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Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity: Proverbs 4:10-23

A reading from Proverbs appears a number of times in the lectionary, though the last one was the Second Sunday after Trinity.  There the focus was the contrast between Wisdom and Folly.  Proverbs 4:10-23 occurs within the same division of the book, but focuses instead on the pursuit of Wisdom.  For the wider context of the book of Proverbs, consult the previous study.

It is important to bear in mind that, as he says elsewhere in the book, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).  Solomon’s admonition to his sons, therefore, is an admonition to those who fear the Lord.  The fool, the unbeliever, cannot pursue Wisdom.  “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil” (John 3:19).  Faith, on the other hand, pursues Wisdom, because it fears God.

“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live” (Proverbs 4:4).  Because Solomon speaks to those who fear the Lord, they indeed delight in the Law in their inward being.  “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:35)!  Faith delights in the Law, because it is the will of God.  This ties this reading from Proverbs very closely with the appointed reading from Galatians 5:16-24.  The fool delights in the works of the flesh, because they are contrary to the Law of God, which he hates.  God must therefore give him the Law in order to show him the folly of his ways.  The Law reveals that he is headed down the path of destruction, and his life confirms that verdict.  But for those who have the Spirit of God, the Law shows what is good and right in the sight of God.  “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8).

The pericope has three primary divisions:  the admonition to avoid evil and seek wisdom (Proverbs 4:10-15); the way of evil (Proverbs 4:16-19); and the pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 4:20-23).  While the exact division is debatable, this emphasizes Solomon’s three main points.

The first part flows out of the earlier part of the chapter.  Those who seek wisdom will see many years, just like the commandment to honor father and mother “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).  Seek life, because the Lord “is your life and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:20).  The wise will not stumble and fall, because that is what will happen to evildoers (Psalm 27:2).  But one cannot go on limping between two different opinions (1 Kings 18:21).  One cannot serve two masters.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).  Therefore, those who are of the light must avoid the works of darkness and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:14).

The second part speaks of the way of evil.  Those who seek after the way of death and destruction do so with their whole being.  They “cannot sleep unless they have done wrong” and “eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” (Proverbs 4:16-17).  Nor is it a matter of being only partly wicked.  Those who are opposed to God cannot submit to Him at all.  “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)?  As Jesus says:  “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

The last part of this pericope calls to the wise to pursue Wisdom and to listen to his words.  “Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart” (Proverbs 4:21).  In the last part of the chapter, which is oddly not included in the reading, this admonition is much clearer.  Put away crooked speech, but “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).  Ponder the path of your feet, and “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).  Do not turn to the right or to the left, but pursue the Lord diligently and without wavering.  These are commands directed to the believer and not to the unbeliever, which is to say that they do not save.  But the believer is commanded to run and to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10), because faith is a living and active thing.  Let us, therefore, wage a holy violence against all that would hinder us and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: 2 Chronicles 28:8-15

There is always a potential danger in choosing readings that too much will be left out. It is true that the one year lectionary historically did not include Old Testament readings, and therefore these choices were often made to fit the existing ones. Occasionally, this focus toward the New Testament leads to an unusual choice, especially when that selection is narrowed to keep the reading relatively short. 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, the Old Testament reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, is a good example of this difficulty. It is plainly chosen to mirror the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the shortness of the reading leaves out many details which would show that the parallel between the two is not as strong as one might hope. This is, of course, a problem with the lectionary, not with the passage itself.

King Ahaz of the southern kingdom of Judah, the son of righteous Jotham, the grandson of righteous Uzziah, was deeply wicked. It was not enough for Ahaz to walk in the same path as Jeroboam, but he also copied the religious practices of the surrounding nations. He made metal images of the Baals and sacrificed in every high place and under every green tree. As if all of this were a light thing, he even burned his own children as a sacrifice “according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:1-4; also 2 Kings 16:1-4). Godless Ahaz even had the audacity to pretend to piously refuse to put the Lord to the test, even when the Lord commanded him to do it through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-12).

Meanwhile, Pekah, the king of Israel, who was coming toward the end of his reign (2 Kings 15:27; 16:1), was trying to regain some of his original power. Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria, captured part of the northern territory of Israel in Pekah’s reign and carried off Naphtali (2 Kings 15:28). Pekah therefore sought an alliance with Syria, who were located to the northeast, as a way of pushing back against Assyrian encroachment as well as regaining some of that territory. It is this alliance that caused Ahaz to be afraid (Isaiah 7:1-2), because he felt that he could not withstand such an attack.

Israel and Syria did in fact attack Jerusalem, just as Ahaz feared, because the Lord sought to punish Ahaz for his wickedness. However, the attack proved somewhat futile, as they were not able to take Jerusalem. Rezin, the king of Syria, managed to take Elath for Syria, but they did not conquer more than this (2 Kings 16:5-6). Ahaz, instead of trusting in the Lord like he should have, sought an alliance with Tiglath-pileser. As a way of gaining Assyria’s favor, Ahaz took some of the gold of the Temple and sent it as a tribute (2 Chronicles 28:16-21; 2 Kings 16:7-9). This, of course, only made the situation worse. Here was a fine dilemma: the kings of Israel and Judah both seeking foreign alliances like pagan kings instead of trusting in the Lord!

This, then, is the context for the reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. Israel takes the people of Judah captive, treating them like the spoils of war rather than as their brothers. Moses made it perfectly clear that an Israelite could not own another Israelite as a slave (Leviticus 25:39-46), but this civil war showed just how far Israel had strayed from the ways of the Lord. This was not the first civil war in Israel, but like the war with Benjamin, Israelites were following the wickedness of their neighbors. Gibeah imitated Sodom, Israel now imitates Assyria (see Judges 19:22-20:48).

But not all hope is lost. As they bring the captives northward to Samaria, the capital city of Israel, a prophet named Oded confronts them. Even in the midst of the idolatry of Israel, there are still some who follow after the Lord. Many of the great prophets proclaimed their message within the northern kingdom (Elijah and Elisha both, for example). Oded proclaims that while God had used Israel to punish Judah, Israel had added sin upon sin by taking Judah captive (2 Chronicles 28:9-11). While God may indeed use a man as His instrument, whether for blessing or for judgment, this is not a pretext for doing whatever that man pleases. God works through men, because He is able to use evil for His own good purposes, but men remain culpable to God for their sins.

Some of the leaders of Ephraim also speak against this great sin. 7,000 have not bowed the knee to Baal in Israel, though this does not mean that Israel is not guilty. Sin is not as individualistic as we might want it to be. God says very clearly regarding idols, for example, that “you shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5). He may very well cut off a whole nation because of the sins of a few. God closed the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of his sin toward Sarah (Genesis 20:18). Israel suffers defeat because of Achan’s greed (Joshua 7). If sin affects only the individual, then Paul’s command to cast out the incestuous adulterer in Corinth makes no sense. Rather, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5). Even Ezekiel’s clear statement that each man dies for his own sin does not fight against this, because he is speaking against those who believe that they are innocent and suffering unjustly. They are in fact not innocent, because they participate in the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18).

Finally, the men of Ephraim do everything that they can to help the captives of Judah by showing them great mercy. This is likely the reason why this passage is connected to the parable of the Good Samaritan in the lectionary. Instead of treating them like slaves contrary to the Law, they treat them as their brothers. One should be careful to note the following points, however. First, Samaria is a city, not a region or a people group, so Samaria and Samaritan in this case are not the same thing. Samaritans do not even yet exist, because Israel has not yet gone into exile (2 Kings 17:24-41). Second, Israel will still go into exile because of their sins. While these men of Ephraim may fear the Lord, Israel as a whole must still be punished. Pekah himself will be deposed shortly after this event, doubtlessly because of his sins (2 Kings 15:30). Lastly, it is worth noting that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is a foreigner who acts like a neighbor to the dying man. Here, some men of Ephraim act like neighbors to the men of Judah. The two are similar in that respect, but 2 Chronicles 28 is not an Old Testament parable of the Good Samaritan. One should resist the temptation to rush forward, as if the Old Testament is only the New Testament in disguise.

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 4:1-15

Genesis 4:1-15 is part of the last section of the “generations of the heavens and the earth” beginning in Genesis 2:4.  Throughout this section, man moves from the perfection of Eden to an ever-increasing sinfulness, culminating in Lamech’s boast of killing a young man who had only struck him (Genesis 4:23-24).  Cain murdering Abel, therefore, seems to be a confirmation that the curse of Adam has begun to spread to his descendents (Romans 5:12).

Eve bears her first born son and names him Cain.  This is a cause for giving thanks to God, because sin has not ruined the Lord’s first blessing of fruitfulness (Genesis 1:28).  Even in the midst of sin, God continues to pour out His blessings to accomplish His purposes (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17).  Therefore, Eve names him Cain, which sounds similar to the verb translated here as “I have gotten.”

There are a couple of difficult points here, however.  First, the verb translated “gotten” can mean something more like “to acquire” or even “to buy.”  It is a transactional verb, especially focusing on possession.  It is related to the noun translated “livestock” in Genesis 4:20 and “possessor” or “creator” in Genesis 14:19, among others.  However, this is a strange way of speaking, and Eve’s meaning is not entirely clear.  Why would she say “I have taken possession” when speaking of a son?

Second, the word translated “with the help of” here can be taken in a few different ways.  The first, more common, is a word showing a direct object, sort of the like the “m” in the word “whom.”  If taken this way, the sentence would read “I have acquired a man, the Lord,” which Luther famously used as proof that Eve was expecting the Messiah in the birth of Cain.  Another, less common, but still well-established, is to translate it as “with,” which is how it is frequently translated here, even in the Septuagint.

Luther’s interpretation, “I have gotten a man, the Lord,” may be too clever by half.  First, it assumes that Eve names her second son Abel, which means “wind” or “vanity,” out of seeming cruelty.  Cain is the Messiah, so Luther argues, and Abel is more or less dirt.  This doesn’t jive well, however, with Eve’s grief in Genesis 4:25.  It is just as likely that Eve’s joy in the birth of Cain has turned more reflective with the birth of Abel, causing her to say with the Preacher that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).  There are certainly other examples of mothers naming children after their grief, such as Ichabod, that is, “where is the glory?” (1 Samuel 4:21) and Rachel wanting to name Benjamin Ben-oni, that is, “son of my sorrow” (Genesis 35:18).

Second, it assumes that Eve has a fuller knowledge of revelation than she may in fact have.  The Lord moves through history in a progressive way.  He says to Moses that “by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3).  Jesus makes this clear as well when He says to the disciples:  “I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).  God spoke through the prophets, but now He has spoken the fuller revelation through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).  This hardly means that Eve did not believe or could not believe, but rather that revelation moves in stages, the impartial giving way to the fuller.  Do we know all that can be known about the Last Day?  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What we are told clearly enough in the Bible is that Abel had faith while Cain did not.  Abel’s blood is “righteous” (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:50-51).  “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).  “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).  Cain offers up a sacrifice to the Lord, but as Jesus warns:  ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

There may be something to the point that Cain offers grain while Abel offers an animal.  Grain offerings in Leviticus are offered in thanksgiving (Leviticus 2).  On the other hand, animal sacrifices offered with their blood are meant for atonement and forgiveness, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).  Is Cain attempting to skip over atonement and go directly to thanksgiving?  However, the same word “offering” is used for both kinds of sacrifices here in Genesis, and the Bible is perfectly clear that faith is the key element.  “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  It is an observation and cannot be made more certain than that.

Three brief notes.  First, even though Abel does not speak at any time, his blood cries to the Lord because of His faith.  God will not forsake those who believe in Him.  As Moses says of Israel in Egypt:  “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).  Second, though we are not told how Cain killed Abel, the earth opens its mouth to receive Abel’s spilled blood.  This strongly suggests that Cain had some sort of killing object in his hand, which only intensifies his guilt and gives the avenger the undeniable right to strike him down (Numbers 35:16-21).  Third, Cain’s cry that “my punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13) is not a cry of repentance, but a cry of fear.  Job recognizes that God’s judgments are just (Job 1:21).  It is the unbelieving heart which complains that the judgment is not in proportion to the sin (Ezekiel 18:25-29).

Finally, Moses does not tell us what the “mark” placed upon Cain is.  It is, on the one hand, a sign of mercy, because it effectively protects Cain from any avenger seeking his life.  On the other hand, it is a physical sign of some kind, because it is placed “upon Cain.”  The same word is frequently used of other signs, such as the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:11).  But with regard to Cain, it must be a sign of unbelief.  God has set Cain apart from the rest of mankind, together with his descendents.  If the mark was passed from generation to generation (though we are not told if it did), this would render the guilt of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men even greater, because God would have given them a physical sign of unbelief which they ignored (Genesis 6).  Lamech certainly distorted the sign as a token of God’s favor, so that his sin became that much greater.  Even if we have no such physical mark today distinguishing believers from unbelievers, those who walk after Cain are like goats and weeds, waiting for the Last Day when all will be revealed as clearly as the physical mark set upon Cain.

Tenth Sunday after Trinity: Jeremiah 7:1-11

The Old Testament pericope for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity ends too soon.  Because Jeremiah 7:1-11 is the beginning of a longer passage, cutting it off there can lend itself to misunderstanding.  Pericopes, of course, are not meant to be long, but the books of the Bible are books and not collections of unrelated passages.  It would be better to extend the reading at least as far as verse 20, because then a larger portion of the thought of this section is presented rather than just its beginning.

The Lord commands Jeremiah to “stand in the gate of the Lord’s house” (Jeremiah 7:2).  In that position, men entering the temple grounds would not be able to avoid him.  Jeremiah is not preaching to irreligious men, but to those who continue to perform everything which the Lord commands outwardly.  They are coming to the temple because they seek to follow a law of works rather than a law of faith (Romans 3:27).  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him” (James 2:14)?

Therefore, the call to “amend your ways and your deeds” is not a cry to those who have never known God.  This is one of the dangers of shortening this reading.  Rather, there is a disparity between the profession and the reality.  They claim to be Abraham’s sons, but in reality are far from the Lord (Romans 2:28; Matthew 15:7-9).  This is, of course, a common theme in the prophets (Hosea 6:6, for example).  Carnal unbelievers want to make grace a pretext for sin (Romans 6:1).  One way to translate Jeremiah 7:10 shows this clearly:  “‘We are delivered’, in order to do all these abominations.”  Christians also struggle with sin (Romans 7:22-23), but Jeremiah rebukes those who have ceased to follow the Lord except outwardly.

The threefold repetition of “the temple of the Lord” only emphasizes the problem.  Jeremiah does repeat himself in this way in other places (Jeremiah 22:29), but the carnal men who say this are using it in a magical way.  It is an incantation of sorts, because it takes the real promises of God and perverts them into something other than their actual meaning.  Instead of walking in the ways of the Lord who redeemed them, they cover their lawlessness with His promises.  God will not send us away, because He made a promise to us!  God will not destroy us, because we are baptized!  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21; see also Matthew 3:9; Micah 2:6).

Jeremiah 7:12-15 should not be overlooked.  Shiloh was the first location of the tent of meeting once Israel entered Canaan (Joshua 18:1).  Even down to the birth of Samuel, this was the location where God made His name to dwell (1 Samuel 1:3).  But Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, brought down judgment through their sin and their abuse of the ark (1 Samuel 4:3-11).  Therefore, the Lord rejected Shiloh (Psalm 78:60-61).  If He rejected the dwelling place of His tabernacle because of sin, why would the temple be any different?  The Lord was not any less present at Shiloh than at Jerusalem, yet the sin of His people brought down judgment.

Jeremiah 7:16-20 brings a major thought of this section to a close.  The Lord rejected Shiloh because of sin, and the Lord will reject His temple for the same reason.  Jeremiah must not intercede for this people, because they persist in their guilt to their own shame.  Nor is this a case of a few individuals who leaven the whole lump:  “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger” (Jeremiah 7:18).  The whole mass of Israel stand guilty of idolatry, even in something as seemingly innocuous as gathering sticks.  Degrees of guilt may exist among them, but all stand accused, even down to those not directly participating in false worship.  Sin is never so neatly subdivided.  All men are sinners, after all, because of the transgression of one man (Romans 5:12).

Therefore, Jeremiah is not moralizing here.  The call to do what is right is meant to show the wickedness of being double-minded, limping between two ways.  Nor is it a generic rebuke of sin.  Rather, it is specifically against those who cover the blood on their hands with a false piety.  Jeremiah speaks against those who turn God’s grace into license, justification of the sinner into justification for sin, whitewashing tombs.  If the Lord destroyed the temple twice, do you think that He will overlook the unrepentant sins of those who claim to be in Christ?

Ninth Sunday after Trinity: 2 Samuel 22:26-34

2 Samuel 22 is something of an excursion in the book.  While the previous chapter described battles with the Philistines, Saul took his own life in 1 Samuel 31.  Therefore, 2 Samuel 22:1 does not describe a particular point in time, since it speaks about “all [David’s] enemies” and Saul together.  Further, 2 Samuel 23 records the “last words” of David, even though he dies in 1 Kings 2:10-12.  The point, then, is that the wars of David are “over” in terms of the book, and the author felt it appropriate to include the last of the information which he had before him.  1 and 2 Kings are more explicit about referring to these other books, but the author refers to the now-lost book of Jashar in 2 Samuel 1:18.  A final proof that this section is not strictly chronological is the reference to Uriah the Hittite in 2 Samuel 23:39, whom David murdered for the sake of Bathsheba near the beginning of the book.

2 Samuel 22 is also found in the Psalter as Psalm 18, though the two are not identical word-for-word.  This is not unusual, since the Lord’s Prayer is found in two places, though not in identical wording (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).  The Holy Spirit is not bound to our exacting standards, as shown by the numerous quotations Old Testament in the New which cite the idea more than the wording.  It is, however, worth noting here that 2 Samuel 22:1 is nearly identical with the “title” of Psalm 18.  These titles, which are often relegated to superscriptions in English Bibles (and on rare occasions excluded!), are actually part of the Psalm, and therefore part of God’s Word.  They should not be ignored!

The psalm itself is martial in character, especially since the king speaks of his own accomplishments through it (note especially 2 Samuel 22:35-43).  However, David makes it abundantly clear throughout the psalm that he would not have been able to do any of it had God not been with him through all of it.  It is God who makes him excel in war, and it is God who wins the victory through him.

There may be six sections within the psalm:  introductory praise (2 Samuel 22:2-4); plea (2 Samuel 22:5-7); theophany (2 Samuel 22:8-16, literally “appearance of God”); God’s mercy and goodness (2 Samuel 22:17-31); the unique God and his servant the king (2 Samuel 22:32-46); and concluding praise (2 Samuel 22:47-51).  Such a division is, of course, debatable, but it helps to see the thought progression throughout the psalm.  Recognizing the outline also helps in sermon preparation.

The psalm opens with praise to the Lord, “who is worthy to be praised” (2 Samuel 22:4).  David does not boast of his own works in the sense that they mean anything apart from God.  Only because God has acted first can he then say anything about what he has accomplished, because he is the instrument of God.  The emphasis in the beginning here on stability and safety in the Lord is important to remember for the next section.

“Waves of death” and its related expressions can be understood in a general sense.  However, in the context of the psalm, especially with its emphasis below on warfare, it seems more likely that this is not an existential crisis in the face of death, but rather the risk of death in battle.  2 Samuel 22:18 says that “he rescued me from my strong enemy, from those who hated me.”  The previous verse in 2 Samuel 22:17 finds a parallel in Psalm 144:7, where “waters” is set in parallel with “foreigners.”  Paul, of course, speaks in terms of spiritual warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, for example), and therefore the psalm also applies to all Christians and not merely David.  But this distress is not a fear of dying, but distress in the face of so many enemies.

But the Lord who hears is also the Fear of Israel.  David describes his awesome power as a way of showing that the Lord can and will deliver him from his enemies.  2 Samuel 22:8-16 is a fearful image of God, but a comforting one, because if such a fearful and awesome God is on our side, who can be against us?  “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me” (Psalm 118:6)?  “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).  “The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau stubble; they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the Lord has spoken” (Obadiah 18).

The Lord therefore delivers David from his enemies “because He delighted in me” (2 Samuel 22:20).  David says that “I have kept the ways of the Lord and have not wickedly departed from my God” (2 Samuel 22:22).  He is not boasting of his own works making him righteous before God.  After all, he makes clear again and again throughout the psalm that the Lord is the one who does all these things!  Rather, there are two things at work here.  The first is that one can be blameless with respect to the Law insofar as he has not flagrantly sinned against it.  Paul’s claim that he was blameless under the law is not an empty or a false statement (Philippians 3:6).  Rather, being “above reproach” as in 1 Timothy 3:2 means that there are no public faults.  Second, God deals with His people differently from the rest of mankind.  “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28), because God exalts those who are His own and brings down those who are not.  His desire is to save, of course, and humbling a man is meant to bring him back to God.  However, God also will bring vengeance upon the enemies of His Church (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, and Hebrews 10:30).  “With the merciful you show youself merciful” is therefore a recognition that God deals with His people differently than with the “crooked.”

Therefore, because the Lord is David’s God, the one who is merciful and a refuge, David is able to pursue his enemies and destroy them.  The Lord “trains my hands for war” (2 Samuel 22:35) and “equipped me with strength for the battle” (2 Samuel 22:40).  “You made my enemies turn their backs to me, those who hated me, and I destroyed them. They looked, but there was none to save; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them. I beat them fine as the dust of the earth; I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets” (2 Samuel 22:41-43).  The enemies of the Church will be crushed underfoot.  As Paul says, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).

Fifth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Kings 19:11-21

Elijah has been very zealous for the Lord of Hosts.  The reading for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity is part of a larger section beginning in 1 Kings 16:29.  “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.  And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him” (1 Kings 16:30-31).  Ahab is deliberately wicked, and Elijah is sent to proclaim the Word of the Lord to him.

Elijah therefore proclaims a drought upon the land.  He does not predict that one will come, but rather that it will not rain “except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  This is the first of several signs in this conflict, all with the same ultimate end.  Elijah is provided bread and water for a time by the ravens by the brook Cherith, because it is the Lord who provides (1 Kings 17:2-7).  The widow at Zarephath receives the miraculous jar of flour and jug of oil “until the day that the Lord sends rain,” because all things come from His mighty hand (1 Kings 17:8-16).  Her son is raised from death, because the Lord is the Lord of life and death, and His Word is in Elijah’s mouth (1 Kings 17:17-24).  The altar of Elijah is burned up in the sight of all, because “the Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39)!  Finally, the Lord sends rain again upon the land (1 Kings 18:41-46).  All of these signs point to the same thing:  the Most Holy Trinity is the Lord of heaven and earth, and beside Him, there is no other.  “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).

But Elijah doesn’t yet understand this.  Jezebel threatens to kill him because he put the prophets of Baal to death, and Elijah flees.  He has seen the hand of the Lord again and again throughout his life, and especially throughout the time of the drought.  But he is now afraid of the threat of a woman.  As Jesus says: “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).  But Elijah fears for his life.

A few notes about the passage itself.  Elijah strives to present his fear as zeal, as if he was the only one left who was faithful in Israel.  He has apparently forgotten the widow and Obadiah who hid the prophets in his fear, among others.  He is convinced that there is no future, because he thinks that the Lord’s Church will die out with him.  Yet the Lord reminds him that He will leave seven thousand in Israel (1 Kings 19:18).  Not seven thousand who have chosen to remain faithful or even a count of those still faithful at the moment.  The Lord declares “I will leave seven thousand in Israel,” because it is His Church.  The Church does not continue because of men, but because of the will of God.

The end of this chapter should not be excluded in this consideration.  Elisha’s call follows right on the heels of Elijah’s experience at Horeb.  God still sends men to proclaim His Word from generation to generation.  His Church will continue her mission in this age until Christ brings it to a close.  But this should remind us, as it probably did for Elijah, that the Church does not depend on us.  There will not be a “hole” when our time is ended.  Our talents, our gifts, our zeal, our ability are useful for the time in which God wills to use them for His purposes.  But the time allotted to each will come to an end, and the work of the harvest will pass to others.  We should not think of ourselves too highly and imagine that God will lack something when we are gone.  It is His Church, and He will never fail to provide for her.

Fourth Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 50:15-21

The reading for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity comes from near the very end of Genesis as well as the end of the “generations of Jacob” which began in Genesis 37:2.  Joseph’s brothers continue to feel guilty about how they treated him.  When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers earlier, he emphasized that “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).  However, after they had settled in Egypt and Israel died, their guilt returns, imagining that Joseph had been biding his time out of respect for his father.  They even attempt to frame their plea as if Jacob had commanded it, which does not appear to be the case.

Their fear, however, is faithless.  Joseph had already forgiven them when he revealed himself to them, but they have forgotten.  It is not groundless, to be sure, considering their horrific conduct toward their own brother, but to return to such fear of punishment after hearing a word of forgiveness is to treat that word as false.  As John says, “Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son” (1 John 5:10).  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  In a similar way, Joseph’s brothers are treating him like a liar, which moves him to tears.

Joseph, nevertheless, reaffirms the word of forgiveness, because the sinful soul is often tempted with memories of past sins.  “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).  “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).  A Christian troubled by doubts should be pointed to Christ, rather than to himself, and he will see that Jesus is indeed faithful.  Joseph’s brothers have forgotten and have returned to their fear, but they are pointed again to that mercy.

Because Joseph reiterates the same word of comfort from before, he also re-emphasizes the Providence of the Lord.  Paul’s affirmation “that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) demonstrates that God is not limited.  The temptation is to regard Providence as using primarily those things which we regard as “good” or perhaps focusing on God’s direct actions in history.  Evil, in that sense, tends to be treated as a problem to be dealt with or acted against.  The Lord, to be absolutely sure, is not the author of sin.  But God is not limited in His options.  God will accomplish what He chooses to do without fail, even if He wills to use an evil as the means to that end.  Adam fell because of his own sin and became a lawbreaker, but the Lord uses the Fall toward His purpose of sending Christ into the flesh.  “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

In Joseph’s case, the Lord uses the evil which his brothers intended against him as the means for providing for many people.  History does not just happen and the Lord somehow reacts to it.  God is the Lord of history, and all things fall under His Providence.  The reason why this can be so difficult for us is that we only have a small part of the picture and imperfect knowledge.  We are caught up in the moment and cannot see how everything is working together.  Very often, this becomes clearer in hindsight, though not always, because only God knows all things.

But this should not cause us to fear.  Joseph comforts his brothers by pointing to the Providence of God.  Yes, their action was very evil, but they recognize it as the sin that it is (1 John 1:8-9).  However, despite their wickedness, God uses it for a far greater good.  Not as an afterthought, not as a reaction, but as the means through which many lives were spared in the famine which it pleased the Lord to send.  If the Triune Lord could use even that evil as a means for good, will He not much more give you the good which He promises to give?  “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:21).

Third Sunday after Trinity: Micah 7:18-20

The prophet Micah was more or less a contemporary of Isaiah.  Micah 1:1 notes that his ministry stretched from the reign of Jotham to Hezekiah in Judah.  His time was a turbulent one.  While Jotham and Hezekiah were both good kings in the sight of the Lord (2 Kings 15:32-38 and 18:1-8), Ahaz was not (2 Kings 16).  If things had been improving when Micah began, they certainly took a hard turn not long after.  On top of that, the northern kingdom of Israel fell during his days (2 Kings 17:6).  It is a period of turbulence and upheaval everywhere.

Micah initially directs his rebuke against the people in general, warning them of their coming destruction because of their sins.  The people were complacent and distorted the promises of God to mean something entirely different.  “’Do not preach’—thus they preach— ‘one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us’” (Micah 2:6).  God will surely not destroy His chosen people, right?  But they were carnally secure, thinking that the promises applied to them even if they did not walk in the ways of the Lord.  “If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ he would be the preacher for this people” (Micah 2:11)!  The Lord does not promise to save the faithless or the rebellious.  Was that the case, who would ever be condemned?

Micah also rebukes those in command, because they in particular were “eating up” the people through their sins (Micah 3).  The prophets were preaching lies and crying “peace” when there was no peace.  They were promising that the sinful people would remain in the land, though in our own day many say that God does not actually hate sin.  Manifest sinners are part of the Church, right?  Nor is it right to say that we are all sinners, which is true enough in itself.  No one deserves grace.  But to say that someone who refuses to repent of a sin, declaring it to be natural or that God has made them this way, is to declare peace when there is no peace.  “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God” (Micah 3:6-7).

But the Lord promises to His faithful remnant that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2).  If the day of destruction is surely coming, then the day of peace is also coming in Jesus Christ.  Bethlehem Ephrathah, being too small to supply men for military service, will be the place from whom the Ruler shall come (Micah 5:2).  Jesus, born in Bethlehem, will be the one to bring peace to the land.  There will be no more war or idolatry in the land anymore.

Micah 6-7 forms the final section of the book.  The Lord brings an indictment against His people:  why have they turned away when He has done so much for them (Micah 6:1-5)?  It will not do to offer thanksgiving without atonement, so to speak.  Sin must be atoned for, and rivers of oil will not cover over it (Micah 6:6-8).  The wicked will come to an end for their sins, especially seen in the sins against their own brothers (Micah 6:9-16).

Yet even though the righteous man suffers much, especially at the hands of the wicked, the Lord will not fail him.  He is not righteous because of anything he has done, but because the Lord “pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.  He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon His vindication” (Micah 7:9).  After all, God pardons iniquity and passes over transgression for His faithful remnant.  Casting our sins into the depths of the seas, the Lord shows that promised faithfulness.  Abraham and our fathers have not been cast off, and God does not cast us off because of His Son.

Second Sunday after Trinity: Proverbs 9:1-10

The book of Proverbs can be rather difficult to outline.  Most of the book is composed of fairly unrelated or loosely related proverbs.  Solomon is the author of most of these proverbs (Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1), though not all of his sayings were recorded (Compare 1 Kings 4:32).  However, there are other authors noted in the book, such as “the wise” (Proverbs 24:23), Agur, son of Jakeh (Proverbs 30:1), and King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1).  The heading in Proverbs 25:1 notes that the “men of Hezekiah, king of Judah” compiled the book.  Therefore, Solomon is the primary author, to be sure, but the book itself appeared in the form we have it near the time of the exile.

However, the book does fall into a larger pattern.  Proverbs 1:1-9:18 is essentially a lengthy discourse on the value of Wisdom, especially in contrast to Folly, both of which are personified in several places as women.  Proverbs 10-29 contain the content of wisdom, and almost all of these sayings (with the exception of Proverbs 24:23-34) belong to Solomon.  Proverbs 30-31 are two additional groups of sayings attached to the end.

The reading for the Second Sunday after Trinity, which is Proverbs 9:1-10, therefore falls within this initial discourse of the value of Wisdom.  The contrast with the woman Folly is important here.  Wisdom builds her house and is diligent in her work.  Folly relies on her seductive powers while knowing nothing (Proverbs 9:13).  Wisdom sends her handmaidens to call from the highest places and bids the simple to leave his foolishness behind, going on the difficult but rewarding way of insight.  Folly herself either seduces a passerby or goes to the high places, but she bids the simple to go the easy path of stealing her so-called “wisdom,” the path of idleness, sin, and finally death (Proverbs 9:14-18).

Note also the comparison between the wise and the foolish in the middle of this chapter.  The fool, here called a scoffer, resists instruction and hates those who attempt to teach him (Proverbs 9:7-9).  The wise man, however, gladly receives instruction so that he may be wiser still (Proverbs 9:8-9).

But this is not a generic call to wisdom, as if it were enough to be “wise” in some vague sense.  Rather, the key verse of this passage, and arguably of all of Proverbs (and Ecclesiastes for that matter) is:  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:1).  The one who fears the Lord is wise, and the one who does not fear God is a fool.  This has nothing to do with education or book-learning, as one might say.  It is not even so much to do with practical wisdom, street-smarts.  Rather, everything on earth which is undertaken or attempted apart from the Lord is folly and will ultimately come to nothing.  Build a name for yourself:  the grave will take it away.  Build a house with your own hands:  time or disaster will turn it to dust.  Seek pleasure or work hard:  all will finally come to an end.  But the fear of the Lord is wisdom, because the things of the Lord will never pass away.  Though heaven and earth will pass away, the Word of the Lord will never pass away (Matthew 24:35; Revelation 14:7; Isaiah 40:6-8; Luke 10:41-42).

It should also be noted here that the fear of the Lord is not a term of intense respect, but a genuine fear.  God is almighty and all-holy.  He is our Creator, and we are His creatures and will always remain so.  That sort of power should cause us to tremble.  There is a difference from this fear which gives God glory and the fear which only cowers.  This is why passages like Exodus 20:18-21 are so instructive in this regard.  The people cower, which is why Moses instructs them to “not fear,” but he also notes that God has come down on Sinai to teach them so that “the fear of Him may be before you, so that you may not sin.”  Cowering before God only seeks to avoid the blow, but fearing the living God is turning away from that which He hates.  Fear God, then, and give Him glory, because to turn away from evil is to walk the path of life (see also passage likes Matthew 10:28; Revelation 19:5; Genesis 22:12; Exodus 1:17-21; Ecclesiastes 12:13).

Trinity I – Luke 16:19-31

The context of the First Sunday after Trinity’s gospel is an encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees, whom we told are “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Doubtless Jesus tells this account (or parable?) of the rich man and Lazarus for their benefit as well as ours.

Two things stand out as the overarching themes of this reading. The first is the finality of death. When Lazarus and the Rich Man die there is no changing their station after death. The rich man goes to hades and Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22) a Hebraic euphemism for heaven.  Though in the story there is verbal communication between the rich man and Abraham, there can be no passage between heaven and hell, no moving up or down. A great chasm is fixed between father Abraham and the rich man in hell (Luke 16:26).

We can speculate here a great deal about the spatial set-up of the afterlife, and many have. But the account is meant to teach us something regarding repentance and faith, not the exact parameters of heaven and hell.  We must rest in what is revealed to us here and not delve too deeply into what is not revealed. The eternal things of the afterlife, those things outside of time and space are put here by Jesus in temporal and spatial terms in order that we would have some grasp of the story, like a father teaching his children in simple words things that are beyond their comprehension.

The second theme which Jesus teaches is the sufficiency of the word of scripture. The scriptures are sufficient for the conversion of men to the good news of the gospel. The rich man wished to send his brothers, still living, a spiritual encounter with the dead Lazarus (much like Jacob Marley in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” was sent to Ebenezer Scrooge) in order to scare them straight, that they would turn from their evils and do good. Abraham says to the rich man “they have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them” (Luke 16:29).  Abraham, who came before Moses, points to the writings of Moses and the prophets as that which will teach, convert, and sustain the brothers, as it had Lazarus in his earthly life.

Jesus teaches that the scripture alone is able to convert hearts and minds, not miracles (Luke 16:31). The one who hears the scripture and takes it to heart is the true son of Abraham. The rich man though bodily descended from the patriarch is not a son of Abraham, for he will not hear the scriptures. The word of the proverb comes to mind “Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who receives the commandment will be rewarded” (Proverbs 13:13).

The rich man rejected God’s purposes in the preaching of the word, even in death. His emphatic “no!” (Luke 16:30) to what Abraham told him across the great chasm perfectly reflected what he believed in his earthly life: He would not hear preaching and instruction. He rejects God’s means of grace. Lazarus, though poor and beggarly hears the word of God, clings to the promises that it makes to him and is accounted righteous, sharing the faith of his father Abraham (Romans 4:16).

We as Christ’s Church not only have Moses and the Prophets in the Old Testament scripture, but Christ and the Apostles the New Testament which bear witness to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us men and for our salvation.  Let us hear them and believe “For faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).