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).
Joshua 7; Psalms 137-138; Jeremiah 1; Matthew 15
It doesn’t always work like this, of course. Sometimes it is not the case that the sin of one man and his family — in this case Achan — brings defeat upon the entire believing community (Josh. 7). For example, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira brought death only to themselves (Acts 5), and the punishment they suffered induced a godly fear in the rest of the assembly. On the other hand, the sin of David brought tragic repercussions on the entire nation. Perhaps the most frightening cases are those where countless sins are committed by many, many people, and God does absolutely nothing about it. For the worst judgment occurs when God turns his back on people, and resolutely lets sin take its course. Far better to be pulled up sharply before things get out of hand. That is why so much of the previous forty years of wilderness wanderings was given over to the disciplining hand of God: the purpose was as much educative as reformative.
Whatever is the case elsewhere in Scripture, here the sin of Achan and his family brings embarrassing defeat to the contingent of troops sent to take the little town of Ai. Worse, it brought death to about thirty-six Israelites (Josh. 7:5). In a sense, Achan was a murderer. When in some consternation Joshua seeks God’s face, God rather abruptly says, in effect, “Stop your praying and deal with the sin in the camp” (Josh. 7:10-12). The point is that God had given explicit and repeated instructions. They had been violated. The covenant between God and the Israelites was essentially communal, and so God is determined to teach the entire community to exercise among its own members the discipline that the covenant mandates.
No doubt there are some substantial differences to bear in mind when one turns to the new covenant. Nevertheless, here too God says some explicit things, and expects the covenant community to exercise discipline (e.g., 1 Cor. 5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:4; 13:2-3). Paul warns us that failure to take disciplinary action in the church, when there has been flagrant violation, endangers the entire community (1 Cor. 5:6). Pastors of churches and leaders of other Christian organizations who ignore this perspective are inviting disaster among all the people they are called to lead. In the name of peace, the real motivation may simply be cowardice, or worse, a failure to take God’s words seriously. The point is reinforced in the second reading assigned for this date: “I . . . will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2-3).
Joshua 6; Psalms 135-136; Isaiah 66; Matthew 14
Every verse in Psalm 135 quotes or alludes to or is quoted by some other part of Scripture.
Verse 1 reorders the phrasing of Psalm 113:1, putting the emphasis on the “servants of the LORD” who are then further described in verse 2 — which in turn adapts a clause from Psalm 116:19. Verse 3 is one of three related verses in the book of Psalms in which we are variously told that the Lord’s name is good (Ps. 52:9), that he himself is good (Ps. 135:3), and that praising him is good (Ps. 147:1); and further, that both his name (here) and worship of him (Ps. 147:1) are “pleasant” (or perhaps “delightful”). If verse 3 emphasizes God’s character, verse 4 underscores his elective love in a way that calls us back to Deuteronomy 7:6.
Verses 5–7 emphasize God’s unlimited power, calling to mind Exodus 18:11; Psalm 115:3; Jeremiah 10:13. The opening clause “I know that . . .” provides an emphasis on personal confession; this is truth not only to know, but to live by. Much of verses 8–12 reappears scattered throughout the next psalm, often word for word (Ps. 136:10, Ps. 18–22). Which way the borrowing went is of little consequence. The references to the defeat of Sihon and Og call us back to Numbers 21:21–35. As for God’s name (Ps. 135:13–14), the allusion is to Exodus 3:15 and Deuteronomy 32:36. Verses 15–18, on the sheer folly of all idolatry, almost exactly follow Ps. 115:4–8; thematically similar convictions find expression in Isaiah. The closing verses of this psalm (Ps. 135:19–21) apparently pick up on Ps. 115:9–11, where three of the four groups are told to glorify God.
The result of this pastiche approach to psalm-writing is a wonderful compendium of praise. It is as if the mind of the writer is not only full of much historical data from Scripture, but filled with texts as well. So as he builds his exuberant hymn of praise, consciously or unconsciously he interweaves phrase after phrase, sometimes whole verses, drawn from other Scriptures.
A similar phenomenon was once not uncommon amongst praying evangelicals. As men and women poured out their hearts to the Lord in prayer meetings, both praise and petition were cast in the language of Scripture. Of course, at its worst this sort of thing was a canned recitation of the same half-dozen texts. But at its best, such praise and prayer roamed through ever wider vistas of Scripture, as the people’s knowledge of Scripture was itself growing. There is something mature and biblically evocative about such praise, and as different from today’s narrow themes of clichéd sentimentalism as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is from “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Joshua 5; Psalms 132-134; Isaiah 65; Matthew 13
Three elements are striking in Joshua 5.
(1) Circumcision is now carried out on all the males that were born during the years of wilderness wandering. At one level, this is rather surprising: How come they weren’t done as the boys were born? In many instances the multitude stayed in one place for long periods of time, doubtless developing community life. What prevented them from obeying this unambiguous covenantal stipulation?
There have been many guesses, but the short answer is that we do not know. More important, in this context, is the fact that the rite is carried out now universally. It thereby stands as a decisive turning point, a symbol-laden community-wide affirmation of the covenant as the people stand on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Egypt is now behind; the promised rest awaits. “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Josh. 5:9).
(2) The manna stops (Josh. 5:10-12). From now on the people will draw their nourishment from “the produce of Canaan.” This, too, was a dramatic signal that the days of wandering were over, and the fulfillment of the promise for a new land was beginning to unfold before their eyes. The change must have been both frightening and exciting, especially to an entire generation that had never known life without the security of manna.
(3) In the opening chapters of this book, Joshua experiences a number of things that mark him out, both in his own mind and in the mind of the people, as the legitimate successor to Moses. This chapter ends with one such marker. Doubtless the most dramatic one before this chapter has been the crossing of the Jordan River — a kind of miraculous reenactment of the crossing of the Red Sea (Josh. 3-4). Quite apart from providing an efficient way to move the multitudes across the river, the personal dimension is made explicit: “That day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they revered him all the days of his life, just as they had revered Moses” (Josh. 4:14 — though the last clause must be judged just a little tongue in cheek).
But now, there is another step: Joshua encounters a “man” who appears to be some sort of angelic apparition. He is a warrior, a “commander of the army of the LORD” (Josh. 5:14). On the one hand, this serves to strengthen Joshua’s faith that the Lord himself is going before him in the military contests that lie ahead. But more: the scene is in some respects reminiscent of Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:5): “The place where you are standing is holy ground.” However unique these circumstances, we too must have leaders accustomed to standing in the presence of holiness.
Joshua 4; Psalms 129-131; Isaiah 64; Matthew 12
From out of what kind of “depths” is the psalmist crying in Psalm 130:1? In other psalms the sheer despair of the expression is bound up with treasonous “friends” and overt persecution (Ps. 69), or with illness and homesickness (Pss. 6, 42). In this case, however, what has plunged the psalmist into “the depths” is sin and guilt: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).
First, this accent on the misery of guilt and the need for forgiveness from God serves as a welcome foil to some of the psalms that ask for vindication on the grounds that the psalmist is fundamentally just or righteous (see meditations of April 10 and 24). Such claims could scarcely be taken absolutely; genuinely righteous people invariably become more aware of their personal guilt and need for forgiveness than those who have become so foul and hard they cannot detect their own shame.
Second, the connection between forgiveness and fear is striking: “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Ps. 130:4). Perhaps this pair of lines hints that assurance of sins forgiven was at this stage in redemptive history not as robust as it would become this side of the cross. More importantly, the “fear of the Lord” is portrayed as not only the outcome of forgiveness, but one of its goals. It confirms that “fear of the Lord” has less to do with slavish, servile terror (which surely should be decreased by forgiveness, not increased) than with holy reverence. Even so, this reverence has a component of honest fear. When sinners begin to see the magnitude of their sin, and experience the joy of forgiveness, at their best they glimpse what might have been the case had they not been forgiven. Forgiveness engenders relief; ironically, it also engenders sober reflection that settles into reverence and godly fear, for sin can never be taken lightly again, and forgiveness never lightly received.
Third, the psalmist understands that what he needs is not forgiveness in the abstract, but forgiveness from God — for what he wants and needs is reconciliation with God, restored fellowship with God. He waits for the Lord and trusts his promises (Ps. 130:5). He waits like a watchman waits for the dawn through the most frightening hours but with the assurance that the dawn’s breaking is inevitable (Ps. 130:6).
Fourth, what is most precious about this psalm is that even though the culmination of redemption’s plan is still centuries away, the focus is not on the mechanism but on God. “O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (Ps. 130:7-8).
Joshua 3; Psalms 126-128; Isaiah 63; Matthew 11
The first verse of Psalm 127 is often quoted today: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” In an age of overpopulation, we less often cite verse 3: “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.” We may gain some helpful perspective by observing four things.
First, in Hebrew the psalm deploys a couple of word plays that are lost in English, and these plays give pointers as to how to read the psalm. The word house (Ps. 127:1) can refer to a building. By extension, this is then applied to the city in a metaphorical sense (Ps. 127:1b–3). More importantly, house can also refer to a household, built up in this case by the blessing of children (Ps. 127:3–5). Moreover, builders and sons sound very similar in Hebrew.
Second, this suggests that the unifying theme through the superficially disparate parts of the psalm is that in every sphere of life only the blessing and provision of God can bring about a successful outcome. At the most mechanical level of building a house, this is true. God gives strength to the workers; he sustains them in life; he restrains himself from sending a catastrophic storm that would tear the structure down; countless surprises may be avoided (unsafe concrete, a quagmire under the topsoil, “accidents” that take out workers, and countless more).
The same principle is true in the basic defensive operation of watching over a city wall, or defending a nation with a radar system: if God sustains you, your defense will suffice, and if he does not, then no matter how professional and expensive it is, it will prove inadequate. In the home, procreation is a “natural” function, but in a providentially ordered world, children are an inheritance from the Lord. The lesson to be learned is not passivity, but trust and rest, a godly lowering of frenzied labor (Ps. 127:2).
Third, Psalm 127 stands among the songs of ascent precisely because the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem in observance of the covenantally prescribed feasts provides an excellent occasion to reflect on God’s gracious provision in every area of life (compare also Ps. 128).
Fourth, alone among the songs of ascent this one is ascribed to Solomon. Sadly, Solomon is a figure whose great wisdom was sometimes not followed in his own life: his own building program, both physical and metaphorical, became foolish (1 Kings 9:10–19), his kingdom a ruin (1 Kings 11:11–13; see the October 8 meditation), and his household — not least his multiplied pagan marriages — a systematic denial of the claims of the living God (1 Kings 11:1–9). How important to ask God for the grace to live up to what we understand!
Joshua 2; Psalms 123-125; Isaiah 62; Matthew 10
I once heard a learned sociologist, by confession an evangelical, explain with considerable erudition why even a major revival, should the Lord choose to send one to a country like America, could not possibly speedily transform the nation. The problem is not simply the degree of biblical illiteracy in the controlling echelons of society, or the extent to which secularization has penetrated the media, or the history of the Supreme Court decisions that have affected the curricula and textbooks of our schools, and countless other items, but also how these various developments interlock. Even if, say, a million people became Christians in a very short space of time, none of the interlocking social structures and cultural values would thereby be undone.
To be fair to this scholar, he was trying, in part, to steer us away from shallow thinking that fosters a glib view of religion and revival — as if a good revival would exempt us from the responsibility to think comprehensively and transform the culture.
The element that is most seriously lacking from this analysis, however, is the sheer sweep of God’s sovereignty. The analysis of this sociologist colleague is reductionistic. It is as if he thinks in largely naturalistic categories, but leaves a little corner for something fairly weak (though admittedly supernatural) like regeneration. Not for a moment am I suggesting that God does not normally work through means that follow the regularities of the structures God himself has created. But it is vital to insist that God is not ever limited to such regularities. Above all, the Bible repeatedly speaks of times when, on the one hand, he sends confusion or fear on whole nations, or, on the other, he so transforms people by writing his Law on their heart that they long to please him. We are dealing with a God who is not limited by the machinations of the media. He is quite capable of so intruding that in judgment or grace he sovereignly controls what people think.
As early as the Song of Moses and Miriam, God is praised for the way he sends fear among the nations along whose borders Israel must pass on the way to the Promised Land (Ex. 15:15-16). Indeed, God promises to do just that (Ex. 23:27), and promises the same for the Canaanites (Deut. 2:25). So it should not be surprising to find the evidence of it as the Israelites approach their first walled town (Josh. 2:8-11; cf. Josh. 5:1).
God may normally work through ordinary means. But he is not limited by them. That is why all the military muscle in the world cannot itself guarantee victory, and all the secularization, postmodernism, naturalism, and paganism in the world cannot by themselves prevent revival. Let God be God.
A Year Later
Thank you Gospel Coalition for continuing this on throughout an odd year and grounding us in the truth. Thank you for constantly pointing us to Christ, our only hope. Grateful to have done this for a year. Praying that this ministry continues to bless others. God bless!
Great way to start the New Year
I’m so thankful that the Gospel Coalition provided this study and am looking forward to digging into God’s Word more this year.