Tag Archives: Leadership

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:15

James 3:15
This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic (NASB).

Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (NIV).

In this verse James continues his contrast of the behaviour that stands opposed to his understanding of wisdom presented in verse thirteen. The way of jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition may have an appearance of wisdom, but it is not that wisdom which is ‘from above.’ Indeed, for James, it is not even ‘wisdom’ at all (note the scare-quotes used in the NIV). Literally James says, ‘This is not the wisdom from above…’ (ouk estin hautē hē sophia anōthen; οὐκ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ σοφία ἄνωθεν), where the this is a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the behaviour of those he is chastising in verse fourteen. James refuses to use the term wisdom to describe this manner of life.

James describes this manner of life using three graphic adjectives, which are listed in an order of increasing alienation from God (Davids, 152; Vlachos, 123). First, it is earthly (epigeios, ἐπίγειος) as opposed to that which is ‘from above,’ heavenly, of the earth or belonging to the earth, or arising solely from human existence. Second, it is natural, the Greek word psychikē (ψυχική) referring to the life in which human feeling and human reason reign supreme (Moo, 134). It has to do with that which is governed by the senses or sensual appetites and as such, refers to life apart from the divine Spirit—‘unspiritual.’ Finally, demonic (daimoniōdēs, δαιμονιώδης) simply means that which comes from or pertains to demons.

Where jealousy, envy and selfish ambition are the order of the day, the manner of life is not that which is from above, divine in origin and nature, meek and full of good works (v. 13). Rather, it is human or even demonic in origin and character, although it seems better to assign this wisdom a human rather than demonic origin. This person might be better described as selfish, as ‘worldly-wise,’ rather than demonically inspired, although the latter is possibly the case in some circumstances. Moo’s comment, however, is insightful:

The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ In each of these ways it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’—heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence, divine in origin (134).

James is evidently contrasting two types of teachers (3:1) or two types of leadership, and aligning them with two types of wisdom. The fulcrum between the two seems to lie in the fundamental impulse at work in each model. Is the leader’s activity, work and motive directed toward the self (self-promotion, improvement, or aggrandisement), or the kindliness of God toward others, and the promotion and benefit of their welfare? Most leaders are not under the thrall of demons, but their leadership may have characteristics that are opposed to the purposes, way and wisdom of God, and detrimental to the welfare and common good of those people for whom they are responsible. Further, while many religious teachers and leaders claim to be spiritual, if their manner of life is that described here by James, they are in fact unspiritual and devoid of the Holy Spirit. ‘“You claim,” says James, “to have the Holy Spirit. Impossible! You are inspired, all right—you are inspired by the devil!” (Davids, 153).

In the contemporary world of organisations (including churches and other Christian agencies), we have much leadership technology—technical knowledge and skill; depth of understanding with respect to the pragmatic dynamics of leadership in diverse communities, contexts, and human affairs; skill in diagnosis, management, and application; a vast range of tools, resources, and equipment to enhance our capacities. Is such technology ‘wrong,’ or something to be avoided? Perhaps not. But James focusses on the character of leadership in verse thirteen (and also verses seventeen and eighteen) contrasting it with the alternate mode in verses fourteen to sixteen. To the extent that leadership technology subverts kingdom priorities such as those enumerated in 2:5 or 1:27—personal engagement with the lowly and apparently ‘insignificant’—it is ‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:14

James 3:14
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.

The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.

‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:

In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).

Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.

James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.

The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).

How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 9

Read 1 Samuel 9

Chapter nine is a curious chapter, its portrayal of Saul, who is introduced here, open to various interpretations. Some scholars argue that the chapter, and indeed the Saul narrative as a whole, is a composite of different sources and traditions, some pro-Saul, and some anti. Others read the narrative positively, identifying those characteristics in the story which suggest that Saul has the right attributes to be king. Evans, for example, provides a psychological account in which she suggests that Saul may have harboured secret ambitions to be a leader, that he may, in fact, have had his own sense of calling to leadership which is now confirmed by Samuel (66-67). She further finds evidence for his suitability in the very ordinariness of his circumstances —obeying his father and searching for donkeys, and listening to the advice of his servant. Certainly Saul looks like king-material; he is tall and handsome and from a wealthy and influential family, despite his modesty in verse 21. Others, however, remain unconvinced and so find a very unflattering portrayal of Saul in the chapter. He is never defined as a man of God or as walking in his ways. He appears indecisive and lacks initiative, relying on his servant’s advice and even his money. When he meets Samuel he does not recognise him as the seer that he is seeking.

Despite this ambiguity, however, one thing is clear: God has chosen Saul. The whole story unfolds in an atmosphere of chance and coincidence—read: providence. Donkeys go missing; Saul arrives at Zuph just as Samuel does; this unknown man is “discovered,” pointed out by God to Samuel. The text is explicit:

Verse 16       
Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.

Then, when Saul arrives, the Lord speaks again to Samuel, saying to him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you” (v. 17). Evans is correct: “What is very clear in this instance is that the choice of Saul was entirely God’s. … There is no room here for misunderstanding. Saul was God’s appointed man” (65). This is no doubt the reason for Evans’ attempt to show that Saul was, in fact, an ideal choice to be king, or at least, a suitable choice.

This lack of ambiguity with respect to the divine choice, when viewed alongside the evident ambiguity of Saul’s character leads to further questions. Did God choose Saul knowing that Saul would prove to be a disastrous king, and so deeming this a somewhat disastrous choice? Did God choose Saul in this way to underline his displeasure in Israel seeking a king in the first place? Did God know whom he was choosing?

Those who recognise the work of divine providence in the story must find some way of answering these questions without compromising the divine foreknowledge and goodness. Open Theists, of course, are under no such constraint, being able to argue that God does not, in fact, know the future and watches it unfold as we do, in response to the freely chosen decisions and actions of the human actors involved. Ultimately, however, a view of providence in which God controls every action and outcome is as unsatisfactory as the idea that limits the wisdom and sovereignty of God as the Open Theist does. In the story of Saul, then, the mystery of divine providence and of the divine-human relation and interaction, comes into prominent focus.

God’s will in his choice of Saul is clear: you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines (v. 16). In language that echoes the Exodus and the call of Moses, God has “heard the cry” of his people, the voice of their suffering and oppression, and has raised up a leader for their deliverance. Ultimately, however, for those who know how this story proceeds, this saving will was frustrated.

Once more, Murphy’s reading of the text provides the benefits of wisdom and insight. Murphy rejects source-critical approaches, preferring a narrative reading to make sense of the text’s difficulties. She acknowledges the portrayal of Saul as indecisive and passive, but suggests that “the story is saying in the most emphatic way that Saul did not put himself forward, but was chosen by Yahweh” (74). The ambiguity of his character reflects the fact that he is “an unpainted canvas,” an unformed character: “what will he make of his beauty and strength when he becomes king?” (75). Neither overtly wicked nor overtly pious, the question arises concerning what kind of man and what kind of king Saul will become.

By presenting him as neither overtly wicked nor some pious Nazirite type, the author creates in Saul a figure who can make of the role of first king in Israel whatever he freely wills. … The question is what use he makes of his freedom. Our human freedom is intertwined in its choices with God’s free gifts of opportunities to act (75, 76).

God freely elects Saul with his people’s well-being at heart. Saul’s ignorance and lack of initiative in the selection signals Yahweh’s omnipotence at work. On the other hand, the blank and open portrayal of Saul’s character indicates that he himself is a free man, as yet indifferent with respect to the determination of his will. He has yet to make his choice between good and evil. … From here on, Saul has entered the arena where he will have to make free choices, and these choices will count (77).

I suspect that Karl Barth would provide a slightly different reading of the text. God calls Saul in sovereign freedom, not dependent upon Saul’s suitability or otherwise for this calling. But this call also takes the form of a command: Saul is commissioned as God’s leader, as the one through whom God will save his people. God does not leave Saul alone at a crossroads free to go this way or that. Rather, God has commanded that he should go in a particular way, taking a specific path and road; he is to go this way and not that. Saul’s choices, decisions and actions are still crucial and still “count,” as Murphy has noted. However, his failure is not merely a tragedy of poor choices or human inability, but of disobedience; that is, he has turned from the way in which he was directed, and pursued his own path, with terrible consequences. The rest of the story will be an opportunity to test this thesis. In the meantime, however, we note that divine providence is always at work, that the divine call involves a command and a direction, and that the divine-human relation is an encounter of the free God and the free human in which our choices, decisions and actions really do matter with respect to the historical unfolding of the divine will.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8:1-5

Read 1 Samuel 8:1-5

Samuel is old, has been judge in Israel for many years, and has gained the respect and affection of the people. But now in his old age, it appears that Samuel makes a critical mistake: He appoints his two sons Joel and Abijah as judges in his place. Until now we have heard nothing of Samuel’s personal circumstances, and still know nothing really of his wife and family. But now, in addition to their names, we know something else about his sons: they “do not walk in his ways,” but seeking to enrich themselves, took bribes and perverted the course of justice (vv. 3, 5).

Why has Samuel done this? Why has he appointed and retained his sons as judges in his place, especially when they prove unworthy of the role? Having seen what happened with Eli and his sons, is Samuel now to repeat the same mistake? Was there no one else he could appoint? At least Eli reprimanded his sons; there is no indication in the text that Samuel did the same.

Several questions arise, the first concerning, once more, the responsibilities of parenthood, or more generally, human nature in general. We saw in chapter two that God held Eli responsible for the behaviour of his sons, perhaps due to his failure to step them down from their priestly duties, given their disqualifying behaviours. It may not be Eli as parent but Eli as leader that has failed. Here, too, however, Samuel’s sons walk awry, interested more in personal gain than in fair dealing, justice, and public service. We know that Samuel is seen as possessing utmost integrity; has he somehow failed to pass this on to his children, nurturing in them the qualities so evident in himself? Or is this simply another instance of the wayward nature of human being itself, that when, given the opportunity of personal gain at the expense of others, many will prove willing to act corruptly?

A second question concerns the nature of hereditary offices, and whether nepotism invariably leads to the kind of corruption portrayed here. There is, actually, no real sense in which this was an act of nepotism by Samuel. Murphy, in fact, rejects this idea, arguing instead that in the kind of pre-state, segmentary, tribal culture that characterised pre-monarchical Israel it was natural that sons be appointed to the positions occupied by their fathers. Further, she observes, the elders who come to Samuel do not complain that Samuel appointed his sons per se, but that the sons, “do not walk in your ways” (v. 5). It was not that Samuel made his sons judges, but rather that the sons have become the kinds of judges that they have (Murphy, 62). This important observation will help lift this text beyond the kind of moralism that arises when the question of parenting is emphasised. 1 Samuel, after all, is about how the decentralised tribal society seen in Judges became a nation around a centralised monarchy.

Even so, the question concerning hereditary offices does not go away. The elders who come to Samuel are asking for a king: another form of hereditary office, which again indicates that it was not the appointment of Samuel’s sons which was itself the issue. Nevertheless,

The attitude toward kingship seen throughout the somewhat inglorious history of the monarchy is one of unresolved tension, and that tension is reflected in the ambiguity here. On the one hand, particularly in the Psalms, the monarchy is viewed very positively; it was a God-given gift. The king was God’s representative on earth, able to lead the people in their service of God and reflect God to them, helping them to understand his character and purposes. On the other hand, Samuel and certain of the prophets saw the monarchy as a rejection of God and his kingly rule; the king stood between the people and God, drawing their allegiance to himself and away from God. In this view, the monarchy was neither necessary nor useful for the life of God’s covenant people (Evans, 57).

The Scripture itself, according to Evans, does not resolve the question of the hereditary office, but it does provide perspectives that help us think about the question, and about the nature of Christian leadership in general. To the extent that the king exercised his authority in a priestly manner, directing the people toward God and representing God’s character and purpose to the people, it is affirmed. To the extent, however, that the king aggrandises himself and pursues his own will to the detriment of God’s purposes both for himself and for the people, his leadership is rejected. Samuel’s sons did not “walk in his ways,” and on these grounds are rejected. Nor is the fault Samuel’s: they are responsible for their actions.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 7:3-17

Read 1 Samuel 7:3-17

In verse three Samuel reappears in the narrative, having been out of the picture since chapter 4:1, and out of the picture for perhaps as long as twenty years. After their devastating loss to the Philistines Israel was indeed impoverished, and subject at least, to Philistine power. During this time Samuel continued to grow, not only in years but in his call, service, maturity, and reputation. Samuel was a prophet-judge, a circuit judge “bringing justice and encouraging worship” on an annual basis in the region where he served (Evans, 54). The four cities mentioned—Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and Ramah—are all centrally located a little south of Shiloh.

But Samuel appears to have done more than become a localised prophet or judge. In verse three he is addressing “all the house of Israel,” with a call to repentance that includes a rejection of idolatry. In the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history idolatry was a perennial issue, a form of religious-cultural syncretism, in which Israel were not whole-hearted in their devotion to God. Samuel confronts this attitude head-on:

If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

To the modern western mind, the idea of idolatry is curious if not foolish, primitive and superstitious. But the ancient Israelites were simply adapting themselves to the surrounding cultures, adopting their mores and religious values, and the promise of security that they brought. Seen in this light, idolatry is not simply the worship of wood and stone statues, but seeking one’s security in and setting one’s heart on anything other than the one God. Samuel will have none of it. True repentance will be indicated by the sole devotion of their hearts toward God; there is no place here for a divided heart.

True repentance, and true religion, are matters of the heart. This is understood in the Old Testament as the defining and motivating centre of human personality. It is this centre, as representing the whole, which is to “return” to the Lord in full and sole devotion. “For human beings,” says Murphy, “monotheism is never just a theory, but a decision” (52). And if Israel will do this, Samuel promises, God will deliver them from the power of the Philistines.

Samuel, it seems, has managed unify Israel, or at least gathered them in unity to Mizpah. The prophet-judge is in this sense also a prophet-general, a military as well as juridical and religious leader, as was common with a number of earlier judges. The gathered people confess their sins and make an offering to the Lord.

What happens next is difficult to describe. There is both a military confrontation and a divine intervention. Or it may be that the divine intervention was through the military confrontation. Murphy suggests,

What happens in the story theologically is that ‘the Lord thunders’ against the Philistines and throws them into terrified flight; what happens humanly is that all the tribes act as one; and these two, the human and the theological, occur simultaneously (53).

All the focus of the narrative is on Samuel and his action. Samuel does not fight; he prays and sacrifices, and God hears and answers his prayer. Certainly Israel fights and pursues; certainly God superintends and gives deliverance. Yet it is Samuel’s leadership, his wholehearted and single-minded devotion to God which calls, inspires, and gathers Israel, and acts as a lightning rod of divine presence in the face of imminent threat and crisis.

There is no doubt that this was a significant military victory: the power of Philistia over the Israelites was decisively beaten for the whole period of Samuel’s life. More significantly, it was a crucial stage along the road of Israel’s national and religious development. Through the force of Samuel’s example, spirituality, and leadership Israel, emerging from a period of terrible defeat and oppression, was becoming unified as one people devoted to one God.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 4 

When the news of Israel’s defeat reached Shiloh, Eli heard that the prophesied sign had been fulfilled: both his sons had died on the same day. Although this no doubt upset him, what was really distressing was that the ark—for which he was responsible—had been captured. Upon hearing this news he fell backwards off his seat, broke his neck and died. The narrator tells us that the reason was that he was old and—despite his advanced age—“heavy” (v. 18). His death, and that of his sons (all on the one day—verse 12), signalled the end of an era. He had judged Israel for forty years.

Eli was fat (GNB), heavy (NRSV; ESV). The word used here is kabod, which can indeed mean heavy or plump. It also has connotations of being prosperous—one is heavy because one is wealthy enough to eat a great deal of food. Colloquially, we might speak analogically of those who are “heavy-weights,” speaking of their authority or influence: they are a “weighty” person to be reckoned with. A similar manner of speaking developed in the Hebrew language where the word kabod could refer not merely to one who was literally heavy, but who metaphorically, was heavy in terms of their influence and authority. Eli was both. Significantly, however, the word came to be applied to God as the one who is ultimately “weighty” in his sovereignty and power. Kabod is the term used to refer to the divine glory, the visible manifestation of God’s “heaviness,” presence and power. This glory was directly associated with the ark when Moses completed its construction in Exodus 40:21, 33-34:

And he brought the ark into the tabernacle…So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God would dwell with his people, meet with them, and speak to them from the ark (Exodus 25:8, 22), and they and it would be sanctified by his glory (29:43).

The final episode of 1 Samuel 4 is the tragic tale of the birth of a child, born an orphan, and named by his dying mother as Ichabod, meaning that “the glory has departed from Israel.” Perhaps there is some ambiguity here. Certainly the loss of the ark signifies the loss of the divine glory. But perhaps there is also a sense of human bitterness here: the loss of the glory of Eli’s house, of her station in life, of the hopes and dreams that she and all her family had harboured thus far. This child, who hitherto had been the object of fond hopes, perhaps even of the continuation of the dynasty—“do not be afraid for you have born a son!”—is now i-kabod, “no glory.”

Blind Eli had lacked insight into the true nature of things. In place of the divine glory and presence, he was satisfied with his own weighty presence. In place of honouring the worship of God he honoured his sons. He presumed that his position was one of privilege rather than faithful service. He did according to what was in his own heart rather than that which was in God’s heart and mind (2:35).

In their rise, Eli and his house had been guilty of overreach, or what the ancient Greeks called hubris: by failing to discipline his sons, Eli has acted as if the familial claim to ark guardianship was a given. … Hubris is a lack of balance, because the proud man overestimates his place in the scheme of things. Balance in the moral order is restored by retribution. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causation. Human responsibility and divine justice are frequently stated themes. … For both, history is theodicy” (Murphy, 40, citing Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 39-40).

Murphy suggests—and suggests that the Old Testament itself suggests—that there is a kind of historical moral providence in which history is the sphere in which divine moral accounting is played out and established. This is not merely an impersonal “you-reap-what-you-sow” principle at work. Although the rise and fall of nations, and of individual leaders in this case, is played out in terms of historical causation and agency, behind this historical procession God is personally active, working to holding historical figures to account. Murphy is not suggesting that God is the active causative agent of all that occurs, but that God is active in judgement and moral accountability. Van Seters may be correct to assert that for both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews “history is theodicy,” but from a biblical point of view it is not sufficient to limit theodicy to history: it is too vague, too “after the event,” too indirect to provide the kind of justice humanity really cries out for. An ultimate accounting, a final judgement, remains necessary, as both Jesus and the Bible testify. Nevertheless, the story of Eli reminds us that God calls his people, and especially his leaders, to covenantal faithfulness, and that he will hold them accountable for this. The implications for contemporary Christian leaders are obvious.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

On the Apostolic Fathers

ApostolicFathersFor it must be said in general that the apostolic fathers are not men of brilliance or penetrating theological insight; rather, their central contribution lies not in their elaboration of the faith but in their call for obedience to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, their warnings against heresy, and their simple commendation of the faith, even in the face of martyrdom. There is no doubt that a man like Polycarp, for example, was a great Christian leader and a great man of faith, but a great theologian he was not. 
(Gary Badcock, Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, 36)

Socrates, Nestorius, and the “Hard Work” of Theology

Socrates Bk vThe ancient church historian and contemporary of Nestorius, Socrates of Constantinople, evidently did not think much of Nestorius, despite his defence of Nestorius’s orthodoxy.

What sort of a disposition he was of in other respects, those who possessed any discernment were able to perceive from his first sermon. … [those] did not fail to detect his levity of mind, and violent and vainglorious temperament, inasmuch as he had burst forth into such vehemence without being able to contain himself for even the shortest space of time; and to use the proverbial phrase, “before he had tasted the water of the city,” showed himself a furious persecutor.[1]

Nestorius had been appointed as bishop of Constantinople by the Emperor in 428AD, chosen for his “excellent voice and fluency of speech.” Nevertheless it seems controversy dogged his episcopate from the start, and he eventually was condemned for his christological views at the Council of Ephesus in 431. It seems Socrates believes this was an unfair judgement:

Having myself perused the writings of Nestorius, I have found him an unlearned man and shall candidly express the conviction of my own mind concerning him; … I cannot then concede that he was either a follower of [known heretics] Paul of Samosata or of Photinus, or that he denied the divinity of Christ … He does not assert Christ to be a mere man, as Photinus did or Paul of Samosata, his own published homilies fully demonstrate. In these discourses he nowhere destroys the proper personality (hypostasis) of the Word of God; but on the contrary invariably maintains that he has an essential and distinct personality and existence. Nor does he ever deny his subsistence… Such in fact I find Nestorius, both from having myself read his own works, and from the assurances of his admirers. But this idle contention of his has produced no slight ferment in the religious world (171).

How was it, then, that this gifted and charismatic speaker occupying one of the most prestigious pulpits in the empire caused such an uproar? Socrates is blunt:

He seemed scared of the term Theotocos [sic; i.e. “God-bearer,” or “mother of God”], as though it were some terrible phantom. The fact is, the causeless alarm he manifested on this subject just exposed his extreme ignorance: for being a man of natural fluency as a speaker, he was considered well educated, but in reality he was disgracefully illiterate. In fact he contemned the drudgery of an accurate examination of the ancient expositors; and, puffed up with his readiness of expression, he did not give his attention to the ancients, but thought himself the greatest of all (171).

Alister McGrath translates that last sentence: “In fact he had no time for the hard work which an accurate examination of the ancient expositors would have involved…”[2]

Theological work can be hard. Yet this observation from the early fifth century is just as relevant today. Some pastors, leaders, teachers and others rely on their excellent gifts, charisma and charm to carry their ministry, dismissing the work of those who have gone before as though it were of no value or benefit. In their pride they may become arrogant, and may even, as Nestorius did, cause great dissention in the body of Christ. The work may be difficult, may even be “drudgery,” but it is necessary work, especially for those charged with the responsibility of shepherding the people of God.

*****

[1] Scholasticus, Socrates, “The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Second Series) Volume 2: Socrates, Sozomenos: Church Histories ed. Schaff, Philip & Henry Wace, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1890; reprint, 1995), 169.

[2] McGrath, Alister E., ed. The Christian Theology Reader, Third ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 273, emphasis added.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 31:1-9

King-DrinksProverbs 31:1-9
The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him:                

What, O my son?       
And what, O son of my womb?          
And what, O son of my vows?

Do not give your strength to women, or your ways to that which destroys kings. 
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine,          
Or for rulers to desire strong drink, for they will drink and forget what is decreed, and pervert the rights of the afflicted.          

Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his trouble no more.

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (NASB).

Although we cannot be sure whether any women authored books or passages of Scripture, there are a number of texts in Scripture attributed to women, including this one. King Lemuel is otherwise unknown to us, although Murphy suggests that he was king of “Massa,” understood as an area in northern Arabia (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 239). He bases this conjecture on a possible translation of the word “oracle” as Massa. The name itself, however, is a Hebrew word meaning “belonging to God” (Kidner, Proverbs (TOTC), 182). The passage has a number of similarities with other wisdom texts from the Ancient Near East, and even includes Aramaic words and idioms. Nevertheless, Murphy (240) notes that this is the only instance in such literature where the king is instructed by his mother. In the end he considers the oracle to be a Hebrew composition.

It is tempting to suggest that the passage is about “wine, women, and song,” although there is no mention of indulging in the pleasures of music. Nevertheless, the king is instructed to “open his mouth!” Of wine and women, however, there is firm, blunt instruction, though the order is reversed. The mother offers this counsel on the basis of her maternal authority: he has come forth from her womb, having received his life from her. Further, he is the “son of my vows,” perhaps reminiscent of the promise Hannah made with respect to Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 1:11, 28).

“Give not your strength to women, or your ways to that which destroys kings!” The admonition is more a warning against promiscuity than an assertion of the supposed wickedness of women. Kings often have the resources to indulge their desires in ways not available to poorer, less powerful folk. Nor is it for the king to indulge in wine and other strong drink lest he forgets the decrees and perverts the rights of the afflicted. Whereas the king is not to drink and forget, he should give strong drink to the afflicted that they may drink and forget – their afflictions and poverty. This, too, is unusual advice, especially in light of a text like Proverbs 20:1, a strident repudiation of strong drink and drunkenness (cf. 23:20-21, 29-35). Perhaps it is best to let verse 6 set the scenario: “Give strong drink to him who is perishing,” and so see the advice in terms of administering a palliative or an analgesic.

Finally, the mother counsels her son to open his mouth for the mute, for the rights of the dispossessed, afflicted, vulnerable and needy. Rather than forget their rights, he is to enter the fray on their behalf, defending their rights and upholding their cause.

A number of themes in this short passage deserve reflection.

  1. Some things are wrong, bad and evil for anyone, but especially for those charged with leadership or who hold the reins of power, justice or influence. Self-indulgence eviscerates moral awareness, courage and determination. Drunkenness, sexual laxity and other self-indulgent pursuits cause one to centre in on themselves and to forget their responsibilities, and sometimes, all else. These things destroy leaders, cause them to become oppressors, and tear at the very fabric of trust that binds the relationship of leader and followers.
  2. Murphy translates verse three as “Do not give your strength to women, or your power to those who destroy kings.” Many of us have been granted a measure of strength or power, often in different spheres of endeavour or responsibility, and we can use that power to indulge ourselves and satisfy our own desires, or we can use it to help, benefit and bless others around us. Instead of spending it on himself, the king is admonished to preserve and direct his strength for the sake of the mute and the vulnerable. He is to remember the “decrees,” the sacred trust granted to him as king, as a leader, as one given power and influence. He is to serve others rather than himself, and not simply any others, but the poor and defenceless, those who have no other helper, and those who cannot repay him with favours.
  3. The primary service the king is to render is to “open his mouth” for the mute (vv. 8, 9). According to Murphy, “the ‘mute’ are not so much physically as they are socially weak, without a voice among those who administer justice” (241). I find this one particularly challenging. Too often, I think, I have not spoken up when I could and should have done so. Larry Crabb entitled one of his books “The Silence of Adam,” arguing that Adam stayed silent when he should have spoken up. He suggests this a sin that befalls many men particularly. It is true there is a time to be silent, but there are also times where to be silent is to add affliction to those already suffering. I must remember to “open my mouth for the mute.”
  4. It is not uncommon to hear that the language of “rights” emerged in western culture with the Enlightenment. Although there may be some truth in that, this passage is a clear biblical example of rights language, though in Scripture it applies to the “rights” of the vulnerable, afflicted and needy. It is not at all unusual in our culture for the powerful to stand up for their rights. Again, this passage calls us to stand up for others’ rights.
  5. Finally, I have sometimes tried to imagine a world in which women held the offices and reins of power instead of men. Would such a world be different to what it often is now? Certainly women are sinful just as men are. But would a world ordered by women be as given to violence as it is now? Would abuse and oppression be so widespread? Perhaps. Lord Acton’s famous dictum probably applies to women as much as it does to men although it seems he had men specifically in mind: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” But the words of this passage originated as the counsel of a woman, a mother using her power and influence to train her son who one day would be king. May her tribe increase.