Sunday, November 30, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on the Holy City, Hell, Church

At church this morning, the pastor compared Jesus coming back with Santa Claus coming to town.  The pastor portrayed Santa as a benevolent judge: Santa does not expect kids to be perfect, but to be good.  Similarly, the pastor said, Jesus will not judge us for the equivalent of leaving our toys on the floor.  Rather, Jesus will judge those who absolutely refuse to embrace God and God’s way.

That reminded me of that book I just read about hell, The Skeletons in God’s Closet, by Joshua Ryan Butler.  That book presented a similar picture: you have God’s kingdom, which is about peace, love, justice, and reconciliation.  But suppose there are people who want nothing to do with those values?  What should God do?  Let them in and make God’s city into another hell?  According to the book, God will expel evil, allowing the unrepentant to do their own thing in another place.

The thing is, the book was saying, we can look at this picture and think that we are not part of the problem, but we are.  Jesus criticized lust and hatred, which many of us have, on some level.  These things will have no part in the holy city that Jesus will rule.  One has to be willing to let those things go to enter the holy city.  I have heard similar things from other Christians: heaven (or, as Butler would say, the restored earth) is a place where people give to each other, whereas hell is a place of selfish people.  If you lived your life in selfishness, would you fit in in heaven?

There is a certain logic to all of this.  If this is true, there would actually be a purpose to us becoming good, and that would be for us to fit in in heaven, or, for Butler, the future restored earth.  The problem is when I look at myself and see how short I fall.  Butler refers to C.S. Lewis’ point that hell is a place of isolation, where people build houses far away to get away from each other.  I could actually identify with those recluses!  Similarly, on the issue of generosity, the pastor this morning was going into tasks that we could volunteer to do; I seriously did not want to do any of those things!

I guess that, if it came to me having to let go of my lust and hatred to get into the holy city, sure, I’m willing.  But let me clarify in what sense I would be willing: I would be willing if God were to help me out.  Just expecting me by sheer force of my personal will to get rid of my lust or hatred is pretty unrealistic, in my opinion.

Would I be willing to become an extrovert, though?  Well, it depends.  There is a part of me that reaches out to other people and appreciates doing that.  But can’t heaven respect introverts, too?  There are different kinds of people, after all.  I can understand the point of there being moral standards in God’s kingdom, but for everyone to be the same?  That’s going too far, in my opinion.  Moreover, I would hope that God would understand where people are coming from and why, rather than just excluding them because their mindsets, actions, or both are not good enough for the holy city.

Back to what my pastor said: Jesus will judge those who are completely unwilling to follow him.  Who, though, would fit into that category?  There is some goodness even in, say, a mobster.  He may love his family.  He’s not completely unwilling to follow the path of righteousness.  The thing is, though, he would have to give up his criminal tendencies to be in the holy city, since Jesus would not want that sort of thing there.  But here’s a thought: maybe he’d be willing to do so because life would be so much easier in the holy city.  In this life, he may feel that he has to compete with others to have a share of the pie, that he has to be just as bad as the next guy to survive.  That won’t be a problem in the holy city, where there is greater equality and people are all playing by the rules.  Still, the mobster would have to give up any longing for power.  That may be difficult for him.

These are just some scattered ramblings.  I’ve written about such things before.  Perhaps they illustrate where I struggle with Butler’s book, or Christians who say similar things.

Book Write-Up: The Skeletons in God's Closet

Joshua Ryan Butler.  The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War.  Nashville: W Publishing Group (an Imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2014.

Will God torment people in hell forever and ever just because they had the wrong religion?  Should we celebrate a God who ordered the Israelites to slaughter every Canaanite—-man, woman, and child?  These are important questions for a lot of people.  As Rick McKinley says in the book’s Foreword, many think that “God’s hiding skeletons in his closet, showing us a smiling face of love but holding a whip behind his back in case we don’t do as we’re told” (page xv).

Christian pastor Joshua Ryan Butler tackles these questions in The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War.  Regarding hell, Butler’s belief is similar to what I have read a number of Christians say: that people who will be in hell will be there by their own choice, since they will refuse to repent and obey the rules of God’s kingdom, and God cannot allow them to come into the holy city and morally pollute it.  As C.S. Lewis said, the door of hell is locked from the inside.

What sets Butler’s book apart, and what ultimately makes it worth the read, is that Butler actually supports this view with Scripture.  Butler looks at the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), and what he sees is that the rich man in Hades still wants Lazarus in a subordinate position and clings to his sinful attitude after losing everything.  Yet, Butler notes, Abraham still loves the rich man enough to call him “son.”  In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Butler observes that the Father pleads to the resentful older son to come to the party celebrating the prodigal younger son’s return, yet the older son refuses.  The older son’s attitude locks him in a miserable hell.

Butler also answers questions about hell.  What is the worm that does not die?  What are the darkness, God’s wrath, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth?  Butler points out examples in which some of these concepts describe a spiritual state.  For Butler, hell will be God allowing people who reject him to keep on in their independence, resulting in their spiritual darkness and misery.  Butler does not believe that God will torture people in an underground chamber.

Butler’s Scriptural case regarding hell was the best part of his book.  Also to be commended are his thoughtful engagement with theologians and scholarship, his uncanny ability to guess what questions people might ask in response to what he is saying, his bold insights about social justice and the evils of corporate greed, and his honest and reasonable thoughts about just war and pacifism, even as he draws from thinkers whose views he does not entirely accept.

In some cases, I was not convinced by Butler’s argument.  This was particularly the case with his discussion of the Israelite conquest of Canaan.  I respected his engagement with scholarship, but I was not convinced by his view (held by scholar Richard Hess) that the Canaanite cities the Israelites conquered lacked civilians and were military centers.  Moreover, Butler depicted the Conquest as a group of underdogs who had left oppression in Egypt and were challenging powerful oppressors in Canaan, after God had patiently endured the sins of these Amorites.  While there may be something to this, I do not think that it exhausts the meaning of the Conquest.  Deuteronomy 20 shows that the Hebrew word ir referred to cities that had women and children, and that one reason for the Conquest was so that the Israelites would not learn the religion of the Canaanites.  In my opinion, there is a tradition within the Hebrew Bible that God wanted the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites so that the Canaanites would not be around to tempt the Israelites with Canaanite religion.  There were other traditions in the Hebrew Bible as well, however—-that God himself would fight the Canaanites, or that Canaanites were still around to tempt the Israelites.

There were other qualms I had about the book, as well.  First, notwithstanding Butler’s insightful Scriptural case for his view on hell, he seemed to leave certain passages untouched.  He argued that the Lake of Fire in Revelation was about God overthrowing the Babylonian system, not hell, and yet Revelation 20:15 states that those not found in the Book of Life at the judgment were cast into the Lake of Fire.  Butler seems to contend that God will not turn away people who are pleading to enter the holy city, and yet Luke 13:25-27 appears to depict a scenario of people asking the master to open the door, yet the master refuses.  (Perhaps Butler could respond that the master knew these people were not spiritually ready to enter.)

Second, there were times when Butler seemed to contradict himself.  He said that God was fighting for the Israelites, yet acknowledged that the Israelites were fighting.  He noted that the biblical historians depicted the Israelites as underdogs, and yet Butler said that they were bragging about the Conquest with hyperbole.  Butler said that the Canaanite cities were military centers, yet at one point seemed to suggest that any civilians in those cities fled before the Israelites came.  On the subject of hell, there were some loose ends.   Butler disagreed with universalism and annihilationism, yet it was not always easy to tell if he repudiated such concepts entirely.  His arguments about the worm that does not die and the fire that goes up forever were similar to things that annihilationists have said, and Butler even talked about the destructive nature of sin.  Moreover, Butler did not seem to think that Christ’s second coming closes the door to opportunities for people to be saved.  After Christ returns, he said, many from the nations will come to the holy city.

Third, I did not always feel hopeful in reading the book.  Butler acknowledged his own flaws, yet he also said that one can tell a true Christian by his or her love.  I somewhat felt as if I need to be perfect to enter God’s kingdom.  But what if I am sinful, and I do not know the way out of my sins?  I wish that Butler had spent more time on this topic.  I would be unfair to say that he does not address it, however, for he does talk a lot about the mercy and grace of Christ and the transformation in one’s attitude that can come when one embraces the Gospel and looks to Christ.  But the book also had a bit of a “shape up or ship out” tone (not that he uses those words).

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers ( book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

II Chronicles 9

In II Chronicles 9, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon of Israel and tests his wisdom by asking him difficult questions.

The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary argues that there was probably an economic or a political motive to her visit: Solomon’s trading center at Ezion-Geber was posing a competitive threat to Sheba’s camel caravans, and the Queen figured that she should attempt to establish a friendly relationship with the King of Israel.  And yet, I Kings, II Chronicles, and even Jesus Christ himself (Luke 11:31) maintain that she visited Solomon out of curiosity about his wisdom.  Maybe she visited for both reasons.  Solomon’s broadening sphere of influence put him on her radar, and she was curious about what kind of person was accomplishing all this.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary also addresses the issue of powerful queens in the ancient Near East.  It states that Assyrians in the first half of the first millennium had dealings with powerful queens in Arabia.

II Chronicles 9:8b caught my attention.  The Queen of Sheba says: “because thy God loved Israel, to establish them for ever, therefore made he thee king over them, to do judgment and justice” (NRSV).  God loved Israel and intended to establish her forever.  How exactly would that relate to Solomon’s temporary reign?  What would Solomon’s temporary reign have to do with a promise concerning Israel’s eternity?  Perhaps the Queen is suggesting that God’s very love for Israel that motivates God to establish Israel forever is the same love that inspires God to give Israel a good and just king, Solomon.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thinking of Revisiting the Love Comes Softly Series

A while back, when I got the Hallmark Channel, the channel would frequently play the movie versions of Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series.  Michael Landon, Jr. directed some of them, and Katherine Heigl was in the first two.  Sometimes, the Hallmark Channel would play the movies all day, one after the other!

I really liked the first movie.  In that, Heigl plays Marty, who lost her husband.  She stays with a Christian widower, who has a little girl, Missy.  Marty does not immediately fall in love with the widower, but the love comes softly as she gets to know him.

The second movie, I found to be so-so.  Missy is grown-up, and she has two suitors: a guy with lots of money, and a guy with not so much money.  Missy talks with her step-Mom Marty, who offers her some advice.  Later, when the guy with money tells Missy that she will never want for anything if she marries him, Missy recoils.  Missy realizes that marriage should be about two people getting through tough times, not trying to escape them.  I guess the rich guy said the wrong thing!

I struggled to get into some of the movies after that.  They just did not interest me.  I was also somewhat puzzled—-maybe unjustifiably so, but puzzled nonetheless.  These movies that I was seeing did not have much humor, a lighter side, if you will.  Michael Landon’s stuff had both serious, heavy material but also a bit of humor that gave the viewer a break, or that lightened the emotional load a little.  These Love Come Softly movies, some of them directed by Michael Landon, Jr., did not have that, as far as I could see.

I wrote about this complaint of mine on a Christian discussion board, and a lady informed me that Michael Landon, Jr. did not originate these stories, but the movies were based on Janette Oke’s series of books.  After that, the series did not come to my mind that much.

I’m thinking of revisiting them, though.  I’ll probably read the books rather than get the movies off Netflix.  I don’t have time to watch TV during the day on account of my dissertation work.  At nights, I watch TV with the family (while reading), and, when requesting a Netflix DVD, I try to get stuff that all three of us might enjoy.  I doubt that my Mom and step-Dad would particularly like the Love Comes Softly series.  In reading the books, I will probably be able to get into the stories more and become more attached to the characters.

Why am I interested in this?  Well, first of all, I am getting into Christian fiction.  Some of it is good, some of it is not-so-good, and some of it is in between these extremes.  There is a part of me that likes stories with a redemptive, inspiring message that I can carry through life, or a moral lesson.  There are many readers who do not like that, who prefer books that reflect messiness.  I have to admit that there is another part of me that identifies with them, that sees Christian fiction as a bit monochromatic.  While I like Christian fiction, I enjoy it even better when the characters are rounded and complexities are acknowledged.

Secondly, I miss watching Little House on the Prairie, and so perhaps inspirational books about the pioneer days can meet that desire that I have.

I seriously doubt that I’ll be reading Love Comes Softly anytime soon.  I have review books to read.  I am reading Catherine Marshall’s Christy.  I want to finish Lynn Austin’s books on Hezekiah and Manasseh, and perhaps read some of her other books, such as her Civil War trilogy.  But I may read the Love Comes Softly series sometime down the road.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Centurion's Wife

Janette Oke and Davis Bunn.  The Centurion’s Wife.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2009.

I know Janette Oke as the author of the Love Comes Softly series.  Michael Landon, Jr. made these books into movies for the Hallmark Channel.  Katherine Heigl starred in the first two.

The Centurion’s Wife is the first book of the Acts of Faith series.  I could not find the second book of the series in the library, but the third book is there.  It looks like the story in the third book can stand on its own, so I may read it sometime.

The Centurion’s Wife focuses on Leah and Alban, a centurion for Rome.  Leah is a relative of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea.  Her father was a Gentile, and her mother was a Jew who forsook her heritage.  Leah’s father lost everything, bringing shame on the family and the enslavement of some of his daughters.  Leah is now a servant in Pilate’s residence.

Alban is a centurion for Rome, but he was originally from Gaul.  He is a fair-minded man, one who cares about the lives of his men.  Moreover, he is the centurion whose slave Jesus healed in the Gospels (Matthew 8; Luke 7).  While some have argued that the relationship between the centurion and his slave was homosexual, The Centurion’s Wife depicts it more as paternal: Alban learned to love from his slave, but Alban’s love for the slave is rather paternal.  Alban has a reputation as a God-fearer, one who believes in the God of Israel but does not fully embrace Judaism, but, actually, he does not know what he believes.  He wants to marry Leah, but she and others in Pilate’s family suspect that this is for his own professional advancement, since marrying into Pilate’s prominent family can lead to such advantages.

Pilate and Herod Antipas arrange a test for Alban and Leah: they are to gather information about a sect whose prophet was recently crucified, and whom the sect claims was risen from the dead.  This prophet, of course, is Jesus.  Pilate wonders if this sect desires political revolution against Rome, and intends to exploit the empty tomb to rally the Jewish people.  In the course of her investigation, Leah becomes close to some of the women in the Christian sect, who are fully aware of who she is and why she is there, yet welcome her anyway.  Meanwhile, Alban is questioning Joseph of Arimathea, Caiaphas the priest, and the Roman soldiers who guarded Jesus’ tomb.  While the empty tomb is one factor that influences Alban to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, Leah and Alban are also drawn to what Jesus represents: a kingdom of love.

Alban also has to deal with his share of political intrigue, as Herod Antipas secretly helps the Parthians, the enemies of Rome.

The book reminded me of The Robe, a book by Lloyd Douglas that was made into a movie.  In The Robe, a Roman tribune learns more about Jesus through interaction with people Jesus impacted.  Some have said that fans of The Robe will enjoy the Acts of Faith series.

In terms of historical accuracy—-and by this I am not asking if there was a historical Alban, but rather if the book coincides with what historians say about the time period—-I would say that the book is all right.  Bunn states that he received historical information from a rabbi while he was in Israel, and, while I would prefer for the reading of scholarly sources to supplement that, the book was all right, historically-speaking.  Skeptics may dispute that Christianity in the first century was significantly on the radar of people in power, as is depicted in the book, but I was interested in how the book actually presented the situation: those in power had vague knowledge about Jesus and the empty tomb, and, as far as they were concerned, Jesus’ disciples may very well have stolen Jesus’ body!  It was when Alban and Leah researched the issue and looked inside of the Jesus movement that they came to believe in Jesus.  One Amazon reviewer questioned whether someone who was Alban’s age—-in his twenties—-would have been a centurion, since the minimum age was supposedly thirty; however, some have questioned whether this requirement was iron-clad (see the discussion here, but, unfortunately, I do not see too many references to primary sources).  Something on page 127 caught my eye: I read there that Judea was originally under the control of the regional governor in Syria, but that Emperor Tiberius changed that and made Judea a full Roman province, with Pilate as its prelate, to avoid a revolt.  I do not know about every single detail there, but, after Judea’s ethnarch Herod Archelaus was banished, Quirinius, legate governor of Syria, was given authority over Judea, which could be why he is mentioned in Luke 2:2 (see here).

In The Centurion’s Wife, the Jesus movement is depicted as devoutly Jewish: it keeps the Sabbath and faithfully goes to the Temple.  This may resonate with seventh-day Sabbath keepers, Messianic Jews, or people who just like for the Jewish roots of Christianity to be acknowledged, even honored.  The book’s depiction of the Jewish people from the perspective of Alban is also noteworthy: they were under Roman political control, and yet they carried themselves with a princely dignity.  One part of the book may offend some readers: a slave flees to the Christian movement, becomes a Christian herself, and is told by the Christians to return to her master, since Christians are to spread the light of Christ until the Messiah returns.  In my opinion, there is a place for being a light for Christ wherever one is, for having a strength even in bad situations; I would not say that people should always remain in the same situation, though, especially if the situation is abusive.

Good read!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

Jon D. Mikalson.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars.  Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Herodotus was a fifth century B.C.E. historian, and he wrote about fifth century wars between the Greeks and the Persians.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars is about Herodotus’ depiction of Greek religion.  In this portrayal, Greek religion had vows, tithes, hero cults, oracles about the future that had to be interpreted, and gods who highly regarded their sanctuaries, hated human hubris, and helped out the Greeks in order to make certain battles into fairer fights.  Moreover, according to Mikalson, Greek religion valued common sense and reason rather than faith.  In terms of the scholarly landscape regarding religion and Herodotus, Jon Mikalson disagrees with Thomas Harrison on the question of whether Herodotus depicted the Greek gods as just.  For Mikalson, Herodotus does not do so but rather presents the gods as jealous for their sanctuary, eager to exact revenge whenever it is defiled or disrespected.

Mikalson refers to Herodotus’ characterization of Persian religion as one that lacked statues, temples, and altars, and yet he points out examples in Herodotus’ work of Persians practicing religion in a Greek manner, and even respecting Greek oracles and sanctuaries.

Mikalson also addresses the question of Herodotus’ own religious beliefs.  Herodotus believed in the gods, and he even appeared to think that the gods helped the Greeks in battle.  While he was not always clear about how the gods did so, often it appeared to be through manipulation of nature: a fierce wind or trouble at sea could impact what happened in a battle.  Herodotus was rather skeptical, however, of some of the miracle stories that he heard, even from those purporting to be eyewitnesses.

The appendix to the book goes more deeply into Herodotus’ views about religion.  According to the appendix, Herodotus believed that there were gods, but he thought that the names for those gods were imported from Egyptian religion, and that Homer and Hesiod then constructed a genealogy for the gods.  In essence, Herodotus acknowledges a divine and a human element to religion and the conceptualization of the divine.  According to Mikalson, Herodotus does not explain how Egyptians and Greeks have different names for certain gods, if the Greeks imported the names of their gods (or most of them) from the Egyptians.  Still, I found the appendix to be fascinating, on account of my own questions about divine revelation and the Bible (i.e., what is human, and what is divine?).

The first third part of the book was rather slow, since it was mainly about vows and gods helping the Greeks in battle, and that did not strike me as earth-shakingly new when it came to religion.  I was interested to learn, however, that the Greeks had tithes, and I wonder how they compare and contrast with Israelite tithing.  The book really picked up when Mikalson discussed Herodotus’ depiction of Persian religion and interaction with miracle stories, as well as the question of whether the gods in Herodotus were just.  The appendix, in my opinion, was the best part of the book, since it addressed Herodotus’ own views about the divine in light of his conclusion as a historian that Greek religion had conceptualizations of the divine that were human in origin.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: Your Life Still Counts

Tracie Miles.  Your Life Still Counts: How God Uses Your Past to Create a Beautiful Future.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Tracie Miles had an abortion.  Her book, Your Life Still Counts, is about how God has used her to reach out to women facing the same challenges that she faced.  Throughout the book, there are stories by women about how they experienced a significant problem (i.e., recovery from abuse, a disability), and how God used them to reach out to and to help people with similar problems.  The end of each chapter has questions to help women to figure out how, with God’s help, they can find healing and God’s calling for their lives.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book was its stories.  Some of them were from Tracie’s own experiences, which taught Tracie about her value to God, transparency, and perseverance.  My personal favorite was Tracie’s story about a young man at a ball game who was trying to get a wave going but did not have any success, yet he kept on trying.  According to Tracie, God used that experience to teach her about the value of perseverance.  The book also shared other anecdotes, such as the story of how Corrie Ten Bloom and her sister in a concentration camp learned to appreciate the fleas, for they were keeping Nazi guards away and allowing them to continue their Bible study.  She also describes the “death-crawl” scene in the Christian movie, Facing the Giants, which is my favorite scene of that movie.  Moreover, Tracie draws from stories in the Bible.

Tracie often talks about her resistance to God’s call, since she believed that God was asking her to leave an excellent job with good benefits so she could tell her story and reach out to women struggling over abortion.  She was very hesitant to do this, and she questioned whether she was able to fulfill God’s call.  At times in the book, she presented following God’s call as a leap of faith.  I personally would be very hesitant to take risks without knowing for sure that God was calling me to do so, or to be overly transparent with people I don’t know.  In my opinion, the book should have discussed discernment and wisdom more.  Still, I appreciated that Tracie said that there are a variety of ways to serve God: that, even if one does not choose to share her story, she can allow her story to shape who she is, such that she can reach people with the love of Christ.  Tracie also offered valuable insights about people allowing God to stretch them a bit, how serving God can build one’s faith, and yet how one’s salvation is not dependent on doing tasks for God, but rests in Christ (though Tracie does say that believing in Christ is transformative, and that impacts what believers do, on some level).

The book is specifically for women, so I was not its target audience.  Still, I appreciated Tracie’s stories and insights.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Write-Up: Samuel Rutherford

Richard M. Hannula.  Samuel Rutherford.  Grand Rapids: EP Books, 2014.

Samuel Rutherford was a seventeenth century Presbyterian minister in Scotland.  In Samuel Rutherford, which is part of the series Bitesize Biographies, Richard Hannula tells the story of Rutherford’s life, devotions, and personal sufferings, as well as the persecution that Rutherford experienced for his beliefs, and even the morals charge that dramatically affected Rutherford’s early career.

Hannula not only provides insight into Samuel Rutherford the man, but his book is also an excellent window into the role of Scotland and Presbyterianism during the seventeenth century English Revolution, in which King Charles I was killed and then replaced by Puritan Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell.  Rutherford was persecuted by Charles I for resisting Charles’ attempts to impose on churches what Rutherford deemed to be non-Scriptural practices (i.e., kneeling before the Eucharist), and yet Rutherford also had clear differences from the Puritan Cromwell: Cromwell was a congregationalist who believed in independent congregations, whereas Rutherford was a Presbyterian who believed in governance of churches by a church board.  Rutherford was also critical of the beheading of Charles I.  Rutherford would contend against other schools of thought as well, such as one that proposed placing churches under the control of secular authorities.

The book provides a helpful timeline at the beginning.  In my opinion, however, it should have also included a glossary in the back of the book of personalities and political and religious movements, since that could help readers refresh their memories about which political or religious school believed or did what.  Moreover, while the book talked about Rutherford’s enthusiasm for Jesus Christ, I wish that it had explained what exactly it was about Jesus that Rutherford found so compelling.  I also was not entirely satisfied with the book’s definition of Arminianism, a belief that Rutherford criticized.  While Arminianism does emphasize human free will in coming to Christ, whereas Rutherford held that humans come to Christ solely by divine grace, I wish that Hannula mentioned that Arminianism holds that prevenient grace is what makes coming to Christ possible.  Hannula did say that “Arminius taught that salvation was not wholly a gift of God’s free grace” (page 53), and perhaps one can argue that Hannula acknowledges that Arminius granted some role to God’s grace in salvation.  He should, however, have mentioned the Arminian belief in prevenient grace.

Rutherford was a man who continually made lemonade when life handed him lemons.  When he was exiled and forbidden to preach, he still found a way to encourage people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And he continually ascended, descended, and ascended again, with his faith as his companion wherever he was.  Hannula did well to write this lucid biography of Samuel Rutherford.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Honest Prayer

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Thanksgiving.  He told us about the 1965 movie Shenandoah, in which Jimmy Stewart played a farmer during the American Civil War.   Stewart’s character was named Charlie Anderson, and he was trying to protect his family from the war.  Charlie’s wife wanted Charlie to raise their kids to be Christians, so Charlie led the family in prayer at the dinner table.  He said in the prayer that he and his family were the ones who produced that food through their own sweat and toil, but he thanks God for it anyway!

The pastor asked us if that was a good prayer.  I told him after the service that I respected the prayer for its raw honesty.  Why should Charlie Anderson say things that he does not truly believe?  And yet, I thought that the prayer did not consider certain important details: the things that brought the food that were outside of Charlie’s control, such as rain.

I have to respect honesty when it comes to religion.  If someone has problems with religion, why pretend?  At the same time, there is a superstitious part of me.  We were watching Constantine on Friday night.   Constantine and Papa Midnite were doing a spell, and the spell was not working.  “It is because you do not respect the gods, and that keeps them away,” Papa Midnite told Constantine, who, yes, did not manifest a particularly respectful attitude towards these “gods,” probably because he’s been around the block in terms of the spirit world and just does not respect what he has seen!  But, anyway, I have a similar concern: does one keep God, God’s protection, and God’s blessing away by being disrespectful to him?  I don’t want to disrespect God.  If I have problems with him, I should express those to him respectfully.

And, yes, my superstition (if that is the right word) does lead me to ask myself how exactly I envision God: what kind of God do I believe God is?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

II Chronicles 8

I have two items for my blog post today about II Chronicles 8.

1.  II Chronicles 8:1-2 states in the NRSV: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house, Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them.”

In the KJV, we read: “And it came to pass at the end of twenty years, wherein Solomon had built the house of the LORD, and his own house, That the cities which Huram had restored to Solomon, Solomon built them, and caused the children of Israel to dwell there.”

Do you notice any significant difference between the two translations?  According to the NRSV, King Huram of Tyre gave Solomon cities.  According to the KJV, King Huram returned cities to Solomon, implying that Solomon had given Huram those cities earlier.

The Hebrew in this case is natan, which means “to give” (or literally, “he gave”).  If the writer had wanted to say that Huram returned the cities, he probably would have used some form of sh-w-v.  Why, then, did the King James Version translate natan as “restored”?  The reason is probably that it was trying to harmonize II Chronicles 8:2 with I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in Galilee.  Hiram in that chapter is displeased with those cities, however.  We have II Chronicles 8:2, which states that Hiram gave Solomon cities.  We have I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave Hiram cities.  One way that people try to harmonize those two texts is to say that Solomon gave Hiram the cities, Hiram was displeased with them, and so Hiram returned them to Solomon, who rebuilt the cities and settled Israelites in them.

I tend to believe that there are two separate agendas in I Kings and II Chronicles.  I Kings is trying to explain why those cities came to be called Cabul, which is rather disparaging.  The reason, in I Kings 9, goes back to Hiram’s dissatisfaction with those cities.  II Chronicles 8, however, is presenting Huram as adoring and subordinating himself to Solomon, and thus giving Solomon cities.  And Solomon rebuilding the cities and settling Israelites in them occurs within the context of his projects of expansion and building, which we read about in the subsequent verses.

Of course, I have read in the Jewish Study Bible that I Kings presents Solomon and Hiram as equal parties making an agreement, whereas II Chronicles depicts Huram as subordinate to Solomon.  There is probably something to that, but it should not be taken in the direction of saying that Huram in II Chronicles lacked power in his own right.  II Chronicles 8:18 affirms that Huram sent Solomon ships and servants familiar with the sea, and so Huram had a lot of resources!

2.  II Chronicles 8:11 states (in the KJV): “And Solomon brought up the daughter of Pharaoh out of the city of David unto the house that he had built for her: for he said, My wife shall not dwell in the house of David king of Israel, because the places are holy, whereunto the ark of the LORD hath come.”

I Kings has a similar story, but II Chronicles adds a rationale for Solomon doing what he did: Solomon did not want his Egyptian wife to dwell in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Why not?  A common explanation is that she was a Gentile.  I heard more than one sermon saying that Solomon was sinning in being married to a Gentile, but he was somehow trying to be religious, too, by forbidding his wife to live in Jerusalem.  It would be like someone making money off of a shady business deal, and deciding to get on God’s good side by donating the money to the church.

Granted, there are places in the Hebrew Bible that are against Israelites intermarrying with Gentiles.  I Kings criticizes Solomon for intermarriage, since that was what turned him away from God, and Nehemiah 13:26 refers to him as an example in defending a policy against Jewish intermarriage.  But I have problems saying that II Chronicles had this sort of view.  For one, the genealogies in Chronicles refer to intermarriages, without any hint of criticism.  The genealogies present intermarriage as part of the history of Israel.  Second, the Chronicler (as far as I can remember) does not criticize Solomon for intermarriage.

Maybe the Chronicler still had problems with a Gentile dwelling in Jerusalem, or he was trying to depict Solomon in a positive way: yes, Solomon married a Gentile, but at least he did not let her live in Jerusalem.

Raymond Dillard, however, has another idea.  He wonders if II Chronicles 8:11 could be sanctioning the late Jewish practice of separating men and women in worship.  You see that in orthodox synagogues today: the men sit in one section, the women in another.  Could II Chronicles 8:11 be about this sort of practice?  I seriously doubt that there was a blanket prohibition on women living in Jerusalem, so I tend not to absolutize Dillard’s proposal.  But to see it as a stray verse sanctioning the separation of men and women in worship?  I am somewhat open to that being a function of the verse—-not that I am in favor of such a practice.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ramblings About the Fine-Tuning of the Universe

I recently read an article by Julie Roys, host of Moody Radio’s Up for Debate program.  The article is entitled “Facts About the Universe That Will Blow Your Mind.”  

The article goes into the fine-tuning of the universe.  Essentially, this concept notes that, if certain natural constants varied by only a little bit, there would not be any interactive life in the universe.  For a number of theists, that is evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe.

The article mentioned something else, though: that the earth is in a spot of the universe that is favorable to life, when there are actually a lot of places in the universe that are not favorable to it.  Roys states:

“MIT Professor Max Tegmark mapped the arrangement of temperature disturbances in radiation throughout the universe and discovered something surprising. These disturbances are concentrated in such a way that they reveal a very specific arrangement or ‘axis.’ And, the earth occupies a very favored location in the axis. My guests this Saturday disagree on exactly where the earth is located.  According Robert Sungenis, producer of the new controversial movie, The Principle, the earth lies at the center of the axis. But, Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, says the earth lies more at the edge of the axis. Either way, the earth occupies a very favored location in the universe, which disturbs atheistic scientists. Fascinating!”

As I read this, I thought about an atheist podcast that I heard recently.  I talk about it here.  On this podcast, an atheist lady was saying that she talks to Christians and they tell her that the universe is so finely-tuned for life, and so there must be a God.  She responds that actually there is not that much life in the universe.  Christians then say that it is such a miracle that there is life on earth, amidst a largely hostile, lifeless universe, and so that shows there is a God!  You just can’t win!  These Christians keep changing the criteria of evidence, the atheist lady appeared to be suggesting.

I’m a bit mixed when it comes to the argument from fine-tuning.  I think that whether or not it makes sense to people depends on their perspective.  Allow me to give an example.  I am here.  But things had to turn out a certain way for me to be here.  If my Dad stayed in bed rather than going to church, he would not have met my Mom, and I would not be here.  If another sperm got to my Mom’s egg, I would not be here.  Now, I could believe that God arranged for my Dad to meet my Mom, and for my sperm to be the one that got to my Mom’s egg.  On the other hand, though, my existence could just be the result of accidents, or of things turning out as they did, when they could have easily turned out otherwise.  One could say that there is no iron-clad rule that we have to be here: that we are here because, fortunately for us, things turned out as they did, and they could have happened differently.

So earth is in a part of the universe that is conducive to life.  Does that prove there is a God, or serve as evidence for that proposition?  Or does it just highlight one reason that there is life on earth: that the earth happened to be in a place that is conducive to life?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Jeopardy Match: Julia vs. Arthur Chu

I wrote a post last week, Jeopardy Disappointment, in which I expressed disappointment because I thought that Julia Collins would not be going up against Arthur Chu in the Tournament of Champions, since Julia had lost the night before.  But, perhaps because of her impressive record, she was allowed to compete again, and she won.  So, tonight and tomorrow, the match will include Julia, Arthur Chu, and a third guy who won yesterday, but whom I only vaguely remember.  I remember Julia and Arthur Chu, though: Julia because she was on for so long, and Arthur Chu because he was in the news for selecting across the board and thereby allegedly annoying Alex Trebek.

Who will win?  I have no idea.  In watching Jeopardy, I’ve seen both Julia and Arthur Chu at their best and their worse.  Julia did not know that Habeus Corpus was one of the latin terms in the U.S. Constitution.  That, or she did not remember it.  Arthur Chu has made some mistakes.  To be honest, I can see the game going either way.  Julia dominates categories when she is on a roll, but there are plenty of times when she is conservative—-she does not ring in unless she is sure that she knows the answer.  And, during that time, the other contenders often answer incorrectly and bury themselves deeper.  Arthur Chu will be a tougher opponent, though.

In terms of whom I want to win, I’m on Team Julia!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Movie Write-Up (Sort of): Redeemed

I recently watched the 2014 Christian movie, Redeemed, which was produced (in part) by Pure Flix Entertainment, the company that gave us the movie God’s Not Dead.  As is the case with a number of Pure Flix films, David A.R. White played a significant character.

Redeemed is about marital fidelity and guarding one’s marriage from adultery.  In this movie, Paul Tyson is a Christian, a devoted husband, and a businessman, but he is tempted when a beautiful representative of a Brazilian company, Julia, visits his company to see if her company should do business with his.  Paul makes excuses to see Julia and lies to his wife about her.  In the meantime, a couple he knows from church has recently split up, and the husband, David (played by David A.R. White), tells Paul that this was because his wife fell in love with a man she met online.

Paul receives conflicting messages about what he should do.  He sees a therapist of a seedy fellow employee, and the therapist tells Paul that being attracted to another woman is natural and so Paul should not worry too much about it.  The therapist is a bit surprised that Paul considers this attraction a problem, especially since Paul has not crossed any lines and committed actual adultery.  David, however, tells Paul that Paul is treading on pretty serious territory.  David refers to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:28 that looking at a woman and lusting after her is adultery of the heart.  When Paul responds that nobody takes that seriously, David asks why Jesus said it if it wasn’t important: was it to hear himself talk?

There is also a Brazilian pastor, whom Paul meets on a plane to Brazil.  Paul is going to Brazil to confess and to apologize to the Brazilian company, since there have been shady dealings going on.  Paul also wants to see Julia.  On the plane, Paul unloads his story to the Brazilian pastor, who listens compassionately, asks him why he is not at home with his family, and invites him to a Brazilian church, where Paul can experience Brazilian Christian hospitality!  Paul goes to that church’s service and is convicted of his sins.

The movie had quite a bit of intrigue, but I do not want to get into that in this post, since I did not entirely follow it, plus I want to focus on the movie’s theme of adultery.  I’ve read a number of post-evangelical bloggers or listened to post-evangelical podcasts, and they have problems with the sort of message that the movie conveys.  They do not respond to the movie itself—-maybe they have heard of it, and maybe not—-but the movie expresses prominent conservative evangelical messages about marriage and adultery: that one can commit emotional adultery, and that married men and women should not get too intimate with people of the opposite sex who are not their spouse.  Some post-evangelicals say that it’s all right to be friends with people of the opposite sex.  Some go so far as to suggest that evangelical teaching on marriage and sexuality can objectify people just as badly as pornography does: when a man sees an attractive woman as a threat, for example, he is objectifying her rather than viewing her as a real person.

I can somewhat identify with what the post-evangelicals are saying.  The portrayal of women as a lure that men should resist has contributed to the stigmatization of women within Judaism and Christianity throughout history, and, yes, it has objectified and dehumanized women.  At the same time, I think that there is something valuable to the conservative evangelical message, themes that even non-evangelicals appreciate and teach.  Allow me to share with you two examples.

First of all, there was a presentation that I attended back when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  The presentation was about how ministers should not become romantically involved with their parishioners—-or, for that matter, people in authority should not become romantically involved with people under their authority (i.e., professors should not date students).  We watched a video, presenters offered their comments, and the class split up into discussion groups.  One of the presenters said that it is perfectly understandable for a person in authority to become attracted to someone under his or her authority, but the person in authority should establish boundaries.  If he is going to an event specifically to see the person to whom he is attracted, that is a warning sign.  If their conversation becomes a bit too hot, it is time to back off.  While the subject-matter of this presentation was a bit different from that of the movie Redeemed, both highlighted the importance of establishing boundaries.

Second, there was an anti-fundamentalist book that I perused years ago: Pathological Christianity, by psychologist Gregory Max Vogt.  Vogt tells the story about a woman whose husband was a respected and loved pastor, and this pastor would have golf games with another woman.  The pastor insisted to his wife that nothing was going on, but she still felt that he was giving another woman the intimacy that belongs to his spouse.

Any lessons here?  Probably be careful.  The conservative evangelical message offers warnings that should be heeded and that should encourage the establishment of boundaries.  But one can easily take boundaries to an extreme that is not good—-they can discourage platonic friendships and objectify people.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Write-Up: Political Speaking Justified

Teresa Feroli.  Political Speaking Justified: Women Prophets and the English Revolution.  Newark: University of Deleware Press, 2006.

Political Speaking Justified is about women prophets in seventeenth century England.  During that time, James I ruled the country, his son Charles would succeed him, and Charles was killed and replaced by Puritan Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.  The women prophets whom Teresa Feroli profiles wrote about such events.

What did these prophetesses have to say?  With whom did they side, Charles or Cromwell?  Well, Lady Eleanor Davies supported James I because she saw him as a bulwark against Roman Catholicism.  She did not care for his son, Charles, however, believing that James’ daughter Elizabeth would make a better successor because she had James’ virtues.  Charles’ marriage to a Catholic woman aroused a great deal of controversy, and Lady Eleanor was also upset that Charles did not step forward to support a prominent relative of hers, who was accused of sodomy.  Lady Eleanor thought that her days were the end times preceding the second coming of Christ, and she freely associated people of her time with biblical characters, some of them unsavory.

Overall, my impression is that most of the women prophets whom Feroli profiles did not care for Charles.  That did not mean that they were Cromwell supporters, for one prophetess declared that Cromwell was becoming too attached to luxury.  Moreover, more than one prophetess supported the institution of monarchy, but their problem was that they did not think that Charles was serving the English people as a king should.

Feroli wrestles with the question of whether these female prophets can indeed be called feminist.  They were women writing about the political issues of the day, but did they promote gender equality?  Actually, some of the prophetesses upheld patriarchy.  Lady Eleanor demonized the wife of her accused relative, comparing her with wicked women in the Bible, and more than one prophetess wrote that God was sending a woman to prophesy because the men were not doing what they should, as if God sending a woman was somehow a punishment.  At the same time, there were prophetesses who defended the right of women to speak, to prophesy, and to lead, appealing to such biblical examples as Deborah, Anna, and the women who first encountered the risen Christ.  Quaker George Fox and his wife wrote at length about the contributions that women could make.

Feroli also interacts with the question of how women exercised power in seventeenth century England.  One way was through fasting, which was believed to bring people closer to God and to grant them a degree of authority.  One woman Feroli profiles, Anna Trapnel, was notorious for her fasting.

I enjoyed this book on account of my interest in Puritanism, to which the seventeenth century is certainly pertinent.  Moreover, Lady Eleanor’s end-time proclamations and interpretation of her contemporaries in light of the Bible were very intriguing.  I would have liked to have seen more, however, about what the female prophets thought about the Puritans, and how society responded to the female prophets’ messages.  At the same time, I have to remember that Feroli could only work with the sources that she had and what they say.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Strength of His Hand, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  The Strength of His Hand.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005.

The Strength of His Hand is the third novel in Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series.  The first three books of the series focus on the righteous biblical King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah during the eighth century B.C.E.  The last two books are about Hezekiah’s son and successor, the wicked King Manasseh.  See here and here for my blog posts about the first two books of the series.

The Strength of His Hand focuses on Hezekiah’s divorce from his wife Hephzibah, his illness and miraculous recovery, and his response to the Assyrian threat.  After many years, Hezekiah’s wife, Hephzibah, has not given Hezekiah an heir, and so she placates the pagan goddess Asherah.  When Hezekiah catches her doing this, he becomes outraged and manages to burn himself severely.  Hezekiah puts away his wife, Hephzibah, and she is left alone in a room, rejected by her family, her friends, and the nation.  Eventually, Hezekiah recovers, and he has to deal with the threat of the Assyrians.  The Babylonians visit Hezekiah and encourage him to join an alliance of countries against Assyria.  Hezekiah’s right-hand adviser, Shebna, still an atheist, is enthusiastic about this, whereas Hezekiah’s more devout adviser, Eliakim, is not.  What’s more, the prophet Isaiah believes that Hezekiah has become too proud and publicly reprimands Hezekiah for trusting an alliance instead of God.  This greatly disturbs Hezekiah, for has he not tried his best to obey God and to set the nation on the right track?  In the course of the book, the Assyrians find a spokesman who fears neither gods nor men, the anti-Assyrian alliance collapses, and multitudes of Assyrians are threatening the city of Jerusalem.  What will happen?  On a sweet note, Hezekiah and Hephzibah reconcile, and Hephzibah has a son, Manasseh.

Here are some thoughts about the book.

1.  The book’s presentation of Shebna interests me.  In the past three books, Austin has depicted Shebna as an atheist.  While she does not portray Shebna as a villain, she obviously does believe that Shebna’s atheism is wrongheaded, which is not surprising, considering she is an evangelical Christian.  Shebna is fairly loyal to Hezekiah, committed to his job, and intelligent, and he desires the well-being of Judah.  Yet, Shebna is a person with flaws: he is unhappy; he is not particularly compassionate to Israelite refugees in Judah or Israelites in debt; he has lived with the same concubine for many years and has even had sons with her, yet he has never married her; he lives to please himself, since he does not believe in a God for him to please; he is arrogant and frequently clashes with Eliakim; and his encouragement that Hezekiah join an anti-Assyrian alliance ends in disaster, to his humiliation.  I am pleased that Lynn Austin includes an atheist character, one whose problem with religion is not any suffering that he has experienced that leads him to question the existence of a beneficent God, but simply a lack of belief.  Whether one embraces Austin’s depiction of this atheist, regards it as an unfair caricature, or falls somewhere in between these two extremes, Shebna’s presence in the book does invite questions.  The biggest question, in my opinion, is that of practicality.  Granted, Shebna turned out to be wrong in advising Hezekiah to join the anti-Assyrian alliance, for the alliance fell apart.  But was it wrong for Hezekiah to have been practical?  Yes, our plans can fall apart, and in that case we may feel an urge to call on God.  But is God against our planning?

2.  The book effectively captures some of the complexities of biblical interpretation and the attempts to apply the Bible to one’s life.  Hezekiah’s wife was not having children, and the question facing him was whether he should marry another woman.  Hezekiah’s policy was to be married to Hephzibah alone and to trust in God to provide him with an heir, since God promised that the seed of David would always sit on the throne of Israel.  But things were a bit more complex than that.  As Hephzibah notes, yes, God promised David’s descendants would rule, but that does not necessarily mean that Hephzibah would have a son.  Hezekiah’s brother Gedaliah (who had sons) could rule Judah, after all, and that would satisfy God’s promise, since Gedaliah, too, was a descendant of David.  Moreover, Hezekiah relied on the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:15-20, which forbids the king to multiply wives or to cause Israelites to return to Egypt.  Although his grandfather Zechariah told him that this law required him to be married to only one woman, Hezekiah entertains the interpretation of certain Levites that the law forbids having lots of wives, not having more than one wife.  And, when Eliakim appeals to the part of the law against going back to Egypt to discourage Hezekiah from forming an alliance with Egypt, Hezekiah does not agree with Eliakim’s interpretation: the text says that the Israelites cannot go back to Egypt, not that Israel cannot ally with Egypt.

Another salient issue in this book surrounding the application of the Bible—-and this also appears in Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles—-is that of legalism vs. accepting God’s love and grace.  Hezekiah had long obeyed God because he believed that this would influence God to benefit him and his nation.  Isaiah, however, shows Hezekiah a fresh perspective of God, one that highlights God’s grace and unconditional love.  This dichotomy also appears in the debate about what should be done to Hephzibah.  Shebna advocates that she be executed for her idolatry, since that is what the Torah commands, but Eliakim says that the Torah is also about compassion and mercy.  These themes of grace and love fit into Austin’s evangelical worldview.

3.  My favorite part of the book is where Eliakim’s wife, Jerusha, reaches out to Hephzibah, and Hephzibah later has the opportunity to repay Jerusha’s kindness.  Hephzibah is alienated from her family, her friends, and her people, and Jerusha feels a call from God to reach out to Hephzibah, against the wishes of Eliakim.  Later, Jerusha is incapacitated with fear because the Assyrians are about to attack and she sees that their intimidating spokesperson is Iddina, the Assyrian soldier who captured her and terrorized her in the second book of the series.  Jerusha is afraid that the Assyrians will take her newborn baby, just as they did in the past.  Hephzibah reaches out to Jerusha amidst Jerusha’s pain.

The Strength of His Hand ends with Manasseh being born to Hephzibah, and Hezekiah exhorts his newborn son to love God.  Of course, Manasseh as king will not do this, but will be the most wicked (and, perhaps to the disturbance of biblical writers who believed the righteous prospered and the wicked suffered, one of the longest-reigning) kings.  In the next book of the series, Austin will tell a story about how this happened.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Does the Unprofitable Servant Represent the Pharisees?

At church this morning, my pastor preached about the parable of the talents.  See here to read the parable in Matthew 25:14-30.  In this parable, a master is going on a journey and entrusts to his servants some talents, which was a unit of wealth in Jesus’ day.  Two of his servants manage to increase their talents, whereas a third servant, afraid of his master, buries his talent in the ground.  The master on returning rewards the two profitable servants by entrusting them with more responsibilities, whereas the unprofitable servant is thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The pastor was suggesting that the third servant represents the Pharisees.  The third servant had a negative view of his master and was fearful of him, and the pastor thought that this was the sort of religion that the Pharisees promoted, one that was fearful of God.  Here are some of my thoughts about that interpretation:

1.  I read Christian blog posts and literature, and they are pretty down on the Pharisees.  There have been times when I have wanted to share a Christian article or blog post that I found edifying, and I have decided not to do so because its criticisms of the Pharisees might offend Jewish people I know.  The thing is, I identify with what these articles say about the Pharisees, not so much because I think that they get the Pharisees entirely right, but because these articles criticize trends in religion that I find to be oppressive or just plain wrong: putting burdens on people, legalism, looking down on others, being afraid of God, relying on performance rather than embracing God’s love and grace, etc.  Granted, there may have been Pharisees like this in Jesus’ day, but I wouldn’t paint them all with that brush, for there were also Pharisees who emphasized love and grace.

2.  The pastor’s point did get me thinking: Does the parable of the talents relate in some way to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.?  There are people who argue that, when Jesus talked about Gehenna, he was referring to a garbage dump in Jerusalem where dead bodies would be thrown, and that Jesus was saying that a lot of dead bodies would be there as a result of the crisis in 70 C.E.  On whether I agree with that view or not, I am mixed: I am open to it, but there are texts in the Gospels that seem to suggest that Gehenna relates to the punishment for sinners after Jesus comes back and judges.  In any case, 70 C.E. marked the end of the official Jewish religious cult.  That’s what makes me wonder if my pastor has a point in his interpretation of the unprofitable servant—-as somehow relevant to the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day.  The problem with this view is, however, that the Pharisees survived and thrived after 70 C.E.: they created rabbinic Judaism.

3.  I have read similar views to what my pastor was saying this morning about the unprofitable servant.  I vaguely recall reading Martin Luther saying that the third servant saw his master as fearsome, and so the master rewarded the servant according to the servant’s beliefs and words—-the master became fearsome.  For Luther, the third servant should have seen his master as good and gracious.  My problem is this: okay, the servant saw his master as fearsome and cruel.  Shouldn’t the master have tried to prove that servant wrong by being kind to him, even after the servant made a wrong decision?  Instead, the master has the servant thrown into outer darkness.

4.  I struggle with the parable of the talents, yet I affirm for myself its message of using what God gives us.  I do that by praying and reading my Bible.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

II Chronicles 7

For my blog post about II Chronicles 7, I will write down what is in my notebook, with some elaborations.  They are loose ramblings, but they reflect mainly on whether, according to the Chronicler, God’s promise to establish an everlasting Davidic dynasty was conditional on the Davidic king’s obedience to God, and the relevance of that question to whether the Chronicler believed that God would one day reestablish the Davidic dynasty through a Messiah.  Did the Chronicler believe that the Davidic dynasty had forfeited its right to rule through disobedience, and that was why post-exilic Israel lacked a Davidic king, or did he think that God would one day restore the Davidic dynasty and set up a Davidic king over Israel?  I have reflected on these issues on my blog before.  I just felt like writing about them in my notebook when I was studying II Chronicles 7.

Here we go:

I want to talk about conditionality here.  II Chronicles 7:18 says that, if Solomon obeys God, God will establish Solomon’s throne, in accordance with God’s promise to David that David will never lack a successor to rule over Israel (I draw here from the NRSV’s language).  Ralph Klein in the HarperCollins Study Bible says that this is “another indication of the low-key messianic hope of the Chronicler.”  But the promise of an everlasting Davidic dynasty seems to be conditioned on the Davidic king’s obedience.  E.W. Bullinger, however, says that God’s punishment would be for Solomon if he disobeyed and not for the entire Davidic line, meaning that God can punish an individual Davidic king while still allowing the Davidic dynasty to continue.  I cannot disprove what Bullinger is saying, but it does seem to me that the promise of an everlasting Davidic dynasty is contingent on the kings’ obedience.  Notice that II Chronicles 7:18 refers specifically to God’s promise of an everlasting Davidic dynasty—-that David would never lack a successor to rule over Israel—-even as it mentions the condition of Solomon’s obedience.

I have thought that maybe the Chronicler believes that the Davidic dynasty is at an end, having forfeited its right to rule through its disobedience, and so now God supports a new system for post-exilic Israel, one that rests on rulership by priests, Levites, and teachers.  Post-exilic Israel, after all, a likely setting for I-II Chronicles’ composition, lacked a Davidic king.  Yet, I am not satisfied with that.  For one, II Chronicles 7:20-21 speaks of God forsaking the Temple in response to Israel’s disobedience, and yet the Chronicler lived in a time when the Temple had been rebuilt.  Obviously, the Chronicler did not believe that Israel forfeited her Temple permanently through her disobedience, even though he thought that the Temple’s existence was conditional on Israel’s obedience to God.  Why, then, couldn’t the Chronicler believe that God would restore the Davidic dynasty, even though it had been overthrown on account of its disobedience?  Now that Israel was restored to her land and was trying to obey God’s law, could not God return to God’s old promises and revive them, in the mind of the Chronicler?

Second, and this point is inspired by what a note in the Jewish Study Bible says about II Chronicles 9, the Chronicler exalts the monarchy under David and Solomon.  The Queen of Sheba affirms that King Solomon is a sign of God’s love for Israel and rules on God’s throne (II Chronicles 9:7-8).  Solomon’s reign was a time of peace, prosperity, and power.  Why would the Chronicler stress this, if he did not envision God restoring the Davidic dynasty through a future Davidic king, a Messiah?  Maybe the Chronicler was simply trying to show that Israel had a glorious past, without necessarily endorsing a Messianic vision.  But he seems to love David and Solomon and their reign so much.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Write-Up: Emperor Worship and Roman Religion

Ittai Gradel.  Emperor Worship and Roman Religion.  Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, 2002.

On the subject of emperor worship in ancient Rome, Ittai Gradel seems to present a similar picture to what I have read thus far in other scholarly works: that worship of the Roman emperor while he was alive was not part of the official Roman cult, but it was practiced in private cults throughout the Roman empire.  The Senate did, however, declare a number of Roman emperors to be divine after their death.  According to Gradel, this practice declined as so many people were being divinized after death that there was not enough capacity to support their cults, and as the emperor became alienated from the Senate by no longer ruling from Rome.

That is my understanding of the big picture of what Gradel is arguing in Emperor Worship and Roman Religion.  Here are some other things that I got out of the book, things that are important to the author and that I found interesting:

1.  Gradel is arguing against scholarly assumptions, many of which he believes can be attributed to Christian influence.  These assumptions include the separation of politics and religion into separate spheres, a focus on theology, and a tendency to conceptualize divinity in terms of nature or a divine essence.  I did not always understand how Gradel believed that such assumptions influenced scholarly views of emperor worship: for example, Gradel argues against the idea that Roman emperors were not worshiped while they were alive, and he seems to believe that such a view flows from scholarly bias (or so it appears to me, and I could be mistaken).  Personally, I do not see how a Christian bias would lead scholars to believe that the emperor was not worshiped while he was still alive, for what difference would it make to Christianity if the Romans did that?  But Gradel does argue rather effectively that biases have influenced how scholars conceptualize the divine and, thus, emperor worship.  Whereas many scholars conceive of divinity in terms of one’s nature and essence and thus wonder how exactly the Romans believed that the emperor was divine, Gradel shifts the focus from ontology to status.  Essentially, Gradel contends that the emperor was worshiped on account of his status and his power, not because he was believed to be ontologically divine.

2.  This moves us to the worship of the emperor’s genius, his divine essence.  My impression from reading Gradel (and also W. Warde Fowler’s 1914 book, Roman Ideas of Deity) is that a number of scholars maintain that many Romans worshiped the emperor’s genius.  Gradel does not seem to dismiss that the emperor’s genius was worshiped, but he does mention certain considerations.  Gradel argues, for example, that a number of freemen would consider the worship of a superior’s genius to be degrading, since slaves worshiped the genius of their masters.  My understanding is that Gradel is contending that emperor worship was not so much about the worship of the emperor’s genius, but of the emperor himself.  For some reason, that was not considered to be degrading.

3.  Gradel talks about the divinization of emperors after their death.  This was a particularly rich discussion because of the vast amount of ground that it covered: how some emperors were not divinized after death on account of perceived evils, and thus they went to Hades rather than heaven; how an emperor could be declared divine by the Senate and yet rejected by the gods when he arrived at heaven; the reception (or, often, lack thereof) of deceased divinized emperors by the public; and the complexities of saying that an emperor was divine, if he died through assassination (as did Julius Caesar).  Of particular interest to me was Gradel’s discussion of emperors ascending to heaven in the flesh, how witnesses would voluntarily come forward to claim that they beheld this, and how some implicitly criticized the view that an emperor could ascend in the flesh.  This could be relevant to discussions about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and Gradel actually mentions Jesus’ ascension at one point.  Christian apologists like to argue that there were eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus and that the belief that Jesus rose physically went against the grain of Greco-Roman culture, which deemed a physical resurrection to be repugnant.  But witnesses were claiming to see the emperor ascending in the flesh to the heavens.  Of course, I am not entirely clear what they claimed to see: according to Gradel, an official ritual was devised whereby the emperor was taken to heaven, and that essentially entailed a bird flying off.  Still, I wonder if Roman claims about the emperor’s ascension could be relevant to Christian claims about Jesus.

I enjoyed Gradel’s book on account of its clarity, though I wish that Gradel summarized the conclusions of the book at the end.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jeopardy Disappointment

I watched Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions the past couple of days.  I was disappointed because I was hoping that, eventually, Julia Collins would go up against Arthur Chu and beat him.  Arthur is good at selecting across the board to throw people off.  Julia is good at dominating categories, if not the entire board!  Julia vs. Arthur would be the match to see!

Well, Arthur Chu won his match a couple days ago.  Julia, however, lost yesterday.  So I guess I won’t be seeing that Julia vs. Arthur match, at least not this year.  But will Arthur go against Ken Jennings, or that one guy who won the Tournament of Champions last year—-the guy with the beard who won the most money on Jeopardy?  (Or maybe it was the Battle of the Decades that guy won, not the Tournament of Champions.)

Speaking of which, why haven’t I seen Eric Newhouse on any of the Tournaments of Champions or the Battle of the Decades?  Remember Eric from the 1980′s?  He won the Teen tournament, then held his own against the older folks.  On one game, he was down and there were a few minutes left, but he managed to climb his way to the top, or close to the top.

UPDATE:  Apparently, I was wrong.  Julia competed last night (November 17), and she won!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ramblings on a United Germany, the Armstrongs, and Bible Prophecy

It has been twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin wall!  I was a kid when that happened.  And, believe it or not, my family greeted the news with solemnity rather than joy.

Why?  Because we were part of a church that taught that a united Germany would be the Antichrist and would conquer the United States of America.  And this church had been preaching this message for decades.  (My Mom grew up in this religious movement and had nightmares about the Germans as a child.)  Shortly after World War II, Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of this religious movement, said that Adolf Hitler may still be alive somewhere, and that he could assume leadership once more in Germany and succeed where he had previously failed.  Throughout the Cold War, when Germany was divided, the Berlin wall was standing, and many Americans were fearing Communism, Herbert Armstrong proclaimed that the Soviet Union was not the nation that we should fear, for a united Germany would be the Antichrist.  When the Berlin wall came tumbling down in the late 1980’s and Germany reunited, Herbert’s son, Garner Ted Armstrong, essentially said that he and his father had told us so!  A few years later, when Germany was already united and we did not see any Antichrist, Garner Ted told us about neo-Nazi movements in Germany and how they could lead to a fourth reich.

I did not particularly care for Garner Ted’s arrogant reminders of how he told us so, especially now in retrospect, when Germany has been united for twenty-five years and there are still no signs of any fourth reich around the corner.  Germany has its share of global influence, but it doesn’t look like it will become a fourth reich anytime soon!  Still, I have to admire Herbert and Garner Ted for sticking to their guns for decades, for saying that Germany would reunite and that Communism was not the enemy we should fear, when reality looked so much different.  I mean, imagine it: saying that Communism was not to fear, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on!  I do not attribute the Armstrongs’ correct prediction that Germany would reunite to any superior understanding of Bible prophecy on their part: they just happened to be right on this.  People can be wrong about a lot of things, and yet still make a correct prediction, or a statement that goes against popular wisdom and turns out to be right.

Why did Herbert and Garner Ted stick to their guns for so many years?  They must have found the prophetic scenario to be convincing.  According to them, Germany was Assyria.  In biblical books such as the Book of Isaiah, Assyria is a warlike conqueror that God uses to discipline his people Israel.  Many scholars would say that Isaiah was talking about issues of his own time, the eighth century B.C.E., but Garner Ted would note that some of Isaiah’s prophecies about Assyria did not take place in the past.  In his mind, that meant that they would take place in the future, that the Assyrian Antichrist would conquer the United States, which he believed was one of the lost ten tribes of Israel.  Why did Herbert Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong believe that Germany was Assyria?  Essentially, they concluded from ancient historical sources that the Assyrians migrated to what is now Germany.  See here for arguments for this idea, and here for arguments to the contrary.  And this wikipedia article contains some information about the history of this idea and where such a view differs from mainstream history.

There is a part of me that wishes that I had rejoiced about the Berlin wall coming down—-that Communism was collapsing, that families were being reunited, and that Gorbachev was meeting Reagan’s challenge to “tear down this wall.”  One Saturday morning, not too long before the wall came down, I was watching an Alvin and the Chipmunk‘s episode in which the Chipmunks sang the song, “Let the Wall Come Down.”  Someone in my family said, “They won’t like it when that wall does come down!”  I had a hard time believing that what the Chipmunks were singing about was bad!

What’s interesting, though, is that the Armstrongites were not the only ones who were apprehensive about a united Germany (depending on how you look at it, since a united Germany would precede Christ’s second coming, according to this belief, and that was something to eagerly anticipate).  Last year, I was reading some of Richard Nixon’s books about foreign policy, and Nixon indicated that several people were apprehensive about the newly united Germany.  After all, a united Germany could be a powerhouse.  And remember what happened the last time Germany was a powerhouse!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day.  Last Sunday at church, the pastor asked the veterans to stand up.  One was a World War II vet.  Another served in 1965.  Another served in the 1950’s.

The guy who normally sits in front of me was not there on Sunday, but he’s a veteran of veterans.  He served at the tail end of World War II, then in Korea, and later in Vietnam.  He was in the Navy.
What particularly interested me was the women who stood up.  One lady served in the Navy in the 1970’s.  An older lady, who has given me rides home, also stood up.  She told me some of her military story in the past.  If my memory is correct, she served in the Canadian military.

Some may criticize churches for having veterans stand so the congregation can applaud them.  Is not the church supposed to be about the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of the United States?  I can see their point, but there’s nothing wrong with being polite.

I cannot say that I like every single military person I have ever met.  Some of them come across to me as know-it-alls.  But I have met military people whom I do like, including those in my church.  I do respect their service.  I also have compassion for those who are recovering from war.  I remember being near a veteran from Iraq, and he cringed when he heard a helicopter.  The other veterans understood what was happening: “Experiencing a bit of PTSD, huh?”

Is there a correlation between one’s political ideology and one’s view of the military?  I suppose that there can be, but it’s not an iron-clad absolute.  There are progressives who praise the military for being on the cutting edge of green technology.  I think of Frank Schaeffer, an ex-member of the religious right who is now a harsh critic of the right: he has written beautiful books that honor the military, including one that Laura Bush praised.

And, on the right, there are some people who apply their tight view of fiscal policy to the military, saying that the military wastes a lot of money.  I think of David Stockman’s book, The Triumph of Politics.  Stockman was Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget head, and Stockman clashed with Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger because Stockman wanted to cut the defense budget.  Stockman figured that the military could do as good of a job with less money.  Of course, Stockman wanted to cut other things, too.  I tend to disagree with those on the Left who think that cutting the military alone will solve the nation’s fiscal problems.

But I am against cutting services for veterans.  Like the wars or not, these men and women still stepped forward and put their lives on the line.  The country owes them a “Thank you.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Write-Up: Roman Ideas of Deity

W. Warde Fowler.  Roman Ideas of Deity in the Last Century Before the Christian Era: Lectures Delivered in Oxford for the Oxford University Fund.  London: MacMillan and Co., 1914.

I have been looking for books to read about ancient Roman religion, and this book stood out to me on account of its simple prose and its focus on the aspect of religion that interests me most: theological beliefs.  The book contains a series of lectures by W. Warde Fowler on Roman religion.  Fowler covers such topics as Fortuna and whether it was a goddess of chance, an extension of the head deity, or even considered to be a deity at all; monotheizing tendencies that treat Jupiter as the head god, and how that interrelated with Stoicism, which did not even believe in a personal deity; the belief that humans could become gods, and that this actually occurred with Zeus and other deities in the pantheon; the decline of Roman religion in the time of Augustus, and how many sought to compensate for this through mystery religion; how chaos led people to focus on individual saviors; family religion; and the worship of the Roman emperor’s genius, a divine aspect of him.

Overall, Fowler’s view seemed to be that Roman religion imported significant concepts from Greek religion, but that Roman religion did not faithfully hold on to those concepts because they were not authentic to it.  Roman religion inherited personalized deities from the Greeks, for example, but it tended to abandon that in favor of Stoicism or treating Jupiter in a monotheistic sense, plus there are writings in the time of Augustus that do not convey enthusiasm about the gods and that treat the gods’ names as symbolic.  Roman religion inherited from the Greeks a tendency to regard leaders as divine, but Roman emperors did not insist on being worshiped, and Roman emperors were often divinized after their death rather than when they were alive.  Fowler acknowledges that there were many in the Roman empire who worshiped the Roman emperor—-living or dead—-as divine, but he argues that worshiping a living emperor was not part of the official Roman cult.

I have been reading other books about Roman religion.  I recently read Jӧrg Rüpke.  Religion of the Romans (2009; see my post here), and I am currently in the middle of Ittai Gradel’s Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (2002).  Of course, the question that occurs to me when reading a 1914 book about Roman religion is the extent to which scholarship has changed: which of Fowler’s insights continue to be accepted, and which have been rejected?  Well, Fowler said that adherents to the Roman cult could basically manipulate the gods through ritual to do whatever the adherents wanted, but I got a different picture from Rüpke’s book: that the gods could refuse a request, and worshipers did not have to fulfill their vow if the gods did not fulfill their end of the bargain.  On Gradel, Gradel seems to disagree with saying that emperor worship was somehow inauthentic to Roman religion, for Gradel does not believe that we know a whole lot about what early Roman religion was like.  Gradel also does not appear to regard theology as particularly significant, for Romans often participated in the cult even if they did not believe in personal gods or gods who cared about human beings, plus the ritual could communicate inconsistent beliefs about the gods (i.e., a god is present in the Temple through the idol, yet is in heaven).

In terms of criticisms, I do not recall Fowler explaining how exactly Roman religion declined under Augustus—-what specific factors led to that.  He did a better job explaining how Roman religion came to highlight the individual, and yet, even then, he did not go into certain specifics: why was there chaos that was leading Romans to look to individuals as potential saviors?

Fowler also would have done well to have laid out a conclusion that summarized his arguments.  With some scholarly works, a reader can go through a maze of argumentation and wonder where exactly he or she is ending up.

Soon, maybe next week, I will write a post about Gradel’s book.  It is clear, I will say that.  I am not always clear about what exactly Gradel is arguing against, but the book itself is laid out quite well.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on Christ's Coming, First and Second

The theme at church this morning was being ready for the second coming of Christ.  This was one of those church mornings where I did not know for sure what I believed, but I liked the singing.  I particularly enjoyed the hymn, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” because it was about trusting in God’s grace, regardless of what is going on.  The last stanza was about being clothed in Christ’s righteousness alone when Christ returns.  What went through my mind was the Catholic argument that sola fide is unscriptural, that God will judge us according to our works, that trusting God’s grace is not enough.  Maybe there is some middle ground between the comfort that I felt when singing this song, and acknowledging the importance of doing good works.

Our liturgy was about doing works of the kingdom of God here and now.  Christ will come back and set up a just society, and we anticipate this in our missions to promote justice.  One might as well be on the side of justice!

The pastor made the point in his sermon that Jesus came at just the right time: the world was united in a common language, there were roads, and longing for the Messiah was in the air.  What a good time for Jesus to come, and for the message about him to spread.  Yet, the pastor noted, Jesus was rejected.

I do not entirely agree with my pastor.  Not all of the world was united by one language.  A lot of the world spoke Greek, but what about Asia?  And, if Jesus wanted to come at a time when his message could be spread, why not come in the age of television?  Of course, even then, there are limits, since there are many people in the world who do not have a TV.  One thing I will say: even if Jesus came and a lot of people saw his wonders, he would probably still be rejected by the powers-that-be, as one challenging their policies and stepping on their turf.

The pastor prayed later in the service about how we are hungry for good news.  That is because there is so much bad news in the world.  I have my reasons for asking questions about the second coming of Christ.  But I can identify with the longing for hope.  And there are many places that have good reason to long for it even more.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

II Chronicles 6

In II Chronicles 6, King Solomon is dedicating the newly-built Temple.

In vv 4-6, we read (in the KJV):

4 And [Solomon] said, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, who hath with his hands fulfilled that which he spake with his mouth to my father David, saying,
5 Since the day that I brought forth my people out of the land of Egypt I chose no city among all the tribes of Israel to build an house in, that my name might be there; neither chose I any man to be a ruler over my people Israel:
6 But I have chosen Jerusalem, that my name might be there; and have chosen David to be over my people Israel.

God said that God did not choose a man to rule over Israel prior to King David?  What about King Saul, whom God chose to be king, and whose reign was prior to that of David?

Various interpreters say that God did not technically choose Saul to be king.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary notes that God long before the time of Saul planned for the king of Israel to come from Judah, not another tribe (Genesis 49:10).  David was from Judah, whereas Saul was from Benjamin.  According to the Artscroll, God intended from the outset for Saul’s reign to be temporary.  Jimmy Swaggart says that God intended David’s line to be permanent and for all future kings of Israel to come from that line.  For Swaggart, when II Chronicles 6:5-6 says that God chose David and no one else prior to him, the idea is that God chose David’s line to have permanent rulership over Israel.  E.W. Bullinger notes that God “overruled the choice of the people” and cites I Samuel 8:5  I do not entirely understand what Bullinger was getting at, but perhaps he was saying that God in choosing Saul as king was simply giving in to the people’s demands for a king, whereas God in choosing David was making God’s real choice.  Saul did botch some things up as king: maybe God foresaw this and set up Saul to punish the people of Israel for their request, which offended God.

I Samuel 13:13-14 may be relevant to this discussion.  The context here is Saul’s disobedience to God in offering sacrifices himself rather than waiting for Samuel the prophet to come.  “And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.  But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.”  Notice that God would have established Saul’s kingdom forever, had Saul not disobeyed.  On the one hand, that seems to challenge the idea that God intended Saul’s reign from the outset to be temporary.  On the other hand, maybe God knew ahead of time that Saul would disobey God and thereby forfeit an eternal reign for his line, and thus God did plan for Saul’s reign to be temporary.  In any case, the passage says that David was a man after God’s own heart: that could mean that David was God’s real choice, that David genuinely had the qualities that God desired a king of Israel to have.

Keil-Delitzsch simply note that the part of II Chronicles 6 about God not choosing a ruler over Israel prior to David is not in I Kings 8, which presents Solomon giving the same sort of speech at the Temple as what is in II Chronicles 6.  That could mean that the Chronicler himself is contributing the part about God not picking a king prior to David to rule Israel.  But the Chronicler was aware of King Saul (I Chronicles 5:8-13).  Why, then, would the Chronicler say that God did not choose a king of Israel prior to David?

A possible explanation could be that from the beginning (or, at least, from the time of Jacob’s son Judah) God planned for the king of Israel to descend from Judah, and so, technically, God chose David to be king long before he chose Saul.  I Chronicles 5:2 states: “For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler…”  My problem with this explanation is that II Chronicles 6:4 states that God did not choose a ruler over Israel since the time of the Exodus, until David came along.  The idea there seems to be that God chose David when David came along, not several centuries before David was born.  I also have a slight problem with the proposal that God uniquely chose David because David’s line was to be permanent.  So often in Chronicles, the duration of the reign of David’s line seems to be contingent on its obedience to God’s commandments, which is technically not permanence.  But perhaps there are ways to get around that: that the reigns of certain Davidic kings may be overthrown for disobedience while the line itself still reigns forever, or that God will one day restore the line of David to the throne.

I do not know why the Chronicler said what he said in II Chronicles 6:5-6, but perhaps it is a combination of the explanations others have offered: that David was God’s real choice to be king, whereas Saul really was not.  The Chronicler does exalt David a lot.

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