Embrace Confession For Life

The following is a message I preached in the Trinity Bible College and Graduate School chapel today (September 14, 2016) on Psalm 32 and embracing confession for life.
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Psalm 1: A Devotional for the Wise

by Tzvi HaLevi Berger (b.1924, Transylvania)

“That kind of person is like a tree that is planted near a stream of water.
It always bears its fruit at the right time.
Its leaves don’t dry up.” (Psalm 1:3 NIrV)

 The wise are the “happy” and “blessed” (Psalm 1:1). They find themselves consumed by the things which please the LORD. They hang on His every word. His stories fill their dreams. His commands are their delight.
These happy saints sing His songs. They pray His prayers. They are washed by the waters of His cleansing and they eat His bread and drink from His cup. And they live. And they give life.
They find themselves planted by a stream of water where their roots find continuous sustenance. Their very life is maintained by this happy home where that life never fails to flow in, through and from them.
These happy trees are not blown away by the winds. They are not dried up when the rains cease. They do not withhold their fruit, because their fruit never stops growing. They have found the very source of life itself in their being planted in the garden of the LORD. Their leaves bring healing to the nations of the world who echoes their ceaseless praises to the Lord and Giver of Life. And the fruit of their lives is the fruit of that never ceasing river.
Such trees never cease to produce all that is good and right and enduring. And these righteous ones are that tree of life promised to the overcomers who are faithful to the LORD in all things and their reward shall never be taken from them. And they will flourish in His garden forever.
To be published by myself in Grow Deeper: A Devotional by Trinity Bible College (2015).

Prayers and Psalms (for Ash Wednesday)

ImageMay the Lord hear our cries! May the Lord grant redemption to the ends of the earth! May every tongue, tribe, people, and nation praise the Lord! He has forgiven us and we are forgiven! He calls to life…and we live! He is coming again and He is preparing His Bride! Prepare your people to enter into the rest which alone is found in your enduring mercy and grace! Love us with your everlasting love!

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen
St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)
Let all that I am praise the LORD; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the LORD; may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!
The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.
He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.
The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.
The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone — as though we had never been here.
But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him. His salvation extends to the children’s children of those who are faithful to his covenant, of those who obey his commandments!
The LORD has made the heavens his throne; from there he rules over everything.
 Praise the LORD, you angels, you mighty ones who carry out his plans,listening for each of his commands.

Father, forgive us as we forgive others. Grant us mercy this day to live in a manner pleasing to the glory of your Name. We fall in your presence as those who must give the labor of our hands to your praise. Cleanse our hands that they might be clean. We are those who must surely declare your praise. Give us pure hearts that we might know the joy of your presence.  Keep us in the time of our temptation that we may cling to you. Wash us and we will be clean. Pour out your Spirit and we will live. Let your Son’s judgment be our own and receive us into your glory as well-pleasing sons and daughters. To you alone be all praise, glory, and honor, forever and ever. Amen.

What If All Is Not Well With My Soul?

I was thinking tonight…what if all isn’t “well with my soul”? This hymn which has meant so much to so many just doesn’t seem to do full justice to the need for self-expression in grief. It can at times function more to repress genuine feelings of grief, anger, and despair. It can at times serve only to attempt to ignore the pain of sorrow. Is there still a place in our hymnody for raw expressions of pain and sorrow as the ancient Israelites held to in their psalms? Can we sing songs of despair or anger over injustice? I love this hymn, but wonder if we have too quickly dashed from the valley of the shadow of death into a pleasant meadow of our own self-making? Am I less than Christian if at any time all is not well?

Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

ImageI have found it disturbing (to say the least) that some folks in the U.S. believe that the imprecatory psalms offer a prayer for our current president (from Psalm 109:8).  This is nothing if not disgusting abuse of the Scriptures to promote hate-mongering. However, I’m not so simple as to think the Church should not appropriate the imprecatory psalms into our prayer life, but to recognize that between the Church and the Psalms…is Christ–crucified, died, buried, raised on the third day, and coming again to judge the living and the dead.
So I thought I’d include a brief discussion of Bruce Waltke’s and Derek Kidner’s approach to these troubling psalms:
Bruce Waltke believes that while imprecatory psalms are “theologically sound…these petitions for retribution are inappropriate for the church because, among other reasons, judgment will occur in the eschaton (Rev. 20:11-15; cf. Isa. 61:1-2 with Matt. 13:30; 25:46; Luke 4:18-20; John 15:15; 2 Cor. 6:2; 2 Thess. 1:5-9); sin and sinner are now more distinctly differentiated (cf. Eph. 6:11-18), allowing the saint both to hate sin and to love the sinner; and the saint’s struggle is against spiritual powers of darkness, where he conquers by turning the other cheek and by praying for the forgiveness of enemies (Matt. 5:39-42, 43-48; 6:14; Luke 6:28, 35; Acts 7:60).” [“Psalms: Theology of” (pp.1100-1115), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), IV:1106-1107]
Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [TOTC 15; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1975]) writes, “To get fully in tune with the psalmists on this issue we should have to suspend our consciousness of having a gospel to impart (which affects our attitude to fellow-sinners) and our assurance of a final righting of wrongs (which affects our attitude to present anomalies).” He believes we cannot properly hear the answer given to injustice in such psalms “until we have felt the force of their questions” (40). Further, he perceives that there is a sense of rhetoric at play wherein “horror may be piled on horror more to express the speaker’s sense of outrage than to spell out the penalties he literally intends” (41-42). He likens such extreme language to hyperbole for the sake of deep emotional expression that could simply not be expressed otherwise than it is. Finally, he argues that such language is intended “to touch and kindle us rather than simply address us” (42). Where we might think to criticize the psalmist (from some “reasonable” perspective), we are drawn into the “desperation which produced” the cry of imprecation (42). His understanding of a Christian appropriation suggests that rather than judgment being removed (though dealt finally by the cross of Christ) is actually drawn nearer and taken from the hands of the wronged individual and placed into the nail-scarred hands of Christ as Lord (43-45). His reply to the Christian wanting a straightforward appropriation is a “No” because the cross stands between us and these psalms (46-47).
We can hear the cries of victims of injustice and abuse and offer the healing of Christ, but we cannot truly pray such judgment upon individuals least of all those in authority over us (1 Tim.2:1-3).  We can (and must) offer prayers of imprecation concerning the ultimate justice of God that all might be set to rights.  (See also my older post “Blessed be the One Who Grabs Babylon’s Babies and Smashes Them on a Rock”)
So what are your thoughts on praying these psalms?

Future Reading Plans

While this may be a bit of a stretch, much of it will actually be read by the end of summer and into the fall season.  Many folks have asked what I’m doing now with all my “free time” since I graduated from Seminary.  Well…I’m doing lots of reading as well as will be doing some teaching at several schools in the region (colleges and seminary) over the next year.  Some of the following reading is for the courses I will be teaching, some is for my church and some is just for fun:
John E. Hartley, Leviticus (WBC 1992); Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (CC 2004); Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus (NAC 2000); Allan Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (2006); Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT 1979).
Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (AOTC 2001); Duane Christensen, Deuteronomy (WBC 2 vols. 1991, 1999); Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT 1976); J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy (AOT 2002).
Former Prophets (Joshua-2 Kings)
Robert B. Chisholm, Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook (2006); Terence E. Fretheim, Deuteronomic History (1983); Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (2008); L. Thomas Holdcroft, The Historical Books (2000); David M. Howard Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (2007); Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (JSOTSup 2nd ed.1991); Marvin E. Tate, From Promise to Exile: The Former Prophets (1999).
Derek Kidner, Psalms (TOTC 2vols. 1981); John Goldingay, Psalms (BECOT 3vols. 2008).
D. A. Carson, Matthew (EBC 1984); R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT 2005); Grant Osborne, Matthew (ZEC 2010); David Turner, Matthew (BECNT 2008).
Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (2000).

Of course, none of this includes the volumes of Barth and Bonhoeffer which I continually am wading through, but it gives a brief look at my reading schedule for the next few months.  I am thoroughly excited about reading these volumes and all the treasurers to be uncovered in the intensive study of Scripture and theology.

God Is Not Safe

God is not safe!

Or so I have come more and more to confess.  It was C. S. Lewis writing of the deific character Aslan that he was not “safe,” but he was “good.”  Being honest, I have tended to meditate on Scriptures like Psalm 121 that speak of our God always keeping watch over us and never letting us falter, or Psalm 91:1 and its opening line: “You who live in the secret place of Elyon, spend your nights in the shelter of Shaddai” (NJB).  I have camped upon the promises of provision and protection (which one encounters throughout Scripture), but I have been driven from my claim to shelter by the words of Job. 

The story of “patient Job” is one that reminds me that the God we serve is not safe.  We can certainly trust Him (and must), but we cannot assume that my doing right = my receiving immediate blessing.  The LORD is God…I am not.  He can raise up and put down.  He exalts and humbles…and without mathematical precision.  We rest in His grace and depend on Him always.  We can never presume upon His grace though (or else it would not be truly grace).  God speaks in the whirlwind and declares Himself to be God and us to be his creation. 

So…I worship trembling before the God of all…who is not safe as I would have him be, but is still “my rock and my fortress” though all else fails me…though life itself seem darkened by death and despair..the light of His glory shines eternal!  I will cast myself again and again at His mercy…for He will eventually answer!

Esther 7-8 – The Plot of Haman Reversed

7:1-10 – Haman Hanged.  After the second banquet, the king once again asked what Queen Esther wanted (“petition” and “request”) and offered her whatever she should ask for.  Her answer was to ask whether he truly favored her or not and to make a “petition” for her own life and a “request” for the life of her people which would serve to connect the two as a singular desire—her lot would be that of her people (7:3).  However, she leaves off just who “her people” are and only speaks of their current lot as those who have been “sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation” (7:4).  She exercises wisdom in speaking to the king (who has earlier shown a penchant for over-reaction) by stating that she would not be bothering the king with something like this if it were not imperative to survival.  The king’s reply shows his anger already rising by the manner in which he asks who and where this individual is.  Esther’s answer is also biting as she states it the type of man who has done this and that it was Haman.  Haman’s reaction was noticeably fearful because he suddenly realized that the king had determined to destroy him and that his life was solely in the hands of Queen Esther.  With a dark comedic twist, Haman fell (cf. “fall” prophesied in 6:13) upon the couch of Esther with all of his pleading and the king returned just at that moment from having left the banquet hall for unknown reasons.  The king appears to have used this occasion as a “pretext to punish” Haman and relieve himself from the liability of involvement in the plot to kill the Jews by admitting his own involvement (Berlin 64-65, 70).  Exactly what the covering of Haman’s face refers to is unclear unless perhaps it was to remove Haman from the sight of the king (though this is a peculiar practice).  At that moment one of the king’s eunuchs mentioned the gallows Haman had set up at his house for Mordecai who had rescued the king.  The mention of the gallows was sufficient for the king to command Haman’s hanging from the very gallows Haman had built.  This apparently satisfied the king’s anger, but did not resolve the edict issued for the destruction of the Jews.  The king once again showed a penchant for short-sightedness.  It is striking that with the short statement “they hanged Haman”, his life was ended and the reversal begun.

8:1-8 – A plea for the Jews.  Not only did Haman suffer the ignominy of death by his own making, but all of his “estate” (lit. “house”) was taken and given to Esther who in turn gave it and Haman’s position in the kingdom (noted by the signet ring) to Mordecai (cf. Ezra 6:11; Herodotus 3.129).  The words of the Psalmist are rather fitting for what occurred: He becomes the victim of his own destructive plans and the violence he intended for others falls on his own head.  I will thank the LORD for his justice; I will sing praises to the sovereign LORD!” (Psalm 7:16-17 NET).  Finally, the relationship between Mordecai and Esther was revealed and literally “all that he was to her” is what was made known (8:1).  Esther had received only part of what she had asked of the king, but not the repeal of the first decree to slaughter the Jews.  It was truly courageous that Esther should continue to plead for the lives of the Jews rather than to be satisfied with the blessing of herself and Mordecai.  However, the king would not (and according to Esther 1:19; 8:8 “could not”) repeal the initial decree against the Jews.  So he instead left the protection of the Jews to Mordecai and Esther essentially once again not really caring what became of these people or admitting his own role in the affair.
8:9-17 – A decree for the Jews.  In a reversal of events, the royal secretaries were called to write a decree for the Jews and all the same leaders of the empire that had been enumerated before (compare 3:12; however notice the naming of the Jews leading the list of rulers which gives particular emphasis to them).  This was done seventy days later than the original decree which may have theological significance in connection with the time of the exile, but must be deduced by counting from the date of this decree back to the date of the first (Berlin 76; Bush 442).  The decree was also notably written not only in the language of all the leaders, but particularly of the Jews so that they could read it themselves (cf. 1:22).  The messengers sent were described as being sent on “fast horses especially bred for the king” in order to dispatch the decree that much faster than the first decree had been sent (cf. 3:15; 8:10, 14).  The decree permitted the Jews to retaliate and defend themselves against any who tried to carry out the initial decree in a manner of retaliation equal to the original intended attack (cf. 3:13; though the retaliation was not carried out in an equal manner according to 9:16).  The NIV incorrectly translates “women and children” as if the Jews would be defending theirs instead of attacking the women and children of their attackers which actually fits the grammar of the Hebrew, but is difficult theologically because of modern propensities against such a notion (Bush 443, 447; Jobes 180-181).  Indeed, how could such a thing be acceptable? 
This would be carried out on the same day (the thirteenth of the twelfth month) as the attack so it would be evident who was attacking.  The decree also would make evident to all those who would have attacked that they were now given official approval by the king to defend themselves and thus should have prevented any attack.  Whereas Mordecai had been clothed in sack-clothe and ashes in chapter four, here he was clothed in royal accoutrements.  In 3:15 the city of Susa was “bewildered,” but here the city “held a joyous celebration.” In 4:3 the Jews mourned with “fasting, weeping and wailing,” but in 8:16-17 their lot was one of feasting with “happiness, joy, gladness and honor.”  Not only were the Jews now pleased with what was happening, but many Gentiles appear to have sided with them (though it is debatable whether they converted to Judaism or simply outwardly aligned themselves with the Jews).  But nothing had officially been carried out at this point.  The Jews were still left to defend themselves and determine their lot in life as a people, but now they had the favor of the empire with a queen on the throne and a grand-vizier in command.  What would be the outcome?

Esther 3-4 – A Time for Action

3:1-6 – Haman…the Agagite.  Whereas the last we read would have suggested that Mordecai should have been rewarded by the king, we find only the mention of another man who instead receives honors and acclaim from the king…and this man will seek for the destruction not only of Mordecai, but of all the Jews.  Haman is introduced by stating that he was an “Agagite” which would suggest an immediate tension for the reader who has just recently discovered that Mordecai is not only a Jew, but even a descendant of Kish the father of King Saul.  This seems intended to bring to mind the age-old conflict between the Amalekites (which used “Agag” for their royal family name) and Israel (Exo.17:8-16; Num.24:7; Deut.25:17-19) and was exemplified in Saul’s nearly destroying all of the Amalekites with the exception of king Agag in 1 Sam.15.  According to Josephus and several of the targums “Amalek” is actually given in place of “Agagite” here (though the Greek versions completely alter the name destroying any connection to this historical conflict).  The term “Agagite” in Esther functions in a nearly synonymous way with “enemy of the Jews” (Esther 3:10; 8:1, 3, 5, 10, 24; Bush 384).  This may, in fact, answer why Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman despite the command of the king.  The text does not explain a reason and there was sufficient precedence for bowing to kings, rulers and others (Gen.27:29; 1 Sam.24:8; 1 Kings 1:16).  Certainly Mordecai had bowed to the king, so why not to Haman?  The only reason suggested by the text is that Mordecai was “a Jew” and this must be read then in light of Haman being “Agagite”.  The targums and the LXX versions add several different explanations about the worship of God alone for the reason that Mordecai would not bow down, but this goes well beyond what the text actually says and tries to spiritualize his reasoning.  It seems more likely it was the ethnic identity that was the factor involved.  The questioning of Mordecai about why he would not bow and pay homage may be more to force him to do this rather than to actually discover why.  Mordecai’s actions so enraged Haman that he actually determined to destroy not only Mordecai, but all of Mordecai’s people—the Jews.  “There is a parallel between the decree against all women because of the disrespect shown by one (Vashti) and the decree against all Jews because of the disrespect shown by Mordecai” (Berlin 37-38).

3:7-15 – The Lot Cast.  The time indicated in 3:7 places these events five years after Esther’s choice as queen, sixteen years after the return to Jerusalem of Ezra and the rebuilding of the Temple, and sixty-four years after Zerubbabel and the first return from exile (Breneman 328).  In the first month of that year Haman cast the pur (an Akkadian loanword from which the celebration takes the plural form for its name – Purim) that was explained as the “lot” (Heb. goral).  He did this to determine the best time to destroy the Jews.  This was a normal manner for determining certain matters of great importance and allowing for either the fates or divine direction to lead one (cf. Josh.18:6; Ps.16:5-6; Prov.16:33).  The date selected by the lot was to be exactly eleven months later.  So Haman then went to Xerxes to convince him to make the edict and used truth (“scattered”), half-truth (“different than all others”) and outright lies (“do not obey”) to convince the king to give his approval.  He never once mentioned the people he was referring to, but only referred to them obliquely as “a certain people”.  His appeal was made primarily to the empires and king’s self-interest and greed.  The amount offered of 10000 talents of silver (or about 333-375 tons) equaled nearly the entirety of tribute collected by the Persians in a single year (Herodotus 3.89)!  Perhaps Haman thought to collect this by pillaging the Jews, but the king seems not even to care about such matters.  He simply issues the decree.  “Haman is unmitigated evil, but the king is dangerous indifference personified” (Bush 387).
The exact date that Haman of the edict being issued was the thirteenth of Nissan which was the eve of Passover when the Jews would be celebrating Israel’s deliverance by the hand of God (Exo.12:18; Lev.23:5; Num.28:16).  Would God again deliver His people?  Would the LORD be faithful to His covenant?  None of this is appealed to, but all of it remains implicit.  The edict was made available in every language throughout the empire in order to encourage people everywhere to prepare to take action against the Jews on the 13th of the twelfth month.  According to Herodotus it took approximately three months for a message to be carried across the entire empire (5.52-53).  The chapter closes with the king and Haman drinking together while the rest of the city of Susa was “bewildered” as the edict went out.
4:1-5 – Sackcloth and Ashes.  Mordecai immediately tore his clothes in mourning and put on sackcloth and ashes, publicly wailing (cf. Num.14:6; 2 Sam.1:11; 3:31; 13:31; Ezra 9:3; Isa.36:22).  These were the normal ancient cultural ways of demonstrating ones sorrow.  He would not even change his clothes to approach Esther with the news, but instead stayed outside the city gate wailing.  The effect upon the Jews everywhere else was similar as they heard the news of their impending destruction.  When Esther heard the news she tried to get Mordecai to put on fresh clothes so she could speak to him, but was forced to speak to Mordecai through her eunuch-servant Hathach.
4:6-17 – A Call for Action.  Mordecai relayed everything to Hathach who in turn relayed it all to Esther including bringing a copy of the royal edict concerning the destruction of the Jews.  Further, Mordecai pleaded with Esther to go to the king on behalf of her people.  Esther relayed that she, though the queen, could not simply go to the king for fear of losing her life unless he should choose to receive her or call for her.  She had not, for whatever reason, been invited to the king’s presence for a month and did not know when this would next happen.  Herodotus records that a message could be sent to the king requesting an audience (3.118, 140), but apparently Esther must have had her reasons for not wishing to send a message to request an audience.
Mordecai’s reply to Esther suggests that she will die if she does nothing.  She must take action if there is to be hope for her and her family (which presumably would include Mordecai).  Bush reads the first part of 4:14 as a rhetorical question with an emphatic “No!” as the answer.  This reading would then suggest that there would be no deliverance for the Jews if Esther did not do something now (395-7; but see the contrary in Breneman 336fn4).  Mordecai also questions Esther that she may have come to her position for such an opportune moment despite whatever the previous circumstances may have suggested.  These are the usual verses that are used to point to God’s providential care, but why at this moment (above all others) didn’t the author of Esther choose to refer to God explicitly in any way whatsoever?  The LXX makes God’s action very explicit both here and at other specific points, but
the Hebrew text used in our canon does not.  How should we understand this?  “One logical conclusion from God’s absence is that human action is important.  Time and again, Esther and Mordecai’s initiatives are what make the difference for the Jews; we do not see them passively waiting for signs from God or for God to perform a dramatic miracle of some type….[T]he author is intentionally vague about God’s presence in events.  He affirms on the one hand, that God is indeed involved with his people, but, on the other hand, he admits that it is sometimes difficult to perceive God’s involvement” (NIDOTTE 4:583-4).  “These unfolding events begin to show the inscrutable interplay between circumstances thrust upon us, sometimes unjustly, and those the result of our own behavior, often flawed.  God’s providence marvelously moves through both in his own good time” (Jobes 124).
Esther called for a severe fast of three days whereas normally fasting seems to have only gone from sunrise to sunset (NIDOTTE 3:781; cf. Judges 20:26; 1 Sam.14:24) and that there would be nothing to drink for the time Esther spoke of.  Esther and her maids would also do this and then she would go to the king whatever the consequences to herself.  Here we note that Mordecai does as Esther has commanded.  Why is there no object for their fasting and no spiritual explanation?  Again, this is implied in the text, but is not in any way stated.  Fasting could be carried out for very secular reasons (as it is in our own day), but this would seem to be for an entreaty to the LORD despite His not being named.  The time for action would be prepared for by a call for solemnity and fasting.  When one realizes that the Jews only had one day a year for mandatory fasting (i.e., the Day of Atonement, though there were numerous other days later added – cf. Zech.7:5) this adds to the solemnity of the occasion.  Further, when one realizes that this fasting would be occurring during the Feast of Passover (much as Daniel’s did in Daniel 10:2-4) which was a commanded feast (Num.9:13).
There are often propitious moments where we must take action despite what may appear to be the consequences to ourselves.  The following is a relevant poem by Martin Niemöller who was a leading German pastor that realized all too late that action should have been taken by the true Church of Germany to oppose Nazism and its desire to exterminate certain people including particularly the Jews:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”