

 

The book ends with a rhetorical question that echoes the meaning of Micah’s name: ‘who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again show compassion to us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.’

 

In the Bible the language of the courtroom and legal process is loaded with significance. God is the ultimate Judge, and he is always just in his judgements. He cannot just ignore sin and wrongdoing, or sweep it under the carpet. Where there has been a wrong, a judgement must be pronounced and a sentence served. In the New Testament we encounter the concept of justification. This is also a legal term. To justify someone means to acquit them, to declare them righteous. The Bible teaches us that God justifies us by grace. In other words, he declares us righteous although we do not deserve it. The penalty for our sin still had to be paid and Jesus did this for us, taking our sins upon himself in his death on the cross. So sinful people can be pronounced just because Jesus paid for (or atoned) for our sins. The penalty is paid, justice is done.

Justification doesn’t mean that God lets us off for our sins, or acts as if we’d never sinned; it means that God’s holiness demanded a payment for our sin, and God himself provided the means of this payment, through the death of Jesus on our behalf. Justice and mercy meet together and love and grace are seen most clearly on the cross.

 

God issues his people with a challenge in Micah 6:8 - “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

 

These words have timeless relevance and if you would like to see how Christians are working out this truth in the world today, have a look at www.micahchallenge.org.

 

Micah Challenge is a coalition of Christians who take their inspiration from this verse in Micah and campaign on issues of justice. They are working to hold governments accountable for the promises they made to the poorest people in the world in 2000 when the Millennium Development Goals were set. If you need some inspiration or resources to help you get engaged with issues of justice, poverty and action, have a look at their website. If you are involved with a local church, think about how you could encourage people in your fellowship to take practical steps to speak up for those who are denied justice. Love is demonstrated in action and we are all called to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.


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Thursday with Tabitha


4. Hosea by Tabitha Smith

If you have ever felt that God is distant, disinterested, and aloof from his creation, or youve thought that God is a cruel, heartless God who punishes his creation harshly, then the book of Hosea has truth for you. This short prophetic book contains heartrending descriptions of Gods feelings for wayward Israel. It is one of the parts of the Bible that most vividly demonstrates the intensity of feeling and the depth of emotion in the heart of God.

 

Hosea prophesied during the latter half of the eighth century BC. This was one of the most turbulent and difficult times in Israels history, just before the captivity to Assyria. The nation of Israel went through six kings in about 30 years. There was violence, political intrigue and great instability.

 

Hosea primarily writes to the people of Israel, whom he sometimes refers to as Ephraim. His main concern is the way that the Israelites have turned away from worshipping God and instead started to worship Baal.

 

Baal was a false god of the region of Syria and Palestine. He was thought to control agriculture, rainfall and fertility. Practices involved in the worship of Baal included human sacrifice and mutilation of the body; incest, sex with animals, the use of shrine prostitutes and drinking alcohol in excess.

 

At the start of the book of Hosea the prophet is called to do something extraordinary. God asks him to marry an unfaithful wife. The events that unfold in Hoseas family will become a vivid image of the events occurring in Israel. Hosea marries a woman called Gomer and she bears him a son.

 

After this she has a daughter and another son but the wording of the text suggests that these two children do not belong to Hosea. Gomer has been unfaithful to him. The children are given names that mean “not loved” and “not my people”.  In this way, Hoseas illegitimate children become a picture of Israel, a child that will not be shown mercy and does not belong to its father. However, even at this tragic point, there is a promise of the mercy and love that the Father will show. God declares that in spite of this terrible unfaithfulness, he will show mercy and love again to Israel and Judah.

 

In chapter 2 God expands on the image of the unfaithful wife that was introduced in chapter 1. Israel has strayed from God, turning to worship Baal. She has taken part in pagan worship ceremonies and she has not acknowledged the way that Gods hand has graciously provided all of her crops, wine, oil, silver and gold, which she now uses in the worship of Baal. God declares that he will punish Israel and expose her adultery.

 

But even in the next breath he expresses his desire to heal her, and restore her and draw her back into a loving relationship with himself:

In verses 19-20 God says:

I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.

I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.

And in verse 23 he says:

I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one'. I will say to those called 'Not my people', 'You are my people'; and they will say, 'You are my God.' "

The language God uses is tender, affectionate and merciful. Israel will be his beloved bride again.

 

To complete the real-life metaphor, Hosea is instructed to go and love his wife again, even though she has been unfaithful to him. The fact that he has to buy her back suggests that she may have fallen into slavery. It costs Hosea to take Gomer back into his house. Hosea promises his faithfulness to Gomer and asks her to be faithful to him in return. This is powerful picture of love in action. It is love that is not based on warm glowing feelings but on commitment, intention, and faithfulness. This is love that hurts.

 

In the remaining 11 chapters of the book, Hosea continues his prophecy from God with a series of vivid pictures about unfaithful Israel. She is described as an adulterous wife, a disinterested mother, an illegitimate child, an ungrateful son, a stubborn heifer, a silly dove and a half-baked cake that is unfit for eating.

Hosea also paints a picture of Israel as a luxuriant grapevine that looked very promising at the start but then went bad. Another image likens Israel to grapes or new figs found in the desert – a wonderful discovery that then turned rotten.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking and tender passage comes in the first part of chapter 11. God describes Israel as a small child, a little son, who God himself called out of Egypt. God taught his child to walk, comforted him, kissed his wounds better and led him with kindness and love. But the child did not recognise the Fathers love and care and rejected the Father in favour of idols.

 

In spite of this painful rejection, God cannot abandon his child. In verse 8 God exclaims, ‘how can I give you up, O Ephraim?

 

The book closes with an impassioned plea for Israel to turn back to the Lord and enjoy the blessing that this change of heart would bring.

 

As Ive read Hosea, Ive been drawn to the image of Israel as Gods bride. God pledged his covenant faithfulness to his bride but she was unfaithful. As we move into the New Testament we discover a new image of the church, the new covenant people of God, as the bride of Christ. This image culminates in the glorious wedding feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation. The church, now perfected and redeemed by Jesus, is presented to him for eternal union in the new heaven and new earth. Jesus has loved his bride, the church with the same complete commitment and devotion that God showed his original covenant people.

In the last days of his earthly life, Jesus had to experience the pain of loving those who would betray, desert and deny him. Johns gospel poignantly says, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1).

 

Jesus demonstrated the kind of resolute, faithful, steadfast love that would hurt so badly it would cost him his life.

 

So what do we take away from the book of Hosea? I think primarily it is a powerful reminder of the intensity of the love of God for his people. That includes us. If we are unfaithful to him and put other things in a higher place of importance in our hearts, this hurts God. The human emotion of having been cheated on by someone we love is only dim shadow of the effect of our unfaithfulness on Gods perfect heart.

 

I think Hosea can also draw us into deeper wonder at what Jesus did for us on the cross. If we marvel at the love Hosea showed to Gomer, and what it cost him to buy her back whilst she was still a slave, how much more should we be floored by the love that Jesus showed for each one of us on the cross, giving everything he had to buy us back for God, whilst we were still dead in sin!

 

Last Friday was Good Friday and Christians around the world remembered the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. After the grief comes joy and on Sunday we celebrated Jesusresurrection. Each Sunday is a commemoration of Jesusrising on the first day of the week. Each time we celebrate the Lords supper, the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine, we commemorate what happened on Friday.

 

Easter week may be over for another year, and of course we continue to celebrate each Sunday, but I think it is good to spend regular time thinking about the trial and the suffering of Friday. In doing so we remember what our freedom cost our Father, as we gather at the feet of our broken bridegroom, who loved us to the very end. 

 


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Thursday with Tabitha


3. Amos by Tabitha Smith

Welcome to the second podcast in this series about the books of the minor prophets. This week we're looking at the book of Amos.

Amos was a prophet during the time of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam of Israel. His prophecy came somewhere roundabout the year 760 BC, give or take a few decades! At this time Israel and Judah were enjoying an unusual spell of prosperity and political stability. This was especially the case in Israel, where the land was very fertile and abundant crops were growing. The threat from the kingdom of Assyria seemed to have lessened, at least for the time being, so life was pretty good.

Unfortunately the people of Israel and Judah had wandered far from the standards of holiness that God had intended for them. Idolatry was rampant, the rich were getting richer and more corrupt by the day and the wealthy were exploiting the poor. The Israelites falsely concluded that their prosperity was a sign of God's obvious blessing. They were looking forward to “the Day of the Lord” when God would finally crush their enemies.

It is into this environment that Amos was called to prophesy. We're told that Amos came from Tekoa, a small village in Judah, south-east of Bethlehem. He is identified as a shepherd or maybe a sheep breeder. A rather unlikely choice for a prophet on the face of things!

Amos begins his message in chapter 1 with a series of proclamations of God’s judgement on the neighbours of the Israelites. He has words of judgement for Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites and the people of Moab. These people groups were enemies of the Israelites. The charges against them relate to their violence, cruelty and abuse of other human beings, particularly during times of war and conquest.

The Israelites would probably have been nodding along happily until the beginning of chapter 2. At this point Amos suddenly turns his attention to Judah and then to Israel. The judgements leveled against God’s people are of a different order altogether. God accuses them of violating the terms of his covenant with them - they are called to a higher standard of moral and spiritual living than the pagan nations around them.

Amos doesn’t hold back! The sins of the Israelites include oppression and exploitation of the poor, sexual sins, idolatry, misuse of God’s temple, abuse and silencing of the prophets, and empty, ritualistic worship.

God had patiently tried to warn his people, by sending them prophets and providing examples of holiness in the form of people like the Nazirites, who took vows of holiness and of abstinence from wine. But God’s people had not listened and now God would judge them. The main message in the book of Amos is this: God’s judgement is universal; Israel and Judah are not immune.

Chapters 3 to 6 expand on the initial judgements outlined in the first two chapters. Even the women of Israel are exposed as people who oppress the poor - God likens them to the fat cows that graze in the fields of Bashan! God is appalled at the nature of the people’s idolatrous worship. The people had started to offer sacrifices in places other than the temple in Jerusalem and they had appointed priests who were not Levites. These things were deviations from the instructions that God had provided for worship. They had even turned to worshipping golden calves and other idols. The Israelites thought that they were offering worship that was pleasing to God but it was actually detestable to him. In chapter 4 God summarises a series of warning shots that he gave to the people, which were intended to bring them back to him, but the tragic refrain is repeated over and over again: “yet you did not return to me”.

In chapter 5 Amos entreats the people to turn back to God, telling them that it’s perhaps not too late. God laments over Israel like a father whose virgin daughter has been raped or become a prostitute.

In chapter 5 God declares the following:

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24 ESV)

God calls the people to repent and come back to him and seek justice. In chapter 6 further sins are described which include the complacency of the people in the self-indulgence of the rich at the expense of the poor. Chapter 7 to 9 contain a series of visions which Amos has. These visions declare that God’s judgement is unavoidable if God is to be just, which he must. The judgement is imminent. The final vision pictures God standing by the altar of the temple shaking it to its foundations. This is a prophecy about the final downfall of Israel. The prophecy was fulfilled very soon after this. Assyria gained power again and conquered Israel in 722 BC.

After all the serious judgements and the terrifying reality of the impending downfall of Israel, the book of Amos ends on a tantalizing note of hope. Despite the people’s willful disobedience and the depth of their depravity and sin, God is a God of mercy and deliverance. There is a promise of future restoration of the Israelites. God promises to repair the dwellings of David and preserve a remnant of his people for the future.

So what can we learn from the book of Amos? Firstly, we learn that God is always just. God is a God of love and he is mercifully patient but he has to judge sin, otherwise he is not really loving at all.

Despite appearances to the contrary, nobody is getting away with anything. Every human being who has ever lived or who will ever live must stand before God to be judged. And the truth is that none of us can stand before him with a perfect account, with an unblemished record of our own. However, the message of hope at the end of Amos hints at the salvation that would eventually come through Jesus.

God never meant his judgements on Israel and Judah to be the last word. In mercy he preserved a remnant through the line of David through which the Messiah would come. Through Jesus, God has provided the means of our deliverance and restoration. Those who’ve trusted in Jesus’ perfect, sinless record and accepted his payment for their sin (the sacrifice of his own life) will be able to stand before God without fear.

Amos’s message also shows us that the knowledge of God comes with responsibility. Those who know more of God and his standards of holiness will be held more accountable than those who have never heard about him. God chose the people of Israel out of all the peoples of the earth, but not because they were better or more numerous or more powerful. Quite the opposite in fact! They were chosen by grace alone.

God made his covenant with the people of Israel and gave them clear boundaries of ethical and moral conduct and instructions for their spiritual worship. These were for their own protection and their own benefit.

Today, as the new covenant people of God we are no longer required to keep all the requirements of the original old Testament law that God gave to Moses. However, Jesus did not come abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). Just because we have been freed from the demands of the law we are not simply free to do whatever we want. In fact as Jesus pointed out we are called to go above and beyond the requirements that the old law demanded. Rather than restraining ourselves to proportional revenge on our enemies we are called to love them. Instead of simply giving the bare minimum required we are called to give extravagantly. Jesus teaches us that the standard of holiness we are called to is so much higher than we would think. We should view sin with such seriousness that hating somebody should feel as bad as murder and lusting after another person should be regarded as adultery in the heart.

Amos’ words need to speak to us today, reminding us that God’s standard of holiness is so much higher than we realize. Instead of passing our own judgement on the sinful Israelites we need to look honestly at our own lives and realize just how similar to them we can be. God calls his people to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). Are we doing that? Do we actively look for opportunities to defend the rights of the poor in our society and our world? Do we think carefully about how we worship God? God is so merciful and patient with us – he calls us to come back to him, to abide in his love, to learn from him and to be his hands and feet in the world we live in.


Tabitha

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