Monday, December 26, 2016

The Logos

John 1:1–18

John and the Other Three Gospels

John says nothing about when or where Jesus Christ was born, doesn’t mention his baptism or wilderness temptation. He says nothing about his transfiguration, the last supper, how he sweated blood the night he was arrested, his Sanhedrin trial, or his cry, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Perhaps most important, John doesn’t record a single one of Jesus’ parables; rather, as the Word made flesh, his very life functioned like his parables. When he feeds a hungry crowd from a lad’s lunch bag, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again” (John 6:35). When he raises Lazarus from the dead, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die” (11:25–26). He said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won`t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (8:12). He said, “I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures” (10:9). He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (14:6). Behind all this was his insistence, “The Father and I are one” (10:30). And that’s the reason John’s story begins not in Bethlehem but in the eternal past.

Jesus Christ the Eternal Word

John’s account starts out, “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Because the Greek term for “word” is logos, some commentators want to put a philosophical twist on this. They say John describes Jesus as the embodiment of the rationalistic ideals of Greek thought. But the “Word” that John describes is clearly the “Word” of the Old Testament. The word that was spoken in creation day after day, which made it so. The word that came in many and varied ways through the prophets. Indeed, John continues his identification of the Logos this way: “God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone” (1:3–4).

By the Logos God pronounced, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). And following that same sovereign Logos, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5). On the other hand, “He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him” (1:10). He even “came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (1:11).

That didn’t stop the Logos from achieving his purpose in becoming human and making his home among us (1:14). He came and revealed God to us (1:18). He came to give new life as children of God to all who believe him (1:12–13).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Has this path through history using the Jesse Tree helped you to see the Old Testament hopes that Jesus Christ fulfilled?
  • Has this path helped you see Jesus Christ, who revealed God to us? Don’t reject Jesus Christ, either by outright rejection or by passive neglect of his claims on your life. During this Christmas season renew you commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Magi

Matt 2:1–12

The Magi

Historical Record

I suppose most of us have watched three little kids walk down the aisles in their bathrobes and paper crowns often enough that we don’t even wonder at this story of eastern sages visiting the Christ child after following a star. But the whole story ought to give us a bit of a pause. These guys weren’t prophets following the voice of God, they were eastern court advisers following a star.

Records of Jesus’ time abound with notes of messianic hope, and eastern sages were roaming the region examining these messianic mysteries, and mostly coming up with a lot of baloney. On the one hand, Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.5.4). On the other hand, the Roman poet Virgil wrote his “Messianic Eclogue,” but this praised Caesar Augustus as “Savior of the World.” The first century a.d. Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “There was a firm persuasion… that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire” (Tacitus, Histories, 5.13). The second century a.d. Roman biographer Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the Orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5).

That had sent the eastern magi on the prowl Seneca noted that magi had journeyed as far as Athens to sacrifice to the memory of the philosopher Plato (Seneca, Epistles, 58.31). Tiridates, King of Armenia, visited Nero in Rome and brought his magi along (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13.1). So it should have been no real surprise that eastern astrologers might have their ears to the ground on this—or their eyes to the skies. They were expecting to hear of the birth of the world’s king.

But it is surprising to read in the New Testament that God helped them along. These magi were probably astrologers, which would normally lead us to identify them as charlatans at the least, and as occult agents at the worst. As court envoys from the east they would certainly have been trained not only in diplomatic protocol, but also in the occult studies that were in vogue in courts from Persia to Parthia. Extrabiblical tradition says they were from Persia, and Marco Polo named them as Baldassar, Gaspar, and Melchior and claimed to have seen the place where they were buried, “all three entire with their beards and hair.” So much for the historical record outside the Bible.

The Magi’s Worship

What is the significance of the magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth? They represent the kingdoms of this earth coming at the Nativity to pay homage to the Lord’s Messiah. They were paying fealty to “the king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2a), whom some thought would be the King of kings. These magis crossed Herod’s borders asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Since Herod hadn’t brought his wife home from the maternity ward of Mount Sinai Medical Center, he quite naturally found this question a bit upsetting. These magi claimed, “We saw his star as it rose” (2:2b). Efforts to identify this astronomic phenomenon have all failed to develop a solid answer. Haley’s comet came through in 11 b.c., about five years too early. Besides, it would take some quick-stepping camels to follow that streak across the sky. Some refer to a brilliant convergence of Jupiter and Saturn around 7 b.c., which is a year or two early and would not have moved in such as way as to guide anyone anywhere. From 5 through 2 b.c. Serius, the dog star, kept showing up, but there’s no way to connect that with the magi either.

The magi may have bowed and scraped their way into Herod’s throne-room, but they said, “We have come to worship him”—not you (2:2b).

Herod’s Plot

The paranoid “King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this” (2:3). The very report of magi arriving from the east could have meant dangerous things afoot in the political realm. And these magi brought news of a potential rival to the throne of Judea. Was this some sort of intrigue against him that the Parthians were cooking up—after all, they were the Roman’s chief rivals for power in the region at that time. Maybe they were planning to throw their weight behind this “newborn king of the Jews”?

So Herod made some inquiries with his advisers, who pointed out that if there were any newborns who might claim the throne, they would have to come from David’s royal home town, as the prophet had foretold (2:4–6; see Mic 5:2). Herod ascertained the time that this birth must have occurred, and told him to go find that child and then report back to him so we could go and worship him too (2:7–8). Any wise men who believed that should have lost their “wise man” credentials.

The magi went on their way and stopped where the star indicated, in Bethlehem (2:9–11). They entered the palace where the holy family was living and “bowed down and worshiped” Jesus (2:11a). “Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts” (2:11b). Some gifts were gold, perhaps pointing to the royalty of this son of David. Some were incense, perhaps pointing to the divinity of this Son of God. And some were myrrh, perhaps point to the passion of the Lamb of God. Certainly all this fulfilled the psalmist’s promise: “The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him” (Ps 72:10b–11).

Dreams and angelic visits were such a part of the Nativity story. “When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod,” although this certainly would have violated the normal diplomatic protocol (2:12).

What do we make of this? Two points come to mind:

God brought these pagans to the Messiah. 

God used what we would consider highly suspect means. He used a star. A Jew or an eastern sage could have seen this, but the magi would have interpreted it through the framework of pagan astrological omens. Notice that God also used an Old Testament prophecy, even though it was interpreted through the scholarly lens of degenerating Judaism. Matthew starts with this international tone and ends with the Great Commission to all nations (28:18). The story begins with a recrod of a Lord Jesus who is for all. Simple shepherds come to the birth site guided by angelic message; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth is won’t come. Pagan astrologers come to the birth site guided by their own astrological interpretation and borrowed Scripture interpretation; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth will be don’t come.

At the same time, Jesus was coming to his own but not being received. 

Today, much of the world is showing a new receptivity to the Word of God. At Jesus’ coming, the Scriptures were heard by two audiences, Jewish Scripture readers and pagan star readers. Ironically, it was the pagans who eagerly followed the Word once someone told them about it.

This story doesn’t teach us that God will meet the sincere seeker, no matter what their convictions might be. Some say, “God helps those who help themselves.” We will do better at understanding this story if we acknowledge that the magi sought Jesus Christ because God had already sought the magi. One commentator says, “The star, the people of God in Jerusalem, and their Holy Scriptures are the external means of grace used by God in bringing the magi to Christ” (F. D. Bruner). We should realize that anyone coming to Jesus Christ is coming at God’s bidding, whatever the means that God might use.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Note how useless the orthodox understanding of Scripture is if your heart isn’t prepared to respond to it in obedience and worship.
  • How will you reactd to the demands of the Messiah for worship. Will you set out an orthodox representation of those demands and then ignore them, or will you fumble your way to a flawed but sincerely stance of worship—will you be a disciple?
  • What will you do at the foot of the Christ-child this Christmas season? Will you truly celebrate Christmas by worshiping Jesus Christ; or will you profane it with mere celebration while you remain at the helm of your own fate. Will you bow the knew in obeisance to the King of kings and Lord of lords?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jesus' Birth

Luke 2:1–20

Born in Bethlehem, City of David

Think of the stress that Joseph and Mary must have been facing. They were not yet married but had a baby on the way, for which there was no explanation that would satisfy most gossips. It was Roman tax time and the Romans were calling everyone back to their family homes to pay up. So off they went to Bethlehem. Escape from their neighbors’ malicious gossip might have seemed a relief, but the trip would certainly have been bad time for a very pregnant Mary. The Romans had arranged it for tax purposes, but God had arranged it to fulfill messianic prophecy that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2).

It’s interesting to note how God went about sending out his birth announcements. He didn’t send them to the Jerusalem symphonic guild, but to shepherds who heard by angelic choir. He didn’t send them to the diplomatic elite in Jerusalem but to pagan magi from the east who came and let slip the nature of their mission so that Herod found out by round-about means.

The angelic choir told shepherds about this greatest of all sons in the Jesse Tree. This was going to be the Son who brought peace everywhere that God’s favor rested. So these shepherds went off and became the first gospel preachers. They told everyone the Gospel (“good news”).

We’re still hearing this good news, and perhaps even from unlikely sources. Perhaps you heard it from your own children who you sent to church rather than taking them yourselves. Perhaps you heard it in a radio broadcast even though you hardly ever listen to the radio. Perhaps you even heard it from some now-discredited preacher. But then the shepherds were hardly the likely voices for great imperial pronouncements about the King of kings. And what can we say of how the message came to the magi?

Perhaps even you could be a gospel messenger, spreading this good news. Certainly you should pass the good news on to your children, as you have been doing with this Jesse Tree this month. Perhaps you have others who would be your natural audience if you would only speak up with the good news.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • If you were a shepherd who had just heard that message, who would you meet in the next seven days? “The shepherds told everyone” (Luke 2:17), shouldn’t you?

Friday, December 23, 2016

Joseph: Trusting God

Matt 1–2; Luke 2:41–51; 3:23–38

Mary had the tough role, but Joseph’s role in the birth of the Messiah wasn’t so comfortable either. Who would have blamed Joseph if he had done through with the divorce he was considering? And notice, this decent man had been planning to do all that he could to avoid embarrassing Mary publicly (Matt 1:19).

A angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and gave him pretty much the same explanation that Gabriel had given Mary: This has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by some other man. Here’s the name you’re supposed to give him: “Jesus.” And all of this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the “Immanuel” child (Matt 1:20–23, see Isa 7:14). So, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt 1:20).

“When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus” (Matt 1:24–25). And thus he shouldered a heavy responsibility. He took his very pregnant fiance off to Bethlehem when taxes came due. Sat by while she gave birth and began receiving visitors from near and afar. He must have wondered at all the royal imagery that the wise men from the east signified with their precious gifts. “I’m just a Galilean carpenter. What’s this they’re saying about our son?”

The next time the Lord sent him a message in a dream was to tell him, Take the boy and his mother, and run for your lives. Herod’s in a slaughtering rage trying to kill all the little boys who might prove to be a Messiah and claim his throne. So Joseph pulled up stakes and ran for Egypt until he saw Herod’s name the International Herald Tribute obituary pages. Then the headed home.

In one sense, Jesus must have given them an easy ride as parents. This one who was God made flesh probably didn’t get into trouble with drugs and girls—I doubt if he even threw spitballs in class or got after-school detentions for pulling the girls’ pigtails. On the other hand, how easy could it have been for simple trades people from the hills to raise the King of kings and Lord of lords. They would head off to the temple, and Jesus would hunt up the scholars for intense Scripture discussions that would have sailed way over their heads. Mary and Joseph would exchange stories, and one of them would bring up Simeon’s blessing: “And a sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:35).

Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus ancestry through Mary, who was the mother of the Christ child. Luke’s doesn’t blush to trace Jesus’ line back from Joseph, even though he didn’t sire the child himself. Joseph must have served as a loving and faithful husband to Mary and father to Jesus, but he fades out of the Gospel story early on. Only the apocryphal works provide any detailed history of Joseph’s subsequent life and death. But heaven must have a warm welcome prepared for this faithful and humble servant to put aside his own dignity to protect Mary’s, laid aside his own paternal rights in obedience to heaven’s call, and loved his God, his wife, and his Son.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Compare and contrast the openness of Mary and Joseph to God’s guidance with your own receptivity to God’s call.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Luke 1:26-38, 46-56

Jesus’ Birth Foretold (Luke 1:26–38)

The angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. He came to a Galilean village named Nazareth (Luke 1:26), to the virgin Mary who was promised in marriage to Joseph, “a descendant of King David” (1:27). Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored woman. The Lord is with you!” (1:28), which left Mary “confused and disturbed” about what that might mean (1:29).

When Gabriel explained the “favor” in terms of pregnancy it only increased her confusion and concern: “But how can this happen! I am a virgin” (1:34). Gabriel explained how it would come about, and what her child would become. How: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35a). Result: “The baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God” (1:35b), “He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” (1:32–33).

Unlike Zechariah, who responded with incredulity to the angel’s announcement, Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true” (1:38). Indeed, when her aged relative Elizabeth met her, she said, “You are blessed because you believed what the Lord would do what he said” (1:45). One wonders what Gabriel must have thought, the great plan of God rests with a simple village girl!

Jesus’ Birth Extolled (Luke 1:46–56)

Mary responded to Elizabeth with a great song of praise for the Lord. One can imagine many other responses. Many girls would have fallen into deep depression, worrying about how this would ruin her reputation and put the jinx on her upcoming wedding. This belly won’t fit in my wedding dress—and Joseph won’t stand for this. One would almost expect to hear a litany of lengthy prayers asking God what was up with this plan. One can imagine her echoing Habakkuk’s words: “I will wait to see what the Lord says and how he will answer my complaint” (Hab 2:1). But Mary moved from instant obedience to insistent praise.

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Luke 1:46–27). Rather than complain, God what have you done to me, she said, “He took notice of his lowly servant girl” (1:48a). She could only do this because she had complete faith in the message of the Lord that Gabriel had delivered. She may have feared that neighbors would talk, but she also knew “all generations will call me blessed” (1:48b). She kept focusing on what God was doing, now on how she was sacrificing. She didn’t reluctantly agree, “God can do this thing through me”; rather, she said, “He has done great things for me” (1:49b).

In fact, she didn’t even exult merely in her personal experience. She praised God for what he had been doing down through the generations, how he was keeping the patriarchal promise that had first been activated with Abraham (1:50–55). She recognized that what was coming to shape in her belly was God’s plan for the salvation of Israel and the world. And she praised God.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • At this Christmas season we can thank God for Mary’s ready obedience, and we should call her “blessed above all women” (Luke 1:42).

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Zechariah and Elizabeth: Hopeful Anticipation

Luke 1:5–25, 67–80

Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (Luke 1:5–25)

Around the time of Jesus’ birth to the young maiden Mary, God provided another miraculous birth, this time to an aged and barren relative of Mary’s. The old couple were Zechariah and Elizabeth, a priestly family. Following a pattern that the Old Testament developed several times to keep God’s covenant moving, God promised a miraculous birth to a barren couple. This had happened with the patriarchs and their wives and with Samson. And it would happen again most miraculously with Mary.

Zechariah was a priest serving his rota in the temple. Standing at the incense altar he heard God’s promise of a son to him and his aged wife. God gave him orders about naming the child “John,” and about committing him to something like the Nazirite vow (1:15a). God then promised, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth” (1:15b), a promise that echoed the promise about prophets and deliverers (Judg 13:5, 7; Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5). Of course, Zechariah had some trouble getting his mind around that idea, just as Abraham and Sarah had when they were told their days in the nursing home would be livened by the birth of a child. And Because Zechariah had a difficult time believing it, God promised him a sign: “You will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born” (Luke 1:20).

When Zechariah got off duty as a priest he went home and had slept with his wife. At their age, Elizabeth may have found even that a bit of a surprise. And imagine her amazement when she got pregnant. I don’t know whether morning sickness or a big belly gave her the first clues, since there wouldn’t have been any missed periods to give the first alert. Of course, Zechariah’s frantic scribbling may have passed the news to her—perhaps on the night they gray, wrinkled couple conceived John in geriatric intimacy.

Before either John or Jesus were born, their mothers visited each other, and rejoiced at the thing that God was doing in their families. In fact the greeting of Mary, who was bearing Jesus in her womb, provoked quite a response. “At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). The result was a brief prophecy: “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed” (1:42). Under that same Spirit she identified Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (1:43). And she blessed Mary, “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” (1:45).

Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57–66)

In due course, Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy, to much rejoicing. When it came time to circumcise and name the child, the announced his name as “John,” which surprised everyone (Luke 1:60, 63). They could have been expecting Zechariah Jr. or the name of some favorite uncle or grand dad. But this one belonged to the Lord not to his aged parents. “Awe fell on the whole neighborhood” (1:65) and news spread” The question arose: “What will this child turn out to be?” (1:66).

Zechariah’s Prophecy (Luke 1:67–80)

The Holy Spirit not only opened Zechariah’s mouth after he properly named the child John. He was also “filled with the Holy Spirit” and prophesied (1:67), by way of answering the people’s question (1:66). Zechariah’s prophecy was actually twofold: It told of the coming Savior that God was sending (1:68–75), and he said his own son John would be a prophet preaching to prepare the way for that Savior (1:76–79; see Mal 3:1; 4:5; Isa 40:3–5).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • None of us ought to expect to place ourselves in the shoes of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary. They were people that God chose to act through and advance redemptive history in unique ways. But their response to promise, whether in incredulity or belief, can exhort us to respond with faith when God calls on us in our own humble service.
  • None of us ought to expect that our child is a John the Baptist, to say nothing of a Christ. But these mothers raised their sons to be used of God according to his promise. Commit yourself to raising your child in such a way that they will be open to serving God. And encourage them to do it when the times come for them to act on God’s call.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Haggai: Glorious Temple

Hag 2:1–9

It’s Now or Never (Hag 1:1–15, August 520 BC)

The people were back in the land after seventy years of exile, but the desert was not bursting into flower like they might have expected from reading Isaiah. Instead, the desert was creeping up on their farmland, as one drought year pulled into line behind another. Amos had diagnosed the sinful cause of this three centuries earlier, but no one had listened then. Now Haggai saw the same pattern and made the same diagnosis that Amos had made: It was divine rebuke (Hag 1:1–11). And Haggai’s audience listenedd and began to set things right (1:12–15).

Take Heart and Get to Work (Hag 2:1–9, October 520 BC)

Haggai acknowledged that the temple they were working on was a humble affair compared with the lavish temple of Solomon (2:3). But he assured them of God’s promise that the rebuilt temple would experienced unequaled glory and peace (2:6–9). So the people needed to get to work on it (2:4–5).

God promised, “I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will be brought to this Temple” (2:7a). Egyptian plunder had financed the Hebrew wilderness trip and helped them build their wilderness tabernacle. The wealth of the nations was flowing through Solomon’s imperial coffers when he built the former temple. This community of returned exiles was poor, but their temple would be financed by international money, because it ultimately belonged to God. Indeed, shortly after Haggai’s prophecy, the Persians order the temple opponents to pay the full cost of rebuilding Israel’s temple (Ezra 6:8–12). And later on, the half-breed king Herod the Great and his successors would lavish wealth on the temple of Jesus’ time.

God promised, “The future of this Temple will be greater than its past glory” (Hag 2:9). Under the Herods this became true even as an architectural matter. But most importantly, it was to a rebuilt temple that the Lord of the temple eventually came (Matt 12:6). Indeed, he came an superseded the temple built by human hands, the temple built of merely stone. In other words, Haggai’s prophecy resonated with the same kind of great end-time hopes that Isaiah expressed (Isa 2:2–5).

Promise and Prediction (Hag 2:10–23, August 520 BC)

Haggai had warned how rapidly sin spread (2:10–14), and told them the poor harvests were the result of disobedience (2:15–17). But Haggai said, blessings would come as the people obeyed God and rebuilt the temple (2:18–19).

Finally, he gave a strong message of assurance for “Zerubbabel the governor of Judah” (2:20–23). God would shake heaven and earth, judging the nations and eliminating hostility to his people, his temple, and his kingdom on earth (2:20–22). Zerubbabel was Jehoichin’s grandson, so people were looking in his direction to see what God would do by way of restoring the Davidic dynasty that he represented. But Zerubbabel was only serving as a Persian appointee to rule a small backwater community within a larger district within the vast Persian empire. God told him “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger,… for I have chosen you” (2:23). Zerubbabel disappeared in a few years without notice of his fate, but in him the Davidic line had been renewed in Jerusalem. Even today, a Hanukkah hymn contains these words:
Well night had I perished,
when Babylon’s end drew near;
through Zerubbabel I was saved
after seventy years.

The fulfillment of all the promised of the renewed Davidic line would occur in Jesus Christ, but Zerubbabel was a signal that the dynasty still had a future to be realized in God’s good time.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Do you ever get discouraged at the small things on which you’re working, even though you keep hearing about the great kingdom of God? Commit yourself to “get to work” on your assignment in the kingdom of God, and let God take care of filling it with glory in his own time and way.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Jeremiah: National Judgement and Exile—Then Restoration and Renewal

Jer 8:18–9:1; 31:31–34

Jeremiah’s Despair over Judah (Jer 8:18–9:1)

Jeremiah had the unpopular task of making the Lord’s legal case against his people. Even at his call, God had told him, “You will stand against the whole land—the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah” (Jer 1:18). But God continued, “They will oy the city” (5:1). So judgment was coming, in the form of invasion and exile.

Jeremiah said, “My grief is beyond healing…. I hurt with the hurt of my people.… If only my head were a pool of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for all my people who have been slaughtered” (8:18, 21; 9:1). He prayed, “Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” (8:22). This was all about the near future that Jeremiah could see.

Jeremiah’s Hope for Israel (Jer 31:31–34)

But Jeremiah could also see far in the distant future of God’s people. God promised, “I will restore the fortunes of my people of Israel and Judah” (30:3). “My people will serve the Lord their God and their king descended from David—the king I will raise up for them” (30:9). For the present, “Your wound is incurable.… I have wounded you cruelly, as though I were your enemy. For your sins are many and your guilt is great” (30:12, 14). I will restore heal (30:17), but not yet. “The fierce anger of the Lord will not diminish until it has finished all he has planned” (30:24).

But things would change. The original covenant promise had been, “I will be your God” (Gen 17:7; Exod 6:7; Lev 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; 26:12; Num 15:41; Ps 146:10; Isa 46:4; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ezek 36:28). “In that day” the Lord would renew that relationship: “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people” (Jer 31:1). Those who eventually “survive the coming destruction” (31:2) would celebrate restoration (31:2–30).

Jeremiah described something far greater than just a return to the original covenant arrangements: “‘The days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah’” (31:31). The promise of the new covenant was the same, but the Lord said, “This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors.… They broke that covenant” (31:32). The difference would not be in the promised, but in the people’s power to sustain their life in the covenant. “‘This is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord, ‘I will put my instructions deep within them, I will write them on their hearts’” (31:33a–b). This would finally correct the fault Jeremiah kept finding in God’s people: hearts that were stubborn (3:17; 7:24; 9:14; 11:8; 13:10; 16:12; 18:12; 23:17), uncircumcised (4:4; 9:26), and desperately wicked (4:4; 17:9). Jeremiah described this as “circumcision” of the heart (4:4), an act which even the Law had promised (Deut 10:16; 40:6) but which came only with the work of Jesus Christ (Rom 2:29). It would only be this radical change that truly empowered God’s people to observe God’s law (Deut 30:8; Ezek 11:20; 36:27).

But as I said, the covenant promise remained the same: “I will be their God, and they will be my people (31:33c). And it didn’t entail a new law; it was the same law that Jeremiah repeatedly accused them of breaking (Jer 6:19; 9:13; 16:11; 26:4; 44:10). What would have changed is their inner commitment to the Law, which would only come with the new heart and new life in Christ Jesus (Jer 24:7; 32:39).

When that time came, the people would no longer need priests and scribes to teach and enforce the law. Instead, “‘Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,’ says the Lord.” (31:34a). This is the Holy Spirit taught condition that Isaiah also prophesied (Isa 54:13), Jesus described (John 6:45; 17:6), Paul spoke of (2 Cor 4:6), Hebrews described (Heb 8:10–11), and John promised his audience (1 John 2:20; 5:20).

Thanks be to God, that promise of a new heart has come in the regenerating work of Jesus Christ (Heb 8:10; 10:16). And the reason God can say, “I will never again remember their sins” (Jer 31:34) is that Jesus Christ has made the final sacrifice, so that “there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (Heb 10:18).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • What better response to this branch of the Jesse Tree than to guide your children toward the one who would give them the “new heart” and enable them to follow God’s will. Guide your children in a prayer for the gift of a new heart.
  • Offer a prayer of thanks to God that we no longer live in bondage to a law that we could never fully observe, that only declared our guilt. Thank in that the Law was completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and thank him for the new heart that enables you to follow his will.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Son Giving Hope For All the People

Isa 9:1–7

Yesterday we saw Isaiah leading all of Hezekiah’s court and temple personnel in prayer for deliverance and prophesying the downfall of their enemy. Today’s reading shows him prophesying that God would raise up his ultimate deliverer in Jesus Christ, who will rule the world.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (Isa 9:2; Matt 4:16)

Sin darkens life with the very shadow of death, and salvation can be described as coming into the light (Eph 5:8, 13–14; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 John 1:5–7). One way of talking about the coming of the Messiah was to say, “the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78–29a; see John 12:35, 46). This light was the light at the end of the tunnel of slavery and foreign oppression (Isa 9:3–5), but the light was not only for Israel. Jesus was “a light to reveal God to the nations” (Luke 2:32). Indeed, Jesus Christ came claiming, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us” (Isa 9:6a)

This was to come not through the birth of a child, a “son” after the fashion of Psalm 2:7. He would be God’s own son and a son in Israel, a son from the line of David whom God himself would call “my son.”

He will be given great titles (Isa 9:6b–7)

I suppose the first thing to note is that we have four not three titles. I’ve sat in a fair number of Christmas programs and heard: “He will be called ‘Wonderful’, ‘Counselor’, ‘Mighty God’, ‘Everlasting Father’, and ‘Prince of Peace’,” which has followed the older translations (e.g., kjv, asv). But the first of these titles is “Wonderful Counselor,” not just the unattached adjective “Wonderful.”

Wonderful Counselor. I like the NET Bible’s rendition of this as “Extraordinary Strategist.” In the ancient Near East, the office of counselor was often attached to the palace, and it could even be a royal title in its own right (Mic 4:9). Certainly it took on messianic scope (Isa 11:2). He would rule God’s people wisely.

Mighty God. Perhaps in Isaiah’s own context it indicated that the coming king would be the warrior God’s own representative (e.g., Ps 45:6), much as the sign child born in Ahaz’s time could be called “Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). Certainly the New Testament’s use of this saw it as an indication of the messianic king’s deity. Certainly , even for Isaiah himself, the understanding would have been that fighting against this king was fighting against the Lord himself (see Ps 2:2).

Everlasting Father. We shouldn’t misunderstand this title as collapsing the Jesus’ sonship into fatherhood; the New Testament clearly portrays the Son and the Father as separate persons. Rather, this symbolic use of “father” portrays the messianic king as a protector of his people, just as we see elsewhere (e.g., Isa 22:21; Job 29:16). The qualifying adjective “everlasting” would be especially appropriate to the one who inherited the eternal Davidic promise (2 Sam 7:1–18; 1 Chr 17:1–15).

Prince of Peace. This title depicts the messiah as one who establishes the kind of security and strong position for his people that ensures their reliable well-being. The Hebrew term shalom doesn’t indicate just the absence of strife; rather, it indicates a strong and secure position wherein the benefits of the kingdom of God are ensured and enjoyed in comfort. Indeed, this sometimes comes about through messianic warfare to subdue all enemies (Pss 72; 144).

He would inherit the throne of his ancestor David

This would be the ultimate branch of the Jesse Tree, the ultimate fulfillment of every promise and hope that belonged to the Davidic dynasty.

This memorable promise was not forgotten. When Jesus Christ was born, they realized that this was the wonderful child that Isaiah had promised (Luke 1:78–79). A child—indeed—but the Mighty One come to give his people light and peace.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Do you think you would have believed an old priest if you had been there to hear him tell people that this baby was the almighty messiah king? (Luke 1:67–79) What does your answer to yourself tell you about how open you are to God?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Hezekiah: Faithfulness and Deliverance

1 Kgs 18–19

Overall, Hezekiah was one of the faithful kings in Judah, so that the prophetic history writers could say, “He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kgs 18:3). Later in his life he got into trouble over a bad misstep with some Babylonian envoys (2 Kgs 20), but overall he proved faithful and thus enjoyed the benefits of the dynastic covenant made with David and his descendants.

A Faithful King

Hezekiah pretty much did what the Lord wanted of his kings throughout his reign (726–697 b.c.). He patterned his life after David, stopping the pagan practices that had gotten popular in Israel during the reign of his father Ahaz. Like David, he showed due regard for temple worship (2 Chr 31:20). So the Lord made him “very successful” (2 Chr 31:21). He even smashed up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people had eventually turned it into a idol rather than a memorial (2 Kgs 18:4).

A Kingdom Under Siege

Add caption
Dedicated service to God doesn’t mean calamity will never come. The great power of the time was the ferocious Assryrian empire, who conquered the northern kingdom (Samaria/Israel) a couple years into Hezekiah’s reign in the south (Jerusalem/Judah). Assyria kept pressure on Palestine, with Sargon invading in 720 b.c. and Sennacherib invading in 713 and again in 701 b.c. A couple years before Hezekiah’s death, Assyria even succeeded in destroying Babylon (700 b.c.). When Sennacherib came knocking at Jerusalem’s doors his general Rabshakeh began taunting Jerusalem’s citizens that nobody’s gods had ever protected them from Assyrian military might (19:8–13).

A King’s Prayers

But Hezekiah turned to prayer. He called for a period of fasting and prayer, and he summoned Isaiah the prophet to lead all the kingdom’s officials in prayer. It’s interesting to note that the king didn’t ask a priest to lead this intercession; rather, he called on a prophet to do it. But then interceding had always been a prophet’s job, from Abraham (Gen 18; 20:7, 17), to Moses (Exod 7–10; Num 14–20), to Samuel (1 Sam 7:5–11; 12:17–18, 23), to Jeremiah (Jer 7:14ff.; 11:13ff.; 14:11ff.; 15:1)—even to Jesus (John 17). God never seemed to do anything without telling his servants the prophets (Gen 18; Amos 3:7), and when God threatened judgment, his prophets interceded for his people.

Hezekiah asked for two things, that God might deliver his own people and that he might sanctify his own name. He pled for God’s intervention so that Judah wouldn’t fall to the northern juggernaut, though the Assyrians had so far proved capable of crushing everything in their path. And he prayed that God act so that the whole world would know that the Lord was the true God. This would be the best response to Rabshakeh’s pagan taunts (2 Kgs 19:8–13).

The Lord’s Response

The Lord responded when Hezekiah prayed. When he called a fast and got Isaiah to lead everyone in prayer (2 Kgs 19:1–7), God responded with a reassuring word: “Do not be disturbed by this blasphemous speech against me from the Assyrian king`s messengers. Listen! I myself will move against him, and the king will receive a message that he is needed at home. So he will return to his land, where I will have him killed with a sword” (19:6–7, compare 19:37; 2 Chr 32:21).

When Hezekiah prayed a second time (19:14–19), God responded with a prophecy of Sennacharib’s fall (19:20–34). And to back that up, “That night the angel of the Lord went out to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers” (19:35), which decidedly altered their plan to attack Jerusalem.

Once again, the Lord had spared his people and responded to the faithful prayers of a branch on the Jesse Tree.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Note that part of Hezekiah’s obedience lay in breaking up the old idols that were misleading the people. In this Christmas season, do you see any old practices that might mislead your family that should therefore be eliminated from your household?
  • Reflect on the two-fold prayer of Hezekiah and see how it fits with two parts of the Lord’s prayer: “Hallowed by thy name” (Matt 6:9; Luke 11:2a), and “thy kingdom come” (Matt 6:10; Luke 11:2b).

Friday, December 16, 2016

Elijah: Meeting the Threat of False Gods

1 Kgs 18–19

Elijah on Mount Carmel

The prophet Elijah decided it was time for a showdown between him and about a million Baal prophets—well 450 of them anyway. It was time to declare allegiances and see which God proved capable of defending his reputation and honor. Since Baal was supposedly a storm-god, Elijah figured sending a storm should be a snap for him—if he were really a god at all. To he told the Baal prophets to do their stuff, and get their god to send a fiery storm on their altar. The Baal prophets thought, “Boy, Elijah is playing right into our hands. Baal’s a storm-god for heaven’s sake!” They jumped on their altar and got going But noon came and “there was no sound, no answer” (1 Kgs 18:26).

Elijah wanted to rub their faces in it; so he began mocking them. Maybe you’re not yelling loud enough, jumping high enough, cutting deep enough. Maybe Baal’s off causing storms in the Bermuda Triangle. Maybe he’s tired and taking a rest—or maybe he’s visiting the restroom. The jumped, jived, and screamed until they got into such a religious frenzy that they even began to self-mutilate. They probably thought a little blood would get their god on the move. But evening came, “and still there was no sound, no answer, and no response” (18:29).

Now it was Elijah’s turn. Boy did he want to pour it on—literally. First, “he repaired the alter of the Lord that had been torn down” (18:30). Then he really got dramatic. He had a trench dug around the altar, and got volunteers to flood the place with water. Then he had them do it again—and again. Only when the whole lot were sloshing around in water up to their shins did Elijah decide to do any praying. Instead of screaming, dancing, and carrying on, he just mentioned to the Lord that it would be good if he would show his people who was really God so that they would acknowledge it (18:36–37).

Lightning flashed, the water on the altar and in the trenches sizzled away like your mom’s spit on the iron. When people could see through the steam and smoke, all they could see was blackened bare spot. Now the people got into it. The cry went up, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!” (18:39). Elijah figured this was as good a time as any to put finished to Baalism. So he told the people to drag all the Baal prophets off to the Kishon Valley where he would kill them (18:40).

Whew! Did this ever get Queen Jezebel’s tail into a twist (1 Kgs 19). As a princess from Tyre, she had always been pretty much “into” Baalism. These prophets had been her closest advisers and fixers. Word got back to Elijah that she wanted his hide, so he went and hid out on Mount Horeb where the Lord sustained him (1 Kgs 19:1–8).

Elijah began to have a bit of a pity party. The Lord came around asking what he was up do hiding out on Horeb. Elijah pretty much told the Lord that he was all the Lord had to operate with in this world; he was the sole covenant keeper and Baal prophet slayer. He said I can’t take it; kill me (19:9–10). Instead, God told him get up and start listening for my voice again. As Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a storm blasted through, then an earthquake rumbled in, and then a fiery storm came. But the Lord was not in them (19:11–12)

Instead, only when silence returned did “the sound of a gentle whisper” come to Elijah’s ears (19:12). Elijah was hearing from the Lord, who once again asked him what he was doing hiding out on Horeb (19:13). Again Elijah told the Lord that he was the only one still left to follow the Lord faithfully, and wicked people were out for his skin.

The Lord told him, Not so! Get up and get back to your business of pointing out the way of the Lord to my people. I’m going to have you appointing new kings, and a new successor who himself will appoint new kings. And there are 7,000 of your compatriots in Israel who have never bowed to Baal (19:15–18). Even in this most desperate time, things are better than you know.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • What are the modern manifestations of Baalism in our culture?
  • Does God more often speak to you in the still small voice rather than the blast of powerful and miraculous manifestations? Is your ear tuned to that still small voice?
  • Have you gotten discouraged, thinking that the cause of God is growing weak today? Ask God to alert you to today’s 7,000.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A King on God's Throne

Ps 2:1–12

Human Rule in the Kingdom of God

David was the first branch of the royal Jesse Tree. God was really Israel’s king; however, from the beginning of creation itself, God’s plan had been to appoint human rulers as vice-regents (Gen 1:26–28). Humanity’s fall into sin badly disrupted that rule, but didn’t rule it out (Gen 9:6). But God increasingly began to narrow his focus from all mankind, to the elect line of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:1–3), to the elect royal tribe in that line (Gen 49:8–12).

The coronation ceremonies of David and his successors in the messianic dynasty probably went pretty much like the example we see when Jehoiada crowned Joash (2 Kgs 11:12). The Davidic king knew he hadn’t come to power through the smoking gun at the head of the previous ruler; he hadn’t won a modest majority in democratic elections; he hadn’t been put in place by a United Nations mandate that had been engineered with cookies from the military industrialist goody box. The basis of his enthronement was the Lord.

The Davidic kings would hear a double proclamation divine adoption into the divine dynasty: First, he heard, “You are my son” (Ps 2:7a). This was not the pagan idea of one of the many gods sleeping with the Queen Mother to produce a demigod as their offspring. Instead, this announced divine adoption rather than semi-divine birth. This intensified part of the core covenant promise: “I will claim you as my own people” (Exod 6:7a). In this case, the sonship was emphasized for the sake of royal dynastic succession. Davidic kings ruled on Zion, God’s mountain (Pss 2:6; 48:2; Isa 4:3; 33:20; 52:1; 60:14; 64:10; Joel 3:17; Zech 8:3), sitting on “the throne of the Lord” (1 Chr 29:23) and ruling over God’s people. Second, the newly coronated king heard, “Today I have become your Father’ (Ps 2:7b). This intensified the second half of the core covenant promise, “I will be your God” (Exod 6:7b). This asserted God’s own patronage as Father in heaven, whose kingdom was coming into effect on earth even as it is in heaven.

Finally, he heard words about territorial inheritance: “Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the whole earth as your possession. You will break them with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots” (Ps 2:8–9). That was a physical matter for the old covenant dynasty, who subdued enemies with the sword. But that manifestation of the kingdom only foreshadowed the kingdom of God in the form that Jesus Christ would inaugurate as Son of David. He would establish a kingdom not of the sword (John 18:36). “We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12; see Rom 8:38; Eph 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:15; Titus 3:1).

When the church forgets that, all kinds of long-lasting discredit rebounds against the righteous cause of Jesus Christ.

Misreading the Kingdom of God

The church leadership sent out an appeal letter, asking for volunteers and financial support for the mission. In one city, the leadership responded with an offer of 4,500 horsemen and 9,000 squires, and 200 ships to carry 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot soldiers. Throughout the mission thousands fell in bloody battle, so that no man could number them. As the army scattered throughout the city, it accumulated so much booty that no one could estimate its value: gold and silver, tableware, precious stones, satin and silk, mantles of squirrel fur and ermine, and “every choicest thing to be found on this earth.” One commentator said, “So much booty had never been gained in any city since the creation of the world.”

This was the result of the missionary vision of the Crusaders, which Pope Urban II (a.d. 1095) had incited in these terms: “From the confines of Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth… an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God… has invaded the lands of those Christians and depopulated them by the sword, plundering and fire.” After recounting the Turks’ desecration of churches, torture of believers, and the rape of Christian women, he continued: “O most valiant soldiers, descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate. Let all hatred between you depart, all quarrels end, all wars cease. Start upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher, to tear the land from the wicked race and subject it to yourself.”

At the conclusion of that address, a short arose from the crowd, “Deus vult! Deus vult!” God wills it, God wills it! And so Deus Vult became the battle cry for the medieval Crusaders, who bloodied the rivers of Asia Minor and thereby soiled the pages of church history. They raped and pillaged their way through not only the Muslim towns and mosques, but also through the Christian towns and churches of the East.

This was what happened when the Christian church took up a sword of steel rather than “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17). This was the result when people lost faith in the Word.

Let us remember, “The word of God is alive and powerful (Heb 4:12). Let us remember this: “We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments” (2 Cor 10:4).

Our Davidic king is even know enthroned, and the Lord God Almighty laughs in mockery at those who oppose him and his Anointed One (Ps 2:2–4). In the days of the old covenant, the Lord proclaimed, “I have placed by chosen king on the throne in Jerusalem” (Ps 2:6). How much more God scoffs at opposition to the king who is now enthroned at his own right hand; he will put every enemy under the feet of his chosen king Jesus (Ps 110:1–4; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42–43; Acts 2:33–34; Heb 1:13; 10:12–13). And we don’t need to do it for him, using cold steel and smoking gun powder.

We have already been told that our “sword” is the Word; and the finally battle will indeed be won by one whose sword comes out of his mouth (Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21). Even so Come Lord Jesus.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • How have you responded to this decade’s terrorist attacks from Muslims? Do you catch your response sounding like Pope Urban II or like that of Jesus Christ?
  • Do you think the most important work that can be done in Iraq is being done by the U.S. Marines or by Christian missionaries working to relieve the poor, preach the Gospel, and support the struggling church there?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

David: The Shepherd King

1 Sam 16:1–13

The End of the Period of the Judges

Samuel had been serving as Israel’s judge. He had successfully begun the reversal of spiritual and military decline caused by the ineffectual rule of Eli the priest-judge at Shilo. Israel had lost her Ark to the Philistines, and people said, “The glory has depart from Israel, for the Ark of God has been capture” (1 Sam 4–5, esp. 4:22). But God caused the Philistines so much trouble that after Eli died, the Philistines returned the Ark (1 Sam 6).

Samuel took up the office of prophet-priest-judge and led the people in repentance, so that they subdued the Philistines at Mizpah when God’s presence on the battlefield panicked the Philistines (1 Sam 7:1–11). So “Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means ‘the stone of help’), for he said, ‘Up to this point the Lord has helped us!’” (7:12). “Throughout Samuel`s lifetime, the Lord’s powerful hand was raised against the Philistines…., And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites” (7:13, 14). And Samuel ruled them well as priest-judge (7:15–17). But like Eli before him, he raised no-goods as sons, so the people feared what would happen when Samuel died (8:1–3).

A King After the People’s Hearts

So the people called for a king “just like all the other nations have” (8:5). The call for a king was not wrong; God had promised that long ago (Gen 49:8–12), and he had even provided for it in Mosaic legislation (Deut 17). But wanting one “just like all the other nations have” wasn’t a great idea. And Samuel told them so; these kings, they want your daughters for their harems and your sons for their armies, and your money for their palaces (8:11–17). The tithe belongs the Lord, but a king’s going to want that tithe (8:17). If you go ahead with this, someday “you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you” (8:18). “But the people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning. ‘Even so, we still want a king they said’” (8:19).

Samuel took this to the Lord, who told him, “Do as they say, and give them a king: (8:21). God sent Samuel hunting for the king they were demanding, and he found Saul, a man from the violent and warlike Benjamite tribe (Judg 5:14; 20:21) who would later form part of the backbone of opposition to David (2 Sam 2–3; 16; 19–20). Sometimes this tribe didn’t look any better than Sodom (Gen 19; Judg 19), but that’s where Israel got her first king. God had Samuel anoint Saul as king (1 Sam 9–10), and he took office.

At first Saul looked like a good deal. “He stood head and shoulders above anyone else” (10:23). He apparently took great care to avoid what Samuel had warned the people about. Rather than building a palace, harem, and standing army, he just went back to farming until he was needed (11:4–5). But when the time came he ably took up the military challenge of the Ammonites (11:6–11). So the people became really opened their hearts to this new king (11:12–15). He was quite the man of the people.

But he was a petty, jealous, and unspiritual man. This eventually got him in trouble with God and his spokesman Samuel (1 Sam 13). And Samuel told Saul God was done with him and his kingdom; “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart. The Lord has already appointed him to be the leader of his people” (13:14). And Saul’s rule went bad. He may still have enjoyed some victories over the Philistines (1 Sam 14), but God had rejected him (1 Sam 15).

A King After God’s Own Heart

It was time for Samuel to anoint a new king—the one God chose to replace Saul. The king from the tribe of Judah who would fulfill the ancient prophecy to that tribe (Gen 49:8–12), which the Benjamite Saul had not done. God sent him to the home of Jesse to find the new king. He was hunting for an Israelite king among the Moabitess Ruth’s grandsons! “Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, ‘Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!’” (16:6). He must have stood tall like Saul had, but the Lord told Samuel Don’t judge by his appearance or height,…. the Lord looks at the heart” (16:7).

Samuel worked his way down through Jesse’s sons and seemed to have run out of choices until he asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” (16:11a). Jesse dismissively said his youngest was out herding sheep (16:11b). Not bad training for leading Israel, if Moses had been any example (Exod 2). So Samuel called for him, and when David came in “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes,” God told Samuel, “This is the one; anoint him” (16:12). Samuel obeyed; he “took the horn full of olive oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers” (16:13a). What follows is both a positive and negative story of anointing. On the positive note, “The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on” (16:13b); on the negative note, “The Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and the Lord sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear” (16:14).

Saul’s “depression and fear” turned him into a paranoid and fool. Just like the young Samuel had entered into service in Eli’s house in preparation for being a priest and judge (1 Sam 2–3), David ended up in service in Saul’s palace, first as a musician to soothe the maniac’s tormented soul (1 Sam 16:14–23) and then as a giant killer (1 Sam 17). But that gave David a growing reputation that made Saul so jealous that he started trying to assassinate the one whom the Lord had anointed to succeed him as king (1 Sam 18). The next few chapters show David on the run among the peasants in the hill country and even among the Philistines on the coastal plains (1 Sam 19–27), but growing in popularity and power, while Saul slid further and further into the abyss.

Finally, faced with “the vast Philistine army, he became frantic with fear” (28:5). Samuel was now dead, so he tried speaking directly to the Lord to get some guidance. “But the Lord refused to answer him, either by dreams or by sacred lots or by the prophets” (28:6). Just, much as he had earlier forced matters by making an illegitimate offering (), Saul turned to even less legitimate means. He told his advisers, “Find a woman who is a medium, so I can go and ask her what to do” (28:7). He was off chasing seances, channelers, and occultic solutions that only a prophet could legitimately provide (Deut 18:9–20).

Nonetheless, God facilitated a message to Saul from the dead Samuel! But it was this: God has given your kingdom to David and the lives of you and your sons to the Philistines (18:17–19). Saul collapsed in fear and hunger (18:20). Just what an illegal witch needed in her house—a dead, paranoid, maniacal king who sporadically killed witches (18:3, 9)! She got him on his feet and on his way—to his death.

The panicked Saul went to the battle and ended up severely wounded. He didn’t want the Philistines to capture and torture him so he told his armor bearer to kill him, but he wouldn’t; he and his armor bearer ended up committing suicide together (31:3–5), and as the he had heard in the witch’s house, his sons also died that day (31:6). The Philistines routed the Israelites (31:7). The abuse that Saul had feared to face alive, came to his corpse. The Philistines rounded up the royal corpses of Saul and sons, decapitated Saul’s corpse, and distributed his carcass and armor for public display on the wall at Beth-shan and in their pagan temple (31:8–10).

As his first military act as King, Saul had rescued the people of Jabesh-gilead from a horrible siege (11:1–11, esp. vv. 1–2). When they learned what had happened to their hero, they mounted a rescue operation to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons so they could have an honorable burial back at the scene of his first military victory in Jabesh (31:11–13).

Finally, David was going to come to the throne; however, his first act would have to be to lead public mourning for over the fallen Saul (2 Sam 1–2).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Reflect on how Saul’s is an example of how God can permit and even facilitate our own choices if we insist on them. What does this tell us about God’s so-called “permissive will”?
  • Notice how long David had to wait before he could take the throne, even though he knew God had chosen, called, and anointed him for that office. (1) What did David do during tat wait and how did prepare him for kingship? (2) Do you see anything to learn about patience there?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Messiah's Family Line

Ruth 1–4

If you were writing the history of the Messiah’s ancestors, you would probably have Jesus Christ descended from Israel’s blue-bloods—from the family that entered Canaan on the Mayflower and attended church without missing a Sunday from then on. But the Bible recounts less orthodox breeding, including a homegrown amateur prostitute named Tamar (Gen 38; Matt 1:3), a foreign professional prostitute named Rahab (Josh 2; Matt 1:5), and a questionable foreigner named Ruth (Ruth 4:18–22; Matt 1:5; see Deut 23:3).

Ruth in Moab

This story played out during the chaotic downward spiral “when the judges ruled in Israel.” Apparently Judah was suffering a time of divine judgment, because “a severe famine came upon the land” (Ruth 1:1a; see Lev 26; Deut 28). Even Bethlehem (“House of Bread”) had no food; so Elimelech1 left there and took his family southeast into Moab, which lay along the southeastern shores of the Dead Sea (1:1b–2). There his sons married and died, leaving behind childless widows, and leaving his own widow Naomi particularly bereft of hope.

About then years in Moab, Naomi heard, “the Lord has blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again” (1:5). So she told her two loyal Moabite daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and me. May the Lord bless you with the security of marriage” (1:8–9). One daughter-in-law went home, but Ruth said no, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (1:16). And that last phrase was the key element of that commitment.

So Naomi took Ruth along, complaining, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty” (1:21). “Don’t call me Naomi (“Pleasant”)… instead call me Mara (“Bitter”) for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me” (1:20). She headed home empty and bitter.

Ruth in the Promised Land

Ruth in Boaz’s Fields 

When Naomi and Ruth got back to Naomi’s homeland, Ruth ended up gleaning behind harvesters in Boaz’s field. This was a provision for poor people (Lev 19:9; 23:22), and that’s what Naomi and Ruth were. But in that field, Ruth found the kind of favor that would move her from being “only a foreigner” (2:10), to being a servant (2:13; 3:9), to being “wife” (4:10), to being a matriarch in Israel’s royal line—to being a matriarch in the Messianic line. Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s former husband, had heard of this young Moabite lady’s loyalty to Naomi. He blessed Ruth for this familial loyalty, and he rightly interpreted this move as more than just family loyalty. The Moabite lady who had said, “your God will be my God” (1:16) had indeed “come to take refuge” under the wings of the Lord God of Israel (2:12). Rather than being empty, when she ate at Boaz’s table, “She ate all she wanted and still had some left over” (2:14). And so Naomi was no longer “empty”; “Ruth gave her the roasted grain that was left over from her meal” (2:18). When Ruth explained that it had come from Boaz, Naomi exclaimed, “May the Lord bless him!”; and she saw in Boaz the perfect family redeemer (2:20).

Ruth at Boaz’s Threshing Floor

Naomi was growing old and wanted to provide some security (“rest”) for Ruth (3:1). So she concocted an amazing high-risk plan to get Ruth and Boaz married (3:3–4). She told Ruth get yourself bathed, perfumed, and dressed and go visit Boaz. After he’s had plenty to eat and drink and dropped off to sleep, expose his legs then lay with him; he’ll wake up and…. Here’s where our imaginations run riot with romantic and perilous possibilities: Boaz, who would have been eating and had a little to drink, might wake up aflame with passion for the young woman laying with him. This could have sent Ruth home broken in body and spirit. Boaz, who was a righteous man, might wake up incensed to find a young Moabite woman of the night trying to seduce him and indignantly send her packing—home to Naomi or even home to Moab. But Naomi told Ruth, Boaz will wake up and “tell you what to do” (3:4).

Ruth responded, “I will do everything you say” (3:5). And she did (3:6–9a), but with one small exception. Rather than waiting for Boaz to tell her what to do (3:4), Ruth told Boaz what to do: “Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer” (3:9b). It’s interesting to note requesting Boaz to spread the “wing” of his covering over her echoed Boaz’s note that Ruth had come to take refuge under the “wing” of the Lord God of Israel (2:12).

Boaz’s response was all that Naomi and Ruth could have hoped for (3:9c). Rather than awakening to natural but dangerous passions, he awoke to the noble feelings of compassion for the young woman. Rather than awakening with outraged indignity at this potentially compromising scene, he awoke with a plan to preserve dignity, a determination to pursue redemption, and a generous concern to keep Naomi from ever being “empty” again (3:10–15). He blessed Ruth for her family loyalty, which had first led her to stick by Naomi’s side. Then he blessed her for looking to him rather than marrying someone else (3:15). Perhaps he had been watching Ruth, thinking, “It’s impossible, why would a young beauty like her want me?” He acknowledged Ruth’s reputation as a “virtuous woman” and made every effort to protect that reputation as well as his own (3:11, 14). The only other place in the Old Testament where we see this term “virtuous woman” is in the last chapter of Proverbs. It’s interesting that in the Hebrew Scriptures, Ruth immediately follows Proverbs, as if to depict Ruth as the exemplar “virtuous woman.”

Just about when we’re sure Ruth as going to marry Boaz and live happily ever after, Boaz comes out with a potential problem. There is a closer “family redeemer” who should have the offer before Boaz himself could take it up (3:12). Sounds like he’d already been thinking this through. “I am a potential ‘family redeemer’—but ‘So-and-So’ has right of first refusal”? Finally, Boaz didn’t send Ruth away “empty” but full, with a heavy bag of grain for Naomi (3:15, 17). She went home full and rejoicing.

The next mini-scene finds the excited Ruth and Naomi going over what had happened the night before and then waiting to hear what happened with Boaz’s plans. They had done all the planning and scheming they could; now it was up to the plans and schemes of Boaz (3:16–18).

Ruth as Boaz’s Wife

Boaz was certainly up to the task he had set for himself. He wasted no time but marched right into the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of family court and pressed for a decision on the redemption of Naomi’s property and daughter-in-law. He button-holed the nearer redeemer and notified him that Naomi would be making the land that had belonged to her husband Elimelech available to a family redeemer. Our hearts drop to here this anonymous contender say, “All right, I’ll redeem it” (4:4). We know that it’s a package deal with Ruth marrying whoever takes the land. Boaz had kept a little quiet about that though. Then Boaz said, “Okay, you get the land, but you get a Moabite lady for a wife, and you have to take care to sustain and pass along Elimelech’s family inheritance to any future heir (4:5). This was more than the anonymous potential redeemer felt like he could do (4:6). He might have felt a little racial squeemishness about a Moabite wife (Deut 23:3), he might have thought I’m not spending my money on someone else’s kid and then risking dividing my family properties with a relative’s kids. So Boaz said, “Fine, I’m marrying the lady.” He gladly accepted the responsibility for Ruth and thus he also accepted wider responsibility as a redeemer for the family line of Ruth’s dead husband. As it turns out, he saved the Messianic line from extinction.

He took Ruth home and slept with her, and this young lady who had not had any children during her years of marriage to Mahlon conceived a child, because “the Lord enabled her to become pregnant” (4:13). And she gave birth to king David’s grandfather!

Ruth in David’s Genealogy

It’s interesting to hear the town blessing Boaz’s promise to redeem and his desire to marry Ruth and raise up her offspring. Their language chimes with messianic tones: “May the Lord make this woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, from whom all the nation of Israel descended” (4:11a). These two woman had borne the forbearers of all twelve tribes in Israel, now Bethlehem talked like the entire future of Israel would depend upon the offspring of Ruth. They said, “May the Lord give you descendants by this young woman who will be like those our ancestor Perez, the son of Tamar and Judah” (4:12b). You can read the shameful story of the conception of Perez in Genesis 38; however, by God’s grace this pushy twin would carry forth not only the general Israelite line, but even the royal line of Judah (cf. Gen 49:8–10). Now Bethlehem was talking like the royal line depended upon the offspring of Ruth.

Indeed, it would. The son she bore Boaz was Obed, king David’s grandfather. Bethlehem acclaimed him as Obed (“servant,” 4:17), perhaps a bit of foretaste of the reputation his grandson David would gain as servant of the Lord (1 Sam 19:4; 25:41; 29:3, 8; 2 Sam 6:20; 7:5, 8, 26; 9:6; 16:1; 17:17; 1 Kgs 3:6; 8:24ff, 66; 11:13, 32, 34, 36, 38; 14:8; 2 Kgs 19:34; 20:6; 1 Chr 17:4, 7, 24; 2 Chr 6:15ff, 42; Ps 17:15; 35:28; 78:70; 89:3, 20; 132:10; 143:12; 144:10; Isa 37:35; Jer 33:21f, 26; Ezek 34:23f; 37:24f; Luke 1:69; Acts 4:25).

Obed “became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David” (4:17b). Unlike Lot’s daughters, who mothered the Moabite peoples (Gen 19:30–38), this young Moabite woman did not shame herself or the man she met after a night of eating and drinking. And like the plotting Tamar who plotted to seduce Judah into laying with her so her husband’s family line would continue (Gen 38), Ruth and Naomi plotted a rendezvous that would also continue not only the general line of the twelve tribes of Israel but even the royal line of David with it’s root and branches in the Jesse Tree (Ruth 4:18–21).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Remember yesterday’s question about “rest” in the Bible, and notice the occasions it’s used in Ruth: for the security of marriage (1:9), for security among the laborers in the redeemer Boaz’s field (2:7), for the security of marriage (3:1), and for the “rest” that Boaz would forgo until he had completed the redemptive task (3:18).
  • What do you think of when you think of the plan that Naomi hatched? Can you imagine sending your daughter off on such an errand to assure her of an honorable future?
  • Notice the who is doing the blessing and who is the recipient of blessing throughout Ruth (2:4, 19–20; 3:10; 4:14).


1. It’s interesting to contrast the name of Gideon’s son Abimelech (“my father is king”) with the name Elimelech (“my God is king”). The former may have implied dynastic intentions; the latter implied pious loyalty to God alone.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Gideon: Unlikely Hero

Judg 6–7

The age of the judges is generally characterized as a downward spiral. God blessed Israel by delivering Canaan into their hands at the conquest. But then a vicious cycle began:

blessing/comfort > disobedience/affliction > repentance/deliverance > blessing/comfort….

And this cycle continued in a downward spiral throughout the age of the judges, from the conquest until the rise of Israel’s monarchy with Saul and David as its first kings.

We hear the chronic complaint, “In those days, Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). God had already warned against this (Deut 12:8). This is the routine of a fool (Prov 12:15) who doesn’t acknowledge that God will judge his ways (Prov 21:2).

Midian Oppresses Israel and Gideon Delivers Them (Judg 6:1–8:21)

Midian was Abraham’s son by Keturah, whom he took after Sarah’s death (Gen 25:1–2). Abraham sent him “off to a land in the east, away from Isaac” (Gen 25:6). On the one hand, we find Midianites slave dealers buying and selling Joseph (Gen 37) and Midianites joining the king of Moab in attempting to lay a curse on Israel (Num 22) and then seducing them into Baalism (Num 25:15, 17–18; 31:2–3). On the other hand, when Moses fled Egypt he took both refuge and a wife in Midian (Exod 2), and he employed a Midianite as desert guide during their wilderness years (Num 10).

By this time, Midian had been oppressing Israel for seven years (Judg 6:1–10). So God raised up Gideon from a humble background (6:11–27). Gideon began first with the necessary religious reform, destroying the Baal altar and an Asherah (6:28–35). This could have got him killed, except his father stood up for him and told the people that Baal ought to stand up for himself if he was really a god (6:31). “Then the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon,” and called Israel to arms (6:34–35).

It sounds like Gideon may have lost his nerve, even though he already had God’s promise to use him. He wanted confirmation of God’s call to liberate Israel: Give me a sign “if you are truly going to use me to rescue Israel as you promised” (6:36). God graciously supplied a succession of two confirming signs (6:37–40). God whittled down Gideon’s army to a mere three hundred men (7:1–18), so Israel would know that it was the Lord not Gideon who would would be gaining victory over the Midianites. And then God led them to a crushing victory, inflicting the Midianites with 120,000 casualties, including their kings Zebah and Zalmunna and their princes Oreb and Zeeb (7:19–8:21). This proved to be a victory that echoed as “the day of Midian” (Ps 83:9; Isa 9:4; 10:26; Hab 3:7). So far so good on messianic typology.

Gideon’s Ephod and Abimelech’s Folly (Judg 8:22–9:57)

God had whittled down the army so the people would be forced to reckon God as their champion rather than Gideon. But the people asked Gideon to initiate a Gideonite dynasty (8:22). Gideon wisely refused (8:23), but he did two things that would prove problematic. First, he collected gold and “made a sacred ephod” to set up in his home town (8:24–27). This seems to have been some kind of cultic object to be used for oracular purposes (1 Sam 23:9; 30:7), even though ephods were only for the priestly garb (Exod 28:4–6). “Soon all the Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping it, and it became a trap for Gideon and his family” (8:27). Second, he named his son by one of his concubines Abimelech, or “my father is king.” The very act of taking concubines may have been problematic, since it seemed lik a royal prerogative (2 Sam 21:10–14; 1 Kgs 11:3). Certainly naming a son this way ran the risk of raising false dynastic hopes for his family, even though he had formally rejected that offer. Nonetheless, God granted Israel forty years of “rest” during Gideon’s days (8:28).

God had given them rest after Gideon’s religious reform, which eliminated the Baal altar, and after Gideon’s subsequent defeat of the Midianites. But “as soon as Gideon died, the Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping the images of Baal, making Baal-berith their god” (8:33). This was the local manifestation of the Canaanite storm god, with a name meaning “Baal of the covenant”—Israel had switched their covenantal affiliation from the Lord back to Baal.

And Gideon’s son Abimelech starting taking his name too seriously, and made a fratricidal bid for kingship (9:1–6). His one surviving half-brother Jotham cursed it (9:20, 57) and ridiculed it in a fable about a pretentious thorn bush claiming to be king over “the cedars of Lebanon” (9:7–15). Nonetheless, Abimelech managed to rule Israel for three years, employing brutal practices (9:22–49). Eventually, “a woman on the roof dropped a millstone that landed on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. He quickly said to his young armor bearer, ‘Draw your sword and kill me! Don’t let it be said that a woman killed Abimelech!’ So the young man ran him through with his sword, and he died” (9:53–54).

This wrote “In Conclusion” to a story that had so much good to offer Israel but ended up with idolatry and royal usurpation. It’s amazing to note that even by such means as Gideon, God kept on delivering his people from their self-caused predicaments. One day, the branch from Jesse’s tree would bring about a greater and more lasting “rest.” But things would have to await the coming of the king after God’s own heart. Of course that would initially be David (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22); however, ultimately, the king with the perfectly godly heart would be Jesus Christ the Son of David.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • See the theme of “rest” in Scripture. If you have a Bible with cross-references in the margins, a concordance, a Bible dictionary, or some Bible software like the free program e-Sword , you can run the Bible references. If you use a computer search program, search for the phrase “rest from” in all the Bible and for the word “rest” in the book of Hebrews. If you use the the internet, search at or read Bible dictionary article on “Rest” at
  • How do you think God views the idea of “putting out a fleece” before God?
  • Reflect on the spiritual danger that tags along behind those who have been involved in some great work of God, which brings them down if they begin to think they have done the work and seeking memorials to their work for the Lord—whether an ephod or a dynasty.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Josh 2:1–21

Rahab on Jericho’s Walls

The Lord’s call of Abraham made clear from the beginning that his job description for the people of God would be “bless the nations” (Gen 12:1–3). Here we find not only a foreign woman, but even a prostitute coming under that blessing (Josh 2:1). Some commentators suggest that the Hebrew term zonah doesn’t necessarily mean “prostitute” but could mean something like an “innkeeper,” because Joshua’s two spies headed to her establishment to spend the night. But it’s actually pretty clear that the Hebrew term refers to a woman committing fornication, whether sneaking around occasionally or openly doing it professionally.

Like King Balak in Moab, Rahab in Jericho had noticed how strong the Lord was making his people Israel (2:9­–11). But rather than attempting to curse Israel like Balak had, she decided to throw in her lot with them. When Joshua’s two spies came to Jerusalem, she put them up for the night (2:1). A town’s grapevine quickly cottoned on to a couple spies from the desert who had dropped in to see the town prostitute. So the king sent for them (2:2–3). But Rahab hid the spies among her stuff on the roof, sent the king’s men went off on a wild goose chase, and went up on the rooftop to strike a deal with the spies (2:4–8). When Jericho falls, protect me and my extended family (2:12–13). The spies swore by their own lives, “We will be kind to you when the Lord gives us the land” (2:14). So she sent them on their way with advice how to evade capture (2:15–16).

The men told her to gather her family inside her house and to mark it with the “scarlet rope” that she used to drop them down the outside of the city walls (2:15, 18). Occasionally we hear fanciful interpretations telling us the red of the “scarlet rope” signifies, or typifies, the red blood of Christ. Just because the rope was red doesn’t mean we have a type of Jesus’ blood. Actually, this signal has more in common with the mark of protection God gave Cain (Gen 4:15), the bloodied door posts that marked out the houses to be protected from the death angel when it passed over Egypt (Exod 12), the pen mark on the forehead of the righteous in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 9), and the mark on the 144,000 in Revelation (Rev 7:4; 14:1, 3). And all of these are physical symbols of the reality that God provides in the seal of the Spirit (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30). This red cord was to serve as a signal to all of Israel’s soldiers that this was a house that the Lord wanted to protect.

This shows us that God will be gracious to anyone who turns to him, whether in fear of judgment as was the case in Rahab’s case, or in loyalty as would later be the case with Ruth. God will be faithful to his covenant promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you” (Gen 12:3a). Of course, the opposite is true: “I will curse those who treat you with contempt” (Gen 12:3b).

As the New Testament puts it, “If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 John 1:9). It doesn’t matter what you lifestyle or nationality; if you turn to God he will turn his smiling face to you.

Rahab in Jesus’ Genealogy?

It’s interesting to speculate that Boaz’s prostitute mother and his Moabitess wife both joined the faithful assembly of those who were longing for the coming of Messiah (Matt 1:5). Some traditions identify the Rahab who was Boaz’s mother (Matt 1:5) with the Rahab from Jericho (Josh 2). Impossible to know if they were the same lady—but an interesting idea. In either case, it’s an amazing thing to see the “Gospel” outreach even in the earliest time of the Old Testament people of God.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Where “on Jericho’s wall” are you sitting this Christmas season?
  • Are you like one of the two spies, already numbered among those who are going about God’s business in this world and looking for spiritual victories?
  • Are you like Rahab’s neighbors along the wall or in the streets below, going about your own business with no regard for what God is about to do in overthrowing this world in his final judgment?
  • Are you like the king and his messengers, patrolling the walls in opposition to God and his people?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Balaam's Messianic Prophecy

Num 22–24

This strange story portrays a false prophet whose message was legitimate—despite his desperate desire to fulfill his evil commission from King Balak and strike it rich. He’s almost the mirror image of Jonah, who was a true prophet with a desperate desire to avoid completing his merciful commission from the King of kings.

False Prophet

Some reckon Balaam to be a bona fide prophet who went off kilter pursuing King Balak’s money. Others judge Balaam to be a sinister prophet, whom God coerced into blessing Israel. Actually, the Bible story mixes up imagery when describing Balaam. On the one hand, Balaalm took pains to portray himself as an obedient servant of the Lord. He claimed to speak the words of the Lord and disclaimed the ability to say anything but what the Lord allowed (Num 22:1–21, 31–41; 23:1–24:25). On the other hand, the narrator refuses to call him a prophet and keeps depicting him with almost comical satire, as a “seer” who’s quite unable to “see” what any ass can see (22:22–30). A later book described him as one “who used magic to tell the future” (Josh 13:22), and the rest of the Bible record certainly consolidates a totally negative reputation for him (Num 31:8, 16; Deut 23:3–6; Josh 13:22; 24:9–10; Judg 11:23–25; Neh 13:1–3; 2 Pet 2:15–16; Jude 11; Rev 2:14).

So Balaam was a rental prophet, an exorcist and curse expert available for hire. Hiring someone to curse your enemies has a long and despicable history, from ancient Near Eastern times through to at least the Roman period. An unknown thief steals something, you go to a temple and pay a curse expert to put a curse on the undetected culprit—may the gods strike him with disease, financial ruin, and death in his family. You prepare to go into battle, you call in the curse expert to lay a crippling curse on the enemy camp—may the gods throw them into confusion, provoke an insurrection among the enemy soldiers, or turn them into trembling woman on the day of battle. This kind of stuff would have been Balaam’s speciality. Today he would probably have a web site, a late-night call-in TV program, and a toll-free number to call to get a free information packet.

Balaam appeared to have had an international reputation. He was from Beor in Mesopotamia, the region of modern Iraq. Balak the king of Moab ruled the region alongside the southeastern bank of the Dead Sea. Just as the wise old sages of the larger region were known in foreign courts, it appears any king’s address book would have contact information on a few curse masters from near and far.

Even though we see that Balaam was unable to curse Israel and earn his fees as a curse expert, he eventually succeeded in seducing Israel into worshiping the Baal of Peor (Num 25). He couldn’t curse Israel, but he succeeded in getting Israel to live so that God himself would curse them (Num 31:16).

Accurate Prophecy

Balaam refused the Balak’s first offer, in spite the rich commission he dearly wanted to collect (Num 22:1–14). But he accepted a second offer in which Balak upped the fees (22:15–21). Balaam spoke of “the Lord my God” (22:18), perhaps hinting that since he served Israel’s own God Yahweh he might be more successful than others at making good on a curse against Israel. God told him no, but then let him go with a strong warning not to do anything but what he told him to do (22:20). But God threw up barriers when Balaam made haste to take Balak’s curse contract (22:22–35), and only his donkey could see the barriers; Balaam had an eye only for payday. When he came before king Balak, Balaam warned that he probably wouldn’t be able to deliver on a curse (22:36–41).

Balaam’s first ritual and prophecy described a people whom God had already blessed (23:1–12). His second ritual and prophecy announced, “no curse can touch Jacob; no magic has any power against Israel” (23:13–26, esp. v. 23). No high-priced international curse expert was going to lay a glove—or tongue—on Israel. In disgust, king Balak told Balaam, “Fine, but if you won’t curse them, at least don’t bless them” (23:25). In spite of that frustrated flare-up, king Balak opted for one more try (23:27).

Finally, Balaam dropped the rituals of a pagan curse expert; “he did not resort to divination as before” (24:1). All along he had been claiming to operate as a prophet of the Lord but actually operating as a pagan (see Deut 18:9–14). And the result in Balaam’s third prophecy was the outright blessing that king Balak had feared. I suppose Balaam feared it too. It would certainly cost him his paycheck, and it could have cost him his life.

Finally, Balaam’s fourth prophecy turned to one of the noblest of the Old Testament messianic prophecies (24:14–19). This was a pagan prophet; if ever there were a case in the Old Testament, the words of Peter describe what Balaam was doing: “No prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:20–21). As much as he hated it, Balaam had no curse for Israel. Indeed, he had moved from implying a blessing on Israel (23:1–12), to pronouncing an explicit blessing (23:13–26), to threatening Israel’s enemies in general (23:27–24:13), and to threatening Moab itself (24:14–19).

In “the future…. far in the distant future” (24:14, 17), God would raise up a “star” from Jacob (v. 17). The star was a common ancient Near Eastern image for a ruler (Gen 37:9; Isa 14:12–13). A “scepter” would come from Israel, which would “crush the foreheads of Moab’s people” (v. 17).

Naturally, Jewish literature soon began interpreting Balaam’s prophecies messianically. For example, the Qumran community who lived around the western shores of the Dead Sea looked for the star and scepter, a future priest and king. Some hailed the leader of the second Jewish revolt (a.d. 132–135) as Bar-Kochba (“Son of the Star”). Some Christian commentators play down any idea of direct messianic prophecy here; they see Balaam’s prophecy fulfilled essentially in the Davidic dynasty. Indeed, David provided the initial fulfillment of this prophecy; however, in so doing, he foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah.

Certainly the New Testament usage of Balaam imagery (Matt 2:2, 7, 9–10, 16; Rev 2:28; 22:16) is in keeping with the expectation that Jesus Christ was the ruler that Balaam prophesied (John 1:20; 4:25–26; Matt 26:63–64; Mark 14:61–62; Luke 22:67–70). The trajectory set out in Balaam’s prophecy is fulfilled when we hear, “the world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

Questions, Reflections and Commitments

  • Reflect on how the blessings of God cannot be denied to those who follow him (Num 22–24), but note that disobedience and apostasy can’t be faced with calm assurance of divine blessing (Num 25; 31:16).
  • Note how Balaam should warn the modern believer: (1) Even signs that God is using you and even speaking through you is no guarantee of your salvation; (2) mixing the call of God and a love for money is the way to hell (2 Pet 2:15).