Back to the future
Micah 5: Bethlehem…from you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.
It becomes quite clear to anyone who reads through the Old Testament prophets that speaking of future events is not their job one. Most often they focus on current events, calling people to a genuine walk with God and to living just lives as his people. However, once in a while, they’re given pretty specific insights into God’s plans. You might say that they get a glimpse of the future – not as though the future is out there to be seen if you just know how, but that the Lord shares some specific part of his intentions. As Micah describes God’s plan to remake his people he gets a glimpse of the coming shepherd-leader and realizes he will come from David’s home town of Bethlehem. In the years to come, that little revelation will grow large in the minds of God’s people. And well it should, this is something concrete, a test to be applied in identifying the Messiah. Meanwhile, Micah doesn’t dwell on this juicy bit of revelation and moves on to describe the ministry of the One sent from God. Clearly, there’s a lot to think about as I read things like this but today I’m simply reminded that God doesn’t do stuff by accident. In this passage, we find the Lord planning 700 years into the future where he intends to do something connected to an event just as distant in the past. That is, he plans for the Messiah to be born in the town where the greatest King of Israel’s history was born. The Lord not only has specific plans for the future but he also has the heart of a poet in those plans.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t do things by accident.
The big picture
Daniel 12: It will be a time of trouble, the worst trouble the world has ever seen.
Imagine the second part of Daniel as a mural done by a master artist depicting the rise and fall of kingdoms through history. As we examine the mural we see mighty nations rise, then divide, and then fall to some new world power. Some folks have patiently examined Daniel’s “mural,” attaching labels to the various kingdoms he describes. Those folks might be right and they might be wrong. Frankly, for me to attempt this is a waste of time. The least of those who seriously attempt to match nations up with Daniel’s vision is superior to me. I get lost in it all fairly soon. I do come away from Daniel’s sweeping picture with certain impressions. For one thing, I’m reminded that, even though I firmly believe human beings have free will, there’s an overarching flow of human history that’s firmly in the hands of God. Second, even though it seems some things happen outside of God’s providence, I’m reminded that the Lord remains Sovereign over all. Whether or not I think God is orchestrating, down to some detail, the flow of events I need to remember that nothing’s happening on the world stage that he isn’t at least allowing to happen. Finally, I see that there’s an end to the story. Things won’t forever continue as they are. Daniel sums it up with a description of everything coming to a head with “the worst trouble the world has ever seen.” The Lord isn’t a bystander to human history. He’s ushering us along to some specific events and, ultimately, to a specific conclusion. As I watch the world news and see the clashes of world powers, it’s good to remember that nothing that happens is a surprise to God. That may not be a very complete view of the nature of prophecy, but it’s not a bad place to start and, while I may not understand the specifics, I do get the big picture.
Take Away: There’s an overarching flow of human history that’s firmly in the hands of the Lord.
The bottom line on the bottom line
Daniel 7: The Old One sat down.
The Book of Daniel is clearly divided into two parts. The first half recounts for us stories of God’s empowerment of and protection over the Hebrews who were taken into Babylon. The second half contains Daniel’s reports of his visions and dreams concerning the future. I think anyone will agree that the stories are more fun than the visions. However, we find in these six chapters of Daniel Old Testament writing that reminds us of the Book of Revelation. In fact, it’s likely that the writer of Revelation borrows some of his imagery from these visions. When Daniel is tossed into the den of lions we read about it as a very personal account of faith and deliverance. Now, his visions of the flow of history are so broad in scope as to take our breath away. He sees kingdoms rise and fall as bewildering history unfolds before him. Theologically, I firmly believe the Lord has granted us free will and, because of that, the future isn’t predetermined in detail. However, I also believe that God is ushering the human race to a future he’s already declared. In other words, I’m free to cooperate with God or not. Because of that, my future isn’t predestined. The big picture, though, is known to God because he’s already determined to bring it to pass. When the Almighty decides to do something, well, he doesn’t have to see the future to state that it will happen. In this specific vision, Daniel sees a series of future kingdoms appear, flourish, and then give way to the next. At one point he notes that in the midst of all the rising and falling that there’s a fiery throne and on that throne sits the Ancient of Days. I love that picture. Kingdoms rise and fall, human history marches through time, and in the midst of it all we see God in his glory and authority. I don’t claim to have all that great a handle on prophecy but I think I have this one figured out. Through it all, in it all, above it all: God is.
Take Away: Everything else gives way. God remains.
Gog and Magog
Ezekiel 39: I’ll use them to demonstrate my holiness with all the nations watching.
The prophet has encouraging words for the broken people of God. The Lord will breathe life back into their dry bones and the nation will be brought back from the destruction that has come. It’s at this point that Ezekiel turns his attention to the “distant future” and the mysterious “Gog and Magog.” From what I can tell, the more down to earth commentators think that Ezekiel’s original audience knew just who he was talking about and that this prophecy is much like those given against Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, and other nations in the region. Taken at face value, then, Ezekiel is prophesying that in a more distant future, after the restoration of Israel, another regional power will come against God’s people. When that happens, the Lord will move to defend them and will destroy the invaders. However, there are two things that get the attention of many. First, this nation from “the north” isn’t clearly identified in history. Second, “Magog” is mentioned in a similarly vague way in Genesis and then Gog and Magog make a major appearance in the book of Revelation as part of the wind up of history. If we conclude that the “distant future” Ezekiel’s talking about is still in our future we find ourselves swimming in the deeper waters of prophecy. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not ready to go there. I think it’s more likely that Ezekiel is talking about a nation well known to him and his listeners and that the distant future isn’t “book of Revelation distant.” I think that when John writes Revelation he’s reminded of Ezekiel’s words: an attack on God’s people by a coalition of enemy forces. He uses that reference to describe the scene of the final battle. To me, the key to the whole passage is God’s promise to defend his people and to “demonstrate his holiness” to the world. That concept plugs into both the Ezekiel and the Revelation prophecies. It also plugs into my life: when everything seems to be against me the Lord knows how to rescue me as one of his people. Rather than getting all mystic about this passage, I’d rather find here yet another promise of God’s faithfulness even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Take Away: Even when it seems everything is falling apart God is still God and God is always faithful to those who trust in him.
Looking upward, seeing hope
Ezekiel 17: I, God, made the great tree small and the small tree great.
The prophet pictures the monarchy of Judah as a majestic cedar; a strong, enduring fixture on the landscape. Then the imagery changes and Judah is seen as a fruitful vine, not as majestic as before, but now under the dominion of Babylon and transplanted there. Ezekiel says that in rebelling against Babylon this “fruitful vine” will also be uprooted and then allowed to die out. It seems that this is just another gloom and doom message. That’s just what it is until we reach the final paragraph of the chapter. The illustration appears to leave us with a destroyed Judah, with no leadership, rejected by God. Then Ezekiel adds a new dimension to his illustration. Once again we find ourselves looking at a mighty cedar. This time, God, personally, takes a cutting from the very crown of the tree. The great tree will be destroyed, but out of that cutting a new monarchy, a new King, will rise to lead Judah. This new cedar will be the greatest of all. Ezekiel has given us a parable of the Messiah. This Chosen One will rise out of the line of David, but will rule as none of the old line ever ruled. He’ll be King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Take Away: The Lord always keeps his promises.
Two prophecies for the price of one
Isaiah 52: He didn’t even look human.
I think this is another of those “dual prophecies” in which the prophet speaks of something close at hand, but, maybe without realizing it, speaks words that resonate into the future. On one hand, he’s talking about the restoration of his people. They’re broken, almost to the point of extinction. If their condition is described as though they are one person, we would say that individual has been beaten to the point that he or she is unrecognizable. God’s salvation is coming but at this point things don’t look very good. It makes perfect sense to us that the writers of the New Testament are reminded of this passage as they see what happens to Jesus. The Jews are God’s people and Jesus is God’s Man. Its sin that nearly destroys the Jews and it’s the burden of our sins that takes Jesus to Calvary. Physically, God’s people are practically destroyed and the same can be said of Jesus. Yes, it’s easy enough for us to see the connection. However, we don’t have to walk away from this passage with a vision of “a ruined face, disfigured past recognition” on our minds. We do need to spend time gazing at that face, absorbing the full impact of what happens at the cross. Then, we can move on. Isaiah describes an amazing transformation saying, “Just watch my servant blossom!” That’s exactly what we see at the garden tomb that first Easter morning. Israel is to be restored by the grace of God. Jesus rises from the grave, victor over sin and death. Praise His Name!
Take Away: The story of salvation doesn’t end at the cross.
Looking to the distant mountains
Isaiah 40: Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God.
An illustration of how the prophets view the future is of looking from the plains up to a towering mountain range. As I look to the mountains I see one mountain in the “front range,” but at the greater distance is yet another taller and even more majestic peak. Coloradoans call the really big ones, “fourteeners,” that is, they’re over 14,000 feet in height. From my vantage point I can’t tell how far it is between the two mountains. It’s only as I actually travel through the mountains that I realize there’s a deep valley between the first and the second mountain range. As the prophets are given a vision of God’s intentions they sometimes see an act of God that’s close at hand and at the same time see a similar but even greater event more distant than they can imagine. Here in Isaiah 40 the focus of Isaiah’s prophecies is on comfort and hope. These words will become a life line for his people in a few years. All the terrible things he’s warned them of will come to pass, and in distant lands the next generation will turn to these words to find comfort in their sorrow. When I read this passage at the level of the “front range” I see that God’s broken people have hope of restoration. The Lord’s going to return to their lives as a powerful king might return to his kingdom. Isaiah’s command to them is to start preparing for this sure event by making a smooth and straight road into their lives. However, beyond that “front range” is a gigantic “fourteener,” the coming of the King of Kings to this world. Hundreds of years later this prophecy will become John the Baptist’s text and it’ll be fulfilled in a much greater way by King Jesus. As a Christian I can identify with the dual nature of this passage. That “front range” view is when I receive Jesus as King in my own heart. The “fourteener” view is when Jesus comes to this world the second time as King and Judge of all.
Take Away: Sometimes the words of the prophets of the Lord cause us to look both to the past and to the future.
This prescription works for both the farsighted and the nearsighted
Isaiah 25: And God will wipe the tears from every face.
Isaiah’s words contain a great deal of condemnation and his target is not only the enemies of Israel, but Israel, herself. I get lost in it all and am not sure whether the prophet is talking to specific people at a specific moment in history or if he’s slipped into “prophetic perfect tense” in which he speaks of the future as though it has already happened. It may be that he’s speaking on multiple levels of a near future and a distant future with the same words. At times like this, I take the easy way out and focus on my devotional reading, asking, “What’s this saying to me right now?” As I read this part of Isaiah I can’t help but think of the book of Revelation which contains almost the exact same words. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Revelator is reminded of these words even as he promises the glorious “no tears” day. My conclusion is that whether we’re thinking about the broken people of Isaiah’s day or persecuted Christians of John’s day or hurting people today that God’s message is one of comfort and hope. Some of that hope is contemporary hope: what God is about to do. At the same time some of that hope is out there in the uncertain future when the Lord wraps up history and brings a new reality into existence. I’m not sure about just who it is Isaiah is thinking about in this passage, but I do see here a wonderful theme of God’s mercy and grace.
Take Away: Yesterday, today, and forever the Lord remains merciful and gracious to his people.
Letting the Bible say what it says
Isaiah 14: You said to yourself, “I’ll climb to heaven…instead of climbing up, you came down.”
If you were raised in church as I was you’ll identify with my observation that church folks develop a lot of folk theology. When I was a kid someone told me that Isaiah 14 describes the fall of Satan from the splendor of heaven. I believed it and grew to adulthood assuming that all Christians thought that about this passage. One day it dawned on me (and I probably had some help with that awakening) that this passage is about Babylon and its king. The ruler of Babylon thinks he’s bigger than God. In fact, because of his nation’s unequaled economic and military power and his unlimited authority over it all that he concludes that he, himself, is a god. Isaiah prophesies that mighty Babylon is going to fall, and will fall in a very big way. Now, this passage can be used to illustrate other things, but it really isn’t about anything aside from Babylon. For instance the true-ism, “the bigger they come, the harder they fall” comes to mind. Sometimes, even well-meaning people can mistakenly use Scripture in improper ways. As God’s people we’re to be people of truth, “rightly dividing the Word” even if that means we lose a handy proof text.
Take Away: Even well-meaning people can mistakenly use Scripture in improper ways.