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POST DATE: 2007-04-30
II Kings 17:1-6
Revelation 13:1 -10
II Timothy 3:16-17
This lecture is entitled "The Richness of Scripture." The Book of Job contains a beautiful meditation on man's ingenuity in mining for hidden riches. Man puts his hand to the flinty rock, and overturns mountains by the roots. He cuts out channels in the rocks, and his eye sees every precious thing.
But. Job continues, God's wisdom is richer by far than gold or precious stones - and more elusive. In fact, God alone knows the way to it and only those who fear him will find it.
So it is with Holy Scripture - God's word and wisdom written for us. "It is the golden casket where gems of truth are stored," says the hymn; for the Bible presents us with the manifold wisdom and power of God in an astonishing variety of materials and forms which must be viewed, like precious stones, from many different aspects.
Reading the Bible therefore is always a challenge - to the scholar as well as the layman. It is a challenge because it is God's word to us. Martin Luther once said, "The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me: it has hands, it lays hold of me." It is also a challenge because it is also man's word, written in many and various ways as witness to God's final act of revelation in sending his Son Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. The humanness of the Bible is of course a real joy and comfort because in it we read about people just like ourselves (Adam hiding in the garden, David mourning for Jonathan. Paul struggling with his thorn in the flesh, those "stupid Galatians.") But this humanness is also a difficulty - we human beings have a hard time understanding one another anyway, but especially when separated by barriers of history, geography, and culture. How can we "live into" a book written two to four thousand years ago in the near East in a pre-scientific culture?
The Bible is part of ancient literature and presents many of the same problems we moderns have reading ancient Greek authors like Plato. Furthermore, the Bible is not a single work like Paradise Lost nor is it even a collection of one author's works, like Shakespeare's plays, but is a select library (or "canon") of books representing very different personalities, viewpoints and modes of expression. Let's take a look at the variety of forms we find between the leather-bound bookshelf, which is our Bible.
In the Old Testament we find narrative - the gripping saga of Jacob struggling with a divine visitor (Genesis 32:23-33): there is law - the Ten Commandments followed by ancient laws for everyday living (Exodus 20-23); there are historical chronicles taken from the royal archives (2 Kings 17:1-6); the prophets see the Lord and hear his voice as clear and awesome as a lion's roar (Amos 1:1-2: 7:1-8: 3); the Old Testament includes Israel's response to God in psalms of praise and lament and even pithy human wisdom- so-called proverbs - which teach men and women to live well in God's world.
In the New Testament we encounter a new kind of writing -the Gospel which records the life, death and resurrection as reported from different sources and witnesses "in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name." (John 20:30-3 1; Luke 11-4). We get to read Paul's correspondence to his young churches. And finally, we are caught up to the throne of God and glimpse the revelation of the end-time in a kind of writing called "apocalyptic". (Daniel 7; Revelation 4-5)
One cannot read this variety of literature in one way, any more than one can win at golf with only a putter or a driver. Reading the Bible is more an art than a science. One cannot extract the truth from the Bible by dissecting it in a laboratory or by organizing it into a manual of doctrine. This is not to say that the Bible is hopelessly ambiguous or unclear. Neither does it mean that we cannot derive theological doctrines and ethical demands from it. It does suggest that when we read the Bible we must immerse ourselves in it. We must travel along its way like the disciples going to Emmaus with the mysterious stranger, listening carefully, being amazed and confused and finally confessing, "Did not our hearts burn within us ... while he opened to us the Scriptures." (Luke 24:32). For, you see. God is not satisfied to present our minds with mere facts to acknowledge. He wants to bring us into relationship with himself, and to do this he must confront our unruly wills, stir our dull imaginations, guide our wayward feet, and tune our hearts to sing his praise. God wants all of our being and he wants it for eternity. So he has inspired Holy Scripture for our instruction, correction and discipline "so that we may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16)
Let's pick up some practical guidelines for appreciating Bible passages, concentrating by way of example on I Kings, chapter 17 - the story of Elijah and the widow of Sidon.
First, ask yourself "What kind of writing is this?" - prose, poetry, story, song, proverb, and so on? Look for clues in the passage itself - repetition, parallel verse structure, metaphorical language. In the case of I Kings 17 we are dealing with a narrative or legend about the prophet Elijah.
Next, we need to look at the larger context or setting of the passage. Immediately preceding our passage we find a description of the utter depths of idolatry to which King Ahab of Israel and his people had gone. Ahab had married a Phoenician queen from Sidon, and the Israelites had bowed the knee to Baal. There is not only a drought of rain in the land of Israel, but a drought of faith, and Elijah must go into exile to the pagan Sidon to find a believer.
Here is a second hint: read the passage continuously. Do not be distracted by details of name, time, or place. Don't major in the minors. For instance, do not worry about what the woman's sin might be that she confesses in verse 18. The text itself passes over this issue without comment: so should you. In this passage the drama centers on the miraculous cure of the young boy and his mother's response.
Thirdly, look for a key phrase that unlocks the theological purpose of the passage. In verse 24, for instance, the woman confesses: "Now I know that you are a man of God and the Word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth." This confession both reveals the depths of her faith and the nature of Elijah's mission as a servant of God's Word. It thus prepares us for the dramatic confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in chapter 18.
Finally, keep your mind open to parallel images or passages in the Bible as you read. We cannot but compare, for instance, the widow's response with the eagerness with which the Syro-Phoenician woman asked Jesus for a miracle after the hard-heartedness of his own townsmen at Nazareth. And we also see Jesus the perfect servant of God demonstrating the same compassion and power on behalf of a widow of Nain, which Elijah had shown to the widow of Sidon.
So, in summary, if as John Calvin described it, the Bible is the "school of the Holy Spirit," we need to be ready to study its broad curriculum -narrative, law, chronicle, prophecy, psalm, gospel, epistle, apocalypse-in the way appropriate to each kind of writing. At the same time we can be confident that the all-wise God has ordered this curriculum for our good; for as the hymn asserts,
It is the chart and compass
That o 're life's surging sea
Mid mists and rocks and quicksands
Still guides, O Christ, to thee.
Genesis 32:23-33, Exodus 20-3, II Kings 17:1-6, Amos 1:1-2, Amos 7:1-8:3, Daniel 7, Luke 1:1-4 - Describe the forms of literature which each of these texts represents. How does God's communication to us differ through each of them?
II Timothy 3:16 - How do the different types of literature serve the purposes of which the Apostle speaks here?
I Kings 17 - How do you interpret this passage? Do you agree with the lecturer's presentation on the tape?
Some time ago a monk in the Order of the Holy Cross told me a story of when he was a missionary in Africa. They were moving some supplies across country and were being assisted with their move by some natives. They had been on the move for several days and had been making very good time. They had just finished eating breakfast and were preparing to break camp when the natives’ leader approached them. He told them that they had to stay where they were for that day. The missionaries responded; “why, we have been making such good time and in staying here for a day we would loose that advantage”? The leader of the natives said that his men believed that they had been moving so fast that they had left their souls behind. They believed they must stay in one place for a day to allow their souls to catch up with them. In our lives today we maintain such a fast pace that we do sometimes feel that we have left our souls behind. We need to stop and spend time with God so our souls can catch up with us. Or, we need to, “Be still and know I am God”.
For many years I made an annual retreat to an Order of Holy Cross monastery in Pineville, SC. I would spend the last week of December and the first week of January with them. What a wonderful time. You would be awaken before daylight, get dressed and go to the chapel for Matins (Morning Prayer). After Matins we would have Communion. We would all have breakfast together and the monks would start their assigned chores. If you liked you could assist them. At noon we would all go back to the chapel for Diurnum (Noon Day Prayers). The afternoon would be filled with completing their chores, study and rest. Around sundown we would have Vespers (Evening Prayer) and then Compline before bedtime. What a mountain top experience to join them in their rhythm of prayer, study, and service.
It is critical that we attend to our spiritual health. We must nourish our soul through prayer and study. We must exercise our spirit by bearing fruit through Christian service. And we must rest our self in the bosom of our Heavenly Father. Stay in one place and allow your soul to catch up with you. Be still and get to know God.