37 episodes

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).

Read The Bible The Gospel Coalition

    • Religion & Spirituality
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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).

    1 Samuel 9; Romans 7; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 22

    1 Samuel 9; Romans 7; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 22

    Occasionally someone comes along who shows exceptional promise from his or her youth, and then lives up to that promise. But that does not seem to be the common way of things. Who would have thought that a minor painter from Vienna could become the monstrous colossus the world knows as Adolf Hitler? Who would have thought that a failed haberdasher from Missouri, a chap with a high-school education, would succeed Roosevelt, drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sack General Douglas MacArthur, and order the racial integration of the armed forces?

    Consider Saul (1 Sam. 9). He was a Benjamite, and thus from the little tribe reduced in numbers and prestige by the horrible events recorded in Judges 19–21 (see meditations for August 5–7). He was not even from a major clan within that tribe (1 Sam. 9:21). Physically he was a strapping young man, getting on with the farming chores his father assigned him, with no pretensions—so far as we know—of glory or power. Indeed, in the next chapter he has to be cajoled from his hiding place in the luggage to come out and accept the acclaim the people wanted to give him.

    It is not yet the time to trace all the things that went wrong—some of them will be mentioned in later meditations. But people with even a cursory knowledge of Scripture know what a mixed character Saul turned out to be, and how tragic his end. What should we learn?

    (1) If we ourselves are on an upward curve of great promise, we must resolve to persevere in the small marks of fidelity and humility. A good beginning does not guarantee a good end.

    (2) If we are responsible for hiring people, whether pastors and other Christian leaders or executives for a corporation, although some of us prove more insightful and farsighted than others, all of us make mistakes—for the simple reason that, quite apart from the bad choices we make, a good choice can turn into a bad choice (and vice-versa) because people change.

    (3) It follows that every organization, not least the local church, needs some sort of mechanism for godly removal of leaders who turn out to be evil or woefully inadequate. That wasn’t possible in ancient Israel, so far as the king went. It is not only possible but mandated so far as New Testament leadership is concerned.

    (4) Only God knows the end from the beginning. After we have exercised our best judgment, nothing is more important than that we should cast ourselves on God, seeking to please him, trying to conform our judgments to what he has disclosed of himself in his Word, trusting absolutely in the only One who knows the end from the beginning.

    1 Samuel 7–8; Romans 6; Jeremiah 44; Psalms 20–21

    1 Samuel 7–8; Romans 6; Jeremiah 44; Psalms 20–21

    Why people ask for something is at least as important as what they ask for.

    This is true in many domains of life. I know an executive in a midsize corporation who successfully talked his bosses into setting up a new committee. The reason he gave was that it was needed to oversee some new development. What he did not tell his bosses was his real reason: he could in time use this committee to sidestep another established committee that was questioning some of his projects and holding them up. He saw the new committee as a managerial trick to avoid being controlled, and thus to shin up the ladder a little faster. What might have been construed as a shrewd device for peacefully circumventing an unnecessary roadblock in the company’s structure (had he explained what he was doing to the bosses) was in fact presented in quite different terms, because he could not honestly tell them what he was doing—he knew they thought the established committee was doing a good job. Hence the deceit.

    We need not look so far. How many of our own requests—in the home, in church, at work, in our prayers—mask motives that are decidedly self-serving?

    That was the problem with Israel’s request for a king (1 Sam. 8). The problem was not the request itself. After all, God would eventually give them the Davidic dynasty. Moses had anticipated the time when there would be a king (Deut. 17). The problem was the motive. They looked at their recent ups and downs with the local Canaanites and perceived few of their own faults, their own infidelities. They did not want to rely on the word of God mediated through prophets and judges and truly learn to obey that word. They figured that there would be political stability if only they could have a king. They wanted to be like the other nations (!), with a king to lead them in their military skirmishes (1 Sam. 8:19–20).

    God not only understands their requests, but he perceives and evaluates their motives. In this instance he knows that the people are not simply loosening their ties to a prophet like Samuel, they are turning away from God himself (1 Sam. 8:7–8). The result is horrific: they get what they want, along with a desperate range of new evils they had not foreseen.

    That is the fatal flaw in Machiavellian schemes, of course. They may win short-term advantages. But God is on his throne. Not only will the truth eventually come out, whether in this life or the next, but we may pay a horrible price, within our families and in our culture, in unforeseen correlatives, administered by a God who loves integrity of motive.

    1 Samuel 5-6; Romans 5; Jeremiah 43; Psalm 19

    1 Samuel 5-6; Romans 5; Jeremiah 43; Psalm 19

    God is never amused at being treated with contempt, nor by having his explicit instructions ignored or defied. For then he would not be God.

    God is well able to defend himself. In 1 Samuel 5–6, the unfolding account can be as restrained as it is precisely because it is as obvious to the reader as it was to the Philistines that God himself is behind the tragic illnesses and deaths they were suffering. The surprises began with the capsizing of their fish god, Dagon. It soon spread to a plague of rats, an epidemic of tumors, multiplying deaths — and not only in the city of Ashdod, to which the ark of the covenant was first taken, but in other cities to which it was transported — Gath and Ekron. Panic ensued.

    But at the end of the day, all the phenomena the Philistines were experiencing could have been natural. That’s not what they thought, of course; but still, it was difficult to be sure. So the Philistine priests concoct a test so much against nature that should the test succeed, the people will be convinced that what they are suffering comes from the hand of “Israel’s god” (1 Sam. 6:5, 7-9). The cows are separated from their calves and draw along the cart to Beth Shemesh, on the Israelite side: God himself plays along with their superstitions and their fears.

    While the Israelites rejoice at the return of the ark of the covenant, “God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD” (1 Sam. 6:19). There is no reason to think this happened instantaneously. If one had peeked into it and been struck down immediately, others would have been pretty quickly discouraged from doing so. There is no hint that a blinding and consuming light swept out of the opened box and melted the flesh off people, like some sort of ancient Harrison Ford film. Rather, seventy men from Beth Shemesh looked into the ark (which of course was strictly forbidden under pain of death), and doubtless saw what was there: the tablets of stone (apparently the pot of old manna and Aaron’s rod that budded had disappeared, perhaps removed by the Philistines). Then the deaths started, all premature, by whatever means — and the only commonality was that they were occurring among men who had looked into the ark. “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God?” the people ask (1 Sam. 6:20) — not intending to learn the ways of holiness, but to get rid of the ark — precisely the same pattern as in the pagan cities.

    God will not be treated with contempt, nor forever permit his covenant people to ignore his words.

    1 Samuel 4; Romans 4; Jeremiah 42; Psalm 18

    1 Samuel 4; Romans 4; Jeremiah 42; Psalm 18

    When people know little about the God who has actually disclosed himself, it is terribly easy for them to sink into some perverted view of this God, until the image held of him has very little to do with the reality.

    One can understand the Philistines’ ignorance (1 Sam. 4). In their polytheistic world, full of idols providing concrete representations of their gods, the arrival of the ark of the covenant in the Israelite camp is understood to be the arrival of the Israelite god (1 Sam. 4:6-7). But this god, even if he proved so powerful that he could at one point take on the Egyptians, is merely one more god, finite, limited, local. So the Philistines, having to choose between buckling under and courageous defiance, opt for the latter, and win. Implicit in their win are an assumption and a result: the assumption is that God is no longer laying on the hearts of the Canaanites the mortal dread of the Israelites that had accompanied the early Israelite victories (and this spells judgment for the Israelites); the result is that the Philistines will now have an even more diminished view of God. Knowing the God of the Bible, we can be certain that this is a situation that will not last long; God will take action to defend his own glory.

    The Israelites’ ignorance of God is wholly without excuse, but is of a piece with the horrible declension toward the end of the period of the judges. They are getting trounced by the Philistines. Their theological reasoning is so bad that they think they can reverse the fortunes of war by bringing the ark of the covenant into the military camp like an oversized good-luck charm. The writer hints at the sheer preposterousness of the notion; they bring “the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim” (1 Sam. 4:4). Sadly, Eli’s sons, the priests Hophni and Phinehas, are complicit in these arrangements. Is God’s favor so easily manipulated? Does he care as much about the location of a box as he does about the conduct and (in)fidelity of his image-bearers and covenant community? What kind of pared-down and domesticated image of God did the leaders of Israel hold at this juncture that they should utter such nonsense?

    Yesterday I received in the mail a letter from one of America’s premier television preachers, inviting me to send money and offering me in return a Christmas tree ornament of an “angel” with a trumpet, to remind me that God had commanded the angel looking after me to blow a trumpet to celebrate me. What kind of pared-down and domesticated image of God do such leaders hold that they should utter such nonsense?

    1 Samuel 3; Romans 3; Jeremiah 41; Psalm 17

    1 Samuel 3; Romans 3; Jeremiah 41; Psalm 17

    The Lord does not call all his prophets in the same way, or at the same time of life. Amos was called when he was a shepherd in Tekoa. Elisha was called by Elijah to serve an apprenticeship. But Samuel was called even from before conception.

    Samuel’s conscious experience of the call of God (1 Sam. 3) occurred when he was still quite a young lad — not, surely, a tiny tot, as some of our more romantic pictures have portrayed it, for he knew enough to be able to understand what the Lord said to him, to be troubled by it and to hesitate before repeating it to Eli. But he was not very old, still a “boy” (1 Sam. 3:1).

    The story is so well known it scarcely needs repeating. But some observations may focus matters a little.

    (1) The voice that comes to Samuel is a real voice, speaking Hebrew, a real language. This is not some merely subjective “feel” of being called. Real calls, real visions, real revelations take place in the Bible; but in the days of Samuel they were “rare” (1 Sam. 3:1). Certainly up to this point Samuel had never had such an experience; he “did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7).

    (2) Eli is a sad figure. In his own life, he is a person of integrity — even though he is a disaster with his family. His long experience enables him, on the Lord’s third calling of Samuel, to guess what is going on, and to guide young Samuel in an appropriate response: “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).

    (3) The substance of the revelation given to Samuel on this occasion concerns a coming setback so startling that it “will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam. 3:11). Included in this tragedy will be the destruction of Eli’s family, in line with what the Lord had previously told Eli: God would judge Eli’s family forever “because of the sin he (Eli) knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain then” (1 Sam. 3:13). Such neglect is always wicked, of course, but it is especially wicked in religious leaders who promote their sons to positions where they use their power to abuse people and treat God himself with contempt (1 Sam. 2:12-25).

    (4) When Eli manages to get Samuel to tell him all the Lord said, his own response, while preserving a show of trust, betrays his irresponsibility. “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes” (1 Sam. 3:18). Why does he not immediately repent, take decisive action against his sons, exercise the discipline that was within his priestly right, and ask the Lord for mercy?

    1 Samuel 2; Romans 2; Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15-16

    1 Samuel 2; Romans 2; Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15-16

    If Romans 1 condemns the entire human race, Romans 2 focuses especially on Jews. They have enormous advantages in that they were the recipients of the Law — the revelation from God mediated through Moses at Sinai. But here too, Paul argues, all are condemned; possession of the law does not itself save. By Rom. 3:19-20, the apostle explicitly insists that those “under the law” are silenced along with those without the law all are under sin. This prepares the way for the glorious gospel solution (Rom. 3:21-31).

    Here in Romans 2, however, there is one paragraph that has generated considerable discussion (Rom. 2:12-16). In verse 12 Paul makes the general point that God judges people by what they know, not by what they do not know. Hence: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Jesus had similarly tied human responsibility to human privilege: the more we know, the more severely we are held accountable (Matt. 11:20-24). Mere possession of the law isn’t worth anything. Those (Jews) are righteous who obey the law.

    Then Paul adds, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Rom. 2:14-15).

    Many writers take this to mean that some Gentiles may be truly saved without ever having heard of Jesus, since after all, Paul says that some Gentiles “do by nature things required by the law,” and insists their consciences are “even defending them.” Others try to avoid this implication by arguing that the positive option is for Paul purely hypothetical. But Paul is not arguing that there is a subset of Gentiles who are so good that their consciences are always clean, and therefore they will be saved. Rather, he is arguing that Gentiles everywhere have some knowledge of right and wrong, even though they do not have the law, and that this is demonstrated in the fact that they sometimes do things in line with the law, and have consciences that sometimes accuse them and sometimes defend them.

    His argument is not that some are good enough to be saved, but that all display, by their intuitive grasp of right and wrong, an awareness of such moral standards, doubtless grounded in the image of God, that they too have enough knowledge to be held accountable. For Paul is concerned to show that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9).

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