Latest


Deut. 28:20-68; Ps. 119:25-48; Isaiah 55; Matt. 3

Jun 23, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 28:20-68; Psalm 119:25-48; Isaiah 55; Matthew 3

THERE ARE NOT MANY PASSAGES in the Bible more fearsome than Deuteronomy 28:20-68. What the text depicts is the judgments that will befall the people of God if they disobey the terms of the covenant and rebel against God, if they “do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name — the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:58).

There are many striking elements about these judgments. Two occupy our attention here.

First, all the judgments depicted could be interpreted by the secular mind as the accidents of changing political and social circumstance, or, within a pagan worldview, as the outworking of various malign gods. On the face of it, the judgments all take place in the “natural” world: wasting disease, drought, famine, military defeat, boils, poverty, vassal status under a superior power, devastating swarms of locusts, economic misfortunes, captivity, slavery, the horrible ravages of prolonged sieges, decrease in numbers, dispersal once again among the nations. In other words, there is no judgment that sounds like some obviously supernatural “Zap!” from heaven. So those who have given up on listening to God’s words are in the horrible position of suffering the punishments they do not believe come from him.

That is part of the judgment they face: they endure judgment, but so hardened is their unbelief that even such judgment they cannot assess for what it is. The blessings they had enjoyed had been granted by God’s gracious pleasure, and they failed to receive them as gifts from God; the curses they now endure are imposed by God’s righteous pleasure (Deut. 28:63), and still they fail to recognize them as judgments from God. The blindness is systemic, consistent, humanly incurable.

Second, God’s judgments extend beyond externally imposed tragedies to minds that are unhinged — in part by the sheer scale of the loss, but in any case by God himself. The Lord will give these people “an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life” (Deut. 28:65-66). This God not only controls the externals of history, but also the minds and emotions of those who fall under his judgment.

Before such a God, it is unimaginable folly to try to hide or outwit him. What we must do is repent and cast ourselves on his mercy, asking him for the grace to follow in honest obedience, quick to perceive the sheer horror of rebellion, with eyes open to take in both God’s providential goodness and his providential judgment. We must see God’s hand; we must weigh everything with an unswerving God-centeredness in our interpretive focus.

View Comments

Deuteronomy 27:1-28:19; Psalm 119:1-24; Isaiah 54; Matthew 2

Jun 22, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 27:1 — 28:19; Psalm 119:1-24; Isaiah 54; Matthew 2

HERE THE PAIR OF ITALICIZED passages converge.

The setting envisaged by Deuteronomy 27 — 28 is spectacular. When the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they are to perform a solemn act of national commitment. They are to divide themselves into two vast companies, each hundreds of thousands strong. Six tribes are to stand on the slopes of Mount Gerizim. Across the valley, the other six tribes are to stand on the slopes of Mount Ebal. The two vast crowds are to call back and forth in antiphonal responses. For some parts of this ceremony, the Levites, standing with others on Gerizim, are to pronounce prescribed sentences, and the entire host shout its “Amen!” In other parts, the crown on Gerizim would shout the blessings of obedience, and the crowd on Ebal would shout the curses of disobedience. The sheer dramatic impact of this event, when it was actually carried out (Josh. 8:30-33), must have been astounding. The aim of the entire exercise was to impress on the people the utter seriousness with which the Word of God must be taken if the blessing of God is to be enjoyed, and the terrible tragedy that flows from disobedience, which secures only God’s curse.

Psalm 119 is formally very different, but here too there is an extraordinary emphasis on the Word of God. It is almost as if this longest of all biblical chapters is devoted to unpacking what the second verse in the book of Psalms means: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2; see also the April 1 meditation). Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem: each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet is given its turn to serve as the opening letter of each of eight verses on the subject of the Word of God.

Throughout this poem, eight near synonyms are used to refer to Scripture: law (which perhaps might better be rendered “instruction,” and has overtones of revelation), statutes (which speak of the binding force of Scripture), precepts (connected with God’s superintending oversight, as of one who cares for the details of his charge), decrees (the decisions of the supreme and all-wise Judge), word (the most comprehensive term, perhaps, embracing all of God’s self-disclosed truth, whether in a promise, story, statute, or command), commands (predicated on God’s authority to tell his creatures what to do), promise (a word derived from the verb to say, but often used in contexts that make us think of the English word promise), and testimonies. (God’s bold action of bearing “witness” or “testimony” to the truth and against all that is false; the Hebrew word is sometimes rendered “statute” in NIV, e.g., lit. “I delight in your testimonies.”)

View Comments

Deut. 26; Psalms 117 — 118; Isaiah 53; Matthew 1

Jun 21, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 26; Psalms 117 — 118; Isaiah 53; Matthew 1

WHEN I WAS A BOY, a plaque in our home was inscribed with the words “This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Apart from the change from “hath” to “has,” similar words are preserved in the NIV of Psalm 118:24.

My father gently applied this text to his children when we whined or complained about little nothings. Was the weather too hot and sticky? “This is the day which the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Were the skies pelting rain, so we could not go out to play? “This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” What a boring day (or place, or holiday, or visit to relatives)! “This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Sometimes the words were repeated with significant emphasis: “This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

It is not that Dad would not listen to serious complaints; it is not that Scripture does not have other things to say. But every generation of Christians has to learn that whining is an affront against God’s sovereignty and goodness.

But the text must first be read in its context. Earlier the psalmist expresses his commitment to trust in God and not in any merely human help (Ps. 118:8-9), even though he is surrounded by foes (Ps. 118:10). Now he also discloses that his foes include “the builders” (Ps. 118:22) — people with power within Israel. These builders were quite capable of rejecting certain “stones” while they built their walls — and in this case the very stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. In the first instance this stone, this capstone, is almost certainly a reference to a Davidic king, perhaps to David himself. The men of power rejected him, but he became the capstone.

Moreover, this result was not achieved by brilliant machination or clever manipulation. Far from it: “the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). In his own day Isaiah portrays people who make a lie their refuge while rejecting God’s cornerstone (Isa. 28:15-16). The ultimate instance of this pattern is found in Jesus Christ, rejected by his own creatures, yet chosen of God, the ultimate building-stone, and precious (Matt. 21:42; Rom. 9:32-33; Eph. 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6-8) — a “stone” disclosed in all his true worth by his resurrection from the dead (Acts 4:10-11). Whether in David’s day or in the ultimate fulfillment, this marvelous triumph by God calls forth our praise: This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. 118:24).

View Comments

Deut. 25; Psalm 116; Isaiah 52; Revelation 22

Jun 20, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 25; Psalm 116; Isaiah 52; Revelation 22

SOMETIMES TRANSLATION DIFFICULTIES prompt Bible translators to include footnotes that preserve alternative possibilities. Sometimes no alternative is included, and something important is lost. One instance of each kind is found in Psalm 116, and both deserve thoughtful reflection.

(1) The NIV reads, “I believed; therefore I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’ And in my dismay I said, ‘All men are liars’”(116:10-11). The Revised Standard Version renders the first line, “I kept my faith, even when I said . . .” The latter is a perfectly possible rendering of the Hebrew, and most modern translations have followed it. Paul quotes from the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew, commonly called the Septuagint (or LXX), which preserves the meaning found in the NIV of Psalm 116:10-11 (see 2 Cor. 4:13).

But in this case, surprisingly little is at stake. Perhaps the NIV rendering is a trifle stronger: the reason why the psalmist said he was greatly afflicted was that he believed (“I believed; therefore I said”). In other words, it was nothing other than his faith in God — and the entire relationship with God that such faith presupposes –that enabled him to see that when he faced terrible suffering it was nothing other than the affliction meted out by God. But more importantly, both the NIV and the RSV make a point frequently illustrated in the Psalms, and particularly illustrated in Job: when someone feels crushed (Ps. 116:10) or utterly disillusioned (Ps. 116:11), and says so, it does not follow that he or she has abandoned faith. Rather, the unguarded accents of pain, offered up to God, give evidence of both life and faith.

(2) The NIV’s “precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15) is often cited at funerals, and doubtless it expresses an important truth. But there is good reason to think that the word rendered “precious” should be rendered “costly” or the like: hence Jerusalem Bible’s “The death of the devout costs Yahweh dear.” The psalmist’s rescue from the borders of death (Ps. 116:3-8) makes that rendering more likely. Certainly Jesus recognizes how costly is the death of one human being (Matt. 10:29-31).

If that is the case, it is vitally important to see that although God in his sovereignty rules over everything, including all deaths, this reign for him is not some cold piece of accounting. He knows better than we do the sheer ugliness and abnormality of death, how it is irrefragably tied to our rebellion and the curse we have attracted. It is immensely comforting to perceive that the death of the devout costs Yahweh dear. Still more wonderful is the price he was willing to pay to supplant death by resurrection.

View Comments

Deut. 24; Psalms 114-115; Isaiah 51; Revelation 21

Jun 19, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 24; Psalms 114-115; Isaiah 51; Revelation 21

IT IS STRIKING HOW THE Mosaic Law provides for the poor.

Consider Deuteronomy 24. Here God forbids taking a pair of millstones, or “even the upper one”(i.e., the more movable one), as security for a debt (Deut. 24:6). It would be like taking a mechanic’s tools as security, or a software writer’s computer. That would take away the means of earning a living, and would therefore not only compound the poverty but would make repayment a practical impossibility.

In Deut. 24:10-12, two further stipulations are laid down with respect to security for loans. (1) If you make a loan to a neighbor, do not go into his home to get the pledge. Stay outside; let him bring it out to you. Such restrained conduct allows the neighbor to preserve a little dignity, and curtails the tendency of some rich people to throw their weight around and treat the poor as if they are dirt. (2) Do not keep as security what the poor man needs for basic warmth and shelter.

In Deut. 24:14-15, employers are told to pay their workers daily. In a poor and agrarian society where as much as 70% or 80% of income went on food, this was ensuring that the hired hand and his family had enough to eat every day. Withholding wages not only imposed a hardship, but was unjust. Still broader considerations of justice are expressed in Deut. 24:17-18: orphans and aliens, i.e., those without protectors or who do not really understand a particular culture’s “ropes,” are to be treated with justice and never abused or taken advantage of.

Finally, in Deut. 24:19-22, farmers are warned not to pick up every scrap of produce from their field in order to get a better return. Far better to leave some “for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.” (See also the meditation for August 9.)

Two observations: First, these sorts of provisions for the poor will work best in a non-technological society where labor and land are tied together, and help is provided by locals for locals. There is no massive bureaucratic scheme. On the other hand, without some sort of structured organization it is difficult to imagine how to foster similar help for the poor in, say, the south side of Chicago, where there are few farmers to leave scraps of produce. Second, the incentive in every case is to act rightly under the gaze of God, especially remembering the years the people themselves spent in Egypt (Deut. 24:13-22). These verses demand close reading. Where people live in the fear, love, and knowledge of God, social compassion and practical generosity are entailed; where God fades into the mists of sentimentalism, robust compassion also withers — bringing down the biting denunciation of prophets like Amos.

View Comments

Deut. 23; Psalms 112 — 113; Isaiah 50; Revelation 20

Jun 18, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 23; Psalms 112 — 113; Isaiah 50; Revelation 20

EVERY SO OFTEN IN THE Pentateuch there is a chapter of miscellaneous laws and statutes. One such is Deuteronomy 23. It goes beyond these brief meditations to reflect on each topic for which a statute is laid down, or even on the ordering principle of some of these lists. Transparently some of the legislation is based on the historical experience of the Israelites (e.g., Deut. 23:3-8). Other parts turn on symbol-laden cleanliness (e.g., Deut. 23:9-14). Still others focus on the urgency to keep the covenant people separate from the abominable practices of ancient Canaanite paganism (Deut. 23:17-18), on progressive steps of social justice (Deut. 23:15-16), on fiscal principles to enhance both the identity and the well-being of the covenant community (Deut. 23:19-20), and on keeping one’s word, especially in a vow offered to the living God (Deut. 23:21-23). But today I shall reflect on Deut. 23:24-25: “If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.”

There is profound wisdom to these simple statutes. A merely communitarian stance would either let people take what they want, whenever they want, as much as they want; or, alternatively, it would say that since all the produce belongs to the community (or the state), no individual is allowed to take any of it without explicit sanction from the leaders of the community. A merely capitalistic stance (or, more precisely, a stance that put all the emphasis on private property) would view every instance of taking a grape from a neighbor’s field as a matter of theft, every instance of chewing on a few kernels of grain as you follow the footpath through your neighbor’s field as a punishable offense. But by allowing people to eat what they want while actually in the field of a neighbor, this statute fosters a kind of community-wide interdependence, a vision of a shared heritage. The walls and fences erected by zealous private ownership are softened. Moreover, the really poor could at least find something to eat. This would not be a terrible burden on any one landowner if the statute were observed by all the landowners. On the other hand, the stipulation that no one is allowed to carry any produce away, if observed, serves not only to combat theft and laziness, but preserves private property and the incentives to industry and disciplined labor associated with it.

Many, many statutes from the Mosaic Law, rightly probed, reflect a godly balance of complementary interests.

View Comments

Deut. 22; Psalms 110–111; Isaiah 49; Revelation 19

Jun 17, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 22; Psalms 110–111; Isaiah 49; Revelation 19

THE OLD TESTAMENT CHAPTER quoted most often in the New Testament is Psalm 110. It is an oracular psalm: i.e., it does not so much disclose the experience of its writer as set forth words that the writer has received by direct and immediate revelation — as an “oracle” from God. Perhaps there are even parts of it the psalmist himself did not fathom too well (just as Daniel did not understand the meaning of all that he saw in his visions and was required to record for the benefit of a later generation (Dan. 12:4, 8-10).

In the psalm, the LORD, Yahweh, speaks to someone whom David himself addresses as “my Lord.” This element, as much as any other, has convinced countless interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, that this is explicitly a messianic psalm, and that the person whom David addresses is the anticipated Messiah.

I shall focus on verse 4: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Granted that Yahweh here addresses the Messiah, what do his words mean? Two elements attract attention:

First, Melchizedek himself — this is only the second mention of him in the Bible. The first is Genesis 14:18-20: after the defeat of the kings, Abraham meets this strange priest-king and pays him a tithe of the spoils. Various things can be inferred from the brief account (see meditation for January 13), but then Melchizedek drops from view until this psalm, written almost a millennium later.

Second, by this time much has taken place in the history of Israel. The people had endured slavery in Egypt, had been rescued at the Exodus, had received the Law of God at Sinai, had entered the Promised Land, and had lived through the period of the judges to reach this point of the beginning of the Davidic dynasty. Above all, Sinai had prescribed a tabernacle and the associated rites, all to be administered by Levites and by high priests drawn from that tribe. The Mosaic Law made it abundantly clear that Levites alone could discharge these priestly functions. Yet here is an oracle from God insisting that God himself will raise up another priest-king with very different links. Yahweh will extend this king’s mighty scepter from Zion: i.e., his kingly power is connected with Zion, with Jerusalem, and thus with the fledgling Davidic dynasty. And as priest, he will be aligned, not with the order of Levi, but with the order of Melchizedek.

Small wonder the writer to the Hebrews understands that this is an announcement of the obsolescence of the Mosaic Covenant (Heb. 7:11-12). We needed a better priesthood; and we have one.

View Comments

Deut. 21; Psalms 108-109; Isaiah 48; Revelation 18

Jun 16, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 21; Psalms 108-109; Isaiah 48; Revelation 18

PSALM 108 IS RATHER DISTINCTIVE in the book of Psalms. Apart from minor changes, it is made up of parts of two other psalms. Psalm 108:1-5 follows Ps. 57:7-11; Psalm 108:6-13 follows 60:5-12. Nevertheless the “feel” of the result is startlingly different.

Both Psalms 57 and 60 find David under enormous pressure. In the former, the superscription places David in flight from King Saul, and hiding in a cave; in the latter, David and his troops have been defeated. In both cases, however, the psalm ends in praise and confidence — and the respective sections on praise and confidence from these two psalms are now joined together to make Psalm 108. Although Psalm 108 still hints at a stressful situation that includes some chastening by God (Ps. 108:11), the tone of the whole slips away from the dark moods for the early part of the other two psalms, and in comparison is flooded with adoration and confidence.

That simple fact forces us to recognize something very important. The earlier two psalms (57 and 60) will doubtless seem especially appropriate to us when we face peril — individual or corporate — or suffer some kind of humiliating defeat. The present psalm will ring in our ears when we pause to look back on the manifold goodness of God, reminding ourselves of the sweep of his sovereignty and his utter worthiness to receive our praise. It might prove especially useful when we are about to venture on some new initiative for which our faith demands fresh grounding. This perspective of changed application occurs because the same words are now placed in a new context. And that is the point.

For although all of Scripture is true and important, deserving study, reflection, and carefully applied thought, the Lord God in his wisdom did not give us a Bible of abstract principles, but highly diverse texts woven into highly diverse situations. Despite the diversity, of course, there is still only one sweeping storyline, and only one Mind ultimately behind it. But the rich tapestry of varied human experience reflected in the different biblical books and passages — not least in the different psalms — enables the Bible to speak to us with peculiar force and power when the “fit” between the experience of the human author and our experience is especially intimate.

For this astonishing wealth, God deserves reverent praise. What mind but his, what compass of understanding but his, what providential oversight over the production of Scripture but his, could produce a work so unified yet so profoundly diverse? Here, too, is reason to join our “Amen” to the words of 108:5: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.”

View Comments

Deut. 20; Psalm 107; Isaiah 47; Revelation 17

Jun 15, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 20; Psalm 107; Isaiah 47; Revelation 17

HISTORICALLY, REVIVAL REFERRED TO a time of God-sent blessing beyond the ordinary. Ministers of the Word went about their work, praying, preaching, catechizing, counseling, whether in times of persecution, or in times of relative quiet and steady growth. But if the Lord God visited his people with revival, it was immediately evident in an extraordinary sense of the presence of God, in deep-seated repentance and a renewed passion for holiness, and ultimately in the sound and indisputable conversion of many people. It could be relatively disciplined, or it might be mixed with the spurious.

Although “revival” still has this sense in some circles, in others it refers to a meeting or series of meetings where preachers speak on personal holiness or give evangelistic messages. It is assumed that if the preacher is gifted there will be obvious fruit. In some circles in the southern part of the United States, one hears expressions like “holding a revival” or “preaching a revival.” It would aid clarity of thought if instead they spoke of “holding a Bible conference” or “preaching an evangelistic series.”

Psalm 107 lists a diverse array of circumstances in which people find themselves in great danger or under horrible oppression, usually because of their own sin. In each case, God comes to the rescue. Those who wandered in desert wastelands cried to the Lord, and were delivered from their thirst and hunger (Ps. 107:4-9). Others sat in chains, prisoners, “for they had rebelled against the words of God” (Ps. 107:11), and the Lord freed them (Ps. 107:13-14). Still others became so corroded by their folly that they loathed life. But when they cried to the Lord, “he sent forth his word and healed them” (Ps. 107:20). Others found themselves in mortal peril on the seas, and here, too, the Lord responded to their cries and saved them (Ps. 107:23-32). Indeed, this God humbles the haughty, and for the sake of the needy and afflicted he turns the desert into fertile fields (Ps. 107:33-42).

Lest we misunderstand the psalmist’s point, he makes it clear for us in two ways. First, in most of the sections, when he describes those who have been saved, he prescribes, “Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men” (Ps. 107:8, 15, 21, 31). Second, the opening of the psalm reminds us that God is good, and his love endures forever (Ps. 107:1), while the closing insists, “Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the LORD” (Ps. 107:43). This, and this alone, is the ultimate source of God’s blessings — not the least being revival. And the last verse goes further, and provides the sanction for studying revivals among the blessings of God.

View Comments

Deut. 19; Psalm 106; Isaiah 46; Revelation 16

Jun 14, 2015 | Don Carson

Deuteronomy 19; Psalm 106; Isaiah 46; Revelation 16

THE JUSTICE ENVISAGED IN Deuteronomy 19 seems to stand a considerable distance from the views that prevail in Western nations today.

With part of this text’s emphasis, most of us will find ourselves in substantial sympathy: the courts must not convict a person on meager evidence. In the days before powerful forensic tools, this almost always meant that multiple witnesses should be required (Deut. 19:15). Today the kind of evidence thought to be sufficient has expanded: fingerprints, blood-typing, and so forth. Most of us recognize that this is a good thing. But enough reports have circulated of evidence that has been tampered with that the concern of our text is scarcely out of date. Procedures and policies must be put in place that make it difficult to corrupt the court or convict an innocent person.

But the rest of the chapter (Deut. 19:16-21) seems, at first, somewhat alien to us, for three reasons. (1) If careful judges determine that some witness has perjured himself, then the judges are to impose on that person the penalty that would have been imposed on the defendant wrongfully charged: you are to “do to him as he intended to do to his brother” (Deut. 19:19). (2) The aim is “to purge the evil from among you” (Deut. 19:20). (3) Once again, the lex talionis (the “eye for an eye” statute) is repeated (Deut. 19:21; cf. Ex. 21:24, and the meditation for March 11).

All three points are looked at very differently in Western courts. (1) Punishment for malicious perjury is usually negligible. But this means there is little official effort to fan the flame of social passion for public justice. You lie if you can get away with it; the shame is only in getting caught. (2) Our penal theorists think incarceration serves to make society a safer place, or provides a venue for reform (therapeutic or otherwise), or ensures that an offender “pays his debt to society.” So much effort goes into analyzing the social conditions that play a contributing role in shaping a criminal that everywhere there is widespread reluctance to speak of the evil of a person or an act. Perhaps that is why revenge movies have to depict really astoundingly horrendous cruelty in one-dimensional monsters before the revenge can be justified. The Bible’s stance is truly radical (i.e., it goes to the radix, the root): judicially, the courts must purge out the evil among you. (3) We incarcerate; we rarely think about the justice of making a punishment “fit” the crime. But that was one of the functions of the lex talionis.

When one focuses on justice and personal accountability, it is our own judicial and penal system that seems increasingly misguided and alien.

View Comments
1 2 3 4 165