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Judges 11; Acts 15; Jeremiah 24; Mark 10

Jul 27, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 11; Acts 15; Jeremiah 24; Mark 10

THE VISION OF THE TWO BASKETS of figs (Jer. 24), one “very good figs, like those that ripen early” (Jer. 24:2—the early ones ripened in June and were viewed as a delicacy, cf. Isa. 28:4) and the other basket full of figs “so bad they could not be eaten” (Jer. 24:2), is plain enough. The good figs point to the Israelites who have already been sent away into exile in “the land of the Babylonians” (Jer. 24:5). God will watch over them and bring them back. He will give them a heart to know the Lord. “They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jer. 24:7). By contrast, the poor figs point to Zedekiah and his officials and the remainder of the people in Jerusalem. They will become “a reproach and a byword, an object of ridicule and cursing” (Jer. 24:9). They will not remain in the land. They will be banished, and God will follow them with “sword, famine and plague” (Jer. 24:10).

This analogy calls forth two reflections. First, it is a reversal of popular expectation, both in Jerusalem and in the exilic community in Babylon. The Jerusalemites were tempted to think that they were the elite, since they had been spared: God had not sent them into exile. The exiles were the rubbish; those left in the land were the faithful remnant. The exiles were tempted to think the same thing. They did not want to contemplate the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, for then there would be no “home” to go home to. So they tended to idealize the people who were left behind, praying that God would one day restore the exiles to the faithful remnant in Jerusalem. But God here says that the real situation is precisely the reverse. Those left behind in Jerusalem are disgusting and will be destroyed. The good figs are in exile, and God will bring them back to the land. In short, the remnant is in exile. The same theme (without the imagery of the figs) is developed in Babylon by Jeremiah’s contemporary, Ezekiel: e.g., Ezekiel 11:14-21.

Second, this is such an astounding reversal of popular expectations that it prompts the reader to think of a host of other reversals in the Bible. One thinks of the mighty Egyptian empire against the Israelite slaves; of the rich man and Lazarus; of the beatitudes of Jesus that promise the kingdom to the poor in spirit. Think of as many such reversals as you can, both within the pages of Scripture and in later history. God delights to exalt the humble and to humble the exalted. After all, our Redeemer died on a cross. So why should thoughtful Christians scramble for power and position, instead of for humility and faithfulness?

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Judges 10; Acts 14; Jeremiah 23; Mark 9

Jul 26, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 10; Acts 14; Jeremiah 23; Mark 9

MUCH OF JEREMIAH 23 IS A denunciation of the “shepherds” destroying and scattering the sheep of God’s pasture (Jer. 23:1; compare Jer. 10 and meditation for July 14). The long section denouncing the lying prophets (Jer. 23:9-40) is one of the most penetrating presentations of the differences between true prophets and false in all of holy Scripture. Its pathos is deepened by the asides of the prophet Jeremiah, asides that not only disclose some element of the true prophet but expose Jeremiah’s own heart: “My heart is broken with me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and his holy words” (Jer. 23:9). The blistering condemnation of dreams that are enthusiastically passed around the circles of the prophets, while these same prophets fail to speak God’s word faithfully (Jer. 23:25-39), has a contemporary relevance that only the blind could miss.

But here I want to focus on the first six verses. In the light of the abysmally immoral and idolatrous kings condemned in the previous chapter, and in the light of the destructive shepherds introduced in this chapter, God presents the ultimate solution. It has three components:

(1) God will destroy the destructive shepherds (Jer. 23:2). That is a theme we have seen before, and one that takes up a fair bit of this chapter.

(2) More importantly, God himself will gather the remnant of the flock from where they have been scattered, and he will bring them back to their pasture. “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing” (Jer. 23:4), the Lord declares. In other words, the promise of an end to the exile and a return of the remnant is now cast in the categories of a scattered flock being returned to its pasture. But there is also an element of expectation that transcends the historical end of the exile: the Lord himself will provide a quality of “pastors” (i.e., “shepherds”) who will transcend what the people have experienced in the past.

(3) In particular, God “will raise up to David a righteous Branch” (Jer. 23:5). The Davidic line will be little more than a stump, but a new “Branch” will grow out of it, “a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land” (Jer. 23:5). His days will bring safety and salvation for the covenant people of God. “This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). Just so: for by him, God will be both just and the One who justifies the ungodly, vindicating them by the life and death of the Branch from David’s line (Rom. 3:20-26).

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Judges 9; Acts 13; Jeremiah 22; Mark 8

Jul 25, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 9; Acts 13; Jeremiah 22; Mark 8

ALL SERIOUS READERS OF JEREMIAH know that the various oracles are not given in chronological sequence. Sometimes the sequence of the oracles is perplexing; sometimes it is clearly thematic. In Jeremiah 22, we find a series of utterances regarding the final kings of Judah, but the list is not in chronological order. Perhaps the most important thing about these utterances is that collectively they provide a foil for the prospect of a far more fruitful king, introduced in the next chapter.

(1) The first nine verses continue the warning to Zedekiah, the plea to return to the covenantal stipulations to ward off imminent disaster.

(2) Jeremiah 22:10-12 deals with Shallum, otherwise known as Jehoahaz. He was one of the sons of the last reforming king, Josiah, who was killed at Megiddo in 609 B.C. Shallum reigned a mere three months before he was deposed by Pharaoh Neco (during the final years when Judah was still a vassal of Egypt, before Babylon took over the role of regional superpower in 605: cf. yesterday’s comments). Transported to Egypt, Shallum never returned to Israel—the first of the Davidic kings to die in exile.

(3) Shallum’s older brother Jehoiakim succeeded him (Jer. 22:13-23). Jehoiakim was forced to pay a heavy tax to Egypt, but laid on additional loads for his own glorification. He was oppressive, covetous, greedy, and foolish (cf. 2 Kings 23:35). Worst of all, he reversed all the reforming policies of his father Josiah, and sanctioned pagan rites, even those of the oppressing power, Egypt. His exploitation of workers defied the Mosaic covenant (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14). Jeremiah’s denunciation is scathing: “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him” (Jer. 22:15). The consequence of Jehoiakim’s disastrous and evil policies was the destruction of the nation. As for himself, he would die an ignominious death, and his corpse would be taken out with the garbage (Jer. 22:19). “I warned you when you felt secure,” God says, “but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ ” (Jer. 22:21).

(4) His son Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah [Jer. 24:1, note] or Coniah [Jer. 37:1, note]) took over in December, 598, when Jehoiakim died. By this time Jerusalem was already under siege. Jehoiachin was a mere lad, eighteen years old. He ruled for three months. Then Jerusalem fell, and he was taken to Babylon, where he lived out the rest of his years—in prison until 561, and then in the Babylonian court. None of his children or his grandchildren would sit on the throne of David (Jer. 22:30). “O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!” (Jer. 22:29).

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Judges 8; Acts 12; Jeremiah 21; Mark 7

Jul 24, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 8; Acts 12; Jeremiah 21; Mark 7

JERUSALEM BECAME A VASSAL TO Babylon from 605 B.C. on, after Babylon defeated Egypt at the Battle of Carchemish. Jerusalem revolted and was defeated in 597, when most of the royal family, along with the nobility, the wealthy, and the skilled craftsmen were transported to Egypt, leaving behind Zedekiah as caretaker monarch. Zedekiah was an uncle of the young King Jehoiachin, who was taken into exile. Despite God’s strong warnings through Jeremiah that Israel should not rebel again against the Babylonians, the Jerusalem authorities preferred to listen to the false prophets. When Judah rebelled, Babylon’s retaliation was implacable. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops destroyed Judah and besieged Jerusalem, which was finally destroyed in 587.

The prophecy of Jeremiah 21 takes place under Zedekiah, when the Babylonian troops are gathering for the final siege, probably 589 or 588. The Pashhur whom Zedekiah sends to consult Jeremiah is not the Pashhur introduced in 20:1. Massive destruction threatens, just as Jeremiah has been predicting for more than three decades. Desperate, Zedekiah consults with anyone he can, including Jeremiah, hungry for the slenderest thread of hope. Will the Lord perhaps do great miracles again, as he did in the past—at the time of the Exodus, for instance, or when the Assyrians were turned back during the reign of Hezekiah—and spare Jerusalem? God’s answer through Jeremiah is in three parts:

First, far from sparing the city, God is determined to destroy it (21:3-7). He will fight on the side of the Babylonians. “I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath” (21:5). Zedekiah and his entourage will not be spared.

Second, it follows that the only wise course is to surrender. Under the well-understood terms of siege warfare, the city that defended itself against a siege could expect no mercy. Those who surrendered might be enslaved or otherwise sent into exile, but at least their lives would be spared. These are the two ways that God sets forth (21:8-10): the way of life and the way of death. This choice is not exactly like other “two ways” choices in Scripture (e.g., Deut. 30:15, 19; Matt. 7:13-14), but it is like them in distinguishing between obedience and disobedience and their respective consequences.

Third, like so many of God’s promises of judgment, there is a way out—provided there is an immediate return to the social justice and personal righteousness at the heart of the Mosaic covenant (21:11-14). Without swift reformation, however, the little nation is doomed. And tragically, of reformation there is none—not the last time when somber warnings go unheeded.

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Judges 7; Acts 11; Jeremiah 20; Mark 6

Jul 23, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 7; Acts 11; Jeremiah 20; Mark 6

THE CHAPTER BEFORE US (JER. 20) provides insight both into Jeremiah’s external circumstances at this stage of his ministry, and into his inner turmoil.

(1) Jeremiah’s external circumstances: the priest Pashhur son of Immer is the “chief officer” in the temple, presumably the chief security officer, serving under the current high priest. The prophetic actions and words Jeremiah has delivered in the previous chapter, announcing the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, have been interpreted as something near treasonous, if not blasphemous, the more so because Pashhur has been among those who have “prophesied lies” (Jer. 20:6) to the effect that God would never let this city fall to the pagans (cf. Jer. 14:14-15). So he has Jeremiah arrested and beaten, presumably with the legal limit of forty stripes (Deut. 25:3—that number was reduced by one in Paul’s day to ensure that the limit was not accidentally exceeded, 2 Cor. 11:24). Jeremiah spends a night in the stocks, devices guaranteed to cause the terrible pain of cramped muscles. By the next morning Pashhur has second thoughts and lets Jeremiah go. If he thinks this leniency will reduce the prophet to cowering jelly, he is mistaken: Jeremiah uses the occasion to assign Pashhur a new name meaning “terror on every side” (Jer. 20:3-4)—another picturesque anticipation of the judgment sure to fall, when all of Pashhur’s false prophecies will be exposed for what they are.

(2) Jeremiah’s inner turmoil: if the prophet is outwardly courageous, the following verses (Jer. 20:7-18) disclose something of his personal anguish. By this point Jeremiah has been predicting judgment for decades, and it has not yet fallen. It has become progressively easier to dismiss him and mock him. The Lord’s forbearance becomes an excuse for cynicism (as in 2 Pet. 3:8-9). Jeremiah temporarily resolves on silence, but so strong is the prophetic word burning within him that he cannot hold it in (Jer. 20:9). So he speaks, and his erstwhile “friends” listen with sneering condescension, hoping he will say something that will enable them to report him to the authorities and get this silly man into trouble (Jer. 20:10). Jeremiah oscillates between a focused and brilliant faith utterly confident that the Lord will finally vindicate him (Jer. 20:11-13), and a debilitating despair that frankly wishes he had never been born and wallows in understandable self-pity (Jer. 20:14-18).

Perhaps there are some servants of the Lord who have never experienced such highs and lows. But they are rare. Certainly those who serve in hard places almost invariably mirror Jeremiah’s experiences in some degree. Pray for Christian leaders, especially those whose patch is profoundly discouraging.

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Judges 6; Acts 10; Jeremiah 19; Mark 5

Jul 22, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 6; Acts 10; Jeremiah 19; Mark 5

THE HEALING OF THE Gerasene man who was demonized by a “legion” of demons (Mark 5:1-20) calls for explanations and reflection at many points. To pick up on six:

(1) The setting is Gentile territory on the east side of Lake Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis (Mark 5:20), the Ten Cities of largely Gentile constitution. That point is clear even from the herd of pigs, something that no self-respecting Jew would keep.

(2) The poor man described in these verses was subject to some sort of cyclical attack. At times he was docile enough to be chained, and then the attack would be so desperately strong that he could tear the chains apart and free himself. Banished from home and hearth, he lived among the tombs, where he cried out and lacerated himself, a man in the final throes of destruction by demonic powers (Mark 5:5). We should not assume that every case of what is today called insanity is the result of demonic activity; neither should we adopt the reductionism that reduces all demonism to chemical imbalances in the brain.

(3) The words addressed to Jesus (Mark 5:6-8), though on the lips of the man, are the product of the “evil spirit.” This spirit knows enough (a) to recognize who Jesus is, and (b) to live in horrible anticipation of the ultimate doom that awaits him.

(4) This exchange between Jesus and the “evil spirit” has two elements not found in any other exorcism in the canonical Gospels. First, the strange interplay between the singular and plural—”My name is Legion, … for we are many”—suggests an ambiguity in certain demonic activity. Moreover, as Jesus hints elsewhere, multiple invasion by unclean spirits is a “worse” condition to be scrupulously avoided (Matt. 12:45). Second, these demons do not wish to leave the area, and they do wish to be embodied (Mark 5:10, 12). Jesus accedes to both requests. Presumably this reflects in part the fact that the final hour for their banishment has not yet arrived.

(5) While it is essential to reflect on Jesus’ absolute mastery over these evil spirits, one must add that he does not call forth these spirits one by one, solicit their names, enter into conversation with them, or a host of other things commonly practiced by some who are given to “deliverance ministries.”

(6) The responses to this deliverance are striking. The delivered man wants to follow Jesus, and is commissioned to bear witness, in his Gentile world, to how much the Lord has done for him and how he has shown him mercy (Mark 5:18-20). The people of the region beg Jesus to leave (Mark 5:17): they prefer pigs to people, their financial security to the transformation of a life.

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Judges 5; Acts 9; Jeremiah 18; Mark 4

Jul 21, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 5; Acts 9; Jeremiah 18; Mark 4

THE IMAGERY OF THE POTTER and the clay (Jer. 18) recurs in Scripture (e.g., Rom. 9:19ff.). Slightly different emphases are brought forward in the different passages, though all of them emphasize God’s sovereign sway over the people who are likened to the clay. The emphases here may be clarified by the following observations:

(1) The potter’s wheel was a common sight in the ancient Near East, not so much a hobby item as an essential element in the manufacture of vessels both useful and aesthetically pleasing. The word wheel is in the dual form in Hebrew: two circular stones were fitted onto a vertical axis; the lower one was spun by the potter’s foot while the upper one served as the platform for the work.

(2) Often in the shaping of a pot some defect or other would become obvious—a defect in size or shape or in the texture of the clay or in some pollutant. The potter might then squash the developing pot into an amorphous blob of clay and begin all over again. It rather misses the point to ask if the potter is responsible for the defect. In the real world of pottery-making, of course, the potter might well be responsible or might be proceeding by trial and error. Certainly no one is suggesting that the clay itself, in the real world of pottery-making, bears some sort of moral responsibility for the way it turns out. But the point of the extended metaphor is not to assign blame for the defect: that is another subject. To try to read any such lesson here is to make the imagery walk on all fours. Moreover, in the context of the chapter at large—i.e., outside the world of the extended metaphor—God clearly holds the people of Israel responsible for the behavior that is calling forth his judgment (e.g., Jer. 18:13-15).

(3) What, then, is the point of this imagery? Perhaps there are two points. First, God has the right to destroy this pot and begin again. Whatever the cause of the defects, he has every bit as much right as the potter has to squash the pot and begin again. In other words, the people are not nearly as autonomous and self-determining as they think they are. That means their present course of conduct and disobedience is a recipe for unmitigated disaster. Second, just as a competent potter may well begin again because he or she is dissatisfied with the way a pot is developing, so God begins again because he is dissatisfied with the way his covenant people are developing. Are God’s standards lower than those of the village potter?

God has the right, and he has the standards. What sense does it make to buck him?

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Judges 4; Acts 8; Jeremiah 17; Mark 3

Jul 20, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 4; Acts 8; Jeremiah 17; Mark 3

AMONG THE CHORUSES I learned as a boy in Sunday school were these two:

These are the names of Jacob’s sons:
Gad, and Asher, and Simeon,
Reuben, Issachar, Levi,
Judah, Dan, and Naphtali—
Twelve in all, but never a twin—
Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John,
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.
He has called us, too; he has called us, too!
We are his disciples, I am one, and you.
He has called us, too; he has called us, too!
We are his disciples; we his work must do.

I am grateful that I was brought up at a time when many of the songs we learned gave us some facts, some data, some reasons for things. Many Christians today could not name either the twelve patriarchs or the twelve apostles, and are dismally ignorant of a lot of other elementary data that the least informed Sunday school student a generation ago mastered by the age of six or ten. Of course, the acquisition of mere data does not necessarily make a Christian. On the other hand, ignorance of Scripture almost always ensures a painful immaturity.

Nevertheless, the chorus of the second piece quoted above is slightly misleading. True, we are called to be disciples of Jesus, i.e., followers of Jesus. That is the calling of all Christians. Nevertheless, there were unique elements to the calling of the twelve apostles (Mark 3:13-19). Here I mention only one: these were appointed “that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14). This was important for at least two reasons: (a) They were trained by him, and a major component of their training was what we today would call “mentoring”—not merely the impartation of a message and a commission, but shaping people by example as well as precept as to how they should live. (b) These twelve were able to bear witness to the facts concerning Christ from the first days of his public ministry. Peter understood the importance of this point (Acts 1:21-22), for the revelation of Jesus Christ was not some private mystical experience but a unique, historical event that demanded witnesses.

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Judges 3; Acts 7; Jeremiah 16; Mark 2

Jul 19, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 3; Acts 7; Jeremiah 16; Mark 2

THREE OBSERVATIONS ON Jeremiah 16:

(1) The opening section of this chapter probably occurs quite early in Jeremiah’s ministry. He is forbidden to marry, not merely because women and children will within a few decades face an extraordinarily difficult time under siege warfare and subsequent exile, but as a symbolic way of anticipating the enforced asceticism that judgment will bring. In a culture in which almost all males married, his celibacy was doubtless a powerful symbol.

(2) One of the most striking features of this chapter is that the people really do not seem to be aware of their guilt. They cannot see why they should face judgment. “Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us?” they ask. “What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the LORD our God?” (Jer. 16:10). One of the most terrible indices of how far a people have strayed from righteousness is the degree to which they can no longer perceive their own guilt. Men and women who truly love righteousness and integrity are invariably aware when they breach it. The most holy people are the first to confess their sin with shame and contrition. The most guilty people are blissfully unaware of their corruptions and idolatries. So we must ask ourselves: where on this sort of spectrum are our churches found? Or our culture? Are we characterized by profound contrition, or by a frank inability to think that we have really done anything all that wrong? What does that say of us? What does that say about the Lord’s stance toward us?

(3) Although the Lord promises judgment, there are two hopeful elements. The first is that God will one day bring the people out of exile with so dramatic and unexpected a rescue that it will eclipse the glory of the Exodus (Jer. 16:14-15). The second is that part of the purpose of this judgment is pedagogical. The people have cherished false gods. “Therefore I will teach them—this time I will teach them my power and might. Then they will know that my name is the LORD” (Jer. 16:21). The exile was to reduce if not eliminate the chronic idolatry of the covenant people. At least at the level of formal idolatry it turned out to be remarkably effective in this respect. The history of the Jews after the return from exile is far different in this respect than what it was before. Despite horrible lapses, postexilic Jewish history displays far less polytheism and syncretism than preexilic history. Of course, for Jew and Gentile alike, the snare of idolatry is much more subtle and corrosive than the attractions of formal polytheism.

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Judges 2; Acts 6; Jeremiah 15; Mark 1

Jul 18, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 2; Acts 6; Jeremiah 15; Mark 1

JEREMIAH 15 PROVIDES SOME OF the most haunting insights into the inner life and thought of the prophet Jeremiah:

(1) Jeremiah has been interceding with God on behalf of the covenant people (Jer 14). God tells Jeremiah to stop, that he will not listen (Jer. 14:11-12). Indeed, he now says that even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before him and intercede for the people, he would not spare them (Jer. 15:1). Centuries earlier Moses and Samuel had successfully interceded for Israel (Ex. 32:11-14; Num. 14:13-24; Deut. 9:18-20, 25-29; 1 Sam. 7:5-9; 12:19-25)—though it is important to remember that they also secured, in some measure, the willingness of the people to return to the Lord with contrition and renewed obedience. This Jeremiah has not been able to achieve. Now God is telling him that he will not achieve it: the people will go into captivity. The iniquity and idolatry under Manasseh have been the last straw (Jer. 15:4; see 2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26; 24:3).

(2) In Jeremiah 15:10, Jeremiah frankly wishes he had never been born. The entire nation “strives and contends” with him. Everyone curses him, not because he has been corrupt in business, but because he faithfully conveys the word of the Lord. The Lord reassures him (Jer. 15:11-14; the best iron came “from the north,” from the Black Sea area, so this is a way of saying that Israel’s arms would be no match for those of the Babylonians). But that is part of Jeremiah’s anguish. One part of him wants justice, wants retribution for his persecutors (Jer. 15:15). That same part utterly delights in God’s words (Jer. 15:16a). Yet on the other hand, his allegiance to God and his words is precisely what isolates him from the people: “I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation” (Jer. 15:17b). Some of his most virulent foes were his own relatives (cf. Matt. 10:36). Jeremiah is sometimes tempted to think that it is God who has failed, like an intermittent spring (a wadi, Jer. 15:18) that flows at times with life and blessing, and at other times provides nothing.

God’s response (Jer. 15:19-21) is that if Jeremiah proves utterly faithful in conveying his words, he will continue as God’s spokesman and will be preserved from the evil machinations of his opponents. But one point is nonnegotiable: “Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them” (Jer. 15:19b).

The deep tension between faithfulness to God and alienation from one’s own people is an unvarying constant in the ministry of faithful preachers assigned to a declining culture.

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