Sunday, September 27, 2009

The New Temple in the OT Prophets: Literal or Figurative

The restoration of Jerusalem and the temple as the center of worship for all peoples is a central feature of the eschatological vision of the Old Testament prophets.

Isaiah 2:2-4 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.

Isaiah 56:6-7 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant -these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

Zechariah 8:20-23 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, 'Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the LORD and to seek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.' Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'"

Zechariah 14:16-19 Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

Ezekiel 40-48 offers an extended vision of the future temple, but interpreters continue to debate whether the passage should be interpreted literally or figuratively. In his commentary on Ezekiel in the NICOT, Daniel Block adopts an idealized view of the vision that sees Ezekiel’s temple pointing to the restored relationship between the Lord and his people and the fact that Yahweh will take up permanent residence among his people rather than the building of a physical temple. In support of this interpretation, Block points to symbolic, ideal, and non-literal elements in the description of the temple and the nation of Israel in Ezek 40-48:

1. the dimensions of the temple and the temple mount in 42:15-20 are roughly equivalent to the ancient city of Jerusalem from the second temple period.

2. the city forms a perfect square with three gates on each side for the entrance of the 12 tribes (48:16)

3. the emphasis on the twelve tribes reverses the loss of the tribes in history

4. the territorial allotments for the Israelite tribes run in straight lines from east to west without consideration of the geographical peculiarities of the land

5. the dimensions of the city are given with recurring multiples of five and twenty-five

6. the only recorded dimensions are horizontal

7. the water flowing out from the temple in ch. 47 becomes deeper as it flows out of Jerusalem without tributaries, and the fresh water of this river transforms the salinity of the Dead Sea.

Block concludes: “All in all Ezekiel’s scheme appears highly contrived, casting doubt on any interpretation that expects a literal fulfillment of his plan.” (p. 502)

There is no question that there are idealized elements in Ezekiel 40-48 and that Ezekiel’s prophecy envisions far more than the building of a physical temple. However, Richard Hess’ recent essay, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium” (in A Case for Historical Premillennialism), in my opinion provides a more compelling argument for the view that Ezekiel is prophesying a literal future temple. He makes four key points:

1. Prophets appeared in the ancient Near East outside of Israel, and their prophecies clearly refer to specific events and literal persons and places. For example, the neo-Assyrian prophets speak of the future destruction of the Elamites, an enemy nation. There is no doubt that the people who spoke and heard them would have expected a literal fulfillment.

2. The description of the temple in Ezek 40-43 is quite detailed and calls to mind other passages in the OT that describe the construction of an actual sanctuary. There is the tabernacle description and construction in Exodus 25-40, and similar passages dealing with Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 6-8 and 2 Chronicles 2-7. Hess notes, “Indeed, of all the temple descriptions in the OT, Ezekiel’s description is the most detailed in terms of measurements and specifics of the rooms.” Since these other passages deal with real buildings, we would expect the same in Ezek 40-43.

3. The book of Ezekiel is built around Ezekiel’s 3 visions of God, and the vision of 40-48 provides the mirror image of the vision found in Ezek 8-11. In Ezek 8-11, the glory of the Lord departs Jerusalem because of the sin and idolatry of the people. The prophet Ezekiel, who was in Babylon, clearly wishes to convey that he saw a vision of the real temple in its last days before its destruction by the Babylonians. If this first vision is realistic, then it seems most likely that the vision of the new temple and the glory of the Lord returning to Jerusalem (Ezek 43:1-9) should be read in the same way.

4. Various specifics of temple architecture found only in Ezek 40ff are found in the Persian-period temple on Mount Gerazim, in Josephus’ description of the second temple, in the area of the Herodian temple mount, and in the future temple envisioned in various writings of the DSS. Throughout the Second Temple period, there was an understanding among the Samaritans, mainstream Jews, and the Qumran community that the Ezekiel prophecy referred to an actual physical temple.

If a literal temple is in view, then the question arises as to when this prophecy was fulfilled. Was it the second temple built by Zerubbabel in the post-exilic period that was expanded and remodeled by Herod at the beginning of the NT era? Hess correctly observes that this temple could hardly match what is envisioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy: “It is clear that the pure and magnificent temple of Ezekiel was not fulfilled by the construction of the second temple, whether we consider the one constructed immediately after the return from exile or the one that Herod the Great began building and that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Herod built a temple that could perhaps be compared to the one in Ezekiel in terms of its splendor but hardly in terms of its purity” (p. 34) Additionally, the Book of Revelation clarifies that there will not be a temple in the New Jerusalem because God and the Lamb will be the temple in that eternal city (Rev 21:22). Taken together, these details suggest that the construction of the temple envisioned by Ezekiel “must take place sometime in the future before the appearance of the new heavens and the new earth” (p. 34). This future time best fits with the millennial era when the kingdom of God comes to earth in fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament prophets (cf. Rev 20:1-10).

The various issues associated with the fulfillment of the temple promise in the prophets will be addressed in future blogs, but we will begin with the starting point that Ezekiel’s prophecy most naturally infers that a literal future temple is part of God’s plan for the eschatological future. When Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his earthly ministry, he reminded the people of the words of Isaiah 56:7—“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’” (Mark 11:17). Jesus had announced that the kingdom of God promised by the Old Testament prophets had arrived in its inaugural form (Mark 1:14-15). In quoting Isaiah 56:7, Jesus endorsed the idea of the temple playing a vital role in the eschatological kingdom as a place of worship for all nations. However, Jesus denounced the present temple and warned of its impending destruction, because even though the kingdom had broken into human history through his coming as Messiah, the temple was not fulfilling its divinely-appointed function.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Literary Features in Jonah (Jonah 1:1-6)

I’m teaching Hebrew syntax/exegesis this semester, and our class is working through the books of Jonah and Ruth. I will be making some brief posts on features of the Hebrew text of the passages we work through in class (primarily literary and rhetorical features). Many of these comments are not original to me but are things that I have particularly gleaned from Robert Chisholm’s A Workbook for Intermediate Hebrew and Phyllis Trible’s Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah. I find that paying attention to these types of literary features from the original languages has two major benefits for teaching the biblical text. First, these literary features often provide clues regarding the key theological emphases of the text. Second, an understanding of the poetics of the biblical text helps us to be more creative and vivid in our own retelling of the passage.

Verse 2:
The two imperatives “get up” (קומ) (qum) “go” (לך) (lek) joined without the conjunction convey the urgency and seriousness of the Lord’s command to Jonah. Prophets do not have the option of accepting or rejecting the Lord’s call to deliver his word. In other passages where the Lord commands a prophet to “get up and go,” the prophet’s compliance simply mirrors the Lord’s command (“he got up and went”; cf. Num 22:20-21; 1 Kgs 17:9). Jonah “gets up” (קומ) (qum), not to obey but rather to flee away from what God is commanding him to do. As Chisholm states, “Jonah is the anti-prophet.”

Verse 3:
Repetition often highlights what is important to the biblical writer. The place name “Tarshish” appears 3 times—it is in exactly the opposite direction of where the Lord is commanding Jonah to go. The phrase “from the presence of the Lord” also appears twice in this verse. Here’s Jonah’s real motivation—he believes that getting on a ship and going to Tarshish will help him to escape the Lord’s presence. The book of Jonah is characterized by Jonah making theologically precise confessions that he completely ignores in the way that he acts. In verse 9, Jonah confesses that he worships the Lord, who made the sea and the dry land—if that’s the case, then how does he think he can escape from God’s presence by getting on a ship?

The verb yarad (ירד) (“to go down”) is also prominent in Jonah 1. Jonah “went down” to Joppa and then “went down” into the ship (v. 3). He will later “go down” into the inward parts of the ship (v. 5). The conceptual idea of “going down” continues when Jonah is thrown into the sea in ch. 1 and then descends to the point of Sheol itself in ch. 2. This idea of downward progression is an effective way of demonstrating the consequences of Jonah’s disobedience—sin leads downward to death.

Verse 4:
In the Hebrew text, weyhwh is the first word of the verse. A waw + a non-verbal form at the beginning of a sentence/clause indicates disjunction and here there is a contrast between Jonah’s actions and the Lord’s response. There are clear consequences to Jonah’s choices, and the Lord ultimately acts to accomplish his original intent of getting Jonah to Nineveh.

The name “Yahweh” is the last word of v. 3 and the first word of v. 4, indicating that Jonah was not successful in his attempt to evade the Lord. Jonah attempts to flee from the Lord, but the Lord merely “hurls” a storm in Jonah’s direction to make his presence immediately felt. The verb “to hurl” (טול) (tul) is prominent in chapter 1 (vv. 4, 5, 12, 15). Yahweh is sovereign in that he controls the forces of nature and is able to “hurl” a storm. The human characters in this drama merely act in response to Yahweh’s sovereign power—the sailors “hurl” the cargo into the sea (v. 5), Jonah tells the sailors to “hurl” him into the sea (v. 12), and the sailors comply and “hurl” Jonah overboard (v. 15).

The repetition of the adjective gadol (גדול) in v. 4 reflects the ferocity and intensity of the storm—there was a gadol (“mighty”) wind and a gadol (“violent”) storm. The figurative description of the ship in this verse helps to make this same point. The Hebrew literally reads “even the ship thought it was going to break up.” The ship itself is personified and given human thought so as to portray the sheer terror of this storm. If the ship itself was afraid of breaking up, imagine the fright of the sailors on the ship. The Hebrew involves a sound play (השבה להשבר) hishebah lehishaber for emphasis and a form of onomatopoeia (where the sound of the verb “to break” imitates its meaning). With the sound play, the reader can practically hear the ship about to shatter into pieces. The imagery is even more impressive when we consider the type of seafaring vessel in view. King and Stager (Life in Biblical Israel, 179-81) provide photos of two 8th-century B.C. Phoenician ships (shipwrecked) that each carried cargoes of wine in excess of 12 tons. A storm threatening to destroy a similar-type ship headed for Tarshish was certainly a violent storm.

Verse 5:
This verse makes a vivid contrast between the pagan sailors and Jonah, the prophet of God. The first half of the verse describes the activity of the sailors, and the second half (introduced by the disjunctive we + Jonah) depicts the inactivity of the prophet. Three verbs are associated with the sailors (they feared, they cried out, and they hurled) and three with Jonah (he went down, he laid down, and he slept). While the pagan sailors are sensitive to the working of God and respond with prayer, Jonah is oblivious and sleeps on. The irony of pagans being more spiritually aware than the Lord’s prophet continues throughout this chapter and carries over into Jonah’s interaction with the Ninevites in chapter 3. The prophet states in v. 9 that he “fears” (ירא) (yara’) the Lord, but it is the sailors here who “fear” (ירא) (yara’) the storm that is sent by the Lord.

Verse 6:
There is further irony as the pagan captain has to confront the man of God and urge him to pray to his god. Rather than the prophet instructing the captain, the captain informs the prophet of the theological truth that God may respond to their prayers and deliver them from danger. It is further ironic that these are the first human words spoken in the book, because God’s willingness to spare from judgment and death is the very truth that Jonah resists and is the ultimate reason for his refusal to obey and go to Nineveh (cf. 4:2-3). The captain instructs Jonah to “get up and call” (קום קרא)(qum qera), echoing the Lord’s earlier command for Jonah to “get up [and] call” (קום ... קרא) (qum qera) to the city of Nineveh. The prophet has tried to run away from God’s presence and calling, but has been unsuccessful in doing either. God has made his presence felt in a very real way through the storm, and now Jonah hears the divine commission once again in the words of the captain. However, Jonah will continue to attempt to evade God’s calling, even to the point of telling the sailors on the ship to throw him overboard. He ultimately would rather die than do what God has commanded him.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Psalm 46, Chaos, and the Cross

Psalm 46 is a song of trust celebrating God’s protective presence with his people in Zion. By its very structure, the song highlights that God’s presence is the source of the believer’s security. It opens with the confession that God is a “refuge” and “very present help” for his people in times of trouble, and the refrain, “Yahweh of armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” appears at the middle (v. 7) and end (v. 11) of the psalm.

Psalm 46 makes two audacious claims concerning God’s ability to protect those who trust in him. The first is that God provides security for his people in the midst of a catastrophic storm on the scale of the Noahic flood (vv. 2-3). The earth trembles, the mountains “tumble” (מוט) (mot) into the sea, and the raging waters “roar” (המה) (hamah) and “foam” (חמר) (chamar). The malevolent forces of chaos threaten to destroy the earth and humanity in the process. Gerald Wilson writes, “The radical confidence of the psalmist is exhibited in the ability to stand without fear in the face of what constitutes a threat of uncreation” (Psalms: 1, NIVAC, 716). Even in the midst of worldwide tsunami, God provides a protective presence for his people.

After focusing on natural disasters, the psalmist turns to catastrophes of the man-made variety. God not only protects his people from the storm, but he also delivers Zion from the hostile armies that assault the city and seek its destruction (vv. 4-7). The violence of verses 2-3 contrasts with the peaceful calm of verses 4-5. Zion is a place of security even as the earth is falling apart. The mountains of the earth may “tumble” (מוט) (mot), but Zion is “not moved” (בל-תמוט)(bal-tamut). The peaceful river of God’s presence (represented by the Gihon spring in Jerusalem) may seem insignificant by appearance, but it is in fact more powerful than all of the threatening seas. The waters that flow from God’s presence are a source of blessing and joy.

Like the raging seas, the enemy nations also “roar” (המה) (hamah) and “foam” (חמר) (chamar) against Zion. These hostile armies are a human embodiment of the forces of chaos as they threaten Jerusalem and its inhabitants (cf. Jer 4:23 where the prophet hyperbolically warns that the assault of the Babylonian army on Judah will return the earth to a state of chaos and darkness). Even under attack, Zion is secure because the armies of the earth are nothing compared to the “Lord of armies.” The Lord dispatches these enemies with only his voice, which has the power to melt the earth. As previously with the raging waters, the whole world threatens to dissolve, while the tiny hill-fortress of Zion is safe and secure.

The Lord’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in 701 B.C. provides a historical example of what Psalm 46 envisions (see 2 Kgs 18-19; Isa 36-37). The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, demanded the unconditional surrender of Jerusalem, warning that the Lord would be no more effective in protecting his people than the gods of other conquered peoples. When Hezekiah turned to the Lord in faith, the prophet Isaiah promised that the Assyrian army would not enter or even fire an arrow into the city. The angel of the Lord miraculously destroyed the Assyrian army in the middle of the night, putting an end to the threat against Jerusalem.

The final stanza in verses 8-11 is the difficult part of this psalm because it is the point of personal application. The psalmist invites all worshippers to share his radical faith and to “be still” and recognize the greatness of the God in whom they have trusted. There is once again a contrast between the swirling, surging violence of the first half of the psalm and the peaceful quietness of those who trust the Lord in the second half. The Lord is worthy of trust because he will one day silence the forces of chaos and bring an end to warfare and violence on the earth. If God is able to protect his people in the greatest natural and man-made disasters imaginable, then he is able to give security to us, no matter what circumstances or situations we are facing in our lives.

The subjugation of the sea and the defeat of the waters of chaos are common images for the Lord’s sovereignty in the Old Testament. The Canaanites believed that Baal had risen to kingship over the gods by his defeat of Yam (Sea) and Nahar (River). In defeating the unruly waters, Baal had also slain the sea monster, Leviathan (Lotan). The Old Testament writers use this imagery for the polemical purpose of asserting that it is Yahweh who rules as king and not Baal. Yahweh subjugated the sea at creation by putting the waters in their place and establishing their proper boundaries (Job 38:8-11; Pss 65:5-7; 74:12-17; 89:9-13; 93:3-4; 104:6-9). Yahweh further demonstrated his power over chaos by using the sea to deliver the Israelites and to destroy the Egyptians at the exodus (Exod 14; Pss 77:16-19; 114:1-5). Egypt is Leviathan (Ps 74:17), Rahab (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), and the “dragon” (Ezek 29:3-5).

The Old Testament also promises God’s eschatological victory over Israel’s enemies as the ultimate and final victory over the sea and the forces of chaos (Isa 27:1; 51:9-10). Daniel 7 portrays this cosmic drama unfolding throughout human history as successive empires arise out of the sea and culminate in a hideous beast that is finally destroyed when the Ancient of Days confers an eternal kingdom upon the Son of Man and the saints of the Most High. Jon D. Levenson (Creation and the Persistence of Evil) explains that the motif of Yahweh subjugating the sea is an important component of Old Testament theodicy. God controls evil from the time of creation, but evil is not eliminated or removed until the eschatological future.

The tenacious faith that God’s presence would bring real and permanent peace to Zion pervades and even extends beyond the Hebrew Bible. N. T. Wright (The New Testament and the People of God, 247) comments:

Again and again in the Pentateuch, the psalms, the prophets, and the subsequent writings which derive from them, the claim is made that the creator of the entire universe has chosen to live uniquely on a small ridge called Mount Zion, near the eastern edge of the Judean hill-country. The sheer absurdity of this claim … is staggering. The fact that [more powerful nations] had made explicit mockery of the idea did not shake this conviction, but only intensified it.

The problem is that the beauty of the poetry in Psalm 46 often bears little correspondence to the ugliness of the real world. This confidence in Zion’s security and the larger Old Testament hope of the final dissolution of evil is a noble sentiment, but is it really anything more than wishful thinking? The Bible explains that the fall of Jerusalem to enemy armies in 586 BC and 70 AD was the result of disobedience and unbelief, but the righteous and wicked suffered together. There were other inexplicable defeats when Israel was not guilty of national infidelity (Ps 44:9-22). As an old man, David asserted that he had never seen the righteous lacking bread (Ps 37:25), but one suspects that David may have needed to get away from the palace and the temple a little more often. The holy city of Jerusalem seems no closer to enjoying lasting peace today than it did in the days of the Babylonians and the Romans. The surging waters of the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina swept away the godly and the ungodly. The brutal murders of two Christian college students this past week here in Lynchburg are a stark reminder of the pervasiveness of evil and seem to mock the psalmist’s confidence in the Lord’s protection.

What keeps us from throwing away our confidence in the final victory over evil is the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins and absorbed the violence of the cross so that the endless cycle of evil and death could be broken. The motif of God’s conflict with the sea offers another demonstration of how Jesus completes and fulfills what is promised and anticipated in the Old Testament. Revelation 12 reminds us Christ came to engage the dragon (Satan) in a cosmic battle that lasts until the end of time. In his miracle of calming the sea (cf. Matt 8:23-27), Jesus announced that the eschatological kingdom of God was breaking into human history and that the days when death and evil would rule over the earth were numbered. In subjugating the sea, Jesus acted with the power and authority of Yahweh himself. As Schreiner (New Testament Theology, 181) observes, the miracle of Jesus walking on the water “hearkens back to Yahweh who walks upon the sea” (cf. Matt 14:25; Mark 6:48; Job 9:8 LXX; Hab 3:15). The conflict between Christ and Satan reaches a climax at the cross. The darkness and earthquake accompanying the death of Jesus recall the cosmos-shaking storm in Psalm 46 (cf. Matt 27:45-53) and symbolize the destruction of the powers of evil carried out even as Satan unleashes the full torrent of his hatred. The ultimate irony is that Jesus triumphs as the Divine Warrior by sacrificing his own life and then overcoming death through his resurrection:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Col 2:13-15)

Longman and Reid (God is a Warrior, 150) comment that Christ’s triumph is “not the victory of a more powerful being over less powerful beings (as if it were a cosmic struggle of strength against strength in which salvation was achieved by a tour de force); it is the victory of holy, righteous, and creative love over the destructive forces of evil.” The decisive victory is won, but we are continually reminded of the powerful grip that death and evil still hold over the earth. The conflict between God and evil will only intensify until the final beast that rises out of the sea and Satan himself, the great dragon, are ultimately destroyed (Rev 13:1; 19:19-21; 20:7-10). The biblical promise is that there will be no more sea in the new heaven and the new earth of the eternal future, no more of the rebellion, violence and death that has infected the old earth we live in now. Even in the darkest of times, Christ is our refuge and our source of hope. He gives substance to the Old Testament’s lofty aspirations for the peace of Zion, and the final promise of Scripture is that God will eternally extend that peace to all of creation when heaven and earth meet in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).