How Should We Understand the Song of Solomon?

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Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have big trouble with The Song of Solomon. It’s often used for looking at marital intimacy, but I’m always thinking: ‘Which wife is Solomon talking about?’ He had so many. And it seems as if having all these wives was just a way of committing adultery (legally). So then I don’t understand why people use these verses to look at the loveliness of marriage?

I referred to the Song of Solomon this past Sunday in my sermon titled: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Affirm Some People’s Sexuality”, which was the final installment in our series called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”.

The Song of Solomon is important theologically because it extols marital intimacy, showing romantic love as being for the purpose of enjoyment and the binding of spouses together, not only for the purpose of procreation. This stands in contrast to many ancient (and modern) views on sexuality which extol asceticism (the denial of pleasure) and eschew physical pleasure.

What We Know

According to the first verse of Song of Solomon, this is a song written by Solomon. This would make it one of the 1005 songs that Solomon wrote (1 Kings 4:32), but the title “Song of Songs” (S.o.S. 1:1) is a superlative, meaning that this is the best of all his songs.

Based on 1 Kings 4:32, it is assumed this song was written early in Solomon’s reign.

It is a lyrical poem, and the main character is a “Shulamite woman”. Shulamite simply means “from Jerusalem” – so this woman is from Jerusalem. This is important, because the first marriage of Solomon’s that we’re told about in 1 Kings 3:1 is his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he brought to his palace in Jerusalem.

So the big question is this: Who is the Shulamite woman? Several suggestions have been made, as I will outline in the next section.

Four Possible Interpretations

It has been said that “perhaps no book in the biblical canon has had a greater diversity of interpretative strategies.”[1] Here are the four most popular:

1. Allegorical Interpretation

This view sees the sensuous descriptions of love as a picture of the love between God and his people, and then between Christ and his bride (either the church or the individual soul). This view was very common in the Middle Ages. Its weakness is that it runs the risk of diminishing the book’s endorsement of marital intimacy. Virtually all scholarly interpreters today see the book primarily as a celebration of love and the gift of sexual intimacy, many would say that it also sheds light on the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people (see Eph. 5:22–33).

2. Anthology Interpretation

This interpretation views the Song of Solomon as a collection of poems or lyrics, arranged around the common theme of intimate love between a man and a woman—celebrating love’s longing, ecstasy, joy, beauty, and exclusivity. This understanding rejects the idea that the book contains a narrative plot.

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis

This is an interesting hypothesis which became popular in the 1800’s. It says that the Shulamite woman and the shepherd boy are two peasants who are in love, and King Solomon is seeking to win the woman’s into his harem. The woman ultimately resists Solomon’s flattery and returns home to marry the shepherd.

Several evangelical interpreters advocate this interpretation, because it accounts for what we know about Solomon having many wives later in life, but its weakness is that it does not give us any way of knowing when the shepherd is speaking and when Solomon is speaking. In fact, the speech patterns of the main characters (e.g., the descriptive titles they use for each other) favor the idea that there are only two lovers. Also, it would mean that Solomon wrote this song, in which he portrayed himself as the bad guy, and praised the love of this couple. While that’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

The following outline shows how the Shepherd Hypothesis understands the structure of the book:

  1. Solomon Meets the Shulammite in His Palace (1:2–2:7)
  2. The Beloved Visits and the Shulammite Searches for Him in the Night (2:8–3:5)
  3. Solomon Displays His Wealth and Sings of His Love (3:6–5:1)
  4. The Shulammite Yearns for the Beloved (5:2–6:3)
  5. The King Fails in His Pursuit of the Shulammite (6:4–8:14)

4. The Solomon-Shulamite Interpretation

The most common interpretation today is that the Song of Solomon a story about King Solomon and the Shulammite woman. Here is the outline:

  1. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–3:5)
  2. The Wedding (3:6–5:1)
  3. Temporary Separation and Reunion (5:2–6:3)
  4. Delight in Each Other (6:4–8:4)
  5. Final Affirmations of Love (8:5–14)

The only problem with this view, is that we don’t know who this Shulamite woman is. It is possible, that Solomon is singing this about the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he dubs a “Shulamite”, since he has brought her to Jerusalem. Another suggestion is that prior to his wedding with the daughter of Pharaoh in 1 Kings 3:1, Solomon was married to another woman from Jerusalem, which 1 Kings never tells us about, and this song is a poetic retelling of that relationship.

What About Solomon’s Many Wives?

According to 1 Kings, it was only later in life that Solomon abandoned the monogamous standard of Scripture and started accumulating many wives. So it is entirely possible that at the time he wrote this song, his romantic interests were not yet tainted, and what we read about in this book is indeed the portrayal of something pure and beautiful.

1 Kings 11 makes it clear that Solomon turned away from the Lord in his heart, and the Lord was not pleased with what Solomon did. Many times, especially in the Old Testament, the Bible “reports the news” and leaves it to us to determine if what they did was good or not, based on what we know about God’s character and standards. Clearly, what Solomon did with his many wives was sin, and not an example for us to follow.

For more on this topic, check out: Does the Bible Ever Actually Prohibit Sex Before Marriage? What about Polygamy?

Solomon is a classic example of someone who started well, but did not finish well. Whereas his early life is an inspiration, his later life is a warning.

It has been said, “The last mile is the least crowded.” May we be those who finish well in this life of faith!

 

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Joaquin Phoenix is Playing Jesus, but Refused to Reenact One of His Miracles

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Joaquin Phoenix is playing Jesus in the film “Mary Magdalene,” which releases this week on Good Friday, and attempts to look at the story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.

Check out: Is Good Friday Actually Good?

The movie takes a few liberties with the story, however. For example, in the case of the healing of the blind man in John 9, the man is replaced by a woman, and Joaquin Phoenix refused to act out how the actual miracle took place: by making mud with saliva and dirt, and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes.

Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:6-7)

Here’s what Phoenix told CNN about why he wouldn’t reenact this particular miracle:

“I knew about that scene from the Bible, but I guess I had never really considered it. When I got there, I thought, ‘I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f— would do that?’ It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”

Instead, Phoenix chose to lick his thumb and rub the woman’s eyes. [source]

However, I think that Joaquin Phoenix, in claiming to know better than Jesus, is actually detracting from a major aspect of what made that miracle significant.

On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit the Pool of Siloam, which is currently being excavated. I even had the chance to teach about this miracle from John 9, right on site to our group.

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Teaching at the Pool of Siloam after having walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel

One of the key features of the parable is that the way Jesus healed this man required the man to respond in faith to what Jesus did and said. Jesus didn’t simply touch this man and he was healed; he did something which would have seemed odd and confusing (applying mud to his eyes) and then told him to do something which also seemed to not make sense: to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

The Pool of Siloam was originally used to provide water for the Temple. Water was brought from outside the city, via the Gihon spring, through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, to the pool, where it was collected. In the time of Herod the Great, other pools were created, closer to the Temple, such as the Israel Pool, and those were used in the service of the Temple instead; the Pool of Siloam was then used as a public mikvah, or ritual bath, used for Jewish purification rites.

Here’s why the way Jesus performed this miracle matters:

1. It required the man to respond in faith and obedience

Faith has been defined as “trusting God enough to do what he says.” This man had probably washed his face many times in his life; how would washing mud off his face on this day help him see? It didn’t make sense, and yet that’s kind of the point: it required faith for him to obey rather than cynically refuse to do so, saying “Why would that help?” or “Why would today be any different?”

2. It communicated a theological message

The theological message implicit in Jesus covering this man’s eyes with dirt and telling him to wash in a ritual bath, was that we need to be cleansed.

But beyond that, here is Jesus – God incarnate – the one who created humankind out of the dirt of the Earth, yet we are now broken and fallen as a result of our sins and failures. And so here is the creator, come to us to heal our brokenness, once again putting his hands in the dirt and re-forming that which has become broken.

It’s a powerful picture. What a shame that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t get it and robs the audience of it.

3. It was public, not private

When this man was healed in this public pool, many people would have seen it, as John 9 tells us they did. This was not a private thing between Jesus and this man; it was done for all to see, to bring glory to God.

Let’s stick with letting Jesus’ words and actions stand on their own!

Here’s the trailer of the Mary Magdalene movie:

Why Should Christians Visit Israel?

I have been in Israel for the past week with a group from White Fields and Calvary Chapel Brighton.

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We spent the beginning of our trip on the coast, visiting Joppa and Caesarea, both important sites in the Book of Acts, and then headed up to the region of Galilee, where Jesus did the majority of his ministry. Then we drove to Jerusalem, following the Jordan River, and passing places such as Gilgal (see Joshua 4) and the site of Jesus’ baptism and the wilderness where he was tempted directly afterwards.

After seeing some important places in Jerusalem, including the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the southern steps of the Temple and the Western Wall, we spent a day at the Dead Sea, visiting the place where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, seeing En Gedi where David hid from Saul in 1 Samuel 24, and going to Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found and where John the Baptist was likely connected.

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Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, looking over the Kidron Valley

We will conclude the trip by visiting the Pool of Bethesda (John 5), following the way of the cross to Golgotha and seeing the garden tomb.

The trip has been incredible. I have particularly enjoyed getting the lay of the land and realizing the distances between places, and what they look like. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and standing where the church was born on Pentecost have been incredible experiences.

Why Should Christians Visit Israel?

Someone jokingly suggested that the benefit of visiting Jerusalem is that you can get the “before and after effect”: when the New Jerusalem comes (see Revelation 21), you will be able to compare it with the Old Jerusalem and see how much it’s improved! (Personally, I hope they clean up the Muslim Quarter a little bit…)

Interestingly, there is a neighborhood in Jerusalem called “New Jerusalem”. I went there, and it was nice, but not “streets of gold” nice. I’m looking forward to the real thing 🙂

All joking aside, there is one key reason why it is beneficial for Christians to visit Israel: Because, out of all world religions, what makes Christianity unique is that our faith is not based on abstract concepts, but on historical events which either happened or they didn’t.

What you learn from a tour of Israel, is that the New Testament accounts stand up to scrutiny. The New Testament talks about real places and real people and real events which had many witnesses, and which have been verified by archaeologists and historians. As Paul the Apostle said: “These things were not done in a corner!” (Acts 26:26)

In fact, because archaeology is a relatively young science, archaeologists are uncovering new findings all the time, and their findings corroborate rather than contradict New Testament accounts.

A visit to Israel is helpful for Christians, because it builds your faith in the historical events upon which Christian faith is based. This has been my first trip to Israel, but I expect it won’t be my last.

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Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. Some are over 2000 years old. #eyewitnesses

If Jesus is God, Why is He Called the “Son of God” and “the Firstborn Over All Creation”?

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In my recent post, Was it Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?I mentioned that one of the issues that some people struggle with is regard to the deity of Christ is that the New Testament calls him the “Son of God” and Colossians 1:15 says that he is “the firstborn over all creation.”

If Jesus is God, why is he called the “Son of God”? And if Jesus was not created, as Christians claim, then why is he called “the firstborn over all creation?”

Let’s look at these two questions one at a time:

Why is Jesus Called the Son of God?

The long and short of it is that “Son of God” is a Messianic title, which means that Jesus is the long-awaited, promised king of Israel whom God had promised to send to save the people and set them free in an eternal and ultimate way.

The most important text for understanding this is Psalm 2, which is a “coronation psalm,” meaning it would be read at the coronation of a king. 

It includes this line: I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2:7) This line is quoted and applied to Jesus in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 & 5:5.

Most important is to understand the context of this phrase “Son of God” in reference to the king. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings were considered to have a special relationship with God. In many cases, like in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the king was considered to be deity themselves. Such an idea would be an abomination to the Jews and in complete contradiction to everything their Scriptures said about God. However, they too believed, as we see in Psalm 2 and other “royal psalms” that the king had a special relationship with God.

Thus, the term “son of God” spoke of the king’s special relationship with God, but throughout the Old Testament there is the hope of a true and better king, the one who will establish the throne of David forever and rule over an everlasting kingdom which will have no end (see: the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7). Then though there were many kings of Israel, none of them were the ideal, TRUE KING that God had promised and Israel waited for.

To call Jesus THE Son of God is a reference to him being THE king whom God promised to send to set the people free and save them ultimately and eternally, i.e.: the Messiah.

For more on the meaning of the term “Son of God” check out: What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?, or the related topic: If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself “the Son of Man”? 

Why is Jesus called “the firstborn over all creation”?

Does Colossians 1:15 imply that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated God created? If Jesus is the uncreated God, then why is a term like “firstborn” used of him – I mean, it actually contains the word “born” in it, which implies coming-into-being, does it not?

The word firstborn (prototokos) is also applied to Jesus in Colossians 1:18, Romans 8:29Hebrews 1:6, and Revelation 1:5. In each and every case, when this word is used of Jesus, it refers to supremacy in rank.

All ancient culture had a practice called “primogeniture” – which meant that the firstborn son got all the wealth of the father and he got all the father’s status and power. From a legal standpoint, a firstborn son was equal with the father.

So when this title is used of Jesus, it in no way means that Jesus is less than God, or that he was created by God, rather it refers to supremacy of rank. To say that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation means that he holds the position of primacy over all of creation, i.e.: no one and nothing holds a candle to him; he has all the status and power of the Father and is equal to the Father, although still distinct from the Father. 

Interestingly, John Lightfoot cites Jewish rabbis who sometimes referred to God as “the firstborn of the world,” meaning that God was supreme over all of the world — that there is none higher than him.

How do we know this interpretation of Colossians 1:15 is the correct one? By looking at the verses which immediately follow, which declare Jesus to be the uncreated creator. 

Colossians 1:16-17 say: For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Bible begins by telling us that God created all things, and here it tells us that Jesus created all things. The clear message is that Jesus is God in the same way that the Father is God. He is beginning-less creator, equal to the Father in substance, status and power, and yet distinct from the Father.

Thus, rather than undercutting trinitarian theology, Colossians 1:15-17 undergirds the foundation of trinitarian belief.

What is Dual-Covenant Theology and What Does it Mean that “All Israel will be saved”?

Romans 11:26 makes an interesting statement, which has led to much confusion and debate:

“And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26a)

Context

As we’ve been studying through Romans at White Fields on Sunday mornings, we have come to chapters 9-11, which deal with questions concerning Israel, such as: Has God forsaken Israel? Since the Old Testament contains many promises to the nation of Israel, are those promises no longer valid? How do we make sense of the fact that many Jews have  rejected Jesus as Messiah – and that most Christians are not ethnically Jewish?

In answering these questions, Paul is quick to assert that, No, God’s word has not failed in regard to Israel (Romans 9:6), nor has God forsaken Israel (Romans 11:1).

Paul explains Jewish unbelief in two important ways:

  1. The remnant argument: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (Romans 9:4), & “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved'” (Romans 9:27).
    Additionally, it is understood that many who are not ethnically Jewish will be added to the “chosen people of God” – As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
  2. The responsibility argument: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)

Dual-Covenant Theology?

In an attempt to explain this idea that “all Israel will be saved”, some have adopted a dual-covenant theology, which basically says that the Jews are going to be saved under the old covenant (law), but Gentiles are saved under the new covenant (Jesus, grace).

The problem with dual-covenant theology is that it goes against everything Paul has been teaching in Romans, and what the rest of the Bible teaches: that Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people, both for Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone in the world).

John Stott writes this:

There is no hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ. It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God’s covenant with Abraham was an ‘everlasting covenant’, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a ‘two-covenant theology’.

Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it,47 namely that there are two different salvation ‘tracks’—the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God’s covenant with them. Professor Dunn is surely right to reject this as ‘a false and quite unnecessary antithesis’.

Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jewish and Gentile believers both belong. Jewish people ‘will be grafted in’ again ‘if they do not persist in unbelief’. So faith in Jesus is essential for them. Whether or not Dr Tom Wright is correct in the notion of ‘a large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’, his emphasis on present evangelism (‘now’, three times in verses 30 and 31) is healthy: ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith.’

The two-covenant theology also has the disastrous effect of perpetuating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles which Jesus Christ has abolished. ‘The irony of this’, writes Tom Wright, ‘is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.’ ‘It would be quite intolerable to imagine a church at any period which was simply a Gentile phenomenon’ or ‘consisted only of Jews’.

Stott, John. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 304-305). InterVarsity Press.

If not dual-covenant theology, then how will “all Israel” be saved?

Since Paul has made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” i.e. not every ethnically Jewish person is part of Israel, i.e. the remnant of God’s chosen people who will be saved – and that additionally, many non-ethnically Jewish people will be grafted into the “olive tree” (Israel) as “wild branches”, from which many “natural branches” have been cut off (Romans 11:17-24), it is in this way that we understand that “all Israel” (the remnant of believing Israel) will be saved, along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25) who will be “grafted in”.

Here’s a short video discussion we had about this topic this week:

Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians

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The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science through September 3. This is the exhibit’s final display in the US before the artifacts will be taken back to Israel. (More information and tickets here)

Discovered in 1946 in caves on the North-West of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of 981 different manuscripts dating from the third century BC to 68 AD. They have been called, “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” and it has been said that they have “forever changed New Testament scholarship”1

Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?

1. They Verify That the Bible Is Reliable and Hasn’t Been Changed Over Time

“The older the copies, the closer we get chronologically to the autographs, the fewer copies there are between the original Old Testament writings and these copies that we have,” explains Ryan Stokes of Southwestern Seminary.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are hundreds of years older than the previously known oldest manuscripts, and they prove that the Old Testament text had been faithfully preserved over the centuries, and that the Hebrew text translated for modern Christians accurately represents the Bible that Jesus read and the Bible as it was originally written.

In at least one instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls helped to solve a mystery which has great theological significance regarding Jesus.

Psalm 22:16 says: a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.

Christians have always considered Psalm 22 and this verse in particular to be a prophecy about Jesus’ crucifixion, which is all the more incredible since it written hundreds of years before crucifixion had even been invented.

However, there was some dispute historically over whether this was actually what the original text said, since the Masoretic text (the Hebrew Bible preserved from the Middle Ages, and the oldest known version of the Old Testament before the discovery of the DSS) read, “Like a lion are my hands and my feet.”

However, this problem was resolved when scholars discovered that the much older Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the text indeed should say: “they have pierced my hands and feet.”

2. They Give Us Insight into Jewish Culture at the Time of Jesus

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the historical veracity of the New Testament was often called into question. From the expectation of the Jews regarding the Messiah, to the world of Pharisees and preachers like John the Baptist, many claimed that the world the New Testament described was purely fictional. However, with the discovery of the DSS, it could be confirmed that the New Testament very accurately described the culture and history of first-century Israel.

Of the nearly 1000 scrolls which have been found, around 700 of them are non-biblical writings. These non-biblical writings include things like community rules and expectations regarding the Messiah. It is from this that we learn that certain Jewish communities practiced baptism for repentance (ala John the Baptist), and that they were expecting two Messiahs: one who would be an priest and the other who would be a king. Jesus ultimately did fulfill this biblical expectation, albeit not in the exact way they expected.

Of the 240 biblical scrolls from Qumran, 235 are written in Hebrew and 5 are in Greek. Of the 701 non-biblical scrolls, 548 are written in Hebrew, 137 in Aramaic, and 5 in Greek. This shows that Jews at the time of Jesus did indeed speak Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the three languages of the Bible.

Scholars believe that many of the scrolls were originally taken from Jerusalem, when a group of priests who believed that the temple worship and leadership had become corrupt, left Jerusalem, taking with them many of the scrolls from the temple, and formed an alternative “pure” community out in the desert, where they proceeded to make many more copies of the biblical texts.

This parallels exactly what the New Testament describes about the corruption at that time of the office of the high priest and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Other scrolls were taken from Jerusalem when the Romans attacked Jerusalem after the Jewish Uprising in 68 AD, and they took them with them as they fled to Masada near the Dead Sea, where they were able to successfully hide some of these scrolls.

The long and short of it: We can trust the Bible.

The Bible stands up to scrutiny, and the more scholarship and archeology discovers, the more the Bible is proven to be accurate and trustworthy.

For more on this topic, listen to this recent sermon I gave at White Fields about whether we can trust the Bible:

As well as this Sermon-Extra addressing a few more proofs of the Bible’s veracity:

What to Do at New Year

Happy New Year!

This past Sunday at White Fields we continued our series Be Set Free, in the Book of Exodus, seeing the people of Israel now on the other side of the Red Sea after having been set free by God.

Their situation there on the far shore of the Red Sea parallels what it means to be a Christian today: they had been set free from bondage, but that wasn’t the end of their journey, it was only the beginning! God was taking them to the Promised Land. 

As the people of Israel stood on the bank of the Red Sea, they sang a song of thanksgiving and praise, which had 2 aspects:

  1. They sang in response:  They looked back and remembered what God had brought them through and gave thanks for God had done for them.
  2. They sang in faith:  They looked forward to lay ahead and what God had in store for them in the time to come.

This is a great model for us as we come into this new year.

I encourage you to look back and give thanks to God for His faithfulness and mercy that you experienced in 2016 — for the answered prayers, for the abundant grace and for salvation in Jesus. Be like the one former leper in Luke 17:11-19, who returned to Jesus to give thanks, rather than the nine who didn’t.

Once you’ve done that, I encourage you to look forward to this coming year and seek God about what He might want this next year of your life to be like — and then make plans and take steps accordingly, so that those good intentions actually become reality.

What does God want this next year to look like for you?

Start with what you already know is His will and His desire for you: 

  • Walk with Him and serve Him. Seek Him in His Word, in corporate worship and study and in community with other believers.
  • Honor Him in your work and with your finances.
  • Honor Him in your relationships, particularly in your marriages.
  • If you have kids, lead them to Him and in His ways.

Determining to do things which are in line with God’s heart and His desires, then planning and working toward those things is an act of faith and obedience. So let this new year be filled with godly goals and pursuits.

I pray that this coming year would be one in which you experience His work in you and through you in a greater way than ever before!

Carried by a Donkey

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On Sunday mornings at White Fields, I am currently teaching through the Book of Exodus. This past Sunday, we studied Exodus 13 in our study titled “A Cloud by Day and Fire by Night” (audio here).

After bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, God established 2 annual feasts that they were to observe so they would never forget the deliverance He had worked on their behalf: the Feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Here the people of Israel were told that when they come into the Land of Canaan (the Promised Land) they were to sacrifice to God the first-born of both man and beast.

But wait! There are a couple problems with that…  First of all, human sacrifice was forbidden and considered an abomination. Secondly, some animals were considered “unclean” and therefore they could not be sacrificed either.

The solution?  The first-born of the humans and the first-born of the unclean animals both had to be “redeemed,” through an act of substitution. Specifically, it is mentioned that unclean animals were to be redeemed by substituting a clean animal in their place. In the text, an example is given: a donkey, as an unclean animal, could be redeemed by substituting a lamb in its place.

The donkey is a picture of me: pretty stubborn, not very cute, but worst of all: unclean by nature and condemned to death, but I have been redeemed, I have been saved by the substitutionary sacrifice on my behalf of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

But there’s one more part to the story of the donkey:

Hundreds of years after the Passover, Zechariah the Prophet prophesied about the coming King of Zion – AKA the Messiah, that when he entered into Jerusalem, he would come on the back of donkey.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Why a donkey? Many people believe that in contrast to conquering warrior kings who would enter a city on the back of a horse, an animal of war, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the message would be that the Messiah came in peace. Indeed one of the names he is given by the Prophet Isaiah is “Prince of Peace”.

Several hundred years later, Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem, and he entered the city on the back of a donkey, declaring Himself to be the Messiah – and he was received as the Messiah by the people.

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.
Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-2,8-9)

Now here’s the thing: Just as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an unclean but redeemed creature – he still enters into the cities of this world in the same way: carried by those who are unclean, but redeemed.

Christian, you are that donkey!

The way that Jesus has chosen to enter into the cities, the homes, the workplaces of this world, is by being carried on the backs of us “donkeys”: creatures who are unclean by nature, who have been redeemed by the sacrifice of the lamb on our behalf.

Paul the Apostle reminds us that God loves to use the foolishing things of this world (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-30), and that includes us: “redeemed donkeys”.

O Little Town of Bethlehem: What are the Odds?

A reader of this blog contacted me this week asking if I could write a few words about Micah 5:2

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

Bethlehem = “House of Bread” – it is a small town only a few kilometers outside of Jerusalem. It was also the ancestral home of King David.

The older, pre-Jewish name of Bethlehem was Ephrathah, which is used on several occasions to speak of it in the Bible.

Micah’s prophecy is about the impending destruction of Samaria and Judea, including Jerusalem for their sins and refusal to repent of them and turn their hearts back to God. As a result, destruction would come upon them from other nations and they would be carried off in exile.

However, the final word of this prophetic message is one of hope and restoration, the message that God has not abandoned his people, but is wholly committed to them, and at a time when they have repented, he will fulfill his promises to them.

What promises were these? In particular it was the promise of a ruler, a King in the line of David, who would establish a Kingdom which would have no end; a kingdom of peace and justice and righteousness which would last forever.

That’s a pretty steep promise! Is it just meant as hyperbole, or was it meant to be taken as a literal promise? How could any king rule forever?

When you begin to take the different promises about this king together, the picture comes together of a King who is more than just a man, but who is actually divine in nature. Notice how Micah says that “his coming forth is from old, from ancient days” – this is saying that one is going to be born, who has existed from eternity past. This is speaking of divinity being born into the world to establish an everlasting kingdom. This is speaking of the incarnation: God coming to us, born in human flesh.

And where would this happen? In Bethlehem. A village of no consequence, only famous as the ancestral home of Israel’s greatest king – and significantly, a king who was promised by God that one of his descendants would establish an everlasting kingdom.

Micah 5:2 is one of 300+ prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) about the Messiah, which speak of who he would be, what he would do, and how his coming would take place. 300+ – fulfilled by one person! What are the odds?

Peter Stoner, in Science Speaks (Moody Press) attempts to show how coincidence is ruled out by the science of probability. Stoner says that by using the modern calculation of probability in reference to eight prophecies, “we find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017.” That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000.  In order to help us comprehend this staggering probability, Stoner illustrates it by supposing that “we take 1017silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep.

“Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man.”

Stoner considers 48 prophecies and says, “we find the chance that any one man fulfilled all 48 prophecies to be 1 in 10157. The estimated number of electrons in the universe is around 1079. It should be quite evident that Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies by accident.”

A Seal from King Hezekiah found in Jerusalem by Archaeologists

CNN posted this today, that a seal from King Hezekiah has been discovered by archaeologists in Jerusalem.

Here’s an excerpt:

It is believed to be the first-ever seal — also referred to as a “bulla” — from an Israeli or Judean King to be discovered by archaeologists.

“The seal of the king was so important. It could have been a matter of life or death, so it’s hard to believe that anyone else had the permission to use the seal,” Eilat Mazar, who directs excavations at the City of David’s summit, told CNN.

“Therefore, it’s very reasonable to assume we are talking about an impression made by the King himself, using his own ring.

“This the greatest single item I have ever found,” added Mazar — a third generation archaeologist.

Archaeology continues to confirm the trustworthiness and historicity of the Bible.

As king of Judah, Hezekiah enacted reforms and brought the people back to the worship of Yahweh and put an end to the worship of idols in the temple.

You can read about the reign of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18-20 as well as 2 Chronicles 29-32 and Isaiah 36-39.