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The Faith of Zechariah

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

One of the most hopeful things about the Bible is that it chronicles the flaws not only of the wicked, but of the righteous too.  Nearly every Biblical character is depicted as falling short in some way, but despite their failures, they pick themselves up, press on, and eventually receive God’s approval.

We see this pattern in the life of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  He is undoubtedly a good man.  Indeed, Luke 1:6 describes both him and his wife as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” 

However, when this good man encounters the angel Gabriel as he serves in the temple, the limitations of his faith become apparent.  Gabriel tells him that he will have a son, but decades of experience have shown him that he and his once-barren, now-old wife are incapable of having children.  He chooses to believe his experience rather than God’s word, and he is stricken with muteness because of it.

Despite his unbelief, after his return from temple service, his wife conceives, and in due time, his miracle son is born.  Then, the Bible story gets weird.  Elizabeth and the family get into an argument over whether the child is going to be named “Zechariah” (after Daddy) or “John” (as Gabriel had said).  She insists on “John”, and the still-mute Zechariah confirms her decision in writing.  At this point, his speech impediment is removed, and he begins to glorify God.

This story doesn’t make much sense to people from our society, so we have to do our best to read it through first-century eyes.  Throughout the Bible, it’s obvious that children, especially sons, are extremely important—even more so than in our time.  Not only did sons provide for their parents in old age, they also—to a people with an uncertain grasp of the afterlife—offered a kind of immortality.  As long as your sons continued, you did too.

This is why the relatives want to name the baby “Zechariah”.  Against all the odds, this faithful, elderly priest is going to have a future!  However, Zechariah knows that his son’s life won’t be about him.  It will be about God.  His course will be so different that only the name given by God, a name that no one in his family ever has worn, would be appropriate.  In affirming God’s choice, Zechariah also affirms that John’s life will be about the hope of Israel, not the hope of Zechariah.

Zechariah’s spiritual struggles resonate with even the best of us.  We too know how hard it is to trust God’s word instead of our experiences.  We know what it’s like when God’s goals for our lives collide with our own.

Faith doesn’t necessarily mean that we get everything right in the moment.  Like Zechariah, we can get ambushed by a spiritually crucial decision we didn’t see coming.  Faith does mean, though, that if we get off track and suffer the consequences, we don’t give up.  We fight through the hard times, we try to figure out where God wants us to go, and we go there.  As Zechariah learned, we too will learn that regardless of what has come before, if we will seek the Lord, we are sure to find Him.

Those Boring Genealogies

Monday, January 06, 2020

Among other texts, the first week of our Bible-reading plan for 2020 includes Matthew 1:1-17.  This, along with Luke 3:23-38, gets my vote for being the most difficult section of the New Testament to read.  It is all one great big genealogy.  Many of the names in it are polysyllabic, unfamiliar, and unpronounceable.  The people they represent often don’t show up elsewhere in the Bible, except in other genealogies.  Brethren commonly read a verse or two and then give up.  I myself have been known to skim the genealogies every time they appear in my reading schedule. 

Sooo. . . why are the genealogies there?  Why should we pay attention to them?

There are several reasons.  First, they show the fulfillment of prophecy.  In Genesis 22:18, God promises Abraham that through his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  Jesus’ descent from Abraham proves that this promise was fulfilled through Him.  Similarly, 2 Samuel 7:13 contains God’s promise to David that one of His descendants would be established as king forever.  This too was fulfilled in Jesus, and we can tell that it was because Jesus’ genealogy shows His Davidic lineage.

Second, Jesus’ genealogy foreshadows His work.  Even today, we recognize that sons are often like their fathers.  This conviction was much stronger 2000 years ago.  People would expect a descendant of David to be like David:  one who could challenge and defeat the enemies of his people, one who would rise to become king.  Though Jesus did not meet these expectations in the way that most people thought He would, they still held important clues about His work and its results.

Third, the genealogy of Matthew 1 shows the completion of God’s plan in Jesus.  Matthew explains in 1:17 that Jesus’ genealogy divides up into three fourteen-generation segments.  This is not literally true, and any Jewish reader of Matthew’s gospel would have known that it was not literally true.  In order to achieve his three fourteen-generation groups, Matthew leaves out people.  According to 1 Chronicles 3:17-19, Zerubbabel was the grandson of Shealtiel, not the son.  Matthew omits Pedaiah.

This does not imply that Matthew made a mistake.  After all, Zerubbabel is frequently called “the son of Shealtiel” in Scripture, just as Jesus is called “the son of David”, even though neither of those things is literally true.  Instead, it shows us that bare chronological reconstruction is not Matthew’s purpose (and we should be wary of using Biblical genealogies for purposes other than that of the writer).

Rather, Matthew is making a numerological and thematic statement.  Three is a sacred number.  So is seven.  Both indicate completion.  By redacting Jesus’ genealogy so that it is made up of three groups of two sevens each, Matthew indicates the sacredness and completion of God’s purpose.  The time of the patriarchs, the time of the kings, and the time after the exile all are finished.  Now, the time of King Jesus can begin.

Summaries, Psalms 146-150

Monday, December 30, 2019

Psalm 146 is an outpouring of praise to God for His goodness.  Its opening phrase (“Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord, O my soul!”) is used, among other places, in the third verse of “It Is Well with My Soul”.  The psalmist continues from there to promise God that he never will cease to praise Him.  He urges others not to trust in princes, who are mortal, but in God, who created all things and remains faithful.  Whenever His people are in need, God sees them and blesses them.  By contrast, He strikes down the wicked.  He will reign forever, and everyone should praise Him.

Psalm 147 continues the theme of praise by considering God’s work in creation.  The same God who cares for His people numbers and names the stars.  He uses His infinite strength to care for the weak and vulnerable.  Because of His providence, He is worthy of praise.  He feeds all living things, and He cares for His own. 

Next, the psalm invites the people of Jerusalem to praise God.  He has cared for them, and His power is so great that even the weather does His bidding.  Finally, His care is shown in that He has given His people His law.

Psalm 148 is one of the most familiar psalms in the psalter because it is paraphrased in our hymn “Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah!”  It invites all of the creation to praise God:  the angels, the celestial bodies, the elements of creation, living creatures, and all people.  God is worthy of praise from all of these because He is above everything else.

Psalm 149 calls God’s people to praise Him.  They are invited to glorify Him in a number of different ways.  They praise Him because they can be certain of His help in defeating their enemies among the nations.

Psalm 150, the final psalm in the book, is another call to worship.  It invites God’s people to praise Him in different locations, for His great works, and with various musical instruments.  The psalm (and the book) concludes by appealing to everything that has breath to praise the Lord.

Summaries, Psalms 141-145

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Psalm 141 asks God to help the psalmist remain faithful.  It opens with a request to God to attend to the psalmist prayer the way He does to the offerings made at the tabernacle/temple.  The psalmist then asks God to help him keep his speech, thoughts, and friendships from evil.  It’s better to be rebuked by the righteous than to be favored by the wicked!  Indeed, the psalmist hates the wicked and anticipates that the powerful people who help them will be destroyed. 

Nonetheless, at the present time, the psalmist has been left without protection, close to death.  In his trouble, he looks to God and trusts in His protection.

Psalm 142 also looks to God for help in trouble.  The psalmist expresses his sorrow to God because he knows God sees the way forward for him.  This is important because the psalmist’s enemies have set traps for him and his friends have abandoned him.  In these dire circumstances, the psalmist has no choice but to cry to God.  Only God can rescue him from persecution and prison, and if He does, the psalmist will give thanks to Him.

Psalm 143 has similar content.  The verses to our hymn “I Close My Eyes” are taken from Psalm 143:1, 10, and 8.  In the psalm, the psalmist asks for God to hear and answer him rather than judging him for his sins.  The psalmist’s enemies have oppressed him, and he is distressed.  In these circumstances, he thinks about what God has done before and longs for Him.  He pours out his soul before God and hopes that He will answer him and lead him to safety.  Ultimately, the psalmist is confident that God will answer him.

Psalm 144 is a martial psalm.  It begins with David expressing his gratitude to God for helping him fight and protecting him.  He marvels that God would expend such care on him.  Next, he invites God to help him in battle.  If God does, he will praise Him.  The psalm concludes by asking for several blessings:  rescue from enemies, many children, agricultural prosperity, and peace.

Psalm 145 rejoices in God’s goodness and power.  The psalmist begins by promising to praise God forever because of His greatness.  God is so great that His praise will continue through all successive generations.  In addition to being great, He also is kind and compassionate.  His people will continue to praise Him because His kingdom will last forever.  God protects and provides for everyone, loves the righteous, hears their prayers, and judges rightly between them and the wicked.  Therefore, He should be praised forever.

Summaries, Psalms 136-140

Monday, December 16, 2019

Psalm 136 is famous for being the most repetitive psalm in the entire book.  It is built around the phrase “for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever.”  “Steadfast love” (also translated as “lovingkindness”, “mercy”, and “faithful love”) is a translation of the Hebrew hesed, a word which has no English equivalent.  It combines the concepts of love and faithfulness to a covenant.  For instance, a husband who displays hesed loves his wife because of the mingling of affection and commitment.

Psalm 136 explains the work of God as the expression of His everlasting hesed.  All that He has ever done in time and space is the result of His love for and His promises to His people.  This includes His work in creation, in delivering the Israelites from bondage, in giving them the land, and in protecting them in the land.  Because He is constant in His love, He is worthy of praise.

Psalm 137 comes from the time of the Babylonian Captivity.  It describes the misery of the captives in Babylon.  The Babylonians are forcing them to sing the songs of Jerusalem even though the Jews are miserable because of Jerusalem’s destruction.  The psalm concludes with a famously raw plea to God to take vengeance on the Edomites, who cooperated with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem.  It expresses the wish that someone might do to the children of the Edomites as the Edomites had done to the children of the Jews—cruelly bashing their heads against rocks to kill them. 

Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving to God.  It praises His love and faithfulness because He answered the prayers of the psalmist.  The psalmist predicts that even the kings of the nations will praise Him because of what they have seen of His works.  Even though the psalmist’s life is troubled, God continues to protect him from his enemies.  The psalm concludes with a prayer to God to sustain His protection.

Psalm 139 praises the omniscience and omnipresence of God.  The psalmist states that God knows not only his actions, but also his thoughts.  He knows what the psalmist is going to say before the psalmist does!  Everywhere the psalmist might go, God is there with him, and nothing can conceal him from God’s eyes.  Indeed, God even knew him in his mother’s womb and watched as he was being formed there.

As a result, the psalmist values God and thinks about him all the time.  He asks God to protect him from his enemies and justifies this by pointing out his own faithfulness.  He concludes the psalm by asking God to search his heart and lead him in the paths of eternity.

Psalm 140 is another plea for God’s help in trouble.  The psalmist’s enemies are causing trouble and setting traps for him.  In such a time, the psalmist asks God to hear his prayers while not giving the wicked what they want.  In fact, he asks God to punish them instead.  He concludes the psalm by expressing confidence in God’s justice.

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