Handwriting on the Wall

But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared. Deuteronomy 18:15-22

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:16

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:15-20

“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4

There have always been people who claim God has given them a special message about future events. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought more than the usual number of these people out of the woodwork and into the news. It’s natural to want to know for sure what is coming in order to be prepared and take whatever action you can, but a lot of the current crop of self-proclaimed modern prophets are speaking words not from God, but words from their own minds. Perhaps they really believe God is speaking to them, but that doesn’t mean God really is. It’s important to recognize that not all the voices in your head- or someone else’s- are from God.

Most of the earlier coronavirus-related prophecies seemed to promise that it would dissipate quickly and that we ought to go about our business as usual. These people have mostly gone quiet, but I still have a screen shot from Twitter of a person who said in early March that the Lord told him “I am removing the threat of this”  and that within a short time the virus will die out. Because of other things the tweeter said, it was obvious to me that the person was speaking from a place of strong political opinions. It echoed words the president was saying at that time, and blamed those who disagreed for sounding a politically motivated false alarm. I was reminded of the story of the prophets consulted by Ahab, who told him what they thought he wanted them to say.  Only Micaiah dared to speak the truth, likely at great risk to himself.

On the other extreme, there are people who see the pandemic as evidence that the end of the world is near. They pull together diverse Scripture passages, often pulling passages written in the apocalyptic genre out of their original context and applying them to our place in space and time. Sometimes they throw in ambiguous prophecies from Nostradamus, or more modern sources written by people who consider themselves to be clairvoyant and/or in possession of a listening bug in God’s throne room.

So who are we to believe? My answer is: likely not any of these people. I can’t remember where I first heard it put this way, but prophecy in the Bible is generally forth-telling, not fortune telling, and I agree. And I think the same criteria ought to be applied to modern prophets as well.

I’m a subscriber to Richard Rohr’s daily meditations, which generally center around a different theme each week. Last week’s theme was “Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics”. Guest writer Albert Nolan wrote, ” Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as people who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by focusing their attention on, and becoming fully aware of, the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading”.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Biblical prophets were men and women so in tune with God that they knew what was likely going to happen. Their minds and hearts were focused on God, not on the kings they may have served, or the societies in which they lived, which gave them the ability to decipher the handwriting on the wall.  Often their prophecies involved speaking truth to power, as Samuel did with Saul, Nathan with David, Elijah with Ahab, and Jeremiah with Jehoiakim. So I’m immediately suspicious of any “prophet” who has an obvious political affiliation. Prophets speak for God, not any human being or group of human beings.

Additionally, prophecies were not necessarily  “fixed points in time” that could not be altered, as Jonah was dismayed to find out. When prophets speak for God, it is because God hopes that people will change their behavior for the better, hopefully in time to mitigate the dire consequences that will otherwise ensue. Those consequences may sometimes come as a result of direct divine intervention, but I think more usually they are natural consequences.

For example, I do not think the current global pandemic is a direct punishment from God, but it may be the result of what some might call karma…a law of cause and effect God built into the fabric of the universe. As I understand it, novel viruses like this one are not the result of spontaneous generation, but of existing animal viruses that mutate enough to jump species. It’s possible that  the virus originated with our poor stewardship of the earth, which resulted in loss of habitat for many animal species, which resulted in animals encroaching into areas occupied by humans, which resulted in close enough contact for the virus to move from animal to human hosts.

I’m skeptical of those who claim to know God well enough to speak for God, especially if I don’t see much in the way of what Jesus called “good fruit” in their lives. I’m skeptical of people who claim to know God well enough to see the future, especially when they have repeatedly made incorrect predictions. I’m especially skeptical when someone claims to have a message from God that will personally benefit the “prophet”. That isn’t how these things usually work.  What I am convinced of is that there is a force for good in the universe, which I know as God, and that force is working to redeem all that is broken and sick and hurting in this world and in me.

“Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand, but I know who holds the future, and I know who holds my hand.” And that’s good news to me!

Nobody’s Above the Law

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. 2 Samuel 11:27

James I of England is generally given credit for developing the theory of the divine right of kings,  and arguments for and against the idea came strongly into political play during the time of the American Revolution. King Louis XIV of France is reported to have coined the phrase, “L’état, c’est moi.” Some might argue that Jeff Session’s recent public interpretation of Romans 13 uses the concept of divine right to justify the policy of family separation for those who have crossed the US border without official permission. However, the idea that powerful people can do anything they want and are above the law has been around much longer than that. It was certainly commonplace practice during the Bronze and Iron Ages.  Perhaps that’s what David was thinking when he arranged for Uriah’s death in order to acquire Bathsheba for himself.

You can read the whole sordid story in 2 Samuel 11-12 but here’s a quick summary: David has been having a pretty successful run after the death of Saul, assuming first control of the southern territories, and then expanding his rule over the northern tribes as well. He wrests control of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, gets the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, builds himself a nice palace, makes plans to build a temple for God, has a number of significant military victories, and acquires several wives. But for some unknown reason,  one spring “at the time when kings go off to war” David decides to stay home and send the Israelite army off without him. Late one evening he becomes restless, goes up onto his rooftop, and spies on his neigbor Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah is away with the rest of the army. In any event, he decides that he wants to have sex with her. Like many women in the “Me Too” movement, Bathsheba is hardly in a position to say no. When she becomes pregnant as a result of  David’s blatant violation of the seventh commandment, he unsuccessfully tries a number of ruses to get Uriah home to bed his wife before the pregnancy becomes obvious. Uriah is too scrupulous to do that during wartime, so David asks his trusted deputy Joab to arrange a battlefield “accident” for Uriah. Now David is guilty of  blatantly violating the sixth commandment as well as the seventh. He quickly marries Bathsheba; problem solved, or so he thinks. And that’s where today’s reading picks up:

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” -2 Samuel 11:27-12:13

There are several thoughts that come to my mind when I read this passage. David may have thought that because he was king, he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. As absolute ruler, I suppose David could have made everything legal by making an official proclamation to that effect. But what is legal is not necessarily kosher, and that’s not how God thinks. I believe God wove his moral law into the fabric of the universe, and no one is above that law. If it’s not okay for a commoner to rape and kill, it’s not okay for a king either. The rules are supposed to be applied equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Justice is one of the main themes of the Hebrew Bible, along with strong admonitions that rulers are to use their power and wealth to benefit others, not to please themselves. David wasn’t above God’s law, and God let David know that by sending Nathan the prophet to tell him so.

To me, the hero of this story is Nathan, not David. Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s health, so I admire Nathan’s courage and cleverness as well as his moral clarity. It is Nathan, not David, who comes across as  “a man after God’s own heart”   here. Nathan understands how God expects humans to behave and he knows that David has missed the mark by a wide margin. But how can he communicate this in a way that he will be heard, while avoiding the personal repercussions from the wrath of an angry king who doesn’t want to be told what to do? Nathan goes about his goal obliquely, by telling a story. He crafts his story so well that David can’t help but be sympathetic for Nathan’s fictional poor man. It is only after David expresses his anger at the rich man’s outrageous behavior that Nathan delivers his punchline, “You are the man!” I think writers and storytellers and playwrights are often more important in God’s eyes than we know. They can say things that would never be heard otherwise, and if they are in tune with the heart of God they can be a very powerful force for good.

David’s life, at least as recorded in 2 Samuel, went rapidly downhill after the Bathsheba affair. Despite David’s public acts of contrition,  the child of his illicit dalliance died. I have to wonder if being a terrible role model for his other children didn’t have something to do with the fulfillment of Nathan’s prediction, which followed the Amnon/Absalom/Tamar debacle. Just as David felt he had a right to take Bathsheba because he was king, Amnon thought he had a right to take Tamar because he was a prince. Just as David plotted Uriah’s death, Absalom plotted to kill Amnon, and to take David’s throne. In my thinking, that’s how the business of the sins of the parents being visited on succeeding generations usually works. For example, absent divine intervention, therapy, or a combination of both, children of abusers often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Today’s reading also includes Psalm 51, which David is said to have written after his encounter with Nathan, and in which he expresses deep repentance for his behavior. It’s beautiful, emotionally expressive poetry, but I have a problem with those who derive theological implications from David’s declaration that “against thee and thee only (God) have I sinned”.  I think David sinned against quite a few others, including to begin with Uriah, Bathsheba, and the unnamed child who died, but also against Joab by giving him an order to kill. Then there were the loyal soldiers who were collateral damage in the ploy to get rid of Uriah, along with David’s other wives and children. I see the phrase as hyperbole expressing David’s conviction that sinning against humans pales in comparison to sinning against God. The problem I have with that kind of theology is that there’s plenty of evidence in the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, to indicate that when you sin against human beings, you  are sinning against God, If all humans bear the image of God, then how you treat other human beings is how you treat God. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind” is irreversibly yoked with “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Eighth-century prophets like Amos railed against those who were careful to observe the ritual law while ignoring the moral law. “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his listeners that  whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Paul summed up the moral law in one commandment: love your neighbor as yourself., as did James: “If you really keep the royal law stated in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors“.

God doesn’t have one set of rules for the rich, powerful “winners” and another one for the poor, vulnerable, and forgotten “losers”. God cares about justice, and is still using courageous voices to remind us that God’s moral law is part of the design of the universe, and applies to everyone. And that’s good news to me.

 

Samuel: Be Careful What You Wish For

 

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.  They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Samuel marks the transition from the time of the judges to the time of the kings. In the Christian Bible, it is divided into two shorter books. First Samuel begins with stories about Samuel, a priest who could be considered the last of the judges, and ends with the death of Saul, Israel’s first king. Second Samuel covers most of the reign of King David, arguably Israel’s greatest king.What’s interesting about the stories in the book of Samuel is how realistic they are. Saul and David are both portrayed “warts and all”, and they both had plenty of warts.

Although Saul starts out as a charismatic and effective leader, his mental condition deteriorates and he becomes violent and unstable.  David is serving in court as Saul’s armor-bearer and music therapist, as well as being married to Saul’s daughter Michal and best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan.  One minute he’s a pretty nice guy, and the next he is trying to pin David against the wall with his spear. David escapes with the help of Michal and Jonathan, and Saul seems to spend more time and effort chasing David around the country than fighting Israel’s enemies. He also kills people he suspects of helping David, and gives David’s wife to another man.  Finally, in desperation after he has completely lost control of the country, he consults a medium in order to conjure up dead Samuel for advice. That goes predictably badly for him, and he and his sons die in a losing battle with the Philistines soon after. I don’t think Saul was what the people had in mind when they asked God for a king “like all the other nations”.

David, for the most part, is a good king. He’s certainly more effective than Saul in terms of military success; he almost always behaves honestly and honorably; and he is very sincere in his faith in and commitment to God. When he’s wrong, he admits it and strives to make things right with God and others.  Unfortunately, he seems to have the same problem that many men who rise to positions of power today seem to have, and that’s an apparently uncontrollable urge to have multiple sexual partners. This, of course, turns out especially badly for Uriah the Hittite, but it also results in an incredibly dysfunctional royal family and eventually in civil war. The quality of kingly leadership will continue to mostly decline over the next few hundred years, as recorded in the book of Kings.  Ben Myers, who tweeted through the Bible, summarized the centuries from Saul to Zedekiah this way: 1. So you really want a monarchy, huh? Don’t say I didn’t warn you 2. I told you so.

The people of the twelve tribes of Israel were tired of being pushed around by neighboring tribes competing for the same resources. They thought the best way to stop that would be to have a king: a strong leader who could lead them to victorious conquest of all their enemies, and they could then live in peace and plenty “under their own vines and fig trees”. They didn’t think that a king would also appropriate their resources and use them to further his own agenda. They didn’t think that a king might have feet of clay, and make choices that would cause tremendous suffering among ordinary people. As we might say today, they didn’t think of all the dominoes that would fall, and in which directions..So why did God allow them to have a king in the first place?  What is the writer of Samuel trying to tell us?

Things weren’t going so swimmingly without central leadership in the time of the judges, as evidenced by the repeated “In those days, there was no king- every man did as he pleased” after some particularly horrible happening. Perhaps God, like a good teacher, has to “monitor and adjust” in his earthbound classroom. Perhaps even flawed kings are better than “every man for himself” anarchy. Perhaps God was willing to take a chance that at least some of  Israel’s kings might be more focused on serving others than furthering their own interests. I think that God gives us choice, and  it’s up to us to choose wisely. And I hope that’s good news.