What we are reading this week (beginning Thursday, November 4, 2021):
Micah 4-7 ~ Nahum 1-3
James 1-5 ~ 1 Peter 1-2
Week 32. The holidays approach. Stay focused!
Notes on Judges
Some of the great stories we heard in Sunday School as kids (for those of us with such privilege) come from the Book of Judges. We started on Gideon last week in chapter six, and his story continues through chapter eight. God was so patient with Gideon. The “Mighty Warrior” had already asked for two miraculous confirmations that God would indeed use him to save Israel from the bad guys: fleece wet, ground dry and fleece dry, ground wet. Yet the Lord told him that if he were still scared, to take a trip down to listen in on the enemy’s camp. This Gideon did (which shows that he was still afraid). He overheard one of the bad guys telling another about a dream that pointed to a victory by Gideon (7.10-14). In spite of this trepidation, he still made the list in Hebrew 11.32 as a great example of a man of faith.
Money is such a dangerous trap. Gideon was able to overcome self-doubt, lack of faith, and a handful of hostile nations. But when gold entered the picture, he fell into idolatry and carried others along with him (8.27). In spite of Gideon’s rise to greatness and victory, his heritage was left in shambles as one of his sons murdered all seventy of his brothers, save one (9.5). The one doing all of the killing, Abimelek, was the son of one of Gideon’s female slaves (v. 18).
This lone survivor who escaped, named Jotham, prophesied a disaster for Abimelek in 9.20 that was fulfilled literally in the people of Shechem, who had aided him in killing his brothers, and against the people themselves (9.24, 57).
The beginning of Abimelek’s downfall was when God himself stirred up the citizens of Shechem against him (9.23). The faceoff resulted in the death of the entire city as well as Abimelek himself (9.42-57). In chapter ten, we have short accounts of two rather unfamiliar judges, Tola and Jair, who nevertheless led Israel for twenty-three and twenty-two years, respectively. Those are significant tenures. The Israelites now are in a free fall of apostasy, as we find in 10.6: “They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines.”
We see the Philistines and Ammonites fighting and crushing the two and a half tribes living east of the Jordan in 10.7-8. For those who choose to reject the Lord and follow their own thing, there is a great line in chapter ten for them to ponder when things go horribly wrong: “Go, cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!” (10.14). And the follow-up question and response is, “Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess” (11.24).
The spiritual confusion in Israel was perhaps at its peak where we read the very provocative and disturbing account of Jephthah, a man who saved Israel, yet apparently carried out a rash promise that violates everything we know about morality in order to keep his word. I have pondered this one for decades, and still have few answers. It is noteworthy to mention that he nevertheless does find a place in God’s Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11.32. His action of faith was leading the nation to victory in war. But his actions involving his daughter (offering her as a sacrifice to God due to a rash and brain-dead promise) are never justified or endorsed by the Bible, they are simply recorded for us. The entire episode shows the bizarre spiritual confusion emerging in Israel even among those who were trying to hold on to their faith. The silliness of infighting: Men of Ephraim were upset with Jephthah because they were not invited to fight with them against the Ammonites. So they fought each other about it. What?? The Gileadites (Jephthah’s guys) controlled the fords of the river and the entrance to Ephraim. Whenever a survivor showed up wanting to cross over, they gave them an oral pronunciation test: “Say Shibboleth.” But the Ephraimites had an accent and could not pronounce the word correctly. Whenever that happened, the Gileadites put that man to death. They killed forty-two thousand Ephraimites through this process! See 12.4-6.
We now come to Samson, a familiar story that will consume four entire chapters (13–16). His birth is prophesied through yet another theophany, where the LORD himself appears to Manoah and his wife (see 13.22). They say that the entire purpose of some people’s lives is simply to be a bad example for others. Samson nearly qualifies for this. He is given tremendous ability and opportunity to serve as a judge and wastes just about everything God endowed to him, which is a lot.
He was called to be a Nazarite from birth (this has nothing to do with the town of Nazareth). This vow (described in Numbers 6.1-21) could be either temporary, or for the rest of your life. Samson’s was unique in that his parents made the vow for him, per instruction of the Lord, and they chose the lifelong option. As a part of the vow, a Nazarite was not to drink wine or anything fermented, even abstaining from eating grapes and raisins; he was not to use a razor on his head, and was not to touch a dead body. Samson would violate all of these.
Notes on Micah
Micah turns his attention to the end of days in chapter four, beginning with a glorious prophecy about restoration in the Millennium where Jesus himself will live and rule right here on planet earth (4.2-4). “They will beat their swords into plowshares.” The opposite of this phrase is found in other Old Testament places (e.g., Joel 3.10, which we read last week). The promise of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem is given to us in 5.2, one of the most significant Messianic prophecies that we find in the entire Old Testament: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, through you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for the one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” The last part of his verse acknowledges the deity of the Messiah.
Is there a prophetic and painful allusion to the horror of abortion in 6.7b? “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Yet we find the Lord ready and willing to forgive and to restore (7.18-19).
Yahweh’s frustration with his people is on full display at the beginning of chapter six. Micah responds to the Lord in humiliation, and then utters these famous words, turning his attention to his unfaithful countrymen: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6.8).
As the Book of Micah winds down, the prophet describes his own personal misery in 7.1-6. But the prophet closes with incredibly encouraging words to a people long on disobedience (7.18–19): “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 have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”
Notes on Nahum
Nahum is addressed to Nineveh, a city that is not in Israel. The prophet has the same target audience as Jonah, but was written a century later after the amazing city-wide change of heart in that great city. The national repentance that we read about in in the Book of Jonah was long gone, as we can easily determine by reading this short book.
The Ninevites were now part of a kingdom and people, the Assyrians, that had captured the northern kingdom of Israel.
But the Babylonians and Medes were just about to overrun the Assyrian Empire, who had been brutally oppressing the people of God. Nineveh is their capital. Nahum’s entire prophecy was directed to the Assyrians (referred to by their capital city throughout, with one reference to the “King of Assyria” in 3.18) at this critical historical juncture. Verse 2.4 seems to describe cars! Or military vehicles! In addition to their brutal violence, the prophet lays out a laundry list of Nineveh’s other sins as well in chapter three: Lies, theft, prostitution, sorcery, and witchcraft, to name a few (3.1-4).
Notes on James
Though there are a number of men with this name in the New Testament, this James is traditionally thought to be the brother of Jesus. The book is full of practical godly living instructions.
It’s never wrong to ask God for wisdom This is something he seems quite pleased to give out without pushback (1.5): “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” I reference this verse as much as any verse when I pray.
Great line in 1.20: “…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” These are very good words to take to heart.
In 1.22-27, we find a direct parallel to Matthew 7, the end of the Sermon on the Mount, including the parable of the wise and foolish builders. There is a lot of correlation between this book and the Sermon. The Bible rarely speaks of “religion” per se, but James does in 1.26-27.
After a primer on favoritism, chapter two moves to the iconic clash between faith and works.
“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom” (2.11). If we try to live according to the law that only gives out justice, we’re all in trouble. Even the Old Testament calls us to faith, not works. Abraham’s example is given several times in the New Testament, including here in 2.21-23.
And even though we are saved by faith, something should look different on this planet because of our faith. I like to say, “Faith leaves footprints.” If there are no footprints (works), then the faith is dead. It will always leave a residue. Anything else without the residue is something, but not faith (2.17, 22).
The verses on “taming the tongue” at the beginning of chapter three are a great example of just how practical this book is to daily living. We can tame reptiles, but can’t tame the tongue! (3.7-8). That is something to think about! Underlying root causes of strife are laid out in chapter four. The theme of this entire chapter is the need to live humbly, and the many benefits that come about when we do. All conflicts originate not in a divided group or a divided church or even in a divided relationship, but in a divided heart. See 4.1-2.
Naming and claiming things for our own personal benefit is a direct affront to God’s will, and an affirmation of 4.3.
In the New Testament church, you would find wealthy people (services were normally held in their homes), suffering people, and sick people. James addresses each of these in his final chapter, number five.
In 5.12, we read: “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise you will be condemned.” In my Mennonite days, they took these words to heart. We were never to raise the hand and swear to anything (including in court, where there is always an alternative pledge available that does not require ‘swearing’). I’m surprised that the Evangelical world has largely ignored this. These words reflect Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.33–37.
Personally, I have found that the higher the standard of swearing (“I swear on my mother’s grave”), the higher the chance the person is lying. Of course, the alternative is that those who pull out the “swear card” make me think that the truth of everything else they tell me is seriously up for debate. James’ (and Jesus’) words are very plain and effective: Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.
Prayer offered in faith, along with the combined prayer of the elders, and with repentance and confession can bring about a boatload of results (5.14-18).
With all of the practicality of the book, we should look again at this astounding statement: “Elijah was a human being (ordinary person) even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years…”(5.17). The very obvious point being made is that if he can do this….
Notes on 1 Peter
The books of Peter should be given, imho, a lot more attention that they are. Peter was unique among all humans ever, as he was the one closer to Jesus through his time on earth than any other person. He was personally appointed by the Lord to lead the church after the resurrection. His significance in the New Testament record can hardly be overestimated.
There is a huge opening statement in 1.3-9, outlining the process of salvation and the resulting benefits, all given in the context of the world we have to live in. Peter paints a gigantic picture of the joy and glorious end result of our faith. If you are ever feeling spiritually down, read and reflect on these words!
A unique metaphor of the church is given by Peter in chapter two: a spiritual house built by living stones (us) with Jesus as the cornerstone (2.6).
The imagery of 2.9 is too often overlooked. The church is pictured as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
This book, along with its sequel, are short, and tucked in at the end of the New Testament, and are rarely looked at as a whole, usually just quoted here and there. But these are the words of PETER! This book and its sequel are worthy of serious investigation and study.