Good Theology

“On the glorious splendour of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Psalm 145:5 ESV). This is what good theology is: a meditation on God in himself (“the glorious splendour of your majesty”) and on all God’s acts (“your wondrous works”).

(This is, by the way, not substantially altered by the variant reading present in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint and Syriac, followed by the NIV: “They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty—and I will meditate on your wonderful works.” One can take it of the theological, or more broadly, ecclesial, community.)

Melanchthon on Worship in the Resurrection

Melanchthon’s systematic theology, entitled Loci communes theologici, was revised in 1535 to include, among other things, a new section on the resurrection of the dead. In this locus, he expounds various passages of Scripture having to do with resurrection and the renewal of the world. When he comes to comment on Isaiah 66:22-24–the last three verses of Isaiah–this is how he understands the prophet’s words, “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord”:

And he teaches what eternal life will be like when he says, “There will be unending months and an unending Sabbath,” that is, an unending feast day, that all the saints may unendingly worship the Lord. Therefore, eternal life will be unending worship–that is, the knowledge and righteousness of God without sin and without death. (Loci communes theologici [Basel, 1561], p.505)

Erit ergo uita aeterna, perpetua adoratio. Come, Lord Jesus.

The Gloss on Zephaniah 1:18

In Zeph. 1:18, the prophet tells us shockingly, “In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (ESV). Sayings like these from the prophets can be difficult to absorb, in light of the love of God that we see in Christ. This is why I find the comments of the Gloss on this passage so fascinating: “When God punishes out of jealousy (ex zelo), he shows that he loves the human soul, for unless he loves he would not be jealous, as in the comparison of a husband who avenges the sin of his wife.” Even God’s punishment is an expression of his love, his zeal for his beloved.

Nehemiah 4:8-9: Secularism and Prayer

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Only we would see and in italics, because we’re used to thinking of God’s activity and our activity in opposition. That means if God is working, then we must be passive, sitting around, spectators. On the other hand, if we need one of those things done that God doesn’t really get involved in, like choosing courses for next semester or looking for a place to live, we get to work ourselves. However, Nehemiah–and the whole Bible really–teach us this isn’t the way to view things. “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It’s when we align ourselves with God’s action by us acting that big things can happen. In Nehemiah’s case, saving Jerusalem: both praying to God and posting a guard, without the and. In our own case, maybe it’s praying to God and posting resumes, praying to God and calling your estranged dad, or praying to God and stepping on a plane. Because the space of our competence does not chew up the space of God’s power. This is the false dichotomy of secularism. If we think this way, then God slowly gets edged out the more we can do, and finally disappears altogether. Instead, God gives the success to our actions, sometimes even to a little beleaguered band of returned exiles called Israel. (There are a couple caveats. Like, for one, only God can raise the dead or do other miracles. This is why secular folk must explain away or deny such things. And second, success does not necessarily mean God is behind you. It might just mean God is indulging your pride for a while. For both, read Psalms 120-127.)

Athanasius on the Psalms

The Church Father Athanasius (c.293-373) wrote a spectacular letter to a friend, Marcellinus, who was using the “leisure” of his prolonged sickness to study the Psalms. In giving advice on how to read and interpret the Psalms, Athanasius says four things of key importance: (1) all the Psalms speak of the themes treated in all the other books of Scripture; (2) the Psalms speak of Christ, his incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension; (3) the Psalms “have but one voice in the Holy Spirit”; and (4) the Psalms speak to every part of your own life, for “besides all these things, you learn about yourself.” Here’s a taste:

You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills. Obviously, therefore, the only thing that matters is for each writer to hold fast unyieldingly the grace he personally has received and so fulfil perfectly his individual mission. And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill… In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

The whole letter is well worth a read: find it here.

Experiencing God’s Sovereignty

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover your moustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners.

So I spoke to the people in the morning and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded.

Then the people asked me, “Won’t you tell us what these things have to do with us? Why are you acting like this?”

So I said to them, “The word of he Lord came to me: Say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary–the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection… And you will do as I have done… You will not mourn or weep but will waste away because of your sins and groan among yourselves. Ezekiel will be a sign to you; you will do just as he has done. When this happens, you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.'” (Ezekiel 24:15-24)

I ran across this passage in my devotions last night. It’s reminiscent of other passages in Scripture: God tells Aaron through Moses not to mourn the death of his two sons, so he obediently remains silent (Lev. 10:1-7); Hosea is called to marry a prostitute (Hos. 1:2); Abraham is called to sacrifice Isaac with these words: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love…” (Gen. 22:2). It deals similarly with life’s ultimates: marriage, sacrifice, obedience, death. And we find it just as disturbing as the others.

Because here the prophet becomes just a sign–“Ezekiel will be a sign to you”–a bare cipher, coded with the message of the Sovereign Lord to his people. Ezekiel does not become fully human in giving his life over to God, but rather, has his beloved wife taken from him; he is reduced to “groaning quietly.” And he receives it without complaint, without texture, without personality: “The next morning I did as I had been commanded.” The sovereignty of God is terrifying. But it is also what teaches us that God is not simply the God of our own imaginings.

Leviticus 10:1-3: Law, Death, Silence

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'” Aaron remained silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Just prior to this text, the high priesthood of Israel is initiated. In Leviticus 8, the whole assembly of Israel gathers for the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Moses places the special vestments on Aaron (tunic, sash, robe, ephod, breastpiece, turban); Moses washes what should be washed with water (8:6) and anoints what should be anointed with oil (8:10-12); Moses sacrifices the proper animals and at the end of this worship instructs them: “Do not leave the entrance of the tent of meeting for seven days, until the days of your ordination are completed” (8:33).

In Leviticus 9, their ministry begins, with Aaron–now purified through Moses’ sacrifices–offering sacrifices “for yourself and for the people” (9:7). This with the promise: “Today the Lord will appear to you” (9:4). At the end of this first set of regular sacrifices, intended to continue uninterrupted for hundreds of years, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (9:23-24).

This is a high point in Israel’s history: the high priesthood, meant to mediate between the Lord and Israel, offering sacrifices for their restoration, has been ordained. The people see the glory of the Lord and are in awe. It parallels the first setting of the tabernacle, which, when it is completed, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). Everything is fulfilled according to the law code just handed down through Moses to Israel. But in Nadab and Abihu’s rash actions, the peace of Israel’s worship is broken; worse, Aaron’s two sons themselves are killed by fire.

The father’s response is telling: “Aaron remained silent” (10:3). This is reminiscent of the friends of Job: “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13). Words, in Scripture, appear utterly incapable of patching over the wound of suffering. In fact, in Job, a lengthy record of dialogues, it is not ultimately any words that resolve his suffering, but God’s appearing: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (42:5).

The Word himself, who is the fullness of life and the end of suffering, offers no answers for the suffering of the world, but simply enters into battle for the defense of his suffering ones: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18); “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1); and in John’s apocalyptic vision: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!… She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her… In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s people, of all who have been slaughtered on the earth” (Revelation 18:2,8,24).