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Preview: Idle musings of a bookseller

Idle musings of a (formerly former) bookseller

Idle musings by a once again bookseller, always bibliophile, current copyeditor, proofreader, and former cabin housekeeper/maintenance guy. Complete with ramblings about biblical studies, the ancient Near East, bicycling, gardening, or anything else I am

Updated: 2018-01-20T06:57:28.153-06:00


The waiting game


The God of the Bible is slow to anger and allows His prophet to affect a postponement of the intended punishment. It is important to note though that Yhwh does not explicitly forgive Israel’s guilt for which Amos has seemingly prayed. In other words, Israel is granted a period of grace. Yhwh cannot bring Himself to execute the well-deserved punishment yet.—Standing in the Breach, page 493

The silence is deafening


I've been a bit busy the last month or so. We bought a house in December and moved—to Red Wing. I also have started working for Penn State Press after they bought Eisenbrauns and the learning curve has taken a good bit of my time. In addition, I took on two editing projects that are taking a huge chunk out of the remainder of my time.

Given all that, there isn't a lot of time for reading and writing! Please bear with me for a bit. Things should calm down after January (famous last words!).

Amos or Joel? Which do you choose? And why it matters


In both the book of Joel and Amos, prophet and priest meet each other in the face of Yhwh’s imminent judgment. Interestingly, when we juxtapose the two accounts, the encounters between prophet and priest look very different. In the book of Joel, we get a sense of collaboration. Joel not only summons the priests to lead the national repentance ritual at the temple but also calls the priests to intercede for the people. It looks as though the priests followed the prophetic instructions and placed themselves between the altar of burnt offering and the porch to bring their prayers before God on behalf of the people (cf. Joel 1:13–14, 2:15–17). In the book of Amos, the prophet also meets a priest at the national sanctuary. In stark contrast to the book of Joel, there is a conflict between the prophet and the priest. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, seeks to ban Amos from preaching a day of divine reckoning (cf. Amos 7:12–17). Interestingly, in the book of Joel the repentance ceremony and the priestly intercession mark the shift from judgment to divine mercy and restoration (Joel 2:17–18), whereas in the book of Amos the shift from divine mercy to divine judgment is marked by the priest’s prohibition on prophesy. We shall see that, by silencing the prophet, the priest also brought an end to Amos’s intercessory prayer and Yhwh’s patience. Thus, one could say that God’s patience ends where the state, represented by the priest, tries to decide when and where God may speak through the prophet.—Standing in the Breach, page 487

Serving the people? Or serving the Lord?


Amos directs his judgment messages often against a self-indulgent individualism of the upper class of his time. Thereby, Amos and other prophets basically do what Moses did. That is, they seek to enable Israel in their time and context to live faithfully as Yhwh’s covenant people. There are points of contact not only in a common “community ethics” but also with regard to their intercessory ministries.

Let me start by drawing attention to the conflict between Amos and Amaziah. In this confrontation one can discern an ongoing biblical tension between the prophet and the institutionalized cult, a tension that is already foreshadowed in Moses and Aaron and their handling of the golden calf incident. Aaron, Barth observes, is not a charismatic figure like Moses, but the archetype of the institutionalized priesthood. Although Aaron is, as the “administrator” of the tent of meeting indispensable, he seems not to have an independent relationship to God, as do Moses and Amos (Exod 7:1–2, Amos 7:15). Aaron and Amaziah are men of the “established church.” They listen to the people’s voice. Moses and Amos, in contrast, are prophets. It is to them that God speaks directly, and thus they can intercede authoritatively with God on behalf of the sinful people and pass on the Lord’s word to Israel (Num 12:6–8, Amos 3:7). This contrast and tension comes also to expression in Jeremiah’s temple sermon ( Jeremiah 7) and reaches a dramatic climax in Jesus’ conflict with the temple establishment (cf. Matt 26:57–68).—Standing in the Breach, page 483

Hard-hitting Amos


Amos’s messages are possibly among the darkest of all the prophets. Message after message underlines Israel’s sinfulness and Yhwh’s judgment. But what exactly is the matter? After all, the Israelites of Amos’s time are showing a great religious zeal. They go on pilgrimages to their sanctuaries in Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba. There, they bring freewill and thanksgiving offerings and tithes, and they participate in vibrant festivals (Amos 4:4–5, 5:21–24). The prosperity and peace that Israel enjoyed at that time was probably taken as evidence of divine favor and validated, in a sense, their life styles as the chosen people of God. Amos, however, exposes their hollow behavior by pointing to their self-serving ignorance and attacks primarily three major areas of sin: social injustice, corruption (Amos 2:6–8), and idolatry (Amos 5:26).—Standing in the Breach, page 480

Sound familiar? What would Amos think of our culture? I suspect what he said to Israel would sound tame in comparison...

The divine council and intercession


[O]ur earlier finding [was] that intercessory prayer goes not only hand in hand with the prophetic office, but also happens often in the Bible when the prophet is invited into the divine presence. Amos articulates it in the well-known verse:
Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. (Amos 3:7)
We shall see that it is often precisely when Yhwh reveals His will and purposes (in the divine council) that He engages His prophets in a dialogue (“Amos, what do you see?” Amos 7:8) and invites them to participate in the making of the divine plans. It is in the context of five visions that we find Amos interceding for Israel (Amos 7:2, 5). Although initially the prophet succeeds in averting disaster, it becomes increasingly clear to him that Israel has sinned to a point beyond the reach of prophetic intercession. Nothing seems left to do, but to describe the consequences of what he has seen and to proclaim a message of judgment.—Standing in the Breach, page 480

Into the New Testament


[W]hen the Word became flesh and lived among the people, the Son reflects the glorious name of the Father. Jesus too is full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14–16). Behind the Greek terms χάρις and ἀλήθεια are the divine attributes of “steadfast love” (ֶחֶסד [ḥesed]) and “faithfulness” (ֱאֶמת [ʾemet]) from Exod 34:6 (cf. Exod 33:18–19). In other words, John claims that Jesus embodies Yhwh’s name. Thus, when people like the blind beggar or Stephen call on Jesus’ name (Luke 18:38, Acts 7:59), they stand in a sense in the long biblical tradition of calling on the gracious and merciful name of the Lord in order to the healed and forgiven.—Standing in the Breach, pages 473–74

Still hoping


In the Old Testament, the outpouring of the Spirit of God is limited (with few exceptions) to the leaders and particularly to the prophets. It is through these Spirit-anointed leaders that Yhwh often speaks, directs, and intervenes on behalf of the people (e.g., Deut 34:9; Judg 3:10, 6:34; 1 Sam 16:13; Neh 9:30; Isa 42:1; Ezek 2:2). Joel, however, anticipates a time when all Israel would share in the Spirit of prophecy and know the Lord personally (Joel 2:28–32; cf. Jer 31:34). Philip notes that “for Joel, prophecy, visions and dreams appear to be characteristic of an intimacy with YHWH, made possible by the outpouring of the Spirit.”[Finny Philip, The Origins of Pauline Pneumatology (WUNT 2/194; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005) 67]The prophet seems to envisage a corporate gift of prophecy that will enable every member of the community one day to stand “among YHWH’s council and (hear) his word at first hand (Jer 23:18).” [Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (NICOT; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978) 99] In other words, Joel’s vision anticipates a prophetic community that will hear from and speak directly to God. Already Moses yearned for the day when all the house of Israel will be gifted with the enabling presence of God’s Spirit (cf. Num 11:25–29). Joel anticipates the fulfillment of Moses’ hope. Each will know God in an unmediated way through the Spirit (Joel 2:28–29).—Standing in the Breach, page 471

Unfortunately, it seems we are still hoping for it. Perhaps because our culture is so antisupernatural and the church as a whole has absorbed that same mentality.

Lord, send you Spirit upon us that Joel's vision might become reality!

By his sustaining grace


Although human repentance is an essential aspect in the process of reconciliation, the book of Joel makes it clear that the process is initiated by God. The prophet underlines though that human repentance does not guarantee divine forgiveness. Yhwh cannot be coerced into a favorable response (Joel 2:14; cf. Amos 5:15, Jonah 3:9). Achtemeier notes:

Repentance is not a meritorious work that compels God to accept us. When we have done all that is required of us, we are still unworthy servants (see Luke 17:10), and the truly repentant know that they have no goodness of their own to claim, but depend solely on the mercy of God. As the saying goes, the true saint is one who knows that he or she is a sinner.[Achtemeier, “Joel,” 319–20]
The reality is that the covenant relationship, at anytime in the history of the people of God, has been preserved by God. From the beginning, Israel, Judaism, and Christianity have been forgiven and are restored communities (cf. Gen 8:21, Exod 34:9, Luke 15:11–24). There was a covenant and a new covenant, but only because it has been graciously initiated and maintained from God’s side.—Standing in the Breach pages 470–71

Aramaic irony


The Edict of Darius declares concerning any who may hinder the reconstruction: “that a beam (ʾāʿ) will be ripped out of his house and, once reerected, he will be hanged on it.” This curse acquires its full rhetorical significance only if one reads it in connection with the reference to building lumber in the preceding section ([Ezr.]6:4). Thus, it appears as an ironic antithesis to Ezr. 6:4: Just as Cyrus and Darius finance the reconstruction of the “house of God” (6:3) by also supplying, among other things, the wood for its construction, so must any who oppose this project provide the wood for his gallows from his own house, which will ultimately destroy it. Thus, wood here becomes a sign both for blessing and for the fates of the various groups depending on the extent to which they agree with God’s plan.—Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, XVI, forthcoming (this is the Aramaic volume).

What manner of man?


What is of great interest to us is that the priests in the book of Joel act under instruction of the prophet. Even the priests do not know how to pray. Joel has to teach them how to intercede under these challenging circumstances. In the Old Testament, it is usually only the prophet who has access to “the council of the Lord” and so is familiar with the divine will (cf. Amos 3:7). Authoritative and effective intercessory prayer require an intimate knowledge of the divine will (cf. Exod 32:7–14). Once again, we notice that the persuasive power of prophetic prayer is based on the simple fact that it engages with God’s nature and revealed purposes (Joel 2:13–14, Exod 34:6–7.—Standing in the Breach, page 469

All of God


Joel reminds us that any sacrifice that hopes to be effective has to be accompanied by repentance and a turning back to God. Even then, forgiveness depends ultimately on the grace of God (“who knows whether,” Joel 2:12–14). In other words, although we read in the Old Testament about elaborate cleansing rituals that the priests have to undergo in order to perform their mediatory role before a holy God (cf. Exod 19:22, Lev 1–8), the atoning efficacy depends on several important factors, such as the sacrifice, the ritual, the attitude of the sinner, and above all, God’s gracious willingness to respond favorably to the plea for mercy and forgiveness.—Standing in the Breach, pages 456–57

To everything there is a season...


How do we evaluate these two broad lines of interpretations of God’s prohibition on intercessory prayer? Let us first note that until now the biblical witness has made it evident that God expects His prophets to intercede on behalf of the sinful people. In God’s providence, He invites prophetic intercession and builds it into the decision-making process. Sometimes this invitation to pray comes by provoking the prophet to refrain from prayer (cf. Exod 32:7–14, Deut 9:14). If, however, the divine-human covenant relationship is undermined by ongoing ethical misconduct and idolatry, then God’s gracious responsiveness is no longer guaranteed. Thus, we have seen both in our treatment of Moses’ and Jeremiah’s prayers that effectiveness of intercessory prayer goes hand in hand with the responsiveness of the party that is being prayed for (cf. Deut 10:12–20, Jer 18:1–12). In spite of numerous prophetic summons to turn back to God, Israel in Jeremiah’s day would not turn back to Yhwh. In other words, there is a clear sense that the divine prohibition is strongly related to an unresponsive generation. Just like Moses, Jeremiah is initially not deterred by the divine prohibition to intercede for the people. The prophet continues to pray for the postponement of the divine judgment until he comes to realize that Israel is beyond help on the path to punishment (“Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people” Jer 15:1). It is at this point that Jeremiah’s intercessory prayers turn into ongoing laments and change to prayers for judgment. In doing so, the prophet continues to mirror Yhwh’s will and pathos in his prayers.—Standing in the Breach, page 436

Hope for the wicked


The second line of interpretation acknowledges that prophetic intercession is highly effective in God’s outworking of His plans. Precisely because of its power on swaying the divine mind, Yhwh has to prohibit His prophet to intercede in order to execute His judgment. By implication, this sort of reading would suggest that even when the people’s sins are as great and many as in Jeremiah’s days, the prophetic intercessor could hope to pacify the justified wrath of God and persuade Yhwh to show leniency and to withhold punishment from the sinful party.— Standing in the Breach, page 433

That's assuming, of course, that there are people willing to intercede!
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The power of prayer


Although we have seen again and again that there is indeed a fundamental link between the sins of the party that is being prayed for and the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, in our treatment of the texts the question arose as to why Yhwh needed to prohibit Jeremiah persistently and urgently from praying for this people. If it were simply a matter of the people’s sin outweighing the power of prayer, there would be no need for an urgent ongoing ban on intercession. The prophet’s prayers would simply prove ineffective, suffocated by the people’s sin. Therefore, it seems that the underlying logic of the prohibition is not just about the extent of Israel’s sin but also because prophetic intercession has an effect on Yhwh’s judgment.—Standing in the Breach, page 435

&tl;idle musing>
This paragraph is worth the price of the book! It gives me hope as I pray—hope that no matter how far-gone a situation might be, that God still might intervene if I continue to pray. Nothing and no one is beyond redemption—as scripture says, "God is not willing that any should perish." If we persevere in seeking God's face in prayer and interceding on behalf of others, against all odds, God might intervene.

So what is wrath?


While I do not want to belittle the importance of this fundamental tension within God and the divine pathos or pain resulting from it, my concern is to see divine wrath in its proper biblical relation to the divine attributes of grace, mercy, covenant loyalty, and forbearance. According to Yhwh’s self-revelation, the seriousness of divine wrath should never be neglected in any portrayal of God, but it must be seen in its proportion to His attributes of love (“thousand to four,” cf. Exod 34:6–7).346 The inexhaustible depth of divine love also comes to expression in divine statements such as “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you”( וְאַהֲבַ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ אֲהַבְתִּ֔יךְ עַל־כֵּ֖ן מְשַׁכְתִּ֥יךְ חָֽסֶד׃, Jer 31:3). Moreover, it is important to highlight as Heschel does that divine anger is not an attribute of God. Rather it is “a mood, a state of mind.”—Standing in the Breach, page 433

Take away point here, which needs to be in flashing bold letters: "divine anger is not an attribute of God. Rather it is 'a mood, a state of mind.'”

Hope through the ashes


The book of Jeremiah is heavy on suffering and on warnings of a forthcoming judgment. However, when one looks at the message of the book as a whole, it is evident that the fundamental aim of the book of Jeremiah is to establish a theology of hope. To be sure, it is a hope that arises from the ashes of pain, judgment, and death. Thus, in a real sense the theological movement of the book anticipates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.—Standing in the Breach, page 429

That was also the theme of a book I recently read: Habakkuk in the Two Horizons Commentary. He argues that Habakkuk came to the position of embracing the coming judgment because he saw God's restoration on the other side of it. Good book, by the way.

A shift in viewpoint


God’s holy anger is directed to and absorbed in Jesus. So one could say that just as the blood of the godless had been the joy and victory of the righteous psalmist under the old covenant (Ps 58:10 [MT 11]), so the Christ, who bled and died for sinners, is subjected to God’s wrath, and is salvation for those under the new covenant. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, salvation takes on an eternal dimension. The people of God are no longer “saved” through the destruction of their enemies.

This radical shift in understanding salvation undoubtedly has important ramifications for the Church’s understanding of the imprecatory prayers. God’s justice is no longer primarily displayed in the punishment of the wicked, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.— Standing in the Breach, page 416

To what end suffering?


Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross was not a one-off quotation from a psalm of lament. Both Jeremiah and Jesus were remembered as servants of God who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7; cf. Jer 17:14). When under persecution, however, we notice a first major difference. Jeremiah’s laments frequently move toward prayers against the enemies, while Jesus put his teaching on “love your enemies” into practice by interceding for them. Moreover, at no point in Jeremiah’s ministry, as far as I can tell, does it occur to the prophet that his mediatory suffering before God serves any deeper purpose. In the case of Jesus, however, there is good reason to believe that he understood his suffering as being vicarious. Jesus says that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Between the death of Jesus and the suffering of Jeremiah stands the poem of the suffering servant. We have seen that Isaiah 53 in particular gives expression to something unprecedented in the Old Testament: the enabling of healing and new life through the substitutionary suffering of another. It is widely agreed that Jesus understood his forthcoming death in the light of the suffering servant (cf. Isa 53:10–12).—Standing in the Breach, pages 414–15

What of the violence in those prayers?


It is one thing to understand Jeremiah’s prayers for divine justice by their own logic and terms; it is quite another challenge to test their relevance in a new covenant Christian setting. Praying against one’s enemies is not the way Jesus taught his followers. This raises the immediate question of whether there is a way to reconcile the imprecatory prayers with Jesus’ message of love for one’s enemies (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27–29).—Standing in the Breach, page 410

Thus, two patterns have emerged. On the one side, we have those who want to exclude these prayers from the functioning Christian canon, because of their time and culture-bound characteristics, while, on the other side, are those who tend to reinterpret or spiritualize the material in order to maintain its abiding witness for the Church. Traditionally, the Church expects that the Bible in its full complexity has relevance for its contemporary readers. This is what gives the Bible its vitality.—Standing in the Breach, page 413

An enduring problem, indeed. I certainly don't have the answer! But it does seem ironic to me that a culture that is as warlike as ours, sending drones on innocent citizens, carrying on wars all over the world to "protect American interests," and that allows 33,000 people every year to be killed by hand guns has a problem with violence in the Bible!

Stop to think about that for a minute. It's like the current rage of firing people for sexual misconduct—which I think is totally justified!—in a culture that glorifies sex. Does anyone see the irony in this?

Ah well, just an

What about Jeremiah?


So, if Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers appear at first sight like vicious selfish prayers, they often reflect the prophet’s concern for divine justice and his covenant duty to report to Yhwh about the state of the godless (Jer 12:1–3, 15:15). To stop Jeremiah from proclaiming divine judgment is in effect opposition to the Lord and what God is doing. We have seen that Jeremiah sought to oppose Yhwh’s judgment in prayer for a long time, until the prophet eventually aligned his prayers with Yhwh’s verdict to judge Israel. On the basis of Yhwh’s covenantal will, it becomes clear that Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers have to be heard against the background of the blessing-cursing rhetoric of the Old Testament covenant. Recognizing this background helps us to see that not just anything goes in Jeremiah’s prayers, but that the prophet’s harsh curses “are petitions for the justice of God, for the vindication of God’s righteous nature and purposes.” [Miller, They Cried, 93]—Standing in the Breach, page 409

It's not automatic


On many important ancient Near Eastern treaties, law codes, or covenants one finds appended an extensive set of curses. These curses function as a kind of “divine safeguard” against breaking the agreement. The general understanding of the ancient Near Eastern religions was that these curses became efficacious by breaching the covenant stipulations in an almost mechanical magical manner. Van der Toorn comments:
one gains the impression that it (the curse) acts quite independently of the relationship between the individual and his gods. The many symbolic actions connected with the oath could, much more than in Israel, also be understood as magical manipulation to render the curses automatically efficacious.
There is, however, hardly any evidence for such a reading in the Old Testament.— Standing in the Breach, page 408

Prophetic mediation


The genuine prophetic mediator embodies not only the divine word but, to some degree, the divine pathos as well.— Standing in the Breach, page 394

I am weary of holding it in…


As the dialogue with God progresses, Jeremiah gives more and more expression to the tension of the mediator. On the one hand, he loves the people and intercedes for them, but on the other hand, the prophet sees their many blatant sins and thus he is weary with holding back the wrath of God that he came to embody (Jer 6:11, 20:9). Jeremiah’s inner struggle over the fate of Judah reflects in many ways God’s mercy and wrath (Exod 34:6–7). As mediator, Jeremiah stands between God and the people, he represents both sides to the other party, and he embodies the suffering, the uncertainty, the wrath, and the hopes of both sides at the same time.—Standing in the Breach, page 393

Intercession is a family affair


But it is also important to note that on the full biblical revelation, our prayers for justice are not our prayers alone. The Scriptures indicate that Jesus intercedes on our behalf (John 17) and “ever lives to make intercession for us” (Heb 7:25). They record that the Spirit intercedes as well, groaning on our behalf in our suffering (Rom 8:26–27). This shows us that even within the Godhead, the Spirit and the Son make intercession to the Father about the affairs of humanity, praying about sin and the mediating salvation of Christ (Heb 7:23–25), praying for support and fidelity to God (John 17), and groaning and interceding over suffering (Rom 8:26–27). In this, we are not alone in prayer, even in prayers of lament. God has gone before and behind us in the Son and the Spirit, drawing our prayers into his.—Heath Thomas, Habakkuk, forthcoming in the THOTC series (emphasis original)