Bible Tuesday for Sunday, July 12, 2015
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am[a] no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am[b] a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Here is one of the few famous stories from the book of Amos. But the “plumb line” is not what it seems. The word translated “plumb line” seems to refer to some kind of construction tool, while the word’s root is actually based on “sigh” or “crying jag” and the Akkadian word for “tin”. The translational challenge is that this is the only place the word is used in the entire Hebrew Scriptures and ancient Hebrew writings, so there is no cross referencing the word to determine its definition. The New Interpreter’s Bible states that the translation of this word to “plumb line” was first used by medieval commentators.
No matter plumb line or no, God does not give a rosy prophecy to Amos for delivery to the Northern Kingdom of Israel or its king, Jeroboam. Nor does this prophecy speak of good days to come when the King and his priest, Amaziah, rest in security. (Remember that after Solomon, the third king of Israel, the kingdom is divided into two: the Nothern Kingdom also called Israel whose temple was at Bethel, and the Southern Kingdom also called Judah whose temple and capitol were in Jerusalem.) Because Amaziah feels threatened by Amos, he throws him out of the northern kingdom, telling him to earn a living in prophecy in Judah. But Amos answers back that he is no prophet. He is an animal and sycamore orchard keeper to whom God gave a prophecy or two. (Sycamore trees in the middle east are quite different than trees by the same name in the US. Ancient peoples used sycamore wood for building household items, and coffins, and ate its fig-like fruit.)
“High places” refer to open air temples to the gods Baal and Ashera/Astartes who were embodiments of water, land, and sky. These worship places were always located at the highest topographical points so as to be as close to the abode of the gods as possible. It is to these high places that the psalmist refers: “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where is my help to come?” The psalmist recognizes the futility in looking for help from those idols worshiped on the hills. The psalmist then states “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth,” as over and against the worship of elements of creation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.*
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.
Psalm 85 is a psalm of pleading to God for restoration. This psalm comes from after the time of the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. While those are seen as times when God blessed the Israelites, the psalmist is living in a time of languish. The above pericope is a statement of confidence is God’s action and favor.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[a] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[b] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[c] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
When Paul writes to these fledgling churches, he crams so much blessing and theology into every sentence that sometimes, as in the above text, one has to take things one sentence at a time to comprehend even an inkling of Paul’s meaning. Theologians have done just that, and those writings are called Bible Commentaries, containing whole chapters on one of Paul’s paragraphs. So as to avoid that kind of muddledimuck (my word), I will focus in on a few key ideas.
First, predestination. It is very hard to be a Lutheran and not trip over verses like “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of his will.” However, if we read this verse more broadly, as I believe Paul meant it, then the “we” doesn’t have to mean only Paul and the congregation in Ephesus. It is the good pleasure of God’s will that all might be drawn to Jesus Christ and gathered into the heavenly places for all eternity.
Paul goes on to explain that it is through Jesus’ will, grace, and blood sacrifice that anyone receives redemption and the forgiveness of sin. Notice that Paul does not ascribe some worthiness on the part of the Ephesians or himself, but rather God does all this in love and mercy through Jesus.
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’[a] name had become known. Some were[b]saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod[c] had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;[d] and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias[e] came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s[f] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
What a story! First of all, what a different world where a mother would tell her pre-teen daughter to ask for someone’s head as a present! What trauma to that girl, Herodias Jr., to carry someone’s head on a platter to her mother! And the disciples of John come take a headless body away from the prison to be buried. How gruesome and horrid!
Horrid most of all for poor John the baptizer! In Mark’s gospel, John the Baptizer really rips into Herod for several reasons: 1. Herod is not Israelite, but rather Edomite, descended from Esau, not Jacob and therefore usurping the throne of the Jews, 2. Herod is a puppet king for Rome and rules on their dime and because they put him on this throne, 3. Herod had his brother killed in order to steal his wife, Herodias (her title, not her name) and then father children by her, including this dancing daughter. Herod had John arrested for shaming him. Nevertheless, Herod liked to have audiences with John the baptizer. How curious! Herod was raised in the court of the Caesar Augustus, as a sort of Jew/sort of Roman. He didn’t really fit in either world, a predicament which followed him into his position as King of the Jews. As a misfit among Romans and Jews, why did Herod like to listen to John? John certainly told the truth and called them as he saw them. Was that something Herod needed in life?
Whatever the motivation, Herod kept John in prison, in part, to protect him. But that all came to an end the night of Herod’s birthday party. How very difficult for john who has bee4n preparing the Israelite world for Jesus his whole life, and yet when Jesus comes, John isn’t sure Jesus is the real Messiah. And then John is beheaded, executed for doing God’s will and calling Herod and Herodias out, without ever really knowing if he was pointing to the right guy, Jesus.
The first lesson and this gospel text blatantly point out to the readers how hard is the life of a prophet. God gives a word to the prophet and the prophet’s life is miserable unless the word is proclaimed, but often the hearers of that world make the prophet’s life miserable for proclaiming that very word! May God teach us how to hear the words of the prophets and tame our hearts to receive those words and act upon them!