Monday, October 26, 2009

Two of the Twelve - Joel and the Valley of Decision

We all know people who wouldn't read a book if it didn't have pictures. Those of us caught up in intellectual snobbery have at one point or another sniffed at their simple view of *sigh* literature. I admit, I've laughed at a lot of people for enjoying what I call "airport books". The great thing about most snobs, myself included, is that we typically commit the same sins for which we condemn others. Our own sins most certainly find us out.

In the book of Joel, the prophet doesn't tell any story to give his prophecy context. It's the only occasion the Bible ever mentions him. No appearances in Chronicles or Ezra or anything. His book lays out straight prophecy. Three intense chapters and fini. As I read and re-read this book, I found myself wishing Joel wrote about the things happening in history around his prophecies. You know, zazz it up a little. Hosea marries a hooker, Isaiah walks around naked for a while, Ezekiel eats poop. That stuff'll keep you turning pages. Joel stands up to spout out some heavy doom then returns to his seat nearly invisible among the other prophets.

I wanted the book to have pictures.

After my last reading of his book, I finally understood that Joel didn't need to give historical context to his prophecy. God's words can apply to nearly every generation. Imagine the people are proud of their prosperity, and as Proverbs 3:34 and 1 Peter 5:5 says, God opposes the proud. Joel 1 tells of an agricultural disaster brought on by swarms of locusts and other bugs. This is the equivalent of our economy suffering from, say, a stock market crash or lack of natural resources. Like everything we built to make money and keep us safe failed in the end. Everything devoured and traumatized. The people suffer disasters meant to shock the coming generations.

In chapter 2, the picture takes the form of something much different and yet equally horrific. Instead of bugs, the picture becomes that of an ruthless, invading army. Then in verse 2:11, Joel shocks the reader by attributing the suffering to the One they'd least expect. "The Lord shouts orders to His forces - His army is immense, mighty, and it does what He says. For great is the Day of the Lord, fearsome, terrifying! Who can endure it?" God sent the affliction. God devastated the land. God leads the army of judgment.

I think a great number of people would readily agree with this. When troubles come, how often do you hear people blame God? "How could a good God allow something like this to happen?" I heard it after nearly every national calamity. Bombings, school massacres, hurricanes. Everyone was willing to blame God as if we were the good guys, as if our everyday sins didn't deserve condemnation and death. It doesn't matter how good of a person, or a Christian, you are. You could suffer from Younger Brother Syndrome or belong to the Older Brother Club and still have the same response. Affliction can cause you to wonder about God's justice and goodness.

The next few verses give a little hope to the reader. A little. Joel 2:12-14, "'Yet even now,' says the Lord, 'turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and lamenting.' Tear your heart, not your garments (that is, an authentic act of repentance instead of a mere outward show); and turn to the Lord your God. For He is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in grace, and willing to change His mind about disaster. Who knows? He may turn, change His mind and leave a blessing behind Him, enough for grain offerings and drink offerings to present before the Lord your God."

How unsettling is this concept? Maybe God will show mercy and give you "enough". Think about this. If God saved the people from death but didn't restore their fortune, would that make Him unjust? I think not. If I deserve to die and spend eternity in Hell, I should be happy with the idea of having "enough". If God spared my life and instantly give me all the riches and comfort of the world, wouldn't I run the risk of turning back to my old idols of prosperity, worshiping the blessing instead of the One who blesses?

Just after verse 2:23, where Joel tells the people to praise God for giving them the "right amount" of rainfall, he says in verse 2:24-27, "Then the floors will be full of grain and the vats overflow with wine and olive oil. 'I will restore to you the years the locusts ate, the grasshoppers, shearer-worms and cutter-worms, my great army that I sent against you. You will eat until you are satisfied and will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has done with you such wonders. Then my people will never again be shamed. You will know that I am with Israel and that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other" (emphasis mine).

Listen to this, I firmly believe that God can use affliction to teach us how to truly worship Him. I'm not saying that God wants us to become gluttons for suffering and so compare Him to an abusive dad. But look at what God wanted the suffering to produce. He wanted to teach them how to seek Him in all circumstances so they would still worship Him as God, Him and nothing else, when He did restore their prosperity.

The outstanding picture of Jesus I see in this book happens in the Valley of Y'hoshafat (The Lord Judges). Verse 3:14 also calls this place the Valley of Decision. After God restores the fortunes of Israel, He calls the nations into this valley for final judgment. In Romans 2, when Paul describes God's coming judgment, he says in verse 16, "This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares" (NASB). Yes, Jesus came to save the world. Yes, God loves the whole world. But God also hates sin and must eventually execute perfect justice. Joel's "Day of the Lord" will come when God judges men through Jesus. Revelation 19 talks of Jesus returning with a sword, wearing clothes soaked in blood, striking down those who remain in the rebellion of sin. What an awesome picture. Like the cover of some brutal metal record.

But Justice isn't exactly synonymous with "punishment". Those who have accepted Jesus as Lord are justified. Joel 3 talks of God judging the nations for their wickedness and vindicating His people, calling Himself our refuge. God makes this promise in 3:21, "I will cleanse them of their bloodguilt which I have not yet cleansed." In other words, Joel tells the people "Don't freak out. God will cleanse you of your sin one day." That day came when Jesus died on the cross. When we accept this truth, it doesn't mean we haven't sinned, but rather it should remind us how Jesus cleansed us of our guilt. If Jesus will judge me as righteous because of His righteousness, then I look forward to the Day of the Lord in the Valley of Decision knowing exactly what I have decided.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One of the Twelve - Hosea and wayward ways (an introduction)

Many of you already know this, but I love punk music. When I first heard "I Wanna Be Sedated" with all the speed and simplicity of my adolescent heart-rate, I knew punk music would resonate with me until the day I die. In my life con-Ramones, I've developed a tendency to love the generally unloved or overlooked. If you are so deep into underground or unknown artists you sometimes feel you scarcely relate to the general public, then I think you share this sensibility. Try not to get smug about it. It's just entertainment.

Maybe it's because of this sensibility I feel led to write about the Minor Prophets (in Hebrew Shneim-'Asar, meaning "The Twelve"). A good deal of Christians seem to overlook these books, vaguely recall them as a part of the Canon, or recite them only in patches learned for Bible memorization quizzes. It feels redundant to tell other believers, "Every part of the Bible is important." We should know this. And yet, I didn't know the main theme of many smaller books in the Bible. I found myself overlooking parts of scripture with little love or satisfaction in the text.

A few weeks ago, I met with a woman who at one time was on her way to becoming a minister in the American Episcopalian Church. She had met with disillusioning elements in her church's leadership and left some years ago. During our conversation on the purpose of Jesus's ministry on earth, I asked her, "How would you finish this sentence? 'The whole Bible is about _____.'" She blinked and said, "I know people who can quote most of the book and still not answer that question." The Holy Spirit must have given me the words to say in that moment because the answer surprised me as I said it. "The whole Bible is about Jesus. Even the 'boring' parts."

Over the next few months, I want to write a short summary of each minor prophet and explain how the individual books point to Jesus. Beginning in order, we'll start with Hosea and take the text from Stern's Complete Jewish Bible (with some translation).

It's okay to consider Hosea one of the more scandalous books in the Bible. Verse 2 of the first chapter says, "The Lord's opening words in speaking to Hosea were to instruct Hosea, 'Go, marry a whore, and have children with this whore; for the land is engaged in flagrant whoring, whoring away from the Lord." In the first three chapters, the prophet marries Gomer, a known prostitute, and has children with her. After a while, she leaves her husband and returns to her former trade. God tells Hosea to find and retrieve her.

A casual take on the story goes like this: God makes a covenant with a wayward bride and redeems her even though she proves herself unfaithful. When God displays His goodness and faithfulness, it will cause the unfaithful bride to tremble. The following prophecies make far more direct statements toward Israel, Ephraim, and, in particular, the priesthood. My friend the would-be priest might take some comfort in this.

Probably the most recognizable verse in Hosea comes from 4:6, "My people perish for lack of knowledge." The full verse in Stern's reads, "My people are destroyed for want of knowledge. Because you rejected knowledge, I will also reject you as priests for me. Because you forgot the Law of your God, I will also forget your children." My ordinary and uneducated take on this verse is that the church leaders had turned away from God's Torah, or Law, which was their covenant with Him as a people, not unlike that of a marriage covenant.

It wasn't just the individual sins (swearing unholy oaths, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery for example in 4:2) because all humans struggle with sin. It was their attitude as leaders toward God's commands in turning from the knowledge of His Law. They denied their covenant "husband" and became "joined to idols" (4:16). As further indication of God's anger toward the leadership, He says in 4:14, "I won't punish your daughters when they act like whores, or daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; because the men are themselves going off with whores and sacrificing with prostitutes. Yes, a people without understanding will come to ruin."

Much of the book tells of God's pain and anger because of His unfaithful people. What's worse, it appears as if the people have gone so far from God they are unable to help themselves. Hosea 5:4, "Their deeds will not allow them to return to their God, for the spirit of whoring is in them, and they don't know the Lord." Even though God is sovereign and in total control, never in surprise or having frustrated plans, He feels pain and anger in regard to sin. He knew from the beginning of man's rebellion in Genesis 3 that He would have to redeem us at a high cost. No one on earth could pay for the sins of mankind. We all have our own sins for which to account. Isaiah 59:3 speaks painful words of convictions, "For your hands are stained with blood and your fingers with crime; your lips speak lies, your tongues utter wicked things" (emphasis mine).

And yet in this same passage, God promises to fulfill His own plans for our redemption. "He saw that there was no one, was amazed that no one interceded. Therefore His own arm brought Him salvation, and His own righteousness sustained Him" (Isaiah 59:16). Further reading into the New Testament gospels shows how God the Son, Jesus, came to earth and died to pay the price for our crimes of unfaithfulness. In Isaiah 59:20, He makes a promise to redeem those who turn from rebellion of sin and put their trust in Jesus.

Hosea prophesies this promise of Jesus coming to redeem us despite our wayward ways in 6:1-2, "Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, and He will heal us; He has struck, and He will bind our wounds. After two days, He will revive us; on the third day, he will raise up; and we will live in His presence."

I mentioned how some people consider Hosea a scandalous book. Inspired teachers such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Terry Virgo have echoed this sentiment and readily admit the scandal of Grace. We're the whores who know nothing of faithfulness. We don't deserve redemption and yet Jesus came to save us. Unlike Israel, led away from God by unrighteous priests, Jesus Himself has become our High Priest (Hebrews 3:1), leading us to the Father. We couldn't help ourselves. We were dead in our sins and transgressions (Ephesians 2:1) but our trust in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross gives us hope in the life He now offers. When we die to our old life of unfaithfulness, He will raise us up and we will live a new life in His presence.