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.

More Legal Than Legal

Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 HCSB

Jesus’ primary opponents during His ministry were these scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite among the Jews. We can get a fairly comprehensive picture of them based on Jesus’ interactions with them and teachings against them, including here in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Pharisees were a sect that arose after the return from the exile. God’s judgment of sending them into exile proved to cure the Jews of external idolatry; unfortunately, the rise of the Pharisees produced a new wave of internal idolatry. Instead of worshiping the idol of other, they began the inexorable descent to worshiping self.

Continue reading “More Legal Than Legal”

Running Wild

Without revelation the people run wild,
but one who keeps the law will be happy.

Proverbs 29:18 HCSB

This is a somewhat well-known but sadly misunderstood verse. The Authorized Version (also known as the King James Version) reads more familiarly, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” The misunderstanding comes from imposing modern ideas of “vision” onto the verse, without understanding the intent. Continue reading “Running Wild”