June Essays

June Overview: Kings and the Kingdom of God

As we enter the more relaxed summer months, it is a good time to catch up on reading. There is an advantage to reading a whole book when you have more time to meditate rather than to always read just a chapter or two in a rush.

This month there are some good opportunities to sit down for a while and digest a little more scripture, and catch up if you have lost your place. In the Old Testament we will be reading 1-2 Chronicles, a "Reader's Digest Version" of the history of Israel from the reign of King David until the Babylonian exile. Not just historical, it sheds light on the meaning of the history. If you missed out reading 2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, this is a way to hear that story again in a shorter form.

In the New Testament, we will be listening to Paul's struggles in 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians. Paul has had great success in establishing the church in many cities, but now he has to grapple with critical issues that threaten the life of the new church - who really has the truth of this new gospel - Paul or the other evangelists? Did they need to become Jews to be saved? How are they supposed to live if they are under the new covenant, rather than the covenant at Sinai? Answers are awaiting you this month.

Be encouraged to stay immersed in God's word.

Week 23: 2 Kings 13 - 25, 1 Chron. 1 - 3, 2 Cor. 6 - 10, Psalm 64 - 67
Week 24: 1 Chron. 4 - 23, 2 Cor. 11 - 13, Gal. 1 - 2, Psalm 68 - 69

Idols in the Land

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them. The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. They did wicked things that provoked the LORD to anger. They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, “You shall not do this.”  (2 Kings 17:6 -12, edited)

In the Old Testament readings lately, we are reading the sad story about the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the exile of the Judeans from southern Israel. The Bible comments many times that the reason for this is because God allowed it as punishment for idolatry. The descent into idolatry begins during the reign of Solomon, almost immediately from the time Israel achieves its greatest glory. Solomon himself builds the first altars to pagan gods outside of Jerusalem to please his foreign wives. Although a few kings bring about some reforms, idolatry increases until it reaches its peak under King Manassah. He set up altars in God's temple for pagan worship, practiced witchcraft and occultism, and filled Jerusalem with the blood of children killed in infant sacrifice. This infuriated God, who allowed Judah's enemies to destroy the temple and exile them from the land.

To our modern ears, it is hard to imagine being tempted by idolatry. This is because we are strict monotheists - we simply don't believe any other gods exist besides God, so idolatry seems pointless. But, if we understand what was the psychology behind the ancient practice of idolatry and then look at our own culture, we can draw lessons for ourselves.

The Mindset of Idolatry

In the ancient middle east, people believed that each nation had its own gods, and that gods had limited powers and territories. These "gods" controlled prosperity and fertility of the people that worshipped them. They did not make moral demands on them - only that they be worshipped and venerated to grant their favor. A person who became prosperous through devious means was admired for his or her cleverness in gaining the favor of the gods.

The real God, JHWH, insisted on moral conduct, and that He is God over all. Besides the fact that it is more difficult to be honest than dishonest, it was very challenging for the Israelites to believe in this strange kind of god. While other nations had gods that inhabited idols, this God insisted that they not make idols to worship Him. The gods of other nations were human-like, but this God was invisible and incomprehensible. Other gods needed to be fed sacrifices to gain power, but this one did not need their sacrifices for power. The other gods were subject to manipulation to gain their favor, but this God could not be manipulated. It was hard to grasp the concept that God was utterly greater than the gods of the other nations. The Israelites were probably not sure that their God would win in the contest that Elijah set up between the true God and Baal.

So when the Israelites worshipped idols, they were committing several sins. Most importantly, they were violating their covenant with God, who insisted that they serve no other gods. This was likened to adultery in their "marriage" covenant with God. Additionally, to worship these idols they abandoned the moral laws that God had given them - they engaged in perverse sexual practices, sacrificed infants, and sank to the depths of depravity. Also, they also showed the world that they didn't believe that God was greater than the gods of the nations around them. God's intention was that Israel be a light to teach the world about the True God, but in idol worship they caused the nations to mock God instead.

Modern Day Idolatry

Ancient Israelites wanted the same things that we do - prosperity and happiness. They had a choice of obeying God and letting Him bless them, or trying to gain their blessing by serving idols. Many things that we want are good, but the means to achieve them show whether we are serving the Lord or serving "idols", in a sense. A church can want its congregation to grow, but if it chooses activities because of their popularity rather than their spiritual content, it shows that filling pews has become an idol. Or, a man may feel like the Lord called him to a certain job, but when he starts acting unethically, or abandoning his family to maintain his position, the job has probably become an idol. Once we start using motives God wouldn't approve, even if we think we are serving Him, we probably have shifted our service to something else. After all, God demands that we act morally, but idols let us act any way we please.

We can also be honoring idols when we aren't fully convinced of God's greatness in comparison to other things that inspire fear or awe in us. Like the Israelites who aren't sure whether God can defeat Baal, we sometimes sound insecure about God's sovereignty over the world. God is not threatened by scientific discoveries, intellectual achievement or medical advances. He is not thwarted when a certain party wins the presidency. He is in control when the things we fear happen, like our business closes or we get cancer. Many things in our world command respect, and it is tempting for Christians to be too awed by them. When we give up on God's ability to accomplish His purposes because it seems like what He is up against is too great, we are shrinking God down to the size of this world. We can hardly grasp that as powerful as the things around us seem, God is more powerful yet.


©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

Week 25: 1 Chron 24 - 29, 2 Chron. 1 - 12, Gal. 3 - 6, Eph. 1, Psalm 70 - 72

The Context of Paul's Conflict

This week we are reading Paul's letters to the churches in Galatia and Ephesus. Paul's letters have always been a challenge for scholars, since Paul was speaking to the problems that were specific to these churches. Reading them is like listening to one end of a phone conversation - without knowing the dialogue that has been going on up to this point, it is difficult to decipher what Paul is addressing.

It will help greatly to understand the culture of Judaism in Paul's time. Only in the past 30 years have Christian scholars looked at Paul in the light of this information. Before that, theologians tended to just rely on Christian traditions about Jews, rather than to go to historical Jewish sources. Since scholars have started studying him in that light, there have been many new insights on Paul, and of course much debate. (My understanding of this area isn't complete either - see the end of the article.)

According to these scholars, one misconception that Christians have had is that the Jews of Paul's time were trying to earn their way to heaven by gaining merit in the eyes of God. In fact, Jews for the most part had a strong sense of their salvation because of their election as God's chosen people. The Mishnah (the Jewish commentary on the Bible) said, "All Israel has a share in the world to come" (Sanh 3:10), which meant that because God made a covenant with them, that this assured them of salvation. The Jews did spend much time interpreting the laws, but not out of a sense of insecurity and a need to earn salvation. They did this because they felt they should be faithful to this covenant since they had been chosen to serve God.

Another reason they strictly observed their laws was out of a strong sense of national identity. The Jews were a small minority in the Roman Empire that had gone through much persecution for not adopting Gentile ways. As a reaction to that persecution and to the encroaching Gentile world, they were especially careful to observe laws that separated them from Gentiles. These were to circumcise their children, observe the Sabbath, and eat according to their dietary laws, which meant eating only with Jews. These laws became symbolic of their commitment to being under God's covenant. Being circumcised was especially important because it was what a proselyte (convert) to Judaism did to show that he was now under the covenant of Moses, the Torah.

From the understanding that the Jews alone were God's chosen people, there was a tendency toward religious elitism. Their picture of Gentiles was that they were degenerate sinners, prone to idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. Jews would not enter a Gentile's home or eat with one. We can see that in Acts 10 - 11, God had to give Peter a special revelation that he was supposed to visit Cornelius the Gentile, because otherwise Peter wouldn't have done it. God had to tell Peter that what He had declared "clean", Peter should not declare "unclean". We read that the Jews were shocked that Peter had even visited him, and even more dumbfounded that God had poured out on the Gentile believers the Holy Spirit, the sign of the New Covenant.

This was the controversy that was at the heart of Paul's conflict with other Jews: For the past two thousand years, the Jews alone had been God's holy people. Now Paul was actually saying that these filthy sinners who had never been a part from the covenant of Moses could be accepted by God. To them it undermined God's special relationship with the Jews for Paul to say that a person could be saved apart from their covenant. To Paul, their insistence that Gentiles be circumcised and become Jews made it pointless that Christ even came. If being Jewish was what saved you, this was not a new gospel at all (Gal 1:7).There had been Jewish evangelists before now who convinced Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes, and this is what they had been preaching up until this time.

The major concern of Paul's opponents was that it was necessary for the Gentiles to become Jews in order to be saved, and they did this by becoming circumcised and observing the Mosaic laws. How could God accept them when they were not a part of the covenant He had clearly given? They, in essence, were saying that salvation was dependent upon them becoming Jews, since the Jews were the chosen people. Their emphasis was not so much on legalism - earning their way to God's favor, like in Martin Luther's time. Rather it was nationalistic and elitist - only Jews can be saved, therefore, people needed to come under the covenant of Moses to be saved. They needed to observe the law of Moses to be a part of God's covenant people. Some of the Judaizers may not even have been Christians, but just other Jews who told Gentiles that they need to become Jews to be saved.

How did Paul respond to that? He had two main points. First, it was clear to him that God had accepted the Gentile Christians because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit when they believed, just like the Jews were. The giving of the Holy Spirit was the sign of the New Covenant, so the fact they had the Spirit meant that they were a part of the covenant. He says to the Galatians,

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:2)

Here Paul is reminding the Galatians that they had received the gift of the Spirit when they came to faith in Christ. Now they had begun observing Jewish laws out of a worry that they needed to be Jewish to be saved. The phrase "works of the Law" is especially significant. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the phrase "works of the Torah" was a technical legal term for those laws that marked the boundaries between the Jew and Gentile - like circumcision and eating kosher. Those laws specifically marked a person for whether he or she was Jewish or not. So Paul reminds them that they did not receive the Spirit by practicing Judaism, but by believing in Christ, so they should not worry that they need to do that now. Scholars point out that Paul was in no way rejecting his own Jewish faith or telling the Jewish believers to abandon their covenant. Rather, he tells people to remain what they are - circumcised as Jews or uncircumcised as Gentiles, because in their Messiah Jesus they have been made one.

Paul's other example to prove that Gentiles could be saved was that of Abraham. Abraham was still an uncircumcised Gentile when God made His covenant with Him. God came to him and promised that all nations on earth would be blessed through him. Abraham never was under the covenantal law that God gave to Moses, since God didn't give it until 400 years later. Instead, Abraham was considered righteous in God's eyes because of his "emunah" - faith in God's promises, and faithfulness in following Him. To Paul, Abraham is the perfect example of God's grace choosing someone, and them responding in faithfulness. That is what he wants for the Gentile believers - that they become sons of Abraham, showing their faith in God's love.


For some, the news about Paul's letters in their Jewish context may be a challenge, and this essay may not have explained it adequately. For more reading, see the section of articles on Paul and the Bible Study Links page as well.


©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

Week 26: 2 Chron. 13 - 30, Eph. 2 - 6, Psalm 73 - 74

Visitors to the King

Last week, we read an intriguing story from Solomon's life about the visit to him by the queen of Sheba:

2Chr. 9:1 When the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions. Arriving with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones — she came to Solomon and talked with him about all she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for him to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw the wisdom of Solomon, as well as the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, the cupbearers in their robes and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed...Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on his throne as king to rule for the LORD your God. Because of the love of your God for Israel and his desire to uphold them forever, he has made you king over them, to maintain justice and righteousness.” Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. There had never been such spices as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.  (2 Chron. 9:1 - 4, 8-9)

It's a nice story, but initially it seems strange that foreign royalty would come to give gifts to a king who was already rich. But, when a powerful king arose in a country, other countries wanted to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. Solomon controlled more territory than any other Israelite king, so this was a report of royalty from very far away coming to pay homage to him. Sheba is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is today, about 1800 miles from Israel.

This picture of a king so great that other kings would come to pay homage to Him is also used to describe the coming Messiah. As we have explained in other articles, the messiah was the promised son of David who would have a great kingdom without end. Not only would he be king over Israel, He will be king over the whole world! This week we will read a messianic psalm that looks ahead to when that will happen:

Psa. 72:1 Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long. May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed. (Psalm 72:1-2, 7-12, 15, 17)

Interestingly, we see the same scene as happened to Solomon. Other kings would come to bow down to him and bring tribute to him and present him with gifts. Once again it talks about gold being brought from Sheba to him. It also alludes to the promise made to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through Him.

Yet another another messianic prophecy is in Isaiah 60 about the restoration of Israel and the king who would come in glory. It says,

Is 60:1-4, 6 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. ... The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Yet another time there is royalty from Sheba coming, bringing gold and frankincense as gifts to him. Sheba was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth - gold, jewels and spices. Spices don't seem very precious to us, but in ancient times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight in diamonds because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine. Herod gained much of his fantastic wealth by trading in spices and regulating the trading routes. It was also very costly to transport them across the dangerously dry, barren Arabian desert. Camels were the only animals that could be used to transport them over 1800 miles in life-threatening conditions, and each territory along the way would exact taxes on the precious cargo.

From this recurring image of kings bearing fabulous wealth coming to see the messianic king, we can now see the significance of the story of the wise men in Matthew 2:

Matt. 2:1-6, 11 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” ... On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh.

The wise men, probably ambassadors from the courts of other countries, wanted to see the messianic king who had come to Israel, and to pay him homage. We can see why Herod wanted to destroy him - this king would become king over the whole world! Only Jesus would do it a different way than Herod would. He would humble himself and die to redeem his people from their sins. As the message would go out to the world, people from all nations would repent and enter His kingdom. Gradually His kingdom would expand, like a mustard seed, until every nation on earth would be blessed through Him!


©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.