For the last few weeks, we have been thinking about the Jesus’ death on the cross, and what his death means for us.  As a young Christian, the only way of understanding the cross I knew was penal substitution: that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven.  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood,” and “Jesus Paid It All.”  However, like many believers, I have come to be dissatisfied with that model.  I am disturbed by what it says about God, that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son.   I am concerned that this approach, focused solely on the death of Jesus, seems to make his life and teaching irrelevant.  In my August 6 blog, I wrote:

There are other biblical models for understanding the cross–most powerfully, I propose, the notion of Jesus as Immanuel (God with us) who expresses God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

This week and next, I am going to unpack that statement.  Today, we will pursue the origin and meaning of the name “Immanuel.”  Next week, we will consider how identifying Jesus as God With Us constitutes a way of understanding the atonement.

Matthew 1:18-24 provides the background for a Child ballad (no. 54) still sung in Appalachia, a Christmas carol called “The Cherry Tree.”   This strange little story never makes it into the Christmas pageants–probably because of its mature language and themes!

Mary, Joseph’s fiancee, is pregnant.  Joseph reaches the obvious, natural conclusion: Mary must have been unfaithful to him.  Certainly, the engagement was off, but in that culture, at that time, more could have–indeed many would have thought, should have–happened.  Mary’s actions had brought shame upon Joseph, as well as upon her own family.  At the least, she should have been exposed to public shame.  At the worst, with the evidence of her pregnancy to confirm her faithlessness, Mary could have been stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:13-28, especially 20-21 and 23-27). In some parts of the world, such “honor killings” still occur today.


But Joseph wanted nothing to do with any of this:

Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly (Matt 1:19, CEB).

Before Joseph could act on his decision, however, an angel appeared in a dream, to assure him of Mary’s faithfulness.  Her pregnancy was a miracle; her child “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20, CEB)!  Further, the angel gave Joseph instructions concerning this child: “you will call him Jesus” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

The name Jesus (Greek Iesous; Aramaic Yeshua) is a form of the name “Joshua,” derived like that name from the Semitic word for “salvation,” yeshuah.  He is to be named this because of his life’s work: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

A second name is also given to the child, however–not by Joseph, but by the writer of this gospel, for the eyes and ears of its readers and hearers (Matt 1:22-23, CEB):

Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”) 

One characteristic feature of Matthew’s gospel is the quotation of Scriptures that foreshadow Jesus’ life and ministry.  Here, he is quoting from Isaiah 7:10-16.

Before we think about how Matthew reads this passage, we need to see it in its context.  In the middle of the eighth century BC, Jerusalem was under siege: the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, Pekah, and the king of Syria, Rezin, had forged an alliance against the superpower of their day, Assyria.  When Ahaz of Judah refused to join their alliance, they decided to take from him by force the resources he would not yield voluntarily.  Bible scholars call this the Syro-Ephraimite War.

Ahaz is faced with a serious dilemma.  So far as he can see, he has only two choices: he can surrender to the Syro-Ephraimite alliance, or he can surrender to the advancing Assyrian armies.  The prophet Isaiah presents a third option: wait, and trust in God to deliver God’s city.

As we can imagine, the prophet’s option doesn’t hold much attraction for a realistic-minded politician like Ahaz!  So, speaking in the name of the Lord, the prophet makes an offer:

Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it as deep as the grave [Hebrew Sheol: the underworld,  or the place of the dead] or as high as heaven (Isa 7:10).

The king responds, with pompous piety: “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord” (Isa 7:12; compare Deuteronomy 6:16).  Of course, since it is God who is offering a sign to the king, Ahaz is just blowing smoke.  The exasperated prophet responds:

Isn’t it enough for you to be tiresome for people that you are also tiresome before my God?  Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel (Isa 7:13-14).

Isaiah does not say to whom this child will be born.  Since elsewhere in Isaiah 7-8, Isaiah gives his own children symbolic names, this may refer to Isaiah’s own child.  Immanuel is mentioned elsewhere in this book, however (see Isa 8:8, NRSV), in a way that sounds as though this is a royal name: perhaps referring to Ahaz’ own son, Hezekiah.

The significance of the sign, however, lies not in who the child is, but in the meaning of his symbolic name, and in the timing of his birth.  In Hebrew, ‘immanu ‘El means “God is with us.”  Ahaz does not need to fear Pekah and Rezin: Judah has a more powerful ally than any earthly army!  The child Immanuel, whose birth is imminent, will by the time that he is weaned (early toddlerhood, when he begins to be able to “reject evil and choose good”) be able to eat “butter and honey” (CEB; perhaps the NRSV “curds and honey” is better): products of the countryside, not available in a city under siege.  In other words, the siege will not last much more than a year or two: “Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned” (Isa 7:16).

To understand Matthew’s use of this passage, we need to remember, first, that Matthew believes that the Scriptures of Israel point toward Christ–how could they not?  Reading the Scriptures through Christian lenses, alert for passages that prefigure Jesus’ coming, Matthew would of course have hit upon this passage in Isaiah.  His own experience of God through Christ had taught him that all that God is was present, powerfully, in the person of Jesus.  Jesus is God–God in our midst, God with us!  Who else could “Immanuel” possibly be?

Second, we need to remember that Matthew was probably reading Isaiah, not in Hebrew, but in the Greek of the Septuagint (see the Bible Guy blog for May 28, 2013).  Isaiah says that “The young woman is pregnant” (Isa 7:14); in Hebrew, the word he uses for “young woman” is ‘almah: a term for a young woman of marriageable age, implying nothing about her virginity or lack thereof.  In the Septuagint, this word is translated by the Greek parthenos.  Probably in the second century BC when that translation was done, parthenos could have the same implications as the Hebrew ‘almah.  But it could also mean–and certainly by Matthew’s time primarily meant–virgin.  For example, the famous temple in Athens to Athena, the virgin goddess, was called the Parthenon.

Matthew’s tradition told him (as Luke’s told him; cf. Luke 1:26-38) that Jesus’ birth was a miracle, as his mother was a virgin.  This detail would, in his mind, have clinched the identification: Jesus was Immanuel!

Later in Matthew’s gospel, these two names–Jesus and Emmanuel–will recur, specifically in connection with Jesus’ passion, resurrection, and ascension.  Between them, they express briefly and powerfully what it means for Matthew to acclaim Jesus as the Christ.



The Bible Guy is off this weekend to The Gathering, a festival of folk, traditional, and old-time music in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, hosted and organized by my brother-in-law Steve Parker and my sister Tammy.  I will be preaching at the worship service on Sunday.  This is always a highlight of my year–I invite you all to come, if you can!



I have heard more responses, both in the form of comments and in the form of Facebook posts and conversation, on my blog from the first week of August, “‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?” than from any other post since I began this blog in February!  For those just joining us, this post dealt in part with the decision not to include “In Christ Alone” in the new PCUSA hymnal, after the authors insisted on keeping the line

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.

In a blog at Patheos’ Evangelical Portal, called “Christianity Without the Atonement” Gene Edward Veith concludes that, for the hymnal committee, “What was objectionable is the doctrine of the atonement.”

I don’t understand Mr. Veith’s conclusion at all.  Indeed, knowing people involved in this decision, and having team-taught a course with one of them (called, ironically, “Models of the Atonement”!), I know that the committee did not object to the Christian doctrine of the atonement.  Mr. Veith rightly asks,

What is the point of Christianity without the atonement?  It becomes turned into another religion.  I suppose the attraction is that it gives us another religion of law, which people somehow prefer to a religion that says they are sinners in need of forgiveness and, yes, atonement.

The question, however, is not, and has never been, whether we believe in the atonement or not.  The cross is not at issue.  The love of Jesus, and his suffering for us; the grace of God; the realization that God’s power, love, and grace are communicated by the cross; the fact that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves–none of this is at issue.  The only question is, what happens on the cross?  What does it mean to say, as Christians have said from the very first, that Jesus died for us?

The verb “atone” and the noun “atonement” are  only about 500 years old.  The Oxford Dictionary dates them to the early 16th century, when they were coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum (“unity”), and an older word, “onement” (from an obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite”).  The word was used particularly in Christian circles to talk about the unification of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

In particular, “make atonement” was used in the KJV to translate the Hebrew verb kipper, particularly as it is used in Leviticus 16 in connection with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  While this word apparently had the original meaning “cover,” it came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.  In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.

The CEB appropriately translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation.”  In modern Judaism, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, self-examination and repentance that concludes the ten Days of Awe with which the Jewish year begins.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khatat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat is Azazel’s.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group who are blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the Lord, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.

In the shrines of neighboring people, built on a similar plan to Israel’s shrine, this inner room contained the image of the god.  But in Israel’s temple, this inner chamber held not an image, but a golden box, usually called the Ark (though the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).  The lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.

The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a seat–a cherub throne, as the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” indicates (for example, 1 Sam 4:4; Ps 80:1).  The Ark served as the Lord’s footstool, the place where the divine feet touch the earth.  Hence, the ark was the intersection of divine and human worlds, and the place of the Lord’s special presence.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, the Ark was where Moses and Aaron encountered the Lord (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; sometimes translated as “mercy seat,” but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

What does this have to do with the cross?  In several places in the New Testament, sacrificial language is used for the cross.  In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul writes:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  This same Greek word is used in Leviticus 16, not for the sacrifice, but for the kapporet.  Better, then, is the CEB translation, “place of sacrifice,” though even that may be misleading.  Paul’s point is that the cross is where atonement happens: just as, in the ancient rites on Yom Kippur, the lid of the Ark was the place where the damage done by a year of uncleanness was undone.

Scripture provides numerous models for thinking about what happens on the cross: indeed, in these three short verses, Paul offers two: an economic model (our freedom is purchased, that is, we are redeemed, by Christ’s death), and a ritual model (Jesus as our hilasterion).  The point of his ritual metaphor is that the cross is where the gap between God and humanity is undone.

Later Christian thinkers offered still more models, including John Calvin’s proposal that Jesus took on himself the punishment due us for our sin–a model called “penal substitution.”  This is the model reflected in the statement that God’s wrath was satisfied by Jesus’ death.  Atonement does not mean “penal substitution,” however.  That model has nothing to do with Yom Kippur: Leviticus does not say that the sacrifices take the place of the people who offer them, and neither does Paul.

There is more to say, of course.  My only point, in this blog, is that atonement is a bigger idea than any single model.  We can have questions and reservations about Calvin’s explanation of the atonement without denying the reality of the atonement.  However we wrap our heads around this truth, we can confess unwaveringly what the very earliest church discovered: that in the person of Jesus, and particularly in his suffering and death, the gap between humanity and divinity has been overcome.  Through Jesus, we are made “at one” with God.


Loving God With All Your Mind

The Gospel account of Jesus’s teaching on the Great Commandment is found in Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28.  These accounts differ on small points: in Matthew, the expert on the Jewish law seeks to test Jesus when he asks his question; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert.  In all three, however, the answer is the same: no single commandment is the greatest.  The Torah hangs not on one, but on two essential prescriptions: love for God, and love for neighbor.

The second “great commandment” is fairly straightforward.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

One could perhaps ask, as the lawyer does in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?”  But we know, as he certainly must have known, that this is a worthless question.  The real question, as Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is how can we demonstrate love for our neighbors?  These United Methodist youth, helping with flood cleanup in Dubois, PA, certainly get it!

The commandment to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  While many interpretations of this commandment find here three different ways of loving God, that does not seem to be the intent of the passage in Deuteronomy.  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: loving God with all your heart means loving God as much as you can.  To love God with all one’s being (Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul;” it refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of oneself) is another way of saying that one is to love God entirely.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew; it means literally “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

In the Greek of the New Testament, however, and in the minds of early Christians influenced by Greek thought, this command does become a threefold (or more) depiction of loving God with every aspect of one’s being.  The KJV of Mark 12:30 reads,”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”  The heart (Greek kardia) is in Greek as in Hebrew the center of the self, or the will–the choosing, deciding aspect of the person.  The soul (Greek psyche) can refer (unlike Hebrew nephesh) to the immaterial, spiritual part of the person.  One’s might (Greek hischus) could be regarded as relating to one’s physical, material self.  Which leaves the Greek word dianoia, referring to thoughts and intentions, commonly translated as “mind.”

What might it mean to love God with all one’s mind?  At the opening of his theological treatise ProslogiumSaint Anselm of Canterbury prays,

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that unless I believed, I should not understand.

Indeed, Anselm writes, he had at first intended to title this theological work “Faith Seeking Understanding.”

In a comment on last week’s blog (“‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?,” August 6. 2013), one person wrote in part:

This is the main paradox of theology. The attempt to explain something only leads to further confusion. The simplicity of the faith is destroyed by a series of complex negotiations with the truth in order to produce a palatable, watered down version of an AMAZING gift of grace which is freely given (not coerced).  So many want to say what the Gospel isn’t to make it more tolerable so that we can get people to buy in on that soft marginal basis. 

St. Anselm would say amen to part of this.  We come to know and love God first through God’s love and grace showered on us, freely and without regard to our worthiness.  God loves us first.  As a Christian believer, I came to know that love of God through my experience of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.  No one is every argued into the kingdom: all of us are loved in.  The experience of God’s grace through faith in Christ comes first.  When I forget that essential order, I trust that you all will join in reminding me.

But that said, having experienced God, we seek to talk meaningfully and intelligibly about what has happened to us.  Our experience is not rational–that is, it cannot be reduced to reason.  But it is surely not irrational, either.

God created the universe, which though vast and mysterious is yet comprehensible and knowable: so much so that the intelligibility of the universe, which is describable by mathematics, is one strong demonstration of the reasonableness of faith in God.

God comes to meet us in Scripture: in words, in texts, in songs and stories and proverbs and parables that engage our intellect.  Surely such a God is not offended by our questions about God’s own will and nature –ultimately and finally unknowable and indescribable as God is.

In Anselm’s language, we do not believe because we understand; however, believing, we strive to understand: faith seeks understanding.  Theology and Bible study can be tools of human arrogance, attempting to water down or control the uncontrollable, inexpressible being of God–but they need not be.  They may also be a way of loving God, as Christ commands us to do, with all our minds.



“The wrath of God was satisfied”?

In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is certainly one of the most popular contemporary Christian songs in American churches today.  I have often been in worship services where this song was sung–most recently, in one of the services of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.  It is a beautiful, powerful, hymn, and I have no problem singing along–except for one line in the second verse:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Whenever I am in a worship service and this song is sung, I do not sing the bold-faced line.

I have learned that I am not alone in my reluctance.  A YouTube video of Kristian Stanfill from Passion 2013 skips this entire verse–something for which he is taken to task in numerous comments on this video.

Similarly, in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes,

 We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have offered caricatures of the biblical theology of the cross. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.

The committee charged with compiling a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (including my good friend and colleague, systematic theologian Edwin van Driel) asked the composers of this hymn if they could alter this line to “the love of God was magnified.”  When the composers refused to agree to this alteration, the committee decided not to include the hymn.

The response to this decision has been very intriguing.  In an article in the conservative Christian journal First Things, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, numbers the hymnal committee with    “[t]hose who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns.”  He recalls H. Richard Niebuhr’s condemnation of  “liberal Protestant theology, which was called ‘modernism’ in those days, in these famous words: ‘A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.'”  Another response, from Glenn Beck’s website, quotes Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College: “At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the PCUSA cannot abide this hymn.”

Please note: the new PCUSA Hymnal does not ignore the cross, the wrath of God, or even the teaching of Reformer John Calvin that the cross involves Jesus taking on himself God’s punishment for our sin: an idea called “penal substitution.” There will be, in the new Hymnal, ample witnesses to these images and ideas (for examples, see Adam Copeland‘s blog, or check out the new hymnal for yourself).

Despite the extreme responses cited above, there are two separate issues here.  One issue is how we are to understand the cross.  Like N. T. Wright and many other Christians, I am persuaded that penal substitution is neither the only, nor the best, approach to the death of Jesus.  What does it say about God if God’s wrath toward human sin is so great that it cannot be assuaged, but must be poured out on someone?  Further, in the logic of the hymn we are discussing, if “the wrath of God” is “satisfied” by the death of Jesus, is Jesus “Scorned by the ones he came to save,”  or by his heavenly Father?  There are other biblical models for understanding the cross–most powerfully, I propose, the notion of Jesus as Immanuel (God with us) who expresses God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

Another issue altogether is the wrath of God.  I have been writing recently on the Old Testament book of Zephaniah, whose theme is the wrath of God (see Zephaniah 1:17-18).   Of course, we could say, with lay theologians and Ghost Busters Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray, that the “real wrath of God type stuff” is, like Zephaniah, Old Testament!  But we cannot take refuge in “Old Testament  wrath/New  Testament love” nonsense unless we manage our Bible reading very carefully.  

There is in plenty of wrath in the NT as well—indeed, Revelation 16:1-20 features BOWLS of it!

When we consider the context and content of Zephaniah and Revelation, there are plenty of surprises to be found.  Zephaniah 2:1-15 is a collection of oracles directed against the nations surrounding Judah, including Assyria–which could prompt us to think that God’s wrath is directed outward, at the nations.  But the audience for these words of judgment isn’t the nations, but Zephaniah’s own people in Judah (see Zephaniah 2:1-3).  Judah is called a goy (the Hebrew word commonly used for foreign nations) in 2:1.  Further, 2:3 is expressly directed to the righteous: “all you humble of the land who practice his justice.”  For Zephaniah, God’s wrath serves as a warning for the faithful, more than as a condemnation of outsiders.

The judgment in Revelation 16, on the other hand, certainly seems outer-directed: the bowls of wrath are poured out on those marked by the beast (Revelation 16:2).  Yet again and again in this chapter (see Revelation 16:9 and 11), we are told that those punished did not repent–suggesting that repentance, not punishment, is God’s desire.

So too in Zephaniah 2:1-3, the community of the faithful is urged:

Gather together and assemble yourselves, shameless nation,
before the decision is made—the day vanishes like chaff—
before the burning anger of the Lord comes against you,
before the day of the Lord’s anger comes against you.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land who practice his justice;
seek righteousness;
seek humility.
Maybe you will be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger.

Perhaps the biblical message of God’s wrath is aimed at affecting change within the community—as God’s response to our unresponsiveness.

Too often, those who preach the wrath of God are all too certain of the mind of God, and of those against whom God’s wrath is directed.  The message of God’s wrath far too easily becomes a message of self-vindication, used to justify rejection of and even violence towards those we deem outsiders. But what if instead, as in Zephaniah, the wrath of God is a call to the community to come together: to gather, and to change?

God’s wrath is not after all opposed to God’s love. God’s wrath is directed against injustice because God loves justice.  God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed.  God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love

May the wrath of God call us, then, not to division, but to union: to a passionate commitment to Christ, a zealous devotion to Christ’s church, and a determined stand against the hatred and self-righteousness that keep the church scattered and divided, rather than gathered together in grace.




God’s Song

In C. S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew, the lion Aslan, Lewis’ Christ figure, sings the world of Narnia into being:

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing… Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise ever heard… The eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose.

This is a beautiful, powerful image.  But it also prompts an intriguing question.

Lewis, of course, was a Christian thinker, who invited his readers to think about the world and their lives in terms of the Christian faith.  Certainly, his description of Narnia’s beginnings calls to mind powerful images of creation from the Bible, particularly Genesis 1:1–2:4a, where God speaks the world into being (see also John 1:1-18).

But, does the God of Scripture ever sing?

While the Bible is filled with songs sung to God, I can think of only two places in the Hebrew Bible where a song is sung by God.  First, in Isaiah 5:1, the prophet, speaking for God, says,”Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard” (CEB).

In ancient Israel, love songs used vines and vineyards as scenes for romance and as symbols of erotic love and fertility (see Psalm 128:3Song of Songs 1:6, 14; 2:13; 7:8, 12). It is little wonder, then, that the Bible often describes Israel, God’s beloved, as a vine or a vineyard (for example, Jeremiah 2:21; Hosea 10:1; 14:7).  Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33–43) and the description of Christ and the church as the true vine and its branches (John 15:1–17) both play on this image.

Still, the poem that follows (Isa 5:1-7) doesn’t sound much like a love song!  God condemns God’s people for faithlessness, violence and injustice:

The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isaiah 5:7).

Isaiah 5:1-7, despite its romantic setting, turns out to be a lament rather than a love song.

The second place where God sings in Scripture is Zephaniah 3:17 (CEB):

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
        He will create calm with his love;
        he will rejoice over you with singing.

Here, God joins in Zion’s song of joy (Zephaniah 3:14-15), restoring even the weak and lame (Zephaniah 3:19)!  In Hebrew, the word used in Zephaniah for God’s singing is different from the word used in Isaiah–not shir (the usual term for singing), but rinnah.  This word may be onomatopoeic (like, for example, English words such as “thump” or “zing”), meant to represent the joyous, triumphant sound of ululation, still heard in the Middle East today at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other celebrations!  

Edith Humphrey observes that while there are few biblical references to God singing, “[A]ll songs are inspired by that One. . . . he promised by the prophet Zephaniah (3:17) to utter his rinnah, his ululation or great cry of triumph, when we his people are renewed” (Grand Entrance : Worship on Earth as in Heaven  [Grand Rapids, MI : Brazos Press, 2011], 197).


Perhaps all our singing is an echo of God’s song, as all creation is caught up in God’s exultant joy.  As Gregory of Nazianzus prayed,

All things breathe you a prayer,

A silent hymn of your own composing.

Folk singer and songwriter Bill Staines surely knew what he was singing about: “All God’s critters got a place in the choir”!


What Goes Into the Bible

When I told a friend in ministry about the Ezekiel symposium this past month in St. Andrews (see last week’s post), she asked me, “What’s new in Ezekiel studies?”  I didn’t have to think long.  Nearly every paper presented (including mine) dealt in one way or another with Papyrus 967, an ancient Greek manuscript from around 200 AD found in 1931, but whose significance was not understood until recently.  P967 contains the oldest nearly complete (1:1–2:24 is missing) text of Ezekiel extant in any language. This Greek version of Ezekiel was clearly translated from a very different Hebrew text than the one on which our Old Testament book of Ezekiel is based.  One point of particular interest is that a significant hunk of the book, Ezekiel 36:23c [after “I am the LORD”]-32, is not found in this manuscript!

Readers of Ezekiel have long struggled with these verses. The Septuagint of this section (see “Which Bible?”, May 28, 2013) is different in style and vocabulary from the rest of the book, suggesting that it was inserted later.  The Hebrew Masoretic text stands apart, too, combining quotes and allusions from earlier in the book (for example, compare 36:26 with 11:19 and 18:31) with vocabulary found nowhere else: for example, the expression “clean water” (Hebrew mayim teharim) in 36:25. Not only P967, but also Codex Wirceburgensis, one of the oldest and best witnesses to the Old Latin text of Ezekiel, lacks 36:26c-32.  An old lectionary (that is, a list of Bible readings) in Coptic/Sahidic has 36:16–23a as a unit, ending the passage at the same point as P967.  While 36:26c-32 were certainly incorporated into the text of Ezekiel by the first century AD (a fragment of Ezekiel from Masada has them), all of this suggests that these verses were not part of the book of Ezekiel until late.

This is not the only passage in our Bible which seems to have been inserted later.  One New Testament example is the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 7:53–8:11.

As the CEB footnote on 8:11 indicates, “Critical editions of the Gk New Testament do not contain 7:538:11.”  This is because none of the oldest and best texts of the gospel include this passage.  Further, some later manuscripts that do include it place it at the end of the gospel, while others place it in Luke!

What do we do with this?  We could perhaps say that, since we have good evidence that Ezekiel 36:23c-32 and John 7:53–8:11 are late insertions into the text, we shouldn’t regard them as Scripture.  The problem is that we have a long tradition that does treat them as Scripture.  In the case of the Ezekiel passage, it is likely that the description of baptism in Hebrews 10:22 draws on Ezekiel 36:25.  There is evidence from the early church that the story of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ forgiveness of her, wherever it came from, was much loved from early on–and it has certainly lodged itself firmly in Christian devotional life, art, and music!  Both passages contain significant statements of faith.  Ezekiel 36:24-28 affirms that the “new spirit” God gives to God’s people is God’s own Spirit, filling them with God’s very life.  Jesus’ statement, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone” (John 8:7, CEB) is a classic condemnation of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.  Do we need to give them up?

Every day on my way to work, I pass a church whose electronic message board reads, “Living Out the Unchanging Word To Serve an Ever-Changing World.”  Classical Protestantism has drawn a firm line between Scripture and tradition.  We would like to say that the Bible is fixed and doesn’t change, while tradition shifts.  But while the Bible may be closed and complete now, it clearly has its own complicated history.  Questions about what the Bible says on any issue cannot be resolved without taking that history into consideration.

The Bible is not the word of God because it is a magic book, passed down intact and without error from heaven. It is the word of God because God meets us here, in these pages, and invites us into relationship. Too often, we turn to the Bible to end conversations, like barflies using the Guinness Book of World Records to settle a bet: “See, it says so right here!”  We should instead turn to Scripture to begin a conversation–or more accurately, to enter into an ongoing conversation–in which God is not the topic, but an active participant.




It’s About Time. . .

We are back home from the glorious hills and isles and lochs of Scotland.  A constant of our trip was a heightened awareness of time, and of age.  I live in a country founded in 1776, 237 years ago.  We think of something as “old” if it has been here for a century or two.  But Wendy and I spent the last four days of our time in Scotland on the campus of the University of St. Andrews, celebrating its 600th birthday this year!

The last meeting of our Ezekiel symposium (thank you, Bill Tooman!) was in the faculty lounge of the St. Mary’s College School of Divinity, established in 1539.

In St. Andrews, we walked through the ruins of Cardinal Beaton’s Castle

and the St. Andrews cathedral,

both toppled as a consequence of the Scottish Reformation in the mid to late 15oos.

But St. Andrews is new compared to the remains of St. Columba‘s abbey on Iona, established in 563.  In front of the restored Dominican abbey that is today the spiritual center of the ecumenical, worldwide Iona Community stands St. Martin’s Cross.

The last of the high crosses erected by Columba’s monks still standing, St. Martin’s cross has stood in its place on Iona for 1,200 years.

St Columba’s Iona and St. Martin’s cross are in turn young compared to the 500 or more Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in and around the valley of Kilmartin Glen.  The burial cairns,

the Temple Wood circle,

and the standing stones of Kilmartin

have stood sentinel since 5,000 BC.

As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I work with ancient texts.  But even the oldest biblical texts are over 3,000 years younger than the stones at Kilmartin.  Of course, geologists would remind me of the vast age of the earth, likely 4.54 billion years, and astronomers would in turn remind me of how relatively young our solar system itself is, in comparison with the age of the universe: perhaps 13.82 billion years.

This awareness of deep time contrasted to the brief span of human life, and even of the lives of nations, is profoundly humbling.  Yet as the Bible itself testifies, God was at work with human beings long before the birth of Israel in the mid-thirteenth century BC.  Indeed, God was at work on the earth before humanity, and in the cosmos before the earth–from before the beginning of time.  As the writer of Colossians affirms,

. . . all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.

He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him

 (Colossians 1:15-20 CEB).

To quote the irrepressible Paul Simon, “God is old!   We’re not old.”  Good to know that we ephemeral creatures are held, and loved, by the Ancient of Days!



Which Bible? Part 4


This is the fourth and final blog in this series on Bible translations, aimed at helping readers choose among various Bibles.  Today we look at the popular paraphrase, The Message, and a new, very accessible translation, the Common English Bible.

Some popular versions of the Bible are not translations at all, but paraphrases.  In a paraphrase, the words of Scripture are freely reframed in contemporary language, using the forms of speech that we use every day.  As a result, paraphrases are easy to read, and so can be very good for personal reading and devotions.

When I was a young Christian, my Bible of choice was The Living Bible (1971), a modern English paraphrase of the ASV (see “Which Bible? Part 2”, June 4, 2013) done by Kenneth Taylor, originally for his own children.  My copy of The Way looked exactly like the one pictured here!  In this paraphrase, Psalm 23:6 read, “Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.”  Still today, as I read these words, I can hear in the back of my head Ralph Carmichael’s musical setting of Taylor’s paraphrase of this Psalm, called “The New 23rd.”

Today, many Christians enjoy reading The Message, by Eugene Petersen.  This paraphrase is, as one would expect from Petersen, vigorous, creative, and pastorally sensitive.  These features are amply demonstrated by Psalm 23:6 as rendered in The Message:

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

However, Petersen’s paraphrase is still a paraphrase, not a translation.  That means that it  is not intended for serious study, or as text for preaching.

Why am I so insistent on this?  A couple of examples will, I hope, make my point.  I once heard a sermon, based on The Message, from Matthew 9:35–10:4, but particularly 9:38–10:1:

“What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”  The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.

Petersen’s paraphrase makes numerous assumptions: that the commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 10 follows, chronologically, immediately upon Jesus’ statement about the harvest in 9:37-38; that the commissioning of the Twelve is an answer to the prayer in 9:38; that the healing ministry to which the disciples are called in 10:1 can be equated, in contemporary psychological jargon, to caring for “bruised and hurt lives.”  None of these assumptions is warranted by a simple translation of the text–which is not a problem, if we understand that The Message is not Scripture, but rather Petersen’s meditations upon Scripture.

But when we use The Message as text for preaching, it does become a problem.  The particular sermon I am describing had as its central theme the line, “The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered.”  It was an interesting, dynamic message about being willing to be used by God as the answer to our own prayers. But the central focus of that message was a line of Petersen’s paraphrase that does not appear in the Greek text of the Gospel, and so is not found in any actual translation of this text.  In short, this was not a sermon on a text from Scripture at all: it was a sermon on a meditation from Petersen.  That, I propose, is a major problem.

In my own preaching, I often use insights and stories from scholars and colleagues.  I use scenes from films and books, jokes, stories, poems, songs  –anything that may help a congregation apply the message of a text to their situation.  But it would be a very different matter if I set out to preach from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or if I used a scene from “Man of Steel,” or a line from “The Simpsons,” as my text.  The Message too may be used very effectively as an illustration, to jolt an audience into hearing a familiar text with fresh ears.  But it cannot be used as text for preaching, because it is not Scripture!

The problem with using The Message for Bible study may be illustrated by the conclusion of Paul’s famous Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13:13.  In the CEB, this reads, “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.

Petersen’s paraphrase is much longer:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

Much of this is simply not in the text: again, not a problem if we regard this as Petersen’s own meditation on Paul. But this time, there is a major grammatical distinction between The Message and any translation of Paul’s Greek.  In the text of 1 Corinthians, faith (pistis), hope (elpis), and love (agape) are nouns.  These are gifts of God–carrying on the theme from 1 Corinthians 12 of the gifts of God’s Spirit–that endure into eternity.  But in Petersen’s paraphrase, these become verbs–things that we must do “to lead us toward that consummation.”  That reading conflicts with Paul’s own understanding of the gospel as based on God’s free gift in Jesus Christ, not on our own efforts (for example, see Romans 3:21-26; 4:1-5).

For casual reading, for devotional reflection, or as a source of sermon illustrations, The Message is an excellent resource–that, indeed, is what it is meant for.  But no paraphrase can bear the weight of  study, or serve as text for preaching: to use this paraphrase, or any other, for those purposes is to misuse them.

If you are looking for a text that is both easy to read and a responsible translation from the original languages, I recommend the Common English Bible (CEB).

The Common English Bible (2011) is the work of the CEB Committee,
an alliance of five denominational
publishers, and features the work of 117 translators from 22 faith traditions and 5 countries.  The translation was vetted by 77 field testing groups with 400 participants in 13 denominations.  As you may have noticed, it is the version I have been using for references in my blog. I made this choice because the CEB is one of the most accessible English Bibles available, aimed at a seventh grade reading level.  This simplified vocabulary does not in any way mean that the translation is “dumbed down,” however.   The translators have been very creative in their use of the words at their disposal, leading to intriguing translation choices.

For example, the expression “Son of Man” (Hebrew ben ‘adam, Aramaic bar ‘enosh, Greek houios tou anthropou) is a very difficult phrase to translate well.  On the one hand, the masculine implications of the literal translation “son” are misleading.  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “son of X” is a way of indicating membership in a group (for example, bene Yisra’el, literally “sons of Israel,” typically means “Israelites”), making “human” or “mortal” the best translation of this phrase in most contexts (compare Ezekiel 2:1 in the NRSV and the NIV).  But on the other hand, as any reader of the Gospels knows, Jesus commonly refers to himself as Son of Man, so that this becomes a title for the Christ–making “human” a misleading translation (as the NRSV recognizes: see Mark 14:62).  The CEB gets around this by rendering “Son of Man,” in most places that it appears, as “Human One” (for example, see Ezekiel 2:1 and Mark 14:62).

In the CEB, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD’s house
as long as I live.

Here, a footnote on “live” reads (with my explanatory comments in brackets) “LXX [the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of Jewish Scripture; see “Which Bible?”, May 28, 2013)]; MT [that, remember, stands for “Masoretic Text,” the Hebrew scribal tradition that gives us our Hebrew Bible] I will return.”  All in all, this is the best rendering of the Hebrew for this verse in any English translation that I know!

The problems with the CEB are in many ways connected to its successes.  Aiming for accessibility rather than poetic grandeur, the CEB has a casual feel: for example, the translators have chosen to use contractions (compare Matthew 28:16-20 in the KJV, NRSV, and CEB).  To some ears, this informal tone may mean that the CEB lacks the gravitas necessary for public reading.

For ease and accessibility, it is hard to beat the CEB–though for serious study, I still recommend the NRSV. For a beautiful and fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible, I urge you to try the JPSV.  But most of all, I urge you to find a Bible, pick it up, and read it, in big hunks; let the wisdom of Scripture fill your life!


For the next two weeks, I will be in Scotland for the International Society of Biblical Literature‘s annual meeting.  Please pray for Wendy and for me as we travel!  The Bible Guy will resume blogging at this address in the middle of July.  See you then!


Which Bible? Part 3

Selecting a Bible is a challenge today, given the number of Bible translations now available.  This is Part 3 of a series of blogs, aimed at helping the reader choose based on the features of each translation, recognizing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of each version.  In our last post in this series (“Which Bible? Part 2,” June 4, 2013), we considered the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and its recent revision, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV–my personal recommendation for serious study).

The RSV was widely accepted by many Christians, particularly in the so-called “mainline” churches (for example, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ).  But other Christians were disturbed by changes to beloved texts.  Some even went so far as to condemn the translation as heretical, or at least as damaging to the faith.  Bruce Metzger kept on his mantelpiece a block of ash: a burned copy of the RSV that angry protestors had mailed to him!

It was in large measure the desire for a translation deemed more friendly to Evangelical concerns that led to the New International Version (NIV) in 1973.  This translation has undergone further refinements (1978, 1984, 2011), but its fundamental character remains unchanged.   The Preface to the 2011 edition makes this Evangelical Christian commitment clear: “The committee has again been reminded that every human effort is flawed — including this revision of the NIV. We trust, however, that many will find in it an improved representation of the Word of God, through which they hear his call to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and to service in his kingdom. We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made.”

One example of this Evangelical commitment is the translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which the KJV commonly rendered as “hell.”  Sheol is a place name, referring to the underworld as the place of the dead (for example, see Psalm 139:8 in the NRSV). This of course doesn’t quite jibe with Christian ideas about the afterlife. So until the 2011 edition, the NIV translated this word, in nearly every instance, as “the grave”–though Sheol never appears with the article (the word “the”), and rarely occurs in narratives about death and burial.

Another example of translation guided by ideology, rather than simply by grammar, is found in John 3:1-21: Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  The KJV of John 3:7 reads, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” This verse is a mainstay of Evangelical preaching–the basis of many an altar call as a summons to experience a new birth as a child of God.  The Greek word anothen, rendered “again” in the KJV, can mean either “again, anew” or “from above.”  Likely this passage intends both: Jesus describes a life in the Spirit (“from above;” see John 3:5-8), so different from the previous life as to be a fresh start–a new birth (which is why Nicodemus gets confused; see John 3:4).  But this pun is not possible in English, forcing translators to choose how best to render the word.

The RSV reads, “You must be born anew,” with a footnote indicating that “anew” could also be read as “from above.”  Indeed, the NRSV reads, “You must be born from above,” with a footnote indicating “anew” as another reading.  The NIV, like the KJV, has “You must be born again” (though a footnote on John 3:3 reads, “The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7″).

In the NIV, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me    

all the days of my life,                                          

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The only differences from the KJV are the use of “love” instead of “mercy” for the Hebrew khesed (see “Which Bible? Part 2”), and the specification that it is God’s goodness and love that follow me–assumed, but not stated in the Hebrew.

The NIV is easier to read than the NRSV, assuming a high school reading level.  Its translation is generally sound, as long as the reader stays aware of this version’s Evangelical bias.

In recent years, the English Standard Bible (ESV, 2001) has taken pride of place among many Evangelicals.  On their website, the ESV’s publishers state that their translation “provides the most recent evangelical Christian Bible scholarship and enduring readability for today. The ESV translation process itself was based on the trusted principles of essentially literal translation, which combines word-for-word accuracy with readability and literary excellence.”

However, much like the RSV, the ESV stands in the KJV tradition, and tries to preserve its language and rhythms.  So, the ESV of Psalm 23:6 is the same as the RSV, except that a footnote on “mercy” reads “steadfast love,” and an added note on “dwell” reads “return to dwell.”  The latter note recognizes that the Hebrew text is uncertain: the word weshabti could be (and most commonly has been) read as an unusual form of the Hebrew word meaning “dwell” (yashab), but the simplest way to read the Hebrew would be as “I will return.”

Much like the NIV, the ESV has a clearly stated Evangelical bias. But taking that into consideration, the translation is generally sound, and often (as in Psalm 23:6) interesting.

For the Hebrew Bible, one of the most interesting and beautiful English translations available  comes from the Jewish Publication Society (JPSV 1985, 1999).  This translation of the Tanakh (an abbreviation for Torah [Law], Nebi’im [Prophets], and Kethubim [Writings], the three parts of the Hebrew Bible) is intended for Jewish readers.  It stays with the Hebrew text as closely as possible (a problem in those cases where the versions may preserve a better reading), and has been attentive to good English as well as good scholarship (Jewish novelist Chaim Potok was on the translation team!).  I strongly recommend this Bible, especially the Jewish Study Bible edition pictured above, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler.  The introductions and footnotes are by Jewish scholars, and make use of the sayings and teachings of the rabbis.  Christian readers will find that, as the rabbis ask different questions than they do, new insights into the text open up.

The JPSV of Psalm 23:6 reads,

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

Particularly striking is the rendering of Hebrew radaph as “pursue” rather than simply as “follow.”  This is not only accurate (radaph is what predators do to prey, or victors to the vanquished!), but evocative and interesting.

In next week’s post, we will finish this series by looking at the Common English Bible, a very easy to read translation, and paraphrases, particularly Eugene Petersen’s The Message.  See you then.


The Bible Guy congratulates the newly-ordained 2013 class of elders in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church:

From left, Rebecca Patterson, D. Renee Mikell (PTS alum), Tina M. Keller (PTS alum), Ross T. Pryor, Nathan W. Carlson (PTS alum), Anthony S. Fallisi (PTS alum), and Elizabeth S. Cooper.

Also to be congratulated are those approved as provisional elders:

From left, Jean Ann Smith (PTS student), Chad Bogdewic (PTS alum), Anthony R. C. Hita (PTS alum), and Alison Fisher.

God bless you all richly in this new phase of the ministry to which Christ has called you!  And to the PTS students: it was and is my joy and privilege to be your teacher.


Stay Tuned!


Those of you who follow this blog will know that I was in the middle of a series on Bible translations, which will recommence next week.  This week, I have had the blessing to be the preacher at the Summer Leadership Conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  This afternoon, I head for Grove City, PA, where I will teach a Bible study tonight and tomorrow morning called “Opening Doors in Christian Hospitality to All” for Reconciling Ministries, as part of the Lay Academy of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Plus, grades were due Tuesday.  It is all good (well, apart from the grading. . .), but it means that I have not been able to complete my regular weekly blog.

Instead, I would like to share with you the sermon I preached this morning, on Isaiah 50:4-11 (I preached from the NRSV, but I invite you to compare with the CEB in particular), which deals, as it happens, with the issue of translation.  The title was, “Whose Tongue?”


A curious translation problem confronts us in the first verse of this  passage.  The problem is not with the text itself, which seems well-preserved, nor with the word in question, which is fairly common.  Instead, translators seem unable to say, straightforwardly, what the text says!  The major English translations vary broadly on their reading of leshon limmudim, the gift the Lord has given to the Servant.  Leshon means “tongue”–no problem there–but, whose tongue?  Is it the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), a “skilled tongue” (JPSV), an “instructed tongue” (NIV), or perhaps the “tongue of the learned” (KJV)?  Yet, when the same word, limmudim, appears later in the verse, it causes little controversy:  “Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear, to listen as those who are taught [kallimmudim].”  Surely, the same word in the same context should be translated the same way both times.  The Servant says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught.”

Perhaps the problem is that Bible translators are usually Bible professors.  We believe that teachers talk, and students listen: that teachers should speak from authority.  But, is that really so? My own experience as a teacher has taught me that my teaching is most effective when I am most engaged in the material myself: learners teach best!  So, too, students learn more when they are actively involved in the process, through discussion, dialogue, projects, and presentations—when, in short, the teacher surrenders authority.  The Servant says that the Lord’s gift was given “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4).  Surely, a word of comfort comes most effectively not from one who stands above me, but from one who kneels beside me: who shares my sorrow, feels my pain, and offers solace as a fellow sufferer.

In the wake of recent tragedies, from the human-spawned horrors of the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing to the devastation wrought by massive tornadoes in Oklahoma, a quote from Fred Rogers has surfaced again and again, going viral on the Web: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In this Song, the Servant appears as a helper.  He does not claim authority, but is responsive and obedient:

The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward (50:5).

Far from standing above and apart, the Servant identifies with the outcast and humiliated, to the point of sharing their humiliation and suffering:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting (50:6).

How do you do that?  The Servant declares, “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced. . . Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:7-9). The strength and validation of the Servant comes not from himself, or from the world, but from the Lord.  This passage is the appointed reading for the Wednesday of Holy Week.  But in the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading ends with verse 9, leaving the unfortunate implication that trust in God removes all our difficulties! The Servant relies upon the Lord, but that does not make his path clear, or easy.  Instead, the Servant

walks in darkness

and has no light,

yet trusts in the name of the LORD

and relies upon his God (50:10).

When the way is unclear, trust is hard to give.  The temptation in dark places is to make our own light, kindle our own torches, become our own guides.  But, the Servant warns all “kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands” who “[w]alk in the flame of your fire:”

This is what you shall have from my hand:

you shall lie down in torment. (50:11).

If we play with fire, we will get burned.

In his book The Crucifixion of Ministry, my friend and colleague Andrew Purves considers the all too common situation of ministers in mid-career, facing a sense of despair, exhaustion, and loss of purpose; what we call “burn-out.”  The root problem in our ministry, Purves suggests, is that we think of it as our ministry, not as Christ’s. Only when “our” ministry is crucified, as it must be, can Christ’s ministry flourish in and through us.  Only then, as we surrender authority and control, can we join the helpers!  Only then can we  teach with “the tongue of those who are taught.”