A Cautionary Tale

March 2, 2018

The Book of Judges is a cautionary tale. It recounts a dark period in Israel’s history. It begins with Israel’s failure to conquer the Promised Land completely. Because of this failure, the idolatry of the original inhabitants becomes a snare for Israel. The cycle in Judges is Israel commits idolatry, they become oppressed by their enemies and cry out to God, God raises a judge to deliver them, and eventually the cycle begins again.

The judges were military leaders who brought deliverance to Israel. That is probably not our first definition of a judge, although Deborah did in fact hear cases and dispense justice (Judges 4:4-5). Yet, the judges often demonstrate deep flaws which show them to be men of their times. Gideon makes an ephod that becomes a snare to the people and a temptation to idolatry. Jephthah makes a rash vow, but he also slaughters some in Israel who refused to help him. Sampson seems to make military victories only because of bad choices with Philistine women.

But the book ends with even darker stories. Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, helps steal an idol with the help of armed men and sets up an idolatrous worship site in Dan, which lasts “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30). This is followed by an account of the rape and murder of a priest’s concubine. (Should a priest have a concubine in the first place?) This incident nearly leads to the wholesale slaughter of the tribe of Benjamin.

But these dark stories are not without a point. A refrain that occurs within the books states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25, ESV). The Book of Judges answers the question of what happens when a people wander away from God. The moral decline illustrated in Judges is a cautionary tale.

It is a lesson that it difficult for modern society to hear. Society doesn’t always want God in the public square. Society often likes its morality to be relative. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” could be our own nation’s slogan.

But then we wring our hands when violence and crime occur. Evil, violence, and crime will always be with us as long as this age lasts. But when a society goes through a moral decline such evil will increase. This is a morality problem that statutes won’t cure. It is not that statutes are unimportant. They represent a social contract which should be based on shared values and common morality. When values and morality differ, statutes become difficult to enforce. Witness the drug problem in our country. In other words, morality and values are the deeper issue.

The safety of my person and property are dependent on the morality of the people in my community. When the moral decline becomes so great, even the authorities cannot stop what happens next. Societies can descend into anarchy. And periods of anarchy are what we see in the Book of Judges. For those willing to hear, Judges provides a cautionary tale.


Suggestions for Public Scripture Reading

February 23, 2018

The basis for the public reading of scripture in our assemblies can be found in the New Testament. Timothy, an evangelist in Ephesus, is instructed by Paul: “Until I come, continue to devote yourself to reading, to exhortation, and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Most modern translations render reading as public reading. Although the word can mean either private or public reading, the public nature of the other two items in the series, exhortation and teaching, would cause us to think of the assembly. Other passages also indicate a public reading of the word (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27, and Revelation 1:3).

The public reading of God’s word underscores its authority. It also gives opportunity for us to hear the message of scripture. Yet it must be done well. If we do it poorly, the hidden message may be that this is unimportant–the exact opposite of what we want to convey. Let me make some suggestions for public reading to help us achieve excellence.

  • Select a unit of thought to be read. Remember chapter and verse numbers are the later addition of editors. They may not always help in selecting a unit of thought. The reader may need to give some context to help the listeners. The goal is that the scripture selected will convey the same message to the listeners as if they had read it in context for themselves. (Most of the time for us, the passage is selected to go with the preaching text. If you want to know the passage prior to Sunday, let me know.)
  • Check for pronunciation and words you may not understand. A Bible dictionary can aid you in the pronunciation of Bible names, so can the book, That’s Easy for You to Say: Your Quick Guide to Pronouncing Bible Names. The web sites, biblespeak.org and thebibleworkshop.com, provide audio pronunciations of some Bible names. An app called Biblical Pronunciation is also available for Android and iOS. Some Bible names have multiple acceptable pronunciations. But nothing hurts a public reading like stumbling over the pronunciation of unfamiliar words and names.
  • Watch for problems that may arise in public reading that might confuse the sense. Failing to pause at the right place or pausing in the wrong place may confuse the listener. Consider the example Luke 2:16: “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (NRSV). If the reader fails to pause at the comma, it will end up sounding as if all three — Mary, Joseph, and the child — are in the manger.
  • Find the author’s meaning, place the stress and emphasis on the main point.
  • Read more slowly than you might speak but be willing to vary the speed and pitch to fit the tone of the reading. I once heard a comparison of audio books made by Audible.com with amateur produced audio books. The speed and pitch of the Audible books were well modulated. The amateur books sounded flat in comparison. And this difference effects the listener’s ability to pay attention and comprehend. No, I’m not expecting us to become professional readers, but it is something at which most of us can do better.
  • Communicate the emotion and tone of the passage with your voice if possible. Is there joy? Is there anger? Is there sarcasm? Is there humor?
  • Practice reading the passage aloud.

The Right Response to God’s Instructions: Psalm 119

February 16, 2018

When I arrived at my sister’s house, it was night. Rounding a curve in the street, I could see her house all lit up since it sits on a hill. The house had lights all the way around, so it was like a beacon. For me, the lights were welcoming. They were even helpful as I unloaded my luggage from the car. But I knew all those lights hadn’t been there on my previous visit, so I enquired about them. She said that there had been break-ins in her neighborhood, so she had the lights installed for security.

The same light can be welcoming or something that a person wants to avoid and hide from. It is the same light, but different responses to this light. Which brings us again to Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (ESV). Even though the psalm presents this picture of God’s instructions as light for guidance, he also reflects the reality that it is not true for everyone. The author of Psalm 119 confesses he had gone astray (119:67, 119:176). He had returned and was now keeping God’s law, but there had been a time in his life when he was wandering in the wrong direction.

Besides the personal confession in Psalm 119, the psalmist also speaks of the wicked. “Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, who forsake your law” (Psalms 119:53, ESV). “Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law” (Psalms 119:61, ESV). God’s instructions have all the wonderful qualities that we looked at in the last article, but they require the right response from us. It is instructive to go through the psalm and ask: what kind of response is the psalmist making to God’s precepts? Here’s my list, and I’m going ahead and personalizing the list as ways I am responding even if it is a work in process.

  1. I feel reverence and awe for them because of who God is. 119:120, 119:161
  2. I diligently keep them. 119:4
  3. I remember them (119:11, 119:15) and meditate on them. 119:153, 119:176
  4. I delight in them (119:14) because they are more valuable than riches (119:35, 119:47, 119:72), better than money (119:103), and sweeter than honey (119:143, 119:174).</;i?
  5. I seek them as my counselors. 119:24
  6. I hope in them. 119:43
  7. I am comforted by them. 119:52
  8. I am blessed by them. 119:56
  9. I love them. 119:97, 119:119, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167
  10. I count them as my forever heritage/inheritance. 119:111
  11. I rejoice in them like someone finding a treasure (i.e., plunder). 119:162
  12. I am helped by them. 119:175

I’ve looked at Psalm 119 in four articles to tell my journey of moving beyond a few favorite verses to a deeper appreciation for this psalm.* I used some inductive questions to reflect on the psalm: What do I learn about the author and circumstances? What are his petitions? What does he say about God’s instructions? How does he respond to God’s instructions? Answering those questions and meditating on the psalm brings a deeper appreciation. God’s word can indeed be a light for my path, but for it to bring guidance, I must have the right response to God’s instructions.

*The articles in order are:


Characteristics of God’s Instructions in Psalm 119

February 9, 2018

When I think of Psalm 119, verse 105 certainly comes to mind: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms 119:105, ESV). The psalm emphasizes the importance of God’s instructions by the use of Torah (law) along with seven synonyms. One of those eight words will be in every verse except for four verses, but the psalmist compensates for these omissions by using two of these words in five verses. The emphasis is clear.

But how do I get beyond just underlining Psalm 119:105 or couple of other favorites? I never really appreciated the psalm as I should until I did an inductive study of it. I took a few simple questions and recorded my findings. I’ve already written about learning what I could about the author and his circumstances and noting his petitions to God. He has clearly telegraphed in the psalm by his use of law and its synonyms that a major theme is God’s instructions. So it is helpful to go through the psalm and record all that he says about God’s instructions. Here’s my list, but it is a project worth doing for yourself.

  1. God’s instructions are righteous. 119:7, 119:62, 119:75, 119:106, 119:137, 119:144, 119:160, 119:164, 119:172
  2. God’s instructions give life. 119:25, 119:37, 119:50
  3. God’s instructions are good. 119:39, 119:68
  4. God’s instructions are saving. 119:41
  5. God’s instructions are true. 119:43, 119:142, 119:151, 119:160
  6. God’s instructions teach good judgment, knowledge, and wisdom. 119:66, 119:98
  7. God’s instructions are sure, trustworthy. 119:86
  8. God’s instructions endure. 119:89, 119:152
  9. God’s instructions are broad. 119:96 How do we understand the word broad or wide in this verse? One approach is found in the NET: “I realize that everything has its limits, but your commands are beyond full comprehension.” Obviously, we get a clue from the contrast. Another approach is to compare limits to something that is boundless.
  10. God’s instructions are a light for your path. 119:105
  11. God’s instructions are wonderful. 119:129
  12. God’s instructions (in this case, promises) are tested. 119:140

These are the conclusions of a reader who has spent time in God’s word. I agree with his conclusions as someone who has also spent time in God’s word. The Bible is an amazing library that has a unified message despite the fact that it spans 3600 years, 40 some authors, three languages, and three continents. It contains predictive prophecy. In the places where it can be tested by history and archaeology it has been found reliable. We have sufficient manuscript evidence to believe we have reliable manuscripts. It has a message that makes profound sense of the human predicament, and its practice seems to produce the best in its followers.

If you are not convinced, I invite you to read and see. Investigate! Maybe you too will become convinced of the characteristics of God’s instructions in Psalm 119.


The Petitions in Psalm 119

February 2, 2018

Getting beyond a few favorite verses from Psalm 119 is a matter of spending some time with the poem and asking some inductive questions. We learned something about the author in the last article. The author was a seeker, who meditated on God’s instructions, and stored it up in his heart. He had strayed from God but returned. He was younger and probably not in the elder class of society. And most importantly, we learn that the psalm comes out of a situation of distress.* These difficulties are the circumstances of the psalm, and we learn something about the author and about praying from examining his petitions to God.

The psalmist asks for understanding.

  • Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. (Psalm 119:18, ESV)
  • Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments. (Psalm 119:66, ESV)
  • Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments. (Psalm 119:73, ESV)

We can’t grow in our understanding without searching God’s word, but God may answer this prayer by means of providence: teachers, books, articles, and conversations that help us. I’ve had people come out of a lesson and say I needed that. God may answer this with our sanctification so that we are more sensitive to God’s instructions as we mature.

The psalmist asks for help in living God’s instructions.

  • Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! (Psalm 119:5, ESV)
  • Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me. (Psalm 119:133, ESV)
  • Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. (Psalm 119:37, ESV)

The psalmist asks to be a good example.

  • Let those who fear you turn to me, that they may know your testimonies. May my heart be blameless in your statutes, that I may not be put to shame! (Psalm 119:79-80, ESV)

We are an example to someone, whether we like it or not. We’ve had professional athletes protest that they are not role models, and many of them shouldn’t be. However, the psalmist wants to be a good example, so that looking at his life would lead someone to know God’s instructions and the character of God.

The psalmist asks to be delivered out of his troubles.
We looked at the psalmist’s sufferings and trials last week. It is difficult to be detailed about them given space, but they are a major theme within Psalm 119.

  • Give your servant a pledge of good; let not the insolent oppress me. My eyes long for your salvation and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise. (Psalm 119:122-123, ESV)
  • According to your justice give me life… 119:149
  • Look on my affliction and deliver me… 119:153
    Deliver me 119:153

I’ve learned to pray by praying, but I’ve also learned to pray by listening to and reading the prayers of others. I’ve learned something about what to pray for as I listen to the petitions of Psalm 119.

*https://whiletoday.com/2018/01/25/meeting-the-author-of-psalm-119/


Meeting the Author of Psalm 119

January 25, 2018

Psalm 119 is the longest poem in the Book of Psalms. It has 22 stanzas of 8 lines each giving a total of 176 verses. The psalm is an acrostic. It has 22 stanzas because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Many English versions will put the name of the Hebrew letter above each stanza (e.g., Aleph, Beth, Gimel). That means each of the eight lines of a stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the author works through the entire alphabet.

That is not the only challenge in the composition of this poem. The author also uses the word law (the Hebrew word is Torah, which also means instruction) and seven other synonyms of law. These eight words for God’s instructions in the ESV are law, testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules, and word. The poem uses one of these words in every line of the poem except for four, and it appears the author compensates for these four lines because in five lines of the poem a word for God’s instructions occurs twice. Clearly, the psalmist has signaled that this poem is about God’s instructions, and by using the entire alphabet, he is attempting to express himself as we would say from A to Z.

But I must confess that my early readings of this psalm found only a few nuggets, verses that I thought were worth underlining. I also read over a lot of things in the psalm missing what was going on. What helped my reading of the psalm was an inductive approach. I read the psalm asking a set of questions: What do I learn about the author? What are his petitions? What does he say about God’s instructions? Let me finish this first article with some observations about the author.

The author seems to be a younger man, because he says he has more understanding that all his teachers (119:99) and the aged (119:100), since he meditates on God’s testimonies and keeps God’s precepts. Maybe that is why he asks the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure” (119:9a)? Although he now memorizes God’s instructions so that he might not sin (119:11), he confesses “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (119:67). The circumstances of the psalmist are persecution (119:84-87) and desire for salvation and comfort (119:81-82). He complains, “I have become like a wineskin in the smoke” (119:83). The image is of a wineskin becoming so dried out and brittle that it is in danger of perishing. In the midst of his difficulties, he hangs on to God’s faithfulness and steadfast love (119:88, 90), and he is sustained in his trials by God’s word.

Through this inductive study I have more than a few verses worth underlining. I now see a real person in the ups and downs of life, who hangs on to God by reliance on God’s word. I find a valuable life lesson through this inductive study by meeting the author of Psalm 119.


Plan to Read the Bible

December 29, 2017

The Bible is a big book—really a library of books. Although I have valued Bible reading since I was a teenager, I’ve never succeeded at it without some sort of plan. The plan could be very simple. I will read a section of scripture before I go to bed. The plan could be more involved—I will read the Bible through in a year. The plan should fit you.

  1. Choose a translation that you are comfortable reading. Translations fall into two categories: formal equivalent (e.g., KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV) and functional equivalent (e.g., NIV, Easy-to-Read, NET, CSB). Formal equivalence attempts to match the forms of the original language as closely as possible in the receptor language. Functional equivalence attempts to achieve the same effect on the reader. Formal equivalent translations usually have a reading level of 8th to 12th grades and are harder to understand. Functional equivalent translations may have a reading level of 3rd to 8th grades, but leave more opportunities for bias from the translator. My advice would be start with the ESV or NKJV which have lower reading levels (about 8th grade) than the NASB or KJV (about 10-12th grades) and see how it goes. If you are having difficulty with comprehension, then switching to something like the NET, CSB, or NIV makes sense (about 7th grade). For people still having difficulty, the New Century Version or God’s Word have even lower reading levels (about 3rd to 5th) .
  2. Personalize your plan. Reading through the Bible in a year is a wonderful goal, but maybe that isn’t the proper starting place for you. My first time through the New Testament was without a time goal involved—I just set as a goal reading through the New Testament, and kept at it until I was finished. Reading through the New Testament in a year takes about five minutes a day. The next thing I did was read through the narrative portions of the Old Testament (Law and History), which gives you the basic story of the Bible.
  3. Listening may be a great alternative. Some people have difficulty sitting still to read. God needs action-oriented people too. Maybe you should consider listening to the Bible on mp3 files or CDs as you drive or do other activities. The YouVersion Bible app has audio Bibles for free as do some others. If you want CDs, local bookstores or Christianbook.com are sources for these.
  4. Define success. If success is defined as reading a particular portion of scripture on a particular day, then I’m a failure, although I’ve been reading the Bible through in a year for decades. I claim to be a regular Bible reading but not always a daily reader. Expect to get behind and have to play catch up. Get ahead if possible. If your goal is more knowledge of the Bible, then skimming or skipping a section may allow you to keep going. How many people have gotten bogged down in the first seven chapters of Leviticus (sacrificial laws) or the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles (genealogies)?
  5. Add variety and scope. If you succeed in reading the New Testament, then go on to read other portions of the Bible. Maybe you will work up to reading the entire Bible through in a year. I like reading guides that provide an Old Testament and New Testament readings on the same day for variety. I’ve also used different translations for variety.
  6. Do it. If you have come up with a personal plan, then the next step is doing it. As in forming any new habit, it takes time and you will have setbacks, but if you keep at it, reading the Bible brings many rewards.