Friday, April 8, 2011
Bell’s analysis of “forever” fails to properly distinguish between the words aion and aionios, which are different words with different meanings. The noun aion refers to an age that has a beginning and an end, while the adjective aionios refers to something that is forever and never-ending. Aion is frequently used in the NT to refer to this present age or world (cf. Luke 1:70; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18; 2 Cor 4:4; Gal 1:4; Eph 2:2; 6:12; 1 Tim 6:17;2 Tim 4:10) or to the ages of human history (cf. Eph 3:9; Col 1:26; Titus 2:12: Heb 1:2). While the basic meaning of aion may be “age,” the expressions eis ton aiona (singular) or eis tous aionas (plural) clearly signify something that lasts for as long as time endures (eternal). This idea is strengthened by the expression eis tous aionas ton aionon, which describes the endless future as a perpetual succession of shorter ages. Bell is certainly correct that the idea of eternity stands outside of time, but the concept of permanently enduring time is the only way to express what is eternal from our present perspective within time. The way in which Paul uses the expression “from the ages” (apo ton aionon) in Colossians 1:26 and Ephesians 3:9 to refer to God’s eternal purposes before time began (and we have a similar use of the adjective aionios in Rom 16:25) supports the idea that there can be unending ages that extend eternally into the future.
Both the noun aion and the adjective aionios are used to describe God’s eternal nature and existence. The writer of Hebrews uses the noun aion when declaring that Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today, and forever (eis ton aiona)” (Heb 13:8), making reference to past, present, and future. The adjective aionios is used to describe the “eternal” God (Rom 16:26), and the “eternal” Spirit (Heb 9:14). 1 Timothy 6:16 speaks of God’s “eternal” power, while also making reference to his immortality. Jesus Christ himself is the “eternal life” (1 Jn 1:2; 5:20), and the believer’s life is unending because it is in Christ and has Christ as its source (1 Jn 5:11). The noun aion is used to describe the duration of God’s eternal kingdom (Heb 1:8; Jude 25) and of the reign of Jesus as Messiah (Luke 1:33). It is also used to refer to the enduring glory, blessing, and honor that belongs to God, which must be eternal in light of his eternal nature (cf. Rom 1:25; 9:5; 2 Cor 11:31; Gal 1:5; Eph 3:21; Phil 4:20; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 13:21).
Both the noun aion and the adjective aionios are also used with reference to the everlasting life offered to those who are followers of Christ. The adjective aionios is used with this way in passages that include Matt 19:16; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 16:9; 18:30; John 3:15, 16, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2-3; Acts 13:46, 48; Rom 16:26; 2 Cor 5:1; Gal 6:8; 1 Thess 6:12; 1 Tim 6:19; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 3:7. In Romans 2:7 and 1 Timothy 1:16, aionios life is also connected to the word “immortality” (aphtarsian—the same term used to describe the “incorruptible” body of the glorified believer in 1 Cor 15:42, 50, 53 and the immortality of the believer in 2 Tim 1:10 due to the fact that Christ has “abolished death”). The never-ending nature of aionios life is clearly present in 2 Corinthians 4:18 where Paul contrasts the unseen things that are aiovios with the seen things of this world that are “temporary” or “transient” (proskairos). Paul then goes on to discuss in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 the eternal (aionios) body that the believer receives when the mortal and earthly body is destroyed by death.
When the noun aion is used as the measure of this life given to those who believe in Jesus, it is often specifically set in contrast to the type of life that is ended by death (John 6:51, 58; 8:51-52; 10:28; 11:26). In John 6, Jesus promises bread that is superior to the bread eaten by the fathers that did not prevent them from dying in the wilderness. In John 8, there is the promise that the followers of Jesus will not experience death, and this reality is set in contrast to the death of Abraham. In John 10:28 and 11:26, the promise of eternal life means that one will never die. In John 12:34, the crowd asks how the Messiah can die if he is to remain eis ton aiona. They clearly understood that a life lasting eis ton aiona has no ending.
Bell is right to emphasize that the believer presently enjoys everlasting life and that the new life in Christ has a distinctive quality in the here and now (John 10:10; 17:2-3). Traditional forms of evangelism in some Christian traditions have certainly overemphasized the idea of going to heaven when we die as the primary issue of salvation. However, “eternal life” in the New Testament refers to both a quality and quantity of life, and the aion words themselves specifically highlight the durative nature of the life given to the believer in Christ. Bell states that “heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future” (p. 58). No one would want to describe eternity in such a pedantic manner, but Bell’s understanding fails to reckon with the strong biblical emphasis on the unending nature of everlasting life. In contrast to Bell’s selective and one-sided explanation, Joachim Guhrt has provided a much more accurate and balanced understanding of the NT perspective on everlasting life:
John understands eternal life in relation to Christ through faith, love and in keeping the commands of Christ (Jn 3:15 f. , 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2 f.). The word 'eternal' here indicates a definite quality: it is a different life from the old existence typified by hate, lack of love, sin, pain and death. Eternal life does not therefore just begin in the future, it is already the possession of those who have entered upon fellowship with Christ. Thus, Jn. 3:15 speaks of having eternal life in the present. But there is also a temporal sense, so that eternal (aionios) indicates the quantity of this life: because it belongs to Christ, who himself is the Life (Jn. 14:6), it has no end. It will not even cease at death (Jn. 8:51; 11:25 5).
Bell argues that when the rich man asks Jesus what he must do to get “everlasting life,” he is asking how he could enter into kingdom living in this present life rather than inquiring about where he would go when he died. However, Bell is insisting that the rich man is asking about either this life or the next one when it seems rather obvious that he is asking about both this life and the next. Guhrt explains, “From the book of Daniel onwards ‘eternal life’ is an expression of the long-for eschatological blessings of salvation, life in the age to come (cf. Dan. 12:2).” This eternal life is associated with the resurrection from the dead and the coming kingdom of God (cf. Matt 25:34; 1 Cor 6:9-10), and there is a good bit of discussion in Second Temple Judaism as to what this afterlife was like. The NT speaks of this present age (Gal 1:4) and the age that is to come (cf. Eph 1:21; 2:7). We particularly see the never-ending nature of the age to come in passages where the adjective “everlasting” (aionios) is used to describe the coming future age (aion) (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30). The eternal nature of this future age contrasts with the present age that is passing away (1 Jn 2:17).
I would like to conclude this discussion by looking at the twelve uses of the expression “forever and ever” (eis tous aionas ton aionon) in the book of Revelation. In eight of its uses, the expression refers to God’s eternal existence (Rev 4:9, 10; 10:6), to the eternal glory and honor that God is worthy of (Rev 1:6; 5:13; 7:12), and to the unending duration of Christ’s kingdom rule (Rev 11:15). The same expression is used to refer to the eternal life and reign of the saints with Christ in Revelation 22:5 and to the torment of the wicked and Satan in the lake of fire in Revelation 14:11 and 20:10. It is also used metaphorically to refer to the smoke from the city of Babylon going up forever in Revelation 19:3, but there is no clear reason in light of overall biblical teaching why this metaphorical use of forever should be applied to persons in the lake of fire. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective aionios describes both the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the wicked, and Jesus presents these two ideas as parallel concepts. The aion words alone certainly do not resolve all of the issues regarding the nature of hell and eternal punishment, but the usage of these words in the NT is in line with traditional Christian teaching. Bell’s overemphasis on the this-worldly side of salvation and his suggestion of the possibility of a second chance beyond this life for those condemned to hell are both inconsistent with the NT concepts of eternal life and everlasting punishment as unending realities.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Despite these similarities, David L. Baker’s recent work Tight Fists or Open Hands: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law, also documents how the Mosaic Law is distinctively different from these other law codes in its views on wealth, property, and treatment of the poor. Regarding social and economic issues, Baker writes that the differences between the Mosaic Law and these other law codes “far outnumber the similarities.” Baker’s topic is quite relevant at a time when Christians are both reawakening to their social responsibilities and being told to flee from churches that promote social justice. Much of this confusion can be directly attributed to the church’s failure to develop a coherent theology of wealth and to absorb the ethic of the Old Testament law. In the concluding chapter of his book, Baker highlights these ten unique features and concerns of the Mosaic Law.
1.The penalties for infringing property rights in the Bible are much more humane than elsewhere, and never involve mutilation, beating, or death. The same rules apply to all as well, and punishment does not depend on the status of the thief or the victim.
See Exod 22:1-4; 23:9; Lev 19:15; 24:22
Compare with other ancient Near Eastern law codes that often punish various forms of theft or dishonest practices with death or mutilation of some form:
Middle Assyrian Law (§ A3) If a man is either ill or dead, and his wife should steal something from his house and give it either to a man, or to a woman, or to anyone else, they shall kill the man’s wife as well as the receivers
Middle Assyrian Law (§ A4) If … a slave … should receive something from a man’s wife, they shall cut off the slave’s … nose and ears; they shall restore the stolen goods, the man shall cut off his wife’s ears… (the punishment for a man who steal is much more lenient and generally consists of a beating and restitution).
Code of Hammurabi (§ 25) If a fire breaks out in a man’s house, and a man who came to help put it out covets the household furnishings belonging to the householder, and takes household furnishings belonging to the householder, that man shall be cast into that very fire.
Code of Hammurabi (§ 108) If a tapster should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts [only] silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of beer in relation to the value of grain, they shall charge and convict that tapster and they shall cast her into the water.
2.With regard to laws on owner liability for animals and buildings, Mesopotamian laws deal with the economic aspect and provide compensation for the victim’s family, while biblical law is concerned primarily with bloodguilt because of the inestimable value of human life.
See Exod 21:28-29
3.According to OT law, ancestral land is God’s gift to his chosen people and allocated equitably to each of them. Old Babylonian and Middle Assyrian law assert that the land belongs to the king.
See Leviticus 25:23-24
4.In the OT law, chattel slavery is limited to non-Israelites, and the laws provide significant protection for slaves. Fugitive slaves are to be given asylum, and slaves are entitled to holidays. In other ANE law codes, slaves are subject to property law, which focuses on the rights of the slave owners over their property.
See Exod 21:20-21, 26-27; Lev 25:44-46; Deut 23:15-16
5.There are several distinctive features of OT law concerning semi-slaves. Temporary slaves are given the option of becoming permanent members of the household at the end of their service. Bonded labor for a limited term was another way of paying off debts and was actually a realistic possibility because of the OT policy of interest-free loans. High interest rates in other cultures meant that the worker was only covering interest payments and would likely remain in lifelong bondage. Biblical law also provides a measure of protection to concubines that entitles them to some of the rights of a wife or daughter, and this kindness toward concubines contrasts with their utilitarian treatment in Mesopotamia.
See Exod 21:2-6; Deut 15:13-18; Exod 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14
6.The protection of vulnerable people is considered the divine will and a royal responsibility throughout the ANE. However, OT law is more concerned ensure that widows and orphans are not abused or exploited in law courts or financial dealings. They also benefit from the laws on gleaning, triennial tithes, and celebrations that promote generosity toward the needy. OT law also reflects a concern for ethnic minorities within the covenant community not found in other ANE law collections.
See Exod 22:22-24; Deut 24:17-18
7.Biblical law has distinctive emphases in relation to just lawsuits. The principle of impartiality may have been assumed elsewhere, but it is only explicitly stated in the OT.
See Exod 20:16; 22:21; 23:8-9; Lev 19:15, 33-34; 24:22; Deut 16:18-20; 17:16; 19:15; 24:17-18; 27:19
8.The idea that agricultural produce is God’s gift to his people, to be shared with all is another OT distinctive. This is reflected in specific ways in the laws of the sabbatical year, the triennial tithe, and ‘scrumping.’ The biblical laws on gleaning and scrumping have no parallel elsewhere. In other parts of the ANE, fallowing takes place for agricultural reasons, and tithes are paid to the temple or place, but neither of these practices is designed as social welfare.
See Exod 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-7, 18-25; 19:9-10; Deut 14:28-29; 24:19-22; 26:12-13
9.There is a significant contrast between the laws of the ANE and the OT on the subject of loans. Mesopotamian law is concerned with standardizing rates of interest, whereas Israelite law forbids interest on loans to fellow-members of the covenant community, especially the poor. While all the laws assume the principle of security for loans, the OT is more concerned with the needs of the poor who borrow than the rights of the rich who lend. A pledge is allowed as long as it does not cause hardship to the borrower, but since the poor are unlikely to have very little that they do not need, the law virtually eliminates security in practice. The OT laws do not even contemplate the possibility of the surrender of a family member or ancestral land as a pledge, practices which are common in other ANE laws.
See Exod 22:25; Lev 25:35-38; Deut 15:7-8; 23:19-20
10.The OT laws on terms and conditions for employment are unparalleled in the other law collection. The concept of Sabbath is unique in the ANE, especially in its emphasis that regular rest and recreation is a fundamental right for all—including slaves, resident aliens, and even livestock. The same emphasis is also reflected with several other biblical festivals. No other ANE law specifically legislates for holidays. The laws on wages in other ANE law codes are designed primarily to protect the rights of employers; biblical laws are more concerned with the right of employees to prompt payment for their work.
See Exod 20:8-11; 23:12; Lev 19:19; Deut 5:12-15; Deut 12:12, 18; 16:14; 24:14-15
Recognizing these distinctive features enhances our appreciation and respect for the Mosaic Law as sacred Scripture. It also serves as a reminder that Christian pastors have a responsibility to give a greater place to the teaching of the Mosaic Law in our pulpits. Remembering that the God of the Old Testament commanded his people “to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in the land” (Deut 15:11) will do much to correct our blindness toward our social responsibilities and to motivate us to practice the pure religion of looking after those in need (James 1:27).
Friday, July 2, 2010
Yahweh is Holy and Israel is Not
Isaiah sees a vision of Yahweh as the thrice-holy God, and this image leaves a deep impression on his entire ministry. The title “Holy One of Israel” becomes one of the prophet’s favorite designations for God (this title appears 26 times in Isaiah and only 5 times in the rest of the OT). Yahweh is holy, but the problem is that Israel, his people are not. In the presence of this holy God, Isaiah becomes aware of his own sinfulness—he is a man of unclean lips. Being in the presence of a holy God as a sinful human is a dangerous thing, and Isaiah sees himself under a sentence of death (“Woe is me”). Rather than God’s presence providing comfort, the smoke and thunder bring terror—on an everyday visit to the Jerusalem Temple, the God of Sinai revealed himself in a powerful and frightening theophany. Even the “seraphim” (lit. “burning ones”) who serve in Yahweh’s presence inspire terror (the word is used elsewhere in the OT to refer to poisonous snakes; see Num 21:6; Deut 8:15; Isa 14:29; 30:6).
Israel is also a sinful people, and their empty worship makes it dangerous for them to enter into Yahweh’s presence (Isa 1:15-18). Yahweh hates their empty prayers and rituals. They are rebellious children who have spurned the Holy One of Israel (Isa 1:2-4). They are a worthless vineyard that has failed to produce the fruit that Yahweh has desired and demanded from them (Isa 5:1-7). Like Isaiah, they are particularly corrupted in their speech, “a people of unclean lips.” Rather than proclaiming God’s holiness, they declare their own sinfulness:
For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence. For the look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves. (Isa 3:8-9)
With their words, they defy God to punish them for their sinful behavior:
Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: "Let him be quick, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!" Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isa 5:18-20)
The Cleansing of Isaiah and the Purging of Israel
Isaiah’s unclean lips render him unfit to speak as Yahweh’s messenger, and so a seraph must come with a burning coal to purge and cauterize his lips so that he can respond to Yahweh’s call (Isa 6:6-8). It is only after his cleansing that Isaiah can say, “Here am I! Send me.” Israel was commissioned as a nation to be God’s servant (Isa 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4; 48:20), but its sins also prevented the nation from fulfilling its mission of declaring and reflecting God’s glory to the nations—Israel became a deaf and blind servant (Isa 42:18-22). Because of their sin, Israel cannot be God’s witnesses or declare his praise (cf. Isa 43:10, 21-22) and like Isaiah stands in need of cleansing so that it can fulfill its role as God’s servant. Isaiah immediately recognized his sinfulness while in the presence of Yahweh and instantly received cleansing and purging from Yahweh. Israel’s cleansing will not come so easily because the nation is blind and deaf toward the prophet’s calls to repentance and warnings of judgment (Isa 6:9-10). Yahweh can only cleanse his people through a severe judgment that purges away their dross and corruption (Isa 1:25-31). Israel’s obstinance is such that its judgment requires that its cities be left waste and without inhabitant (Isa 6:11-13).
The purging of Israel in the book of Isaiah is reflected through the transformation of Zion, with the city representing the nation as a whole. Barry Webb has stated that Zion’s transformation “is the key to both the formal and thematic structure of the book of Isaiah.” The Zion of Isaiah’s day had become a city of bloodshed, but Yahweh’s judgment would one day transform the city into a shining beacon of righteousness (Isa 1:21-26). The city that was left like “a hut in a melon field” (Isa 1:8) would one day be exalted as the highest mountain on earth (Isa 2:1-4). Because of God’s grace, the unfaithful harlot (Isa 1:21) would become a pure and holy bride (Isa 62:4). Yahweh would take back Daughter Zion, the wife he sent away with a certificate of divorce, and the barren city would be so filled with inhabitants that her walls could not contain them (Isa 49:14-18; 50:1; 54:1-8; 62:5; 66:6-11).
In the first stage of judgment, God sent the Assyrians as the rod of his anger (Isa 10:5), and Israel as a people was left bloodied and bruised with most of its cities burned with fire (Isa 1:5-8). Israel was left with only a few survivors (Isa 1:9), and even the tenth that remained would be subjected to a further burning (Isa 6:13). When King Hezekiah turned to the Lord for deliverance, Yahweh delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians (Isa 36-37), but the purging was incomplete. Once the crisis was past, Judah returned to its sinful ways and refuseed to acknowledge Yahweh as its deliverer (Isa 22:1-14—esp. vv. 12-14). And so, the judgment that began with the invasion Assyrian invasion would continue with the exile to Babylon (Isa 39:5-7). Yahweh sent the Babylonian exile as a double punishment for Israel’s sins (Isa 40:2). As the exile came to an end, Yahweh was prepared to blot out Israel’s sin (Isa 43:25) and to wipe them out like a cloud (Isa 44:22). The goal of Yahweh’s judgment of his people all along was restoration, not destruction. With his judgment completed, he would act to remove the blindness that has characterized his failed servant (cf. Isa 29:9-10, 18; 35:5; 42:18-20; 48:8).
Because of Israel’s failure and inability to perform its role as the national servant, Yahweh ultimately completed the work of purging by raising up an individual servant. The individual servant was identified with Israel (49:3) and yet also had a ministry of restoring Israel to all that God intended her to be (Isa 49:6). While Israel was guilty before God and suffering for its own sins (Isa 48:4, 18; 50:1), the individual servant was absolutely faithful to God (Isa 50:4-9) and his suffering on behalf of the sins of others was ultimately what would restore Israel to God (Isa 53:4-6, 10-12). The restorative function of the individual servant’s work is reflected in that every use of the term “servant” after chapter 53 appears in the plural (Isa 54:17; 63:17; 65:8, 9, 13, 14, 15; 66:14). Because of the servant’s work, the Lord’s continual protection and blessing would be the “heritage” of Israel as his “servants” (Isa 54:17).
Like the prophet, the people of Israel would experience restoration and forgiveness when they were willing to acknowledge and confess their sins (Isa 59:12-14; 64:5-9). The people would ultimately come to the same recognition as the prophet on the day that he saw Yahweh in his glory, “We have all become like one who is unclean” (Isa 64:6). The seraph purged Isaiah’s lips, and Yahweh would also act in grace to remove sin from Israel. Yahweh promised that he would heal Israel’s sin (Isa 57:17-18) and when Israel lacked even the ability to return to him, Yahweh would act alone as warrior to rescue his people from their sin (Isa 59:15-20). Yahweh would complete his work of salvation by pouring out his Spirit on Israel so that the people would not return to their sinful ways (Isa 59:21).
Unfortunately, the blessings of Yahweh’s deliverance and the work of the servant would not extend to all of Israel. When returning from exile, Israel would persist in its sins of social injustice (Isa 58:1-14; 59:3-9, 14-15) and pagan worship (Isa 57:3-8; 65:1-7; 66:17) The prophet distinguished between those in Israel who would be Yahweh’s “servants” and those that would persist in their sinful ways and remain under his judgment. For those who disobey, being in the presence of Yahweh would remain a dangerous thing (Isa 66:1-4). Prior to the coming of the eschatological kingdom (“new heavens and earth”), the Lord will carry out a final purging judgment of Israel so that only those who are truly his “servants” will remain (65:8-16; 66: 15-16, 24).
The Proclaiming of Yahweh’s Glory to the Nations
In his initial vision, Isaiah saw that the glory of Yahweh filled the earth (Isa 6:3), and the agenda of his ministry became that Israel and ultimately all peoples would recognize the glory of Yahweh. More than any other book in the Old Testament, the book of Isaiah highlights the participation of the nations in God’s future kingdom, because the blessings of God’s glory were too great to belong to Israel alone.
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isa 2:2-4)
In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them. In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance." (Isa 19:19-25)
"Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.' (Isa 45:22-23)
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isa 60:1-3)
As the restored servant of Yahweh, Israel would become a light to the nations (Isa 49:6), and the book of Isaiah concludes with the survivors of Israel going out to the nations to “declare the glory of the Lord” so that the nations might come to Zion and worship (Isa 66:18-21):
For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.
What God did for Isaiah in his call as prophet is ultimately what he would do for all of Israel. The cleansing of Isaiah so that he might fulfill his mission as Yahweh’s spokesman prefigured how Yahweh would cleans Israel through purging judgment so that Israel might fulfill its role as Yahweh’s servant by proclaiming his glory throughout the earth.
Monday, June 28, 2010
1. The chaste bride and wife of the Lord (Rev 21:2, 9) vs. the great harlot (Rev 17:2)
2. Nations walking by her light (Rev 21:24) vs. the corruption and deception of the nations (Rev 17:2; 18:3, 23; 19:2)
3. Glory of nations brought to her (Rev 21:26) vs. luxurious wealth extorted from the nations (Rev 18:12-17)
4. Uncleanness, abomination, and falsehood excluded (Rev 21:27) vs. impurities, abominations, and deception as prominent features (Rev 17:4-5; 18:23).
5. The association with life and healing (Rev 22:1-2) vs. the association with the blood of slaughter (Rev 17:6; 18:24)
6. The water of life and tree of life for the healing of the nations (Rev 21:6; 22:1-2) vs. the wine which makes the nations drunk (Rev 14:8; 17;2; 18:3)
7. The call to enter (Rev 22:14) vs. the call to leave and come out (Rev 18:4)
As Alexander explains, Babylon represents the world in rebellion against God. In the Old Testament, Babylon is the locale where humans unite in their defiance against God by building a city and tower (Gen 11:1-9).
Babylon is the prime example of a tyrannical empire that opposes God and oppresses the people of God (Ps 137; Isa 13-14; Jer 50-51):
“Whereas the New Jerusalem lies in the future and will be a city built by God, Babylon already exists. It is here and now, for it is the great human city built by people who live in defiance of God. As we shall see, the book of Revlation presents us with an important choice. We have to choose between being a citizen of this world’s godless Babylon or a citizen of God’s future New Jerusalem.”
“The Babylon of Revelation is often taken to be a cipher for Rome, the greatest ‘city’ in the first century AD. There is no doubt that Rome is included within the image of Babylon. However, Babylon as a symbol should not be restricted to the capital of the Roman Empire, because it represents and embodies what human beings strive after when separated from God, Babylon is the antithesis of the city that God himself desires to construct upon the earth.” (p. 181)
“In Revelation, the city of Babylon symbolizes humanity’s obsession with wealth and power, which become a substitute for knowing God. History witnesses to the ongoing existence of Babylon, as one nation after another has used its power to grow rich at the expense of others. We live in a world where economic power dominates national and international politics.” (pp. 182-83)
James L . Resseguie, in his recent The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, also recognizes the contrast between Babylon and the new Jerusalem and provides a similar understanding of what Babylon symbolizes and represents in Revelation (p. 35):
"Two cities . . . are symbolic: Babylon and the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem is the ideal city, the city of God, the new promised land (21:1-22:5). The other symbolic city, Babylon, is the satanic parody of Jerusalem. Babylon looks like Rome with its seven mountains (17:9); claims to divinity (‘blasphemous names,” 17:3) are plastered over its throne, the scarlet beast. Yet Babylon is more than the imperial city. It is ‘Babylon,’ the ancient city of Israel’s exile and alienation (see Ps 137). It is ‘Sodom,” a symbol of wickedness (Rev 11:8; cf. Gen 19:1-25; Deut 29:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-15; 3:9; Jer 23:14-15), and ‘Egypt’,’ the place of slavery and alienation (Rev 11:8; cf. Exod 5:1-21; Joel 3:19). It is the tower of Babel rising to the heavens staking a claim to be God. Babylon is the archetypal city of this world that seeks to deify itself and to rule supreme. Rome fits the bill--and so does any and every place that makes claims that belong to God alone."
"Babylon and Jerusalem represent the two choices of the Apocalypse. Babylon, the city of this world, the place of exile and alienation for Christians, is the spiritual capital for those who are earthbound, whose point of view is from below (that is, from this world). The earthbound includes not only those outside the church but also those within. Babylon is where the 'inhabitants of the world' dwell and the followers of the beast make their home. Yet Babylon is not only the home of the earth's inhabitants; it is also where Christians live, although it cannot be called their home. In John's world, Christians are exiled to Babylon. Thus, John calls Christians to come out of Babylon in 18:4 and not take part in her sins. Although it is impossible to leave Babylon physically, Christians can leave Babylon figuratively by resisting its norms, values, and believes and by following the Lamb to the new promised land, the new Jersualem.”
We also see a contrast between two cities in Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse (Isa 24-27), a section portraying God’s eschatological judgment of the nations and salvation of his people. The inhabitants of Jerusalem will rejoice in God’s deliverance (Isa 26:1-3; 27:13), and peoples from all nations will gather for a banquet in celebration of the removal of death itself (Isa 25:6-10). In contrast to Jerusalem is the desolate city of the proud that has become a heap and a ruin because of God’s devastating judgment (Isa 24:10-12; 25:1-2, 12; 27:10). Rather than indicating a specific place here, the city stands for the whole world and represents all of the cities of the earth that stand in opposition to God and his rule over them. John Oswalt explains the significance of the city imagery: “The city offers wealth, glamour, excitement, pleasure, intrigue, and power—all the things that humans are prone to sell their souls for. But as mighty and alluring as the city of earth is, a day of harvest is coming when all the fruit will be stripped off and nothing will be left of all the riches that earthlings thought were their own.”
Similarly, the end-time empire in Revelation 17-18 encompasses something much larger than a geographical location and reminds us that the nations of the world are in rebellion against God. Like Rome in the first-century, nations today embody the spirit of Babylon. The danger of restricting “Babylon the Great” to a particular geographical location is that it leads us to ignore the ways in which our nation and culture reflect Babylonian beliefs and values that are contrary to God’s kingdom agenda. One of the prominent features of Babylon the Great is its great wealth (Rev 17:4; 18:11-13), and so the American dream of prosperity and success is the modern reflection of an ancient idolatry. Rather than satisfying our curiosity about end-times events, biblical prophecy is designed to change the way we believe and behave. Rather than giving us a geography lesson, the end-time scenario of the book of Revelation is another reminder to “seek first the kingdom of God” and to “flee Babylon” by refusing to buy into the lies of the prevailing culture around us.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
In exploring how we preach Christ-centered sermons from the OT, Bryan Chappell has explained that the OT points to Christ in four specific ways. First, the OT predicts about Christ (we could look at OT messianic prophecies, messianic psalms, etc). Second, the OT prepares for Christ. OT persons, events, and individuals provide a bridge to Christ (the sacrifices pointing to the need for an ultimate payment for sin and the temple system pointing to God’s ultimate presence with his people in the person of Jesus). The OT also points to dead-ends where Christ becomes the solution and ultimate answer (the failed leadership of Israel; Israel’s inability to keep the law and its other covenantal failures). Third, the OT is a reflection of Christ—God’s calls for love, justice, and his holiness find their perfect reflection in Christ. God’s redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt or the deliverance of Israel form the Babylonian exile reflect God’s deliverance of his people from sin in Christ. Fourth, the OT points to the results of Christ’s coming and work (the salvation portrayals and announcements of the OT in passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and 4:2-5 would fit into this category—and thus are not just things that will be true in the future kingdom but are also things that have at least become partial realities in the present in light of the first coming of Christ).
Preaching and teaching Christ from the prophets is more than just throwing in a correlating NT passage as a footnote to your lesson. Many times in the prophets, the text will present a problem; our job is not just to diagnose how that problem infects our lives, churches, or culture but also to show how Christ is the answer to that problem. For example, Isaiah 5:8-30 documents the problems of Judah’s oppression, selfishness, pursuit of pleasure—teaching this passage requires more than just showing how we struggle with these same sins in the present; Christian preaching and teaching must also show how the cross and knowing Christ provide the antidote to this type of living. If we fail to do this, we really are doing nothing more than moralizing about the text. We’re like a doctor who diagnoses a disease but then offers to healing prescription for the malady. We are preaching the law but offering no grace.
Chappell made the point in his message that the only reason sin has any power in our lives is that we love it. Our job as Christian teachers and preachers then is to help people love Christ more than they love sin and to point to the grace of Christ that helps them to break sinful patterns in our lives. The people of the OT followed idols and so do we because we love those things more than we love the Lord. It’s easy to simply use the prophets to catalog and condemn the idols in our lives; the real task is to show people how much Christ has loved them and to produce love for Christ that will ultimately transform the human heart.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
My previous blog dealt with the historicity of the biblical account of the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. We saw that there are credible reasons for looking at 1-2 Kings in the OT as reliable history. In this blog, I'd like to look at another feature of the stories of Solomon in 1 Kings. They are not only reliable history but also highly creative and artistic literature. Robert Chisholm (Interpreting the Historical Books) has observed that rather than "a dry record of bare facts about what happened in the past," the OT historical books contain "exciting and fascinating stories" of a highly literary nature that "read more like a historical novel complete with plot structure and character development" (p. 21). These stories "are historically accthat co urate," but also we should also recognize that they possess "an aesthetic, literary dimension that contributes to their theological development and purpose" (p. 26). The Bible is about real people and real events, but the artistry of biblical narrative rivals the best forms of historical fiction.
The story of Solomon in 1 Kings 1-11 reflects the creativity of biblical narrative. The writer extols the great accomplishments of Solomon but at the same time undermines praise of Solomon with subtle indicators that Solomon's accomplishments weren't so great after all. We could say that the narrator his damning Solomon with lavish praise. An excellent study by J. Daniel Hays ("Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11") brings out these aspects of the story. The story of Solomon highlights his successes in chapters 1-10 and relegates the story of his failure and apostasy to chapter 11, but there are numerous ways that the narrator suggests that even Solomon's successes foreshadow his failures. In a sense, the time of Solomon's reign was the best of times for Israel, the time when Israel was closest to being a true empire, but those best of times were also the worst of times. Solomon was truly a "great" king, but mostly he was "great" at not following the Lord.
It is certainly significant that Solomon's greatest accomplishments involve the accumulation of wealth (1 Kgs 10:14), horses and chariots (1 Kgs 10:26), and women (1 Kgs 11:1), the three things specifically forbidden of the Israelite king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon makes 59 specific references to the book of Deuteronomy. He obviously knew its teachings very well, but he ignored the central thing that Deuteronomy had to say to him as Israel's ruler. Solomon was a wise man who collected proverbs and songs, but he was also a foolish man who collected wives and concubines.
There is something troubling about Solomon's rule from the very beginning. Unlike with Saul and David, there is no indication that the Lord specifically chose Solomon to be the ruler over Israel. David, Nathan, Zadok, Bathsheba, Benaiah, Adonijah, Joab, Abiathar, Abishag are all involved in the intrigues and politics of violence and sex that ultimately place Solomon on the throne, but the missing character in all of this is Yahweh himself. The prophet Nathan speaks but not on behalf of Yahweh. The Lord is obviously involved in the process that leads to Solomon's accession to the throne, but it is never explicitly stated that Yahweh chose him for the job.
Nothing could be more positive that Solomon recognition of his need for God's help at the beginning of his reign (1 Kings 3:1-15), and it is certainly praiseworthy that he chooses the attribute of wisdom over riches and wealth. In requesting wisdom from God, Solomon literally requests that God give him a "hearing heart" (Heb. leb + shema`) so that he might know the difference between "good" (Heb. tob) and "evil" (Heb. ra`) (1 Kgs 3:9). This request is exactly what the king should ask for, but the larger story of Solomon seems to stress that Solomon's commitment to this quality was rather half-hearted. The story begins with Solomon "loving" Yahweh (1 Kgs 3:1), but it ends with him "loving" foreign women (1 Kgs 11:1). The word "heart" appears three times in 1 Kings 11:4 to speak of Solomon's defection away from the Lord, and Solomon fails by doing what is "evil" (ra`) in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kgs 11:6). Solomon's prayer at first blush appears to be an act of great piety, but in fact, Yahweh's answer to this prayer highlights more the culpability of Solomon's failure and apostasy. God gave Solomon everything he needed to be a great ruler, but Solomon was ultimately more interested in other things, the trappings of wealth and power that he appears to eschew at the beginning of his reign. Solomon's apostasy was more a gradual decline than the moral equivalent of falling off a cliff.
Solomon's resolution of the dispute between the two women over who was the mother of the living child in 1 Kings 3:16-28 is a prime example of Solomon's wisdom and his concern for justice. However, there is something wrong about the fact that both of these women are prostitutes. Prostitution was an "abomination" in God's eyes (cf. Deut 23:18), and yet these women brazenly enter the king's presence without fear of retribution. It suggests something of the moral decay that becomes evident in Solomon's own life. The metaphorical use of prostitution (Hebrew zanah) elsewhere in the OT also suggests that this scene foreshadows the religious apostasy that Solomon himself will later create because of his worship of foreign gods.
1 Kings 4-5 narrates Solomon's administrative and organizational accomplishments in which he establishes a powerful royal bureaucracy, but the irony is that Solomon has become precisely the type of king that Samuel had warned the people about when they had first asked for a king in 1 Samuel 8. Solomon establishes an empire, but conscripts large numbers of the people into his army and work forces. The royal bureaucracy demands exorbitant provisions of food that must come from the land and labor of the people (1 Kgs 4:7, 23). Even though the people enjoy food, drink, and security (1 Kgs 4:20, 25), it comes at the cost of heavy taxation (1 Kgs 4:22-23; 1 Kgs 4:27-28).
Solomon's great accomplishment was building the temple, but even that accomplishment is tainted. There is no mention that Solomon ever pays the workers who labored to construct the Temple, in contrast to Josiah's later action when he commissions repairs on the temple (see 2 Kgs 22:3-7). The reference to the exodus in 1 Kings 6:1 in the context of forced labor makes Solomon appear like the Pharaoh in oppressing the Israelites to build this great house of worship for the Lord. The Temple is an impressive structure, and Solomon seems to exult in the fact that he is the one who has built the temple (cf. 1 Kgs 8:13, 20, 27, 43-44, 48). Solomon takes seven years to build the Temple, but 13 years to build his own house (1 Kgs 6:38-7:1). Throughout the rest of Kings, Solomon's great Temple is going to be systematically dismantled because of the apostasy of king and people (see 1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Kgs 16:17; 2 Kgs 18:16; 2 Kgs 25:9, 13-17).
The visit of the Queen of Sheba to recognize and honor Solomon perhaps represents the pinnacle of Solomon's international acclaim. This scene represents in some sense what God designed for Israel when he chose them to be a "holy nation" and "kingdom of priests." Israel was to mediate God's blessing to all other nations, and God designed that the nations would come to inquire of Israel concerning their God when they saw the great blessing that God bestowed on Israel for obedience to his covenant commands. However, when the Queen of Sheba sees the splendor of Solomon's palace, she comments only about the happiness that his reign brings upon those who live in the palace with him (1 Kgs 10:8). Her ironic comment about "justice and righteousness" in 1 Kings 10:9 perhaps implies that those qualities have disappeared from Israel during Solomon's reign.
Helping people to see the artistry of biblical narratives is one of the ways that we can help the Old Testament to come alive for modern audience. Biblical illiteracy is one of the serious problems in our churches today, and even people who know these stories may have never deeply reflected on their meaning and significance for their lives. The artistry of biblical stories ultimately point us to their theological message and their relevance for Christian living today. Even before Solomon's great apostasy in chapter 11, there are evidences of moral failure and spiritual neglect. And Solomon's life continues to remind us of the great differences that often exist between human achievement and success in the eyes of God.
If you would like to see further development of these features of the story of Solomon, please see J. Daniel Hays, "Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2003): 149-174.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
I read an interesting discussion of the story of the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10) this week in Jens Braun Kofoed's 2005 work Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text. Kofoed notes some of the rather fanciful legends that exist about the Queen of Sheba in Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia, and Israel. Arabian folklore and the Qur'an relate stories about the queen (named Bilquis or Balkis) that involve magic carpets, talking birds, and the magical transfer of the queen's throne from Sheba to Solomon's palace. In one legend, a hoopoe bird tells Solomon about Balkis and then delivers a message to the queen that Solomon will destroy her people if she does not come to visit him. In another, the queen has a foot shaped like an ass's foot that is transformed into a human foot the moment she stepped on Solomon's glass floor. Solomon invents a depilatory that removes goat hair from the queen's legs in another tale. A Jewish legend recounts that the queen sent Solomon six thousand boys and girls all born the same hour, the same day, the same month and same year, all of equal size and dressed in identical purple garments. Islamic legends portray the queen as marrying Solomon, abandoning her gods, and converting to faith in the God of Israel. In the Ethiopic national epic, Kebra Negast, the queen's name is Makeda. She became queen at the age of 15 and later travels to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. While she is there, Solomon dazzles her with his wisdom and also tricks her into having sexual relations. The queen conceives and gives birth to a son named Menelik. When he is old enough, Menelik travels to Jerusalem to meet his father. Solomon commanded that the firstborn sons of the priests and elders of Israel accompany Menelik on his journey back home. However, Menelik and Azariah, the son of the high priest, stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and took it with them on the trip, making Aksum the New Jerusalem and Ethiopia the New Israel. You can read more about these legends and tales about the Queen of Sheba at http://www.windweaver.com/sheba/Shebahome.htm
It was common for scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries to also dismiss the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon as legendary propaganda designed to praise the greatness of Solomon's wisdom and piety. However, extra-biblical evidence has actually served to enhance at the very least the historical plausibility of this story. Though many of the legends connect this queen to ancient Ethiopia, she more likely resided in the country of Saba, in southwest Arabia (present-day Yemen). Studies by Kenneth Kitchen have demonstrated that the kingdom of Saba was well-established by the tenth-century B.C. and engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. The "incense route" extended from Saba to the Levant and across to Mesopotamia. The inscriptions of Ashurbanipal II and Tikulti-Ninurta II from the 9th century BC refer to these Assyrian kings collected tribute at Hindanu, a main outlet along this caravan road, and an 8th century record documents how a caravan with at least two hundred camels coming from Saba was plundered at this site. Kofoed concludes: "It is highly likely, therefore, that by 1000 B.C.E. camel caravans occasionally traveled the 1,400 miles up the 'Incense Road' and along the Red Sea to Israel, bringing with them the highly prized goods of Saba." All of this adds credibility to the biblical account that a queen from Saba could and would have visited Solomon for diplomatic purposes in this time period.
Even more significantly, the final form of Kings was not written until at least the middle of the exile in the 6th century (note the last event recorded in 2 Kings 25:27-30), and Kofoed notes that many scholars believe that the author of Kings wrote in the Hellenistic or Persian times. If so, it is all the more remarkable that the writer(s) of the material in Kings got it right when they placed trade relations between Saba and Israel in the 10th century. It was either "just a lucky stab" or more likely that the biblical writers had access to reliable historical sources and traditions from the time of Solomon's reign. Kofoed notes other places where the writer of Kings got it right in regard to specific details about historical events that are confirmed by outside sources like the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions and the Babylonian Chronicle. This evidence that the writer of Kings used reliable sources in compiling his history means that "a basic trust in his historical information, therefore, is heuristically defensible and commendable—not only when we can check the information elsewhere, but generally." The minimalists have tended to view the biblical portrayal of the Davidic-Solomonic empire as a literary fiction, but here is another example of how solid and credible evidence does not require or support that conclusion.