What might Luther think about our glut of Christian books?

. . . [Luther] sees the Christian life as one fueled by the reading and hearing of this Word, primarily in a corporate context. This is a great antidote to a number of perennial problems for Christians. First, there is the “need” for something more than the Bible. The success of books that offer something spectacular–whether accounts of dying and coming back to the land of the living or low-key claims to special, extra words from God–shows that the Christian world loves something out of the ordinary.

Luther would respond that such things are absolutely unnecessary, for what we need is the Word of God in the humble, mundane form that he has given it to us. Why read a book on a child who claims to have died and come back when one can read the Gospels and find there God, clothed in frail human flesh, dying and rising again? Why desire further, special words from God when the great Word of God, Christ himself, is offered to every individual as the Bible is read, preached, and sometimes applied individually through the confessional? Luther would see the market for such books as a function of our striving to be theologians of glory, unsatisfied with how God has chosen to reveal himself to be toward us, and always craving to make God conform to our expectations of what we need.

– Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life, 113-114.

Observing 1 Sam 2:12-36—Worthless sons

1 Samuel 2:25 But [Hophni and Phineas] would not listen to the voice of their father [Eli], for the LORD desired to put them to death.

The warning falls on deaf ears because the Lord intended to judge the offenders. A good reminder that rejection isn’t always a sign of a defective message and/or messenger (Jn 12:37-40; 2Cor 4:3-4).

1 Samuel 2:29-30 ‘Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the LORD declares, ‘Far be it from Me– for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed.

The interaction between Eli and his sons is hard to assess: (i) did Eli only rebuke his sons for their sexual immorality (1Sam 2:22-25) but ignore their abuse of the sacrifices (1Sam 2:12-17)? (ii) Was the apparent rebuke in 2:23-25 not an actual rebuke (3:13)? Eli doesn’t condone his sons behavior but he’s held responsible for it. I take it that Eli’s guilt was due to his unwillingness to take action against his sons. I wonder how much of our “speaking against” sin will be judged meaningless because we fail to follow through with action or, conversely, how much of our love and acceptance will turn out to be a cover for despising the Lord. On this point I’m only thinking of how the church disciplines its own (1Cor 5:12-13).

1 Samuel 2:35 ‘But I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul; and I will build him an enduring house, and he will walk before My anointed always.

The language about the Lord building an enduring house for his priest is mirrored in 2 Samuel when the Lord says he will build an enduring house for his king (see 2Sam 7:16, 26-27). Negatively, Eli’s house finds a counterpart in Saul’s house as both men see their respective offices taken from them and their descendants. But where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. God will not purge the priesthood and the throne only to leave it vacant. God’s people need more than just a good priest and king; they need those righteous office holders to be permanent and enduring. But where an endless succession of priests and kings exists, God’s people can have no garauntee of unending righteousness. This realization is one of the reasons we can confidently say that all of God’s good promises become better promises when the fulfillment is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Son has been appointed to the office of priest and king and becomes the righteous minister and ruler they need. More than that, because he cannot die, this new Priest-King needs no successor so that God’s people no longer fear the loss of what they now enjoy (see Psa 110 and Heb 5:5-6).

Observing 1Sam 2:1-10 — Hannah’s song

When poetry is embedded in narrative literature we ought to consider two things: (1) what the poem means on its own terms in conjunction with the present setting of the story (2) what, if any, significance the poem carries for the broader storyline.

First, Hannah’s song signifies her turn from sorrow to joy as barrenness gives way to birth. More than that, it ties theology to life as we consider how the outcome of Hannah’s circumstances reveal God’s work and his ways.

The Lord makes poor and rich / He brings low, He also exalts. (2:7)

The song’s theme is God’s reversing of human fortune. Weak are made strong, hungry are fed, and the godly are preserved while the wicked are shattered, the full beg for bread, and the mighty are rendered impotent.  In fact, this sovereign upending of the “natural” order is an outworking of God’s holiness (i.e. no one is like Him in this respect; 2:2). Hannah has come to see firsthand that the Lord favors His godly ones who are characteristically despised by the world (1:6-7). And as the Lord will later say through Isaiah, “I act and who can reverse it?”

My horn is exalted in the Lord (2:1) . . . [He] will exalt the horn of His anointed (2:10)

The poem is framed by the repetition of the Lord exalting a *horn (a structural feature known as an inclusio). The movement within this framework starts with a specific act (vv1-3) to a generalizing pattern (vv4-7) back to a specific act (vv8-10). It’s as if Hannah is saying:

{Specific} “Look at what the Lord has done for me.
{General} But isn’t this just like the Lord? He’s always doing this kind of work.
{Specific}And I trust that he’ll do this for His king, too.”

Similar examples of this pattern can be found in other poetic passages (see Psa 34) and it’s worth considering how these examples might shape the content of our worship, particularly in prayer.

Second, Hannah’s song encompasses more than the first two chapters as it establishes a recurring theme/pattern in 1Samuel. With an increasing degree of drama, we move from one rivalry to another: Peninah–Hannah / Eli & Sons–Samuel / Saul–David. In each case, the “established” character is supplanted by a character of lesser status by a sovereign work of the Lord. Even the great king, David himself, is a virtual nobody until the Lord raises him up to sit on the throne.

 


*The literal image of the horn is of an animal horn. Generally speaking, an animal’s horn signified its strength and so became a metaphor for power or status in a social context. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 400)

Newton on disaffected & distracted praying

I sometimes think that the prayers of believers afford a stronger proof of a depraved nature, than even the profaneness of those who know not the Lord. How strange is it, that when I have the fullest convictions that prayer is not only my duty—not only necessary as the appointed means of receiving those supplies, without which I can do nothing, but likewise the greatest honor and privilege to which I can be admitted in the present life—I should still find myself so unwilling to engage in it.

However, I think it is not prayer itself that I am weary of, but such prayers as mine. How can it be accounted prayer, when the heart is so little affected,—when it is polluted with such a mixture of vile and vain imaginations—when I hardly know what I say myself—but I feel my mind collected one minute, the next, my thoughts are gone to the ends of the earth.

If what I express with my lips were written down, and the thoughts which at the same time are passing through my heart were likewise written between the lines, the whole taken together would be such an absurd and incoherent jumble—such a medley of inconsistency, that it might pass for the ravings of a lunatic. When he points out to me the wildness of this jargon, and asks, is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God? I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace—that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus. The poorer and viler I am in myself, so much the more is the power and riches of His grace magnified in my behalf.

Therefore I must, and, the Lord being my helper, I will pray on, and admire his condescension and love, that He can and does take notice of such a creature—for the event shows, that those prayers which are even displeasing to myself, partial as I am in my own case, are acceptable to him, how else should they be answered? And that I am still permitted to come to a throne of grace—still supported in my walk and in my work, and that mine enemies have not yet prevailed against me, and triumphed over me, affords a full proof that the Lord has heard and has accepted my poor prayers–yea, it is possible, that those very prayers of ours of which we are most ashamed, are the most pleasing to the Lord, and for that reason, because we are ashamed of them. When we are favored with what we call enlargement, we come away tolerably satisfied with ourselves, and think we have done well.

–Jones, Robert, ed. Twenty-five Letters Hitherto Unpublished, of the Rev. John Newton (quoted by Tony Reinke in Newton on the Christian Life)

Observing 1Samuel 1 — Artistic silence

Our church has begun a study of 1Samuel on Sunday mornings. This is, I hope, the first of many posts to flow from the study.

1 Samuel 1:7-8 It happened year after year, as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she would provoke her; so she wept and would not eat. 8 Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”

This brief snapshot almost feels like the script to a sitcom. Here we have the well-meaning husband and his (seemingly) tone deaf encouragement for his wife who’s been traversing the wilderness of infertility. We wince at Elkanah’s words and brace ourselves for Hannah’s response–will it be an outburst of bitter sarcasm or a heart-rending expression of grief? We get neither. Hannah remains silent. Three verses and a new scene later Hannah finally speaks–not to her her husband but to the Lord. The “delayed” speech leaves us not just sympathetic but stunned by the godliness of a woman who holds her tongue in the face of persecution and platitudes, choosing instead to entrust herself to the Lord (1Pet 2:23). Her model response is even more striking when compared to the speech of Israel’s matriarchs as they walked through barrenness (Gen 16:1-6; Gen 30:1ff).

1 Samuel 1:12-14 Now it came about, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli was watching her mouth. 13 As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. 14 Then Eli said to her, “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you.” 15 But Hannah replied, “No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD. 16 “Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation.”

The circumstances surrounding Eli’s encounter with Hannah is a great example of atistic ambiguity. Eli assumes that Hannah is drunk but why? Maybe Hannah’s comportment was exceptionally strange. Maybe this wasn’t the first time that an intoxicated worshipper had stumbled onto the tabernacle grounds. Perhaps we get some sort of clue in Hannah’s reply and its connection with a later passage. Hannah pleads with Eli not to consider her a worthless woman which is the word used to describe Eli’s sons in 2:12 (i.e. “the sons of Eli were worthless men”). If the spiritual leaders are worthless it’s no wonder that Eli would assume the worst from anyone who looked a little “off.”

What is your only comfort in life and death?

I can’t recall where or when it was that I first encountered Q & A #1 from the Heidelberg Catechism but I know it instantly struck a deep chord. Some truths resonate not just because they’re true but because you so desire them to be true of you.

1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Why a virgin birth?

The top three answers are on the board, Evangel family. Why was the Messiah born of a virgin?

Christian: to fulfill the prophecy from Isa 7:14. {ding!}
Christiana: Uhhhhhh… {buzz! X}
Junior: Hmmm… {buzz! XX}
Jonny: Because . . . Mary was a virgin. {buzz! XXX}

Kitson family, you have a chance to steal. Why was the Messiah born of a virgin?

Jake: Jesus? {buzz! X}

I suspect many of us could offer several reasons why the incarnation was necessary (Gal 4:4-5 & Heb 2:14-18), but most of us would begin to sweat profusely if we had to explain the point of the virgin birth. The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that both Matthew and Luke assert Christ’s supernatural birth but neither of them explains the significance of the miracle. Some might infer that a virgin birth was required for the Son’s incarnation and/or for his sinless incarnation, but those explanations are far from certain.

So why the virgin birth? In The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod acknowledges that like all the miracles in Jesus’ life, the virgin birth functions as a sign and draws from Karl Barth to offer three theological reflections on the virgin birth:

First, it is highlighting the essentially supernatural character of Jesus and the gospel. Alluding to Barth again, the virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. If our faith staggers at the virgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus? . . .

Secondly, the virgin birth is a sign of God’s judgment on human nature. The race needs a redeemer, but cannot itself produce one: not by its own decision or desire, not by the processes of education and civilization, not as a precipitate of its own evolution. The redeemer must come from the outside. Here, as elsewhere, ‘all things are of God.’ He provides the lamb (Gn 22:8). Barth is exactly right: ‘Human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, the virgin birth is a sign that Jesus Christ is a new beginning. He is not a development of anything that has gone before. He is a divine intrusion: the last, great, culminating eruption of the power of God into the plight of man: ‘Man is involved only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely be ready, merely let something be done to and with himself.’

Come and worship.

Newton’s words of comfort to an unexpected widow

“Mrs. Talbot was the wife of the Rev. W. Talbot, vicar of St. Giles’, Reading. In the midst of his devoted labors and in the prime of life this good man was suddenly cut off by a contagious fever caught in the discharge of his ministerial duties. . .”

Though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear friend was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still; and he is gone but a little before you. May your faith anticipate the joyful and glorious meeting you will shortly have in a better world. Then your worship and converse together will be to unspeakable advantage, without imperfection, interruption, abatement, or end. Then all tears shall be wiped away, and every cloud removed; and then you will see, that all your concernments here below (the late afflicting dispensation not excepted), were appointed and adjusted by infinite wisdom and infinite love.

The Lord, who knows our frame, does not expect or require that we should aim at a stoical indifference under his visitations. He allows that afflictions are at present not joyous, but grievous; yea, He was pleased when upon earth to weep with his mourning friends when Lazarus died. But he has graciously provided for the prevention of that anguish and bittereness of sorrow, which is, upon such occasions, the portion of such as live without God in the world; and has engaged that all shall work together for good, and yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. May He bless you with a sweet serenity of spirit, and a cheerful hope of the glory that shall shortly be revealed. . . .

Will it be a consolation to you, madam, to know that you do not mourn alone? A character so exemplary as a friend, a counsellor, a Christian, and a minister, will be long and deeply regretted; and many will join me in praying, that you, who are most nearly interested, may be signally supported, and feel the propriety of Mrs. Rowe’s acknowledgment,

Thou dost but take the dying lamp away
To bless me with thine own unclouded day.

We join in most affectionate respects and condolence. May the Lord bless you and keep you, lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Talbot” (Letter 1)

Was Joseph’s bloodline under a curse?

Jehoiachin-Jeconiah‘Tis the season to be reading the nativity passages found in Matthew and Luke. One of the more perplexing features of these narrative sections is the presence of two different genealogies for Jesus in Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 when we might expect to find matching records. Recently, one of our church members asked for my thoughts on an interpretation that addresses these genealogical anomalies and since I thought others would be interested in the discussion I decided to share it here.

First an overview of the interpretation in question followed by my (emailed) response to the inquisitor.

Jeremiah 22:30 records a curse on King Jehoiachin (referred to as “Coniah” in Jer 22:28 and “Jeconiah” in Mat 1:11-12). The pronouncement reads “Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man down childless / A man who will not prosper in his days / For no man of his descendants will prosper / Sitting on the throne of David / Or ruling again in Judah’.” Interestingly, it turns out that Jeconiah is included in Matthew’s genealogy but omited from Luke’s, a variant some suggest is due to the Jeconiah curse. The thinking goes something like this:

  • The reason we have two genealogies is that the gospels record two ancestral lines: Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph but Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Mary.
  • The respective genealogies are identical from Abraham–David. At that point, Matthew moves from David to Solomon but Luke moves from David to Nathan. Jeconiah descended from Solomon (not Nathan) which is why he appears in Matthew (1:11-12) but not in Luke.
  • Jeconiah was cursed to be without a Davidic heir. Jesus is a Davidic heir through Joseph and Mary; however, the virgin birth preserved Jesus from Jeconiah’s curse which would have been passed down through Joseph but not Mary.

[Name]: I spent a good part of my morning re-reading the paper(s) you passed on to me and doing some additional reading on my own. I feel like my head is about to explode and I still don’t think I can offer much clarity.  In short, several interpretations exist concerning the differences between Matthew & Luke’s genealogies, but I’m not convinced the differences are due to the curse on Jeconiah in Jer 22:30 because:

  1. If descent from Jeconiah disqualified someone from being the promised Messiah, we have to explain why Matthew would include Jeconiah in the Messiah’s genealogy at all. Remember, there would be a period of time when Matthew might be the only gospel account people had access to—they wouldn’t have been able to compare Matthew to Luke—and it must be that Matthew saw no problem with presenting the Messiah as descended from Jeconiah. Also, since Matthew’s gospel is more “Jewish” in nature, I would expect Matthew to be the one to drop Jeconiah from the genealogy on account of an OT curse.
  2. It’s doubtful that Luke’s genealogy is actually a record of Mary’s line since we have no clear indication of that in the text. Anyone who read Luke on its own would naturally assume that the genealogy is through Joseph since he’s the parent who’s mentioned at the start. The comment in 3:23 that Jesus was “as supposed, the son of Joseph” is an unlikely way to point to Mary’s genealogy (as some have inferred); the simplest explanation is that Luke was reminding his readers that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit & was the son of God (Lk 1:35). Luke wasn’t alluding to any problems in the Davidic line.
  3. We may need to allow for a little poetic license (i.e. hyperbole) in the Jeconiah curse in Jer 22:30. First, the curse says “Write this man down childless” but Jeconiah obviously wasn’t childless (1Chr 3:17). Second, the curse may be limited in scope since Jeconiah “would not prosper in his days.” A limited curse makes good sense contextually since many people would have preferred to see Jeconiah restored to the throne in place of Zedekiah his uncle whom the Babylonians installed. Third, a narrow time frame for the curse makes sense because the curse would be oriented to the coming exile. The curse was a promise that no one in Jeremiah’s day (young or old) would see a rightful Davidic king on the throne again because Jerusalem would be conquered & the people would go into exile.

The Jeconiah curse is a good observation and it’s worth considering if it played a part in the way Jesus’ genealogy was presented in the Gospels. However, the more I look into it the more convinced I am that we should consider other options. I’m afraid this only muddies the water but it’s the best I can do at this point.

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this. Keep reading! –JM

All that’s fit to sing

“Let me write the songs of a nation–I don’t care who writes its laws.” -Andrew Fletcher

From time to time a member of the Merritt brood will make a comment or ask a question that gives rise to a 10-15 minute family colloquy. The most recent one arose when one of the teenagers called into question the biblical accuracy of a (currently) popular Christian song and the appropriateness of using said song in a music set at church.

While we took the time to address specific lines in the song, we also used it as an opportunity to talk more broadly about how we ought to think about music in the church. I don’t remember everything that was said but the discussion set me to thinking on a verse that ought to play a larger role in these friendly music critiques.

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. {NAS}

Two observations are in order. First, “teaching and admonishing one another . . .” helps to explain the command “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” Most likely we’re to understand this teaching/admonishing either as the command’s result (i.e. what happens when the word dwells in us) or as its means (i.e. how we let the word dwell in us). Either way, the point is that the teaching & correction Paul has in mind is decidedly Word-based. Second, this Word-based teaching & correction is done in the church’s singing.

Certain implications follow when we consider the relationship of singing to biblical instruction:

  1. Our songs ought to articulate biblical truth. By this I do not mean that the only viable songs consist of Scripture set to music (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rather, our songs should be more like a good sermon, declaring and expounding what God has revealed in his word. Practically, this means avoiding songs that are so theologically impoverished that we can only commend them on the ground that “there’s nothing wrong with it.” We need more than “not wrong” for teaching and correction. [Try this thought experiment: if you removed the sermon from your church service, how deeply and how clearly would your singing preach the glory of God and His saving work in Christ?]
  2. We sing to each other. “Singing for an audience of One” turns out to be too narrow a view of what the church is doing when it sings together. Yes, we’re singing to the Lord but we’re also singing to one another. In this light, the relative merit of a song turns not only on what it says to me but on what it says to the member next to me. And if I’m singing for the other’s instruction an unmistakably clear message should be the order of the day. Let’s drop the ambiguous and innocuous and clamor for something with definition and depth. If our songs leave every man to interpret what is right in his own eyes we’re missing the mark.
  3. Our singing is formative. Good teaching is more concerned with long term results than momentary effects and we need more of this perspective as we sift and select our church music. Too much singing these days is short-sighted and one dimensional as if our main concern is setting a positive tone for this particular gathering. If even a good song can ring hollow when confronted by the vagaries of a sojourning life, we ought to consider the benefits of diversifying our music catalog. Otherwise, how will we sing under the shadow of death? What songs will give us a meaningful response to spiritual (or clinical) depression? When will we sing of the cost of discipleship?

Say the Word. Pray the Word. Sing the Word.