Four books, five passages, one Messiah
I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.
And yes, I missed yesterday’s post. I did that on purpose, because I decided that celebrating my fourth anniversary with my wife was much more important than writing a 500-word blog post. Perhaps because I missed that one, or perhaps because I’m simply in a verbose mood tonight, you’re getting more than the usual 500 words in the main text, and a lot more if you count the footnotes.
One of the interesting things about tackling multiple sections of Scripture at the same time is seeing the ways they shine light on each other. If we affirm – as I do – that Scripture is inspired not only in its individual parts but as a whole book, as a canon, then putting the pieces together can make all of them make more sense.1 Today, for example, I was reading in Genesis 4, Psalms 9 and 10, Proverbs 20, and Matthew 5. One would not necessarily expect these five (counting each of the Psalms as a distinct reading2) disparate texts to particularly overlap in their content.
In a way, that expectation is not far wrong. Genesis 4 highlights Cain’s murder of Abel, his offspring’s worsening sin, and the birth of Seth and his son Enosh. The Psalms both focus on God’s righteousness and sovereign rule over the earth, though from different angles – in the first, David expresses thanksgiving for God’s judgment on evildoers; in the second, he offers a pained plea for God to judge wicked men who seem to get away with their sin. Proverbs, as is typical for The Proverbs of Solomon (chapters 10–24), is a mix without a particular focus. Matthew 5 contains the first part of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, including the beatitudes, his declaration that he has not come to abolish but to fulfill the law,3 and his series of “You have heard it said… but I say…” statements.
Genesis 4 hammers home that sin escalates. It is a matter of mere sentences from the time God removes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the time their first son murders their second son in a fit of jealousy. It is only a few more sentences before one of Cain’s descendants is boasting about how he will kill a man over trivial offenses. Things start bad and get worse in a hurry. The end of the chapter – and the end of the section that started in chapter 2 – gives a little hope, though: when Adam and Eve have Seth, Eve declares that God has given her an “offspring,” a seed: the very word God used to promise the one who would crush the serpent’s head, and the word that becomes a touchstone throughout the rest of Scripture to point to the coming Messiah. Then people began to call on the name of Yahweh.4
David was the anointed king of Israel. He was the first fulfillment of God’s promise to set the crown in the line of Judah, and that promise in turn was part of God’s Messianic promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In both of these Psalms, though, his focus is on the righteous reign of Yahweh as the hope of the oppressed against the wicked. In both the prayer of thanksgiving (Psalm 9) and the imprecatory prayer (Psalm 10), David ultimately returns to Yahweh’s eternal reign as the hope of the righteous over and against the predations of the wicked. Yet, as the second psalm makes clear, Yahweh does not seem to be reigning at the moment.
The Proverbs of Solomon rarely dive directly into theology proper or what we might call “theological anthropology.” The focus is nearly always on enormously practical observations about life – the sorts of things that really are profitable to make us wise, but which do not directly tell us about the character of God or our relationship to him. They are, instead, focused on wisdom that God has given us to be able to live wisely in this world, broken as it is. In the middle of this set of Proverbs, however, are a pair of statements that caught my attention because they are more theologically elevated, as it were. Verse 9 reads, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” and verse 12 reads, “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, Yahweh has made them both.” Between the two the author suddenly and sharply reminds the reader that God made all things, and that no one is capable of making himself righteous or pure in heart – and so all are accountable before God who is creator and judge.
Finally, in Matthew Jesus takes the high bar of the righteousness demanded by the Law and the Prophets, and modeled by the Pharisees, and sets it incredibly higher. The final of his “You have heard it said… but I say” sayings ends thus: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is impossibly higher. The just and righteous God who made all things, who really is reigning and who does judge the wicked even if it does not always seem so, demands that we be perfect. But this same God promised a seed who would set things to right – a promise he was honoring and keeping, Matthew has made clear already, right down through Jesus.
When Jesus says he hasn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them – when he continues by saying they won’t pass away until they are completely fulfilled – and then promptly makes it clear that no one is going to fulfill them but him, Proverbs 20:9 comes back to mind. “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” No one – but Jesus. He made all things; he fulfilled the law; his heart was pure and clean; he is the seed; he is the one on whom people call for salvation; he judges the wicked and was judged for our wickedness; he is the final Davidic king who reigns forever; he is the one who is perfect as our Father is perfect and who has given us his perfection.
- This is one reason I’d like to see pastors preach through longer sections of more parts of the Bible much more frequently. But more on that in a non-devotional post, some other day. This post is going to be long even as it is. ↩
- Worth note: the original text doesn’t have any heading between the two chapters, unlike many other breaks. As such, it is possible they should be viewed as connected, at least to some extent: the editor of the Psalms grouped and arranged them in a particular way for a reason. Again: more on that some other day. ↩
- Which is flatly shocking if you actually step back and read the book as a book, rather than importing your assumptions about what Jesus is doing, and especially if you read it in its canonical context. Here we are, plowing into the Messianic narrative Matthew provides as the first book out of the Old Testament, and with absolutely no reason in the book – and certainly no clear reason to expect it from the Old Testament – Jesus suddenly announces that he’s not here to abolish the Law or the Prophets. We’ve become so inured to the changes the New Covenant brought that we rarely stop and consider this at all. “Why in the world,” we should all be asking, “would anyone think – at this point, at least – that he was going to abolish the Law or the Prophets?” And then he promptly goes and even further ups the ante… but more on that back in the non-footnote text. ↩
- I use God’s self-revealed name because I do not see any warrant in Scripture to follow the Jewish custom of not speaking or writing it. When you see Lord in the Old Testament and it’s in small caps (as it is there if you have a decent, modern web browser), that’s “Yahweh.” ↩