Middle Isaiah (II)

Yesterday I started a series of thoughts taken from the middle section of Isaiah. Today I want to continue those thoughts with what I have come to see as a staggering series of statements made by God, conveyed by Isaiah, that convince me that the Israelites had forgotten who God was. It seems unthinkable – until you stop and consider the current state of Christianity today. Who is God? Is he some puppet that can be controlled by magic-like incantations? Is he the tribal god of some nation, or nations, who in warrior like temperament goes about destroying other nations? Is he some mythological creation of man’s imagination who simply serves as a foil for all of our weaknesses and failures?

This is not a complete list – I am certainly not going to claim infallibility here – but stop and read these passages from middle Isaiah and see if you do not catch on to a common theme:

  • 41:9-10, 13
  • 42:6, 8-9
  • 43:3, 11, 13, 15, 18-19, 25
  • 44:6, 8, 24
  • 45:3, 5-8, 18-19, 21-22
  • 46:4, 9, 11
  • 47:4
  • 48:9, 11-12, 17
  • 49:26
  • 51:12, 15
  • 52:6

As I said yesterday, I am not technically nor linguistically gifted enough to make any definitive statements about the book of Isaiah – but it is striking to me how these statements are clustered together in this middle section of the book. I am convinced it is not accidental – the book is far too carefully constructed for this kind of emphasis to be accidental.

What I can (at least reservedly) say is that this emphasis on the being and nature of God is a critical one for the church to learn again today. Yesterday I wrote of the insanity (in my opinion) of us as Americans to repeatedly put our faith and trust into failed and failing human beings, and then to complain bitterly that our Christian principles are being rejected.

What should we expect? That somehow once a person is elected to congress that they will suddenly become a Christian? Or even more preposterous – that a person who identifies as a Christian is somehow going to change the cess pool that currently describes the situation in Washington D.C.? A whole barrel full of rotten apples does not change just because you put a good apple in the barrel. The good apple sours – it is the nature of apples . . . and of human nature.

Isaiah was speaking to and writing to a nation who had forgotten who and what their God was. They knew of him as a talisman – a good luck charm that was good to have around if things got kind of sticky. But, their real faith, their real trust, was in the strength of men – and in the specific situation that was identified yesterday – the strength of the Egyptian army. God told the Israelites, “Go ahead, trust in Pharaoh, see how far that gets you!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the mid 20th century, said the same thing had happened to his German nation and church. God was just a “God of the gaps” for them. Trust in the army, trust in your genetic heritage, trust in blood and soil – and if things get too far out of hand, trust in God.

Sound familiar?

Many preachers are worried about the “new atheism” and the attacks on Christianity from the outside. I really do not fear that much from atheists – atheists have been attacking the church for 2,000 years and have not succeeded in harming it to any great extent. No, the greatest threat to the Lord’s church today comes from within. It comes from people who do not know, and who do not care to know, who and what God truly is. That is an attack that is truly serious.

And that is why it is so critical for the Lord’s church today to read and study the prophets, not just middle Isaiah. But, if you do need a place to start, middle Isaiah is a really, really good place!

May God bless his church with a rekindling of a desire to know Him, and to put our hope and faith in Him and in Him alone!

On the Inherent (and Therefore Necessary) Weaknesses of Education

Don’t know why this post popped into my head this morning – but I rarely understand anything that goes on inside my head.

On the one hand, there is an inherent weakness to education. That weakness was succinctly identified by our Lord, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a ┬áservant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24, RSV) In the Paul Smith paraphrase, that means no matter how hard you try, you will never be smarter than your teacher – in any subject, whether it be theology, farming, or flying airplanes.

But, we cannot live without education. A father teaches his son how to drive a tractor, cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, administer pesticides and fertilizer, and then when and how to harvest. Certified flight instructors are necessary to teach the next generation of pilots, otherwise there would be an awful lot of empty airplanes parked at airports. And, love ’em or hate ’em, there are professors of theology that continue the art and skill of interpreting and teaching the Bible.

Now, if I understand Jesus right, what he is saying is that a student will never rise above the skill and knowledge of a single teacher. Having been both a student and a teacher, I can see this on so many different levels. I will never be able to achieve the heights of my instructors – either in aviation or theology. I could never teach everything that I know – not because I have such a vast repertoire of knowledge, its just that there are things that a person cannot teach.

So, how does mankind continue to grow in knowledge? How is it that we can fly spaceships now when Orville and Wilbur only flew a few feet?

We multiply our teachers! We build, layer upon layer, on the accumulated knowledge of the ages.

When I was in flight school I had several different instructors. At first this bothered me, because I really, really liked my instructor for my basic flight certificate. When I became an instructor, we never allowed one student to stay with one instructor for two successive certificates or ratings. Why? Because an instructor can never teach everything he/she knows, and a student can never rise above his/her instructor. But, if you multiply instructors, the learning curve never really flattens out. There is always something a different instructor knows, or a different trick, or a different way of approaching a problem. Multiple instructors provide a solid foundation for future learning.

A truism that is becoming a mantra for my life is this: If you only read what you have always read, and if you only hear what you have always heard, you will never learn. You may be reminded, you may be edified, you may be encouraged, you may be blessed in a number of ways. But you will never learn. If you want to learn, you have to be challenged by thoughts and ideas that you have never considered before.

Buy a book from an author you probably disagree with. Listen to a lecture by a teacher from a background different from yours. Challenge yourself with a concept that grates against your sensibilities. One possible result is that you learn why you disagree with that author or concept (I am only too familiar with that result).

On the other hand, you might just learn something!

Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT ┬áviolating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Book Review – The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (David A. Dorsey)

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi, David A. Dorsey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999) 328 pages.

I find out about books in a variety of ways – I belong to a book club, I read blogs, I follow Twitter accounts of fellow ministers who drop hints occasionally. I discovered the above book (now getting a little long of tooth) in the process of researching a lesson on Jonah. I came across an old outline from a good friend, and he referenced this book (snarky aside – imagine that, a minister who actually gives credit for someone else’s work!!) The insight my friend gave me made me purchase this book. I am so grateful!

First, let me note that the book is both accurately and inaccurately titled. It clearly is a study in the literary structure of each of the books of the Old Testament, but it is not a study of the literary structure of the Old Testament in its entirety. And, the subtitle should note that it is primarily a commentary on the literary structures found in the books of Genesis-Malachi. The author does include sections on the meaning that is conveyed by these structures, but the book is not a verse-by-verse study, as is commonly understood by the word “commentary.” Very small quibble, to be sure, but the title could potentially be misleading.

We twenty-first century, western, technological and linear thinking Americans tend to read Scripture in twenty-first century, western, technological and linear ways of thinking. We want our stories to begin, continue, and end in a very definite format – as in a straight line. Thus, our minds tend to latch onto narrative sections of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, the books of Samuel – Chronicles, the gospels, Acts) and we tend to struggle with or dismiss non-narrative sections (the law codes, the poetic sections, we do a very, very poor job with the prophets!) What this book does is to illuminate how the ancient authors may (and I emphasize that word) have structured their writings to appeal to their audiences (non-western, non-technological, non-linear, and definitely not 21st century!).

The first five chapters of the book are worth the purchase price alone – Dorsey explains his thesis and further explains the value of literary structural analysis. For someone who really struggles with understanding the Old Testament, those chapters are a great eye-opener – there actually IS a method to the overall structure of each book, and of the Old Testament in general.

The remainder of the book (a total of 39 chapters) is devoted to an examination of the various books of the Old Testament, through chapter 38, and then a concluding chapter. A concept that might be of interest to some is that Dorsey does not believe the traditional division of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then followed by Joshua and Judges to be structurally correct. He sees the “Book of the Law” continuing through Joshua 24. His defense of this suggestion is interesting, to say the least, and definitely has merit.

I read the book cover-to-cover without stopping to examine each chapter carefully against the text. This process has its advantages, but also comes with some drawbacks. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how certain structures are repeated throughout the Old Testament. On the other hand, the book does tend to get ponderously repetitive, and I found myself skimming some sections because it seemed that the author was just repeating himself too much.

However, and I must stress this emphatically (not to be redundant), I am a much more careful reader of the Old Testament texts now after having read this book. Books, or sections of books, that made no sense to me at all now have come to life. Whether Dorsey is 100% correct in his analysis or not, I now see with my spectacles just a little cleaner. For what it is worth, I think Dorsey is spot-on correct in some of his work (the aforementioned analysis of Jonah just makes the book leap out of the binding!). Some of his work is highly speculative – and to Dorsey’s unending credit – he actually points out when he feels his analysis is speculative! When I read an author say, “this is what I think, but I could be wrong, and more study needs to be done here” his credibility level goes through the roof with me.

As I mentioned, Dorsey’s fascination with some structures can become monotonous – get ready for a lot of sevens! At a number of places in the book I found myself wondering if the biblical authors could have possible been aware of the intricate structures that Dorsey identifies – and then Dorsey himself asked that question in the conclusion (another tip of the ol’ Fedora to the author). As a neophyte in this field, I am just not educated enough to decide how correct Dorsey is in all of his conclusions, but this I will say with no hesitation whatsoever – I am deeply indebted to his study, and I feel that I am a better reader of the Old Testament for having read through this book.

Ultimately, this is a book that must be studied in conjunction with the biblical text (something I did not originally do), and, as with every commentary ever written, the reader must hold the author’s conclusions in suspension pending further study and personal research.

Bottom line – two thumbs up and five gold stars!

No Strength to Answer

This past Sunday we were examining the first few verses in Luke 14. I try to follow along in my Greek text, not that I am a Greek expert, but I am trying to recover what I lost, or gain what I never had. Anyway, we were reading along and I came across a word in v. 6 that I thought I recognized, and lo and behold – I was right!

Luke 14:6 is one of those innocuous verses that on first reading just gets filed away under “interesting, but let’s move on.” But there really is a fascinating phrase here that Luke chose to use. This verse is one of those verses that cannot have a direct “one-to-one” translation – and no translation that I looked up even attempts such a thing. The basic meaning is found in every translation I researched – the Pharisees and those at the meal could not respond to Jesus’s questions (note the context).

What I found to be noteworthy, however, is that the word Luke chose to convey this inability is also the word that has the meaning of strength, or power. The meaning of “ability” is also present in the word, so it is not like our English editions have mistranslated the word. But it is this nuance of strength, or power, that got me to wondering if Luke did not have more in mind than just saying the Pharisees were flummoxed, stymied, mentally stuck.

A purely colloquial way of translating the sentence would be that the Pharisees were mentally gassed, they were brain fried, they had brain cramps, their brain muscles no longer worked. Jesus asked them a question that just short circuited their synapses. It was not just that they could not come up with the right words to answer Jesus – they didn’t have anything left in the tank to even come up with any words.

All of this got me to thinking – I just wonder how we would be able to answer any of Jesus’s questions. We who are so smart, who have learned to take God’s word and “contextualize” it so that it no longer offends anyone. We who have realized that with the concept of “progressive revelation” all we have to do is to decide what we want the Scriptures to say, and then teach that God really wanted his word to agree with us. We, who with the passage of time, have come to realize that God could not have possibly meant all those mean, nasty, ugly things that the Old Testament says could actually have any meaning for good, polite Christians like us.

Jesus took one command, one seemingly tiny little fragment of the Old Law, and just obliterated the Pharisee’s defenses. The keeping of the Sabbath might not have been the only linchpin in the Pharisee’s theology, but it was certainly a key component. Jesus proved, with one itty, bitty little question, how fragile that theology was.

The scary thing is, the Pharisees had far, far more evidence on which to build their theology of Sabbath keeping than we have for most, if not all, of our cherished traditions. (Through Ezekiel, the LORD excoriated the Jews for their violations of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were, at least on one level, simply trying to obey the teachings of Ezekiel, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah.)

All of which simply goes to support the major thesis of this blog. We had better be careful – extraordinarily careful – that what we say and teach comes from the mind and heart of God. We must always make sure that we are standing under Scripture, and not above it. We do not explain to God what his writings teach, we correct our beliefs, attitudes and actions according to his words. If need be, we let Jesus’s questions blow up our theology – and short circuit our synapses.

We ascend by climbing lower.

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never ┬áreprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?