Tuesday, October 28, 2014

An ending with surprises

A simple prayer

A long time ago, in a land before children, I had an organised devotional time. Before reading the Bible I used to pray this simple prayer: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18) Maybe you’ve prayed something like that? Certainly many others before me have uttered that prayer. I always felt confident that God would answer me in the affirmative - these were His own words after all!  It reminds me very much of the prayer Carson prays at the end of his chapter. And if God’s is the condensed version, Carson’s is the expanded, and it beautifully concludes our book for the month.

Carson prays that we would not make the reading of God’s word an intellectual activity only. We do indeed want to understand what the scriptures are saying. We want to have eyes opened to see remarkable things. But not so that we can merely marvel - so “that we may draw near in confidence to Christ Jesus, our beloved king, our priest, made for us everything that we need, such that we find full confidence in him.”(p.174)

The purpose of Carson’s Bible study then, is to be moved closer to Christ, not to have bigger brains. But the marvelling is still an important step. Reading the text of the Bible with a curiosity that is alive to surprises is a key strategy that Carson employs. And where there were gaps in my own Bible knowledge coming to this psalm I felt buoyed and excited to fill them. Carson has a strong determination to mine the text for all its worth. He is a giant in the field of Biblical scholarship, having written book after book after book, so it is exciting to go on a journey into this psalm with such a prodigious Biblical explorer.

A Strategy for digging deep into the Psalm

Carson takes us to Psalm 110, and it is the second of three times in the Bible where the mysterious figure of Melchizedek pops up. (He is mentioned first in Genesis 14 and quite a bit in the New Testament book of Hebrews.)

Like James MacDonald’s preaching on Psalm 25 in chapter 4, Carson employs a similar methodology for handling a piece of ancient poetry: First he asks, Who wrote the Psalm? And second, What does it say? So far a pretty standard approach, but the answers are far from simple. Rather than this being a dry exercise Carson throws quite a few surprises in there, not least his thoughts on how the author did it.

Carson’s textual and referential analysis of the Psalm is divided into oracles (or statements) and commentary. This drilling down helps us get closer to understanding how it could possibly be that thousands of years before Christ, King David could pen a Psalm that begins with the words,

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

You can’t help but wonder, “Who is David’s God, “The Lord” (Yahweh), talking to?” Whoever it is, the King, David, highest office holder of the land, refers to him as, “my lord”. My curiosity was piqued. Carson then lays out the different modes by which David could have been inspired to write this, (pp.155-157) and it is some of the most exciting stuff in the book. What is so compelling about Carson’s treatment of this mystery is his own deep and detailed intimacy with the Bible. Where there are clues, he digs deep. And he manages to find things we may not ever have noticed.

In search of surprises

I stayed up past midnight reading about how Carson had changed his mind as to how David had actually come to write Psalm 110. That it was not a divine dictatorship style of inspiration in which David holds the pen and God provides the words, like for example, it appears to be in the book of Daniel. Though that is certainly part of it, Carson cannot reconcile that idea with the many heartfelt psalms that spring straight out of David’s personal experience. (For example, Psalm 23.) Carson reasons that David’s mind must have been connected to what he wrote as that is the way his other Psalms have flowed out of him.

Carson gives a convincing argument to show us that David may have found ‘the lord’ that Yahweh is speaking to, from his quiet times, and brings us to Deuteronomy 17:18-20 in which the Kings are instructed to make a personal copy of the law. This involved writing the first five books of the Bible out for themselves. Carson points out that there were no shortcuts available. (Like for instance taking snaps on your smartphone! Or getting someone else to do it for you.) They were instructed to write the whole thing out long hand and take devotional from it all their days. Now we know that many Kings did not do this, but David, in his best moments, was a good King, he is described in the Bible as a man after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel 13:14) He clearly wrote Psalm 23 out of the richness of his own experience as a shepherd and not as a divine scribe, with no human heart and soul involved (p.156), so Carson’s argument holds some weight. David was educated. He was deeply thoughtful. He was a man of prayer. He could write! What an exciting surprise! What a shining glimpse into the spiritual life of David!

It helped me to picture David, in colour, living and breathing and reading the law, coming one day to Genesis 14, as Carson imagines, reading and meditating on this mysterious figure, Melchizedek, a type of Christ (as Hebrews 7:3 confirms) humbling himself before God, praying, writing out of the burning in his heart that God had put there. He looks forward to the time of the Messiah. He writes Psalm 110. These are tantalising glimpses that flesh out for me in more realness than I have ever seen before what this man of God may have actually been like. And they make me excited to keep reading the Psalms!

This kind of noticing, this rich mining of vast amounts of information for kernels of gold is super encouragement for anyone who needs help to continue pursuing daily Bible reading. This is what brought David closer to God. His own personal reading of the first five books of our Bible. His dependence on God through prayer, through all his mistakes. His own meditating on the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. This is what revealed Jesus to him. From the law! Well might he come to write (and Christians ever after pray), “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

As we close the book

As we come to the end of our series of book reviews on The Scriptures Testify About Me I think it would be hard to read this book and feel only an increase in intellectual understanding of the Bible. Many of the stories are so personal, and so heartfelt, both those from the Old Testament and the ones the preachers share from their own lives. But there is always a danger that we may sit on the surface of the text rather than dive in and let it, by God’s spirit, change us, shape us and mould us to be more like him. So, if you haven’t started reading this marvellous little book, get a copy and dive in, this is a worthwhile and faith enriching experience!

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