Latest


Numbers 9; Psalm 45; Song of Songs 7; Hebrews 7

May 02, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 9; Psalm 45; Song of Songs 7; Hebrews 7

TWO THEMES CONTROL NUMBERS 9. The second is the descent of the pillar of cloud and fire onto the tabernacle, the “Tent of the Testimony,” the first day it was set up (9:15-23). This pillar had guided and protected the people from the time of their first departure from Egypt. It was the visible sign of God’s presence — and from now on it is associated with the tabernacle (and later with the temple). Thus the storyline of the manifestation of the presence of God continues.

But the first theme is the celebration of the Passover on the first anniversary of the original Passover (9:1-14). The original Passover, described in Exodus 12, was not only bound up with the Exodus, but was to be commemorated, according to the Mosaic covenant, in well-defined ways (see Ex. 12; Lev. 23:5-8; Deut. 16:1-8). God’s instructions to Moses are that the people are to celebrate the Passover “in accordance with all its rules and regulations” (Num. 9:3). But this stipulation precipitates a crisis. Because some of the people had become ceremonially unclean by coming into contact with a dead body (for instance, if a member of their family had died), strictly speaking they could not participate in the Passover feast until they had become ceremonially clean — and that took enough time that they would be unable to celebrate on the prescribed day, the fourteenth of Abib (called Nisan after the exile), the first month in the Jewish calendar.

So Moses consults the Lord. The Lord’s answer is that such ceremonially unclean people may postpone their celebration of Passover until the fourteenth of the second month. But this postponement, the Lord insists, is only for those unable, for ceremonial reasons, to celebrate at the prescribed time. Those who opt for postponement for reasons of personal expediency are to be cut off from the people.

There are many lessons to be learned from this episode, but one of them is sometimes overlooked. In any complex system of laws, sooner or later different laws will lay down competing or even conflicting claims. The result is that such laws must be laid out in some hierarchy of importance. Here the month is considered less critical than ceremonial cleanliness or the Passover celebration itself. Jesus himself recognizes the general point. The Law forbids regular work on the Sabbath, and it says a male child should be circumcised on the eighth day. Suppose the eighth day is a Sabbath (John 7:23)? Which takes precedence?

Minds that think only on the legal plane may not grasp the direction in which laws point. Organize them aright, Jesus says (and Paul elsewhere makes the same point in other ways), and you discover that they point to him (John 7:24).

View Comments

Numbers 8; Psalm 44; Song of Songs 6; Hebrews 6

May 01, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 8; Psalm 44; Song of Songs 6; Hebrews 6

BEFORE THEY BEGAN THEIR DUTIES FOR THE FIRST TIME, the Levites were set apart by a ritual God himself established to “make them ceremonially clean” (Num. 8:5-14). The details need not concern us here. What we shall reflect on is the theological reasoning God gives for ordering things this way.

Part of it we have heard before: this is by way of review. God himself has “taken them as my own” (8:16), i.e., he has selected the Levites “from among the other Israelites” (8:6) to be peculiarly his, “in place of the firstborn, the first male offspring from every Israelite woman” (8:16). The rationale is reviewed: this stems from the Exodus, from the first Passover, when the firstborn of the Egyptians were struck down but not the firstborn sons of Israel (8:17-18).

But now a new element is introduced. God has “taken” the Levites to be peculiarly his, and, having “taken” them, he has also “given” them as “gifts” to Aaron and his sons, the chief priests, “to do the work at the Tent of Meeting on behalf of the Israelites and to make atonement for them so that no plague will strike the Israelites when they go near the sanctuary” (8:19). So God has “taken” them and then “given” them to his people.

Formally, of course, God has “given” them to Aaron and his sons, but since the work the Levites do is for the benefit of all Israel, there is a sense in which God has given the Levites to the entire nation. The pattern is spelled out again ten chapters later (Num. 18:5-7). God says to Aaron, “I myself have selected your fellow Levites from among the Israelites as a gift to you” (18:6).

The closest New Testament parallel is found in Ephesians 4. By his death and resurrection, Christ Jesus “led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8). The words are ostensibly quoted from Psalm 68:18, where the Hebrew text says that God received gifts from men. But it has been argued, rightly, that Psalm 68 assumes such themes as those in Numbers 8 and 18, and that in any case Paul is melding together both Numbers and Psalm 68 to make a point. Under the new covenant, Christ Jesus by his triumph has captured us, and to each one of us (Eph. 4:7) he has apportioned grace and then poured us back on the church as his “gifts to men.”

That is how we are to think of ourselves. We are Christ’s captives, captured from the race of rebellious image-bearers and now poured out as God’s “gifts to men.” That invests all our service with unimaginable dignity.

View Comments

Numbers 7; Psalms 42-43; Song of Songs 5; Heb. 5

Apr 30, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 7; Psalms 42 – 43; Song of Songs 5; Hebrews 5

MILLIONS OF CHRISTIANS HAVE SUNG the words as a chorus. Millions more have meditated on them in their own quiet reading of Scripture: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God”(Ps. 42:1).

It is a haunting image. One pictures the buck or the doe, descending through the forest’s perimeter in the half-light of dusk, to slake the thirst of a hot day in the cool waters of a crystal stream. When Christians have applied the image to themselves, they have conjured up a plethora of diverse personal circumstances: semi-mystical longings for a feeling of the transcendent, courageous God-centeredness that flies in the face of cultural opposition, a lonely longing for a sense of God’s presence when the heavens seem as bronze, a placid contentment with our own religious experience, and more.

But whatever the possible applications of this haunting image, the situation of the deer — and of the psalmist, too, as we shall see — is full of enormous stress. The deer is not sidling up to the stream for the regular supply of refreshment; it is panting for water. The metrical psalter adds the words, “when heated by the chase”; but there is no hint of that here, and the application the psalmist makes would fit less well than another possibility. The psalmist is thinking of a deer panting for refreshing streams of water during a season of drought and famine (as in Joel 1:20). In the same way, he is hungry for the Lord, famished for the presence of God, and in particular hungry to be back in Jerusalem enjoying temple worship, “leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng” (42:4). Instead, he finds himself “downcast” (42:5) because he is way up the Jordan Valley, somewhere near the heights of Hermon, in the far north of the country.

Here the psalmist must contend with foes who taunt him, not least regarding his faith. They sneer all day long, “Where is your God?” (42:10). The only thing that will satisfy the psalmist is not, finally, Jerusalem and the temple, but God himself. Wherever he finds himself, the psalmist can still declare, “By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life” (42:8). So he encourages himself with these reflections: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (42:11).

Sing the chorus, repeat the ancient lines. And draw comfort when you are fighting the bleak bog of despair, and God seems far away.

View Comments

Numbers 6; Ps. 40-41; Song of Songs 4; Heb. 4

Apr 29, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 6; Psalms 40 – 41; Song of Songs 4; Hebrews 4

THE NAZIRITE VOW (Num. 6) could be taken by any man or woman (i.e., not just a Levite) and was entirely voluntary. It was normally undertaken for an extended period of time, and culminated in certain prescribed offerings and sacrifices (6:13-21).

The vow itself was designed to separate someone out for the Lord (6:2, 5-8), a kind of voluntary self-sacrifice. Perhaps it was marked by special service or meditation, but that was not the formal, observable side of the Nazirite vow. The Nazirite was to mark out his or her vow by three abstinences. (1) For the duration of the vow, his or her hair was not to be cut. This was so much a mark of the individual’s separation to God that when the vow came to an end, the hair that had grown throughout the duration of the vow was to be cut off and burned in the fellowship offering (6:18). (2) The Nazirite was to keep out of contact with corpses. That could mean real hardship if, for instance, a relative died during the period of the vow. If someone suddenly died in the presence of a Nazirite, the inevitable defilement, which could be construed as defiling the hair that he had dedicated (6:9), had to be removed by prescribed ritual and sacrifice, including shaving off the defiled hair (6:9-12). (3) In addition, the Nazirite was to abstain from all alcohol until the termination of the vow (6:3, 20). This too was something of a privation, for wine was a common drink, not least at the great festivals. (It was common to “cut” wine with water, from between three parts water to one part wine, to ten parts water to one part wine, which made it about the strength of beer.)

The symbolism is reasonably transparent. (1) That which is holy belongs exclusively to the Lord and his use (like the laver or the ephod). The symbol was the hair, dedicated to the Lord and therefore not cut until it was offered in sacrifice. (2) That which is holy belongs to the living God, not to the realm of death and decay, which arise from the horror of sin. So the Nazirites were to abstain from coming into contact with dead persons. (3) That which is holy finds its center and delight in God. It does not need the artificial “high” of alcohol; still less does it want to be controlled by anyone or anything other than God himself.

How, then, shall members of the new covenant, in their call to be holy, dedicate themselves wholly to God, avoid all that belongs to the realm of death, and be slaves to no one and nothing save Jesus?

View Comments

Numbers 5; Psalm 39; Song of Songs 3; Hebrews 3

Apr 28, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 5; Psalm 39; Song of Songs 3; Hebrews 3

SELF-DISCIPLINE IS NORMALLY A GOOD THING. Indeed, Christians believe that God has given them “a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). But certain forms of self-discipline are ignoble, even dangerous.

For example, the Stoics in the days of the apostle Paul thought that it was the part of wisdom to live in harmony with the way things are in the world, and that this entailed living apart from the “passions,” in perfect accord with reason. Motivated by high moral principles, they prided themselves in living above the emotions, above deep personal commitments that could bring suffering. At one level, such “stoicism” is admirable. But it is a long way from the personal commitments that the Gospel mandates, complete with the vulnerability and suffering that are a part of this fallen order. In fact, that is the problem with the Stoic worldview: its view of the world and what is wrong with it is so far removed from what the Bible says that it defines what is good in ways that owe more to a certain kind of pantheism than to anything else. So from a Christian perspective, even if there is something admirable to Stoic self-discipline, it can never be judged genuinely good. Some self-discipline merely puffs people up with the pride of resolution.

Another kind of questionable self-discipline occurs in the opening verses of Psalm 39. David has resolved not to speak. It is not entirely clear whether his self-disciplined resolution not to say anything, especially in the presence of the wicked (39:1), is motivated by fear that otherwise he is in danger of joining them, or more likely out of fear that if he speaks he will let slip something that might be dangerous in this company, or simply out of some misplaced conviction that it is enough to keep silent and not lend them support. Clearly, however, it was a moral resolve, in some ways commendable — and wholly inadequate. For as he kept silent, he did not even say anything good (39:2). One way or another he was trying to beat sin by disciplined silence.

David learned a better way. He speaks — but in his speech he addresses God (29:4ff.). He is aware of life’s fleeting passage, and concludes that, in the end, we have nothing to look for except to put our hope in the Lord (39:7). God alone can save us from our transgressions and enable us to escape the snares of opponents (39:8). Resolute silence in the face of the mystery of providence is no way forward (39:9); it is a false self-discipline, an ugly defiance rather than a cheerful submission to God’s “discipline” (39:11).

View Comments

Numbers 4; Psalm 38; Song of Songs 2; Hebrews 2

Apr 27, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 4; Psalm 38; Song of Songs 2; Hebrews 2

ONE OF THE MOST ATTRACTIVE FEATURES of David is his candor. At his best he is transparently honest. That means, among other things, that when there is an array of things going wrong in his life he does not collapse them into a single problem.

Nothing could be clearer from Psalm 38. Commentators sometimes try to squeeze the diverse elements in this psalm into a single situation, but most such re-creations seem a trifle forced. It is worth identifying some of the most striking components of David’s misery.

(1) He is facing God’s wrath (38:1), and (2) suffering from an array of physical ailments (38:3-8). (3) As a result he is full of frustrated sighing and has sunk into depression (38:9-10). (4) His friends have abandoned him (38:11). (5) Meanwhile he still faces the plots and deception of his standard (political) enemies (38:12). (6) He is so enfeebled that he is like a deaf mute (38:13-14), unable to speak, for his enemies are numerous and vigorous (38:19). (7) Meanwhile he is painfully troubled by his own iniquity (38:18).

One can imagine various ways to tie these points together, but a fair bit of speculation is necessary. What stands out in this psalm is that even while David is asking for vindication against his enemies, he does so in the context of confessing his own sin, of facing, himself, the wrath of God. It is quite possible that he understands both his physical suffering and even the loss of his friends and the opposition of evil opponents to be expressions of God’s wrath — which intrinsically he admits to deserving. In the psalm David does not ask for vindication grounded in his own covenantal fidelity. He frankly confesses his sin (38:18), waits for the Lord (38:15), begs God not to forsake him (38:21), entreats God to help him (38:22) and not to rebuke him in anger and wrath (38:1). In short, David appeals for mercy.

This is another face of the vindication theme (see the meditation for April 24). Yes, we want God to display his justice. In circumstances where we have been frankly wronged, it is comforting to recall that God’s justice will ultimately triumph. But what about the times when we are guilty ourselves? Will justice alone suffice? If all we want from God is justice, what human being will survive the divine holocaust?

While pleading for vindication, it is urgently important that we confess our own sin, and entreat God for mercy. For the God of justice is also the God of grace. If this be not so, there is no hope for any of us.

View Comments

Numbers 3; Psalm 37; Song of Songs 1; Hebrews 1

Apr 26, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 3; Psalm 37; Song of Songs 1; Hebrews 1

FROM SINAI ON, the Levites are treated differently from the other tribes: they alone handle the tabernacle and its accoutrements, from them come the priests, they are not given a separate allotment of land but are dispersed throughout the nation, and so forth. But here in Numbers 3, one of the most startling distinctives is portrayed.

All the males one month of age and up from the tribe of Levi were counted. Their total was 22,000 (3:39). Then all the firstborn males one month of age and up from the rest of the Israelites were counted. Their total was 22,273 (3:43): the differential between the two figures is 273. God declares that because he spared all the Israelite firstborn at the first Passover in Egypt, the firstborn are peculiarly his (3:13). The assumption, of course, is that at one level they too should have died: they were not intrinsically better than the Egyptians who did. They had been protected by the blood of the Passover lamb God had prescribed. Clearly God was not now going to demand the life of all the Israelite firstborn. Instead, he insists that they are all his in a peculiar way — but that he will accept, instead of all the firstborn males of all Israel, all the males of the tribe of Levi. Since the two totals do not exactly coincide, the 273 extra firstborn males from Israel must be redeemed some other way, and so a redemption tax is applied (3:46-48).

There are some lessons to be learned. One of them is intrinsic to the narrative and already noted: the Israelites were not intrinsically superior to the Egyptians, not intrinsically exempt from the wrath of the destroying angel. More importantly, those saved by the blood belong to the Lord in some peculiar way. If God has accepted the blood that was shed in their place, he does not demand that they die: he demands that they live for him and his service. Owing to the covenantal requirements of the Sinai code, a substitution is accepted: the Levites substitute for all the Israelites who should have come under the sweep of the Passover requirement.

The fulfillment of these patterns under the terms of the new covenant is not hard to find. We are saved from death by the death of the supreme Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Those saved by his blood belong to the Lord in a peculiar way, i.e., not only by virtue of creation but by virtue of redemption (1 Cor. 6:20). He demands that we live for him and his service, and in this we constitute a nation of priests (1 Peter 2:5-6; Rev. 1:6).

View Comments

Numbers 2; Psalm 36; Eccl. 12; Philemon

Apr 25, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 2; Psalm 36; Ecclesiastes 12; Philemon

AMONG THE INSIGHTS the Psalms convey, some of the most penetrating deal with the nature of wickedness and of wicked people. Rarely are these put into abstract categories. They are almost always functional and relational.

What lies at the heart of the “sinfulness of the wicked”? “There is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps. 36:1). This means something more than that the wicked person is foolishly unafraid of the punishment that God will finally mete out (though it does not mean less than that). It means that the wicked are so blind that they do not see the ultimate realities. They either do not see God at all, or, scarcely less horribly, they do not see God as he is.

All appropriate behavior and outlook for human beings made in the image of God find their reference point and measure in God himself. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of both knowledge (Prov. 1:7) and wisdom (Prov. 9:10), for “knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). The converse is utter folly: “fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Prov. 1:7). Small wonder the psalmist insists that it is the fool who says, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1). Scarcely less foolish is the conjuring up of domesticated gods we can manage, or of savage gods that are brutal and immoral, or of impersonal gods that depersonalize God’s image-bearers. When one is blind to the true God, including his glorious holiness that must rightly instill fear in image-bearers as rebellious as we, there is no stopping place in our descent into the abyss of folly.

The blindness of the wicked extends to their assessment of themselves. “For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin” (Ps. 36:2). If he could see well enough to detect his sin, to see it for what it is — rebellion against the living God — and hate it for its sheer vileness and utter arrogance before the majestic holiness of his Maker, inevitably he would also fear God. The twin blindnesses are one.

This, of course, is why philosophical debates about the existence of God can never be resolved by reason alone. It is not that God is unreasonable, still less that he has left himself without witness. Rather, the tragedy and ignominy of human sin leave us, apart from God’s grace, horribly blind. Yet this blindness is culpable blindness: the wicked have no fear of God before their eyes. Paul understands the point so well that he makes this the culminating proof-text in his proof of human lostness (Rom. 3:18). Thank God for the next thirteen verses the apostle pens.

View Comments

Numbers 1; Psalm 35; Eccl. 11; Titus 3

Apr 24, 2015 | Don Carson

Numbers 1; Psalm 35; Ecclesiastes 11; Titus 3

PSALM 35 IS ONE OF THE PSALMS GIVEN OVER to the theme of vindication (see also the meditation of April 10). They make many Christians uncomfortable. The line between vindication and vindictiveness sometimes seems a little thin. How can the line of reasoning in this psalm ever be made to square with the teaching of the Lord Jesus about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:38-42)? Isn’t there an edge of, say, nastiness about the whole thing? After all, David does not just ask that he himself be saved from the ravages of those who are unjustly attacking him (e.g., 35:17, 22-23), he explicitly asks that his enemies “be disgraced and put to shame” (35:4), that they be ruined and ensnared by the very nets they have laid for others (35:8).

Two reflections:

(1) On some occasions David is not speaking only out of a sense of being threatened as an individual, but also out of a sense of his responsibilities as king, as the Lord’s anointed servant. If he is being faithful to the covenant, then surely it is the Lord’s name that is on the line when God’s “son,” the Lord’s appointed king, is jeopardized. For the Lord “delights in the well-being of his servant” (35:27), and David recognizes that his own preservation is bound up with the well-being of “those who live quietly in the land” (35:20). At issue, then, is public justice, not personal vendetta, against which the Lord Jesus so powerfully contends in the words already quoted.

(2) More importantly, although Christians turn the other cheek, this does not mean they are slack regarding justice. We hold that God is perfectly just, and he is the One who says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deut. 32:35). That is why we are to “leave room for God’s wrath” (Rom. 12:19). He is the only One who can finally settle the books accurately, and to think otherwise is to pretend that we can take the place of God. All David is asking is that God perform what he himself says he will ultimately do: execute justice, vindicate the righteous, defend the covenantally faithful.

The last chapter of Job is not an anticlimax for just this reason: Job was vindicated. The sufferings of the Lord Jesus fall into the same pattern. He made himself a nobody and suffered the odium of the cross, in obedience to his Father (Phil. 2:6-8), and was supremely vindicated (Phil. 2:9-11).  We, too, may suffer injustice and cry for the forgiveness of our tormentors, as Jesus did — even as we also cry that justice may prevail, that God be glorified, that his people be vindicated. This is God’s will, and David had it right.

View Comments

Leviticus 27; Psalm 34; Eccl. 10; Titus 2

Apr 23, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 27; Psalm 34; Ecclesiastes 10; Titus 2

ONE OF THE INEVITABLE CHARACTERISTICS of those who genuinely praise the Lord is that they want others to join with them in their praise. They recognize that if God is the sort of God their praises say he is, then he ought to be recognized by others. Moreover, one of the reasons for praising the Lord is to thank him for the help he has provided. If then we see others in need of the same sort of help, isn’t it natural for us to share our own experience of God’s provision, in the hope that others will seek God’s help? And will this not result in an enlarging circle of praise?

It is wonderful to hear David say, “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips” (Ps. 34:1). But he also invites others, first to share the Lord’s goodness, and then to participate in praise. Hence we read, first, “My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice” (34:2). The afflicted need to learn from the answers to prayer that David has experienced, and which he will shortly detail. And second, the broad invitation to expand the circle of praise follows: “Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together” (34:3).

The next lines find David testifying to his own experience of God’s grace (34:4-7). The succeeding section is an earnest exhortation to others to trust and follow this same God (34:8-14), and the remainder of the psalm is devoted to extolling the Lord’s righteousness, which ensures he is attentive to the cries of the righteous and sets his face against those who do evil (34:15-22).

God, David insists, did actually save him “out of all his troubles” (34:6). That is objective fact. Whether he can be seen or not, the “angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (34:7). But in addition to the troubles through which we pass, sometimes more threatening, certainly no less damaging, are the fears that attend them. Fear makes us lose perspective, doubt God’s faithfulness, question the value of the fight. Fear induces stress, bitterness, cowardice, and folly. But David’s testimony is a wonderful encouragement: “I sought the LORD and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (34:4). True the word fears could refer to his own psychological terror, or to the things that made him afraid: doubtless the Lord delivered David from both. But that his own outlook was transformed is made clear by the next verse: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (34:5).

View Comments
1 2 3 4 5 160