City of Kyiv, Official Flag

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

On a hunch, I went online to find out what the name Kyiv means in Ukrainian. It is named for someone named Kyi, one of its founders, whether legendary or historical.

More interesting to me, though, was the emblem on Kyiv’s official flag. It depicts Michael, the Archangel, holding a flaming sword in his right hand and a cross-covered shield in the other hand. Here it is:

City of Kyiv, Ukraine – Official Flag

And here are all five of the biblical passages that reference Michael the Archangel:

Screen Shot from BibleGateway.Com

As I write this, there is a physical battle raging for control of the city of Kyiv.

Readers of my blog know that I will find the final reference to Michael, that is, to the Book of Revelation, particularly intriguing. The three references to Michael in the Book of Daniel are also very intriguing, especially the last one.

Screen Shot – Statue of Michael the Archangel in Kyiv

What do you think? Is it of any prophetic or eschatological significance that Michael the Archangel symbolically represents the City of Kyiv?

The Quotable Solzhenitsyn

Monday, February 28, 2022

Weeks before the current war between Russia and Ukraine began, I started reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Now, with the most recent Russian belligerance (courtesy of Vladimir Putin), the book has proven to be very, very timely. Although it harkens back about fifty plus years, suddenly almost everything Solzhenitsyn talks about fits own day: Back to the USSR… lucky us.

A Soviet Hammer and Sickle Pin

In case anyone is confused as to what the Gulag Archipelago actually was, Solzhenitsyn refers not to a literal archipelago of islands in a lake, sea, or ocean, but instead to the vast complex of gulags that comprised the sprawling Soviet prison system. Solzhenitsyn himself was a zek, a prisoner in the Gulag Archipelago, for much of his adult life.

Here are two sequential pages (pp. 312-313 of my personal copy of the offical abridged edition), containing some of the most frequently quoted passages in the book. On these two pages Solzhenitsyn reflects on his own personal transformation during his time as prisoner:

During his time in the gulags Solzhenitsyn went from being an atheistic Marxist to a committed Christian.

Four Words

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The first four words of Isaiah 43:10 are etched in white capital letters into the black tile walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: YOU ARE MY WITNESSES. And, lest you have any doubt that the reference is indeed to that passage of scripture, ISAIAH 43:10 is also etched in centered white capital letters immediately below those four words.  

Someone somewhere wants every Holocaust Memorial Museum visitor to leave the building with the clear conviction of having been a witness — a personal witness — of the horrors, atrocities, and crimes to which the Jewish people were subjected during the 1930s and 40s in Europe.

“The passage is taken completely out of context and errantly misapplied.” And that would be an echo, the voice of one of my late college professors. Yet it is only the displaced memory of his voice. Had he personally visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum with me I suspect my professor would have respected the solemnity of the place by refraining to make such a comment there. But the echo of his old lecture had its intended impact on me. I realized that for all their weight those four etched words from Isaiah were taken completely out of context and misapplied in that setting.

Or were they?

To be sure, since only four words (of the approximately forty words in the verse) are found etched there, the passage has certainly been taken out of its immediate literary context.

Moreover, the Holocaust Memorial Museum applies those four words to its various visitors, who are definitely not the originally referenced witnesses of Isaiah 43:10.

So, yes, definitely — the passage has been taken completely out of context and errantly applied. But in another ironic and unintended way, those etched words are exactly perfect there, in that precise setting, because the passage, when considered in its broader context, actually does go a long way in explaining some of the hardest questions of the Holocaust.    

As for the verse itself, here it is, in its entirety:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”

Isaiah 43:10 New Internation Version

An immediate observation: If the designers of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had put Isaiah 43:10 in its entirety upon the wall, museum visitors would have been perplexed at it. It would have seemed a brazen theological declaration, completely out of place for a museum and more appropriate for a synagogue or a church. So they settled on just four words: YOU ARE MY WITNESSES. And yet they decided to include the reference to Isaiah 43:10, thereby invoking the authority of God, at least in the consciousness of peoples of the Book.

As a person of the Book, I appeal to it. Go look at and contemplate that verse from Isaiah. But look beyond it as well. Consider its broader context. Ask the most academic questions of the text, such as:

Who are the LORD’s witnesses? And who is the Servant whom the LORD has chosen? Are the witnesses and the Servant one and the same entity? What exactly does the LORD want His witnesses to observe? What does the LORD want his witnesses to give testimony about? Why is it significant that the LORD’s witnesses know and believe that “I am He”? Why that particular strange expression: “I am He”? Is that expression a reference to something else, something said earlier in Scripture? Why does the LORD stress that there are no comparable gods, even throughout the entire scope of time? Why does the LORD subtly berate and negate gods that are “formed”?    

The Exodus. 1952/1966. Oil on linen canvas. Photo: Philippe Migeat.

These are called “leading questions”; and I do hope they will lead my readers as they think through the meaning of Isaiah 43:10.

Here are a few suggested answers:

In the original context of Isaiah, the LORD’s witnesses were God’s chosen people, the Jewish people. By extension, today the LORD’s witnesses may be God’s chosen people. In my estimation, we can cross out the words “may be” and replace them with “are.” God’s chosen people (past and present) are the witnesses mentioned in Isaiah 43:10. 

As for who the chosen Servant is, be aware that this is a very controversial question. Typically, this is precisely what divides Jews and Christians. Jews assert that the LORD’s chosen Servant must be the Jewish people as a whole. Christians reply that the chosen Servant of this passage is the Messiah, the Christ. To answer the question for yourself, you need to read beyond the immediate verse. You need to look at the surrounding passages. Please do.

What does the LORD want his witnesses to observe? According to the verses immediately preceding Isaiah 43:10, the LORD wants them to observe how He has gathered the Jewish people from every direction and from all the places they have been scattered.     

What does the LORD want his witnesses to testify to? He wants them to testify to his sole supremacy and power in regathering his chosen people.

Why is it significant that the LORD’s witnesses know and believe that “I am He”? That exact expression is a reference to the appearance of the LORD to Moses at the burning bush, when and where the LORD revealed his name to Moses, a name which is a variation on “I am.” The LORD wants his chosen people to recognize Him as the same God who delivered them from the start of their nation. 

Why does the LORD stress that there are no comparable gods? He does so because time and again the sin of idolatry resulted in the exile of the Jewish people. The LORD goes on to berate and negate those idolatrous, empty gods because they are not worthy of his chosen people.

That, then, is one informed contextual reading of Isaiah 43:10.

When the designers of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum chose to etch Isaiah 43:10 on a wall, they actually (though unintentionally) chose to reference a very relevant history-unpacking verse, which speaks precisely to the historical predicament of the chosen people of God.    

Ears or Body?

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Body or ears? Ears or body? Just the ears or the whole body? Originally, did the verse say body? Or did the verse originally say ears? When first written, did the author write body or ears? That is today’s contentious theological question. What did the text originally say? 

“Which verse? Which text?” you may ask. The passage in consideration would be Psalm 40:6-8. The opening of which, in a currently popular English translation, is rendered as:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened.

Psalm 40:6a New International Version

“My ears you have opened.” What does that mean? Does it mean that hearing has been amplified?

Whatever it means, the popular English translation (i.e., the New International Version or NIV) comes with this perplexing, muddy footnote:

Hebrew; some Septuagint manuscripts “but a body you have prepared for me.”

Huh? Does that variation not completely change the meaning of the second half of the sentence?

A reader curious enough or diligent enough to reference the footnote might lose all interest at (the unfamiliar word) Septuagint. And yet the same reader may wonder why the NIV translators chose to render the passage as ears when the word body was potentially an option.

So, which of the variations was it, is it? What a weird translational discrepancy! What explains the difference? Was it originally “… but my ears you have opened” or “… but a body you have prepared?”

Perhaps the same reader concludes the matter with a dismissive thought, “Well, whatever. Maybe it doesn’t really matter that much.” 

My hunch is that a lot of theological questions die a premature death when a reader acquiesces to frustration, quits trying, and dismissively thinks, “I dunno. This bothers and baffles me. This is beyond me. Well, whatever. Maybe it doesn’t really matter that much.”

But wait, because the boomerang could come back. A similar question could potentially recur elsewhere. It might recur while reading through the New Testament. An observant reader might later recall Psalm 40:6a when s/he reads through the New Testament book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 10:5, the text says,

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me…

Hebrews 10:5 NIV

Wait, wait, wait. Pause. Back in the Old Testament, back in the Book of Psalms, the NIV translators rendered the second half of that sentence as “… but my ears you have opened”; however, here in Hebrews 10:5 they render it as “a body you have prepared for me.” How come? Why, exactly? Which one is it? What explains the translational discrepancy? 

Dear reader, you are not the first person in the history of Bible study to notice this particular discrepancy and ask these questions regarding the obvious discrepancy between Psalm 40:6 and Hebrews 10:5.  

Your initial inclination might be to conclude that the NIV translators were incompetent. But no, they weren’t. The answer to the discrepancy is a bit complicated. The most simple, direct answer is that the NIV translators did the best they could with the seemingly contradictory historical and lexical information available to them. The original Hebrew of Psalm 40:6 maybe, probably did say something that sort of means “my ears you have opened.” And the original Greek of Hebrews 10:5 definitely did say, “but a body you have prepared for me.” 

The actual translators who made this confusing for us were not the NIV translators, but the translators of an ancient version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Indeed, the real translation decision (resulting in today’s confusion) very likely occurred over 2,000 years ago when the translators of the Septuagint tried their best to translate the original biblical Hebrew into a now-archaic form of Greek, which was then the language most commonly spoken in the Græco-Roman lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

One possible explanation for the translation discrepancy is that the translators of the Septuagint may have used a translation technique that we now call dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence strives to help readers understand what a difficult text means. It often results not in a literal translation but in a version of what was (probably) meant.

In the case of Psalm 40:6a, the original Hebrew actually says something like “you have bored out (or dug out) my ears.” Over 2,00 years ago, this phrase may have sounded as bizarre to the translators of the Septuagint as it does to us today. The translators may have deemed it likely an idiom. And they may have thought it necessary to translate not just the literal Hebrew words, but the meaning of the idiom. This could explain the change from “ears” to “body.” But admittedly, this is all speculative. 

The Hebrew verb כָּרָה (pronounced karah) is frequently translated as “bore,” or “hew,” or “dig.” In other Old Testament contexts, the verb was used for the digging of pits, cisterns, and graves. It is somewhat unexpected and strange to apply this particular verb to someone’s ears, but is not strange when applied to a body or corpse. The translators of the Septuagint may have understood the significance of the dig-dug, hew-hewn Hebrew verb to require that the ears be understood as representative of something bigger than just a person’s ears. In other words, the ears were understood as a metonym or a synecdoche for the whole person. This is a further explanation for how “ears” in Hebrew became “body” in Greek.

There are other proposals on how the translators of the Septuagint settled on “body” rather than “ears.” But however it happened, it apparently did happen.

Another more nefarious possibility is that the Hebrew originally did say “body”; and the translators of the Septuagint diligently followed suit. If that were indeed the case, later Hebrew manuscripts are the problem, not the Greek manuscripts. But it would require that the Hebrew of Psalm 40:6a was somehow altered, or corrupted in later copies. If so, later Hebrew copyists had to transgress an ancient taboo against ever changing the letters and wording of a received scriptural text. What possibly might have motivated them to violate that taboo and alter their Holy Scriptures? Though it might seem an impossible stretch, it is a remote possibility because altering the text from “ears” to “body” would make the reading of Psalm 40:6a sound less like a prophecy regarding the body of Jesus Christ; and such an alteration would have been a desirable rendering for Jews who had rejected the possibility of Jesus being their Messiah. But again, I must emphasize that this is merely speculative and completely unsubstantiated. All we know for sure is that all our received Hebrew manuscripts say “… but my ears you have dug,” while most of the Greek manuscripts of the Septuagint and all the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament say, “… but a body you have prepared.” Therefore, based on the historical physical evidence, it is most likely that the change from “ears” to “body” occurred at the hands of the translators of the Septuagint. 

Okay, so where does this investigation leave us? Should we give up on the reliability of the Bible? Are there lots of other discrepancies and changes between the Hebrew Old Testament original and the Greek translation?

No, there are not lots of changes. There are relatively few differences. Most of the differences are entirely insignificant. But admittedly, some are significant.

Eventually, this becomes a matter of faith in God’s hand in history. This raises the question or issue of God’s providence in the transmission of Holy Scripture from one language to the next. When we see differences between the Old Testament Hebrew and the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament, we should ask ourselves if the differences are perhaps God intended, rather than just regrettable human error. Perhaps God wanted those translational differences to be passed along. Perhaps divine inspiration occurs not just in the original writing of the texts, but also in the translation of texts. 

For me, the most satisfying way to come to terms with this apparent discrepancy is through consideration of the convergent meaning of Psalm 40:6a and Hebrews 10:5. Ultimately, both passages converge meaningfully on obedience as acceptable sacrifice. Both passages emphasize obedience as personal sacrifice, which is what truly pleases God. The point of Psalm 40:6a in the original Hebrew is that what God actually desires (as a truly acceptable sacrifice) are unplugged, opened ears. Unplugged, dug out, opened ears are equivalent to hearing ears; and (in the Hebrew idiom) hearing ears always act in obedience — sacrificial obedience. The point of Hebrews 10:5-7 (which follows the Greek of the Septuagint) is that Christ voluntarily offered himself, that is, his own body, in obedience — sacrificial obedience. Notably, the author of Hebrews takes Psalm 40:6-8 as the pre-incarnate Christ’s own words of self-offering. In so doing, the author of Hebrews does not distort the meaning of Psalm 40:6-8; rather, he shows how it was perfectly fulfilled.   

To summarize, I do believe that the translators of the Septuagint made an interpretive move with this particular passage. When translating Psalm 40:6-8 from Hebrew into Greek, they did strive for a dynamic equivalent translation of Psalm 40:6a. And they understood “opened ears” to imply a body offered in obedience. Moreover and most importantly, they got that right. At least, they got it right enough.    

A Reading Recommendation

Saturday, February 19, 2022

If you could assign and compel all your friends to read one hundred books, which books would make your list of required reading?

One book I would very seriously consider including on my list is the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitzyn. Hopefully, the book sounds vaguely familiar to you. If so, it may be because Time Magazine declared it the best nonfiction book of the 20th century. And Solzenitzyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. But still, few people I know have actually sat down and read it. I had not until this year.  

Sceen Shot

Currently, I am both reading it and listening to an audio version of it, read (in perfect American English) by Solzhenitzyn’s son Ignat. Ignat must have lived here in the United States for at least a while, because he speaks both Russian and English fluently. His fluency with both languages and familiarity with both cultures proves to be a big help to those of us listeners who do not speak Russian or know much recent Russian history. 

Should you decide to read or listen to it, I definitely recommend the abridged version, not the unabridged version. Why? Well, the unabridged version of The Gulag Archipelago is very, very long. It requires the diligence and perseverance of a reader who has the time to devote to three volumes of some very dark and heavy material. I knew right from the start that I would only have the time to devote to a single volume; and thus I opted for the abridged version. 

Incidentally (and this may come as a surprise), the book does have relevance to eschatology and the Book of Revelation. How so? Well, the most significant point of connection is the tyranny of totalitarianism. The Book of Revelation speaks of a future tyrant, a totalitarian figure known as the Beast from the Abyss. 

Connectedly (in my thinking, at least), the Gulag Archipelago tells the tale of what happens to a country under the strong arm of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism occurs when a government decides it deserves the ultimate allegiance of its populace. Said slightly differently, totalitarian regimes effectively declare themselves to hold the place that only God rightfully holds. A totalitarian regime demands the absolute devotion of its citizens. In so doing, it puts itself in the place of God. By requiring and compelling all its subject to submit (i.e., bow down) in servile submission (i.e., worship), it fashions itself into an idol, a subsitute for God.

The Gulag Archipelago shows how the Soviet leadership, and especially Stalin, methodically did just that. The Soviets demanded the absolute compliance and devotion of their citizens. And to achieve their idolatrous goal, they would (and did) use any and all horrifying means to coerce it. 

Based on my study and understanding of the Book of Revelation, I want to suggest that whenever you see a government tending towards totalitarianism, you may well be seeing a foreshadowing of the ultimate Beast to come, the Beast from the Abyss. I believe that the Soviet Union was a very recent case study in how that future Beast will likely behave.    

The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading, if only to make a relatively free people realize what can (and will) happen when they lose their freedom to a totalitarian regime.    

Ruth: History or Allegory?

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Screen Shot

Is this biblical book allegory, or is it history? Since the two major characters in the Book of Ruth seem to resemble and perhaps prefigure the Bride of Christ and Christ himself, a question arises as to whether the Book of Ruth can and should be approached allegorically. This allegorical (or typological) connection has occasionally been noticed in Church history (e.g. “The Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon). And yet the Book of Ruth undeniably presents itself as a straightforward historical account. So which is it, allegory or history? 

May I humbly suggest it shows both a failure of imagination and faith to force such a choice? God is fully capable of taking an actual historical occurrence and arranging that the record thereof be useful as theological allegory. Of course He is. It shouldn’t surprise us in the least. The Book of Ruth can be both a straightforward historical account and a theological allegory, with discernable typological elements.

The interpretive question is just how far the allegory goes and what elements of the account should be accepted as typological. Determining the appropriate bounds of the allegory is not easy and is often debated. But it is worth a shot, just as the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, realized and attempted.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Here is a link to Spurgeon’s August 10, 1862 message entitled A Sermon for Gleaners: www.spurgeon.org/resource-libr…

Night: An Overdue Book Report

Friday, February 4, 2022

Your assignment: Write a brief book report from a biblical and Christian perspective about the autobiographical book Night, by Elie Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.  

Hello Professor, if you are still living, I hope this note finds you well. Although over thrity years have passed since you gave us the assignment to write a book report on Night, I thought I should perhaps submit a complete revision of it, since back then I had neither the breadth of historical knowledge nor the depth of biblical learning to do an adequate job of it. Moreover, like some other readers have commented (in Amazon’s review section), I agree that Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account is important enough to be revisited occasionally. One time through is simply not enough. And thirty years was too long of an interim.    

To start this new, hopefully improved report, may I give you my visceral reaction to Night? It left me utterly horrified. At times, I had to force myself to keep reading, due to the sheer awfulness of what Wiesel had to endure. As an autobiographical account, this is much, much more than a mere book. Frankly, at times I could not bear, nor did I want to countenance Wiesel’s story. However, I knew I must. Something compelled me to keep reading, keep listening, perhaps because it really, actually happened. Paradoxically, Wiesel’s account is at once repulsive and absorbing. I managed to re-read the entire book in less than a day. 

Professor, one of the perplexing things I want to mention is that exactly the same sort of awful mass atrocity happened a just few years after I was first assigned to read the book. If Wiesel wrote Night in an effort to prevent yet another genocide… well, I wish I could say that he succeeded, but not so. In 1994, another almost unthinkable ethnic genocide occurred in the African nation of Rwanda. Perhaps if enough Rwandan college students had been assigned to read Night in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the genocide there would never have happened. Who knows? Perhaps the idealistic efforts of educators like yourself will someday make a dent. Perhaps you and yours and me and mine can help prevent human beings from repeating these sort of horrors. Perhaps, Professor. But I wonder if educational efforts are adequate to the task of transforming the moral flaws in human nature.

Please allow me to continue waxing philosophical. Funerals are sad affairs, which we attend if we must. But emotionally, we can only handle so many funerals. For me, this book was like binging on a whole series of funerals. Do we not find it intolerable — to the point of impossible — to consider the kind of horror, inhumanity, and terror depicted in Night? After a while, I do. Most people, I suspect, really do find it nigh-to-impossible to contemplate something this dark and bleak. That is why stories like these are not popular reading material. That is why we often need to be constrained to listen to bleak and dark accounts like these.   

Yet the possibility of finding meaning makes such accounts compelling. Most of us dearly want our lives to actually matter, somehow. Most of us don’t want to believe the nihilist line. We don’t want to believe that “[life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” to quote Shakespeare. Speaking for such meaning-seekers, I will say that we want to make sense of such experiences — especially when they are dark and bleak. To think that Wiesel actually went through all these manifold horrors! “Hell on earth” was a phrase that came to mind. And if not hell on earth, I propose it safe to say that he lived through something proximate to it.   

Theologically, what if it was? What if his experience was hell on earth, or something proximate? What if that was the point of it all? I mean, how can we make sense theologically of what Wiesel experienced? In the face of such horror, consider our interpretive options, Professor. What are they, exactly? Doesn’t the reflexive reaction of “he went through hell on earth” force us to begin thinking theologically about the Holocaust?

This is where the “Where was God?” question necessarily must be addressed. To say that Wiesel was God-conscious through all the horrors simply demonstrates that I read the book (twice now, actually). “Where is God? Where is He?” This was the question one of Wiesel’s fellow prisoners asked when they were forced to watch the hangings of two men and a boy. And notably, Wiesel ends up losing his faith — not in God, per se, but in the goodness of God. “I was the accuser, God the accused,” says Wiesel. 

So maybe that is another interpretive option: These kinds of horrors happen because God is simply not as good as He is cracked up to be. My guess is that a lot of people will conclude just that, if and when they reflect on those who “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote another famous line from Shakespeare.      

But where would that leave us? If we conclude that maybe God exists, but is somehow less worthy than we have heard and hoped, what then? What do we do with that?

Our two interpretive options thus far leave us without much hope. On one hand, we can opt for a nihilistic explanation: Life has no overarching meaning. On the other hand, we can opt for a lesser-God option: If God exists, you cannot and should not count on Him.

Are there any other options? Are there any additional hands?

Someone might suggest that the best we can do is make our own meaning in life. As far as I can tell, that is not substantially different than the nihilistic option. It’s just puts the most optimistic spin possible on the nihilistic option. Okay, we can try to make meaning of our lives. But how long will such meaning last? And to whom will it matter? 

If a good, eternal God actually exists, He can ensure that all the misery and horrors of our lives will matter, and will be vindicated. Aside from such a God, meaning in life cannot be guaranteed. And justice certainly cannot be guaranteed.

Therefore, I am compelled by hope to hold on to God. I do not want to give up on the good God option, in spite of all the horrors and the injustices faced by Elie Wiesel and the other victims of genuine “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And whereas Wiesel wanted to accuse God of injustice, I want to exonerate God somehow. And I think Scripture shows us exactly how to exonerate God, because it gives God’s perspective on these issues. 

But it will be tricky task, because this is a zero-sum proposition. Wiesel is right about one thing: We do have to take sides. In the face of horrors and atrocities like Auschwitz, we have to either accuse God or excuse God. As a Christian, I feel compelled to excuse, or rather defend, God. Moreover, in Scripture God defends Himself against just such accusations — quite often, actually. If you want to read a particularly pertinent selection from Scripture, start with the Book of Isaiah chapters 8, 9, and 10, which, in context, is a passage initially about the Assyrian invasion of ancient Israel, but seems to speak beyond its immediate context to another time, even the time that Elie Wiesel himself lived through.

Professor, for the sake of brevity, I am going to pause here. I hope to come back to this and speak more about the pertinent passage in Isaiah, as well as other biblical passages.  

A Lion Before, A Serpent Behind

January 11, 2022

Numbers 10:11-28 details the (divinely?) prescribed processional order of the nomadic twelve and a half tribes of Israel. They first assumed this exact processional order upon leaving Mount Sinai, and thereafter did the same whenever they would decamp and follow the pillar of cloud during their forty year meander through wilderness. According to Numbers 10:14, the tribe of Judah was to take up its banner (or standard) first and commence the procession of the entire nation. With its standard hoisted, the tribe of Judah marched at the vanguard, at the head of the hosts of Israel. The other tribes would follow after. The last tribe to leave camp, according to Numbers 10:25, was the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan was always to serve as the rearguard, or tail, of the mass procession, carrying their own distinctive banner (or standard).

The Book of Numbers mentions that four of the twelve tribes had a distinctive banner or a standard. The three tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (which always camped to the east of the tabernacle) were to march following Judah’s standard. Some of the Levitical priests would follow the first three tribes carrying the deconstructed tabernacle. Then the three tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad (which always camped to the south of the tabernacle) were to march following Reuben’s standard. Following those six and a half tribes, the three tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (which always camped to the west of the tabernacle) were to march, behind Ephraim’s standard. And finally, the three tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali (which always camped to the north of the tabernacle) were to march last, with the tribe of Dan carrying its standard towards the rear of the procession.

Necessarily, a banner or standard has a distinctive insignia or emblem of some sort. In the case of the fledgling nation of Israel, the emblems adopted by each of the twelve tribes likely derived from metaphors their forefather Jacob used while speaking a final blessing over each one of his sons, as recorded in Genesis chapter 49. If so, then the tribe of Judah’s marching standard would have featured a lion (see Jacob’s declaration in Genesis 49:9). Likewise, simple consistency would dictate that the tribe of Dan’s standard feature a serpent (see Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:17).

A lion went before, a serpent behind.

During their long sojourn through the wilderness the nation of Israel had the figurative head of a lion and figurative tail of a serpent. This, I would suggest, is the biblical background to the symbolism we find in Revelation 9:17-19.

And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.

Revelation 9:17-19

For this and additional reasons, the army depicted in Revelation 9:17-19 should be understood as the elect people of God, in their sojourn through the centuries between the first and second coming of Christ. Though this might be a different interpretation than you have heard before, the preceding background information can help you understand why I believe it is correct.

A Militant, Jealous, Gracious God

January 8, 2022

In the Book of Revelation, death is often not death.

Not What It Seems?

Regrettably though, even the best interpreters have failed to notice this twist. Instead, they usually just assume that references to death must mean literal, physical death. But the unquestioned assumption that Apocalyptic death must be the equivalent of physical death results in gross distortions and vast misunderstanding of an important section of the text and thus its message. Many readers conclude that the Book of Revelation is disturbingly macabre and not very New Testament-like because of the mass violence, death, and killing depicted therein. That prima facie impression changes dramatically if “all the death and violence” is not read literally, but understood… baptismally. Apocalyptic death should often be read as a baptismal reference in Revelation. And that dramatically changes things.

Yes, baptismal is the best possible word here. The New Testament teaches that when a convert to Christianity submits to baptism that person dies. Oh my! Does the baptized person physically die? Of course not. Typically, ecclesiastical officiants do their utmost to prevent fatal slips or pours that might result in accidental drowning deaths. A high baptism fatality rate would probably discourage most people from participating in the sacrament.

Baptism Saves: 1 Peter 3:21

Nonetheless, the New Testament teaches that someone who submits to baptism somehow dies. Obviously, this cannot be understood as physical death. It must be understood as another kind of death, call it metaphorical or symbolic. Egotistical death, perhaps? 

Conversion to Christ = A Death to Self

My contention is that the author of Revelation takes this non-physical understanding of death and runs with it imaginatively — and quite counter-intuitively. Consequently, much (or at least some) of the violence, killing, and death in Revelation refers not to the automatically assumed horrors of human history, but instead to the triumph of the Cross through evangelism and conversion. In particular, this observation holds true with the Seven Trumpets series, and especially in the incremental, fractional, twelve-thirds of fire, blood, and violence symbolically presented in Revelation chapters eight and nine.

The First of Seven Trumpets – Revelation 8:7

My guess is that many readers/listeners are thoroughly unconvinced by my proposal at this point. One question I anticipate is rather straightforward and simple: “But why? Why would the author of Revelation present evangelism and conversion as violence and death?”

My initial response to that question involves pointing back to the Old Testament — as the Book of Revelation itself so often does. In the Old Testament God is a militant and sometimes violent God. That is an indisputable claim, as anyone who has read the Old Testament knows. The Old Testament God can and does go to war. The Old Testament God can and does shed blood. But then Jesus arrives. At the beginning of the New Testament Jesus comes along and talks a lot about his Father as a loving, patient, merciful, and forgiving God.

So… which is it? Is God jealous, wrathful, militant, and violent? Or is God gracious, kind, compassionate, and forgiving? 


A Deadly Fire Breather from Revelation 9:17-18: One of the Good Guys or Bad Guys?

My suggestion here is that much of Revelation’s militant and violent imagery serves as a subversive, radical re-interpretation of “the battle plan” — the modus operandi — of the jealous, wrathful, militant God of the Old Testament.

Paradoxically, this is one and the same God, before the incarnation of Christ and after. Yes, this jealous, gracious God is indeed thoroughly intent on the death of all his enemies; but this jealous, gracious God much prefers that his enemies die baptismally through conversion, rather than die physically and spiritually.

With that said, in this post I have not actually carefully examined particular and relevant verses from the Book of Revelation. What I have done instead is provide a suggested approach — that is, a unique hermeneutic — for reading through Revelation. I suggest you re-read Revelation (especially chapters eight, nine, and eleven) with this hermeneutic of divinely-sanctioned non-physical warfare. This suggested hermeneutic regards some Apocalyptic instances of death as conversion. Here baptismal death is God’s preferred means of bringing an end to human self-idolatry and sinful rebellion.

If you do use that approach, you will find certain passages in Revelation make much more sense than before. But other passages (usually later passages) might remain confusing. Your potential confusion is because in the end, especially with the Seven Bowls of Wrath series, God does deal more heavy-handedly with those human opponents who refuse his provision for repentance and conversion.   

Ezekiel Versus Jesus

December 17, 2021

A “dead man walking” mournfully foretold the forthcoming doom of his onlookers, their children, and the entire city. His prophecy of eventual doom might have come as a surprise to those who overheard it, because it seemed to contradict what another prominent prophet had once promised regarding the Promised Land and the City of Jerusalem. Who was right about the city’s future, then — the Prophet Ezekiel, or the condemned Nazarene, dripping blood and staggering on the way to his gruesome crucifixion?

From someone else, it might have come across as a condemned man’s final vindictive, bitter curse. But his gloomy comments were not directed against his persecutors. He was instead speaking to a group of women who might have included some of his loyal supporters. They were there to observe and weep at his horrifying fate. While being led to his crucifixion, on the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha, Jesus told those women not to weep for him, but to weep instead for themselves and their children (Luke 23:28-31). Quoting the final sentence of Hosea 10:8, Jesus then informed his sympathizers that when the time of destruction arrived “They [that is, the residents of Jerusalem] will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’”   

Again, this gloomy, terrifying Via Dolorosa Prophecy seemed to contradict a much rosier civic and national future, as prophesied by the Prophet Ezekiel centuries before. The whole of Ezekiel Chapter 36 describes the wonderful, permanent (see Ezekiel 36:13-15) restoration and exaltation of the exiled House of Israel within their hereditary homeland. And in the first century AD/CE (that is, the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry), the restoration and exaltation promised by Ezekiel appeared to be a likely, imminent possibility, especially since it had already been partially fulfilled. Many of the Jewish people had already returned to their hereditary homeland. Furthermore, when he first began his public ministry, Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God, and about it being “at hand.” Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God’s imminence only encouraged the thought that the exaltation part of Ezekiel’s wonderful prophecy was about to transpire. But no, the exaltation of the House of Israel was not about to transpire. Instead, Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy proved grimly accurate.   

Rather than being restored and exalted within their hereditary homeland, the opposite occurred. In 70AD/CE, after rebelling against the Romans, the Jewish people were subjected to a crushing, almost absolute defeat. The City of Jerusalem was destroyed. Its marvelous Temple was demolished. And the few Jewish people who remained alive were sent off into exile yet again. The Jewish people would not return from exile en masse to their hereditary homeland until the mid Twentieth Century, after the Nazi’s attempted genocide of them during World War Two. 

All of which is to say, Ezekiel Chapter 36 appears to be an aborted prophecy. It was once apparently on its way to fulfillment. But then something cataclysmic occurred. The hopes of the Jewish people were dashed, or, at very least, seriously delayed.

However, I am not suggesting for a moment that Ezekiel’s prophecy was wrong. I believe that it will still be fulfilled. The question I pose to anyone who takes Ezekiel Chapter 36 seriously (as legitimate prophecy) is whether it can be meaningfully fulfilled unless it is fulfilled quite literally, within Israel, the hereditary homeland of the Jewish people. A lot of my fellow Christians seem to believe the prophecy can be (and already has been) fulfilled figuratively and/or spiritually, and that it therefore simply does not apply to the physical descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people. Personally, I have a hard time squaring what Ezekiel prophesies in Chapter 36 with anything but a literal, physical fulfillment.  

The implications of how an interpreter understands Ezekiel Chapter 36 (and similar passages, like Zechariah Chapter 12 and the entire Book of Zephaniah) are very significant. This is not to say that I will not argue for a figurative reading of some prophetic material, because I certainly will; and I do. But it is to say that some of these prophetic passages seem to become altogether meaningless unless they are read literally. The interpretive issue, as I see it, is whether the relevant prophetic passages themselves give good reason to take a figurative approach or a literal approach. If a given prophetic passage presents itself as literal, should it not be read as literal? I think so, unless there is an extremely compelling reason not to. In my estimation, Ezekiel Chapter 36 presents itself as altogether literal, and therefore should be read that way. And because we know for certain that it has not been fulfilled yet, we can and should await its literal future fulfillment. Now with that said, I encourage you to go read Ezekiel Chapter 36.