Treasure of the Broken Land

So many have died this winter. Simply scanning the list of deaths in December noted by Wikipedia is overwhelming. Imagine, then, a valley of dry bones. Surely, symbolic of something epochal. The prophet Ezekiel recounts his vision in chapter 37 of the book of the Bible named after him. He tells of a conversation between the Lord God and himself:

And [God] said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 37:3-6 English Standard Version (ESV)

Some commentators think Ezekiel’s vision pertains to national Israel, either prior to and during the Lord’s first advent or His second. Some think it represents the resurrection to life of spiritual Israel, either prior or after the same two appearances. Finally, some think it refers to the general resurrection at the last day. Here’s a sample of three commentators’ views. Matthew Henry says:

…It is without doubt a most lively representation of a threefold resurrection, besides that which it is primarily intended to be the sign of:

1.) The resurrection of souls from the death of sin to the life or righteousness, to a holy, heavenly, spiritual, and divine life, by the power of divine grace going along with the word of Christ, John 5: 24-25.

2.) The resurrection of the gospel church, or any part of it, from an afflicted persecuted state, especially under the yoke of the New-Testament Babylon, to liberty and peace.

3.) The resurrection of the body at the great day, especially the bodies of believers that shall rise to life eternal.

Next, Alexander MacLaren says:

This great vision apparently took its form from a despairing saying, which had become a proverb among the exiles, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost: we are clean cut off’ (v. 11). Ezekiel lays hold of the metaphor, which had been taken to express the hopeless destruction of Israel’s national existence, and…from it wrings a message of hope…We may look at the vision from three points of view: considering its bearing on Israel, on the world, and on the resurrection of the body.

…The spirit promised in them is simply the source of life, literally, of physical life; metaphorically, of national life…The proper scope of the vision is to assure despairing Israelites that God would quicken the apparently slain national life, and replace them in the land.

…We may extend the application of the vision to the condition of humanity and the divine intervention which communicates life to a dead world, but must remember that no such meaning was in Ezekiel’s thoughts…

As to the bearing of the vision on the doctrine of the resurrection little need be said…For clear expectations of such a resurrection we must turn to scriptures [such] as Daniel 12: 2, 13 …

Finally, Charles Haddon Spurgeon says:

This vision has been used, from the time of Jerome onwards, as a description of the resurrection…But while this interpretation of the vision may be very proper as an accommodation, it must be quite evident to any thinking person that this is not the meaning of the passage…

The meaning of our text [from] the context is most evidently, if words mean anything, first, that there shall be a political restoration of the Jews to their own land and to their own nationality. And then, secondly, there is in the text and in the context a most plain declaration that there shall be a spiritual restoration— in fact a conversion—of the tribes of Israel…

…There will be a native government again. There will again be the form of a political body…A State shall be incorporated and a king shall reign…And they are also to be reunited. There shall not be two, nor ten, nor twelve, but one—one Israel praising one God—serving one king and that one King the Son of David, the descended Messiah!

But there is a second meaning here. Israel is to have a spiritual restoration or a conversion…The unseen but Omnipotent Jehovah is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth by His ancient people. They are to come before Him in His own appointed way, accepting the Mediator whom their [ancestors] rejected. They will come into Covenant relation with God…that Covenant of which Christ is the federal Head, the Substance and the Surety…

Our times are in turmoil as many watch for the fulfillment of this prophesy in one or many of its stated understandings. However, though Ezekiel’s prophesy may not explicitly refer to the general resurrection, we know that this event is sure. In line with our recent postings on Ecclesiastes 9:10-11: Marking Time and The Race, I refer you to lyrics that one of our poets wrote:

…I thought our days were commonplace

Thought they would number in millions

Now there’s only the aftertaste

Of circumstance that can’t pass this way again

.

…I can melt the clock hands down

But only in my memory

Nobody gets the second chance to be the friend they meant to be

.

…Treasure of the broken land

Parched earth give up your captive ones

Waiting wind of Gabriel

Blow soon upon the hollow bones

I have these lyrics framed on my desk in memory of my mother’s going to be with Christ. Soon, we will see our treasures in heaven: the people we loved who obeyed the Lord Jesus Christ even unto death.

Mark Heard – Treasure of the Broken Land, March 12, 2013, YouTube, Righteous Rock Radio

Fear and Trembling

The Christian life is often criticized. Sometimes for right reasons and sometimes not. When it’s maligned, the Christian life is mischaracterized as an exercise in self-effort leading to self-aggrandizement. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we can’t live this life acceptably apart from total reliance on our Lord and Savior.

The Apostle Paul declared this doctrine in his letter to the Philippian church:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

For months, we’ve consistently appealed to John Calvin’s scripture commentary. His unique idiom is sometimes difficult to render, and even harder to untangle, in the English language. We’ve tried to simplify his compressed and iterative text by rephrasing or reordering his words. We indicate these modifications with ellipses and square brackets. Let’s examine his exposition of this doctrine. First, Calvin contrasts those who apply this principle with those who do not:

…[One makes] progress in the knowledge of both the grace of God and [their] own weakness [when, awakened from negligence, they] diligently seek God’s help; while those that are puffed up with confidence in their own strength, must necessarily be at the same time in a state of intoxicated security.

He differentiates between two types of fear, only one of which leads to a good outcome:

…There are two kinds of fear; the one produces anxiety along with humility; the other hesitation. The former is opposed to fleshly confidence, negligence, [and] arrogance; the latter [is opposed] to assurance of faith.

…For distrust of ourselves leads us to lean more confidently upon the mercy [and grace] of God [alone]. And this is what Paul [implies], for he requires nothing from the Philippians, but that they submit themselves to God with true self-renunciation.

It’s somewhat startling to read this view from the namesake of Calvinism. Further, from the scriptures, Calvin shows us that starting and continuing in self-renunciation is supplied by God:

…For [Paul] does not say that our hearts are simply turned or stirred up, or that the infirmity of a good will is helped, but that a good inclination is wholly the work of God…as he promises by Ezekiel, —

“I will cause them to walk in my commandments.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

From this we infer that perseverance, also, is his free gift.

Summarizing the doctrine, Calvin writes:

Hence [Paul] teaches, that the whole course of our life, if we live aright, is regulated by God, and that, too, from his unmerited goodness.

Therefore, let us acknowledge that we are His workmanship by walking in the works He created for us to do.

R.C. Sproul – Fear and Trembling – Fear and Trembling Series, Uploaded to YouTube on Apr 1, 2011

Idols

Scripture is clear: Idols are nothing. However, the scriptures point out that it is not the physical manifestation of the idol nor the demonic forces it represents but the disaffection of peoples’ hearts from their Lord and Creator that is deadly.

In one of the more amusing Old Testament passages, the Prophet Isaiah shows the futility of idols by describing a man using half of a wooden log to warm himself and cook a meal and then worshipping the other half:

He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god! Isaiah 44:14-17 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Prophet Jeremiah says physical idols are mere inanimate articles of superstition:

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,

   and they cannot speak;

they have to be carried,

   for they cannot walk.

Do not be afraid of them,

   for they cannot do evil,

   neither is it in them to do good.”

Jeremiah 10:5 (ESV)

The Prophet Ezekiel emphasizes what was true all along; idol worship is a question of a person’s heart disaffection from the Lord:

For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself. Ezekiel 14:7 (ESV)

John Calvin comments on this passage:

He who caused his idols to ascend unto his heart, he who placed the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, that is, was drowned in his own superstitions, so that his idols bore sway in his heart.

Lastly, he who is so forward in audacity that he did not conceal his wish to oppose the Almighty: if anyone, says he, came to a prophet to inquire of him in me, or my name, I will answer him. He [the Lord speaking through the prophet]…could no longer bear the hypocrites who deluded themselves so proudly. And certainly when they openly worshipped idols, and were [filled] with many superstitions, what audacity and pride it was to consult true prophets?

It is much the same as if a person should want only insult and rail at a physician, and not only load him with reproaches, but even spit in his face: and should afterwards go and ask his advice, saying, “What do you advise me to do? How must I be cured of this disease?” Such pride could not be borne between man and man…How then will God permit such reproaches to go unpunished?

The Apostle Paul addresses the question of idols directly:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (ESV)

Calvin disagrees with the translation no…existence:

…As to the words, Erasmus reads thus — “An idol has no existence.” I prefer the rendering of the old translation — an idol is nothing. For the argument is this — that an idol is nothing, inasmuch as there is but one God; for it follows admirably — “If there is no other God besides our God, then an idol is an empty dream, and mere vanity.” When he says — and there is none other God but one, I understand the conjunction [as giving this explanation].

For the reason why an idol is nothing is, that it must be estimated according to the thing that it represents. Now it is appointed for the purpose of representing God: nay more, for the purpose of representing false gods, inasmuch as there is but one God, who is invisible and incomprehensible.

The reason, too, must be carefully observed — An idol is nothing because there is no God but one; for he is the invisible God, and cannot be represented by a visible sign, so as to be worshipped through means of it. Whether, therefore, idols are erected to represent the true God, or false gods, it is in all cases a perverse contrivance.

Hence Habakkuk calls idols teachers of lies, (Habakkuk 2:18) because they deal falsely in pretending to give a figure or image of God, and deceive men under a false title. Hence οὐδεν (nothing) refers not to essence, but to quality — for an idol is made of some substance — either silver, or wood, or stone; but as God does not choose to be represented in this way, it is vanity and nothing as to meaning and use.

Paul takes it further and calls covetousness, which is a specific heart attitude, idolatry:

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Ephesians 5:5 (ESV)

Calvin points out this identification is representative of a greater issue:

Nor covetous man, who is an idolater. “Covetousness,” as he says in another place, “is idolatry,” (Colossians 3:5) — not the idolatry which is so frequently condemned in Scripture, but one of a different description. All covetous men must deny God, and put wealth in his place; such is their blind greediness of wretched gain.

But why does Paul attribute to covetousness alone what belongs equally to other carnal passions? In what respect is covetousness better entitled to this disgraceful name than ambition, or than a vain confidence in ourselves?

I answer, that this disease is widely spread, and not a few minds have caught the infection. Nay, it is not reckoned a disease, but receives, on the contrary, very general commendation. This accounts for the harshness of Paul’s language, which arose from a desire to tear from our hearts the false view.

Calvin says that all heart passions that disobey God deserve being labelled idolatry. But, he says, Paul is emphasizing covetousness because of its effect in man. As his Lord had said:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money [or possessions].” Matthew 6:24 (ESV)

The same also recorded in Luke 16:13. Calvin draws an important distinction concerning this passage in Matthew:

…Christ affirms that it is impossible for any man to obey God, and, at the same time, to obey his own flesh…where riches hold the dominion of the heart, God has lost his authority. True, it is not impossible that those who are rich shall serve God; but whoever gives himself up as a slave to riches must abandon the service of God: for covetousness makes us the slaves of the devil.

…What is here said with a special reference to riches, may be properly extended to every other description of vice. As God pronounces everywhere such commendations of sincerity, and hates a double heart, (1 Chronicles 12:33; Psalm 12:2) all are deceived, who imagine that he will be satisfied with the half of their heart.

All, indeed, confess in words, that, where the affection is not entire, there is no true worship of God: but they deny it in fact, when they attempt to reconcile contradictions. “I shall not cease,” says an ambitious man, “to serve God, though I devote a great part of my mind to hunting after honors.”

It is, no doubt, true, that believers themselves are never so perfectly devoted to obedience to God, as not to be withdrawn from it by the sinful desires of the flesh. But as they groan under this wretched bondage, and are dissatisfied with themselves, and give nothing more than an unwilling and reluctant service to the flesh, they are not said to serve two masters.

For their desires and exertions are approved by the Lord, as if they rendered to him a perfect obedience. But this passage reproves the hypocrisy of those who flatter themselves in their vices, as if they could reconcile light and darkness.

Scarecrows out standing in a field

Scarecrow, Japan Paddy Field, By FG2, released into the Public Domain by its author

Legalistic?

I’ve heard it said that those who profess Christ shouldn’t try to put off the old self and put on the new self, to pursue sanctification, or intentionally obey the word of God.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church says:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Some would have you believe that Paul must have been mistaken. John Calvin comments on these verses:

It is God that worketh. This is the true engine for bringing down all haughtiness — this the sword for putting an end to all pride, when we are taught that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone. I mean supernatural grace, which comes forth from the spirit of regeneration.

…There are, in any action, two principal departments — the inclination, and the power to carry it into effect. Both of these he ascribes wholly to God; what more remains to us as a ground of glorying?

Nor is there any reason to doubt that this division has the same force as if Paul had expressed the whole in a single word; for the inclination is the groundwork; the accomplishment of it is the summit of the building brought to a completion. …For he does not say that our hearts are simply turned or stirred up, or that the infirmity of a good will is helped, but that a good inclination is wholly the work of God.

…For we acknowledge that we have from nature an inclination, but as it is depraved through the corruption of sin, it begins to be good only when it has been renewed by God. Nor do we say that a man does anything good without willing it, but that it is only when his inclination is regulated by the Spirit of God.

Hence, in so far as concerns this department, we see that the entire praise is ascribed to God, and that what sophists teach us is frivolous — that grace is offered to us, and placed, as it were, in the midst of us, that we may embrace it if we choose; for if God did not work in us efficaciously, he could not be said to produce in us a good inclination.

As to the second department, we must entertain the same view. “God,” says he, “is ̔Ο ἐνεργῶν το ἐνεργεῖν he that worketh in us to do.” He brings, therefore, to perfection those pious dispositions which he has implanted in us, that they may not be unproductive, as he promises by Ezekiel, —

I will cause them to walk in my commandments.” (Ezekiel 11:20)

From this we infer that perseverance, also, is his free gift.

According to his good pleasure. …For Paul has it in view to ascribe everything to God, and to take everything from us. Accordingly, not satisfied with having assigned to God the production both of willing and of doing aright, he ascribes both to his unmerited mercy. By this means he shuts out the contrivance of the sophists as to subsequent grace, which they imagine to be the reward of merit. Hence he teaches, that the whole course of our life, if we live aright, is regulated by God, and that, too, from his unmerited goodness.

With fear and trembling. From this Paul deduces an exhortation — that they must with fear work out their own salvation. He conjoins, as he is accustomed, fear and trembling, for the sake of greater intensity, to denote — serious and anxious fear. He, accordingly, represses drowsiness as well as confidence…

The inference, also, is to be carefully observed: “You have,” says he, “all things from God; therefore be solicitous and humble.” For there is nothing that ought to train us more to modesty and fear, than our being taught, that it is by the grace of God alone that we stand, and will instantly fall down, if he even in the slightest degree withdraw his hand. Confidence in ourselves produces carelessness and arrogance.

…For distrust of ourselves leads us to lean more confidently upon the mercy of God. And this is what Paul’s words import, for he requires nothing from the Philippians, but that they submit themselves to God with true self-renunciation.

Work out your own salvation. …Salvation is taken to mean the entire course of our calling, and that this term includes all things, by which God accomplishes that perfection, to which he has predestinated us by his gracious choice. This no one will deny…

We are said to perfect it, when, under the regulation of the Spirit, we aspire after a life of blessedness. It is God that calls us, and offers to us salvation; it is our part to embrace by faith what he gives, and by obedience act suitably to his calling; but we have neither from ourselves. Hence we act only when he has prepared us for acting.

Addressing the whole issue, James wrote ironically:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. James 2:18 (ESV)

Know this then, that faith without works is dead.

Papyrus 54: James 2:16-18

Papyrus 54: James 2:16-18, 6th century, Public Domain in US

You Thought I Was Like You

This IS a new blog post. We rehearse again the same opening statement from an Aeon article on the possibility and ethics of a human imposed artificial hell as we did in a previous post:

Even in my most religious moments, I have never been able to take the idea of hell seriously. Prevailing Christian theology asks us to believe that an all-powerful, all-knowing being would do what no human parent could ever do: create tens of billions of flawed and fragile creatures, pluck out a few favourites to shower in transcendent love, and send the rest to an eternity of unrelenting torment.

However, this time we explore a different facet of the Aeon article argument. Is God like us doing what no human parent would? Although we could spend time expounding on human parenting, both good and bad, I think all of us know those stories either through the media or through our experience. In our age, it’s God’s declarations we’ve forgotten.
The obvious place to start is Psalm 50:21:

These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

The psalmist describes God calling His people to hear Him speak. He rebukes His faithful, not for being delinquent in ritual sacrifice of bulls and goats which are His anyway, but for not offering sacrifices of thanksgiving, performing their vows to the Most High, and calling upon Him in the day of trouble. And He promises in response:

“I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

To the wicked He says that they have no right to recite His statutes or covenant because they hate discipline and reject His words. He goes on to say that they are pleased with thieves, keep company with adulterers, speak evil and deceit, and condemn and slander even their own kin.

These are the charges over which He kept silent. But not for the reason they might have thought, that He didn’t notice or care, but for them to have time to repent.

Finally, He calls those thus condemned to repentance, even warning them of the penalty if they do not:

“Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver! The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

Reiterating this theme, He says through His prophet, Isaiah:

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

He calls yet again, through His prophet Ezekiel:

“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

And through His prophet Paul, He states that He: desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

This God gave His own Son as a sacrifice for us, His enemies, that whoever believes in Him should not die but live, eternally. What human parent ever did that?

Ecce homo! (Behold the man!), by Antonio Ciseri, 1871

Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people Ecce homo! (Behold the man!), by Antonio Ciseri, 1871, in the public domain.