Tag Archives: Renewal

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter Samuel grows up. The most significant aspect of his growing years was his hearing the call and word of Yahweh. The story presents him as just a boy when Yahweh calls him—an encouragement to children and children’s ministers! At first Samuel does not recognise Yahweh’s voice, mistaking it for Eli. Indeed, like Eli’s sons, Samuel “does not know the Lord”—yet (v. 7; cf. 2:12). Eventually Eli discerns the truth and gives the best advice, telling Samuel to respond, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

But God’s speech is a word of judgement against Eli! (cf. Isaiah 6), and so not at all what one wants to hear. Like the prophecy given in the second chapter, the judgement is against Eli and his house, on account of the activities of Eli’s sons and his failure to restrain them. While it is possible to reflect on this passage with respect to parenting responsibilities, it is more likely that Eli is presented in terms of his role as high priest responsible for the work and worship of the tabernacle. Many years will pass before these words of prophecy come to pass by which time Samuel is an adult. There will, however, be no forgiveness for Eli, neither by sacrifice nor offering. This is a harsh, or at least a stern, word of unremitting judgement.

I find the portrayal of Eli in these chapters to be somewhat ambiguous. He confronts his sons but does not restrain them, nor remove them from their position. It seems likely that he too was benefiting from their misappropriation. Nevertheless, it seems he does much better with Samuel than he has with his own sons. His blessing of Hannah is twice fruitful, and here, he is alive to the possibility that God may be or is at work. He bows before the word of judgement and acknowledges Yahweh’s sovereign right to judge. Yet even this acknowledgement will not save him from this judgement. It seems that his acknowledgement is not equivalent to repentance. “Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours” (Evans, 40).

1 Samuel 3:1, 19, 21 
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Under the ministry of Eli and his sons, the word of the Lord has been rare. Whether the spiritual condition of Eli’s house and of the people was due to the lack of divine revelation, or whether the lack of divine revelation was due to the failure of the people may be speculated. What is plain in this passage, however, is that the Lord takes the initiative, addressing Samuel by name, calling him in the night, speaking his word and then confirming it publicly, establishing Samuel as the Lord’s prophet.

Samuel hears but does not recognise Yahweh’s voice: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7). Learning to hear and recognise God’s voice takes a certain sensitivity, quietness, openness, and readiness. It is unsurprising that Samuel hears in the period before dawn when he and all around him is quiet. It is difficult to hear “the still small voice” in the cacophony of daily busyness. It seems the voice was “audible” for Samuel but was not actually audible, for Eli was not awakened and did not hear. Initially Samuel mistook the divine voice for a natural occurrence, and needed the instruction and encouragement of Eli to recognise the subtlety of Yahweh’s speech. With Eli’s instruction Samuel returned to his bed and waited, and when addressed, was ready and responded as he had been instructed, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

The gracious divine initiative here is unmistakable: God comes to Samuel, addressing and calling him. The response of readiness, openness and humility is required if one is to hear the voice of the Lord. The posture is one of a servant, serving the Lord, serving the word. Samuel obeys. Samuel declares what he has heard, though he is afraid to do so. His response is full. He hears, he obeys, he declares. “And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh.”

It appears in this context that God’s primary way of revelation and communication with his people is via the prophets—despite the word addressed to Joshua after the death of Moses (see Joshua 1).  Later in Israel’s history, Amos warns that in a time of judgement God will send a famine upon the land:

Amos 8:11-12
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.

God has raised up a willing, responsive and faithful hearer of the word of God, who also becomes a speaker of the divine word that others might hear with the result that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (v. 21). “Recovery for Israel began with a new hearing and a new speaking out of the word of God” (Evans, 41).

History and Renewal

justo_l_gonzálezJusto González makes a bold claim for the study of church history in the introduction to the second edition of his The Story of Christianity:

It is at this point that the doing of history converges with the making of it. When we study the life and work of past generations, and when we interpret it, we are doing history. But we must remember that we are reading the past in light of our present, and also that future generations will read about our times as past history. In that sense, like it or not, both by our action and by our inaction, we are making history. This is both an exhilarating opportunity and an awesome responsibility, and it demands that we do history in order to be able to make it more faithfully. Every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history. The same will be true as we move ahead into the twenty-first century (The Story of Christianity 1:4).

Every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history. I don’t know enough to prove or disprove this bold claim, but I think Christian humanism and the Protestant Reformation, as well as the origins of modern Pentecostalism might all be called as exhibits for the affirmative case.

González gives examples for how the reading of church history may help us today: the early church’s response to a indifferent or hostile culture; the response of the churches to the mass-migration of whole nations in the fourth and fifth centuries; the devotion of medieval scholastics and Protestant reformers as an inspiration to budding scholars and theologians; the history of nineteenth-century missions as a warning to pitfalls when engaged in cross-cultural interactions. In light of what is presently happening in Syria and Europe, I was particularly taken with his second example.

Scripture on Sunday – Ezra 7:10

EzraEzra 7:10
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel.

When I received my new Bible, I wrote this verse on the front fly page, together with a very pious prayer:

Lord, teach me from your Word and let it be for me a Word that shapes my life, and truth that guides my way; and grant me the grace to so live it and teach it that others also might walk in its light (September 1, 2002).

Why this verse—especially when Ezra-Nehemiah are amongst the most obscure books in the Bible for me? It has been ages since I have read them, and I have never really studied them in any depth. Yet this verse has been a benchmark in my life for many, many years. I came across it in the very early years of my Christian life, well before I was married, from memory.

The study had begun in Psalm 78:8: “And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God” (KJV). I searched through the Scriptures to discover what it meant to have a right heart toward God. Over and again I found reference to those who had ‘prepared their heart’ to seek the Lord. The phrase was especially prominent in 2 Chronicles, and I found it here in Ezra as well. Ezra prepared his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach it.

What particularly attracted me to the verse was the order of the concepts: study, do, teach. A common saying is that one ought to practise what they preach. Although that might be true enough, this verse would shift the order and exhort us to preach what we practise. Chances are we would have many fewer and much shorter sermons!

Quite simply, the purpose of biblical study is obedience, understood in terms of a life shaped by the central vision of Scripture, as well as concrete obedience to specific precepts and commands where they apply. In my line of work this is a professional hazard. It is possible to study for other purposes: to prepare a sermon, to teach a lesson, to gain knowledge, to write an article—or a blog post, to prove a point, to dispute with a colleague, to win an argument, to make a name for oneself, to escape from less desirable activities, especially those where interaction with other people is required.

Not all of these other motives are necessarily wrong, although some are. Nor is it the case that the heart is missing, inactive or corrupt in them. Yet it may be. The biblical emphasis on the centrality of the heart is unmistakeable. The Lord looks on the heart… When the text says that Ezra set his heart, Fensham (The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah [NICOT], 101) notes that the word for ‘heart’ (lebab) connotes the entirety of one’s whole being. Ezra had devoted his life to this task, and, whether as result or as cause, “the good hand of the Lord was with him” (Ezra 7:6, 9).

Ezra’s study, practice and ministry was the focus of his life. He had become “skilled in the law of Moses” (v. 6). I suggest that his skill was not simply a mastery in terms of knowledge, but discernment and endurance with respect to application, as well as practical wisdom, understanding and passion in teaching.

Ezra is a prototype reformer, and I suspect the great reformers of the church have always been those who dig deeply into Scripture. They mine it to know God and his purposes more fully. They track back and forth through its pages to reappropriate the gospel in fresh ways for new generations, and to experience afresh the truth of the gospel in their own lives. They communicate it with power and passion in new times and conditions. They see a vision that demands their attention and obedience; they cannot help but proclaim it to others. I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring…

I look back with some amusement at my pious prayer in the front of my Bible. I know that I have often failed to live up to the lofty sentiment it expresses. I know, too, that I have allowed a professional distance to infiltrate my spirituality with respect to Scripture. Further, being pious is also such poor form these days. Who wants to be holier than thou? Our Christianity, our hermeneutics are too sophisticated for that!

Yet I look back with some longing at my pious prayer in the front of that Bible. I recoil—rightly, I am convinced—from the narrow and legalistic kind of pietism that is so sure of itself and its truth that it cannot help but be holier-than-thou. But I long for a genuine, humble piety, a heart set right toward God, and so therefore toward others as well. It seems I have grown tired of the kind of ‘secular Christianity’ I see so much of. The hip kind of Christianity that is so biblically and theologically lite that it lacks any genuine substance, as well as the hip kind of Christianity that is biblically and theologically aware but jaded, cynical and spiritually fruitless. And so I pray,

Lord, teach me from your Word and let it be for me a Word that shapes my life, and truth that guides my way; and grant me the grace to so live it and teach it that others also might walk in its light (July 19, 2015).