I recorded this on 10-21-30 because of the approach of Hurricane Zeta on the evening of the 28th.
I recorded this on 10-21-30 because of the approach of Hurricane Zeta on the evening of the 28th.
I’m a bit behind posting these, but here are the files from the last Perspectives video. Note we will be continuing the discussion this coming week, as I only completed about half of what I had planned. The key theme text will be Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Remember that a good deal of the material I’m covering presently relies somewhat on Hebrews, which is not generally regarded as Pauline. I am one who does not believe Paul was the author. This may provide us with some material on which to base a discussion of the differences and similarities of the theology of Hebrews and of the uncontested Pauline letters.
(Note that I publish the book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by David Alan Black, which contends that Paul was the author. Though I think Dave makes the best possible case, in the end I am not convinced.)
We had an interesting discussion today in Sunday School. We were discussing the 3rd chapter of my book When People Speak for God, titled Messengers – God and Prophet. The questions at hand were just what is prophecy, who are God’s messengers (with a side-order of how can you tell) and how does getting a message from God work.
I started by repeating an important point, I believe, that prophecy in a biblical sense is not the same as prediction. I do not deny prediction as a part of prophecy, but thinking of prophecy as primarily about prediction will provide a distorted view of prophecy. Denying all prediction will distort one’s view as well.
Further, discernment is always a requirement. A key passage in considering discernment is 1 Kings 22. What lessons one might draw from that story might be quite interesting. But that discernment was needed is quite clear.
Combining the result of that story with Jeremiah 42 & 43 and my own observations of life I think that we have a greater problem with doing what should be done after we know what it is, than ever we do with actually discerning what is right and wrong. The most common question I hear (and ask, for that matter) is “how do I know what God’s will is?” when the real question should be “how can I put into action what I already know is right?”
This led us to the question of naming prophets. Who in the church today might be called a prophet?
In the church I think we should be much less about who is in the office of prophet than was the case in Old Testament times, and much more about all God’s people being prophets, perhaps a fulfillment of Moses’ wish: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).
I think that this goes well with the idea of the priesthhood of all believers. It is not about finding people to occupy an office of prophet, but rather to recognize this gift when it is received and exercised.
Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context is the headline in RELEVANT magazine. Thomas Turner is writing vigorously about the apparently shameful misuse of this passage of scripture. He points out that it’s used on graduation cards and often quoted in words of encouragement to individuals. He summarizes:
Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.
Really? Totally out of context? Read his article first, and you may see just how much of what we say about the passage is very close to the same thing. Yet I’m coming to a different conclusion on the usage of the text on a graduation card or as a matter of encouragement.
Jeremiah is not talking to each of us personally. Jeremiah is speaking to Israel. Quite true! Further, Jeremiah is talking about our high school graduations, or our difficulties in finding a job or a spouse. Just so. Jeremiah is not talking about those things. But the fact is that scripture does not generally talk to us quite that directly.
I’m a great fan of context. One has to be in order to study scripture. But I’m not a fan of the excessive or indiscriminate application of rules. Almost any rule can be misapplied or stretched. A compact, memorable rule is very much like Jeremiah 29:11—when you use it, you will tend to bypass a great deal of logic and background.
Take, for example, the etymological fallacy. This is a very real and quite pernicious fallacy. I encounter it regularly in reading. Someone lays out the root(s) of a word, and derives a meaning from them. “‘Church’ in Greek is ekklesia,” says the confident but careless preacher, “and that comes from ek, ‘out of’ and klesia which comes from the word for ‘called’, so the church is the ‘called out ones’.”
But there are some uses for etymology. One is for fun, where a speaker might help us remember a point by pointing out etymology. Provided one doesn’t claim that the etymology has the last word about the meaning of the passage, there’s no problem with this. It’s fun. It helps one remember things. In addition, it can help one with spelling. And did I mention that it’s fun?
The second is when studying obscure words which one has available in only a limited number of contexts. It’s easy to announce that a word’s meaning is determined by usage, and that we discover that meaning by observing it in various contexts. But some words might occur only once, or even just a very few times in the literature we have available. What then? Well, etymology can provide pointers. I observed this in studying Ugaritic. My knowledge of Hebrew regularly suggested possibilities for words I encountered in Ugaritic, then context would help narrow down my choices. As a student, of course, I had recourse to the available literature on the topic to check my work.
Ugaritic, in turn, suggested some possible options for understanding rare words in Hebrew. At which point the etymological fallacy would often come into play again. Ugaritic could be helpful, but it could also send the unwary off into flights of fancy.
I take that detour to point out that we can apply rules, even good rules, improperly. Rules themselves require context. That’s true of the use of context as well. I learned before I was in High School (most of which I skipped anyhow) that one should always take texts in context. But there was a fallacy hidden in there too. The type of context I learned about was the literary context, i.e. discovering what the author said before and after, and placing the text into that context.
That’s good. We want to do that. We’ve already pointed out how Jeremiah isn’t talking about us personally. He’s looking at a community. Not only that, he’s looking at a specific community, Israel. He’s looking at that community at a specific time and in specific circumstances. What he says will be fulfilled in specific ways to those people.
And with that last sentence I blast my way right out of literary context and start looking at historical context. (Jeremiah lays out the historical circumstances of his statement in the context. I’m talking about the broader history of the fulfilment of his statement.) Now we realize that there is much more to context than just the literary context. Notice here that we also get away from a “one meaning” fallacy, the idea that a text means only one, limited thing. (And that rule could be badly misapplied as well!)
And this context can lead us to a canonical context. How do the words of Jeremiah tie in with scripture as a whole? (I will pass over the issue of whose scripture. I write as a Christian, reading as a Christian.) The exile, regarding which Jeremiah writes, becomes a historical watershed for Israel, and comes to define, along with the exodus, must of the Christian understanding of redemption. There’s a reason so many prophecies of 2nd Isaiah (40-55) are later applied to Jesus, even though in context, they have more immediate applicability. The entire event—exile and restoration—takes on new meaning in this theological context.
We might argue that this is improper usage. If Jeremiah didn’t mean it or Isaiah didn’t mean it (an assumption on our part), then how can we use it in that way? First, if we don’t accept a theological context, we’re pretty much out of business as a community with a shared theology, i.e. a shared understanding of God. Second, we do this kind of reshaping of events and stories all the time with other literature. While I believe what the author intended needs to be an anchor, a guide, even a limitation, preventing flights of fancy with the text, words do take on a power of their own in a community. (I would suggest the example of how Melchizedek is used in Hebrews, but this post would grow to long if I discussed that further.)
I’m not, however, suggested that we can just grab the text and do what we want with it because there are such things as canonical and even theological contexts. As with literary context, we have to look at what these contexts actually are and make sure that we haven’t just yelled “context” and declared victory, whichever side we’re on.
How does the theological context apply?
Well, first, we have the issue of individual versus community application. The church in America tends to be very individualistic. It’s fashionable in certain circles, to lay heavy emphasis on the community in order to counter that trend. I’m in those circles. I think we need to revive the idea of community in the church. It’s not about me, it’s about the body of Christ as a whole.
But there’s a tension in scripture and in theology on this very point. The church is a community, but the community is made up of individuals. So you have things that apply to individuals somehow. As I study Hebrews with my Sunday School class right now it’s interesting to see the tension between remembering the leaders (13:7), and everyone having boldness going before God, between the examples of faith, all individuals (11), and the great cloud of witnesses (12:1ff).
When someone today says to remember the leaders of my church, I can point out that I can move down the street and find other leaders. That’s actually a sad thing, that disunity in the church, yet it’s true, and unless you’re prepared to argue that every church’s leaders are truly following God, then there is room for me, as an individual to make a choice. In fact, I must make a choice.
So there is a tension here as well. It’s good to realize that Jeremiah 29:11 was first spoken to a specific community and that there was a specific fulfilment of this text to that community. That is important. As Thomas Turner points out, it’s a promise of the kingdom of God as well, and that’s important too.
But for the individual looking at a major life choice, the most important thing to get out of this verse may well be that God has a plan for him or her at that moment. The choice of the right college, the right job, or the right spouse may be the most important kingdom thing right then for that individual who is a member of the community of believers.
And in that very community that we want to celebrate, for which God has great plans, this text has come to mean more than just the good of the big group in the by and by. It has come to mean that, as “Abraham’s seed” I can now hear God speaking to me (Galatians 3:29), and that this individual application may be precisely what I need to hear.
We often act as though God has to pay more attention to the big things (like the triumph of the Kingdom at the end) than to the little things (where will I go to college?). But God doesn’t have limited attention so that he needs to prioritize. He can give full attention to both issues, along with billions more.
Just like those boiled down, compact rules of hermeneutics, the community has boiled down Jeremiah 29:11 and presented it as a compact promise. It’s a usage I find entirely appropriate.
It’s interesting to me how we (and I definitely include myself) often read scripture. One concept can easily override another. For example, I recall a conversation in which someone was claiming that no human being was ever righteous. I brought up Job, who is described as righteous in Job 1. “Oh, but that is only as he was seen through the righteousness of Christ,” I was told. Of course, Job 1 isn’t speaking of the righteousness of Christ, and in fact the entire book would be very silly with that change. Job is concerned that he has been punished, but that nothing he has done deserves these results.
This post is a follow-up to Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesnt Last" href="http://www.deepbiblestudy.net/2012/07/psalm-89-when-eternal-doesnt-last/">Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last, and you should read that post first.
It’s funny that I begin this post with an illustration from Job, because Job provides a counterpoint to the theology I’m looking at. Jeremiah 18, which I cited in the previous post, talks about how if God is sending disaster, and the recipients of the disaster repent, God will repent of that disaster. One implication that might be drawn is that good deeds result in blessing, and bad deeds result in curses. One need look no further than Deuteronomy 28 to find this theology made explicit, and it is repeatedly hammered in through the various books of the Deuteronomic history.
But what I’m more interested in here is the interactive nature of the texts, the way in which people’s actions are woven in with God’s will with the implication that you can change the future. Even if God has said things will go one way, that might be changed through human action.
In theology we tend to reconcile the differences in some way. God might only appear to react to the actions of humans, but he actually knows precisely what is coming and he does precisely what he planned. It may be considered blasphemous to suggest otherwise. But open theism and process theology both suggest that God is more interactive than traditional theology holds, though to different degrees and in different ways.
My interest here is in the way we read the biblical text, and the way that we understand prophecy and its fulfilment. I’ll get to the covenants shortly.
Imagine a father who tells his children that he will take them all to the movies in the evening. Now think about the father’s mental processes. Did he suddenly realize that in the fixed future he would have taken his children to the movies, and thus he informed them of this information he had received (or divined, perhaps)? Or did he decide at this moment that he wanted to take his children to the movies, and that he would, in fact, do so this very evening?
Given that this human father does not know the future, such as to see himself taking future action, we’ll have to assume the latter. He makes a decision in the present, and he announces it to his children by saying, “I’m going to take you to the movies.” At the point at which he makes that statement it’s true. Being an optimistic sort, this particular father doesn’t think of all the possible reasons he might not make it or might change his mind. He just says he’s going.
Let’s imagine now that the children, having heard of their good fortune, decide that nothing else matters. They fail to do their chores. They ignore their mother. The fail to put away their toys. They say unfortunate things. In fact, they generally make life miserable for their parents.
Now the father says, “Because you have been misbehaving, we are not going to the movies any more.” Does this make his earlier statement a lie? It was true (at least in intent) when he said it, but it does not actually take place.
My suggestion is that prophecies are more like this father’s statement than they are like scenes which one might see in a crystal ball. (If crystal balls worked, which they don’t!) When God says “Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days,” he doesn’t mean that he has observed the future and seen that this happens, but rather that he intends, in 40 days, to destroy Nineveh. That’s clearly the way the Ninevites understand it. It’s the way Jonah is afraid it’s going to work.
I’m not certain how much difference there is between these two ways of thinking when it is God making the promises or predictions. It makes a great deal of difference in the way we think about what God has to say.
Now we come to covenant, and I’d like to call our attention to Jeremiah 31:31-34:
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (NRSV)
(Note: I would use “lawful lord” rather than “husband” in this passage, but that gets beyond the scope of this blog post.)
There are a few things to notice about this passage. First, the covenant came with promises (or are they predictions?). Does this make a difference? There are conditions. It is by violating these conditions that the covenant is broken. Once broken, the covenant is not in effect.
Then comes the unheard of grace—a new covenant. It’s not a restoration of an old covenant. That one has been broken, and as we learned in Psalm 89, no matter what we do we cannot make the promises “have been” fulfilled, because they weren’t. David’s throne was removed. There was no one sitting on it. No amount of restoration years later can make what did not happen happen. Instead, there’s a new covenant. God is now on plan B, unless it’s plan C or D and we didn’t realize it. But at least it’s not plan A.
And this is where Christians can go off the rail, especially considering how much this passage is used in the book of Hebrews. The easy Christian solution is to assume that the new covenant that God created is a covenant with the church. And I believe that God does indeed have a new covenant with the church.
But having a covenant with his people the church does not really fulfil the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34, because there he says that a day is coming when he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. That precludes one set of ideas, specifically that the church replaces Israel, and that Israel as such is no longer a player.
But on the other hand we have the view that everything said in the old covenant, the one that was broken, must still be fulfilled. That is not, in my view, scripturally justified. In fact, that is to make the same mistake as those Jeremiah mentioned (7:1-20) who kept repeating: “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” God calls attention immediately to Shiloh which had once been the seat of God’s tabernacle, but which had not done so well.
So it’s now plan B, or perhaps plan C. (Shiloh?) How do we know the form that God’s blessing will take? Perhaps no eye has seen it nor any ear heard it, nor has it entered into any human heart (1 Cor. 2:9).
That’s a pretty obvious theme, but it would seem even more odd to skip it! The second Sunday in Christmas is a good day to commemorate these events.
There are a few different items that strike me here.
While there is much violence in the Old Testament (and a certain amount in the New), the basic ideas of grace are still expressed regularly. Nowhere is this clearer, in my opinion, than in the appeal to salvation history in passages of judgment and of exhortation.
The Old Testament passage and the Psalm for Proper 17C both demonstrate this theme. In Jeremiah 2:4-13, this starts in verse 5 with God asking just what problem the ancestors might have found with him. This is to emphasize that God acted faithfully and brought them to his land. The exhortation to right action comes as a response to (and I think enabled by, though this passage doesn’t focus on that) the grace that God has poured out.
Wrong actions are actually shown to be more heinous when committed in the face of such grace. That is also a New Testament concept, as in Hebrews 2:3 and 10:29-31.
The same theme occurs in Psalm 81, where in verse 10 (English verse numbering) we get the appeal to God’s grace in the past and his willingness to extend grace in the present.
I would submit that this “graceful” pattern is true of both testaments.
I discussed this more in an earlier post on my Threads blog, which also has some links to other writing on the same topic.
Bruce Alderman wrote an interesting post today on what has to be somewhere close to my favorite book of the Bible–Jonah. He referenced an earlier post of mine from my Threads blog, but I’m not really commenting on that part. I should also note that while I call Jonah somewhere close to my favorite book, that is a comment that causes my students in real life to burst forth with gales of laughter, since I have labeled way too many passages as my favorites.
But the thing about Jonah is that there are so many different things you can get from it. One key element is the way in which people get hung up on the miracle of the great fish, even though pretty much nobody would claim that’s the point of the book. The great fish is largely a literary device to move the character forward. You have the twist of Jonah heading off to the Spanish coast (to use an anachronistic name) but then winding up closer to Nineveh than when he started. It’s an interesting note on the idea of running away from God.
Bruce focuses on the hardship in which God places Jonah. Often we’re afraid to comment on such things, but is God really being fair here? He calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, makes him preach this unpopular message, and then turns and makes him into a false prophet. I’m pretty certain we’re supposed to read that subtext in the story; I doubt a Jewish audience would miss it.
So you have the intertwining of several messages at this point. First, there is the message that God cares about people who are not Jews. If, as is probable, Jonah was written during the time after the exile, this attitude to foreigners may well stand in opposition to the official position reflected in Nehemiah’s activities.
Second, there is God’s focus on compassion over vengeance or judgment. No Jew of the period would imagine that Nineveh hadn’t deserved destruction. (Note also that if the general dating I referenced earlier is correct, Nineveh had already been destroyed at the time the book was written, making it an interesting “what-if” type of story.)
Finally there’s the notion of the call of God on a person, and just how that may work out for the one who is called. I wonder if Jews might have seen in this a bit of the impact of their call or chosenness on their own lives. Being God’s chosen has not always been particularly pleasant for the Jewish people!
I like to bring up Jonah when talking about spiritual gifts because inevitably someone is bound to comment on how nice it would be to be a prophet. I have to suggest they think again. Prophets don’t necessarily live happy lives.
When teaching about how to study the Bible I use the phrase “the Jonah problem” in another way, however, which focuses on what Jonah does outside the city. He’s waiting to see what God will do. His interest is in the destruction of the city–or not. So he hangs out waiting for God to act, when it turns out that God has already acted, but not in the expected way. I define this “Jonah problem” as “looking for the wrong miracle.”
I like to connect Jonah with Jeremiah 18. Jeremiah is another excellent example of a prophet called into a very unpleasant situation. He has to live in a city under siege and preach surrender, thus getting all the patriots up in arms against hm. In Jeremiah 18 God provides him a vision to explain how it is that God can allow Jerusalem to be destroyed when he had earlier made an eternal promise to David. (See Psalm 89:3-4, for example.) God makes the claim there that he gets to change his mind.
What I see in Jeremiah 18 is a fairly clear pointer to God’s major concern in prophecy. We tend to look at prophecy as a way of learning what is going to happen. God’s use of prophecy is to change people’s behavior.
If a parent tells a child that he will not get to watch TV tonight unless he cleans his room, it is not the parent’s intent to inform the child as to what his evening will be like. Rather, the parent wishes to get the child to clean his room. If the room is cleaned, nobody becomes annoyed when the child gets his TV time.
Perhaps we should consider giving God the same latitude.
I recalled Micaiah before I thought of Jeremiah in this case, even though Dr. Jeremiah Wright shares the great prophet’s name. Micaiah is the prophet of who never prophesied anything good about Ahab (1 Kings 22). Jeremiah, on the other hand, was definitely an anti-patriot. Very little that he said was appreciated by the hierarchy of Judah, and he certainly was not an advocate of dialogue.
Which brings me to Barack Obama’s former pastor, who doesn’t speak in terms of dialogue, and doesn’t sound like a great American patriot. But leaving aside message for a moment, he definitely does have the tone of a prophet. Prophets tend to have an abrasive personality, or else they are driven to abrasiveness by the messages they are called upon to deliver. I remember one church at which I taught on the gift of prophecy. After I had discussed rebuke as an element of prophecy, one of the members told me that they didn’t do rebuke at that church; they preferred encouragement. All I can say is that if you prefer encouragement, you probably won’t like the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.