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2 Kings 4; 1 Timothy 1; Daniel 8; Psalm 116

Oct 22, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 4; 1 Timothy 1; Daniel 8; Psalm 116

TWO YEARS AFTER THE VISION OF CHAPTER 7, Daniel had his vision of the ram and the goat (Dan. 8). The text from Daniel 2:4 to the end of 7 was written in Aramaic (a cognate of Hebrew, widely used in the late Babylonian and Persian Empires). Both chapter 2 and chapter 7 provide visions that sweep through from the Babylonian period to the dawning of the kingdom of God; both of these chapters also provide some identification of the referents of the figures in their respective visions. None of the remaining chapters in the book of Daniel includes the same sweep, including the chapter before us. Here the focus is on just two beasts/kingdoms, which turn out to be the middle two of the four specified in chapters 2 and 7. Some observations:

(1) The ram has two horns, one more prominent than the other. The ram represents the Medo-Persian Empire (Dan. 8:20); the more prominent horn, of course, is Persia. This has a bearing, you may recall, on how chapter 2 is interpreted (see meditation for October 17). The shaggy goat is Greece. Philip of Macedon united the Greek city-states, and his son Alexander the Great (referred to as “the first king” of Greece, Dan. 8:21) established the Greek Empire, expanding its limits to the borders of India. Along the way he prevailed against Persia. Upon his premature death, the empire was divided up under his four most powerful generals (Dan. 8:8, 22). Only two of them affect biblical history, the two that established the dynasties between which little Israel, “the Beautiful Land” (Dan. 8:9), was squeezed: the Ptolemies in Egypt to the south and the Seleucids based in Syria to the north. In the second century B.C., the Seleucids prevailed, and one particular Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, became extraordinarily brutal and oppressive. He made the observance of Jewish religion a capital offense, defiled the rebuilt temple, and for three-and-a-half years (roughly 1,150 days, embracing 2,300 morning and evening sacrifices, Dan. 8:14), 167-164 B.C., wreaked havoc in the land until the guerrilla warfare led by the Maccabees forced him out of Israel and back to Syria.

(2) The vision presents itself as dealing with the “distant future” (Dan. 8:26), i.e., almost four centuries after Daniel’s time. It deals with “the time of the end” (Dan. 8:17). That expression means different things in different contexts. The “end” can refer to the end of the Lord’s forbearance at a particular time in history (e.g., Ezek. 7:2-3); here, the “end” is probably with respect to the question asked in verse 13.

(3) The last verse of chapter 8 testifies that deep dealings with God, and the reception of genuine revelation, may exact a physical toll.

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2 Kings 2; 2 Thessalonians 2; Daniel 6; Psalms 112-113

Oct 21, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 2; 2 Thessalonians 2; Daniel 6; Psalms 112-113

FROM THE ACCOUNT OF DANIEL in the lions’ den (Dan. 6), we observe a man about eighty years of age as faithful at the end of his life as he was at the beginning. Some notes:

(1) Despite his advanced years, Daniel’s administrative abilities and his passion for integrity make him highly valuable to a relatively enlightened ruler such as Darius. The same virtues make him a target of envy to lesser men, who are happy to engage in a dirty-tricks campaign to bring him down. Dirty tricks were not invented by Nixon; they stretch back to the Fall. Blessed is the Christian whose life is so transparent, who is “trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent” (Dan. 6:4), so that the only way he or she can be destroyed is by making Christian conduct and conviction a crime.

(2) Daniel serves as a model of how a Christian may serve in a government that is itself in no way Christian. He offers no comfort to those who withdraw not only from sin but from responsibility and godly influence.

(3) The expression “laws of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be repealed” (Dan. 6:8) was probably a badge of honor in the empire. Probably the policy was designed to discourage favoritism, corrupt exceptions, shifting pragmatism. But no legal system can ensure consistent justice. Corrupt people will always find ways of exploiting the system to oppress others and advance themselves. Hidden behind the slogan is a deeper issue. Historically there has long been a tension between positive law theory, in which the only law to be obeyed is that enacted by government, and natural law theory, in which some fundamentals are thought to be discoverable by human beings. In the name of equity and justice, British courts, until fairly recently, would sometimes set aside positive law in favor of natural law where it was pretty obvious an injustice was otherwise being committed. Both in Britain and in the United States, such considerations are now rare. In Britain, what must be obeyed is what Parliament says; in the United States, what must be obeyed is what the Supreme Court says. In both instances, positive law largely prevails, as in ancient Persia. The matter has become increasingly difficult here since Western states have come to think they have a therapeutic role in society, defining the “illnesses” that must be confronted and the “therapies” that must be imposed as they go along. The potential for injustice and inequity multiplies.

(4) In the crisis precipitated by this unjust law, Daniel remains consistent, neither flaunting his independence nor hiding his convictions and habits. The outcome he leaves with God—very much as in Jesus’ prayer (“Your will be done”) and example (Matt. 6:10; 26:39). Such maturity may well become a cherished model for us.

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2 Kings 3; 2 Thessalonians 3; Daniel 7; Psalms 114-115

Oct 20, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 3; 2 Thessalonians 3; Daniel 7; Psalms 114-115

DANIEL NOT ONLY INTERPRETED the dreams of others, on occasion he himself had dreams that needed interpretation. The one described here (Dan. 7) took place in the first year of Belshazzar (Dan. 7:1), i.e., more than fifty years since Daniel had first been deported to Babylon. Not all revelation is given at once. From now to the end of the book, Daniel writes in the first person (with the exception of the note at Dan. 10:1).

(1) Although the four beasts representing four kingdoms or empires are in some measure sequential (and to that extent probably to be identified with specific historical kingdoms—see below), the initial observation that these four beasts came out of the sea (proverbial for chaos and wickedness) churned up by the four winds (i.e., from the four points of the compass, or everywhere) may hint that they also represent all kingdoms that oppose God.

(2) The evocative nature of these beasts must not be overlooked. The lion combined with the eagle suggests dominion, speed, and strength. The brown Syrian bear may weigh up to six hundred pounds and has a voracious appetite. The leopard is known for its extraordinarily sudden, rapid attacks; its four heads show it to be rapacious in all directions, wanting dominion everywhere. The last beast is “terrifying and frightening and very powerful … it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left” (Dan. 7:7). Horns represent kings or kingdoms or dominion; this beast has ten of them, five times more than the natural two horns. The best identification is that the four beasts represent, respectively, the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires.

(3) The expression “son of man” is a Semitic way of saying “human being.” The other kingdoms are beastly and inhuman; here the reins of power rest in the hands of a human being as God meant a human being to be. Because of the parallels between verse 14 and verses 18 and 27, some have argued that “son of man” is merely a symbol for the “saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:18). But the matter is not so simple. If “son of man” in verses 13-14 were merely a symbol of the people of God, why should the authority be given to one who is like “a son of man”? The figure in verse 12 is an individual figure, yet he has a representative role (like the Old Testament priest, cf. Ex. 19:6). He comes “with the clouds of heaven,” a common association with the glory of deity. And by using “son of man,” the vision simultaneously signals a kingship that extends beyond Israel to all of humankind and prepares the way for the incarnation. Cf. Matthew 19:28; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Revelation 1:13-16.

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2 Kings 1; 2 Thessalonians 1; Daniel 5; Psalms 110-111

Oct 19, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 1; 2 Thessalonians 1; Daniel 5; Psalms 110-111

AFTER NEBUCHADNEZZAR DIED, the Babylonian Empire rapidly declined. In violent coups, several members of the dynasty succeeded each other. Nabonidus eventually imposed some stability, though various vassal states broke away. Nabonidus himself became a religious dilettante. He abandoned the worship of Marduk (chief god in the Babylonian pantheon) and ended up, apparently, excavating buried shrines, restoring ancient religious rituals, and fostering the worship of the moon god Sin. Probably he was on one of these strange religious quests at the time of Daniel 5. As a result he had left the care of Babylon itself in the hands of Belshazzar his son. (The NIV footnote, Dan. 5:2, 11, 13, 18, rightly observes that Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar’s “father” only in the sense that he was his “ancestor” or possibly “predecessor”—a common use of the Semitic word, not unlike the usage in 2 Kings 2:12.)

The account makes it clear that the Persian army was outside the walls of the city, but Belshazzar obviously felt that the city was impervious to assault. The bacchanalia he ordered up was worse than an orgy of self-indulgence. Bringing out the golden goblets that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem was more than a whim. In the sequence of the two chapters, Daniel 4 and 5, it is hard not to see that this was a repudiation of what Belshazzar’s “father” Nebuchadnezzar had learned about the living God. Perhaps Belshazzar thought that Babylon’s fortunes had declined because of the relative neglect of the pagan deities. Nebuchadnezzar had learned to revere the God of Israel; Belshazzar was happy to spit in his eye. So they drank from the goblets and “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Dan. 5:4). Daniel sees the connection between the two emperors, and this forms part of his stinging rebuke: Belshazzar knew what “the Most High God” had done to Nebuchadnezzar, and how Nebuchadnezzar had come to his senses and acknowledged “that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes”—and yet he set himself up “against the Lord of heaven” and refused to “honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Dan. 5:18-24). Somehow Belshazzar thought he could ignore or defy the God who had humbled the far greater Nebuchadnezzar.

So what have we learned? Have we absorbed the lessons of history—that God will not, finally, be mocked or defied? That we are utterly dependent creatures, and if we fail to acknowledge this simple truth our sins are compounded? That God can humble and convert the most unlikely, like Nebuchadnezzar, and destroy those who defy him, like Belshazzar?

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1 Kings 22; 1 Thessalonians 5; Daniel 4; Psalms 108-109

Oct 18, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 22; 1 Thessalonians 5; Daniel 4; Psalms 108-109

ONE OF THE REASONS WHY the narratives of Daniel 4 and Daniel 5 are put side by side, even though they clearly come from two quite different periods of Daniel’s life, is that each serves as the foil of the other. Both are accounts of rich, powerful, arrogant men. The first, mercifully, is humbled and therefore spared and transformed; the second is simply destroyed.

Many critics doubt that the account of Daniel 4 is anything more than pious fiction to encourage the Jews. They note that there is no record of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity in the surviving Babylonian records, and they doubt that the empire could have held together had the emperor himself gone mad for a period of time. Neither argument is weighty. Official records would not have talked much of Nebuchadnezzar’s period of insanity, and in any case records from the latter part of his life have not so far come to light. Moreover, we do not know exactly how long Nebuchadnezzar was insane: it is uncertain what “seven times” (4:16) means. Certainly the Roman Empire survived under Caligula, whose insanity no one doubts.

In our short space, we may reflect on the following:

(1) Nebuchadnezzar’s dream reflects his megalomania. He has a narcissistic personality: he is corroded by his own greatness yet is so insecure that his grandiose fantasies must be nurtured by incessant self-admiration. Unlike the egotist, who is so supremely self-confident that he does not care a rip what anyone thinks of him or her, the narcissist is often hypersensitive and emotionally fragile. Regardless of all psychological speculations, the man’s arrogance before God is unrestrained (despite the experience of chaps. 2 and 3), and God resolves to humble him.

(2) Daniel’s approach to Nebuchadnezzar, once he has heard the dream, should be studied by every Christian preacher and counselor. On the one hand, he is deeply distressed to grasp what Nebuchadnezzar is going through, or going to go through (4:19). On the other hand, once he is prevailed upon to give the interpretation of the dream, he does so with admirable clarity and forthright truthfulness. He neither maintains professional detachment nor resorts to mealy-mouthed indirection.

(3) The psychotic breakdown is probably a form of lycanthropy (which today is subdued by antipsychotic drugs). But once his sanity is restored (4:36), Nebuchadnezzar articulates the lesson he has learned: God is sovereign, he raises and abases whom he wills, none can withstand him, and every virtue or strength we possess we derive from him. To think otherwise is to invite rebuke, for “those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (4:37).

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1 Kings 21; 1 Thessalonians 4; Daniel 3; Psalm 107

Oct 17, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 21; 1 Thessalonians 4; Daniel 3; Psalm 107

THE IMAGE NEBUCHADNEZZAR SET UP (DAN. 3) was doubtless designed to unify the empire. That is why he ordained that all “peoples, nations and men of every language … must fall down and worship the image of gold” (Dan. 3:4-5). Living as he did in a pluralistic culture where people could with impunity add gods to their personal pantheon, Nebuchadnezzar saw no reason but rebellion or intransigent insubordination for anyone to refuse to worship the image. The threat of the furnace, from his perspective, guaranteed conformity, and the potential political gain was incalculable. Furnaces in Babylon were primarily for the firing of bricks (cf. Gen. 11:3), widely used because suitable building stone was so scarce. Some large brick kilns have been dug up outside the ruins of ancient Babylon. Certainly Nebuchadnezzar would have had no scruples about burning people to death (Jer. 29:22).

The striking exchange in this chapter is between Nebuchadnezzar and the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, after their first refusal to bow before the image (Dan. 3:13-18). The emperor’s final taunt almost dares any god to come forward: “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” (Dan. 3:15). Of course, as a pagan, he lived in a world of powerful but definitely finite gods, and in some instances he certainly felt that he was their equal or even their superior. From the perspective of biblical theism, this is monstrous arrogance.

But it is the answer of the three men that deserves memorizing and pondering: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16-18). Observe: (a) Their basic courtesy and respect are undiminished, however bold their words. (b) They are completely unwilling to apologize for their stance. The wise believer never apologizes for God or for any of his attributes. (c) They do not doubt God’s ability to save them, and they say so: God is not hostage to other gods, or to human beings, emperors or otherwise. (d) But whether or not God will save them they cannot know—and the point is immaterial to their resolve. Faithfulness is not dependent upon an escape hatch. They choose faithfulness because it is the right thing to do, even if it costs them their lives.

The courage we need in this anti-Christian age is courteous and steadfast. It never apologizes for God. It joyfully believes that God can do anything, but it is prepared to suffer rather than compromise hearty obedience.

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1 Kings 20; 1 Thessalonians 3; Daniel 2; Psalm 106

Oct 16, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 20; 1 Thessalonians 3; Daniel 2; Psalm 106

NEBUCHADNEZZAR’S DREAM (DAN. 2) could usefully occupy us for many pages. It provides insight not only into Daniel and his times, but into our times as well.

(1) The pagan Babylonian Empire had its share of astrologers and other fortune tellers. Like thoughtful people in every generation, Nebuchadnezzar had his suspicions about their competence, and put them to this rather brutal test. Anecdotal accounts of “magical” insight cannot withstand this level of analysis.

(2) Daniel’s bold approach to the king claims nothing for himself and ascribes everything to God, who knows our thoughts and our dreams. That took courage. Here is the next stage in the development of Daniel’s character. The courageous and unshakable old man that Daniel became (Dan. 6) was formed by a young man who obeyed God even in what he ate, and who was so honest that he would not take any credit where none was due. He was committed to faithfulness, humility, courage, and integrity. He has few successors in high places.

(3) Doubtless contemporary psychiatrists would speculate that the colossus in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream betrays profound personal insecurity. Megalomaniacal ambition to rule the world may suggest secret doubts about whether or not one has feet of clay. Whatever the means, God uses the vision to disclose something more profound—the future of forthcoming empires.

Most liberals have argued that the four metals—gold, silver, bronze, and iron—represent, respectively, Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire disintegrated into four territories squabbling among themselves—hence the feet of clay. Certainly the later chapters of this prophecy focus not a little attention on that period, and picture the dawning of the messianic kingdom succeeding it. Nevertheless that view is tied up with the theory that at the very least the later chapters of Daniel were written pseudonymously in the second century B.C. Most evangelicals find little evidence to support that stance. Moreover, they point out that there never really was a Median Empire. It is better to speak of the Medo-Persian Empire; the Median element was not much more than a transition team. On that view the four empires are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome—and during the latter the messianic kingdom delivers the mighty blow that ultimately fells the colossus. That seems to be what Jesus held (Matt. 24:15).

(4) This vision reminds us that in this broken and ambiguous world the people of God nurture a hope for what God will do in the end. Little in the Christian way makes sense without such hope; little in our culture makes much sense without a shared vision toward which to press, a vision that transcends personal fulfillment and selfism.

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1 Kings 19; 1 Thessalonians 2; Daniel 1; Psalm 105

Oct 15, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 19; 1 Thessalonians 2; Daniel 1; Psalm 105

“[T]HE THIRD YEAR OF THE REIGN OF Jehoiakim king of Judah” (Dan. 1:1) is calculated on the Babylonian reckoning; the corresponding calculation in Judah would have made it his fourth year, i.e., 605 B.C. The first round of deportations took place, then, in 605, and swept up Daniel; the second, including Ezekiel, Jehoiachin, the Queen Mother, the aristocracy, and skilled craftsmen, occurred in 597. The final crushing destruction of Jerusalem was in 587.

Almost twenty years before that took place, then, a number of aristocratic young Jewish men had been transported to Babylon. According to Daniel 1, they were well-treated. The imperial policy was not only generous, it was clever. The empire would pull in these gifted and well-bred young men and give them the best education and social formation in the world, with a string of perquisites to make the prospect still sweeter. In due course they would enter government service, intensely loyal to their benefactors while contributing their youth, skills, and knowledge of the imperial frontiers. The four Hebrew young men mentioned here would eventually become so Babylonian in their outlook that they would forget even their birth names: Daniel would become Belteshazzar, Hananiah would become Shadrach, and so forth.

But Daniel drew a line in the sand. It could have cost him his life. He did not object to the change in his name, nor to royal service on behalf of the Babylonian Empire. But he would not “defile” himself (Dan. 1:8) by eating food prepared in the royal kitchens. He knew that if he partook, he would almost certainly eat things from time to time that the Law of God strictly forbade. For him it was a matter of obedience, a matter of conscience. In the providence of God, the chief to whom he was responsible, Ashpenaz, was an understanding sort, and the result is reported in this chapter.

For many of us today, Daniel’s stand is vaguely quixotic, but certainly not something to emulate. Why die over sausages? Come to think of it, is there anything worth dying for? Probably not—if all there is to life is found in our brief earthly span, and all that is important is what happens to me. But Daniel’s aim was to please God and to conform to the covenant. His values could not be snookered by Babylon; on this point he was prepared to die. The trouble is that when a culture runs out of things to die for, it runs out of things to live for. A colleague in the ministry (Dr. Roy Clements) has often said, “We are either potential martyrs or potential suicides; I see no middle ground between these two. And the Bible insists that every believer in the true God has to be a potential martyr.”

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1 Kings 18; 1 Thessalonians 1; Ezekiel 48; Psalm 104

Oct 14, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 18; 1 Thessalonians 1; Ezekiel 48; Psalm 104

“O LORD MY GOD, YOU ARE VERY GREAT; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” So we read in the opening verse of Psalm 104. In this psalm the evidence of the Lord’s greatness is bound up with the created order. Some reflections:

(1) In the opening verses (Ps. 104:1-4) the string of metaphorical touches is revealing. God wraps himself in light; he stretches out the heavens like a tent; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes winds his messengers. Pantheism merges god with the universe; robust Christian theism not only makes God separate from the universe as Creator is to creation, but in these metaphors suggests that God delights in what he has made. The mood is not only exalted, but almost playful. If pantheism is ruled out, equally there is no scope for deism. The created order is alive with God’s presence as he delights in what his hands have made.

(2) In this psalm there is a strong emphasis on the way all of life depends on the sustaining providence of the Almighty. God makes springs pour water down ravines, and in consequence the beasts of the field drink, trees grow, birds of the air nest in the branches (Ps. 104:10-12). God is the One who makes grass grow for the cattle, and makes other plants for human consumption (Ps. 104:14). The lions roar and seek their food from God (Ps. 104:21). As for the sea, with its teeming millions of life forms, “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time” (Ps. 104:27). The sheer abundance and diversity of life forms testifies to God’s imagination, power, wisdom, and incalculable wealth. Life itself is sustained by God’s sanction. If he takes away their breath, they die (Ps. 104:29-30). The assumption is not the animism of the pagan world. There is an orderliness to the whole (note the rhythm of light and dark, Ps. 104:19-24) that makes science possible. But God never withdraws from active, providential rule over every single element of the universe’s operation, with the result that it is not only appropriate but essential to confess that all of life is daily dependent on God for its quotidian supply of food.

(3) All the created order elicits delighted and faithful praise from the unnamed psalmist (Ps. 104:33). There is just a hint that we ought to be thinking about God in these terms; we want our meditation to be pleasing to him (Ps. 104:34). And before the closing lines of praise, there is a quiet reminder that despite the glory and beauty of the created order, sin has made this more of a war zone than a museum or a choir (Ps. 104:35).

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1 Kings 17; Colossians 4; Ezekiel 47; Psalm 103

Oct 13, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 17; Colossians 4; Ezekiel 47; Psalm 103

ONE OF THE LOVELIEST OF THE PSALMS IS Psalm 103. I reflected on it in volume 1 (meditation for June 11). Here I want to return to several of its themes:

(1) “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Ps. 103:8). That truth is often expressed in the Old Testament. For example, when the Lord passes before Moses while the latter is hiding in a cleft in the rock, he intones, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …” (Ex. 34:6). Yet that is not the impression that many readers of the Old Testament have of God. Somehow they think he runs on a short fuse, never very far off from an outburst that can wipe out a nation or two. Why do they have that impression?

Probably in part because they do not read the Old Testament very closely. Or perhaps they read the Old Testament impressionistically: there are all those passages in the prophets where the Lord is threatening judgment, and they can leave a sour taste and a smell of sulfur. But should we not see the Lord’s mercy in them? He delays judgment, which may be postponed for years or even decades. On the first signs of genuine repentance, he turns from wrath, for the Lord is “slow to anger, abounding in love.” Strict justice would be immediate—an easy thing for Omniscience! The truth is that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10).

(2) “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14). It is almost as if this God is looking for reasons to be as forbearing as possible. But it is also true that a human father is likely to be far more compassionate and forbearing with a son or daughter who “fears” him and basically respects him. Then each confusion or failure or mistake is likely to be treated with more forbearance than the conduct of the son or daughter who is profoundly anarchic. In any case, this heavenly Father knows us better than we know ourselves. Who better than he can tell us what we are made of?

(3) In our guilt before a holy God, what we need most is to be forgiven all our sins (Ps. 103:3), to have them removed far from us: “as far as the east is from the west [a distance without limit, unlike north to south], so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). With that assurance, all other blessings of any worth will one day be ours; without the forgiveness of sins, any other blessing we have received is worse than worthless: it may be deceptive.

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