Tag Archives: Assyria

The Wisdom of Silence

But the people remained silent and said nothing in reply….
2 Kings 18:36 (NIV)

Wendy’s and my morning routine begins each day meeting in our dining room for breakfast. Our dining room looks east over our back yard and the field of prairie grass behind it. If the sun isn’t too bright we get to watch the sun rise up over the tree line as we drink our respective tea and coffee and catch up on the news of the morning.

Of late Wendy and I have been reading a lot about the outbursts that are happening all over the States from college campuses to the streets and parks of various cities. As most of us know, it spills over into social media where it seems one cannot share a reasoned, personal opinion without getting pummeled, insulted and threatened by strangers or people you barely know. Just a few weeks ago my friend Dr. Bob shared with me a brief glance at the vitriolic string of threatening comments and emails he’d received after his editorial appeared in the New York Times. We are living in reactive times.

During our quiet morning conversations Wendy and I have mulled over a couple of thoughts about this entire trend. First, at least in some cases the screams and conflict are meant to create a reaction and the press coverage that goes along with it. National attention is exactly what some groups desire to recruit like minded individuals and financial support. Second, we live in an unprecedented age of 24/7 news coverage from endless outlets competing for ratings and advertising dollars. These news outlets have a need for news they can report and keep audience attention. I wonder, at times, how complicit the media is in creating or sustaining the conflicts with their coverage to the point that it gets blown out of proportion compared to the reality of the situation. Finally, it has come to light that another country had agents trolling American social media during our election year stirring up reactive anger between those of opposing political views. They believed that the conflict would be destabilizing. Mission accomplished. Welcome to a new era of cyber warfare: stimulating your enemies to destroy themselves from within.

This came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter about a very ancient conflict. The Assyrian empire was blitzing its way through the region. They destroyed Israel and were now at the gates of the walled city of Jerusalem. The strategy for thousands of years of siege warfare was for the raiding army to send its best communicator to have a parley with the besieged city’s leaders. The city officials would stand on the wall and the besieging army’s mouthpiece would stand below and yell up at them. The goal was to threaten, cajole, and intimidate those in the city into giving up.

The Assyrian commander comes to wall of Jerusalem and does his best to smack talk the people of Judah into fear. He tells them not to listen to their king, not to trust their God, and to look at how things ended up for their other enemies. For added effect he throws in that a long siege would result in them being so starved for food and drink that they’d eat and drink their own excrement.

But then the scribes record that the people said nothing. They didn’t react in anger. They didn’t talk smack back. They didn’t take the bait. They remained silent.

This morning I’m reminded that the teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely reminds us “there is a time to speak, and a time to be silent.” I’m reminded that when brought before the kangaroo court of His accusers bent on state-sanctioned homicide, Jesus remained silent. There is a time for discussion and reasoned debate. There are times to raise our voices in protest. But there are also times like the people of Judah before the Assyrian parley when we need the wisdom to be silent and ignore the taunts of others.

God, grant me the wisdom to know when to speak, when to be silent, and the discernment to know the difference.

[Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a breakfast date with Wendy down in the dining room.] Have a great week everyone.]

Life Between the Prevailing Wind and Hard Heart

Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction.
2 Kings 16:10 (NIV)

Last week Wendy and I found ourselves in a discussion about the hazing rituals we experienced growing up. For Wendy it was the process of pledging in a college sorority. For me it was being part of a high school swimming team. In both our cases, the hazing was the relatively minor and harmless. It was the ages old exercise of new members demonstrating allegiance and loyalty to the group and its elder members. There are nightmare stories of those who have been forced to do things against their will in order to be accepted. There are also stories of those who choose to behave against their beliefs, morals, or personal values simply to accommodate the prevailing cultural forces. And, it is ages old. These things have always been part of our human experience east of Eden.

Today’s chapter is dedicated to the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. According to the description provided us by the scribes, Ahaz appears to have had a pattern of choosing to accommodate the prevailing winds of his society’s popular culture. Ahab was a follower. Rather than being faithful to the Law of Moses and adhering exclusively to the faiths of his fathers, Ahaz seemed willing and open to worship anything anywhere. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own child which was a common practice among some of the more gruesome Canaanite cults (and explicitly forbidden by the law of Moses). Ahaz also worshiped the idolatrous gods of their northern counterpart, Israel.

When threatened by military conquest by his neighbors, Ahaz was unwilling to stand up and lead his army in defense of his nation and people. Ahaz was a follower. So, he appealed to the biggest bully in the neighborhood for protection: Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria (note: featured photo of this post is a relief showing Tiglath-Pileser standing over an enemy). The Assyrian warlord was happy to take Ahaz’ gold and defend Judah, but protection came with a higher price than just gold.

After the successful defense of Judah, Ahaz had to complete an ancient form of hazing by traveling to Assyria to pay his respects to Tiglath-Pileser and to prove his subservience. While in Assyria, he copied the plans to an altar there and sent it to be replicated and placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars believe that this altar was likely the royal altar of Tiglath-Pileser, and its presence at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a sign that Tiglath-Pileser was to be worshipped as their protector. Ahaz, ever willing to worship anything, anywhere was only too happy to make this accommodation.

This morning I’m thinking about character, subservience, and accommodation. There is a fine line between harmless societal rituals and cruel hazing. There are some who will go along with the crowd to the point of losing themselves, and there are also some who err on the side of being so self-righteous about their beliefs that they cannot extend even an ounce of grace and mercy to those who disagree with every jot and tittle of their dogma. Once again I’m thinking about finding the truth in the tension between the extremes. I don’t want to be an Ahaz who simply “goes with the flow” and follows the prevailing winds of culture to the point that my faith is meaningless. I also don’t want to be so rigid and hard-hearted in my personal standards that love, grace, mercy and forgiveness get squeezed out of my life and relationships.

Public Fear; Personal Assurance

It has been fascinating for me to watch the post-election panic and fearful protests on the streets of many American cities since the election. Fear leads us to behave in interesting ways, as it has throughout human history. People are people, and the fearful residents of Jerusalem c. 701 B.C. are also displaying their fear in public ways.

Look, their brave men cry aloud in the streets;
    the envoys of peace weep bitterly.
The highways are deserted,

    no travelers are on the roads.
The treaty is broken,
    its witnesses are despised,
    no one is respected.
Isaiah 33:7-8 (NIV)

The fear in Jerusalem is well justified. The dreaded army of the regional superpower, Assyria, has swept through the north and is now moving on Jerusalem. It is a large army well-trained, well-equipped, and battle hardened. It is an army unlike anything the people of Jerusalem have ever faced. The Assyrian army’s reputation for destruction, violence, and brutality has preceded them.  It is no wonder that order is giving way to fearful chaos on the streets of Jerusalem.

It is always darkest before the day dawns, it has been often said. That is the overarching theme of Isaiah’s message in today’s chapter. In darkness we tend to grasp for light. If the power goes out we seek flashlights and candles, when things get spiritually dark we reach for God. The ancient seer describes the fear of Assyria leading the people to repent and call on God for deliverance, and he then promises that deliverance.

Jerusalem will not fall to Assyria, Isaiah proclaims, though it will not be delivered by human effort:

Your rigging hangs loose:
    The mast is not held secure,
    the sail is not spread.
Then an abundance of spoils will be divided
    and even the lame will carry off plunder.

A wealth of plunder and spoils, but not from anything the people of Judah have traded for. The word picture is of a trade ship that has sailed no where. So where will the all the spoil and plunder come from? God is going to deliver it personally. God will deliver the people of Judah from the Assyrians.

This morning I am thinking about how Isaiah’s message was received by his family, friends and neighbors who were shaking in fear. I have a hard time believing that it was accepted heartily. I doubt that it provided many with comfort and assurance. Rampant fear is not so easily assuaged, as current events bear witness.

Nevertheless, I look back on my life’s journey and recall many times of corporate fear. As a child I learned to duck and cover from a Soviet nuclear strike, and as an adult I watched friends and family stockpile gold, guns and supplies for the apocalypse that was feared with the new millennium and the Y2K virus.

I understand that some threats are real and some fears are justified. Still, if I am truly a follower of Jesus, then my heart tells me that Jesus’ personal teaching should always trump public fear:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” Matthew 6:33 (MSG)

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The Placement of Faith in Precarious Times

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
    who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
    and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
    or seek help from the Lord.
Isaiah 31:1 (NIV)

The political situation in Isaiah’s day was precarious. Assyria was a giant, regional super power bent on conquest and destruction. The Assyrian army was on the move, swallowing up every city and nation in its way. The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were now in Assyria’s sights. The Assyrian war machine was large, well-trained, well-equipped and utterly ruthless. The Assyrians didn’t just invade, they destroyed. Assyrian kings would repeatedly inscribe the phrase, “I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire.”

If the Assyrians attacked a city and the city refused to surrender, the men leading the defense of their target would be rounded up to be publicly humiliated. Some could look forward to being flayed alive, their skins hung out for public spectacle. Others could look forward to being impaled alive on stakes or perhaps buried alive. If you approached a city in Isaiah’s day and  found a pile of dismembered limbs by the gate, you knew that the Assyrians had been there. It is no wonder that Isaiah and the people of Judah were in a bit of a panic. The political winds were blowing in the direction of Egypt, believing that an alliance with Egypt would save them from Assyrian devastation.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet questions the object of his fellow citizens faith. They were depending on Egypt to save them. They were bowing to foreign Gods in desperation for salvation. Isaiah reminds them that their trust should be in the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah predicts that Assyria’s ultimate fall would not come about from a “human sword.”

Throughout God’s Message there is a recurring theme. The ebb and flow of power throughout history is subject to a larger context. There is a Great Story that is being told in an ever-expanding universe. As with all great epics, the forces of good and evil, creation and chaos, are in constant conflict. I can focus on the temporal circumstance, or I can trust the Author of Life with the storyline. Isaiah was suggesting the latter, and predicting that the Author was going to show up in a eucatastrophic climax to this particular chapter of history. It might seem a bit naive given the grave circumstances. We’ll learn in the coming week or two how things played out.

This morning I’m thinking about the very real fear and anxiety being felt by people and nations in today’s world. I listen to the feelings of people in the media, on social media, and in casual personal conversations. We are witnessing a fascinating time of tremendous change. There is a tremendous amount of fear, and fear leads us to think, speak, and act in atypical ways. It seems to me that Isaiah’s ancient message to the people of Judah resonates even today. We are living in precarious times, as well.

Where will I find hope?

Where will I place my faith?

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Pondering the Prophetic

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
    the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
    like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
    or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
    there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
Isaiah 13:19-20 (NIV)

Prophecy is a part of the human experience. It is a mysterious thing, yet even our great stories are filled with it:

  • The weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
  • The otherwise prophetically inept Professor Trelawney utters the  prophetic words that speak of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s  connected fate.
  • Aragorn cites the words of Malbeth the Seer in making his fateful decision to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

I find it fascinating that our greatest stories quite regularly contain an element of the prophetic. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story. The prophetic is a mysterious part of our human experience.

Reading and interpreting the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrews requires knowledge, context, and discernment. The writing of the ancient prophets like Isaiah point to things that were, things that are, and things that yet will be. They are often woven together in a stream of poetic imagery that can be, and often is, misunderstood as we try to separate the strands.

As I attempt to understand the weave of prophetic strands in today’s chapter, there are two themes on which I find myself meditating this morning.

First, God was not opposed to utilizing kingdoms like Babylon and Assyria, to accomplish His purposes. This is not an isolated to occurrence. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the Great Story. From Balaam’s donkey, to the mysterious Melchizedek, to Rahab the prostitute, to the evil King Herod whose tax-raising census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, God uses a diverse and motley cast of characters and nations to drive the story line of history. This raises a number of fascinating questions. This morning, however, I find myself reminded not to try to put God in a box that He has not defined.

Second, I’m thinking about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, which are very visible today. While God used the Babylonian kingdom (despite their wickedness) and wove them into narrative in interesting ways, Isaiah’s prophecy is quite clear about the ultimate end (see the verses above). The ancient city of Babylon was, by all accounts, an amazing city. During two periods of history it was the largest city in the world. The hanging gardens there were among the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” But, within a few hundred years of Isaiah’s writing, the words of his prophecy would be fulfilled.

The ruins of Babylon are located just outside of Baghdad in Iraq, and can still be seen today. Despite Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to resurrect the glory old city, Babylon remains “a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris.” (Wikipedia)

In a time of political upheaval and present uncertainty, I find myself this morning taking quiet solace in the larger narrative of the Great Story, in the realization that God weaves many diverse Peoples and political regimes into that narrative, in the mystery of the prophetic, and in the present evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words.

 

October

“I am against you,”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“I will burn up your chariots in smoke,
    and the sword will devour your young lions.
    I will leave you no prey on the earth.
The voices of your messengers
    will no longer be heard.”
Nahum 2:13 (NIV)

U2 rose to fame during my college years. The iconic band that now fills stadiums and cuts deals with Apple to release their CDs was just an avant garde group of punks from Ireland when I first heard of them. One of the early songs that was extremely popular on my campus is now largely forgotten in their repertoire. It is quite simple and short:

October
And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care

October
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on…and on…

I thought about that song this morning as I mused on Nahum’s prophesied fall of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire (a.k.a. the Neo-Assyrian empire) was one of three empirical legacies of the Assyrians. It was their final empire which lasted just 300 years, roughly from 910-612 B.C. It is ranked 119 out of 214 historic world empires on Wikipedia’s charts.

Nahum was a prophet of doom for the Assyrians. Though they had risen to heights of regional power they were now to be silenced once and for all. And, Nahum’s prediction came true when an alliance of their vassals rose up to destroy the capitol city of Nineveh a few years later.

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But You go on…

As a lover of history, I often think about the ebb and flow of human kingdoms and empires. As the Great Story plays out from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, there is a constant rise and fall of kingdoms and empires. Hundreds of them. How many of them thought that they were it. How many claimed to be the greatest? How many claimed that they would never fall? How many rulers claimed divinity or divine right?

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But You go on…

This morning, I’m humbled. I am suspicious of any claims of divine right, invincibility, or superiority whether that come from an ISIS propaganda video or a presidential candidate’s propaganda ad. There is a larger story being told, and the kingdoms of this world are all merely playing their part.

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. But You go on.

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 2

Star of Bethlehem, Magi - wise men or wise kin...
Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.” Matthew 2:1 (MSG)

It’s interesting to read this passage in light of our recent journey through Jeremiah’s story. Five hundred years before the events in today’s chapter, the people of Israel had been taken into exile. Where? To Babylon and Assyria, in the east. Those taken into exile were the best and the brightest of Israel‘s young men who, in some cases, rose to positions of leadership and influence.

Now, hundreds of years later, a celestial phenomena sends these foreign scholars and astronamers searching for its meaning. How did they know this event in the heavens signaled the birth of “the king of the Jews?” Since there is no record of the prophetic sign in the scripture, it’s most likely that a prophetic word was given through one of the Israelites in exile hundreds of years before. Perhaps it was Daniel or one of his friends. We may never know who it was, but we know that these many years later God weaves the tragic events of the exile into the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. The scholars from the east become a beautiful word picture. Among the very first to recognize the messiah and worship him were non-Jewish gentiles. Even at his birth, Jesus was gathering the nations.

Today, I’m encouraged reading the story of the Magi. It’s a great reminder that God is in control. He weaves the threads of past events into our present circumstances to accomplish his purpose. Like the Magi, my journey is simply a thread in a much larger tapestry.

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