The gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Trinity, like the previous Sunday, concerns itself with the blessings of faith.  This faith comes by hearing the word of Christ, represented here as the invitation of the Lord of the Feast.

Jesus tells this parable in the context of a feast where he is eating with the Pharisees. Luke 14:1-24 chronicles this feast in which Jesus heals a man with dropsy and uses the concept of the feast as the context to teach about the kingdom of God.

Jesus says that “a man” gave a great banquet.  We are to understand throughout the parable that this man indicates the Triune God, who gives the great eschatological feast at the end of time with all the saints. This man extended the invitation to many, but they excused themselves from the feast though they likely had according to ancient custom, accepted the invitation long before and had promised to come. This indicates the Israel of the old covenant, the ancient people of God. Like the brothers in last week’s parable, they had the opportunity to hear Moses and the prophets, the gracious invitation to God’s feast. Abraham and all the Old Testament saints partook of the feast by faith, by grabbing hold of the promises which God made to them through the word. Though the excuses offered in the parable for not heeding the invitation concern godly things like marriage and vocation, those invited uphold them as more important and more pressing that the word and promises of God.

Upon this rejection, the Lord of the Feast commands his servant to go into the streets and lanes of the city, that is, to the people of God once again. Indeed, God sent John the Baptizer among the Jews to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus is born among the Jews as a Jew, teaches in their synagogues and in the Temple. Gods’ people are called to the fulfillment of the Old Testament faith in Jesus.

The Master of the feast also commands his slave to go outside the city to the highways and hedges, that is, to the Gentiles, and compel them to come in to the banquet.  This will be an inclusive feast as foretold in the prophets.  Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean partake of the feast by the gracious invitation of the Lord of the feast. The feast and banquet hall must be full.

In Jesus’ ministry he came firstly to the Jews as was right, for salvation is of the Jews. The parable indicates that many though invited will reject the Feast of God, salvation and grace.  Yet God’s purposes are not thwarted and his banquet hall will be full.  The Gentiles will be invited and compelled to come into the feast just as those of old were compelled, through the word preached and taught.  This parable discredits any notion of dispensationalism (the salvation of Jews for the sake of their bloodline or their keeping of the Mosaic Law) for old and new covenant Christians (yes, they were Christians in the Old Testament!) are included in the feast of mercy, grace, and forgiveness not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. This feast will come in its fullness when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead and the new creation is ushered in. Yet this feast is available to all even now as a foretaste, through the promises God makes in his word and sacraments.

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).

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).

Genesis 15 comes fairly early in the major section of the “generations of Terah” (Genesis 11:27-25:11).  The Lord has already sent Abram (not yet Abraham) to Canaan in chapter 12.  After a brief sojourn in Egypt, Abraham rescues Lot from being a prisoner of war in Genesis 14.  Abram is then blessed by Melchizedek.

The phrase “after these things” refers then to these previous events.  Abram has left Ur in faith, not knowing exactly where the Lord is leading him (Genesis 12:1).  The Lord has promised Canaan to his offspring, and Abram builds an altar in an act of worship (Genesis 13:14-18).  The Lord has even given him victory over kings with a relatively small band of 318 men (Genesis 14:13-16).  Abram has every reason to continue trusting the Lord who has led him this far.

Yet the Lord comes to comfort Abram in one continuing problem:  he has no son.  God has promised him numberless offspring, yet he remains without a child.  As Paul says in Romans 4:18-22 and Hebrews 11:12, humanly speaking Abram’s body was “as good as dead,” since he was well beyond the human capacity for fathering a son.  Abram then hears the Word of the Lord and believes the one who has made this promise.

A few specific notes are in order.  First, “the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”  The word vision here is derived from a word meaning “to see,” and also occurs in Numbers 24:4 and 24:16, where it refers to Balaam, and Ezekiel 13:7, where it refers to the “false visions” of the false prophets.  Abram therefore receives the revelation visually in some way.  Inspiration, generally speaking, does not occur always in the same way.  Other prophets also received direct visual revelations, such as Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:11-12), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-7), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1), and so on.  Abram himself will fall into a “deep sleep” later in Genesis 15, which in itself indicates some sort of prophetic fit (especially since the corresponding darkness is described as “dreadful and great”).

Second, the Lord directs Abram to look at the stars as a way of showing to him that He is faithful in His promise of a son.  The created stars serve as a sign and a confirmation of the promise.  If Abram were to be able to number them, he could also number the offspring of this promise.   As mentioned earlier, Paul cites this expression directly in Romans 4:18, but it is alluded to throughout the Old Testament in Genesis 22:17; 26:4; Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 1:10; 10:22; and 1 Chronicles 27:23.  This also explains David’s sin in 2 Samuel 24 when he takes the census, because attempting to count Israel (apart from an express command to do so) is tantamount to wondering whether the Lord will keep His promises.

Finally, “Abram believed the Lord, and He counted to him as righteousness.”  Paul uses this verse to prove in Romans 4 that Abraham was not justified by his works, but by his faith.  Therefore, the Gentiles also, who are not the sons of Abraham according to the flesh, are still sons according to the promise.  Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:5-6:  we are not justified by the works of the Law.  These passages also clarify any ambiguity with the pronouns which might seem to exist in Genesis 15:6.

James also makes reference to this verse in James 2:14-26.  His overarching point is that faith cannot exist without good works.  It is not enough to say “I am a Christian,” if one then turns and acts in an unchristian way.  Abraham therefore demonstrates his living faith through his willingness even to offer up his own son Isaac, the son of the promise upon the altar.  In this way, Genesis 15:6 is fulfilled, because the faith which believes the promise of God is the same faith which then expresses itself in an unshakable trust that “God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19).

Chapter 3 of John’s gospel is a discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, identified as a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus by night.  It’s possible that Nicodemus is simply being prudent in coming to Jesus after hours so that he can talk to him without the distraction of the crowds. It is more likely that Nicodemus comes by night for fear of the Jews. Driven to curiosity in Jesus by the signs that he performs, Nicodemus nevertheless does not wish his reputation tarnished by associating with Jesus.  That he comes by night is perhaps important that in John the darkness does not comprehend the light which was coming into the world. (John 1:5, 9).

Jesus’ first statement to Nicodemus seems to be an abrupt change in direction, given the first quasi-confession of Nicodemus in verse 2. Jesus gets right to the point. “Amen, Amen I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).  Apparently Nicodemus forsook the baptism of John, who was preaching and baptizing at Bethany across the Jordan (John 1:19-28). Common translations render the Greek word anothen as “again” but “from above” is probably more the meaning. Clearly Nicodemus understood it the first way from his question about re-entering his mother’s womb. Jesus indicates here a birth which comes from above, but which is also a second birth, a birth by water and the Spirit (John 3:5).

This language concerning birth in reference to salvation is first introduced by the evangelist in chapter one “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 ESV).  Spiritual birth is thus unilaterally the work of God, and Jesus ties this work of God to the birth of water and the Spirit – Holy Baptism. In the first chapter of Genesis we hear how the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at creation, a theme picked up by Paul when he speaks of the baptismal life as the new creation (Gal 6:15). Peter also teaches this baptismal rebirth (1 Pt. 1:3, 23).  Paul teaches Titus that we are saved not by works but by the mercy of God, by the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…” (Titus 3:5).  These verses tie water and the Spirit together as the work of God in and for us. The sacramental gift of Baptism which Christ gave the Church after his resurrection ties the believer to his death and resurrection (Col. 2:12, Matt. 28:19).

Nicodemus’s skepticism about rebirth (John 3:9) merits something of a rhetorical rebuke from Jesus “You are teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).  The whole Old Testament speaks of Jesus and his work (John 5:39) but this teacher of the scripture had not the eyes to see it. The “heavenly things” (John 3:12) which Nicodemus does not understand is nothing less than the identity of Jesus, who is not only the key to the interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures, but the name by which all men must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Jesus hearkens back to the book of Numbers to teach about his mission and work (John 3:14). The serpent lifted up in the wilderness saved those who looked at it in faith (Nu 21:8-9.) So also, those who look on the crucified Jesus in faith, those who receive that birth from above in water and the Holy Spirit are spared from eternal death (John 3:15).

This identity of Jesus and his work on the cross are the key to understanding all that Jesus speaks about here in this dialog with Nicodemus. Everything is encapsulated and interpreted through his death on the cross.  Spirit, water, regeneration, rebirth, new creation, Holy Baptism, and the death of Jesus are intimately tied together. One is not to seek one at the expense of, or in lieu of the others. Where Christians have separated them and downplayed the gift of Holy Baptism they have unwittingly downplayed the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This intimacy of these concepts is not missed by another Pharisee and teacher of the Law, St. Paul.  He beautifully summarizes this teaching of Jesus to the church at Rome:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 ESV).

I have talked earlier about Isaiah 6 at some length in the article “The Holiness of the Lord,” and I would encourage readers to read or re-read that article in conjunction with this lectionary study.  Briefly, Isaiah 6 speaks of the Lord’s utter uniqueness or holiness, from which even the sinless seraphim must avert their eyes.  But because all of Scripture is an inexhaustible mine, I will add additional notes here.

Isaiah 6 forms what is commonly referred to as Isaiah’s call.  This vision of the Lord is not Isaiah’s earliest, as his ministry has already begun in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19).  Nevertheless, the clear language of Isaiah 6:8 justifies this title.  The Lord appears to Isaiah and sends him to the house of Israel to proclaim His Word (see the parallel calls of Jeremiah 1 and Ezekiel 2).

The reference to Uzziah, or Hezekiah, in Isaiah 6:1 places this passage shortly after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel.  His father Ahaz (or Amaziah) reigned in Judah when the last king of Israel, Hoshea, was set upon the throne (2 Kings 17:1).  However, by the end of Hoshea’s brief reign of nine years, Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of his father (2 Kings 18:1).  Even though Uzziah’s reign in Judah is long (compare 2 Chronicles 26:3 and 2 Kings 18:2, noting that the two authors have different starting points for counting), it still places Isaiah 6 within decades of the fall of the northern kingdom.

Regarding the passage itself, the Holy Spirit reveals through it several important truths about the Lord.  Holiness has already been mentioned elsewhere, as noted.  Closely connected to His holiness is the glory of the Lord.  Even though the “train [or hem] of His robe” is all that can be seen in Isaiah 6:1, it is enough to make the ground shake (Psalm 18:7; 77:18) and the house to fill with smoke (Exodus 19:18; 1 Kings 18:10-11; Revelation 15:8).

In addition to this revelation of the Lord’s holiness and glory, this passage also points to the Lord’s mercy and sovereignty.  The Lord is merciful, because Isaiah should have been destroyed at even this veiled appearance of the Lord.  “Man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  Yet the Lord does not reveal the fullness of His glory and covers over the sin of Isaiah, so that he is able to stand in His presence.

The Lord is sovereign, because His question “whom shall I send” reveals His will.  It should not be interpreted as a question of uncertainty, as if the Lord does not already have in mind what He will do.  He is not deliberating.  A statement in the form of a question frequently occurs in the Bible (see, for example, Revelation 7:13-14).  Rather, the Lord appears to Isaiah precisely so that His will is carried out with respect to the remaining kingdom.

Being the Old Testament reading appointed for Trinity Sunday, a few concluding notes regarding this central revelation are in order.  First, the doctrine of the Trinity proceeds from good and necessary consequences of various statements in the Bible.  The word itself appears nowhere in Scripture and is really only the best we have, even if the word itself can lend itself to misunderstandings.  But we should not imagine that it is not a clear teaching of the Bible for that reason, nor should we assume that verses like Isaiah 6:3 do not need to be unpacked.  The Holy Spirit fully reveals that God is the Most Holy Trinity, even if we have to take some steps to make this clear to us.

Second, regarding Isaiah 6:3 in light of the previous note, the threefold repetition of “holy, holy, holy” in itself is not a decisive “proof.”  Repetition may be only for emphasis also in the Bible, such as Jeremiah 7:4, Numbers 6:24-26, or the very common tendency of the Psalms to restate ideas in succession.  The threefold holy here also expresses the utter holiness of God, holy in a way in which we will never be.  Nevertheless, it is true that there is a hint of the doctrine of the Trinity here, but hints need to be clarified with far clearer passages.

Genesis 11:1-9 is admittedly an odd choice for Pentecost.  The assumption behind the choice seems to be that Pentecost has “reversed” Babel, so to speak.  Where God had confused the languages of the people and scattered them, He brings them back together with the coming of the Holy Spirit.  However, Pentecost is not a reversal of the confusion.  The Jews gathered in Acts 2 note that the apostles were “telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).  The Holy Spirit, through the miracle of Pentecost, addresses man in his natural diversity.  The apostles do not speak one language which is understood by all, but in the various languages as the Spirit gave them utterance.  Nevertheless, there are aspects of the passage which contribute to a fuller understanding of the miracle of Pentecost, and these will be the focus for this study.

Genesis 10-11 form one of the smallest subdivisions of the whole book.  Genesis 10 is important for noting how the descendants of Noah and his sons spread abroad throughout the earth after the flood.  It is difficult to date exactly when the judgment at Babel occurred because of this.  Did it occur early on after the flood, so that the spreading abroad in the earth is a result?  Did it occur later on, so that it involved only a certain part of the sons of Noah?  Even if only a portion of the total global population was involved at Babel, the judgment affected the whole.

The land of Shinar immediately refers back to Nimrod in the previous chapter, where it notes that “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar” (Genesis 10:10).  Shinar is also mentioned in passing as one of the kingdoms involved in the war which would make Lot a prisoner of war (Genesis 14:1, 9).  Achan covets a cloak from Shinar (Joshua 7:21).  The woman Wickedness in the vision of Zechariah is taken to the land of Shinar (Zechariah 5:11).  But these passages do not clarify the location of this land very much.  Two passages are more helpful in this regard.  The first is Isaiah 11:11, where Shinar is distinguished from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Hamath, and the coastlands.  In Daniel 1:2, Nebuchadnezzar takes the vessels of the temple to the land of Shinar, “to the house of his god.”  Coupled with the Isaiah passage, therefore, it would seem that Shinar is another name for Babylon or Mesopotamia.

The people decide to build a city and a tower in the land of Shinar.  The tower does not need to be understood as an ancient skyscraper.  Moses records in Deuteronomy 1:28 that Israel refused to enter Canaan with its cities “fortified up to heaven.  The height of this tower is not even the main problem, but rather its aim.  By building this city and this tower, the people desired to make “a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).  They were deliberately sinning against God’s command to fill the whole earth, choosing instead to stay in one place (Genesis 9:7, for example).

The Lord confuses their language, therefore, as a judgment which forces them to do what He had originally commanded them to do.  If they would not scatter abroad, the Lord Himself would “disperse them over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).  The continual flexibility of language even today, to say nothing of language drift, is therefore the result of both the judgment and the command.  The Lord commands us to fill the earth.  The judgment of Babel ensures that we will do so.

Genesis 11 can be set into parallel with Acts 2, then, in a couple of ways.  In Genesis, men strive to make a name for themselves contrary to the command of God.  In Acts, the apostles wait in patient faith according to the command of God.  At Babel, God comes down to bring judgment so that His will is carried out on earth.  At Jerusalem, God comes down to bring salvation so that His will is carried out on earth.  The two passages center, therefore, in God’s action and His sovereignty:  man cannot hinder what the Lord desires to do.

2 Kings 2 opens an indefinite time after the last recorded act of Elijah.  Ahaziah, king of Israel, increased his great wickedness by inquiring of the false god Baal-zebub whether he would recover from his grievous injuries.  The Lord sends Elijah to pronounce judgment on Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:3), and Elijah also calls down fire upon those who presumed to order him about (2 Kings 1:9-12).  Ahaziah died, just as the Lord had said, and Jehoram reigned in his place, somewhere around the year 852 B.C.

However, though we are not told when Elijah’s translation occurred, it was not, at least, a surprise to anyone involved.  The chapter opens with the words:  “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:1).  This is not merely literary anticipation, because Elijah knows he will be taken (2 Kings 2:9).  The sons of the prophets whom they meet all know it (2 Kings 2:3, 5).  Elisha himself also knows it.  Elijah doubtless had received this revelation from the Lord, just as he is also told where the Spirit wants him to go (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6).

Nevertheless, it is a sober occasion.  Elijah tries to persuade Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha refuses out of a faithfulness to his master (compare Ruth 1:16-18).  The sons of the prophets ask Elisha if he is aware of the coming event, and Elisha responds not in anger, but in the spirit of one who is troubled.  In the face of the Lord performing such a magnificent act, it is appropriate to be silent in holy fear (Zechariah 2:13; Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7).

A few items of note before turning to Elijah’s translation.  First, they begin their journey in Gilgal, which, if it is the same as the one in Joshua 5:9, is where Israel demonstrated a renewed faithfulness upon entering Canaan.  More certain, however, is that Elijah and Elisha pass through two wicked places:  Bethel is the site of one of the golden calves of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-29); and Jericho has been rebuilt in spite of the promised divine judgment (Joshua 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34).  Yet in the midst of these cities are the faithful sons of the prophets, those who are yet faithful to the living God.  Just as the Lord had said to Elijah, He has preserved for Himself those who have not bowed the knee to idols (1 Kings 19:18).

Further, when Elijah strikes the water and passes over the Jordan, he does so heading to the east.  Israel under Joshua had crossed the Jordan on dry ground, just like Elijah does now, but heading westward into Canaan (Joshua 3:14-17).  Because Israel passed over “opposite Jericho,” Elijah is effectively retracing this path in reverse.  This is also the land where Moses had been secretly buried (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

Elijah asks Elisha when they were on the eastern side of the Jordan what he would have him do before he is taken.  Before, not after he is taken, because the time for asking for spiritual things from fellow believers is while they are still in the flesh.  Once Elijah is taken away, he can no longer do anything for Elisha; the only one in heaven who can is the Lord God (Isaiah 63:16; Matthew 6:7-8; Revelation 6:9-10).

Elisha asks for a “hard thing,” namely “a double portion of your spirit.”  This should not be understood as a literal doubling, as if Elisha is asking to do twice as much as Elijah or that the Holy Spirit can be measured, so to speak.  Rather, as Paul says, “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31).  To the one who does not seek such gifts out of loveless self-interest, but for the sake of the Church, as Elisha certainly did, such a desire is a godly one.  “If a man aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).  It is also possible that Elisha is asking for the right of the firstborn son (Deuteronomy 21:17), especially since he calls Elijah “my father.”

The Lord takes Elijah up in a fairly public display of power.  The first man to be so translated, Enoch, could not be found (Genesis 5:24).  Christ in His own ascension had more witnesses (Acts 1:9).  But in every case, the ascension is meant to be a comfort and a sign.  A comfort, because God is faithful in His promises, and those who walk with Him will receive His gifts.  Yet also a sign and a testimony of the coming of the Holy Spirit, to Elisha who saw Elijah taken and to the disciples who heard Jesus promise the coming Pentecost.  In the case of Elisha, he received the promised Holy Spirit and reentered Canaan, crossing again just as Elijah had done (2 Kings 2:13-15).  In the case of the disciples, the Father sent the promised Holy Spirit not many days later (Acts 2).

As a final note, Elisha cries out “My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  While it seems natural to assign this somewhat enigmatic phrase to the event itself, Joash the king of Israel will later use the exact same phrase at the death of Elisha (2 Kings 13:14).  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen therefore refers to Elijah.  It is perhaps best understood as an expression of grief from being separated from his master, which would also explain why he rips his clothes.  Israel’s “strength,” so to speak, is being taken away, yet Elisha will see that the Lord who takes away is also the Lord who gives.  As for the chariots themselves, the Lord can certainly do as He pleases.  But Elisha will later show his servant the chariots of fire which surround the city (2 Kings 6:17), and Psalm 68:17 states that “the chariots of God are twice ten thousand.”  It is possible, but only possible, that these fiery chariots are angels (consider also Luke 16:22).

Providence is a large word to describe an important part of how God deals with us.  It is related to a few words which are much more familiar.  The first of these is the basic root “provide.”  God in His Providence provides us with the things which we need.  Both of these words were originally Latin, and they both come from providere.  “Pro” in this case means “before” and “videre” means “to see,” so pro-videre means “to see before, foresee.”  Because of the way Latin works, this can also give us the word “provision,” which can either mean making preparations or the thing provided.

But setting Latin aside, how does this help us understand providence?  Providence is God’s providing for us.  He gives us what we need.  Providence is God’s foresight, seeing long beforehand what would happen to us.  Providence is God’s provision, because He not only makes “preparations,” but also gives us the things which He made ready for us.

Providence is a word which really only belongs to God as well.  Sure, we can make provisions for ourselves and provide others with what they need.  Our foresight is limited, but we can make reasonable guesses and assumptions about what will happen in the future.  We should certainly plan ahead, because it would be foolish to imagine that we would never have needs to fulfill, even dire needs.  But Providence is God’s business.  We can only guess about what will happen.  We might be pretty good at it, but there is always uncertainty.  God does not guess.  God knows exactly what will happen.  When God in His Providence provides us with what we need, He knows exactly why and when we need it without any uncertainty.

The Lord “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  Providence applies to all people, not just believers.  If anyone receives anything to their benefit, it has come from God, whether they  know it or not.  As God says in Hosea 2:8:  “And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.” Even though people misuse the gifts of God, even for really wicked purposes like idolatry, it is still God who gave them.

Most of the time, it is fairly easy to understand God’s Providence.  David says in Psalm 65:  “You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.”  The seasons and the harvest, the rain and the growth, abundance and all good things, all of these come from the hand of God.  I think that this is probably what we think of the most when we say that God will provide.

But there is a side of Providence that is not so easy to understand.  The Lord said to Moses:  “Then the Lord said to him, ‘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).  And also to Isaiah:  “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).  And also to Amos:  “‘I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord” (Amos 4:9).  The Lord does not provide only the good things, so to speak.  This does not mean that God chooses to do evil, as if God were evil.  That is simply not true.  But Amos shows that God always has our welfare in mind.

We will not always understand why God does what He does.  God is not a spectator, looking in our troubles and yet largely unable to help.  No, God is the LORD, the sovereign and all-powerful Master of creation.  When He speaks, heaven and earth must obey His command.  God will do exactly what He chooses to do and there is nothing in all creation that can hinder His almighty will.  “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20).

But God’s Providence should not scare us.  God is in perfect control of all things.  We are not dangling helplessly in the hands of an unloving being who seeks our destruction.  We are in the hands of the living God who gave Himself for us to forgive us our sins.  The Lord may indeed send us difficult things, but “it is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7, 11).  God’s Providence is always for our good, even if we must go through discipline for the moment.  God sends gladness and God sends sadness, but above all God draws us to Himself.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

That Israel was complaining yet again on the way around Edom in Numbers 21:4-9 is not surprising.  The people have done little other than complain against God and His providence during their journey through the wilderness.  Even their complaint is nothing unusual (finding parallels with passages like Exodus 16:3 and 17:3).

What is unique about this passage is the punishment the Lord sends against them in the form of “fiery serpents.”  The word translated here as “fiery” is related to the word “seraphim” from Isaiah 6:2, which might be translated there literally as “the burning ones.”  But it is not as clear in Numbers 21 what the word is meant to describe.  Is it “fiery” because of their bite, a burning sensation?  Is there something about their appearance which makes them seem like fire?  They do not need to be a miraculous form of snake, since the Lord has shown through the plagues and other similar miracles that He may use even what is “natural” to fulfill His will.  Moses even mentions them in passing in Deuteronomy 8:15 as if they were a normal part of the wilderness.  But they may be related to the flying fiery serpents of Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6.  Nevertheless, the question, while intriguing, does not change much in terms of the point of the passage.

The people recognize their sin and ask for Moses to intercede for them.  Aaron did a similar act earlier in Numbers 16:46-50, when he stood between the dead and the living to make atonement for them.  Exodus 32:11-14 is helpful for understanding such intercession, because it recalls the longsuffering and the mercy of the Lord.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom He swore by Himself.

The Lord commands Moses to fashion a metal image of a snake.  Such a command does not break the law against such images in Exodus 20:4, because it is the Lord who commands it (compare the similar command to test God, normally forbidden, in Isaiah 7:11).  Gazing upon this image carried with it the clear promise of deliverance.  God delivered His people who had faith in Him and His promises, even in the midst of judgment.

Jesus refers to this event while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:14-15.  As the serpent was raised up, so must the Son of Man be raised up.  As gazing upon the serpent according to the promise delivered men from death, so will the Son of Man deliver those who believe in Him from everlasting death.  The serpent on the pole delivered from a temporal judgment, and Christ on the cross delivers from an eternal judgment.

One must be careful, however, to not turn the serpent on the pole into merely a sermon illustration.  Christ makes a comparison between Himself and the serpent of Moses, not an identification, so to speak.  God delivered His people in a real and very historical way on the way to Edom, and this should not be overlooked.  Christ delivers His people in a greater way, to be sure, and the serpent points to this deliverance.  But if God did not act in history to work a very real, however limited, salvation, then why does the “story” have to be “real”?  The parables are fictional stories which still make spiritual points.  But the Old Testament is not a collection of narratives, so to speak, but an account of God delivering a “real people” through His “real acts” of deliverance in preparation for the great Deliverance in His Son.

One final note about the bronze serpent occurs in 2 Kings 18:4.  Hezekiah tears down that image and destroys it during his religious reforms, because the people had fallen into idolatry, calling it “Nehushtan.”  They had corrupted the clear promise of God for deliverance and perverted it into something God had not intended.  Israel had likely made it into a “god” in its own right, in spite of the clear commandment against it.  But it also shows the very real danger to fall into spiritual security, imagining that God’s promises provide license for sin (compare Jeremiah 7:4).  This is no less a temptation for Christians, who may exalt the love of God so as to extinguish His wrath.