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Posts by C.J. Williams

Ezra the Reformer

While James takes a look back at some of the gentle reformers of church history, like J.G. Vos, I thought I would reach back a bit further and look at some Old Testament examples of reform and reformers.  There are many such examples from which we can find great encouragement and instruction.  Today, we’ll take a brief look at Ezra and the heart of his ministry.

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A Time for Every Purpose

On Monday I spoke at my grandmother’s funeral, which was more difficult than I ever anticipated.  She was 94 and had been declining in her health for some time, so her passing was not unexpected.  Still, no amount of expectation truly prepares you for the sadness of losing a loved one, in this case, a woman who had been a major part of my entire life and most of my memories.  When she died I immediately thought of Ecclesiastes 3 and chose that text to read and expound a bit at her funeral.

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Musings on Gentleness

Jared’s confession about his journey to gentleness got me thinking, but before I follow that path let me just say:  the Jared I know is a big softie and wouldn’t be harsh to a flea♥  And this: I’m delighted to be a part of this blog and share some space with guys who I think truly live up to the title of gentle reformers.

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Why?

Psalm 74 is much like the book of Lamentations; it is a mournful prayer for relief that is set against the background of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. And like the book of Lamentations, there is a point at which tears give way to praise, and the merciful nature of God, once remembered and proclaimed, gives much needed hope in the midst of an otherwise bleak landscape. But the first verse meets us like a hammer blow: “O God, why have You cast us off forever?”

The opening verses portray what must have been unthinkable to the ancient saints – the enemies of God celebrating among the temple ruins. The psalmist repeatedly asks God why He would allow this (vss. 1, 10, 11) although it was known through the prophets that the sin of Judah was what led to its downfall. The psalmist’s question is like Moses’ question to God after the golden calf incident: “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people?” (Ex. 32:11). It is obvious why God is angry. The question limits itself to the perspective of God’s stake in the covenant relationship, which He has established and maintained for the sake of His own glory. Psalm 74, just like Exodus 32, goes on to review the long history of God’s covenant mercy and the investment of grace that He has in His beloved people. Indeed, why would God now cast off His people? Will this longstanding covenant, this legacy of mercy, and this promise of eternal salvation now come to nothing? To ask such a question is to answer it. The psalmist’s “why?” is not born of doubt or ignorance, rather it is a prayerful reminder that God’s own glory is at stake in the salvation of His people. The psalmist says as much in conclusion: “Arise, O God, and plead Your own cause” (vs. 22). This point is as reassuring today as it was in those days: God may have every right and reason to punish, but He will save His people for His own sake. When God saves His own people He “pleads His own cause.” Why would He do otherwise? That is the heart of the psalmist’s question.

Verses 12-14 take a step back to remember the exodus deliverance and God’s miraculous provisions in the wilderness. This exhibit of past mercy becomes a point of present assurance. The psalmist is making the case – to himself as much as to God – that such mighty and miraculous mercy cannot now come to an inglorious end. God will finish the work He has begun (Phil. 1:6). Verses 16-17 take yet another step back to remember God’s might as Creator, specifically of night and day, and summer and winter. In context these opposites seem to represent more than just the natural cycle of days and seasons, but the changes and extremities of experience that constitute life in this world. The church was then in the dark of night and cold of winter, to use the psalmist’s imagery, but even these are in God’s hands, and the day follows night, as summer follows winter, just as surely as blessing follows hardship for His people (Rom. 8:18).

From the heights of this confession the psalmist blinks back to the present and concludes the psalm with a string of urgent petitions for deliverance. Though the psalmist saw the situation as dire, there are clear indications of his confidence that God would certainly deliver and save His people. Throughout the psalm he called the church by names of divine endearment, like “the sheep of Your pasture” (vs. 1), “Your congregation” and “Your inheritance” (vs. 2). To this list he now adds another, the most poignant and moving of all: “Your turtledove” (vs. 19). These terms of divine endearment put God’s eternal love in perspective and enable the psalmist to see through the present trial. This answers the psalmist’s question “why?” Why would God abandon His own sheep, His claimed inheritance, His beloved turtledove? Why indeed.

Life brings many challenges that may cause us to ask “why?” Psalm 74 invites us to ask that question, but ask from God’s perspective. Why would God abandon His beloved people, whom He has known and loved from all eternity, and for whom He gave His only Son? To ask the question is to answer it.

The Ways of Doeg and David – Psalm 52

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Life and Language in the Old Testament

I’m currently reading a little treasure of a book entitled “Life and Language in the Old Testament” by Mary Ellen Chase. I happened upon this book by chance in a used book store on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Having no first-hand knowledge of this author I was skeptical at first, but I took it to be a low stakes gamble with a price tag of 8$. I’m always eager to read something different in the realm of Old Testament studies, and this book did not disappoint.

Chase is no theologian, and when her comments do broach the realm of theology there is the slight hint of higher-critical leanings. However, her great strengths are her appreciation for the literary uniqueness of the Old Testament and her grasp of Hebrew thought patterns. She writes like a novelist, with vivid, descriptive language, and has an unmistakable love for the rich literary features of the Hebrew Bible. The categories and tendencies of Hebrew thought and language, so different from out own, are masterfully described with enthusiasm that is contagious to the reader.

Chase’s approach is an important one. In the Reformed tradition we tend to see any given Hebrew text as a theological nut to crack, the seed of which will come out in the form of a Shorter Catechism question. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, all Scripture carries deep theological freight, but I can not help but think we often under appreciate the literary perfections of the Hebrew Bible, its vibrant language, and its pure power to stir the imagination. This is the level at which Chase writes, and her work fills a gap that many Old Testament theologians have missed. Her literary analysis does not rehash the common structures, such as parallelism and chiasm, but instead tries to uncover the spirit of the text.

For instance, she writes on the nexus between wonder and worship in the Old Testament; how awe over the creation leads to worshipful reverence for the Creator

“The sense of wonder and the instinct for worship are always recurring in narrative, prophecy, and poetry. These are closely related, or better, interrelated. Wonder, the sense of astonishment and mystery, is in the impressionable and sensitive mind complimented and at length completed by reverence and worship. Worship, the elevation of that mind to the Source of wonder, is thus inseparable from wonder itself.”

Chase brings this perspective to the creation account, which is refreshing. When Creation comes up I usually, with Pavlovian instinct, brace myself for the text to be convulsed by speculative over-analysis. For an amusing contrast to the quote below, bear in mind Meredith Kline’s tedious philosophizing about a “two register cosmology.”

“The reader of the first chapter of Genesis misses most of its power unless he is aware of the wonder latent in the simplicity of its words. It is as though creation itself were so incredible that any elaboration would dim the stupendous achievement. Nor is ‘wonder’ absent from the mind of God…which is so vast, at least in the awed tone of the writer, that after each day He sees what He has done as good, and at the close of the sixth day, when He sees everything that He has made, as very good.”

Chase discusses several dimensions of Old Testament thought that are not often treated, such as conscience, imagination and consciousness. She also draws out interesting comparisons between Greek and Hebrew narrative.

In all, Chase’s book fills an important role. It is a helpful supplement to the typical treatment of the Old Testament by commentators and theologians. She is neither theologian nor exegete, but she draws out the vibrant spirit of the text and highlights the literary and conceptual features that exegetes often overlook.

Life and Death in the Psalms

There are several curious verses in the Psalms that seem to hold out no prospect of eternal life or any kind of afterlife.  For example:

 Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee?Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or thy faithfulness in destruction?  Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? And thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:10-12)

 For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? (Psalm 6:5)

 Similarly, Hezekiah said, “For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” (Isa. 38:18).

 Some commentators will say that these verses exhibit an “undeveloped view of the afterlife” in the Old Testament, and that believers in that age had no clear knowledge of, or hope in, the promise of eternal life.  I don’t believe this is the case.  The Old Testament, and the Psalms in particular, contain many beautiful and memorable expressions of the believer’s hope in eternal life.  Who can deny that David expected to be in the presence of God forever when he said, “In Your presence there is fullness of joy; in Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).  Even Psalm 30, which contains this line, “What profit is there in my death if I go down to the pit?  Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?” ends with this line: “I will give thanks to you forever.”  So, what about all this business of there being no praise of God among the dead?

 The key, I think, is to notice that death is always contrasted, not to life, but to worship.  As the psalmist thinks about the prospect of death the most tragic element of it in his mind is that his experience of worship and the joy of it in this life will come to an end.  The psalmist valued his life for the opportunity it afforded to him to worship God, and the real tragedy of death was that his worship, so long enjoyed as the essence of life, would be silenced.  These verses are not a commentary on death or the afterlife so much as they are a commentary on the real value and true essence of life in this world.  To the psalmist, worship was the fabric of life, so much so that the great contrast he draws is not between death and life but between death and worship.  He valued his life on earth for the worship it contained.

 People value life because they don’t want to lose their most valued possessions or cease their favorite activities, whatever those things may be.  The psalmist speaks this way, too, only it is clear that what he values most is the Lord, and what he most values doing is worship.  So, these verses, which some call an “undeveloped view of the afterlife,” turn out to be a very developed and spiritually mature view of this life.  The psalmist understands that what gives life its purpose and joy is serving the Lord.

 And so, the psalmist prays for his life to be spared.  He has a sanctified sense of survival because he values his calling as a worshipper of God in this world.  Paul would say in Phil. 1 how it would be far better to depart this world and be with the Lord, and I don’t think the psalmist would disagree.  However, what we find in the Psalms is the complimentary point that what makes this life so meaningful and valuable, worth praying for and fighting for, is the high calling of being God’s worshippers in this world.

 We often pray for health and life, for ourselves and others, but these verses call us to examine our motivations.  Do we value this life and wish to see it extended because of our beloved activities, possessions and people?  Or do we, like the psalmist, value life for the worship it contains, and see the real tragedy of death as the end of our praise in this world?

 I see something of this sanctified sense of survival in the life of our Lord, seemingly an element of His true humanity.  Before His death He prayed through tears and with true human emotions, “Let this cup pass from me.”  It’s not that Christ was an unwilling sacrifice; on the contrary, He was eager to fulfill His role as our savior and prayed to the Father, “Not My will, but Your will be done.”  Nevertheless, as a true man He did not carelessly disregard the value of His life, nor relish the prospect of a painful death.  The great wonder of His sacrifice is that He forfeited His precious life, which He valued as a true man, and willingly went to the cross for our sake.

 What can we conclude?  That this life is worth living, worth praying for and fighting for, because of the opportunity it affords us to serve and worship the Lord here in this world.  That is a calling to be relished, and a calling that gives each day of life its real value.

 What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit?  Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?  Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!  You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever (Psalm 30:9-12).

The Scales of Justice (Psalm 69)

When I open the Scriptures with no other agenda than to enjoy and meditate on them, I often find myself in the Psalms.  Every facet of the life of faith is captured here and expressed in words that we can make our own.  I have done much preaching and teaching from the Psalms, but I find there is always a discovery to make in the Book of Praises.  Psalm 69 is my meditation today.  This melancholy cry for justice contains some of the most clear messianic images in all the Psalter, and ultimately gives us a prophetic glimpse of the justice of the Son of God.

 The themes of suffering and persecution form a strain of messianic imagery in the Psalms, reflected particularly in David’s experience. This Psalm , a Psalm of David, takes up these themes again in descriptive detail and provides some of the clearest prophecies of the passion of Christ in the Old Testament. Second only to Psalm 22 in the number of times it is quoted in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul all draw on this Psalm to shed light on the work of Christ. We can hardly read verse 9, “Zeal for Your house has eaten me up,” without thinking of Jesus driving the merchants out of the temple (John 2:17). Verse 21 takes us to the crucifixion with its prophecy of the vinegar and gall that Jesus was scornfully given to drink while on the cross (Matt 27:34). And, when Jesus explained the world’s opposition to His disciples, the prophecy of Psalm 69:4 was His exhibit of evidence: “They hated me without cause” (John 15:25). Few Psalms portray the person and work, and especially the passion, of the Lord Jesus as clearly as Psalm 69.

However, what seems to draw just as much attention to Psalm 69 is its powerful imprecatory tone. “Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your wrathful anger take hold of them” (vs. 24). David curses his enemies with a ferocity that some find difficult to reconcile with his greater Son’s commandment to love your enemies. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the imprecations of the psalmist are essentially a plea for justice, which is a concern firmly upheld in the New Testament and not contradicted by the law of gospel love. Even while pleading to God for justice, David surely loved his enemies, as he demonstrated in his dealings with Saul and Absalom (see also Psalm 35:11-14). Without contradiction, we can love our enemies and also desire the perfect justice of God to be displayed for His glory.

Justice is one thing, but what of the severe and personal tone of these curses? We should see the fierce tone of the psalmist as a measure of the evil deeds that prompted the imprecations in the first place. We are listening to the victim, not the perpetrator, and in a sense the psalmist is speaking on behalf of all the silenced martyrs, and all the innocent blood shed on the earth (Rev. 6:10). The Bible does not merely inform us, in dispassionate tones, about the need for justice in the world. Instead, we hear a personal and passionate plea from one who has felt the sting of evil, and the cry of a faithful man who is sensitive to the true horrors of sin, and who rightfully desires to see God’s Name vindicated. The imprecations of the Bible have their own rhetorical design – to move us to share in David’s sensitivity to evil, his outrage over injustice, and his longing for God’s rectitude. The basic element of these imprecations – the plea of God’s people for vindication – is still our concern, and a prayer that God promised to answer (Luke 18:7). Therefore, Psalm 69 still occupies a needful place in the songbook of the church.

Even so, we should not thoughtlessly or lightly take up such fearsome words in our prayers. We have enough trouble loving our neighbor as ourselves, let alone our enemies, without presuming to stand in David’s shoes and be the spokesmen of God’s vengeance. It is enough for us to strive to live by the law of gospel love, and simply take from this psalm the comfort of knowing that God’s perfect justice will ultimately prevail over all. In the final analysis, we must remember that Psalm 69 is messianic through and through. It is Christ whom we hear describing His passion and pleading for justice. This should remind us that the justice called for by this psalm is the justice of Christ, who alone is righteous enough to carry out the judgment of God.

Cast Your Burden on the Lord (Psalm 55)

Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.

Psalm 55:22

     Psalm 55 is among many Davidic Psalms set in the context of conflict, but this time his adversaries are in his hometown (vs. 9-11) and among his friends (vs. 12-14). David had seen opposition from many quarters, but betrayal from within added a bitter dimension to his trials. His restlessness, hurt, and fear are on full display as the psalm opens (vs. 1-5), and the urge to escape overwhelms him (vs. 6-8). There are times in life when we can identify with David’s desperation and the urge to escape from life’s trials, but the psalm concludes with a better, more sure course of action: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you” (vs. 22).

     This verse is the focal point and crescendo of the psalm. David’s restless fear and the bitter opposition of his betrayers lead him to this conclusion, which is the only admonition of the psalm. Throughout, David is addressing God (vs. 1, 9, 23), but it is as though he pauses in his prayer to glance our way and offer this life-changing lesson that he has learned by hard experience: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you.”

     The translation “burden” in NKJV, and “cares” in NIV, are too limited for the Hebrew word which means “lot,” or whatever is appointed to you, with a more comprehensive view of life than just its burdens. Thus we are encouraged to cast our very lives upon the Lord, seeking His refuge and guidance in all things. And, notice that the promise is not that God will dispel every fear and resolve every problem, but that He will sustain you. As David found out, escape is not the answer that God provides; what He does provide is the strength and grace to navigate the path ahead.

     As important as this lesson is, an even greater reality looms behind it in this psalm. As a type of Christ, David’s experience is unique in that it portrays the suffering of our Lord on our behalf. The betrayal of a friend, described in vs. 12-14, was played out in Christ’s life, just as it is also depicted in Psalm 41:9. Even as David sees the whole city in an uproar against him (vs. 9-11), we cannot help but remember that the crowd of the same city cried out, “Crucify Him!” (Matt. 27:22). In these ways, Psalm 55 powerfully and prophetically depicts the bitterness that Christ endured for our salvation.

     Christ exemplified the crowning lesson of this Psalm in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46), where we see the outline of Psalm 55 unfold. First, Christ described His sorrow and fear, as David did. Then, He cast His burden on the Father in prayer, as David did. The Lord did not give Christ an escape from this dark hour of suffering, but He did give Christ the grace and strength to fulfill His calling and accomplish our salvation. Thus, the Lord Jesus Christ perfectly exemplified the admonition that this psalm lays upon us: “Cast your burden upon the Lord and He shall sustain you.”

Webinar on Covenant Baptism

Hi folks.  Lately I’ve been working on notes for a “webinar” I’m doing on the subject of Covenant Baptism in the context of the Great Commission.  I thought I’d post some details here in case anyone is interested in the topic.  I’ll be talking a little about the Great Commission in general, but then focus on the command to baptize and how that relates back to circumcision in the Old Testament, specifically to children.  If you want to view the webinar, which will be on April 27 at 3pm, you can get more details here.  Below is a rough draft of some of the points I’ll be discussing, just FYI.

The Great Commission and Covenant Baptism

     The “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20) contains a wealth of explicit and implicit connections to the Old Testament.  This missionary charter for the church is founded upon ancient principles and best understood as the culmination and extension of the rich evangelistic theology of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Our focus today will be on infant baptism and its covenantal connections to the Old Testament, but we will begin with a few preliminary points that come from the preamble to the Great Commission.

A.  Christ’s Authority.

            1.  The Great Commission begins with the authority of the Commissioner: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”

            2.  This reference is to the mediatorial kingship bestowed upon Christ when His sacrificial work was completed (cf. Psalm 2; Eph. 1:20-22; Phil. 2:5-11).

            3.  This divine formula, which includes a statement of authority and self-identification, is found throughout the prophets and is reminiscent of Sinai.

B.  The Call to Make Disciples.

            1.  The first charge is, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations…”

            2.  This command is predicated upon, and an outworking of, Christ’s mediatorial kingship.

            3.  This commission rests upon the long precedent of Old Testament example, command and prophecy (e.g. Deut. 4:6; Ps. 67:1, 2; Isa. 2:1-5).  The ancient church had an outward-looking, missionary character.

C.  The Command to Baptize: Old Testament Context

            1.  As we have seen, the Great Commission continues and extends some foundational Old Testament principles.  Behind this immediate context stands the basic continuity of the Covenant of Grace between the two Testaments.

            2.  When disciples were made in ancient times they were to be given the sign of the covenant, which was circumcision, along with their children (Gen. 17:1-14; Ex. 12:43-49).

            3.  This outward sign was to signify the inward reality of being forgiven of sin and receiving the blessings of the Covenant of Grace (Deut. 10:16; Rom. 4:11).

            4.  Instances in which the reality did not follow the sign remind us that people are saved by God Himself and not the sign itself (Rom. 9:6-13).  Nevertheless, the exception of Esau does not disprove the rule of Jacob – that one of the ordinary and primary means by which God extended the Covenant of Grace was through the children of believers.

D.  The Command to Baptize:  New Testament Example

            1.  The basic continuity of the Covenant of Grace extends to the sign of the covenant.  While the outward form has changed from circumcision to baptism (Col. 2:11, 12), the reality signified remains God’s covenant ownership and the cutting/washing away of sin (Deut. 30:6; Acts 2:38; 22:16).

            2.  Just as in the Old Testament, believers who entered the covenant by faith were given the sign of the covenant along with their children (Acts 2:38, 39).  Notice in Peter’s sermon the formula that includes baptism, the covenant and children.

            3.  There are several New Testament examples of families being baptized upon the profession of faith of a parent (Acts 16:15, 33; note the term “household” in vs. 15 and the phrase “all that were his” in vs. 33.  The implication is clearly that children were baptized).

            4.  There would have to be explicit biblical warrant for suddenly excluding children from having the sign of the covenant after many centuries of receiving it.  The New Testament does not limit the sign to adults; instead, it extends it to include females (Acts 8:12).

Summary

     The Great Commission rests upon ancient foundations.  Our calling to disciple the nations has always been the calling of God’s covenant people, yet this commission has been accentuated with new power and urgency with the completion of Christ’s work.  The sign of God’s Covenant of Grace has always been given to believers and their children, ever since our father Abraham was saved by grace and circumcised.  Now, as the covenant community grows, and the Great Commission bears its fruit throughout the world, baptism continues as the sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace upon believers and their children.

Psalm 51

     Some texts of Scripture are so powerfully clear, so penetrating and convicting, that it almost seems a disservice to exposit them.  Psalm 51 is just such a passage.  It is no wonder that Charles Spurgeon said of this psalm, “Such a psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but, commented on – ah!  Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?”  Expecting better than defeat, but still with a blush, let’s take a look at the Psalter’s best known penitential psalm.  These words, which capture the spiritual outpouring of a man brought low by his sin, speak to us with a clear example of true repentance.

      As the title of the psalm indicates, David penned these words after murdering Uriah, committing adultery with Bathsheba, and being confronted by Nathan the prophet.  It was surely a low point in David’s life, and his desperation can be sensed.  He opens the psalm with an appeal to God’s “lovingkindness,” which translates a Hebrew term for God’s unique covenant love.  Because of the Covenant of Grace, which God swore by His own Name to uphold, David knows that there is hope for forgiveness.  He goes to the Lord without excuses or explanations; instead, he owns and confesses his sin.  In the first three verses alone he uses the word “my” five times (my transgressions, my iniquity, my sin…)  In verse 4 he gets to the heart of the matter – “Against You, You only, have I sinned.”  Adultery and murder are hardly victimless crimes, but David realizes that it is God’s law that he has broken, and this offense to God is the most disgraceful aspect of his sin.  David’s confession goes further in verse 5 with the admission that this great sin was not out of character; he was, as we all are, sinners by nature.  He does not portray himself as a good man who did a bad thing; he confesses both his sin and his sinfulness.

     “Purge me with hyssop” is a plea that borrows its imagery from Leviticus 14, where the ritual for the cleansing of a leper called for the sprinkling of sacrificial blood by a bunch of hyssop.  Besides comparing his sin to the wasting disease of leprosy, the allusion suggests that blood will be needed to atone for his sin – blood provided by God, and more precious than that of an animal.  “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” is a phrase to relish.  What is whiter than snow?  What is more complete than God’s forgiveness in Christ? 

     Verses 8 and 12 make an unmistakable link between true forgiveness and true joy.  True joy, which is so elusive in this fallen world, can only be experienced through God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus and the renewal of the heart by His sovereign grace.  David pleads for this inward renewal in verse 10.  “Create in me a clean heart,” he begs, using the same verb in Genesis 1:1 where God created the heavens and the earth.  This Hebrew verb is never found with men as its subject.  Only God can truly create, and only He can re-create the heart of man.

     David pleads that the Holy Spirit be not taken away from him in verse 11.  It would be wrong to read into these words the possibility of God abandoning one of His people.  David likely has in view what happened to Saul in I Samuel 16:14, when the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul after David was anointed king in his place.  But David is not just afraid of losing his kingship as Saul did; he feels estranged from God because of his sin and he wants that sense of estrangement to end.  David’s words do confirm that the ancient saints experienced the gracious work of the third Person of the Trinity.

     Up to this point David’s concern has been his own forgiveness, but his faith is not so introspective that he forgets he is part of a redeemed community with covenant responsibilities.  He vows to be a witness to others (vs. 13) and to worship God with sincerity and humility (vss. 15-17).  Finally, he concludes with a prayer for God’s blessing on the church (vs. 18).  God’s forgiveness sets us in a new direction in life.  It gives us concern for the souls of the lost, a new desire to worship our Savior, and a love for God’s people.  After confessing sin and humbly approaching God for forgiveness, the believer’s faith is invigorated to serve and glorify the Savior.  David’s words are a timeless affirmation that God’s life-giving forgiveness in Christ is still accessible to us today.

Age and Aging

A recent article on a rare disease got me thinking about the life spans of the antediluvians.

The Tribune-Review ran a story about a boy with a very rare disease called progeria, which causes accelerated aging.  Only 16 children in the U.S. have the disease, which will cause most of them to die by about the age of 13 from heart attacks or strokes.  The three year old boy in the article looked like a miniature grandfather.  It’s a strange, sad condition that caused me to reflect: here is an example of aging without age.  It’s not a “disease” so much as an acceleration of a natural process.  What are the implications?

The deterioration of the body, which is an effect of mankind’s fallen condition, does not always happen uniformly over time.  In our experience (and that of Moses in Psalm 90) the effects of sin run their course usually by age 70 or 80.  Thus we naturally see “aging” as an effect of age, or the deterioration of the body as a process of time.  But ultimately it is not a process of time.  It is the process of our fallen nature running its course in our physical existence, and the speed of that process is variable.  The condition of progeria, rare though it is, reminds us that this process fluctuates and is not always uniform according to our expectations and experience.  Even within our common experience, some “age” faster than others, making one live to 100 and another die at 50.  If aging depended only on age, and if the natural deterioration of the body depended only on time, what would account for these variables?  And what of an instance where this process takes place in the span of only 13 years?  While genetics, hygiene, habits, culture and many other factors push general life expectancy up and down, it is still apparent that the aging process is a variable that’s not entirely dependent on time, nor is it absolutely uniform according to our common expectations.

Thus, if the natural deterioration of the body can happen in as little as 13 years, defying our notions of uniformity in aging, it could likewise defy our notions of uniformity by taking a much longer time.  As long as 969 years (Gen. 5:27).  Progeria is a sad and terrible condition, but it does remind us that there is more to aging than age, and there is no ironclad law of uniformity when it comes to this process.  Most will experience this process at a rate that is not unanticipated, but there are exceptions at both extremes, and this reminds us that our experience is not the standard of what is possible or believable. 

The long ages of the antediluvians seem mythical to some, but a boy dying of old age at 13 is no less unexpected.  The effects of the fall have their variables and extremes, but in the end, both the longest and shortest life spans on this earth are like “a tale that is told” (Ps 90:9 KJV).  Praise God that we can say with Job, “after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).

The Unhurried Patriarchs

     It’s amazing how regimented modern life is.  Busy schedules demand precise organization, and we can hardly conceive of a day that is not divided into hours and minutes.  I don’t know how many times I glance at my watch during the day, but each glance reminds me of pending tasks and the precise time allotted to each.  This being the case, it is refreshing to step into the world of Old Testament narrative.  In the place of hours and minutes, the patriarchs lived and thought in terms of seasons – not the natural seasons of the year, but indefinite periods of time that were characterized by one particular task or calling.  Thus we read about characters encamping here or there “for a season” in the King James Version, or the “season” in which Israel came out of Egypt, or the psalmist praying to God “in the night season.”  Even the days are delineated only by morning, noon and night with no thought of greater precision.  If we tried to operate on these terms – schedule things “in due season” or plan our tasks “when the time comes” – a tangled mess would surely be the result.  Our world demands precision and a strict accounting of time.  But when reading the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible we seem to step into a dream-like world with very little consciousness of, or concern for, the delineation and passage of time.

     I do not think this narrative timelessness can be neatly accounted for by the simplicity of ancient life or the nature of ancient literature.  Of course, to some degree, we would expect a shepherd people to move at a sheep’s pace, but I think the difference between the Old Testament world and ours has as much to do with priorities as anything.  Perhaps the timeless quality of these texts exhibits the simplicity of faith unencumbered by the desires, expectations and obligations that we needlessly heap upon ourselves.  What mattered to the patriarchs was the calling at hand, not the next bend in the road.  They lived within the present reality of the covenant relationship, enjoying it and responding to its development.  What mattered was right in front of them – faith, life and family – and to these things they gave themselves with timeless focus.  I’m sure they had occasion for greater precision and foresight when it came to the responsibilities of life, as we do, but one certainly gets the sense that, from “season to season,” our forefathers in the faith had an unwavering simplicity of focus that makes their life narratives seem timeless, or at least not nearly as regimented as our world.  Their communion with God and the Lord’s calling upon them wasn’t one part of a diffuse existence, nor did they see the present as only a steppingstone to something else.  They found themselves on the “pathway of life” because of God’s grace, and that path was all that mattered.  “What” mattered a whole lot more than “when.”

     You have heard the hackneyed saying: “Life is a road, not a destination.”  Nothing could be further from the truth in our world.  It’s not uncommon for us to covet what we do not have, live only for what we want to achieve, always look to the next bend in the road, sacrifice the people in our lives for progress toward our goals, and remain unsatisfied with where we are in life.  But maybe this was truly the case with the patriarchs, that the “pathway of life” was all that mattered.  It was enough for them to simply live the life of faith – unhurried and unencumbered – while enjoying the different “seasons” of the covenant relationship.  Perhaps this accounts for the slower pace and timeless perspective of the patriarchal narratives; perhaps we, too, should live and think more in such terms.

Stretching Out the Heavens

Okay, this one comes from left field, but hear me out…

While studying for my Prophets class I noticed again that Isaiah uses a unique, consistent description of the creation of the heavens. He says God “stretched them out.”

I have made the earth, and created man on it. I—My hands—stretched out the heavens, and all their host I have commanded. (Isa. 45:12)

Indeed My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has stretched out the heavens; When I call to them, they stand up together. (Isa. 48:13)

And you forget the LORD your Maker, Who stretched out the heavens… (Isa. 51:13)

Now, as an experiment, next time you are giving your kids a bath put your hands flat against each other under the water and stretch them out quickly away from each other. What happens? Small whirlpools called eddies are formed. As you stretch out your hands the water is displaced and the void is filled by swirling water that trails behind your hands.

As far as I know, the Big Bang Theory has no explanation for the orbital swirling motion of all the galaxies in the universe. If there was a “big bang” everything would be moving in a linear way directly out from the center point of origin. That’s not the case. The galaxies are a mass of swirling, circular motion.

If Isaiah’s language is more than poetry, and if God did indeed “stretch out” the heavens in some way, then the swirling galaxies may just be the eddies left behind from this awesome creative act.

I told you it was from left field, but it’s interesting to think about…..

The Problem of Evil through the Lens of Psalm 56

     The “problem of evil” has occupied philosophers and theologians for centuries.  How, it is asked, can evil exist in a world that is supposedly created and ruled by a good God?  The question itself has lead many who ponder it to despair and atheism.  Various answers have been offered, none of which have laid the question to rest, but perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along.

     Psalm 56 does not view evil as an abstraction, the presence of which must be explained.  David, ever practical in his theology, does not view evil as some mysterious force or inexplicable abstraction that coexists with a good God.  The problem he sees is evil men.  “Man would swallow me up; always fighting, he oppresses me” (vs.1).  Similar language runs throughout the psalm, giving evil a very human face.  Evil is a human problem, not a philosophical abstraction.  The “problem of evil” may be debated in the ivory tower, but on the ground it is the problem of evil people.  It is the problem of sin. 

     When understood this way, we realize that philosophy cannot offer a satisfying answer.  Instead of looking for an explanation of an abstraction, we should be looking for a solution to the human condition.  Only the gospel of Jesus Christ offers such a solution.

     David grappled with the problem of evil within himself and sought the forgiveness of the Lord (Psalm 51), but in Psalm 56 he faces the problem of evil men who oppose him.  He is not just a target of opportunity.  His faith explains the resistence he encountered (Matt. 5:11, 12).  As a believer trusting in the Lord, David learned something else about the problem of evil men – that, ultimately, they cannot detract from his joy of salvation, or mitigate his blessings, or undo God’s grace in his life.  “In God I have put my trust, I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?” (vs. 11).  As believers in Christ we too have the joyful assurance that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38, 39).  Evil men, no matter how formidable they may seem, cannot undo the work of a righteous, sovereign God.  And whatever evil there may be in the world, it is not strong enough to prevail over God’s plan or God’s people.

     Yes, there is a problem of evil.  It is a real-world problem, a human problem.  Philosophical explanations, endlessly debated, will only offer cold comfort to a suffering world.  The only solution (and unlike all else, it is a solution) is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  By faith in Him we can know the freedom of forgiveness from sin and its consequenses.  By faith we know that the “problem of evil” has an answer from a holy, sovereign Savior.