The book of Amos

Amos gives us a lot of detail about his situation compared with other writers. Amos and Hosea prophesy and speak for God to the Northern kingdom – Israel under the reign of Jeroboam II. Isaiah was in the south while Amos was in the north, says Amos. Amos probably grew up knowing Elisha, Jonah, Isaiah and Micah. Amos was a little different however. He never went to a prophetic school and was called to prophesy while being a working man in the field. The time of Amos is during the period of Isaiah chapter 1-5 chronologically, in case you were wondering about why the reading plan is jumping around like it.

Israel is flourishing at this time. They are experiencing economic stability and prosperity. The surrounding nations were not strong enough to give them trouble. Assyria was not yet a conquering world power. It does depend on what ‘flourishing’ means, however. Israel is far from being a witness for God and was reveling in ease, loose morals, and had no problem with discrimination of the poor. Worst of all, religion was also flourishing but it wasn’t to do with Yahweh but the gods of the neighbouring nations. Israel were idolaters, yet again.

Amos spoke boldly for God and this landed him in trouble with Amaziah, who condemned him to silence (7:10-17). Amos believed there was a bright day for Israel as the book finishes. If Israel would listen and change they would come to true national prosperity spiritually and physically. After being ousted by Amaziah, Amos went back to Judah and wrote his ministry imperative in a book for all to see and know who cared.

In his background book, David Pawson sees four themes in Amos: eight sentences (1:1-2:16), three sermons (3-6), five symbols (7-8), three surprises (9). Whatever the structure, Amos’s chosen message is clear. Almost like when Nathan came to David and David proclaimed ‘that person should die’, Amos shows that the surrounding nations are terrible and that Israel has been just like them. God’s sentence on them will be for Israel too. But it need not be that way if they would only listen and return. If they don’t, God will warn and punish them with five pictures that will prove that Amos is right in his prophecy. But praise be to God for his mercy means that one day He will show his ultimate mercy in restoring the nation.

The book of Micah

Apparently (quoted in Longman’s Introduction to the Old Testament) Martin Luther said, “the prophets have a queer way of talking, like people who instead of proceeding in a orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at”. Micah is a culprit of this. The last few verses of Micah summarise its message: “he will tread our iniquities under foot, he does not retain his anger forever, he delights in steadfast love and will show faithfulness” (7:18-20). Micah teaches Judah that God hates sin. He hates it so much that when he cannot put up with its presence any longer he gets rid of it. He warns and warns that he hates sin, and then deals with it. God deals with Judah’s sin.

Micah is the prophet alive in Judah when Assyria sweeps in and levels Israel brutally. Micah has a message for Judah (chap. 1-2) – God is not asleep, he sees what is going on and is about to sort it out powerfully (1:2-16). He sees the sins of the people and proves it by naming even secret things (2:1-11). God is holding the leaders who are supposed to be keeping the nation for God responsible for sin they too are committing (chapter 3). The Lord immediately promises hope in the coming of the Messiah who will rule perfectly. And the people of Judah listen! The book closes out (6:6-7:20) telling them what they are to do in returning to the Lord and making things right. The answer is as simple as it is strong – this is how you return to the Lord: “Wait for the mercy of the Lord” (7); live rightly with people; walk with God (6:8) and trust in his faithfulness to restore you (7:18-20).

Pic: John Singer Sargent, “Micah, Haggai, Malacchi, and Zechariah” from The Triumph of Religion, Boston Public Library (Photo: Bill Kipp & BPL)

The book of Isaiah

As you embark on reading Isaiah you are about to read through arguably the most magisterial and beautiful of all the Old Testament books.

Isaiah’s name means Jehovah saves. Isaiah was a prophet to Judah, the southern kingdom, and lived at the time when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria. Isaiah’s voice saved the kingdom of Judah in these trying hours.

The book has two distinct emphases – so much so that some scholars argue that there are actually two authors of Isaiah. Actually, the structure of Isaiah is quite amazing. It is like a ‘mini bible’. Isaiah has 66 books, divided into two parts with chapters the same as Old and New Testament books. The first 39 chapters summarise the message of the Old Testament’s 39 books and the last 27 chapters summarise the messages of the New Testament’s 27 books.

In the first part (1-39) he is addressing Judah. He preaches through the times of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. In the second part (40-66) Isaiah reveals Jesus bearing the load of sin and then exalted and glorified.

Under Uzziah and Jotham (1-6)

Isaiah received his commission in the year king Uzziah died. Uzziah had a long and glorious reign of fifty-two years. For the last four years of his ministry he suffered from leprosy and was banished from the business of state. The message was punishment to come as God had been long-suffering in patience.

Under Ahaz (7-14)

Ahaz was a terrible king. He was a shameless and open idolater. These chapters of Isaiah can be confusing. Keep in mind God’s message to Isaiah is filled with thoughts of the present and back then. Because of Ahaz’s poor leadership God will allow Assyria and others to attack but ultimately a saviour will come that will establish a lasting glory for ever.

Under Hezekiah (15-39)

Hezekiah was a king who followed God. He lived at possibly the most crucial time in the history of Israel and Judah. The Assyrian armies have gathered strength and sweep in from the North to take Israel in 722 B.C. But their hunger is for more than Israel. They invade Judah over a period of four years. Hezekiah strips the temple of its riches and attempts to purchase help from Egypt that Isaiah denounces (31:1). Finally Assyria have encamped Jerusalem and demand surrender, but they are miraculously slain (37:6-8).

Isaiah prophesies many things during the reigns of these kings. He deals with God being the God of the nations and has words for foreign invaders. His constant themes are disobedience, disaster, discipline, despair; then faith, return, reign leading to rejoicing.

In the second part (40-66) Isaiah reveals God. God the god of all nations, the god who saves, the god who sends the servant, the god who rules, the god who will send a ruler whose kingdom will never end. The book ends with rejoicing in God’s great work of restoration and salvation.

Hopefully this background contains enough detail to orientate you. If that is not the case there are numerous introduction and background books to help you with more detail. Just ask the elders for recommendations!

Painting: Isaiah (1838) by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier.

The book of Jonah

According to extra-biblical sources, Jonah was a disciple of Elisha and was his successor. His mother was possibly the widow of Sarepta, which Elijah brought to life, and he grew up in a town called Gath-hepeher, about a half and hour walk from Nazareth.

Jonah was a famous statesman who lived at the time of Jeroboam II of Israel and helped to make it powerful and prosperous.

The Lord Jesus made the book of Jonah very important. When he was asked for a sign to prove his claims he said that only the sign of Jonah would be given (Matthew 12:38-40). Interestingly, the internal evidence of the book suggests that our Sunday School teachers should be teaching that Jonah died. It says he sank to the bottom of the sea and weeds entangled him. This would also be the reason Jonah was Jesus’ sign – it points to death and resurrection.

Unfortunately, the last few years have been riddled with scientists trying to understand what kind of fish could have swallowed Jonah. We don’t need science to prove this story, however. Instead we need to hear God talking with us through the timeless teaching found here. There are many important lessons in the book. As with all of our Old Testament books, knowledge of the background makes the account come alive and helps us extract the teaching.

We are told that Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and call them to repent. Jonah flees. Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The sheer scale and magnificence of it was only dwarfed by the extent of its wickedness and lust for power and wealth. It was surrounded by immense walls  twelve kilometres in length, thirty meters high and fifteen meters thick enough for four chariots abreast. Every eighteen meters stood a monumental gateway. It was filled with palaces and beautiful gardens with seventy halls decorated in alabaster and sculpture.

Jonah flees to Tarshish. We are told why Jonah flees in chapter 4:2. Assyria was Israel’s dreaded enemy and it appears that at this point in time they were weakened in power. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh and call them to repent because they may be spared destruction. He wants Nineveh to be destroyed to protect his people of Israel from Assyria’s future attacks. He is thinking of his nation’s benefit. But he was wrong. This also explains his otherwise puzzling depressing thoughts at the end of the prose. Jonah didn’t think mercy triumphed over judgement.

God didn’t let Jonah go. Through a series of circumstances Jonah finds himself preaching in the streets of Nineveh. The common people turn first and then the nobles. It is like Johannesburg turning to God because of the preaching of one person! It was a sheer miracle.

We learn in the book about God’s compassion towards non-believers. God’s interaction with Jonah is filled with a sense of God’s long-suffering and willingness to persevere with mere people.

Apply the principles of interpretation to dig into Jonah. Dig, ask questions, ask what is the teaching here? Why is this book in the Bible? What lessons did Jonah learn? What does this mean about God and about me?

The book of Obadiah

You may be wondering why this little book, tucked in the back of the Old Testament, comes next in our reading plan. This is because the internal evidence of the book suggests that it was written in the sixth century B.C., although there are seven schools of thought on exactly when it was written.

The book is an oracle against Edom for rejoicing in Jerusalem’s fall at the hands of the Babylonians and possible attacks at that vulnerable time. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau. They inhabited a large piece of land south of Israel and south and south east of Judah.

Relations between God’s people and the Edomites were always antagonistic and violent. Edom refused to let Israel move through their territory along the King’s Highway when they left Egypt (Numbers 20:14-21). King Saul fought the Edomites. David conquered Edom with considerable force. He planted garrisons in Edom sending Joab there for six months until ‘he had cut off every male in Edom’ (1 Kings). It must be that all the men weren’t killed as the Edomites join with the Ammonites and the Moabites to attack Judah under Jehoshaphat’s rule (2 Chronicles 20:1).

There was a time when Judah and Edom formed a coalition, but the Edomites rebelled and could not be subdued for forty years (2 Kings 8:20-22). After Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, Edom rejoiced and planned small raids and attacks to gain more land. In the third century the Edomites were taken over by the Nabateans (famous for their buildings at Petra). Some Edomites settled in southern Judah and became known as Idumeans. Interestingly, the Herods of the New Testament were Idumeans.

Obadiah is unknown to us other than his name means ‘servant of Yahweh’. He wrote for us the shortest of the Old Testament books. There are two mains parts to the letter – the future doom of Edom (v.1-16) and the sure deliverance of God’s true people (v. 17-21). We see here that Yahweh is indisputably the God of every nation in the world, no matter which god they take as theirs. We can assume that Obadiah actually went to Edom and read to them the word from the Lord. It seems they didn’t listen at all. Further, Yahweh is a God who keeps his promises. Abraham was promised a land and in due time neither Edom nor Babylon will keep them out of it.

Probably the greatest message for Christians and non-Christians is verse 3: “The pride of your heart has deceived you.” If we think that we could get along just fine without God we could never be more wrong. A day is near when this will be proved true.

The book of Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes is, funnily enough, the furthest you can get from ‘meaningless’ – the most common word people remember from the book.

Ecclesiastes has received bad publicity from modern Bible readers. There are reasons for this. Modern charismatics, quite frankly, generally don’t seem to care too much about anything that is outside of the “devotional” genre (ie. “a nice thought for the day”). To get the deep message and argument from Ecclesiastes, background work is required, which many seem unwilling to do. We are worse off for it.

Ecclesiastes is a masterful apologetic. King Solomon, under a pseudonym ‘Qohelet’ – “Preacher” or “Teacher” in modern translations – is the writer. Some people like apologetics more than others. Apologetics is the task of trying to give a solid defense of the reasons why you believe in something. The Preacher is doing this very activity for us, looking at his life and efforts.

It is helpful to understand that the person ‘under the sun’ is the non-believer in the book. He is the epitome of a person who hasn’t found God and simply lives under the sun and not ‘the son’.

The Preacher is presenting a basic argument  which goes along the lines of: “Trust me, I have tried it all. I have given myself to everything there is in this world. I have come to the conclusion that nothing satisfies outside of God. All of life is meaningless and depressing without God in it. Trust me, I have tried. Don’t waste your time. Turn to God now and the fulfilment you are looking for will be yours”.

A brief overview of the argument’s structure may be helpful:

Chapter 1
The preacher jumps right into his material. “It’s all vanity” he says, listing a few examples to back up this statement. Verses 12-18 tells us that he decided to gain as much wisdom as he could to find answers. This failed, according to v.18, because wisdom only leads to more questions.

Chapter 2
The Preacher tells us he tried to solve his meaninglessness in other ways. In Verse 2-11 of this chapter he tells us he gave himself every single pleasure his heart desired, whenever it desired it. Verse 12-17 shows us that both living with wisdom or obeying every passion is a dead end when it comes to actual fulfillment.

In verse 18-26 he considers his hard work in the world. He again becomes disconcerted – it has no meaning. Verse 24 tells us his conclusion on this matter: “enjoyment in work comes only from God”. Can you see his apologetic working itself out?

Chapter 3
Here the Preacher is considering the independence of man. He can’t decide anything in terms of time. Man can’t make anything last, he can’t even control his own life. Man’s life is “dust to dust” he says – only God can make something of it and the coming afterlife.

Then with the same overarching theme in mind, the Preacher continues to argue his case until the end.

Hopefully you can see the purpose of the book. It’s important to note that the book does not discourage us to seek wisdom (that would contradict the book of Proverbs) but is saying that wisdom in itself does not lead to fulfillment. It cannot give life outside of God. If you couple this with the book of Proverbs and Job you find something interesting emerge: God is not some cosmic, impersonal, balancing force (like karma) that we can manipulate through righteousness or wisdom or law or principles of some kind. We cannot treat him that way and he will not be treated that way. While God upholds wisdom and the moral order, he is personal and relational about it. He rewards righteousness but yet we do not justify ourselves before him by our righteousness – rather He justifies us (in Christ) and we live wisdom out because of that. All things are for God to decide and work and only in Him is there fulfillment. Chapter 12:13 sums it up: “The end of the matter: Fear God and keep his ways, this applies to every person”.

Pic: “Ecclesiastes” by John August Swanson. It represents Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” See for more details.

The book of Proverbs

The Proverbs are for the Christian walk in the office, in our homes and out at play. Criticisms of the book are that is doesn’t talk about God or anything particularly religious or spiritual. But God is taken for granted and the whole book is not unlike the New Testament authors’ practical application at the end of most of their letters prefaced by the word ‘therefore’.

Proverbs are some of the Old Testament’s ‘therefore’. It says to us, “Because you know this…do this” and adds, “trust me, if you do it, it will go well with you”. The first verses (1:2-4) tell us that this is the book’s intention. The pithy comments are very simple and easy to understand. The Bible is not a Modern Greek book for people trying to be clever in philosophical arguments. We can learn from the ant, it says!

Two important facts

There are two important facts to know when embarking on understanding the overall message of Proverbs. This book is a book of proverbs, not promises and the Christian life has a very practical outworking. The proverbs are general statements about life and how it works. For example, Proverbs 22:6 tells us that if we “train up a child in the way it should go… when they are old they will not depart from it”. But everyone knows that this is not always the case. Some of the most solid God-fearing Christians’ children have made their own choices and taken their own road – sometimes rejecting God and right living totally.

So these are not promises to be claimed as absolutes. In general, children trained in the right way do follow that way. Equally, train a child in wickedness and they will generally follow that way. What is the message for us then? Training children to live for God is vital!

Proverbs is a collection of wisdom writings from at least five authors. Solomon the Wise, the men of Hezekiah, Agur, and King Lemuel and his mother are cited. If you divide the book up into subject material there are three major sections: counsel for young men (Chp. 1-10), counsel for all men (Chp. 11-20), counsel for kings and rulers (Chp. 21-31).

Wisdom and folly

One of the major themes in the book is the contrast between wisdom and folly. Structurally the whole book may also be divided by this theme. Chapters 1-9:18 are a long discourse on wisdom and folly whilst the rest of the book is composed of short statements about wise and foolish matters in life.

The first nine chapters in the book are very different to the rest. These first nine are the introduction to the rest of the book. The main themes of the first chapters are the great value of wisdom and the serious danger of folly. Chapter 9 creatively presents us with the personification of wisdom and folly as two different women. One author points out the importance of chapter 9:3 with reference to the whole book. It says that the ‘lady wisdom’ has sent out her women from the highest point in the town. In Near Eastern teaching this would be referencing the place of God. Contrasted is lady folly who “sits at the door of her house” (9:14) but almost surprisingly she also echoes from the ‘highest places of the town”. With this subtle contrast Proverbs reveals that these ‘little tales of wisdom and good ideas’ are actually for more than meets the eye. What is at stake is nothing more than life and death. Which hill will you ascend and by which way? The way of wisdom leads to the hill of God, the way of folly leads to any other god.

The New Testament views Proverbs as this important. Believing Jesus is ultimate wisdom as He is the wisdom of God contrasted with missing Jesus as certain death. Christ has become our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30). The New Testament asks us the question: will we dine with wisdom or folly? Jesus Christ or any created thing put in His place?

Please don’t forget that reading through the Bible in a year is one thing, but actually getting more familiar with the scriptures’ deep teaching and fellowship with the God they describe is the real goal.

Painting: Nicolas Poussin – The Judgment of Solomon 1649

The book of Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs)

At the start of reading the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) you should know that you are reading more than a teaching on lovemaking within a marriage relationship. There are approximately three major schools of thought with regard to interpreting the song: those looking for spiritual meaning, those looking for practical teaching, or those looking for poetic mastery.

The Song of Songs should be considered to be a type of perfect illustration or metaphor. It should be taken at literal face value – a book of love songs where the writer enjoys describing the many aspects of romantic and sexual love. But the Song is believed to be more than just a love song. It is ‘wisdom via entertainment’ and should be interpreted typologically.

Typology is where the text is allowed to speak literally but also illustrates a spiritual teaching. There is rich spiritual teaching that comes from allowing the in-built metaphor to work. Scripture itself indicates that the husband wife relationship is parallel (a type, a picture) of the relationship Christ has with his Church.

As you would have learned by now we need some experience and skill to help us get more out of reading the Bible. The poetry in the Song is quite difficult to get a message from if you have not tried before. To simplify it a bit, try reading the poems considering you (and us as the church) to be the woman and the man to be Jesus. This won’t solve all the difficulties but will help with many of them.

One troublesome phrase can sometimes be, ‘Arouse or awaken love till it pleases?’ Maybe Michael Eaton’s interpretation as an example will help. He says, “Once again the poem ends with the words that we have already seen in 2:7. It is a warning not to do anything that is artificial.

Daughters of Jerusalem, I ask for an oath!
By the gazelles and the wild deer of the field,
promise not to arouse or wake up this love until it pleases (3:5).

“It is as if the girl is saying to her friends: ‘Do you want a love like this? Be ready for some surprises and let this kind of love develop in its own way’. The Christian life has great heights and depths in it! It is wonderful when it is easy, but sometimes we must work at finding God in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Read it slowly. Ask many questions about who is saying what and why. You will find that ‘new glasses’ appear as you get into the language and style more closely.

A Study on the Book of Psalms (Psalms 1 – 72)

The composition of the Psalms may be the most loved book of the entire Bible. New Testament writers certainly loved the composition of these emotionally and intellectually stimulating canticles. In this study we look at the Psalms that relate to the life of David from Psalm 1 – 72.

This course is periodically taught at our Equipping Courses (evenings or mornings).

Download the course booklet in your preferred format below:

The book of Psalms

The composition of the Psalms may be the most loved book of the entire Bible. New Testament writers certainly loved the composition of these emotionally and intellectually stimulating canticles. A modern commentator says, “Every Psalm seems to have my name and address on it”. He is not alone.

The Psalms are timeless pieces of encouragement that can be easily applied and have been used in thousands of hymns and songs. Millions have drawn inspiration from them. A large number of Christians faithfully read a Psalm a day. And this is part of the original intention.

The Psalms are accessible and ready to apply and use. Unlike prophetic books like Isaiah or Ezekiel, the Psalms are difficult to abuse through bad interpretation. They can be of more value than a little light reading in the morning. They are incredibly deep and challenging. They deal with almost every human emotion possible and present an answer to each of them in turn.

The Hebrew title means ‘praises’ and the Greek word means ‘to praise’ or ‘to pluck’. These are songs, mantras and pieces of truth that say, sing or shout out to God.

There is a lot of theology here but the message doesn’t come to us as though we are being urged or argued with. We are supposed to be convinced as we see people confess the truth about themselves and God. We are to be convinced that this is the right way to respond and think and be drawn to trust that the writer’s reality would become ours.

Considering their popularity, many an avid reader has surely noted that there are difficult to understand points. Getting a biblical message that is deeper than a few nice thoughts poses a fair difficulty. Most of the Psalms are without context and the thoughts expressed are hard to reconcile at times.

For example, consider Psalm 137:8-9:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies? Who is a daughter of Babylon to us, exactly? It is these types of difficulties we will need to iron out.

Here is some help as you read the Psalms:

Getting ready to read the Psalms

The Psalms are Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry is rhythmical and takes on its meter not by syllables but by accents on Hebrews words. The poems are supposed to be seen as a whole. Their fundamental characteristic is not however flow or rhythm but the echoing of thought with another. This is termed ‘parallelism’. Regularly the second verse will enhance the first intentionally, saying almost the same thing.

For example, Psalm 103:10

“He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities”.

Here are a few questions to answer before reading a Psalm:

1. How does this Psalm fit together with the others?
You will notice that there are different kinds of Psalms. There are lament Psalms (44, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90); gratitude Psalms; royal Psalms; wisdom Psalms. People also group what are called ‘imprecatory’ Psalms. These are the Psalms that ask God to exercise judgement at the request of the writer. Each type of Psalm has a slightly different way of taking it as a whole.

2. What is the heading of this Psalm?
Please take careful note of the title. It is often the key to a deeper understanding and richer blessing. When you read “of David in the cave of Adullam” you will realise that his words are of such depth. What would you say if you were hiding in a cave?

3. What technical terms are being used and why?
When you read the list below you will realise there are quite a number of terms that we aren’t familiar with. The truth is that no one is that familiar with them. Considerable debate surrounds the exact purpose of some of these terms.

A few comments should help us be more familiar with what we are reading and why. All the following sentences should be filled with ‘probably’ even though not written: (definitions taken from Kidner)

Selah – it occurs 71 times. Used as an interlude or pause. Possibly to change instruments.
Haggaion – used to signal quiet instruments to be played and a time for meditation.
Psalm or Song – Songs are taken to be pieces that are used with music. Psalms may or may not be used with instruments.
Shiggaion – possibly denotes a poetic form designed to stir the emotions
Miktam – possible means ‘to cover’. The context of the Psalms it is used in could mean ‘a prayer uttered in silence’.
Maskil – could mean a ‘teaching Psalm’ but the Psalms it’s used with are not very technical. Could also mean to accompany a technical and difficult piece of music.

There is always more to know but hopefully this bit of background will help you. The Bible always becomes more real and exciting when you know as much of the background as you can.

Picture: Painting of Kern River Valley, California, USA by Old Master Albert Bierstadt.