Showing posts with label I Kings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label I Kings. Show all posts

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Church as Lone Prophet (A Meditation for Ordinary Time)

The Church as Lone Prophet
A Meditation for Ordinary Time (Proper 7, Year C, II)
I Kings 19:1-15
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

In 1st Kings chapter 18, we learn that the wicked king of Israel, Abab, has hunted down all the prophets of YHWH in an attempt to remove their influence throughout the land. And just before our reading today, he summoned all of Israel and all of their prophets to defeat the Lord's last prophet, along with his "God" on Mount Carmel. At this point in the story, it's all the prophets of Baal versus one prophet, Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH. Elijah, again, is outnumbered. The odds seem to be completely against him. But as we soon learn, just one lone prophet with the Lord on his side, is greater than the world that opposes him. 

You all know the story. In the end, the prophets of Baal cannot summon their gods to rain down fire from heaven. The Baal worshipers make fools out of themselves all day long, and at the end of the day Elijah prays to the Lord one time, and the Lord answers him. The Lord answers by raining fire down from heaven, and Elijah's God—the living and true God—wins. And when all the people saw the Lord answer Elijah's prayer, they fell on their faces confessing that YHWH is God (1 Kings 18:38-39).

Because of Elijah's loyal and loving faithfulness to the Lord, by the end of chapter 18, it looks as though the dawn of Israel's redemption seems very near. We finally see a glimmer of hope in the story, where the Lord seems to be turning the idolatrous house of Ahab, and the corrupt hearts of Israel, back to Himself. But as soon as we turn the page and enter chapter 19—which is our reading for today—we hit a major road block. Apparently Elijah's loyalty to YHWH didn't stop all of the leaders of Israel. Jezebel, the queen, was particularly upset with his victory. And instead of turning to the Lord, the leaders of Israel follow Jezebel's reaction against Elijah's faithfulness by threatening and conspiring to kill this last, lone prophet of YHWH. For those familiar with the history of the powerful nations surrounding Israel, reactions of these sorts are expected from enemies. (Similar reactions occurred with later prophets as well, like John the Baptist and even Jesus himself.) In Elijah's day, Israel had become another powerful empire of its own, just as corrupt as the surround ungodly empires.

Even Paul, when writing to the Galatians, was prepared for the hostile reactions of Judaizers who were breathing threats against him and against his gospel. The Judaizers painted Paul's gospel as a threat to the Faith, yet Paul faithfully and lovingly urged the Galatian Christians to follow his example, obeying the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and not another gospel.

Like Elijah and Paul, the Church is called to be a prophetic witness sent out ("apostled") to the nations. As such, the calling of the Church is to love and serve the Lord through all threats against Him and against His anointed ones. In doing so, the Lord's victory over the idols of every generation becomes obvious to all. But that isn't to say that such faithful witnessing is always easy or even comfortable. It can be incredibly intimidating and demanding at times as well.

Like Elijah fleeing into the wilderness and lying down in despair under a tree to die (1 Kings 19:5), at times we—the Church—will exhaust ourselves through various trials, and will even want to lie down and accept defeat at times, too. But the witness of Holy Scripture reminds us that the Lord is faithful to those who remain jealous for Him. He is faithful to those who trust and obey Him through the high mountain-top victories and low valleys of wilderness wandering—quite literally through life and death. As we see vividly in the Elijah narrative, just when the feelings of defeat and death set in, the Lord resurrects hope within, visiting them with food and drink to endure their long journey (1Kings 19:5-8).

The gospel of our Scripture readings today could not be more clear: In the midst of despair, when most people follow the "Baals" of the land or simply reject the lordship of Jesus outright (as many of Israel did in Paul's day), the Lord does not forget His people. Instead, the Lord nourishes and raises up a remnant in the midst of a dry and thirsty land, to remind us that even when despair or depression or exhaustion has distorted our vision of God's love for this world, God has the situation under control. He has not stopped loving this world of His, even through its trials and judgments; nor has He forgotten His people through such judgments. Just as the lone prophets and apostles were God's means for preserving the Faith of Israel through judgment, so the ministry of the Church in Christ Jesus—the prophet and apostle of our confession (Heb 1:1-4; 3:1)—is God's means of saving the world.

As we learned in our gospel reading today, it is in Christ that each earthly house—whether it's the house of the Gerasenes, or Israel, or Baal—can flee from judgment, and can have its Legion of demons cast out. As the Church of Jesus Christ, we are sent out into the world to bear witness to that One who delivers his enemies from bondage to sin and calls them to proclaim how much God has done for them (Luke 8:39). Our calling might be difficult. It might be exhausting too. But when we get weary and weak because of our faithfulness, at least we know where rest and refreshment are found for our journey. It is here, in Christ's Church, that the weary are given rest, and the weak receive food and drink for every journey ahead.

It is in Christ Jesus that we, the Church, are all sons of God. For Paul says, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In Christ we are now a new creation, so we ought to live like the new creation we are, living with gratitude, living with praise and adoration of Jesus Christ, living unashamedly as a prophetic witness of His lordship over all. It is in this Church united to Jesus Christ—this new Jerusalem which has already come down from heaven—that death is swallowed up in victory, and all things are being made new.

Believe that, and don't be ashamed to proclaim how much God has done and will continue doing for the world. And if you're ever feeling ready to throw in the towel, don't lean upon your own understanding. Rather, in all your ways acknowledge Jesus and He will direct your paths. He won't forsake you or anyone else who puts their trust in Him. So put your trust in Him. Lean on him. He wants you to, especially when you feel like a lone prophet in this world. He walks alongside you, directing the way you should go, so that you can put your trust in Him. Even if it's through death's darkest valley, don't fear any evil, for the Lord is with you. Let his rod and staff comfort you, for he walks with you, ready and willing to show the world that He is your Shepherd, and in Him you lack nothing. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

* * * * * * * *

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Divine Council in Psalm 82

Commenting on Psalm 82, verses one, six, and seven, Allen P. Ross1 writes:

God stands up in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he judges.
I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you. Yet you shall die like a man, and fall like one of the princes."

    A third view accounts for the term "gods" and the reference to morality by including the spirit world in judgment. Accordingly, the human judges, who cannot be excluded from the interpretation of the psalm, are agents of supernatural beings who were assigned to different regions to ensure that justice would prevail (1 Kings 22:19-22; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Dan 7:9-1-, 10:13, 20-21). The psalm may be set against the background of the religions of the ancient world, divine assemblies of lower gods who met to determine the course of worldly events. The psalmist would not have accepted the idea that they were viable gods, but rather that they were supernatural beings, or angels, who formed a heavenly court (meaning an assembly of supernatural beings appearing before God to receive their orders; see Job 1 and 2, in which assembly even Satan was present). These angelic beings were given the responsibility of overseeing the proper functioning of human society (see Deut. 32:8-9).2 However, many of them failed to comply with the divine commission and became the forces of evil of these nations represented by their gods (e.g. Ezek. 28:11-19; and Daniel 10). Their will was administered by human agents; they were responsible for the people they put in place and used. Because their failure to administer justice, they would receive an ungodlike punishment--death. 
    This explanation would account for the idea of a divine council mentioned in the psalm, as well as the judgment that these "gods" would die like humans. The psalm would then form a strong polemic against the pagan world in which the spirits that controlled countries were considered to be divine, and their agents, here human judges, considered to have divine authority.3

1.  For the credentials of Allen Ross and his bio, see
2.  Not only do these verses (Deut. 32:8-9) in the Dead See Scrolls agree with the reading, "sons of God", but in the Greek version they agree as well: "When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God; and his people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, Israel was the line of his inheritance."
3.  Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on The Psalms, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013) pp. 715-6, 718-9.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gehazi walks on water (Matt. 14:22-33)

Matthew chapter fourteen is memorable for its two miracles: Jesus feeding five thousand people, and Jesus walking on water. But Matthew includes something else which no other gospel does: Peter walking on water.

This isn't the only time Peter is singled out and highlighted among the apostles. Later on within the same narrative section Peter is singled out and highlighted for a number of things: his great confession (16:16), Jesus giving him "the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven" (16:19), his awkward rebuke of Jesus (16:22), his request to set up three tents during Jesus' transfiguration (17:4), his confrontation with Jewish tax collectors and Jesus' private instructions to him about not offending them (7:24). All of these particular instances are pointing to something about his influential role as a leader among the apostles and first century Jewish Christians.

As noted in a previous post, Matthew is utilizing the history of John the Baptist and Jesus as types of prophets like those found among the post-Solomonic kingdom. Like the Queen's murderous plot against Elijah for prophesying against her "house," King Herod's wife, Herodias, plots to destroy John for prophesying against her "house" (14:1-12). But after John is murdered according to the Queen's request, Herod thinks Jesus is the resurrected John, and in that sense he is mistaken as an Elijah figure as well. Like Elijah before him, Jesus flees to the wilderness when his life is in danger (Matt. 14:13; 1 King 19:4; the Greek word sometimes translated as "desolate place" in the ESV is also the same word for "wilderness"), and then to a mountain to pray (Matt. 14: 23). This detail is peculiar because the last time a "mountain" was mentioned in Matthew's gospel was back in the Sermon on the Mount, which closely resembles Moses' giving of the Law at Sinai, only it was Jesus giving Torah to Israel in person. And when Elijah flees to the mountain for solitude and prayer, he flees to the same "mount of God" that Moses gave Torah to Israel (1 Kings 19:8). So earlier in Matthew's gospel, Jesus went up a "mountain" as a Moses-figure on the Mount of God, but now Jesus is going up a "mountain" as an Elijah-figure, ascending the same mount of God to plead on behalf of Israel.

In Matthew's narrative, John the Baptist is also regarded as a type of Elijah (Matt 11:7-14; 17:10-13; Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6). This changes things a bit because it aids in portraying Jesus a type of Elisha, Elijah's prophetic successor, as well. Just as Elisha multiplied loaves of bread for his disciples (and interestingly, Elisha is the only prophet in the old testament to perform this miracle: 2 Kings 4:42-44), Jesus feeds five thousand by multiplying loaves of bread. Like Elisha, Jesus also miraculously crosses the waters connected with the Jordan and is met by a school of disciples who "worship" him (Matt. 14:32; 2 Kings 2:14-15 LXX). And when his disciples are in the water, being tormented by the waves surrounding them (14:24),1 Jesus tells them "do not be afraid," which is the same thing Elisha tells his disciples when they are tormented by surrounding armies (2 Kings 6:15-17).

This is where the special focus upon Peter comes into play. Jesus just fed five thousand people and dismissed them (14:22). Afterward we find Jesus crossing the waters alone, and it is at that time we find Peter insisting to cross the waters with him, just like Elisha insisted to cross the waters with Elijah (2 Kings 2). We are not told why Peter wanted to cross the waters with Jesus. We're just told that he wanted to go if Jesus was willing to call him. Here Peter is portrayed as a leader among Israel, a type of Elisha who is willing to take up the mantle of his predecessor, Jesus. As St. Hilary of Poitiers aptly noted about this pericope, "Peter alone, turning away from the others, forsakes the world just as he did the waves of the sea, and sets out to follow the Lord's steps."2

This helps explain much of why Matthew includes this detail, whereas other gospels do not. Matthew does not tell us why Peter doubts after he starts crossing the waters, but he does make sure to let us know that Jesus thought about Peter's doubt: Jesus calls him a "little-faith"! (Some translations say "O you of little faith," but the Greek has Jesus addressing him directly as "little-faith"). Peter's persistence was great, but his faith was as "little" as the fearful disciples found earlier in Matthew's gospel (8:26). Perhaps Peter even thought of himself as an Elisha figure at his tenth step out into the water. Regardless, Matthew's main objective seems to be that Jesus is the greater Elijah of the narrative, and Peter is a chief disciples of his who needs to learn that lesson well. This makes Peter appear more like a Gehazi figure than an Elisha figure, disappointing his Master at a moment when faith is needed most. However, unlike Elijah's curse upon Gehazi's for his little faith, Jesus' reaction is different. Jesus blesses even the little faith that Peter has by stretching out a helping hand at the moment of his fall. And at the moment when Jesus gets into the boat, the tormenting waves stop too, which infers that the storm accompanied Jesus' walk across the waters. Jesus comes to his disciples accompanied with a storm, but the storm is only present because he is present. Likewise the storm is only dispelled because he gets out of the water and in to the boat with his disciples. Jesus comes, not only to help when his disciples fall, but also to reverse the cursed waves that torment his disciples by coming alongside them, getting into the boat with them. 

All of this points to Jesus as the greater Elisha whose power over the waters is greater than the mere parting of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:14). Jesus is the Lord of creation himself whose Spirit hovered over the waters at creation and in Peter's day, and still continues to hover over the face of all deeps in our day. He is the great "I AM"3 who appeared at creation to separate light from darkness, and he's the One who continues to appear as light in the midst of the darkness of night to calm the torments of our life. Jesus is the one who commanded dry land to appear out of the chaotic waters in the beginning and He is the One who brings all of his disciples safely back onto dry land when the chaotic world rages against us. 

All of this came about to Peter for the same reason that the Lord manifests himself in the lives of his disciples today: so that we can go out as his successors with greater faith than his disciples, declaring with even greater fervor than they did, that truly Jesus is the Son of God (Matt 14:33). If Jesus can make a great leader and disciple out of a "little-faith" like Peter, we can be sure that he can make great leaders and disciples out of us who believe a "little" too. But first, we must be willing to go out into the storms of life when Jesus calls. We must be willing to step out of the boat, if that's what Jesus calls us to do.

1.  The words translated in the ESV as "beaten by the waves" literally mean "tormented by the waves" in Greek
2.  St. Hilary of Poitiers, Trans. D. H. Williams, The Fathers of the Church: Commentary on Matthew [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press; 2012], p. 168
3.  Matt. 14:27; the words of Jesus translated in the ESV as "It is I" literally mean "I AM" in Greek

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jesus the Prophet (Matthew 13:53-14:13)

As noted in a previous post, Matthew 13:53—14:13 comprises the first subsection of the distinctive narrative section that extends from 13:53 to 17:27. This subsection is identified as section "A" in that post. (It is really only for mnemonic reasons that the literary structure of this narrative section is often presented as extending from chapter 14 to chapter 17. A closer examination of Matthew’s gospel shows that this narrative section actually begins at the end of chapter 13, specifically verse 53, which notes the end of a lengthy discourse section: “And when Jesus had finished these parables…”.)

(For quick reviewing purposes Matthew 13:53—14:13 can be found here.)

In this section Jesus is found visiting his “hometown” for the first time since the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, immediately after his baptism (2:23; 4:13). So far, Matthew has told us nothing about Jesus and his childhood relationship with the people back home in Nazareth, but there is nonetheless much to be gleaned from this encounter in chapter 13.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly honored enough in his hometown to be teaching his Jewish brethren within “their synagogue.” But by the end of this section Jesus is dishonored, and the reason why is because of his prophetic authority. Matthew illustrates this in various ways.  

First, instead of focusing upon his teaching in the synagogue, Matthew focuses on the people being “astonished” (ἐκπλήσσεσθαι) by him. The last time anyone Matthew records anyone as “astonished” (ἐκπλήσσεσθαι) is immediately after Jesus’ discourse on the Law (i.e. Sermon on the Mount) at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry of healing (7:28-29).

In 7:28-29, the people were astonished because Jesus was like Moses in his giving of the Law, except Jesus was giving the Law in a way that was greater than the Pharisees, and teaching with more authority than their scribes. However, at the end of chapter 13 the situation that Jesus encounters in Nazareth is different. Instead of simply teaching greater things than their scribes, Jesus is performing “mighty works” (δυνάμεις) which none of their scribes could perform. These “mighty works” were, of course, nothing new to Jesus’ ministry. He had been performing these works all along (11:20-23). Just like Jesus’ earlier report of his ministry to John (11:5-6), the blind were receiving sight, their lame walked, their lepers were cleansed, their deaf heard, and their poor had the gospel preached to them. Yet unlike John’s positive response to this news, the people of Nazareth were astonished because they knew who Jesus’ family was—who his father, mother, and siblings were—but they did not know from what source Jesus’ mighty works had come. Certainly they did not come from his family or even from the teachers of Israel!

Apparently there was too much pressure for Jesus’ “hometown” to accept him as having greater authority than anyone they knew—even their religious authorities—and they were offended (ἐσκανδαλίζοντο) by this. Like Jesus’ parable in the previous chapter, they received Jesus like the “rocky ground” received the seed sown by the Sower. They received Jesus with joy initially, yet because they had no “root” in them, they “fell away” (σκανδαλίζεται; 13:20-21). These aren’t the only instances when Jesus spoke about “falling away” or being “offended” (Greek: σκανδαλίζω). Earlier, Jesus had told the disciples of John that those who are not “offended” or “caused to fall” (σκανδαλισθῇ) by him are, in fact, blessed by him (11:6). So in comparison, this portrait of Jesus’ hometown is clearly not a blessed one. Instead, Matthew’s portrayal of Nazareth is more like a cursed “household” which refuses to honor its own family members who prophecy on behalf of Yahweh (13:57). The fact that Jesus is hated as a prophet in the same way that adulterous Israel hated the prophets of Yahweh—like Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah—is significant. It’s also significant that this the first passage within Matthew’s gospel that Jesus explicitly likens himself to a “prophet” (13:57).

Placing this label of “prophet” upon himself also makes perfect sense within the larger context of John the Baptist’s death. After we learn that the people of Jesus’ hometown are caused to fall by Jesus’ “mighty works” (δυνάμεις), Matthew segways onto a brief discussion about Herod hearing rumors about Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth. Apparently Herod heard about these same “miraculous powers” (δυνάμεις) that Jesus had done in Nazareth and elsewhere (14:1-2). But Matthew doesn’t merely tell us about Jesus’ fame reaching Herod; instead he focuses on something which at first glance appears out-of-place and off-topic: he focuses on John the Baptist’s death and it’s relationship with Herod’s wife, Herodias.

At first glance, Matthew’s focus upon Herodias appears to be beside the main point of Jesus’ ministry, but really it highlights Jesus’ place within this gospel, within Matthew's story of Jesus as Israel. Back in chapter 11, when Jesus told the disciples of John about those who are blessed for not stumbling by his “mighty works,” we learned that John was in prison anticipating the coming of the Messiah; but he was still alive then. Here in chapter 14 we hear about John again, but we learn that John has been murdered because Herod’s wife summoned John’s head to be served to her on a platter. Like the Queen’s murderous plot against Elijah for prophesying against her “house,” Herodias wants to destroy John for prophesying against her “house.” But Matthew’s main point is not actually about John or Elijah. It’s still about Jesus, but by recalling John the Baptist’s ministry, Jesus’ ministry is clearly likened unto Elisha’s. It’s only when we find out that Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist—as though John was raised from the dead—that we also can see Jesus is to be likened very closely to Elijah and even more importantly, his successor, Elisha. (This typological association is even more explicit by the time we arrive at 16:14.)

Just as the ministry of Elijah foreshadowed the ministry of Elisha, so the ministry of John would foreshadow the ministry of Jesus. Like Elisha, Jesus would carry the prophetic mantle of the prophet before him and perform more “mighty works.” Indeed, throughout the following narrative section (i.e. chapters 14-17), the mighty works of Jesus make far more sense in light of Jesus as a type of Elijah and Elisha. Like Elijah before him, Jesus’ life is in danger from the King and Queen; he then flees to a mountain, then to the wilderness, and then to a widow in the region of Tyre and Sidon, like Elijah. Yet the parallels with Elisha, his successor, are even more striking.

Like Elisha, who is the only explicitly “anointed” prophet of the Old Covenant, Jesus is explicitly called the “Annointed One” by Peter (16:16 c.f. 1 Kings 19:16). Jesus also multiplies loaves of bread for his disciples, which is like Elisha, who was the only prophet in the Old Testament to do that particular miracle! Like Elisha, Jesus crosses the waters connected with the Jordan and is met by a school of disciples who “worship” him (Matt. 14:32; 2 Kings 2:14-15 LXX). When his disciples are tormented by the waves surrounding them, Jesus tells them “do not be afraid,” which is the same thing Elisha tells his disciples when they are tormented by surrounding armies (2 Kings 6:15-17). As the Shunammite woman prostrated herself before Elisha seeking help for her child, so the Canaanite woman prostrates herself before Jesus, and for the same reason (15:25; c.f. 2 Kings 4:27).

In an indirect manner, Jesus is also portrayed as a type of Elisha because of his disciple, Peter.1 Peter is highlighted as a type of chief disciple, similar to Gehazi, Elisha’s chief disciple. Like Gehazi with Elisha, Peter fails to understand his master’s mission, and he foolishly sets himself up as an obstacle between Jesus and other disciples. He is, in fact, the only disciple within the gospels to be singled out as both a chief disciple and a man of “little faith” (14:31). In this light, the resemblance between Peter and Gehazi is unmistakable.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Jesus is like Elisha in the way he forms a community of disciples around him. Unlike Elijah, who, like John the Baptist, attracted a lot of attention but not a lot of disciples to follow in his footsteps, Jesus accomplishes the opposite. Jesus attracts most of his disciples in chapters 14-17 of Matthew’s gospel. Like Elisha, Jesus ministers throughout the land of Israel, gathering, nourishing, and sustaining a new community of disciples in a time of great spiritual famine. But his ministry as the greater Elisha has only been alluded to briefly in this first subsection, when Jesus first hears news that Herod thinks he is the resurrected John the Baptist (14:1-3, 13). By his relationship with John's suffering as a prophet, Jesus suffering for the kingdom is foreshadowed, and by his relationship with Elisha's prophetic ministry, the rise of a new and greater Israel is anticipated. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"But Amaziah would not listen" (II Kings 14)

In II Kings 14 Amaziah king of Judah is portrayed as a son of Yahweh who does what is "right in the eyes of Yahweh," his Heavenly Father (v. 3), even though, sadly, "yet not like David his father," for it says that under Amaziah "the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places" (v. 4).

Nevertheless Amaziah is a valiant warrior of Yahweh, and Yahweh gives him strength to defeat His enemies. Amaziah strikes down 10,000 Edomites, and even the Edomite stronghold of Sela "by storm" (v. 7). In his zeal he then turns to taunt his brother, northern Israel, "face to face" (v. 8). This leads to an interesting and unexpected turn of events, considering that not every southern king does what is right in the eyes of Yahweh, and Yahweh had clearly provided a great victory for Amaziah.

The northern king, Jehoash, reminds Amaziah that he is a "thistle" in Lebanon in comparison to the northern "cedar" kingdom, and therefore is outmatched (vv. 9-10). Then we read: "But Amaziah would not listen" (v. 11). Up next, a battle between brothers ensues and Yahweh does not defend Amaziah for covering up his ears. Judah gets defeated in battle, Amaziah is captured, 400 cubits of Jerusalem's wall are broken down, and all the gold, silver, and holy "vessels" of Yahweh's house are plundered (vv. 11-14). Amaziah did that which was right in the sight of Yahweh, until his heart was lifted up against his brother. His zeal lacked wisdom from above, and wisdom from below divided the kingdom even further.

At the very beginning of Yahweh's division of the kingdom He promised a faithful remnant in Judah for His name's sake, and even a future deliverer --Josiah by name-- to begin restoring unity (I Kng. 13:2). All throughout the books of Kings we find brother fighting against brother, and foolish zeal followed by even more foolish zeal, as the people await deliverance from God. Only the wise in heart await deliverance from Yahweh, for He is the only living and true God. As the people await deliverance from Yahweh, one of the dominant lessons to be learned is that brothers warring against brothers only divides the kingdom further and further. When Israel attacks Judah, he plunders Yahweh's house, thereby provoking brother Judah. When Judah minds his own business, Yahweh protects him, which provokes brother Israel to jealousy. But brother Judah isn't perfect either. He too never completely removes the "high places" in his midst, which we know displeases Yahweh time and time again (I Kng. 15:14; 22:43; II Kng. 12:3; 14:4). If not for Yahweh's faithfulness to the covenant He established, even Judah would be toast. But Yahweh is faithful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression (Num. 14:18; Psa. 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13); therefore a faithful remnant will be preserved by Him as promised.

What we learn from II Kings 14 is that instead of presuming that Yahweh would defend his zealous and courageous taunts against his brother, Amaziah should have focused his energy on the high places in his own land, the land which Yahweh had given him. Instead of attempting to defend the name of Yahweh by attacking the idols of his brother's house, he should have listened to the practical advise of his brother and remained content with his glory, stay at home, and not provoke northern Israel any further (v. 10). Amaziah should have taken this very clear hint as being providential from Yahweh, and then turn his attention to his own house; but as we know from history, he didn't. Yahweh gave Amaziah a taste of glory when he struck down the stronghold of Edom "by storm," but not even a peep of thunder is directed at the idolatrous high places of his own house; therefore when Amaziah attacked the stronghold of his brother's house, Yahweh by no means cleared the guilty (Num. 14:18), and consequently the taste of Yahweh's glorious house went with him to the northern kingdom, where he was taken captive (vv. 11-14). Perhaps if Amaziah had dealt with the idols of his own house first, pulling the log out of his own eye first, he could have seen how much his zeal lacked wisdom; then Yahweh would have honored his zeal for His house.

Monday, October 21, 2013

God is not nice

Commenting on I Kings 22:1-40, Peter Leithart makes some interesting observations about Yahweh being a God who challenges our plans in order to reform His Church. Leithart even approaches the story of Micaiah's prophecy and the deception of King Ahab in a very practical, pastoral manner, treating Yahweh exactly as He has revealed Himself. Dr. Leithart writes:

According to Torah, the true prophet is ultimately revealed by the outcome; if he is a true prophet, then what he prophesies will happen (Deut. 13:1–11), and in this story, Micaiah is shown to be the true prophet because Ahab dies in battle. But Ahab and Jehoshaphat have to make a decision before they know the outcome. How can they know which advice to follow? How can they tell a wolf cleverly disguised in sheep’s clothing from a sheep?

Jehoshaphat apparently discerns that something is wrong. When he hears all four hundred prophets in agreement, all agreeing that Yahweh promises success, he still wants to hear a prophet of Yahweh (1 Kgs. 22:7). Jehoshaphat is probably spiritually attuned enough to know that the word of God does not come with the message, “Everything is perfectly okay. You’re okay just the way you are.” As Barth says, dogmatics is the science that tests the church’s proclamation by the standard of the word of God, and if dogmaticians emerge from their study to announce “all is well; steady as she goes,” they have made a mistake in calculations. Or, to put it in the blunt terms that Long uses, “God is not nice” (2004). He does not exist to underwrite our projects, to ensure that our pursuit of money and fame and American empire goes smoothly. He is the “judge of all the earth,” whose word is an instrument for bringing all our projects, intentions, and aims, especially the most pious of them, under scrutiny and judgment.
It is always a temptation to prefer a smooth, self-affirming word over a confronting word, and that temptation has been institutionalized, systematized in many contemporary churches. The word “sin” is avoided as needlessly offensive, especially to wealthy church members. Churches advertise their welcoming, nonjudgmental atmosphere, not so subtly (and viciously) implying that there are harsh judgmental churches out there and we all know which ones they are. American churches mirror consumer culture, offering a range of choices so that everyone can settle back into a Muzak spirituality, confident that they will not be confronted by any demands for radical change. But the word of Yahweh does not affirm us in our plans. It challenges our plans, confronts them, undoes them.1
...Micaiah’s vision of Yahweh asking for a volunteer to entice (פתה) Ahab is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible and difficult on many levels. The least problematic aspect of this incident is that Yahweh is seeking help from surrogates, though the quaintness of the scene almost seems more at home in Goethe than in the Bible. The more troubling problem is the moral one: how can the God who is truth, whose word is truth, send out a lying spirit to inspire people to lie to Ahab? Is Yahweh ultimately just another trickster God, unreliable and deceptive?2 
...What kind of God is this that puts misleading prophesies into the mouths of the court prophets of Israel? How is this consistent with the New Testament’s affirmations that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18) and that “in him is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas. 1:17)?
As Davis points out, there is ultimately no deception here or, more accurately, the deception is completely telegraphed (2002, 327). Yahweh’s Spirit inspires the prophets to mislead and lure Ahab to his death, but then Yahweh sends Micaiah to tell Ahab he is being lured to his death. Yahweh sets a trap for Ahab, but politely shows Ahab the trap before he springs it. Yet, Ahab blindly goes to Ramoth-gilead, confident that he can cheat death and escape the word of Yahweh. Further and more basically, this passage makes it abundantly clear that Yahweh is not a great marshmallow in the sky. He is not a God who plays softball. Nor is he the god of the philosophers, a gorgeous but impotent force in heaven. He is a warrior who fights to win, and deception is part of his art of holy war. Elsewhere, Yahweh encourages his people to use deceptive military tactics (e.g., Josh. 7), and on more than one occasion he deploys an “evil spirit” to set traps for his enemies (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10; 19:9; Ezek. 14:9).
Many of the church fathers gesture toward the insight that God is a trickster when they develop atonement theories that suggest the cross is a divine trap laid for Satan. Recent work on the historical Jesus confirms the patristic insight into God’s shrewdness without adopting the “bait theory.” Jesus’s challenging parables, his provocative prophetic actions, his counterintuitive images and exhortations, his shrewdness in debate—all this testifies that Jesus is the incarnation of the God who lured Ahab to the battlefield of Ramoth-gilead.
He is straight with the straight, merciful to the humble, but cunning with the wicked (ועם־עקש תתפתל) (Ps. 18:25–26), the God who catches the wicked in their own devices, who leads his enemies into the very traps that they set for the righteous. This is a God to be loved. But he is also a God to be feared. One should be grateful to be and remain in his good graces, for it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of this God. Yahweh is the ultimate trickster that outfoxes all human attempts to escape him. Yahweh is not only cunning. He is transcendently, infinitely cunning. The conclusion that God employs deception against deceivers should not lead to distrust or anxiety. There is a simple way to avoid falling into the traps of the infinitely cunning God: humbly trust him, for he is merciful to the merciful, and to the pure he is pure.3

1.  Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006] pp. 160-1
2.  Ibid. p. 162
3.  Ibid. p. 163-4

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Faith is not resignation

In his commentary on 1-2 Kings, Peter Leithart provides some very helpful pastoral insights concerning the prophecy of Ahijah against Jeroboam’s son in 1 Kings 14. He writes:
Faith is often confused with resignation. The prophetic word comes, cutting like a double-edged sword, and we respond with tight-lipped silence. This is not faith. Faith responds to God’s word, not with silent submission, but with confession, praise, earnest and anguished petition. Faith responds with the desperate cries of a Job, the “my God, my God” of David and Jesus, the “how long, O Lord?” of the Psalms. God’s word is not the end of a conversation, but an invitation to renew conversation. God does not judge and condemn to send us slinking away in resigned silence. God judges and condemns so that we can give our “amen” to his judgment, humble ourselves, and be saved. Ultimately, the issues go to theology proper: the Triune God, the God whose life is an eternal conversation, does not create a world as a stage where he performs soliloquies before a respectfully hushed audience. God creates the world and humanity to enter into a dialogue. Ahijah delivers a devastating oracle to Jeroboam, but that is an invitation to repentance, as is Elijah’s oracle to Ahab (1 Kgs. 21). The text gives us a hint, if only a hint, that the end is not set out by the beginning, that there is yet hope for Israel.

Commenting on the way passages like this speak to Christians today, he concludes:
Jesus’s death, unlike the death of Jeroboam’s good son, does not spell the end of things, but the beginning of things, because Jesus’s death is followed by his resurrection. Jesus’s death is not an inverted Passover that leads to destruction, but a true Passover that liberates the people of God. Through Jesus, the guilt that plagues us from the past is forgiven, and through forgiveness and the renewing power of the Spirit the world is opened—Israel is opened—to a future for which none had dared to hope. This simply is the gospel, the good news that ends are not straight-line extrapolations from beginnings; this is the gospel, that the end reverses the beginning, as tears are washed away, the curse removed, the dead raised. The world is not condemned by its beginnings to a certain ending, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
That is the gospel we celebrate at the Lord’s Table: this is the blood of the new covenant, Jesus says, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. At the table, we are renewed in covenant, freshly forgiven, so that the past can be put behind us. At the table, we celebrate the opening of a new future, for Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.2

1.  Leithart, P. J. (2006). 1 & 2 Kings (p. 107). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
2.  Ibid., p. 109