The question remains: Can a human come up with better answers about life in this world? Surely becoming king is worth something, no? Solomon describes how he kept a part of his mind objective in testing everything. This isn’t plunging wantonly into mere physical pleasure, but includes that idea as a small part of a much bigger picture. Solomon tested the limits of what is position offered.
As the legendary King of Wisdom, Solomon entertained an endless stream of royal guests, the greatest artisans, the widest range of scholarship, exposing himself to everything a man could know about the world and the people in it. This did not satisfy his quest. At the same time, he indulged himself in the widest range of culinary experiences, using the shorthand term of wine-tasting. The whole time, he reserved a portion of his awareness for gauging whether any of it seemed to make life worthwhile of itself. Was partying with the greatest of this world going to bring some sense of satisfaction? Wrong again.
Next, Solomon threw himself into the work of amassing material possessions. He explains how built structures for every use man could imagine. Nor was this in any way frivolous. Not just water parks and gardens for himself, but genuine works of civil engineering that helped others. We know Solomon was a prodigious builder and architect in his own right, a genius at engineering. He piled up a vast army of slaves, piles of treasures from all over the world, the most rare and beautiful specimens any collector could desire. He had musicians running out his ears and more women in his harem than a single man could get to know even as a passing acquaintance. None of these things filled the void in the soul.
What about the eternal question of wisdom versus folly? Of course it’s better to be wise and intelligent. A fool has no idea what he’s doing or where his life is going. Such folks might not ever understand how they got where they are. A wise man, even with no power whatsoever, can at least see where things are going, what will be the results of things he does or does not do. Then again, the final end of both is about the same, since all die and return to dust. The one really bad side-effect of Solomon’s vast wisdom is he clearly understood that even wisdom was futile in that sense.
Worse, he clearly saw how everything he had gained would be passed onto his sons, regardless of whether they were foolish or wise. They would probably be deprived of the experience of rising up on their own accomplishments, because there would be little left for them to do, since their father had done it all. What was the point of all this work, because the work itself was probably the best thing, and it can’t be passed on to his sons.
Wisdom and native talent drive you relentlessly in the daylight. When you try to sleep, you always rehash everything you did and failed to do. So while it’s good in general for a man to work and enjoy the fruit of his own labor, the mere act of enjoyment is a gift of God’s mercy. God can easily take away the fruits of honest labor, but just as easily take away the joy itself. Everything men might imagine they could want comes from God. Some folks God has favored with moral wisdom, but fools only know about how they want something they don’t have. And once they get all they can, God gives it to the wise. You can’t fight God.
The sarcasm and mocking Solomon offers here could easily be aimed at the large number of Western Christians who don’t get Hebrew wisdom literature. The underlying premise of the book is portraying the vanity of trying to understand life, the universe and everything from a human point of view. The wisest man in human history could not come up with a good answer, try as he might all the ways men seek to conquer this existence.
That much is obvious. The difficulty is that virtually no one in Western Christianity has a clue about the fundamental human approach Solomon uses here. This book is easily the pinnacle of Hebrew mysticism. That is, there is nothing here truly spiritual, in the sense that this book is wholly a matter of God’s moral laws for fallen mankind. It does point to spiritual depth, but never mentions it directly. As non-Western literature, there is nothing here of questioning the nature of existence, nor defining the meaning of things from a rational position. That’s the wrong question here. The question is how to make the most of human existence after the Fall. The question is how best to obtain the very most life here can offer.
That question is played out while trying to avoid references to revelation. Solomon experiments with all the ways men pursue the different approaches, and he does so with vastly superior native ability. He does make reference to mere logic in the rational mold, but dismisses it, too. In the end, he answers with the assertion that, taking the very best of all the various philosophical approaches to the basic question of how to make the most of our human existence, and using the very deepest and wisest mind with access to as much human knowledge as existed at that time, you still can’t come up with anything better than a pretty simple grasp of God’s Laws.
Solomon didn’t have to put pen to parchment here; he had numerous scribes working in the palace. It’s possible this was published after his death. However, you can’t take seriously scholars who assert it comes from Post-Exilic times, because by then, only a tiny handful of Hebrew scribes could possibly understand what Solomon meant. They would have written up an entirely different book from his notes. By the time the Exile was over, Hebrew Mysticism was virtually forgotten, and this book is very firmly the product of classical Hebrew Mysticism before the Exile.
There is no ambiguity in the author’s identity: Solomon, heir of King David to the throne in Jerusalem. He calls himself “the one who assembles,” a Hebrew pun describing one who assembles words of truth, then assembles people to teach the truth.
The first thing he tells us is to not take this world too seriously. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the task, you can’t make much of by yourself. No matter what you accomplish by any scale of human measure, it won’t make any difference for very long. You can’t change the rotation of the earth, the movement of wind currents or the hydrologic cycle. The better you understand things, the more it drives you nuts. The one thing you most want to change is hardest of all — human nature. It ever reaches for things it cannot have. What little improvement there could be requires paying attention to human history, but even if they know it, they still repeat it.
Again, the issue is not whether we can change our world physically. We should know better than that, Solomon says. The one thing that affects us all the most is fallen human nature. If there is one thing we could fix, and should try to fix, the one thing which is the key to all our problems, it would be human nature. Thus, the whole point of verse 15, for example, is a description of human nature itself — irreparably bent and broken.
Solomon informs his readers he has examined the issue fully. Human talent, wisdom and creativity simply cannot change anything that matters. Here he sits, the wisest human on earth so far, downright legendary for his grasp of things, and with all he gained in that department, he still can’t change anything. God has revoked human access to the Garden of Eden, so man must work simply to stay alive, and it is work guaranteed to do little more than keep him alive. Should he somehow amass the resources for leisure, he ends up wanting more of something else. It is unspeakable misery to realize nothing can be done to nudge humanity back where they could be.
The greatest peace fallen men can have is engaging the task itself of staying alive and minding your own business. Sure, give expression to your soul’s longings but never take yourself seriously. Once you begin to imagine you have some advantage over others, you cannot avoid creating trouble for yourself and others. You will only make things worse.
This post is a response to some very good questions to my previous Righteous Activism.
I may misunderstand the question, but let me answer what I believe is the question and we can work from there. God as my witness, I wish it could be shorter, but I’m not smart enough to be more terse and condensed. It’s the function of pastors and elders to do whatever is possible to help people get what they need to serve the Lord.
Our brother Michael offers standard Western reasoning; he is in much good company. I couldn’t answer at all had I not spent so many years of my life wandering in the puzzling world of Western Post-Enlightenment theology. If we step outside the confining limits of that tradition, we stand in a better place to recognize the larger collection of intellectual traditions. While it’s easy to recognize a broad common stream of thinking within the whole of Western Civilization, we find a great many Westerners are encouraged to take Western thinking entirely too seriously, to so deeply identify with it as to take it personally, to be unconsciously offended when something contradicts it. I’m not saying Michael is an idiot, but his objections are very common among those who haven’t become acquainted with the differences between Western Christian traditions and something much older.
I’ve often warned that Western reasoning is built on a rejection of revelation. Christianity and faith are actually quite ill-fitting in Western traditions. Because it’s a bad fit, we end up with a host of problems manifested in the disputes and bloodshed which soaks Church History. We sense that messy history does not reflect what the Apostles gave us, but we are crippled by a lack of documentation. There are some few letters and treatises of those who directly followed the Apostles, but we sense there is some selective record-keeping at work here. Yes, I allege someone in the past destroyed some of that documentation with malicious intent, but I can’t chase that rabbit right now. But, if we take seriously the study of intellectual differences between the Hebrew people and what we have some few centuries later, we see a very huge gap, a really substantial move. I’ve tried to offer at times my best estimate of how that shift came about, and avoid reading back into it my own prejudices. I suggest most of Western Christian scholarship you’ll encounter today has not tried hard enough. That is, a great deal of Western Christian tradition still buys into the false world view, the fundamental assumptions about reality, that are not at all consistent with those who wrote the Bible. I even wrote a book trying to point out how Jesus was a Hebrew man with a viewpoint totally at variance with most of the modern Western church.
So a great deal of Western reasoning is not wrong as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. If you stay within those boundaries, revelation will never make sense. To some degree, it’s not supposed to make sense, but I believe we can come closer by moving from our Western rational tradition back to the ancient Hebrew intellectual roots. As it is, I often warn the truth of God cannot really find a home in our human understanding. It requires a separate, higher faculty in the Spirit, something which does not dwell in the conscious intellect. Our problem is the barrier between the spirit and mind, and our knee-jerk reflex to keep the mind in the driver’s seat. The mind is not competent, and where the spirit has been brought to life by God, we dare not rely on it for anything more than merely organizing our response to things mandated from the Spirit in our spirits. There must ever be a thousand unanswered questions. That was the overall meaning behind the symbol of sheol. We cannot know what’s beyond this life. Much of what I have encountered in my years of study in theology and philosophy assumes too much, trying too hard to make faith cerebral. The Hebrew intellectual traditions are truly different from that. Sometimes I still struggle with it.
The justice/injustice standard is based on obeying God’s revelation. Justice is what God says it is; it reflects His divine character. God built the Hebrew intellectual culture by His own hand as the one context fit for revelation. We are forced to assume that legacy is as close as human minds can get to His truth on this earth. By contrast to the Hebrew concept, if efficiency was part of the standard, then it’s best to die and not be here in the first place. I don’t pretend to know when God deems a child accountable in the course of human development. The Hebrew culture never nails it down beyond a nebulous comment in passing about knowing to do right from wrong. It assumes there is such a point without trying to calculate. They wouldn’t pretend to speak for God on something like that because He didn’t say, but they did notice when things got dicey dealing with a particular child. We don’t know the absolute truth of such things; all we know is what we can read in God’s revelation about what we should do about it.
Take a look at how David handled the death of his first son by Bathsheba. His sorrow was for himself and he said so, not for the child. “He cannot come to me; I must go to him.” The Hebrew understanding of reality is darker than ours. There is an overwhelming sense that this life makes no sense, nor can it. There is really nothing to accomplish — “All is vanity of vanities.” You really don’t want to be here, but God is the one who decides when it’s over. Until then, you have little choice but to obey or suffer the consequences. Even in the matter of consequences, much of it is incomprehensible. God dumps His wrath on sin and the guidelines for avoiding His wrath are ill-defined by human standards. It’s not supposed to be easy. And even if we do stand before Him relatively clean-handed by His Laws, we still have to wade through the common sorrows of all the rest of humanity. In other words, it’s very tempting to try to come up with a matrix of reasoning that ignores God’s infuriatingly fuzzy revelation and just work it all out on the human level.
So yes: Who wouldn’t choose death as soon as they could? Except, it’s not ours to choose. We are obliged to stay here and endure the sorrow until God is pleased to let us go. Could you take your own life? Sure. Suicide is not horrifying in Scripture; there are times it is the only thing left to do when a man has gone too far in miscalculating the vagaries of this life. He realizes his mistake too late to undo the damage. If your mission here is destroyed, it’s possible for you to realize it’s time to go. But there again, Hebrew culture assumes it becomes obvious that you are simply carrying out your own just death sentence, not simply because you are sad. Your pain is not reason enough; it has to be calculated with dispassion whether you sense God has said you have failed your mission. It’s all about mission and calling, not your happiness. Still, the whole question remains vague and so it must be, but I assure you our modern Western horror about suicide is not at all from Scripture. The mainstream Western Christian reaction on that question is actually from pagan European backgrounds. We have this reflex of reading our cultural assumptions and feelings back into the Hebrew people, and it’s wrong.
As Michael noted, the Hebrew Scriptures don’t present a very good view of the afterlife. Now, we do have a pretty good pile of Jewish traditions regarding what was taught but not recorded in Scripture. Unfortunately, it’s not uniformly trustworthy. Jesus rejected most of it with just a few words about “traditions of men.” But then His disciples did dredge up oral traditions from the Hebrew culture and put them in Scripture, so we have no simple standard, no good solid feel for how to handle the apparent difference between what is obvious from Hebrew Scripture and what it seems the New Testament does to clarify. We know in theory they were guided by the Holy Spirit, but we find ourselves with a sense we can’t be quite so sure from where we stand now. If we read through the Jewish traditions, we would probably seize on the wrong thing.
So I read back into Hebrew culture what Jesus said about these things, simply because He was the final revelation of what was not so clear as before. It is Jesus who says so much more about the afterlife, but we know He says it based on Hebrew assumptions. If it seems He adopts imagery from, say the Persians, and maybe a few other cultural backgrounds, it is not because He is a syncretist, but because He found a handy image people would understand. Everyone wants to ignore how the Hebrews readily borrowed from other cultures if it was a good way of expressing something far beyond words and images in the first place.
This is the biggest stumbling block of all: Hebrew language is not descriptive, but indicative. Hebrew intellectual efforts are not aimed at resolving human questions, but at providing some bit of traction for obedience. It’s impossible to overstate what a radical difference that makes when you start trying to think about things. It was always assumed you cannot understand with your mind. Jesus said parables were necessary for His teaching because the truth cannot be told, only indicated by imagery and symbols. The writer of Hebrews rather bluntly states the real world is at best only a shadowy copy of ultimate truth, in describing how Moses commanded the design of the Tabernacle as a shadowy representation of God’s throne room in Heaven. He then talks about how faith is a form of perception which fills in the blanks for the intellect: It is the substance of things we wish we could understand, but those things are rooted in another realm.
So while the Hebrew Scriptures make passing references to sheol and how death is more like sleep, it’s totally consistent to read back into it things Jesus taught. It is not consistent to read back into it anything else from any other human source. Jesus is the one who said dying in righteousness brings us into Paradise, whatever it was He meant by that word. This counters somewhat the Hebrew image of death as a place of sleep, of knowing nothing (we could burn up a lot of time chasing the inherent meaning of “knowing” in that context). And I fully agree the idea of dying and going into the torments of Hell is missing in the Hebrew Scripture. Again, Jesus brought up the idea of Hell as one of the two alternatives, the other at one point described as the Bosom of Abraham. He reveals what was incomplete in ancient Hebrew understanding. Maybe it was there but never explained, or maybe it was simply missing altogether, but Jesus completes the picture.
A major point of confusion is the Hebrew assumption of Two Realms, an understanding utterly missing from Western Civilization. We have words for it, but the matrix of understanding is missing. We end up with “eternity” meaning “time without limit” whereas the Hebrew conception is totally outside the time-space continuum. Even if I can get those words into a nice Sunday School lesson in your average mainstream evangelical church, the intellectual background is missing. There is almost no place to hang such a thought, and people unconsciously dismiss it. So it tends to come off as mythical and not real. Just listen to how people talk about eternal things and you’ll see a serious tangled mess in which the Two Realms are confused. The Law Covenants together reflect a moral regime which carries us through this fallen existence. It manifests deeper truths about things in the Spirit Realm, but by no means answers all the questions. Rather, the Laws put us on track to discover as much as any human mind can grasp about eternity.
God does not explain why He chooses some for citizenship in His Eternal Kingdom and not others. He never explains the basis for how He decides to give some spiritual life and others remain spiritually dead. He does say some part of the process is our witness, but He pointedly warns us no part of the eternal change is in any human hands at any point. We participate in revealing or manifesting His decision from before Creation — that’s how it’s presented to us. Even then, I can’t be certain I’m saying it right. Yet Paul warns nothing in humanity is capable of even wanting eternal life, but that our nature is implacably hostile to it. Whatever it is God does, it counts as a miracle totally from His initiative. There is sufficient space in Heaven for every soul born on earth since the beginning and until the end. It’s where we belong, but we won’t all get there. Scripture hints at the notion the majority will not, yet it asserts rather clearly it’s possible in some sense all could theoretically make the grade. There is no effort at all to explain why.
There is a lot of talk about the Law Covenants and how they make life better here below. We are left to recognize how that picture symbolizes something of the inexplicable spiritual reality somewhere beyond the shadowy mess we have here. All we can pin down is this: If there is anything we can do about gaining eternal citizenship, it begins with repenting under the Laws of God. The connection is not defined, merely asserted. We do understand it somewhat from the other side of things, in that we know those who come into spiritual life and the attendant awareness it grants will find the Laws winsome and irresistible, though not always fitting every occasion. The Laws taste a bit like our spiritual inheritance. The problem is our human mind getting in the way. If your spirit is dead, you don’t have much else to work with except your mind. But if the spirit is alive and aware, then it takes over and mind serves instead of ruling. That is by far the most difficult transition to make, and most of the Western church never even tries, because they are so deeply pickled in Western assumptions that there can be nothing above the intellect. Western Civilization disembowels faith before you ever get there.
In the Realm of the Spirit, a child born on this fallen plane has their citizenship in eternity. It’s our birthright under Creation. But at some point, the poison of the Fall takes hold. I don’t have the words to explain it, but the penalty of the Fall is not applied until sometime after birth and well before adulthood. There is a period of moral innocence recognized in the Law Covenants, but not explained. Killing an unborn baby sends that baby to Heaven. That reflects God’s justice. Killing them after that indefinable point risks sending them to Hell. God says that’s justice, too. It’s offensive to our Western notions, but that’s because we are pickled in the lies of Satan — AKA, Western Civilization. Can’t get your head around that? I’m not sure what I can do to help, but I’m trying. If we could choose to die in innocence, we would. But by the time we know enough to make the choice, we cannot. Why it is the innocence dies in so many people and never comes back to life in spiritual birth, I cannot say. The Bible makes no attempt to explain it, only asserts just enough for us to get a few pointers.
We aren’t allowed in on the divine counsels of such matters. We are permitted to realize our own spiritual birth, but even that is really tough. We need a lot of help from others to explain what to make of that in itself, never mind all the other particulars. What I can say is the logic of doing right to win Heaven is false logic. It results in “works righteousness” and a wealth of error and sin. The most dangerous people in the world are those logically certain of their righteousness while spiritually dead (or at least ignoring the Spirit). We see that exemplified in the Jewish persecution of the New Testament.
Confusing things considerably is how the Jews themselves had corrupted their understanding and left behind their Hebrew intellectual heritage. Scripture doesn’t document it. Oddly, the Talmudic records do document that intellectual shift, but try to justify it. The point is, that shift from Hebrew Mysticism to Western Rationalism was morally fatal, and deeply confused what little understanding of spiritual matters was possible. I know the Bible teaches us that this life is supposed to be miserable. By His mercies, we can work towards a certain measure of mitigation by observing the Law Covenants as whole. We can even abstract the underlying logic, but that underlying logic is not at all amenable to Western minds. We are not subject to something so neat and clean as a body of objective truth within our theoretical reach. We are subject to a living Person. If I could point to one heresy most seriously threatening to obeying Jesus Christ, it is the assumption God cannot defy logic, when “logic” is cast in Aristotelian terms. Aristotle went to Hell, folks. He refused to accept the message of the Old Testament and refused to repent of his sins. We know he encountered that message, yet his work reflects a clear departure from it. You cannot learn God’s ways from someone like Aristotle, nor can we pretend to somehow recast God’s revelation in Aristotle’s frame of reference. That frame of reference is behind the “traditions of men” Jesus warned about when He disputed with the Hellenized Jewish scholars of His day.
When God says something is just by His standard, it’s our job to reach for as much understanding as possible about that. Most important is not that we somehow figure it out in its essence, but only so much as need to formulate our obedience. The injustice of abortion is rejecting God’s moral standards regarding conception of life, and refusing to accept the burden of responsibility for raising that child — refusing to adhere to God’s moral standards in the first place. Sending that unborn child to Heaven is not the problem, but virtually no one involved views it that way. They dehumanize the child by making it a mass of tissue. This is pretty much the same thing as Cain killing Abel — it’s murder. It’s taking life for any reason short of God’s justice. The problem with most anti-abortion activism is focusing on the loss of the child, as if it’s somehow unjust to the child. That’s wrong. It’s a sin against themselves by refusing to take the path God prescribed, and a sin against God for rejecting His ways.
It’s not about the child, who suffers no loss. Allowing the child to live is a virtual guarantee it will end up in Hell as a sinner later in life. The question is not justice for the child. Was not Abel taken into Heaven? Didn’t Cain do him a favor? Cain sinned against the moral fabric of universe. I can’t explain why God insists we all pass through this horrible existence and then for most of us (apparently) to end up in Hell. But that’s what He has ordered, and we are damned if we argue with His plans. The sin of abortion is arguing with God.
I’m hardly the first to run through this; some of this comes from others who seemed to understand it well.
The texts are Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20. We have a problem with Mark because it is painfully obvious, even in English translations, that starting in verse 9 the narrative was clearly not the same as the rest. Even if Mark suddenly went to college after he wrote the rest, it wouldn’t change the style that much. Thus, we include it in our Bibles, but keep in mind it’s not as authoritative as the rest. In general, we struggle just a bit with harmonizing because each of the Gospel writers emphasize things differently.
I offer this outline for your consideration.
The context is Passover, a major Jewish celebration commemorating the Exodus, particularly the angel of death sparing the Children of Israel because they obeyed the ritual commands. I’ve noted in my commentaries on the Gospels that I believe Jesus ate the Last Supper the day before Passover, as I find it was a common practice. On the day before, one could celebrate with associates and non-family, because on Passover it was strictly blood kin all in one place according to the ritual law. Jesus died on Passover and took away the Day of Atonement, which followed the next day after that. Many people stayed in town the whole two months running through Pentecost.
Everyone central to the Gospel narratives had been staying in houses in or near the city. It’s probable most of them in the large and expensive home which included the Upper Room. We think that was near one of the eastern gates of the city. However, it would appear Peter and John (cousins) at least were somewhat closer to the tomb than the rest, likely only a few hundred meters. No one was permitted to wander around town on the Sabbath until Sunday morning at dawn. That would be around 6:30 AM local time. The women go to the tomb with spices because they assumed nothing had been done for the body. None of them witnessed Joseph of Arimathea taking the body, preparing it; they only saw him putting it in his own tomb. They don’t seem to know that soldiers had been posted and the door had been sealed because that happened on the Sabbath.
On the way a powerful earthquake hits. The women learn later it heralded the appearance of an angel who opens the tomb. Upon arriving, the door was open and an angel sits on the rounded stone slab some few meters from the tomb. The guards are cowering in fear off to one side, watching the whole thing. The group of women check out the tomb and find more angels inside. The angels explain this was all promised, and that they should tell everyone to leave town for Galilee if they wanted to see Jesus. The other ladies hang around a bit, but Mary Magdalene goes running back to where Peter and John are staying and tells them about it. The other ladies hang around a bit, then depart at a more leisurely pace, probably on a different route.
Peter and John come running back, Mary somewhere behind. John stops at the entrance and bends over to look inside. Peter blunders on in, then John follows. Peter examines the scene closely — the wrappings mixed with gummy spices had collapsed inward, empty of any body. The head covering was folded neatly where the head had been.
After the guys depart, Mary has her encounter with Jesus in the Garden. This is where He explains to her that things are not as they were before His arrest. He would be around for awhile, but He is not exactly the same old Jesus. The other group of women then have their encounter with Jesus on their longer trip back to the eastern side of town. Eventually John, Peter and Mary Magdalene catch up with everyone in the larger meeting place.
They puzzle over this and discuss it all day that Sunday. Two of them head off to Emmaus (7 miles or 11km northwest) late in the afternoon and meet Jesus on the way, but He changes His appearance so they don’t recognize Him. He explains the prophecies. Upon arriving at Emmaus, they persuade Him to stay for dinner; He reveals Himself and then disappears. They go running off in the darkness back to Jerusalem. While explaining their encounter, Jesus shows up again where this discussion takes place.
Then comes the meeting with Thomas eight days later (Monday evening). For another four weeks Jesus is around, mostly meeting with everyone in Galilee. Immediately after the group obeys and heads back to Galilee, nothing happens for a few days and it’s kind of spooky. The guys decide to go fishing one night. They encounter Jesus on the shore after a fruitless night of fishing. Peter dives in the water and swims to shore while everyone else drags the heavy net of fish ashore. Jesus helps Peter to understand things, then rehabilitates him to the place of leadership. This is also where the myth gets started suggesting John will live until Jesus returns. There are lots more meeting and some 500 people see Jesus alive in His risen form.
Then they all meet one last time in Jerusalem. Jesus leads them out to Bethany and ascends into the sky. It’s near this time when they were worshiping in the Upper Room at Pentecost.
All but bluntly stated, Malachi explains how the Presence of God polarizes everything. For those who cling to sin, His presence is like a fiery furnace, consuming everything and leaving nothing. For those who love Him and His revelation, the very same fire warms and brings healing. If we cling to His name, His Presence is ultimate freedom. Like lambs freshly shorn of their winter coat of wool, we can scamper about in sheer joy of relief that sin has been purged. Our feet will stomp on the ashes of those consumed by His wrath.
We should observe here how the Hebrew language avoids assuming a fixed meaning to his image. It applied most certainly to the coming of Christ in this world. His presence in the flesh of Jesus brought life and freedom to those whose spirits longed for the revelation of God’s glory. At the same time, it hardened in sin those bound up in sin. Yet again, in That Final Day, this might seem more literal in what we might see, with His wrath blasting evil into oblivion and bringing the rest of us into Eternity. The difference in human fate is whether they belong to Him and cling to His Word.
So He calls to mind again the revelation through Moses at Mount Sinai (“Horeb”). We are also reminded Jesus said those who studied the Law of Moses would find it taught about Him as the Messiah. Just to make sure we stand ready, the Lord mentions again He would send a prophet in the Spirit of Elijah, whom we know was John the Baptist. Perhaps we have a hard time realizing how the ministry of Jesus could be so terrifying, but we note those who rejected Him eventually were destroyed. That is, His death on the Cross was the ritual end of the Covenant of Moses. Those who did not cling to Christ and follow Him into the Covenant of Blood and Grace were left with the dead covenants of old. The stinking corpse of literal Israel lay rotting in the sun until Rome swept it away. Meanwhile, the entire focus of God’s dealings with men on this earth moved to the New Israel. That was the terrible end of those who rejected His message.
Christ is the full embodiment of revelation. Truth has always been a person, impossible to render as a mere proposition. Malachi foresees that clinging to the Living Truth is a matter of getting to know the mind of the Son of God. Jesus brought to life a new nation and a new Household of Faith (“fathers and children”). Wherever and whenever in this time-space continuum people stand in His Son and live His Laws of the Spirit, God’s wrath serves to purify, not destroy. The difference is whether we cling to sin or to Him.
The previous chapter ends with the people daring to ask why they had not seen the justice of God, referring to the materialistic demands they imagined the Covenant promised. This was a century before the arrival of Hellenism, yet see the stage already set for full-blown Pharisaism in the attitude Malachi confronted here. The most obvious element missing here is the timeless perspective of God’s revelation to the Hebrew people. There is no sense of the ancient legacy, no commitment to future generations. There is only the immediate “gimme” of arrogant fools seeking creature comforts. They evaluate the terms of the Covenant on mere profit and loss. What Jesus called “serving Mammon” is painfully obvious already.
People who cannot see beyond their immediate generation are trapped; they are utterly incapable of understanding God’s revelation. The Law of Moses makes no sense whatsoever without seeing the divine imperatives calling to you across several centuries. It’s also impossible to understand the Law if you fail to embrace the whole nation as your blood kin and resident aliens as potential family. This is all one team, not mere scenery, not competitors or threats. The widow in your village was your grandmother; the orphans your nephews and nieces. Allowing them to suffer was an inexcusable disgrace and personal insult to God. Getting this right was the very first and foremost expression of God’s justice. Allowing this to decay across generations was to desert utterly the entire purpose for calling them God’s Chosen.
God often ignores the human sense of time as a pointed lesson we are wrong for clinging to it. Malachi begins this chapter by describing something which does not come about literally until some four centuries later. God speaks through Malachi as if this is just a few days away. That is a critical point: Learn to think long term, not just your own pitiful life span. At the same time, if the people could just recover their Ancient Hebrew outlook, perhaps it could be sooner. What He offers here is a personal visit. Would they be ready to receive Him as befitting His Lordship? If they take too long making ready, He’ll come at His own time, and it won’t be pleasant.
We all know John the Baptist was the Messenger and his call to repentance was largely ignored. Thus, when God actually came in the guise of Jesus Christ, they all missed out on the blessing, only to catch the damnation of wrath a generation later as the existing political entity of Judah ended once and for all. Purifying a people like gold and silver could easily mean most of them consumed in the fire. He rattles of representative sins: efforts to bypass God’s revelation through divination, infidelity, breaking oaths, and those who deny their social responsibilities. All of these constitute ugly attacks on the social stability that the Law of Moses was supposed to encourage. That social stability and shalom was their means to God’s glory.
Malachi asserts they need to repent, but they ask just what it means to return to God. He refers to His people as sneaking into His treasury and plundering His possessions. They can’t imagine what he is talking about. So he reminds them they have refused to support the needy. A critical portion of the Mosaic Tithe Law was every third year, bringing the tithe of produce (crops and domestic animals) to the village storehouse. That collection was used to support the Levites, the poor and nomads wandering through the area (Deuteronomy 14:22-29). While the people may have been obeying the other parts of tithing obligations, they were missing this one. For this cause, they would be suffering higher natural losses on par with the Gentiles who didn’t know Jehovah. Repent and God would restrain such losses, and make them stand out as uniquely prosperous among the nations around them.
They have the gall to defame God, but deny they ever criticize Him. He warns that their phony ritual acts of mourning show no real sense of sorrow for sin. They don’t see how it makes any difference, refusing to understand the whole system of ritual sacrifice was precisely designed to cultivate a sense of the fallen human nature. Those sacrifices were supposed to call attention to how it feels to stand in the presence of God. If that doesn’t make you tremble with fear, you deserve the full measure of His wrath in Hell.
Something calls the spirit of the prophet. Somewhere out there, some place away from this present company of agnostics, there had to be a few people who really and truly cared what God thought. He’s not seeing a concrete vision within time and space reality, but a spiritual truth that God will never allow His revelation to go without a living witness. Somewhere there will always be a remnant of true believers who will associate together and seek God’s face. He’s keeping track of them, recognizes them as His kind of people. When the day comes He calls the righteous to His final gathering, they’ll be among the invited family guests. Meanwhile, there will be some unique sense in how He treats them in this life, too.
If not Jeremiah, these five poems have be the work of a friend. They are too obviously written by an eyewitness to the Siege of Jerusalem in 586 BC. This is a common form of Hebrew literature, where the chapters and verses are acrostic, each beginning with a different Hebrew character in alphabetical order (except chapter 5). The rhythm is Hebrew elegy, also called threnody in English. The title of the book comes from various translations. In Hebrew, it would be more like “Alas!”
Jerusalem was the symbol of God’s revelation to mankind. After the Fall, man’s only hope was to seek God’s redemption. The path to redemption was bringing glory to His name, honoring Him as Creator and Lord. In typical Ancient Near Eastern fashion, this was a personal matter. Each living human is personally responsible to Him for not embarrassing, but building up His reputation. While the requirements were somewhat fuzzy for most of humanity, God chose this one nation as the recipients of a more precise and accurate revelation of what He requires of everyone. He held them to a higher standard, but reaped a far greater reward. They were given His personally edited version of revelatory legends, a precise code of ritual and community standards, along with His personal divine Presence. Jerusalem was built to accommodate the center of God’s earthly manifestation; it was the home of Jehovah’s glory. If there was any place in human space to get the real truth, it was Jerusalem.
Israel was more of a mission than a people; they rejected that identity. In the end, they served more to obfuscate than reveal the truth. His Chosen People had let it go to their heads, not their hearts. These five poems indicate the depth of loss and sorrow from a highly prophetic and literate soul, fully aware of what the people had thrown away.
Chapter 1: The desolate city mourns, now empty and in ruins. This is no mere anthropomorphism, but a functional image of how things work. Intellectual facts won’t help much if you get everything morally wrong. The Hebrew concept of Creation is a living thing. While the level of consciousness is debatable, the thread of intelligence is clearly the moral fabric by which all things in this universe operate. Modern man rejects this concept and the universe responds appropriately with God’s curses on sin. We lack the grand sense of scale of human history the ancients took for granted; our modern sensibilities are entirely too immediate. This blinds us to the moral truth exposed in God’s Word: Creation suffers when we sin, but will outlast our petty concerns as we are crushed under God’s wrath.
While the poet blends here the image of the city and occupants, it is more in the sense of corporate consciousness. The mission was her reason for standing on that ancient stone ridge. Too late the people of Judah become conscious of their sin, crying out to God for a salvation no longer available to them. It was bad enough when the glory of the Lord left some time before, but with her people gone, the city has little reason left to live. Now empty, she cannot die; she is left weeping alone.
Chapter 2:The imagery shifts a bit to emphasize the whole Kingdom of Judah. The futile defense of the land itself brought a massive slaughter. The long siege saw children ravaged by starvation, people eating those children and any number of horrific scenes. None of this was necessary. How often had Israel defeated her enemies, even when vastly outnumbered in the field? God destroyed everyone opposed to His revelation. Now that Judah has become the enemy of that truth, she is the one destroyed while her enemies stand by taunting without lifting a finger. It’s too late to weep for sin; all that’s left is sorrow for the loss of what might have been.
Chapter 3: This is more like some of the better Psalms. Each letter of the alphabet gets three short verses in order. This is the complaint of a righteous individual, rare among the Judeans in that time. The man first unloads the sorrow about his dire situation. Then he notes that God is faithful and will carry through everything He promises. However, only those who live a penitent awareness can survive to see those promises come true. So this symbolic man calls on God for a chance to repent and renew the covenant. In due time, the door of Heaven will open again. The duty of man is to wait on God in His own time to decide what and when things shall be.
Chapter 4: You can’t eat gold. Precious metals and jewels aren’t worth much during a siege. Instead, there is an endless feast of misery, gorging on sorrow. How silly it is for people to worry about someone ritually unclean when the whole city is damned in her sins! So the poet describes graphically what he sees during the siege, the shocking images of starvation and disease. Worst of all is the petty competition over anything edible when there truly is nothing left life for but perhaps the spite of one’s enemies. Thus, the last few lines note how Edom watches from the sidelines, but she is next.
Chapter 5: Terse but loaded with deep imagery, this last poem is the most depressing. The poet notes they had sold themselves into moral slavery long ago, mentioning both Assyria and Egypt. In each case, the rampaging empires could not have touched God’s People had they not abandoned the mission. Now it’s all over except falling into the grave; survivors are abused until they drop into the dust. The poet ends with one final call for the only possible answer: If God does not call us out of death, we cannot hope to live.
From the very beginning of the Covenant, there at the foot of Mount Sinai, the priests and Levites understood their position. At the very least, their meal ticket was in sincere and strict adherence to holiness and respect for God’s glory. We struggle in our day to grasp the Ancient Hebrew mind of sincere commitment and personal devotion to God as a Person. They were equivalent to the royal bodyguard for Jehovah; the more literal Temple Guards were drawn from the Tribe of Levi. This was a high privilege, all the more so in God’s personal covenant with the priests beginning with Phinehas (Numbers 25:12-13). Their divine appointment included the mission of teaching to Law to the rest of the nation (Deuteronomy 33:8-11).
Malachi warns that all their privileges would be taken away if they continued this creep toward what eventually became the Sadducees, a cynical and worldly elite who abused the people for their personal benefit. Their blessings would become curses. While some of the text here is in dispute, the thrust is obvious. They had turned their offices upside down and God threatens dire punishment for it. So He raises once again the image of the faithful man of Levi who, in every dispute, took God’s side. This current crop late in the Restoration had not simply abandoned their duties, but took advantage of the situation to actively lead the people astray.
From at least as far back as Noah, God’s fundamental requirement for mankind was social stability. The Law Covenants explained how to obtain that. Those covenants all assumed a tribal cohesion, considering disloyalty to kin one of the highest crimes possible. All the more so with Israel, because God had adopted the entire nation as His own children. They were so blasé about this, it was incomprehensible. The Covenant of Moses was not a matter of mere DNA, but of commitment to the Laws of God. Anyone from any race of men on this earth could become a full member of the Nation of Israel upon following the procedures and giving evidence of a sincere personal commitment to the Covenant. The people had been following the cynical attitude of the Levites by marrying foreign women still in their pagan commitments. This profaned the entire nation. It was the same careless flouting and flaunting grotesque sin that caused Phinehas to take action to stop the plague during the Exodus. It’s the sort of sin that drags demon hordes inside the very camp of Jehovah’s people.
If that weren’t bad enough, the leading men were divorcing their first wives, trading them in for these sexy young pagan brides. While this seems heartless enough from our Western viewpoint, we miss something more important. This is more than simply abusing the old wife, but a slap in God’s face. Once again, it brings in demonic presence that afflicts the entire community. This hardly promotes social stability. God treats divorce as a form of senseless violence. For this reason, He was rejecting their prayers and emotional displays at His altar.
Again we have an assertion from God that the people question. They don’t understand how it is possible they have wearied God with their profligate violence to His name. Their complaint suggests they see heathen sinners and reprobate Jews alike receiving shalom from the hand of God. They have blinded themselves to the real difference, refusing to see the long term results of violating the Covenant. They are silly enough to dare asking: “Where is God’s justice?”
Nothing in the text allows us to fix a date for Malachi’s prophecy. From his message we surmise he was easily a century after Haggai and Zechariah, perhaps somewhat after the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah had worn off. We will assume here a date close to 400 BC. It seems obvious the people of restored Judah had failed to hold onto the fire of his predecessors’ message. Whatever it was God offered as the great possibilities for obeying the Covenant never came because the people never quite obeyed.
His name means “My Messenger.” The prophet briefly introduces his writing as a prophetic burden, a common Hebrew expression for a heavy responsibility from which he cannot escape.
His message begins framed as the people questioning the declarations of God. The Lord says He loves Judah. The people look at their circumstances and say they don’t feel very loved. The reply begins by comparing Judah, as the surviving representatives of Jacob, against those of his brother, Esau. God doesn’t have to justify His choices to anyone, but He chose Jacob against all the rules and laws of human custom at the time. When Babylon’s troops came rolling through, they captured Judah for exile, but nearly wiped Edom from history altogether. A tiny handful of survivors were driven out into the wastes. No buildings were left standing in Edom; the old town sites became the haunts of wild animals.
Judah got a chance to return, while the Edomites were struggling to rebuild their very existence. So the Edomites proudly boast that they’ll return and rebuild, too. God says it won’t matter, because He had plans to crush them again. We note a Bedouin nation drove them out of their homeland a century or so later.
Then the Lord asserts the priesthood has treated Him with contempt. How does one state the utter stupidity of this? Their whole profession is glorifying Jehovah. They act so very innocent, asking how God could make this accusation. It wasn’t enough that they had reduced the whole thing to mundane routine, but they thought nothing of treating the Temple as a dumping ground for food no one would eat. God declares He can find no excuse for them even showing up in the Temple. Might as well seal the doors shut and pretend there is no God at all. Indeed, the Lord says He will respond as if they don’t believe He exists.
(I wasn’t quite at peace with the first attempt, so after getting a better write-up, I’m posting it as an update.)
Zechariah has been presenting in deeply symbolic language what God could and would do for any people who make Him truly Lord of their lives. Had we dragged it all down to literalism, we would have missed the best part. Sadly, we know the most influential teachers of the Scripture among the Jews did this very thing. Worse, we have today a vast horde of professing Christians who perpetuate this error. When reading this chapter, understand it as pure symbolism. There isn’t any particular logical order; it is not sequential or chronological, but soaring far above mere words to drag our weak minds into the Realm of the Spirit to taste just a bit of the truth.
The Day of the Lord is coming. Even if Judah does lay claim to all these marvelous promises, there will finally come a day when it will all end for this earth. What can we say about the End of Time?
Characteristic of every prophetic description of that Last Day of the Lord, we are warned mankind will rise up against the message of God. Jerusalem symbolizes the place on earth from which God’s revelation flows out. That message was meant to be incarnated in His people, but the point is the message itself. Whomever it is walking in His Word at The End will face a vigorous global attack. The world at large will finally be united in one thing, this final act of defiance against the Creator. They will attack and it will seem they have succeeded, because they are depicted as collecting the spoils of war. Roughly half of this People of God will die or be captured and abused in this seeming victorious attack. The rest will somehow manage to survive this siege.
Right when it seems all hope is lost for those who love the Lord, He will come to end the whole charade. Zechariah describes a scene where the mere touch of the Lord’s feet on the earth would change the whole landscape. The mountain ridge east of Jerusalem would be parted like the sea at the Exodus. Don’t get lost in the details of the imagery, because it seems the Lord allows His people to escape even as He rescues them in place. How would you explain something for which there is no equivalent human experience so far? This highway symbolizes how the Lord with gather the survivors at His coming. (The New Testament adds the concept we’ll be gathered to Him in the air.) Zechariah describes this scene in familiar terms, echoed in the words of other prophets. For example, he mentions the endless fountain flowing from the Temple to the seas east and west, seen previously in Ezekiel. There is also an end to the current cycle of day and night, because time will be no more.
In our minds we have to understand he describes both the days after Christ and Eternity at the same time. What we experience in these Last Days brings a taste of Eternity, so the symbolism applies in some ways to both.
God will take the throne of all Creation and change everything, a new heaven and earth will replace the old. But in those final moments, he describes how the enemies of God’s Word will destroy themselves. Because they rejected His Word, they will never make any more noise. Because they refused to see His truth, their eyes will be gone. They’ll turn on each other, because their prey will be out of reach. Zechariah draws a picture of the rural residents of Judah coming in to attack the rear of the enemy formation. The enemy camp will be plundered, but all their lives, even their war animals, would die. At the moment of human triumph against God’s revelation, it all comes apart on them.
Think of an age when God rules directly on the earth. How easy to live in a land where all is relatively flat and lush like the Lower Jordan Valley, yet the Dead Sea will be fresh water. It won’t be necessary to discuss a Trinity any longer, because God Himself in His own form will be there, personally present in an Ultimate Reality no longer divided. There would be no way to resist His divine rule. The images of God punishing the nations who don’t celebrate His reign is perhaps more easily understood as applying during this Messianic Age. Anyone unwilling to serve Him would receive none of His promised blessings. Instead, they’ll face all the curses. Those who do not celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, when the rituals symbolized the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, would be punished severely. Everything — every little detail of life, such as the decorative items on a horse’s bridle — would be stamped as Property of God Almighty. There would be nothing He didn’t own directly, including us.
Were this meant literally, it would be a confusing jumble, not entirely consistent with other prophesies of the End Times. However, we rightly understand this as parable, symbolism of how God does things. The coming of Christ as Savior was down payment for Eternity. How would someone describe the joys of walking in the Spirit in the Last Days before the End of All Things?