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Joshua 7; Psalms 137-138; Jeremiah 1; Matthew 15

Jul 05, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 7; Psalms 137-138; Jeremiah 1; Matthew 15

IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK LIKE THIS, of course. Sometimes it is not the case that the sin of one man and his family — in this case Achan — brings defeat upon the entire believing community (Josh. 7). For example, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira brought death only to themselves (Acts 5), and the punishment they suffered induced a godly fear in the rest of the assembly. On the other hand, the sin of David brought tragic repercussions on the entire nation. Perhaps the most frightening cases are those where countless sins are committed by many, many people, and God does absolutely nothing about it. For the worst judgment occurs when God turns his back on people, and resolutely lets sin take its course. Far better to be pulled up sharply before things get out of hand. That is why so much of the previous forty years of wilderness wanderings was given over to the disciplining hand of God: the purpose was as much educative as reformative.

Whatever is the case elsewhere in Scripture, here the sin of Achan and his family brings embarrassing defeat to the contingent of troops sent to take the little town of Ai. Worse, it brought death to about thirty-six Israelites (Josh. 7:5). In a sense, Achan was a murderer. When in some consternation Joshua seeks God’s face, God rather abruptly says, in effect, “Stop your praying and deal with the sin in the camp” (Josh. 7:10-12). The point is that God had given explicit and repeated instructions. They had been violated. The covenant between God and the Israelites was essentially communal, and so God is determined to teach the entire community to exercise among its own members the discipline that the covenant mandates.

No doubt there are some substantial differences to bear in mind when one turns to the new covenant. Nevertheless, here too God says some explicit things, and expects the covenant community to exercise discipline (e.g., 1 Cor. 5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:4; 13:2-3). Paul warns us that failure to take disciplinary action in the church, when there has been flagrant violation, endangers the entire community (1 Cor. 5:6). Pastors of churches and leaders of other Christian organizations who ignore this perspective are inviting disaster among all the people they are called to lead. In the name of peace, the real motivation may simply be cowardice, or worse, a failure to take God’s words seriously. The point is reinforced in the second reading assigned for this date: “I . . . will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2-3).

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Joshua 6; Psalms 135-136; Isaiah 66; Matthew 14

Jul 04, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 6; Psalms 135-136; Isaiah 66; Matthew 14

EVERY VERSE IN PSALM 135 quotes or alludes to or is quoted by some other part of Scripture.

Verse 1 reorders the phrasing of Psalm 113:1, putting the emphasis on the “servants of the LORD” who are then further described in verse 2 — which in turn adapts a clause from Psalm 116:19. Verse 3 is one of three related verses in the book of Psalms in which we are variously told that the Lord’s name is good (Ps. 52:9), that he himself is good (Ps. 135:3), and that praising him is good (Ps. 147:1); and further, that both his name (here) and worship of him (Ps. 147:1) are “pleasant” (or perhaps “delightful”). If verse 3 emphasizes God’s character, verse 4 underscores his elective love in a way that calls us back to Deuteronomy 7:6.

Verses 5-7 emphasize God’s unlimited power, calling to mind Exodus 18:11; Psalm 115:3; Jeremiah 10:13. The opening clause “I know that . . .” provides an emphasis on personal confession; this is truth not only to know, but to live by. Much of verses 8-12 reappears scattered throughout the next psalm, often word for word (Ps. 136:10, Ps. 18-22). Which way the borrowing went is of little consequence. The references to the defeat of Sihon and Og call us back to Numbers 21:21-35. As for God’s name (Ps. 135:13-14), the allusion is to Exodus 3:15 and Deuteronomy 32:36. Verses 15-18, on the sheer folly of all idolatry, almost exactly follow Ps. 115:4-8; thematically similar convictions find expression in Isaiah. The closing verses of this psalm (Ps. 135:19-21) apparently pick up on Ps. 115:9-11, where three of the four groups are told to glorify God.

The result of this pastiche approach to psalm-writing is a wonderful compendium of praise. It is as if the mind of the writer is not only full of much historical data from Scripture, but filled with texts as well. So as he builds his exuberant hymn of praise, consciously or unconsciously he interweaves phrase after phrase, sometimes whole verses, drawn from other Scriptures.

A similar phenomenon was once not uncommon amongst praying evangelicals. As men and women poured out their hearts to the Lord in prayer meetings, both praise and petition were cast in the language of Scripture. Of course, at its worst this sort of thing was a canned recitation of the same half-dozen texts. But at its best, such praise and prayer roamed through ever wider vistas of Scripture, as the people’s knowledge of Scripture was itself growing. There is something mature and biblically evocative about such praise, and as different from today’s narrow themes of clichéd sentimentalism as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is from “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

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Joshua 5; Psalms 132-134; Isaiah 65; Matthew 13

Jul 03, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 5; Psalms 132-134; Isaiah 65; Matthew 13

THREE ELEMENTS ARE striking in Joshua 5.

(1) Circumcision is now carried out on all the males that were born during the years of wilderness wandering. At one level, this is rather surprising: How come they weren’t done as the boys were born? In many instances the multitude stayed in one place for long periods of time, doubtless developing community life. What prevented them from obeying this unambiguous covenantal stipulation?

There have been many guesses, but the short answer is that we do not know. More important, in this context, is the fact that the rite is carried out now universally. It thereby stands as a decisive turning point, a symbol-laden community-wide affirmation of the covenant as the people stand on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Egypt is now behind; the promised rest awaits. “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Josh. 5:9).

(2) The manna stops (Josh. 5:10-12). From now on the people will draw their nourishment from “the produce of Canaan.” This, too, was a dramatic signal that the days of wandering were over, and the fulfillment of the promise for a new land was beginning to unfold before their eyes. The change must have been both frightening and exciting, especially to an entire generation that had never known life without the security of manna.

(3) In the opening chapters of this book, Joshua experiences a number of things that mark him out, both in his own mind and in the mind of the people, as the legitimate successor to Moses. This chapter ends with one such marker. Doubtless the most dramatic one before this chapter has been the crossing of the Jordan River — a kind of miraculous reenactment of the crossing of the Red Sea (Josh. 3-4). Quite apart from providing an efficient way to move the multitudes across the river, the personal dimension is made explicit: “That day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they revered him all the days of his life, just as they had revered Moses” (Josh. 4:14 — though the last clause must be judged just a little tongue in cheek).

But now, there is another step: Joshua encounters a “man” who appears to be some sort of angelic apparition. He is a warrior, a “commander of the army of the LORD” (Josh. 5:14). On the one hand, this serves to strengthen Joshua’s faith that the Lord himself is going before him in the military contests that lie ahead. But more: the scene is in some respects reminiscent of Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:5): “The place where you are standing is holy ground.” However unique these circumstances, we too must have leaders accustomed to standing in the presence of holiness.

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Joshua 4; Psalms 129-131; Isaiah 64; Matthew 12

Jul 02, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 4; Psalms 129-131; Isaiah 64; Matthew 12

FROM OUT OF WHAT KIND OF “depths” is the psalmist crying in Psalm 130:1? In other psalms the sheer despair of the expression is bound up with treasonous “friends” and overt persecution (Ps. 69), or with illness and homesickness (Pss. 6, 42). In this case, however, what has plunged the psalmist into “the depths” is sin and guilt: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).

Four reflections:

First, this accent on the misery of guilt and the need for forgiveness from God serves as a welcome foil to some of the psalms that ask for vindication on the grounds that the psalmist is fundamentally just or righteous (see meditations of April 10 and 24). Such claims could scarcely be taken absolutely; genuinely righteous people invariably become more aware of their personal guilt and need for forgiveness than those who have become so foul and hard they cannot detect their own shame.

Second, the connection between forgiveness and fear is striking: “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Ps. 130:4). Perhaps this pair of lines hints that assurance of sins forgiven was at this stage in redemptive history not as robust as it would become this side of the cross. More importantly, the “fear of the Lord” is portrayed as not only the outcome of forgiveness, but one of its goals. It confirms that “fear of the Lord” has less to do with slavish, servile terror (which surely should be decreased by forgiveness, not increased) than with holy reverence. Even so, this reverence has a component of honest fear. When sinners begin to see the magnitude of their sin, and experience the joy of forgiveness, at their best they glimpse what might have been the case had they not been forgiven. Forgiveness engenders relief; ironically, it also engenders sober reflection that settles into reverence and godly fear, for sin can never be taken lightly again, and forgiveness never lightly received.

Third, the psalmist understands that what he needs is not forgiveness in the abstract, but forgiveness from God — for what he wants and needs is reconciliation with God, restored fellowship with God. He waits for the Lord and trusts his promises (Ps. 130:5). He waits like a watchman waits for the dawn through the most frightening hours but with the assurance that the dawn’s breaking is inevitable (Ps. 130:6).

Fourth, what is most precious about this psalm is that even though the culmination of redemption’s plan is still centuries away, the focus is not on the mechanism but on God. “O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (Ps. 130:7-8).

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Joshua 3; Psalms 126-128; Isaiah 63; Matthew 11

Jul 01, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 3; Psalms 126-128; Isaiah 63; Matthew 11

THE FIRST VERSE OF Psalm 127 is often quoted today: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” In an age of overpopulation, we less often cite verse 3: “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.” We may gain some helpful perspective by observing four things.

First, in Hebrew the psalm deploys a couple of word plays that are lost in English, and these plays give pointers as to how to read the psalm. The word house (Ps. 127:1) can refer to a building. By extension, this is then applied to the city in a metaphorical sense (Ps. 127:1b -3). More importantly, house can also refer to a household, built up in this case by the blessing of children (Ps. 127:3-5). Moreover, builders and sons sound very similar in Hebrew.

Second, this suggests that the unifying theme through the superficially disparate parts of the psalm is that in every sphere of life only the blessing and provision of God can bring about a successful outcome. At the most mechanical level of building a house, this is true. God gives strength to the workers; he sustains them in life; he restrains himself from sending a catastrophic storm that would tear the structure down; countless surprises may be avoided (unsafe concrete, a quagmire under the topsoil, “accidents” that take out workers, and countless more).

The same principle is true in the basic defensive operation of watching over a city wall, or defending a nation with a radar system: if God sustains you, your defense will suffice, and if he does not, then no matter how professional and expensive it is, it will prove inadequate. In the home, procreation is a “natural” function, but in a providentially ordered world, children are an inheritance from the Lord. The lesson to be learned is not passivity, but trust and rest, a godly lowering of frenzied labor (Ps. 127:2).

Third, Psalm 127 stands among the songs of ascent precisely because the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem in observance of the covenantally prescribed feasts provides an excellent occasion to reflect on God’s gracious provision in every area of life (compare also Ps. 128).

Fourth, alone among the songs of ascent this one is ascribed to Solomon. Sadly, Solomon is a figure whose great wisdom was sometimes not followed in his own life: his own building program, both physical and metaphorical, became foolish (1 Kings 9:10-19), his kingdom a ruin (1 Kings 11:11-13; see the October 8 meditation), and his household — not least his multiplied pagan marriages — a systematic denial of the claims of the living God (1 Kings 11:1-9). How important to ask God for the grace to live up to what we understand!

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Joshua 2; Psalms 123-125; Isaiah 62; Matthew 10

Jun 30, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 2; Psalms 123-125; Isaiah 62; Matthew 10

I ONCE HEARD A LEARNED SOCIOLOGIST, by confession an evangelical, explain with considerable erudition why even a major revival, should the Lord choose to send one to a country like America, could not possibly speedily transform the nation. The problem is not simply the degree of biblical illiteracy in the controlling echelons of society, or the extent to which secularization has penetrated the media, or the history of the Supreme Court decisions that have affected the curricula and textbooks of our schools, and countless other items, but also how these various developments interlock. Even if, say, a million people became Christians in a very short space of time, none of the interlocking social structures and cultural values would thereby be undone.

To be fair to this scholar, he was trying, in part, to steer us away from shallow thinking that fosters a glib view of religion and revival — as if a good revival would exempt us from the responsibility to think comprehensively and transform the culture.

The element that is most seriously lacking from this analysis, however, is the sheer sweep of God’s sovereignty. The analysis of this sociologist colleague is reductionistic. It is as if he thinks in largely naturalistic categories, but leaves a little corner for something fairly weak (though admittedly supernatural) like regeneration. Not for a moment am I suggesting that God does not normally work through means that follow the regularities of the structures God himself has created. But it is vital to insist that God is not ever limited to such regularities. Above all, the Bible repeatedly speaks of times when, on the one hand, he sends confusion or fear on whole nations, or, on the other, he so transforms people by writing his Law on their heart that they long to please him. We are dealing with a God who is not limited by the machinations of the media. He is quite capable of so intruding that in judgment or grace he sovereignly controls what people think.

As early as the Song of Moses and Miriam, God is praised for the way he sends fear among the nations along whose borders Israel must pass on the way to the Promised Land (Ex. 15:15-16). Indeed, God promises to do just that (Ex. 23:27), and promises the same for the Canaanites (Deut. 2:25). So it should not be surprising to find the evidence of it as the Israelites approach their first walled town (Josh. 2:8-11; cf. Josh. 5:1).

God may normally work through ordinary means. But he is not limited by them. That is why all the military muscle in the world cannot itself guarantee victory, and all the secularization, postmodernism, naturalism, and paganism in the world cannot by themselves prevent revival. Let God be God.

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Joshua 1; Psalms 120-122; Isaiah 61; Matthew 9

Jun 29, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 1; Psalms 120-122; Isaiah 61; Matthew 9

THE FIFTEEN SHORT PSALMS (Pss. 120-134) immediately succeeding Psalm 119 are grouped together as songs of ascent: that is, each carries this heading. The most likely explanation is that these psalms were sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem and its temple for the great feasts: people “ascended” to Jerusalem from every point of the compass, just as in England one “goes up” to London from every point of the compass. This is not to say that each of the fifteen psalms was necessarily composed for this purpose. Some may have been written in some other context, and then judged appropriate for inclusion in this collection. Thus Psalm 120 seems to reflect personal experience, but could easily be sung with great empathy by pilgrims who felt their alienation as they lived in a land surrounded by pagan neighbors — an important theme as the pilgrims approached Jerusalem and felt they were coming “home.” Indeed, the series of fifteen psalms more or less moves from a distant land to Jerusalem itself (Ps. 122) and finally, in the last of these psalms, to the ark of the covenant, the priests, and the temple “servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD” (Ps. 134:1).

It is into this matrix that Psalm 121 falls. The first line, “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” is often stripped out of its context to justify some form of nature mysticism, or at very least an interpretation that suggests hills and mountains serve to remind us of God’s grandeur and therefore draw us to him and set our hearts at rest. In fact, the hills are enigmatic. Do they function symbolically like the mountain in Psalm 11:1, a place of refuge for those who are threatened and afraid? Are they havens for marauding thugs, so that the first line of verse 1 raises the problem that the rest of the psalm addresses? Or — perhaps more likely, since this is a song of ascents — does the pilgrim lift his eyes upward to the hills of Jerusalem, the hills evoking not nature mysticism but the place of the Davidic king, the place of the temple? If this is the right interpretation, then it is as if the psalmist finds these particular hills a call to meditate on the God who made them (“the Maker of heaven and earth,” Ps. 121:2), the God who “watches over Israel” (Ps. 121:4) as the covenant Redeemer.

The last verses of the psalm exult in the sheer comprehensiveness of God’s care over “you” (in the singular, as if the individual pilgrim is addressed by other pilgrims). “The LORD watches over you” (Ps. 121:5) — day and night (Ps. 121:6), your whole life (Ps. 121:7), in all you do (“your coming and going,” Ps. 121:8), “both now and forevermore” (Ps. 121:8).

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Deut. 33-34; Psalm 119:145-176; Isaiah 60; Matt. 8

Jun 28, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 33-34; Psalm 119:145-176; Isaiah 60; Matthew 8

HOW DOES THE PENTATEUCH end (Deut. 34)?

At a certain level, perhaps one might speak of hope, or at least of anticipation. Even if Moses himself is not permitted to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites are on the verge of going in. The “land flowing with milk and honey” is about to become theirs. Joshua son of Nun, a man “filled with the spirit of wisdom”(Deut. 34:9), has been appointed. Even the blessing of Moses on the twelve tribes (Deut. 33) might be read as bringing a fitting closure to this chapter of Israel’s history.

Nevertheless, such a reading is too optimistic. Converging emphases leave the thoughtful reader with quite a pessimistic expectation of the immediate future. After all, for forty years the people have made promises and broken them, and have repeatedly been called back to covenantal faithfulness by the harsh means of judgment. In Deuteronomy 31, God himself predicts that the people will “soon forsake me and break the covenant I made with them” (Deut. 31:16). Moses, this incredibly courageous and persevering leader, does not enter the Promised Land because on one occasion he failed to honor God before the people.

In this respect, he serves as a negative foil to the great Hebrew at the beginning of this story of Israel: Abraham dies as a pilgrim in a strange land not yet his, but at least he dies with honor and dignity, while Moses dies as a pilgrim forbidden to enter the land promised to him and his people, in lonely isolation and shame. We do not know how much time elapsed after Moses’ death before this last chapter of Deuteronomy was penned, but it must have been substantial, for verse 10 reads, “Since then (i.e., since Moses’ death), no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.” One can scarcely fail to hear overtones of the prophecy of the coming of a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15-18). By the time of writing, other leaders had arisen, some of them faithful and stalwart. But none like Moses had arisen — and this is what had been promised.

These strands make the reader appreciate certain points, especially if the Pentateuch is placed within the storyline of the whole Bible. (1) The law-covenant simply did not have the power to transform the covenant people of God. (2) We should not be surprised by more instances of catastrophic decline. (3) The major hope lies in the coming of a prophet like Moses. (4) Somehow this is tied to the promises at the front end of the story: we wait for someone of Abraham’s seed through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

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Deut. 32; Psalm 119:121-144; Isaiah 59; Matthew 7

Jun 27, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 32; Psalm 119:121-144; Isaiah 59; Matthew 7

ONE OF THE GREAT THEMES OF SCRIPTURE, and one that surfaces with special frequency in Psalm 119, is that the unfolding of God’s words gives light; “it gives understanding to the simple” (119:130) in at least two senses.

First, the “simple” can refer to people who are foolish, “simpletons” — those who know nothing of how to live in the light of God’s gracious revelation. The unfolding of God’s words gives light to such people. It teaches them how to live, and gives them a depth and a grasp of moral and spiritual issues they had never before displayed.

Second, God’s words expand entire horizons. A few paragraphs earlier the psalmist wrote, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts” (Ps. 119:97-100). The psalmist is not saying that he has a higher IQ than that of his teachers, or that he is intrinsically smarter than his enemies or brighter than all the elders. Rather, he is claiming that constant meditation on God’s instruction (his “law”) and a deep-seated commitment to obey God’s precepts provide him with a framework and a depth of insight that are unavailable to merely brilliant scholars and well-trained political leaders.

One of my students may serve as illustration. He barely staggered out of high school. He had never been to church. When he asked his father about God, his dad told him not to talk about subjects like that. He joined the United States Army as a lowly GI, and lived a pretty rough life. At various times he was high on LSD. Eventually he joined the Eighty-second Airborne, and started carrying his Gideon Bible as a good-luck charm to ward off disaster when he was jumping out of airplanes. Eventually he started to read it — slowly at first, for he was not a good reader. He read it right through and was converted. He went to one of the local chaplains and said, “Padre, I’ve been saved.” The padre told him, “Not yet, you’re not” — and inducted him into some catechism. Eventually he found a church that taught the Bible. He came off drugs (and six months later many of his army drug pals were busted), eventually left the army, squeaked into a college, grew mightily, and is now in the “A” stream of Greek in the divinity school.

He was absorbing the words of God. It transformed his life, and gave him more insight than many of his teachers. The unfolding of God’s words “gives understanding to the simple.”

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Deut. 31; Psalm 119:97-120; Isaiah 58; Matthew 6

Jun 26, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 31; Psalm 119:97-120; Isaiah 58; Matthew 6

REFLECT FOR A MOMENT on the rich and diverse means that God granted to Israel to help them remember what he had done to deliver them, and the nature of the covenant they had pledged themselves to obey.

There was the tabernacle itself (later the temple), with its carefully prescribed rites and feasts: the covenant was not an abstract philosophical system, but was reflected in regular religious ritual. The nation was constituted in such a way that the Levites were distributed amongst the other tribes, and the Levites had the task of teaching the Law to the rest of the people. The three principal high feasts were designed to gather the people to the central tabernacle or temple, where both the ritual and the actual reading of the Law were to serve as powerful reminders (Deut. 31:11).

From time to time God sent specially endowed judges and prophets, who called the people back to the covenant. Families were carefully taught how to pass on the inherited history to their children, so that new generations that had never seen the miraculous display of God’s power at the time of the Exodus would nevertheless be fully informed of it and own it as theirs. Moreover, blessings from God would attend obedience, and judgment from God would attend disobedience, so that the actual circumstances of the community were supposed to elicit reflection and self-examination. Legislation was passed to foster a sense of separateness in the fledgling nation, erecting certain barriers so that the people would not easily become contaminated by the surrounding paganism. Unique events, like the antiphonal shouting at Mounts Gerizim and Ebal at the time of entering the land (see June 22 meditation), were supposed to foster covenant fidelity in the national memory.

But now God adds one more device. Precisely because God knows that in due course the people will rebel anyway, he instructs Moses to write a song of telling power that will become a national treasure — and a sung testimony against themselves (Deut. 31:19-22). Someone has said, “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” The aphorism is overstated, of course, but insightful nonetheless. That is the purpose of the next chapter, Deuteronomy 32. The Israelites will learn, as it were, a national anthem that will speak against them if they shut down all the other God-given calls to remember and obey.

What devices, in both Scripture and history, has God graciously given to help the heirs of the new covenant remember and obey? Meditate on them. How have you used them? What songs do we sing to put this principle into practice, that teach the people of God matters of irrevocable substance beyond mere sentimentalism?

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