The Impossible Dance – Chapter 6 – A Nation Settles
Messengers of a Greater Power
During the entire time when Israel had kings, it also had prophets. Some prophets like and Elijah and Elisha did not leave any writings, although sixteen prophets did. The prophets focused more on “forth-telling” (telling about changes that the kings and/or the people needed to make immediately) than “fore-telling” (telling about some future events) and were a constant reminder that God was acting in ways that transcended the earthly kingdom. Sometimes the prophets were there to encourage and sometimes to challenge the kings: The prophet Samuel anointed Saul as king, then later had to let Saul know that God had rejected him. Samuel also anointed David as king. Later, the prophet Nathan let David know that God was aware of David’s sin with Bathsheba.
The Prophets of the Old Testament were precursors of the prophetic ministry of Jesus. And now the Church, as the Body of Christ, has the privilege of carrying on that ministry.
Sometimes the prophet’s warnings would be not just for the kings but for everyone in the kingdom. The messages from the prophets often mixed the foretelling of the consequences for rejecting God with the hope that God will someday make things right. The most common offense cited by the prophets was the people’s lack of justice and how their ritual sacrifices were useless if they ignored justice. There were also diatribes against false prophets and against making idols. The most common metaphor used to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to God and his commands was prostitution, even to the point where God told the prophet, Hosea, to marry an adulterous woman to be a visible reminder for Israel.
Lament and Anger
God’s response through the prophets was to lament. There is even one entire book lamenting what happened to Israel. The lamenting would include pleas for Israel to repent and turn back to God. But then Israel’s continued sin would then be followed by God’s anger and God’s promise to root out, pull down and destroy Israel or any other nation around Israel that engaged in sin. Sometimes God used other nations to discipline Israel followed by threats to those same nations for their sinful own behavior.
But in the end was God’s promise to restore his kingdom and bless all those who repent. God even sent one prophet, Jonah, to a Gentile nation to call them to repent or be destroyed. When they did repent, God held back his punishment – although history tells us that God destroyed them when they went back to their old ways.
The strange story of the ark and the tabernacle
The Ark in the Promised Land
After Israel entered the Promised Land, Israel placed the tabernacle and all its furnishings in Gilgal. After Israel had settled in the land, the tabernacle was then set up in Shiloh where it stayed for two hundred years. During the time of Samuel, Samuel’s sons, without consulting God, removed the ark from the tabernacle to take it into battle with the Philistines who not only won the battle but took the ark with them. The Philistines found that although Yahweh did not see fit to help Israel win the battle, Yahweh did create issues with the Philistines. The Philistines responded by moving the ark a couple of times, but the problems did not disappear and so they sent the ark back to Israel.
The ark initially ended up in Beth Shemesh, but after 70 people died when they tried to look in the ark, the people of Beth Shemesh sent the ark to Kiriath Jearim where it stayed for 20 years. The Bible is not explicit about when it happened, but sometime during the reign of King Saul, the tabernacle, sans the ark, was moved to Nob and then to Gibeon.
After David established the capital in Jerusalem, King David set up his own tabernacle and then moved the ark there. In moving the ark, David had to learn a lesson. He first tried to have the ark carried in a cart, but when the ark started to slip out of the cart, the people died who touched the ark to prevent it from slipping out. So, the ark ended up in Obed-Edom’s house for a while. Hophni and Phineas learned the hard way that you don’t necessarily take the presence of God when you take the ark, but David learned the hard way that you can’t ignore the presence of God when you take the ark. David was successful in moving the ark to Jerusalem after he had the ark moved according to the instructions God had given Moses.
The Tabernacle and the Temple.
When Solomon was king, he oversaw the building of a temple to replace the tabernacle. A foreigner from Tyre named Hiram built all the furnishings except the ark itself. The original furnishings of the tabernacle were possibly put into storage in the temple. Even though the temple was much more grandiose than the tabernacle, Solomon recognized that it still could not hold God. Some years later, the Babylonians would destroy Solomon’s temple.
The interesting thing with this history is that during the time of King David all the rituals of Moses were conducted at the tabernacle in Gibeon where there was no ark and no presence of God, while the ark itself, with the presence of God, was in Jerusalem where there was a service of joy, dancing and singing instead of the ritual sacrifices. Also, the ark was no longer concealed in the Holy of Holies where there was limited access, it was now in a place where everyone could access it.
This brings us to the prophet Amos who prophesied that God was going to destroy most of Israel, except for a remnant, and that He would restore David’s tabernacle– not the one at Gibeon, not the temple Solomon built, but David’s tabernacle. In Acts 15, the Bible records that the apostles quoted this passage from Amos because they determined that Amos was referring to Gentiles now being accepted into the kingdom of God. The tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon were restricted to the nation of Israel, but God was now going to make himself available to the entire world, Jews, and Gentiles alike.
The term “diaspora” usually refers to a group of people that has been scattered from a specific location. In this case, the term refers to the scattering of Jews from the Promised land. But this particular diaspora is only a part of God’s larger plans for His people.
Our God is a God of overflowing love. His love caused Him to create us so that His love could overflow from Himself to us. He wanted His image-bearers to accomplish His mission of overflowing love and overflow from Eden to fill the entire earth. When we rebelled against His overflowing desire so that we could make a name for ourselves instead, He confused our language at Babel so that we would continue to flow out over the earth. When God wanted to prepare His Holy Nation for His mission, He scattered them to Egypt. When Israel rebelled against His mission of overflowing love, He scattered them from the Promised Land. The Son of God came in overflowing love to offer Himself in sacrifice in order to restore us to Himself. When the scattered Jews from many nations gathered for Pentecost, God reversed the action of Babel, and the apostles shared His message of overflowing love in many languages so that the message would be carried to the Jews in many nations. To continue the overflow, God guided Peter and Paul so that His love could flow out to the Gentiles as well. God further ensured the flowing out by using the Romans to scatter both Jews and Christians from Jerusalem. To this day, when our focus is more on building our Christian institutions, becoming too ingrown, God continues to scatter His people so that His message of overflowing love will reach more people in more places across the earth.
This program of overflowing creates a Dynamic Tension between our scattering and our unity. It would be well if our scattering were motivated by love so that we would continue to stay unified as we scatter. Sadly though, our scattering is often due to divisiveness rather than love, countermanding the intent that the world will recognize that we are disciples of Jesus because of our love.
The covenant God made with Israel had the proviso “if you follow my commands.” Israel continually demonstrated its inability to do that by its continuous practice of polytheism and God’s judgement followed. The nation of Israel would suffer the consequences. The first sign of the consequences manifested itself in the splitting of Israel into two kingdoms.
After that, the northern kingdom of Israel was the first to collapse in 535BC with the invasion of the Assyrians whose policy was to scatter the captured inhabitants throughout their empire and replace them with Assyrians. These northern tribes seem to have been totally assimilated into the Assyrian empire and they would not be heard from again in history.
In 722BC, the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah and took the best and the brightest of Judah as captives to the capital of Babylonia for “retraining” so that they could contribute to the Babylonian society. It was at this point that the nation of Israel would now be referred to as Jews. It was from this point on that, despite the return of some of the Jews to their homeland, most Jews would now be living outside their homeland.
Worship in exile
During this exile, the Jews as they would now be called, had to become more deliberate if they were going to preserve their culture. It was during this time that the Jews would begin to collect all their writings in order to begin to determine what would be their scripture. They had the writings of Moses, but they had to determine what else should be included in their scripture.
During this time, they focused more seriously on worshipping Yahweh. Before this time, the biblical and archeological records indicate that Israel had a habit of adopting the worship of any idols of the culture they were in contact with. But now they had to preserve their culture while living amid a dominant foreign culture. Although the origins are a little obscure, as temple worship was no longer available, synagogues as a permanent institution developed during the exile.
The books of Daniel, Esther and Ezekiel give examples of how the Jews were able to thrive, even while experiencing opposition, while the nation was in exile: Daniel as an exceptional administrator, Esther as queen to the emperor and Ezekiel as a prophet.
From this time forward, most Jews have remained outside their homeland with no access to the one temple in Jerusalem. It was during this time that the Jews created local synagogues, with worship now focused either in the home or at the synagogue.
Assyria scattered the Northern Kingdom then the Babylonians overran Assyria, captured Jerusalem, and took the prominent citizens into exile. After the 70 years in captivity prescribed by God had passed, the Persians overran Babylonia and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The first batch of returnees went back with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. A second batch would go back to Jerusalem with Ezra who confronted the Jews about their failure to keep separate from the nations around them. A while later, Nehemiah would go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. And yet, with all the returnees, the majority of the Jews chose to remain in Babylonia – and even today, most Jews live outside the Promised Land.
In another reminder of God’s provision, the rulers of the Persian empire strongly supported the Jews as they returned to Jerusalem, giving them what they needed. God even provided prophets to encourage the Jews.
In a reminder of the times when Moses collected contributions to build the tabernacle, contributions that the Egyptians gave to the Israelites as they fled Egypt, the people returning to the Promised Land with Zerubbabel willingly contributed from the provisions that the Persians gave to them for the rebuilding of the temple.
In a reminder of their own inability to follow Yahweh, when the Jews first returned to the Promised Land they ended up once more intermarrying with the non-Jews and following the practice of idol worship. So, when Ezra came to Jerusalem, he had to lead the Jews to repentance and to put away their foreign wives.
Then, in the end, God would send one last prophet, Malachi, who had words of condemnation of Israel for all the sins committed and of the promise to restore everything because that is what he promised. After the prophet Malachi, God did not raise up another prophet for Israel until Jesus came. That prophetic silence would last four hundred years.
Songs and reflections of the heart
As creatures made in the image of the Creator, it is self-evident that we cannot avoid creating. We are also creatures that are born to worship, as even our popular culture makes very evident. When we put those together, we get a work like the Psalms, a book of poetry which was set to music. The psalms are a collection of praise songs written by various people. They are songs that reflect the thoughts of those people experiencing life with all its emotions in a broken world.
In addition to musical notations, several psalms have notations indicating the events which inspired the writing of those psalms. Some of the psalms have notations indicating the kind of occasions in which the psalms would be used. As poetry, the psalms use various poetic devices such as parallelism, acrostics, and figures of speech.
The Psalms express various themes such as the character of God, the experience of people, the worship of God, lament, petitions for help, confession of sin, praise and thanksgiving, expressions of wisdom. The emotions expressed in the Psalms are sometimes very raw with feelings of abandonment, questions of God’s provision, hatred, and vengeance. Yet all these expressions are included in that book of praise songs. The inclusion of the full range of human expression is an acknowledgement of the reality of the human experience and an affirmation of being honest with God about our feelings while placing all of that in the context of a just and merciful God who is worthy of praise.
The Psalms are not the only place where one can find poetry in the Old Testament. Poetry can also be found in various portions of other books of the Bible. There is even one book of the Bible that is entirely a poem/song, The Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) which is a positive and passionate expression of marital love.
Wisdom can also be found in the Psalms and other places as well. The pair of books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, show the benefits of and limits of wisdom. Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes and was the primary author of Proverbs. In 1 Kings 3-4, God grants Solomon’s request for wisdom to rule the nation, but God also grants Solomon much more. Proverbs reflects that wisdom as a collection of rules to live a good life. On the other hand, Ecclesiastes reflects the limits of wisdom in finding the meaning of life.
Silence and waiting
After the time of Nehemiah and Malachi, there were no more explicit words of prophecy from Yahweh until the coming of Jesus. And in this time of silence from God, there was much turmoil.
- The Greek Empire would overtake the Persian Empire and therefore Israel.
- When the Greeks desecrated the temple, there was a revolt led by a Jewish family, the Hasmoneans, who successfully overthrew the Greeks. Hanukah is a celebration of the miracle that took place in the temple.
- The Roman Empire would overtake the Greek Empire and the Hasmonean kingdom in Israel. Despite the Romans taking over, the Greek language and culture became part of the infrastructure of the Roman Empire.
- The exact origins are unknown, but some of the Jews would adopt the Greek culture, becoming Hellenized. The aristocratic leaders of these Hellenized Jews would become the Sadducees. In opposition to the corruption of Judaism brought in by the Sadducees, a group known as the Pharisees arose. These two groups were still active when Jesus broke into history.
In the midst of God’s apparent silence, all this activity indicates that God is still working. Several times in the Old Testament, God pointed out that, despite everything else going on, there was still a remnant of people with which he was still working. No matter what the situation is, no matter how good or how bad things seem to be, God is always working on his plans, and he is always preparing, however quietly and behind the scenes, for the next step.
- Read Zechariah 7. What words of warning does Zechariah pass on to the people who were not faithful to God?
- Read Isaiah 10:5-11. Here, God is chastising a “godless” nation, Assyria, which He used to discipline His own chosen nation, Israel, which had also behaved godlessly. Both nations will suffer the anger of God. God uses both nations to accomplish His will. What is the warning and hope in that for us?
- Read 1 Samuel 4:1-11; 2 Samuel 6:1-7. What do these passages tell you about the presence of God?
- Read Jeremiah 25:11-12. It seemed hopeless. The unfaithful nation of Israel was no more. But a faithful God made promises to eventually restore them. What are God’s promises to us?
- Read Jeremiah 29:1-23. What did Jeremiah say that the exiles were to do while they were in exile?