Thursday, November 30, 2017

To what end suffering?

Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross was not a one-off quotation from a psalm of lament. Both Jeremiah and Jesus were remembered as servants of God who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7; cf. Jer 17:14). When under persecution, however, we notice a first major difference. Jeremiah’s laments frequently move toward prayers against the enemies, while Jesus put his teaching on “love your enemies” into practice by interceding for them. Moreover, at no point in Jeremiah’s ministry, as far as I can tell, does it occur to the prophet that his mediatory suffering before God serves any deeper purpose. In the case of Jesus, however, there is good reason to believe that he understood his suffering as being vicarious. Jesus says that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Between the death of Jesus and the suffering of Jeremiah stands the poem of the suffering servant. We have seen that Isaiah 53 in particular gives expression to something unprecedented in the Old Testament: the enabling of healing and new life through the substitutionary suffering of another. It is widely agreed that Jesus understood his forthcoming death in the light of the suffering servant (cf. Isa 53:10–12).—Standing in the Breach, pages 414–15

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What of the violence in those prayers?

It is one thing to understand Jeremiah’s prayers for divine justice by their own logic and terms; it is quite another challenge to test their relevance in a new covenant Christian setting. Praying against one’s enemies is not the way Jesus taught his followers. This raises the immediate question of whether there is a way to reconcile the imprecatory prayers with Jesus’ message of love for one’s enemies (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27–29).—Standing in the Breach, page 410

Thus, two patterns have emerged. On the one side, we have those who want to exclude these prayers from the functioning Christian canon, because of their time and culture-bound characteristics, while, on the other side, are those who tend to reinterpret or spiritualize the material in order to maintain its abiding witness for the Church. Traditionally, the Church expects that the Bible in its full complexity has relevance for its contemporary readers. This is what gives the Bible its vitality.—Standing in the Breach, page 413

<idle musing>
An enduring problem, indeed. I certainly don't have the answer! But it does seem ironic to me that a culture that is as warlike as ours, sending drones on innocent citizens, carrying on wars all over the world to "protect American interests," and that allows 33,000 people every year to be killed by hand guns has a problem with violence in the Bible!

Stop to think about that for a minute. It's like the current rage of firing people for sexual misconduct—which I think is totally justified!—in a culture that glorifies sex. Does anyone see the irony in this?

Ah well, just an
</idle musing>

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What about Jeremiah?

So, if Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers appear at first sight like vicious selfish prayers, they often reflect the prophet’s concern for divine justice and his covenant duty to report to Yhwh about the state of the godless (Jer 12:1–3, 15:15). To stop Jeremiah from proclaiming divine judgment is in effect opposition to the Lord and what God is doing. We have seen that Jeremiah sought to oppose Yhwh’s judgment in prayer for a long time, until the prophet eventually aligned his prayers with Yhwh’s verdict to judge Israel. On the basis of Yhwh’s covenantal will, it becomes clear that Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers have to be heard against the background of the blessing-cursing rhetoric of the Old Testament covenant. Recognizing this background helps us to see that not just anything goes in Jeremiah’s prayers, but that the prophet’s harsh curses “are petitions for the justice of God, for the vindication of God’s righteous nature and purposes.” [Miller, They Cried, 93]—Standing in the Breach, page 409

Monday, November 27, 2017

It's not automatic

On many important ancient Near Eastern treaties, law codes, or covenants one finds appended an extensive set of curses. These curses function as a kind of “divine safeguard” against breaking the agreement. The general understanding of the ancient Near Eastern religions was that these curses became efficacious by breaching the covenant stipulations in an almost mechanical magical manner. Van der Toorn comments:
one gains the impression that it (the curse) acts quite independently of the relationship between the individual and his gods. The many symbolic actions connected with the oath could, much more than in Israel, also be understood as magical manipulation to render the curses automatically efficacious.
There is, however, hardly any evidence for such a reading in the Old Testament.— Standing in the Breach, page 408

Friday, November 17, 2017

Prophetic mediation

The genuine prophetic mediator embodies not only the divine word but, to some degree, the divine pathos as well.— Standing in the Breach, page 394

Monday, November 13, 2017

I am weary of holding it in…

As the dialogue with God progresses, Jeremiah gives more and more expression to the tension of the mediator. On the one hand, he loves the people and intercedes for them, but on the other hand, the prophet sees their many blatant sins and thus he is weary with holding back the wrath of God that he came to embody (Jer 6:11, 20:9). Jeremiah’s inner struggle over the fate of Judah reflects in many ways God’s mercy and wrath (Exod 34:6–7). As mediator, Jeremiah stands between God and the people, he represents both sides to the other party, and he embodies the suffering, the uncertainty, the wrath, and the hopes of both sides at the same time.—Standing in the Breach, page 393

Friday, November 10, 2017

Intercession is a family affair

But it is also important to note that on the full biblical revelation, our prayers for justice are not our prayers alone. The Scriptures indicate that Jesus intercedes on our behalf (John 17) and “ever lives to make intercession for us” (Heb 7:25). They record that the Spirit intercedes as well, groaning on our behalf in our suffering (Rom 8:26–27). This shows us that even within the Godhead, the Spirit and the Son make intercession to the Father about the affairs of humanity, praying about sin and the mediating salvation of Christ (Heb 7:23–25), praying for support and fidelity to God (John 17), and groaning and interceding over suffering (Rom 8:26–27). In this, we are not alone in prayer, even in prayers of lament. God has gone before and behind us in the Son and the Spirit, drawing our prayers into his.—Heath Thomas, Habakkuk, forthcoming in the THOTC series (emphasis original)

Not even Moses and Samuel!

Jer 15:1 establishes a kind of biblical hierarchy as to who were the most influential mediators in the Old Testament. Moses and Samuel are Israel’s two great prophetic intercessors of the past. They have reached a proverbial status in the mindset of the Israelites (cf. Ps 99:6). We have seen in some detail how Moses and Samuel have managed to pacify Yhwh’s wrath and succeeded to preserve the covenant relationship. This time, however, there appears to be no room left for concessions. The fact that even Israel’s two outstanding intercessors could not achieve divine pardon for Israel anymore suggests that Israel’s relationship with Yhwh has reached an unprecedented low point.—Standing in the Breach, page 383

<idle musing>
Have we reached that point yet? I don't think so, but we do need to intercede more. See this. Here's a snippet:

If church history teaches us anything, it is that prayer meetings, seemingly out of style today, possess more potential to transform societies than vote counts.
And most "prayer meetings" that do happen end up being at least 90% singing and talking and at best 10% praying. Nothing wrong with singing and talking, but don't call it a prayer meeting if you aren't going to reverse the percentages!
</idle musing>

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Prophetic voice?

Lots of people want to be prophets, screaming doom and gloom, and calling down the end of the world on everybody and everything. Is that really what a prophet does, though? We've been extracting sections from Michael Widmer's Standing in the Breach for a while now. He would disagree, but he's not the only one.

Yesterday evening we went to the library. We hadn't been there for a while now, so I spent a good bit of time looking over the new books. One especially caught my eye, a short little 70 page book entitled Roots of Violence: Creating Peace through Spiritual Reconciliation, so I read it : ) Here's good little snippet that I managed to pull from it:

It isn’t easy to be a prophet. The prophet of doom prays like mad that his prophecy not be true. Any prophet of doom who isn’t praying like mad that it not happen is just on an ego trip. That was Jonah’s problem.—Krister Stendahl, Roots of Violence: Creating Peace through Spiritual Reconciliation (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2016)
Jonah sounds like far too many "prophets" doesn't he? : (

Accordance for Android!

Yes! Accordance has released a beta version of Accordance for Android!

To install it, I downloaded it via the link, copied it into Dropbox, and then accessed it on my phone to install it. Log in to your account, and do the Easy Install. Seems to run fine on my small phone, so I'm sure those of you with more memory will have no trouble.

Standing before the Lord

[I]t [Jer 15:10] is important because it uses one of the main “technical” terms to describe the role of the prophetic intercessor. The prophet was traditionally a mediator between Yhwh and the people (Deut 18:15–22). The prophets were responsible to pass on the words of God to the people and to “stand before the Lord”(`āmad lifnê) in prayer on behalf of the sinful people. The expression “standing before the Lord” on behalf of the people is also used by Jeremiah to describe his intercessory activity (cf. Jer 18:20), and it goes all the way back to Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Gen 18:22–23, 19:27). Elijah introduces himself as the prophet of Yhwh, “before whom I stand” (1 Kgs 17:1; 18:15). God raises up prophets to serve him (“to stand before him,” Deut 18:5) as advocates and messengers (Deut 4:10).—Standing in the Breach, page 382

About that timeline of yours…

Faith means being faithful to God rather than relying upon a specific timeline. Temptation seduces believers when they begin to rely on God’s schedule for security and hope rather than in God himself. This is a kind of disordered love, which will lead to disordered lives. Timelines may take our eyes away from the One who gave it.—Heath Thomas, Habakkuk, forthcoming in the THOTC series (emphasis original)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The inner life of God revealed

Following the logic of the text, Yhwh does not reveal the dramatic tension of His inner life primarily for the benefit of the readers, though with the canonization of these oracles this obviously became a central purpose of the text. God’s tears also introduce anew a note of hope for Jeremiah. They witness to a deeply involved God and to the changing nature of divine inner life. Divine tears raise the possibility of forgiveness and healing. In other words, taking the flow of the narrative seriously, it looks as if the divine tears encourage Jeremiah to persist in his intercessory prayer effort on behalf of the people (cf. Jer 14:19–22). Perhaps no other book of the Bible witnesses so clearly to the divine tension between love and wrath. Together, love and wrath cause divine pain, something that comes to powerful expression in these verses.—Standing in the Breach, page 374

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Anthropomorphism from a different angle

"Actually, Israel conceived even Jahweh himself as having human form. But the way of putting it which we use runs in precisely the wrong di- rection according to Old Testament ideas, for, according to the ideas of Jahwism, it cannot be said that Israel regarded God anthropomorphically, but the reverse, that she considered man as theomorphic. . . . It has been rightly said that Ezek 1.26 is the theological prelude to the locus classicus for the imago doctrine in Gen 1.26." [Footnote: Von Rad, Old Testament Theology 1:147.] Heschel (The Prophets, 51–52) makes the same point: “God’s unconditional concern for justice is not an anthropomorphism. Rather, man’s concern for justice is a theomorphism.”—Standing in the Breach, page 372

<idle musing>
I like that—especially the point made by Heschel!
</idle musing>

Monday, November 06, 2017

Your walk betrays your talk

The book of Jeremiah contains a long divine oracle that helps one to discern between false and true prophets further (cf. Jer 23:9–40). A mark of false prophets is that they tolerate or promote other gods besides Yhwh, or even prophecy in their names (cf. Jer 23:13, Deut 13:1–5). Spiritual adultery begins with ungodly spiritual leaders who lead the people astray. Thus, Yhwh is testing loyalty to Himself by seemingly allowing false prophets to appear among his people. Moreover, there is the important criterion of moral living (cf. Jer 23:9). False prophets commit adultery, walk in lies, and strengthen the hands of evildoers. Instead of turning Israel from their evil ways, they spread vain hopes and visions (Jer 23:14–16).—Standing in the Breach, page 370

Why don't we pray more?

In many ways, prayer is a difficult practice to understand. I say “practice” rather than “topic” precisely because prayer is not to be discussed in an abstract sense, but enacted through regular discipline of communion with God. Prayer is that practice, perhaps above all others, that is open to all Christians, and yet neglected most. This may be the case because we fear the terrifying intimacy of communion with God in prayer. We are intimidated by Martin Buber’s famous “Thou” that demands an exacting encounter. Or it may be that the church prefers the reduction of God to a list of doctrines or a mechanistic principle instead of encountering the numinous and personal God who encounters us in prayer just as we encounter him. Perhaps in these days it is easier to commodify God into a principle or a totem for consumption rather than treat him as the personal God that he is, who deserves (and demands) the reverence and awe that is due him in prayer.—Heath Thomas, Habakkuk, forthcoming in the THOTC series.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

What is faith?

Faith means being faithful to God rather than relying upon a specific timeline. Temptation seduces believers when they begin to rely on God’s schedule for security and hope rather than in God himself. This is a kind of disordered love, which will lead to disordered lives. Timelines may take our eyes away from the One who gave it.—Heath Thomas, Habakkuk, forthcoming in the THOTC series.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Gone too far

According to Jeremiah 14, however, not even the synergetic effort of all the cultic means that Israel has at its disposal is to gain a favorable hearing from Yhwh (Jer 14:11–12). Ever since Jeremiah’s temple sermon, it is clear that Israel had the tendency to profess God’s saving presence without obeying Him as the only Lord. Not only is Yhwh like “a traveler turning aside for the night” (Jer 14:8), but Israel seems to call on Yhwh whenever it served their purposes. They not only pay lip service to God through superficial penitential prayers when in desperate need but they also chased after other gods (cf. Jer 11:11–13, 13:26–27). Elijah’s sharp question to the syncretistic Israel of his days seems to apply also to the situation under discussion: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). It seems that a point in Israel’s history has arrived when not only will their prayers no longer be heard, but worse, prophetic intercession can no longer save the people.—Standing in the Breach, page 369

Review of Irenaeus of Lyon for Young Readers

I just received a new book in the mail yesterday and was asked to review it. I hope you find the review helpful.

Simonetta Carr, Irenaeus of Lyon (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017) is a nicely illustrated and well-written biography of an important early church father. In a little more than sixty pages, she does an excellent job of filling in the background of why he is important and how he obtained his source material (he was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Elder).

Beginning with his birthplace in Smyrna (modern İzmir, Turkey), she gives background on what a typical male child’s education was like and why it seems that Irenaeus had that education (he shows a good knowledge of the Greek classics in his writings). She explains the importance of Polycarp, highlights Irenaeus’s time in Rome before he arrives at his final destination of Lyon in Gaul (France), where he became bishop.

If I still had children at home, I would definitely enjoy reading this book to them. What’s more, I’m sure they would enjoy it, which is quite an accomplishment for an author!

That being said, there are two places in the book where I take issue with her. The first is on the first page of the book. She seems to imply—no, she comes right out and says—that Paul was considered one of the Twelve. Unfortunately, that reflects the highly Pauline-centric view of too many in the Reformed world. There are many definitions of “apostle” in the New Testament, but Luke’s was the most restricted, as described in Acts 1, where the disciples choose a new twelfth member. Needless to say, it wasn’t Paul. Ok, maybe I’m nitpicking.

The second issue is in the final background information, where she states the common misinterpretation of Augustine’s comment about Ambrose reading silently. From that little statement has grown a common misconception that almost no one in the ancient world read silently. Wrong! That view was rightly put to rest back in the 1960s by Bernard Knox, but it has maintained a life of its own. It was considered in bad taste to read silently, largely because so many were illiterate, but it was not unheard of or unknown. I know, only a Classicist would get all bent out of shape over that. Color me guilty, but I’m tired of having to always correct that mistake—even in articles by New Testament scholars who should know better.

Irenaeus is an important source for the early church, especially in his refutation of gnosticism and witness to the rule of faith. But one other thing that I wish she had developed was his doctrine of theosis or divination, the process by which we become more godlike (without becoming God). In his Against Heresies 3:19, he has the amazing statement

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality.
This idea would later be summed up by Athanasius (3rd century) as, “God became man that man might become god.” Mind you, not gods independent of God, but only in the likeness of God because we are adopted into God through Christ. The Eastern Orthodox have a wonderful theology of theosis that those of us in the West could do well to adapt and adopt. Indeed, if you look, you can find it in Luther to an extent, moreso in Calvin, and to a much greater extent in Wesley, who had the advantage of being at Oxford during a time of the rediscovery of the Eastern Fathers, which then influenced his idea of Christian perfection. If you do a search on theosis on this blog you will find a good bit more information. : )

Well, it seems we’ve gone far afield from the book at this point, but to sum it up again, this book, despite the two minor errors (and they are minor despite the space I gave to them), is highly recommended. In fact, this book has encouraged me to take a look at the other biographies for young readers that she has written. They might make good gifts for the grandkids!

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by Reformation Heritage Books. Needless to say, that didn’t influence my review.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

It gets complicated

Twice already Jeremiah has been prohibited to intercede. Nevertheless, God keeps on signaling to Jeremiah that He is emotionally attached and committed to His house and beloved (cf. Jer 12:7, 15). Thus, the prophet continues to probe the grace and mercy of God with amazing faithfulness in advocating on behalf of the people. In other words, Jer 14:1–15:9 testifies to the complex nexus of a God of grace and justice, a rebellious people, God’s overruling purposes for Israel, and the intercessory efforts of His chosen prophet.—Standing in the Breach, page 364

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Prayer as (honest) dialogue

Like the psalms of lament, Jeremiah’s prayers are intense and uncompromising in their voicing of complaints against God and his fellow Israelites. In many ways, they are models for unrestrained honesty that is characteristic of genuine prayer. In fact, one important feature of Jeremiah’s prayers as they are presented in chaps. 11–20 is that they are almost all followed by a divine response. This structural presentation comes not only as a stark reminder that prayer is essentially a dialogue but also that Jeremiah’s prayers ought to be read in conjunction with the divine response.—Standing in the Breach, pages 257–58

<idle musing>
I'm working through a commentary on Habakkuk right now, and this resonates very well. There are many similarities between Habakkuk and the confessions/prayers of Jeremiah.
</idle musing>