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

Aug 19, 2014 | Don Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 18, 2014 | Don Carson

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

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

Preliminary reflections include:

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 17, 2014 | Don Carson

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

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

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

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

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