Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: How to Read the Bible (page 2 of 3)

Some Guidelines for Reading Old Testament Narrative

If you’ve ever begun to read through the Old Testament and been filled with more questions than answers, you’re not alone. Many of the stories of the OT are hard to understand and hard to apply.

We know that narratives are inspired and ‘useful’ for us (2 Tim 3.16-17), but how? Are we really supposed to cheer on Samson? Are we always supposed to take Abraham as a positive example? Are we really supposed to take the admonitions of God to Joshua as personal words of exhortation & promise to us?

Here are ten hopefully helpful principles for interpreting Old Testament narrative. It’s important that we get this right, since this genre of Scripture makes up about 66% of our whole Bible.
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Eight Reasons to Study the Bible

Most Christians inherently feel the need / desire / drive to study the Bible, but a lot of times we’re not too sure why. And sadly, not too many of us stop to think biblically about why we should study the Bible.

So, from the Bible itself, here are seven great reasons, plus one ultimate reason why we should all be quick to study the Bible.

1. We must study the Bible to grow in faith

Rom 10  17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

2. We must study the Bible to grow in joy

Ps 19  8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;  …  10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

3. We must study the Bible to grow in righteousness / good works

2Tim 3  16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

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Singing a Hymn with Jesus

The Last Supper

Mark 14.26 has always struck me as a bit of a funny verse. I’ve always wondered just why Mark felt it was necessary to insert this little detail into the narrative of Jesus’s last night. After they finish eating the Passover meal, where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, we hear this: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

Why do we need to know that, I wondered.

As it turns out, this was part of the Passover meal as celebrated according to the Mishnah. The Hallel Psalms (Psalms 115-118) were sung at various points in the evening, especially toward the end, with the drinking of the fourth cup (there are four total). And it all wraps up around midnight.

So this detail is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which that it specifies the chronology of events as passing from evening (14.17) to midnight (here), to cock-crow (14.72), to morning (15.1), just exactly as Jesus had predicted the previous day in the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13.35). This is unfolding exactly as Jesus has predicted the ‘coming’ of the Son of Man would.

But beyond that, my (hopefully sanctified) imagination got working. The disciples got to sing a hymn with Jesus. What would that be like? How cool would it be to sing with my Lord? And then I got to thinking about what they would have actually been singing; so I went back and read those Hallel Psalms.

Psalm 118 is significant, of course, because it’s the Psalm that the people are reciting when Jesus approaches Jerusalem in Mark 11. Psalm 117 is glorious, but short, so probably not what they would have been singing (or at least not all that they would have sung). Psalm 115 would probably have been sung earlier, leading to them likely (this is definitely speculation) singing Psalm 116 as Jesus prepares to go out to Gethsemane.

Can I challenge you with something? At some point today, read Psalm 116 as Jesus would have sung it that night. Imagine what was going on in our Lord’s heart as he prepared for Gethsemane and Golgotha. Imagine how these words took on meaning like never before:

I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I believed, even when I spoke, “I am greatly afflicted”;
I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.”

What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 116, ESV)

And now, think about us. How amazing is it that we can sing about God hearing our pleas for mercy because Christ went to Golgotha? How precious is it that he inclines his ear to us because he did not incline his ear to his Son in Gethsemane? How wonderful that the snares of death which encompassed Christ have been defeated so that I will never feel the pangs of Sheol! I can call on the name of the Lord and ask him to deliver me, and know for certain that he will because he first delivered Jesus, the firstborn from the dead.

Now I actually can sing Psalm 116 with my Lord in an even truer sense than the disciples did on that fateful night. What they sung, unaware, I sing with retrospective faith, believing that Jesus has forever filled up the meaning of this Psalm, and will always sing it with me.

A Thought on Imprecatory Psalms

Imprecatory Psalms are those Psalms we have in the Bible where the psalmist calls out for God’s judgement and curses on those who have done evil. The perpetual problem for Christians is, ‘How do we take these Psalms? Do we still use them? Can we really say these things about people? Are we supposed to desire God’s judgement on others?’

These are tough questions, indeed, and this is a topic that deserves far more thought than I’ll give it today. But in my own meditation this afternoon I’ve realized this:

Because God is righteous judge, who is altogether just, it is never wrong for us to long for justice.

Our problem, however, is that we don’t know what justice is.

Sure, we think we do. But the reality is that what we think of when we think of justice generally has more to do with what assuages our sense of ‘wrongness’ than it does with what establishes God’s ‘rightness’.

The downfall of simply thinking in imprecatory categories for those who work evil is that we’re all workers of evil. All of us have sinned and deserve God’s judgement. Any good in us is only because of the image of God impressed on us and the grace of God worked in our hearts. Any sense of justice we have is only present because God has given it to us. How then can we boast about our righteousness and another’s evil and long for them to be judged when we too deserve to be judged?

Ultimately, we must all beg mercy from God–yes, for the evil we’ve committed, but also because we don’t know what his justice established would really look like. Who could have guessed that he would use a cross to show his righteousness (Rom 3.21-26)? Who could have guessed that the innocent being slaughtered for the guilty would accomplish perfect justice (2 Cor 5.21; 1 John 2.2)?

Can I pray that someone would be damned?

It seems that the better question would be, ‘How can I pray for God’s justice to be shown?’ If David prayed for God’s justice, if Jesus came to accomplish God’s justice, and if God was so determined to show his justice that he crushed his Son, then I should be concerned with seeing it accomplished too. But I need to pray with humility. The cross, like nothing before, shows me that I understand very little of the vastness and comprehensiveness and complexity of God’s judgement–and his passion for showing mercy even in the midst of judgement. That’s a vastness, comprehensiveness, and complexity that I don’t get.

So we must be cautious. Pray for justice, yes, we must! But presuming to know what that justice looks like is a far bigger step. For now I’ll pray that God would cause his name to be revered as holy (Matt 6.9) however he sees fit, whether in the damnation or salvation of a particular sinner, I cannot know.

Reading Leviticus

If you’re on my Bible reading plan (there are at least two of you that I know of :)) or any other similar plan, there’s a good chance you’re finding yourself smack-dab in the middle of Leviticus right now. That’s not an easy place to be.

For most Christians, the new year’s zeal and the intruiging narrative which kept us on schedule through Genesis and the first half of Exodus has lost its power. Somewhere around Exodus 25, when Moses was receiving the instructions for the building of the tabernacle, it became tough-sledding. 

Do we really need to read it all? What difference do all these laws make to us now? Was it really a temptation for them to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk? Why did God inspire this? These are all questions that plague us as many of us find it hard to make it through this section of Scripture.

Here are three things I’ve found helpful for getting through:

  1. Buy an ESV Study Bible. This is going to sound funny, but it’s not intended to be: There are pictures in this Bible. It seriously helps. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. I feel like I understand the layout of the tabernacle better now than after any other time making it through Exodus. 
  2. Look for Patterns. When going through a book like Leviticus, it is easy to get caught up in the details and miss the big point. For example, did you notice any recurring phrases as you read through the last 3/4 of Leviticus? From chapter 11 on the phrase ‘I am the Lord’ is repeated 49 times. That’s significant. You’ll want to read the book noticing those kinds of patterns and asking, ‘Why is this said so many times?’ That will help you understand the book as a whole.
  3. Read it as Literature. While there are so many lists of laws, they are not randomly strewn together. There are particular narrative incidents given in between particular laws and commands. Why? What’s the point in putting that particular story right where it is, after that particular event? Those are the types of questions that will help you benefit from Leviticus, because they’ll keep you focused on big picture issues, rather than particular case laws.

And don’t give up! Keep on going! Every single word that is there is God-breathed, and it is all useful. The soul who perseveres will be blessed!

Psalm 16

In a previous post I suggested a four-level approach to interpreting some of the Psalms along the lines of redemptive-history. Here I hope to model that in an abbreviated form, using Psalm 16.

1. Read the Psalm as David sings.
David cries to God as king of God’s people, in dependence on him alone. As leader of the people his delight is in the saints (the holy ones). As their leader he won’t participate in the worship of idols which leads only to destruction. Rather, he will worship and follow the Lord, because in him he has beautiful inheritance (the promise of a son to sit on his throne). As a man after God’s own heart, David could indeed rejoice in the counsel and leading of the Lord. He knew that as a follow of Yahweh, he would not be abandoned to utter destruction, but that the Lord would finally redeem him. He looked forward to the ‘pleasures forevermore’ in the presence of God.

2. Read the Psalm as Israel sings.
The righteous of the people of Israel would rejoice that their king called on the Lord for help, and they would follow his example. The warnings of verse four (sorrows for following another God) contrasted with the promises of verses five and six (joy in God) served as general admonitions to each other to follow hard after their God, since there was no joy to be found elsewhere. As a people they could rejoice in the inheritance of the land that they had been promised. The Lord had given them his counsel in Torah and said he would dwell in their midst if they followed him. As a promise of God, they knew that the ‘holy one’ (those who were righteous) would not be abandoned by God in death, but would be saved from judgement.

3. Read the Psalm as Jesus sings.
In his human life, Jesus continually and perfectly sought refuge in his Father. The life that he had in himself was the Father’s life, the words that he spoke were the Father’s words, and the works that he did were what he saw the Father doing. He takes delight in the saints (the righteous) who hear his word and believe. He would not give in to the idolatry of the world, but perfectly fulfil the law in a perfectly pure life. His chosen portion and his lot were the person of his Father, through the mediation of the Spirit–his food and drink was to do the Father’s will. In a truer sense than any mere human could ever know, when Jesus spent whole nights in prayer he could sing ‘the Lord gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.’ Because God was at his right hand, he was not finally shaken–even through all his suffering. His faith in his Father did not waver, so he was glad and rejoiced, knowing that his soul and flesh would be secure in the end. As Paul saw in Acts 13.35, this generic ‘holy one’ who would not be abandoned is specifically and ultimately fulfilled in the ‘Holy One’ who is Messiah, crucified and then resurrected. He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life endured the cross for the joy that was set before him–he can sing more than any other: ‘in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ He can sing this as the one who has entered into God’s presence in a way that none of us ever have or could.

4. Read the Psalm as Christians sing.
God, in Christ, is our only refuge from sin, Satan, and death. We have nothing but sin apart from the work of the Spirit of Christ, which he sent. The ‘saints’ are those who have been sanctified (set apart) by Christ’s blood–and in our church we delight. We know that the sorrows of those who run after other gods will multiply because we have seen the ultimate sorrow for sin: the cross of Christ. We know that God is for us, and we know we have a glorious inheritance in Christ: we have been blessed with all the blessings of the heavenly places, and God didn’t spare even his own Son, so how will he now not freely also give us all things? If he is for us, who can be against us? We surely cannot be shaken, because Christ was not and cannot be forsaken–we are ultimately secure. Since ‘the Holy One’ was not forsaken, we know that his ‘holy ones’ will not be forsaken; he has gone before us to make a way. Christ has secured for us pleasure forevermore and fulfilment of joy because he has prayed for us, that we would be with him, where he is, to see his glory and not die. There is therefore now no condemnation, but only joy in the presence of God.

What a glorious thought! What great reasons to sing!

A Redemptive-Historical Approach

I thought that this morning I could offer another method I enjoy using while meditating on the Psalms. I don’t really have a name for it, but it takes a sort of Redemptive-Historical approach. Using this method I’ll read through the Psalm on four levels–which usually means reading through the Psalm at least a few times.

One mistake I’ve seen people make a lot of times is try to jump straight from the Psalmist’s experience to their own. While this can be done sometimes without doing harm to the text, I think it generally misses the point of the Psalm, which is always to illustrate some truth about God, and how to live under his revelation (which, for the Christian, is often different than it was for David).

So here’s what I do. Read through the Psalm once as David (or whoever the psalmist is). Think through his experience and his actual life situation (especially if there’s an ascription). What did these words mean to him, in that moment of his life? This step seems overly simple, but it’s something we often overlook in our rush to apply the text to ourselves. We forget that there was an actual psalmist who actually lived, who actually went through the things he’s writing about. We don’t want to forget that.

Second, I read through the Psalm from the perspective of Israel. This book was their collection of worship songs. How would they have sung these songs over the different periods of their history? Think through the stages of Israel’s development, decadence, destruction, and return from exile? How would these words have taken on new life for them as they clung to the deliverance of God that they had seen (the Exodus) and the promises of God for the future for hope, salvation, a land, the presence of God, etc. Put yourself in their shoes and think through these words and they take on new life.

Third, read the Psalm as if it is a prayer of Jesus. Now, we want to be careful here because not all of the words of the Psalm may rightly be seen as Christ’s. Confessions of sin and the like must be seen as the words of the psalmist and those who followed him only. This shouldn’t stop us from seeing the heart of Christ in the Psalms, though. Very often, as David pours out his heart (which is a heart after God’s), it reflects Christ’s own situation and feelings very well. This is typology at its greatest! David’s words are fulfilled–their meaning is ‘filled up’–by Christ’s experience. At the same time, they are heightened (e.g. if it was true for David that he was hated without cause, how much more for Christ!), and crystallized (e.g. Psalm 69.21: ‘for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink’). The Great King who really has the heart of God, who was known as a man of prayer, who was a Warrior in the truest sense, who was ultimately hated without a cause and betrayed by his friends is Jesus. He ultimately fulfils the Psalms.

Finally, we get to us. How do the Psalms relate to us? They apply to us as followers of the one who has fulfilled them. Jesus taught that those who follow him will be associated with him, and therefore suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake. Where the Psalms speak of forgiveness, atonement, the presence of God, the temple of God, we know even better than the psalmist how we ought to rejoice because of these things! The psalmist knew that the Lord made atonement for sins (Ps 65.3), but we know how he has done it! What the psalmist looked to and hoped in as promise, we look back on Christ and see as fulfilled promise. Our God has kept his word, and so our hope is sure. Even more than the psalmist ever could we can rightly call our God our hope, strength, shelter, tower, and refuge.

For the sake of length, I’ll end here and hopefully give a concrete example from a Psalm soon.

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