Tag Archives: Eschatology

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 17

Apple Of My EyeRead Psalm 17

I am not at all sure I can do justice to this psalm. When I first began reading it, I found it odd in several respects. There are two difficult issues with it. First, the opening verses are a cry to the Lord for help, a cry the psalmist justifies by appealing to his own innocence (vv. 1-5). I only wish that I could say with the psalmist, “You have tested me and you find nothing.” Perhaps the best way to understand this claim is to situate it in the very present context of accusation that the psalmist is facing: “With respect to these charges, you know, Lord, that I am innocent!” (Craigie, 162). Yet even the ancient Hebrews had difficulty with these verses, with the Midrash on Psalms constructing a dialogue from these verses in which God demonstrates to David that he cannot pass God’s test, and like everyone else requires God’s pardon and forgiveness (see Charry, 78).

The second odd feature of the psalm, at least as it is presented in the NASB, occurs in vv. 13-14, where the psalmist prays that God would deliver him from the wicked—the very wicked whom it seems God has blessed and favoured! They and their children are filled with treasure and satisfied. He is in effect, asking God to reverse his policy with respect to the wicked.

The psalm begins, as mentioned, as a cry that God would hear, give heed, and give ear to his prayer. He claims a just cause and so the prayer is a plea for justice from one who claims innocence (vv. 1-5). It is also a request for protection, including the beautiful words of verse 8: “keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (vv. 6-9; cf. Deuteronomy 32:10-11). The ‘apple’ of the eye is the pupil, with the psalmist requesting that God protect him as he would the most delicate or vulnerable part of the body.

In this section of the psalm we are introduced to the ‘wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me’ (v. 9), who are then described as unfeeling and proud, as a lion eager to tear its prey to pieces (vv. 10-12). And so we come to the prayer for deliverance, and it is here that the psalm gets tricky. NASB translates verses 13-14:

Arise, O Lord, confront him, bring him low; Deliver my soul from the wicked with Your sword, From men with Your hand, O Lord, From men of the world, whose portion is in this life, And whose belly You fill with Your treasure; They are satisfied with children, And leave their abundance to their babes.

Craigie, who admits that verse 14 is ‘exceptionally difficult to translate’ (161), translates:

Arise, O Lord! Confront him to his face. Make him bow! Deliver my soul from wickedness by your sword. Kill them by your hand, O Lord! Kill them from the world, their portion from among the living. But your treasured ones—you will fill their belly, sons will be sated, and they will bequeath their surplus to their children.

Craigie acknowledges that his translation makes the prayer especially violent, but argues that the language should not be understood literally, but as part of the military metaphor rather than a precise expression of the psalmist’s desire (164). It sets the fate of the wicked and the faithful in stark contrast, in a way reminiscent of the two ways (see Psalm 1), and perhaps also funds a kind of prosperity message.

Both translations, then, are problematic. It may be that the best resolution is found in verse 15: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with your likeness when I awake.” This verse may, of course, reflect the assurance of the psalmist that God will indeed answer his prayer so that his anxious concern of the night (v.3) might give way to vindication in the day. Or it may be read as a point of contrast with verse 14, and in light of the hope of the resurrection. The “men of this world” (cf. 10:18) have their portion only in this life, whereas the psalmist finds his portion in God alone. He shall behold the face of God, and be found like him when he ‘awakes.’

The life of the children of God transcends the bounds of this life. Its primary concern is not its own fullness in this world, but the hope of seeing God and being transformed into his likeness. This religious and moral emphasis in life may not result in earthly prosperity, but the psalmist, however, suggests he will be satisfied. To see the face of God, and to be conformed to his image, is more than enough.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

The Path of LifeLast week we studied the first six verses of this psalm and found a single-minded, whole-hearted declaration of allegiance to the Lord. The psalmist looks to God himself as his inheritance, rather than to God’s blessings and gifts. And yet, the Lord does give blessings as well as his own presence; the second part of the psalm enumerates these many blessings that the faithful might experience. For the psalmist, these blessings include counsel and guidance, defence, security, and deliverance. Nevertheless, to have the Lord is to have all there is, every blessing and more besides.

David blesses the Lord “who has counselled me.” If we recall that this psalm was probably composed in the midst of desperate circumstances, we might assume that this divine counsel specifically addressed David’s present need. That may be the case. But it is also true that God’s general counsel provides the foundation for his wisdom in specific circumstances. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and unless one is instructed first in this initial wisdom which learns to view the world from a theocentric centre, it may be that they cannot discern the specific direction required in particular circumstances. David’s allegiance to Yahweh, and his whole-hearted trust in him, provides the framework within which he receives the divine counsel.

It is also of interest to note the manner in which this counsel came: “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night” (NASB). The counsel did not arrive in some spectacular manner such as via an angel or a vision, but by means of his own thought processes as David prayerfully pondered his circumstances. God can and sometimes may use more spectacular means to convey his wisdom and will, but it is good for us to be reminded that more often, it seems that God uses very ordinary channels to accomplish his purposes. Of course there remains the twin requirements of learning to distinguish the divine counsel from the counsel of our own hearts, and of learning to test and confirm this guidance by means of the other gifts of grace God has given us in Scripture and the community of his people.

The final verses of the psalm are a celebration of confidence in God, again, in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Craigie (153) titled his exposition on this psalm, “Confidence in the Face of Death.” Convinced that Yahweh is his only good, and thus his only hope, the psalmist sets the Lord continually before him, giving his attention to the Lord, placing his hope and confidence in him. More comforting still is the thought that the Lord himself is at his own right hand: even in dire straits he will not be shaken (cf. 15:5). Therefore, the psalmist rests in God, his whole being rejoicing in God’s presence, power and promise—heart, soul and even flesh.

Craigie reads these final verses as applying directly to the psalmists own immediate circumstances:

With respect to the initial meaning of the psalm, it is probable that this concluding section should not be interpreted either messianically or in terms of individual eschatology; … The acute concern of the psalmist was an immediate crisis and an immediate deliverance. His body had been endangered and his life threatened with untimely termination in Sheol. … The psalmist acknowledges that God makes him know, or experience, the “path of life,” not the afterlife, but the fullness of life here and now which is enriched by the rejoicing which emerges from an awareness of the divine presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 158).

In this interpretation, verse ten is simply the psalmist’s assurance that his present circumstances will not result in his death, while the eleventh verse portrays the ongoing life that God gives as one of joy and satisfaction. This joy is grounded both in who God is and what God gives: the joys of his face (“presence”) and the joys of his right hand (“in your right hand”; see Kidner, 86).

Craigie’s conclusion helps make sense of the psalm in its original context, with the added benefit of instructing our hearts in the ways of faith, especially when ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ loom large. The path of life issues from a steadfast allegiance to God in faith, a recognition that only in him is our good to be found; seeking our good and deliverance elsewhere is to embark on a different path where hope is vain and sorrows multiply.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has been read messianically. In his great Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter argues that David indeed died and was buried. But David spoke as a prophet of the resurrection, for it was Christ who was neither abandoned to hell and whose flesh did not suffer decay in the grave (Acts 2:25-31). And so from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has also been read in terms of individual eschatology: the “path of life” transcends the bounds of this world and its hopes, extending beyond the grave to the life to come, evermore in the presence of God and the fullness of joy.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord … Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 76).

Facebook Theology – Answering Rachel

Calvin-and-Hobbes-Discuss the DevilSome time ago I came across this post on Facebook:

Hello Friends who are ‘spiritiual leaders’ of some sort.
I’m really struggling with the idea of free will. Which makes me question God’s goodness. Does God know the future? If yes, how do we have free will? If He already knows what we’re going to decide why did He create us all knowing some would go to hell and why did He create Lucifer if He knew He would rebel?
Would really appreciate your answers,
Confused Rach  (March 28, 2012)

I decided to respond as best I could in that kind of forum as follows:

Hi Rachel, well, you’ve picked a big one. Philosophers and theologians have been arguing over that question for millennia! So it probably means you are not going to get an open-and-shut answer that ties up all the loose ends. Sorry!

But here are my thoughts and how I approach it:

  1. God wants a world where people are free – to some extent at least – to live, to love, to choose, to respond, etc. To have that kind of world, there must also be the possibility of some people saying No to God and Yes to evil. Did God know that would happen? Yes. Did God want it to happen? No. But God obviously determined that to have a creation was more important than not having one!
  2. There is no such thing as a totally ‘free will’ – sin has so corrupted us, that we are ‘slaves to sin’ (John 8:32-36; Romans 6); a slave is not free. Once sin came in, we all lost our freedom. Further, our will is also ‘weak’ through genetic inheritance, habit, training, models we have had, addiction, etc. Thus the idea that we are ‘free’ is not accurate. Sure, we can make choices, but often those choices are constrained by forces bigger than us. Only in Jesus have we any hope of being ‘free’ and even then, not totally until he comes again.
  3. God does not will the evil that is in the world or in us. We do it, as a misuse of our ‘freedom.’ But God has responded to evil – this is the gospel. First, God has taken evil into himself in order to ultimately overcome it. He came to the cross and took the full weight and impact of sin and death INTO himself in Jesus. He swallowed the whole bitter pill. He drank the cup to the dregs. That is what we will remember on Good Friday. Then on Easter he rose, conquering the whole fallen mess of sin and death and opened up a door into a new world of life, hope and wholeness. So two things: One, God knows what it is to suffer because God has suffered in Jesus, and so understands our sufferings. Second, God has promised resurrection, a new heavens and a new earth in which all sin, evil and suffering is done away with. This is the hope of the gospel. God has acted decisively to lift us out of this mess by taking evil upon himself.
  4. We live in the in-between time: between Christ’s resurrection and the final end when all our hopes will be realised. In this time, suffering is real, existent and awful. We and all others will be touched by it. So we can only live in hope of the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth. But, that hope is also a call: to be witnesses of this hope and to show the same compassion to others that God shows by doing what we can to alleviate suffering. We join God in his mission to redeem a broken world wracked by suffering.
  5. In this time God’s got you covered. God surrounds us on every side. It is as though we have a certain area in which we are free to move. We can go here, or there, or here or there; we can do this or that or this or that. God gives us “space” to live and choose and make decisions. If he wants us to be or do something specific, he can make that known to us. Otherwise, live and choose and make decisions to the best of your ability and to the best of your knowledge of his will. And then trust him. Entrust your way to him. God’s got us covered, and even if we make a poor choice, he can help us.
  6. There are still huge questions such as WHY God chose to do it this way, why God allows unmitigated evil to continue, why “natural” evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, deformities, etc) occurs, the question of hell and judgement, etc. But, God has acted and on the grounds of this act we can have hope and thus also courage, faith and love.

The reality of life in a fallen world is that we will suffer; nothing is surer. And when we do, it is even more important to cling tightly to Jesus and the hope we have in him, and also to be part of his people so that we don’t suffer alone.

Sorry for the long essay-type response. If you have read this far you deserve a medal. But I hope that it is helpful in some way. Good on you for wrestling with the hard questions of the faith. That’s the way mature faith grows.

Bless you,
Michael.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:12
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (NASB)

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (NRSV)

These two translations indicate an immediate interpretive issue with respect to this verse: does it belong with the section dealing with the matter of trials which began in verse two, or is it the beginning of a new section incorporating verses twelve to fifteen and dealing with the matter of temptation? The key word is peirasmos which appears in verse two, here in verse twelve, four times in verse thirteen, and once in verse fourteen. The word has two basic meanings in the New Testament, corresponding to the two meanings used in this chapter of James. First, the word can denote external afflictions, especially persecution, and second, it can refer to the inner enticement to sin (Moo, 59). This range of meaning suggests that James may be using verse twelve to transition his focus from the external pressures experienced by the community, to the internal motives and attitudes which they experience precisely on account of the external trials. It is not uncommon that one’s response to external trials may itself be another trial. The two often belong together, and we err when our entire focus is turned outward as though our circumstances are our only trial, when in fact, our response to those circumstances is also a trial which we must endure and perhaps overcome. This way of viewing the text helps us find unity in the overall section from verse two through eighteen, rather than viewing the whole as a series of disconnected exhortations.

We begin by noting the resonance in this verse with what has gone before. As already noted, the key term peirasmos picks up the opening thought of verse two. The testing (dokimion) of our faith in verse three produces endurance (hypomonē). In this verse James pronounces as blessed those who endure (hypomenē, the verb form of hypomonē), for they have stood the test (dokimos). Finally, the promise that they shall receive (lampsetai) the crown of life stands in subtle contrast to the double-minded person of verse seven who must not expect to receive (lampsetai) anything from the Lord. These verbal links with the earlier passage suggest that James is reiterating and extending his earlier comments, and bringing those exhortations to their climax. Not only does endurance under trial develop good character, but it also brings the promise and hope of eschatological blessing. In light of these considerations, the NASB’s interpretation is preferred.

“Blessed is the man” (Makarios anēr hos) is almost formulaic language in Old Testament appearing six times in Psalms and twice in Proverbs (Davids, 79; cf. Psalms 1:1; 2:12; 32:1; 112:1; 119:1-2; Proverbs 8:32, 34, etc). James, then, is taking over biblical language, though his use of anēr (“man”) is not required to make sense of the sentence and should not be used to limit this blessing merely to males. Thus, while the NASB provides a very literal translation, “blessed are those” or the NRSV’s “blessed is anyone” are more appropriate to convey the sense intended. The person so blessed is the one who perseveres under trial as already explained in earlier verses. Such a one, having stood the test is approved (dokimos). In verse three dokimion emphasised the process of testing, whereas here the emphasis is more on the person who has successfully endured that process and so “passed” the test (McKnight, 111). This person will receive (lampsetai) the crown of life, the future tense indicating that the promised blessing still lies in the future, especially perhaps for James’ suffering community.

What, precisely, is “the crown of life” (ton stephanon tēs zōēs)? Virtually all commentators read this phrase as epexegetical, that is, “the crown which is life.” This is another way of saying that those who persevere will receive God’s promise of salvation which is eternal life. The same phrase is found in Revelation 2:9-10 and its use there, in the ascended Christ’s message to the suffering church of Smyrna, may have relevance for interpreting our text:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (ton stephanon tēs zōēs).

This text has similar characteristics to James 1: the apocalyptic context of trials by which the community is tested. It is not insignificant that James’ community may well be persecuted by other (wealthier?) Jews. Nevertheless the trials are limited in duration, and over against the threat of death is the promised “crown of life.” In Revelation chapter four, the elders clothed in white garments (a picture of the church?) are crowned with golden crowns which they cast in worship before throne (Revelation 4:4, 10). As God’s people endure the testing of their faith even to the point of death, they will be crowned as victors, as those who have triumphed over the opposition. The imagery of the crown is most commonly used of the wreath awarded to victorious athletes in the games (Davids, 80; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25 where “wreath” translates stephanon). A similar sense is seen in Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Paul’s crown of righteousness is the equivalent of James and John’s crown of life, and Peter’s “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Each in slightly different ways refers to the eschatological blessing and recognition awaiting those who faithfully endure. The whole life of the believer will be “crowned” as it were, by their entering into the life “promised” (epēggeilato) to those who love him (tois agapōsin auton). They shall receive the honour and acknowledgement of those in God’s royal presence, his children, and heirs of the kingdom.

The subject of the promise is identified in both translations above as “the Lord,” the italics in the NASB indicating that these words have been supplied by the translators. A better translation would supply “God” as the subject of the promise and so bring this verse into harmony with James 2:5 where an identical construction is used (“promised to those who love him”), and where the subject of the sentence is explicitly identified as God. There is no explicit promise in the Old Testament that James is here citing, though a number of texts do promise God’s steadfast love to those who love him (see, for example, Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 145:20). James generalises the broad sweep of Scripture in which those who love God and therefore stand firm in times of trial will be those who receive his blessing.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9-11

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9-11
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away .

The Great Reversal
Our study of this passage has concluded that it is a continuation and specific application of the theme commenced in verse two. That is, one of the major tests being experienced by James’ community concerns the issue of poverty and wealth. But this is not simply “an issue,” such that it might be considered apart from the actual life-setting and life-experience of the community. James’ listeners are suffering, a poor and despised group in an unfamiliar land. Further, their faith in Christ has isolated them from the help they might otherwise have received from the Jewish diaspora community. Perhaps they face the temptation to curry the favour of their wealthier kinsmen; perhaps also the temptation to relinquish their faith in Jesus the Messiah and return to the synagogue. It is clear from 2:1-6 and 4:1-3 that the community is at least distracted if not riven with such attitudes and conflicts.

Further, I have argued that the syntax of vv. 9-10 requires that we read James’ exhortation to the rich as addressed to the rich believer. While the poor may rejoice in that they have been exalted, the wealthy are given arguably the more difficult task: to rejoice in their humiliation. James is using dialectical language to set forth the inherent tension the believer experiences. On the one hand the social and financial reality of each group remains unchanged with respect to their position in the broader society. On the other hand, James envisages a day when there shall occur a “great reversal” in the fortunes of the poor and the rich whereby the poor will be exalted in reality, and the rich, especially those who have acted unjustly (5:1-6), will be humbled.

James’ words echo a theme common in the Jewish tradition and which also found expression in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Lukan version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Here Jesus looks forward to the eschatological dénouement in which the great reversal will take place. Mary, too, celebrates this hope in her prophetic song, although now the reversal is spoken of as already fulfilled:

He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble (tapeinos). He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).

(Scot McKnight (96) rightly draws attention to the impact Mary had on the fledging Christian community through her two sons.)

Thus, James’ eschatological horizon provides the grounds for why both the poor and the rich might rejoice. The poor look forward to the coming kingdom in which all things will be made right, and the rich likewise rejoice in that they have now discovered that the coming day will not be the terror to them it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, this exaltation and humiliation are not simply eschatological, for already the poor are exalted, and already the rich are humbled. What might this mean, since it is evident that their socio-economic status remains unchanged?

Here James’ dialectic has a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although future in itself, the great reversal issues in a radical transformation here and now in one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus the Messiah, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A trans-valuation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present, and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.

 

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up.

At first glance these verses appear to mark an abrupt change of theme and help support the idea that James is a collection of unrelated homiletical materials pieced together to form a letter representing the central themes of James’ teaching. It is possible, however, to read these verses as part of James’ overall theme in the first part of this chapter. First, verse twelve will return to the theme of the blessedness of those who endure under trial, suggesting that all the material from at least verse two through to verse twelve belongs together. Second, the opening word of verse nine (kauchasthō) is another third person singular imperative, extending the string of imperatives James has used in his opening section. Further, the word means to boast or to glory in which is not too far removed in concept if not language, from the opening thought of verse two where James exhorts his hearers to ‘count it all joy.’ In Psalm 149:5 (LXX) the word is set in parallel with joy: “Let the godly ones exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds.” Finally, a number of commentators understand these verses as an application of the opening section, identifying a particular trial, and indeed likely the major form of trial, being experienced by James’ community. The theme of wealth and riches, and the temptations associated with them recurs throughout the letter. The second chapter especially, indicates that this is a present trial and temptation for the community. Together, these contextual clues suggest that these verses should be understood as a continuation of the primary theme in this first chapter. That is, the community is to rejoice in the midst of their ongoing trials, enduring them steadfastly with faith, hope, and prayer for wisdom, and especially with reference to the vexed issue of economic difficulty, privation and temptation.

James turns his attention first to the lowly brother or sister(ho adelphos ho tapeinos), the reference to ho adelphos indicating that he refers not to the lowly in general, but to those in the community of God’s people. Tapeinos means humble or lowly, but in this context, especially given the contrast with ho plousios in verse ten, is to be interpreted in socio-economic terms rather than with respect to attitude or demeanour. The word is used in this sense in the Old Testament, and often in contexts in which the Lord is near to those who are tapeinos, to hear their prayer and to judge in their favour (e.g. Psa. 10:18; 18:27; 34:18; 102:17; Isa. 11:4). In 4:6 James will cite Proverbs 3:34 which declares that God gives grace to the tapeinos. Such favour is also in view in 2:5 where God has chosen the poor (ptōchos) to be the heirs of his kingdom. James, therefore, exhorts the person in ‘humble circumstances’ (NASB; NIV) to glory in their high position (NASB; en tō hypsei autou) because (reading en in a causative sense) they have been ‘raised up.’

Everything depends on the reality of this exaltation. Already they are the recipients of God’s grace and the special objects of God’s favour. Although not rich in this world they are rich in faith (2:5) and as such are heirs of the eternal kingdom. This, too, is divine wisdom, as James brings an eschatological worldview to bear on the circumstances of his readers. Only on the basis of divine grace and promise may the poor rejoice. From an earthly perspective they have no reason to boast. Just as joy in the midst of suffering is counter-intuitive, so too is boasting in the midst of poverty and affliction. But in the light of God’s present favour and eschatological promise, they may indeed boast for they have been made brothers and sisters in the very family of God.