Pondering the Prophetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Step Back…There’s More to the Story

“Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
Isaiah 12:2 (NIV)

Last night Wendy and I lay in bed watching our beloved Cubbies lose Game 3 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) to the Dodgers in very undramatic fashion. For a life-long Cubs fan it’s hard not to feel like it has felt so many times before. It’s hard not to be pessimistic even though we’re only one game down. “There’s more to this story,” Wendy kept reminding me as the seemingly endless, hitless innings continued to rack up. More to the story….

I’ve been blogging this chapter-a-day journey for over ten years, and have been doing it much longer. It’s a great habit to get into, but it also lends itself to some interpretive difficulties.

If we’re reading a narrative history such as Jesus biographies or the Chronicles of the Kings, then reading a chapter each day is a lot like reading a novel. You remember the narrative from the day before and you pick up where you left off.

When it comes to the metaphorical poems of the ancient Hebrew prophets, however, it’s easy to get focused on the text of each chapter, and lose sight of the larger, poetic message the prophet is telling.

Today’s chapter is actually the final section of a larger message Isaiah was delivering from chapters 7-12. It I’m not careful, I might not catch the larger story to which today’s chapter belongs. Yesterday’s chapter was all about the coming Messiah. Today’s chapter is the result of Messiah’s coming: salvation and praise.

There is a pattern in the theme:

Sin -> Judgement -> Messiah -> Salvation -> Praise

This pattern is important because it foreshadows exactly what Jesus would teach us. Salvation is not something I achieve for myself, but something that God has done for me:

“God is my salvation….”

“The Lord himself…has become my salvation.”

“Make known in the nations what he has done.”

And, this great thing that God has done for me leads me to offer praise and thanks.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of stepping back and seeing the big picture. I’m reminded of the Message that God foreshadowed through the poetry of the prophets hundreds of years before it was fulfilled. I’m reminded, once again, that there is a plan. I’m reminded that there is more to the story if I’m willing to see it. That’s what Wendy was reminding me last night with regard to a game with infinitely less eternal significance.

Gave four of a seven game series is tonight. Come on, Cubbies. Let’s change the narrative!

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Reason, Creativity & Metaphor

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Isaiah 11:1-2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Throughout God’s Message He speaks through word pictures: poetic word pictures, word pictures in parables, typology, foreshadowing, metaphorical names, dreams, visions, and prophecies. God is a creative artist. God is the Creator Artist. The intricate, mathematical design of all creation is balanced by the Creator’s artistic flair in communication and story telling. We are made in God’s image. Left brain and right brain. Reason and creativity.

I have found that many people get perplexed and confused when approaching the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Reading the prophets can be a head scratcher. There is no doubt. This is especially true considering that we are reading an English translation of the original Hebrew text. The original Hebrew is much like the balanced reason and creativity of Creation. It can be very left-brained in its intricate (even mathematical) poetic structure and very right-brained in its metaphorical content.

This morning’s chapter begins with a Messianic prophecy. If you delve into the word pictures, you begin to unlock the full meaning.

Jesse was the father of King David. King David was told by God that his throne would be established forever (e.g. the Messiah would come from the line of David). During the time of Isaiah’s writing, the line of David was still sitting on the throne of Judah in Jerusalem. Alive and bearing generational fruit. But, within a couple of hundred years of the writing the monarchy of Judah would be cut-off by a series of occupational empires (Babylonian, Persian, Roman). There would be no king in Jerusalem. The family tree of Jesse’s royal lineage would become a lifeless stump.

From that dead, life-less stump comes a shoot, that will develop into a branch which will bear fruit. Life will spring out of the seemingly dead line of Jesse. That’s why Matthew and Luke are both careful to record the family tree of Jesus in the telling of the Jesus story. Jesus was a descendent of Jesse, born in the town of David, the town of Bethlehem.

And what does Isaiah’s prophecy communicate about this new shoot of life?


Consider Jesus’ own words:

“No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of both water and spirit.”

“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

“God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in Spirit and truth.”

“The Spirit gives life. The flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of Spirit and life.”

Jesus even took this same word picture of trunk, branch and fruit and passed it on to His followers (see John 15). How cool is that to see the manifestation of the word picture the Creator planted in the design of creation: Trunk give birth to branch which bears fruit that falls to Earth and “dies” and is buried, which then gives birth of Life to a new tree which develops branches and bears fruit. God’s intricate, creative design speaks God’s language: metaphor.

This morning I’m inspired thinking about the depth and layers of meaning in Isaiah’s prophetic writing. There were layers of meaning Isaiah himself could not possibly comprehend as he wrote the verses 700 years before the “Shoot of Jesse” would spring to Life. I am thinking about design and creativity. Words and word pictures. Spirit and Life. I’m praying that I perpetuate the word picture; praying that Spirit and Life is bearing fruit in and through me today.


Solace in the Storyboard

“Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger,
    in whose hand is the club of my wrath!
I send him against a godless nation,
    I dispatch him against a people who anger me,
to seize loot and snatch plunder,
    and to trample them down like mud in the streets.
But this is not what he intends,
    this is not what he has in mind;
his purpose is to destroy,
    to put an end to many nations.”
Isaiah 10:5-7 (NIV)

As I write this post, citizens of the U.S. are enduring a strange and depressing Presidential election. The two most unpopular candidates for President in history are running against one another. It’s enough to make even the most optimistic citizen groan in despair for the fate of our country.

I’m taking a smidgen of solace this morning in a theme that occurs across the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets, and appears in this morning’s chapter. God used even the worst nations and leaders for His good purposes. The Assyrians were not good people at the time Isaiah was writing. They were deplorable. Yet, even though they remain completely ignorant of the fact, God says that He will use them purposefully in the writing of the Great Story.

I received my absentee ballot and filled out every section except the vote for President. It sat on our kitchen counter for days as I agonized over my choice. I know that I am not alone in my agony. This morning, I am comforted by the reminder of the Assyrians. My hope and faith is not in a man or woman, nor even a nation – but in the Author of Life. I believe that no matter who wins this election, the action of the Great Story will continue to unfold according to God’s story board.

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The Latest 10-15-2016

Life continues to feel like a whirlwind, whipping Wendy and me from one thing to the next. This past couple of weeks and weekends was no exception.  I spent the entire  work week, last week, on the road to Texas, working with a client there in Laredo and San Antonio. Wendy stayed busy with rehearsals for The Christmas Post here at home.


I arrived home on Friday evening in time for the Cubs first playoff game against San Francisco. Wendy had beer, hot dogs, and nachos ready and the living room here at Vander Well Manor was transformed into our own little ball park for the game. Glad to say our Cubbies won in dramatic fashion. Classic pitcher’s duel into the bottom of the 8th when Javy Baez hit a solo-shot to left for the game’s only run. I spent the late innings texting updates, like a modern form of the telegraph, to our friend Kevin who was monitoring the game in Palm Springs. So much fun to get to text the good news.

Saturday was Union Street Players annual Award’s Night. This year our friend Spence Ver Meer was inducted to the USP Walk of Fame. Spence starred with Wendy in the 2005 production of Barefoot in the Park and it was an honor to be part of the festivities. While Wendy spent Saturday morning at rehearsal, I spent the time preparing slides, video, and music for the festivities. It was a full day of preparation as Wendy had made cheesecake’s for our dessert. The event went really well. The local improv group who performed (made up mostly of USP members) even got Wendy to volunteer to help out on the final game. That’s not an easy feat but it was hilarious to watch (see featured image).

Wendy continues to do a masterful job directing The Christmas Post for Union Street Players. Performances are scheduled Dec 2-4, 6, 8, 9 here in Pella. You don’t want to miss this! I’ll be on stage reprising my role as Mr. Herzog.

I preached again last Sunday morning in the auditorium at Third. We kicked off a series on the love chapter. Wendy and I got a little rest watching the Vikings beat the Texans in the afternoon before our preparations for the coming week kicked into high gear. The whirlwind continues.

Madison got some Cubbie swag to help maintain her Midwest roots in SC!
Madison got some Cubbie swag to help maintain her Midwest roots in SC!

Madison is safe and sound in South Carolina. Hurricane Matthew gave Madison her first taste of a tropical storm, but Columbia was mostly hit with heavy rain and 25-30 mph winds. She hunkered down in her apartment and killed flying cockroaches. I sent Madison some Cubbie swag so she can “keep the faith” down south for a Cub’s World Series.

Taylor has received some encouraging signs regarding potential employment across the pond. And, some interest in employment here in Fun City. Where will she end up? More on that as things prayerfully progress.


Raised in Flyover Country

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:1-2 (NIV)

When I visited Israel just over ten years ago, the first days of our journey were in and around Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a big city, and it has all the hustle and bustle of a big city. When you layer the never-ending religious tension between Christians, Jews, and Muslims on top of the din of activity, it is a fascinating experience. If found that my guard was always up in Jerusalem. I felt that I always had to be aware of my surroundings. I don’t know that I ever felt relaxed.

Several days later we headed north, to the region of Galilee. There was something in the transition from Jerusalem to Galilee that felt very natural. It was like leaving downtown Chicago and finding yourself in the farms and fields of Illinois and Iowa. I stood on Mt. Arbel and looked out over the fields sprawled around the Sea of Galilee (see featured image). Small towns and villages dot the landscape. Farming and fishing are the livelihoods in what Jerusalem residents surely consider the “backwater” area of the nation. Israel’s version of “flyover country.” And, I felt right at home.

Even nominal church attenders who make an annual pilgrimage on Christmas would recognize a couple of the verses the prophet Isaiah penned in today’s chapter. One is pasted at the top of this post. The other is:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

What I had never connected before, is that Isaiah calls out that this Light that will shine, the child that is born, will honor Galilee. It wasn’t going to be in the hubbub of Jerusalem and the center of the region’s worldly power. The Messiah would bless the simple folks scratching out a living from the land and the water far from the pomp and prestige of civic and religious authority. It was of Nazareth, in Galilee, that Jesus’ own disciple sarcastically asked, “Does anything good come from there?

There’s a sentiment that every child of Iowa knows.

This morning I’m thinking about life in flyover country. I’m thinking about my small town, filled with good people who live in concert with the land and the seasons. I live in a place that generally brings up vague, usually incorrect, notions from the people you talk to on the streets of New York or Los Angeles.

“Iowa? Oh yeah. With all the potatoes.” [No, that’s Idaho.]
“Iowa? I heard of it.” [Nice. You still remember 2nd grade geography!]
“Iowa? I had a great Aunt that was from there.” [But, you still couldn’t find it on a map, could you?]

This morning I’m taking solace in the fact that the Messiah came from a place like Iowa. He grew up working with his hands in the trades. He knew small town people scratching out a living from the land, living in concert with the seasons of planting and harvesting. It was here in flyover country where God wanted Jesus to be raised. I get it. We grow good kids here, as well as crops.

Express Yourself

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess,and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”
Isaiah 8:1-4 (NIV)

The world of the ancient Hebrew prophets was a whacky place in which everything in their lives was fair game for being living metaphors of their spiritual messages. Marrying a prostitute, walking around the city naked strapped to an ox yoke, and building a city out of Legos in the middle of the city square in order to lay siege to it are among a few of the rather bizarre word pictures God had them act out.

The poor sons of Isaiah had the enjoyable distinction of being born to be given names from their father’s prophetic work. And, I have to believe it likely got them ridiculed and beat up on the ancient playgrounds of Jerusalem:

  • She’ar-Ya’shuv meant “a remnant shall return” which foreshadows the people of Judah who were taken into captivity in Babylon, and the remnant who returned to restore the temple (as told by Nehemiah).
  • Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz meant “spoil quickly, rush to the plunder” which foreshadowed the impending attack and plunder of King Ahaz’s enemies by the Assyrians.

While S-Ya and the Baz-man may have names that seem very strange to us today, the act of layering names of our children with meaning is not new. Taylor and Madison both have middle names that reference women in my family, one on my mother’s side and the other on my dad’s. While Madison is not named for the street I grew up on, I love the added layer of meaning it has for me. It is quite common to give children names layered with meaning by naming them after role-models, inspirational figures, Biblical characters, and etc.

We all do things metaphorically. We layer things with meaning. Metaphor is God’s language. It’s God’s modus-operandi in communicating. Made in God’s image, we all inherently do it. We express ourselves (who we are, and what we believe/think) in what we wear, drive, hang on our walls, do with our time, and post on social media. The prophets simply pushed the envelope. Prompted by God, they were more intentional and more creative with their metaphors.

This morning I’m thinking once again about how I wordlessly express myself, both unconsciously and intentionally. I am no ancient prophet, but it seems to me I have an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to be mindful and intentional in all the ways I express myself.

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Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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