Apr

08

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 13; Psalms 15-16; Proverbs 27; 2 Thessalonians 1

Leviticus 13; Psalms 15-16; Proverbs 27; 2 Thessalonians 1

IN REFLECTING ON PROVERBS 27, I shall draw attention to five independent proverbs:

(1) “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Prov. 27:6). This is one of a substantial number of proverbs scattered throughout the book that despise flattery and insist that wise people not only administer rebuke in a kind and thoughtful way, but accept it and learn from it. For instance: “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning” (Prov. 9:8-9). “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (Prov. 15:31). This is a very different world from a culture in which people are simply encouraged to find themselves or express themselves.

(2) A number of proverbs, one of them in this chapter, value loyalty: “Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father” (Prov. 27:10). That sort of value is social; it transcends the “me first” mentality of individualism run amuck, and thus comports well with the New Testament emphasis on the corporate wholeness of the church.

(3) “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17)—which again is impossible where rabid individualism holds sway. Pastors and scholars know their thinking is sharper if they take time for honest interaction with their peers.

(4) “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man” (Prov. 27:20). Few sentences sum up so briefly and so evocatively the bottomless acquisitiveness of fallen human beings, the lust for things and power, the drive for possession, control, and novelty. A moment’s reflection, and Death and Destruction become not only the standard of what it means never to be satisfied, but also what characterizes “the eyes of man.”

(5) “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives” (Prov. 27:21). This could simply mean that after a person has gone through the crucibles of affliction, the approval rating, as it were, is assigned by the valuation of his or her peers at the other end. But it is more likely that praise itself is in some respects the ultimate test of character. You can tell as much about people (and maybe more) by how they respond to praise as you can by how they respond to adversity. Ask football heroes, movie stars, and people in church too rapidly promoted. Perhaps this is the ultimate crucible. It does not destroy us; it exposes what is there, and very often it is not much.

 
 

Apr

07

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 11-12; Psalms 13-14; Proverbs 26; 1 Thessalonians 5

Leviticus 11-12; Psalms 13-14; Proverbs 26; 1 Thessalonians 5

FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE are often called the Pauline triad. They crop up again and again in Paul’s correspondence, in various combinations and structures of thought. Doubtless the best-known passage is 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” It may be that the reason love is the greatest of these three cardinal Christian virtues is that love is the only one that God exercises. Elsewhere the Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8); it never says that God is faith or that God is hope.

In the epistle before us, the Pauline triad first crops up in chapter 1: “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). Sometimes only two elements of the triad are present: e.g., “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing” (2 Thess. 1:3). Sometimes the three are linked in particular ways: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6). Although love may be “the greatest” of the three, in this passage hope is the foundation or even the motivation of faith and love—though that arrangement is far from invariable (e.g., Eph. 1:15, 18).

If the Pauline triad occurs at the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, so it recurs at the end: “But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thess. 5:8, italics added). These variations suggest that faith, hope, and love were not, for Paul nor for the early Christians, a cluster of tired words always deployed in some boring formula. Rather, they were the quintessential Christian virtues that they thought about and pursued, so that their reflections and experience prompted them to describe these virtues in many different ways. Here we find the metaphor of the armor of God, but not with the associations found in Ephesians 6:10-17—once again demonstrating that these were fresh and living forms of speech, not clichés emptied of all power except comforting repetition.

 
 

Apr

06

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 10; Psalms 11-12; Proverbs 25; 1 Thessalonians 4

Leviticus 10; Psalms 11-12; Proverbs 25; 1 Thessalonians 4

SOMETIMES THE BIBLE PROVIDES A GLIMPSE of the means God graciously used to produce the Bible. For instance, Luke 1:1-4 lays out some of the research the third evangelist did. Here in the opening lines of Proverbs 25, we catch another glimpse: “These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah” (Prov. 25:1)—who of course lived two centuries after Solomon. Apparently some individual proverbs were passed down and finally collected by some scholars who worked during Hezekiah’s administration. That means that the entire book of Proverbs, which coalesces several collections, is even later. And at every step God was guiding the developments.

Sometimes the book of Proverbs serves as a quarry for quotations in the New Testament. We have already come upon a few instances (e.g., Prov. 3:11-12 quoted in Heb. 12:5-6—see meditation for March 16). Here there are two more: Proverbs 25:7, adapted by the Lord Jesus in Luke 14:7-10; and Proverbs 25:22, quoted by Paul in Romans 12:20.

But the theme on which I wish to focus attention today is self-restraint or self-control, which keeps resurfacing in this chapter. “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men” (Prov. 25:6). The scramble for the top is ugly self-promotion. Far better to be self-restrained and develop integrity. Someone may yet say, “Come up higher.”

“Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15)—far different from the bluster and splutter of the uncontrolled. Self-control and tact often achieve what a blunderbuss merely destroys. Self-control should also inform the degree to which you lean on others (Prov. 25:17).

“If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit” (Prov. 25:16). This proverb has application to more foods than honey, and to more pleasures than food. Lack of self-control, far from multiplying pleasure, brings vomit and self-loathing. Another “honey” proverb tweaks the thought a little. “It is not good to eat too much honey, nor is it honorable to seek one’s own honor” (Prov. 25:27). The same sense of nauseating disgust that accompanies eating too much honey accompanies self-promotion. Others feel as much revulsion, the proverb tells us, in the one case as in the other.

And the opposite of self-restraint? “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give” (Prov. 25:14). “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Prov. 25:28). The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control (Gal. 5:23; 1 Thess. 5:6; 2 Tim. 1:7).

 
 

Apr

05

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 9; Psalm 10; Proverbs 24; 1 Thessalonians 3

Leviticus 9; Psalm 10; Proverbs 24; 1 Thessalonians 3

MANY OF THE VERSES IN PROVERBS 24 seem to be set in a time of danger when evil is strong and the outcome uncertain:

(1) “If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength!” (Prov. 24:10). That may be an uncomfortable thought, but it needs saying. Anyone can bulldoze ahead when the course is downhill. And of course, our strength often really is small. How often Christians discover, with Paul, that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:1-10).

(2) As I write this a horrible case has come to light. A university student peeked over the wall in a public lavatory and saw his friend abusing and beating a very young girl, and he walked away and did nothing. Later the friend told him that he had killed the girl, who was found the next morning stuffed in the toilet. Still the university student did nothing. This is a microcosm of those who glimpsed something of the horrors of the holocaust and did nothing. So hear the word of the Lord: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Prov. 24:11-12).

(3) “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of the wicked, for the evil man has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out” (Prov. 24:19-20). The believer must take the long view. If we judge everything by who wins and who loses in the short span of our own lives, we will often be frustrated. But God the Judge has the last word.

(4) Suppose, then, that the wicked, or at least your enemy whom you take to be wicked, faces horrible reverses, even in this life. Here too there is a right way and a wrong way of proceeding. “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Prov. 24:17). Why not? Because you have descended to his level, and “the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him” (Prov. 24:18)—and quite possibly toward you. As “the wise” put it, “Do not say, ‘I’ll do to him as he has done to me; I’ll pay that man back for what he did’ ” (Prov. 24:29). Christians cannot fail to hear in these words an anticipation of the “golden rule,” an utterance by the Lord Jesus himself: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

 
 

Apr

04

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 8; Psalm 9; Proverbs 23; 1 Thessalonians 2

Leviticus 8; Psalm 9; Proverbs 23; 1 Thessalonians 2

PAUL WRITES TO THE THESSALONIANS, “But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan stopped us” (1 Thess. 2:17-18, italics added). The hindering work of Satan and his minions is attested to elsewhere in Scripture. In Daniel 10:13, for instance, the “prince of the Persian kingdom” is almost certainly some malevolent angel who delays the response to Daniel’s prayer by three weeks, and would have delayed it further but for the intervention of Michael.

Some have taken passages like this as evidence that God is finite, that the struggle between good and evil in the Bible is between a finite good God and a finite wicked Satan. When bad things happen to people, this is the work of Satan, and God has very little to do with it, except to oppose it—though not very satisfactorily in this instance.

Yet the God of the Bible is not finite and not so limited. If he were, the entire book of Job (as we have recently seen) would not make sense. The apostle Paul himself can describe his delays in categories other than “Satan stopped us.” For example, he tells the Corinthians, “I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Cor. 16:7, italics added; see meditation for March 1). Nor is this an isolated example. The Lord Jesus tells us of a time of such terrible destruction that, “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive” (Matt. 24:22, italics added). That really cannot mean anything other than that God intervenes to cut short those days. That in turn means he has the power to do so. The question it raises is why he did not do so earlier. Strictly speaking, the answer is not disclosed. Doubtless it is intertwined with other biblical themes: God sometimes allows evil to run its course, or much of its course, to expose its degradation; he is forbearing, leaving much time for repentance; he may have his own reasons, largely hidden, as in the book of Job. But always he is God, and his sovereignty is never truncated.

Paul frankly admits that Satan stopped him; in another frame, he might speak of the same event in terms of the Lord’s permission. He is not embarrassed by either description, and we must not be embarrassed either. Daniel can speak of a three-week delay; elsewhere he speaks of God’s unbridled sovereignty (e.g., Dan. 4:34-35). For him, the two are compatible.

 
 

Apr

03

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 7; Psalms 7-8; Proverbs 22; 1 Thessalonians 1

Leviticus 7; Psalms 7-8; Proverbs 22; 1 Thessalonians 1

SEVERAL OBSERVATIONS ON Proverbs 22:

(1) A break occurs after Proverbs 22:16, with a new heading. We now leave behind the proverbs of Solomon and begin the “Sayings of the Wise.” These must have been collected and perhaps circulated independently of the next section, “Further Sayings of the Wise” (Prov. 24:23-34), which is then followed by more of Solomon’s proverbs (Prov. 25:1ff.). Several cultures in the ancient Near East cherished and collected proverbs, and of course this fostered the rise of groups of “wise men” whose best utterances were preserved for posterity.

(2) The proverb “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6) is so well known that it cries out for comment. Recall that a proverb is neither case law nor unqualified promise (review meditation for March 23). When children go wrong, very often the careful observer can spot familial reasons that have contributed to the rebellion. But this is not always the case. Sometimes young people from evidently wonderful families kick the traces. Some return years later; some never do. Good families may produce prodigal sons. This proverb must not be treated as if it were a promise that fails periodically. Rather, it is a proverb: it tells how God has structured reality, and what we should do to conform to it. This is the principle of how families work; it includes no footnotes and mentions no exceptions.

(3) Proverbs 22:29 provides an instance of wisdom that is simply technical skill (see meditation for March 14).

(4) Once more it is worth reflecting on how many proverbs focus on social dynamics of one sort or another and on the desirability of peace, self-control, and restrained speech. “Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended” (Prov. 22:10). “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Prov. 22:24-25).

(5) Several verses in this chapter encourage the reader to remember that biblical proverbs are more than good common sense of a secular sort, with a little piety thrown in. They are deeply grounded in devotion to the living God and to all the revelation he has given. Sometimes the way of framing a proverb makes this reality sing. “Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2). The wise saying is grounded in the doctrine of creation. “The mouth of an adulteress is a deep pit; he who is under the LORD’s wrath will fall into it” (Prov. 22:14). The sexual sin everywhere condemned in this book is now seen as evidence of God’s sovereign wrath.

 
 

Apr

02

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 6; Psalms 5-6; Proverbs 21; Colossians 4

Leviticus 6; Psalms 5-6; Proverbs 21; Colossians 4

HERE I SHALL FOCUS ON THREE of the several themes that surface in Proverbs 21:

(a) “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). The prophets say something similar (e.g., Hosea 6:6), and so does the LORD Jesus (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Every generation must remember that integrity and righteousness are more important than religious ritual. It should come as no surprise that religious people may sometimes cheat on their income tax, abuse their children, covet their neighbor’s car, and love nothing so much as personal pleasure. Their religion may actually serve as a cloak to cover their sin with a veneer of respectability. This chapter includes another relevant proverb: “The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable—how much more so when brought with evil intent!” (Prov. 21:27). The religious observance of wicked people is simply detestable in God’s sight; it is unimaginably revolting to him when the wicked person is less a wicked dupe than a self-conscious charlatan using his religion to deceive people. Implicitly, of course, this means that the religion of the Bible is more about character than choirs, more about real transformation than religious tradition, more about God and the Gospel than about leadership and glitz.

(b) Poverty may come about because of abuse and oppression by the strong and powerful. But it may also come about because of a character flaw such as laziness or love of self-indulgence. So it is in this chapter: “He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich” (Prov. 21:17). “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has” (Prov. 21:20). “The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work” (Prov. 21:25). “All day long he craves for more, but the righteous give without sparing” (Prov. 21:26). By contrast, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Prov. 21:5). The wise will not pursue pleasure as one of the great goals of life, but will prove provident, generous, hard-working, faithful, and just—precisely the kind of qualities that make good employers and good employees.

(c) “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin!” (Prov. 21:4). “The proud and arrogant man—’Mocker’ is his name; he behaves with overweening pride” (Prov. 21:24). The heart of all wickedness is this vaulting self-focus that deludes itself into thinking we are self-determining, such that God himself can never be more than an accessory. Small wonder that gospel transformation begins with repentance.

 
 

Apr

01

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 5; Psalms 3-4; Proverbs 20; Colossians 3

Leviticus 5; Psalms 3-4; Proverbs 20; Colossians 3

THE CONTRASTS IN COLOSSIANS 3 are so stark they are haunting. On the one hand, the sins in Colossians 3:5-9 are foul: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying. Greed is labeled “idolatry” (Col. 3:5). One can see why. In effect, one worships what one most desires. If greed lies at the heart of our deepest desires, then acquisitiveness has become our god, and we are idolaters.

On the other hand, the virtues briefly spelled out in Colossians 3:12-17 have always been associated with genuine Christian character. Here I wish to focus on the last two verses: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:16-17).

(1) The “word of Christ” is not exactly the Scriptures. It is the Gospel—but the primary access we have to that Gospel is the Scriptures. The expression “word of Christ” is sufficiently flexible that it can mean either the word that Christ taught or the word about Christ. Insofar as the Gospel itself was both proclaimed by Jesus Christ and so embodied in his person and ministry that it is also what the apostles say about him, “the word of Christ” embraces both meanings.

(2) This is what is to dwell in us richly. It is to fill our memories, occupy our horizons, constitute our priorities. We are so to reflect on it, as we turn it over in our minds and learn how it applies in every area of our lives, that, far from occupying a little religious corner of our experience, it will dwell in us richly.

(3) This must take place not only in the privacy of personal study and reflection but also in our mutual instruction and admonition. Whatever teaching takes place within the local church, it must be full of the Gospel and its rich, life-transforming implications and applications.

(4) Over against all that is foul and all that is idolatrous, Christians are to be characterized by gratitude. We have been called to peace, the apostle says. “And be thankful” (Col. 3:15). The singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is to be done “with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Indeed, the apostle concludes, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17, italics added).

 
 

Mar

31

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 4; Psalms 1-2; Proverbs 19; Colossians 2

Leviticus 4; Psalms 1-2; Proverbs 19; Colossians 2

AT AN EARLY STAGE, I WORKED through Proverbs and categorized most of the individual proverbs according to topic. Some fitted into more than one topic. I recognized that there was a disadvantage in this approach: I would lose the thematic connections in some large blocks of material. Still, there was also a gain. I could see at a glance all that Proverbs had to say about poverty, for instance, or about the family, or about human speech.

One of the themes thus clarified is God’s sovereignty, worked out in sometimes mysterious providence. There is one verse on this topic in this chapter: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). By itself, of course, this might mean no more than that the Lord proves to be a superb chess player! Yet this verse is linked to an important set of passages (e.g., Prov. 20:24) that demand we think more deeply than that. For instance:

(1) “The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Prov. 16:4). We should not seek to evade the sweep of this utterance. This is not a dualist universe in which two autonomous principles operate, one good and one evil. While there is a basic distinction between good and evil, yet God’s sovereignty reigns, through whatever mysterious means, so that even the wicked serve his purposes—not least his purposes in judgment. Paul reflects on the same theme (Rom. 9:22).

(2) “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Human beings are responsible for what they choose and what they do; the entire book of Proverbs maintains this perspective, for otherwise the fundamental chasms between wisdom and folly, good and evil, the fear of the Lord and haughty arrogance, could not be sustained. Yet at the same time, even with all the plotting in the world a mere human cannot escape the sweep of divine sovereignty. Elsewhere we are told, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1).

(3) “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:33). This is a bit like saying that you can throw the dice as many times as you like, but which numbers come up is determined by the Almighty. This is why Christians have spoken of “the mystery of providence.” One cannot determine the moral excellence of an occurrence by the mere fact that it happens, since God’s providence rules over both good and evil, over every number that comes up. For moral distinctions, one needs God’s own pronouncements, his words, his law.

 
 

Mar

30

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 2-3; John 21; Proverbs 18; Colossians 1

Leviticus 2-3; John 21; Proverbs 18; Colossians 1

A NUMBER OF PROVERBS in this book bear on the matter of disputes. Some deal with the judicial level—e.g., “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the innocent of justice” (Prov. 18:5). Again, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Prov. 18:17)—a proverb that has application in wider settings than the courtroom. This judicial element is scarcely surprising, since of course Solomon himself was the final court of appeal in his kingdom. But many of these proverbs about disputes have little to do with the judicial system (although even the most private of disputes may go to court—and it may well be that Solomon’s reflections even about private disputes were stimulated by some of the things he saw dragged into court). There are two such proverbs here: Proverbs 18:13, 18.

(1) “He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame” (Prov. 18:13). This, of course, invites wide application. We think of those exasperating, aggressive conversationalists who rarely let you finish a sentence or a thought before they interject their own viewpoint. How much worse is the situation when neither side in a dispute really listens to the other side. In rare cases, of course, there is literally nothing to be said in favor of one particular side. But almost always there is at least something to be said for a contrary position, even if on balance it is not all that defensible. But how can you find out if you do not really listen? How can you hope to convince the other party of what you are saying if you cannot give that party the grace of courteous listening? In most disputes, tensions will improve if one party takes the initiative to lower the volume, slow the pace, cool the rhetoric, and humbly try to listen and discover exactly what the other side is saying.

(2) “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart” (Prov. 18:18). “Casting the lot” might refer to the priestly function of appealing to the Urim and Thummim for guidance (e.g., Ex. 28:30). But I suspect not. Some disputes become so vicious or so complex that the simplest way of sorting them out is to flip a coin—provided, of course, that both parties will agree to abide by the outcome. Some disputes cannot and should not be resolved in this manner. But where both sides, deep down, acknowledge that their dispute is six of one and half a dozen of the other, this might be the simplest way forward.

Inescapably clear from all this is the Bible’s profound commitment to truth, to integrity in listening and speaking, and to peace as much as to justice.