These reflections help us look into the Bible to discover what God is saying to us today. We find Bible passages to read and questions to ponder. The themes are in the process of being listed in an index with each theme ultimately divided into seven sections. We hope to be completed soon.
When Moses designed the Tabernacle according to God’s instructions it was to be divided into various sections. The idea was that God dwelt in the most holy place, and that people were only allowed to come near by degrees. Indeed, only one person, the high priest, was allowed to enter the most holy place, and even he could only do so once a year. This holy place lay at one end of the tent and was separated off from the other sections by a heavy veil. This veil will be described in this week’s reading.
When the temple was built by Solomon to replace the Tabernacle, the holy place or Holy of Holies was again divided off by a heavy veil. The size of the room was a cube, 20 cubits (a cubit is the length from elbow to finger tip, about 18 inches or 45 cm). This meant it was about 10 yards or 9 metres long, high and wide.
Within this space was to be found one thing only, the Ark. This amazing item will be described next week and something of its importance will be unpacked.
The veil that separated the presence of God from the people of God was a permanent reminder that God could not be approached by sinful human beings. He was shrouded in darkness and mystery. This holiness (i.e. difference or separateness) of God created a barrier that was impenetrable by individuals. Even the annual visit by the high priest was only possible if he carried sacrificial blood with him.
This did not mean that God was not with his people, and indeed involved in all the world, but it would take the one, perfect sacrifice of Jesus, the great high priest, to enable all to enter into his presence. This was represented on the day of Crucifixion by the rending of the veil in two, from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). ‘Top to bottom’ indicates that God did the act, not man. From the death of Jesus onwards the way was open for all believers to go into the holy of holies. What a privilege!
Thank you Father that Jesus has opened for us a new and living way into your presence. Amen.
1 Note the structure of Solomon’s Inner Sanctuary.
“… a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (v.8) RSV
People through the ages have always needed a place where they can focus their attention on God. Our passages over the following week describe the first time that the Hebrew people are to have such a place. At the time they were in the Wilderness and were a people on the move. They had no fixed abode and so needed a sanctuary that they could up sticks and take with them.
This Tabernacle would last them for hundreds of years, not only through the forty years in the Wilderness, but through all the times of the Judges and on through kings Saul and David. Thus the Tabernacle was first constructed round about 1280BC. King Solomon built the first Temple round about 950BC. This was destroyed by the Babylonians and was only reconstructed (a smaller version) when the Exiles returned, say 500BC. Finally this was rebuilt and enlarged by Herod starting about 20BC.
This special place was there to represent the presence of God. When Solomon prayed at the dedication of his temple he quoted the words God had spoken: “My name shall be there” (1 Kings 8:29). By this he meant that God was everywhere – “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). God could not, and would not, be limited to a building. However, people needed a place to focus their attentions and to stimulate their faith in the presence of God.
Jesus however indicated that the time would come when ‘place’ would be secondary to the real presence of God in a believer and in his people. This is what he told the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21-23). Paul likewise said “you are God’s temple and … God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16). In other words the presence of God is with us wherever we are: in prison, in a city, in a slum, in the garden or in a church.
Thank you for your promise, O God, that you are always with me, and will never leave me. Amen.
Although they may speed through the air, most, if not all angels, do not have wings. It is the Cherubim and Seraphim who have wings. The two Cherubim are depicted on the Ark of the Covenant made in the time of Moses. Their wings met each other above the box, creating a space known as the ‘mercy seat’ (Exodus 37:9). Years later, Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. In its Inner Sanctuary he made two cherubim of olive wood, each 15 feet high, with a wing span of 15 feet (1 Kings 6:23-24). God is always said to “sit enthroned on the cherubim” (e.g. 1 Samuel 4:4, 2 Kings 19:15).
Many, many years later in the Temple, the prophet Isaiah had a dramatic vision of the Seraphim. Each of these had “six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (Isaiah 6:2).
Cherubim and Seraphim are highly symbolic figures. In the song known as the ‘Te Deum’ we sing: “To thee Cherubim and Seraphim: continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty: of thy Glory.” (1662 Book of Common Prayer). These creatures seem to be continually in the presence of God. Wherever they are, there is God.
So they were seen either in wood and gold, or in vision. There is obviously more in heaven and earth than we can ever imagine. It is truly enlarging to our faith to contemplate these revelations and to worship the creativity and majesty of God. Perhaps we can utter the words of the Queen of Sheba when she visited Solomon and saw all his splendour and experienced his wisdom: “the half was not told me” (2 Chronicles 9:6).
One day, when we pass through the veil and shed this earthly flesh, our eyes shall be opened and we shall see what we have never been able to see before.
Lord, thank you for the mysteries and the magnificence. Your greatness and the extent of your creativity is more than I can ever conceive. Amen.
1 What other created beings in the Bible have wings?
“… a mighty angel coming down from heaven …” (v.1) RSV
Most of our references to angels have been man-sized. They have appeared as ‘young men’ or ‘strangers but they have nevertheless been often awesome. The angel that appeared in the empty tomb of Jesus is described as having the “appearance like lightening, and his raiment white as snow” (Matthew 28:3). But if this was amazing what about the angel in our passage today: mighty and vast? We read of John’s vision of the spiritual warfare that lies behind the scenes.
In today’s reading, John sees “another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire” (v.1). This angel stood both in the sea and on the land at the same time (v.8). When he called out, “the seven thunders sounded” (v.3). This was no ordinary sight!
Normally their presence is not seen, but when they are seen their appearance is adapted to suit human encounter, and we should be heartened to know that the angelic host are far more powerful than we are. We have an incredible unseen army of great strength fighting on our behalf.
Not only can they be large and magnificent, they can also be fiery. Remember again the servant of Elisha having his eyes opened to see that they were surrounded for protection by “horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6:17).
Sometimes we may wonder whether this use of angelic symbolism is literal or picturesque, but either way it expresses the magnificent power of God. Take the occasion when King Hezekiah was besieged in Jerusalem by a vast Assyrian army. In answer to prayer, “the Lord sent an angel, who cut off (slew) all the mighty …” (2 Chronicles 32:21). There is surely more in heaven and earth than we have ever imagined.
Lord, I stand in awe and wonder at the presence and power of your angelic host. May you send them forth to minister to the needs of your people. Amen.
Angels may appear as young men in white robes (but without wings!) or they may also appear as ordinary people. This does not mean that they are merely humans, but simply that their appearance can be like a human.
There have been countless stories of angels appearing beside vulnerable women walking home alone, or angels piloting planes during the war. I cannot vouch for these accounts myself, but I have no reason to disbelieve them. They are, after all, ‘ministering spirits’ sent by God to be messengers and protectors.
But angels according to our text may come in the form of a ‘stranger’ (v.2). They may come in the form of a beggar or a visitor at church. They are unexpected and unsummoned, yet they are there. Who knows why? Our passage does not explain that. But we are to treat all people with the respect and the hospitality that we would extend towards an angel, if we were but aware that he was an angel.
One of the benefits of hospitality to the host(ess) is that the stranger may be a ‘messenger’. That is one of the main purposes of an angel, and indeed their name (angel) means ‘messenger’.
There is a story in the Old Testament of three ‘men’ visiting Abram without warning. He showed them hospitality and gave them food. They brought with them an extraordinary message: “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10). This was received with doubt by Abram and derision by Sarah. Nevertheless it came to pass as they had said.
Who knows what may happen and what message we may receive if we too are prepared to extend hospitality to strangers and unexpected visitors. They may be God’s gift to us.
Dear Lord, teach me to be generous-hearted and to be ready to receive the unexpected. Amen.
1 What were the angels doing in Jacob’s dream at Bethel?
“You said in your heart, ’I will … I will …’” (v.13) RSV
Not all angels are good! It is recorded in scripture that Lucifer was a leading angel who, as his name implies, was an angel of light. However pride got the better of him. He was cast out of heaven and fell like a star to earth. His sin was to be in love with his own beauty and power. He desired to usurp God: “I will ascend to heaven; above the star of God I will set my throne on high” (v.13).
He continues to operate, often masquerading as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), but he is in fact the Prince of darkness. When he ‘fell’ he took with him a host of other angels. Lucifer is now Satan/the Devil, and his fallen angels are demons.
The aim of these evil spiritual creatures is to destroy humans and the good earth that God has created. They deceive and undermine faith and obedience. There is therefore a very real unseen (spiritual) battle going on of which we are mainly unaware. However, its effects upon us are considerable.
This battle is well described for us in the book of Daniel. There we read of Michael fighting against the Prince of Persia. The conflict lasted 21 days (Daniel 10:13), before Michael prevailed and was able to come to Daniel.
Although “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), he is (in Christ) a defeated foe. Jesus tells how he saw “Satan fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18). We are on the winning side. As we fight the good fight, we do so with all the angels and archangels. As it is written, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” (Psalm 34:7).
Thank you for your great victory O Lord over all the hosts of darkness. Keep me in that victory by your mighty hand. Amen.
Archangels seem to be few and far between. There may be many of these ruling (‘arch’) angels in existence, but only one or two are mentioned in the Bible, and although there are several named in the Apocrypha and in Islam, there is only one named in the Bible. Though Gabriel is best known as an archangel, he is never actually described as one. He appears to Daniel (Daniel 8:16, 9:21) and to Zechariah (Luke 1:19, 26). On these occasions Gabriel is a messenger.
In today’s reading, the archangel who descends with the Lord at the end of time is unnamed. But this most significant moment, the end of the world as we know it and the rapture of believers who are still alive on earth, requires the chief of the angelic host.
The only archangel to be named is Michael. I believe it is wrong for him to be called Saint Michael, since the word ‘saint’ is reserved for the redeemed people of God. Angels do not need redeeming (except for the fallen angels who cannot be redeemed). Michael is named in the letter of Jude with reference to disputing with the devil about the body of Moses (Jude 1:9). A fuller description of his activity is found in the book of Daniel where again he is in conflict with evil forces (Daniel 10). He appears to be the angel who has responsibility for Israel. Maybe that can now be applied to the New Israel (the people of God).
Nevertheless, he is a contender. We shall be considering the activity of the fallen angelic host, but rest assured that God provides us with spiritual protection in the form of his good angels, who are under the leadership of the Archangel Michael.
These battles may be unseen and often unrecognised, but in the heavenly realm there is warfare. (More next week!)
Lord, forgive me that I am ignorant of these things. Help me to trust you that those who are with us are more than those who are against us. Amen.
1 How many angels are at the disposal of Archangels?
“behold you will conceive … and bear a son” (v.31) RSV
One of the ways angels are ‘ministering spirits’ (see last week) is by being messengers. God speaks in many and various ways (Hebrews 1:1-2). He has spoken most clearly through his Son, and his words are conveyed to us through the Scriptures and by the Holy Spirit. However, God still uses angels.
The most famous occasion was surely the message to Mary, “Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you …” (v.28). He went on to announce the conception and birth of Jesus. Another classic message was that given to the shepherds. An angel conveyed the glorious news of the birth: “… in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Angels again were there at the resurrection of Jesus, “… He is not here; for he has risen … go quickly and tell his disciples …” (Matthew 28:5-7).
Out of the many examples in the Old Testament we might think of Balaam, who when riding his ass, was stopped in his tracks by an angel that he could not see (though his donkey could!). Eventually “the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel … standing … with his drawn sword in his hand.” The angel warned him that he was on a false mission and should change his intention of cursing Israel, to blessing them (Numbers 22:21-35).
In the New Testament an angel appeared to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, in Caesarea. The instruction was given to send for Simon Peter who was in Joppa. Peter arrived (after having his own vision on the rooftop) and preached in such a way that Cornelius and his household were converted and baptised.
We may need a vision to see an angel, but they are there none the less. Let us be open to their message. This will not be a common occurrence but that does not mean it will never happen. Their ministry is to warn and to guide us.
Thank you Lord for these unseen ministering spirits. May I not be deaf to their help and their message. Amen.
“Are they not all ministering spirits …” (v.14) RSV
I have never seen an angel, and yet I believe that we are surrounded by these unseen beings. The Bible refers to angels nearly 300 times! God not only created the world and all that is material, he also created the immaterial world including spiritual beings. These are known in the Bible as angels.
Now you may be accustomed to calling certain people like nurses, ‘angels’. But that is not what the Bible is talking about. You may also believe that the Bible is merely talking about human beings who are God’s messengers, for the word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’. But despite angels sometimes appearing as human beings (see more about this in the next few weeks) we must not lose sight of the fact that God has created myriads of unseen beings.
Why? As our reading today says, “Are they not ministering spirits …?” (v.14). They are at God’s beck and call, not ours. But nevertheless they are “sent forth (by God) to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation.” (v.14).
One of their main functions therefore is to protect God’s people. Do we believe that there is this silent army on stand-by? Remember how Jesus’ Father could have sent “more than twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53) to deliver him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Or how the eyes of Elisha’s servant were opened to see that “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about” (2 Kings 6:17). The words of Elisha to his servant could equally well be applied to us: “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16).
We are not simply dependent on the gifts, people and forces that we can see. There are unseen hands at work whose task it is to protect us and bring us through to salvation. We must not assume that we are always going to be protected from all troubles. Sometimes suffering serves our Father’s purpose. But oftentimes when we call upon Him, he will send his “ministering spirits” to our aid. (Psalm 34:7)
Thank you Lord that I am never alone, and need fear no evil. Send your holy angels to protect me. Amen.
“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,” (45:1) RSV
Cyrus is not a king of Israel, but the king of the Medes and Persians who conquered Babylon whilst the Jews were in exile there. Why speak of him? Because he is the only person in the Old Testament referred to as ‘Messiah’ – “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus” (45:1). The word ‘anointed’ is ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew, and ‘Christ’ in Greek.
Cyrus was, like all the kings of the earth, under the sovereign control of Almighty God. Though he was in his own right a powerful and successful king, he was nevertheless at the disposal of the King of kings. God used Cyrus to capture Babylon from Belshazzar and the Babylonians, and to instigate a new policy for handling all the foreign nations that were held captive in that city and across the whole empire. The Israelites had been in exile for well nigh 70 years. God was now arranging for them to start returning to their own land, to Jerusalem, and to the rebuilding of their Temple.
Cyrus was to be God’s instrument of salvation. He used Cyrus to fulfil this purposes. That heathen king had no idea he was serving the God of Heaven. A possible modern day equivalent might be Mikhail Gorbachev. His policies of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ brought about the liberation of many nationalities and races within the borders of the old USSR. They became free to return to their own countries.
God is not merely working through ‘Christians’ but has the world at his disposal. He will achieve his purposes whether people acknowledge him or not. God achieves so much through the people he has made, quite apart from the people he has saved. Let us give thanks that he has the whole world in his hands. Cyrus, strange as it might seems, is a type (example) of the Christ who was to come in the form of Jesus. He would set all people free in the deepest and most fulfilling ways.
Thank you Lord for your mighty power. You are indeed King of king and Lord of lords. Thank you that nothing is outside your control. You can handle all things; may I trust you. Amen.
1 What was happening the night before Cyrus conquered Babylon?
“… the king did not hearken to them …” (12:16) RSV
The tragedy of schism is illustrated by the foolish reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. He had grown up in the glory days of Israel. His father had been wise and rich. The country had prospered and had become a power to be reckoned with in that area of the world. He had had a privileged upbringing and had never had it so good. But now he wanted to continue bleeding the people dry in order to maintain his privileged status and way of life. His father had been tough, but at least he had earned the right to be tough. Rehoboam felt he could be tougher just because of his background – what a disaster!
Rehoboam did not have the wisdom of his father. And when he sought counsel he rejected the advice of his elders and followed the advice of his peers. All of those young men wanted power and privilege, but did not realise that their first responsibility was to their people. God raises leaders and kings not primarily for their own benefit but for the benefit of their citizens. Rehoboam neglected the duty of any caring leader, he “did not hearken to them …” (1 Kings 12:6).
God cares for people, and his servants, all of us, are to care for people too. We are not to oppress them, withhold their pay, or in any way be unjust to them. We are called to follow the example of Jesus who was a shepherd to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. A shepherd is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.
Rehoboam’s crass and immature repression of his people resulted in a split that was never to be healed. The ten northern tribes hived off under Jeroboam and became ‘Israel’, and Rehoboam was left with the remaining two, known as ‘Judah’. Woe betide us if we do not “hearken” to the cries of the poor and needy.
Lord, forgive me when I am arrogant and simply want my own way. Help me to listen to others, and above all listen to you. Teach me to be kind and gentle. Amen.
“I purpose to build a house for the name of the Lord my God” (1 Kings 5:5)
Solomon, the son of King David, was known for his wisdom. He wrote many proverbs and made practical decisions. There is the well known story of deciding who was the real mother of the baby by threatening to cut it in half; it worked! (1 Kings 3:16-28)! Someone who was extremely impressed by his wisdom and wealth was the Queen of Sheba. But Solomon’s most abiding legacy to Israel was the Temple he built.
David his father had wanted to build it, but was not the right man to do so – his hands were stained with blood. But the time and the situation was now right for Solomon to do so. We may note how times and seasons lie with God. Our plans have to wait for his timing. We may not be the right person to do it. We need to seek what God is actually calling us to do. As Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Although God now gave Solomon permission and the commission to build the Temple, it still needed Solomon to say “I purpose …” (1 Kings 5:5). Nothing will get done, whatever vision we have, unless our will transforms our dreams into actions. As James wrote, “Let us be doers of the word, and not hearers only …” (James 1:22).
Note also Solomon’s motivation. This Temple was to be built for the glory of God, not to establish his own greatness or to impress his neighbours. Unless we are filled with a desire to please God and to glorify him, we will never find sufficient motivation to build ‘houses’ for him. Solomon (in this early part of his life) was a man who spent much time in thought, mediation and prayer. This is how right motivation and enthusiasm is found.
Forgive me Lord when I have idled away my dreams. Galvanise my by your Spirit to start today to put into practice your calling(s) to me. Amen.