Read The Bible
Read The Bible
The Gospel Coalition
Read the Bible features devotional commentaries from D.A. Carson’s book For the Love of God (vol. 1) that follow the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. This podcast is designed to be used alongside TGC's Read The Bible initiative (TGC.org/readthebible).
Leviticus 18; Psalm 22; Ecclesiastes 1; 1 Timothy 3
The author of Ecclesiastes is (in transliterated Hebrew) Qoheleth, pronounced Ko-hellet or Ko-helleth. The word is connected with the idea of assembling, and “Qoheleth” probably means something like “leader of the assembly” or even “one who addresses the assembly.” Probably the assembly was religious (we would say “ecclesiastical”), yet Qoheleth is also an academic, collecting and formulating sayings (Eccl. 12:9–12). As a result, some Bibles render the expression “the Preacher”; the NIV supports “the Teacher.” One commentator suggests “the Professor.” Qoheleth refers to himself as “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:12). But which king? He claims, “I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me” (Eccl. 1:16), which seems to rule out everyone but Solomon. On the other hand, it would be very strange for Solomon to write such words, since there was only one Davidic king over Jerusalem before him. So while some commentators think Qoheleth is Solomon, others point out that Solomon is not named and suggest this may be a religious leader who, as part of the dramatic argument he sets forth, stylizes himself as a super-Solomon: the wisest conceivable man, on a search for self-fulfillment, would still return destitute, crying out that everything is meaningless (Eccl. 1:2). Just as many parts of Job cannot be insightfully or wisely read without grasping the flow of the book as a whole, so also with Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth sets himself to explore the significance of everything “from below,” looked at from the vantage point of fallen humanity. In short, his stance is “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) or “under heaven” (Eccl. 1:13). He is a defender neither of naturalism nor of atheism, but he ruthlessly explores what can be said of various ostensibly “good” things when looked at one by one, “under the sun.” His theme is set out in the introduction (Eccl. 1:1–11). “ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’ ” (Eccl. 1:2). This gets at the heart of the expression traditionally rendered “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity” (KJV). The word suggests a wisp of air, the merest vapor, utterly without significance. In this book the Teacher probes domain after domain of life, domains that so many people value and cherish and even worship, and concludes, from his stance “under the sun,” that everything is meaningless. By the end of the book, after scraping away the detritus of life, he hits bedrock—God himself. And here and there along the way he allows us glimpses of a divine perspective that transcends meaninglessness. But he takes his time getting there, for we must feel the depressing weight of all questing visions that do not begin with God.
Apr 13, 2023
Leviticus 17; Psalms 20–21; Proverbs 31; 1 Timothy 2
Proverbs 31 focuses, in two different ways, on women. In the first part (Prov. 31:1–9), the text offers us the “Sayings of King Lemuel” (of whom we know very little)—but although these sayings are “of King Lemuel” in the sense that he authorized them or made them known, they are alternatively described as “an oracle his mother taught him” (Prov. 31:1). These sayings touch on three subjects. (a) Lemuel’s mother strongly encourages her son to avoid fornication. He must not spend his vigor “on those who ruin kings”—and presidents, for that matter. In addition to the ordinary lusts of the flesh, those in power doubtless have additional opportunities to satiate those lusts, along with additional responsibilities. So the right resolve must be taken as a matter of principle early in life. (b) She tells Lemuel to avoid intoxication. In an age before morphine, beer and wine were fine to help those dying or in terrible anguish (Prov. 31:6), but the “help” provided is of the sort that makes you forget yourself and even lose consciousness. Rulers have no right to opt for such escapism, for they are responsible for upholding the law and assisting the oppressed (Prov. 31:4–5). (c) That brings the queen mother to her last theme: King Lemuel must “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Prov. 31:8). High officials should not use their office to feather their nest and grow detached from ordinary people, but to administer fairly and especially to help the neediest and poorest members of society. The second part of chapter 31 (Prov. 31:10–31) is well known and describes a “wife of noble character.” (It would be easy to show that the book of Proverbs also says quite a bit about the husband of noble character, but the relevant proverbs are not drawn together into one place, as here.) This woman of noble character is someone in whom her husband has full confidence (Prov. 31:11) and who constantly seeks his good (Prov. 31:12). She is industrious, so much so that she contributes to family income and has more than enough left over to help the poor and needy (Prov. 31:13–22). She plans for the long haul, speaks with wisdom, and manages the household well. In the end she is the praise of her children and husband alike. But above all, and beyond the culturally specific descriptions (e.g., she works with wool and flax, and as a farmer’s wife considers a field and buys it), she fears the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30).
Apr 12, 2023
Leviticus 16; Psalm 19; Proverbs 30; 1 Timothy 1
Several times in this book there is a formula of the sort, “For x things such-and-such, and for x+1 this-and-that.” For instance, Proverbs 6:16–19 begins, “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him.” Then the list begins: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers”—seven items, always the “x+1” number of items. This way of introducing a list with two lines—the first with a number one less than the number of items in the list; the second with the precise number of items in the list—builds anticipation and is part of the Hebrew parallelism that does not like to have exactly the same thing in both lines. Proverbs 30 has several instances of this formula. It is not necessary to use the formula if a list is being introduced (Prov. 30:24), but it is common (Prov. 30:15b, 18, 21, 29). The five lists in this chapter are grounded in thoughtful observation of highly diverse phenomena, and each of the five makes a different point. Here I reflect on two of them. The first is the list (without introductory formula) of small things that are extremely “wise”: ants, coneys (probably rock badgers), locusts, and lizards (Prov. 30:24–28). This use of “wise” is bound up with the skill to survive (see meditation for March 14). An individual ant is nothing, easily crushed, without intelligence, yet ants store up food for the winter and survive. Rock badgers are small and relatively defenseless, yet they have the ability to make their homes in crags where others could not live. Lizards are so slow and stupid that children can catch them in their hands, and yet they have whatever it takes to live even in palaces. All these skills, all this “wisdom,” God has graciously granted. In the larger context of the book, the lesson is obvious. We too are like stupid little ants or lizards, yet God has graciously given us the wisdom to survive. Two more thoughts are not far behind: (a) our wisdom, like that of the ant, is derived from God; (b) it is shockingly rebellious not to acknowledge him with gratitude as the source of our life. The second list itemizes the thing Agur the author does not understand: “the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden” (Prov. 30:18–19). Thus sex is a created function, gloriously mysterious, to be treated with respect and neither cheapened nor abused.
Apr 11, 2023
Leviticus 15; Psalm 18; Proverbs 29; 2 Thessalonians 3
From Proverbs 29 I shall pick up four themes: (1) “An evil man is snared by his own sin, but a righteous one can sing and be glad” (Prov. 29:6). This is profoundly insightful. The results of sin include distortions to your own personality, falling afoul of your own evil, fear of being exposed, subjective guilt, and much more: you are ensnared by your own sin. By contrast, the person committed to righteousness not only avoids such snares, but is in consequence relatively carefree. He or she “can sing and be glad.” (2) “Bloodthirsty men hate a man of integrity and seek to kill the upright” (Prov. 29:10; cf. Prov. 29:27). Although this is a general truth, it is supremely manifested in Jesus. He could tell some of his opponents, “As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (John 8:40). It is precisely because Jesus tells the truth that they do not believe him (John 8:45). By contrast, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). “Bloodthirsty men hate a man of integrity and seek to kill the upright”; it is not surprising therefore that the most upright man who ever lived, with the greatest integrity, was hung on a cross to die. (3) Corruption may run from the bottom up or from the top down. When it starts at the bottom, it is pretty repulsive, and it may take a lot of work on the part of those above to root it out, or at least to bring it under control. But when it runs from the top down, it is both repulsive and impossible to reform piecemeal; drastic change is required. If the people at the top are corrupt, or even if they merely tolerate corruption with a wink and a nod, the situation is desperate. One form of this top-down corruption, superficially more benign, is the ruler who is soothed by lies, who surrounds himself or herself with underlings who will say only what he wants to hear. The wise understand: “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked” (Prov. 29:12). (4) Older English versions rendered the first line of Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (KJV), or the like, which became a call for visionary leadership. But the NIV has it right, and the issue is even more important: “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.” Where there is no revelation from God, grasped and obeyed, people “cast off restraint”—an apt and terrifying description of contemporary Western culture (cf. Judg. 21:25).
Apr 10, 2023
Leviticus 14; Psalm 17; Proverbs 28; 2 Thessalonians 2
On Proverbs 28, I wish to make two observations: First, this chapter, typical of others in this book, devotes considerable attention to rulers. “When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers, but a man of understanding and knowledge maintains order” (Prov. 28:2). This acknowledges the joint responsibility of ruler and people. “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding” (Prov. 28:12; cf. also Prov. 28:28). The skills of ruling are never merely administrative and personal, but are tied to the deepest questions of public justice. “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over a helpless people” (Prov. 28:15). This puts a similar thought in highly dramatic form. “A tyrannical ruler lacks judgment, but he who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long life” (Prov. 28:16). This reflects the danger of corruption in any government, especially one that is unconstrained by competing branches and electoral limitations. Indeed, this passage puts into proverbial form something more comprehensively set out in Deuteronomy 17:18–20. Second, people sometimes charge that the Bible’s Wisdom Literature seems so cut off from the rest of the Bible’s plot-line that they do not know how to integrate it with the whole. Sermons and Bible studies on Proverbs or Ecclesiastes are always in danger of degenerating into thin moralizing that could easily be slotted into some other religious framework. One understands the problem, but there are more links between Wisdom Literature and the rest of the canon than is sometimes acknowledged. From this chapter I mention three: (1) Rather exceptionally, three times this chapter refers to the Law of God. “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law resist them” (Prov. 28:4)—which illustrates the social implications of law-keeping. “He who keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father” (Prov. 28:7)—a contrast both startling and suggestive. “If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law, even his prayers are detestable” (Prov. 28:9)—which demonstrates that under the terms of the old covenant, faithfulness to God was shown in obedience to the Law. (2) “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13)—with dramatic echoes and advances in 1 John 1:9. (3) “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him” (Prov. 28:11); “A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper” (Prov. 28:25). Read James.
Apr 9, 2023
Leviticus 13; Psalms 15–16; Proverbs 27; 2 Thessalonians 1
In reflecting on Proverbs 27, I shall draw attention to five independent proverbs: (1) “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Prov. 27:6). This is one of a substantial number of proverbs scattered throughout the book that despise flattery and insist that wise people not only administer rebuke in a kind and thoughtful way, but accept it and learn from it. For instance: “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning” (Prov. 9:8–9). “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (Prov. 15:31). This is a very different world from a culture in which people are simply encouraged to find themselves or express themselves. (2) A number of proverbs, one of them in this chapter, value loyalty: “Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father” (Prov. 27:10). That sort of value is social; it transcends the “me first” mentality of individualism run amuck, and thus comports well with the New Testament emphasis on the corporate wholeness of the church. (3) “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17)—which again is impossible where rabid individualism holds sway. Pastors and scholars know their thinking is sharper if they take time for honest interaction with their peers. (4) “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man” (Prov. 27:20). Few sentences sum up so briefly and so evocatively the bottomless acquisitiveness of fallen human beings, the lust for things and power, the drive for possession, control, and novelty. A moment’s reflection, and Death and Destruction become not only the standard of what it means never to be satisfied, but also what characterizes “the eyes of man.” (5) “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives” (Prov. 27:21). This could simply mean that after a person has gone through the crucibles of affliction, the approval rating, as it were, is assigned by the valuation of his or her peers at the other end. But it is more likely that praise itself is in some respects the ultimate test of character. You can tell as much about people (and maybe more) by how they respond to praise as you can by how they respond to adversity. Ask football heroes, movie stars, and people in church too rapidly promoted. Perhaps this is the ultimate crucible. It does not destroy us; it exposes what is there, and very often it is not much.
Apr 8, 2023
Leviticus 11–12; Psalms 13–14; Proverbs 26; 1 Thessalonians 5
Faith, hope, and love are often called the Pauline triad. They crop up again and again in Paul’s correspondence, in various combinations and structures of thought. Doubtless the best-known passage is 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” It may be that the reason love is the greatest of these three cardinal Christian virtues is that love is the only one that God exercises. Elsewhere the Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8); it never says that God is faith or that God is hope. In the epistle before us, the Pauline triad first crops up in chapter 1: “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). Sometimes only two elements of the triad are present: e.g., “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing” (2 Thess. 1:3). Sometimes the three are linked in particular ways: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3–6). Although love may be “the greatest” of the three, in this passage hope is the foundation or even the motivation of faith and love—though that arrangement is far from invariable (e.g., Eph. 1:15, 18). If the Pauline triad occurs at the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, so it recurs at the end: “But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thess. 5:8, italics added). These variations suggest that faith, hope, and love were not, for Paul nor for the early Christians, a cluster of tired words always deployed in some boring formula. Rather, they were the quintessential Christian virtues that they thought about and pursued, so that their reflections and experience prompted them to describe these virtues in many different ways. Here we find the metaphor of the armor of God, but not with the associations found in Ephesians 6:10–17—once again demonstrating that these were fresh and living forms of speech, not clichés emptied of all power except comforting repetition.
Apr 7, 2023
Leviticus 10; Psalms 11-12; Proverbs 25; 1 Thess. 4
Sometimes the Bible provides a glimpse of the means God graciously used to produce the Bible. For instance, Luke 1:1–4 lays out some of the research the third evangelist did. Here in the opening lines of Proverbs 25, we catch another glimpse: “These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah” (Prov. 25:1)—who of course lived two centuries after Solomon. Apparently some individual proverbs were passed down and finally collected by some scholars who worked during Hezekiah’s administration. That means that the entire book of Proverbs, which coalesces several collections, is even later. And at every step God was guiding the developments. Sometimes the book of Proverbs serves as a quarry for quotations in the New Testament. We have already come upon a few instances (e.g., Prov. 3:11–12 quoted in Heb. 12:5–6—see meditation for March 16). Here there are two more: Proverbs 25:7, adapted by the Lord Jesus in Luke 14:7–10; and Proverbs 25:22, quoted by Paul in Romans 12:20. But the theme on which I wish to focus attention today is self-restraint or self-control, which keeps resurfacing in this chapter. “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men” (Prov. 25:6). The scramble for the top is ugly self-promotion. Far better to be self-restrained and develop integrity. Someone may yet say, “Come up higher.” “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15)—far different from the bluster and splutter of the uncontrolled. Self-control and tact often achieve what a blunderbuss merely destroys. Self-control should also inform the degree to which you lean on others (Prov. 25:17). “If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit” (Prov. 25:16). This proverb has application to more foods than honey, and to more pleasures than food. Lack of self-control, far from multiplying pleasure, brings vomit and self-loathing. Another “honey” proverb tweaks the thought a little. “It is not good to eat too much honey, nor is it honorable to seek one’s own honor” (Prov. 25:27). The same sense of nauseating disgust that accompanies eating too much honey accompanies self-promotion. Others feel as much revulsion, the proverb tells us, in the one case as in the other. And the opposite of self-restraint? “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give” (Prov. 25:14). “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Prov. 25:28). The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control (Gal. 5:23; 1 Thess. 5:6; 2 Tim. 1:7).
Apr 6, 2023
Leviticus 9; Psalm 10; Proverbs 24; 1 Thessalonians 3
Many of the verses in Proverbs 24 seem to be set in a time of danger when evil is strong and the outcome uncertain: (1) “If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength!” (Prov. 24:10). That may be an uncomfortable thought, but it needs saying. Anyone can bulldoze ahead when the course is downhill. And of course, our strength often really is small. How often Christians discover, with Paul, that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:1–10). (2) As I write this a horrible case has come to light. A university student peeked over the wall in a public lavatory and saw his friend abusing and beating a very young girl, and he walked away and did nothing. Later the friend told him that he had killed the girl, who was found the next morning stuffed in the toilet. Still the university student did nothing. This is a microcosm of those who glimpsed something of the horrors of the holocaust and did nothing. So hear the word of the Lord: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Prov. 24:11–12). (3) “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of the wicked, for the evil man has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out” (Prov. 24:19–20). The believer must take the long view. If we judge everything by who wins and who loses in the short span of our own lives, we will often be frustrated. But God the Judge has the last word. (4) Suppose, then, that the wicked, or at least your enemy whom you take to be wicked, faces horrible reverses, even in this life. Here too there is a right way and a wrong way of proceeding. “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Prov. 24:17). Why not? Because you have descended to his level, and “the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him” (Prov. 24:18)—and quite possibly toward you. As “the wise” put it, “Do not say, ‘I’ll do to him as he has done to me; I’ll pay that man back for what he did’ ” (Prov. 24:29). Christians cannot fail to hear in these words an anticipation of the “golden rule,” an utterance by the Lord Jesus himself: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
Apr 5, 2023
Leviticus 8; Psalm 9; Proverbs 23; 1 Thessalonians 2
Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan stopped us” (1 Thess. 2:17–18, italics added). The hindering work of Satan and his minions is attested to elsewhere in Scripture. In Daniel 10:13, for instance, the “prince of the Persian kingdom” is almost certainly some malevolent angel who delays the response to Daniel’s prayer by three weeks, and would have delayed it further but for the intervention of Michael. Some have taken passages like this as evidence that God is finite, that the struggle between good and evil in the Bible is between a finite good God and a finite wicked Satan. When bad things happen to people, this is the work of Satan, and God has very little to do with it, except to oppose it—though not very satisfactorily in this instance. Yet the God of the Bible is not finite and not so limited. If he were, the entire book of Job (as we have recently seen) would not make sense. The apostle Paul himself can describe his delays in categories other than “Satan stopped us.” For example, he tells the Corinthians, “I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Cor. 16:7, italics added; see meditation for March 1). Nor is this an isolated example. The Lord Jesus tells us of a time of such terrible destruction that, “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive” (Matt. 24:22, italics added). That really cannot mean anything other than that God intervenes to cut short those days. That in turn means he has the power to do so. The question it raises is why he did not do so earlier. Strictly speaking, the answer is not disclosed. Doubtless it is intertwined with other biblical themes: God sometimes allows evil to run its course, or much of its course, to expose its degradation; he is forbearing, leaving much time for repentance; he may have his own reasons, largely hidden, as in the book of Job. But always he is God, and his sovereignty is never truncated. Paul frankly admits that Satan stopped him; in another frame, he might speak of the same event in terms of the Lord’s permission. He is not embarrassed by either description, and we must not be embarrassed either. Daniel can speak of a three-week delay; elsewhere he speaks of God’s unbridled sovereignty (e.g., Dan. 4:34–35). For him, the two are compatible.
Apr 4, 2023
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