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Joshua 20-21; Acts 1; Jeremiah 10; Matthew 24

Jul 14, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 20-21; Acts 1; Jeremiah 10; Matthew 24

BETWEEN JESUS’ ASCENSION AND Pentecost, the nascent church, about one hundred and twenty strong, met together and prayed. At one such meeting, Peter stood up and initiated the action that appointed Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).

(1) Peter’s use of Scripture (Acts 1:16, 20) is apparently what guides him to his conclusion that “it is necessary” (Acts 1:21) to choose one of the other men who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry as a replacement for the traitor Judas. At the surface level of Acts, the reasoning is straightforward. Psalm 69:25 says, “May [his] place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in [it]”; Peter applies this to Judas. Psalm 109:8 insists, “May another take his place of leadership”; this Peter takes as a divine warrant for securing a replacement.

In the context of Psalms 69 and 109, David is seeking vindication against enemies — once close friends — who had betrayed him. Peter’s use of these verses belongs to one of two primary patterns. Either: (a) Peter is indulging in indefensible proof-texting. The verses never did apply to Judas, and can be made to do so only by exegetical sleight-of-hand. Or: (b) Peter is already presupposing a fairly sophisticated David-typology. If this sense of betrayal and plea for vindicating justice play such an important role in the experience of great King David, how much more in great David’s greater Son?

Why should we flinch at such reasoning? During the previous forty days Jesus had often spoken with his disciples (Acts 1:3), explaining in some detail “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Certainly the David-typology crops up in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus. Why should we not accept that he taught it to his disciples?

(2) On the criteria raised here — the replacement apostle had to be not only a witness of the resurrected Jesus, but someone who had been with the disciples “the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21-22) — Paul could not have met the conditions. Paul’s apostleship was irregular, as he himself acknowledges (1 Cor. 15:8-9). We should not entertain nonsense about Peter and the church making a mistake here because they did not wait for the appointment of Paul.

(3) The choosing of one of two by lot (Acts 1:23-26) is not a prescription for local church governance procedures. There is no hint of a similar procedure from then on in the church’s life, as reported in the New Testament. This sounds more like the climax of an Old Testament procedure, with God himself selecting and authorizing the twelve men of the apostolic band.

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Joshua 18-19; Psalms 149-150; Jer. 9; Matt. 23

Jul 13, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 18-19; Psalms 149-150; Jeremiah 9; Matthew 23

THIS (JOSH. 18-19) IS A GOOD TIME TO reflect on the many chapters of Joshua that have been devoted to the dividing up of the land.

(1) Focusing on the division of the land, these chapters implicitly focus on the land itself. After all, the land was an irreducible component of the promise to Abraham, of the Sinai covenant, of the release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It is now distributed by God’s providential supervision of the “lot.”

(2) The inevitable conclusion is that God is faithful to his promises. That point is explicitly drawn for us a bare two chapters on: “So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Josh. 21:43-45).

(3) These chapters also explain how entrance into the Promised Land did not proceed in a wave of unbroken triumph. Earlier God had warned that he would not give the Israelites the whole thing at once. Now we are repeatedly told that this tribe or that could not dislodge certain Canaanites, and they continue there “to this day.” For instance, “Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah” (Josh. 15:63; cf. Judg. 1:21). In fact, Jerusalem was taken (Judg. 1:8), but not all the Jebusites were dislodged. Details of this sort help to explain how the tussle between fidelity and syncretism could occupy so much of Israel’s history.

(4) Some of the elements in these chapters bring earlier strands of the narrative to closure. For instance, Caleb surfaces again. He was Joshua’s colleague among the initial group of twelve spies; they were the only two who at Kadesh Barnea, at the first approach to the Promised Land, urged the people to enter it boldly and trust God. In consequence they are the only two of their generation who are still alive to witness the Promised Land for themselves. And now in Joshua 15, Caleb is still looking for new worlds to conquer and receives his inheritance. Similarly, chapters 20-21 detail the designation of the cities of refuge and of the towns set aside for the Levites — steps mandated by the Mosaic Code.

(5) There is trouble ahead. The ambiguities of the situation, and the memories of the final warnings of Moses, signal to the reader that these relative victories, good though they are, cannot possibly be God’s final or ultimate provision.

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Joshua 16-17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22

Jul 12, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 16-17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22

ALL OF THE FIVE CLOSING PSALMS begin with the single Hebrew word Hallelujah — “Praise the Lord.” This psalm (Ps. 148) is remarkable for its emphasis on the sheer range and comprehensiveness of beings and things in the universe that unite the whole creation in praise. The first six verses begin with angels, sweeping down through unconscious participants in the heavens; the next six verses — mirror-images of the first six — begin with the unconscious participants on the earth, and rise to human beings (Ps. 148:77-12). The last two verses (Ps. 148:13-14) draw the people in covenant with him. Some notes:

(1) There have always been people who attach their affections and worship to angels (e.g., Col. 2:18), even though angels are our fellow servants (Rev. 22:8-9). Others foolishly think that their destinies are controlled by the stars, even though stars are nothing more than God’s creation. Both angels and stars — the one sentiently, the other not — bear witness to God’s greatness; in that sense they join together in worship (Ps. 148:2-3).

(2) The phrase “highest heavens” is literally “heaven of heavens,” a way of expressing the superlative (like “holy of holies”). The expression “waters above the skies” is a Hebrew poetic way of referring to rain (148:4). Whether one thinks of “the heavens” as the sphere in which the rain condenses out of the atmosphere, or as the abode of God Almighty, there is nothing that has not been created: “he commanded and they were created” (Ps. 148:5). So there is nothing that does not bear witness to the Creator-God.

(3) The denizens of the earth’s oceans, the varied precipitation that waters the ground, the fury of unleashed storms, the majesty and beauty of mountains and hills, the spectacular diversity and color and beauty of earth’s flora and fauna, the scarcely imaginable array of the earth’s births — all attest, mutely but powerfully, to the goodness and greatness of God. As part of that creation, human beings, in all their diversity of their ranks and stations in life, join this universal chorus of praise (Ps. 148:11-12), not simply because he is bigger than we are, but because no matter how highly we envisage his glorious splendor, it is higher yet, higher than anything and everything in all creation (Ps. 148:13).

(4) This unimaginably great God has not only called out his own people, but has raised up for them a “horn” (a symbol for a king), the praise of all his saints (Ps. 148:14). Living this side of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection, we know who the ultimate King in the Davidic line really is. And so our praise joins that of the rest of the universe with peculiar intensity and gratitude.

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Josh. 14-15; Psalms 146-147; Jeremiah 7; Matt. 21

Jul 11, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 14-15; Psalms 146-147; Jeremiah 7; Matthew 21

PSALM 146 HAS BEEN THE inspiration of hymns in many languages. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote a hymn that was largely inspired by this psalm. That hymn is still widely sung in the United Kingdom; regrettably, it is virtually unknown in North America. So it is worth reproducing here as today’s meditation:

I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath;
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers.

My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.

Happy the man whose hopes rely
On Israel’s God! He made the sky,
And earth, and sea, with all their train.

His truth forever stands secure;
He saves the oppressed, he feeds the poor,
And none shall find his promise vain.

The Lord gives eyesight to the blind;
The Lord supports the fainting mind;
He sends the labouring conscience peace;
He helps the stranger in distress,
The widow and the fatherless,
And grants the prisoner sweet release.

I’ll praise him while he lends me breath;
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers;
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.

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Joshua 12-13; Psalm 145; Jeremiah 6; Matthew 20

Jul 10, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 12-13; Psalm 145; Jeremiah 6; Matthew 20

WHEN WE REFLECTED ON PARTS of Psalm 119 (see the meditations for June 22, 25, and 27), we note that the psalm is an acrostic poem. In the first section, all the verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; in the second section, all the verses begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet; and so on for twenty-two sections, corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. But there are seven other acrostic psalms in the Psalter. In these, however, just one verse is devoted to each letter (Pss. 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 145). Five of the eight, including this last one (Ps. 145), are ascribed to David.

In most Hebrew manuscripts of this psalm, there is no verse for the Hebrew letter corresponding to our N. But most of the ancient translations supply the missing verse, and now one Hebrew manuscript with an N-verse has shown up as well, so most modern versions squeeze in the extra lines (verse 13b in the NIV). So what we have in this psalm is the last of David’s compositions preserved in the book of Psalms, a veritable alphabet of praise.

There are certain themes that receive special emphasis in this psalm.

(1) Although many of David’s psalms focus on his own experiences, or sometimes on the joys and sorrows of the Israelite nation, here the horizon expands to take in God’s universal kingdom (Ps. 145:13a), his universal care for all living creatures in his universe — not least providing them with the food they need (Ps. 145:15-16). None of this denies that this is still a fallen world, of course. Creatures sometimes starve; they grow old and die. Yet we see teeming life, and this life survives and thrives by God’s gracious provision.

(2) There is a wonderful mingling of God’s glory with God’s compassion. “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145:8-9). That is why the entire created order praises him (145:10). At the same time, God’s people are the first to talk about his “mighty acts and the glorious splendor” of his kingdom, the sheer glory of his kingdom (Ps. 145:11-12).

(3) Not only is God’s greatness beyond human fathoming (Ps. 145:3), the account of God’s greatness and goodness is passed on from one generation to another (Ps. 145:4), as others celebrate God’s “abundant goodness” and joyfully sing of his righteousness (Ps. 145:7). Indeed, as we read his words and utter our own “Amen!” our generation receives this glorious communication from three thousand years ago, jointly committed to speaking of God’s mighty acts and to meditating on his wonderful works (Ps. 145:4-5).

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Joshua 11; Psalm 144; Jeremiah 5; Matthew 19

Jul 09, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 11; Psalm 144; Jeremiah 5; Matthew 19

VERSES 12-14 OF PSALM 144 PICTURE and idyllic situation in the land: sons and daughters multiplying and healthy, barns filled with produce, cattle filling the fields, trade flourishing, military defenses secure, freedom from some regional superpower, basic prosperity and contentment in the streets. What will bring about these conditions?

The answer is summarized in the last verse: “Blessed are the people of whom this is true; blessed are the people whose God is YAHWEH” (Ps. 144:15). This last line means more than that these people happen to have preferred a certain brand of religion. It means, rather, that if this God — the one true God — owns a people — a people who in confessing him as their God trust him and worship him and obey him — that people is blessed indeed. And because this last verse is a summarizing verse, the unpacking of this notion is found in the rest of the psalm.

The psalm opens in praise to “the LORD my Rock” — a symbol that is evocative of absolute stability and security. This God trains the hands of the king for war: that is, his providential rule works through the means of supplying and strengthening those whose responsibility it is to provide the national defense, while they for their part rely on him and do not pretend their military prowess is somehow a sign of innate superiority (Ps. 144:1-2). Far from it: human beings are fleeting, nothing but passing shadows (Ps. 144:3-4). What we must have is the presence of the Sovereign of the universe, his powerful intervention: “Part your heavens, O LORD, and come down; touch the mountains, so that they smoke” (Ps. 144:5). When the Lord takes a hand, David and his people are rescued from danger, oppression, and deceit (Ps. 144:7-8). What this evokes is fresh praise “to the One who gives victory to kings, who delivers his servant David” (Ps. 144:10). When God takes a hand, the result is the security and fruitfulness described in verses 10-15.

Here is a balance rarely understood — still more rarely achieved. It applies every bit as much to, say, revival in the church, as it applies to the security and prosperity of the ancient nation of Israel. On the one hand, there is a deep recognition that what is needed is for the Lord to rend the heavens and come down. But on the other hand, this generates no passivity or fatalism, for David is confident that the Lord’s strength enables him to fight successfully. What we do not need is an arrogant “can do” mentality that tacks God onto the end, or a clichéd spirituality that confuses passion with passivity. What we do need is the power of the sovereign, transforming God.

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Joshua 10; Psalms 142-143; Jeremiah 4; Matthew 18

Jul 08, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 10; Psalms 142-143; Jeremiah 4; Matthew 18

PSALM 142 SHOULD BE READ IN TANDEM with Psalm 57; both were the product of David’s experience of hiding in a cave while fleeing King Saul. In some ways, however, the two psalms are quite different. Although in both cases David is pushed to the edge, in Psalm 57 he sounds reasonably buoyant, perhaps bold — certainly confident of the outcome. Here in Psalm 142, however, the mood is gloomy, characterized by “desperate need” (Ps. 142:6), with only three rays of hope. It should not be thought strange that the one crisis should precipitate more than one emotional response. Both Scripture and experience testify that extreme danger and uncertainty can push us to conflicting responses. However we think about such matters, Psalm 142 reflects raw despair — and correspondingly, it speaks tellingly to believers whose circumstances draw them through dark waters no less deep.

The opening lines find the psalmist urgently and frankly begging for help: “I cry aloud”; “I lift up my voice”; “I pour out my complaint”; “I tell my trouble” — these are the words of a frightened and desperate man. The word rendered “my complaint” sounds less petulant and whiny than the English: perhaps “what’s wrong” or “my troubled thoughts” might be better.

The first ray of hope comes in verse 3a: “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know [sic] my way.” When he has sunk so low that he is ready to give up, the psalmist finds reassurance in the fact that God is never taken by surprise: “It is you who knows my way.”

The worst hurts, of course, are personal betrayals. When all around there is no one who can be trusted, when experience after experience demonstrates that this conclusion is pathetically sound and not a symptom of paranoia, when the sheer loneliness of the fight adds a thick layer of depression (“I have no refuge; no one cares for my life,” Ps. 142:54), where does the psalmist turn? Here is the second ray of light: “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living’” (Ps. 142:5). The move from “my refuge” to “my portion” demonstrates that David is not thinking of God as merely the solution to a problem. There is progression from fear to gratitude.

None of this reduces the stark reality of David’s “desperate need” (Ps. 142:6). This need is not merely emotional: his emotional crisis is grounded in the reality that he is being pursued by soldiers and their bitter king. The final ray of hope serves as contrast: God’s goodness and fidelity ensure that David will be rescued. David dares to envision the day when the righteous of the land will not only surround him but applaud his reign.

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Joshua 9; Psalms 140-141; Jeremiah 3; Matthew 17

Jul 07, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 9; Psalms 140-141; Jeremiah 3; Matthew 17

THE ACCOUNT OF THE GIBEONITE DECEPTION (Josh. 9) has its slightly amusing elements, as well as its serious point. There are the Israelites, poking around in moldy bread and holding serious conversations about the distance these emissaries must have traveled. Yet the sad fact is that they were snookered. What lessons should we learn from this?

First, many believers who have the courage to withstand direct assault do not have the sense to withstand deception. That is why in Revelation 13 the dragon has two beasts — one whose opposition is overt and cruel, and the other who is identified as the false prophet (see the meditation for December 22). That is also why in Acts 20 Paul warns the Ephesian elders not only of rapacious wolves that will try to ravage the flock of God, but also of the fact that from among their own number men will arise who will “distort the truth” (Acts 20:30). Such people never announce what they are doing: “We are now going to distort the truth!” The danger they represent lies in the fact that they are viewed as “safe,” and then from this secure vantage they advocate “progressive” positions that distort the Gospel. The deceptive power may be tied to such overt tricks as flattery — the very device used by the Gibeonites (Josh. 9:9-10). In our day, deception becomes all the easier to arrange because so many Christians are no longer greatly shaped by Scripture. It is difficult to unmask subtle error when it aligns with the culture, deploys spiritual God-talk, piously cites a passage or two, and “works.”

Second, the failure depicted in 9:14 has haunted many believers, and not only the ancient Israelites: “the men of Israel sampled their [the Gibeonites’] provisions but did not inquire of the LORD.” Doubtless their inquiring of the Lord would have been direct; perhaps the priests would have resorted to Urim and Thummim (see meditation for March 17). We shall never know, because the people felt they did not need the Lord’s guidance. Perhaps the flattery had made them cocksure. The fact that their decision was based on their estimate of how far these Gibeonites had come makes it obvious that they were aware of the danger of treaties with the Canaanites. The failure must therefore not be taken as a mere breach of devotions that day, a hastiness that forgot a magic step. The problem is deeper: there is an unseemly negligence that betrays an overconfidence that does not think it needs God in this case. Many a Christian leader has made disastrous mistakes when he or she has not taken time to seek God’s perspective, probing Scripture and asking him for the wisdom he has promised to give (James 1:5).

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Joshua 8; Psalm 139; Jeremiah 2; Matthew 16

Jul 06, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 8; Psalm 139; Jeremiah 2; Matthew 16

THERE IS A PERVERSENESS TO human thoughts about God that would be risible if it were not so tragic. We find ways to make him small.

A marvelous antidote is Psalm 139. It paints an exalted picture of God, yet does so in stunningly personal ways, as befits a psalm. In particular:

(1) God sees and knows everything (Ps. 139:1-6). The psalmist might have made that point as I just did — in the abstract. Instead, true to his form, he addresses God, acknowledging that this God’s knowledge is not passive and is not merely comprehensive: it is active and personal. This God knows the psalmist so thoroughly that he knows every movement his body makes, and every habit of his life, but also every thought he entertains and every word he speaks — even before they are formulated. Hebrews 4:13 says as much.

(2) God is omnipresent, and therefore inescapable (Ps. 139:7-12). Yet again, the thought in the text is not abstract. When David asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7), it is pretty obvious that there is a part of him that wants to get away from God. It cannot be done. If David were to fly to the heavens or descend to Sheol, if he were to travel as far east or as far west as might be imagined, if he were to hide in the darkness — nothing could hide him from God’s searching gaze. By the end of the psalm, it is clear that David does not want to escape from this God (cf. Rom. 8:38-39).

(3) God is the Creator and providential Ruler (Ps. 139:13-18). Here David does not hark back to the initial creation, but to his own formation in his mother’s womb — which formation is, finally, nothing other than a work of God, for all its terrifying complexity. Nor does this God relinquish control once the creature is made: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16). In Scripture, this truth does not compromise human responsibility, but increases our faith. Perhaps it is the sheer breadth of such knowledge that prompts David to pen the last two verses of this section: God’s thoughts cannot be numbered, for they are more numerous than the grains of sand by the sea — which is no exaggeration at all.

(4) God is utterly holy (Ps. 139:19-24). David’s response to evil people is merely a function of his loyalty to God (Ps. 139:19-22).  What saves it from mere vindictive self-righteousness is the fact that in the light of this God’s holiness, David is no less resolved to deal with any evil in his own life (Ps. 139:23-24).

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

Jul 05, 2015 | Don Carson

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

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

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

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

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