Give What You Command

Give What You Command

John says that the commands of God are not burdensome, but it doesn’t always feel that way.

St. Augustine’s famous line from his Confessions fits well in this passage in 1 Thessalonians: “Lord, give what you command, and command what you will.” In other words, “Lord, as long as you give me the ability to obey, then command whatever you want.”

Sanctuary (Kloang)

The ashes of priests             still red-glow,
From Uzziah’s woe                I retreat.
But where can I go?              Where to run?

I might as well be                  on the sun.

To live in Your tent,               there with You,
In Your presence tru-            ly content.
Past the curtain, through     the thick veil,
My heart’s great intend-       ed home dwells.

How can I survive                  holy flame,
Not vaining Your Name,        but to thrive
In that Place, the same         that can kill?
‘Neath Your wings I hide,     drink my fill. 




“‘Holy, holy, holy’ is not just repetition; it is emphasis. … The holiness of God distinguishes Him absolutely, even from the sinless angels.” — Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, 77.

Holiness is not the mag-stripe ID card that grants access to the restricted areas of Heaven, including the presence of God. The “emphasis” on the holiness of God goes beyond just separating God from sinners; it is the separation of God from everything else.

When I read the above quote, it struck me as something I hadn’t thought of that much. The seraphim aren’t sinful, and they’re given access to the throne of Yahweh Himself–yet two of their wings are devoted to hiding their faces. The holiness of the Triune God is such that even sinless beings dare not presume upon Him.

And yet, the seraphim sing. They are humble, but not ashamed. Their everlasting call-and-response is a celebration of the one their eyes dare not rest upon.

But then, consider: this thrice-holy Triune God sings, too. What makes Him sing is His love for every last individual born-again saint. The eternal boiling-over of love within the Trinity is expanded to include everyone who is in Jesus.

And John says, “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2 HCSB). The first time Jesus came, we saw Him as we are; then, when He comes again, we will see Him as He is.

And the seraphim have plenty of room for us to join in the song.

Herbert and the Debtor’s Ethic

I’m working through Jim Scott Orrick’s A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-two of His Best Loved Poems. I read “The Thanksgiving,” which Orrick describes this way:

Herbert vows that he will use Christ’s gifts to praise Him and to give Him thanks. … The poet proposes a love contest between the Lord and himself. “I know,” he acknowledges, “that You are the king of grief. In view of the cross, there’s no disputing that. I know I cannot repay You by offering You my grief. But perhaps I can repay You for Your love and get one-up on You by using all Your gifts not for my benefit, but for yours.”

Orrick’s typically helpful and insightful analysis notes that Herbert is under no delusions of possible success, and the poem conveys this well. Herbert is not advocating the Debtor’s Ethic–the idea that our good works and obedience as Christians is motivated by “repaying Jesus.” No one seriously thinks that’s possible, but it’s the thought that counts, so the Ethic goes.

The Bible never puts forth the Debtor’s Ethic as motivation, either. But it does spend a lot of time encouraging believers to obedience and good works. In fact, Herbert’s “strategy” for the contest sounds a lot like what the New Testament expects of those who are in Christ.

The Gospel is, by definition, good news. “Work harder” isn’t good news, and so neither the Scriptures nor Herbert offer it as such. Rather, what is offered is this:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift–not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10 HCSB).

We can undertake Herbert’s “contest” as he does, with no actual intention of competing, but rather out of amazed wonder and gratitude that we are able to render to Jesus anything at all. It’s a miracle that we actually want to give Jesus anything other than a clenched fist and a middle finger, and so we do. And even what we offer is so weak and shot through with sin and brokenness that it’s a miracle He takes it and makes it holy and acceptable, just because He loves us.

Let’s enter the contest, then, and give up competing entirely.

Uzzah Redux

In Zechariah 13, the promises of future grace on Judah are coming fast and furious. The chapter begins with a fountain being opened that washes away sin and impurity–the two hindrances to approaching God that must be dealt with by sacrifice and cleansing.

Then the names of the idols will be entirely removed from the land–even the memory of them will be gone. The false prophets and the unclean spirit marshaling them will be evicted.

Then, to emphasize how complete a purification this will be, a scenario is posed where someone dares to prophesy falsely in this time:

If a man still prophesies, his father and his mother who bore him will say to him: You cannot remain alive because you have spoken falsely in the name of Yahweh. When he prophesies, his father and his mother who bore him will pierce him through” (Zechariah 13:3 HCSB).

The holiness of God’s people will be so pervasive that a man’s parents will execute him for taking Yahweh’s name in vain.

This makes me think of two possibly related passages: the death of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6) and Jesus’ teaching about not bringing peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34-38).

In 2 Samuel, the people were treating the Ark of the Covenant as a lucky charm; they thought that Yahweh would never allow those who carried His Ark to be defeated. They marched themselves out to fight against the Philistines. And were whipped six ways from Sunday, including having the Ark captured and brought into Philistine territory.

Remember, God gave very detailed commands about how the Ark was to be moved and who was allowed to carry it. Nobody touched it at all. Only the Levites were allowed to touch the poles that carried it; nobody touched it. It was the visible representation of the throne of God Himself. It was to remain within the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (and later the temple). The Philistines began breaking out in horribly disgusting and uncomfortable diseases as long as the Ark remained with them, so they did the only sensible thing they could do: they sent it back to Israel.

Once the Israelites reclaimed the Ark, they began to transport it back to its proper place. The only problem with their plan was that they were completely disregarding those commands God had given. Instead of being carried properly, David and his crew took a brand-new cart and let oxen pull the cart. The cart hits a pothole, and the Ark starts to tip over and fall off the cart. Uzzah reaches out and steadies the Ark and is immediately struck dead by Yahweh.

Not only were they being disobedient to God’s instructions, Uzzah’s actions–regardless of his conscious intent–betrayed a belief that God needed help. 2 Samuel 5 tells the story of the Ark being placed next to the statute of the Philistine god Dagon. Every morning, the Philistines found their statue lying prone before the Ark. One morning, Dagon’s head had fallen off. The God who could do that didn’t need Uzzah’s or David’s or anybody else’s help. He’s too holy for our filthy hands to steady Him, if He ever needed steadying in the first place.

The holiness of God lashed out in righteous, justified judgment against Uzzah. What we see in Zechariah 13 is that same holiness, but this time in the lives of the people themselves. Those washed in the sin-cleaning fountain (13:1) would be so zealous for the reputation and honor of Yahweh that they would stand against their own children if necessary. Which sounds a lot like Matthew 10, in which Jesus says that He comes to bring a sword that divides even within families.

The vision of Zechariah 13 portrays for us the passionate holiness of God active in the hearts of His people. They are no longer ruddy with sin, but washed white as snow (Isaiah 1:18) in the fountain He opened. They are completely transformed from self-absorbed self-lovers to glory-absorbed God-lovers. Instead of sinfully piercing the Innocent One (12:10), they’re now shown as righteously piercing the deserving guilty.

It would not surprise me in the least if King Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10 was not explicitly alluding to Zechariah 13, which His original hearers would have picked up on. It would have been a scandalous claim, because in so doing He would be identifying Himself as the struck Shepherd and Associate of Yahweh Himself (13:7-9).

The Holy Spirit Himself lives within us to progressively create in us the very passionate holiness of Zechariah 13. Let us take every opportunity He gives us to, as John Newton’s hymn says, “love and sing and wonder” on the way.

Both/And, Not Either/Or

For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29 HCSB).

Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.
Fire goes up before Him and burns up His foes on every side.
He protects the lives of His godly ones;
He rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous,
gladness for the upright in heart.
Be glad in the LORD, you righteous ones,
and praise His holy name. (Psalm 97:3, 10b-12 HCSB)

The declaration of the LORD: “I will be a wall of fire around [Jerusalem], and I will be the glory within it” (Zechariah 2:5 HCSB).

The Bible is full of interesting–and often difficult–tensions. Many of these tensions deal with the character of God Himself, which makes the difficulties that much more difficult. But these tensions are necessary and foundational to life and worship.

The tension in the texts above is between the realities that God is both ours AND a consuming fire.

Continue reading “Both/And, Not Either/Or”

Odd Couple

A common theme encountered in the Psalms is that of the confidence of God’s people and the terror of His enemies (either real or expected).

Psalm 114 is an interesting variation on this theme: the redeemed are the ones terrified.

The Psalm seems to be arranged in three sections:

I. Salvation from Egypt to Canaan (1-2)

II. Creation’s Terror (3-6)

III. Commanded Trembling

Continue reading “Odd Couple”

Lady and the Tramp

The book of Proverbs has an extended introduction that lays the foundation for the actual proverbs that begin in chapter 10. In this introduction, Solomon pleads with his sons (and his readers) to grasp the necessity and immeasurable value of wisdom. To do this, he often personifies wisdom and folly (or foolishness) as women appealing for a hearing. Wisdom is a distinguished, elegant, beautiful woman who is as hard-working as she is graceful. Folly is, to put it bluntly, a skanky bimbo. Continue reading “Lady and the Tramp”

The Dog Ate Them an Hour Ago

Don’t envy a violent man
or choose any of his ways;
for the devious are detestable to Yahweh,
but He is a friend to the upright. Proverbs 3:31-32 HCSB

Don’t let your heart envy sinners;
instead, always fear Yahweh. Proverbs 23:17 HCSB

Don’t envy evil men
or desire to be with them,
for their hearts plan violence,
and their words stir up trouble. Proverbs 24:1 HCSB

Don’t worry because of evildoers,
and don’t envy the wicked.
For the evil have no future;
the lamp of the wicked will be put out. Proverbs 24:19-20 HCSB

As a dog returns to its vomit,
so a fool repeats his foolishness. Proverbs 26:11 HCSB

For Solomon and the Sages, there is a universe of topics to cover in conveying what a life of wisdom looks like. The proverb format lends itself well to covering a broad spectrum of subjects; proverbs are pithy, memorable statements that engage the imagination and teach much in few words (unlike my definition).

Continue reading “The Dog Ate Them an Hour Ago”