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Last Sunday of the Church Year: Isaiah 65:17-25

What image comes to mind when thinking of the life to come?  In the language of the New Testament, the new heavens and the new earth are frequently described as a feast or a perfect city.  This imagery can also be found in the Old Testament, such as the vision of the temple in Ezekiel.  However, this language of feasting and bridegrooms and cities tends to color our understanding.

More often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit describes the life to come in terms of unimaginable fruitfulness.  The blessings of this life will be magnified beyond our ability to comprehend them in our current state.  Moses clearly set before the eyes of Israel the blessings which came with obedience in Deuteronomy 28.  Fruitfulness in the field, fruitfulness in the pasture, fruitfulness in the home (which translates to the blessing of many children), all of these things come for those who follow after the Lord faithfully.  This should not be perverted into a prosperity gospel, as if the Lord is just waiting to make us rich when we choose.  Israel at no point in her history came close to this kind of obedience to the will of God.  Rather, Moses shows the source of the imagery in Isaiah:  fruitfulness is the language of blessing and perfection in the Old Testament.

Paul refers to the beginning of this section in his discussion of the hardening of Israel in Romans 10. The Lord seeks out a nation which did not seek him, which is to say, the Gentiles (Isaiah 65:1). Israel provokes Him because of the hardness of her heart. Therefore, judgment must come upon Israel. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:6). The partial hardening has come upon Israel so that the Gospel may go forth to bring in the fullness of the nations.  Judgment must come upon those who have rejected the Lord, even though they be His own chosen people. But God has not failed in His promises.

This, then, is Isaiah’s point when discussing the great Day when Christ returns in glory to bring about the new heavens and the new earth.  The judgment upon His people will come to an end. “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people” (Isaiah 65:18-19).  All of the former things, those things which separated Israel, will pass away and be no more.  There shall finally be one flock, one Shepherd.

When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the partial shall give way to the fullness. There will be unimaginable fruitfulness in an unending joy. Isaiah 65:20 should be understood in this light.  Isaiah does not mean to say that death will remain in the life to come, but rather this fruitfulness will translate also into life.  Where we suffer the pain of miscarriage and infant mortality, then this evil will be no more.  Where we struggle to live to a hundred years, then it will be thought odd should a man die so young!  But as Revelation 21:4 makes clear, death shall be no more in that day.

They will build and inhabit their houses.  They will plant and enjoy their vineyards.  Those things which others had taken away in this life shall be theirs forever.  The Lord will execute judgment on those who afflicted them (Ezekiel 28:25-26).  His people will have justice and vengeance upon their enemies, and the Lord shall be in their midst.  “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Is this language only poetic?  I do not think so.  On the one hand, it is written for a people who have been exiled and are lamenting the loss of their home.  The Lord had placed them in that land, after all, so the grief is particularly strong.  Also, because the imagery shifts, especially moving forward into the New Testament, it should not be interpreted in a literalistic way.  One would have to assume that death was part of the new heavens and the new earth if that was the case!

On the other hand, Isaiah presents a picture of the life to come in all of its glory.  No longer shall there be a curse.  No longer shall there be division and unfaithfulness among His people.  No longer shall foreigners occupy the land of promise.  The Lord will be among His people in glory and majesty.  Adam worked in the garden before the fall into sin.  Laboring in vain is part of the curse, not laboring in itself.  It may be that we will find a new labor, receiving from the hand of God those tremendous blessings which sin has destroyed in this life.  But whatever the reality will be, it does not change that Christ will reign triumphant over sin and death, rendering judgment on His enemies.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity: Proverbs 8:11-22

“Wisdom is better than jewels” (Proverbs 8:11), because wisdom endures while riches perish.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).  This reading from the opening section of Proverbs emphasizes this truth, because all else is vanity and only with wisdom will a man truly prosper.

Wisdom speaks and describes the way of wisdom, somewhat in contrast to folly, but primarily positively.  The language of prudence, knowledge, and discretion, recalling the very beginning of the book (Proverbs 1:4), emphasizes virtue.  To be virtuous is to fear God, and to fear God is to hate what is evil.  A delight in what is corrupt shows that a man cannot be virtuous.  The godly man hates evil, just as the Lord hates evil.

Rulers govern also with wisdom (Proverbs 8:15-16).  All authority comes from God, and therefore one can say that all rulers exist because of the will of God (Romans 13:1-7).  Wicked rulers also serve as instruments in the hand of the living God, just as Nebuchadnezzar, whose name bears the name of the god Nabu, is described as God’s servant (Jeremiah 27:6).  However, as wisdom is not a vague virtue in the Scriptures, just and wise rulers are those who fear the living God (Psalm 2:10-11).

Wisdom is not elusive either, as if it hid even from those who feared the Lord.  Jesus says very clearly to His disciples:  “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).  James also says:  “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).  It must be emphasized that only those who fear the Lord will seek after wisdom, for the unbelieving fool has no such desire.

But for those who fear God and give Him glory, wisdom is a treasure far excelling all earthly things.  “More to be desired are [His commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11).  This promised inheritance comes for those who seek after wisdom and will “fill their treasuries” (Proverbs 8:21).  Those who trust in the Lord have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  Therefore, with such hope in the resurrection, we labor “as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” (Colossians 3:23-24).

The last verse of this pericope, Proverbs 8:22, points to a couple of things.  On the one hand, it emphasizes, as in Job 28:25-28, that the Lord’s work in creation highlights the call to wisdom.  Recognizing that God has weighed out and measured the world in the act of creation is to also recognize that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).  “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

On the other hand, wisdom is clearly described in Proverbs 8:22-31 as being involved in the creation of the world.  This is not a vague reference, but rather an identification with Christ, the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3).  The Septuagint’s use of the word “created” instead of “possessed” here led some, notably Arius, to imagine that the Son was the first of God’s creations and thus different from the Father.  Passages such as John 1 clearly deny such a conclusion, since the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  Here in Proverbs, therefore, we have a poetic description of an eternal reality:  the Father eternally begets the Son, so that even before the foundation of the world and the beginning of time, the Holy Trinity exists entirely self-sufficiently and unchangingly.

Therefore, in Jesus, who is Wisdom, we see the clearest picture of what it means to fear the Lord.  “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).  “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).

Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity: Micah 6:6-8

“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:1-2). Moses, like Micah, had also called heaven and earth as witness against Israel. Choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19)! But Israel has not chosen life, but rather the way of death.

The language of “indictment” is, of course, a legal term. The Lord has brought a suit against His faithless people. Assyria must come as a punishment, which Micah clarifies in the previous chapter, but now the legal reasoning of this judgment is laid bare. God brought His people out of Egypt, out of the iron furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51). He sent Moses and Aaron (Psalm 106:26-36), and their sister Miriam the prophetess (Exodus 15:20). When Balak sought to curse, Balaam spoke a word of blessing contrary to his will (Numbers 22-24; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15), despite his idolatry which even later proved a snare (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14). But what has Israel done in return? She has whored after idols, from the Baal of Peor in Shittim (Numbers 25) to their godless and false worship in Gilgal (Hosea 12:11).

Micah, under the weight of this great accusation, therefore asks the question of a soul realizing the depths of sin: “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? His three questions, increasing in severity, point to the fruitlessness of any manmade way. Burnt offerings, though commanded by God, will not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). They do not save in and of themselves, in some magical fashion, but point to the blood of Christ which alone takes away sin. Even thousands upon thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil cannot accomplish this. Nor can sacrificing even what is most dear, a child, count for anything when it comes to righteousness before the all holy God. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matthew 16:26)?

Micah’s injunction to do “what is good,” therefore, is not a call to make amends with God through obedience. He has just expressly rejected such a conclusion with the three previous questions. Rather, he calls Israel as a defendant to do what she should already be doing. It is not a word spoken to an unbeliever, but one who knows the will of God already, though he is not following it as he ought. It is a call to return to the way things should be already, for “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).

All Saints Day: Revelation 7:2-17

John’s vision in Revelation 7:2-17 comes in the midst of judgments. The Lamb is breaking open each of the seven great seals which enclose the scroll He took in Revelation 5:6-8. While the breaking of the seals tend to symbolize various judgments and fearful things happening on the earth, there is a comfort in knowing that the Lamb is the one doing these things. Such things are not beyond His control. As God permitted Satan to afflict Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6), so also His fearful judgments of sinners will accomplish exactly what He intends them to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). Therefore, just before the seventh seal is broken, John sees a vision of angels numbering the sons of Israel. The destroying angels are restrained for a time according to the will of God, apart from whom nothing can happen.

The numbering of the tribes itself is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, unlike parallel numberings of Israel in passages like Numbers 1, the tribes are identical in size. Israel wandering in the wilderness had yet to come into their inheritance. Even within the promised land, they awaited a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). Now, in this vision, Israel has come into her own. John sees in the people what Ezekiel had seen in the land: the portions are the same and God is in their midst (Ezekiel 48:1-29).

However, unlike in Ezekiel, the names of the tribes have changed. Notably absent are two tribes: Dan and Ephraim. Further, while Manasseh is present, Joseph also appears separately in the list, which was not typical for this list in the Old Testament. As far as Dan is concerned, this tribe was the first to fall into gross idolatry in the promised land (Judges 18), and Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves in that territory (1 Kings 12:28-30). Dan’s absence therefore seems to be an indirect way of describing Israel finally purged of the idolatry for which she suffered so much. As for Ephraim, the prophets frequently, but not exclusively, referred to this tribe as the tribe of Joseph (Zechariah 10:6 and Ezekiel 37:15-23, for example). This may also recall Israel’s blessing of the sons of Joseph and the preference shown to the younger Ephraim (Genesis 48).

Third, Israel is sealed prior to the vision of the great multitude later in the passage. This is not an incidental detail. As Paul says regarding Israel according to the flesh, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:5). Christ also says on several occasions that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). After all, God promised that the offspring of Abraham would be as numerous as the stars, and “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 26:4). Through Israel, as the elder brother, the blessing of Christ would come to all nations.

Paul, of course, clarifies that belonging to Israel according to the flesh is not enough. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). But the Israelite who believes is a natural branch returning to his own tree. John sees Israel no longer hardened. “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26). Therefore, in that moment, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and the two have become one (Ephesians 2:11-22). Israel and the nations have become one people, even as the honor shown to the believing and purified older brother persists to his glory for all time.

John also sees the great ingathering of the nations. They have entered into their Sabbath rest, resting from all turmoil and pain and worshiping God who has delivered them (Hebrews 4:9-10). Thus, the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in the great Sabbath. What we experience now in the midst of toil, work, and pain, often only one day in seven, shall become the totality. Even our imperfect liturgical forms will give way like shadows before the light in the fullness of that great Day. No longer will our hearts be burdened with distractions and worries! No longer will our lips only mouth words of praise! “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

One of the elders asks John a question which John does not know how to answer, much like Zechariah (Zechariah 4:1-14). This elder seeks to instruct John, and us through him, so that the vision may be clear. Revelation is not a sealed book, like many of the apocalyptic books in the Old Testament (Daniel 12:9-13). It is meant to comfort those who are in tribulation now, for by knowing “the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1), those who hear this prophecy will not be caught unawares.

But the message is clear: here, in the midst of turmoil and tribulation, these saints now rest from their labors. The pains and sorrows of this world will soon come to an end. Purged of their sins, they will worship God in purity and sincerity. Free from their sorrows, they shall know a joy which knows no end. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Those of us who still toil and labor can rejoice knowing that our Sabbath rest awaits us. But we can also take heart knowing that those who have departed in the faith now rest in Christ awaiting His glorious return. Then, as Israel and the nations have become one man in Christ, so we who are left until His coming will be caught up together with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The Church will no longer be at war, but she will be His people, one holy Bride, resting blameless in His sight and alive in Him, never to die again.

Reformation: Revelation 14:6-7

Historically, the lectionary consisted of only two readings: an epistle and a Gospel. Adding a third reading, typically from the Old Testament, is a fairly recent innovation. I believe that this is a salutary practice, because too often the Old Testament functions as only a preliminary to the New. Highly typological interpretations, seeing signs and portents in the strangest of places, only highlights this problem. Adding an Old Testament reading to the historic lectionary is highly beneficial for the Church.

However, because of this, feasts and festivals tend to add a third reading from the New Testament rather than from the Old. Reformation Day is one such example of this, though there are several which do this, including next week on All Saints. While there is certainly no law mandating one way or the other, one might wish for an Old Testament reading also on those days, if only to emphasize the unity of all of Scripture.

Revelation 14:6-7, the “first reading” for Reformation, is actually the traditional epistle reading. The use of Romans 3:19-28, highlighting an important aspect of the Reformation, is more recent, though perhaps more fitting to the occasion. Choosing Revelation 14:6-7 for Reformation is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, the selection is entirely too short. It separates the first angel of Revelation 14 from the other two, and in the process somewhat distorts the intent of the passage. These three angels are harbingers of God’s coming wrath upon the earth. The second angel, for example, follows after the first, crying: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” The third also follows after and foretells the coming torment of those who worship the beast. Their torment will be unending and they will have no rest day or night. Therefore, while the first angel calls forth a cry to fear God and worship Him, the emphasis falls upon the judgment. Fear God and give Him glory, because He is about to demonstrate His righteousness and holiness in judging the earth. This judgment is indeed a source of joy for His people, as the Psalm declares “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness” (Psalm 96:12-13). But the message of the three angels is one which should cause the earth to tremble and not to rejoice. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him” (Psalm 2:12).

Second, for this reason, the tenor of the passage is somewhat dischordant with the tenor of the day. The intent of Reformation Day is not an exercise in glory, but a giving thanks for what God has done through the Reformation. As such, it seems appropriate to talk about the distinctive emphases highlighted in the Reformation, such as the nature of grace and the glory of God. Speaking of God’s coming wrath is always important, of course, and it must not be neglected, but commemorations tend to reflect on God’s mighty works in the past as a comfort for the present. His wrath is needed lest we forsake Him who has been so faithful toward us sinners, but we need to recall the things He has done as well.

Third, there has been a tendency to interpret this passage as a Biblical reference to Martin Luther. It certainly has a long pedigree, dating back as early as Matthias Hoe von Hoenegg (1580-1645), who in 1612 could not see the first angel as referring to anything other than Luther and the coming of the Reformation (source, in Latin). On the one hand, it is not impossible that the Bible would point to coming historical figures. God is the Lord of History, and all things are in His hand. That is, after all, the point of books like Revelation. It is difficult to see how a passage like Daniel 11:3 could refer to anyone other than Alexander the Great, for example.

On the other hand, however, interpreting Revelation 14:6-7 as a reference to Luther seems to rely on this very separation of the first angel from the other two. Hoenegg could see Luther as proclaiming judgment upon Papal darkness, but this interpretation seems too uncertain. What would a passage like this mean for the Christians in the midst of pagan darkness, if it could only refer to the Reformation and to Luther? Would that not also mean treating the book of Revelation as a play-by-play of the End Times? Better, I think, to recognize that the angel proclaims a judgment upon sin which comforts God’s people. Sin and the devil will not triumph. Though you suffer now, God will render judgment upon His enemies. Luther and the Reformation is a historical example of the faithfulness of the holy God, whose victory will be complete. Babylon, with her many faces and many forms, will fall, and the kingdom of our Lord shall be established forever and ever. Amen.

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 28:10-17

Jacob is in a difficult spot. Since the beginning of his section in Genesis 25:19, Jacob has strove with his brother to obtain what belonged to Esau. In the previous chapter, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, steals the blessing from his father Isaac (Genesis 27). When Esau learned what happened, he cries out: “Is he not rightly named Jacob [that is, Deceiver or Grabber]? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36). Esau unsurprisingly wants to kill his brother because of what he has done. His parents therefore both tell Jacob to flee to Rebekah’s brother Laban to the north in Haran (Genesis 27:41-28:5).

Beersheba, the place where Abraham made an oath with Abimelech regarding the well (Genesis 21:25-34), is in the south (which is why the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” in passages like Judges 20:1 or 1 Kings 4:25 means basically “from north to south” or “from top to bottom”). Haran is in the far north, beyond the river Euphrates. Abraham had settled there with his father Terah before receiving the call to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:31). Since Terah died in Haran, some of Abraham’s kinsmen still lived there, which is why Jacob is told to go there. He flees along a major road northward, hoping to make good time.

Jacob is obviously travelling alone and with great haste, since he stops at a “certain place” and uses a rock for a pillow (Genesis 28:11). As he is sleeping, the Lord sends a great vision in a dream. Such dreams occur throughout the Scriptures, such as with his son Joseph (Genesis 37), Pharaoh (Genesis 41), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2), and Joseph the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:20). God uses these dreams, therefore, as a special means of revelation, both to believer and unbeliever alike, and often at critical moments in salvation history.

In this vision, Jacob sees a “ladder.” This word, however, only occurs here in the Old Testament. The Septuagint renders it with a word which primarily means “ladder,” which is perhaps why this is the most common translation. The word, however, is related to other words, like “siege mound” in 2 Samuel 20:15 or “highway” in Numbers 20:19. Therefore, the basic sense is something like an inclined ramp, which by no means excludes steps or even rungs. However, the raised incline is the key, since it begins on the earth and extends into heaven.

Jesus identifies Himself as this ladder or ramp in John 1:51, where He calls Nathanael and proclaims His own divinity. Because the Lord gives the promise which He made to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-16) and to Isaac (Genesis 26:1-5) now to Jacob, Christ seems to say that He too is the conduit of such blessings to His people. “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Since Jacob calls that place “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven,” it points toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who is the Son of God (John 14:6)! Further, Christ is also proclaiming both His own divinity, since He is a part of this vision to Jacob, and that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who made this promise to His people so long ago that night.

The Lord also consoles Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). Jacob doubtlessly was afraid of Esau his brother, and a red-eyed flight northwards to escape being murdered also made him wonder about his future. But the Lord was with Jacob even in the midst of this exile or sojourning, so that he would become Israel and the father of the Lord’s people. The Lord will not break His promises, even when it seems like they are so far from being able to be fulfilled.

Jacob awakes and makes a curious statement: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). On the one hand, Jacob like his fathers is a stranger and a wanderer in a land which did not belong to him, even though it was promised to his offspring. Jacob in his terror may have thought that he was being driven away from the Lord as well, since his relatives were not necessarily God-fearing (Laban his uncle, for example, was an obvious idolator in Genesis 31:19). On the other hand, since he saw “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) even more so than we (Matthew 13:17; Hebrews 11:13), it may be that he thought that the Lord remained behind him as he fled to the north. Imagine his surprise, then, to discover what his offspring David says in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Jacob in the morning sets up the stone and unsurprisingly calls the place Bethel, literally “house of God” (Genesis 28:19). It would not become a city for many years, but it would play an important role in the history of Israel. Bethel sits on the road north of Jerusalem, but when the kingdom divided, it became a part of the Northern Kingdom. Being so close to the border between the kingdoms, it was essentially the southern point in the same way Beersheba was for the whole kingdom. Jeroboam, therefore, set up one of his golden calves at Bethel (1 Kings 12:29). The place where God had appeared to Jacob therefore became a sin and a snare to Israel. Physical locations where the Lord performs His miracles, however important they may be for salvation history, too often serve as a snare to faith in the same way. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred” (Matthew 23:17)? But Elijah and Elisha set up one of their schools in Bethel and the true worship of God continued even in the midst of idolatry (2 Kings 2:2-3).

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity: Deuteronomy 10:12-21

Moses stands on the border of the Promised Land and reminds the sons of Israel who are about to enter of the covenant of the Lord.  Deuteronomy, therefore, is a series of addresses and is composed mainly of a long exposition on the Ten Commandments.

Moses first begins by recounting the history of Israel (Deuteronomy 1-3), starting just before Israel failed to obey the Lord when they approached this land the first time until the time of this speech.  In this first introductory speech, Moses then admonishes Israel to obey the Law and avoid idolatry (Deuteronomy 4).  Moses then begins the long speech which makes up most of the book (Deuteronomy 5:1-26:19).  After this, Moses has a few shorter speeches, including the blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28), the renewal again at Moab (Deuteronomy 29-30), and his last words and the end of his life (Deuteronomy 31-34). Our lectionary reading for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity falls within the largest of these divisions.

It will be helpful to break down this larger section into its smaller parts, because the internal logic clarifies how to interpret Deuteronomy 10:12-21.  He begins by restating the Ten Commandments, recalling the initial reverent fear Israel had when they heard the voice of God on the mountain (Deuteronomy 5). Moses then condenses the Ten Commandments into the one Great Commandment:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  When Israel fears the Lord, she will tell the coming generations of what God has done, and she will not seek after other gods.  But it is not because of her faithfulness that God chose her out of all of the nations.  Far from it!  She is His holy possession because He chose her for Himself and provided for her even through the long days of wandering (Deuteronomy 7-8).  Indeed, Israel has only proven time and time again her own faithlessness and stubbornness, especially with the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9-10:11).  Therefore, Israel is called to be faithful to the God who has done so many mighty things for her. She is a holy people, because the Lord has brought her out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 10:12-11:32). Moses then begins a major exposition on the Ten Commandments, beginning with chapter 12, as a way of demonstrating what it means to fear and love God.

This lengthy discussion on the structure of Deuteronomy helps to avoid erroneous conclusions. Moses is not expounding the Law to a people who have never known the Lord. He is speaking to God’s holy Church, His chosen people.  Deuteronomy, despite its Greek name which means “second Law,” is the voice of a husband talking to His wife.  Israel has no room for boasting, to be sure.  The golden calf, Meribah, refusing to enter the land the first time—all of these show that she has no righteousness of her own.  But the Lord chose her and brought her out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 32:10-14; Hosea 13:4-5; 1 Kings 8:51).

The Lord therefore commands Israel to fear Him, to love Him, and to obey the Law.  Sinners cannot keep the Law, of course.  However, by faith, believers seek to keep the Law, albeit imperfectly (Psalm 1:1-2; Psalm 19; Romans 7:22). Therefore, when the Lord speaks the Law to His Church, it is for her good, building her up and showing her His holy will.  “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?  By no means” (Romans 7:7)!

Further, the reason for striving to keep the Law is not an admonition to “do better,” but a statement of what God has done. “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15).  Or as Moses says earlier in Leviticus 19:2:  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  God will not have us be holy by telling us to become holy.  We are not able to do that.  Rather, God will have us be holy because of what He has done for us.

Nor is this a call to fall into complacency or to think that holiness is ours even if we revel in being unholy. The man who does not try to keep the Law more and more, or in other words, who has no desire to do so, is no Christian.  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16).  Holiness is not a matter of external observance.  “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25; see also Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 58:5-6; Psalm 50:12-15).  Holiness is a matter of the heart, and if the heart has no desire to please God and to increase in holiness, it is dead.

“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen” (Deuteronomy 10:19-21). The great miracles which the Lord did for Israel confirmed that He is faithful and true.  The Holy Spirit recorded them for our benefit in the Holy Scriptures.  But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  Though we have not seen these miracles, yet we have the mighty hand of God in His Son Jesus Christ who came to save us and in His mighty Holy Spirit, who comes even now. The Lord referred Israel to the miracles they had seen; the Lord refers us to Christ and to the Comforter.

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity: Proverbs 25:6-14

Unlike the two previous readings from Proverbs, the Old Testament reading for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity comes from the main section of the book and not from the introduction. As I have said in previous studies, Proverbs resists easy outlining. The beginning of this chapter from Proverbs 25 proves this: “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.” In other words, Proverbs is a collection of sayings, and their compilers seem to have put them into one book for the sake of having them all together.

That being said, there are sometimes correlations between the smaller subsections of the chapters. Proverbs 25 is a good example of this, since it seems that Proverbs 25:1-14 can be subdivided into three smaller parts. I have included Proverbs 25:1-5 in this consideration, because verses 6 and 7 are part of the first section and form its concluding thought.

The first subsection focuses on the righteousness of kings and is further divided into four points. God conceals, but kings search out. The righteous king therefore seeks out that which God has concealed, and wisdom consists in pursuing the things of God. Even so, as the heavens above and the earth beneath are beyond our ability to know fully, so also the heart of kings. David on several occasions is compared to the “angel of God,” who is full of discernment (2 Samuel 14:17), wisdom (2 Samuel 14:20), judgment (2 Samuel 19:27), and blameless (1 Samuel 29:9). Since the king is in this way similar to God, there is a close comparison between them, which is much of the point of this section.

Moving to the next point, silver free of dross is the same as a king free of the wicked in his presence. Solomon referenced this idea earlier in Proverbs 16:12-13. Wise kings, in this way, pursue righteousness and have no part in the way of wickedness (Psalm 2:10-12). As the Lord cannot abide wickedness in His presence, so also the righteous king.

Finally, Solomon closes this subsection with the only major point of contact with the Gospel reading of Luke 14:1-11. Setting yourself forward in the presence of the king is self-exaltation. Such a man will be set lower in disgrace. It is better to be told “Come up here,” for “let another praise you, and not your own mouth” (Proverbs 27:2). But the key here is the close connection between the king and God. As such presumption before a king is shameful, how much more before God? The exalted will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted. The righteous king, therefore, is in the place of the righteous God, not as a replacement, but as God, so the king.

The second subsection focuses on the second great Commandment of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40). Specifically, it is an exposition of “you shall not bear false witness.” A man who seeks to rush to be vindicated in court or elsewhere may very likely be operating with partial information. Better to be fully informed before doing what is right, or even better, to rebuke in private (Matthew 18:15-20).

The third subsection—from which the name of this site comes—praises wisdom. A word fitly spoken, that is, a wise word, is like gold framed in silver. The commandments of the Lord are more valuable “than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

This fit word, however, is especially the word of a sent messenger. If the rich man in torment imagined a great comfort in even a drop of water (Luke 16:24), how much greater will an actual comfort of the Word be (Isaiah 40:1-2)! A wise and faithful messenger, however, conforms in holiness to the Lord and His Word and has “no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). “The one who hears you hears me,” but this promise is for those who abide in His Word (Luke 10:16). “If you utter what is precious and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth” (Jeremiah 15:19). But the faithless messenger are “waterless clouds, swept along by winds” (Jude 12). Such will be recognized “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20), “for when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (Ecclesiastes 5:7).

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Kings 17:17-24

While the promise of resurrection appears throughout the Bible, within the Old Testament there seem to be only three recorded resurrections:  the widow of Zarephath’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24), the Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37), and the man whose body touched the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21).  Old Testament resurrections are therefore confined to the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha.  Given that Jesus declares that John the Baptist is the promised Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:11-13), His own miracles of resurrection prove His indirect claim to be Elisha, the One greater than John and having a double portion of the Spirit.  Prophecy and resurrection are closely connected.

The first of these three readings is the selection for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.  It is the second half of the account which begins in 1 Kings 17:8 and an important part of the wider section of 1 Kings 17-18.  Elijah declares to the wicked king Ahab that there will be no rain “except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  Through this miraculous drought, Elijah seeks to declare to Ahab that there is not God except the God of Israel.  This is why he will confront Ahab in 1 Kings 18 in a powerful demonstration of the burning altar against the prophets of Baal.  “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39)!  Only after this confrontation will the drought come to an end at the word of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:41.

During the time of the drought, the Lord provides for Elijah, first in a miraculous way with the ravens (1 Kings 17:3-6), but then in a more ordinary way with the widow.  This passage is helpful for speaking about what might be called ordinary and extraordinary Providence.  The ravens are a prime example of God’s extraordinary Providence:  He is not bound to our means of providing the things we need in this life.  He may indeed choose to have birds carry bread to His prophet.  But even if we have to bake the bread we eat, it is no less the gift of God, for all things flow from His hand.  He simply chooses, in His ordinary Providence, to use men as the means for providing the things we need.

The Lord commands Elijah to go northward along the coast of the sea to the village called Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9).  Zarephath was deep within Canaanite territory (Obadiah 20).  While it is possible that this widow could be partly an Israelite (as Hiram was the son of an intermarriage in 1 Kings 7:13-14), it is more likely she is a Canaanite, which explains the offense of Jesus’ words to the Jews in Luke 4:25-26.  Being a Canaanite, she is part of the cursed race of Ham (Genesis 9:25) whose continued existence was a mark of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Judges 1:27-36).

Yet even with the ordinary means of Providence, God provides a multiplication miracle as well with the jar of flour and the jug of oil.  Through the Word which Elijah proclaims to her, which the miracle is meant to confirm, the widow and her household, though Canaanites, believe in the Lord.  She has ceased to be a part of the condemned body of Canaan and has now by faith been connected to the body which will be delivered in the day of judgment.  How ironic that Ahab, a son of Abraham, stands under judgment while this woman, a daughter of Canaan, stands before the Lord!

But the woman’s son dies.  She believes it to be a judgment upon her sins (1 Kings 17:18).  While the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), there is every reason to believe that her son dies so that God may show His power through him.  The man born blind (John 9:1-3) and Lazarus (John 11:14-15) serve God’s purposes in their affliction.  God declared to Moses:  “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord” (Exodus 4:11)?  Even in affliction and death, the Lord brings those who belong to Him closer to Himself.

Elijah’s method is somewhat unusual, since he stretches himself over the child three times (1 Kings 17:21-22).  One should perhaps not read too much into this, since the prophets frequently do unusual things.  What is interesting, however, is that Elijah calls upon the Lord in conjunction with this act.  Elisha, on the other hand, having a double portion of the Spirit, does not speak a word at all (2 Kings 4:34-35).  Christ Himself raises with His mere command, and He vindicates His claim as the Prophet through His own resurrection.  We have, therefore, an increasing proof of the truth of the Word of God:  Elijah called upon God who answered faithfully; Elisha proves his office of prophet by raising others even merely by the touch of his bones; and Christ through His own resurrection is “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16).  We do not believe the Scriptures because of Christ’s resurrection.  The resurrection itself is proof that God’s Word cannot be broken.  As the widow herself says:  “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24).

St. Michael and All Angels: Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3

The Lord God does not need any help to carry out His will, because He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wills to do.  However, in His wisdom, God chooses to use His messengers, the angels, as a means of interacting with and protecting men.  The feast of St. Michael and All Angels provides an excellent opportunity for talking about the angels, perhaps mostly for dispelling common misunderstandings.

Angels are mostly anonymous in Scripture, but some of them are known to us.  Jude 9 refers to the “archangel Michael,” and Michael also fights against the dragon in Revelation 12:7.  Michael also appears in the book of Daniel, which appears to be the only reason why Daniel 10:10-14 and Daniel 12:1-3 are the Old Testament readings for this feast.  It is true that the most common “angel” in the Old Testament is the Angel of the Lord, which is a way of speaking of God Himself (Judges 6:22; 13:21-22).  The angels in general, while appearing throughout the Old Testament, are only rarely the primary focus of a passage (Psalm 91:11-12 is one example).  All of this should emphasize how little we know of the angels, which provides an excellent opportunity also for speaking about how we must remain silent where Scripture does not speak.  Even with this understanding, however, the readings from Daniel, chosen because they refer to Michael, violently rip up their context and lead to several misunderstandings.

They are part of the last major section of the book of Daniel, beginning at Daniel 10:1.  This vision comes to Daniel in the “third year of Cyrus, king of Persia.”  Cyrus, the Persian king who had conquered the kingdom of Babylon, made a proclamation in the first year of his reign that the exiles should return to Jerusalem and that the Temple should be rebuilt (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).  Daniel himself lived in Babylon “until the first year of King Cyrus” (Daniel 1:21).  Therefore, this final vision of Daniel occurs after the exiles have returned from Babylon.  Daniel himself is not in Jerusalem during the time of the vision, for it happens while he is near the Tigris river (Daniel 10:4).  He has moved from Susa, the Persian capital further east (Daniel 8:2), westward as far as the river, but it is not clear whether he is now dwelling there or travelling.

While in mourning, Daniel sees a vision of a man.  While some of the details differ, this man is the same as the appearance of the Son of Man to the Apostle John in Revelation 1:12-20.  “Beryl” in Daniel 10:6 is too vague a term to determine actual color, but the wheels of Ezekiel’s vision are described as shining beryl (Ezekiel 1:16; 10:9), which may suggest that this word is meant to describe the brightness of the man more than the actual color of his body.  The primary difference between Daniel and Revelation is that the Son of Man in Revelation holds the seven stars (the seven angels), stands among the seven lampstands (the seven churches), and has a sword going out of His mouth.  However, Christ tells John that “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (Revelation 1:18). Therefore, the victorious Christ appears to John, while it seems that Christ who was yet to come appears to Daniel.

The message in both cases is also the same.  Christ raises up Daniel and John, both of whom had fallen as though asleep or dead at the sight, and gives to them a message of what is to come (Daniel 10:10-11; Revelation 1:17-19).  John suffered because of Christ and was on Patmos; Daniel may have been suffering because of the arrogance of the Persian kings (Daniel 10:13).  Daniel 10-12 and Revelation as a whole therefore have the same purpose:  they are a message to those suffering of what is to come so that they would not lose hope.  God in His Providence will bring all these things to an end, and He will reign triumphant.  “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).  “But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand” (Mark 13:23).

Daniel 11, being a detailed historical overview from the time of the vision until the time of the end, therefore shows that God knows all things.  History does not just happen by accident.  While an exhaustive overview of this chapter would run too long, it might be enough to say that Daniel 11:1-4 describes Alexander the Great, his conquest of the Persian empire, and the division of his kingdom after his death.  This may only be seen clearly after the fact, which should drive home Christ’s warning that “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).  Daniel is not given a key to determine by current events where he is on a timeline.  Daniel himself is told “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9).  But even if we do not know when the Lord will accomplish His purposes, the prophecy tells us very clearly that it will come.  It is a divine comfort to know that, even though we must wait, God is in control of all things.

Michael, however, figures into this prophecy of the end, but he is not the main focus.  He is described as “one of the chief princes.”  He assisted God the Son in opposing the kings of Persia (Daniel 10:13).  He also is described as having “charge of your people,” or perhaps “standing over” (Daniel 12:1).  Angels therefore aid the Lord in carrying out His work, including His judgments, and they are also set over His people for their good (also perhaps over individuals in Matthew 18:10).  All of this may be inferred from the readings, to be sure, but it is not the main point of Daniel 10-12.  One should be wary of choosing texts solely because of word associations.