Presence and Absence

… because a personal reality is not a philosophical solution to a philosophical problem (how can God be God and yet be so hidden?), but a person to be trusted. Since Jesus is the personal embodiment of God’s presence made real within the world and at the same time the embodiment of our experience of God’s seeming absence within the world, then it is through Him–and only Him–that we are able to begin to understand God’s ways in the world and with us.

— Bryan R Gregory, Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther, 18-19.

2015 Reading Log: Salvation through Judgment and Mercy

Estelle, Bryan D. Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah.

I’m slowly and hopefully surely making my way through memorizing the 12 minor prophets. I’ve made my way through Zechariah and Haggai; I then turned to Jonah. My profound affection and respect for the Gospel according to the Old Testament series has yet to disappoint me (see here and here for starters).

Jonah is one of the more famous Old Testament stories, but one with much more nuance and depth than is often realized or appreciated. Estelle stands upon the foundation of the authenticity of Jonah’s text and the divine inspiration thereof, but he also insists upon it being a literary masterpiece as well.

One element of Jonah that Estelle brings out in the book that I found helpful and new to me was his explanation for why Jonah fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew chapter 4 stated that Jonah knew if he preached to the Ninevites, God would probably give them grace, which angered him. Jonah didn’t want them to have grace, but I never made the connection as to why until this book helped me see.

As the title indicates, salvation is tied up with both judgment and mercy. In fact, salvation requires judgment on those not receiving mercy. Jonah resisted preaching to Nineveh because if they repented and were saved, that necessarily meant judgment on Israel. It wasn’t simply that Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to repent and believe in Yahweh; he didn’t want mercy shown to them to come at the expense of judgment on Israel. In fact, Assyria did indeed destroy the northern kingdom of the 10 tribes a few generations later.

Jonah should have interpreted his message and mission in this way: if there was judgment-sparing mercy for Yahweh- and Israel-hating Nineveh, then surely there would be judgment-sparing mercy for Israel if they would repent like Nineveh. If the love of Yahweh could cover even pagan Assyrians, it could certainly cover and restore His own chosen nation. Repentance, just as it is today, is the key to relationship with God, and He is not stingy with His grace.

If you’re studying Jonah or considering studying Jonah, this is a very helpful resource to add to your library.

2015 Reading Log: Right in Their Own Eyes

Schwab, George. Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel according to Judges.

The book of Judges is a sordid tale of what it looks like when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Some of the more famous Old Testament stories and “heroes” are found within its pages, men such as Gideon and Samson. A closer look shows these men as deeply flawed, wretchedly wicked; yet, despite all this, God’s plan and purposes prevail through them nonetheless.

I learned a lot from this book, particularly in the way that Schwab focused each chapter. The book of Judges, he writes, is stylized history, not a simple chronological account. He writes, “The text wants to be read as factual history, unlike how some critics regard it. But it has nonhistorical features, contra a literalistic approach…The reader should let it be what it is–essentially a theological argument using patterned history as illustration” (19). The book is a political tract used to campaign for David’s kingship, and was also likely used by Josiah in his reforms, as well as teaching and consoling the exiles in Babylon. Judges is also an application of the sermons in Deuteronomy. Schwab shows how each passage functions in each of these roles.

One small thing that I appreciated about this book is how often Schwab simply asks interpretive questions. I laugh at how one commentary will assert an interpretation, while another will assert a different interpretation–both saying the other is wrong. Schwab will offer his interpretations, but also offer suggestions or possibilities as questions and leave them as such. For me, it’s quite winsome, because it shows humility at what can’t be known, but also honors the reader with more food for thought. For example, when discussing the selection of Gideon’s 300:

The second testing was in how the men drank at the stream. One group “lapped” and the other “knelt.” Whoever exhibited doglike lapping behavior (actually using hands rather than tongues) was kept. Kneelers were sent home. So the battle would be between canine and locustlike men. Is it a coincidence that Caleb means “dog”? Is this a tacit way of saying that those who resemble Judah’s hero are God’s elect? (105).

Another interesting feature of the book is how Schwab helps the reader understand why Hebrews 11 includes men from Judges. Judges is brutally honest about how weak or wretched Samson, Gideon, Barak, and Jephthah are, and yet Hebrews holds them up as paragons of faith. Judges shows us what Spirit-empowered men are capable of, in spite of their sinfulness, all for the advancement of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel according to the Old Testament series is one of my favorites, and this volume doesn’t disappoint.

2015 Reading Log: Recovering Eden

Eswine, Zack. Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes.

The short review: I could have dropped the book in highlighter ink, and it wouldn’t look much different than it does now (although drier, I think).

Ecclesiastes is a strange book, one that runs counter to most of our expectations for the Bible and the Christian life. Zack Eswine doesn’t shy away from this strangeness. Instead, he shows us how the Preacher is speaking wisdom in a way that anyone in the world–believer or unbeliever alike–understands.

If Proverbs is like math, mostly dealing in equations in which one thing adds up to equal another, then Ecclesiastes is like music, all mood with melody and tone (9).

A person with no knowledge of the Bible can sit in the pew as this Preacher speaks, and they can feel that he is using their language to speak about things that they themselves know (10).

The Preacher gives language to our ache, poetry for our dreams, and exclamation for our search. … By this means, the God who inspired this text shows us His empathy and His profound understanding of our plight in all of its confusing, emotional, tragic, and maddening forms (12-13).

The title of the book comes from the universal sense that this world is not as it should be. To borrow from Milton, Paradise is indeed lost; what this world once was in all its peaceful, joyous, harmonious glory is long gone. We see pain and suffering and death and disease and foolishness and injustice and wrong. Ecclesiastes sets out to show us that this unease with the world is right, but without leaving us in our despair. The Preacher shows us how to have wisdom to see that there is a “time to weep and a time to laugh,” both without losing hope in God.

In the TV show The West Wing, a parable is told about a man who’s stuck in a hole that he can’t get out of. He’s shouting for help, and sure enough, someone comes along. But then, that guy jumps down into the hole, too! The first man says, “You idiot, what are you doing? Now we’re both stuck down here!” His new companion says, “Yeah, but I’ve been here before. I know the way out.” Solomon never denies the reality, depth, or dirtiness of the hole we’re in, but he also grabs our hand and shows us the hand-holds he’s already found.

The reality of life also includes joys and good things. We aren’t supposed to apologize for those. We don’t neglect them. We aren’t supposed to feel guilty for them. We’re supposed to enjoy them:

Our impending death calls us to prayer and piety (Eccl. 5) but not in isolation from the physical provisions of God for us. Our spouses, our food, our place, our work, and our enjoyment of each other are not meant to fade from view when death speaks. Rather, the Preacher teaches us that these provisions are meant to take their place center stage in our lives with God. These are His gifts to us and are not trash to be thrown into the alley dumpster while we carry our Bibles and sit in the alley, waiting with praise and prayer for death to come. … Therefore, we must learn from God how to enjoy what He has given us, knowing that none of it can save or satisfy us. … To taste the sweetness of ordinary joys, we learn to enter each day with a conviction about the givenness of all things (103-104).

Recovering Eden reads more like Zack Eswine sat down with you over your beverage of choice (never been a coffee drinker, myself; a Cherry or Vanilla Coke Zero will do nicely, thanks) and just talked with you. This book comforts in its honesty, encourages in its hopefulness, and blesses in its determined mission to show us that the “one Shepherd, the one greater than Solomon, He is here” (230).

The House of God

The house of God, then, is like a green branch pushing its way out of a blackened tree stump; an unyielding flower that still blooms amid the grey ash of a bombed-out village; a persecuted man forced to work knee-deep in human dung, who sings praises still to Jesus. The house of God reminds us that God has not abandoned the raging world to a life without witness to Himself. But though it witnesses to Him, it does not exhaust, limit, or consume Him.

–Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes, 161.