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Deuteronomy 1; Psalms 81-82; Isaiah 29; 3 John

May 28, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 1; Psalms 81-82; Isaiah 29; 3 John

“OPEN WIDE YOUR MOUTH and I will fill it” (Ps. 81:10): the symbolism is transparent. God is perfectly willing and able to satisfy all our deepest needs and longings. Implicitly, the problem is that we will not even open our mouths to enjoy the food he provides. The symbolism returns in the last verse: while the wicked will face punishment that lasts forever, “you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Ps. 81:16).

Of course, God is talking about more than physical food (though scarcely less). The setting is a common one both in the Psalms and in the narrative parts of the Pentateuch. God graciously and spectacularly rescued the people from their slavery in Egypt, responding to their own cries of distress. “I removed the burden from their shoulders,”God says. “In your distress you called and I rescued you” (Ps. 81:6-7). Then comes the passage that leads to the line quoted at the beginning of this meditation:

Hear, O my people, and I will warn you —
if you would but listen to me, O Israel!
You shall have no foreign god among you;
you shall not bow down to an alien god.
I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it (Ps. 81:8-10).

Historically, of course, the response of the people was disappointing: “my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me” (Ps. 81:11). In that case, they were not promised the satisfaction symbolized by full mouths. Far from it, God says, “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (Ps. 81:12).

Of course, the nature of the idolatry changes from age to age. I recently read some lines from John Piper:

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable (A Hunger for God, Wheaton: Crossway, 1997, 14).

“Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”

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Numbers 36; Psalm 80; Isaiah 28; 2 John

May 27, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 36; Psalm 80; Isaiah 28; 2 John

WE ARE FIRST INTRODUCED TO Zelophehad and his daughters in Numbers 27:1-11. Normally inheritance descended through the sons. But Zelophehad had no sons, only five daughters named Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Zelophehad belonged to the generation that passed away in the desert. Why, the daughters asked Moses, should his family line be prohibited from inheriting just because his progeny were all female? Moses, we are told, “brought their case before the LORD” (Num. 27:5). The Lord not only ruled in favor of the daughters’ petition, but provided a statute that regularized this decision for similar cases throughout Israel (Num. 27:8-11).

But a new wrinkle on this ruling turns up in Numbers 36. The family heads of Manasseh, to which the Zelophehad family belongs, ask what will happen if the daughters marry Israelites outside their tribe. They bring their inheritance with them to the marriage, and it would get passed on to their sons, but their sons would belong to the tribe of their father — and so over the centuries there could be massive redistribution of tribal lands, and potentially major inequities among the tribes. On this point, too, the Lord himself rules (Num. 36:5). “No inheritance may pass from tribe to tribe, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits” (Num. 36:9). The way forward, then, was for the Zelophehad daughters to marry men from their own tribe — a ruling with which the Zelophehad daughters happily comply (Num. 36:10-12).

If this offends our sensibilities, we ought to consider why.

(1) Pragmatically, even we cannot marry anyone: we almost always marry within our own highly limited circles of friends and acquaintances. So in Israel: most people would want to marry within their tribes.

(2) More importantly, we have inherited Western biases in favor of individualism (“I’ll marry whomever I please”) and of falling in love (“We couldn’t help it; it just happened, and we fell in love”). Doubtless there are advantages to these social conventions, but that is what they are: mere social conventions. For the majority of the world’s people, marriages are either arranged by the parents or, more likely, at very least worked out with far more family approval operating than in the West. At what point does our love of freedom dissolve into individualistic self-centeredness, with little concern for the extended family and culture — or in this case for God’s gracious covenantal structure that provided equitable distribution of land?

We live in our own culture, of course, and under a new covenant. And we, too, have biblical restrictions imposed on whom we marry (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:39). More importantly, we must eschew the abominable idolatry of thinking that the universe must dance to our tune.

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Numbers 35; Psalm 79; Isaiah 27; 1 John 5

May 26, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 35; Psalm 79; Isaiah 27; 1 John 5

WHEN PLANS WERE BEING LAID to parcel out the Promised Land to the twelve tribes, Levi was excluded. The Levites were told that God was their inheritance: they would not receive tribal territory, but would be supported by the tithes collected from the rest of the Israelites (Num. 18:20-26). Even so, they needed somewhere to live. So God ordained that each tribe would set aside some towns for the Levites, along with the surrounding pasturelands for their livestock (Num. 35:1-5). Since the Levites were to teach the people the law of God, in addition to their tabernacle duties, these land arrangements had the added advantage of scattering the Levites among the people where they could do the most good. Moreover, their scattered lands were never to pass out of Levitical hands (Lev. 25:32-34).

The other peculiar land arrangement established in this chapter is the designation of six “cities of refuge” (35:6-34). These were to be drawn from the forty -eight towns allotted to the Levites, three on one side of the Jordan, and three on the other. A person who killed another, whether intentionally or accidentally, could flee to one of those cities and be preserved against the wrath of family avengers. At a time when blood feuds were not unknown, this had the effect of cooling the atmosphere until the official justice system could establish the guilt or innocence of the killer. If found guilty on compelling evidence (35:30), the murderer was to be executed. One recalls the principle laid down in Genesis 9:6: those who murder human beings, who are made in the image of God, have done something so vile that the ultimate sanction is mandated. The logic is not one of deterrence, but of values (cf. Num. 35:31-33).

On the other hand, if the killing was accidental and the killer therefore innocent of murder, he cannot simply be discharged and sent home, but must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest (35:25-28). Only at that point could the killer return to his ancestral property and resume a normal life. Waiting for the high priest to die could be a matter of days or of decades. If the time was substantial, it might serve to cool down the avengers from the victim’s family. But no such rationale is provided in the text.

Probably two reasons account for this stipulation that the slayer must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. (1) His death marked the end of an era, the beginning of another. (2) More importantly, it may be his death symbolized that someone had to die to pay for the death of one of God’s image-bearers. Christians know where that reasoning leads.

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Numbers 34; Psalm 78:40-72; Isaiah 26; 1 John 4

May 25, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 34; Psalm 78:40-72; Isaiah 26; 1 John 4

“HOW OFTEN THEY REBELLED against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:40-41). Thus Asaph pauses in the course of his recital to summarize one of his main points in this psalm. In fact, one could outline some of the dramatic points Asaph makes as follows:

(1) The repeated rebellion of the people of God is presented not merely as disobedience, but as putting God to the test. That is one of the elements in rebellion that is so gross, so odious. A heavy dose of “in your face” marks this rebellion, an ugly pattern of unbelief that implicitly charges God with powerlessness, with cruelty, with selfishness, with thoughtlessness, with foolishness. Chronic and repeated unbelief “with attitude” always has this element of putting God to the test. What will God do about it? Small wonder that the apostle Paul identifies the same pattern in the conduct of the people during the wilderness years and warns Christians in his day, “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did — and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did — and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:9-11).

(2) Although the first part of the chapter notes God’s wrath replying to the pattern of the people’s rebellion, it also insists that time after time God “restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath”(78:38). But the pattern now becomes grimmer. Eventually the idolatry was so gross that God “was very angry; he rejected Israel completely” (78:59). The context shows that what Asaph had in mind is the judgment of God on the people when he permitted the ark of the Lord to be captured by the Philistines: “He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy” (78:61; cf. 1 Sam. 4:5-11), with the entailment that the people faced terrible destruction at the hand of their enemies.

(3) The closing verses (78:65-72) focus on the gracious choice of Judah and of David as God’s answer to the wretched years of the wilderness, of the judges, of the reign of Saul. “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (78:72). Living this side of the Incarnation, Christians are especially grateful for David’s line.

(4) Christians know how the storyline of Psalm 78 develops. David’s dynasty descends into corruption; God’s wrath is greater yet, and the Exile ensues. But worse wrath, and more glorious love, were yet to be displayed in the cross.

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Numbers 33; Psalm 78:1-39; Isaiah 25; 1 John 3

May 24, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 33; Psalm 78:1-39; Isaiah 25; 1 John 3

THE OPENING FEW VERSES OF Psalm 78 initially elicit a little puzzlement. Asaph invites his readers (and if this is sung, his hearers) to hear his teaching, to listen to the words of his mouth (78:1). Then he announces, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old” (78:2). Anticipation builds; it sounds as if we shall hear brand-new things that have been hidden before Asaph came on the scene. Then he further describes these “hidden things, things from of oldî: they are “what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us” (78:3). So, is he embarking on some new revelation, previously hidden, or is he simply reviewing the common heritage of the Israelites? And why add this point that at least part of his purpose is to disclose these things to the new generation that is coming along (78:4)?

Three observations:

First, the word rendered “parables” has a wide range of meaning. It can refer to narrative parables, wisdom sayings, aphorisms, and several other forms. Here, Asaph seems to mean no more than that he will say what he has to say in the poetic structures and wise comparisons that characterize this psalm.

Second, the content of this psalm is both old — “what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us”– and new, “hidden things.” This psalm is one of a group of “historical psalms,” that is, psalms that review some of the experiences of the people of God with their God. For most of its length its chief focus is the Exodus and the events that surrounded it, including the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the provision of manna, and so forth. The psalm brings us down to the reign of David (which, incidentally, shows that Asaph himself lived in David’s day or later). Yet this psalm is not a mere review of the bare facts of that history. The recital is designed to draw certain lessons from that history, lessons that might be missed if attention were not drawn to them. These lessons include the sorry patterns of rebellion, God’s self-restraint in his rising anger, his graciousness in saving them again and again, and more. These lessons are “hidden” in the bare text, but they are there, and Asaph brings them out.

Third, Asaph understands (1) that deep knowledge of Scripture and of the ways of God means more than knowing facts, but also grasping the unfolding patterns to see what God is doing; (2) that at any time the covenant people of God are never more than one generation from extinction, so it is utterly vital to pass on this accumulating insight to the next generation.

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Numbers 32; Psalm 77; Isaiah 24; 1 John 2

May 23, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 32; Psalm 77; Isaiah 24; 1 John 2

ASAPH MUST HAVE GIVEN A LOT of thought to the question of what believers should remember. Psalm 75, we saw yesterday, commends the power of godly “recital” — a retelling of what God has done so as to bring near God’s name.” The importance of remembering and retelling is at the heart of Psalm 78. And here in Psalm 77, Asaph highlights yet another element in this theme.

Asaph finds himself in great distress (77:1). Its causes we do not know, but most of us have passed through “dark nights of the soul” when it seems that either God is dead or he does not care. Asaph was so despondent he could not sleep; indeed, he charges God with keeping him from sleep (77:4). Memories of other times when circumstances were so bright that he sang with joy in the night hours (77:6) serve only to depress him further. Bitterness tinges his list of rhetorical questions: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” (77:7-9 ).

What Asaph resolves to focus on is all the ways God has disclosed himself in power in the past. He writes: “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High” (77:10) — in other words, he appeals to all the displays of strength, of the deeds of God’s “right hand,” across the years. “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds” (77:11-12). So in the rest of the psalm, Asaph switches to the second person, addressing God directly, remembering some of the countless deeds of grace and power that have characterized God’s dealings with the covenant people of God. He remembers the plagues, the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, the way God led his people “by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (77:13-20).

Christians have all the more to remember. As Asaph “remembered” the Exodus by reading Scripture, so we have even more Scripture. We remember not only all that Asaph remembered, but things he did not know: the Exile, the return from exile, the long years of waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We remember the Incarnation, the years of Jesus’ life and ministry, his words and mighty deeds. Above all, we remember his death and resurrection, and the powerful work of the Spirit at Pentacost and beyond.

And as we remember, our faith is strengthened, our vision of God is renewed, and the despair lifts.

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Numbers 31; Psalms 75-76; Isaiah 23; 1 John 1

May 22, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 31; Psalms 75-76; Isaiah 23; 1 John 1

ONE OF THE IMPORTANT FUNCTIONS of corporate worship is recital, that is, a “re-telling” of the wonderful things that God has done. Hence Psalm 78:2-4: “I will utter hidden things, things from of old — what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done.” Similarly, if more briefly, Psalm 75:1: “We give thanks to you, O God, we give thanks, for your Name is near; men tell of your wonderful deeds.” In fact, the New English Bible is a little closer to the Hebrew: “Thy name is brought very near to us in the story of thy wonderful deeds.” God’s “name” is part of his gracious self-disclosure. It is a revelation of who he is (Ex. 3:14; 34:5-7, 14). God’s “name” then, is brought very near us in the story of his wonderful deeds: that is, who God is disclosed in the accounts of what he has done.

Thus the recital of what God has done is a means of grace to bring God near to his people. Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near.

The emphasis this psalm makes regarding God is that he is the sovereign disposer, the “disposer supreme” (as one commentator puts it). It is wonderfully stabilizing to us to rest in such a God. He declares, “I choose the appointed time; it is I who judge uprightly” (75:2). It is hard to imagine a category more suggestive of God’s firm control than “the appointed time.” Yet mere control without justice would be fatalism. This God, however, not only sets the appointed times, but judges uprightly (75:2). Further, in this broken world there are cataclysmic events that seem to threaten the entire social order. Elsewhere David ponders, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:3). But here we are reassured, for God himself declares, “When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm” (75:3). So the arrogant who may think themselves to be the pillars of society are duly warned: “Boast no more”(75:4). To the wicked, God says, “Do not lift your horns against heaven [like a ram tossing its head about in bold confidence]; do not speak with outstretched neck” (75:5).

Retell God’s wonderful deeds and bring near his name.

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Numbers 30; Psalm 74; Isaiah 22; 2 Peter 3

May 21, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 30; Psalm 74; Isaiah 22; 2 Peter 3

A FEW YEARS AGO I spent some time in a certain so-called “third world” country, well known for its abject poverty. What struck me most forcibly about the culture of that country, however, was not its poverty, nor the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor — I had read up enought on these points that I was not surprised, and I had witnessed similar tragedies elsewhere — but its ubiquitous, endemic corruption.

Here in the West, we are not well placed to wag a finger. Doubtless we have less overt bribery; doubtless we have published prices for many government services that make bribes and kickbacks a little more difficult to institutionalize; doubtless there is still enough Christian heritage that at least on paper we avow that honesty is a good thing, that a man or woman’s word should be his or her bond, that greed is evil — though very often such values are nowadays honored rather more in the breech than in reality. Even so , we are by far the most litigious nation in the world. We produce far more lawyers than engineers (the reverse of Japan). The simplest agreement nowadays must be surrounded by mounds of legalese protecting the participants. A fair bit of this stems from the fact that many individuals and companies will not keep their word, will not try to do the right thing, and will try to rip off the other party if they can get away with it. A lie is embarrassing only if you are caught. Promises and pledges become devices to get what you want, rather than commitments to truth. Solemn marriage vows are discarded on a whim, or dissolved in the heat of lust. And of course, if we easily abandon marriage covenants, business covenants, and personal covenants, it is equally easy to abandon the covenant with God.

Telling the truth and keeping one’s promises in one domain of life spill over into other domains; conversely, infidelity in one arena commonly spills over into other arenas. So, nestled within the Mosaic covenant are these words: “This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Num. 30:1-2). The rest of the chapter recognizes that such oaths by individuals may not be merely individual matters; there may be spousal or family entailments. So for the right ordering of the culture, God himself sets forth who, under this covenant, is permitted to ratify or set aside a pledge; that pattern says something about headship and responsibility in the family. But the fundamental issue is one of truth-telling and fidelity.

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Numbers 29; Psalm 73; Isaiah 21; 2 Peter 2

May 20, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 29; Psalm 73; Isaiah 21; 2 Peter 2

FEW PSALMS HAVE PROVIDED greater succor to the people who are troubled by the frequent, transparent prosperity of the wicked than Psalm 73.

Asaph begins with a provocative pair of lines: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” Does the parallelism hint that the people of Israel are the pure in heart? Scarcely; that accords neither with history nor with this psalm. The second line, then, must be a restriction on the first. Should those who are not pure in heart be equated with the wicked so richly described in this psalm? Well, perhaps, but what is striking is that the next lines depict not the evil of the wicked but the sin of Asaph’s own heart. His own heart was not pure as he contemplated “the prosperity of the wicked” (73:3). He envied them. Apparently this envy ate at him until he was in danger of losing his entire moral and religious balance: his “feet had almost slipped” (73:2).

What attracted Asaph to the wicked was the way so many of them seem to be the very picture of serenity, good health, and happiness (73:4-12). Even their arrogance has its attractions: it seems to place them above others. Their wealth and power make them popular. At their worst, they ignore God with apparent total immunity from fear. They seem “always carefree, they increase in wealth” (73:12).

So perhaps righteousness doesn’t pay: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence” (73:13). Asaph could not quite bring himself to this step: he recognized that it would have meant a terrible betrayal of “your children” (73:15) — apparently the people of God to whom Asaph felt loyalty and for whom, as a leader, he sensed a burden of responsibility. But all his reflections were “oppressive” to him (73:16), until three profound realizations dawned on him.

First, on the long haul the wicked will be swept away. As Asaph entered the sanctuary, he reflected on the “final destiny” (73:17-19, 27) of those he had begun to envy, and he envied them no more.

Second, Asaph himself, in concert with all who truly know God and walk in submission to him, possesses so much more than the wicked — both in this life and in the life to come. “I am always with you,” Asaph exults; “you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory” (73:23-24).

Third, Asaph now sees his bitterness for the ugly sin it is (73:21-22), and resolves instead to draw near to God and to make known all God’s deeds (73:28).

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Numbers 28; Psalm 72; Isaiah 19-20; 2 Peter 1

May 19, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 28; Psalm 72; Isaiah 19-20; 2 Peter 1

ONE OF THE FEATURES OF THE PSALMS that describe the enthronement of a Davidic king, or the reign of a Davidic king, is how often the language goes “over the top.” This feature combines with the built-in Davidic typology to give these psalms a twin focus. On the one hand, they can be read as somewhat extravagant descriptions of one of the Davidic kings (in this case Solomon, according to the superscription); on the other, they invite the reader to anticipate something more than a David or a Solomon or a Josiah.

So it is in Psalm 72. On the one hand, the Davidic monarch was to rule in justice, and it is entirely appropriate that so much of the psalm is devoted to this theme. In particular, he is to take the part of the afflicted, “the children of the needy” (Ps. 72:4), those “who have no one to help” (72:12). He is to oppose the oppressor and the victimizer, establishing justice and stability, and rescuing those who would otherwise suffer oppression and violence (72:14). His reign is to be characterized by prosperity, which is itself “the fruit of righteousness” (72:3 — a point the West is rapidly forgetting). Gold will flow into the country, the people will pray for their monarch; grain will abound throughout the land (72:15-16).

On the other hand, some of the language is wonderfully extravagant. Some of this is in line with the way other ancient Near Eastern kings were extolled. Nevertheless, combined with the Davidic typology and the rising messianic expectation, it is difficult not to overhear something more specific. “He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations” (72:5) — which may be true of the dynasty, or may be an extravagant wish for some purely human Davidic king, but is literally true of only one Davidic king. “He will rule from sea to sea and from the River (i.e., the Euphrates) to the ends of the earth” (72:8) — which contains a lovely ambiguity. Are the “seas” no more than the Mediterranean and Galilee? Should the Hebrew be translated (as it might be) more conservatively to read “the end of the land”? But surely not. For not only will “the desert tribes” (i.e., from adjacent lands) bow before him, but the kings of Tarshish — Spain! — and of other distant lands will bring tribute to him (72:9-10). Moreover: “All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him” (72:11). “All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (72:17) — as clear an echo of the Abrahamic covenant as one can imagine (Gen. 12:2-3).

One greater than Solomon has come (Matt. 12:42).

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