Even the Little Ones

14 July 2020

Paul writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16) that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In some passages of Scripture, it’s a bit challenging to find the profit. Take, for example, Psalm 137, which ends with “O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!”

What do we do with this? One popular approach is to skip brusquely to “we can’t apply this literally, so let’s make up something edifying” as this author has done. I’d like to propose something better: something that starts with taking the psalm seriously in its original context.

Israel is in Babylon, having been brutally conquered and dragged into captivity. The psalm is a lament posing a question: how do they worship in a foreign land? This is not a simple question. The musical service of Zion was originally designed to serve as a parallel at David’s Tabernacle to the Tabernacle sacrificial service at Gibeon. At Solomon’s Temple, the musical and sacrificial services were brought together. (There are ascension offerings and ascension psalms, and so on.) With the Temple destroyed and the sacrifices no longer happening, was it even appropriate to sing the songs of Zion? (The editors who arranged the Psalter set it up so that the following songs answer the question posed in Psalm 137, but that’s a topic for another day.)

As they grapple with the question, their captors are demanding that the musicians sing songs of Zion purely for Babylonian amusement. Can you imagine? You’re a Levite, a son of Korah, your whole life devoted to sacred music in the Temple. All of a sudden, it’s all destroyed, and you’re a slave, and your master demands that you play sacred Temple music for the amusement of his guests at a drunken pig roast. That’s what Israel’s sacred musicians are facing.

And so the psalm closes with a curse on Babylon, and a blessing on the conqueror who does to Babylon what Babylon did to Judah. It’s not hyperbolic language; it’s a literal curse. It quite likely came to pass in the days of Belshazzar, with Darius’ Persian troops receiving the blessing.

So that’s what’s going on. After the cross, applying such a thing is complicated. You don’t get to curse your enemies and just say you’re following the example of the psalmist; the cross really did change some things. Today, we face strong counterexamples.

Jesus did the exact opposite of this curse on the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”) Stephen followed His example (“Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”) James charges his readers that blessing and cursing ought not come from the same mouth (Jas. 3:8-12). In tension with that, Jesus Himself pronounced judgment on Jerusalem (Mt. 23:33-39), Peter cursed Simon Magus (Ac. 8:20-23), Paul blinded Elymas (Ac. 13:9-11), and asked God to repay Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14). Of those, two were clear means to the end of furthering repentance (Simon Magus) and the gospel (Elymas), and both had the desired effect (you could also put church discipline in this category). Matthew 23 arguably works this same way, given how it ends in v. 39, although we haven’t seen the fulfillment yet. Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith is less clearly redemptive, but notice that Paul does not specify what should happen to him, instead leaving him in the hands of the Lord to judge.

Where does that leave us? Before the cross, cursing your enemies was just common sense. Afterward, not so much. The Old Covenant is dead, and under the New, even the curses have a redemptive purpose. We are not allowed to simply follow the example set in Psalm 137; instead, we are called to follow Stephen’s example instead. Or Peter’s, cursing redemptively. So it is the easiest thing in the world to (in practice) just scrap the psalm–for all practical purposes, to mentally remove it from the canon of Scripture. “It’s not applicable today,” we say, and that’s that.

This is precisely where the ancient church comes to our rescue. Rather than simply discarding the psalm as an artifact of its time and place, inscripturated for some reason but utterly inapplicable today, the ancient interpreters take Paul at face value: *all* Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. The goal is not to figure out what we can disregard as “not applicable today,” but to wring every last bit of transformation out of our encounter with the Scriptures that we can get. 

So where is the profit here? If we may not have this hatred toward our enemies, the ancient interpreters ask, is there something, some enemy, that we *should* have this hatred toward? Of course there is. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). We really should cultivate this antipathy — not toward people, but toward sin. The psalm really should resonate with us, not because we beg God to slaughter our enemies’ children, but because we call on God to destroy our sins.

Even the little ones.


When God Needs Correcting

13 May 2020

In the course of a study on Philippians 3, I ran across this study on σκύβαλα (the Greek word rendered with the inappropriately genteel “rubbish” in verse 8). I commend the article to your attention; it’s well worth reading in its entirety. I’m going to quote the final paragraph here, because in it, the author does something really odd (the underlining is mine):

In Phil 3:8, the best translation of σκύβαλα seems clearly to be from the first group of definitions. The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between “crap” and “s**t.” However, due to English sensibilities, and considering the readership (Christians), a softer term such as “dung” is most appropriate. The NET Bible, along with a few other translations, grasp the connotations here, while most modern translations only see the term as implying worthlessness. But Paul’s view of his former life is odious to him, as ours should be to us. The best translation, therefore, is one that picks up both worthlessness and revulsion, and probably a certain shock value.

Did you notice that sentence in the middle? “God said one thing, but it’s more appropriate to say something softer, because our feelz.”

Of all the literally damned nonsense.

God knew His audience and English sensibilities from eternity past; He said what He said. If He’s bruising your feelz, it’s not by accident. Why would we presume to correct him with a “softer” expression?

Model yourself after Jesus and those who follow Him, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Talk how God teaches you to talk. You should not be sloppy; do your homework (which is why I recommend you click through and read the whole article, actually — it’s a great example of solid exegetical work.)

You should not automatically go for the reading that best fits your sensibilities. Your sensibilities may run to cucumber sandwiches or more in the shock jock direction; none of that matters. God said what He said.

Do your homework, and then don’t lose your nerve

 


Going to Extremes

21 April 2020

I had occasion to speak on Deuteronomy 14:22-26 and Matthew 21:12-17 at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO on March 22nd. Owing to plague-driven necessity, the sermon was pre-recorded. You can find the video link here. If you prefer audio, see below.

You might also want to read Speaking with an Edge.


Which Eradicated His Doubt

8 April 2020

Once upon a time, they brought a demon-possessed boy to Jesus. Mark tells the story:

And when the boy saw Jesus, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him, but if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.”
But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

In the midst of trial, it is often very hard to get yourself to 100% certainty that God is going to come through. We struggle with this. So did the boy’s father. He had no plan B at all — Jesus was his last hope — and yet, he cannot bring himself to trust all the way.

But the thing to notice here is what Jesus does.

Jesus does not say, “Come back when you have no more doubts.” Jesus hears his prayer, and answers it.

Trust Jesus enough to show up. Trust Him enough to ask. And see what He will do.


Going Literal, on Steroids

11 February 2020

A while back, Theopolis Institute hosted an online conversation on the quest for human maturity. The scholar who took the lead, one Dr. David Field, proposed a side-by-side comparison of four approaches: Protestant/Reformed, the Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhism, and Freudian/Jungian depth psychology. The initial article is a real jaw-breaker; very long, but the follow-up conversation (and the furor it caused in some quarters) is worth wading through it. While I commend the entire conversation to your attention, I want to call particular attention to this bit of commentary by the director of Theopolis, Peter Leithart:

As David explains the “prima facie case” for his proposal, his radicalism shows its face. He out-Bibles the Bible-only types, opening an expansive horizon for investigation along a Biblicist pathway….

David starts by taking the creation of Adam with what some will regard as naïve literalism: Man becomes a living soul because the breath/Spirit of God is breathed into him. Our spirits are breath because God’s Spirit is breath and we are made in His image. Our inmost self is “God’s life in us.” We are dust animated by divine breath.

For David, this isn’t a poetic flourish. It’s the truth about man, tied to the inextricably physical fact that we must breathe to live. Say what you will about the intake of oxygen and the outflow of carbon dioxide. The essence of breathing is a rhythm of sacrifice, of laying down life in order to take it up, of receiving life we do not have in ourselves; breathing is a dance of divine inspiration, deathly expiration, glorifying conspiration.

Along this line of reflection, David has, and has not, left the Bible behind. At first, it appears that Scripture serves as little more than springboard; much of what David says might be described as “natural theology,” drawn from steady observation of the simplest of human experiences. But his account of that experience is shaped at every moment by the Bible; every claim is theologically charged. Breathing is death-and-resurrection; and so it is also the radical self-denial of discipleship; and so it is also transfiguring union with God. And all the while, David is talking about breathing– not “spiritual” breathing, or breathing as a metaphor for something less gritty and earthy, but breathing. The entire paragraph aims to provide a theological account of the practical power of controlling, holding, pausing our breath. Biblical and natural realities snap together like pieces of a puzzle – provided we doggedly cling to the Bible as fundamental anthropology.

In conversations where the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture are very much at issue, this doggedly literal approach is not just a productive way forward. It is the only productive way forward. I’m looking forward to more of it.


One Book or Two?

7 January 2020

In Matthew’s usage, “fulfill” has a fuller sense (if you’ll pardon the expression) than just the Micah 5:2//Matthew 2:5-6 predictive prophecy usage. For example, the Hosea 11//Matthew 2 usage is real fulfillment, but it’s not predictive prophecy. The Hosea passage is not a prediction of the future Messiah, but a reflection on Israel’s history: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.”

The original sense in Hosea is critical to Matthew’s meaning. Knowing that Israel is God’s son is necessary to understanding the points that Matthew is making: first, that Jesus is Israel (in a meaningful sense that Matthew will spend the whole book exploring), and second, that the land of Israel has become spiritual Egypt – a point that will be reinforced by John the Baptist when he calls the remnant out into the desert to pass through water.

We don’t want to read something into the text that isn’t there. At the same time, we don’t want to miss something that *is* there—and the NT shows us repeatedly that there’s a LOT more there than one might think at first glance. From Jesus Himself proving the resurrection by exegeting a verb tense in Genesis (Luke 20:37-38) to the fulfillments of the first few chapters of Matthew (1:22-23, 2:15, 17-18, 23) to the dizzying displays of Hebrews, the NT shows us a way of reading the OT that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. It had to be revealed to us.

In conservative circles, we have gotten our hermeneutics from the Book of Nature (mostly as read by E. D. Hirsch), which is very useful as far as it goes. But God wrote two books–God’s Word and God’s world–and the Book of Scripture also has something to teach us about how to read well. We should not refuse to learn that set of lessons as well.


What is the Kingdom of God?

27 August 2019

We looked last week at the difficulties inherent in saying that the Kingdom of God is future (which it is) and still trying to maintain that it is somehow a present reality (which Jesus said it was.) That causes headaches, and one of the major questions that arises is “What do we mean by ‘Kingdom of God’?”

So let’s tackle that. I need to begin by observing that we get in a lot of trouble when we over-theologize biblical words in the effort to manufacture theological terms. People who talk/teach for a living love doing that sort of thing–it makes job security for them–but the truth is often much simpler. This is one of those cases.

The kingdom of God is where God rules.

There you go.

All the rest of this post is in anticipation of the acute whataboutitis that afflicts theological discussions. They want it to be more complicated than it really is. 

Does God rule in heaven now? Yes. So that’s part of God’s Kingdom. Will He rule on Earth on the last day? Absolutely. So that’s what the consummated Kingdom looks like. Was God’s rule extended when Jesus cast out that guy’s demon in Luke 11? Yup, sure was. So the Kingdom of God came right there. (See Luke 11:20 and its parallel in Matthew 12:28, and note the verb tenses.)

In between the Fall and the Consummation, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God, and said so. His followers preached the word of the Kingdom, and did the works of the Kingdom, as Jesus did. We still do so today (saving where we have accepted the excuses of institutionalized unbelief and allowed ourselves to be discouraged from actually following Jesus.)

From that day to this, anywhere the word of the Kingdom is obeyed and the works of the Kingdom are done, the Kingdom of God has come upon you, just as it once did in Jesus’ day.

Has the Kingdom come in its permanent fullness? No. No more than it did in Jesus’ day. Is the kingdom really, truly present? Yes—just as it was in Jesus’ day. Then He was bodily present. Today, He is present in His Body, and where the King is present, honored, and obeyed, the Kingdom is among you.


Biblical Voices: the Sage

30 May 2019

The Bible is a book of specific, verbal revelation. In it, God speaks. You would expect such a book to lead off its proclamations with phrases like “Thus saith the Lord…,” and in many places it does.

However, not in all.

In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular, we find a different voice coming to the fore. It’s not the voice of a prophet or a priest, delivering a word directly from God. It’s the voice of the sage, the wise man observing the world. Where the prophet says, “God said…” the sage says “Here’s what I saw…,” and then “Go look for yourself!”

Van Til and other thinkers downstream from him have made much of the observation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. So it is. If you don’t start there, they will say, then you haven’t got anything. I want to make a slightly different point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of wisdom. There’s nothing holy about willfully remaining a beginner. The goal is to grow.

So once you have the fear of the Lord, you have the beginning. What more do you need? Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!

Do you see? A sage, speaking in Scripture, is telling you to go outside Scripture into the world, pay attention to what is happening there, and contemplate it–because you will gain wisdom by so doing.

Can you interpret the world wrongly? Sure. Just like you can interpret verbal revelation wrongly. Discernment is required. Mistakes will be made. But God has given us the task: it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Let’s be about it.


Levels of Language

3 August 2018

A couple years ago, I read Paul Graham’s ruminations on higher- and lower-level languages in Hackers and Painters. Although he’s talking about computer languages, his insights have bearing on biblical language and hermeneutics. So bear with me while I lay out some of the basic points, and then we’ll look at the applications. 

  • The very lowest level of language has a very small number of things it can do. Every level up combines those basic instructions in increasingly complex ways to get tasks done.
  • Anything a computer can do, you can do in binary. But you can’t do some things in Basic that you can do in C++, and you can’t do some things in C++ that you can do in Lisp (Graham’s examples; I wouldn’t know). Lower-level languages lack the abstractions and features that higher-level languages have.
  • Perhaps equally important, many of the things you can do in all 3 languages take more steps in Basic than C++, and more steps in C++ than Lisp. The code is longer, the further down the hierarchy you go. Longer code tends to breed more mistakes, because humans don’t deal well with obsessive levels of detail.
  • Conversely, the higher the level of language, the faster you can work. If it takes 3x longer to write in (say) C++ than in Lisp, and your competitor is writing in C++, he can’t keep up with you. A feature that takes you a month to program takes him 3 to duplicate. A feature that takes him 3 months to program, you can duplicate in 1. When you’re ahead, you’re way ahead. When you’re behind, you catch up quickly.
  • A programmer thinks primarily in a certain language. Down the hierarchy, he can see that all the languages are lower level than his preferred one, because “they don’t even have [feature].” Up the hierarchy from his primary language, the languages just look weird, because he doesn’t think in them. So they have these higher-order abstractions that he can’t quite grasp, or he can’t see what anybody would ever want them for.

One other observation that is going to be important for this: good programmers often don’t solve a really difficult problem. They formulate another (easier) problem that is the practical equivalent of the hard one, and then solve that.

So given that, the analogy for biblical studies:

  • Basic linguistic/textual analysis tools like sentence diagramming or outlining are like machine code. There’s a very limited number of options, and it’s very laborious to describe what’s happening in the text.
  • Didactic literature is the next level up. It’s using the linguistic options available in a pretty basic, transparent way. 
  • Narrative comes after that. While narrative is often grammatically simpler than didactic (paratactic rather than hypotactic, and so on), there are some very complex things going on that you really can’t get at with a sentence diagram. The tools you use to decode didactic literature aren’t sufficient to interpret narrative well. 
  • Proverbs, parables and typology are very high-level, an order of magnitude beyond narrative. 

So if you think in Didactic, and you do it well enough to really have it and know you have it, then you know you don’t quite have a handle on Narrative. Narrative operates with a whole set of signifiers that your interpretive grid doesn’t know what to do with. And you really have an awful time with Typology. (This was the case for the folks that trained me in exegesis. We had a great set of tools for didactic literature, and we knew we didn’t have a parallel set of tools for narrative. And for typology? Forget it! One of our hermeneutics texts seriously claimed that we could only identify something as a type if the New Testament (didactic) literature said it was!)

Conversely, if you can operate in Typology, you can certainly handle Narrative. And when you go to prove a point using Narrative, your argument makes no sense to a Didactic-speaker, because your reasoning just doesn’t translate into his language (and it’s worse if you use Typology!) You’re using higher-order abstractions that he simply doesn’t have. If we are going to be good interpreters of Scripture, it’s not enough to grasp the didactic literature. We need to learn to read the higher levels of language as well. 

And then, because we are called to speak like God speaks, we need to learn to speak at higher levels of language, too. It comes in handy. I was having breakfast with a group of friends a while back, and one of the guys was making his case for education outside the home (and against homeschooling). His argument centered around the impossibility of sheltering your kids from the prevailing culture forever, and homeschoolers’ inability to cope with the culture when they were suddenly thrown into it at age 19 or so. He took maybe 10 minutes, and early on I told him I was going to rebut him. As he reached the end of his case, someone pointed out what time it was, and he said “Oh, crap! I gotta go!” As he was getting up from his chair to put on his coat, he said to me “But you were going to argue against that. I’m sorry about this, but can you say it fast?”

I said, “‘As arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.’ You want to send your arrows out in the midst of your enemies — but you don’t let your enemies mess with the arrows while the glue on the fletchings is still wet.”

He got it. I was able to cleanly counterpoint his 10-minute speech in 2 sentences because I was able to find a way to operate at a proverb/parable/type level of discourse. Of course, that’s not the same thing as winning the argument, and I’d have really liked to have more time. But I laid out a relevant objection to his point of view and gave us room for further discussion. Not bad for 2 sentences. 

The Bible is genius-level communication, and the more time we spend with it, the better off we’ll be. Read first for what it’s telling you. After you start to have a good handle on that, start reading for the lessons in communication. I promise, you’ll learn whole new ways of speaking well.


Not Working for the Same Boss

26 April 2018

Last post, I addressed speaking as God speaks, and the fear that keeps us from doing it.  The more common manifestations of divisiveness in the body of Christ have also been a regular feature in discussion here, and in this post, I want to suggest that those two subjects are closely related.

We don’t want to speak as God speaks because we know that our gnat-strangling, separatist brethren will treat us like heretics if we do.  They’ve done it before, and we don’t want to be next.  Moreover, we know perfectly well that “But that’s exactly what the Bible says” will not be a good enough excuse.  It may save us at the heresy trial — don’t count on it! — but we’ll still become outsiders.

Fear of man brings a snare,” like the wise man said. So how do we get rid of the fear? “Perfect love casts out fear.” If we are willing to receive God’s love, then divine love will overflow from our hearts onto everyone around us. That context of divine love is necessary for this next bit, because “though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” In love, let us speak as God speaks, not only to the gnat-strangling separatists, but about their gnat-strangling ways.

This might be a rough ride, kids. Find something to hold onto. Here we go:

These people say they’re serving Christ. That’s what it says in the doctrinal statement, and the church constitution, and the membership covenant.  It’s even on the big sign out in front of the church: “Serving Christ in our community since 1982.”

They’re not. They are serving their own appetites, their own lusts.  Simple as that.  Some people want power, some want to feel superior, others have other sinful desires that they are gratifying by dividing Christ’s body.  But mark it down, no matter what they say, they are not serving Him, but themselves. If that sounds harsh, just wait. It gets worse.

Their victims are complicit in the sin. These people get away with playing their divisive games for so long because they flatter people.  They’re good talkers, sure, but bottom line, it’s a spiritual con game.  They tell you that by joining with them, you’re in the know, you’re more righteous, whatever you want to hear.  Because they’re stroking your ego, you don’t look too closely at the reasoning; you want it to be true.  They deceive you, sure, but you’re complicit in it; if you were struggling for godly humility the way you should be, you’d see right through their nonsense.

How do I know this?  How can I dare to judge motives this way?  Can I see their hearts, or yours? Read Romans 16:17-18, and then ask yourself: Can you dare not to speak in exactly this way?

So now what? Do we shun them, just like they were going to shun us?

Not a bit of it. God loves these people. He’s crazy about them. Do you think He would shun them? Of course not. He came to save them. So this is where we ask what Jesus would do…or better still, what Jesus did do.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to draw bright lines.  He would heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the gospel for anybody: Jew, Roman, tax collector, didn’t matter. (He gave that Syro-Phoenecian woman a hard time once, but He did the miracle all the same.) But when it came to close fellowship, He set the bar a little higher. The guy who said he’d follow Jesus as soon as he’d buried his father? Jesus wasn’t having any of that. “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

You gotta believe that when Jesus picked out the 70, there was a 71st guy who wanted to be on the team, but didn’t make the cut. When He picked the 12 who would walk with Him, surely most of the 70 would have wanted in on that. Among the 12, there were 3 who went up the mountain of transfiguration. You best believe the other 9 guys would have given their right ears to be there too. What’s the point? Jesus would serve anybody, but He was very selective about who He walked closely with. (And take a look at John 2:23-25. Jesus was not the naively trusting sort.)

So how did He pick? The same way He did anything: “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do.” Luke 6 says He went out all night on the mountain to pray, and when it was day, He chose the 12. He listened to the Father. There is no substitute for listening to the Father.

Paul has given us some guidance. Notice those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to Jesus’ teaching, and avoid them, because despite what their doctrinal statement says, they are not working for the same boss you are. So be obedient, like Jesus was. Serve anybody. Love everybody. Walk closely with a few that you pick after much prayer.

Follow what the Father gave you in the Word, too. You’re not going to walk closely with a divisive person; Paul and the Holy Spirit say not to. That doesn’t mean God is going to steer you to easy people; remember that one of the 12 was a traitor, and despite his good intentions, Peter was no picnic either. God has a purpose in all He does.

So what does this look like in practice? I have one person (the Lady Wife) who has complete access to my life, period. Nothing is closed to her. I have a few people that have near-complete access to my life, and I to theirs. They are devoted followers of Jesus who have stuck with me through good times and bad, and I treasure them. We live in each other’s lives. I have a range of divisive folks in my life. I love them. I serve them as the occasion arises. I do not, however, partner closely with them. How could I? We’re not working for the same boss.