Where Grace and Justice Meet: A Canonical Reading of Exodus 34:6–7

guido-jansen-400639-unsplash.jpgThe Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
— Exodus 34:6–7 —

Exodus 34:6–7 is one of the most important passages in the Bible. It’s also one of the more problematic. For how can God be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and quick to forgive but also unwilling to forgive the guilty (“who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children . . .”)? Doesn’t God’s self-revelation contain, at its heart, a significant contradiction?

Some have thought so, even solving the dilemma by debating the compositional history of Exodus 34, or denying its literary unity (see Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known155). But for those who read Exodus as God’s inspired Word, such critical workarounds don’t work. Thus, we must consider how God’s mercy and justice are not two opposing attributes that bring conflict into God’s character. Instead, they are two aspects of God’s undivided holy nature, which reveal themselves perfectly in God’s relationship with his creation.

On this subject Ross Blackburn has been helpful as he reads Exodus 34 in light of the whole canon, with special attention to Exodus 20:5–6. Following Blackburn’s canonical exegesis, we can press deeper into the nature of God’s holy character and then work forward in redemptive history to see how Exodus 34:6–7 informs God’s mercy and justice in places like Jonah 3–4 and Nahum 1, where Exodus 34 is in both books but in different ways towards the people of Nineveh.  Continue reading

Let Us Behold (Not Begrudge) Our Gracious God (Jonah 4:1–11)

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Let Us Behold (Not Begrudge) Our Gracious God
(Jonah 4:1–11)

This Sunday we brought our study of Jonah to a close. After looking at the big picture of Jonah (Jonah 1–4), diving into his storm of disobedience (Jonah 1), going under the waters of Jonah’s baptism (Jonah 1:17; cf. Matthew 12:38–41), inspecting Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2), and learning what true repentance looks like (Jonah 3), we set our gaze on the God of sovereign grace.

By reading in Jonah in conversation with Genesis 4, Exodus 34, and 1 Kings 19, to name but a few passages, we learned what Jonah 4 says to us about our hearts and God’s. Just as the other chapters examined the heart of the reader, Jonah 4 does so all the more. It finishes with Jonah’s rage and God’s question, and it prompts the reader to ask: Will you begrudge God’s grace too?

You can listen to the message online. Discussion questions can be found below as well as a few additional resources. Continue reading

A Repentant Prayer or a Faithless Fake? What Jonah 2 Teaches Us About Our Hearts

kristine-weilert-88989-unsplash.jpgEarlier this week, I observed the way Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving cited or alluded to many Psalms. Today, I want to consider what this may mean for Jonah and for us who read his book.

To get a handle on the meaning of Jonah’s prayer, we must answer this question: Is Jonah’s prayer a genuine word of repentant thanksgiving, one that faithfully cites many Psalms? Or is his prayer a faithless fake that masquerades under a smokescreen of Scripture? To answer that big question lets look at four smaller questions.

  1. What do we know about the historical Jonah?
  2. What do the Minor Prophets indicate about Jonah?
  3. What does the book of Jonah say about Jonah?
  4. What does the prayer itself reveal about Jonah?

By answering these questions, we should have good chance of rendering a verdict on Jonah’s prayer and what it is intended to communicate to us. Continue reading

An Evidence of Repentance or Hypocrisy: Why Does Jonah 2 Cite So Many Psalms?

aaron-burden-534684-unsplashIt is striking the way Jonah 2 employs language from the Psalms. For those familiar with the Hebrew Psalter, it would be difficult to hear Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving without reflecting on other inspired Psalms. Just as songs which recycle older lyrics or melodies remind us of previous songs, so Jonah’s prayer should bring to our memory many lines in the Psalter.

Here is a verse by verse comparison. Clearly, the use of the Psalter is intentional, but I wonder why. Is the use of the Psalms an evidence of Jonah’s return to righteousness? Or is it something else? Could it be an instance where the Jonah’s lips draw near to God, but his heart remains far away? Should we automatically assume his use of Scripture is a sign of repentance? Or could it be that his prayer of thanksgiving without any stated repentance, as in Psalms 32 and 51, is actually an indicator of Jonah’s unrepentance.

Tomorrow, I’ll circle back to answer that question. But today, let me know what you think. Why does Jonah’s prayer recycle so many Psalms? Check on the comparison below and let me know what you think.
Continue reading

Into the Depths: An Introduction to the Book of Jonah

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Into the Depths: An Introduction to the Book of Jonah (Jonah 1:1–4:8)

Jonah is an amazing book, but one that requires repeated readings, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to the God who created the world, controls the nations, and directs all history to the true prophet, priest, and king—Jesus Christ.

On Sunday we started a six week journey through the story of Jonah. Let me encourage you to read the book in one sitting—it’s only 48 verses—and consider how this book exposes the hardness of our hearts, even as it displays the mercy and grace of God.

For an introduction to the book, you can listen to the sermon online. But don’t miss some of the resources below. They will help you get a greater sense of the book in its historical, literary, and canonical contexts (i.e., how it fits in the Minor Prophets). Discussion questions and additional resources are below. Continue reading

Reading the Minor Prophets Together: Ten Observations from Paul House’s ‘The Unity of the Twelve’

12By 1990 there was no consensus on the structure of the Minor Prophets. Observing this fact, Paul House, in his book The Unity of the Twelve, surveyed the way scholars looked to chronology and regional location as possible ways “the Twelve” were ordered. Such approaches were significantly lacking, however, and so he concluded: “It is probable that historical research has not successfully uncovered the structure of the Twelve because that structure is governed by literary principles” (67).

In conversation with literary critics and scholars employing methods of canonical criticism, House shows why we should read the Twelve as more than 12 similar but separated oracles. Rather, by examining the structure and plot of the Twelve we can come to a clearer understanding of the unified message that the Minor Prophets is seeking to convey.

As others have observed in the Psalms, there is an intentional ordering in the Minor Prophets, better termed The Twelve. Historically, these 12 books are always found together and typically in the same order (63). For that reason, a unified study of their message is valid and valuable. And Paul House’s book, though technical, is an important for helping read and understand the Minor Prophets.

To get a sense of his argument and how the twelve prophets are unified, let me share some of his observations—first on the structure of the Twelve, then on the plot of the Twelve. Continue reading

Sovereignty, Satire, and Second Chances: An Introduction to the Book of Jonah

jonah04For being only four chapters and 48 verses, the book of Jonah demands a lot from its readers. In the original language, it becomes clear how well-crafted the book is. In four chapters, there are at least four chiasms that organize the book, and on the whole, Jonah is a literary masterpiece. At the same time, the book is best understand in combination with the rest of the Minor Prophets—consider the way Jonah’s rebellion mirrors that of Edom in Obadiah, or the way the king of Nineveh preaches Joel 2:12–14 (see Jonah 3:6–9).

Still, if Jonah demands a lot from its readers, it gives even more. In its four scenes, it gives its readers an incredible vision of God, his grace, his power, and his purpose among the nations. In other words, in the rebellion of Jonah, a (false) prophet of the Lord, we find much about God’s grace.

Over the next two months, our church will be spending ample time in this book, along with a few other Minor Prophets. So in this post, let me introduce a few themes we will see again and again—namely, God’s sovereignty, the book of Jonah’s satire, and the promise of second chances for sinners who repent and turn to God. Continue reading

Getting into Jonah by Seeing the Book’s Literary Structures

chiasm_textIn a pair of articles on literary structure and the book of Jonah, Ernst Wendland argues for what makes a chiasm valid, with a test case in the book of Jonah. As our church begins to study Jonah, I share the outlines from his second article. You can find his reflections on chiasms here.

They demonstrate how much the biblical authors, in this case Jonah or another prophet well-acquainted with Jonah, incorporated literary devices to express their arguments. For casual readers of the Bible, these outlines suggest that their are depths untold in the meaning and message of Scripture. For teachers, these are the structures we must find as we seek to understand the author’s original intent.

All the chiastic structures outlined below come from Ernst Wendland’s Text Analysis and Genre of Jonah (pt 2) (JETS 1996). The highlights are my own.

The Overall Structure of Jonah

A. (1:1–3) Yahweh calls Jonah the first time and he flees from Nineveh

B. (1:4–16) A life/death crisis; exhortation by the captain; Jonah’s unwilling message to the pagan sailors of the ship; result: they all repent and pray

C. (1:17) Surprising transition: Yahweh saves Jonah by means of a great fish

D. (2:1–9) Jonah’s response, a pious prayer: thank you—for letting me live

E. (2:10) Instruction: Yahweh’s miraculous object lesson is complete—Jonah is safely delivered

A’. (3:1–3) Yahweh calls Jonah the second time and he travels to Nineveh

B’. (3:4–9) A life/death crisis; Jonah’s unwilling message to the pagan people of the city; exhortation by the king; result: they all repent and pray (an even greater number)

C’. (3:10) Surprising transition: Yahweh saves Nineveh by “repenting” himself

D’. (4:1–4) Jonah’s response, a peeved prayer: please—just let me die

E’. (4:5–9) Instruction: Yahweh’s miraculous object lesson in the plant, worm and wind—Jonah is sorely afflicted

F’ (4:10–11) Conclusion (thematic peak): Yahweh’s last word to Jonah and to every current listener: “Salvation belongs to Yahweh” (cf. 2:9)

Four Chiasms in Jonah

In addition to the overall storyline of Jonah, each chapter shows remarkable literary arrangement. Again, following the work of Ernst Wendland, consider how each chapter is structured.

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Reading Jonah

With these structures in mind, you are now better equipped to read this fascinating book. Even more, with these structures in mind, we find more clearly the original emphases. For more the literary structures of Jonah, see

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

The Good and the Bad of Brevard Childs’s Canonical Criticism

chilsdIn his book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Child’s explains his approach to canonical criticism, a term he does not like (82), but one that generally describes his approach to interpreting Scripture in its final form. Among critical scholars, i.e., those who employed historical-critical methods of interpretation, Childs championed a new (and better) approach to the Bible.

Instead of looking for the sources behind the text (e.g., Julius Wellhausen) or certain forms in the text (e.g., Herman Gunkel), or traditions running through the text (e.g., Gerhard Von Rad), Childs advocated an approach to the Bible which studied the final form of the text. In the academy, this approach turned the corner towards studying the unity of the Bible and not just its diversity. His work spurred on others to read the Bible canonically, and his labors helped turn the corner towards what is known today as TIS, the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Therefore, its worth considering what he said on the subject of reading the Bible in its canonical form. From his chapter on “Canonical Criticism,” here are a few insightful quotations, listed under five summary statements.

(Spoiler Alert: At the end, I’ll outline a few reasons why Childs approach may not be helpful as some think.) Continue reading

Reading the Bible Better: Developing a Strategy for Interpreting Scripture

lightFor the four years that I worked on my dissertation, it was my daily effort to read the Bible well. (N.B. This same priority continues to motivate my preaching and writing today too). While my dissertation defended definite atonement, it’s underlying premise was that a better strategy for reading the Bible would produce a more “biblical” doctrine. You’ll have to tell me if my reading is convincing, but the principle is sound—sound doctrine comes from sound exegesis. And sound exegesis comes from sound practices of reading.

Which raises the question: What are sound practices of reading?

Under the illumination of the Spirit, the task of interpretation is hard work. It requires diligent consideration of the biblical text and a willingness to labor to find the shape of the text. Learning the tools (what you might call “reading strategies”) is a vital part of pastoral ministry and should be something all Christians should be willing to grow.

For my part, when I find someone who reads Scripture well, I take note, and when I find those strategies well explained for others to imitate I am doubly encouraged. Such is the kind of approach I found in Ernst Wendland’s 1996 JETS article.

Focusing his attention on the challenge of interpreting Jonah, Wendland, a well-established biblical scholar, has a concise section on how to interpret the Bible. While the language is technical (sorry), his approach is solid and worth the read—especially if you are a pastor or teacher of the Bible. Continue reading