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God Is a Fool for Love

“Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.'” — Exodus 33:18, 19 NRSV.

“At this momoses and the glory of the lordment, it is not Moses the religious-political leader of Israel speaking, but Moses the mystic, the ardent lover of God. The public need has been met: God has promised twice already to go up with the people into the Promised Land. You would think Moses would be satisfied, but instead he presses for one more thing: a favor for himself alone, a glimpse of God’s exquisite beauty. Of course God is flattered. Who would not be thrilled to know that a lover through many years and many domestic crises still finds one desirable, desirable just for oneself, when the children’s needs have been met and there is nothing to be sought or gained but the simple joy of intimacy? It is only in that request for a private revelation that God feels the purity of Moses’ love. Of course God capitulates, happily, even to the point of indignity. For as the whole Bible makes undeniably clear, God is a perfect fool for love — fool enough even to become human, to live and love as we do, and to weep because he loves; fool enough to suffer and die on a cross.”

— Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament

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Is Belief in God Meritorious?

The Gospel message in the Bible assumes the existence of God. So, is belief in God, in and of itself, meritorious?

candle-tipBelief in God is basic to Christianity. The Bible never sets out to prove the existence of God — it assumes God’s existence. Yes, the apostle Paul in the book of Romans say that God’s existence can be seen from created things — but in a day and age when people talk and write (quite seriously) about self-organization in the universe, and the development of life from natural processes, this observation seems a bit less obvious than it did at the time it was written. The Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ has a lot of backstory to it. The Old Testament story of Israel is an assumption for the New Testament. The story of Jesus is understood against the backdrop of the previous story of Israel. And, what we have in the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s relationship with God. This growing and changing portrait of God lies behind all that Jesus says about his “heavenly Father.”

So, if belief in God is considered a disputed point, can the Gospel still be heard?

Or, looking at it another way: if faith in Christ is the basis of human salvation from sin and divine judgement (as generally regarded by Christians), and faith in Christ presupposes belief in God, then is belief in God itself meritorious?

Some people already believe that the issue of faith versus unbelief is the existence of God. They seem to think belief in the existence of God, per se, is the essence of Christianity — and that it somehow helps to make one a “good person.” I don’t know how many people really think like that — but it appears that some do. Yet, for Christians, the issue of faith is trust in Christ. We see Christ as being our way to understanding God.

Is belief in [a] God meritorious? I think the answer is No. My reasons follow. (more…)

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Reflections on the Song of Solomon

“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13, NRSV).

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It seems strange to some people that words like these are found in the Bible. It goes against what we think we know of the Bible.

These words are from a book of the Bible few people know about. This little book of the Hebrew Bible is variously called ” Song of Solomon” or “Song of Songs.” It is a long poem about erotic love. Really, it seems to be a collection of poems that have been brought together into one. A church group would not want to do a verse-by-verse study of this book because of the frankly erotic imagery in the book.

It’s about sex. It has at least an R rating. (more…)

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We Need Prophets – Amos 3:3-8

Amos0615The opening verses of chapter 3 identify the people against whom Amos is prophesying: “the whole family that [God] brought up out of the land of Egypt.” They are the people that God has especially known. But, their special relationship with God implied a responsibility to live a life that reflected the character of the God who redeemed them.

Now, in verses 3-8, Amos talks about his own role as a prophet.

It begins with a series of cause and effect questions: when you see a certain effect, you can infer its cause? Or, as we might say: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” They go like this:

 

  • Two people are walking together —> they must have made an appointment
  • A lion roars in the forest —> the lion must have caught something
  • A bird falls into a snare —> there must have been a trap
  • A snare springs up —> it must have taken something
  • A trumpet is blown in the city —> the people must be afraid

 

This is another one of Amos’ rhetorical devices, he is leading up to something — the last cause and effect is a little different: (more…)

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The Bronze Serpent – Numbers 21:4-9

Hebrew_bible_4The Old Testament is a wonderful gift from God to us. It is wonderful that we have this record — so ancient, so fascinating. These were the Scriptures of the earliest Christians — who turned to them to understand what God had done in their midst in Christ. It was the context of these Scriptures in which Jesus himself had taught — to a community shaped by it’s stories and laws and prophecies and poetry.

And if anything is central to the Old Testament itself, it is the first five books.

No doubt the material we currently know as the books of Moses (or the Pentateuch, or the Torah — that is, Genesis through Deuteronomy) were assembled and edited in the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon — they became especially valuable to the people in the times of the exile and then the re-establishment of the nation — they served to teach the people who they were in the light of their history as the people of YHWH. But, the stories themselves go back much further. The people of Israel knew themselves to be a nation that had been delivered by God from Egypt — and the exile, no doubt served as a time to gather those stories together. (more…)

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Melchizedek – Hebrews 5:5-10

“So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,’ You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ’You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” — Hebrews 5:5-10 NRSV

Meeting_of_abraham_and_melchizadek

Very often, when we consult a commentary on this passage, we get enmeshed in a long, confusing discussion about Melchizedek. Some of the old, classic commentaries go on and on about this character: who he was, what was his connection to Christ, was he some sort of mystical being, was he Christ himself, and on and on it goes. A reader can get lost in it — and end up being none the wiser for it.

But, I always figured the interpretation was simple and the commentators were making a mountain out of a mole hill.

It seems pretty simple to me.

The name Melchizedek (מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק) means “King of Righteousness.” (Thus, it is a title rather than an actual name — but that’s neither here nor there.) (more…)

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It Matters What God You Trust – Psalm 115:8, 9.

psalmsThere is a progression of thought in Psalm 115 that is easy to follow. The thoughts move forward in a series of steps. Here’s how it has gone thus far:

  • Step one: Glory belongs to God and not to the nation (v. 1). (See: No Glory to Us and Glory to God’s Name.)
  • Step two: Why should the nations say ‘Where is there God?’ (v.2).
  • Step three: What Israel’s God is Like (v. 3). (See: The God Who Can’t Be Manipulated.)
  • Step four: What the nations’ gods are like (vv. 4-8).
  • Step five: A call for Israel to renew its trust in Yahweh (vv. 9-11).

So, now the Psalm turns from reflections on whatever misfortune has come upon them, to an affirmation of renewed hope in their God. (more…)

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Glory to God’s Name – Psalm 115:1

hebrew-scrollI’ve previously mentioned one of the things that makes Psalm 115:1 so interesting to me. It reflects something I see in the Old Testament generally: these writings were not written to glorify Israel or glorify its heroes and leaders and prophets. They were written to glorify God — and are surprisingly honest about the faults and failings of the nation and of the people. Salvation’s glory goes to God alone.

And, that is quite an amazing thing: this was the national literature of the people of Israel. These were the writings that were carefully copied and recopied and handed down so that the descendants of Israel could discover and rediscover their identity.

לֹא לָנוּ יְהוָה לֹא לָנוּ כִּי־לְשִׁמְךָ תֵּן כָּבוֹד עַל־חַסְדְּךָ עַל־אֲמִתֶּךָ
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” (NRSV)

As I think about it, this single verse is so remarkable to me. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that it’s unique, out-of-place, or unusual in any way. No. It fits well with the over-all perspectives of the Hebrew Bible. It is remarkable for stating so simply — and so briefly — some of the unique characteristics of the Old Testament. (more…)

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No Glory to Us! – Psalm 115:1

One of the remarkable things about the Bible is it’s willingness to expose the weaknesses, errors, and sins of its major characters. One of the especially endearing features of the Old Testament is its openness about its heroes flaws   — and of the flaws and failures of the nation as a whole. This is a poor piece of propaganda for the nation — we see its sins and its errors and its flaws. It is not propaganda. It is not an apology for the nation at all. It is not a glorification of its heroes. We see them as deeply flawed. It is a glorification of God’s character and grace.

לֹא לָנוּ יְהוָה לֹא לָנוּ כִּי־לְשִׁמְךָ תֵּן כָּבוֹד עַל־חַסְדְּךָ עַל־אֲמִתֶּךָ
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” (NRSV)

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

Adam Clarke paraphrases the first part of this verse this way:

We take no merit to ourselves; as thine is the kingdom, and the power in that kingdom, so is thy glory.

In the Old Testament, even the official religion and ritual of the people comes under heavy criticism:

“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation — I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:10-17 NRSV) (more…)

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The Anointed Preacher – Isaiah 61:1–4

Hebrew_bible_4We are told in the Gospel of Luke 4:16-19 that when Jesus had opportunity to speak to the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from the scroll the words of Isaiah 61:1-2 and announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). These verses in Isaiah described Jesus’ mission in life.

These ancient words speak to us today of the vocation of the preacher — then and now. When we first come to these verses in the prophecy of Isaiah (or Third Isaiah or whatever his name was) we immediately wonder: who is the prophet talking about? Is this the writer’s mission or is he speaking of someone else? Questions like this might not arise if it weren’t for the fact that the prophecies of the book of Isaiah can be quite mysterious that way. Who is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53? Who is the “servant” of Isaiah 42:1? Who is the figure spoken of in Isaiah 11:2? Who is speaking in Isaiah 48:16? You see what I’m saying.

(more…)

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John Oswalt: Is Advent in the Bible?

Dr. John Oswalt talks about theme of promise in the Old Testament and its relevance to the celebration of Advent.

[kad_youtube url=”https://youtu.be/tWRYzz1E3sg” ]

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Salvation Can Be Lost

A List of Scriptures that Teach or Imply that Christian Salvation can be Lost.

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WARNING: This is a very long list of Scripture passages, along with some comments from myself and a few historic Bible commentators. Don’t expect to read this straight through in one sitting. (The imagery of salvation being “lost” is also a bit problematic. The idea here is not “lost” in the sense of inadvertently misplaced, but “lost” in the sense of forfeited.) Obviously, these Scriptures are a beginning point for the discussion of these issues. My point is how pervasive this theme really is. Quotes are given from historic commentators with differing  perspectives — some Arminian, some more Calvinistic — again, the point is the pervasiveness of this theme.


 

The Bible warns us time and time again about the danger of falling away from the faith. The following list of Scriptures is by no means complete or exhaustive. Much of the the New Testament can be quoted against the “once-saved-always-saved” doctrine. (more…)

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The Danger of Forgetting the Poor – Amos 2:6-16

amos053The real heart of Amos’ prophecies was his message to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel (sometimes also called Ephraim, after its dominant tribe).

So, when we get to verse 6 of chapter 2, we come to the heart of Amos’ message. Everything has been a preparation for this. (You can find my comments on the earlier portions of this prophecy here: Amos 1:2, Amos 1:3-15, &  Amos 2:1-5.) The other nations have been condemned only to underline the message of judgement against Israel.

The dramatic, repeated formula appears again:

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה עַל־שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ
“Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn back….”

What had they done? (more…)

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The Moral Governor of the Nations – Amos 1:3-15

lion22The time in which the prophet Amos lived was a time of peace and prosperity. But, the prophet could hear God roaring like a lion — in anger.

Amos the prophet was certain that there was a God to whom the nations must give account. There was a moral judge of the world.

No doubt this was a growing realization among the people of Israel. The God they worshiped was not a localized god — not simply their God, but the God of all the nations. YHWH was the God to whom all the nations were accountable.

So, in these verses, the prophet begins with this notion: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will call the nations to accountability. (more…)

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A Prosperity Gospel – Psalms 25:13-15

psalmsinhebrewChristian readers need to continually remind themselves: the Old Testament believers had no developed doctrine of the afterlife. Whereas, in much of Christianity the idea of the afterlife — of rewards and punishments in the world to come — dominates the thinking of believers. This has become such a commonplace idea in Christianity, we must consciously remind ourselves that it is missing (for the most part) from the thinking of the Old Testament writers.

It’s not just Christians who may be surprised — or even shocked — by the absence of this theme. There are some observers who have theorized that religion exists as a way of addressing the fear of death. If that were the case, it would be impossible to account for the Jewish religion in Old Testament times (or: the religion of the ancient Greeks at the time of Homer, either. Just read The Iliad sometime.).

Because the believers of Old Testament times had no developed doctrine of the afterlife, they tended to see the issues of right & wrong / rewards & punishments as playing themselves out in this life. You can see this clearly in the book of Proverbs, for example: do right and things will go well for you, do wrong and you will suffer. (more…)

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