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Leviticus 25; Psalm 32; Eccl. 8; 2 Timothy 4

Apr 21, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 25; Psalm 32; Ecclesiastes 8; 2 Timothy 4

“BLESSED IS HE WHOSE TRANSGRESSIONS ARE FORGIVEN, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1-2). In a theistic universe where God keeps the books, it is difficult to imagine any greater blessedness.

The sad tragedy is that when many people reflect on this brute fact — that we must give an account to him, and there is no escaping his justice — almost instinctively they do the wrong thing. They resolve to take the path of self-improvement, they turn over a new leaf, they conceal or even deny the sins of frivolous youth. Thus they add to their guilt something additional — the sin of deceit.

We dare not ask for justice — we would be crushed. But how can we hide from the God who sees everything? That is self-delusion. There is only one way forward that does not destroy us: we must be forgiven. “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven.” And what is bound up with such forgiveness? For a start, such a person will not pretend there are no sins to forgive: blessed is the man “in whose spirit is no deceit.”

That is why the ensuing verses speak so candidly of confession (32:3-5). It was when David “kept silent” (i.e., about his sins) that his “bones wasted away”; his anguish was so overwhelming it brought wretched physical pain. David writhed under the sense that God himself was against him: “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (32:4).

The glorious solution? “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’ — and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (32:5).

The New Testament writer closest to saying the same thing is John in his first letter (1 John 1:8-9). Writing to believers, John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” There it is again: the self-deception bound up with denying our sinfulness. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” There it is again: the only remedy to human guilt. This God forgives us, not because he is indulgent or too lazy to be careful, but because we have confessed our sin, and above all, because he is “faithful and just”: “faithful” to the covenant he has established, “just” so as not to condemn us when Jesus himself is the propitiation for our sins (2:2).

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Leviticus 24; Psalm 31; Ecclesiastes 7; 2 Timothy 3

Apr 20, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 24; Psalm 31; Ecclesiastes 7; 2 Timothy 3

DAVID WAS IN DEEP TROUBLE. The exact circumstances may be obscure to us, as we who live three thousand years later probe the details. But we do know that David was shut up in a besieged city (Ps. 31:21) and felt trapped. He was so threatened that he flirted with despair. And that is when he felt abandoned by God himself: “In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’” (31:22)

That is the worst despair of all — to feel that God has abandoned you. It was part of Job’s torment. Job felt he could mount a case in his own defense, if only he could find God long enough to argue with him. But the heavens were silent, and the silence multiplied his despair.

We have already reflected on the fact that it was fear of being abandoned by God that kept Jacob wrestling with the unknown man in the darkness (Gen. 32:22-32) and kept Moses pressing God to abandon his threat to remain outside the camp of the rebellious Israelites (Ex. 32 — 34). In a theistic universe, there can be nothing worse than being truly abandoned by God himself. The worst of hell’s torments is that men and women are truly abandoned by God. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Yet the sad reality is that we who bear God’s image oscillate between fearing abandonment by God, and wanting to escape from his presence. The same David who wrote this psalm was not particularly eager to delight in the presence of God when he was lusting after Bathsheba and plotting to murder her husband. Too often we would like God to look the other way when we hanker to thumb our noses at him and insist on following our own paths, and we would like God to demonstrate his presence and his glory to us, and certainly get us out of trouble, when we find ourselves in desperate straits.

What an incalculable blessing that God is better than our fears. He does not owe us succor, relief, or rescue. Even our cries of alarm — “I am cut off from your sight!” — may have more to do with desperate unbelief than with candid pleas for help. But David’s experience may prove an encouragement to us, for he quickly pens two more lines: “Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help” (31:22).

Love the LORD, all his saints!
The LORD preserves the faithful,
but the proud he pays back in full.
Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the LORD. (Ps. 31:23-24)

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Leviticus 23; Psalm 30; Eccl. 6; 2 Timothy 2

Apr 19, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 23; Psalm 30; Ecclesiastes 6; 2 Timothy 2

LEVITICUS 23 PROVIDES A description of the principal “appointed feasts” (23:2). These include the Sabbath, which of course could not be observed by taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The remaining feasts mentioned, however, are bound up with the temple in Jerusalem. There are three such feasts, along with the related celebrations tied to the principal three. (In later times Jews added a fourth feast.)

Apart from the Sabbath itself, the first “appointed feast” (or pair of appointed feasts) was the Passover coupled with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The “Lord’s Passover” began at dusk on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month (Nisan), when the Passover meal was actually eaten, and the people gathered to remember the Lord’s spectacular rescue of them from Egypt. The next day began the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread, a reminder not only of the rapid flight from Egypt, but of the Lord’s injunction to put aside all yeast for that period of time — a symbol of putting aside all evil. The first and seventh days were to be free from work and solemnized by sacred assemblies.

The First-fruits festival (23:9-14), followed by the Feast of Weeks (23:15-22) — the seven weeks immediately after First-fruits, culminating on the fiftieth day by a sacred assembly — was a powerful way, especially in a highly agrarian society, to remember that God alone provides us with all we need to live. It was a way of publicly bearing witness to our dependence on God, of expressing our individual and corporate thanksgiving to our Maker and Sustainer. There are slight analogues in countries like England and Canada in “Harvest Sunday” festivals and Canadian Thanksgiving. (The American Thanksgiving is partly a harvest festival, but is freighted with substantial symbolism to do with finding freedom in a new land.) But no festival of thanksgiving can be more valuable than the quality and extent of the thankfulness of the people who participate.

On the first day of the seventh Jewish month, another sacred assembly, the Feast of Trumpets, commemorated with trumpet blasts (23:23-25), anticipated Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement (23:26-33) — which fell on the tenth day of the seventh month. This was the day the high priest entered the Most Holy Place, with the prescribed blood, to cover both his own sins and the sins of the people (cf. comments on April 12). The fifteenth day of that month began the eight-day Feast of Booths (23:33-36), when the people were to live in “booths” or “tabernacles,” huts and tents, to remind themselves of the pilgrimage years before they entered into the Promised Land.

How should the people of the new covenant remember and commemorate the provisions of our great covenantal God?

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Leviticus 22; Psalms 28-29; Eccl. 5; 2 Timothy 1

Apr 18, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 22; Psalms 28-29; Ecclesiastes 5; 2 Timothy 1

THE OPENING VERSES OF PSALM 29 SUGGEST that a great part of what it means to “worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness” is to ascribe to him the praise that is his due: ascribe to him glory and strength, “the glory due his name”(29:1-2).

In this light, the central section of the psalm (29:3-9) is remarkable, for it focuses on just one element in God’s activity, viz. the voice of the Lord. “The voice of the LORD is over the waters” — possibly an allusion both to the original creation, when God simply “spoke” and the universe came into being and took form, and to the spectacular deliverance when God parted the Red Sea, but also to every storm-swept current; “the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.” The voice of the Lord is both powerful and majestic. It “breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon,” proverbial for their size and strength — an allusion to the unleashed storms that God’s voice calls forth. Indeed, this is nothing to him, for nations and mountains alike perform his bidding, and all of them hear the thunder of his voice in the storm that traverses from Lebanon in the north to Kadesh in the south.

The secularist looks at a storm and thinks exclusively of the physical properties that have brought it about. The believer understands that those properties have been built into the material world by its Creator, and that God himself speaks in thunder and lightning. The only proper response is to gather in his temple, and in a spirit of mingled awe and humility cry, “Glory!” (29:9).

Small wonder that the psalm ends (29:10-11) by focusing on the universal reign of God: “the LORD is enthroned as King forever,” whether at the time of the deluge (the Hebrew word for “flood” in this passage is found only here and in Gen. 6-11) — the very deluge that most powerfully demonstrated God’s power to deploy the forces of “nature” as he sees fit — or in the perpetual blessings and strength God confers on his people.

Isaiah foresees the day when the “Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples,” when the nations will rally to him and his place of rest will be, literally, “the glory” (Isa. 11:10). When Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was about to be sent into eternity by the furious mob, his eyes were opened, and he looked up to heaven and saw “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).

His is the final voice of God; he is the Word of God. “Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength” (29:1). Let all cry, “Glory!”

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Leviticus 21; Psalms 26–27; Eccl. 4; 1 Timothy 6

Apr 17, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 21; Psalms 26–27; Ecclesiastes 4; 1 Timothy 6

“ONE THING I ASK OF THE LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). This glorious stance finds parallels elsewhere. Thus in Psalm 84:10-11 the psalmist declares, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”

This is not quite the same as saying that the psalmist wants to spend all his time in church. The temple was more than a church building, and synagogue buildings had not yet been invented. This was a way of saying that the psalmist wanted to spend all his time in the presence and blessing of the living God of the covenant, the God who supremely manifested himself in the city he had designated and the temple whose essential design he had stipulated. This necessarily included all the temple liturgy and rites, but it wasn’t a fine sense of religious aesthetics that drove the psalmist. It is nothing less than an overwhelming sense of the sheer beauty of the Lord.

But there are two further connections to be observed:

(1) The psalmist’s longing is expressed in terms of intentional choice: “this is what I seek” (27:4, italics added); “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (84:10, italics added). The psalmist expresses his desire and his preference, and in both cases his focus is God himself. We will not really understand him unless, in God’s grace, we share that focus.

(2) The psalmist recognizes that there is in this stance abundant security for him. While it is good to worship God and delight in his presence simply because God is God, and he is good and glorious; yet at the same time it is also right to recognize that our own security is bound up with resting in this God. David wishes “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple,” for “in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock” (27:4-5). “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,” we read, for “the LORD God is a sun and shield” (84:10-11).

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Leviticus 20; Psalm 25; Ecclesiastes 3; 1 Timothy 5

Apr 16, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 20; Psalm 25; Ecclesiastes 3; 1 Timothy 5

ONE OF THE STARTLING FEATURES OF PSALM 25 is the diversity of needs David asks the Lord to address.

David is in danger of being overwhelmed by enemies and thereby put to shame (Ps. 25:2). He wishes to learn the ways and paths of God, to be taught God’s truth (25:4-5). He begs that God will forget the sins of his rebellious youth (25:7); moreover, he recognizes that there are times when his iniquity is great, and needs to be forgiven (25:11). David confesses that he is lonely and afflicted, full of anguish (25:16-17). He speaks afresh of his affliction and distress, alludes once again to his sins, and feels threatened by the increase of the enemies who hate him (25:18-19). Moreover, judging by the last verse (25:22), it is quite possible that David recognized that his own crises and failures had a bearing on the well-being of the people he served as king; so his prayer embraces them as well.

It is of course important to reflect on how the Lord God graciously helps his covenant people in an extraordinary diversity of ways. Yet here I wish to point out something a little different, viz.  how so many of the ills and crises that afflict us are bound up with each other. The various things that David mentions are not discreet items on a list. They are tied together in various ways.

For example, when David prays that his enemies will not put him to shame, he recognizes that God alone is the final arbiter, so that in the end all will be put to shame who are “treacherous without excuse” (25:3). But that means that David himself must learn God’s ways and God’s truth; he needs his own sins forgiven. He must in humility keep the covenant (25:9-10), properly fearing the Lord (25:12, 14). Because of the trouble he is suffering, he is not only afflicted but lonely (25:16) — anguish in one arena so often breeds a sense of desperate isolation, even alienation. Yet the final petitions of the psalm do not descend into a wallowing self-pity, but sum up the connections already made: David needs release from his enemies, forgiveness for his sins, relief from his affliction, and personal integrity and uprightness, all bound up with the protection of the Lord God himself.

Here is a wholesome self-awareness. Sometimes our prayers for relief from loneliness are steeped in self-love; sometimes our requests for justice fail to recognize how endemic sin really is, so that we remain unconcerned about our own iniquity. Yet here is a man who not only knew God and how to pray, but knew himself.

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Leviticus 19; Psalms 23-24; Eccl. 2; 1 Timothy 4

Apr 15, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 19; Psalms 23-24; Ecclesiastes 2; 1 Timothy 4

PERHAPS THE MOST STRIKING FEATURE OF LEVITICUS 19 is the repeated clause, “I am the LORD.” In each case, it provides the reason why the Israelites are to obey the particular command.

Each must respect his mother and father, and must obey God’s Sabbaths: “I am the LORD” (19:3). They are not to succumb to idolatry: “I am the LORD” (19:4). When they harvest, they are to leave enough of the produce behind that the poor may find something to eat: “I am the LORD” (19:10). They are not to swear falsely using the name of God: “I am the LORD” (19:12). They are not to play foul jokes on the handicapped, such as cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block in front of the blind: “I am the LORD” (19:14). They are not to take any action that endangers a neighbor’s life: “I am the LORD” (19:16). They are neither to seek revenge nor bear a grudge against a neighbor, but each is to love his neighbor as himself: “I am the LORD” (19:18). Upon entering the Promised Land, after planting any fruit tree they are not to eat its fruit for three years, and then must offer all the fruit to the Lord in the fourth year, before eating the fruit from the fifth year onward: “I am the LORD” (19:23-25). They are not to mutilate or tattoo their bodies: “I am the LORD” (19:28). They are to observe God’s Sabbaths and have reverence for his sanctuary: “I am the LORD” (19:30). They are not to resort to mediums or spiritists: “I am the LORD” (19:31). They are to rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, and revere God: “I am the LORD” (19:32). Foreigners resident in the land must be treated as one of the native-born: “I am the LORD” (19:33-34). Business standards must be aboveboard: “I am the LORD” (19:35-36).

Although some of the commandments and prohibitions in this chapter do not end with this formula, they are nevertheless blessed with the same motive, for the closing verse wraps the chapter up: “Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD” (19:37).

Moreover, judging by the opening verse of the chapter, the formula “I am the LORD” is in fact a reminder of something longer: “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’” (19:1). We have already meditated a little on what holy means (cf. April 8). Here, what is striking is that many of these commandments are social in their effect (honesty, generosity, integrity, and so forth); yet the Lord’s holiness is the fundamental warrant for them. For the covenant people of God, the highest motives are bound up with pleasing him and fearing his sanctions.

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Leviticus 18; Psalm 22; Ecclesiastes 1; 1 Timothy 3

Apr 14, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 18; Psalm 22; Ecclesiastes 1; 1 Timothy 3

THE BEGINNING OF THE SO-CALLED “HOLINESS CODE” (Lev. 18) is full of interest. We should take note of at least four things:

(1) Just because this is the first time that some prohibitions have been articulated in the Bible does not necessarily mean that this is the first time anyone thought of them, or condemned the practices in question. Before murder is actually prohibited as such, Cain commits it, is condemned for it, and is punished. The same is true for many actions treated in the Law of Moses. Much of the Law of God is written on the human conscience, so that societies without Scripture erect moral structures which, however different from the values of Scripture, overlap with Scripture in important and revealing ways. Similarly, many of the prohibitions of sexual alignments listed here were doubtless already frowned upon; now their prohibition is codified.

(2) As usual, the commandments in this chapter are tied to the person and character of God (18:2-4, 21, 30), the Exodus (18:3), and the sanctions of the covenant (18:29).

(3) Many prohibitions in this chapter establish barriers in sexual relations: a man is not to have sexual relations with his mother or stepmother, sister or half-sister, granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and so forth. Homosexuality is “detestable” (18:22); bestiality is “a perversion” (18:23). Tied to this list is the prohibition against sacrificing any of your children to the horrible god Molech, who demanded that some be burned in sacrifice (18:21); perhaps the common point is family integrity. Another striking element in this chapter is the fact that the perversions are prohibited in Israel so that this fledgling nation does not become as debauched as those they are about to displace — lest they head in that same direction and are vomited out of the land (18:24-30). The shadow of the exile hangs over the horizon before the people even enter the land.

(4) Intriguingly, Leviticus 18:5 is cited in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:10. The general point in both passages is the same. The “Law,” i.e., the law-covenant, is grounded in demand: keep God’s decrees and laws, and live. This is not to say that faith isn’t required, still less that the Old Testament covenant is not characterized by grace (not least in the sacrificial system, such that those who breached the covenant had a recourse to find a way back.” But its heartbeat is demand. By contrast, the heartbeat of the new covenant, like the covenant with Abraham, is above all characterized by faith (whatever its demands). Whatever the overlap, the distinctive heartbeat of the two covenants must not be confused.

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Leviticus 17; Psalms 20-21; Proverbs 31; 1 Timothy 2

Apr 13, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 17; Psalms 20-21; Proverbs 31; 1 Timothy 2

TWO SPECIFICATIONS IN LEVITICUS 17 constrained the ancient Israelite who wished to remain faithful to the covenant.

The first (17:1-9) limited sacrifices to what the Mosaic Covenant mandates and sanctions. Apparently some Israelites were offering sacrifices in the open fields, wherever they happened to be (17:5). Doubtless some of these were genuinely offered up to the Lord; others easily slid into syncretistic offerings devoted to local pagan deities (17:7). To bring sacrificial practice under the discipline of the tabernacle (and later the temple) was designed simultaneously to eliminate syncretism and to train up the people in the theological structures inherent in the Mosaic Covenant. Out there in the field it was all too easy to assume that these religious observances would win the favor of God (or the gods!), thereby securing good crops and nice kids. The tabernacle/temple system ideally brought the people under the tutelage of the Levites, teaching the people a better way. God himself had mandated this system. Only prescribed mediators and sacrifices were acceptable. The entire structure was designed to enhance the transcendence of God, to establish and clarify the sheer ugliness and vileness of sin, to demonstrate that a person could be accepted by God only if that sin were atoned for. Moreover, the system had two further advantages. It brought the people together for the thrice-annual festivals in Jerusalem, securing the cohesion of the covenant people; and it prepared the way for the supreme sacrifice in annual sacrifices that trained generations of believers that sin must be paid for in the way God himself prescribes, or there is no hope for any of us.

The second constraint imposed by this chapter (17:10-16) is the prohibition against eating blood. The reason given is specific: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (17:11). The passage does not ascribe magical powers to blood. After all, the life is not in the blood apart from the rest of the body, and the strong prohibition against eating blood could never be perfectly carried out (since no matter how carefully you drain the blood from an animal there is always a little left). The point is that there is no life in the body where there is no blood; it is the obvious physical element for symbolizing the life itself. To teach the people how only the sacrifice of life could atone for sin — since the punishment of sin is death — it is difficult to imagine a more effective prohibition. We recall its significance every time we participate in the Lord’s Table.

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Leviticus 16; Psalm 19; Proverbs 30; 1 Timothy 1

Apr 12, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 16; Psalm 19; Proverbs 30; 1 Timothy 1

GOD IS SO WONDERFULLY GENEROUS in his self-disclosure. He has not revealed himself to this race of rebels in some stinting way, but in nature, by his Spirit, in his Word, in great events in redemptive history, in institutions that he ordained to unveil his purposes and his nature, even in our very makeup. (We bear the imago Dei.) Psalm 19 depicts two of these avenues of divine self-disclosure.

The first is nature, or more precisely, one part of nature, the heavenly host observed and enjoyed by all of us. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (19:1-2). But just as ancient peoples manufactured complex myths to explain the sun, the moon, and the stars, the shame of our culture is that we manufacture complex “scientific” myths to explain them as well. Of course, our knowledge of how things really are is more advanced and accurate than theirs. But our deep-seated philosophical commitment to the notion of random, purposeless, mindless, accidental, “steady-state origination of everything is horribly perverse — anything to avoid the far more obvious conclusion of a supremely intelligent God capable of spectacularly wonderful design. The evidence is there; the celestial host “pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”

The second is “the law of the LORD”: perfect, trustworthy, right, pure, righteous, radiant, reviving the soul, making wise the simple, giving joy to the heart, enduring forever, more precious than gold, sweeter than honey, warning, promising great reward (19:7-11). Here too we manage to trim and silence what God has revealed. Great scholars invest wasted lives in undermining its credibility. Many people choose snippets and themes that soon constitute a grid for eliminating the rest. Cultural drift constructs new epistemologies that relativize God’s words so that they are no more revelatory than the source documents of any other religion. Worst of all, Christians invest so little time and energy in learning what they claim to be the Word of God that it falls away by default. Yet it remains an unimaginably glorious revelation.

Leviticus 16 depicts another avenue of revelation. God graciously instituted an annual ritual under the old covenant that depicted fundamental principles of what he is like and what is acceptable to him. Guilty sinners may approach him through a mediator and a blood sacrifice that he prescribes: the Day of Atonement is both ritual and prophecy (cf. Heb. 9:11 — 10:18).

Respond with the psalmist: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (19:14).

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