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1 Samuel 13; Romans 11; Jeremiah 50; Psalms 28-29

Aug 20, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 13; Romans 11; Jeremiah 50; Psalms 28-29

THE CLOSING VERSES OF Psalm 28 bring together several themes prominent in biblical theology:

(1) The first and most obvious one is the unrestrained praise in 28:7: “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.” Here is no faith of mere resignation; here, rather, is a faith that wells up from (or produces?) a heart that “leaps for joy” and expresses itself in thankful song. One cannot read the Psalms without recognizing that genuine faith does not produce a merely stereotypical emotional response. Given different sets of circumstances, genuine faith may be tied to an almost desperate trust and anguished petition, to quiet confidence and steadfastness, to praise that bursts the borders of exuberance into spectacular spontaneity. In this passage faith is closest to the latter, for the Lord has already heard David’s cry for mercy (28:6).

(2) Throughout the first seven verses of the psalm, David’s petitions and praises are in the first person singular; they arise from his status as an individual. The last two verses focus on God’s “people” (28:8-9), his collective “inheritance” (28:9). So far as language goes, this is effected in part through David’s meditation on God’s “anointed one” (28:8), the word that ultimately generates our “messiah.” As the king, David himself is of course the royal “anointed one,” the royal “messiah.” But as God has heard his prayers, shown him mercy, and called forth his joyous praise, so his individual experience ought to be a paradigm for the covenant community at large. He represents them, and there is a profound sense in which they are collectively God’s “anointed one,” his “son” (cf. Ex. 4:22—another title applied both to Israel at large and distinctively to Israel’s king). The expression “anointed one” in a Davidic psalm inevitably prompts us to think of the king; the parallelism in verse 8 shows that the expression here refers to Israel: “The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one” (italics added). The thoughtful reader reflects on the ways in which David and the people are linked—and on the ways in which Jesus the Messiah (i.e., Jesus the Anointed One) not only springs from David’s line, but shows himself to be both the ultimate Davidic king and the ultimate embodiment of Israel.

(3) The last line calls to mind a delightful truth: “Save your people and bless your inheritance,” David writes; “be their shepherd and carry them forever” (28:9, italics added). Reflect on such passages as Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34; Luke 15:1-7; John 10; 1 Peter 5:1-4.

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1 Samuel 12; Romans 10; Jeremiah 49; Psalms 26-27

Aug 19, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 12; Romans 10; Jeremiah 49; Psalms 26-27

PSALM 27 SHARES SOME THEMES with its nearest neighbors (Pss. 26, 28) but is more exuberant than either.

(1) The Lord is my light (Ps. 27:1-3). Light is an evocative figure for almost everything good: truth, knowledge, joy, moral purity, revelation, and more. Here the word is linked with “salvation” and “stronghold” (Ps. 27:1); light is associated with security. David faces enemies who attack him like a pack of wolves, but if the Lord is his light and salvation, David will not be afraid. With a God this sovereign, this good, this self-revealing, this delightful, how will he not also be our security?

(2) The Lord is my sanctuary (Ps. 27:4-6)—in the double sense that the word has in English. On the one hand, the theme of the first three verses continues: God is David’s sanctuary in the sense that he is David’s protection, his stronghold: “in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling” (Ps. 27:5). But on the other hand, this “sanctuary” spells infinitely more than mere political security: “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life” (Ps. 27:4). This does not mean that David entertains a secret, impossible desire to become a Levite. Rather, he has a profound passion to live his life in the presence of the living God. That is the locus of security.

(3) The Lord is my direction (Ps. 27:7-12). David does not envisage his relation with God as something static, but as his lifelong pursuit. Moreover, he understands that this pursuit simultaneously shapes him. If he seeks God’s face as he ought (Ps. 27:8), if he begs for mercy so that God will deal with him in compassion and not in wrath (Ps. 27:9-10), then he will also learn God’s ways and walk in a straight path (Ps. 27:11). This cannot be said too strongly or too often: to claim that one is pursuing God without concomitant reformation of life and growing conformity to the ways of God is wicked and dangerous nonsense.

(4) The Lord is my hope (Ps. 27:13-14). However true it is that God is the believer’s refuge, sometimes in this broken and fallen world it does not feel like it at the moment. The truth is that God’s timetable is rarely the same as ours. Often he demands that we wait patiently for him: his timing is perfect. His vindication of his people often takes place in history (Ps. 27:13), but rarely as soon as we want; nevertheless his ultimate vindication is priceless. “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” (Ps. 27:14).

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1 Samuel 11; Romans 9; Jeremiah 48; Psalm 25

Aug 18, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 11; Romans 9; Jeremiah 48; Psalm 25

ONE OF THE STRIKING FEATURES OF the Psalms, especially the psalms of David, is the theme of enemies. This makes some Christians nervous. Does not the Lord Jesus tell us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-47)? Yet here David prays that God will not let his enemies triumph over him (Ps. 25, especially v. 1), calls them “treacherous” (Ps. 25:3), and complains that they have increased and fiercely hate him (Ps. 25:19). It is inadequate to ascribe the two stances to differences between the new covenant and the old.

Preliminary reflections include:

(1) Even Jesus’ teaching that his followers love their enemies presupposes that they have enemies. Jesus’ requirement that we love our enemies must not be reduced to the sentimental notion that we all become so “nice” that we never have any enemies.

(2) New Testament believers may have enemies who must at some level be opposed. The apostle Paul, for instance, says that he has handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan to teach them not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20). Both 2 Peter 2 and Jude deploy pretty colorful language to denounce fundamental enemies of the Gospel. Even if his language belongs to hyperbole, Paul can wish that the agitators in Galatia would emasculate themselves (Gal. 5:12). The Lord Jesus himself—the same Jesus who, while dying on the cross, cries, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)—can elsewhere denounce his enemies in spectacularly colorful language (Matt. 23). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, unless we are to accuse the apostles and Jesus of hypocritical inconsistency, the demand that we love our enemies must not be reduced to the sentimental twaddle that merely smooths enemies out of existence.

(3) A very good case can be made for the view that the primary concern of Matthew 5:43-47 is to overthrow personal retaliation, to eschew the vendetta, to overcome the evil we receive by the good we perform, to absorb the hatred of an opponent and return love. But none of this denies for a moment that the other person is an enemy. Moreover, those in leadership may, out of love, feel obligated to protect the flock by chasing out a wolf in sheep’s clothing, by exposing the charlatan, by denouncing the wicked—without succumbing to personal venom.

(4) One measure of whether one’s response is the hatred of vengeance or something more principled that cherishes God’s holiness and leaves room for forbearance and love, is the set of associated commitments. In David’s case, these include trust (Ps. 25:1-3, 4-5, 7b, 16, 21), repentance and faith (Ps. 25:7, 11, 18), and covenantal fidelity (Ps. 25:10).

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1 Samuel 10; Romans 8; Jeremiah 47; Psalms 23-24

Aug 17, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 10; Romans 8; Jeremiah 47; Psalms 23-24

THOUGH A SHORT CHAPTER, JEREMIAH 47 is full of interest. It begins with a prophecy regarding the destruction of the Philistine city-states along the coast, and ends with one of the most thought-provoking bits of anguish in the latter part of this book.

First, the prophecy (Jer. 47:1-5). Its precise timing is a trifle obscure: it came to Jeremiah “before Pharaoh attacked Gaza” (Jer. 47:1). This may have taken place when Pharaoh Neco of Egypt marched north to attack Haran in 609 B.C. Gaza, one of the Philistine city-states, was on the route. But although this shows the prophecy came to Jeremiah before the days of Egyptian ascendancy were past, it did not concern Egyptian aggression, but Babylonian: the waters that “overflow the land and everything in it” rise “in the north” (Jer. 47:2)—the direction from which the Babylonian might would come. The word picture of the subsequent destruction is not pretty. Panic will be so acute, Jeremiah insists, that fathers will abandon their children (Jer. 47:3). Verse 4 may be improperly translated. The Hebrew is literally “to cut off Tyre and Sidon,” and the expression may mean that any help from these Phoenician cities is prevented from reaching the Philistine cities farther down the coast. In any case it is the Lord who destroys the Philistines, whatever the agency (Jer. 47:4). Gaza and Ashkelon (Jer. 47:5) were two of their principal cities. “Caphtor” (Jer. 47:4) is the ancient name for Crete, from which the original Philistines came—so to say that the Lord is about to destroy “the remnant from the coasts of Caphtor” is a poetic way of saying that the Lord is about to destroy the Philistines.

Second, the final thought-provoking anguish (Jer. 47:6-7). In colorful imagery, Jeremiah pictures the Philistines (according to the NIV) addressing the sword of the Lord: “ ’Ah, sword of the LORD,’ you cry, ‘how long till you rest? Return to your scabbard; cease and be still’ ” (Jer. 47:6). This supposes that the Philistines recognize that it is Israel’s God, the Lord himself, who has brought judgment on them at the hands of the Babylonians. Although it is possible to understand the Hebrew that way, strictly speaking the words “you cry” are not found in the text: they have to be inferred. But if they are simply omitted, then it is Jeremiah himself who is addressing the sword of the Lord. The Philistines may be pagans, and they may often have oppressed Israel, but now they are about to get pounded—and by the Babylonians, Judah’s premier enemy. So Jeremiah intercedes for the Philistines. But the final verse shows that he understands perfectly well that he cannot command God’s sword. The Lord himself has commanded it, the God of just judgment, and it will do its work. So also on the last day.

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1 Samuel 9; Romans 7; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 22

Aug 16, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 9; Romans 7; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 22

A COMMON THEME AMONG THE biblical prophets is that God is sovereign over all nations. To most who read these pages that seems obvious. But in the ancient world, most nations had their own gods. So when a nation went to war, the people prayed to their own gods; if a nation was defeated, so were their gods. Clearly they were not as strong as the gods of the ascendant nation.

But the God of Israel keeps telling her that he is the God over all the universe, over all the nations. He is not a tribal deity in the sense that they own him or that he is exclusively theirs. That is why in many chapters of Isaiah and Jeremiah God insists that he himself is the One who is raising up Assyria or Babylon to punish the people. In other words, the defeat of Israel does not signal the defeat of God. Far from it: this God keeps insisting that if Israel is defeated and punished, it can only be because he has ordained it—and he does this by utilizing the very nations Israel fears.

But there is another side to the story. If God uses these various pagan nations, so also does he hold them to account. Of course, they cannot be expected to submit to the entire Law of Moses—after all, they are not part of the covenant community. Nevertheless God holds pagan nations to standards of decency and basic righteousness. So after using Assyria to chasten the northern kingdom of Israel, God turns around and chastens Assyria for her arrogance (Isa. 10:5ff.; see meditation for May 12). In the same vein, some of Israel’s prophets pronounce words of judgment and warning, and sometimes of hope, against the surrounding nations over which their own God is utterly sovereign. That is what is found in Jeremiah 46-51 and elsewhere (e.g., Isa. 13-23; Ezek. 25-32; Amos 1:3-2:3).

The chapter before us (Jer. 46) opens the larger section with a word from the Lord concerning Egypt. The first part (Jer. 46:2-12) details Egypt’s decisive defeat at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., when the Babylonians rose to supremacy in the region. The second part (Jer. 46:13-26) anticipates a further defeat of Egypt at the hands of Babylon, this time under Nebuchadnezzar. This almost certainly refers to the same assault predicted in Jeremiah 43:10—part of the reason why the Jews remaining in Judah were not to go down to Egypt (as they did, about 586). That assault is not reported in Scripture, but inscriptional evidence records that Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt in a punitive expedition in 568-567.

Why is this chapter included in the book at this point?

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1 Samuel 7-8; Romans 6; Jeremiah 44; Psalms 20-21

Aug 15, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 7-8; Romans 6; Jeremiah 44; Psalms 20-21

SO FAR AS WE KNOW, JEREMIAH 44 contains Jeremiah’s last prophecy. The prophecy of the next chapter is explicitly dated to an earlier period, and probably the miscellaneous prophecies against the nations, found in chapters 46-51, all stem from an earlier period as well. So far as the record goes, the words before us are Jeremiah’s last public utterance.

One cannot say that Jeremiah’s ministry ended on a high note. We are all called to be faithful; some are called to be faithful in troubled and declining times. One dare not measure Jeremiah’s ministry by how many people he convinced, how many disasters he averted, or how many revivals he experienced. One must measure his ministry by whether or not he was faithful to God, by whether or not God was pleased with him. And so, finally, it is with each of us. I doubt that many of us living in the West have fully come to grips with how much the success syndrome shapes our views of ourselves and others—sometimes to make us hunger at all costs for success, and sometimes, in a kind of inverted pseudospirituality, to make us suspicious at all costs of success. But success is not the issue; faithfulness is.

What we find in this chapter is irretrievable rebellion. The Jews in Egypt—both those who have just descended there, and those who apparently had settled there earlier in an attempt to escape the troubled times back home—have merely replaced the Canaanite gods they used to worship at home with the Egyptian gods all around them. Their reading of their own history is entirely different from Jeremiah’s. They hark back to the time when they “stopped” their pagan worship (Jer. 44:17-18): probably they are thinking of the reform under King Josiah. All the disasters that have befallen them have taken place since then. So what they must do, they reason, is serve the Queen of Heaven and the other pagan deities, and they resolve on this course.

There are two important lessons to be learned. First, you can always read history to make it prove almost anything you want. This does not mean that we are not to learn anything from history, for God himself tells the people what they should have learned. It means that what the people of God should learn from history must be shaped by the lens of God’s written revelation, by his prophetic word, by our covenantal vows. We cannot expect pagans always to agree with our reading of history. Second, this chapter demonstrates, in the harshest terms, that there is no hope for the covenant race, none at all, apart from the intervention of grace.

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1 Samuel 5-6; Romans 5; Jeremiah 43; Psalm 19

Aug 14, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 5-6; Romans 5; Jeremiah 43; Psalm 19

PSALM 19 IS ONE OF THE precious gems of the Psalter. It has three sections. The first delights in the wordless disclosure of God in the universe (Ps. 19:1-6); the second exults in the clarity, perfection, and wealth of God’s written revelation (Ps. 19:7-11); after a transitional verse (Ps. 19:11), the third section portrays the appropriate response of the believer, a response full of self-examination and godly resolve.

If ancient Israel was sometimes inclined to worship the created order—sun, moon, stars—our generation is more inclined to marshal arguments that make them the product of impersonal forces and nothing more. Both stances are abominations. Owing to our culture’s prevalent philosophical commitment to naturalism, the powerful evidence of intelligent design is marginalized until we can no longer see the obvious: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). The paradox of wordless utterance is delightful, as is the vision of irrepressible speech: “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:2-4).

But it is in connection with his written self-disclosure that the covenant name of God, Yahweh (“the LORD” in many of our English Bibles), appears seven times (Ps. 19:7-11). The six predications (Ps. 19:7-9) overlap somewhat, but together they project a vision of written revelation that anticipates the even fuller exposition of Psalm 119. One of the striking things about these six affirmations is that several of them are not merely abstract. The text not only says something about the words of God, but about their function in the lives of those who absorb them and follow them. For instance: “The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy” (Ps. 19:7): that is so, but the psalmist does not leave things there. Precisely because the LORD ‘s statutes are trustworthy, they serve to make wise the simple. Again: “The precepts of the LORD are right” (Ps. 19:8)—a point strengthened in the next verse: “The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous” (Ps. 19:9). But that is precisely why they give joy to the heart (Ps. 19:8): we are dealing with the Lord’s righteous precepts and ordinances, so they are never corrupt or manipulative.

What these two spheres of revelation demand is more than awe in the face of transcendent power, and more than personal delight in the personal, talking God—but both. Indeed, the appropriate response is repentance and faith, and zealous prayer that God himself would purify us within and make our words and meditations pleasing in his sight (Ps. 19:12-14).

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1 Samuel 4; Romans 4; Jeremiah 42; Psalm 18

Aug 13, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 4; Romans 4; Jeremiah 42; Psalm 18

THERE IS AN OLD JOKE about a reprobate who absorbs just enough religion to think he should try to get his life in order. He goes to a minister, who tells him that the best thing he can do is turn away from his whiskey, his women, and his gambling. The old boy looks thoughtful for a few moments and then says, “You know, I don’t think I deserve the best. What’s second best?”

One might have thought that in the wake of the disastrous destruction of Jerusalem, long predicted by Jeremiah, the prophet would have enormous credibility among the survivors. The sad reality is that he has enough credibility for them to consult him, but no more (Jer. 42). What they want is divine approval for the plan they themselves have already concocted. They do not want God’s best, or God’s will, but God’s approval of their will. Jeremiah carefully seeks God, and ten days later (Jer. 42:7) the word of the Lord comes to him. The substance of the message is this: stay in Judah, and God will protect you; fly to Egypt, and God will take this as a further sign of rebellion, and God’s wrath will pursue you and destroy you there, just as it recently destroyed so many in and around Jerusalem. Even as he is delivering this message, Jeremiah sees that it is not going down very well, and that the hostility against it—and against him—is deep. The next chapter (Jer. 43) records the sneering skepticism and the resolve of the leaders to disregard Jeremiah and his messages, to dismiss his words as outright lies, and to collect the remnant of the people and travel to Egypt. That is what they do, bringing Jeremiah with them.

Most movements that spring up from the fertile soils of Christendom appeal, in one way or another, to the will of God. Few probe the will of God very deeply. God is for evangelism; therefore he is for the way we are proposing to do evangelism, and we invoke his will to sanction our methods. God is love; therefore he is against church discipline except in the most egregious cases (which either never arise, or, if they do, by the time they do they too are covered by the love of God), and we invoke God’s will to sanction our determined niceness. God wants his people to be separate and holy; therefore we must withdraw into huddled isolationism and lob hateful barbs against all who disagree with us, and we invoke God’s will to authorize our tearless harshness and ruthless condescension. These wretched pits are terribly easy to fall into. All it takes is resolution, and no more real interest in the will of God than what we need to sanction our preferences.

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1 Samuel 3; Romans 3; Jeremiah 41; Psalm 17

Aug 12, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 3; Romans 3; Jeremiah 41; Psalm 17

THE ACCOUNT OF GEDALIAH’S assassination and its aftermath (Jer. 41) is brutal and ugly.

(1) The man responsible for Gedaliah’s death, Ishmael son of Nethaniah (Jer. 40:8; 41:1), was a man of royal blood, and may have been incensed because he was not the one the Babylonians appointed to rule the people. It is always shocking to see people scrambling for power even when there is nothing more than disaster and poverty over which to exercise power.

(2) The depth of Ishmael’s perfidy is powerfully portrayed. To kill people at a meal you are sharing was far more shocking in the sixth century B.C. than in our own, inured as we are by Agatha Christie novels and the like. Moreover, Ishmael’s rage boils over so that others are assassinated, including the Babylonian troops left behind to keep an eye on things. The motive impelling the next atrocity (Jer. 41:4-7) is uncertain: Ishmael may still have been suspicious of anyone interested in serving Gedaliah (Jer. 41:6). Or in the still terribly unstable political situation following the war, he may have been intent on robbery and mayhem. The latter view is favored by the fact that some of the pilgrims save their lives by telling Ishmael of a food cache (Jer. 41:8).

(3) Johanan son of Kereah was the one who first warned Gedaliah of Ishmael’s conspiracy (Jer. 40:13-14). Now he is equally quick to put together a band and go after Ishmael and his men and those they have taken captive (Jer. 41:11-12). Even though Ishmael and eight of his men escape, the captives are rescued (Jer. 41:14-15).

(4) Now Johanan must ask himself what to do. He and those with him are afraid that when the murder of Gedaliah and the others is reported back to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar will be so filled with rage that he will send back powerful army units and kill everyone who is left. So Johanan starts south, heading for Egypt, stopping near Bethlehem (just south of Jerusalem) to gather together those who want to escape with him.

(5) Theologically, all of this is part of the utter devastation befalling Judah. The city and temple have been destroyed. The Davidic dynasty has ended. All of the leaders, craftsmen, priests, and the like have been deported in waves (see Jer. 52:28-30). And now, just when it seems that a good man, Gedaliah, might somehow nurse this broken nation back through slow recovery to real economic and political health, he is assassinated, and the few remaining leaders fear the Babylonians and plan to flee to Egypt. Unaware of what they are doing, they thus bring to perfect fulfillment the prophecies of utter doom that Jeremiah has pronounced for four decades.

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1 Samuel 2; Romans 2; Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15-16

Aug 11, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 2; Romans 2; Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15-16

WHEN JERUSALEM FELL IN 587 B.C. (Jer. 39), Zedekiah was punished horribly, though leniently by the standards of siege warfare of the day. As for Jeremiah, probably the reports of his prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem soon filtered through the captives to Nebuchadnezzar (who was not himself at Jerusalem, but maintained regional headquarters at Riblah, leaving the final assault to his commander Nebuzaradan). In consequence the emperor gave orders that Jeremiah was to be well-treated (Jer. 39:12). Initially that order was carried out, and Jeremiah was turned over to Gedaliah (Jer. 39:13-14), who became the new governor of the region after the imperial troops had withdrawn, taking countless captives into exile.

That sets the stage for Jeremiah 40. The framework of the story is simple enough; the closing verses of the narrative evoke reflection on a terribly important theme. First, the framework: Those who were to be transported to exile were gathered at Ramah, which served as a rallying point about five miles north of Jerusalem. Despite Nebuchadnezzar’s instructions to leave Jeremiah with Gedaliah, somehow the prophet was swept up in this group (Jer. 40:1). Anyone familiar with the confusion of war understands how easily this could have happened. The commander Nebuzaradan freed him and offered to take him to Babylon; probably it would have added to the commander’s prestige back home to be the patron of a great prophet who had predicted Babylon’s success. But Jeremiah was free to make his own decision, and he opted to stay with the remnant in Judah. Nebuzaradan provided him with food and a gift (Jer. 40:5)—one more instance of the principle that a prophet is often honored by everyone except those closest to him (cf. Matt. 13:57).

But the account rushes on to describe the early stages of Gedaliah’s governorship. On almost all fronts he did the right thing. He encouraged the poor to settle down and till the land and gather the harvest. He drew in the Jewish “army officers still in the open country” (Jer. 40:13), a potentially dangerous guerrilla force that might have broken out in the kind of anarchy that would have angered Babylon again. Even those who had fled to nearby countries began to return home (Jer. 40:11-12), reassured by the moves Gedaliah was making to ensure stability. But Gedaliah’s great weakness was that he could not believe ill of people. Despite all the evil of the previous years, he still did not believe that evil happens, that evil people do evil things, that leadership must sometimes oppose evil. On so many fronts he was a good man. But he paid for his Pollyannish optimism with his life.

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