Those Who Expected Lightning and Thunder Are Disappointed


Lithuanian stamp on the 100th anniversary of Miłosz’s birth

Advent is a two-story house. Built on the foundation of Israel’s Messianic hope, it is when we prepare for Christmas—the coming of Christ, born as a babe in Bethlehem, our Incarnate Emmanuel.

But it also carries the nuances of Second Advent.  Jesus came and will come again. So, traditionally this has been a season to prepare our hearts for Christmas, but also a time to set our own house in order as we prepare for Christ’s return.

A lot of my Advent reflections have focused on this second meaning of Advent, the coming Kingdom of God and how everything wrong in the world will one day be set to rights. Jesus’ first Advent was foretold, and hoped for and prophesied about. However, when the day came, it was a  complete surprise. The Redeemer was here, and nobody expected his birth would be anything like this: Angelic visitations, a virgin birth, a chorus of angels, and a star to light the way for travelers from the East. It happened the way it needed to happen, but not like anyone thought it would. 

I wonder if this aspect of Jesus’ first Advent tells us something about the way we shall be likewise surprised by Jesus’ Advent.

Czesław Miłosz’s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” plays with the way the end defies expectations:

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Warsaw, 1944

What strikes me about Milosz’s poem is the ordinariness of the “end.”  Fishermen mend their nets, a happy porpoise jumps, the birds flit about, women walk with their umbrellas, there is shouting in the marketplace, a drunk lies on the edge of the lawn, sleeping off last night’s good times. A yellow sailboat nears the island and there is violin music in the air. 

This doesn’t sound like the end, and it wasn’t what anyone expected.  The sun and the moon are still in the sky, bees on the rose bush, babies are born. Milosz says those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. The would-be-but-too-busy prophet binds his tomatoes and says, “No other end of the world will there be.”

The Bible’s Apocalyptic literature (Daniel and Revelation) speak of the world ending. There are Seals and Trumpets and Bowls, oh my! The Sun turns to blood, there are beasts and multi-horned dragons, earthquakes, pestilence, and war. But also a  garden city, the New Jerusalem, and a new heaven and earth. The old gone and all things made new.

Revelation does tell us about the future, but to make all about the future, is to miss the point. Apocalyptic literature wasn’t so much about some coming end, as it is about how the world as we know it just ended. There was some cataclysmic shift and everything was changed. The same way that today we might talk about how a new idea or a new lover rocked our world, the ancient writers painted a picture of their world’s destruction and the new world emerging.

For John of Patmos, the world became New when he trusted his life to Jesus. Still, old worlds died hard, and those who were faithful to Jesus were persecuted. The war between the Beast and the Lamb was/is a conflict between the old order and new order of God’s coming Kingdom. John recorded his revelation so that those who struggled to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of persecution from Imperial Rome would have the courage and resilience to stay the course. 

Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, 1944. The fact that he highlighted the ordinariness of daily life, doesn’t mean his world wasn’t ending. The Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939, but Germany’s grip on Poland was waning. This was the year of the Warsaw Uprising. Germany was retreating and the Soviets were advancing.  The Resistance timed their revolt to coincide with this Soviet advance, but the USSR halted their forward movement, leaving the Resistance to fight it out with their German occupiers. After 63 days of fighting, the Nazi’s defeated the Polish Resistance. 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed,  6,000 badly wounded and 150,000-200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly by mass executions. 85% of the city was destroyed. Milosz said later that the Soviets watched with binoculars while the city was decimated. 

 

Fishermen mended their nets as the porpoise played, the birds flitted, the drunk slept. No thunder or trumpets, but the world ended. For those who remained, reality forever changed. 

I don’t know when or how Jesus will return. I don’t expect a trumpet blast, the sky to crack or the moon to turn to blood. These are all ancient metaphor for a catalysmic shift. The kingdom of God may roar or come in like a whisper. It may feel ordinary—the would-be-prophet bagging your tomatoes at Food For Less and no fanfare or pyrotechnics. Or perhaps there will be blood, war, and destruction. Systems of oppression do not die easily. But when the world ends, the lamb wins, sorrow and injustice are no more. 

Reading the Prophets of the Apocalypse: a book review

Evangelicals have a history of misinterpreting the apocalypse. Some of us mine the ancient texts for clues to our march toward destruction. Some of us throw up our hands and prefer to speak of the eschaton in general terms.

9780825427619Kregel Academic has these helpful exegetical handbooks which walk pastors and students through a genre of Scripture with some suggestions for digging deep into the text—studying, interpreting and proclaiming. I have reviewed a previous volume of the Old Testament Exegetical Handbooks before in a related domain,(Interpreting the Prophetic Books, 2014). But Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature is different because there is no apocalypse section of the Old Testament but  it is in parts of the prophetic books and extrabiblical literature. Richard Taylor highlights where apocalyptic appears in the Prophets (especially the latter half of Daniel and Joel but also passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi) and other Apocalyptic literature (e.g. The Book of Enoch, Jubilees, 4th Ezra, 2nd Baruch, the Testament of Moses, etc).

Taylor is the senior professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His research interests include Aramaic studies and Syriac literature. He is well acquainted with these texts and the thought world of the Ancient Near East.

As with the other Kregel handbooks, Taylor walks readers through the exegetical process necessary for understanding and teaching . Chapters one through three provide background, orienting us to apocalyptic literature. Chapter one discusses what apocalyptic  is, what are its distinctives, and what we know and don’t know about the Jewish communities which produced it. Chapter two examines major apocalyptic themes in biblical and extrabiblical sources and discusses the characteristics of the literature in more detail (e.g. literary expression, revelatory content, dreams and visions, symbolism, pseudonymous authorship). We see in the apocalyptic literature a developed angelology, dualism, cataclysmic, Divine Judgment and eschatological hope. Chapter three discusses preparing for interpretation (such as understanding metaphor and knowing what linguistic resources and secondary literature are helpful).

Chapters four through six describe the exegetical process, and how to preach from these texts, respectively. Taylor focus is on helping exegetes come with the right orientation toward the text. So he helps us attend to the genre and metaphorical language, to look for interpretive clues and a focus on the macrostructure instead of minutia. He also warns us of the pitfalls of ignorance, misplaced certainty, our tendency to manipulate certain details (to make our current experience fit the text, or read the signs of the times)(128-131) In chapter five Taylor walks through an exegetical and homiletic outline for Daniel 7. The final chapter examines sample texts, Daniel 8 and Joel 2:28-3, discussing difficulties, structure, and application.

As with the Prophets volume, this book is great for students and working preachers. I have used the Kregel Prophets volume in my own personal study and in communicating about the text. This resource helpfully augments that.  I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review

Joel: An Introduction

The book of Joel is an enigma, smothered in mystery, wrapped in a tortilla and served to someone, somewhere. Maybe not a tortilla, but some sort of flatbread. Maybe no wrapping at all.

Its superscription identifies the book’s contents as, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). However, it does not give us any historical indicators or points of reference. Joel’s name is a combination of the Divine names YHWH and Elohim, his father’s name means ‘youth of El.’ This is loaded with symbolism for ‘a prophet of the LORD.’ But at least in the superscription, we are given no indication if Joel prophesied to the Northern or Southern Kingdom (later references in the book and mentions of the temple indicate Judah).

This lack of historical indicators and the vagueness of the prophet’s origin make it difficult to know when this book was written. Scholarly opinion ranges from the early monarchy to the post-exilic period. An early date points to references to the temple (Joel 1:9, 13,14,16; 3:18). A late date points to the fact that there are no references to any monarchs, north or south. The early part of the book describes a locust plague  (1:1-2:27), the latter part of the book (2:28-3:21) is apocalyptic with a post-exilic flavor. So some critical scholarship questions the overall unity of the book. I don’t have a firm opinion on the date of Joel either way. I do think there are strong thematic links between the first and second halves of the book. The whole enchilada is meant to be read together regardless of the different tastes of its ingredients (thus, wrapped in a tortilla).

This lack of specific historical indicators serves us well as contemporary readers. When we read of the ecological crisis brought on by an army of locust and the ravages of war, we can enter into Joel’s metaphor. We can identify in our own personal and corporate lives, ‘the years the locust have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). When we read its apocalyptic promise of renewal, restoration, vindication, and God’s spirit poured on all flesh, we are filled with the hope of God’s work in our own contexts. As Christians, we read Joel’s promises through the lens of Jesus—the Word-made-flesh who inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom, and Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2), but we press forward toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and his justice reigns on the earth.

So as we look at Joel, pay attention to the ways in which the crises of Ancient Israel mirror our own economic and ecological context. These three short chapters have something to teach us.


References

Fuhr, Jr., Richard Alan & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2016.

Garrett, Duane A. Hosea, Joel. Vol. 19A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Stuart, Douglas. Hosea–Jonah. Vol. 31. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.