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1 Samuel 23; 1 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 2; Psalm 38

Aug 29, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 23; 1 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 2; Psalm 38

IN SOME WAYS THE FIRST three chapters of Ezekiel hang together to describe Ezekiel’s early call and commission—the commission of a prophet called to serve in declining times. In the Old Testament, not all prophetic calls are the same. Elisha served as an apprentice to Elijah; Amos was called while he was serving as a shepherd; Samuel first heard the call of God when he was but a stripling. But prophets commissioned to serve in peculiarly declining times have some common features in their call. We cannot trace all of those features here, but one of them emerges with great strength in Ezekiel 2.

Here God tells Ezekiel what he is being called to do. He is being sent, God says, “to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me” (Ezek. 2:3). He is being sent to the nation of Israel, at least that part of it that is in exile with him—and that part, of course, comprised the most gifted, the most learned, the most noble, the most privileged. From God’s perspective, they are merely “obstinate and stubborn” (Ezek. 2:4). Ezekiel is to tell them, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says” (Ezek. 2:4). So far God has not told Ezekiel what he is to say, i.e., the content of what the Sovereign Lord says. Rather, the rest of this chapter is devoted to making sure that Ezekiel understands that his ministry turns absolutely on one thing: passing on to this rebellious house the words of God. “You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen” (Ezek. 2:7).

Of course, it is always important for prophets and preachers to speak God’s words faithfully. But it is especially urgent in declining times. In periods of revival and prosperity, the preacher may be viewed with respect, his faithfulness and insight lionized. But in declining times, those who truly speak for God will be taunted and threatened. The pressures to dilute what God says become enormous. Clever exegesis to make the text say what it really doesn’t, selective silence to leave out the painful bits, hermeneutical cleverness to remove the bite and sting of Scripture, all become de rigueur, so that we can still be accepted and even admired. But God is aware of the danger. From his perspective, success is not measured by how many people Ezekiel wins to his perspective, but by the faithfulness with which he declares God’s words. Anything less participates in the rebellion of this “rebellious house” (Ezek. 2:8). This calls for godly courage that drives out fear (Ezek. 2:6-7).

Precisely where are such faithfulness and courage most urgently demanded in the Western world today?

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1 Samuel 21-22; 1 Corinthians 3; Ezekiel 1; Psalm 37

Aug 28, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 21-22; 1 Corinthians 3; Ezekiel 1; Psalm 37

EZEKIEL WAS JEREMIAH’S contemporary. Though he was born into a priestly family, Ezekiel was removed from the temple. In March, 597 B.C., he, young King Jehoiachin, the Queen Mother, the aristocracy, and many of the leading priests and craftsmen were transported seven hundred miles to Babylon. The young king was in prison or under house arrest for thirty-seven years. The exilic community, impoverished and cut off from Jerusalem and the temple, dreamed nostalgically of home and begged God to rescue them. They could not conceive that in another decade Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed. On the banks of the Kebar River—probably an irrigation canal swinging in a loop southwest from the Euphrates—the exiles tried to settle. And here, according to Ezekiel 1, when he was thirty years old and in the fifth year of his exile (i.e., about 593, still six years before the destruction of Jerusalem), Ezekiel received an extraordinary vision.

Detailed explanation of this apocalyptic vision demands more space than I have here. But some observations are crucial:

(1) In general terms, what Ezekiel sees is a vision of a mobile throne, the mobile throne of God. (I once preached on this passage to some hearing-impaired folk, and more than one thought I was saying it deals with the mobile phone of God!)

(2) The throne is made up of four “living creatures,” each with wings outstretched to touch the adjacent two at the wingtips, so that together the four creatures make a huge, hollow square. Inside this space there are torches, flashes of lightning, and fire. Each of the four living creatures has four faces—probably a way of signaling that God’s throne is intelligent (the human face), royal (the lion), strong (the bull), and compassionate (the eagle, cf. Ex. 19:4; Isa. 40:31). Beside each creature is a pair of wheels, intersecting each other so that they cannot fall over. The entire structure moves in straight lines, like a cursor on a monitor only in three dimensions, propelled by the wheels and additional wings of the living creatures, directed cohesively by the Spirit. Above the heads of the creatures, and supported by them, is a platform like a giant wok, sparkling like ice or hoarfrost. Above that is the throne of God.

(3) The importance of this mobile throne becomes clear later in the book. Here we must grasp two things: (a) The closer the vision gets to God himself, the more distantly he is described. The culmination—”This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28)—elicits not an artist’s conception, but worship. (b) More broadly: visions of God always induce brokenness, humility, and worship (cf. Isa. 6; Rev. 1, 4-5).

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1 Samuel 20; 1 Corinthians 2; Lamentations 5; Psalm 36

Aug 27, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 20; 1 Corinthians 2; Lamentations 5; Psalm 36

IN THIS INFORMATION-RICH AGE, many of us have learned to be as brief as possible. That was one of the areas in which my own doctoral supervisor helped me a great deal: though my prose style is still too rambling, whatever leanness and precision it has owes a great deal to his thorough correcting of my work a quarter of a century ago. Efficient managers learn to be brief; computer programmers are rated on how briefly they can write precise code to do what needs to be done. Only a few contemporary authors (e.g., Tom Clancy and James Michener) get away with long, rambling books—and even then the editors have drastically trimmed them.

Yet here we are, quietly reading through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, with Ezekiel to go, and we find ourselves circling around the same handful of themes again and again: sin in the covenant community, threatened judgment, then enacted judgment, first for the northern tribes, then for Judah. We recognize the subtle differences, of course: history, apocalyptic, oracle, lament, prayers. Here in Lamentations 5, the fifth dirge is cast as a long prayer: “Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace” (Lam. 5:1). But haven’t you caught yourself saying to yourself more than once, “I know this is the Word of God, and I know it is important, but I think I understand now something of the history and the theology of the exile. Couldn’t we get on to something else?” We live in an age burgeoning with information, we cry for brevity, and the Bible at times seems terribly discursive. So we scan another chapter as rapidly as possible because we already “know” all this.

But that is part of the problem, isn’t it? Read through this chapter again, slowly, thoughtfully. Of course, it is tied to Israel six centuries before Christ, to the destruction of her cities and land and temple, to the onset of the exile. But listen to the depth and persistence of the pleas, the repentance, the personal engagement with God, the cultural awareness, the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and justice, the profound recognition that the people must be restored to God himself if return to the land is to be possible, let alone meaningful (Lam. 5:21). Then compare this with the brands of Christian confessionalism with which you are most familiar. In days of cultural declension, moral degradation, and large-scale ecclesiastical frittering, is our praying like that of Lamentations 5? Have the themes of the major prophets so burned into our minds and hearts that our passion is to be restored to the living God? Or have we ourselves become so caught up in the spirit of this age that we are content to be rich in information and impoverished in wisdom and godliness?

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1 Samuel 19; 1 Corinthians 1; Lamentations 4; Psalm 35

Aug 26, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 19; 1 Corinthians 1; Lamentations 4; Psalm 35

THE FOURTH DIRGE (LAM. 4) again casts up a variety of mental pictures to depict the suffering of the final siege of Jerusalem and beyond. It also lays out some of the reasons why the judgment was imposed, and ends in a whisper of hope.

The dirge opens by likening the people of Jerusalem to gold that has lost its luster (Lam. 4:1). Like gold, they started off precious, but now they are treated like the cheapest clay pots (Lam. 4:2). Under conditions of siege and transportation, food becomes so scarce that mothers can no longer nurse their children; even baby jackals are better treated (Lam. 4:3-4). Proverbial for wickedness, Sodom was destroyed in a quick holocaust, “in a moment” (Lam. 4:6). But the punishment of the poet’s people “is greater than that of Sodom” (Lam. 4:6); siege warfare is a wretched, drawn-out affair, and the exile that follows it goes on and on. The theological assumption, of course, is that there are degrees of guilt: those with most knowledge of God’s ways have least excuse, and so they can expect severest judgment (e.g., Matt. 11:20-24). As for the nobility, they are as emaciated, degraded, and dirty as the rest, and therefore indistinguishable from the rest (Lam. 4:8-9)—which is another way of saying that the leadership of the little nation has been destroyed. They are so filthy that they are physically and ceremonially unclean, like lepers who must eke out their existence where no one wants to have contact with them (Lam. 4:14-15). “The LORD ‘s anointed” (Lam. 4:20)—here a reference to King Zedekiah—proves to be of no help. “We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations” (Lam. 4:20)—that is, secure in the knowledge that he was in the Davidic line, the Lord’s anointed. But as the Lord has destroyed the city and the temple, so also has he removed the Davidic descendants from the throne.

Why did the Lord do this? “[I]t happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests” (Lam. 4:13). The writer does not mean to suggest that these were the only sinners, but that the religious leaders, who should have been doing the most to preserve the nation in covenantal faithfulness, led the nation instead in corruption and infidelity. Because of their own positions, far from staying the national decline, they abetted it and hastened it. Where is that true today?

The story does not end here. In mocking derision the writer tells nearby pagans that they might as well delight in the moment, for their turn will come. God’s justice will be imposed on them as well as on Israel—and one day the covenant community, though afflicted now, will put behind them every trace of the exile (Lam. 4:21-22). The Lord’s Anointed will give them rest.

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1 Samuel 18; Romans 16; Lamentations 3; Psalm 34

Aug 25, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 18; Romans 16; Lamentations 3; Psalm 34

IT IS DIFFICULT TO DECIDE whether the first part of Lamentations 3 describes the experience of an individual (perhaps Jeremiah), or if the individual is a figure representing the entire nation as it has been forced into catastrophic defeat, poverty, and exile. Several lines favor the former view (e.g., Lam. 3:14, where the individual has become the laughingstock “of all my people” rather than of the surrounding peoples). The book as a whole, and the plural “we” that dominates most of the second half of this chapter, slightly favor the second view.

But more important than deciding this issue is the striking way in which hope or confidence twice break out in the midst of the most appalling distress. The first instance is in Lamentations 3:22-27. Despite the horrible devastation, the writer says, “Because of the LORD ‘s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lam. 3:22). Their sins merit more judgment than they are facing. They might have been wiped out. Only the Lord’s mercy prevented that from happening. However great their sufferings, the fact that they still exist testifies to the Lord’s graciousness toward them. God’s mercies renew themselves in our experience every day (Lam. 3:23). Besides, the faithful will surely insist that what they want the most is not the Lord’s blessings but the Lord himself: “I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’ ” (Lam. 3:24). This is a moral stance: it signals the end of the self-sufficiency and self-focus that thought it could thumb its nose at God. For this writer, the chastening is having its desired effect: it is driving people back to God.

The second block of hope is a retrospective on the preliminary ways in which the Lord has already answered (3:55-57), and which then becomes a plea for vindication (Lam. 3:58-64). The stark simplicity of the first of these two passages is profoundly compelling, the heritage of many believers who have passed through dark waters: “I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit. You heard my plea: ‘Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.’ You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear’ ” (Lam. 3:55-57). The prayer for vindication that follows (Lam. 3:58-64) must not be reduced to bitter vengeance. If God is just, then in the same way that he has chastened his own covenant people, he must mete out justice to those who have cruelly attacked others—even if it is that very attack that God has providentially deployed to chasten his own people. God himself elsewhere insists on this same point (e.g., Isa. 10:5ff.).

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1 Samuel 17; Romans 15; Lamentations 2; Psalm 33

Aug 24, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 17; Romans 15; Lamentations 2; Psalm 33

THIS DELIGHTFUL HYMN OF PRAISE (Ps. 33) focuses on what God is and what he does. It is so wonderfully fecund that here I can do no more than draw attention to some of its evocative themes.

(1) The Lord is righteous, and “it is fitting for the upright to praise him” (Ps. 33:1). Faithful and thoughtful worship turns in part on adoration of God for his character. Those who reflect the same character, however feebly, will most hungrily worship him for his perfections. Thus godly praise is tied to the moral transformation of the worshiper.

(2) The psalmist envisages creativity in music, consummate skill on the instruments, and fervor (Ps. 33:3)—a combination fairly rare in evangelical corporate worship.

(3) God’s character and God’s work cannot be separated from his word (Ps. 33:4-9). This is not only because God’s word is as righteous, true, reliable (“faithful”), and loving as he is, but because God’s word is effective—something nowhere more clearly seen than in creation: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6).

(4) God is utterly sovereign. He foils the plans of the nations; no one ever foils his plans (Ps. 33:10-11): “the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

(5) Although God is sovereign over the entire human race, and is the judge of all, yet he is peculiarly the God of his own covenant people (Ps. 33:12-15).

(6) Nations are never saved by mere might, apart from the blessing and sanction of God. Of course, God might well use the big guns, and his sovereign providence operates even in the preparation of the mighty empires that chastened his own people. But to trust the big guns is to forget who gives strength and wealth and blessing. Moreover, the Lord is perfectly capable of overturning any nation of any size, of spiking the big guns. “A horse [or a tank] is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save” (Ps. 33:17). The ultimate hope is in the Lord: “But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Ps. 33:18).

(7) Granted that this is the sort of God who is really there, that this is the God we worship, the three closing verses are as inevitable as they are jubilant. Here is the proper grounding for godly hope: “We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you” (Ps. 33:20-22).

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1 Samuel 16; Romans 14; Lamentations 1; Psalm 32

Aug 23, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 16; Romans 14; Lamentations 1; Psalm 32

BEFORE SAYING SOMETHING ABOUT Lamentations 1, I should offer a few observations on the book as a whole.

(1) In Hebrew, the first word of the book means “Oh, how [deserted is the city],” and this first word becomes the title in the Hebrew Bible. Later Jewish writers referred to the book either by this word or by another Hebrew word that means “lamentations.”

(2) Early Greek and Latin translations of this short book assign it to Jeremiah the prophet. This is entirely possible, but strictly speaking, the work is anonymous.

(3) Lamentations is made up of five poems, five dirges, each occupying one chapter. The first four are acrostics: i.e., the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet introduce, respectively, each of the twenty-two stanzas in each poem (though there are slight irregularities in chapters 2, 3, and 4). In the first three poems, each stanza is normally made up of three lines in some kind of parallelism (with two exceptional four-line stanzas, Lam. 1:7; 2:19). In the third poem, each line of each stanza begins with the same Hebrew consonant that introduces that dirge. The fourth poem has only two lines for each stanza. Though it is poetry, the fifth lament is not an acrostic, but consists of twenty-two lines that resemble some psalms of corporate lament (e.g., Pss. 44, 80).

(4) No linear flow of thought sweeps through each chapter or through the entire book. Certain themes keep reappearing, of course, but by and large the book is impressionistic, full of powerful images that reinforce a small number of burning truths.

If Job deals with the calamity that befell a righteous man, and thus with the problem of innocent suffering, Lamentations deals with the calamity that befell a guilty nation. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. While honestly and powerfully portraying the suffering of the nation, these poems vindicate God: God, not human beings, is in control of history, and God will not be mocked. Justice ultimately will prevail in the drama of history, because God is just.

Two final challenges. (a) Read through this first chapter and identify each of the powerful images the writer casts up, asking what it contributes to the chapter and how it is related to other biblical passages (if at all). For instance, verse 10 calls to mind that only the high priest could enter the Holy Place—and now raw pagans not only have entered but have ravaged the temple. Theologically, this is tied to the fact that the glory of God abandoned the temple (cf. Ezek. 8-11), demonstrating, among other things, that the presence of God is more to be sought than the building. (b) What is godly about Lamentations 1:21-22?

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1 Samuel 15; Romans 13; Jeremiah 52; Psalm 31

Aug 22, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 15; Romans 13; Jeremiah 52; Psalm 31

THE HISTORICAL APPENDIX TO the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer. 52) imposes a “spin” on the book as a whole. Without it, certain points would be left hanging—that is, they would still be there within the body of the book, but they would not be highlighted as powerfully as they are with this appendix to flesh them out.

First, it may be useful to offer notes on several of the historical details of this report. It is rather surprising that no mention is made of Nebuchadnezzar’s instructions for the protection of Jeremiah. But in fact, the interest lies in the large historical movement, not in Jeremiah’s personal circumstances. Some of the details complement the historical account provided by 2 Kings 25. Second Kings, for instance, does not mention Zedekiah’s imprisonment (Jer. 52:11). Seraiah the chief priest (Jer. 52:24), one of the leaders who were executed, was grandson of Hilkiah, the high priest under Josiah, who traced his descent from Aaron (cf. 1 Chron. 6:13-15). The report of the numbers transported (Jer. 52:28-30) is much lower than the figures given in 2 Kings 24. Probably the figures in Kings reflect the total, while the figures here refer to adult males or adult males of a certain rank. The variation in dates between 2 Kings 25:8 and Jeremiah 52 reflects, respectively, the Judean and the Babylonian methods of reckoning years of reign. Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Evil-Merodach (Jer. 52:31—Amel-Marduk in Babylonian sources) reigned only one year (561-560 B.C.). Babylonian records confirm that Jehoiachin was among those who enjoyed this emperor’s largess.

Second, we should isolate the theological effects of reading this chapter at the end of the book. Two elements stand out. (a) The historical details remind the reader that everything predicted by Jeremiah came to pass. Because Jeremiah is not named, the flavor is stronger yet: everything that God said he would do, he did. The sin of the people was persistent, unrepented, corroding, perverse. Far from softening the people, the promise of judgment, which God out of mercy delayed and delayed, merely bred hardness of heart. But the promised judgment finally fell. One is reminded of the reasoning in 2 Peter 3. (b) The closing verses of the chapter (Jer. 52:31-34) describe how the legitimate Davidic king was finally released from his imprisonment and treated with honor during the closing years of his life. Of course, he never returned to Jerusalem or to any part of the land of Israel. But thoughtful readers cannot help reflecting on the fact that the book does not finally end in judgment. There is still the whisper of hope. God is not yet finished with the Davidic dynasty. The first adumbration of the promises of the prophecy of Jeremiah fall across the horizon.

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1 Samuel 14; Romans 12; Jeremiah 51; Psalm 30

Aug 21, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 14; Romans 12; Jeremiah 51; Psalm 30

MANY A CHRISTIAN HAS experienced the almost ineffable release of being transported from despair or illness or catastrophic defeat or a sense of alienated distance from God, to a height of safety or health or victory or spiritual intimacy with our Maker and Redeemer. Certainly David had such experiences. Psalm 30 records his pleasure during one of those transports of delight.

The psalm divides into three parts. In the first (Ps. 30:1-5), David depicts the marvelous transformation. In the second (Ps. 30:1-6) he describes the complacency that drove him down in the first place, whether prior to the first five verses or in another cycle of the same thing. In the last section (Ps. 30:11-12), he concludes with the same exuberant joy he displays in the first five verses, as he bursts the boundaries of language to depict the glorious transformation when wailing is turned into dancing, and sackcloth into the garments of joy.

The list of contrasts in the psalm captures the heart and the imagination. Here we may reflect on one pair of such contrasts: “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

David is writing from his perspective as a member of the covenant community. Almighty God is linked by solemn oath and covenant with them. If they sin, God does not write them off: “his anger lasts only a moment”; his punishments, however severe, are temporary. His basic stance toward them is gracious: “his favor lasts a lifetime.” And since the earlier verses show that David is thinking not of the nation but of his individual experience, what is true for the people of God as a whole is true for him in particular: God may punish him for various reasons, but God’s fundamental stance toward him is merciful and gracious, lasting a lifetime. Basking in the conscious presence and blessing of God, David looks back on his recent experience and exults in the fact that “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

There are many such contrasts in Scripture, not a few of them bound up with the new covenant. The apostle Paul can speak of “our light and momentary troubles” (though by our comfortable Western standards his troubles were neither light nor momentary!). These achieve for us “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17)—and on such a scale they truly are light and momentary. Paul is merely following Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).

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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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