In connection with my notes on Psalm 33:3-9 I’m adding this link to a short story I wrote back in 2014 about someone who thinks he wants to hear God’s voice: It Got Very Quiet up in the Mountains.
I’m continuing with comments on the scripture passages for this week from the Daily Bible Study, which my Sunday School class uses as curriculum.
This passage, like most of the passages this week, links God’s Word (whether in words or not) with creation and justice. We are to praise God because his word holds true, his work endures (v. 4). He loves righteousness and justice and his unfailing love fills the earth (v. 5).
It’s interesting to note that this passage, very much like yesterday’s passage from Proverbs, states the attributes first and then makes the power explicit. “By YHWH’s word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all their host” (v. 6). “He spoke, and it was, he commanded, and it stood firmly” (v. 9).
I quote it fairly frequently, but I wonder how often we think about who this must be when we talk about being in God’s presence, or hearing God’s voice, or looking at something that we say must surely be the act of God.
It’s possible for us to affirm the right things about God and never even imagine a tiny fraction of what all this would be like. Perhaps a slightly less casual attitude might be in order.
The reference “Ephesians 3:14-21” is inscribed inside my wedding band. This is a powerful passage, and I just want to call attention to a few lines: “… that you may be able to grasp with all the saints the breadth, length, height, and depth, (19) to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you can be filled with all of God’s fullness.”
We often—I often—don’t really get this. It is in the nature of a teacher to explain things, but in this case we have to say we can’t make this clear. It surpasses knowledge. It surpasses our ability to imagine it.
And then verse 20: “Now to the one who is able to immeasurably more than we ask or conceive according to the power that is working among us …” And that points us back to Psalm 33 and the one who speaks and it is done.
Do you ever pause and try to imagine this? Or is “we are the body of Christ” just a description of an ordinary gathering of humans?
Continuing my notes on the daily passages from this week’s lesson, I’m looking at Proverbs 3:13-20. I assume it’s clear to all that the subject is creation.
13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, 14 for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. 19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; 20 by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew. (Prov. 3:13-20 NRSV)
We again find ourselves looking at God’s revelation through God’s work. I like to emphasize the importance of not just reading words from the Word of God, as we do in scripture, but also receiving the Word of God as revealed in God’s acts in history (as well as our own lives) and in Jesus.
This passage is logically extracted from the chapter, which is not always the case, as I noted yesterday. You can see a simple inclusio which ties the passage together. In verse 13, the ones who are fortunate are those who find wisdom and get understanding. This is reflected again in verse 19 when these same to things (the words in Hebrew are the same just as they are in the NRSV). The tie between these two verses emphasizes the message. It is divine wisdom and understanding that the happy, or fortunate, ones have found.
But I think one can further deduce that real wisdom (and not all claimed wisdom really is) and real understanding derive, just as does all creation, from God. It’s interesting how often we try to discover those things that God does. That is, as opposed to things that just happen. But the scriptural view of creation would say rather than all things depend upon God and function because it is God’s will that they do.
As a believer in free will, I also note that my ability to choose along with the ranges of choices available all derive from God’s action and God’s will. There is no real independence. Everything derives in some way from God. I believe in free will, but each act of my will happens because God has permitted it and also set the bounds on it.
Today’s scripture is very positive. It emphasizes the good things: Long life, pleasantness, peace, happiness. Yesterday’s passage was taken from a cry of deep despair. Job was facing just how unlikely it was that God would respond to him. The wise person is not always fortunate in everything. Job, called righteous, suffers. The season of his life reflected in the book that bears his name was anything but pleasant and peaceful.
Is this a contradiction in scripture? Is it inappropriate to say of wisdom that “her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold”? (v. 14). Actually, I think that the contradiction, or better the tension, is in the nature of reality itself.
We tell young people not to text and drive. A young driver collided with my car while probably texting. So we say, “Don’t text and drive. It’s safer.” There’s that hedging. But no matter how safely one drives, bad things can happen. When the other car collided with mine, I was driving within the speed limit and obeying all traffic laws. Indeed, I was paying quite close attention. Yet from a side street came something I was not prepared for.
In life as well, unpleasant things can come upon us from a side street and smash our lives to pieces. It’s just the nature of reality. No matter how careful you are, there are things that happen that are beyond your control. As I write, people in Puerto Rico are awaiting Tropical Storm, likely to become Hurricane Dorian. Wisdom is useful. Good preparation is helpful. But there are some things that storm will do that nobody could have prepared for well enough.
We don’t abandon preparation just because storms come when they come no matter what. We don’t abandon safe driving because someone else may be driving while impaired or sending an essential text at just the wrong moment. These things help, but nothing is certain.
As a Christian, however, I believe that God has set a boundary. God permitted Job to be stricken by disaster, but God also set limits. I could definitely wish those limits were more, well, ummm, limiting! But odds are that when I want to see some flexibility in the boundaries, I will be less happy with the limits.
Perhaps God thinks of that as well, noting how unhelpfully we beat against the limits set on creation.
I like reading the texts before I’ve read the lesson material so that I can see what I can learn from them without the direction of the lesson topic. So why do I call this text “out of context” when I haven’t even seen how it will be used by the lesson material.
The reason is simply that the text trims out the material that would let us know the speaker or the point in the argument at which this text appears. If we look back to Job 9:1, we find that this is one of Job’s responses to his friends, the friends who have come to make sure his depression is as deep as possible.
When you consider that when God appears in this story, God doesn’t think much of what has been said before God’s appearance, it is perhaps not helpful to take theology out of any of the speeches from chapter 3 through chapter 37. While God commends Job, it is not for Job’s speech.
In my experience, most Christians who quote from Job at all quote from the speeches of Job’s friends, and don’t trouble to take note of who is speaking. That’s because Job’s friends maintain what most of us feel, which is that many, if not most of the bad things that happen to people are the result of their bad decision. God, according to this view, is in the business of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad.
Job doesn’t really counter this so much as simply assert his innocence. In this passage he’s declaring God powerful, but also distant. That’s Job’s problem with all this. He’d like God to show up and answer his questions. God hasn’t done that.
What is trimmed out of our reading is the fact that this is Job speaking (v. 1), and that he has just declared that God will not answer. His comments on God’s power are not so much praise as they are a declaration of God’s distance. At the end of verse 3 he declares that God won’t respond one time in a thousand.
With all that trimmed, this can sound like a declaration of praise for the Creator. What it actually is, is a complaint about the distance of a God who allows Job to suffer and yet refuses to explain himself.
Job is often referred to as a theodicy, a justification of God’s behavior. Theodicies usually try to explain how God can be good, all-powerful, and yet allow suffering or evil to exist. The book of Job doesn’t actually attempt any theodicy. Job is answered, insofar as he is at all, when God appears and challenges him. In the story, Job never finds out what was going on in the background. We, the readers are privy to the council, and to what God is proving through Job’s suffering.
Equally interesting to me is the fact that Job is quite satisfied with the answer, even though on a logical basis it’s not much of an answer. What Job longs for is what he sees lacking: God needs to take note of him. Once this has happened Job is quite happy.
One of the reasons for that, I suspect, is that Job simply sees that God truly is that great, and is in turn grateful that God has paid attention to his complaints at all, even though God doesn’t answer the questions Job has raised.
So let’s go full circle back to the point about context. Sometimes texts can be used out of context. The problem is that we generally try to make scripture authoritative. If one uses a text out of context and pretends that this reading is authoritative because it is scripture, that presents quite a problem.
When I was in elementary school we had a program of scripture memorization that included memorizing lists of four texts. We’d have four texts on the Sabbath (I was Seventh-day Adventist at the time), four texts on the state of the dead, and so forth. Today I would view a number of these texts as taken out of context. And for their purpose, some of them were.
On the other hand there are allusions and literary borrowing. Revelation, for example, is filled with verbal allusions to various passages in Hebrew scripture. These are not used as proof texts, but rather form part of the literary fabric from which the report of John’s vision is woven. As long as we understand what is going on, there is no problem. The problem is that we often see only one use in scripture: proving doctrinal points.
I’m reminded of the saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is quoted in a pious way, indicating that by erecting effective barriers, we can live more peacefully. I actually think this is quite correct. Boundaries, well-defined and reasonable, are very helpful to relationships.
That was not the meaning of this line when it was first written. You might take the time to read the Robert Front poem.
Sometimes in our Bible reading we need to realize that we are reading a story, seeing a picture, getting a sense, and not learning a doctrine.
I’m teaching Sunday School this coming week, and the class uses the Daily Bible Study from Cokesbury. The first scripture for the week is Pslam 19:1-6.
The lesson focuses on creation, so it’s not surprising that only the first six verses are used. Some scholars believe that Psalm 19 is two separate compositions. These first six verses talk about the glories of God’s creation, yet the purpose of the Psalm is not simply to assert God’s glory as seen through what God has made.
In fact, I would suggest that the key to the purpose of the Psalm is found in verse 13, ending with being innocent of the “great transgression” or “grave offence” (REB). Dahood (and others, see Anchor Bible on this passage) maintain that this is the sin of idolatry. At the same time, Dahood suggests the first part of the Psalm is adapted from a hymn to the sun. If so, it was adapted rather vigorously and with malice toward its intended purpose.
The heavens declare the glory of YHWH, and it is made clear that YHWH sets the course of the sun. The sun, often seen as a god of justice in the ancient near east, is placed subordinate to the Creator. Similarly, the law is shown as subordinate to the lawgiver, who can give this law because He is the one who created all and put the sun on its course.
There is some tendency amongst Christians to see the Hebrew Scriptures as presenting a legalistic approach to righteousness, which is negated and replaced with grace in the New Testament. So here, in verse seven, we have the law “converting the soul” (KJV) or “reviving the soul” (REB). One might contrast this with Paul’s view of the law in Romans 6 & 7, but I don’t think this is accurate.
In fact, worship of the law would also be idolatry as would worship of the sun. That is the parallel between the first six verses and the remainder of the Psalm. Verses 12 & 13 remind us who is the one who can keep us from wrong.
I’m reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of idolatry as treating something that is not ultimate as our ultimate concern. The law is important and so is the sun, but neither replace the one who gave the law or created the sun. As an instrument of God’s work in us, the law has a place (thus Matthew 5:17). Yet when we replace God and God’s power with anything less, we head into failure.
Psalm 19 is a reminder that God gives (grace) before he legislates (law), i.e., grace comes before law. Law can, in fact, be good news, in that it not only shows God’s requirements (which we cannot accomplish), but shows the glory of the purpose God has for us. God intends to make each of us something that we cannot even imagine. When we try to accomplish this through a reading of the law or through our own efforts to fulfill its requirements, we choose to take something less and make it ultimate.
It is because it takes our concern away from the ultimate that idolatry is so dangerous. Good things can be idols. If I do mission work in order to earn God’s favor or in order to be seen by others as a good person, then I’m settling for less than the ultimate. It has to be God working in me or it’s leading me down the wrong path. The wrong path leaves me short of the glorious purpose God has for me.
Psalm 19 also talks about God’s revelation, which is part of God’s grace given to us. God’s grace is shown by the gift of the sun to give light. Yet if we say that this is sufficient, and grab hold of that alone, we will fall short of God’s purpose for us. Similarly if we take our conception and understanding of the law, it will always be less than what God demands, but in the same way that God’s law is demanding, so it is a sign of the glory planned for us.
We can see this in God’s creation, in studying God’s actions. This is sometimes called general revelation, God’s Word without words. But we also have God’s instruction, which is God’s Word in words.
To many, the general revelation is less important. I would suggest that it is rather important in different ways. Through science we can study God in action. We have the danger of thinking we have somehow eliminated the need for God because we understand God’s creation so well. That is considered the weakness. We can misunderstand it, and use it to replace God.
But the same problem exists for God’s Word in words; for God’s law or instruction. We can try to let us replace God, not with God’s real law, but with our limited and limiting understanding of it. It is God alone who can keep our sins from ruling over us, and it is God alone who can sanctify us, and even glorify us, but God is the one with the glory; the real glory.
Each time I hear a news item that I know will involve members of our armed services being sent into danger, I am jarred just a bit. This wasn’t so early in my life.
I formed many political opinions without ever thinking of the individual human cost of those actions. The fact is that if we’re going to “teach ______ (country, group, etc) a lesson” someone is going to pay for it. Perhaps they will just lose time with their families or comforts. Some, however, will lose everything.
I do not say this with the intent of paralyzing our thinking. As a nation, we will sometimes have to do difficult things for freedom, yes, but also for security. But I pray that I never lose that jolt that I feel each time, that tells me, “With this policy, or this action, or in response to this threat, people are going to die.”
With that realization comes the responsibility to make those deaths count and to take care of the people who were willing to make those hopes real.
Somebody has to be willing to risk it all.
I’ve always thought of my own military service as relatively painless. Yes, there were plenty of things to complain about. Besides, what would one do in the boring hours between various activities if one couldn’t moan and groan?
On the other hand, I had the undeserved privilege of serving with some of the finest people I have every know. Rough, rowdy, sometimes difficult, yes. But at the same time totally dedicated, totally ready to serve, and totally committed to their crew and their unit.
I recently commented to someone regarding a movie scene in which guys who had moments before been yelling at one another immediately came together to fight their enemy. I said this: “You don’t have to like the guy to be ready to trust your life to them. There were always guys I didn’t like personally all that much. But they would all put everything into the mission when the time came.”
To all who have served, I thank you. To those I served with, I want to say that my time with you was the greatest privilege of my life. To those who have passed on, and there are plenty of you, your place in my heart, and I believe in all our hearts, is secure.
Featured image is from af.mil.
I haven’t used it, but it’s getting good reviews, including for an easily read font and quality paper. I’ve put a 25% discount on it in my aer.io store.
The question came to me after I had been talking about intercessory prayer and hearing God’s voice, but it came as a surprise.
“What should I do about sharing knowledge I get from God about other people? Can I tell other people so that we can pray more specifically?”
I had not been talking about getting information about people from words of knowledge or whatever other means one might think of doing so. Considering the number of people I have heard claim to get special knowledge from God, and the number of cases in which I have found this information to be incorrect, my first concern was that someone would consider an unverified thing they heard to be safe to share with anyone.
But the questioner had a different concern. Somehow, this person thought that if the information came from God, sharing it would not be gossip. The “spiritually acquired” information was somehow special, and would absolve one of gossip.
As an aside, I would say that whether you believe you got your information straight from God, picked it up by being a good reader of people, heard it from a gossip in your church, or put it together from clues that lead you to a conclusion, sharing it with someone else inappropriately is gossip.
I begin with this story to illustrate a basic problem. People give themselves a special category for spiritual things. They say things and do things in a “spiritual” context that they might never do in real life.
Whether you hurt someone through physical action or through some sort of spiritual activity, they are still hurt. In fact, by giving extra spiritual weight, such as by saying “God told me” or “this came to me during my prayer time” can increase the emotional damage that you can do.
I’d go so far as to say that I have heard this phrase many more times as spiritual manipulation than as genuine spiritual counsel and help.
Think about it! If you tell something that you think the church should undertake a particular project, they can easily object and discuss the merits of the case. If you say, “God told me we should do it,” they have to not only challenge your ideas, but call you a false prophet, speaking the word of the LORD when the LORD has not spoken. When you say you came to your conclusion in your prayer time, you can combine both elements, by giving yourself an extra spiritual aura and at the same time suggesting that your suggestion should be seen as coming from God.
Outside of the realm of decision making, and with people who will hear it as I intend it, I may say that I have heard this or that from God. I will note here, however, that what I hear from God invariably is about me, not anyone else. Actions I take based on that hearing may impact you, but I rarely hear something for someone else. The exception is often with prayer partners where we help one another confirm a course of action.
So how can one be sure that one knows the will of God? Surely I can suggest a way in which you can be certain and thus can act on what you hear from the Lord without further consideration.
No, I don’t. I do not have a checklist that will make certain. I find the tests in Deuteronomy very interesting. In Deuteronomy 18 we are told that if a prophet’s word is not fulfilled, their word is false. I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you know whether the prophet spoke truly, you’re dead. Try the story in 1 Kings 22 as an example.
But in Deuteronomy 13, we’re told that even if a prophet’s word comes true, if they tell us to worship other gods, we are to reject them as false. This is a live test, but it kind of leaves us with a serious question. How do you know what God is saying? How do you know God’s will?
Now let me detour to those who think they will get all answers from scripture, for example. Some of the craziest decisions I have ever heard of came from people who thought they were following scripture. They also didn’t know God’s will.
So is there a problem there with scripture?
Well, you can call it a problem, but it’s really a problem with everything. I am a human. I’m finite. I’m imperfect, subject to error. Whether I’m interpreting scripture, following tradition, doing my best scientific calculation, or listening to the voice of God (as I perceive it), I’m still imperfect.
Consider a laser measuring device. Suppose it is capable of measuring the distance to a point to 1/16″, such as this one I found on Amazon.com. Now supposing we have a readout that will only read measurements accurate to an inch. We cannot actually get the correct measurement of which the device is capable because we can’t actually read that result.
Similarly, while God is entirely accurate, I am not. I cannot make a 100% claim of correctness no matter what. Any 100% correctness would have to be accomplished by God, and then in turn, the message is likely to be misunderstood by the next person down the chain.
So does that leave us unable to make any decisions? Not at all! We live with ambiguity all the time. We make mistakes all the time. Just because you make a mistake in church doesn’t make it incredibly devastating.
Unless, that is, you try to make the claim that you are, in fact, a prophet who is without error. You can make your claims more destructive by the claim of perfection for yourself. A good approach is whether it’s just your opinion or whether it’s what you believe you heard from God, present it as yourself. That’s not arrogant. That allows for God speaking to the other person. A number of times I have said something which someone else says was precisely what they needed to hear, generally when I didn’t even have the slightest notion that I was giving someone God’s word. The hearer identified it as something they needed without my saying so.
Decision making involves lots of sources and finally your own reasoning.
Yes, Proverbs says to “lean not on your own insight” (Proverbs 3:5). But even your understanding of what God has said goes through your own mind. You’re eventually going to have to decide, and your mind will be involved in doing it. Hopefully, it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to you (cf. Acts 15:28), and so it is not purely your own understanding, but you are going to have to make the decision, no matter what input goes in.
Personally, I take everything in, test it as best I can, hold what is good, and make my decision (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22).
I don’t spend a great deal of time talking about it, but following my MA in Biblical and cognate languages, I took one quarter in a MA in Theoretical Linguistics program. I had a full ride fellowship with a stipend, but after one quarter I resigned the fellowship and headed for more interesting places and activities.
In my introduction to linguistics course, the midterm test was made up of a short set of essay questions. I believe we had to answer three of four, though I can’t remember precisely. One of them had to do with comparative linguistics—right up my alley! So I filled it with examples from multiple languages and just plain had fun. More fun, in fact, than I’d had in the class up to then.
I hadn’t realized that the professor would choose to read what he thought were the best answers to the questions to the entire class. He chose mine. I wasn’t embarrassed by my content, but the context was totally wrong. The university had a strong TESOL program, and the vast majority of the students were in that. They were not pursuing theoretical linguistics. As a general rule, they probably had at most a minor in one foreign language.
One student responded immediately afterward with a question: “How are we supposed to write something like that when we don’t know all those languages?”
Her question was absolutely valid. My particular skill set was not that relevant to them. One can be superior at TESOL without knowing, say, Ugaritic. By presenting something not relevant, the professor had actually done something to discourage other students. If they had to do that, well, they couldn’t.
It wasn’t because I was superior to them. It was because my skill set was different.
Now let’s make a completely bogus argument. Why not? People do it all the time. Here it is. Knowing more is better. If those students learned more languages, they would have more sources of examples. Why should they not be required to learn all those languages? They’re probably just too lazy.
A parallel argument might be made about my high school education. Why not require him to take more credits in science and math? Why not require Algebra II, Trigonometry, maybe some Calculus? After all, he will know more!
Well, in response. I’ll go ahead an be lazy. In fact, I’m a high school dropout. It wasn’t for the normal reasons. I was overseas and enjoying running around the country. But the thing is that I was able to succeed without all those credits, including not having the credits normally required in English. In fact, I have just 2.5 high school credits, and one of those is in typing.
Yet we make this kind of argument all the time. For the things I find easy, it’s also easy to suggest that others should have to fulfill those requirements. Why not? It’s good knowledge and they might need it. I recall the surprise of some people trying to develop a two year ministry program when I suggested that requiring Greek was not a good idea. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that in a two year program you can’t learn enough Greek to be that useful unless you steal time from other necessary activities.
But let’s look at the church. We often operate on the same basis. Why not suggest people do it? Why not make the standard higher? We even talk this way in churches that hardly have any standards at all, because as members we want some.
Whether it’s modest dress, giving, mission work, church activities, or other moral issues in our lives, the solution is generally to suggest doing more. And yes, again, I realize that we rarely enforce those standards, but that makes it even worse. We push people to higher performance and assume they won’t make it, but we figure if we just push a bit harder—you’re giving one percent, how about two?—we’ll get a bit more out of people. When they don’t live up to the implied standard, well, we tried!
And they may have tried and failed, and added to whatever else they may have been dealing with, they now feel that they are not living up to what their pastor, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, deacon, elder, or generally picky person round the church expects of them.
It’s like telling (or rather, implying that) those people who were learning how to teach English to speakers of other languages ought to get down to it and learn a few more languages like the theoretical linguist down the row. (Or rather, the guy who had learned a number of ancient languages. I never did get a degree in linguistics!) It won’t help them do their job, but one can hope it will make them feel smarter.
Actually it won’t. Setting up higher standards doesn’t help one to fulfill those standards, whether or not they’re relevant.
But there’s another problem in church. When we require those “higher” standards, we also imply that the standards are what church is about, and we can suggest that other people, those who don’t accomplish those standards are not good enough.
I think this is a good part of what Paul is talking about in Romans 12-14, especially 14. It’s possible to read Paul’s toleration as an acceptance of just anything. I think Paul’s focus is on the message of the gospel. He’s giving up disagreements and minor points of behavior in favor of the message of the gospel.
I’m not going to do this verse by verse, but try reading those three chapters with this in mind. No, that’s not the only theme, but I think it is uppermost in Paul’s mind. How are we going to witness best to the message of the gospel? So then, “Don’t destroy God’s work over food” (Romans 14:20) the point is to put one’s focus back on the gospel. Forcing one’s detailed rules doesn’t make people better. It detracts from the gospel.
Being stricter, always trying to be better, will not necessarily make you better. It is often, instead, the road to more complete failure.