Time for a Sabbatical

Thank you for being an engaged reader.

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years. It’s been a joyful experience sharing with you my insights into the Bible. I also delight in the wonderful feedback you have sent me.

In recent months, however, I have begun to sense my creative well running dry. I feel that my recent writing does not bring fresh insight into the Bible’s message. Writing has become something of a burden.

I’ve decided to take a sabbatical for several months. After that I will assess if the break has recharged my batteries. If it has, I will return, I hope, with new enthusiasm and new creativity. I plan to keep my site active so you can access the archive of past postings if you choose to do so.

Thank you for being a steady and engaged reader. I hope the past eight years have broadened your knowledge and understanding of the Bible. I urge you to continue to read it on your own. Let the Word do its work.

 

The Widow’s Mite

The gospel writer makes connections by the placement of his stories.

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The widow making her temple contribution, by the French illustrator Gustave Doré, 19th century

I never assume that the gospel writers compiled their gospels thoughtlessly. We may think that they just joined one story to another as a jeweler might string a strand of beads. However, that’s not the case. How they place individual stories or sayings in their broader gospel narrative often reveals connections they want us to make between the stories they recount.

A good example is the story Mark tells that we often label the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). It recounts an incident in Jesus’ life, which Mark places in the events of Holy Week.

Jesus is sitting in the Jerusalem temple, watching the crowds who enter. Many drop a money gift into the temple’s cash box. Those who are affluent drop sizeable amounts. Then a widow makes her donation. It is a tiny sum: just two small coins that are valued what our translations call a penny. (It is hard to know how to value this sum in today’s currency. But think of it as a miniscule value, like two dollar bills.)

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus comments that she has given the most of all. The rich have given large sums, but those sums amount to no great sacrifice for them. The widow, however, has given everything she has, in fact, everything she has to live on.

The text calls us to admire her for her extreme generosity…or her sincere religious devotion. That is what most preachers focus on when they preach this text. But I contend there is much more going on by Mark placing this story where he does.

In the verses preceding (Mark 12:38-40), Jesus has been criticizing the religious elite who make a great display of their religiosity. They expect public esteem. But while the community honors them, they are behind the scenes devouring the property of widows, reducing them to poverty. One is left to wonder if it is one of those very scribes who has in fact reduced this particular widow to her poverty.

In the story that follows the poor widow (Mark 13:1-4) Jesus foresees the destruction of the temple, the very institution the elite are so lavishly supporting. He has already driven the merchants and money changers out of the temple’s courts. Now he foresees the collapse of the whole institution, which has lived off the temple tax and contributions given by people like the widow in our story. Like the barren fig tree, the temple culture has not produced the spiritual fruit God expects from it, despite the lavish sums invested in it.

Mark lays before us this stark contrast between the pious who exploit the poor and the poor who live out a genuine piety. This richness of meaning comes as we read the three stories together and recognize hidden connections between them.

Connections with Other Scripture

The contrast that Mark develops reminds me of the same contrast that the gospel writer Luke develops in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). There Jesus tells of a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray. He lays out before God all the right and pious things he has done, unlike the sinful tax collector standing nearby. Presumably this entitles him to a special divine blessing.

The tax collector, however, sees himself truly, with all his flaws and failures to live up to God’s standards. As a result, he prays, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way does he presume he is entitled to any blessing.  Yet, Jesus says, he is the one who returns home in right relationship with God.

We see the same striking contrast between the religious elite and the despised and marginalized ones of society. Both stories make the same point. It is a point that we find constantly repeated in the Old Testament prophets.* Lavish religious piety (and I might add moral scrupulosity) counts for little when that piety and scrupulosity are contradicted by the practice of social injustice. Yet, despite the frequency of this point in Scripture, we Christians, just as much as the ancient Jews, find it hard to root this insight into our core consciousness.

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* The classic text is Amos 5:21-24. But Amos is not alone in his message.

 

An Uncomfortable Meeting with Jesus

If we met Jesus in person, would we love him, hate him, or be baffled by him?

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The nameless woman wipes Jesus’ perfumed feet with her hair. Image by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, 20th century

Occasionally I fantasize meeting Jesus in person. What would the experience feel like? What would be my response? Would it mirror one of the many responses described in the gospels?

When we read those gospels, we hear of many people’s encounters with Jesus. Their responses are all across the board.

Some, for example, seem to fall passionately in love with Jesus. The most extreme example is the story (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9) of the nameless woman who interrupts a dinner party where Jesus is the guest. She pours an expensive perfume over his head and feet. She then wipes his feet with her hair.

The gesture is extravagant in the extreme. The perfume is expensive. It equals a year’s total wages for an ordinary laborer. All this is splurged in one sensuous moment. Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not alarmed by the gesture’s erotic overtones. He is deeply touched by it.

In the garden on Easter morning, we sense Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus by her instantaneous embrace of him when she recognizes him (John 20:11-18). Women are not alone in showing such love. At the Last Supper Jesus’ beloved disciple reclines next to Jesus, manifesting his affection for Jesus and Jesus’ affection for him (John 13:23).

Others in their encounters with Jesus show profound awe. In John’s gospel we hear the story of the meeting between the risen Jesus and his doubting disciple Thomas (John 20:26-29). When confronted with Jesus, Thomas blurts out “My Lord and my God.” It’s the most awesome acclamation of Jesus in all the gospels.

We also read over and over again of how the crowds who hear Jesus teach and see him heal respond with astonishment. They wonder where his authority comes from. (See Mark 1:21-28.)

Others respond to Jesus out of their sheer confidence in his power to heal. The story of the woman with a blood hemorrhage who pushes herself through the crowd to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe is one example (Mark 5:25-34). So too is the Roman centurion who feels unworthy to welcome Jesus into his house (Luke 7:1-10). He instructs Jesus to just say the word from a distance. He knows his slave will be healed. Something about Jesus has evoked such incredible confidence in Jesus.

Then there are those who hate Jesus. His enemies are numerous. In many cases they are religious authorities that, like the crowds, hear him preach and watch him heal. They respond, on the other hand, with hostility. Their anger seems provoked by Jesus’ subversion of their own authority and their inflexible rules for determining what’s right and what’s wrong. Jesus’ own disciple Judas ends up joining them out of motives we can no longer detect.

Baffled by Jesus

 And then there are those who seem baffled by Jesus. They just don’t know what to do with this strange man. He behaves in odd ways. They can’t fit him into one of the normal categories they use to pigeonhole the people they meet.

The Roman governor Pilate is one. He clearly sees Jesus as innocent, but can’t understand why Jesus does nothing to passionately defend himself against the charges brought against him. Jesus does not fit the pattern of most prisoners that Pilate is called upon to judge.

I find the most fascinating example of people feeling baffled by Jesus by the story in the gospel of Mark (Mark 3:20-21, 31-33) where Jesus’ own mother and brothers come to take him home. They believe that Jesus is deranged. He must have been acting in a way so out of character with the boy and young man they had grown up with that they feel he has lost his mind. The ones who should have known Jesus most intimately are the ones now baffled by him.

The one response to Jesus that we do not seem to find in the gospels is terror. People may feel threatened by him, but they never seem to tremble in fear in his presence. (The one exception is the woman with the blood hemorrhage I mentioned above. Jesus quickly reassures her.)

I find that striking. By the time we get into the Middle Ages and the era of great cathedral building, the favored image that medieval sculptors placed over the central church door was usually a picture of the Last Judgment.

There a stern Jesus sits enthroned separating the saved from the damned. It was a fearsome image. It must have been meant to sear the consciences of the faithful as they entered into the church’s sanctuary. But I don’t find any sanction for that emotion of terror in the gospels.

As I said when I started out, which of these gospel responses would I mirror if I met Jesus in person? I don’t know. Knowing the complex and disjointed human being that I am and the complex and integrated person Jesus is, I realize I could be capable of responding with any of those responses I’ve described…and some others as well.

I am sure that my response to Jesus would surprise me. It would reveal something about me that I may not have acknowledged before. That would make me very uncomfortable.

 

The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.

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One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.

 

Q&A on My New Study Guide to Galatians

Why I wrote this book and what you can expect from it.

WS_5.5x8.5_templateAs I announced in my last posting, the publishing house Wipf and Stock has released my new book: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I offer this short Q&A as a way of explaining why I have written this book and what you may expect to find in it:

Q. Why have you written this book on Galatians?

A. Because it is one of the most influential literary works written in Christian history. It redirected the course of apostolic Christianity. It has sparked many reform movements in the church, including the Protestant Reformation. It gave teeth to campaigns in the twentieth century to ordain women. And it has revolutionized my own spiritual life.

Q. There are many commentaries available on Galatians. Why another?

A.This book started out in response to a request from a minister friend who was teaching a men’s Bible study class. He was frustrated in finding suitable study materials for the class. His men shied away from academic volumes, but also found most Sunday school materials too simplistic. They loved William Barclay, but found him dated. Having read my blog, he challenged me to write something for his men that had substance but avoided academic jargon. This book is written to be just that kind of study resource for laypeople studying the Bible and for working pastors.

Q. How do you approach the Letter to the Galatians?

A. Too many people read the Bible in isolated snippets. I read books of the Bible as literary works, paying attention to the flow of the whole work and its historical, canonical, and literary contexts. The tools I use to read the Bible are ones I first learned in a college class on poetry writing. I discovered in the class that I was not a great poet, but I did learn how to read a literary work closely. I have transferred those tools to reading the Bible, including the Letter to the Galatians.

Q. In a nutshell summary, what is the basic message of Galatians?

A. Galatians is a kind of polemical pamphlet. Paul wrote it to address a controversy roiling the apostolic church. On what basis could Gentiles be accepted into a religious movement that was originally Jewish? Paul says they are to be accepted on the same basis as Jewish Christians: by faith in Jesus Christ. They are free from adopting Jewish identity markers. They can be Christians as Gentiles rather than as Jewish converts.

Q. That sounds as if Galatians is an obsolete tract dealing with an old, by-gone controversy? Why study it today?

A. The way Paul addresses that old controversy has spoken powerfully to Christians ever since. Paul does not see the Christian life as one of following iron rules of morality and religious practice. Instead we are called to sink deep roots into the Holy Spirit. In turn the Holy Spirit will bring about a transformation of our lives. It is a way of living freely. And I find that is a clarifying message we Christians need to hear once again today.

Q. If that’s the case, how has your study of Galatians changed your own life?

A.  I grew up in a legalistic version of Christianity focused on identifying and avoiding sins. It nurtured a joy-killing spirit. I hated it. But when I came to read Galatians and understand the import of what Paul was saying, I realized how wrong I was in the vision of Christianity I carried from my childhood. Galatians truly revolutionized my spiritual life. That’s one reason I wrote this book–to help others discover this same liberating message.

Q. Do you have a favorite passage in Galatians?

A. Yes, it is verse 5:13, which reads: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” Paul expresses a fundamental paradox in Christianity. Freedom is experienced in service. Now that turns our normal expectations upside down.

If you would like to explore the Letter to Galatians, you can order the book from Amazon (including an e-book version) or order it directly (including an e-book version) from the publisher’s website below: http://wipfandstock.com/charter-of-christian-freedom.html.

 

Newly Published: My Study Guide to Galatians

Making Paul’s influential letter accessible to people without a theological education.

WS_5.5x8.5_templateI am pleased to announce that the publishing house Wipf and Stock has released my new book: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. You can order copies from the Wipf and Stock website. It is also available through Amazon. Amazon will release a Kindle e-book version later in the spring.

I have written this book to help make the Letter to the Galatians more accessible to people who do not have a theological education, for Bible study group leaders, and working pastors. The apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians has had a deep impact on Christian theology and practice, far beyond its short length. It has inspired great Christian thinkers; it has also sparked reform movements.

Its message, however, can be hard to follow for the average reader. This study guide seeks to open up this important Christian literary work. First explaining the crisis situation Paul was addressing, I clarify the flow of Paul’s argument so the average reader can grasp its revolutionary import. Paul’s letter sparked a revolution in my own spiritual life. And I hope this study guide can help do that for others as well.

Here is what two former seminary presidents are saying about my book:

Gordon Lindsey’s knowledge of Scripture is breathtaking. His ability to bring it to life is on full display in this wonderful treatise that reads like a novel. . . . I predict this book will become a staple in Bible study leaders’ and preachers’ libraries, not just on the shelf, but open again and again, unpacking the gems hidden in one of Paul’s most important letters.

—William J. Carl III, Retired President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.]

Bible study for adults is often an uphill climb. Teaching a Bible study for adults is equally arduous. Often there simply isn’t material accessible to lay readers. Fortunately Lindsey has given us a lively and insightful guide to the Letter to the Galatians. He brings a lifetime of teaching experience to his examination of Galatians—the short but enormously powerful ‘charter of Christian freedom.’ Spoiler alert: this book can change your life.

—John M. Mulder, former President, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

I invite you to read my book and discover whether it changes your life as well.

A Biblical Antidote to Polarization

Thoughts on how Biblical stories and our political climate intersect.

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The parable of the good Samaritan by the Dutch artist Jan Wijnants, 17th century.

The United States is living in a period of extreme political and social polarization. That is clear to almost everyone. But how do we overcome it? I keep an ear open for insight.

Two newspaper columns have recently offered thoughts that ring true to my Christian view of my social responsibilities.

The first is a column by Sabrina Tavernise published in the January 28, 2017 issue of The New York Times. Titled One Country, Two Tribes, the column compares the polarization we are experiencing in America to that that has long been experienced in other countries, especially countries of the Middle East.

In the middle of her discussion came this sentence that grabbed my attention: Social psychologists like Mr. [Jonathan] Haidt say the best way to ease polarization and reduce anxiety among the nationalists is to emphasize our sameness.

Counsel from Moses

 When I read that, I thought immediately of what Moses says to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. As a literary work, Deuteronomy is presented as a sermon Moses gives just before Israel enters into Canaan after their 40-year Exodus journey through the wilderness. It is also a time when one generation is dying off and another is about to take its place.

In that context this passage gives counsel on how to address the challenge of religious education. How can parents draw their children into an appreciation of the covenant God has established with Israel? It begins:

 When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand;…. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

When I read this, I imagine that we are overhearing a conversation between a cocky adolescent and his father. The boy’s beginning to question the faith of his parents and to distance himself from them. It’s a normal reaction among teenagers as they seek to establish their own individual identity.

And so the son says to his father, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?” I italicize the word you, because this is part of the son’s distancing move. He is in effect saying to his father, “This may be your religious tradition, but I’m nor sure it’s not mine.” He is trying to set up a polarization between himself and his father.

It creates a trap for the father. If he accepts this polarization, the conversation will sink into debate and possibly bitter argument. He risks alienation with his son.

Notice, however, how Moses advises the father to respond: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….” In effect, the father says, “Son, this is not just your mother’s and my faith. It’s also yours. You, too, are a part of the people of God. We are in this together.” Moses advises the father to use words that are inclusive of both the son and himself.

Now I find that fascinating. The father challenges the polarization not through debate and argument, but by telling the son the story of their common inheritance. True, they belong to different generations. In that sense they are not the same. But through their common inheritance, they are still a We.

But how in our American divide can we create that sense of We in a practical way? Especially if we belong, as I do, to that urban, liberal, ultra-educated side that the other side of the polarization fears and mistrusts.

Counsel from Andrés Miguel Rondón

Here I found surprising advice given by another newspaper column writer. The January 29, 2017 edition of The Washington Post published an article headlined Venezuela showed how not to fight a populist president by Andrés Miguel Rondón .

Rondón, a Venezuelan, reflects on the experience of his country under the populist president Hugo Chávez. Chávez came to power by stoking the anger of those deprived economically and socially. He remained in power by constantly fueling their anger by blaming the country’s woes on business leaders, the urban middle class, and the educated. He did all he could to eviscerate democratic opposition.

That opposition, however, was largely ineffective in reversing the political situation, Rondón charges, because they let themselves be placed in the polarization that Chávez wanted them. He needed an enemy to blame. They let themselves become that enemy.

But what caught my attention is what Rondón sees as the necessary antidote to this polarization. He writes:

…it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa–to show that they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds but could hit baseball, tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press the pause button on the siren song of polarization.

He summarizes his advice later in the article with these succinct words: Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him [the populist] to power.

What particularly caught my eye was his advice …show that they were Venezuelans, too…. To counteract the polarization, those the populists are rejecting need first to establish common standing with those who are rejecting them, and two, by showing genuine caring and respect for those who are hurting. Each side needs to see the other as real authentic people.

Counsel from Jesus

As I read this, my thoughts turned again to another famous Bible story, the parable of the good Samaritan.

The polarization between the Jews and the Samaritans in Jesus’ time was as severe as any polarization in our time. The shortest distance between Galilee and Jerusalem led through Samaria. But to avoid contact with the despised Samaritans, Galilean Jews would cross over the Jordan River and travel down its east bank and then cross over the river again at Jericho and take the arduous uphill road to Jerusalem. All this despite the fact that Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God and accepted the five books of Moses as authoritative Scripture.

Jesus’ story assumes this extreme polarization. And so we are meant to be surprised when the Samaritan encounters the Jewish man robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the Jericho Road. He stops, cares for the man’s wounds, and pays for his restorative care in an inn.

The Samaritan did not overcome the polarization between him and the injured man by preaching against polarization. He overcame it by exercising compassion in reaching out to the injured, hurting man who was on the other side of the social divide.

Jesus concludes his story by saying to the lawyer who asked him: Go and do likewise. Is not Rondón saying something similar? I wonder if their combined words are not marching orders for all of us who are troubled by the polarization we see all around us.

 

The Sign of True Religion

The acid test for whether we practice an authentic religious faith.

How do we discern authentic religious faith from the many phony imposters? That’s a question that has haunted me from my childhood. And I think Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount offers the most reliable tool for discernment: You will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16).

 Michael Jinkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has recently posted several reflections on his blog Thinking Out Loud on the issue of how churches can be relevant to their culture…or not. In his first two postings on the subject he reflects on the trap posed by the obsession to be relevant, which often issues in being irrelevant.

In his third reflection posted today, he reflects on how the best way to be relevant is to be authentic, which leads him into the sure test for authentic faith. I think his thoughts are well worth thinking about. I urge you to read them.

 

“Thus Saith the Lord”

A stray story in 1 Kings reveals the hidden source of prophecy’s power.

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Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel

It’s a common idea that prophecy means foretelling the future. We encounter that understanding every time a financial expert disavows his ability to predict how the stock market will rise or fall.

This understanding misses a key element of prophecy in the Old Testament. This overlooked element, however, accounts for the link the Protestant reformers made between prophecy and the normal preaching that goes on in churches Sunday after Sunday.

Calling in the Prophets

The Old Testament pulls back the veil on this overlooked element in a stray story that does not even appear in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This is the story of the prophet Micaiah that we find in 1 Kings 22:1-40.

In this story Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, covets the region of Ramoth-gilead. He decides to go to war against his neighbor, the king of Aram. In his war of conquest, he enlists the help of Jehoshaphat, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.

Before they launch their campaign, Jehoshaphat suggests that they consult God about its outcome. Ahab therefore summons his 400 court prophets and asks them. In one voice they say the Lord will give him victory.

Their unanimous response makes Jehoshaphat uneasy. He asks if there are any other prophets that have not been consulted. Ahab says there is one more, Micaiah. However, he does not like Micaiah because he never prophesies anything favorable, only disaster.

Jehoshaphat insists they summon Micaiah. When he enters the kings’ presence, he, too, predicts that Ahab will have a victory. But the king insists he speak the truth. As a result, Micaiah announces that if Ahab goes into battle, he will die. Which turns out to be true.

What’s interesting about Micaiah’s prophecy is the warrant he gives for his words. He says that he has been given a vision. In it he finds himself in God’s heavenly throne room. A discussion is going on. How, God asks his court, can they entice Ahab to go into battle for Ramoth-gilead so Ahab can meet his death?

The courtiers make different suggestions. Then one, presumably an angel, offers to put a lying spirit into Ahab’s 400 court prophets. Their word of hope will entice Ahab to make the foolish venture. God commissions him to do just that.

The Biblical text does not tell us how Micaiah has this vision (which is obviously described in mythical language). By dream, by trance, or by induced imagination? But however the vision came, it gave Micaiah insight into the hidden spiritual world where he is given the privilege of understanding God’s hidden will and action.

The Prophet as Intimate Companion with God

Now this is the element of Hebrew prophecy that gives it its power. The prophet becomes the intimate companion of God. As a result, he is given insight into how God is at work in human affairs and what God’s intentions are. He is given insight into the spiritual world that lies behind the phenomena of human history.

Therefore he can speak an authoritative word from God to the people. “Thus saith the Lord” is how oracle after oracle begins in the prophetic literature.

Of course, the prophet’s audience does not know at once whether a particular prophet has been given genuine insight or not. He may be deceived in what he believes is God’s word to the people. Only the unfolding of history will confirm that or not.

This is true even in Micaiah’s story. The king imprisons Micaiah until the campaign is over. When the king returns in victory, he says, that fact will prove Micaiah was a lying prophet. History always plays a critical role in confirming a prophet’s message.

The crucial element of Hebrew prophecy is the prophet’s claim that he has been given insight into the divine dimension that lies behind ordinary life. That insight may come in different ways, but it is always a gift. It gives him real insight (though never complete insight) into how God is at work, what are God’s intentions, and what God expects of human beings.

That is the secret to the power of the prophet’s message.

The Link Between Prophesying and Preaching

Although most believers, both Jewish and Christian, thought that Old Testament prophecy had come to an end in the three centuries preceding Jesus, the Protestant reformers saw that it had not. Instead they believed the church’s preachers had inherited the prophets’ mantle.

One of the most influential statements of that viewpoint was the treatise titled The Art of Prophesying, by the Puritan divine William Perkins (1558-1602). The book, published in Latin in 1592 and in English in 1607, discusses the matter and method of preaching. It had a profound influence on Puritan preaching. But note how its title links preaching with prophesying.

Another statement of the same viewpoint is a hymn often sung at the ordination of Christian ministers. It starts out: God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons. The prophets’ sons are, of course, the individual ministers being ordained. The second stanza then goes on:

Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent,

To thy divinest speech; their hearts awake

To human need; their lips make eloquent

To gird the right, and every evil break.

At the core of the preacher’s call, as these reformers saw it, was this call for the preacher to receive insight into the divine world of God’s will and actions and then share that insight as authoritative guidance with their congregation.

It was assumed that this insight would come through study and meditation on Scripture rather than through trance and mystical vision. That assumption may have discounted the revelatory power of inspired imagination. But the important point was that it was the insight, however it came, that gave authority to the preacher’s words.

It is this linkage between preaching and Old Testament prophecy that lies behind the conviction of many today that Martin Luther King, Jr., is a prophet in the line of succession from his Biblical counterparts. They see his insight into God’s will and actions in history as the source of the power of his preaching.

If we should seek to look for the heirs of Old Testament prophecy today-–whether in terms of its lying or its truth-speaking versions–let us look to the pulpits of our churches.

Wholesome Sex, Hebrew Style

A compelling vision lies behind the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs.

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I’m amazed that the Song of Songs is included in the canon of the Old Testament. Although Jewish and Christian tradition has tended to regard it as allegory, its literal language is undisguisedly erotic.

That makes the book’s presence in the canon so surprising. How is it that those who decided to include it came to regard such erotic language as sacred scripture? Talk about a mystery.

One possible answer is that the Hebrew tradition did not have the same suspicion of sex that the Hellenic tradition had. The Old Testament sees sex as a creation of God, a part of God’s good creation (see the creation stories in Genesis 1-2). Those who decided to include it in the canon may therefore have seen in the Song of Songs a picture of what a healthy sexuality looks like. This then gives the book enduring value.

Yet the picture of sexuality that we find in the Song may not fit our preconceptions. Here are some of its notable features.

Are the Lovers Married or Not?

First, the book is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the two lovers are married or not. Though the male lover addresses his beloved as “bride,” he also addresses her as “sister” (see 5:1). A description of a wedding procession appears in 3:6-11, but allusions to sexual consummation precede that passage. We are never sure whether the lovers are already married or not. Ambiguity prevails.

This ambiguity does not legitimate the lovers’ sexual relationship on the legalistic basis of the marriage contract. Instead the depth of the mutual love between the two lovers gives legitimacy to their sexual relationship. You cannot use the Song of Songs, in my opinion, as a proof text that sex belongs exclusively within the bounds of marriage.

This viewpoint is one of the disconcerting features of the Song of Songs. It may be one reason why so many have felt compelled to allegorize its meaning.

The Prominence of Erotic Longing

Another odd feature in the Song: it emphasizes more the longing in the erotic relationship over the consummation. Only in one or two places does the poem hint at the consummation of the lovers’ love. It never describes that experience explicitly. The consummation remains veiled. It is acknowledged only by allusion.

This contrasts sharply to much erotic literature today, where we find detailed descriptions of what’s involved in the act of sexual consummation. This explicitness is a staple in many romance novels as well as in general fiction. The Song of Songs keeps the lovers’ consummation shrouded in allusive mystery. There is a respect for the privacy of the lovers and their intimate giving of themselves to each other.

What we find instead in the Song is passionate expression of the longing of the two lovers for each other. The female lover gives a particularly poignant expression of that longing in verses 5:2-16. There she speaks to her companions saying:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

if you find my beloved,

that you tell him

I am sick with love. 

 The reality of the relationship described in the Song is more one of a kind of hunger than of satisfaction. The wellbeing of the two lovers seems to be tied up in their mutual desire for each other.

This feature may be why so many mystics have turned to the poem to find words to express their spiritual relationship with God. The mystical experience is far more characterized by longing than by ecstasy. It is striking how parallel is the longing for God expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 42 to the longing of the lovers for each other in the Song. So close that the mystic feels right at home in the Song of Songs.

Lovers Tease Each Other

Another feature of the erotic relationship described in the Song is the way the lovers tease each other. A beautiful passage on this theme is 5:2-8. The woman hears her lover calling to her at night from outside the walls of her house. She arises and goes out to him, but he has vanished.

Likewise the woman calls out to her beloved in one passage saying:

Awake, O north wind,

            and come, O south wind?

Blow upon my garden,

            let its fragrance be wafted abroad.

Let my beloved come to his garden, 

            and eat its choicest fruits. 

This teasing seduction goes back and forth between these two lovers. It is part of the adult play of their relationship.

It is quite striking in the Song that there is no hint of inhibiting guilt or shame in this frank delight that the two lovers have in each other’s body. Instead we find the two lovers reveling in the beauty of each other’s body. Erotic desire has nothing impure about it.

The Earthy Character of Erotic Love

Throughout the poem we find frequent references to gardens, orchards, and the fields where the sheep graze. This suggests that for the author of the Song, sexuality exists in a continuum with the rest of the material creation. In the Song it is earthy in the sense that its proper setting is within the whole complex of sensual stimulation and delight that we experience as we live out our lives in the material world.

The author constantly draws upon sensual descriptions to describe the desire and delight the lovers take in each other. Fragrant perfumes waft around their bodies. Their voices are sweet. Their limbs recall sturdy trees in Lebanon. Their legs are smooth as alabaster. Their kisses drip with honey. Their intimate times together are compared to a lavish banquet.

The places where the lovers seek their moments of consummation are out in the fields, in the orchards and sheepfolds rather than in the city. The author seems to suggest that the proper setting for the expression of sexual love is out in the earthy countryside rather than in artificial environment of the city, even though the woman clearly lives in the city of Jerusalem.

All this shows a very different sensibility to that tradition in Christianity that maintains the superiority of the ascetic way. Rather than denial becoming the highway to spiritual fulfillment, the way of taking delight in all that the material creation has to offer becomes a royal road to God. How strikingly parallel is this sensibility to that of St. Francis in his magnificent canticle of creation. Francis seems to share the romantic cast of mind that we find in the Song.

Maybe this is one reason why our culture today is so soaked in eroticism. In our technological, industrial society with its heavy emphasis on intellectual achievement and sterile efficiency, we have lost touch with the earthy, sensual aspects of human life.

As a result we have become obsessed with those very aspects of life that we have denied. We long to regain wholeness, but we try to attain it by an over-compensation on that which we have lost. We need to regain a balance between city and countryside, between reason and emotion, between mind and body where all enrich the others.

An Ideal Vision

In the Song we also find an equality between the two lovers. Each takes the initiative not only in celebrating the other, but also in seeking out the other. Both are wooers. There is no hint of a patriarchal sensibility in the Song. Its sensibility is far from the viewpoint of Genesis 3 or of the Pauline passages that see the proper status of the woman in her subordination to a man.

Finally we note that there is no fear or anxiety in the Song about getting pregnant or disease. In fact, there is no reference at all to sex leading to child bearing. Sex in the Song exists for something different from procreation. It exists for the pleasure of the two lovers.

This omission tells us that what we encounter in the Song is an idealistic picture. In fact the author seems to be describing sex in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Here is what sexuality would look like as God intended it in the act of creation. It is only after Adam and Eve have eaten their forbidden fruit, that they become conscious of their nakedness and feel the need to cover themselves because they feel ashamed (Genesis 3:7).

Since that Fall­–however it occurs for each of us personally–sex becomes fraught with anxiety, fear, and defensiveness. It takes real psychological growth for us to re-enter the paradise described in the Song.

But that is part of the sublime beauty of the Song. It ushers us into the vision of wholesome sexuality, what our sexuality can become when we have outgrown all those fears and anxiety that mar our normal experience. The Song becomes the gold standard by which we can measure how our own sexuality falls short of what God longs for us.

For this reason, we can be thankful for the unconscious intuition (if it was really unconscious) that this book of magnificent poetry belongs in the Bible. It contains a message our sex-obsessed culture needs to hear. Could this in fact be an example of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we Christians confess lies behind the Bible as Scripture?

Note: The image is a reproduction of “The Kiss,” by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, 1907.