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Key to Biblical Interpretation
by Morris A. Inch
I am reminded at the outset of Hans Georg Gadamer’s provocative notion
of the fusion of two horizons: that concerning the biblical text and our
own. In this regard, he insists that a horizon does not require
that we focus on what is nearest at hand, but assist in seeing beyond
it. Accordingly, this allows us to give deference to the biblical text
as normative for matters of faith and practice.
It should come as no surprise
that I am indebted to the Enlightenment Tradition, and its unrelenting
emphasis on reason. It concerns “the age which brought together the
humanistic spirit of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution of
the seventeenth century and thereby ushered in what we call ‘the modern
world.’ It was this period of roughly a century and a half that
witnessed a general change in man’s world-view of the most wide range
and deepest significance”1
Needless to say, I discovered early on a disparity
between this tradition and that of the biblical text. Although we were
not a church-going family, mother orchestrated my prayers early on,
before encouraging me to continue on my own. I was familiar with some of
the biblical narratives, but lacking any coherent understanding.
Reason appealed to me as a valid way to negotiate
life, although with limitations. I soon came to the conclusion that the
more I knew, the more I realized I did not know. If there were a God, I
assuredly did not qualify.
Years later, a friend acknowledged that if God had
given us a mind, he must have intended that we were to use it. So it
would seem. Along this line, Augustine reasoned that “all truth is God’s
truth.” Conversely, not all that appears to be true is in fact true.
Two short term teaching assignments in Nigeria had a
disproportionate influence on my perspective. For instance, persons
“will usually remark that the Holy Spirit is much more evident in the
daily lives of most Africans, and certainly more evident in the
churches, that in the ordinary lives of Americans or in American
mainline churches. No one prompts them to notice such a phenomenon.”2
Then, too, the High God is commonly accepted, although called by
My African students observed striking similarities
between their culture and that of the ancient Hebrew people.
Consequently, they had valuable insights lacking in my own background.
On the other hand, I was able to contribute from an alternative
perspective, in keeping with the imagery of the fusion of two horizons.
Having taken study tours to the Holy Land on several
occasion, I was also privileged to live in Jerusalem for four years. If
not convinced earlier of the importance of studying the Bible in the
context of its geographic surrounding, I soon came to this conclusion.
Moreover, the value was derived not simply from the land per se, but
living among those who preserved aspects of the biblical culture.
In these and other ways, the role of salvation
history in biblical interpretation has been impressed on me. So much so
that I thought it worthwhile to elaborate. It is my hope that the reader
will be similarly persuaded.
GOOD OLD DAYS
A story which I have alluded to on other occasions
will serve to set the stage for the discussion that follows. Clement
Idachaba was the son of a village priest, and would help his father
prepare sacrifices to be offered at the sacred tree. It was a world in
which spiritual entities permeated life.
The time came when Clement was taken seriously ill.
As one would expect, his parents turned to religious ritual and
traditional medicine for a cure. It was not no avail, since he became
It was then brought to his parents’ attention that a
man of God was in the vicinity. This designation was applied to a
priest of the High God, since whenever the term God was used in
the singular, it pertained to God Most High. As previously noted,
although called by different names, he was thought to be one and the
At the request of Clement’s parents, this priest of
the High God interceded on behalf of their stricken son. Whereupon, he
took a striking turn for the better. Now Clement reasoned that God Most
High must have some service for him to perform. However, he did not know
what this might be, because the High God was by common consent withdrawn
and unfathomable. He could only hope that the matter would be clarified
in due time.
Sometime later, Clement encountered an orange skin,
so-called because his skin resembled the inside of an orange. The latter
declared that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son
that whoever believes on him would not perish but have everlasting life
(cf. John 3:16). “Good,” Clement mused, “for now I shall know what the
God Most High wants of me”—since it was common knowledge that a parent
is revealed in his or her offspring.
When I first met Clement, he was teaching at the
mission compound. My living quarters was next to his, and his youngest
son delighted in visiting me. Although we were unable to converse, he
would curl up in my lap and fall fast asleep—eventually to be awakened
by his elder brother calling for him to return home.
One day I noticed Clement standing on his porch. He
was visibly excited. It seemed that he had just received word that his
father, the aged village priest, indicated that he too wanted to follow
Jesus. Over the intervening years, he a waited Clement’s return to
worship at the sacred tree, but now concluded that he had encountered an
even greater power.
It was thought that God Most High once dwelt among
humans, before withdrawing into heaven. The rationale differed from one
account to another. Sometimes it was thought because of human
misbehavior, and otherwise as a matter of preference. Whatever the
circumstances, he was sorely missed.
So it was that humans decided to build a tower
reaching into the heavens, to reestablish contact with the Almighty—not
alike the biblical account of the Tower of
Babel (cf. Gen. 11:1-9). However, they soon ran out
of tiles. Consequently, the mother of men suggested that they
take tiles off the bottom and add them to the top. Whereupon, the
edifice came crashing down.
It was then decided that humans could not rectify the
situation, but would have to await a divine initiative. Clement reached
the conclusion that this was what had transpired, and wanted to share
the good news with others.
Now the High God was acknowledged as the creator, the
prime analogy being that of a potter. This, in turn, recalls an occasion
when I was observing the work of a Hebron artisan, appreciatively
referred to as the old man. This was in a culture where elderly
people are highly regarded for their accumulated wisdom.
The potter cast his amorphous lump of clay, thought
to resemble the situation before God brought order out of chaos. In
particular, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the
surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”
(Gen. 1:2). That is, in anticipation of creating a vessel that would be
both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
“These days most cosmologists and astronomers back
the theory that there was indeed a creation, about eighteen billion
years ago, when the physical universe burst into existence in an awesome
explosion popularly known as the ‘big bang’. There are many strands of
evidence to support this astonishing theory.”3 Even though the evidence
seems to be compelling, it remains a thesis—subject to further
“Many people have in their minds a picture of how
science proceeds which is altogether too simple,” the physicist John
Polkinghorne protests. “This misleading caricature portrays scientific
discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable
theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive
experiments. In actual fact, the reality is more complex and more
interesting than that.”4 As observed earlier, the more we know the more
we realize that we realize that we do not know.
The original couple were depicted in the biblical
account as if in child-like innocence. They enjoyed a garden paradise,
and could partake of its produce—with the exception of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil. If a comprehensive idiom, it would imply
asserting their autonomy, or if not, the end result was much the same..
Flash back to my childhood. I was not allowed to walk
out into the road. Not even if my ball were to escape me, and I had to
retrieve it. Did I fully realize the implications? No, but I was
obligated to observe my instructions.
The time would come when I was permitted to walk out
into the road, providing that I first looked both ways. This also
pertained to crossing the railroad track, while on my way to school. One
day my elder brother was deep in thought, and crossed the track without
looking to see if there were an oncoming train. Upon realizing his
failure, the crossed back over, looked both ways, and crossed over
again. He perhaps thought that should he be asked if he had obeyed
instructions, he could reply in the affirmative. Otherwise, it simply
appealed to his sense of humor.
This excursion into my childhood serves to remind us
of the parent-offspring imagery that permeates traditional thinking:
where God is depicted as the heavenly father, and humans as birthed in
his image (cf. Gen. 1:27). Male and female alike.
Qualifications aside, we are to understand that life
is good. “Wherefore a man should treasure it, not despise it, affirm and
not deny it; have faith in it and never despair of its possibilities.
For behind it is God.”5 Since if we depreciate the gift of life, we
dishonor its Giver.
The situation took a decided turn for the worse.
Enter the serpent, described as more crafty than any of the wild
animals God had made. When used in a negative sense, crafty
implies the ability to manipulate others—coupled with tragic results.
“You will not surely die,” the serpent assures Eve.
“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you
will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). Now when she saw
that the fruit was good to eat, and pleasing in appearance, she ate and
gave some to her spouse. “The immediate consequences of eating from the
tree of knowledge are vividly disclosed. Their act of self-assertion
shattered the harmony humans had enjoyed with God, each other, the
animals, and the environment.”6
Their eyes were opened not to a sense of
happiness, wisdom, or power, but to shame and fear. When they heard God
walking in the garden during the cool of the day, as was the
custom, they hid from him. When required to give an account of what had
happened, Adam blamed Eve and by implication God for having sponsored
her. Eve, in turn, insisted that she was misled by the serpent. The
serpent offered no excuse.
“And I will put enmity between you and woman, and
between your offspring and hers,” God informed the seducer, “he will
crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). While an
ongoing struggle, mankind would by the grace of God triumph in the end.
Turning to Eve, God declared: “I will greatly
increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to
children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over
you.” The pain associated with childbearing will seem more grievous.
Then, subsequently, to love and cherish will be prone to conflict and
Turning to Adam, God added: “Because you listened to
your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must
not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you, through painful
toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” Adverse
circumstances would plague his endeavor, along with frustration
concerning his labors.
So it came to pass that the Lord banished the couple
from paradise, lest they eat of the tree of life and thereby perpetuate
their perverse way of life. He then set cherubim, with flaming swords,
to prohibit their return. So matters would continue until salvation
history has run its course.
Flash back again to my childhood. Folk would
reminisce from time to time concerning the good old days. These
seemed associated with appreciative memories, before inhibited by the
harsh realities of life. Even so, the only way to recover something of
the cherished past was to press forward.
The situation would continue to deteriorate. Eve gave
birth to two sons: Cain and Abel. The former worked the soil,
while the latter kept flocks. Each was expected to be diligent
“In the course of time Cain brought some of the
fruits of his soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat
portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (Gen. 4:3-4). The
former constituted a perfunctory exercise, while the latter resembled
the deference given to an honored guest. Accordingly God was pleased
with Abel’s offering, but not that of Cain.
“Why are you angry?” God inquired of Cain. “Why are
you downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if
you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door.” Like a wild
animal, waiting to devour its victim. “It desires to have you, but you
must master it.” In this regard, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”
Cain’s anger, however, was relentless. “Let’s go out
in the field,” he suggested to his younger sibling. Then, while in the
field, he killed him. Undeterred anger thus resulted in murder.
“In contrast to Adam and Eve, who did not speak out
against their punishments, Cain exclaimed that his punishment was more
than he could bear. He complained bitterly about being driven from the
land, being hidden from God’s presence, and becoming a restless
wanderer.”7 He also feared lest someone would come upon him, and avenge
Whereupon, God put a mark on him to signify that he
was under divine protection. We are thus alerted to the fact that the
Almighty is longsuffering, not willing that any should perish (cf. 2
Peter 3:9). Cain went out from the Lord’s presence, and took up
residence in the land of Nod—east of Eden. Lamech descended from his
In contrast to Cain, who sought protection from the
Almighty, Lamech shamelessly boasted to his wives: “I have killed a man
for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven
times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen. 4:23-24). He thus
repudiated the notion that punishment should fit the crime, if with
mitigating circumstances less but assuredly not more (cf. Exod. 21:24;
There follows an extended genealogy: from Adam to the
offspring of Noah (cf. Gen. 5). Genealogical records in antiquity
served a number of useful purposes. For instance, it established the
claim to family property, the hereditary priesthood, the royal lineage,
and the imposition of military duty. In this instance, it makes a
literary transition from an earlier to subsequent time.
Humans, however, continued in their evil ways. As
evidence, the sons of God inter-married with the sons of men—likely
a reference to the union between righteous line of Seth and that of
Cain. This would help explain why the fault was so pervasive. In any
case, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become,
and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil
all the time” (Gen. 6:5). The terms every, only, and
all establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the corporate depth of
The Lord was deeply grieved with the turn of events.
“I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the
earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and
birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them,” he declared.
In terms of the potter imagery, this resembled his discovering a defect
in his work, leading him to recast the clay.
“But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” So it
was that the world had become inhabited by persons who for the most part
were self-seeking and abusive, while a few pleased the Almighty.
Accordingly, the Lord instructed Noah to build an ark for the survival
of his family, and animals for the perpetuation of life. As a matter of
record, “Noah did everything just as God commanded him”—repeated for
emphasis (cf. Gen. 6:22; 7:3).
It then came to pass “that all the springs of the
great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.
And rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights ” (Gen.
7:11-12). The waters rose steadily and covered the earth, while the ark
floated on the surface.
When the waters had subsided, the patriarch build an
altar to the Lord, and sacrificed on it. A new day had dawned, with the
prospect of better things. “Never again will I curse the ground because
of man,” the Almighty pledged, “eleven though every inclination of his
heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living
creatures, as I have done.” He then singled out the rainbow as a
continuing reminder of his faithfulness. It resembled a bow held high
overhead, as a sign of coming in peace.
Qualifications aside, God’s covenant with Noah might
be construed as an extension of that with Adam. As such, it is universal
in character—leading the rabbis to apply it to the righteous Gentile. In
this connection, he was thought as worthy of commendation as an
The rabbis derived seven laws from God’s covenant
with Noah: which pertain to idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual
relations, eating the limb of a living animal, and establishing courts
of law. In this regard, “The essence of the Seven Universal Laws is the
prohibition against idolatry. One who worship another deity besides the
Creator denies the essence of religion and rejects the entirety of the
Seven Universal Laws. But one who guards himself against idolatry
demonstrates belief in God and affirms (its) entirety.”8
One was to refrain from even giving the impression of
idolatrous practice. For instance, if inadvertently dropping a coin before an
idol, the rabbis counseled turning away before retrieving it. Not only
would this keep from giving the wrong impression, but resist the
temptation of participation.
As for blasphemy, it was not limited to cursing. It,
for instance, precluded using God’s name in a trivial manner, or in
jest. The invoking of God’s name was instead meant to invite his
As for sexual relations, it was recalled: “Therefore
a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cling to his wife
and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Anything that deviated from
this code was thought unacceptable. Although much less detailed that the
Mosaic Covenant, the rabbis reasoned that it was roughly comparable.
This, then, will suffice to illustrate the exacting character of God’s
covenant with Noah.
The so-called Table of the Nations (cf. Gen.
10) provides a theological and literary bridge between the previous text
and what follows: concerning the Tower of Babel (touched on earlier) and
another genealogy—from Shem to Abram. “As an extended unit, three
conclusions can be derived. First, the human race is united by virtue of
being one family. Such was already implied by the monotheistic
orientation of Scripture. The genealogical table thus makes explicit the
human solidarity already implicit to Biblical monotheism.”9
Second, the human race is separated and dispersed as
a result of its defiant effort to erect the Tower of Babel. Accordingly,
it had failed to usurp God’s rightful place at life’s center. As a
result, it is disposed to pursue sectarian issues at the expense of the
“Third, the nations one and all stand within the
divine structure of blessings and curses set forth in the covenant with
Noah. As a consequence, it can be said that ‘righteousness exalts a
nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people’ (Prov. 14:34).”10 This
allows for no exceptions.
In conclusion, we are alerted to the oral tradition
that underscores the written text. These accounts were assuredly
repeated on numerous occasions, as an attempt to recall what had
transpired from the dim dawn of history. This was by way of caution and
encouragement. Which, in turn, brings to mind the sage saying: “The more
some things change, the more other things appear constant.”
Salvation history begins to take shape with the call
of Abram/Abraham. His original name suggests the father is exalted,
thought to be a reference to the patron moon god of Ur. In like manner,
his wife’s name Sarai means queen—an apparent allusion to
the deity’s consort. The selection of such names constituted an act of
This recalls an occasion when I was teaching in
Nigeria, and one of my elder students mentioned that there was a time
when things were not going well for him. Consequently, he petitioned his
village elders to have his name changed. Once he had done so, matters
took a decided turn for the better. I initially supposed he was joking,
but noted that his fellows students were nodding their heads in solemn
approval. Whereupon, I concluded that the giving of names was akin to a
means of grace.
I am also reminded of one of my students named
Godswill. It was his parent’s hope that he would live a righteous
life. He, moreover, seemed to embrace this as a given—even though his
resolve was likely challenged from time to time.
The patriarch was variously commended as God’s
friend, and as the exemplar of faith (2 Chron. 20:7; James 2:23). In
this dual capacity, he remains an inspiration to all (cf. Heb. 11:7-12,
“Leave your country, your people and your father’s
household,” God urged Abram, “and go to the land I will show you. I will
make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name
great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and
whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be
blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3). The three-fold exhortation ranges
from the more general to specific, with increasing cost, and culminating
in complete separation.
Details are lacking. In what manner did the patriarch
hear God speaking: in ominous thunder or a quiet prompting? How
was he able to identify the speaker: through some means associated with
God Most High or in some alternative way? Did he suppose that his
summons would preclude the recognition of other deities (theoretical
monotheism), or simply take precedence (practical monotheism)? All we
are told is that the Almighty enjoined him to take leave of his former
way of life, in anticipation that which would eventuate.
It is difficult for us today to weigh the cost of so
radical a departure. Since one’s identity was forged in society, it
signaled a new beginning. Since security was guaranteed by society, this
move entertained a high degree of risk. In a society bound by religious
protocol, one’s destiny was thrown in doubt.
There were, however, compensating factors. These took
the form of a series of blessings, calculated to appeal to his social
conditioning. For instance, this was a so-called shame culture,
where one’s reputation was a major consideration. Furthermore, the
promise to bless or curse those in keeping with their disposition toward
Abram’s lineage recalls the perceived conflict among patron deities.
Likewise, the calling appears a summons to service.
“And Abram left, as the Lord had told him, and Lot
went with him.” This, in turn, recalls the challenge: “Show me your
faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James
2:18). The biblical ideal involves enabling faith, whether with
Abram or some other.
The patriarch subsequently traveled through the land
as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. My African
students would readily recognize this as a sacred tree, where sacrifices
were performed. This is perhaps confirmed by term Moreh, which
So it was that one day a friend and I took leave of
the missionary compound, to pay a visit to the sacred tree. This would
require negotiating a jungle trail for about a mile.
Upon arriving at our destination, we were
appropriately impressed by its incredible size, towering over its
rivals. No one was in evidence, although we experienced an eerie
feeling. Having been raised in a wooded area, I could make out signs of
persons having frequented the location. All things considered, we
decided not to extend our stay.
Hardly had we begun our return when a native,
stripped to his waist, leaped from the bush—menacingly waving a machete
overhead. I calculated for a moment whether I might be able to out-run
him, but perceived that my companion would not be able to do so. As it
turned out, he hoped we would take his picture and leave it with a
friend at the compound. Considering our foreboding, we were happy to
Blood sacrifice was common in the sacred tree ritual,
recalling the observation: “In fact, the law requires that nearly
everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood
there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:11). It often involved a rooster. Then
when stray dogs began to disappear, we were alerted to the fact that
some special sacrifice was in the offing. The rationale is seemingly
complex, or perhaps differs from one tribal entity to another. There is
a dual emphasis on death and life, the former as a means of achieving
“At that time the Canaanite were in the land.” This
serves to alert the reader that the patriarch will have to contend with
its inhabitants. “For your offspring, I will give this land,” the Lord
reassured him. So Abram built and dedicated an altar in commemoration of
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel
and pitched his tent, with Bethel toward the west and Ai toward the
east. Pitching his tent implies that it was for an extended period of
time. Jacob would subsequently have an encounter with the Lord at this
location, signifying the continuing importance of altars once dedicated.
Afterward, the patriarch continued on through the
land, southward toward the Negev. It is an expansive semiarid area. When
rainfall is normal or better, it provides an opportunity for grazing.
This, however, had not been the case, since there was famine in the
region. Consequently, Abram pressed on to Egypt—where the Nile provided
a more constant resource.
This was not without misgivings. His wife was quite
attractive, so he feared that some might covet her and take his life.
Accordingly, he passed her off as his sister. When Pharaoh was informed
of her beauty, she was taken to his palace, and Abram given favorable
The ruler was informed of his deceit when a plague
inflicted his household. “What have you done to me?” he rhetorically
inquired. “Take her and go!” (Gen. 12:18-19). He, nonetheless, profited
from the relatively brief stay.
Whereupon, he returned to the Negev—along with Lot
and their extensive holdings. “Let’s not have any quarreling between you
and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers
(relatives),” he enjoined his nephew. “Let us part company. If you go
the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the
left” (Gen. 13:8-9).
Lot chose the Jordan plane—for it was well watered
and said to resemble the garden of the Lord. “Lift up your eyes
from where you are and look north and south east and west,” the Lord
then prompted Abram, “all the land you see I will give to you and your
offspring.” The patriarch then encamped in Hebron, and erected an altar
It came to pass that there was armed conflict,
resulting in Lot being taken prisoner and his possessions confiscated.
When Abram heard of this, he and his trained men set out in
pursuit. Under the cover of darkness, he was able to rescue those taken
captive, and recover their belongings.
As the patriarch was returning, he was met by
Melchizekek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High. As
noted in passing, this distinguished him as a priest of the High God.
Consequently, we are alerted to a common feature in traditional
religion—associated with the era of the patriarchs.
This, in turn, recalls the classic exposition of
Wilhelm Schmidt—who associated six attributes with the High God:
eternity, omniscience, beneficence, morality, omnipotence, and creative
power. “A sort of eternity is ascribed to all these Supreme Beings more
or less clearly, whenever we have anything like detailed information,”
he assures us. “The form of the statements is that they existed before
all other beings, have always been and always will be, or that they
As such, God Most High either outranks all other
deities or precludes them. In this capacity, he initiates life and sustains it.
Consequently, any offense is calculated to put life in jeopardy.
Otherwise expressed, order gives way to chaos.
The High God is also thought to be omniscient.
In this regard, the Batwa of Rwanda assert: “There is nothing which
Omani does not know about; he knows everything.” The Batek of Nugu
likewise insist: “Keto’s eyes are the sun and moon,” to which the
Samayeds add: “the stars are God’s ears.”
Such affirmations are meant to indicate that God is
aware of human behavior, as well with the intent to hold persons
accountable. Along this line, the Psalmist allows: “You have set our
iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence”
(90:8). Accordingly, justice is assured.
God Most High is no less beneficent. For
instance, the Iroquois Constitution alludes to “the Great Spirit
who dwells in the skies above, who gives all things useful to me, who is
the source and the ruler of health and life.” Accordingly, the Igbo
insist that we have no cause for complaint.
In greater detail, “The High God is good, and the
ultimate source of all that we experience as good. Because he is good,
he deserves our trust. Because he does good, he solicits our
appreciation and praise.”12
As regards morality, “the primitive Supreme
Being is without exception unalterably righteous, his only connection
with anything morally bad is to abhor and punishes it. The true source
of this deeply moral character is that he is the giver of the moral law,
and consequently its origin.”13 Conversely, the moral law cannot be
dismissed simply as a social imperative.
In some instances, the traditions posit an evil
adversary to account for the seeming disparity between God’s benevolent
intent and our misfortune. Schmidt, however, reminds us that this is not
a genuine dualism. Since, in metaphorical terms, God keeps his adversary
on a short leash.
Divine omnipotence also emerges from the
traditions concerning the High God. In this regard, he is sometimes
addressed as one who reigns over all things. Then, too, he reigns
over all people, and not simply some select group.
Moreover, God Most High is said to be absolute in his
decisions, and not given to equivocation. He is incredibly rich, as the
ultimate owner of all things. Persons are thus intended to serve as
stewards of their possessions. This implies the dual virtues of industry
Creative power rounds out the list of divine
attributes. This extends beyond the original creation to involve its
preservation. While the potter analogy is most prominent, as previously
allowed, the Adamba employ the notion of whittling metaphor to suggest a
creation subsequently takes shape.
While transcendent over creation, “In various ways
God provides for the things He has made, so that their existence can be
maintained and continued. He provides life, fertility rain, health and
other necessities needed for sustaining creation. His providence
functions entirely independently of man, though man may and does at
times solicit God’s help.”14
As the sun was sitting, Abram fell into a deep sleep
(cf. Gen. 15:12). When it had set, a smoking firepot with a blazing
torch appeared and passed through the sacrifices which Abram had
provided. This Lord is thus depicted as sealing the covenant. In greater
detail, “the ancient ritual of making a covenant the parties passed
together between the pieces of the sacrifice to formalize the covenant.
God’s passing between the pieces alone means that he was making a
unilateral, unconditional covenant.”15
Worthy of note, the theophany was a standard
means of God revealing himself in the patriarchal era. This might occur
in a vision or dream, or some uncommon natural phenomenon. They might
also involve communication. The angel of the Lord and Shekinah
Glory serve as provocative examples.
Since Sarai was without children, she encouraged her
husband to sleep with her maidservant Hagar, with the intent of building
a family through her (cf. Gen. 16:2).. Abram agreed. When Hagar
became pregnant, her prestige in the family increased measurably,
causing her to despise her mistress.
When Sarai complained to her husband, he allowed her
to take any action she thought advisable. She then mistreated her
maidservant, inciting her to flee into the wilderness. There the
angel of the Lord discovered her, and encouraged her to return to
her mistress. She called the one who had appeared to her: “You are the
God who sees me”—since he had taken notice of her dilemma. So it was
that Hagar bore a son, and he was called Ishmael.
The Lord again appeared to Abram near the great
trees of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in
the heat of the day (cf. Gen. 18:1). When he looked up, he saw three
men standing nearby. Whereupon, he offered them hospitality, and
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they subsequently
“There in the tent,” he responded. Following custom,
the wife was nearby but not present with male guests.
“I will surely return to you about this time next
year, and Sarah your wife will have a son,” the Lord replied—with
what appears to be a reference to the Angel of the Lord. When
Sarah heard this, she laughed aloud—since she was well advanced in age.
This, in turn, invited the memorable exclamation: “Is anything too hard
for the Lord!”
Now the Lord revealed to Abraham his intent to
destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. When the patriarch
interceded on their behalf, God replied: “If I find fifty righteous
people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their
sake.” Not content, Abraham attempts to improve the odds—reminiscent of
the bargaining that goes on in the market place. As a result, the sum is
reduced to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally
ten. “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered
Abraham, and he brought Lot out to the catastrophe that overthrew the
cities where Lot had lived.”
Now Sarah gave birth to a son, and he was called
Isaac. But when Ishmael mocked the child, Sarah insisted that he and
his mother be sent away. Once again The Angel of the Lord
comforted her, and mother and son survived.
Some time later, God tested Abraham. “Take your son,
your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah,” he
was commanded. “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the
mountains I will tell you about” (Gen. 22:2). “In the ancient Near East,
the god who provided fertility is also entitle to demand a portion of
what has been produced. This is expressed in the sacrifice of animals,
grain and children. (Conversely, the) biblical prophets and the laws in
Deuteronomy and Leviticus expressly forbid this practice.”16 Which would
imply that it continued to exist.
Early the next morning, the patriarch set out on his
journey. On the third day, he looked up and saw in the distance the
place where he was to sacrifice. “Stay here with the donkey while I and
the boy go over there,” he instructed his servants. “We will worship and
then will come back to you.” The author of Hebrews observes: “Abraham
reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he
did receive Isaac back from death” (11:19).
Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on his
son’s shoulders, while he carried the fire and knife. As the two went on
together, Isaac asked concerning the lack of a sacrifice. Whereupon, he
was told that the Lord would provide. And the two of them went on
together, repeated by way of emphasis concerning their shared resolve..
When they had reached the appointed place, the
patriarch erected an altar, deliberately arranged the wood, bound his
son, and laid him on the altar. He then took the knife in anticipation
of slaying his beloved offspring. “Do not do anything to him,” The
angel of the Lord protested. “Now I know that you fear God, because
you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Whereupon, the patriarch looked and saw a ram caught
by its horns in a thicket. He took the ram, and offered it as a burnt
offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord
Will Provide, from which was derived the saying: “On the mountain of
the Lord it will be provided.” Thus concludes the most popular incident
in Jewish inspirational literature.
Sarah had passed away, and Abraham was well advanced
in years. Accordingly, he summoned his chief servant, and instructed him
to seek out a wife for Isaac from among his extended family. So it was
that the servant made his way to Nahor. Then he prayed: “May it be that
when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a
drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too—let her be
the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac” (Gen. 24:14). So it came
When the servant had told Isaac all that he had done,
the latter “brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he
married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac was
comforted after his mother’s death.”
Then, with the death of Abraham, the patriarchal
narratives shift their focus to Isaac. He prayed on behalf of his wife,
and she became pregnant. She gave birth to twin boys: Esau and Jacob. The former became a
skillful hunter, while the latter was more domestic. Once when Jacob was
preparing stew, his brother returned from the open country. “Quick,” he
urgently entreated, “let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”
(Gen. 25:30). Jacob agreed only on condition that he surrender his
birthright. In doing so, Esau showed a disregard for his inheritance.
There was again famine in the land. Whereupon, the
Lord appeared to Isaac. Enjoining him not to go down to Egypt, he
was encouraged to stay in the land of promise. Then when the men of
the place inquired about his wife, he identified her as his sister.
As with his father, he was afraid that they might kill him so as to
secure her. When his deceit was uncovered, Abimelech—the Philistine
ruler— threatened anyone who would molest her.
Isaac planted crops in the land, and harvested a
bountiful crop. He also reopened the wells that had been dug in the time
of Abraham. He then dug a series of wells, resulting in conflict with
the inhabitants of the land. Moving from one place to another, he
arrived at Beersheba. That night the Lord appeared to him, saying: “I am
the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you”
(Gen. 26:24). Isaac built an altar there, and invoked the name of the
Lord. He pitched his tent, and his servants dug a well—signifying an
extended stay. Subsequently, Abimelech signed a treaty with him,
observing: “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you.”
When Isaac was advanced in years, and with failing
eyesight, he summoned his elder son Esau. “Now then, get your
weapons—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some
will game for me” (Gen. 27:2). Rebekah overhead what was said, and
conspired with Jacob to pretend that he was Esau—thereby to receive his
father’s blessing. So it came to pass. Esau complained that his brother
had offended in two regards: seizing his birthright and blessing.
Consequently, Jacob left Beersheba and fled toward Haran— to escape
He stopped for the night, and had a dream in which he
saw a stairway reaching from the earth to heaven, and angels ascending
and descending on it. “There above it stood the Lord, (who said:) “I am
the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will
give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying” (Gen.
28:13). His descendants would be like the dust of the earth, and
all people would be blessed through his offspring.
Upon awakening from his sleep, the patriarch
concluded: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of
it.” Then he erected a pillar, poured oil on it, and pledged that if he
returned safely to his father’s house, “then the Lord will be my God and
this stone that I have set us as a pillar will be God’s house, and of
all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” “In the view of the
ancients, places where God was though to have appeared provided direct
access to the heavenly realm. People came and lingered at these place in
the hope of receiving a special communication from the gods, often
through a dream.”17
Jacob continued on to Haran, and the house of his
uncle Laban. Subsequently, he agreed to work for Laban seven years for
the privilege to marrying his younger daughter Rachel—who was
exceedingly beautiful. When the time had come for them to marry, her
father substituted Leah—the older daughter. “When the morning came,”
with a touch of Hebrew humor, “there was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25). When Jacob
protested, Laban replied: “It is not our custom here to give the younger
daughter in marriage before the old one. Finish the daughter’s bridal
week, then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another
seven years of work.”
The patriarch eventually fled, in anticipation of
returning to his father’s house, along with his family and possessions.
When Laban learned of this, he pursued his son-in-law. A heated
discussion followed, after which they agreed to go their separate ways.
Subsequently, Jacob was reconciled with his elder brother.
Jacob/Israel had twelve sons, birthed by his wives
and their maidservants. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his
other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age, and he make
a richly ornamented rob for him. When his brothers saw that their father
loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a
kind word to him” (Gen. 37:3-4).
It came to pass that his brothers were grazing their
father’s flocks in the vicinity of Shechem, so Israel instructed him to
see how they were managing. When they saw him coming in the distance,
they determined to kill him. Instead, they sold him to merchants on
their way to Egypt. Accordingly, they reported to this father that he
had been killed by a wild beast.
“The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he
lived in the house of his Egyptian master” (Gen. 39:2). Falling into
disfavor, through no fault of his own, he was imprisoned. “But while
Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him.”
Pharaoh had troubling dreams, and sent for his
magicians and wise men to interpret them. When they were unable to
do so, his chief cupbearer recalled how Joseph had interpreted dreams
while he was in prison. Consequently, the ruler sent for the prisoner.
When asked to interpret the dream, Joseph protested: “I cannot do it,
but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”
As it turned out, the dreams had to due with a time
of famine which would ravage the land. Accordingly, Joseph counseled
Pharaoh to search out a discerning and wise man to make
preparations for what would transpire. “Can we find anyone like this
man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” the ruler reflected. So it was
that Joseph was given this exalted position.
It was in this capacity that he again encountered his
brothers, who had traveled to Egypt to get grain to manage the lean
years. They understandably did not recognize him. But when he revealed
his identity, they were afraid he might take revenge. Instead, Pharaoh
made provision for the family to resettle in Egypt. Here they remained
for the time being.
“Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father’s
family” (Gen. 50:22). “I am about to die,” he allowed. “But God will
surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he
promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Then he made them
promise to carry his remains with them when they departed. Thus the
patriarchal age comes to a conclusion, in anticipation that God’s
promises would be realized—as salvation history continued to run its
THE STAKES RISE
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be
demanded” (Luke 12:48). Then, too, the stakes rise considerably with the
arrival of the prophets, entrusted with God’s word. This would both to
serve the occasion, and as a cherished legacy for succeeding
What manner of person was the prophet? Abraham
Heschel’s classic exposition solicits our attention by way of response.
We will consider only select features of his extended discussion, along
with relevant asides, by way of exploring this striking new phase in
salvation history—one that lends itself readily to biblical
Initially, Heschel is struck by the prophet’s
pronounced sensitivity to evil. “To us a single act of
injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to
the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of
the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an
episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”18
As an example, “‘Be appalled at this, O heavens, and
shudder with great horror,’ declares the Lord. ‘My people have committed
two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have
dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water’” (Jer.
2:12-13). “At such sacrilegious behavior the heavens, invoked as
witnesses, became aghast with horror since they obeyed the Creator’s
laws implicitly. Whereas the heathen are guilty only of idolatry, the
covenant nation has offended on two grave counts, that of abandoning the
living God and choosing to serve idols.”19
What manner of person was the prophet? He focused in
large measure on the human aspect of creation.. “When I consider
your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which
you have set in place, what is man that you re mindful of him, the son
of man that you care for him,” the psalmist rhetorically inquires. “You
made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with
glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands, you
put everything under his feet, the birds of the air, and the fish of the
sea, all that swim the paths of the seas” (8:3-8).
Accordingly, man’s defection was thought to have dire
consequences not only on himself, but creation at large. In this regard,
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right
up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the
first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we with eagerly for our
adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). This,
moreover, gave rise to the so-called Messianic Travail.
What manner of person was the prophet? One who
focused his attention on the highest good. Consequently, “This is
what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the
strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows
me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and
righteousness on earth for in these I delight’” (Jer. 9:23-24). Thus two
triads are set over against one another: wisdom, strength, and riches
versus kindness, justice, and righteousness.
This, in turn, recalls Jesus’ admonition: “But seek
first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (which
tend to consume our attention) will be given to you as well. Therefore
do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each
day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:33-34). He thereby
perpetuates the prophetic legacy.
What manner of person was the prophet? “The prophet
was human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He
experiences moments that defy our understanding. Often his words being
to burn where conscience ends.”20 On the one hand, he is manifestly
human—more strikingly human than common folk.
On the other, he employs notes an octave too high
for our ears. As if a citizen of two realms. In this regard, “Surely
the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on
the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. Before
him all the nations are nothing,; they are regarded by him as worthless
and less than nothing” (Isa. 40: 15, 17).
What manner of person was the prophet? He was an
iconoclast, in that he challenged beliefs thought to be sacrosanct,
and institutions held in high esteem. “I hate, I despise your religious
feasts, I cannot stand your assembles. Away with the noise of your
songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice
roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos
5:21, 23-24). Thus guilt is compounded by hypocrisy.
Instead, persons were to vigorously promote
justice and resolutely maintain righteousness. The imagery
graphically pertains to dry river beds, except during the raining
season. One is to be constant in his or her devotion, not simply when
enjoying the blessings of life, but during times of adversity. “The Lord
gave and the Lord has taken away,” the patriarch Job allowed, “may the
name of the Lord be praised” (1:21). Whereupon, the chronicler observes:
“In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
What manner of person was the prophet? He advocated
hard love. As C. S. Lewis aptly observed, since God loves us, he
sets about to make us lovable. In this regard, he is not unlike
conscientious parents in guiding their offspring.
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”
the Lord rhetorically inquires. “Rather am I not pleased when they turn
from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23). In answer to the first
question, the implied answer is in the negative. In answer to the
second, it is an enthusiastic approval. Human intent, moreover, suffers
by way of comparison.
One last time, what manner of person was the prophet?
Implicit in Herschel’s reasoning is that the prophet was charged with
fine-tuning the monarchy to its covenant obligations. The monarchy
consisted of a system of checks and balances. There was the ruler,
who in large measure set the course for the populace to follow. If
righteous, the people were the beneficiary, if wicked, they could expect
matters to deteriorate.
As noted above, there were the prophets. These
were the most distinctive feature of the social mix. They cautioned the
people concerning their perverse ways, sometime bringing on themselves
the charge of being unpatriotic. Conversely, they held out hope when the
people were afflicted. Circumstances could change from one moment to
another, whether for the worse or better.
There were the priestly cast. These served not
only concerning religious ritual, but as a means of instructing the
people. In this capacity, they were able to temper the affairs of state.
While given to protecting the status quo, they could be an affective
instrument for good.
Finally, there were the people. They had to
cooperate with the public officials if anything constructive were to
ensue. If not, anarchy prevailed. Even apathy could undermine the best
of intentions. All things considered, the prophet had to interact with
diverse constituencies in a bold and yet creative manner.
What did the prophets hope to achieve? Initially,
they meant to admonish the Israelites as God’s chosen people. In this
regard, “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because am the Lord your
God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy”
(Lev. 20:7). Holiness implies being set apart for God’s righteous
purposes. As such, it should be cultivated both as individuals and
through corporate endeavor.
Each person must decide for himself or herself
whether to walk in the way of the Lord. Subsequently, one must
resolutely persist. Failure at any point can be disastrous. Having
failed, there may be an opportunity to recover. Only God knows when
additional time will serve no constructive purpose.
It is no less true that one experiences life
together. The human is exceedingly vulnerable, and would not survive but
for the help of others. One continues the earthly sojourn in the context
of family and friends. Then, too, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but
sin is a disgrace to any people” (Prov. 14:34). The term exalts
is employed in a moral rather than material sense.
Likewise, in their role as a holy people, the
Israelites would serve to instruct the Gentiles. In this connection, “I,
the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your
hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free
captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in
darkness” (Isa. 42:6-7). “Yahweh must be revealed to the world rather
than people mistakenly glorifying no-gods. (His) acts in fulfilling past
declarations of intent provide grounds for believing that (he) can and
will also fulfill this declaration.”21
The Israelites were intended to actively engage in
the world, while not taking on its ways. The difficulty is perhaps best
illustrated by the prophet Jonah, who when called upon to preach to
those residing in Nineveh, chose to flee from his responsibility. Once
God had forgiven them, he complained: “I knew that you are a gracious
and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who
relents from sending calamity” (4:2).
Now the prophets came on stage at a critical juncture
in salvation history. The Almighty had singled out a chosen people to
achieve his redemptive purposes. It remained to instruct them more
deliberately in the ways of the Lord. Consequently, they were enrolled
in the school of the prophets.
Some cultural mores would be readily amenable to
prophetic instruction. For instance, the family was considered a prime
priority. In this regard, I recall the impressions of some of my African
students concerning the institutionalizing of our elderly and ailing
parents. Regardless of its advantages, they felt the parents’ interests
were best served in the family circle.
Conversely, some cultural standards would fall
tragically short of the prophetic ideal. As an example, there was the
common practice of harsh retribution. In this regard, if persons are
fighting and no serious injury results, a proper settlement was in
order. “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for
burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exod. 21:23-25). This was
meant to prohibit harsh and inappropriate retribution.
Moses was thought to initiate the era of the
prophets. In greater detail, the Israelites were subject to grievous
bondage in Egypt, depicted by the rabbis as humanity’s seventh
falling away. As such, it implies that human degradation had sunk to
its lowest level—taking the form of genocide.
It came to pass that Moses was tending the flo0ck of
his father-in-law, on the far side of the desert in the vicinity of
Horeb—the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared
to him in a flaming bush that was not consumed. “Natural explanations
for the burning bush have been plentiful, from bushes that exude
flammable gas to those covered with brightly colored leaves or
berries.”22 Otherwise, it perhaps qualified as a vision. In any case, it
was something that prompted him to look more closely at this strange
He was cautioned not to come any closer, and remove
his sandals—since the place he was standing constituted holy ground.
Subsequently, God allowed that the plight of the Israelites had come to
his intention. So it was that he meant to deliver them, opting to employ
Moses for that purpose.
While reluctant, Moses signed on. There followed a
series of plagues, demonstrating the inability of the Egyptian pantheon
to cope with the Living God. This resulted in the Israelites
covenanting with the Almighty in the wilderness, and subsequently taking
their leave for the promised land. We are thus alerted to the fact that
liberty does not consist simply in being free from oppressive
restraints, but free to serve God’s righteous agenda.
Genuine prophecy had to pass two uncompromising
tests. First, it must be consistent with the Mosaic tradition. This
implied continuity in the context of change. This is in accord
the sage observation, “The more some things change, the more other
things remain constant.”
Second, the prophetic word must be validated in the
course of events. It requires an accurate appraisal of the
circumstances, along the line of a reality check. False prophecy fails
in both connections.
Amos serves as a representative prophet. It is
perhaps for this reason that Heschel initially focuses on this prophet,
before turning his attention to Hosea, Isaiah, and others. It also
contributed to my decision to explore the topic Amos Still Speaks!
In the latter regard, it is striking that Amos’ mission, “which
lasted such a short time, had in the end such reverberations that his
ancient words have remained vividly alive throughout twenty-eight
centuries right till our time. He fulfilled his function—and then he
disappeared; and yet, ‘he is still speaking’ (Heb. 11:4).”23
“Amos was working as a shepherd and dresser of
sycamore trees when he was suddenly overwhelmed by God and called to be
a prophet. Although his home was in Takoa, a village southeast of
Bethlehem in the Kingdom of Judah, his utterances were all directed
against the Kingdom in the North.”25 Along with messages directed to the
ethnic groups surrounding its domain.
Under the reign of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom
had prospered. Assyria was weak and Syria in decline, allowing for
expansion and prosperity. On the down side, this fostered pride and
presumption. “They planted pleasant vineyards, anointed themselves with
precious gifts; their women, compared by Amos to fat cows of
Bashan, were addicted to wine. At the same time there was no justice in
the land, the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery,
and the judges were corrupt.”25
“The lion roars from Zion and thunders from
Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel
withers” (1:2). The lion was a fearful creature, whose roar would strike
fear among its intended victims. As should the intimidating voice of the
prophet. Zion and Jerusalem are invoked by way of rebuking
the apostate shrines of the Northern Kingdom.
“The text falls into three major segments: the first
consisting of several brief oracles concerning regional nations
(1:1-2:16), the second a collection of short addressees expanding on the
judgment of Israel (3:1-6:14), and the third comprising a series of
visions interspersed with biographical references to the prophet.”26 As
noted above, the prophet’s ministry appears to have been of short
Several conclusions can readily be drawn from the
initial segment. First, the messenger formula serves to substantiate the
prophet’s credentials. His words are not his alone, but that which he
was commissioned to deliver to a wayward people.
Second, evil practices ultimately constitute a
transgression against the Almighty. Whether in the form of commission or
omission, if with regard to some less consequential matter or more so,
and regardless of short or long duration. Even though they have
pronounced social and personal implications.
Third, they are portrayed as being inhumane. “It
seems that the nations are condemned here not for idolatry nor false
religions but for offense commonly judged as evil by the prevalent
standards of the day: cruelty to civilians in war (1:3, 13), selling of
war prisoners into slavery (1:6, 9), violation of treaties (1:9, 11),
and the mistreatment of a fallen king (2:1).”27
Fourth, as a result of these transgressions, the
nation becomes exceedingly vulnerable. While threatened by an onslaught
from without, it was no less immune from inner erosion. Unable or
unwilling to restrain their evil inclinations, it was not capable of
coping with adverse circumstances.
Fifth, the numerical pattern from three sins, even
for four resembles wisdom literature (cf. Prov. 30:18-19, 21-23,
29-31). This pertains to what should be evident to those who pay careful
attention. It also recalls the sage complaint, “The problem with common
sense is that it is so uncommon.”
Finally, accountability seems proportionate to the
awareness of God’s righteous ways. Consequently, Judah does not escape
unscathed. In particular, it has failed to live up to its covenant
obligations and entertained idolatry. As for the latter, “The principal
crime of the human race, the highest fault charged upon the world, the
whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For although each single
fault is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet it
marked off under the general account of idolatry.”28
Philistia serves as a prime example (cf.
1:6-8). Four Philistine cites are mentioned: Gaza—southernmost
and mightiest of the locations cited, Ashdod—due west of Hebron,
Ashdod—located on the coast, and Akron—northernmost and
nearest to the boarder of Judah. While the origin of the Philistines
remains uncertain, it is usually thought that they came from Crete.
Constricted to an area along the coastline, they expanded their
influence into the Shephelah—characterized by its unpretentious hills,
as if bowed in prayer. There they confronted the Israelites, migrating
from the central hill country This set the stage for the classic
encounter between David and Goliath..
Slave-trade is singled out in the indictment. It
appears to have been a calculated and an expensive practice, rather than
an incidental involvement. This was singled out as a manifest instance
of its general depravity.
The three-fold assertions: “I will send fire,” “I
will destroy the king,” and “I will turn my hand against” are calculated
to affirm God’s sovereign rule. He is not intimidated by such obnoxious
behavior, nor is he unable to deal with it. Accordingly, those
implicated had best mend their ways.
The Northern Kingdom next draws the prophet’s
critical appraisal (3:1-6:14). “Do two walk together unless they have
agreed to do so,” he inquires. Certainly not. “Does a lion roar in the
thicket when he has no prey?” Obviously not. Should the prophetic word
be ignored, one can expect to reap the dire consequences.
Ashdod and Egypt are summoned as witnesses against
Israel (cf. 3:9). This would be especially aggravating, since they were
ancient enemies. Moreover, Israel prided itself on being morally
Amos describes in graphic imagery the impending
devastation: “As a shepherd saves from the lion’s mouth only two leg
bones or a piece of an ear, so will the Israelites be saved, those who
sit in Samaria on the edge of their beds and in Damascus on their
couches” (3:2). This is an allusion to “the proof of attack that
an animal herder brought to the wiener of the beasts in the event that a
wild animal had destroyed one of the flock. Amos’ comparison, then,
makes the sarcastic point that when invasion strikes Israel’s
devastation will be so complete that all that will be rescued is proof
of death in the form of scraps of furniture.”29
The sanctuary at Bethel is singled out for mention,
it being the most important of the Israelite shrines. After that,
mention is made of the luxurious homes enjoyed by the affluent. All will
A second judgment follows (4:1-13). Initially, the
prophet protests against the women who oppress the poor, while
indulging themselves. As noted in passing, he likens them to the cows
of Bashan—who are well fed and seemingly oblivious to all else and
most notably those in need..
It might be said that their punishment will fit their
crime. “They will be led, like obstreperous beasts goaded by blows. They
will be dragged away like long files of prisoners, bound to each other
by chains bored through the nose, such as one can see in Assyrian relief.”30
The prophet next taunts the shrines at Bethel and
Gilgal (4:4-5). It is as if to say, “It will profit you nothing”—since
God is not impressed with ritual void of piety. To the contrary,
hypocrisy compounds their guilt.
“Religious ostentation appears as a related factor.
The people pride themselves on their lavish gifts, as an indication of
their devotion. Whereas they compete for the acclaim of the populace.
Meanwhile, the needs of the poverty stricken are not addressed.”31
Whether in this regard or some other, they disregard
God’s warnings (6:4-11), as expressed in the manner of drought, blight,
swarms of locusts, and military reverses. Qualifications aside, these
serve as judgment parables.
Amos subsequently takes up a lament (5:1-17): For
instance, “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her
own land, with no one to lift her up.” It was as if the prophet was
joined by other mourners at the funeral of the Northern Kingdom.
An appeal is coupled with the lament. “Seek me and
live,” the Lord urges. You will not find sanctuary elsewhere. Do not
delay. After which, there follows a series of more specific charges.
Two oracles of woe conclude this second segment of
the text. Initially, “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why
do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not
light” (5:18). Darkness implies a lack of direction, unfavorable
conditions, and insecurity. Anticipating something more amenable, they
will be greatly disappointed.
A second woe expands on the previous one. “Woe to you
who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria”
(6:1). Such are content to accumulate riches, while neglecting their
social obligations. Who favorably compare themselves with others, while
adorning their behavior with religious pretense.
As noted earlier, the final segment contains a series
of visions (7:1-9:10), expressly as concerns the impending destruction
of Israel. As an example, the tragedy of a locust plague is cited. It
arrives after the spring rain, so without the prospect of being able to
sow another crop. The fields are stripped bare.
As another example, fire ravages the land, and all is
consumed in its wake. Amos again intercedes, at which God relents. This
appears in context little more than a stay of sentence. Exile is
It came to pass that Amaziah, the priest of Bethel,
sent a message to Jeroboam accusing Amos of conspiracy. Whereupon, the
prophet was summoned to appear before the irate king. “Get out, you
seer!” the potentate demanded. “Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your
bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at
Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary, and the temple of the
kingdom” (7:12-13). He hoped thereby to rid himself of the troublesome
“I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I
was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore fig trees,” Amos
protested. “But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me,
‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” If divinely appointed, it was
neither his nor the king’s prerogative to terminate his ministry. After
that, Amos again warned of impending doom. Given his perspective, the
Lord had the final word.
Two oracles comprise the conclusion to the text. In a
dramatic turn of focus, both anticipate a time of restoration. For
instance, “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair
its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so
that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the nations that bear
my name” (9:11-12). As if to say that the promise pertains to all who
call on the name of the Lord.
God remains faithful, even when man proves to be
faithless. Beyond despair, there remains hope. As elsewhere expressed:
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts
to devour the land or send a plague among my people . . . will humble
themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,
then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and will heal
their land” (2 Chron. 7:13-14).
High ground is a military metaphor, signifying a
place of strategic advantage. As such, it provides a significant
opportunity for successful engagement. Accordingly, it may be applied to
the era of the apostles—as a consequence of Christ’s triumph over sin
and death. As expressed by the apostle Paul: “No, in all these things
(trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword) we
are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).
The so-called silent years eventuated with the
corporate voice of the prophets being hushed. Some welcomed this
opportunity to follow their own agenda, without intervention from God’s
messengers, while others thought it a monumental tragedy. Messianic
candidates made their entry, and departed soon thereafter—lacking
The silence was eventually broken with an urgent
voice crying in the wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is
near” (Matt. 3:2). John came “preaching a baptism for the remission of
sins” (Luke 3:3). “Baptism is the concrete expression of the moral
choice that has been made. For the one participating, it was really the
drama of decision!”31 Or as otherwise expressed, it is an outward
confession of an inward faith.
Josephus assures us that John was a good man,
who “commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, not as to righteousness
towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism .
. . supposing the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by
righteousness.”33 People responded in considerable numbers, drawing both
caution and encouragement from their mentor.
“The people were waiting expectantly and were all
wondering in their hears if John might possibly be the Christ” (Luke
3:15). Whereupon, John observed: “I baptize you with water. But one more
powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy
to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” While
fire might be a reference to judgment and/or purification, the
latter seems more in context. In any case, he viewed his task as
preparing the way of the Lord—as if building or repairing a road
for the arrival of a royal visitor.
Jesus also came to be baptized. However, John
attempted to deter him, saying: “I need to be baptized by you, and do
you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14).
“Let it be so now;” Jesus replied; “it is proper for
us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” He apparently meant to
identify with those he had come to redeem. As Jesus came up from the
water, he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on
him. And a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, whom I love;
with him I am well pleased.”
Qualifications aside, Jesus early life appeared quite
ordinary. This solicited the inquiry of the residents of Nazareth,
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:23). They seemingly thought his
claims were pretentious.
Jesus inaugurated his public ministry about thirty
years of age, at the time persons were thought to have gained sufficient
wisdom to render public service. This recalls one evening when I had
finished teaching my Nigerian students. As I left the building, one of
them was leaning against a post, apparently deep in thought. “What are
you thinking about?” I curiously inquired of him.
“I am imaging how pleasant it will be when I am
sufficiently advanced in years so that persons will seek me out for
counsel,” he earnestly responded. Whether in his culture or that of
Jesus’ time, old age appears as more of an accomplishment than a
tragedy. In this regard, the elderly are richly deserving of respect.
On one occasion, Jesus was teaching his disciples in
the presence of the multitude (cf. Matt.5:1). As the saying goes, “the
line was drawn in the sand”—the disciples being set off from the general
populace. As for the former, they had decided to follow Jesus. In the
words of the gospel refrain, “I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning
back.” They were instructed both by word and deed.
As for the populace, it was decidedly not monolithic.
Some were genuinely searching for truth, while others were simply
curious. So it continues from one generation to the next. The disciples
and multitude viewed one another with some apprehension.
The disciples would soon discover that grace is
costly. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring
repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without
confession, absolution without person confession,“ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
allowed. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the
cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnation.”34
On the other hand, authentic grace resembles the
treasure hidden in a field, for which a man will gladly seek out and
sell all his possessions. “Such grace is costly because it calls
us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow
Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it
is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
Jesus initially appeared content to establish his
messianic credentials, before making his claim explicit. This would
serve to set him off from the false pretenders which preceded him. It
would also guard against the temptation to politicize his intentions.
This eventually led John the Baptist to inquire by
way of his disciples, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we
expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:2). This might be understood as the
arousal of doubt, initiating of faith, or an indication that troubled
faith is normative.
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see,”
Jesus replied. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have
leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the deaf are raised, and the good news
is preached to the poor.” While this fell short of the full agenda
associated with the coming of the Messianic Age, it was along the line
of its inauguration. As such, it certainly qualified as good news.
Upon coming to the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus
asked his disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matt.
16:13). When they reported one prophet or another, he pressed them: “But
what about You? Who do you say I am?”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,”
Peter confidently responded. It is unclear whether he meant to speak for
himself, or on behalf of the others as well. In any case, he was not
reluctant to speak out.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was
not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” This recalls
the saying, “What man says may be true, but what God says is without
Opposition was, nevertheless, building. The religious
establishment perceived his ministry as a serious threat to its
privileged position. The time came when Jesus alerted his disciples
“that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the
elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed
and on the third ay to be raised to life” (Matt. 16:21).
Whereupon, Peter took him aside. “Never, Lord!” he
exclaimed. “This shall never happen to you!” His confidence was perhaps
fostered by how he had seen Jesus manage prior difficult situations,
and/or his expectation that the Messiah would prevail over his enemies.
“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus replied. “You are a
stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but
the things of men.” Jesus thus turns from commendation to caution. It
goes without saying that Satan uses diverse means to accomplish his
purpose in frustrating Jesus’ redemptive mission.
Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem, ministering to
those along the way. For instance, as he was passing through Jericho,
there was a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus, who desperately
wanted to see him. Since he was short, the crowd obscured his vision. So
he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree, because Jesus would be
coming that way.
When Jesus reached that place, he looked up and
enjoined him: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your
house today” (Luke 19:5). So he came down, and gladly welcomed him.
Those who saw this began to complain that he was the guest of a
sinner, which is to say a person who was not religiously observant.
However, Zacchaeus exclaimed: “Look, Lord! Here and
now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated
anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” “His
restitution goes beyond Pharisaic law, which required fourfold or
fivefold restitution only for stolen oxen or sheep, only if he
slaughtered or sold it, and only if a sufficient number of people
witnessed the act. In ancient accounts of discipleship, a radical
response with possessions was a certain sign of newly acquired devotion
to the teacher.”35
“Salvation has come to this house, because this man,
too, is a son of Abraham,” Jesus observed. “For the Son of Man came to
seek and to save what was lost.” While the religious establishment was
more inclined to wait for evidence of repentance, Jesus seems to have
anticipated what persons might henceforth become.
As he and those accompanying him approached
Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Whereupon,
Jesus sent two of his disciples to procure a donkey on which to ride.
This would symbolize his coming in peace, rather than to incite warfare.
It also served to fulfill messianic prophecy (cf. Isa. 62:11; Zech.
A great number spread their cloaks on the road, while
others cut branches from the trees and distributed them along the
roadway. While it was not uncommon to welcome pilgrims in this fashion,
the extent of this demonstration was extraordinary. Moreover, the people
shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the
name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Subsequently, Jesus made his way into the temple
precinct, where they were selling sacrificial animals. This may have
occurred in the Court of the Gentiles, which would be offensive to
God-fearing Gentiles. In any case, it detracted from the intent of
worship—for which the temple was constructed. Accordingly, Jesus
overturned the tables of the money changes, while protesting: “It is
written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making
it a den of thieves’” (cf. Isa. 56:7; Jer. 7:11).
“My appointment time is near,” Jesus subsequently
allowed. “I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples” (Matt.
26:18). When they had reclined at the table, Jesus identified Judas as
the one who would betray him. Thereafter, he took bread, broke it, and
gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take and eat; this is my body.” In
like manner, he took the cup, enjoining them: “Drink from it, all of
you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for
the forgiveness of sins.”
It appears evident that Jesus associated this with
the third cup in the Passover ritual, known as the cup of
redemption. “He refused, however, to drink the fourth cup (Mark
14:25; cf. Mishnah, Pesahim 10:7), referred to as the ‘cup of
consummation’ (cf. Exod. 6:7) based on the promise that God will take
his own people to be with him. The unfinished meal of Jesus was a pledge
that redemption would be consummated at the future messianic banquet.”36
After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of
Olives. Crossing the Kidron Valley, east of Jerusalem, they came to a
secluded spot called Gethsemane. The Aramaic term alerts us to
the fact that it was an olive grove. “Sit here while I go over there and
pray,” Jesus instructed his disciples. Taking Peter and the sons of
Zebedee along with him, he agonized in prayer. “My Father,” he cried
out, “if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I
will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
We can only surmise what may have been involved. Of
course, crucifixion was characteristically a painful demise. Then, too,
it was calculated to solicit social reproach. However, most devastating
was perhaps the heavy burden of corporate guilt assumed on behalf of
others. Whatever the cost, he was prepared if it were his Father’s will.
Upon returning, Jesus found his disciples sleeping—no
doubt exhausted by the turn of events. “Look, the hour is near, and the
Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners,” he alerted them.
While he was still speaking, Judas arrived along with a large contingent
of armed associates. Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin, and then
the Roman official Pilate. Having interrogated the prisoner, Pilate
declared: “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He, nonetheless, had
Jesus flogged and handed over for crucifixion.
When they had crucified him, they placed the written
charge above his head: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE
JEWS. This crime appears related to the alleged incitement
that he constituted a political threat to Roman rule. Those who passed
by hurled insults at him. From the sixth to the ninth hour, there was
darkness over the entire the land. It must have seemed as if evil had
Whereupon, Jesus cried out: “My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?” He thus quoted from a psalm commonly employed by those
suffering adversity. Worthy of note, it concludes on a positive note:
“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all
the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion
belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations” (Psa. 22:27-28).
Accompanying his death, the curtain of the temple was
torn in two—signifying access to the Almighty. There was an earthquake,
and the tombs surrendered holy people who appeared to many. When
the centurion and those with him saw what had happened they were
terrified, and exclaimed: “Surely he was the Son of God!” Many women,
who had come with Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs, stood
watching from a distance.
As evening approached, an affluent man from Arimathea
named Joseph (who had become a disciple of Jesus) petitioned Pilate for
Jesus’ body. Whereupon, he wrapped it in a linen cloth, and placed in
his own new tomb. He rolled a large stone in front of the enclosure and
departed. Pilate secured the tomb, and posted a guard. The religious
establishment must have heaved a collective sign of relief.
After the Sabbath, certain of the women brought
spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Upon arrival, they found that the stone
was rolled away. An angel then appeared to them. “Do not be alarmed,” he
said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has
risen. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6).
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first
importance," Paul recalls: “that Christ died for our sins according to
the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day
according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to
the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5). After that, to numerous others—most of whom
were still living, and last of all, to Paul himself.
He continued to appear to them over a period of forty
days, and discoursed concerning the kingdom of God. On one occasion, he
enjoined them: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father
promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with
water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”
“Lord,” they inquired of him, “are you at this time
going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
“It is not for you to know the times or dates the
Father has set by his own authority,” Jesus replied. “But you will be my
witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of
the earth.” “Instead of the political power which had once been the
object of their ambitions, a power far greater and nobler would be
theirs. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would be vested with
heavenly power— by which their mighty works were accomplished and their
preaching made effective.”37
After he had said this, he was taken up into heaven.
Then, as they were gazing into the sky, two angelic figures appeared to
them. “Men of Galilee,” they addressed the disciples, “why do you stand
here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you
into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into
heaven.” The repetitive use of the term same was calculated to
accent the continuity in Jesus’ redemptive mission.
As for now, his return to the celestial city
resembled that of a military victor—welcomed by the populace. He would
henceforth enjoy a privileged position from which he could readily
intercede on behalf of those devoted to his cause. So things would
remain until he returns, not as a second Messiah but the same
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all
together in one place. Suddenly there was a sound like the blowing of a
violent wind, which filled the place where they were sitting. They saw
what appeared as if tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on
each of them. They were also filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to
speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The imagery is
analogical, the event being described as similar to that of a gusting
wind and tongues of fire.
Some or all spoke in other tongues, but
probably the former. These tongues could be ecstatic utterance, known
languages, or a combination. In this regard, recent studies have shown
that persons can when experiencing ecstasy recall catches of a foreign
language they overheard years ago, without understanding its meaning. In
any case, the prime evidence that they were filled with the Holy Spirit
would be their engagement in heralding the gospel to all peoples.
The fledgling fellowship found expression in devoting
itself to the apostles’ teaching and their corporate fellowship. “This
teaching was authoritative because it was the teaching of the Lord
commissioned through the apostles in the power of the Spirit. For
believers of later generations the New Testament scriptures form the
written deposit of the apostolic teaching.”38
The New Testament ushers in the final chapter of
salvation history. As such, it maintained continuity to that which
preceded it, while accenting God’s most recent initiative. This was
graphically illustrated by Jesus’ contrast: “You have heard it said, but
I tell you” (cf. Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28,31-32,33-34,43-44).
The corporate fellowship was expressed in a number of
ways, two being explicitly mentioned. The breaking of bread is
probably a reference to partaking of the Lord’s Supper, although it
allows for a common meal as well. Prayer implies intercession on
behalf of others.
“Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and
miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” Awe constitutes a
heightened sense of reverence. “In less than twenty instances (recorded
in Acts), assuming a more generous interpretation of what qualifies as
miracle, were extraordinary events reported. Likewise of interest, all
but four of these instances were related to the apostles and might best
be understood as attesting to their particular office rather than the
“All the believers were together and had everything
in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as
he had need.” This was evidence of their manifest generosity, rather
than the elimination of private property. It also implies that was
extensive needs to be addressed.
They continued to meet together in the temple courts,
broke bread in their homes, and ate together with “glad and sincere
hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” The
fellowship was thus internally characterized as a rejoicing community,
and externally as soliciting favorable commendation. “And the Lord added
to their number daily those who were being saved.”
There were notable exceptions. Peter and John were
brought before the Sanhedrin, which forbad them from alluding to Jesus
in their discourse. “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s
sight to obey you rather than God,” they protested. “For we cannot help
speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Having
threatened them further, the officials let them go.
Problems also resulted within the fellowship. For
instance, Ananias and his wife Sapphire secretively retained part of the
sale’s price of a piece of property, delivering the remainder to the
apostles. “What made you think of doing such a thing?” Peter
incredulously inquired. “You have not lied to men (the idiom meaning
not only) but to God” (Acts 5:4). Upon hearing the apostle’s
accusation, Ananias succumbed. “And great fear seized all who heard what
A great persecution subsequently afflicted the
community of faith. “Those who had been scattered preached the word
wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). It is striking that this is not
attributed to any special leading of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it seems
in keeping with the natural course of events, perhaps in that people
asked why they had taken their leave of Jerusalem. They were thus
enabled to turn adversity into opportunity.
Luke focuses his attention largely on Saul/Paul
henceforth. He had been consenting to the execution of Philip, and
“still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”
(Acts 9:1), obtained authorization from the high priest to purge the
synagogues in Damascus of followers of Jesus. As he neared his
destination, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, and he
heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was in
this manner that the Lord encountered him.
As a result, he took on the role of an apostle to the
Gentiles. On one occasion, certain persons came down from Judea to
Antioch, and were teaching that unless one is circumcised, he cannot be
saved. “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate
with them” (Acts 15:2). Consequently, a council was called in Jerusalem
to consider the matter.
Having convened the council, it was decided: “it
seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything
beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food
sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and
from sexual immorality.” These diverse prohibitions reflected the code
of the righteous Gentile, drawn from God’s covenant with Noah.
Accordingly, apart from more substantial issues, it was meant not to
unnecessarily offend Jewish believers.
Reflective of the apostle’s dynamic witness, he was
greatly distressed to find that Athens was full of idols. So he reasoned
in the synagogue and God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place with
those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic adherents
began to dispute with him, leading to a meeting of the Areopagus—the
venerable traditional court of the city. It does not appear that any
charges were brought against him, but this was to satisfy the populace’s
interest in any new teaching.
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your
objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
TO AN UNKNOWN GOD,” Paul allowed. “Now what you
worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts
17:23). The allusion seemingly draws from the High God tradition,
As for confirmation, “The God who made the world and
everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in
temples built by hands.” Nor does he require anything, since he “gives
all men life and breath and everything else. Accordingly, he determines
the times and places of human habitation—so that persons might seek him,
although he is not far away from any.”
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance (as
expressed in idolatrous worship), but now commands all people everywhere
to repent.” He has given proof of this by raising Christ from the dead.
At the mention of the resurrection, some took issue, while others were
willing to weight the matter further, and a few believed.
Now the apostle was eventually appended, and appealed
to Caesar—as was his right as a Roman citizen. Upon his arrival in Rome,
he was confined to a private residence for two years, awaiting his
trial. He welcomed all who came to see him, “Boldly and without
hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus
Christ” (Acts 28:31).
Thereafter, according to tradition, Paul was
executed. Which recalls Tertullian’s confident rejoinder: “The oftener
we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of
Christians is seed.”40
Day’s End is a graphic way of expressing the
culmination of salvation history. In this regard, Revelation serves as
an incomparable commentary, as borne out in the early church fathers.
Revelation relies heavily on apocalyptic discourse.
As such, it predictably emphasizes the transcendent character of divine
reality. Accordingly, it differs sharply from wisdom literature, which
consists of that which is readily discernable to the more observant. The
difference is less pronounced between apocalyptic and prophetic
literature, since the latter employs natural discourse. Left to itself,
apocalyptic discourse relies heavily on symbolism.
We are thus reminded that God-talk is metaphorical.
Consequently, God is our Father does not result from a carnal
relationship, but as initiating life. The prime implication of this
being his supreme authority. So it was that one day I stopped by a shop
in Jerusalem to see a young man with whom I was acquainted. He was
nowhere to be seen. I then heard a whimpering from a secluded corner of
the shop. There I found the person, distressed over the fact that his
father had refused him permission to emigrate to Canada. He had no
higher court of appeals.
In addition to the accent on authority, Jesus singed
out the benevolent character of the Almighty as representative of the
paternal ideal. In particular, “If you, then, though you are evil, know
how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father
in heaven give good gifts!” (Matt.7:11). “So in everything, do to others
what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the
It is with mixed feelings that I attempt a brief
commentary on the text. Not only has it be treated extensively, but much
ambiguity remains. Even so, it appears a valuable facet of the topic at
Prologue (1:1-20). “The revelation of Jesus Christ,
which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” “Had
God not taken the initiative, the human mind would never have understood
the real forces at work in this world. Nor would anyone have known how it
would all turn out.”40
Qualifications aside, life appears as good. This was
confirmed in the creation narrative. Still, there are tragic elements,
involving suffering and death. This was also accounted for in the creation narrative. Were it
not for the fact that God took the initiative, we could only speculate
concerning the real forces at work in the world.
“The Word became flesh and his dwelling among us”
(John 1:14). In this regard, Jesus’ use of the I AM formula meant
“Where I am, there God is, there God lives and speaks, calls, asks,
acts, decides, loves, chooses, forgives, rejects, suffer and dies.
Nothing bolder can be said, or imagined.”42 This and more is implied by
the revelation here attributed to Jesus Christ.
“He made it known by sending his angel to his servant
John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is the word of God and the
testimony of Jesus Christ.” We are thus reminded of the visual
components of the revelation. Blessed is the one who reads the words of
this prophecy, and takes them to heart—“because the time is near.”
Otherwise expressed, it is imminent and could eventuate at any
moment—even when we least expect it.
John subsequently greets the seven churches in the
province of Asia: “Grace and peace to you, from him who is, and who was,
and who is to come, and from the seven sprits before his throne, and
from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the
dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Grace and peace
is thus derived from a three-fold source: the eternal God, the seven
spirits, and Jesus Christ.
The Christocentric focus of the text is then
anticipated by his three-fold character as the faithful witness, the
firstborn from the dead, and universal ruler. This gives rise to the
first of a series of doxologies concerning he “who loves us and has
freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be kingdom of
priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever
and ever! Amen.”
“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye
will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the
earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.” Thus are we
assured by the Almighty, and to the consternation of those who have
John was an exile on the island of Patmos, because of
the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. He was in
the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, when he heard a voice like a trumpet
enjoining him to inscribe messages to the seven churches of Asia. Upon
turning around, he saw seven golden lamp-stands, surrounding a regally
attired figure—who instructed him to write what he had seen.
Seven Churches (2:1-3:22). The letters to the seven
churches are a response to a divine commission. As such, they compose a
distinct segment of the extended text. They appear to deal with current
situations, although some speculate that they might anticipate
succeeding eras in church history.
“I know your deeds, your hard work and your
perseverance,” the oracle declares concerning the church at Ephesus. “I
know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who
claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have
persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your
first love.” “Good works and pure doctrine are not adequate substitutes
for that rich relationship of mutual love shared by those who have
experienced for the first time the redemptive love of God.”43 Much can
be taken for granted with the passing of time. Consequently, remember
the height from which you have fallen and repent. If not, all is lost.
Corporate memory thus appears as an invaluable means for spiritual
“I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are
rich!” the oracle then assures the church at Myrna. “I know the slander
of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of
Satan.” The fellowship was a study in contrasts: slandered and poverty
stricken on the one hand, but spiritually endowed on the other.
Likewise, attacked by those who professed religious credentials,
although quite lacking in spiritual credibility.
“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer,”
they are encouraged. “I tell you, the devil will put some of you in
prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be
faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of
life.” Thus the cost of discipleship looms large on the horizon.
“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne,”
the oracle alerts the church at Pergamum. “Augustus granted permission
for a temple to the be erected in Pertamum to ‘the divine Augustus and
the goddess Roma.’ Of all the seven cities, Pergamum was the one in
which the church was most likely to clash with the imperial cult.”44
“Yet you remain true to my name.”
“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you. You
have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak
to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and
by committing sexual immorality.” Moreover, some had embraced the
teaching of the Nicolaitans. “Repent, therefore!” If not, expect divine
chastisement. While allowing for differences, both groups seem given to
idolatry and immorality.
“I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service
and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at
first,” the oracle applauds the congregation situated at Thyatira. Its
deeds is thus joined with two couplets: love and faith,
and service and perseverance. In this regard, “The actual call of
Jesus and the response of single-minded obedience have an irrevocable
significance. By means of them Jesus calls people into an actual
situation where faith is possible.”45 Furthermore, they had made a
distinct improvement over their past performance.
“Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate
that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she
misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food
sacrificed to idols.” Since she will get her just deserts, reject her
teaching. The seductive wife of Ahab is recalled in this connection,
whereby she fostered the worship of Baal (cf. 1 Kings 16:25-34).
“Wake up!” the oracle admonishes the fellowship
residing in Sardis. Know for its deeds, it has fallen asleep. “Remember,
therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.”
Otherwise, disaster will come upon it unexpectedly.
“Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not
soil their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white.” Since the
manufacture and dying of wooden goods was a prominent feature of it
economy, the allusion to soiled clothing would be readily recognized.
Such will not have their names blotted out of the book of life, but will
be vindicated before the throne of grace.
“See, I have placed before you an open door that no
one can shut,” the church in Philadelphia is encouraged. “I know that
you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied
may name.” Conversely, those from the synagogue of Satan will not
prevail. “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will
also keep you from the hour of spiral that is going to come upon the
whole world to test those who live on the earth.” The messianic travail
touched on in passing here will be explored more in detail later on in
“I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that
no one will take your crown . Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in
the temple of my God. “ This couples together the ideas of stability
and permanence. As for the latter, “Never again will he leave
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor
hot,” the oracle declares to the church of Laodicea. “I wish you were
either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—I am about to spit
you out of my mouth.” The region lacked an adequate and convenient water
supply, so that water had to be brought in from springs some six miles
distant—through a system of stone pipes. The water derived from hot
springs cooled in the process, thus becoming uninviting.
“You say, ‘I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do
not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched,
pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” Were the corporate fellowship to
realize its true condition, there would be hope for its recovery.
Otherwise, it lives a life of self-deception.
“Those whom I love I rebuke and disciple,” the oracle
concludes—not unlike a conscientious parent. “So be earnest, and
repent.” “Here I am!” it adds. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone
hears my voce and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he
with me.” Such will benefit from a rewarding fellowship with the risen
Lord, regardless of time or circumstances.
Adoration in Heaven (4:1-5:14). “After this I looked,
and there before me was an open door standing open in heaven. And the
voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up
here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’” The door
represents access into the realm of the Almighty. We have little
comprehension of what this might involve, since it transcends our
space/time continuum. In particular, this would afford a purview of what
“At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was
a throne in heaven.” It was occupied and surrounded by twenty-four
elders, seated on their respective thrones. Of course, the central
figure was the Almighty. In this regard, “The ultimate mystery concerns
our encounter with the sovereign ruler of the universe. This incites in
us a sense of awe, which consists of a mixture of reverence,
dread, and wonder.”46
As for the elders, there is much fruitless
speculation. They, however, seem to be of human derivation. Closer to
the central throne were four creatures, presumably angelic in character.
Day and night, the latter continue affirming: “Holy, holy, holy is the
Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Whereupon, the
elders prostrate themselves before the throne, declaring: “You are
worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you
created all things, and by you will they were created and have their
being.” Thus our attention is drawn away from the particulars to focus
on their combined impression.
Whereupon, John saw a scroll on the right hand of the
one sitting on the throne. It had writing on both sides, and was secured
with seven seals.” The former is calculated to give the impression of
thoroughness, while the latter guarantees secrecy. Its text pertains to
God’s redemptive purposes.
“Who is worthy to break the seals and open the
scroll?” inquires a mighty angel with a loud voice. John weeps since no
one is to found. “Do not weep!” exclaimed one of the elders. “See, the
Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able
to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then John saw a Lamb, appearing to have been slain,
standing in the center of the throne—encircled by the living creatures
and elders. He received the scroll from the one who sat upon the throne.
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you
were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every
tribe and language and people and nation,” the living creatures and
elders chorused. “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to
serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
The rationale is progressive: because you were
slain; your blood has purchased men for God from every tribe,
language, and nation; making them a kingdom and priests
to serve our God, resulting in their perpetual reign. Obstacles
notwithstanding, and with grace abounding.
Seven Seals (6:1-8:1). The stage has been set for the
unfolding of God’s righteous judgment, consisting of the opening of the
scroll, and resulting in a sequence of seals, trumpets, and bowls. With
some exception, these are depicted as taking place within our space/time
continuum. As John watches, the Lamb who was worthy, opens the first of
“I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its
rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as conqueror
bent on conquest.” In this regard, Jesus cautioned: “When you hear of
wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but
the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom
against kingdom. There will be birth quakes in various places, and
famine. These are the beginning of birth pains” (Mark 13:7-8).
On the one hand, we are reminded of the deeply
ingrained character of human depravity, resulting in armed conflict. On
the other, the messianic travail depicts God’s righteous resolve in
bringing to completion his redemptive activity. Accordingly,
righteousness will assuredly prevail.
The opening of the remaining seals elaborate on the
above theme. “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider
was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay one another.”
Thereafter, “I looked, and there before me was a black horse! It rider
was holding a pair of scales in its hand.” So events continued in rapid
succession, persuading one and all that the great day of wrath
was come, and pondering who can stand?
John then witnesses the sealing of 144,000 from all
the tribes of Israel. “After this I looked and there before me was a
great multitude that no one could count, for every nation, tribe, people
and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They
were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in the hands.”
They cried with a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God ,who sits on
the throne, and to the Lamb.”
“These are they who have come out of the great
tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the
blood of the Lamb,” an elder explains. “Therefore, they are before the
throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple.” Never again
will they hunger or thirst, nor suffer from scorching heat, for the Lamb
will shepherd them, and lead them to springs of water—whereas God will
wipe away every tear from their eyes. The with the opening of the
seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about a half hour, serving
to build suspense as the narrative continues.
Seven Trumpets (8:2-11:19). Then John saw seven
angels, who were given trumpets. Another angel, carrying a gold censer,
came and stood at the altar. “He was given much incense to offer with
prayers for all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The
smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints went up
before God from the angel’s hand.” Then the angel took the censer,
filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth—causing
peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
The first angel sounded his trumpet, resulting in
hail and fire mixed with blood. In all probability, “The blood refers to
the awesome color of the storm rather than the fire and destruction that
lightning could cause. In the Talmud (Hag. 12b) the sixth heaven
is pictured as a storehouse of hail, storm, and noxious vapors,
maintained within gates of fire.”47 As with the next three trumpets,
there results great devastation.
When the fifth angel had sounded his trumpet, a star
(representative of a person) falls from heaven. He is given a key which
unlocks the Abyss, from which smoke arises—obscuring the sky overhead.
Out of the billowing smoke come a great horde of locust like creatures.
They are instructed not to harm the environment, while inflicting those
who are not among the faithful. The imagery readily recalls the Egyptian
With the sounding of the sixth angel’s trumpet, he releases the
four angels of destruction. “The rest of
mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of
the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols
of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or
Two related events are inserted before the final
trumpet is sounded. John is invited to partake of a little scroll,
which tasted sweet at first but turned sour. This pertained to his
He is then charged with measuring the temple
precinct, so as to accommodate those who will worship there. This
invites a consideration of two witnesses, not otherwise identified. “Now
when they had finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the
Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will
lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom
and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” After that, they would
be revived and ascend to heaven. The theme of martyrdom seems to
undergird the text.
When the seventh angel had sounded his trumpet, loud
voices from heaven declared: “The kingdom of the world has become the
kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and
ever.” Then the twenty-four elders joined in the celebration, giving
glory to the Almighty. Creation also showed its approval.
Powers and Principalities (12:1-14:20). This next
segment is reminiscent of Paul’s warning: “For our struggle is not
against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the
authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against spiritual
forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). The idiom implies
that our struggle is not only with human antagonists, but deeply
entrenched evil forces as well.
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman
clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve
stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out as she was about to
give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon
with seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns on his heads. The latter
positioned itself so as to devour the anticipated offspring.
However, God caught up the child into heaven, and the
woman fled to the wilderness, where she was secure for the time being.
It is usually agreed that the child represents Christ, while the mother
is a corporate entity—likely identified with those who have exercised
faith over succeeding generations (cf. Heb. 11). These are threatened by
the evil adversary, employing whatever means are at hand.
“And there was war in heaven.” Michael and his
angelic forces did battle with Satan and his associates. The forces of
righteousness. prevailed. This was greeted by a loud shout from heaven,
“Now have come the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God, and
the authority of his Christ.” Whereupon, the dragon pursued the woman,
but she was given two great wings whereby to make her escape.
John then saw a beast coming out of the sea. It
“resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like
that of a lion.” The dragon endowed him with power and authority, so
that the populace gave its allegiance to the beast, and inadvertently to
the dragon. Given the exception of those whose names have been written
in the book of life.
Then John saw a second beast arise from the earth.
“Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first
beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth.” He thus becomes “an
exemplar of those subtle forms of evil which deceive people into
embracing lies as God’s truth. In this sense, the second beast parodies
the Paraclete, who promotes the truth of God by drawing people to Christ
(cf. John 14:16-27).”48 He was given the number 666, variously
explained but with notable uncertainty.
Other events notwithstanding, John observes the Lamb
standing on Mount Zion, along with 144,000 “who have his name and his
Father’s name written on their foreheads.” A heavenly chorus sang a new
song, which only those who had been redeemed could learn. The song and
its loud volume suggests that the carefully calculated efforts of the
evil forces will be short-lived.
Three angels make their appearance. “Fear God and
give him glory because the hour of his judgment has come,” the first
cautions. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the
nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries,” the second
announces. “There is no rest day or night for those who worship; the
beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name,”
declares the third. This calls for patient endurance for those who “obey
God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” The end result is then
Seven Plagues (15:1-16:21). In greater detail, John
sees “seven angels with seven last plagues.” For instance, “The second
angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that
of a dead man, and every living things in the sea died.” This is again
reminiscent of the Egyptian plagues, where the living God triumphs over
the impotent defenders.
“Behold, I come like a thief,” the Lord cautions.
Blessed are those who are alert to the ensuing struggle, and rely on the
Spirit for guidance and engagement.
Fall of Babylon (17:1-19:5). “Come, I will show you
the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters,” one of
the angels allows. “With her the kings of the earth committed adultery
and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her
adulteries.” Whereupon, John was whisked away to the wilderness, where
he beheld a woman lavishly attired. On her forehead was written:
MYSTERY/ BABYLON THE GREAT/THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND
OF THE ABOMINATION OF THE EARTH.
“Fallen!”another angel exclaimed. “Fallen is Babylon
the Great! For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her
Still another heavenly voice admonished: “Come out of
her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will
not receive any of her plagues, for her sins are piled up to heaven, and
God has remembered her crimes.” The merchants of the earth will mourn
her demise, for loss of material gain.
“Hallelujah!” a heavenly chorus enthuses. “Salvation
and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his
judgments.” Babylon has received what it justly deserved. Then a voice
from the throne was heard, saying: “Praise our God, all you his
servants, and who fear him, both small and great!”
Consummate Victory (19:6-20:15). John then hears what
sounded like a great multitude, resembling the roar of rushing waters
and the peals of thunder: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the
Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” At this, an angel
instructed John to write: “Blessed are those who are invited to the
wedding supper of the Lamb!”
He subsequently sees a rider on a white horse, on
whose robe is inscribed: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
The beast and the kings of the earth, along with their combined
forces, are gathered to wage warfare against the rider. The latter
readily prevails, as “the birds gorge themselves on their flesh.”
Then Satan is bound and cast into the Abyss. Then
those who had been martyred for their faith reign with Christ for a
thousand years. Shalom (peace, well-being) prevails, in contrast to that
which preceded it.
When the thousand years were over, Satan was
released. The prolonged imprisonment had not dissuaded him from his
adversarial role. Consequently, he gathered his forces for one last
desperate engagement. When they had encircled the people of God
encamped in the city he loves, fire came down from heaven
and devoured the determined aggressors.
There ensues the final judgment. “If anyone’s name
was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake
of fire.” In alternative imagery, C. S. Lewis depicts this as people
continually moving away from one another—as symbolizing their heightened
sense of alienation (from God and each other).
New Heaven and Earth (21:1-22:5). John then saw a new
heaven and earth. He also observed the new Jerusalem descending from
heaven. A voice from the throne likewise declared: “Now the dwelling of
God is with men ,and he will live with them. He will wipe away every
tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or morning or crying
or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The accompanying angel showed John the river of the
water of life, “as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and
of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.” On each
side of the river stood the tree of life, yielding its fruit for persons
to partake. The leaves of the tree shall be for the healing of the
nations. There will no longer be a curse. Nor will there be need for a
lamp or light for the Lord God will provide them light. “And they will
reign for ever and ever.”
Epilogue (21:6-21). “These things are trustworthy and
true,” the angel assures his companion. “The Lord, the God of the
spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things
that must soon take place.” As in times past, now that the consummation
Consequently, the Lord confirms his intent: “Behold,
I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone
according to what he has done.” Blessed are those who wash their
robes so that they may have access to the tree of life, and go
through the gates into the city. “Outside are the dogs, who practice
magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and
everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him
who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever
wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” “Amen, Come,
Lord Jesus.” Thus salvation history is projected into the inviting
It remains to take a more systematic approach to the
topic, rather than relying further on historical narrative. This will
act not only as a profitable summary, but to invite additional
reflection. As succinctly expressed, the past serves as prologue.
It was noted at the outset that the interpretation of
Scripture involves the fusion of two horizons. However, this is to be
done so as to maintain the normative character of Holy Writ. It extends
beyond abstract principles to concrete expression, in terms of salvation
We can readily err in opposite directions. On the one
hand, we may insist on carrying over cultural mores no longer suitable
for our given situation. On the other, we run the risk of compromising
biblical teaching. The call is admittedly more difficulty in some
instances than in others.
As a classic example, consider the quest for justice.
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your
assemblies,” the oracle declares. “But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21, 24).
Accordingly, religious ritual provides no adequate substitute for the
pursuit of righteousness (conformity to divine teaching) as expressed in
the cultivation of justice.
The task, however, takes different forms—as in the
case of distributive justice. “A person exercises distributive
justice when assuming a legitimate obligation for society, while not
insisting on excessive privileges.”49 This gave rise to President
Kennedy’s pointed rejoinder, “Ask not what the country can do for you,
but what you can do for your country.”
Now certain of the Pharisees and Herodians hoped to
entrap Jesus. “Teacher,” they observed, “we know you are a man of
integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the
truth. You are not swayed by man, because you pay not attention to who
they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes
to Caesar or not” (Matt. 22:16-17).
Should he advocate the paying of taxes, he would
likely lose popular support. If, however, he were to reject the paying
of taxes, he might be charged with insurrection. In either case, his
mission was in jeopardy.
Being aware of their intent, Jesus proposed: “Show me
the coin used for paying the tax.” Observing the denarius, he then inquired:
“Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they allowed.
Whereupon, he enjoined them: “Give to Caesar what is
Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Upon hearing his sage counsel, they
went their way—having failed in their attempt to trap him.
Initially, it should be observed that God and
Caesar’s domains are not mutually exclusive. “Everyone must submit
himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except
that which God has established” (Rom. 13:1). “For heading the hierarchy
of relations in which Christians find themselves is God; and all
subordinate ‘submissions’ must always be measure in relationship to our
allo-embracing submission to him.”50
In greater detail, there are obligations associated
with being a member of society. Among these is the paying of taxes. The
funds derived serve a number of legitimate purposes, such as providing
security and other essential services.
“Unfortunately, it does not guarantee that the funds
will be conscientiously administered. For instance, one must always face
the prospect of expanding public bureaucracy—as if it were an end in
itself. Then, too, resources may be drained off to satisfy the greed of
special interest groups.”51
In any case, an individual has only limited influence
over how funds are distributed. This will differ from one society to the
next, and some will be more capable of initiating constructing change
than others. In addition, cooperative efforts are more likely to succeed
than individual initiatives. These and related considerations serve as a
reality check when it comes to appropriating biblical teaching in
The fusion of horizons also gives rise to the role of
salvation history in biblical interpretation. Characteristically
dismissed as a theoretical consideration, it proves to be a dynamic
context for continuing reflection. As such, it consists of three stages:
with the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. These are set forth along
with both prelude and postlude, five segments in all.
Prelude. As previously allowed, the creation
narrative serves to explain how things came to be as we experience them.
Life is perceived as essentially good, providing we observe divine
guidelines. As mentioned in passing, this encouraged the rabbis to
speculate that God will ask persons why they did not enjoy this or that
benefit. Along this line, an orthodox rabbi assured me that sex is more
gratifying on the Sabbath than on other occasions..
This invokes what the sociologist Peter Berger
describes as a sacred canopy. As such, it sharply contrasts to
the law of the jungle. Or, as characterized by my maternal
grandmother: “Everyone for himself, and the Devil gets the hindmost.”
The situation was to take a decided turn for the
worse. Not content with their lot, the human couple aspired to fend for
themselves. This amounted to idolatry, and would eventuate in all sorts
of perverse activity.
While thus alienated from God, they were not utterly
forsaken. It seemed as if God had withdrawn into the heavens. Efforts to
restore fellowship were ineffective.
It appeared that were reconciliation were possible,
God would have to take the initiative. This not uncommonly resulted in a
proliferation of lesser spirits to accommodate pressing needs.
Consequently, patron deities sponsored tribal
entities. Qualifications aside, corporate success or failure were
attributed to the relative potency of a given deity. It, nevertheless,
their potency could differ according to location or circumstances.
Patron deities tended to coalesce when tribal
allegiances increased. Some received greater recognition than their
rivals. Adjustments were made to accommodate change, as eminently
expressed in Egyptian religious tradition.
Spirits seemed prevalent in such a religious environ.
Some appeared amicable, why others were intimidating. Some of the latter
appear derived from persons frustrated by their inability to pass over
into the future life. These made life more difficult for those left
Now this mind set is not strictly speaking a thing of
the past, since many continue to experience life in this setting. The
High God, if part of the mix, remains distant and inaccessible.
Salvation history is on hold.
Not only is this a hold-over from the past, but
persons slip back into this way of thinking. This recalls a time when a
missionary suggested that it takes about three generations to cultivate
a well-rounded Christian, one that exhibits a Christian world and life
view. It occurred to me on that occasion that if true, perhaps it takes
a similar amount of time for persons to lapse from a vital Christian
In the above regard, William Watkins’ contrasts old
and new absolutes in American society. Illustrative of the former,
“human life from conception to natural death is sacred and worthy of
protection. Illustrative of the latter, “human life, which begins and
ends when certain individuals or groups decide it does, is valuable as
long as it is wanted.”52 This reveals an erosion of biblical
sensitivity, drawing from the failure to maintain an orientation
fostered by salvation history.
With the Patriarchs. “The Book of Genesis covers the
prepatriarchal period of Abraham’s life in five verse (Gen. 11:27-31).
Within the span of these verse Abraham was born, grew to adulthood, took
a wife, found himself in a childish marriage, and accompanied his father
on a journey of several hundred miles.”53 It lingers for over two
As noted earlier, God appeared to Abram/Abraham
enjoining him to take leave of his extended family and familiar
surroundings, in anticipation that “all the peoples on earth will be
blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). This would require that his posterity
be set apart as a chosen people, thus providing a light for the
This marked a significant departure from anything
that had preceded it, such as an occasional pious individual, or
Melchizedek—as priest of God Most High. As a matter of record,
“Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his
inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was
going. By faith he made his home in a foreign country, like a stranger
in a foreign country” (Heb. 11:8-9). As did “Isaac and Jacob, who were
heirs with him of the same promise.”
Our attention is thus drawn to the concept of
revelation, which pertains to revealing something that was
previously hidden. It consists of three components: a prior concealment,
potential understanding, and actual comprehension.
“Were there no concealment, there could be no revelation; were
there no possibility of comprehension, there could be no revelation;
were there no disclosure, there would be no revelation. Scripture
suggests that God takes this initiative.”54
More precisely, the patriarchal era introduces the
notion of special revelation. It is special in the sense
of being privileged information. Then, as extensively illustrated, it
consists of event plus interpretation. Much as a
solicitous parent will schedule experiences from which his or her
offspring may learn valuable lessons.
Now the patriarchal tradition was cultivated in the
context of community. As previously allowed, the more some things
change, the more other things remain constant. Such was the experience
of life within the confines of the chosen people.
Other ethnic groups were not as well informed,
lacking both the patriarchal tradition and the cultural cohesion that
contributed so substantially to an appreciative understanding.
Accordingly, great care must be taken not to ignore the distinctive
cultural setting of Holy Writ.
Of paramount concern, the patriarchs exercised faith.
This is less like a leap in the dark than pressing on toward the light.
It likewise supposes that God can do anything intrinsically possible but
fail. It also demonstrates a willingness to undertake monumental tasks
by way of his sustaining grace. Finally, it imagines that God is far
more creative and concerned than are we. Thus concludes our admittedly
brief reflection on the era of the patriarchs.
With the Prophets. As concerns the prophets, seldom
have so many been indebted to so few. They were a stalwart contingent of
covenant loyalists, which refused to compromise their prized
convictions. Consequently, their corporate witness continues to
reverberate down the long corridors of time.
Judaism is the most conspicuous beneficiary of the
prophetic tradition. “In this regard, “To speak of the Jew and his faith
is to focus on the quintessential dimension of that faith, Torah. It is
the Torah that brings solace, inner strength, and spiritual fulfillment
to the Jew during times of joy, security, and prosperity, as well as
during periods of wandering, suffering and adversity.”55 The Torah thus
serves as the lens through which the devout Jew views life, and
identifies him with others of his distinctive faith.
The term solicits a variety of connotations.
Etymologically, it essentially conveys the idea of teachings,
rather than law—as often surmised. Conversely, one might insist
that because it pertains to divine teaching, it should be observed. In
any case, it is generally employed with regard to the Old Testament
scriptures, or more particularly, concerning the Pentateuch. “The
precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart,” the psalmist
aptly declares. “The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to
the eyes” (19:8).
It is not thought that the Torah fully unfolds the
unfathomable mystery of God. As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your
thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). In context, this is due not only to man’s
finiteness but degradation.
Rather than discouraging our efforts, this serves as
an incentive to study more diligently. Pious reflection and zealous
application are thus thought to be inseparable companions. According to
rabbinic tradition, “An ignorant person cannot be pious”—providing her
or she is capable of understanding.
The focus of one’s studies is the Lord God Almighty.
Accordingly, “I believe in God” becomes the paramount confession of
faith. This implies not only intellectual assent, but confident trust.
It lead one learned rabbi to conclude that everything else resembles
As implied above, the Pentateuch was singled out for
special attention. The prophets and writings lent their support, but
were not given the same consideration. Consequently, the prophetic
tradition might be said to revolve around Sinai.
“Unlike most other faiths that are founded upon the
revelatory experiences of an individual, Judaism was born out of a
divine revelation to a collective people. For while the Torah was
written by Moses, the Sinai theophany was experienced by the entire
Jewish people (see Exod. 20:19).”56 While there are many inferences
drawn from this conviction, it assumes that every persons is both a
teacher and a learner.
Of similar concern for how the teachings occurred how
they are received. In this regard, it is observed that whereas “the Lord
came down from Mount Sinai” (Exod. 19:20), Moses went up to meet
him. This implies an earnest desire to experience the Almighty, and
appropriate his sage counsel.
Jews have been hesitant to seek out Gentile converts,
since it is supposed that the latter are linked to God through his
covenant with Noah. In this regard, the Gentile who exhibits the ethics
of the Torah is thought as holy as the high priest. This gives rise to
the notion of the righteous Gentile.
So matters will continue until the Messianic Age
ensues. Such as will be evidenced by the triumph of righteousness,
resulting in pervasive shalom. As graphically expressed: “They will
neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be
full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa.
With the Apostles. Christians, however, are of the
opinion that this exciting new age dawned with the advent of Jesus as
the Messiah, and as heralded by the apostles. There was the forerunner.
As such, John the Baptist provided a critical transition from the eras
of the prophets to the apostles.
What did you go out into the desert to see?” Jesus
rhetorically inquired. “A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what die you
go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine
clothes are in kings palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A
prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:7-9). In
particular, the messenger sent to prepare the way for Messiah.
The desert conveyed mixed connotations: while
not conducive to life, it recalled God leading the Israelites through
their wilderness wandering. Similarly, the reed was both a symbol
of compliance and strength—the latter in that it was flexible enough to
survive the gusts of wind. Such ambiguities are resolved upon
recognition of John as the prophetic herald of the age to come.
There was the incomparable one, impressively
commemorated in One Solitary Life:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a
He grew up in another village, where he worked in a
until he was thirty.
Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office.
He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go
He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200
miles from the place
he was born.
He did none of the things that usually accompany
He had no credentials but himself.
He was only thirty three when the tide of public
opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away. One of them denied him.
He was turned over to his enemies and went through the
mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While he was dying his executions gambled for his
the only property he had on earth.
When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave,
through the pity of a friend.
Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is
the central figure of
the human race.
I am well within the mark when I say that all the
armies that ever marched,
and all the navies that ever sailed,
all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that
have not affected the life of man on this earth as
much as that
One, solitary life.
From a theological perspective: “In the beginning was
the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word
became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the
glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and
truth” (John 1:1, 14). The text speaks for itself.
There were the twelve. They were a diverse group,
although all of Jewish origin. They were commissioned by Jesus for their
monumental task, to speak on his behalf, make disciples of all peoples,
and foster the fledgling fellowship. They were twelve in number,
recalling the twelve tribes of Israel, and thus representing the chosen
They had been with Jesus from the beginning, with the
ministry of John the Baptist, with the exception of Paul—expressly
designated at the apostle to the Gentiles. As such, they were heralds of
the kingdom, as attested by signs and wonders. They thus served to
promote authentic faith and pious behavior, both of which are preserved
in the New Testament scriptures.
Then there were the many. As for confirmation, “After
this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one
could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing
before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). They were
wearing white robes, and holding palm branches in their hands. They
cried aloud, saying: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the
throne, and to the Lamb.”
Although diverse, they were one in Christ.
Otherwise, there was considerable diversity. This was to serve a
constructive purpose, not unlike the different members of the human
body—where each contributes to the whole.
With the End Times. “If the universe has been
designed by God, then it must have a purpose. If that purpose is never
achieved, God will have failed. If it is achieved, the continuation of
the universe will be unnecessary. The universe, as we know it, will come
to an end.”57 First of three conditions, if the universe were designed
by God, it must have been for a purpose. As with the potter analogy
explored earlier, his intent being to fashion a vessel that is both
functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Second, if that purpose is never achieved, God has
failed. Qualifications aside, this would deny divine omnipotence.
However, as previously allowed, this does not include such things as are
contrary to fact. Such as creating a square circle; or of greater
import, violating his righteous character.
Finally, if his purpose is achieved, the continuation
of the universe is unnecessary. This, however, does not rule out the
possibility that the universe might be transformed in some manner as to
enhance a more comprehensive good. Even if not, redeemed humanity will
continue to serve God’s gracious intent.
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your
fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is
man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”
as cited earlier. “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,
and crowned with glory and honor” (8:4). In comparison with the vast
expanse of the heavens, man seem incredibility insignificant.
Nonetheless, God has seen fit to exalt him to a place
only a little lower than that of his angelic host. In this
capacity, man serves as steward on all creation. In this capacity as
well, he is accountable to the Almighty.
In this regard, he is meant to glorify God and enjoy
him forever. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus informed his
disciples. “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Neither do persons light
a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they place it on a stand. “In
the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your
good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14, 16). Thus
allowing that it is by divine grace that we have the opportunity and
desire to render some service.
In other words, put God first and other things tend
to fall into place—both now and in eternity. Even in the most difficult
of situations, there is assuredly a light at the end of the tunnel.
Furthermore, there are manifold incentives concerning the journey to the
1. James Livingston, Modern Christian Thought:
From the Enlightenment to Vatican 11, p. 1.
2. Lee Snook, What in the World Is God Doing?,
3. Paul Davies, God & The New Physics, p. 10.
4. John Polkinghorne, Science & Theology, p.
5. Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism, p. 19.
6. John Hartley, Genesis, p. 68.
7. Ibid., p. 83.
8. Chaim Clorefene and Yakov Rogalsky, The Path of
the Righteous Gentile, p. 48.
9. Morris Inch, Scripture As Story, p. 23.
11. Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of
Religion, p. 270.
12. Morris Inch, The High God, p. 8.
13. Schmidt, op. cit., p. 271.
14. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy,
15. Hartley, op. cit., p. 161.
16. John Walton & Victor Matthews, The IVP Bible
Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy, p. 49.
17. Hartley, op. cit., p. 255.
18. Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p. 4.
19. R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations,
20. Heschel, op. cit., p. 10.
21. John Goldingay, Isaiah, p. 242.
22. Walton & Matthews, op. cit., p. 87.
23. Robert Martin Achard and S, Paul Re’Emi, Amos
and Lamentations, p. 5.
24. Morris Inch, Potpourri, p. 113.
25. Heschel, op. cit., pp. 27-28.
26. Inch, Potpourri, p. 121.
27. David Allan Hubbard, Joel and Amos, p.128.
28. Tertullian, On Idolatry, I, 1-2.
29. Hubbard op. cit., pp. 152-153.
30. Martin-Achard and Re’Emi, op. cit., p. 34.
31. Inch, Potpourri, p. 126.
32. Oscar Brooks, The Drama of Decision, p.
33. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18. 5.
34. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship,
35. Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background
Commentary: New Testament, p. 241.
36. Marvin Wilson, Our Father’s World, pp.
37. F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 36.
38. Ibid., p. 73.
39. Morris Inch, “Manifestation of the Spirit,”
The Living and Active Word of God (Inch and Youngblood,
eds.), p. 149.
40. Tertullian, The Apology, L.
41. Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p.
42. Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story,
43. Mounce, op. cit., p. 69.
44. Ibid., p. 79.
45. Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 91.
46. Morris Inch, The Wonder of It All, p. 3.
47. Mounce, op. cit., p. 7.
48. Robert Wall, Revelation, p. 171.
49. Morris Inch, The Enigma of Justice, p. 62.
50. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p.
51. Inch, The Enigma of Justice, p. 63.
52. William Watkins, The New Absolutes, p. 65.
53. Alfred Huerth, Archaeology & the Old Testament,
54. Morris Inch, Making the Good News Relevant,
55. Yechiel Eckstein, How Firm a Foundation,
56. Ibid., p. 9.
57. Davies, op. cit., p. 199.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship.
New York: Macmillan, 1963.
Brooks, Oscar. The Drama of Decision. Peabody:
Bruce, F. F. The Book of the Acts. Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Clorefene, Chaim and Yakov Rogalsky. The Path of
the Righteous Gentile. Southfield: Targum, 1987.
Davies, Paul. God & The New Physics. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1983.
Eckstein, Yechiel. How Firm a Foundation.
Brewster: Paraclete, 1997.
Goldingay, John. Isaiah. Peabody: Hendrickson,
Harrison, R. K. Jeremiah & Lamentations.
Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1973.
Hartley, John. Genesis. Peabody: Hendrickson,
Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. Peabody:
Hoerth, Alfred. Archaeology & the Old Testament.
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Hubbard, David Allan. Joel & Amos. Downers
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———. The High God. Kearney: Morris, 1997.
——— and Ronald Youngblood (eds.). The Living and
Active Word of God. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1983.
———. Making the Good News Relevant. Nashville:
Thomas Nelson, 1986.
———. “Manifestation of the Spirit,” The Living and
Active Word of God (Inch and Youngblood, eds.), 149-155.
———. Potpourri. New York: iUniverse, 2008.
———. Scripture As Story. Lanham: University
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———. The Wonder of It All. Lanham: University
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Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background
Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993.
Livingston, James. Modern Christian Thought: From
the Enlightenment to Vatican II. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Martin-Achard, Robert and S. Paul Re’Emi. Amos and
Lamentations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.
Mbiti, John. African Religions and Philosophy.
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———. On Idolatry.
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