Week 2 – Bible and History
In the second week we think more about the prophets – Why? Because they were trying to see where God was in the world, and what God was calling people to do. How is God at work in history? What is judgement, and is God merciful? What about other people?
As people deep in prayer they were given insights, pictures, understanding including glimpses of what God would do in the future. For the God of then had a plan for the ‘then’ and the future, to bring in his Kingdom, on the Day of the Lord.
And we too live in the real world of ‘now’ but have faith in and hope for the Kingdom which is to come, not as passive spectators, but active in the world today.
Tuesday 2.2 – God in History
In Isaiah chapter 40 we read that the prophet hears a voice saying “Cry out!” and he replies “What shall I cry?”
What can we say about God and where God is in our world? Why does God allow war or famine? Why do the bad so often flourish and the good suffer when they do not deserve it?
The Old Testament is not afraid to tackle these questions, and like a symphony it explores various sub-themes, taking different approaches.
There is one view, found most clearly in Deuteronomy, which says, put simply:
‘God blesses the good and punishes the bad.’ -though maybe the punishment is deferred to the children’s children. If we read only Deuteronomy and similar passages we would feel forced to accept this, but it is not the only instrument in the orchestra. Most notably the book of Job challenges this view outright. Job is a righteous man, yet suffers terribly.
And the psalms contain many psalms where the writer asks plaintively: ‘Why?’ ‘Why do I suffer, why do you not help, why have you forgotten me?’
The prophet Ezekiel is clear God does not punish a different generation for a previous generation’s failings.
The prophet Habakkuk wonders why God will not punish the enemies who have behaved even worse, whose violence is overwhelming.
Isaiah even suggests that God’s people have suffered more than was fair – ‘double for all her sins’ (Is 40:2).
Nahum and Obadiah exalt at the overthrow of their enemies, albeit by even more ruthless people, but Jonah is challenged to consider whether God loves the Assyrians from Nineveh, who were the most ruthless and merciless of all invaders – God asks Jonah at the end, ‘should I also not have concern for them?’
We can pick out particular passages, but we should see the argument flow between books, the themes and counter-themes as the writers explore this most difficult of questions. No easy answer!
And today we know – as the ancients did not – that earthquakes and volcanoes are needed to keep our dynamic planet alive, that we live on a living planet (and Job is shown this in different language by God at the end of the drama). We know too that our actions affect the planet – the earth mourns. We know that murder and killing affect communities and life deeply – Abel’s blood cries out to God from the ground – what a profound phrase!
We know that our actions have consequences, and we have some understanding of systems and those great forces in the world which prove beyond complete human control – what Paul calls principalities and powers.
And we know – if we stop to think – that life for individuals is always caught up in the life of their community and affects it and is affected by it. We also have freedoms to make choices, and we understand that some have more power than others, and that power is complex; there was a strange power in the solitary man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, or in Rosa Parkes who would not move seat in the bus.
And we understand the call to love our neighbour, to be welcoming of the alien and stranger, and we may not be able to put it into words, but we have a sense of what it means to speak of a holy God.
One of the shifts in the Old Testament is the growing absence of God! What do I mean? God appeared to Adam and Eve and to Abraham and Moses, speaking clearly or so the narratives tell us.
But in later texts, we read rather, ‘the Word of the Lord came to ..’or the king is told what God thinks via a priest or prophet. There are now metaphors and images which speak of who God is. In the book of Esther God is completely absent (and almost entirely so in Ruth), but we still sense what it is that God would want or what God blesses.
God, in our Bible is no philosophical construct but active in and through history and life – both present and distant – close to us and mighty (what we call immanent and transcendent)
‘Seek God while he may be found, call on Him while he is near.’ God comes searching for us, but he also calls us to make the effort to seek him, and he is to be found in whatever the wider historical context.
And then, in Jesus, we find God fully present in our world, but not in power, not in the palace, but in a manger; and on the Cross we believe the forces of sin and death are conquered though it looks otherwise. God is with us – Emmanuel – but it is also a mystery and mysterious and wonderful and incomplete!