Morning Poem, December 13, 2017

Psalm 57: 8
Awake up, my glory; awake psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early.

 

Think of David as he lies on the mountain

He looks at the night sky

Unending, unfathomable, unreachable

The diamond stars

The firmament that declares the glory of God

And he aches

His heart panting like the hart after the waterbrook

At his side are sword, spear and bow

His body is cut from oak, his skin like leather

His mind a blade itself, with razor’s edge

He breathes the open air and the day’s tension dissolves

He rests in the shadow of the wings of the Almighty

.

This man who killed the giant

And tens of thousands

Hears heaven’s choir and plays on his harp

Songs that soothe the savage breast of Saul

His poems are those very psalms

That have charmed and inspired

Over millennia

And he aches

.

At first light, at first rustling of dawn

He turns and shakes away sleep

Here is a new day

He rises, believing the promise

“Awake up, my glory”

.

What is his glory?

One more win in bloody combat?

Or is it that unknowable thing

That all men share with him

That desire beneath all desires

That lesser men have long since forgotten

And forfeited to the unrelenting fates

That lesser men are afraid to confess

.

Does David wake early

Expecting glory in bloodshed

Or does he crave

That his righteousness will shine like the dawn

And the justice of his cause like the noonday sun?

Does he crave that gift, that grace, that dispensation

That is his and his alone?

That unspeakable grace promised to him

When he first came to know himself?

.

Is the difference between him and me

That he believes it will happen

And maybe this very day

And so he wakes early

And takes in hand

Psaltery and harp

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The Judgement Is God’s

Deuteronomy 1:17

17 Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s . . . 

 

Here’s another example of where, in my judgement at least, the King James Version of the Bible is superior in expression to more modern translations.

In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks with the Lord about setting up a kind of judiciary for the Israelites as they are about to embark on the last phase of their journey into the Promised Land.  The nation has apparently grown in number during the 40 years of wandering and now it is too much for Moses alone to tend to the hearing and settlement of the disputes that inevitably arose among the people.  God gives Moses some managerial advice that would sound right at home in a modern corporate seminar: delegate!  Find men who are able and experienced and give them authority to hear disputes.  The verse suggests that the system implemented is hierarchical, like that we see today in American jurisprudence. (This is no accident: of course the structure of western judicial systems is born here.  Our court system is, finally, descended from Moses.)    Some judges will be in charge of 50, some 100 and some 1000.  There are layers of courts.

From there, the Lord gives instruction and encouragement to the men who will take up these new judicial posts.  As the NIV renders it:

Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.  Do not be afraid of any man, for judgement belongs to God.

The King James renders the verse:

Ye shall not respect persons in judgement; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgement is God’s . . .

I’ll admit that “Do not show partiality in judging” is clearer to me than “Ye shall not respect persons in judgement,” but compare these two phrases:  “do not be afraid of any man” versus “ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man.”

I was a federal prosecutor for 34 years and the best years of my career were spent hauling public officials into court on corruption charges.  These were powerful men.  They had not only official powers, but that informal and more sinister power that comes with being the “boss” of a long-established, corrupt political organization whose fortunes and status are dependent on the boss staying out of jail and retaining power.

I first got to know these corrupt officials in an almost academic way.  I read reports about them.  I interviewed people who knew them. There were stool pigeons who had once worked for the boss but who had gotten into trouble and turned on him to shorten their own jail time.  There were enemies of the boss, some of whom were probably just as corrupt as the target, who had completed with him for power and patronage in this district or that and who were champing at the bit to dump on their rival.  I subpoenaed and studied bank records, looking for suspicious cash deposits or outlays.  I looked at credit card bills, tax and travel records.

In one sense, I knew these men very well before I ever charged them; before I ever met them in court.

But something happened when I actually saw them face to face.   After the arrest, when the defendant first made his initial appearance, where the question of bail would be addressed, I would look, often for the first time, into the face of the man I had charged.  And there was something fearful about that.  Not that any of them were glaring at me or trying to stare me down.  It was something other than that.  Having the flesh-and-blood person before me stuck me in the gut; raised the hair on the back of my neck.  The fight now was joined and the stakes were high.  Everything that had gone before seemed theoretical now.

It seems to me that this is what the King James gets just right.  This translation describes the dynamic to me just the way I felt it in life.  The idea is that the judges newly commissioned are being told not to fear the face-to-face confrontation with those whom they are called on to judge.

And there is a reason for that.  The fight, the battle, the dispute, is not personal to the judges and if they act correctly, the judgement they render is God’s judgement, not their own.  I think the King James is better on this point, too.  The NIV renders “for judgment belongs to God,” which strikes me as a bit contradictory.  If judgement – here in the generic or abstract – belongs to God, then what in the heck are you – a mere human judge – doing meting it out?  The King James makes the matter a little more particular and surely better, saying “the judgement is God’s.”

That is, the judgement in this very matter – the judgement, rendered under the authority granted to the human judge – is God’s judgement.

 

Because They Have No Changes

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. . . ”  Psalm 55:19

 

Sometimes it pays to have a stack of Bibles, but sometimes you may find that the old standby – the King James Version – gets it right, or at least gets it better than the newer translations.  As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I try to read a psalm every day.  I can’t – or at least I don’t – take all the time necessary for the study of a chapter or book somewhere else in the Bible, but the Psalms are poems and they each may stand at a given reading on their own two feet.  You can read most of them in a few minutes and get at least an idea or two about their import and meaning.

I like to read the psalms in the King James for several reasons.  First, I learned them in that version when I was just a kid and the KJV was still the go-to in churches.  Second, remember that the psalms are poetry and appeal to the emotions.  Although they may not have sounded as formal in their original language as they now do in the KJV, the KJV, given the archaic and strange sound of the language, keeps reminding me that I am reading poetry and not USA Today.  I’ll admit that the newer translations are often clearer and may correct mistakes or misunderstandings that the KJV might cause (I use them for these purposes everyday) something great is lost when the high-emotion, poetic voice of the psalmist is made to read like an instruction manual.  Add to all of that that I still find, now and then, that the real meaning of a passage is best captured in the old translation.  Maybe when the modern translators aim at clarity they eliminate ambiguity that ought to be there.

Let’s look again at Psalm 55: 19.  There, David says of his enemies: “. . . Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”   Here is an example of what I mean by ambiguity.  What does it mean, “they have no changes?”  The very uncertainty of it intrigues me; draws me in.  And so I looked at the verse in other translations.  Here is how the NIV renders it:  “men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.”

Not exactly the same idea conveyed in these two versions.  “Have no changes” doesn’t sound like the same thing as “never chang[ing] one’s ways.”   The newer translation implies a deliberate, internal decision: in spite of everything happening around me, I won’t change my ways. The older version, it seems to me, allows the reader to think of something quite different – changes that are external to the people in question.  It allows the notion that it is not so much – or at least not only – that these men have refused to change their ways, it may be that their surroundings and circumstances have not changed.  They have not been confronted with disorienting changes in their lives and so they trust and carry on in their own strength.  In either case it is true that the men in question do not change internally – do not change their minds – but the earlier translation gives us more room and at least implies or suggests that the “changes” that these men “do not have” are external changes – changes in their circumstances that might awaken them to the fact that they are not in control of their own lives and that they must place their trust in God.

That idea is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible.  We have discussed here in the last few days passages in Jeremiah and Zephaniah that employ the metaphor of wine being left on the lees.  That is, the wine as it aged was left undisturbed and not poured off from the lees or dregs or sediment that settles out of the juice as it ferments over time.  In both of these prophetic passages, this lack of change will bring judgement.  And in both places the changes referred to are not merely internal or mental changes, but are external or cultural.  Jeremiah warns that Moab has been complacent in the peace and prosperity it has enjoyed over generations.  Zephaniah warns the dwellers in Jerusalem:

12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

Isn’t it fair to say that here the internal hardness is a product of what the men see outside themselves.  Life has been so regular, so unchanging in their days that they now believe that God does not intervene in the affairs of men.  He does not judge the wicked.  He does not reward the faithful.  The men with these attitudes are to be searched out and punished.  To be taught that God does judge the wicked and does reward the righteous.

 

If that is a fair reading, then the verses in question would certainly seem to speak directly in today’s headlines.  Given the unrelenting cycle of news these days and the seemingly inexhaustible stores of evil in the actions of men and nations it is rather easy to believe that nothing could shock or surprise us ever again.  But I must say that in my six decades I have never quite seen the like of the recent purge of those in high places who have exploited those who were weaker or subservient to them.  Men, powerful, rich and privileged are being brought to judgement.  Men in media – broadcasting, movie making – men in politics; men in religious offices are all being unmasked and brought to task for these long histories of exploitation and abuse.  Surely it can be said of them as they continued in their power and prestige for decades and continued to injure the weak without consequence to themselves that they said in their hearts: The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

What is so striking in today’s news is not so much the criminal conduct itself – that’s terrible enough, but we all knew about it.  Not to say that we knew the exploits of this or that particular star or senator, but we knew that this kind of thing goes on everywhere, all the time.  Men in power prey on the weaker people around them.  Doctors hit on nurses.  Law partners hit on associates.  Priests abuse children.  And the story of the “casting couch” is decades old and no one doubted it.

What is remarkable and unprecedented is the size and strength of the wave of judgement now sweeping the country.  God is not mocked.  One who persists in such exploitation does, finally, reap what he has sown.

Meditation on Psalm 61

 

From the end of the earth I will cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed. . . 

 

Psalm 61 is a short poem, but one that is fraught with emotion.  David’s petition, his prayer, is no rote repetition, but a “cry.”    There are two different Hebrew words that are here (v. 1 and v. 2) translated “cry.”  And both words connote emotion.  In fact, one of them is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe the sound of a beast.  One can imagine David’s prayer as a cry that is as bold as the roar of a lion or as plaintive as the screech of a frightened bird.

In this psalm, David is once again overwhelmed.  His life was anything but mundane; anything but a smooth road.  In fact, David was constantly embattled.  He fought against the enemies of King Saul and he fought King Saul himself after the king’s jealousy had turned him against David.  When David speaks of the “ends of the earth” and of his heart being “overwhelmed” he is speaking of immediate, physical experience.  He speaks from the experience of being alone, fearing ambush.  He speaks of being outnumbered and war-weary.

But likewise, David’s experience of God is also personal, dramatic and immediate.  And in this psalm, the weary and overwhelmed warrior remembers the times when God protected him on the battlefield; preserving him from the hand of the enemy and giving him victory.

Do we see our own lives as quite that dramatic?  Do we remember God as our savior?  As that One who brought us out of the prisons of our own making and away from the power of the evil one?

To be sure, for most of us, the battlefield is not the desert and the enemy is not flesh and blood and his weapons are not made of steel.  But if we pay much attention to the New Testament, we must understand that the life of the Christian is in fact a battle.  The warfare is spiritual and much is at stake.

We are concerned with the upbuilding and ongoing of God’s kingdom through the spread of the gospel throughout the world.  That effort is certainly vigorously opposed by secular and religious powers.

But we also fight for our own character.  We fight to become who we were made to be.  These days it may be easy to forget that much is at stake in this life.  The days pass quickly and may seem to pass uneventfully and we fall into complacency and lose our perspective, thinking one day is just like another.  We find our contentment in the things of this world.  In mindless entertainment.  Lewis was right: we are far too easily pleased.  We should never abandon our hope of victory and triumph, even as those things are achieved quietly, through endurance and worship and prayer and repentance and service.

Meditation on Psalm 55

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”

 

I try to read a Psalm a day.  The Psalms, it seems, are fit for daily study in that they each may stand alone.  Other books in the Bible may demand a more comprehensive approach – a consideration of broad context and language – but each Psalm is a story or drama unto itself.

 

So many of the psalms are attributed to David.  Some of those are beautiful devotions, like the 23rd, whose metaphor for God as shepherd is surely one of the high points in the whole book.  But many of David’s psalms are shot through with cursing and complaint.  In reading the Psalms, we discover that, for David, life was a battle.  He is constantly in trouble, surrounded by enemies, suffering betrayals and the consequences of his own wrongdoings; in fear of destruction.  Undoubtedly there is value for the modern man or woman in David’s perspective.  So many of us are insulated from the rough and tumble of life that David lived.  We are not encamped on a desert mountain and wakened by the lion and the bear that threatens our sheep and ourselves.  We are not being chased by a lunatic king who is insanely jealous and out to kill us.  We move from air-conditioned summers to comfortably-heated winters.  Our larders are generally full and our homes secure.

What David’s psalms may do for us is awaken us to the fact that, in spite of the comforts we know, life is a battle.  There is something real at stake; something great that may be lost or gained.  To lose sight of this is to surrender to the status quo:  life simply goes on as ever before, each day is more of the same, and we lift our feet from the ground and simply let the earth spin beneath us.  What difference does our effort make, anyway?

Some may fall into such a defeatist, fatalistic view of life as a result of repeated disappointment and failure.   Some may come to see life as not only unfair, but insurmountably unfair, and finally satisfy themselves with those little pleasures that may be found along the primrose path of least resistance.

This morning’s Psalm for me was number 55.  It is in many ways a typical David psalm.  He is in desperate straits (of course) and is pouring his soul out to God; half wishing for complete escape from life (Oh, that I had wings of a dove; then I would fly away into the wilderness and be at peace) and half wishing for immediate victory in the conflict.

As is his wont, he curses his enemies.  For the most part, there is nothing new here, but as I followed along this morning, one phrase did stand out.  David says of his enemies:

Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.

What can that mean?  What does it mean to “have no changes?”  This reading is from the King James Version which is my starting point for reading the Psalms.  The Psalms are poetry, after all, and there should be a certain majesty, ambiguity, mystery and meter about them.   I looked at several newer translations.  There are lots of variations in the translation of this verse.   NIV: “. . . [they] never change their ways and have no fear of God.”   Some translations seem to attribute the modifier suggesting a lack of change to God.   This is from a newer version of the NIV:  “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them . . .”

Other translations render the verse to say that the change referred to is that change of heart associated with repentance.

As is often the case, I am far more satisfied and intrigued by this unusual and at first ambiguous rendering in the old King James.  “They have no changes!”  Not that they haven’t repented; not that God is unchanging.  (Those two things are true, but this verse is saying something other than that.)

What the verse says to me – and this distinguishes it from the others – is that the enemies of whom David here speaks walk in false security.  The security of wealth and worldly power.  They are comfortable and consequently feel no need of God.  For them, life is not a battle.

How is that relevant to me?  Well, I am not about to sell the house and by a tent and start keeping sheep.  But I might be a little better at recognizing the realities of life.  Life brings us changes.  They are inevitable.  It is not so much that David’s enemies had no real changes.  They were subject to the vicissitudes of life like every other mortal.  But they had done their best to ignore them.  They filled their lives with insulation and diversion and forgot themselves and their real lives.

I don’t have to search for changes, and neither do you.  They are on our plates every day.  Every day we age.  We may grow wiser or simply duller.  Every day our fortunes change.  Look at those who surround us.  How have their circumstances changed and how completely may we have ignored those changes?  What opportunities are lost and which are gained?

A sober assessment of our own changes will indeed teach us new priorities and of our need for God.  Something real is at stake.  Something great may be lost or gained and, although we are active players in this drama, we in our own strength are insufficient to meet the challenge.

The Importance of Fathers

 

As you know, if you read this blog regularly, I’ve been reading Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings.  She delves deeply into her early life, how her parents surrounded her with books and read to her in their nursery in their home in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the second phase of the book, entitled “Learning to See,” she focuses on her summer vacation north to visit her mother’s parents in West Virginia and her father’s parents in Ohio.   I have lived in West Virginia almost all of my life and so the descriptions of the life she saw here in the early part of the 20th century are very interesting to me.  I have been to the places she writes about – the towns of Clay and Richwood and the country all along the Elk River.

She writes particularly about one such trip she made very early in her life with only her mother.  They traveled by train to Clay, West Virginia and spent time in her grandparents’ home on a mountaintop there.  Eudora’s father came to West Virginia at the end of their visit to, as she puts it, “shepherd us home.”   Although she was very young then, she speaks of this memory about her father’s arrival:

. . . I was not too much of a baby to notice and remember how different it was when my father arrived on the scene.  A difference came over what we were doing, like a change in the wind.

I know what she means.  I remember something of the same in my own early life and I will try to express that before I end this post.  But the idea I have now is perhaps better expressed by Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina.

That book actually began as two books – one the fatal story of Anna and the other the story of the life and redemption of Levin and Kitty.   The second story is far the better one.   Anna’s life is one mistake after another leading to dissolution and finally death but Levin and Kitty’s story is a great love story and a great story of victory in living.

 

Kitty Shcherbatsky

 

 

Kitty and Levin’s story begins with great disappointments on both sides.  Levin is head-over-heels in love with Kitty, but before he can bring himself to propose to her, she becomes enamored with Count Vronsky, who leads her on only to at last disappoint and mortify her by transferring his affections to the married Anna.

Kitty’s family does what it can to help her assuage her grief.  This includes, as the story goes, a trip to a German spa where Kitty meets another girl who works with the halt and the lame at there in service to Christ.  Kitty is drawn to this Varinka and comes to see that her own grief can be forgotten as she immerses herself in sacrificial love.

This is Kitty’s conversion.  It is real, and it is really brought about, on the human plane, by Varinka and a woman for whom Varinka works.  Kitty comes to venerate this older woman.

But when Kitty’s father, an old Russian prince, steeped in experience and tradition, arrives on the scene, things change.  It turns out that the old prince knew the woman Kitty has come to idealize.  When he meets her again at the spa, Kitty can see the woman in a new way through her father’s eyes as he speaks to the woman, as she reacts and as her father comments to her later about the woman’s character and earlier life.

Image result for anna karenina "prince Shcherbatsky"

Prince Shcherbatsky

 

 

Here is Tolstoy:

. . .  with her father’s coming all the world in which she had been living was transformed for Kitty.  She did not give up everything she had learned, but she became aware that she had deceived herself in supposing she could be what she wanted to be. Her eyes were, it seemed, opened; she felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy and self-conceit on the pinnacle to which she had wished to mount.  Moreover, she became aware of all the dreariness of the world of sorrow, of sick and dying people, in which she had been living. The efforts she had made to like it seemed to her intolerable, and she felt a longing to get back quickly into the fresh air, to Russia, to Ergushovo, where, as she knew from letters, her sister Dolly had already gone with her children.

But her affection for Varenka did not wane. As she said good-bye, Kitty begged her to come to them in Russia.

This scene from the book is far deeper and more subtle than I can convey in this post.  It is in fact a masterly dramatization of an elusive but profound dynamic of good fathering.   I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else even try to communicate this, in story or in exposition. Fathers, good fathers, are a sobering influence.  They see the people who surround their children in a different, more mature, less fanciful light.  They are sensitive to any attempt or effort to patronize or exploit their children.  When dad comes around, the nonsense stops.

When dad is not around, the nonsense often goes on unchecked.

 

The Mark of The Beast

Revelation 13:16-17

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

 

 

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, poetic works, prophetic works, histories and letters.  If we are to understand a biblical text; if we are to get the most out of it; we must come to it recognizing the kind of writing it is.  Thus, we don’t come to the Psalms expecting a lesson in physics.  The Psalms are songs and thus are often poetic and use metaphor to convey truth.  When we read in the Psalms that God “rides on the wings of the wind” we do not conclude that the wind actually has a set of wings.  Because we know we are reading poetry we recognize that the description is metaphorical and communicates the swiftness and majesty of God at work in the world.

Another type of writing we see in the Bible is so-called “apocalyptic” writing.   When you hear the word “apocalypse” these days, what is the first image that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet that for most people, that first thought has to do with disaster of unimaginable proportion.   You know, like the ending of the first Ghostbusters movie:

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

 

 

In fact, even Merriam-Webster defines the word “apocalypse” as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.”

But – and you must have known I was going to say this – that is not the original meaning of the word.  The word “apocalypse” is Greek in origin and it literally means “uncovering.”   Thus, an apocalyptic writing, such as the biblical Book of Revelation, is one that aims to draw back the curtain on obvious and superficial appearances and expose the spiritual realities beneath it all.  Thus, the primary focus of such a work is on revealing the true nature of what is present or immediate, with far less emphasis on what may happen in the distant future.

While it cannot be denied that the Book of Revelation does speak of the end of history and the final consummation of God’s perfect kingdom, if we treat that as the sole focus of the book and lose sight of what the book had to say about the immediate circumstances the original audience of the book – the churches to which the book is expressly addressed –faced even as they read the letter, then we are far from doing justice to the work and far from receiving the insight and encouragement it may provide.

We must admit that there are mysteries about the Book of Revelation.  The precise meaning of many of the individual symbols used in the book has been lost over the centuries. But the point is not to speculate about the meaning of this or that detail, but instead to focus on the central and overarching message of the book.

One thing that is not mysterious about the book is the identity of its original audience.  In fact, we may fairly think of this book as a letter that is still in its postmarked, addressed envelope.  We have the advantage of knowing who wrote the letter, who it was written to and the approximate time that the letter was sent.

The book itself identifies the writer as the Apostle John and the intended recipients as the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  There can be little doubt that the book was written late in the first century A. D.  It may have been the last of the New Testament books to have been written.

What does that well-established information do for the contemporary reader?  I suggest that it does a lot.  For the first principle in interpreting and understanding the book is the principle of original intelligibility.  That is, we must begin our study of the book with the idea that it would have been intelligible – it would have had obvious meaning – to its first audience.

Many of the contemporary and popular interpretations  point to passages in the book as references to this, that or the other historical event, all of which occurred long after the churches to whom this Book was written were history themselves.    It is almost as if they assume that when the first-century churches received this letter from John that they could not have had any real idea about what the book was talking about.  You can imagine a bunch of first-century Christians in Philadelphia or Laodicea puzzling over the letter, saying to each other “Okay, we understand bits of this, but a great amount of it is totally impenetrable for us.  It must be aimed at generations hundreds of years in the future.”

I hope you see how silly this is.  This Book, by its very terms, is written directly to particular churches and if we are to begin to understand it at all, we must start by thinking about what John intended it to convey to them.

We’ve spent a good deal of time talking about that very thing in this class.  We’ve referred to the works of Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder) and Vernon Poythress (The Returning King) that approach the book in this way and offer compelling explanations about what many of the symbols in the book would have been immediately recognized as by those Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the book was addressed.

Two of those symbols – the “Land Beast” and the “Sea Beast” we recognized as – in reverse order – coercive government power and the apologists who supported that power.  In the first century, the coercive government power would have been Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who in that day demanded to be worshipped as a deity.  The Land Beast represented the magicians, false religionists and other sycophants who worked hand in hand with the government to project the image that the Emperor was in fact divine.

If we understand the book in this way, we can apply its meaning to every age, including our own.  For although the names and flags change over the generations, it is the recurrent impulse of leaders and governments to demand more than is legitimately theirs: to demand absolute allegiance from citizens and subjects.

 

 

Such a knuckling under to coercion is symbolized in the book as the taking on of the mark of the beast.

In this week’s passage we read that those who refused to bear the beast’s marking; in other words, those who refused to compromise their faith in God and their loyalty to him were forbidden to “buy or sell.”

If we understand the book in this way, we can see that the spiritual forces John describes play out in every generation.

During the twentieth century the great Sea Beast reared its head in the ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  Both movements demanded total control – the total commitment and subservience of the men and women under their jurisdiction

Whittaker Chambers, an American intellectual, fell under the spell of Communism early in the 20th century.  After more than a decade in active service to the Beast, he realized the error of his ways and his own need for God.  He thus deserted the Communist party and converted to Christianity.  He knew there would be repercussions.  He writes in his autobiographical book, Witness:

One form of attack the Communist Party invariably makes upon all ex-Communists, big or little.  It tries to make it impossible for them to live by preventing them from getting a job.  If they succeed in getting one, the party tries to make it impossible for them to keep it.  This is very easy [for them] to do.

There we have it.  Chambers removes from his forehead the mark of the beast – his membership in the Communist party and his total allegiance to the revolution – and the penalty the Beast tries to impose is to deny him the means of a living – the ability to buy and sell.