Can You See What Jeremiah is Saying? Finding the Literary Structure in a Book Where Structure is Often Missed

abstract close up cobweb connection

This post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Jeremiah.


Whenever I teach hermeneutics or lead Bible studies, I want to help students of the Bible find the “breaks” in the text. Where does the human author insert literary devices to help the reader follow his message? In John’s Gospel, for instance, he organizes his introduction to Jesus around four days (John 1:19–51), and then he puts the wedding at Cana on the third day (2:1), which in context is the seventh day. In this way, John helps his audience know how he is ordering his material.

Such arrangement does not automatically produced meaning, but ignorance of an author’s literary structure will delimit our understanding. If we cannot see how the biblical author is writing, we won’t get what the author is saying. In any study of Scripture then, we must labor to understand the literary structure of a text. Sometimes this is easy, as in passages like Psalm 136, which repeats the refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever” (ESV) and follows the order of Israel’s history. But in other books, it is more difficult. And it is arguable that the book of Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books in the Bible for ascertaining a literary structure.

The reasons for this difficulty are manifold. First, Jeremiah is, by word count, the longest book of the Old Testament. And as we saw with Isaiah, it is a challenge to see the message of books so large. Second, the chronology of Jeremiah is difficult. The book does not proceed in historical order, and as a result some commentators (e.g., John Bright) have attempted to interpret the book by changing its order to match Israel’s history. This destroys the literary structure, however. As higher-criticism reigned over the last two hundred years, commitment to reading the Bible on its own terms was ignored and the mind of the interpreter trumped the words of the author. This will miss the message of the Bible and so we cannot follow those who rearrange the text.

Size and chronology are challenging in Jeremiah, but the greatest difficulty in finding the meaning of Jeremiah comes from divergent manuscripts. That is, when we compare the Hebrew text to the Septuagint (the Greek translation), we find that significant portions of the book are put in different order. This reminds us that the final form of the Bible came as a result of an editing process (cp. the arrangement of the Psalter), but leaving aside the formation of the final form, different final arrangements make it difficult to affirm a structure with certainty. And then, if meaning is tied to literary structure, then how should we can have confidence in finding a singular message about Jeremiah? Continue reading

Glory from Beginning to End: Ten Things About Psalm 29

michel-porro-vfaFxFltAvA-unsplashIn preparation for Sunday’s sermon, here are ten things about Psalm 29.

1. Psalm 29 is the third creation psalm and third “mountain top” in Book 1 of the Psalms.

This point is easier to show than to tell. In the following graphic, we see how Psalms 8, 19, and 29 stand at the center of various chiastic structures (“mountains”) in the Psalter. (You can hear how this outline works here).

Book 1

Arranged in this way, we might read Psalms 8, 19, 29 together and see how the God of creation was to be worshiped by mankind (Ps 8), in response to the word of God (Ps 19), and in the temple (Ps 29). Even more, we can see how glory connects these creation psalms together.

Psalm 8 says God crowned mankind with glory and honor. Psalm 19 speaks of God’s glory displayed in creation. And Psalm 29 speaks of God’s glory coming into the temple. In all of these ways, we discover how manifold God’s glory is.

2. The creation imagery of Psalm 29 recalls the ancient battle songs of Israel.

For instance, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) uses creation imagery to describe God’s power to destroy his enemies. Deborah’s song (Judges 5) does the same. And according to Derek Kidner, this is a common way ancient Near Eastern songs were composed.

Early Canaanite poetry was similar in this respect.. Whether David was building the psalm out of an ancient fragment, or turning to a style that would recall the old battle-hymns of God’s salvation, the primitive vigour of the verse, with its eighteen reiterations of the name Yahweh (the Lord), wonderfully matches the theme, while the structure of the poem averts the danger of monotony by its movement from heaven to earth, by the path of the storm and by the final transition from nature in uproar to the people of God in peace. (Psalms 1–72142). Continue reading

The Need for Expositional Preaching (pt. 2): A Biblical and Theological Defense

job.jpegWhy is biblical exposition necessary?

The simple answer is that the health of the church depends on the regular reading and preaching of God’s Word. This claim can be supported by church history, but it can also be seen in Scripture itself. And in Scripture, expositional preaching is supported by both the doctrine of God’s Word and the practice of God’s people.

Today I will add to the blogpost from yesterday and consider the doctrine of Scripture and the practice in the Old Testament. Next week I will come back and consider the practice of Jesus and the apostles.

A Short Doctrine of Scripture

First, as to doctrine, the belief that God’s Word is powerful is seen in the way that God’s created the light by his word (Gen 1:3); he upholds the universe with his word (Heb 1:3); and he raises the dead to life with his word (Ezekiel 37; John 11). Understanding the power of God’s Word, faithful preachers must labor to expound God’s Word and not their own. The goal of preaching is not arranging Bible verses around their own words, ideas, or outlines, but highlighting what God has already spoken. Continue reading

Finding Life “According to Your Word”: What Psalm 119 Says to Tired, Doubting Souls

lifePsalm 119 is a elongated exaltation of the truth, beauty, and goodness of God’s Word. In twenty-two stanzas it leads the reader to consider all the ways in which God’s Word intersects our lives. There are dozens of themes to consider, but one that stands out is the way in which the Word mediates and regulates our relationship with God.

While most systematic theologies present the doctrine of God’s Word in categories of inspiration, authority, sufficiency, clarity, and inerrancy, Psalm 119 speaks of the Word in purely existential terms. He commends us to pick and read—Tolle Lege!—because of what the Word has promised and produced in his own life. Psalm 119 is devotional theology of the highest quality, and for those struggling to get into the Word of God, it’s praise for God’s Word may be the very thing a tired and doubting soul needs to (re)turn to the Word. Continue reading

Christ Is a Blazing Sun, His Word is a Lightning Bolt

Asking the question, what are preachers sent to do, Doug Wilson gives a powerful and clear answer in his Desiring God message from 2009.  Here is what he says,

We are not sent to preach a distant star or moon. We are sent to preach a blazing sun that lights and heats every creature, that dominates all things, and around which everything else must necessarily revolve.

We are not sent to make a few mild suggestions. We are not sent to have a relational dialogue. We are sent to preach and to declare. We are commissioned—ordained—to compel every manifestation of worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey God’s word.

We come to declare that all men need to repent and believe. The kingdom of God is here. We declare what has been accomplished, not what we would like to be accomplished. We are ordained to feed the sheep and drive away the wolves. And if needs be, we have been ordained to preach the word as if we were thunder and lightening. How can we not? The Scriptures themselves are thunder and lightning.

God, help us pastors and preachers as we deliver your Word tomorrow.  May it strike with the power and precision of a lightning strike, and may the world know that you are speaking.  May the light of Christ illumine our minds and shine forth in our messages so that your people will turn from their sin and flee to their Savior.

Let us Proclaim Christ, dss

Gospel Logic: Taking God at His Word

Over the last week, I put up a handful of posts on how the Old Testament saints reasoned from the promises of God in order to follow God in amazing ways.  That is, they did not simply do what they were supposed to do, because they were unswervingly obedient.  Rather, the promises of the gospel took up residence in their heart and they were compelled to act by the faith they had in God’s word.

Today, I list them in one place/one post.  I hope they can be helpful.  There are more places where this gospel logic is seen in Scripture too.  Perhaps, we can come back to it another week.

Gospel Logic: Learning To Take God At His Word

Abraham’s Gospel Logic

Moses Gospel Logic

The Gospel Logic of Psalm 42-43

The Gospel Logic of Psalm 103

What God Commands, He Gives: A Reflection on 2 Peter 1:3-11

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

A Word-Driven Ministry

On Wednesday night, I taught through the book of Nehemiah as a part of our year long journey through the Bible–Via Emmaus: A Christ-Centered Walk Through the Bible.  My aim was to show the redemptive-historical features of the book and patterns of salvation that are extant in the book.  However, the book also provides an excellent portrait of godly leadership and a word-driven ministry.  (For more on that see Mark Dever’s chapter on Nehemiah in The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made).

Ezra and Nehemiah are two books that show the sovereignty of God to reestablish God’s people (Israel) in God’s place (Jerusalem).  They also do a great deal to show how YHWH leads Israel back into covenant with himself, and with that covenant renewal comes a laser beam focus on the power of God’s word. For instance, Nehemiah 8 illustrates the way God’s word can transform a people.  And for God’s covenant people today, it gives an excellent motion picture of what the ministry of the word could and should look like.  Even with the differences that exist between that Old Covenant period of Ezra-Nehemiah and the church today, Ezra’s priestly ministration models a commitment to God’s Word worthy of imitation (cf Heb 13:7).

Here are 6 Marks of a Word-Driven Ministry from Nehemiah 8:

  1. Word-Based: There wasn’t any gimmick, program, or contrived technique to change the people.  From morning to midday, Ezra read the Law (v. 3, 5) and Levites gave the sense (v. 7-8). Ezra displayed incredible faithfulness to the Scriptures, and the sufficiency of God’s Word is seen in the fact that they simply read and explained the text, and hearts were moved.  If only, we would have the same commitment today!
  2. Expositional teaching: The kind of teaching that changes lives in Ezra is the kind that simply reads and explains the ‘Bible’. It aims to understand God’s word and make known the plain sense of the inspired Word; it reads the text in context and applies it to our lives. Ezra and his team of “small group leaders” took the word and helped the people understand it.  The words they read surely came form or were based on Law of Moses, and yet they understood the words as speaking to them (cf Deut 32:47).  The result was a deep sense of contrition and thanksgiving, as well as, a reinstitution of the Feast of Booths, which recalled God’s saving work during the Exodus (8:13ff).
  3. Community: A word-driven ministry gathers around the word  in unity and with regularity (v. 1).  In Nemehiah 8 we see men, women, and children gathering as one man to hear God’s word (v. 1, 3, 8) and to receive instruction (v. 7).  As a result, the entire nation repented and rejoiced as they heard the word (8:9-12).  For more on the centrality of the gathered people around the word, see Christopher Ash’s new book, The Priority of Preaching.  The third chapter explains the necessity of the assembly that gathers to hear God’s word: Powerful!)
  4. Plurality of teachers: As Ezra opened God’s Law, he was surrounded by Israelite leaders whose names are recorded in verses 4 and 7.  While Ezra was the leading teacher (a model that is continued in the NT and in churches today), he was not alone (a pattern also continued in the NT and sorely missing in many churches today).  Because the Word is authoritative, it is appropriate to have a plurality of teachers.  In fact, while a church can begin with a singular teacher, it does better to move towards a plurality of leader-teachers, what the NT calls pastor-teachers, elders, and/or shepherds.
  5. Elevation of the Word: Ezra stood on a platform “made for the purpose” of lifting high the Word of God; the people stood to hear it; hands were raised and audible sounds made indicating that this is God’s word– “Amen!”  The people were not stoic recipients of God’s word, nor were they impatient consumers.  They hungered for God’s word and listened with intensity and receptive participation.
  6. Heartfelt Affection: The appropriate response to God’s word is not only cognitive acquisition, but also heartfelt affection.  Those who heard the word of God, were moved to tears (v. 9); they were encouraged to take heart (v. 10), and they wept away rejoicing because they had understood God’s word (v. 11-12).  True understanding is not simply intellectual, it is emotive and volitional, too.  Thus listening to the Word read or preached is not a passive activity.  It requires earnest prayer and heart preparation to be moved by God’s word.  For preachers, too, it is essential that God’s word grips our hearts as much as our heads.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is instructive. Our churches and our pastors would do well to emulate Ezra (cf. Ezra 7:10).  From a cursory reading of Nehemiah, it is evident that God’s people were radically affected by God’s word, in a way that today’s churches need.  Yet tragically, pastors look back on Ezra as though his method is archaic and outmoded.

Ironically, there is more power today in the preaching of God’s word, than Ezra ever knew.  Ezra’s ministry was under the Old Covenant, and thus did not come with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  With Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension, the promised Holy Spirit has been poured out (Acts 2) and today the power of the Word is incomparably greater (Acts 1:8; cf. 1 Thess 1:5).

Today, preachers should have even greater confidence to proclaim God’s unadulterated Word, because the living and active word is not only true, it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit who convicts, converts, comforts, and conforms God’s children into the image of Christ.  The word of God will not return void, and ministries marked by the Word will accomplish exactly what God intends–salvation and judgment (cf Matt 13:10-17).

May we who proclaim the Word, do so unashamedly, trusting that the seed of the Word will establish the kingdom of God.  It may be foolish to the world, but it is the wisdom and power of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Feeding on the Word

But [Jesus] answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live on bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew, quoting Jesus, quoting Moses, quoting YHWH
Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:4

Words, words, words. The world is filled with words. Words inform. Express. Empower. Kill. Make peace. And give life.  Proverbs 18:21 says that ‘death and life are in the power of the tongue’ and Proverbs 15:23 tells us, “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!”  In a word, words matter! Words are immeasurably powerful!  And they matter and hold power, because of their origin and purpose. God is a Speaking God (Jn 1:1-3), and in his image, we were given words to rule the world (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:19).

In fact, God himself rules and redeems through words. God spoke the world into existence (Gen 1:3; Ps 33:6).  Jesus upholds the world by the power of his word (Heb 1:3).  God’s word never fails (Isa 55:10-11); it speaks to the ends of the universe (Ps 19:1-7; Rom 10:18) with absolute perfection (Ps 19:7-11).  And for those made in His image, salvation and sanctification depend on His word (Heb 6:13ff; Jn 17:17) So central are words to God, that it is impossible to know Him without them, and thus he has commanded his church to ‘preach the word’ in season and out, unto the ends of the earth.

The word of God is pleasant and life-giving. But our world, and indeed our own hearts, resist God’s word. As Christians should be able to recall the joy of God’s word in our lives, but we surely we can bear testimony to the parched results of its absence.   

Matthew 12:36 tells us that at the end of our lives, we will give an account for every single word we speak, and what God is listening for in our words is an echo of His word.  So, how do your words measure up?  Do they reflect the grace and truth of the God who gave you the gift of speech?  Or do they reflect the worldliness and futility of the world?  God wants to fill your heart with his Word, and indeed our souls long for this more than we know.  This month, may we be those who feed on God’s word, so that our words are life-giving, because we are filled with the Word of God (Col 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Hungry for the Word?

“Behold the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land–not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:10-11).

Such was the condition of Israel in the days of Amos.  Is it the case today? 

Christians flock from one side of the country to the other, in order to hear men who are committed to expounding the word of God.  Consider the number of Bible conferences that will go on this year and next: The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier, Shepherds, T4G, Give Me an Answer,  to name but a few.  It would seem based on our frenetic chasing of Bible teachers and the dearth of biblical substance in so much popular Christianity, that there are hungry people out there–whether they know it or not. 

On that issue, Albert Mohler points to a tragic development in Western evangelical churches–a disinterest in the Word of God.  He cites Mark Galli’s CT article, ‘Yawning at the Word’ and warns that without the word of God, the power of the gospel is lost.  He writes:

In many churches, there is almost no public reading of the Word of God. Worship is filled with music, but congregations seem disinterested in listening to the reading of the Bible. We are called to sing in worship, but the congregation cannot live only on the portions of Scripture that are woven into songs and hymns. Christians need the ministry of the Word as the Bible is read before the congregation and God’s people — young and old, rich and poor, married and unmarried, sick and well — hear it together. The sermon is to consist of the exposition of the Word of God, powerfully and faithfully read, explained, and applied. It is not enough that the sermon take a biblical text as its starting point.

What does Mohler suggest in its place?  He points to the only solution for biblical lethargy–the Bible.  It alone is our cure.  That which bores people is simutaneously what heals them, which means that God has to do a work in the heart of the hearer in order to receive the word.  “Let him who has ears to hear: HEAR!”   But this is not new.

From Moses delivering the law of God, to Josiah reading the law to the people in Jerusalem, to the revival with Ezra after the exile, to the founding of the church in Ephesus, the word of God has been central!   “Give yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim 4:13); “preach and teach the word of God in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2); “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and [give] the sense,” so that people might understand the reading. (cf. Nehemiah 8:1-8).  The life of the church is sustained by nothing else, for it is the Word of God alone that tells us of our Maker and Redeemer, Jesus Christ (cf. John 5:39; Heb 4:12).  Knowledge of God comes through no other means!

May the Bible fill the pulpits, classrooms, and hallways of our churches.  If it does not, we know that the judgment of God is upon us, and the people of God will dwindle, and those remaining will perish.  For it is the Bible alone that promises us life.  If you are a pastor, may you do no less; if you are a church member may you pray for and expect nothing else. 

God, give your people, starting with me, a fresh hunger for your word.  It is the bread on which we live (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

By Evidence or By Faith?

If you are looking to prove the validity and authority of the Bible based on extra-biblical evidence, consider this:

For those who make their doctrine of Scripture dependent on historical research into its origination and structure have already begun to reject Scripture’s self-testimony and therefore no longer believe that Scripture.  They think it is better to build up the doctrine of Scripture on the foundation of their own research than by believingly deriving it from Scripture itself.  In this way, they substitute their own thoughts for, or elevate them above, those of Scripture (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 424).

Spirit of Christ, let those who seek the Truth, do so “believingly.”  Open eyes to see the wonders of your law (Ps 119:18).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss