Monday, June 30, 2014

Seeing God (part 8)

If it has been adequately established, both historically from the Scriptures and the tradition that they inform and by which they are informed and with which Jesus would have been familiar, as well as within the context of the sermon on the mount, that purity of heart is related to money (treasure) and its use, it is possible to then go on to discern, based on that understanding, what it might mean to “see God.” 

To determine what this means, it is necessary to look outside the sermon on the mount, realizing that the sermon of chapters five, six, and seven serve as the foundation of what is going to be seen and hear from Jesus throughout the remainder of Matthew’s Gospel.  That is a completely understandable and plausible assertion, as when one read a story that is presented in narrative form, as Matthew’s presentation of Jesus most certainly is, the reader knows that the things that are seen and heard and read early in the story will inform an understanding of what comes later, just as what comes later generally allows a reader to interpret that which has already been encountered. 

With that said, it is possible to turn to the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.  In the thirty-first verse of this chapter, Jesus is heard speaking.  He says “When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.”  Now it is obvious that Jesus is here speaking of Himself.  Prior to this, Matthew presents Jesus speaking of Himself as the Son of Man on twenty-three occasions.  After this usage, there will be an additional four, all found in the twenty-sixth chapter, thus making for a total of twenty-eight self-references by Jesus as the Son of Man. 

When Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in conjunction with coming in glory, angels, and a throne, He is making explicit reference to the Son of Man of Daniel chapter seven.  Looking to Daniel, one finds “I was watching in the night visions, And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching.  He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him.  To Him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty.  All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving Him.  His authority is eternal and will not pass away.  His kingdom will not be destroyed” (7:13-14). 

When one hears reference to the Son of Man, especially at this juncture in Matthew’s work (though really throughout the entirety of the work), the reference demands to be heard in the context of and in connection with the kingdom of heaven.  This Son of Man is given rule over all.  He rules over the kingdom of the Creator God, which is an interchangeable term with kingdom of heaven, with both meaning the same thing (the Creator God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, through the agency of covenant members).  Since it is the Creator God Himself that is understood to ultimately rule His kingdom, then it is quite safe to say (though this probably needs far more qualifications and explanations), that the Son of Man, though not the Ancient of Days, and though He is not necessarily supposed to be looked to as “God the Father” (to use a Trinitarian term), is of a piece with the Creator God. 

Naturally, as the Matthean narrative is compiled from a post-Resurrection perspective in which Jesus is worshiped as the Son of God and the Messiah (the manifestation of the Creator God in the flesh), the term “Son of Man” is quite naturally and overtly bestowed with divine attributes.  Put simply, if Jesus is understood to be the manifestation of the Creator God, and if He calls Himself the Son of Man, then the Son of Man can be understood to be the Creator God.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Seeing God (part 7)

In the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy, Israel’s Creator God speaks to those that He intends to bear His image in the world, thereby communicating what is expected of them, saying “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you except to revere Him, to obey all His commandments, to love Him, to serve Him with all your mind and being” (10:12).  Having said this, He continues to describe Himself, while also informing those hearing these words how they are to perform in and for the world, saying that He “justly treats the orphan and the widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing” (10:18). 

Of course, the theme of the need to care for the orphan and the widow, along with the resident foreigner and the poor, is a theme that is taken up on page after page of that through which the Creator God has revealed Himself.  Deuteronomy twenty-four is particularly focused in this area.  In the seventeenth verse the text reads “You must not pervert justice due to a resident foreigner or an orphan, or take a widow’s garment as security for a loan” (24:17).  Additionally, “Whenever you reap your harvest in your field and leave some unraked grain there, you must not return to get it; it should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow so that the Lord your God may bless all the work you do” (24:19). 

Likewise, “When you beat your olive tree you must not repeat the procedure; the remaining olives,” treasure, if you will, “belong to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow.  When you gather the grapes of your vineyard you must not do so a second time; they should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow.  In the twenty-seventh chapter, just before God outlines His program of blessing or cursing, based upon His people’s handling of their covenant responsibilities (chapter twenty-eight), we find, along with a number of curses, “Cursed is the one who perverts justice for the resident foreigner, the orphan, and the widow” (27:19a). 

Turning to Exodus, there one finds “You must not afflict any widow or orphan.  If you afflict them in any way and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry, and My anger will burn and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children will be fatherless.  Most certainly, though it is far from purity of heart, those that do such things will see God, but clearly in a way which is less than desirable.  If we look to the prophets, such as Isaiah, we hear him speaking on behalf of God, delivering a judgmental cry and saying “Learn to do what is right!  Promote justice!  Give the oppressed reason to celebrate!  Take up the cause of the orphan!  Defend the rights of the widow!” (1:17). 

The corollary to this is “Your officials are rebels, they associate with thieves.  All of them love bribery, and look for payoffs.  They do not take up the cause of the orphan, or defend the rights of the widow” (1:23).  Ezekiel sounds a similar note, saying “They have treated father and mother with contempt within you; they have oppressed the foreigner among you; they have wronged the orphan and the widow within you” (22:7). 

Ostensibly, because the Creator God delivered His judgment against His people, as announced and explained by these prophets in connection with their idolatry, their mis-treatment of the resident foreigner, the orphan, and the widow could be said to have stemmed from their idolatry.  Had they been pure of heart, it would have been demonstrated in their care for these groups, though one should not pretend to insist that such care created a purity of heart.  Their lack of purity of heart was revealed in their treatment of the ones to whom the Creator God directs so much of His attention and concern.  Owing to this, the covenant God’s people saw Him in a way that they did not want to see Him, but that He had certainly promised.  In the big picture, Jesus’ talk of being “pure of heart” is set against idolatry, be it ever so subtle.   

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Seeing God (part 6)

With this in mind, Jesus goes on to explain that “The eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22a).  The eye, of course, having primacy in the building of the desire to accumulate treasure and the recognition of the most appropriate, kingdom-minded ways to liquidate that same treasure (treasure being primarily money and possessions, though time must certainly be under consideration).  If that thought is held in mind, it is understandable to hear Jesus continue to speak about treasure and its proper place, as He goes on to say “If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22b). 

A healthy eye views the world through the lens of the kingdom of heaven, while the call of the Creator God’s people, historically and for all time, to a light to the nations, does not drift too far from conscientious consideration.  With these thoughts in mind, Jesus can be heard saying: “But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in your is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (6:23)

Now, how can one be sure that Jesus is connecting His thoughts as presented in verses twenty-two and twenty-three with the thoughts of treasure and the heart in verses nineteen through twenty-one?  Well, the reader can be assured of this when reaching verse twenty-four, which says that “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” (6:24).  Clearly, money (treasure and that which is used to acquire possessions) is an issue of the heart.  One who is pure in heart---the one who will see the God of Israel---is one that rightly uses their money in service of the Creator God’s kingdom purposes. 

Certainly the Scriptures have much to say about the use of treasure.  If Jesus’ thinking about the right use of money is influenced by Israel’s history and Israel’s Scriptures, which it obviously was, then it will be quite worthwhile to look into that history and those Scriptures in order to further illumination in regards to purity of heart and its connection to the use of treasure.  If Jesus has in fact linked being pure of heart with properly using money, then those Scriptures that seem to deal in this area will be immensely beneficial.  They will also provide a basis to return to Matthew’s Gospel in order to make a final determination as to what it would mean, being “pure of heart,” to “see God.”    

Though there are countless passages that beg to be accessed, a representative sample of passages will suffice.  Having already made mention of Deuteronomy in the course of this study, as the book is called to mind in the quite obvious presentation of Jesus as the prophet like Moses, as He delivers a new set of guidelines by which the Creator God’s people are to operate, and doing so from a mountain, one finds a veritable treasure trove of applicable statements in Deuteronomy.  These statements could be viewed as being inextricably linked with the covenant God’s expectations for His people, as they attempted to demonstrate a purity of heart that would serve in their directive to be a light to the nations. 

Deuteronomy fifteen presents key thoughts for consideration.  Because Israel’s God insists that “there should not be any poor among you” (15:4a), it is insisted that “If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the Lord your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart,” always a not-so-subtle allusion to Pharaoh, easily recognized by a people defined by their exodus, “or be insensitive to his impoverished condition.  Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs” (15:7-8).  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Seeing God (part 5)

Continuing the quest for knowledge, and specifically to ascertain the defining characteristics of those that are “pure in heart,” who are also those that will “see God,” it is now time to forward in the sermon to the sixth chapter.  It is there that one encounters the second and only other use of “heart” in the course of this dissertation from the mountain.  This usage will prove to be quite beneficial in the quest.  It will not only impart knowledge, but also, along with so much else being said here, inform the ethical, practical, and performative mandate in association with the Christian’s charge to be the place where heaven and earth come together---the Creator God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. 

Interestingly enough, the “Lord’s Prayer,” from which these words of the covenant God’s will, earth, and heaven are lifted, constitute a portion of the preface to the second presentation of the heart.  It is worth mentioning that just as Jesus’ sermon began with a mention of the kingdom of heaven (5:3), so too does Jesus’ prayer include a mention of the kingdom of heaven within its opening statements, as Jesus says “Our Father in heaven, may Your name be honored, may Your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9b-10). 

From there, it is not necessary to travel a great number of verses before hearing the context for Jesus’ mention of the heart.  Beginning in the nineteenth verse of this same chapter Jesus says “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.  But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal” (6:19-20). 

Given Jesus’ clear understanding that it is His God’s desire that His will be performed on earth as in heaven, and given the context of the kingdom of heaven come to earth that is everywhere present in Matthew’s narrative as well as being the foundational structure for this particular sermon, Jesus is not drawing a hard and fast dichotomy between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm.  Indeed, as it His intention to establish the Creator God’s kingdom on earth, the seeming dichotomy between earth (usually conceived of as the physical realm that is occupied by man) and heaven (usually conceived of as the aspired-to final destination of Christians) actually disappears. 

It is paramount to hear Jesus speaking from within His own culture and its conceptions, rather than from the position of a religious culture that is overly and improperly defined by Greek (primarily Platonic) and Enlightenment-driven thoughts of the separation of the physical from the spiritual.  Given the Jewish hope that the covenant God would establish His reign through His Messiah, restoring His creation as an attendant feature of the establishment of His kingdom, one would correctly hear Jesus speaking of earth and heaven in terms of past and future.  Treasures on earth would be linked to the old world and the old way of doing things prior to the coming of the Creator God’s kingdom that is heralded by the presence of Jesus, whereas treasures in heaven are linked to the new way of doing things, in association with the recognition of the God of Israel’s rule having come to earth.

It is following this talk of treasure, and its earthly (pre-kingdom of God) usage versus its heavenly (kingdom having come) usage, that Jesus speaks of the heart.  He says “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:21).  Yes, the disposition of one’s treasure reveals the disposition of the heart.  Clearly then, purity of heart is linked to the accumulation and disposition of treasure in ways that are commensurate with the establishment and extension of the kingdom of heaven.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Seeing God (part 4)

Now it can certainly be said that the one that engages in adultery, whether through the actual and physical action or through the desire of which Jesus here speaks, would not be spoken of as being pure in heart.  To that one would add that this does not really take an observer any further down the path towards seeing the Creator God, which is said to be the lot of those that are pure in heart.  Again, Jesus is making some programmatic statements, which would imply that He has a program in mind.  Likewise, Matthew presents Jesus programmatically, so it behooves the reader to allow the sermon to build on its statements internally, while also looking for the way in which the sermon works itself out in application to the entirety of the narrative that is on offer in the whole of Matthew. 

Before moving on to the next “heart” statement, let it be noted that there are many uses of “heart” throughout Matthew’s Gospel, and all of them escape the lips of Jesus.  However, it is reasonable to presume that the explanation of what it means to be “pure in heart” is to be found within the sermon, as Jesus goes on to define His own terms within this bracketed context.  Here, one must also consider the possibility that Matthew has taken teachings of Jesus that were offered up in various times and places, and grouped them all together into this one “sermon,” especially if he was desirous of highlighting Jesus as a Moses-like figure, thus fulfilling the Deuteronomic insistence that another prophet would arise like Moses. 

A reinforcement of such a notion, though one could also consider that Jesus spoke what is heard from Him in Matthew on numerous occasions, including this one, comes from the fact that Luke has Jesus saying much the same thing (though quite a bit less than Matthew) on a plain, rather than from a mountain.  Along with that, if looking to the Gospel of Mark and again considering that Jesus can indeed say these things on more than one occasion (which is quite the reasonable and probable proposition), then one sees a fair number of Jesus’ pronouncements, mountain-related in Matthew, scattered throughout Mark’s narrative.  So if it is the case that Matthew has purposely grouped together these words of instruction from Jesus, remembering that they, regardless of the format in which they are presented, present Jesus’ conception of the life of the citizens of the Creator God’s kingdom, then it is all the more important to allow for an internal consistency, with terms defined by the sermon itself.  This is what is being attempted in regards to the term “pure in heart.” 

Now, having mentioned Deuteronomy in the context of Matthew’s desire to present Jesus as a lawgiver Who is like Moses but, in fact, superior to Moses (“you have heard that it was said… but I say”), it is worth going there to review what it was that was reported to have been spoken by Moses.  Now whether or not Moses actually said these things, and there is little reason to dispute this (though some do), such would not change the fact that Israel understood itself and defined itself according to its historical narrative (which included Deuteronomy), and especially that of the exodus and its attendant events (Sinai, the giving of the law, the wilderness wandering, entrance into the promised land, etc…). 

Upon arrival there one finds “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you---from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (18:15).  This is then confirmed by the voice of the Lord, Who says “I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites.  I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command” (18:18).  In between the two insistences that such will take place, which Matthew must simply have in mind as he constructs his theologically-tinged biography of Jesus, Moses says “This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly” (18:16a).  So when Moses speaks about the prophet like himself, he actually connects it to what took place on a mountain.  It is then unsurprising to hear Jesus speaking from a mountain, which makes the Moses-related point even more forcefully.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Seeing God (part 3)

This, however, should not trouble or dissuade kingdom-seekers, as Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 5:10b) to those that endure such things.  They should take heart and be encouraged, “rejoice and be glad… for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (5:12).  Not only can one see this worked out in the early church, as demonstrated by Luke’s historical treatment in the book of Acts and as Matthew undoubtedly has the widespread persecution of Jesus-followers (at the direction of the Temple authorities in Jerusalem) in mind as he delivers Jesus’ words, but one can also see that Jesus, though He does nothing more than live out His teaching on mercy, purity of heart, and the making of peace, is most certainly persecuted for the sake of the way that He insists upon demonstrating the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness---insulted and persecuted for the way in which He speaks on behalf of and represents His God.     

Having laid out His premise, Jesus essentially goes on to explain what He means by His Moses-and-Abraham-mindful introductory statement, with His treatments of anger and murder, adultery, divorce, the taking of oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, giving, prayer, proper fasting, true and lasting treasure, worry, and judging.  It is through His explanation that it is possible to go on to learn what it means to be poor in spirit, to rightly mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, and to be peacemakers.  Most importantly, for the purposes of this study, here it is also possible learn what Jesus means when He speaks of being “pure in heart.”  Since it must be the burning and overwhelming desire of the heart to “see God,” rightly assessing this statement could not be more crucial. 

So if one understands that Jesus is going to take the time to explain what He means by His pronouncements in the beatitudes, then it is going to be necessary to look to the remainder of the sermon in order to discover Jesus’ ideas concerning purity of heart.  Such is a relatively simple process, as one must merely look to instances of the use of “heart.”  The first that to be encountered is later on in the fifth chapter.  There Jesus is heard saying “You have that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28). 

Though Jesus speaks here of the heart, it seems to be more along the lines of a prevailing condition of the heart, rather than instruction that would reveal what it is that He means by being pure of heart.  So though it is certainly instructive, and though it certainly informs denizens of the Creator God’s kingdom that more is expected of them (especially in light of the Resurrection, through which one would naturally view Matthew and the whole of Scripture), it does not truly assist a believer in learning how one can go about becoming pure in heart. 

One does not achieve purity of heart, which is probably something that can be outwardly demonstrated in a tangible ways, by simply avoiding adultery or lustful desire.  At the same time, avoidance of adultery is something that is completely expected, and nobody is congratulated for not committing adultery, whether it be physical or mental.  One should not expect to get to see the Creator God simply because one did not travel that path.  There must be something more. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Seeing God (part 2)

Jesus continues on to say “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (5:4-6).  His use of “righteousness” helps to mark a transition.  “Righteousness” is best understood as “covenant faithfulness.”  This, of course, is what the Creator God has always expected from His people---faithfulness to their covenant responsibilities to represent Him and to be a light to the nations for the purpose of His glory.  Understandably then, almost immediately after finishing His “outline,” Jesus reminds those that want to participate in the kingdom of heaven (come to earth) that they are to be “the light of the world” (5:14a).   

Though this should not be done too often (as it is paramount to let the Gospel narratives speak for themselves, as they are informed by the history of Israel and the implications of Jesus’ Resurrection), when considering the idea that “righteousness” is to be equated with “covenant faithfulness,” it is useful to look to one of Paul’s letters.  Naturally, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility that Paul’s theological outworking of the meaning behind the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus had a role in shaping the theology that stands behind Matthew and the other Gospels, and therefore also played a part in giving shape to the narrative form that would be taken by the Gospels.  Additionally, looking to Paul, while also looking back into the history of Israel, one can get a sense of the thinking in the time of Jesus concerning this important subject. 

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul insists that at least one of the purposes of the covenant God’s redeeming activity is that “in Him,” that being Jesus (“in Him” as a shorthand way of saying that it is through calling Jesus Lord, in a pledged oath of loyalty, that all are enabled to enter into the grouping of the Creator God’s covenant people), “we would become the righteousness of God” (5:21b). 

In short then, Paul says that the Creator God desires that His people be the ones to carry out that which represents His covenant faithfulness, as “ambassadors,” with “God making His plea through us” (5:20), having given over to His covenant bearers (obviously, through the working of the Holy Spirit), His “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18)---the covenant God’s reconciling His people and His divine image-bearers to Himself as part of His redemptive plan for His world that Paul refers to as “new creation” (5:17).  This happens, of course, because “the love of Christ,” which was demonstrated by His willing and self-sacrificial death, and by which He gave proof to the conviction behind His kingdom plans and principles, and which believers should seek to imitate in principle if not in form, “controls us” (5:14a). 

Returning to Matthew then, and considering Jesus’ introduction of “righteousness” or “covenant faithfulness” into the sermon, one can see that Jesus proceeds to give at least a partial summary of the form that will be taken by that execution of righteousness (covenant faithfulness).  Jesus says “Blessed are the merciful…  Blessed are the pure in heart…  Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:7a,8a,9a).  Those that demonstrate these characteristics will “be shown mercy… will see God… will be called the children of God” (5:7b,8b,9b). 

Amazingly enough, however, Jesus indicates that those that live in such ways, rather than being universally praised and lauded for their fine demonstration of their alignment and agreement with the principles of the kingdom of heaven, will be “persecuted for righteousness” (5:10a)---persecuted for the way that they demonstrate their faithfulness to the covenant and the way that they insist upon people entering into the covenant.  In fact, those that insist upon this way of bringing in, establishing, and expanding the Creator God’s kingdom will have an altogether unexpected experience, as they will be insulted and persecuted, whilst people speak evil of them on account of their loyalty to Jesus. 

Seeing God (part 1)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. – Matthew 5:8  (NET)

The fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew, commonly referred to as “The Sermon On the Mount,” begin with a programmatic declaration.  Jesus, in Moses-like fashion, has taken up a position on a mountain in order to deliver news of the Creator God’s will to the people and begins with a set of statements prefaced by “Blessed are”.  By using the term “blessed” while standing on the mountain to speak to the people, Jesus has not only conjured up thoughts of Moses, but He successfully pulls Abraham into His context as well, as the Creator God was specifically going to bless Abraham and his descendants---and through them all the world would also be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). 

Beginning with “Blessed are,” and with what follows during the course of this particular “sermon,” Jesus offers up a new set of “laws,” if you will, to govern the way in which His covenant people will interact in and for the world that His God is redeeming through Him.  If one thinks of Jesus as offering up a new set of governing principles, such will be a helpful lens through which to view His statement of “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them” (5:17).  Of course, Jesus also immediately goes on to say “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place” (5:18). 

By speaking of “these things” (5:17) along with saying “heaven and earth pass away” (5:18), Matthew lays the groundwork for the other important and extended discourse from Jesus to be found in his Gospel, which is Jesus’ speech concerning the Temple.  There, in chapters twenty-four through twenty-six of Matthew, Jesus makes repeated use of “these things” (24:2,3,8,33,34,26:1) as well as “Heaven and earth will pass away” (24:35), with the two statements linked and quite clearly connected with the fall of the Temple (“heaven and earth” was a common way of referring to the Temple---the place where heaven and earth meet).  One cannot disconnect Jesus words from chapter five with His words from chapter twenty-four.  Doing so would probably be a mistake. 

Jesus goes on to say “So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).  One must be cognizant of the fact that He is talking about that which He has said here with His initial delivery of the “laws” upon which He is about to elaborate.  In that sense then, one could even be justified in looking at the “beatitudes” as something of a new set of “Ten Commandments,” though there are not ten, and though they aren’t really commandments in the traditional sense.  The reader is also put in the position of seeing the beatitudes as the outline of the sermon, with all that follows serving as the explanation of those beatitudes. 

As is known, Jesus begins by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (5:3).  Beginning in this manner fits perfectly with what is heard from Matthew prior to this.  First, Matthew introduces John the Baptist and his message, which is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2).  Then, the first report that is received about that message that comes from Jesus, as He insists on the need to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (4:17b).  Matthew follows this up by informing his audience that “Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom” (4:23a).  So Jesus beginning the message in which He outlines His vision of the kingdom of heaven with a mention of the kingdom of heaven makes perfect sense.  He is quite consistent in this regard. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Son Of Abraham (part 2 of 2)

Following the telling of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke recounts a scene in which there is an issue with people bringing their babies for Jesus to touch them.  Some did not appreciate this, “and began to scold those who brought them” (18:15b).  However, “Jesus called for the children, saying, ‘Let the little children come to Me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.’” (18:16-17) 

Now how could this possibly relate to Zacchaeus?  Because Zacchaeus was said to be short (19:3) should one equate that with being a child?  Of course not.  Rather, one must look at the fact that he wanted to “get a look at Jesus” (19:3a), but because he was short “he could not see over the crowd, So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him” (19:4a).  Quite simply, men did not climb trees.  In an honor and shame culture, climbing trees was not dignified---it was considered to be a shameful activity for a man.  Such things were left to children.  So in climbing the tree, Zacchaeus attempts to come to come close to Jesus by acting like a child.  In addition to that, it is possible to tie in the story of the healing of the blind beggar, who most certainly, like Zacchaeus, wanted nothing more than to get a look at Jesus.  Luke indeed is a skilled constructor of narrative.

Returning again to the eighteenth chapter of Luke, Luke reports that “a certain ruler” came to Jesus and “asked Him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (18:18)  Rather than get sidetracked into a dissertation about the point of the question and Jesus’ initial response to it, it is best to skip down a few lines and hear Jesus tell this man to “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor” (18:22b).  What is it that is heard from Zacchaeus?  “Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor” (19:8b).  Now, that doesn’t sound like he is selling all that he has and giving the money to the poor---it sounds like he is committing to giving half his possessions to the poor.  However, the follow-on statement, which was “and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much” (19:8c), is likely going to require him to dispose of the remaining half of his possessions. 

In chapter eighteen Luke records that “when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was extremely wealthy.  When Jesus noticed this, he said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’” (18:23-24)  Hard?  Yes.  Impossible?  No.  Jesus says “What is impossible for mere humans is possible for God” (18:27).  To prove that this is the case, Luke offers the story of Zacchaeus giving away all that he had, entering the kingdom of the Creator God as a “son of Abraham.”  By the way, the man that came to Jesus in chapter eighteen was said to be a “ruler.”  Zacchaeus was also something of a “ruler,” being a chief tax collector. 

Lastly, it is with interest to note that rather than simply indicating that Zacchaeus has entered into the kingdom of Israel’s God (acceded to Jesus’ kingdom principles) by his actions, Jesus refers to him as a son of Abraham.  Why make this type of statement?  Well, any mention of Abraham is bound to call to mind the Creator God’s first words to Abraham, in which the man that was then named Abram was told that he was going to exemplify divine blessing.  It would certainly not be a stretch to say that Zacchaeus, by giving in the manner that he proposed, was going to exemplify divine blessing.  In so doing then, he would truly become a son of Abraham. 

That exemplification of divine blessing has been spelled out, to some extent, by Jesus, a bit earlier in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus can be heard to say “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:20b-21).  Certainly Zacchaeus’ actions blessed the poor and brought a measure of satisfaction to the hungry, whereas those whom he had cheated, who had no doubt wept as they slipped further and further into mounting and perhaps insurmountable debt, who perhaps came to find themselves in a position in which they were unable to feed themselves and their families and forced to consider lives of slavery because of that debt, were comforted with a joy that resulted in laughter at the four-fold reparation.    

Son Of Abraham (part 1 of 2)

Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham!” – Luke 19:9  (NET)

Jesus, in a move that was likely to have been viewed as shocking by many of its witnesses, went “to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (19:7b).  That man, of course, was Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was not only one of the hated tax collectors that worked in collusion with the Roman authorities and serving as a constant reminder of Israel’s continued subjection to a foreign power, but he was also tagged with the second epithet of being a “sinner” (someone who did not live up to covenant obligations).  Luke informs his audience that Zacchaeus was, in fact, a “chief tax collector” (19:2), and that commensurate with such a position, he “was rich” (19:2). 

When Jesus encounters Zacchaeus while passing through Jericho, He invited himself to the house of this rich, chief tax collector, saying “I must stay at your house today” (19:5b).  Though it is not explicit in the text, one can certainly find an implication that Jesus was going to be sharing a meal with Zacchaeus, who was going to serve as His host.  Now, this is not the first time that Jesus has made what some would consider to be a questionable choice in dining companions.  The Gospel of Luke, and indeed all of the Gospels, are littered with accusations of Jesus dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” which simply was not perceived to be comely behavior for a man that was somewhat clearly presenting Himself as a messiah figure. 

Beyond that, even when Jesus is not going to dine with those that are perceived to be the wrong people, and dines with the “right” people instead, He still comes in for criticism, be it for allowing a disreputable woman to wash His feet (chapter seven), or for not washing His hands (chapter eleven).  Seemingly, Jesus can’t quite do things properly.  Such is His burden.

Now, no record of Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus is provided.  Luke moves from the complaint about Jesus to reporting that “Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!’” (19:8)  Why Zacchaeus does this is left for the audience to determine.  Clearly though, he is quite overwhelmed by Jesus’ presence.  Perhaps he was also a witness to Jesus’ healing of the blind beggar, which was done “As Jesus approached Jericho” (18:35a)? 

To that point, Luke write that “When all the people saw” this healing, “they…gave praise to God” (18:43b).  Obviously “all” does not mean “all,” as it is a use of hyperbole, and one should not presume that Zacchaeus was part of this group that offered praise to the Creator God as a result of the healing of the blind man, but surely, even if he did not personally witness it, the news of this healing would have come to the ears of Zacchaeus, as tax collectors were certainly attuned to the local goings-on.  Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Zacchaeus is reported to have said these things after welcoming Jesus joyfully (19:6b), and presumably after hearing the complaints of the people. 

It is Zaccheus’ expression of financial commitment that prompts Jesus’ statement of “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham!” (19:9)  Though this commitment by Zacchaeus and the resulting words from Jesus were probably surprises to Jesus’ audience, it would not necessarily come as a surprise to those that have been paying attention to Luke’s narrative.  In fact, the story of Zacchaeus represents something of a summary of what has come before and is a vindication of Jesus’ teaching. 

In chapter eighteen, Luke presents a parable from Jesus about “Two men” who “went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (18:10).  In this parable, the tax collector “stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’” (18:13)  Without need to recount it here, suffice it to say that the Pharisee’s prayer was somewhat different. 

Jesus explains that “this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee” (18:14).  Interestingly, if one went from the Temple to Jericho, one would be said to have “went down to his home” (to be fair, all are said to “go down” from Jerusalem) which fits nicely with the story of Zacchaeus (but Luke has also told the story of the “Good Samaritan, in which “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (10:30a), so it is not at all difficult to surmise that Luke wants his audience to think of the tax collector “going down” to Jericho from the Temple).  One also notices that this tax collector referred to himself as a sinner, which is also said of the tax collector Zacchaeus, which offers some additional symmetry to the accounts.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Absalom (part 22 of 22)

Having made this crossing of the Jordan (leaving the Promised Land), Absalom will never cross back.  It is not insignificant that Absalom’s crossing of the Jordan coincides with blessings beginning to come David’s way.  It is reported that “When David came to Mahanaim,” men came to him and “brought bedding, basins, and pottery utensils.  They also brought food for David and all who were with him, including wheat, barley, flour, roasted grain, beans, lentils, honey, curds, flocks, and cheese” (2 Samuel 17:27a,28-29a). 

Remarkably (or perhaps not so remarkably), this provision of food and supplies for David and the people with him sounds like what is to be found in the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy.  There, along with the copious listing of curses that will come upon the covenant God’s people for failure to adhere to the terms of the covenant, one also finds the promise of blessings.  It is written: “If you indeed obey the Lord your God and are careful to observe all His commandments… the Lord your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth.  All these blessings will come to  you in abundance if you obey the Lord your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field.  Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.  Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed.  You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out” (28:1-6).  One can almost certainly imagine David reflecting upon these promised blessings as he receives the items that are being brought to him at Mahanaim. 

If he is thinking in such ways, then it is at this point that he knows that his God has turned things in his favor, that truly he is still the anointed one of Israel, and that Absalom should not have raised his hand (or contemplated raising his hand) against him.  After contemplating the blessings related to sustenance, David could go on to consider what follows in Deuteronomy, which is “The Lord will cause your enemies who attack you to be struck down before you; they will attack you from one direction but flee from you in seven different directions… The Lord will designate you as His holy people just as He promised you… Then all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you” (28:7,9-10).  It is after he receives the gifts that, for him, could serve to indicate the return of the Creator God’s favor and to remind him of the anointing and promise of his God that had been placed upon his life and his rule, that “David assembled the army that was with him.  He appointed leaders of thousands and leaders of hundreds.  David then sent out the army” (18:1-2a). 

David knew that Israel’s God was going to be with him and that his return to the throne was now but a foregone conclusion.  With full knowledge that the change of events was instigated by Absalom’s agreement to unnecessarily raise his hand in violence against his father, when David sends out the army he says “For my sake deal gently with the young man Absalom” (18:5b).  This, of course, does not happen, as Joab, David’s general (who has no fear of reprisal from David for a variety of reasons), has Absalom executed at the first opportunity to do so, which presented itself relatively quickly.  In fact, Absalom was struck down in the very first military engagement of his kingship, which is extraordinarily telling.  As was said before, once Absalom crossed the Jordan, thus departing from his exodus and going into exile, he would never cross back.  The only thing that was waiting for him on the other side was the completion of the curses of exile, which was death---dragged into the subjugation of creation’s great and foreign power.        

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Absalom (part 21)

Returning to the text of Absalom’s story, Hushai, after gaining Absalom’s ear, passes along to David the news of both his and Ahithophel’s advice, along with Absalom’s response to that advice.  Knowing his own history and reflecting upon his previous time in exile, this must have been somewhat heartening for David.  Obviously, there would be a level of sadness, in that he now learns that his son thinks that it is a good idea to have him dispatched from existence, but there would be a level of encouragement because he could see this as a sign of his God’s favor returning upon him. 

David could reflect upon the fact that he did not raise his hand against Saul, and that he had been ultimately rewarded for his restraint.  He could think about the fact that Saul came out after him, and though Saul’s efforts at striking David down proved unsuccessful, Saul’s efforts also proved to be less than beneficial.  In this unwarranted plan to attack David without provocation, as (according to the narrative on offer), David has not actively said or done anything to defeat what he feels might very well be the work of the Creator God, Absalom has now turned oppressor. 

Absalom is no longer Moses, but rather Saul.  He is no longer rescuing the people from subjugation, but he is instead attempting to subjugate his father who is also now his subject.  Yes, David and the men with him are now Absalom’s subjects, and therefore it is incumbent upon Absalom to secure blessings for them.  This is quite difficult to do if one is plotting to bring death to said subjects.  

With Absalom’s approval of Hushai’s plan, events begin to unfold rather quickly.  David is advised to move quickly, lest he be caught, and he does so along with all his people.  Ahithophel, who appears to be sensing oncoming defeat in addition to having his advice ignored in favor of that of Hushai, kills himself.  David and those with him have crossed the Jordan River, symbolically leaving the land of Israel, and going to Mahanaim (2 Samuel 17:24a).  Following the plan, “Absalom and all the men of Israel had crossed the Jordan River” (17:24b) as well. 

One may be predisposed to read by that quickly, but perhaps such should not be the case.  Crossing the Jordan was of tremendous significance in the history of Israel.  Following the exodus and Israel’s time in the wilderness, the crossing of the Jordan meant that they had crossed over into the land of the Creator God’s promise.  It was, in a sense, the completion of the exodus, though the exodus would never truly complete, as exodus would prove to be an ongoing process of deliverance, rescue, redemption, and salvation, which must be worked out diligently. 

Even after Israel crossed into their promised land, they still had to take the land, drive out its occupants, and crush the rampant idolatry (which they would fail to do).  In the days of John the Baptist, baptism in the Jordan River was a clear signal of a new exodus movement and a submission to the claims of the coming kingdom of their God, just as baptism in this day is a sign of departure from exile into a life of exodus (a constant entering into the Creator God’s mission and purpose) and submission to the covenant God’s King, that being Jesus the Messiah.  David, already in a self-imposed exile from Jerusalem and his throne, crosses the Jordan as he flees Absalom, who is now, unfortunately, intent upon killing his father. 

This does carry some meaning for David, though it carries far greater meaning for Absalom.  After crossing the Jordan River in his pursuit of his father, as he leads the men of Israel in this pursuit and as he goes forth to violently raise his hand against his father, he is going into another exile.  With this exile, and with what it is going to mean for him, his father is now being rescued from subjugation and delivered from his oppressor.  By this, Absalom has reversed the exodus that he has experienced.  He has completely reversed the Moses-oriented narrative that he had created for himself.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Absalom (part 20)

While it is true that a great deal of time and space has been spent dealing with Absalom, it simply must be said that his story is truly and fascinatingly compelling, as it presents and ties together (as has been seen) multiple themes that run deep in Scripture.  Therefore his story lends itself to drawing many conclusions about the Creator God’s working, His mission, and what it is that the Creator God desires for His people (for all time), as it serves as something of a climactic turning point in the history of Israel. 

Now, it has been concluded that Absalom’s downfall came because he agreed with the idea of raising his hand against the Creator God’s anointed, thereby demonstrating that he did not fully trust that God and the promises upon which he may very well have been relying.  Is this sort of conclusion justified?  Apart from the example of Moses and Israel, which was an example and path from which Absalom was deviating, was there another example that he could have followed?  Of course there was.  It was the example that had been set by his own father, before he had been corrupted by the power of the throne. 

In the first book of Samuel, there are two occasions on which David had the opportunity to kill Saul, his oppressor and subjugator.  However, he did not seize upon either of those opportunities to do so.  In fact, David felt guilty for cutting off an edge of Saul’s robe (1 Samuel 24:4).  Of course, to this point Absalom had not even gone that far.  In response to his own action, David said “May the Lord keep me far away from doing such a thing to my lord, who is the Lord’s chosen one, by extending my hand against him.  After all, he is the Lord’s chosen one” (24:6). 

A short while later, David calls out to Saul and says “Even though I have not sinned against you, you are waiting in ambush to take my life” (24:11b).  In the case of Absalom, up until the point that Ahithophel and Hushai speak, there has been no talk, on either the side of David or Absalom, about one attempting to take the other’s life.  Certainly, it can be said that part of the judgment of the Creator God that came upon Saul was related to his ongoing desire to physically and violently raise his hand against the one that his God had been said to have anointed.  Absalom should have continued in the attitude modeled by David and said “May the Lord judge between the two of us” (24:12a), which had already apparently been happening in Absalom’s favor based on the fact of the peaceful exchange of power.  In relation to his opportunity to raise his hand against Saul, David continued with words upon which Absalom should have seized, saying “may the Lord vindicate me over you, but my hand will not be against you” (24:12b). 

Absalom already had the support of the people, and it would appear that David himself was willing to accept Absalom’s exaltation as king.  David had been disgraced and humiliated.  The last thing that Absalom needed to do was to take action that would draw attention, and perhaps even heap sympathy upon David.  Instead, it may very well have been better to completely forget about his father.  Surely, his attempted actions against David might have been perceived as a spiteful type of “kicking a man while he is down,” which would serve to elicit the sympathy and condolences of the people while creating an unfavorable opinion of Absalom as an oppressive ruler that, after all has been said and done, is not all that interested in justice. 

Now, David will be able to turn his words against Absalom, and paint him as a king who has had the hand of Israel’s God removed from him, in a way not unlike that which was experienced by King Saul, and say “Who has the king of Israel come out after?  Who is it that you are pursuing?  A dead dog?  A single flea?  May the Lord be our judge and arbitrator.  May He see and arbitrate my case and deliver me from your hands” (24:14-15).  David will now be able to turn the tables on Absalom, and make his plea for justice, when such, to that point, has been Absalom’s cry. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Absalom (part 19)

To this point, the portrayal of David as being similar to Pharoah, David’s removal as being similar to Pharaoh’s loss of power over Israel, and Absalom’s exodus from his own exile as akin to Israel’s exodus from Egypt under Moses, was effective, and perhaps, knowing what is known about David, even appropriate.  However, it is at this point that Absalom, for some unknown reason, though he was receiving advice to do this, departs from the epic narrative that he has been creating for himself. 

As one thinks back to the story of Israel’s exodus, one thing that is not be found in that story is Moses taking it upon himself to raise his hand against the one from whom Israel was being delivered.  Remember, Moses had attempted to start the revolution in Egypt on behalf of Israel, with his killing of the Egyptian taskmaster.  This failed to accomplish the goal that Moses had in mind, and he was sent into his own personal exile.  When he returned, he was gifted with the ability to lead an exodus that was peaceful, at least as it related to the actions of the people.  As has been seen, Absalom has effectively mirrored this.  Though he was not, as far as the story goes, attempting to start a revolution through his killing of Amnon, it was that killing that resulted in his own exile away from Jerusalem.  It was during that time, no doubt, that the seeds of a plan to take the throne began to germinate, perhaps primarily because he was treated unjustly due to his execution of justice. 

Returning to the exodus story then, it is clear that Israel conducted no demonstrations of violence against Egypt.  The Egyptians, on the other hand, experienced the violent power of Israel’s God, which serves as a reminder of the fact that Moses left it to the God of Israel to bring judgment and destruction in the way that He saw fit.  Then, after the death of the firstborn, which saw Pharaoh finally relent from his stubborn stance and practically demand that Israel depart from Egypt, the last thing Moses was going to do was turn around and attempt to kill Pharaoh. 

In that case, the Creator God had already judged Pharaoh, so what good would that do?  What would that prove?  Even after Pharaoh came out after Moses and Israel, Moses did not send men to confront Pharaoh and his army.  Rather, he continued to trust the God that delivers to fight on behalf of His people.  Had Moses and Israel raised their hands against Egypt in any way, things might have turned out quite differently, as it would have been an indication that they did not fully trust that their covenant God was able to rescue them from their foreign subjugation. 

Absalom would have been wise to heed this example.  Instead, because he was convinced to believe that it was incumbent upon him to go out after his father, he essentially forsook the power of the Creator God to solidify his kingship and to carry out His promises to David through Absalom.  Israel did not turn back and fight against Egypt, rather, they looked forward, preparing themselves to face the enemies to come.  Absalom should have done the same, looking forward as well, in a spirit of thankfulness, rather than allowing for the entrance of a spirit that has to be described as nothing more than vengeful.  Had he not been vindicated already?  Had he not been exalted?  Had Israel’s God not fought his battles for him?  Absalom should never have turned back so as to bring further suffering on his deposed father.  It is this that would ultimately bring David vindication through suffering (with his own story of exile to exodus), while bringing suffering to Absalom in the wake of what had been his own vindication, and sending Absalom from exodus to exile.   

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Absalom (part 18)

So here is an answer.  This, as should be well understood by now, was completely un-necessary.  Seemingly, David was not a threat to Absalom.  David had resolved to leave his destiny in the hands of his God.  Along with that, and based on the mournful response that David makes when he eventually (after the unfolding of the events to come) receives word of Absalom having been struck down and killed, one can even imagine that David asked for his God’s blessing and favor to fall upon the one whom He (God) had seen fit to place in the role of king, having given him favor with the people of that God. 

No, David did not and could not have seen himself as being unlawfully or unjustly removed from the throne of Israel; and if he truly was the man after the Creator God’s own heart, and if he truly served under a special anointing of that God, it would have been incumbent upon him to seek and to serve his God’s will, even if that meant that he was not to be the king.  Based on what he had done and had not done, as he delivered oppression and usurped justice (with morality-related mistakes to which fallen humans are prone as secondary issues), David would have been justified in believing in this way and acting accordingly.     

Hushai, the one that had sent back to Jerusalem by David to serve as a “double-agent” in Absalom’s court, suggested a different strategy than that of Ahithophel.  He reminded Absalom of the fact that his father was, most certainly, a warrior, and that the men with him were quite brave (2 Samuel 17:10).  In that light, he suggests that “all Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba---in number like the sand of the sea!---be mustered to you, and you lead them personally into battle” (17:11b). 

How interesting it is that Hushai just happens to toss in, almost as an aside, a description of the people of Israel as being as numerous as the sand on the seashore.  In his advice to Absalom, which was really part of his service to David, he invokes the memory of the covenant promise that Israel’s God had originally made to Abraham.  It is probably this, more than anything else that he said, that inspires Absalom to be partial to Hushai’s advice.  After all, what proud, self-respecting Israelite would not be moved to act when regaled with such speech, as the person on the receiving end of such words would now be connected with the great patriarchal father? 

Hushai adds: “We will come against him wherever he happens to be found.  We will descend on him like the dew falls on the ground.  Neither he nor any of the men who are with him will be spared alive---not one of them!  If he regroups in a city, all Israel will take up ropes to that city and drag it down to the valley, so that not a single pebble will be left there!” (17:12-13)  Hushai is definitely engaging in some pronounced hyperbole here.  Though he does not believe or desire that such things will happen, he uses terms such as “All Israel,” and in reference to those with David, says that “not one of them” will be spared.  These things are quite unlikely, yet for some reason they are appealing to Absalom.  “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The advice of Hushai the Arkite sounds better than the advice of Ahithophel” (17:14a).  So Absalom is heeding advice that is directed towards attacking and killing his father and his father’s men.  This becomes his fatal mistake. 

Following the report of the favorable response to Hushai’s advice, the author adds what is obviously a retroactive application of what was ultimately manifested as Divine displeasure with Absalom, no doubt because of the course of action that was now going to be undertaken, saying “the Lord had decided to frustrate the sound advice of Ahithophel, so that the Lord could bring disaster upon Absalom” (17:14b).  This is the first negative connotation that one can find, from either the Lord of Israel or from man, in the story of Absalom’s insurrection and coming to power.  To this point, Absalom could very well lay claim to being a leader and deliverer for Israel in the mold of Moses.  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Absalom (part 17)

Absalom appears to be enjoying the Creator God’s favor upon his life and his kingship.  He has suffered in exile, and now he has been vindicated from that suffering.  He has been delivered to the kingship of the covenant people of the covenant God.  Much like Israel, it could be said that he had “taken the land.”  The demonstration of that ongoing Scriptural theme of exile and exodus has been well demonstrated, and above all things, it shows that he is not only now of kinship with Moses, but also Israel itself (from Egypt to the Promised Land), of Jacob (to Haran and back to Canaan), and Abraham (from Ur to Canaan, and from Egypt to Canaan).  It cannot be emphasized enough that he can consider himself to have been vindicated by his God, with evidence of such, following his long ordeal, that he is hailed as Israel’s king.  It must be further emphasized, quite strenuously, that his ascension to the throne (the completion of his personal exodus journey) has been accomplished without resort to military operations. 

As has been previously pointed out, he has not had to raise his hand against Israel’s anointed king.  The people can freely support him in good conscience, knowing full well that David appears to have abdicated willingly.  If indeed the Bathsheba/Uriah incident has been made public knowledge, which seems like a reasonable proposition because of Absalom’s actions with David’s concubines (wives) in sight of the people, that was meant to be a demonstration of the judgment pronounced against him by the Creator God through the prophet Nathan, then David’s peaceful abdication would have seemed altogether appropriate, with Absalom’s peaceful taking of power (in this context) completely understandable. 

Then, the unraveling begins.  Absalom quickly moves from the place of apparent favor and blessing of Israel’s God, with an implicit sanction of his kingship (because of his role in delivering prophesied and embarrassing judgment for David) with David slinking quietly away into the background, into the opposite situation.  Almost immediately upon becoming secure upon the throne, Absalom begins to see his station slipping from him.  To a point, he had been growing in favor with man (and apparently) with God, but this now turns.  Absalom starts to fall into the Creator God’s disfavor, and David begins to regain in favor. 

This can’t simply be because David had been anointed by God to replace Saul and lead the covenant people, as the Creator God is free to work through Absalom (according to the promise to David) to cause His people to be a light to the nations and to reflect His glory into the world, so there must be a signal reason why this takes place.  Did Absalom have his own Bathsheba situation?  Not as far as the Scriptures report.  Did he fail to execute justice as did David in the situation with Amnon and Tamar.  Again, not as far as is known.  So what was it?  Why is the Creator God’s blessing suddenly removed from him?  What is it that causes the people to slowly begin to turn from Absalom and reinstitute their support of David? 

The answer is found in the first few verses of the seventeenth chapter of the second book of Samuel.  What does this passage say?  There it is reported that, “Ahithophel said to Absalom, ‘Let me pick out twelve thousand men.  Then I will go and pursue David this very night.  When I catch up with him he will be exhausted and worn out.  I will rout him, and the entire army that is with him will flee.  I will kill only the king and will bring the entire army back to you.  In exchange for the life of the man you are seeking, you will get back everyone’.” (17:1-3a)  What was Absalom’s response to this?  In what should be a surprise, based on how things have gone and what has been accomplished to that point, it is said that “This seemed like a good idea to Absalom and to all the leaders of Israel” (17:4).  Though Absalom would also seek out further advice and eventually act upon advice contrary to what was offered by Ahithophel, the point is that this seemed like a good idea to Absalom. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Absalom (part 16)

Everything was going well for Absalom.  He had taken the throne.  He had secured the support of one of his father’s chief advisors.  His efforts at fostering a sense of justice and peace through brotherhood with the people seemed to have been effective, as Absalom had “won the loyalty of the citizens of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:6b).  The narrative of exile and exodus that he had been creating for himself had paid off, as “the people were starting to side with Absalom” (15:12b).  Even his father had been told that “The men of Israel are loyal to Absalom!” (15:13b). 

Due to this loyalty and support, Absalom entered Jerusalem peacefully (15:37b), apparently encountering no resistance.  To go with all of this, Hushai the Arkite, another one of his father’s servants, came to Absalom in Jerusalem and said “I will be loyal to the one whom the Lord, these people, and all the men of Israel have chosen.  Moreover, whom should I serve?  Should it not be his son?  Just as I served your father, so I will serve you” (16:18b). 
Now, Absalom did not know that Hushai had attempted to go with David, and had gone back to Jerusalem at David’s request for the expressed purpose of countering the advice that Ahithophel would provide to Absalom (15:34).  So as far as Absalom would have been concerned, these words from Hushai, that were actually words of deception that were put in Hushai’s mouth by David, were simply further evidence that his plan had been successful, and that the God of Israel was favoring him in his efforts. 

As one reads through this story (which seems to have a place of importance in the life of David and the history of Israel), it would be easy to conclude that even David himself seems to have been resigned to the possibility that Absalom’s exodus to kingship, and his own exile from the throne, was part of the Creator God’s will, as again, the promise to David was that he would have a dynasty on the throne.  The rule of Absalom most certainly fit within that framework.  To go along with that, David would have been none too surprised that this was part of his God’s judgment upon him for his failures as king (Uriah, Amnon).  Witness to this is that he has taken only mild measures to retain his position, involving Zadok, Abiathar, and Hushai in that effort. 

Thinking about this for a moment, when David employs Zadok and Abiathar (along with their sons) as spies, it is a bit of a perversion of their role (as priests) to represent the people before their God.  Nevertheless, this resignation is partly indicated (among other things that have already been explored) by the fact that David sends the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, and his saying “If I find favor in the Lord’s sight He will bring me back and enable me to both see it and His dwelling place again” (15:25b).  That was said together with “However, if He should say, ‘I do not take pleasure in you,’ then He will deal with me in a way that He considers appropriate” (15:26).  Additionally, the words that David spoke in the wake of being cursed and assaulted (rocks thrown) by Shimei, only points to his understanding that all of this might very well have been his God’s will. 

So as was said, everything was going swimmingly for Absalom.  He had led his peaceful insurrection, and it has been accomplished by winning the hearts of the people.  In essence, according to the historic narrative of Israel, he was Moses and he was leading Israel in a new exodus movement with the Lord of Israel on his and their side.  Indeed, Absalom, if he would have been so inclined, could have stood before the people and said “just as the Lord fought for Israel in Egypt, rescuing a people by the acts of His mighty hand, so He has again fought for Absalom and Israel, delivering me to the throne of His people, by the singular working of His powerful, saving might.” 

Reinforcing such a thought, he has now even heard it said, by one of his father’s trusted servants, that he (Absalom) was anointed by both Israel’s Lord and the people.  To that point, any such mention of anointing (in the mold of Saul and David) had been completely absent from the narrative.  Upon this, his revolution was complete.  Absalom was king.  The covenant God was going to fulfill the promises to David through him.  Then, in the midst of this, the tide turned.  Everything changed.  Events began to unfold that would unravel Absalom’s victory.        

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Absalom (part 15)

In the Deuteronomic curses, Moses informs the Creator God’s people that one of the curses that will come upon them for their failure to obey their God’s commands (of which David was certainly guilty) would be that “You will be engaged to a woman and another man will rape her” (Deuteronomy 28:30a).  This is not strictly analogous to what Nathan has told David, or to what it has been suggested that Absalom do, as neither this God’s threat through Nathan nor Ahithophel’s suggestion to Absalom carries with it (at least on the surface) the connotation of violence or force, but it can probably be thought of as being connected closely enough to drive home the point to David that he has violated his God’s commands. 

Additionally, Ahithophel apparently sees a close enough connection in that it will play well into Absalom’s ongoing effort to show himself as a true deliverer in the mold of Moses, thereby allowing Absalom to continue co-opting the most powerful story of Israel’s history for his own purposes.  Furthermore, it adds to Absalom’s claim to be a just man and the one that is used by the covenant God to deliver justice to Israel.  This is especially and strikingly so if Absalom is the means by which the prophecy (judgment) related to cursing that had been delivered to David by Nathan is fulfilled. 

This merely cements the notion that David is no longer fit to be king, while also pointing to the fact that the story of Bathsheba and David, and the oppression and injustice that the story entails, has been made known in Israel.  If it has not, then there is no real point in Absalom engaging in sexual relations with his father’s concubines, unless it is also being used to indicate that just as David has forsaken these wives of his, that he has also forsaken his care of the people of Israel as well. 

The second part of Ahithophel’s response to the request to provide advice to Absalom is to say that “All Israel will hear that you have made yourself repulsive to your father.  Then your followers will be motivated to support you” (2 Samuel 16:21b).  Yes, Ahithophel suggests that this will be viewed by the people as Absalom being willing to be cursed by his very own father, if it indeed means justice for Israel.  This is powerful symbolism.  Absalom will be seen to be willing to bear that pain and shame on behalf of the people, with this becoming a messianic role.  In a society based upon honor and shame, this is a calculated move (though also prophetically fulfilling) to win further sympathy from the people. 

Does this aid Absalom in his desire to be seen as Moses?  Absolutely!  Moses was willing to forsake his father’s (Pharoah’s) house so as to identify himself with the people suffering under the oppression of the king.  Thinking beyond that however, this might also be an attempt to entice David to retaliate against Absalom, who up to this point has not lifted up his hand (nor asked anybody else to lift up their hand) against his father. 

David has left willfully.   He has abandoned his throne and fled from Jerusalem and Absalom has peacefully entered to take that throne.  There has been no bloodshed, violence, or loss of life (except Amnon many years prior, but that has only tangential bearing on the events at hand at that time).  If David now turns and raises sword and spear against Absalom and his supporters, then David is most certainly to be likened to Pharaoh, who allowed Israel to depart from Egypt and from his oppression peacefully, but then had a change of heart and set out to recover the Israelites (and his power) by violent means.    

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Absalom (part 14)

Surely, the curses and stones being hurled at David from this man served as a vivid demonstration of the Deuteronomic curses and the exile in which those curses are enfolded.  Thus, this man, as David rightly surmised, was being used by Israel’s God (at that point), to bring David’s failures to mind.  One could also think of Goliath uttering curses at David and Israel, along with David’s felling him with a stone from his slingshot. 

Additionally, Abishai’s use of the term “dead dog,” which the author was sure to mention here in the telling of this story, had to have been a reminder to David of Mephibosheth’s response to him, when David restored Mephibosheth to his lands and gave him a place at the king’s table.  Mephibosheth referred to himself as a “dead dog” that was undeserving of such treatment by the king.  That event, perhaps more so than any other in the life of David, saw him demonstrating the compassion of the covenant God of Israel in a way that would most definitely have served to allow him to shine as a light to the nations and to reflect the glory of his God into the world, as he lifted up the grandson of his enemy. 

If that was a consideration, David could not then help but be reminded of the way he had honored his God and his kingship before he began robbing (wives and lives and justice) from his people.  Yes, to return to an issue previously raised, which was that of David himself going into exile, in light of a later promise to Israel that the sign of their exile would be the eternal rule of a Davidic king, David was eventually returned to Jerusalem and re-established as king.  If David himself could go into exile and be exodus-ed from that exile and restored to the kingship, then so too could Israel (Judah) be later exiled to Babylon and subjected to a foreign nation, while trusting in their God’s promise to return them to their land.  

Now after Absalom entered Jerusalem, he sought the counsel of Ahithophel, saying “Give us your advice.  What should we do?” (2 Samuel 16:20b)  Ahithophel provides a two part answer.  The first part of his answer is “Have sex with your father’s concubines whom he left to care for the palace” (16:21a).  Absalom, quite pleased with this suggestion (for obvious and perhaps not so obvious reasons), seizes on the idea and follows through on it.  The author reports that “they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and Absalom had sex with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel” (16:22).  Why does Ahithophel suggest this?  Why does Absalom do it?  It is suggested and undertaken because of what it was that the prophet Nathan had said to David after David’s taking of Uriah’s wife and life. 

Through Nathan, the Creator God had said to David, “you have despised Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own!” (12:10b)  Though it does not provide a direct correlation, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that this despising of Israel’s God by David bears very little difference from Israel’s forsaking of their God and their worship of idols, by which they most assuredly despised Him.  If this is correct, then it is only right that David experience what his God promises to His people for idolatry, which is cursing (exile).  So Nathan continues, saying “This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on you from inside your household!’” (12:11a)  Certainly the Absalom situation, which has been created and fueled by the Tamar and Amnon situation and the resulting fall-out, could be described as disaster from inside the household.  Furthermore, the covenant God says, “Right before your eyes I will take your wives and hand them over to your companion.  He will have sexual relations with your wives in broad daylight!” (12:11b)  Why?  Because “Although you have acted in secret, I will do this thing before all Israel, and in broad daylight” (12:12).  This is obviously fulfilled.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Absalom (part 13)

The only blood that was shed throughout the entirety of the time in which the plagues of Egypt ran their course was that of the lambs that were shed on behalf of the households of Israel.  The only bloodshed that preceded deliverance and exodus was that of sacrifice.  What bloodshed can be seen in the run-up to Absalom’s insurrection?  Only that of sacrifice---when Absalom offered sacrifices in Hebron (2 Samuel 15:12).  Quite rightly, if one desires to take a step here to make a connection to Jesus, Jesus could have spoken to a people that considered themselves to be a people in exile, under oppression, and reminded them that their God delivered their nation and gave them exodus without the people having to rise up in rebellion in order to cast off that yoke.   

Following the death of the firstborn in Egypt, Pharaoh sent Israel out of the land.  Their exodus was begun through the intervention of the Creator God alone.  Israel did not have to resort to the force of arms for even a single moment.  Neither did Absalom.  David departed from Jerusalem, going into exile much like Pharaoh, his army, and the land of Egypt (which was soon to be over-run by the Amalekites), and Absalom entered into Jerusalem without having to physically raise his hand against his father (15:37). 

Absalom could use this fact to point out that yes, Israel’s God was showing favor upon him, and by extension showing favor to Israel---delivering a kingdom into his hand.  This could have been used as evidence that he had, in fact, been raised up like Moses, and that David had been deposed from the position of power, much like Pharaoh.  Beyond that, Absalom could make it very clear that he did not lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed, following the noble example that had been set by his previously non-oppressive father, who, when given the opportunity to act otherwise, had refrained from striking out against Saul. 

Back to David and back to his exilic experience, this study meets up with him as he “reached  Bahurim” (16:5).  “There a man from Saul’s extended family named Shimei son of Gera came out, yelling curses as he approached.  He threw stones at David and all of King David’s servants, as well as all the people and the soldiers who were on his right and left.  As he yelled curses, Shimei said, “Leave!  Leave!  You  man of bloodshed, you wicked man!  The Lord has punished you for all the spilled blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you rule.  Now the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom.  Disaster has overtaken you, for you are a man of bloodshed!’” (16:5b-8) 

Those that were with David, quite understandably, did not appreciate being cursed at and having stones thrown at them.  One of them, Abishai, who was ever the loyal fellow, said “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?  Let me go over and cut off his head!” (16:9b)  Not only did David not allow him to do this, he said “If he curses because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David!’, who can say to him, ‘Why have you done this?’” (16:10b)  To that David added, “Leave him alone so that he can curse, for the Lord has spoken to him.  Perhaps the Lord will notice my affliction and this day grant me good in place of his curse” (16:11b-12).  With his final remark, and its mention of affliction, the reader is offered a small glimpse of David’s insight into this exile. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Absalom (part 12)

This exile that David was experiencing had several of the marks of the curses promised in Deuteronomy.  The author reports: “As David was going up the Mount of Olives, he was weeping as he went; his head was covered and his feet were bare.  All the people who were with him also had their heads covered and were weeping as they went up” (2 Samuel 15:30).  Does this not sound like the way that slaves would be carried off by a conquering foe?  Is it possible to find this paralleled in Deuteronomy?  There one reads of “hunger, thirst, nakedness, and poverty” (28:48a). 

David, with all of his riches, was fleeing Jerusalem with nothing.  In fact, this is evidenced by the fact that shortly thereafter, “Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth… had a couple of donkeys that were saddled, and on them were two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred raisin cakes, a hundred baskets of summer fruit, and a container of wine” (16:1b), so as to provide for the king and his people during their journey into exile for lack of faithfulness to their covenant responsibilities. 

In the midst of the travel of his travail, David, having begun to recognize where his faults had been and what it was that had brought him to this horrible predicament, begins to strategize.  He has already sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem for good reason, and implores the Creator God to turn the advice of one of his chief advisers, Ahithophel, who was now supporting and advising Absalom, into foolishness.  In addition, he employed the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, to serve as his spies within Jerusalem. 

As David begins to remember the God of Israel and His faithfulness, he also begins to be fully cognizant of the exilic nature of what is happening to him, and vice versa.  No doubt this experience is going to serve him well, if in fact his God does restore him to the throne, which at this point was certainly not a foregone conclusion.  Remember, even if David is removed from the throne, the promise is that the God of Israel would make a dynasty of his house, which he could very well do through Absalom, who, at this point, has carried out a successful rebellion and insurrection without shedding any blood. 

In considering that, it is worth once again making note of the strategy which might very well have been being employed by Absalom.  Absalom has, quite possibly, positioned himself as a new Moses that is leading a new exodus for Israel, with a delivery from a new Pharaoh, that being David, who had become an oppressor in Israel.  Remember, Israel began to suffer oppression in Egypt when a Pharaoh came to power that did not know Joseph. 

Naturally, it was not so much that said Pharaoh did not know Joseph,  but more that he had forgotten what had been wrought on behalf of Egypt, with Egypt gaining an empire through the power and deliverance of the God of Joseph and Israel.  In making his case, Absalom could certainly point to David’s less than just actions and point out that David had forgotten the faithful, powerful, delivering, kingdom giving God of Israel---the very God that had delivered David from Saul and from his own earlier time of exile and oppression.          

Furthermore, as one examines the potential of Absalom positioning himself as a new Moses and leading a new exodus, it should be remembered that Israel’s Egyptian exodus was carried out with no bloodshed.  Moses had attempted such and failed, earning only a personal exile which eventually resulted in his calling by the covenant God.  Israel did not rise up en masse to overthrow and defeat Egypt by means of violence.  They did not have to resort to war.  Rather, their God worked for them.  The Creator God brought Egypt low through plagues and the eventual death of the firstborn.  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Absalom (part 11)

Does David get a sense of this?  Did he realize that the Ark was being treated as a talisman and an idol?  This had happened once before during the time of the judges, when Hophni and Phinehas, the corrupt sons of Eli, brought the Ark into the presence of the Israelite army as they were being threatened by and were fearful of the army of the Philistines.  What happened to the Ark in that instance?  It was captured by the Philistines.  Israel fell to the Philistines in battle, Hophni and Phinehas were killed, Eli fell over and broke his neck when he heard the news of the Ark’s capture, and Phinehas’ wife gave birth to a son and named him Ichabod, saying that “The glory has departed from Israel, because the Ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:22). 

Understandably then, David did not want to be on any side of that issue.  He did not want to treat the Ark as an idol.  He did not want to leave the people in a vulnerable position without the presence of their God, and thereby effectively in exile.  He did not want to be thought of as somebody who had captured the Ark and therefore caused the glory of the Lord to depart from Israel, nor did he want to experience the exile-like curses that came upon the Philistines because they presumed to possess the Ark of the Covenant God.  So “the king said to Zadok, ‘Take the Ark of God back to the city.  If I find favor in the Lord’s sight He will bring me back and enable me to see both it and His dwelling place again.  However, if He should say, “I do not take pleasure in you,” then He will deal with me in a way that He considers appropriate’.” (15:25-26)  This represents a turning of the tide for David.  Once he actively recognizes the Lord God of Israel’s hand in all of these things, matters begin to turn out better for him and worse for Absalom.        

Later on in Israel’s history, the book of Jeremiah will inform a people that are nearing a time of exile and foreign subjugation to not lose heart or forget the covenant faithfulness of their God.  Their God has delivered a solemn promise, saying “When the time for them to be rescued comes… I will rescue you from foreign subjugation.  I will deliver you from captivity.  Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them.  But they will be subject to the Lord their God and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them” (30:8-9).  Ironically, it is King David---the very one to whom is made reference by the term “Davidic ruler”---that is himself going into exile.  He is, in a way, undergoing a foreign subjugation.  Why?  Because, like Israel itself, he had taken his eyes off of his God.  Because, like Israel itself, he had forgotten his purpose.  He had begun to treat the people of Israel as if they were there for him, rather than remembering his role and that he was there to be a servant to the covenant people of the covenant God. 

How could he serve them best?  By being a testimony of what it looked like to be a light to the surrounding nations and so reflect the glory, into the world, of the God Who had anointed him and delivered him a kingdom.  How could he do that if he was oppressing his own people, taking their wives, and killing them?  How could he do that if he was showing favoritism to his own son and not executing what justice demanded?  How could he do that if he allowed the relationship with another son to deteriorate to the point that that son could feel the need to turn the people against his father and take the kingdom for himself?  David had become a king for himself and for his own glory, rather than for his people, for the world, and for the glory of Israel’s God.  This was David’s idolatry, and it had earned him an exile.