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Joshua 18-19; Psalms 149-150; Jeremiah 9; Matthew 23

Jul 12, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 18-19; Psalms 149-150; Jeremiah 9; Matthew 23

ONCE AGAIN JEREMIAH CYCLES around some of the themes he has already introduced (Jer. 9). For instance, the closing two verses pick up on true and false circumcision (cf. Jer. 4:4). But here, too, a new facet of the sin of the people is explored (Jer. 9:23-24). About these verses I must say four things:

First, the heart of much sin is the smug self-sufficiency that boasts in its own wisdom or strength or wealth (Jer. 9:23). That is always a mark of lostness. It focuses on self. Worse, it fails to recognize that all that we have (and boast about) is derived: we do not choose our own genes, or parents, or heritage; all we have achieved has been in function of others, of health, of gifts, of support, of situation—a thousand elements over which we have little control and which, this side of the Fall, we do not have the right to claim. Worst of all, smug and self-sufficient people leave no place for priorities outside themselves; they leave no place for God, for they are their own gods.

Second, there is nothing in the universe more important to human beings than to know the Lord (Jer. 9:24a). He is God, not we; he is the Creator, not we; he exercises providential rule, not we. He is the Self-Existent, and we are derived and dependent. He inhabits eternity; we are restricted to our very small segment of time. He is utterly holy and glorious; we are massively contaminated by dirt, and stand under his judgment. But we may know him! That is the only thing truly worth “boasting” about. Will you doubt this point two hundred or two billion years from now?

Third, the One we know is Yahweh, “who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth” (Jer. 9:24b). “Kindness” is God’s covenantal love, his covenantal mercy, bound up with his own utter reliability—a virtue that stands in stunning contrast to the fickleness of the people in rebellion against him.

Fourth, Paul understands the universal applicability of these verses when he alludes to them and then cites part of them in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. He writes, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth”—the kinds of things the Corinthians were boasting about. “Wise/wisdom” is found in both contexts; Paul interprets “strong” not in terms of physical strength but in terms of political and social influence; he interprets the “rich” in terms of the “noble,” for in the preindustrial world the two usually went hand in hand. But if Christ is our true wisdom—”that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30), then, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).

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Joshua 16-17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22

Jul 11, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 16-17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22

AT EACH STAGE OF JEREMIAH’S description of the rebellion of God’s people, some facets of their sin are reiterated while others are refined and some new ones introduced. Here I focus on two of the latter (Jer. 8).

First, Jeremiah focuses on the sheer unnaturalness of the people’s unwillingness to learn from their mistakes and repent. The presentation of the argument turns in part on a pun: the Hebrew word for “turn” or “repent” is the same as that rendered “return.” The point is that in ordinary experience someone who “turns away,” i.e., who makes a mistake, eventually returns, learning from the experience. But Israel always turns away (Jer. 8:4)—they never learn from their bitter experiences. That is because they cherish their sin, they “cling to deceit; they refuse to return” (Jer. 8:5). “No one repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ ” (Jer. 8:6).

First-time readers of the Old Testament sometimes wonder how people can be so thick as not to learn from the repeated cycles of rebellion and punishment. Rats in a maze learn to adapt to external stimuli; to some extent, well-brought-up children learn to conform to cultural expectations and hide their worst instincts. Why doesn’t Judah learn from the history of the northern kingdom? Or even from her own checkered history? Although some behavioral modification can be achieved by training, biblical history demonstrates that the problem is bound up with human nature. We are a fallen breed. Sinners will sin. Creeds and covenants and vows and liturgy may domesticate the beast for a while, but what we are will not forever be suppressed. Israel’s history demonstrates the point, not because Israel is the worst of all races, but because Israel is typically human—and fallen. Even people as privileged, chosen, and graced as these cannot escape downward spirals. How naive for us to think that we can!

Second, not only do many of these people foolishly think they are “safe” because they “have the law of the LORD” even though they do not obey it (Jer. 8:8—a common theme in the prophets), but in this case the problem is massively exacerbated by “the lying pen of the scribes” who have “handled it falsely” (Jer. 8:8). This is the first Old Testament reference to “scribes” as a class—and the people whose duty it is to study, preserve, and expound the Scriptures mishandle them. Perhaps they pick up elements they like and create a synthesis that pleases them, ignoring the whole; perhaps they deploy clever techniques to make the Law say what their presuppositions and theology demand. Sound familiar? Review the meditation for July 4.

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Joshua 14-15; Psalms 146-147; Jeremiah 7; Matthew 21

Jul 10, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 14-15; Psalms 146-147; Jeremiah 7; Matthew 21

THIS TEMPLE ADDRESS (JER. 7), delivered in prose to the people coming through the gates “to worship the LORD” (Jer. 7:2), is famous for its powerful insistence that no rite or institution or building can shield a guilty people from the wrath of God. To think otherwise is to descend to ridiculous superstition. Some notes:

(1) The merely repetitious chanting of a godly theme such as “the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4)—or, for that matter, “Jesus is Lord”—avails nothing. What God demands is moral renovation, repudiation of false gods, justice, and generosity (Jer. 7:6-8). The shedding of innocent blood (Jer. 7:6) might refer to judicial murders, for we know they were committed (Jer. 26:23, under Jehoiakim).

(2) But what is offensive above all is the sheer hypocrisy. People would happily steal and murder and commit adultery and perjury, offering their worship to false gods—and then participate in temple worship, claiming shelter as if the temple’s ramparts could save them from the judgment of God (Jer. 7:9-11). When one reads contemporary statistics on stealing (e.g., cheating on income tax) and adultery, both outside the church and inside, it is difficult to believe that we are in a vastly different situation. We may not claim the sanctuary of temple precincts, but somehow we think that our modicum of Christian observance means that we are still “good people” and therefore safe from the judgment that falls on other nations.

(3) The time may come, as it came in the days of Jeremiah, when intercessory prayer on behalf of such people is actually forbidden by God himself (Jer. 7:16). This is equivalent to saying that it is too late.

(4) Even so, God wants Jeremiah to tell the people all these things. Perhaps the sheer extremity of the threat will prompt reflection and encourage repentance. But no: “When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer. Therefore say to them, ‘This is the nation that has not obeyed the LORD its God or responded to correction. Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips’ ” (Jer. 7:27-28). Though written to describe Judahites in the sixth century before Christ, it is difficult to imagine any passage that more accurately describes Western culture, including much of the Western church. Indeed, in our day “truth has perished” not only in the sense that integrity is at a low ebb, but as a result of postmodern sensibilities that find it difficult to see what all the fuss is about: all these religious claims are driven by sociological pressures, aren’t they, and not by a divine Being who actually speaks objective truth? And so we rush to perdition.

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Joshua 12-13; Psalm 145; Jeremiah 6; Matthew 20

Jul 09, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 12-13; Psalm 145; Jeremiah 6; Matthew 20

SOME REFLECTIONS ON the warnings of Jeremiah 6:

(1) Benjamin (Jer. 6:1), which with Judah remained loyal to the Davidic dynasty and therefore had not been transported by Assyria along with the other ten tribes, lay to the north of Jerusalem. So when marauding hordes loomed “out of the north,” one might think that Jeremiah would advise them to flee south to Jerusalem, the best-defended city in the entire region. But Jeremiah tells Benjamin to flee away from Jerusalem—essentially a prediction that Jerusalem itself will be utterly destroyed and that no one should expect to find refuge there.

(2) The Hebrew of verse 4 literally reads, “Sanctify battle against her!” All war was “sacred” in the ancient Near East. The mighty pagan armies were accompanied by staff astrologers and fought under the patronage of various deities. The following lines depict a typical battle. Combatants began in the morning after both sides had made preparations, and then continued all day, with both sides normally retiring from the field about dusk. But here the enemy continues the attack at night (Jer. 6:5)—suggesting a battle of uncharacteristic ruthlessness and ferocity.

(3) The heart of the charge against the citizens of Jerusalem and Judah is that they care nothing for the word of the Lord. When the prophet issues warnings, their ears are “closed”—literally, “uncircumcised” (Jer. 6:10) “so that they cannot hear” (see yesterday’s meditation). Why? What is the problem? They are not literally deaf, but, “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (Jer. 6:10). Meanwhile the prophets and priests, according to the Lord, “dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). In other words, most of the religious leaders are not addressing the sins of the age and seeking to reform the people of God. Rather, they give soothing talks for busy people, above all avoiding themes like judgment and punishment. Their conduct is “loathsome” (Jer. 6:15) because the people are being neither warned nor reformed, but the preachers, far from being ashamed, “do not even know how to blush” (Jer. 6:15). Of course not: they are deluded into thinking they are doing the right thing. But the prophet of God is to “ask for the ancient paths” and “ask where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jer. 6:16). This is not an appeal to boundless traditionalism, but to the inherited revelation of the covenant, of the Word of God, that is being jettisoned in favor of comforting illusion: the people said, “We will not listen” (Jer. 6:17) and, God says, they “rejected my law” (Jer. 6:19).

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Joshua 11; Psalm 144; Jeremiah 5; Matthew 19

Jul 08, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 11; Psalm 144; Jeremiah 5; Matthew 19

HERE I SHALL BRIEFLY REFLECT ON a number of elements of the depravity to which the citizens of Judah had succumbed (Jer. 5):

(1) God challenges Jeremiah to find a single honest man on the streets of Jerusalem (Jer. 5:1), anticipating the search of Diogenes in the Greek world. Even one such person would have been enough, according to God, to forestall judgment on the city. But of course that is another way of saying how slippery the moral life of the city had become, how extensive the sin was, how insincerity and moral corrosion had damaged the city’s children.

(2) Initially Jeremiah thinks that perhaps the negative results of his search could be laid at the door of the disadvantages of the lower classes. Of course, even the poor were supposed to know and keep the Law of God, but it is compassionate to make allowances. So Jeremiah goes off to examine the sophisticated, the privileged, the articulate—and finds no less moral rot there than elsewhere (Jer. 5:4-5). Intelligent sinners use their intelligence to sin; sophisticated sinners concoct sophisticated reasons for thinking sin is not sin; upper-crust sinners indulge in upper-crust sin. “But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds” (Jer. 5:5).

(3) The common stance toward God is that he is absent or ineffective (Jer. 5:12); the common stance toward genuine prophets is that they are windbags (Jer. 5:13). So God will bring about catastrophic judgment to show his power, and he will speak to the people in the words of a foreign language (Jer. 5:14-17). They so much love to serve foreign gods in their own land; they will henceforth serve foreigners in a land not their own (Jer. 5:19).

(4) By and large, the people have learned nothing from God’s wise and generous providential care (Jer. 5:24). Equally they have learned nothing from the times when God has chastened them by depriving them of harvest (Jer. 5:25). Whether he is gentle or firm, whether he is generously forbearing or promptly just, they ignore him or rebel against him. What is he to do? Sooner or later he must respond to the violence, deceit, and corruption in the coinage of punishment (Jer. 5:26-29).

(5) There may be hope for the people of God when their leaders call them back to faithfulness and integrity, or when the people try to check and remove errant leaders. But what do we have here? “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way [cf. 2 Tim. 3:1-7]. But what will you do in the end?” (Jer. 5:31).

How many of these elements are playing out today?

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Joshua 10; Psalms 142-143; Jeremiah 4; Matthew 18

Jul 07, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 10; Psalms 142-143; Jeremiah 4; Matthew 18

MOST OF JEREMIAH 4 IS DEVOTED to depicting the devastation that will be caused by the Babylonian hordes from the north (Jer. 4:5-31). Much of this prediction is on the lips of Yahweh himself. At one point there is an interlude in which Jeremiah expresses his own devastation at the prospect: “Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry” (Jer. 4:19). However faithfully he reports God’s words, however much he recognizes that God’s judgments are just, Jeremiah nevertheless identifies with the agony his people will endure. In this he anticipates the Lord Jesus, who condemns the sins of his day, but weeps over the city as he contemplates the judgment that must inevitably follow.

In the opening four verses of the chapter, however, the Lord demonstrates that it is still not too late. In fact, if Israel returns to him, not only will the nation be spared, but she will resume her role as a channel of blessing to the nations (cf. Gen. 12:3; Ps. 72:17). But such a return must not be a masquerade, a mere show of repentance. Israel must genuinely abandon her idols. She must swear “in a truthful, just and righteous way … ‘As surely as the LORD lives’ ” (Jer. 4:2). There are at least two facets to this oath. The first is that it constitutes, in effect, a renewal of the Sinai covenant. If the oath were not meant—i.e., not truthful, just, and righteous—then of course it would be not only false but blasphemous. The second facet is that it reflects the Mosaic stipulation that the oaths of the nation should be in the name of the Lord (Deut. 10:20). A nation steeped in idolatry would take its oaths in the names of the many false gods. If all in the nation take their oaths in the name of the Lord, it could only be because the Lord alone is supreme, the only God, the highest Being by whom they can swear.

Two word pictures further describe the genuineness of repentance and the sincerity of heart that God demands. (a) “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns” (Jer. 4:3). The people show no genuine receptivity to the Lord and his words. The hardness must be broken up. There is no fruitfulness in sowing where thorns choke the life out of all that is worthwhile (cf. Mark 4:1-20). (b) What God wants is more than circumcision of the foreskin, however deeply symbolic the act is. He wants circumcision of the heart (Jer. 4:4)—a cutting away of all that is evil. That was so even in Mosaic times (Deut. 10:16). Reflect on Paul’s inferences (Rom. 2:28-29).

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Joshua 9; Psalms 140-141; Jeremiah 3; Matthew 17

Jul 06, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 9; Psalms 140-141; Jeremiah 3; Matthew 17

WHEN THE HUMAN AUTHORS of the Bible wrote Scripture, more often than not they had read and thought through the Scriptures that had already been written. Thus the earliest writers of the New Testament books constantly read (and cited and alluded to) what we call the Old Testament. The later writers of the New Testament read at least some of the early New Testament books (consider 2 Pet. 3:15-16). Similarly, the later writers of the Old Testament read all or some of the earlier Old Testament books.

It is very likely that Jeremiah, a sixth-century prophet, had read and reflected on the work of Hosea, an eighth-century prophet. Hosea’s book develops at great length the analogy between Israel and a prostitute: apostasy is a form of spiritual prostitution. This horrible but telling analogy is teased out in a number of ways—not least in God’s remarkably faithful love for his prostitute-bride. Some elements of this theme from Hosea are picked up and developed by Jeremiah (not least in Jer. 3).

The first verse alludes to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There it is established that if a woman is divorced and marries another, she cannot divorce the second and return to the first. Sadly, the people of Judah have “lived as a prostitute with many lovers” (Jer. 3:1)—and now they make noises about coming back to the Lord as if there is no problem. They think they can saunter into God’s presence and nostalgically pray, “My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry?” (Jer. 3:4-5)—as if approaching this vastly offended God is an easy matter, as if the results were a foregone conclusion, as if whatever difficulty that remains lies with God and his unyielding anger. But God’s perspective is rather different. He quietly comments, “This is how you talk, but you do all the evil you can” (Jer. 3:5). Pretensions of repentance, promises of allegiance, and pretty allusions to a past relationship mean nothing to God in comparison with present performance. Religious cant often hides not only ungodly behavior, but a secret lust to do evil (Jer. 3:5)—though the person doing the evil is usually so blind that he or she cannot label it as evil.

The northern nation of Israel was caught in spiritual adultery, and God gave her “a certificate of divorce” (Jer. 3:6-8): she was sent off into exile in 722 B.C. under the Assyrian king, Sargon II. From this, her sister Judah learned nothing: a century later she did what her sister Israel did, but with even less excuse since she had seen what had happened to Israel (Jer. 3:9ff.).

To what extent is contemporary evangelicalism selling out the Gospel, having learned almost nothing from the somewhat similar capsize of Protestant confessionalism about a hundred years ago?

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Joshua 8; Psalm 139; Jeremiah 2; Matthew 16

Jul 05, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 8; Psalm 139; Jeremiah 2; Matthew 16

FEW PASSAGES IN THE Synoptic Gospels have been more disputed in the history of the church than Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and its aftermath (Matt. 16:13-28). Here we may venture only three reflections:

(1) Judging by his response, Jesus sees this confession as a significant advance, achieved by revelation from the Father (16:17). But that does not mean that before this point Peter had no inkling that Jesus is the Messiah. Nor does it mean that he understood “Messiah” in the full-fledged, Christian sense associated with the word after Jesus’ death and resurrection. At this point, quite clearly, Peter was prepared to accept Jesus as Israel’s King, the Anointed One from the Davidic line, but he had no idea that he must be simultaneously Davidic king and suffering Servant, as the ensuing verses show. Both Peter’s understanding and his faith were maturing, but still painfully lacking. Part of Peter’s coming to full Christian faith on these matters depended absolutely on waiting for the next major redemptive-historical appointment: the cross and the resurrection.

(2) Jesus’ words, “[Y]ou are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18), have been taken to be the foundation of the Roman Catholic papacy. Even on the most sympathetic reading, however, it is difficult to see how this passage says anything about passing on a Petrine precedence, still less about gradually developing and enhancing the papacy until in 1870 the doctrine of papal infallibility was promulgated. Offended by such extravagant claims, many Protestants have offered exegeses equally unbelievable. Perhaps Jesus said, “You are Peter” (pointing to Peter) “and on this rock I will build my church” (pointing to himself). Or perhaps the “rock” on which the church is built is not Peter, but Peter’s confession—which scarcely accounts for the pun in Greek: “you are petros and on this petra.”

(3) It is better to see that Peter really does have a certain primacy—what has been called “a salvation-historical primacy.” He was the first to see certain things, the leader gifted by God in the first steps of organization and evangelism after the resurrection (as Acts makes clear). But not only was this leadership bound up with Peter’s unique role in redemptive history (so unique that it could not, in the nature of the case, be passed on), but the gospel authority extended to him (16:18-19) is extended to all the apostles (18:18). This is what we should expect: elsewhere we are told that the church is built on the foundation of prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20, italics added). As the ancient formula puts it, Peter was primus inter pares—first among equals.

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Joshua 7; Psalms 137-138; Jeremiah 1; Matthew 15

Jul 04, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 7; Psalms 137-138; Jeremiah 1; Matthew 15

JEREMIAH LIVED IN DAYS of threat and declension. Called to be a prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah, Judah’s last reforming king (about 627 B.C.), Jeremiah served for more than forty years. The fall of Jerusalem took place in 587 (forty years after Jeremiah’s call), and the prophet continued his ministry for a while after that. His ministry was doomed to apparent fruitlessness. But God had called him to speak the truth about the nation and about impending judgment, regardless of whether or not his words were well received. One senses Jeremiah’s growing maturity and resolve as the years of his ministry slip past.

The call of Jeremiah occupies the first chapter (Jer. 1). Some important elements:

(1) Not only was Jeremiah’s commission from God, but God had chosen him even before he was born (Jer. 1:5). In the hours of darkest opposition and brutal treatment, that reality doubtless proved immensely stabilizing to Jeremiah.

(2) Clearly, Jeremiah was only a young man when God called him to his first commission. Jeremiah protested that he was too young, “only a child”—but God would not accept the excuse, for he is perfectly capable of equipping anyone he chooses. God himself would put words in Jeremiah’s mouth and make him a prophetic voice, not only over Judah but over the surrounding nations (Jer. 1:7-10).

(3) Two visionary vignettes clarify Jeremiah’s call. The first is an almond branch. The Hebrew word sounds much like the Hebrew for “watching over.” The almond branch was the first to bud in the spring, and thus points to the advent of spring; in the pun, God’s word points to its own fulfillment, which must inevitably follow. Thus Jeremiah is encouraged to speak God’s words with utter confidence that all that God says is true, and all that he predicts will take place (Jer. 1:11-12): God watches over everything. The second visionary element is a boiling pot, tilting away from the north—a graphic way of indicating that the boiling cauldron of judgment, the judgment that Babylon would mete out to the tiny nation (Jer. 1:13-16), would pour down on Judah from the north.

(4) Above all, God tells Jeremiah not to be afraid—a common divine word to God’s servants (e.g., Abraham, Gen. 15:1; Moses, Num. 21:34 and Deut. 3:2; Daniel, Dan. 10:12, 19; Mary, Luke 1:30; Paul, Acts 27:24). God does not sugar-coat the difficulties: Jeremiah will be opposed and will at times stand alone “against the whole land” (Jer. 1:18)—but they “will not overcome you,” God says, “for I am with you and will rescue you” (Jer. 1:19). Only such promises are sufficient to breed titanic prophetic courage.

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Joshua 6; Psalms 135-136; Isaiah 66; Matthew 14

Jul 03, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 6; Psalms 135-136; Isaiah 66; Matthew 14

ALTHOUGH ISAIAH 66 ENDS on a note of apocalyptic decisiveness and hope (Isa. 66:18-24), intermingled with a frankly missionary theme (Isa. 66:19), the beginning of the chapter provides one more warning. This warning (Isa. 66:1-6) captures our attention here.

The text envisages the time when the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. All along Isaiah has predicted that Jerusalem would be destroyed and with it, implicitly, the temple. He has also prophesied that a remnant would return to the city and begin to rebuild. Yet never should they forget that God cannot be reduced to the dimensions of a temple: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” (Isa. 66:1-2). Solomon understood this when he led Israel in prayer at the dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:27). Nevertheless it is a lesson soon forgotten as successive generations slip into a religious ecclesiasticism. Somehow they think they are good because they go through the prescribed religious motions. But God insists that offering a prescribed animal at the newly built temple when one’s heart is far from the Lord is no better than offering up the sacrifice of an unclean animal—indeed, it may be as repulsive to the Lord as sacrificing a human being, for the entire exercise becomes so awesomely God-defying (Isa. 66:3). These religious people finally descend to religious persecution of those who want to follow God’s word (Isa. 66:5). Once again the Lord threatens massive judgment (Isa. 66:4, 6).

What, then, will the Lord look for among the remnant that returns from exile? “This is the one I esteem,” God says: “he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2). A few verses later, Isaiah directly addresses the faithful as “you who tremble at his word” (Isa. 66:5). They are contrasted with those who do not answer or listen when the Lord calls and speaks (Isa. 66:4). None of this is new. One of the lessons the Israelites were to learn through their years of wilderness wandering was that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). This is of perennial importance—not only careful listening to every word that God has spoken, but listening characterized by humility, contrition, and godly fear (Isa. 66:2). In every generation, what ultimately distinguishes the true from the false among God’s people, the blessed from the cursed, is faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Word of God.

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