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Chapter #41 Jer 1-52 (Part II): Certain failure

Having looked at Jeremiah in his tumultuous geo-political context, we turn inward this week to explore the personal story of Judah’s lamenting prophet of woe.

Of all the prophets, Jeremiah contains by far the most autobiographical information. A priest, or son of a priest, from Anathoth in Benjamin, Jeremiah receives a call at an age apparently too young for the average prophet (1:6). Yet his dialogue with Yahweh in chapter 1 is revealing; the prophet’s protests are met with an unswerving command, and a threat: ‘do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.’ (v17) Jeremiah’s life of despair is marked by this consignment to conflict, an inability to give up in the face of certain failure.


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Chapter #40 Jer 1-52 (Part I): Coward or hero?

Following on from Zephaniah, the next prophet in Judah’s fading history is Jeremiah. Along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, Jeremiah the book represents one of the three most significant prophetic works in the life of the Israelite community. Contrary to Isaiah and Ezekiel, however, this is not primarily an exilic or post-exilic work; Jeremiah gives us the clearest and most telling snapshot of the years through which the Promised Land was ceded forever.*

As a work of prophecy Jeremiah is more of an anthology than it is a linear progression. Flitting from one point in time to another and back again, it’s hard to discern any clear pattern. What we do find, however, is the very personal story of a man whose life and work failed to stop the steady crumble of the state of Judah.


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Chapter #39 Nah, Zeph & Obad: Healing the hate

So after three long weeks in Isaiah we move from the sublime to the ridiculous: seven chapters, across three books. Naham and Obadiah provide us with some tasty xenophobic hate-mail before Zephaniah burns us with refining judgement. All in a weeks work for that unchainable beast we call the Old Testament!

Nahum finds it place in Israel’s history around 612 BCE when the mighty Assyrian capital, Ninevah, was decimated by Nabopolassar the Babylonian king. Bizarrely, such an historic event fails to make it into either the Kings or Chronicles accounts. But Nahum, the humble Elkoshite prophet is so overwhelmed with jubilation at the end of such an oppressive regime that his barley controlled rant enshrines for us the desperate victimisation felt by the 7th century Israelites at the hands of their brutal neighbours.

Obadiah, by contrast, demonstrates beautifully the irony of this joy as his anger finds it way to Edom in the wake of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. (The very victory celebrated by Nahum was to signal a power change for the region that would spell destruction for Judah of the kind she never knew under Assyria.) What has made Obadiah so angry is Edom’s flagrant parasitical military strategy, hopping on the back of the Babylonians to plunder Jerusalem and taunt its exiles. With so much animosity over hundreds of years of history (back to Esau and Jacob), Obadiah’s words surely spoke for many Israelites who felt this cowardly action was a kick too low.


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Chapter #38 Isa 56-66: A dream worth living

This third week in Isaiah brings us to Book III, the last ten chapters penned by the Isaiah tradition after having returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. As with the Chronicles history, this different stage in Israel’s life raised new questions. In Isaiah’s case they are linked to the story through the book so far.

As we have read, the man Isaiah, prophet in the king’s court spoke of judgement on Israel and Judah, but alluded to their restoration, paying particular homage to the city, Jerusalem. After its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, the exilic writers spoke of hope and restoration for the People of Yahweh, and, quite specifically, their beloved Zion. By the time of their return, however, they were not quite the dominant superpower they imagined; Jerusalem’s temple was rebuilt, but her walls were shattered. Even after Nehemiah’s Herculean effort, things were still far from glorious. Had they been wrong? What future was there for those who loved Yahweh and believed in his promise of coming prowess?


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Chapter #37 Isa 40-55: The dark days are over

As Isaiah progresses, we look this week at Book II, the section of the work associated with the Judean’s exile experience in Babylon. A powerful message of comfort and hope for the exiles, Isaiah 40-55 paints a picture of Jerusalem (Zion) as a mighty centre for salvation with the People of Yahweh as its rulers.

While the prophet Isaiah proclaimed mostly judgement, these later writers develop his thinner themes of restoration. This Book is a wake-up call; a steely-eyed assertion that the Babylonians time was up and the day of Zion could begin.

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to miss what ‘Isaiah’ is claiming. We know that the religion of Yahweh only continued post-exile as a minority faith and that Jerusalem never regained its former glory. Isaiah’s confidence, in other words, was somewhat misplaced. For the brave-new-worlders in Babylon however, rumours of the coming Persian army sounded the end of Babylonian captivity. Rather than fear their continued ignominy, those in the Isaiah tradition imagine wildly; not just the regained glory of David and Solomon, but a ‘new world order’: Zion.


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Chapter #36 Isa 1-39: Fresh dreams

We begin now our epic journey through the writings of the Isaiah tradition. Chapters 1 – 39 are credited to the man Isaiah, prophet in the court of King Uzziah of Judah and subsequently Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Difficult to understand, so laden are his words with elaborate symbolism, Isaiah combines judgement and challenge with hope for Zion and the Davidic monarchy.

There are several ‘defining’ geo-political events involving Judah that occurred through the course of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry. Each of these is reflected to some extent in his enormously eloquent outbursts. At its heart however, Isaiah Book 1 is, in the vein of its contemporaries, Amos, Hosea and Micah, a proclamation of judgement on Israel & Judah for injustice and idolatry, but with a Messianic twist.


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Chapter #35 Mic 1-7: The still small roar

We continue this week with another plunge into the vast waters of Israel’s prophetic tradition, this time with Micah. Prophesying during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, Micah would have seen the Northen Kingdom’s capture by Assyria and its partial exile to the towns of the Habor River. Yet as a prophet of the Southern Kingdom, Micah’s message seeks to shatter the complacency of Israel’s smug sister.

‘What is Jacob’s transgression?’ he asks. ‘Is it not Samaria?’ (1:5) ‘Oh yes’, all the people of Judah agree. Israel have brought this judgement on themselves. Samaria (their capital) is like a blot on Israel and has undergone the proper judgement. ‘What is Judah’s high place?’ he continues. ‘Is it not Jerusalem?’ ‘What!?’ they exclaim! ‘How dare you insult the House of the Lord?!’


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Chapter #34 2 Chr 1-36: The way we tell it

We return to the alternative history this week with the second half of the Chronicles. Detailing the history of the Kings of Judah the account follows it Southern-Kingdom Priestly-tradition perspective on the reign of Solomon through to Zedekiah and the Exile to Babylon.

Like the book of Kings, this is in part a frantic picking over entrails; a throbbing question that relentlessly demands ‘what went wrong?’ From the grandeur and glamour of Solomon wends a dismal trail of failure, till even the great reformers cannot stem the tide of demise. The loyal Levitical priesthood long for answers; some explanation that can undo their doubt and pain; some power to ensure success in their brave new post-exilic world. The writing of Chronicles is part of their journey.


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Chapter #33 Sng of Sngs 1-8: Spiritually sexual

The Song of Songs is a title not easy bestowed! Yet here it rests on one of the most unlikely candidates for the biblical canon, a cobbled collection of erotic love poetry! Interpreting the Song of Songs or Solomon’s Song in the 21st century is one of the hardest tasks of any biblical interpretation, primarily due to its interpretative history.

The main point of contention lies over whether it should be read as the very definitely sexual work that it appears, or whether the physical metaphors of heterosexual love are in fact representative of a deeper spiritual meaning, even analogy, between Yahweh, the Lover and his people, the Beloved.

Since Origen in the early 3rd century BCE Christian tradition has been disposed to treat the Song of Songs as an allegory of the relationship of Christ to his church. This led to the somewhat oddly ironic situation that during the Middle Ages it was the most translated of all the canonical writings, by people committed to a life of celibacy!


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Chapter #32 Ecc 1-12: Death is absurd

Ecclesiastes is, in my opinion, the most powerfully contemporary work of the Old Testament. The ‘Teacher’, or Qohelet (the commonly used Hebrew name), could find a happy place amongst most Postmodern philosophers. And this potent voice has much to say to a fragmented and disillusioned world.

The central concept of Qohelet’s wisdom is the Hebrew word hebel. Literally meaning ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’, it is the recurring ‘meaningless’ in the NIV translation. There is a lot of debate over what the English word should be to best recreate Qohelet’s sentiment. It is my belief that the alternative renderings ‘absurd’ or ‘pointless’ provide a significantly more helpful translation of hebel than does ‘meaningless’, for one crucial reason.