Tag Archives: Meaning

Lessons on the Prophetic

“This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”
Daniel 7:28 (NIV)

As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it fascinating to realize how prophecy in its various forms plays a big part in so many of our epics and stories. It is most often found in our fantasy epics and mythological tales. Nevertheless, I find it also popping up in the most unusual places. Wendy and I have a favorite series of contemporary spy novels. In the series, the protagonist has a small handful of episodes with a mysterious old woman who knows things about him she couldn’t possibly know and sees what is going to happen to him. The mysterious world of the prophetic is part of our human experience.

Of course, if one journey’s through God’s Message at all you’re going to run into prophetic passages. In today’s chapter, the book of Daniel switches from stories of Daniel’s life to a series of journal entries recording dreams and visions that he had.

There are a few lessons that I’ve learned about prophecy as I’ve read and studied it over the years. This morning I am reminded of three – make that four – lessons I’ve learned that I try to always remember when I’m reading prophetic passages.

First, there is a mystery to the prophetic. Here I’m reminded of a line from one of my favorite mystics, Richard Rohr. He states that mystery isn’t something you can’t understand but something you can endlessly understand. It’s not easy to pin down, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on it, it slips away from you. If you’re left-brained and want a simple, black-and-white answer then prophecy will drive you crazy. Which leads to a second discovery.

The prophetic can be layered with meaning. In today’s chapter, the beasts of Daniel’s vision have all sorts of connections to the Babylonian myths and literature that he was forced to study when he was taken into captivity. These connections are largely lost on us today. Yet, it can also connect to other prophecies written by other prophets in scripture. Its imagery can connect to contemporary symbols of which Daniel had no knowledge. Unlike parables that typically have one main lesson to teach, the prophetic can be layered with meaning for both the times it was written, times that came later, and times yet to come. Which leads to my third observation.

Prophetic literature is the source of endless debate. You can see pieces of it that have a very clear meaning. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are good examples. Written hundreds of years before Jesus, they both eerily and accurately describe the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Yet most of it, like the beasts Daniel sees in today’s chapter, sounds like the writers were tripping on LSD.  There are many theories as to their meaning, and because prophecy can be layered with meaning whose to say that more than one theory is correct? Which leads to my final observation.

The prophetic is a tempting rabbit-hole to fall into. I have known some individuals along my life journey who delve so deeply into the prophetic that it consumes them. Trying to nail down the exact meaning of a prophetic passage with absolute certainty can be like trying to solve a complex puzzle. Prophecy is a cool subject to study, but if it becomes consuming to the point of ignoring everything else and becoming spiritually out of balance, then it’s time to give it a break.

At the end of today’s chapter, we read that Daniel, troubled by his dream, recorded it in his journal and then moved on. I find that a good example to follow when it comes to the prophetic. Don’t ignore it, but don’t obsess about it either. Focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. Loving God, loving people, and continually trying to do the right thing as I walk the journey each day.

Letters, Numbers, Part and Whole

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:1, 7 (NIV)

I am currently leading a team of teachers among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers as we share messages from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. [My kick-off message in the series on YouTube if you’re interested]

One of the first things that I did was to take the text of 1 Corinthians, strip it of all headings, footnotes, text notes, cross references, along with chapter and verse numbers. Then I put the text in a hand written font and handed it out to my team. “Here is Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth,” I told them. “Put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Corinthian believers and read it as if you just got it out of your mailbox.” The process has been transformational.

It’s amazing how the simple act of separating original, ancient texts into chapters and verses can alter our reading and understanding. I’m sure there are some readers who don’t even stop and consider that the Bible wasn’t originally written with all those numbers. They were added by scribes centuries later, and in doing so they sometimes detract from the writers’ original works.

Take today’s chapter for example. In yesterday’s chapter I mentioned Zechariah’s word from God  in which God speaks of the people looking upon Him, “the one they have pierced“, and mourn as mourning for the firstborn son. It’s a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross, pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear, as they sky darkens, the earth shakes, and His followers look on in disbelief. Then I got to the end of chapter 12 on this chapter-a-day journey and stopped reading.

Today I picked up with chapter 13 as if it’s a completely new section or thought and read the first verse:

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

This verse is a continuation of yesterday’s vision that foreshadows Jesus’ death, but in my one chapter a day habit it’s easy to think of this verse in my daily time capsule existence independent of yesterday’s chapter. But it was all one vision, one thought, one piece of writing. The death and piercing and mourning were all about God cleansing the people of sin and impurity. If I don’t connect the two chapters as one text I miss a crucial understanding of the whole thing in the same way that reading a hand-written letter as a bunch of independent verses and chapters loses its original intent as a personal letter from Paul to his friends in Greece.

Zac’s amazing prophetic roll continues today, describing the “shepherd” who is “struck” and the flock is scattered. Two-thirds are decimated and one-third survives but is “refined” by the process. Once again I find an uncanny description of the events of Jesus and  His followers in the first century. After Jesus’ death His followers scatter in fear for their lives, but instead of snuffing out the movement Jesus started it actually gains momentum. This momentum eventually sparks terrible persecution from the religious and Roman establishment. Jesus’ followers are hunted down, fed to lions in the Roman circus, stoned to death, impaled on pikes and burned alive to light Caesar’s garden. Many of them were wiped out just as Zechariah’s vision describes but it did not destroy the faith of those who survived. It refined their faith and made it stronger. Eventually, a few hundred years later, even Caesar becomes a believer.

This morning I find myself once again mulling over parts and whole. The first verse of today’s chapter doesn’t make sense apart from the previous chapter. Jesus’ death and the events of believers in the first century are made more meaningful and poignant when seen in light of Zechariah’s prophetic words penned 500 years earlier. In the same way people across the centuries have taken individual verses from the text of the Bible both to make inspirational Pinterest graphics and to justify all sorts of horrific acts of judgement, prejudice, violence, hatred, and persecution.

Some verses have incredible meaning in and of themselves, but I’ve come to understand that meaning should never be separated from the context of the author’s work and the Great Story that God is revealing across time, space, history and creation.

“‘I See,’ said the Blind Man”

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced,and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
Zechariah 12:10 (NIV)

Ever notice that people have favorite sayings? My Grandma Vander Well, when struck by a realization, would always say, “‘I see,’ said the blind man when he picked up his hammer and saw.” Wendy’s Grandfather used the same phrase though he had a different twist: “‘I see,’ said the blind man to the deaf dog when he picked up his hammer and saw.” We have a friendly, ongoing feud about which one is “right.”

If you regularly asked my dad how he is you’re likely to hear that he is “busier than a cranberry merchant” a phrase that originally was a variation of “busier than a cranberry merchant in autumn” (when cranberries are harvested). He also might say he is, “slower than molasses in January.

If you read the Jesus stories by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John you’ll find that Jesus also had a favorite phrase: “He who has ears, let him hear” which also occasionally included a variant of “Let he who has eyes see.”

Jesus explained to his followers on different occasions that truths He spoke of God’s kingdom were things that many (especially the most institutionally religious people, interestingly enough) didn’t understand. Though they had ears they didn’t hear it. Though they had eyes they didn’t see it. They heard the words and saw Jesus’ miracles but they were deaf and blind to what He was really saying and doing. Jesus invited all those who listened to his stories and watched what He was doing to open the eyes and ears of their spirit to see what He was really up to.

In our journey through the prophetic writings of Zechariah I’ve been noticing a pattern. There’s a theme that’s been coming across in the past few chapters. On the surface meaning of Zac’s prophecies he is addressing his people, at his time of history, in the circumstance he and they were experiencing. Buried in the words, however, there are little nuggets that don’t seem to fit neatly in Zac’s current circumstances but eerily preview key moments in Jesus’ story, a story that would take place 500 years in the future:

  • In chapter 9 Zechariah presents the King of the Jews “gentle, riding on a donkey” which aptly describes Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem the week before His death when the crowds shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
  • In chapter 11 Zechariah prescribes the “thirty pieces of silver” given to Judas to betray Jesus, blood money Judas threw back to the Chief priests and was used to buy a “potter’s field.”
  • In today’s chapter it happens again (see the verses pasted at the top of this post) as Zac clearly describes the crucifixion scene of Jesus (who claimed Himself to be “God’s one and only Son”) pierced by the Roman soldiers’ spear and mourned by His followers.

Interesting pattern, isn’t it? Just as God in creation buries fractal patterns in the seemingly random nature scenes we see around us all day long, so He buries patterns in the prophets poetry and the  patriarch’s stories that point to the design of a much larger story that He is telling across time. The patterns don’t appear on a cursory reading of the text any more than a cursory view of Jackson Pollack’s drip painting reveal the eerily exact fractal patterns of nature that he somehow was able to achieve in his seemingly chaotic and messy painting, yet “he who has eyes to see…”

This morning I’m thinking about layers. Layers of meaning prophecy. Layers of meaning in Jesus’ words and actions. Layers of meaning and design that have been buried in creation that eventually reveal themselves through the perceptive eyes, ears, words, and work of artists, physicists, writers, and philosophers.

I don’t want to go through this earthly  journey deaf and blind to the incredible things that God is doing all around me. I want the eyes and ears of my spirit wide open, perceptive, receptive so I can understand and experience more and more of what God is doing in this divine dance we call life. Then I can repeatedly honor Grandma Vander Well in my repeated realizations as I mutter: “I see said the blind man when he picked up his hammer and saw.

But for right now I have to finish this post and get ready for my day. Because, you know, “I’m busier than a cranberry merchant in autumn.”

Connected to a Larger Story

Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
Zechariah 10:9 (NIV)

I walked into Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv as I and my friends were heading back to the United States. After spending a week in Israel I had an even greater appreciation for the surreal experience there. Every international airport is a melting pot, but Ben Gurion seemed to take things to an entirely new level. Not only were there people from all over the world, but there was also the unrivaled diversity of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sub-cultures. My time in Israel was an amazing cultural experience of dining with and making new friends among both Jews and Arabs and from every religious persuasion. At Ben Gurion Airport all of diverse groups were represented and crammed together in one place at one time.

Looking around I saw Hasidic Jewish men in their tell-tale black clothing and hats as well as modern Jewish women with their own distinctive manner that radiates a certain larger-than-life personality. There were Jewish tourist groups from literally all over the world which was made evident by the cacophony of clothing and languages. There were Arabs in their turbans, Catholic priests and nuns in their robes, and even my fellow small-town American tourists with their own distinct drawls and a certain air of cluelessness.

And, of course there was tension. I found that there’s always tension in Israel. I felt surrounded at all times by the uncanny sense that something might just erupt at any given moment. In fact, as my friends and I stood in line at check-in a nearby baggage x-ray machine detected something amiss. Loud sirens suddenly blared at a deafening decibel level all around us. Bright lights flashed out in warning.

Paralyzed by the sensory shockwave, I turned to watch people of every religious, national, and political persuasion bolting for the doors out of fear that a terrorist’s bomb was about to explode. Thankfully, it was false alarm. Still standing in both panic and confusion, I was just as surprised at the speed with which things returned to normal, or what passes for normal in that place.

I mention my experience because, politics and religion aside, my time in Israel gave me a newfound respect for the amazing story of the Jewish people throughout history.  They have been scattered again, and again, and again, and again by wars, empires, politics, and persecution.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Zechariah speaks to the scattering of his people and prophesies their return from the remote reaches of the world. This was a contemporary issue for Zac because he was part of a remnant who had returned to rebuild a destroyed Jerusalem. In the previous hundred or so years the empires of Babylon, Assyria and Persia had scattered his people to those regions. He and his contemporaries were acting in faith that if they took the risk of rebuilding Jerusalem that his people would return.

I’ve mentioned before that prophetic writing is layered with meaning. It can address something in the moment and something in the distant future all at the same time. As I stood in Ben Gurion Airport it was like witnessing what Zechariah wrote back around 500 B.C. :

I will signal for them
    and gather them in.
Surely I will redeem them;
    they will be as numerous as before.
Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
I will bring them back from Egypt
    and gather them from Assyria.
I will bring them to Gilead and Lebanon,
    and there will not be room enough for them.

This morning I’m reminded of the Great Story that God is telling in the life-cycle of human history. It’s part of why I love history so much because I believe that it’s all connected. I believe we are all connected by this same story and we are a part of it. I’m just in a different chapter than Zechariah, but knowing his story and reading his prophetic poem layers my own experiences with new and profound depths of meaning. Even the seemingly insignificant experience of standing in an airport suddenly connects my story to the Great Story that is so much larger than myself.

 featured photo via speaking of faith and Flickr

Jezebel’s Epic End

“Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.
2 Kings 9:33 (NIV)

I have long been a fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy for the epic story it tells across life and generations. Over the years, Wendy and I have enjoyed introducing friends to the original film over a feast of spaghetti and cannoli, complete with some good Italian red wine.

One of the things that makes a great story is when it is layered with truth and meaning. Epic stories are mines that yield new treasure each time you descend into them. With each telling they reveal something you hadn’t seen before. Yet, even with all of the layers of meaning the narratives of great stories are typically built on something quite simple.

The Godfather epic might be summed up with Jesus’ simple words to his disciple, Peter: “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.” It is a generational tale in which the characters give themselves to “the sword” with what they believe are the best of intentions to protect those they love dearest. Their course, however, only serves to destroy the very things they tried to protect.

This came to mind in the quiet this morning as I read today’s chapter in the handwritten text of The St. John’s Bible. The stories of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah are epic stories, though I find that I have to move beyond the scribe’s text and descend into the story before I begin to see the layers.

The story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, belongs in the same genre of epic stories of those who live and die by the sword. Their tale is about lust for power, corruption, vengeance and blood.  Today’s chapter is the closing scene on their story. Ahab is dead and Jezebel feels her power slipping away as the leader of a coup d’état reaches her stronghold. Jezebel goes back to her tried and true playbook, putting on her make-up and doing her hair so as to seduce her way out of the corner where her own nefarious actions have placed her. But true to Jesus’ observation, the way of the sword ends badly for those who follow that path. The power of seduction fades and becomes impotent. Jezebel’s very own servants, no doubt weary of her wickedness, are only too willing to join the coup, chuck her out the window, and watch the dogs devour her dead flesh.

This morning I’m thinking about epic stories and the way they reveal truths about life and soul. This week at the lake Wendy and I enjoyed much conversation with our adult daughters. Along the meandering path of our discussions was the observation that we humans never seem content with “enough.” Vito Corleone and Jezebel followed the insatiable way of the sword, violently taking all they could for themselves believing that it would provide security of position and provision. They ignored the reality that when you violently take from others there will eventually be others who will violently take it from you.

What’s in a Name?

you will be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
Isaiah 62:2b (NIV)

A friend recently shared with Wendy and me that their child had reached the age when they wanted to be called by the more formal version of their first name. This is not unusual. I remember hitting the age when I wanted people to drop what I considered the childish sounding “Tommy” and call me just “Tom.” That lasted until college when friends just stated calling me “Tommy” or “Tommy V” and I just sort of rolled with it. Our Madison went through a similar journey with her moniker. She asked that we drop the “Maddy” and call her “Madison.” Somewhere in her young adult years she came to accept “Maddy Kate” as the endearment with which it is used.

For millennia names were attached to specific meanings. The name given to a person was, itself, a metaphor that attached meaning to that person’s life. In fact, the study of names and their meaning is an interesting thread of study across all of God’s Message. Not only are name fascinating, but God quite regularly changes or gives people new names in the midst of their earthly journeys. Here are a few examples:

Abram becomes Abraham
Sarai becomes Sarah
Jacob becomes Israel
Hoshea becomes Joshua
Solomon also named Jedidiah
Simon becomes Peter
Saul becomes Paul

In some cases, the name changes were cultural, shifting from one language to another. Daniel was given the name Belteshazzar when he was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Sometimes name changes were bestowed by others, almost like a nickname,  in response to an episode or event in that person’s life. Other times, however, it was God who did the changing and there was spiritual context to the change. Jesus told Simon that He was going to call Him Peter (which was also a language change, Petras was Greek for “Rock”) and added “on this rock I will build my church.”

In today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah is promising the people of Judah that their momentary circumstances of devastation, defeat, destruction, and depression will give way to better times. The times, they will be a changin’.  And with the change comes a new name.

As I meditate this morning it strikes me that in some corners of our culture names have ceased to have any attachment to meaning at all. When I go on-site with clients and meet with teams I will regularly run across people with names with spellings and pronunciations simply made up by a parent. I even had one woman tell me this past month that her name was “meaningless,” and the subtext of the statement was that she felt a lack of meaning in her life. I found it fascinating that a name without common metaphorical meaning became, itself, metaphorical to her.

So, what do I call you?

chapter a day banner 2015

Featured image is a name cloud of popular baby names in 2010 from behindthename.com

Reclamation of “Revival”

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
    he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Isaiah 57:15 (NIV)

“Revival” is a buzzword in many churches, and it is used in many different contexts across our culture. It commonly refers to a period of time when there is an outpouring of Holy Spirit resulting in many people become believers.   It also is used to describe special meetings or services that churches might have over a period of time in which they bring in a special speaker and encourage people to follow Jesus. As a teenager, I became a follower of Jesus at just such a “revival” event. In that vein the word also conjures up images of tent revivals held under a canopy on a hot summer night in which a fire and brimstone preacher calls sinners to repentance. Oh, and it can also mean that you’re producing a stage play that hasn’t been done in a long time.

Words at their very core are metaphors. Something which represents something else without using “like” or “as” (that would be a simile). The particular four lines manipulated into the particular shapes used in the English alphabet to write “love” become a metaphor for the sounds we make when we say the word “love.” The lines represent the sounds which represent the many ways our brains filter meaning of the concept of love. Those lines and sounds can represent my appreciation of Madison’s Facebook post (e.g. “I loved your post”). Those same squiggly lines and unique blend of sounds can also represent the unfathomable depths of my thoughts of, feelings for, and attraction to Wendy (e.g. “I love you.”).

This is what makes communication so tricky, though very few people take time to give it much consideration. We use the same metaphorical lines or sounds to mean very different things in different contexts which can also change radically with time and culture.

The very word “revival,” when you break it down (re-vive-al) has its roots in French (“vivre,” meaning “life”) and also the Latin (“vital,” also meaning “life”). When you add the “re” to the front of it now changes the meaning to include doing something again. To live (vive) again (re). The suffix of “al” simply gives it the meaning of “pertaining to.” So, “revival” has the core meaning of “pertaining to live again.”

So, while “revival” may conjure up images of sweaty, screaming preachers under a tent canopy along the highway, it’s core meaning is to make something live again.

In today’s chapter God tells the prophet Isaiah that He lives in a “high and holy place” but also with someone who is “contrite and lowly in spirit,” a prophetic foretelling of Jesus who humbled Himself to take the form of a servant and to become human like one of us. The purpose is to bring the spirit and heart of those who are lowly and humble back to life.

This morning I’m thinking about those whose hearts are broken and crushed. I’m thinking of those whose very life has oozed out of their spirits until they are void and empty. I’m thankful for One who came to make those very hearts and spirits live again. To take those who are dead, and make them live again. All of my journey has taught me that this is what Jesus and His teachings are about at the very core.

chapter a day banner 2015Featured photo courtesy Mennonite Church USA via Flickr