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1 Samuel 2; Romans 2; Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15-16

Aug 12, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 2; Romans 2; Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15-16

IF ROMANS 1 CONDEMNS the entire human race, Romans 2 focuses especially on Jews. They have enormous advantages in that they were the recipients of the Law — the revelation from God mediated through Moses at Sinai. But here too, Paul argues, all are condemned; possession of the law does not itself save. By Rom. 3:19-20, the apostle explicitly insists that those “under the law” are silenced along with those without the law all are under sin. This prepares the way for the glorious gospel solution (Rom. 3:21-31).

Here in Romans 2, however, there is one paragraph that has generated considerable discussion (Rom. 2:12-16). In verse 12 Paul makes the general point that God judges people by what they know, not by what they do not know. Hence: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Jesus had similarly tied human responsibility to human privilege: the more we know, the more severely we are held accountable (Matt. 11:20-24). Mere possession of the law isn’t worth anything. Those (Jews) are righteous who obey the law.

Then Paul adds, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Rom. 2:14-15).

Many writers take this to mean that some Gentiles may be truly saved without ever having heard of Jesus, since after all, Paul says that some Gentiles “do by nature things required by the law,” and insists their consciences are “even defending them.” Others try to avoid this implication by arguing that the positive option is for Paul purely hypothetical. But Paul is not arguing that there is a subset of Gentiles who are so good that their consciences are always clean, and therefore they will be saved. Rather, he is arguing that Gentiles everywhere have some knowledge of right and wrong, even though they do not have the law, and that this is demonstrated in the fact that they sometimes do things in line with the law, and have consciences that sometimes accuse them and sometimes defend them.

His argument is not that some are good enough to be saved, but that all display, by their intuitive grasp of right and wrong, an awareness of such moral standards, doubtless grounded in the image of God, that they too have enough knowledge to be held accountable. For Paul is concerned to show that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9).

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1 Samuel 1; Romans 1; Jeremiah 39; Psalms 13-14

Aug 11, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 1; Romans 1; Jeremiah 39; Psalms 13-14

HOW DOES THE WRATH OF GOD manifest itself, according to the Scriptures?

There is no short answer to that question, because the answers are many, depending on an enormous array of circumstances. God’s wrath wiped out almost the entire human race at the Flood. Sometimes God’s punishment of his own covenant people is remedial. Sometimes it is immediate, not the least because it then tends to be instructive (like the defeat of the people at Ai after Achan stole some silver and fine Babylonian clothes): at other times, God forbears, which at one level is gracious, but granted the perversity of God’s image-bearers, is likely to let things get out of hand. The final display of God’s wrath is hell itself (see, for instance, Rev. 14:6ff.).

Romans 1:18ff pictures the revelation of God’s wrath in a slightly different way. What Paul presents here is not the only thing to say about God’s wrath — even in Paul — but it contributes something very important. Not only is God’s wrath being revealed against “all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18), but it manifests itself in such sins — that is, in God’s giving people over to do what they want to do (Rom. 1:24-28).

In other words, instead of rebuking them in remedial judgment or curtailing their wickedness, God “gave them over”: to “shameful lusts” (1:26) and a “depraved mind” (Rom. 1:28). The result is multiplying “wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Rom. 1:29). The picture painted in the rest of the verses of Romans 1 is not a pretty one.

We must reflect a little further as to what this means. In our shortsightedness we sometimes think God is a little abrupt when in certain passages, not least in the Old Testament, he instantly chastens his people for their sins. But what is the alternative? Quite simply, it is not instantly chastening them. If chastening were merely a matter of remedial education to morally neutral people, the timing and severity would not matter very much; we would learn. But the Bible insists that this side of the Fall we are by nature and persistent choice rebels against God.

If we are chastened, we whine at God’s severity. If we are not chastened, we descend into debauchery until the very foundations of society are threatened. We may then cry to God for mercy. Well and good, but at least we should see that it would have been a mercy if we had not been permitted to descend so far down into the abyss.

Granted the shape and trends in Western culture, does this not argue that we are already under the severe wrath of God? Have mercy, Lord!

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Ruth 3-4; Acts 28; Jeremiah 38; Psalms 11-12

Aug 10, 2015 | Don Carson

Ruth 3-4; Acts 28; Jeremiah 38; Psalms 11-12

SCHOLARS DISAGREE SOMEWHAT over the social significance of each action taken in Ruth 3-4, but the general line is clear enough. Almost certainly the levirate laws, which allowed or mandated men to marry widowed in-laws under certain circumstances to keep the family name alive, were not followed very consistently. Following Naomi’s instruction, Ruth takes a little initiative: she lies down at Boaz’s feet in a “men only” sleeping area. When he wakes up, she says, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (Ruth 3:9). This was an invitation, but not a cheap one. It signaled her willingness to become his wife, if Boaz will discharge his duties as a kinsman-redeemer. Boaz takes this as a compliment: apparently there is enough difference between their ages (Ruth 3:10, plus his habit of referring to Ruth as “my daughter”) that he is touched by her willingness to marry him instead of one of the young men.

The story plays out with romantic integrity. Hollywood would hate it: there is no blistering sex, certainly not of the premarital variety. But there is a seductive charm to the account, allied with a wholesome respect for tradition and procedure, and a knowing grasp of human nature. Hence, Naomi confidently predicts that Boaz “will not rest until the matter is settled today” (Ruth 3:18).

She is right, of course. The town gate is the place for public agreements, and there Boaz marshals ten elders as witnesses and gently demands that the one person who is a closer relative to Naomi (and therefore with the right of “first refusal”) discharge the obligations of kinsman-redeemer or legally abandon the claim (Ruth 4:1-4).

Apparently at this point the marriage rights are tied to ownership of the land of the deceased husband. This particular kinsman-redeemer would love to obtain the land, but does not want to marry Ruth. Her firstborn son in such a union would maintain the property and family heritage of the deceased husband; later sons would inherit from the natural father. But the situation is messy. Suppose Ruth bore only one son?

So Boaz marries Ruth, and in due course she gives birth to a son, whom they call Obed. Naomi is provided not only with a grandson, but with a family eager and able to look after her.

At one level, this is a simple story of God’s faithfulness in the little things of life, at a time of social malaise, religious declension, political confusion, and frequent anarchy. God still has his people — working hard, acting honorably, marrying, bearing children, looking after the elderly. They could not know that Obed’s was the line that would sire King David — and, according to the flesh, King Jesus.

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Ruth 2; Acts 27; Jeremiah 37; Psalm 10

Aug 09, 2015 | Don Carson

Ruth 2; Acts 27; Jeremiah 37; Psalm 10

THE NARRATOR HAS ALREADY TOLD US that when Naomi and Ruth arrive back in Bethlehem it was the time of barley harvest (Ruth 1:22). Now (Ruth 2) the significance of that bit of information is played out.

It was long-standing tradition, stemming from Mosaic Law, that landowners would not be too scrupulous about picking up every bit of produce from their land. That left something for the poor to forage (cf. Deut. 24:19-22; see meditation for June 19). So Ruth goes out and works behind the proper reapers in a field not too far from Jerusalem. She could not know that this field belonged to a wealthy landowner called Boaz — a distant relative of Naomi’s and Ruth’s future husband.

The story is touching, with decent people acting decently on all fronts. On the one hand, Ruth proves to be a hard worker, barely stopping for rest (Ruth 2:7). She is painfully aware of her alien status (Ruth 2:10), but treats the locals with respect and courtesy. When she brings her hoard back to Naomi and relates all that has happened, another small aside reminds us that for a single woman to engage in such work at this point in Israel’s history was almost to invite molestation (Ruth 2:22) — which attests her courage and stamina.

Naomi sees the hand of God. From a merely pragmatic perspective of gaining enough to eat, she is grateful, but when she hears the name of the man who owns the field, she not only recognizes the safety that this will provide for Ruth, but she realizes that Boaz is one of their “kinsman-redeemers” (Ruth 2:20) — that is, one of those who under so-called levirate law could marry Ruth, with the result that their first son would carry on the legitimate rights and property entitlements of her original husband.

But it is Boaz who is, perhaps, seen in the best light. Without a trace of romance at this stage, he shows himself to be not only concerned for the poor, but a man who is touched by the calamities of others, and who quietly wants to help. He has heard of Naomi’s return and of the persistent faithfulness of this young Moabitess. He instructs his own workers to provide for her needs, to ensure her safety, and even leave behind some extra bits of grain so that Ruth’s labor will be well rewarded.

Above all, he is a man of faith as well as of integrity, a point we hear in his first conversation with the woman who would one day be his bride: “May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2:12). Well said — for the Lord is no one’s debtor.

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Ruth 1; Acts 26; Jeremiah 36; Psalm 9

Aug 08, 2015 | Don Carson

Ruth 1; Acts 26; Jeremiah 36; Psalm 9

THERE IS SCARCELY A MORE ATTRACTIVE figure in all of Scripture than Ruth.

She is a Moabitess (Ruth 1:4). She lives in troubled times, and faces her own terrible grief. She and another Moabitess, Orpah, marry two recent immigrants called Mahlon and Kilion. These two men and their parents had arrived in Moabite territory to escape famine back home in Bethlehem. Some years pass, and the men’s father — Elimelech — dies. Then both Mahlon and Kilion die. That leaves the three women: the Moabitesses’ mother-in-law Naomi, and the two Moabitesses themselves, Orpah and Ruth.

When Naomi hears that the famine back home is over, which was the original reason for their migration to Moab, she decides to go home. Families often worked in extended clan relationships. She would be looked after, and the pain of her loneliness would be mitigated. Wisely, she encourages her two daughters-in-law to stay in their own land, with their own people, language, and culture. Who knows? In time they might even find new mates. Certainly they cannot reasonably expect Naomi to produce them!

So Orpah accepts the counsel, stays home in Moab, and nothing more is heard of her again. But Ruth clings to Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). She even puts herself under the threat of a curse. “May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:17).

Ruth does not mean this to sound heroic. She is simply speaking out of her heart. Had she come to a genuine and consistent faith in the Lord God during her ten-year marriage? What kind of solid and subtle links had been forged between Ruth and the Israelite members of this extended family, and in particular between Ruth and Naomi?

Our culture makes all kinds of snide remarks about mothers-in-law. But many a mother-in-law is remarkably unselfish, and establishes relationships with her daughters-in-law that are as godly and as deep as the best of those between mothers and daughters. So, apparently, here. Ruth is prepared to abandon her own people, culture, land, and even religion, provided she can stay with Naomi and help her.

She could not have known that in making that choice she would soon find herself married again. She could not have known that that marriage would make her an ancestor not only of the imposing Davidic dynasty, but of the supreme King who centuries later would spring from it.

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Judges 21; Acts 25; Jeremiah 35; Psalms 7-8

Aug 07, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 21; Acts 25; Jeremiah 35; Psalms 7-8

THE LAST WRETCHED STEP in the violence precipitated by the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine now plays out (Judg. 21). In a fury of vengeance, the Israelites have swept through the tribal territory of Benjamin, annihilating men, women, children, and cattle (Judg. 20:48). The only Benjamites left are 600 armed men who have holed up in a stronghold at Rimmon (Judg. 20:47). But now the rest of the nation is entertaining second thoughts. As part of their sanctions against Benjamin, they had vowed not to give any of their daughters to a Benjamine. If they keep their vow, Benjamites will die off: only male Benjamites are left.

Their solution is as nauseating, cruel, and barbaric as anything they have done. They discover that one large town in Israel, Jabesh Gilead, never responded to the initial call to arm. Partly as punishment, partly as a way of finding Israelite women, the Israelite forces destroy Jabesh Gilead, killing all the men and all the women who are not virgins (Judg. 21:10-14). This tactic provides 400 wives for the 600 surviving Benjamites. The ruse for finding a further 200 is scarcely less evil.

The remaining 200 Benjamites are given sanction to kidnap suitable women at a festival time in Shiloh, their fathers and brothers being warned off (Judg. 20:20-23). So the tribe of Benjamin, greatly reduced in numbers, survives. One can scarcely imagine the multiplied levels of bitterness, grief, fear, resentment, loneliness, retaliation, furious rage, and billowing bereavement that attended these “solutions.”

By now it is clear that the Israelites face two kinds of problems in the book of Judges. The presenting problem, as often as not, is enslavement or repression from one or other of the Canaanite tribes that share much of the land or that live not far away. When the people cry to him, God repeatedly raises up a hero to rescue them. But the other problem is far deeper. It is the rebellion itself, the chronic and persistent abandonment of the God who rescued them from Egypt and who entered into a solemn covenant with them. This issues not only in more cycles of oppression from without, but in spiraling decadence and disorientation within.

For the fifth and final time, the writer of Judges offers his analysis. “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 21:25). How this nation needs a king — to order it, stabilize it, defend it, maintain justice, lead it, pull it together. But will he be a king who solves the problems, or whose dynasty becomes part of the problem? Thus a new chapter in Israel’s history opens. A new, royal institution soon becomes no less problematic — until he comes who is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).

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Judges 20; Acts 24; Jeremiah 34; Psalms 5-6

Aug 06, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 20; Acts 24; Jeremiah 34; Psalms 5-6

ONE MIGHT HAVE EXPECTED that only the guilty would be hunted down and executed (Judg. 20). But the Levite is stirring up the nation (without, of course, disclosing his own disgraceful behavior). So far as our records go, Gibeah does not offer to hand over the offenders. If they had, that would have been the end of the matter. Nor do the tribal leaders of Benjamin offer to intervene and ensure that justice is done. Instead, they close ranks and offer to take on all comers, doubtless expecting that the rest of the nation will be unwilling to pay too high a price to capture a few rapists at a time when the entire nation has slid into violence.

For their part, the rest of the tribes foam at the mouth but act stupidly. Instead of embarking on a massed assault, initially they decide to send the troops of only one tribe at a time. When we are told that the Israelites inquired of God which tribe should go first, probably this means that they went through the Urim and Thummim procedure with a priest of the sanctuary. The Israelites lose twenty-two thousand men the first day (Judg. 20:21), and eighteen thousand the next (Judg. 20:25).

Finally the Lord does truly promise that he will give Gibeah and the Benjamites into the hands of the rest of the Israelites (Judg. 20:28). The third day, the Israelites set up an ambush, and at last they are victorious. Vast numbers of Benjamites die.

That is the sort of thing that happens when the rule of law dissolves, when people start acting out of tribal loyalty and not principle, when vengeance overtakes justice, when superstitious vendettas displace courts, when brothers no longer share a common heritage of worship and values, when government is by fear and not by the consent, it can ignite a Bosnia, it can start a world war. It is the stuff of dictators and warlords, the lubricant of gangs and violence.

The sad reality is that every culture is capable of this. The ancient Israelites sink into this quagmire not because they are worse than all others, but because they are typical of all others. A society that no longer hangs together, whether on the ground of religion, shared worldview, or at least agreed and respected procedurals, is heading for violence and anarchy, which, sooner or later, becomes the best possible breeding ground for the ordered response of tyrants — power authorized by sword and gun.

That is how secular historians see it. We see all this, too, and discern behind the blood and evil the just hand of God, who intones, “So far will you go, and no further.”

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Judges 19; Acts 23; Jeremiah 33; Psalms 3-4

Aug 05, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 19; Acts 23; Jeremiah 33; Psalms 3-4

BY THE TIME WE REACH Judges 19, the law of the jungle has triumphed in the fledging nation of Israel.

The Levite introduced to us at this point takes on a concubine. (Levites were supposed to marry only virgins; see Lev. 21:7, 13-15.) She sleeps around and moves out, returning to her father’s home. In due course the Levite wants her back, so he travels to Bethlehem and finds her. Owing to a late start on the return trip, they can’t make the journey home in one day. Owing to a late start on the return trip, they can’t make the journey home in one day. Preferring not to stop in one of the Canaanite towns, they press on to Gibeah, a Benjamite settlement. A local homeowner warns the Levite and his concubine not to stay in the town square overnight — it is far too dangerous. And he takes them in.

During the night, a mob of lusty hooligans want the homeowner to send out the Levite so they can sodomize him. That is stunning. In the first place, by the social standards of the ancient Near East, it was unthinkable not to show hospitality — and they want to gang rape a visitor. And as the account progresses, it is very clear that they will happily rape males or females — they don’t really care.

But perhaps the ugliest moment in the narrative occurs when the homeowner, remembering the rules of hospitality and doubtless frightened for himself as well, offers them his daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The account is crisp and brief, but it does not take much imagination to conjure up their terror — two women not defended by their men but abandoned and betrayed by them and offered to a howling mob insists that even that isn’t enough, so the Levite shoves his concubine out the door, alone. So began her last night on earth in a small town belonging to the people of God.

The morning dawns to find the Levite ordering this woman to get up; it’s time to go. Only then does he discover she is dead. He hauls her corpse back home, cuts her up into twelve pieces, and sends one piece to each part of Israel, saying, in effect: When does the violence stop? At what point do we put our collective foot down and reverse these horrible trends?

“In those days Israel had no king” (Judg. 19:1).

Yet what about his own profound complicity and cowardice? The sheer horror of the dismembered body parts was bound to stir up a reaction, but by this time it could not be the righteous reaction of biblically thoughtful and restrained people. Only the naive could imagine that the outcome would be anything other than a descent into a maelstrom of evil and violence.

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Judges 18; Acts 22; Jeremiah 32; Psalms 1-2

Aug 04, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 18; Acts 22; Jeremiah 32; Psalms 1-2

PERHAPS AN INNOCENT READER might have hoped that yesterday’s reading (Judg. 17) reflected a minor aberration among the people of God. Today’s (Judg. 18) makes that hope less sanguine: one entire tribe of Israel is off the rails, and doubtless others as well.

The historical setting is still early enough that not all the tribes have captured all the land that is to be theirs. That is certainly true of Dan (Judg. 18:1). So the Danites send out five soldiers to spy out the terrain, and eventually stumble across the house of Micah. There they find the young Levite, and either recognize him from some previous encounter, or else recognize him for what he is, perhaps by over-hearing his praying or study (which was often done out loud). They inquire of him whether their trip will be successful. Perhaps the “ephod” Micah has made (Judg. 17:5) includes something like the Urim and Thummim for discerning, ostensibly, the will of the Lord. In any case, he reassures them and they go on their way.

The soldiers spy out the town of Laish, which was not part of the land that had been assigned to them. But it looks like a soft and attractive target, and they report accordingly. When six hundred armed Danites return, they interrupt their military raid to walk off with all of Micah’s household gods, not to mention the young Levite priest and the ephod, for clearly they think of this as a way of bringing “luck”or at least direction to their enterprise, The Levite himself is delighted: to him, this feels like a promotion (Judg. 18:20). But can “bought” clergy ever exercise a prophetic witness?

When he and his men catch up with this warrior band, Micah frankly sounds pathetic: “You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, ‘What’s the matter with you?’” (Judg.18:24). He detects no irony in his own utterance, the sheer futility of attaching so much to gods you have made.

The Danites threaten to annihilate Micah and his household, and that settles the matter. Might, not justice or integrity, rules the land. The Danites capture Laish, attacking “a peaceful and unsuspecting people” (Judg. 18:27), and rename the place Dan. There they set up their idols, and the young Levite, now identified as a direct descendant of Moses (Judg.18:30), functions as their tribal priest, and passes on this legacy to his sons, even while the tabernacle still remains in its rightful place in Shiloh (Judg. 18:30-31).

The levels of covenantal faithlessness in the religious realm are multiplied by increased violence, tribal selfishness, personal aspirations of power, ingratitude, crude threats, and massive superstition. It is not uncommon for these sins to grow together.

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Judges 17; Acts 21; Jeremiah 30 – 31; Mark 16

Aug 03, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 17; Acts 21; Jeremiah 30 – 31; Mark 16

THE SIGNS OF MORAL, SPIRITUAL, and intellectual declension in Israel during the time of the judges now multiply, some of them obvious, some of them subtle. Although Judges 17 is a brief chapter, it is charged with an abundance of them.

(1) A grown man named Micah has apparently stolen eleven hundred shekels of silver from his mother. That doesn’t say much for family relationships — though it is of course only one incident. He confesses the crime to his mother (Judg.17:2). Judging by his remarks, he is prompted less by love for his mother or consciousness of sin than by superstitious fear because his mother has pronounced a curse on the thief who was, to her, unknown until that point.

(2) Micah’s mother rewards him with a pious word: “The LORD (i.e. Yahweh) bless you, my son!” (Judg.17:2) — which shows that there is still a strong awareness of the covenantal God who brought them out of Egypt, or at least a retention of his name. But very quickly the reader perceives that only the shell of covenantal loyalty persists. Cyncretism has taken over. Grateful for the return of her money, she gives it back to her son, solemnly consecrating it “to the LORD (Yahweh)”for the purpose of making “a carved image and a cast idol” (Judg. 17:3), which of course was repeatedly forbidden by the covenant at Sinai.

(3) He promptly hands back the silver to his mother for this purpose. She gives two hundred shekels (which leaves her with nine hundred, despite what she had “consecrated”) to a silversmith to make an idol with it. Greed triumphs even over idolatry. The little idol is then placed in Micah’s house, both a talisman and a reminder of restored family relationships after a theft, perhaps even something to ward off the curse the mother had pronounced (Judg. 17:4)

(4) Micah’s religious syncretism runs deeper. He has his own shrine, and installs one of his sons as his private priest for offering prayers and sacrifices, and prepares priestly apparel for him (the ephod, Judg. 17:5). The breaches are multiplying. Under the covenant, there was supposed to be only one “shrine”– at this point the tabernacle — and only Levites could be priests.

(5) Enough of these stipulations are recalled that when Micah finds a young Levite traveling through, he hires him as his private priest (!), Micah is convinced that this will ensure that the Lord will be good to him (Judg. 17:13). Covenantal religion has lost much of its structure and all of its discipline and obedience. It is a sad mess of pagan superstition.For the first time, we read the words, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 17:6).

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