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

Oct 15, 2014 | Don Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 14, 2014 | Don Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 13, 2014 | Don Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1 Kings 16; Colossians 3; Ezekiel 46; Psalm 102

Oct 12, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 16; Colossians 3; Ezekiel 46; Psalm 102

PSALM 102 IS SOMETIMES WRONGLY labeled a penitential psalm. It sounds far more like the cry of a person whose sufferings are unexplained (like those of Job). At the beginning the sorrows are private and personal; later they are eclipsed by a growing concern for Zion. Progress toward Zion’s glory seems slow. This fosters a contrast between the psalmist’s restricted and fleeting “days” (Ps. 102:3) and the Almighty’s eternal “years” (Ps. 102:27).

But here I shall focus attention on the final verses of the psalm. Regular Bible readers will recognize that verses 25-27 are quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12, with God addressing the Messiah, in effect giving him divine status. One may well ask how the writer of Hebrews construed the Old Testament text in this way.

The answer turns in part on the fact that the original Hebrew of the Old Testament was composed with what today we call consonants. Vowels were not included. They were added much later—indeed, the most common vowel system was added to the Hebrew text about one thousand years into the Christian era. Usually this presents no problems. Once in a while, however, it is possible to read the Old Testament consonantal text with a slightly different vowel choice, yielding a different meaning. In this instance there is no question at all about the consonants. But the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, shows how those translators understood the Hebrew—and in this passage they understood it exactly as the Epistle to the Hebrews takes it. The traditional vowel placement, preserved in our English versions, understands verses 23-24 much as in the NIV. The thought is parallel to verses 11-12. But the LXX and Hebrews read it as follows: “He answered him in the way of his strength, ‘Declare to me the fewness of my days. Do not bring me up [i.e., summon me to action] in the middle of my days; your years are for generations on end. In the beginning you, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth…. ‘ ” The implication of this rendering is that God is addressing the psalmist, whom God addresses as Lord and Creator. That is how Hebrews takes it. On this view, the entire psalm is messianic, an oracular psalm like Psalm 110 (see vol. 1, meditation for June 17). Try rereading Psalm 102 that way; it makes sense. Compare the use of Psalm 45 in Hebrews 1 (see meditation for September 4): the Davidic king is addressed as God, and this too is cited in Hebrews 1. But even if the traditional Hebrew vowel assignments are correct, the inferences drawn by Hebrews 1 are not far away, though they must be drawn on quite different grounds.

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1 Kings 15; Colossians 2; Ezekiel 45; Psalms 99-101

Oct 11, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 15; Colossians 2; Ezekiel 45; Psalms 99-101

SOME OF THE PSALMS ARE grouped into collections. Psalms 93-100 celebrate the kingship and coming of the Lord. Thematically, however, they range from the exuberant exhilaration of Psalm 98 (yesterday’s meditation) to a more subdued but profoundly submissive awe. After the unrestrained joy of Psalm 98, there follows in Psalm 99 a profound reverence. We have moved from a festival of praise to a cathedral.

The psalm divides into two parts. The theme of the first is established by the repeated line, “he is holy” (Ps. 99:3, 5). This does not mean something as narrow as saying that God is good or moral (though it does not exclude such notions). The emphasis is on the sheer “Godness” of God—what makes him different from human beings, what makes him uniquely God. The two instances of the clause “he is holy” are meant to be statements summarizing in each case the preceding lines. (a) The Lord reigns; he is exalted above the mighty cherubim (Ps. 99:1). Though he manifests himself in Zion, he is no tribal deity: “he is exalted over all the nations” (Ps. 99:2). “Let them praise your great and awesome name” (Ps. 99:3)—and then the summarizing refrain, “he is holy.” (b) If he reigns over all, he is, supremely, the King (Ps. 99:4). He is not only mighty, he loves justice and fairness. This has been eminently displayed in his own covenant community: “in Jacob you have done what is just and right” (Ps. 99:4). There is only one appropriate response before such a God: “Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool” (Ps. 99:5)—and again the summarizing refrain, “he is holy.”

The second part of the psalm contemplates the truth that, however exalted and holy he is, God chose to disclose himself to human beings. We may be tempted to think of Moses and Aaron and Samuel as almost superhuman. But the psalmist carefully places them among the priests and among those who called on his name: they were not fundamentally different from others. Moreover, they were frail and flawed like the rest of us. According to verse 8, God was to them (not “to Israel”: the NIV footnote is correct) “a forgiving God,” even though he “punished their misdeeds” (here follow the NIV text, not the footnote).

Thus the theme of God’s holiness does not end in mere transcendence, but in an unimaginably great God graciously disclosing himself to human beings—even when they rebel against him. We stand in their company. If his holiness is disclosed both in mercy and in wrath, then we are neither to despair of it nor to presume upon it. “Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the LORD our God is holy” (Ps. 99:9).

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1 Kings 14; Colossians 1; Ezekiel 44; Psalms 97-98

Oct 10, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 14; Colossians 1; Ezekiel 44; Psalms 97-98

IN THE ANGLICAN BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, Psalm 98 is known as the Cantate Domino (“Sing to the Lord”) and is placed between the evening Old Testament reading and its New Testament counterpart. It overflows with exhilarating worship and joy.

The psalm has three stanzas. The first (Ps. 98:1-3) celebrates the “salvation” of God (found in each verse). The word is perhaps more comprehensive than the way it is used today. It includes victory over enemies: this “salvation” or victory was effected by the Lord’s “right hand and his holy arm” (Ps. 98:1). But it also includes what we mean by salvation: God reconciles people to himself and transforms them by his grace. While God “has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel” (Ps. 98:3), the glorious truth is that he “has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations” (Ps. 98:2); “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Ps. 98:3). Small wonder, then, we must sing to the Lord “a new song” (Ps. 98:1). The expression signals not so much a new composition, written for the occasion perhaps, as a fresh response to new mercies showered upon us.

The second stanza (Ps. 98:4-6) responds to the first. The first celebrates God’s coming in power and salvation, the second responds to every act of God in exhilarated worship. Indeed, because the full salvation briefly described awaits the consummation, all our acts of worship are an anticipation of the end. We “shout for joy before the LORD, the King” (Ps. 98:6) as a prelude and an announcement of the consummation of his reign. The instruments listed here were regularly used as part of temple worship (cf. 1 Chron. 16:5-6) or on joyous occasions such as the accession of a new king (e.g., 1 Kings 1:39).

If the praise of the second stanza is carefully put together in orchestrated singing, the praise of the third stanza (Ps. 98:7-9) is inarticulate. But it is no less powerful for being artless. Even now the whole universe declares the glory of God. But if various Old Testament passages anticipate a vast renewing of the created order (Ps. 96:11-13; Isa. 2; 11; 55:11-12), Paul not only anticipates the same but recognizes that the fulfillment depends on the transformation of human beings at the end: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19-21).

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1 Kings 13; Philippians 4; Ezekiel 43; Psalms 95-96

Oct 09, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 13; Philippians 4; Ezekiel 43; Psalms 95-96

ALMOST TWENTY YEARS HAVE elapsed since the visionary experience in which Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord abandoning the temple (Ezek. 10:18-22; 11:22-24). Here in Ezekiel 43:1-12 he witnesses the Lord’s return.

Numerous phrases and clauses remind us that the glory Ezekiel now sees is to be identified with the glory he first saw in the mobile throne vision in Ezekiel 1-3, and with the glory that abandoned the temple and the city in the vision of chapters 8-11. Ezekiel makes the point explicit: “The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown” (Ezek. 43:3).

Within the symbol-structure of the vision, this means that God is manifesting himself among his people once more. They are to respond by being ashamed of their sins (Ezek. 43:10-11) and by conforming perfectly to whatever he prescribes (Ezek. 43:11).

The culmination of this vision within the book of Ezekiel is found in the last verse of the book: “And the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE” (Ezek. 48:35). That is wonderful. Wherever the Lord is, is holy. “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ ” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). John saw a vision of “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). The voice cried, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).

We must always remember that: The Gospel is not admired in Scripture primarily because of the social transformation it effects, but because it reconciles men and women to a holy God. Its purpose is not that we might feel fulfilled, but that we might be reconciled to the living and holy God. The consummation is delightful to the transformed people of God, not simply because the environment of the new heaven and the new earth is pleasing, but because we forever live and work and worship in the unshielded radiance of the presence of our holy Maker and Redeemer. That prospect must shape how the church lives and serves, and determine the pulse of its ministry. The only alternative is high-sounding but self-serving idolatry.

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1 Kings 12; Philippians 3; Ezekiel 42; Psalm 94

Oct 08, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 12; Philippians 3; Ezekiel 42; Psalm 94

THE DESCRIPTION OF THE TEMPLE (Ezek. 41) is followed by a description of rooms reserved for priests (Ezek. 42). But I shall press yesterday’s discussion a little farther and briefly discuss two more of the ways these chapters have been interpreted.

(3) Many older commentators argued that chapters 40-48 are straightforward symbols of what is fulfilled in the Christian church. There is some truth to this view. It is given impetus when one observes, for instance, that John’s vision of the holy city in Revelation is drawn in substantial part from the language of Ezekiel. But the same passages in Revelation spell the weakness of this interpretation. When John uses the language of Ezekiel (or of Daniel or some other Old Testament writer), he regularly transmutes it, or picks up its words and phrases without putting it to exactly the same use. Although John’s description of the holy city leans heavily on Ezekiel, John’s city has no temple, for the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple (Rev. 21:1-22:5). In that sense, Revelation is not a direct and immediate fulfillment of a string of symbols.

(4) It is better, but messier, to take these chapters as belonging to the borderlands of apocalyptic literature and typology. The symbolism includes numerical features; its future-orientation springs not from mere verbal prediction or simplistic symbolism, but from structures of patterns and events that point forward. We have already glimpsed this sort of thing in chapters 38-39, depicting the final battle, when God sovereignly moves to destroy all his foes. Read this way, chapters 40-48 envisage the messianic future, but in the symbolic categories of Ezekiel’s present. The temple is a kind of enactment or incarnation of the presence and blessing of God in the age for which pious Israelites yearned. On this view, the theological themes and pastoral comforts of these chapters include: (a) God’s presence remains continuously as the fount of all blessing. (b) God’s people are perfectly restored, the perfection of his plan and of their experience bound up with the perfection of symmetry in the building. (c) Because God is perfectly present, fullness of life and fruitfulness flow from God’s presence to all the barren places of the earth. This is a transformed universe. (d) The worship of God is central, and undertaken exactly as God demands. (e) Justice and righteousness are the order of the day, seen in the perfect allotment of land and responsibilities.

If this is largely right, the ultimate hope lies at the very end of history—but that end has already invaded history itself, in these last days. The consummation is not yet, but the kingdom has dawned.

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1 Kings 11; Philippians 2; Ezekiel 41; Psalms 92-93

Oct 07, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 11; Philippians 2; Ezekiel 41; Psalms 92-93

ALTHOUGH EZEKIEL 41 (or, more precisely, Ezek. 40:48-41:26) is devoted to the description of the temple within the great vision of chapters 40-48, I shall focus attention here on how this chapter, indeed all nine of these chapters, should be interpreted. I shall survey two of the more important options here, and two more tomorrow.

(1) Some hold that this is Ezekiel’s vision of what should in fact be built once the exile has ended and some of the people return to the land. In that case chapter 41 provides specifications for the building. The strength of this view is that it follows up on the many passages in this book telling that the exile will end. Nevertheless one has to say that, read as building specs, this chapter is pretty thin (much less detailed, for instance, than the specifications either for the tabernacle or for the Solomonic temple). Moreover, chapter 41 must be read within the framework of chapters 40-48, and as we shall see, there are numerous features that cannot be taken literally. Certainly there is little evidence that those who built the second temple thought they were bound to follow Ezekiel’s guidelines.

(2) The mid-twentieth-century form of dispensationalism argued for a similar literalism, but held that the construction of the temple and the return of blood sacrifices and Levitical and Zadokite priesthood will take place in the millennium. The sacrifices would look back to the sacrifice of Christ in the same way that the Old Testament sacrifices looked forward. But it is very difficult to square this view with the theology of Hebrews. Moreover, there are many hints that these chapters should not be taken literally. The division of land (chaps. 47-48) is all but impossible for anyone who has seen the terrain. The impossible source and course of the river (Ezek. 47:1-12) strains credulity—and in any case both the temple and the river of life are given quite different interpretations in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see how the prescribed tribal purity of Levitical and Zadokite lines could be restored. Intervening records have been lost, so that no one could prove his descent from Aaron. Presumably a dispensationalist could argue that God could reveal the necessary information. But the point is that the tribes have been so mixed up across the centuries that they cannot be unscrambled. The problem is not one of information, but of mixed lines. Thus this interpretation, precisely because it deals with something at the end of time when the tribal lines are no longer differentiable, is even less credible than the previous one.

How, then, shall we interpret these chapters?

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1 Kings 10; Philippians 1; Ezekiel 40; Psalm 91

Oct 06, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Kings 10; Philippians 1; Ezekiel 40; Psalm 91

APART FROM EZEKIEL 29:17-21, the nine chapters before us, Ezekiel 40-48, take place later than the other visions and oracles that constitute the book. As the book began with a vision, so now it ends with one. Although this vision is sufficiently cut off from the rest of the book that some have labeled it an appendix, nevertheless there are some dramatic connections. In the vision of Ezekiel 8:1-11:25, Ezekiel saw the glory of God abandon the temple; now he witnesses the glory returning and filling the new temple (Ezek. 43:5). In the years following the catastrophic sack of Jerusalem Ezekiel has been comforting the people by the promise of a return to the land and to God; in some ways this vision of a temple must have lent encouragement and hope.

But that does not make this vision an easy one to understand. Today I shall lay out, rather superficially, the flow of thought not only in Ezekiel 40 but through these nine chapters. Tomorrow I shall lay out four principal lines of interpretation, and indicate the one I think is closest to what this Scripture says.

In the twenty-fifth year of his exile (by which time he was about fifty), Ezekiel in a visionary experience is transported to “a very high mountain” (Ezek. 40:2) near what turns out to be the holy city. Probably Mount Zion is intended. An angelic figure gives him a tour around the temple area, measuring everything as he goes. He begins with a detailed study of the east gate to the outer court (Ezek. 40:6-16). This is followed rapidly by the outer court itself, two other gates to the outer court (north and south), then gates to the inner court (Ezek. 40:17-37). There are no gates on the west, because the temple itself is situated there. After a brief tour of the sacrificial equipment and of the rooms reserved for the sacrificing priests (Ezek. 40:38-47), Ezekiel is given a fairly detailed description of the temple (Ezek. 40:48-41:26), followed by a survey of the temple area with special attention devoted to the rooms for the priests (Ezek. 42:1-20). The glory of God enters the temple, and Ezekiel is told what he must do with this information (Ezek. 43:1-12). The rest of chapter 43 deals with the altar of sacrifice and how it is to be used (Ezek. 43:13-27). Chapters 44 and 45 give regulations for the ordering of the temple (not least with respect to Levites and Zadokites), and then with the distribution of land around the temple. More ritual regulations follow (Ezek. 45:18-46:24). Ezekiel 47:1-12 describes a flow of water from the sanctuary bringing life to the barren Dead Sea valley. The rest of the vision divides up the land for the twelve tribes and specifies the gates of the city.

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