Saturday, March 14, 2009

how to read the historical books to get what you want from them

It's easy, you just do it.

But there are different ways of doing it. One of the more popular ways of reading the historical books is to go into them assuming that the historical books are as prescriptive as they are descriptive. Now it is true that the Chronicler will tell us that so and so did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord and proceed to tell us exactly what was evil. It is also true that in, say, Ezra or Nehemiah we'll get first person accounts of the failures of enemies ... but it's not impious to note that Ezra/Nehemiah paints a much more morally simplified view of conflict than the other historical books, even Chronicles. Even Nehemiah finds himself guilty of doing wrong by the people of Israel. A person could look at the book of Ruth and suppose that what happened was what "should" have happened.

The problem with this approach is that in a book like Samuel (1 & 2) things are not nearly so clear cut as that. The people of Israel sinned in asking for a king yet the Torah provided provisions for what was and wasn't to be expected or permitted in the conduct of the king so it wasn't sinful to request a king so much as how the request was made and why.

Which gets to another point in which historical books can be misappropriated. You can go into the book supposing that there are clear cut good guys and bad guys and miss nuances in the biblical narrative. Nehemiah and Ezra paint themselves in rather uniformly positive light and are providing a summary of a lengthy process of re-establishing Israelite society and the holy city. Sometimes the biblical narratives make it clear who to root for but we can often mistake the actions of one of the heroes for being the right thing to do at the right time.

This is particularly problematic when applied to the book of Samuel. Solomon comes to the throne with a lot of bloodletting and while Solomon was wise his wisdom was not the same as the heart for the Lord his father David had. In other words just because Solomon killed a bunch of people following his father's dying advice does NOT mean Solomon SHOULD have done those things. In fact if Solomon really thought he was doing that good a job or that his wisdom up to that point was godly or productive why did he ask of the Lord for a discerning mind to know how to justly rule unless he had looked back on his first acts as king and had begun to doubt the wisdom of his actions.

And some things in 1 Kings, for instance, are puzzling on their face. If David was cold and had trouble sleeping at night why not just throw some more heavy blankets on him to keep him warm? Why find the hottest virgin in the land to rest in his arms at night whom we are told he nevertheless had no sexual relations with her and that she would help him keep warm at night? What would the body of a beautiful young virgin do for the king that a bunch of heavy quilts wouldn't do? Answer. As Old Testament scholar V Phillips Long once put it the trouble heating up David might have experienced may not have been a literal heating up if you get the meaning.

Now even if we were to simply explain that Abishag was just a maid who helped David by tending to him and helping him keep warm at night it's a baffling point. David Plotz in his blogging through the Bible series on Slate reasoned that this was a sign of how far David's health had declined, he made no moves on the girl. David, after all, had multiple wives and ten concubines. Yet we are not really told that we should be troubled by this peculiar advice and action regarding David's trouble keeping warm.

When David tells Solomon that he has wisdom and to act on it Solomon certainly does ... but we aren't told clearly that what Solomon did was really right or wise in God's eyes. We also notice that the first time Solomon. There was quite a bit of plotting between Nathan and Bathsheba to get Solomon installed. We are told that through David's action Solomon's kingdom was firmly established in 2 Samuel 2 and that at the end that the kingdom was established in the hands of Solomon. This apparently redundant statement may be a subtle hint that Solomon's kingdom was firmly established at the start and that by chapter's end it was firmly established in his hands. Contrast this to another phrase in which we are told that David recognized that the Lord had established him as king in Israel.

The first indication we have that Solomon marries bodes ill for his future, his first mentioned wife is the daughter of Pharoah, making an alliance with Egypt. While the Mosaic law forbade despising an Egyptian it was arguable that the king of Israel had better things to do than, say, marrying Pharoah's daughter so as to establish an alliance with Egypt. This is an alliance that Israel would mistakenly rely upon in generations to come. It can be easy to surmise that Solomon began well when the truth may be that he had an inauspicious and less-than-exemplary beginning.

Now perhaps the simplest but most troublesome temptation we can have in reading a historical book is to try to find a way to read ourselves into it both in terms of application and in terms of discerning the meaning of a biblical narrative. A church could exemplify this tendency by turning to some narrative book of the Bible as grist for backing up a church building campaign without any consideration of the actual context or long-term meaning a narrative has within a biblical book.

Probably the most egregious example of this in the last ten years might be misappropriating the story of Jabez. But in principle if you were to take a biblical narrative book and say "This is just like my life." or "This is just what is going on at our church." it begs the question of how that could really be true. If a pastor were to invoke Jehoash's renovation of the house of the Lord as though he were Jehoash does that mean the pastor plans to order the assasination of the head deacon or some local prophet? Probably not. If a pastor were to preach through, say, Ezra and use that as a way to explain that some people in the church who didn't like a new building project were like the Gentiles who opposed the restoration of Jerusalem that would be spinning things into the realm of eisegesis, to put it mildly.

We can learn things about God from the narrative books and how He sovereignly works through circumstances. We can also learn that God can providentially punish His people by giving them exactly what they ask for, like having a king like all the other nations. They get that and they get a man who descends into madness and murder. Ezra and Nehemiah find that they are attempting to bring things back into order in the holy city and they find that the city is not that holy. A lot had been lost during the decades and centuries of exile.

The lessosn we can learn about God can be troubling because we can learn so much about our own faithlessness as people. Even the best in Samuel and Kings are often terrible. Solomon appears to begin well but with his marriage to Egypt and his bloodletting to secure his throne we see signs of the Solomon who is to come. It is not so much surprising as it is inexorably tragic that the flaws he displays early on remain flaws that cause him to be rebuked by God. Even though Solomon was visited by God TWICE he turns down a terrible path and ends up sacrificing children to foreign gods, gathering wealth to himself and chariots and wives in contradiction to those things required by Mosaic law regarding kings of Israel.

Yet God lets the house of David stand! It is fascinating that David, who did not seek to be king, was appointed king. Saul did not seek it either and perhaps even attempted at every turn to evade the responsibilities of being king while basking in the privileges of the office. He attempted to hold on to what he did not seek but was given. Solomon attempted to establish for himself what had been given him. We cannot be entirely sure that how Solomon ascended to the throne was right. After all, we cannot infer that simply because Israel got a king that it was something God was happy with. Time and again we may think that success in the things we seek is a sign of God's blessing. Time and again we may be tempted to see in historical books the stories we want to see when if we look at the stories for what they tell us about God and about human sin we may see ourselves in the places we don't want to see ourselves and may find that Scripture does not speak about "us" where we might wish it to.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

what does expository preaching expose?

I have by and large liked expository preaching over the last decade. I understand that the goal is to preach through a book of the Bible and go through the text, even the tough parts of the text. Well, salutory as that goal is the actual practice of expository preaching can reveal the same limitations as topical preaching. I have heard preachers skip difficult, obscure, or apparently tedious passages of a biblical book even after holding up preaching through whole books of the Bible. Do I need to name names? Nope but regular readers of this blog will know exactly who I'm referring to.

And the reason I don't feel a need to name names is because I believe expository preaching is easy to over-rate. I'll put it this way, a pastor who is actually good at expositional preaching through the epistles may avoid the psalms or the prophets or most narrative books. A pastor who is awesome at wisdom literature and epistles may nose-dive on a book like Kings. Thing is, it's easy for a church member or person who downloads sermons to not notice this sort of weakness for literally years because the person perceives the pastor to be doing the tough work of going through a whole book of the Bible. Yeah, that's true but work isn't the same for all of us.

If you happen to be weak in learning where a pastor is weak in teaching you're literally not going to realize how weak he is on that topic until your own weakness becomes apparent and you recognize his weakness.

Let me speak by way of analogy. I am a composer. I am fairly comfortable with sonata form and am also comfortable with ragtime and rondo forms. I am quite a bit less comfortable with variation form and struggle with fugue. Someone may be brilliant at theme and variation form, so brilliant that people may flock to hear that composer's variations and not really mind that all that composer does is variations on a theme. That the composer couldn't write a sonata form to save his or her life doesn't occur to the audience because they find the variations so pleasing they don't realize the composer has not mastered many other forms. The composer may throw in a few dances or rondos, binary forms and the like that are hard to write well but that are also not particularly challenging if one has mastered variation form.

A composer who grows as an artist needs to risk doing things he or she isn't any good at in order to keep growing. This is something I grasp more potently as an artist than as a person and I'll be the first to admit it. By now I trust the application of my musical analogy to expositional preaching has explained itself. A person can be great at expositional preaching and still have severe weaknesses as a teacher. You can focus on your strengths without branching out into your weaknesses. I would venture that many a Protestant evangelical pastor is great at the epistles and terrible at the gospels. As many have noted, there can be an unsettling attitude that the gospels are high school and the epistles are graduate school. The actual teaching of our Lord gets dropped in favor of the relative abstraction of the epistles.

And then there are Samuel and Kings, which I realize are exceptionally hard books to go through. It isn't just spelled out for us that what was done or said was actually right. I have been reflecting on those books a lot lately. They chronicle failure after failure and it seems as though the demarcation between people of God and people under His rebuke are those who reconcile themselves quickly to their complete failure before God. It is strange and unsettling how the legacy of Samuel became one of failure through his sons, who did not walk in his ways. THey became judges and they became worthless fellows like the sons of Eli. Saul, often easy to describe as one who never knew the Lord by Calvinists, had a son who did the things he should have done such as attacking the enemies of Israel and supporting the annointed king (David) after it became apparent the Lord had not given Saul a dynasty. Yet we cannot simply ignore that while the request of Israel for a king was sinful their response to the sins of Samuel's sons may not be wrong. We witness early in Samuel how the priests failed, how the judge failed to pass on a legacy through his sons, how the prophet was upset and even resentful toward the people and struggled to dischrage his role as prophet once he was no longer a judge. Samuel was in some sense also a priest as he was raised in the priestly clan.

It is in this context we need to consider Samuel's warning. After seeing the priests and judges fail to stop the enemies of Israel, after seeing the limits of the prophet why did they want to have a king? It was as though God were saying through Samuel, "All these other institutions have failed and you think that by establishing a new one your problems will be solved? Okay, let's try it your way, have the king you want and come back to me when that works out."

If there are books of the Bible where expository preaching would be most handy it would be in the historical books. But arguably these books are less popular to turn to because Samuel 1 & 2 and Kings are immensely long. But these are texts we should turn to because the failure of God's people in the ages past are warnings to us of how we can continually fail as they failed in the present. The historical books are disturbing because they reveal our own ambiguities and self-delusion. We can be genuinely bewildered by the Lord and His people.

By way of transition back into my initial topic, since it's tough to find expository preaching on books like Samuel for me these days I am listening to lectures from an on-line course. And as I wrote elsewhere I have turned to preaching on the psalms. In fact a helpful sermon on a certain Psalm will be something I will apply to a recent event elsewhere.

Expository preaching IS cool and all ... but now that I'm a bit older I realize that the strength of expository preaching (you go through books of the Bible you pick) is also its weakness. In other words, there can be many a sermon in which you propose to expound upon Scripture when what you are really exposing is not Scripture but you, your agendas, your theological pet topics, and also your weakness by what you do and do not preach. Since I am not a preacher and am not called to be one I don't envy anyone who has a call into ministry. It's not my thing and probably never will be, but it is a role in the Church I appreciate. I am both related to and friends with pastors and considered seminary eleven years ago. So I am speaking not as someone who doesn't appreciate solid expository preaching but as someone who believes that many evangelicals think this in itself is some kind of silver bullet, some kind of protection against theologial error or imbalance in teaching. If you're going that direction in your thoughts stop kidding yourself.

Every kind of preaching is a gift to preachers and congregations. If your sermons are like musical compositions master the art of every kind of preaching so that you can serve your community better. Otherwise you inadvertantly or intentionally risk becoming lazy about ways to divide the Word, which is dangerous whether you're a pastor or not. Since I"m trying to rectify my weak understanding of the Psalms and some of the historical books I'm totally preaching to the choir here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

what do postmillenialists and premillenialists have in common? crackpot prophets who get things wrong and don't say sorry

You know for every premillenialist wonk like Hal Lindsey there's often some Gary North. David Wilkerson's recent prediction of calamity is unfortunate. There are some professing Christians whose contributions to the faith are largely, so far as I can tell from my limited perspective, simply nuts and not beneficial at any level (Hinn, others). But there are some who get key things about the common faith right and then mess it up by expounding on things best left alone ... if only by them. Wilkerson doesn't need to be advising New Yorkers to stockpile 30 days worth of food.

Gary North doesn't have any business suggesting premillenialists are pessimillenialists since he seems at least as fearful of pending doom. I remember getting into a discussion with a postmillenialist who tried to argue that I had no hope or basis for optimism being an amillenialist. I told him his main problem was he was forgetting that I hope for the return of Christ and unless he had some inside scoop about how that wasn't going to happen (which some atheist friends don't mind telling me, thanks) I have no less reason for hope than he had just because he'd decided to be a postmillenialist.

Fortunately these fads of fear come and go. It's too bad people pay such attention to these fads. I am sure that there are people terribly afraid that this country will go to hell now that Obama is in office just as there have been people terribly afraid Bush would institute martial law and suspend the Constitution and set up camps to imprison anyone who dared to question the administration. The same sort of demonizing paranoia is evident on both sides. I got the spam and comments from people on either side. Of course they see the other side as deluded. Few things have inspired me to a point of political apathy than the histrionic paranoia of both liberals and conservatives. Few things have gotten me to the point of being indifferent to postmillenialism and premillenialism than the application of both views to the fears, anxieties, and social or political agendas of their advocates.

Instead of articulating our hope in Christ (which both premillenialists and postmillenialists CAN do) these views are often used by Christians to articulate our fears for this age rather than the promise of the next. We cannot afford to look down on the crackpots in other traditions without considering the fecundity of foolishness in our own.

a moment of nostlagie about iMonk/BHT

iMonk's posts were the first entries a Christian blogger wrote that I came across where "Rush" referred to the band and not the pundit. It's been more years than I realized that I have been reading his entries. I'm more likely to write about Annette Kruisbrink's works for double bass and guitar than about Rush ... but that's me. I haven't written about her music ... now that I think of it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

David Wilkerson sends an urgent message ... ? connecting this to Donne by way of a sermon on same passage

... There will be riots and fires in cities worldwide. There will be looting—including Times Square, New York City. What we are experiencing now is not a recession, not even a depression. We are under God’s wrath. In Psalm 11 it is written,“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v. 3).

It just so happens that I have been reading through sermons by the great metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne and about a month or so ago I read his sermon from this very text.

Donne urges us to have caution--we should not suppose simply because things have been done in a way we would not have done them that the foundations are being shaken or changed. It is too easy to suspect from jealousy; to condemn from bitterness; and to presumptuously conclude that anything not done as we would have done things constitutes the destruction of the foundations whether it be the local church, society at large, or other things in our life. Donne goes further to argue that until the foundations ARE destroyed the righteous should be quiet.

Donne also goes on to say that when some irritable private men (i.e. men of no social rank or power but individual citizens more or less anxious to comment on the events of their time) spend all their thoughts on the actions of their superiors they are troubled. THey are off their own center and cannot discern the end toward which things happen. This jealousy becomes a tenderness to the man's own actions which is to him a wholesome and holy jealousy ... but a great suspicion and skepticism about the actions of anyone who in some way outranks him. To such a man every wheel is a drum, every drum a thunder, every thunder clap a dissolution of the whole foundation of the world. If a tile that has broken falls from his home he believes the foundations have been destroyed. If a crazy woman or a bratty kid fall from the Christian confession this man thinks that the entire church has failed and the foundations are gone. One must entail the other even though no such thing is actually the case.

It can be tempting to think the whole world is collapsing because things aren't going your way. The psalmists understood this. If we were to look at the life of any given psalmist and consider the eternal perspective of things what they were going through was not a big deal, right? David should have just stopped whining about how bad things were going, right? Man up, push forward, stop being so self-centered.

In this case I feel it is needful to ask if Wilkerson remembers the context of the verse he is quoting. David BEGINS his psalm by saying, "In the Lord I have taken refuge, how can you say 'flee like a bird to the mountains ... if the foundations are destroyed what can the righteous do?"

Donne accentuates this very point in his sermon, that our true foundation, Christ Himself, cannot possibly be shaken. David's response is to articulate his confidence in God's power and goodness. We don't live in a time like Donne's, where friend upon friend could die by plague. It's not as though terrible things can't happen in the United States. Terrible things are happening all the time but consider the nature of the counsel given? Stock up food for thirty days? Anticipate calamities world wide? Hasn't Revelation warned us of miserable times to come or that we may be in now? Hasn't the Lord Himself promised by way of statement, "In this world you will have many troubles but take heart for I have overcome the world?" It is not clear that now, of all times, is the time for Americans to flee like birds to the mountains.

In other words, John Donne's sermon includes some useful correctives for bloggers. Let's not forget that Christians have a long, venerable history of making crazy, inaccurate predictions regardless of theological or eschatological convictions. The dire warning of Wilkerson is, relatively speaking, nothing especially new. It might even come to pass ... but it is his deployment of Psalm 11 I wish to comment on. In older literary traditions in Christian thought it would be enough to quote a single line to evoke the whole of a famous passage. We seem to have lost touch with that shared understanding of evocation. We seemed to have it even as recently as, say, the speeches of Martin Luther King but that's a tangent I'll drop. May the Lord grant us the wisdom to know when foundations are truly shaken and when a mere broken tile in a house has fallen.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Absalom's rebellion as fulfillment of prophecy 2 Samuel 12-15 in overview

The story of Absalom is fascinating and while I have come across a few commentaries who have noted the dearth of Absalom's character I have not, as yet, come across commentary that notes how all the terrible things that happened fulfilled Nathan's prophecy from 2 Samuel 12.

If we only consider Absalom's vengeful and bloodthirsty nature, if we only consider how Absalom exploited the lack of organization and other weaknesses in David's kingdom to promoe himself, manipulate the loyalty of his countrymen, and use that to foment dissent against David we will forget something important. All of this was fulfillment of God's prophecy through Nathan, specfically all of this was punishment from the Lord because of David killing Uriah the Hittite and taking his wife.

We might ask ourselves why this much bloodshed and mayhem came about for killing one man. David used his power as the annointed one, the king of Israel, the son of God by appointment if you consider what a high privilege the role was ... to get things for himself. He exploited his power and influence to get things his way rather than serve the people. He used the kingship to kill an innocent man during a time of war. He used his power and influence to cover up his own sin and through Nathan God said, "You did this in secret but I will do this thing in the day before all of Israel."

What had David done? He had acted in such a way that it brought contempt on the name of the Lord before the nations. When a leader of God's people sins in such a way that he brings the name of Christ into contempt by unbelievers by abusing his power and influence to get what he wants the Lord will not be mocked. He will, eventually, bring about chaos and destruction as discipline for the sin of His servant. Notice in all of this I am not saying we have a reason to say Absalom was just in what he did. I am, however, pointing out that because David had shown contempt for the blessings of God and defamed His name God saw to it that David's family was covered in infamy through the besetting sins of David's house and it was from these that the sword was drawn to depose David, drawn by one of his own sons. God can use the sins of those closest to us to rebuke us for our own failures. God had earlier in the book of Samuel disciplined Israel by giving them what they wanted, and here we see God using the weakness of the royal household to enact His judgment against David's house for bringing the name of God into contempt.

Absalom was a bad, bad dude. I suppose here the Pauline observation would be that God is not mocked and that we reap what we sow. Well, sometimes. David got a wwarning from Nathan ... and it may have been that warning that helped David perservere when his son killed his son who raped his daughter. There are times when God does not spare us bloodshed or loss or misery but gives us a word in advance of what is to come so that we can remember He appointed a harsh time. We seem to be living in hard times in each generation and this age promises its own hardships. This should be sobering to leaders of God's people, certainly, since recent history is full of pastors who have brought God's name into mockery among the unbelievers for sins of various kinds that became known to others ... but it should be a sobering reminder to any believer. How Absalom exploited the flaws in his father's house would be subject for another time.