Broken Characters for Broken Readers

I have been studying the book of 1 Samuel over the last two weeks. Something interesting has been happening as I read. I have found myself connecting to an unlikely character in the narrative: Saul. Some have argued that Saul was an evil king and his primary function was to be a “foil for King David.” I must disagree with this simplistic understanding of this biblical character. Saul was a complex man. His journey was marked by real conflict and tension. The inner battle of faith and unbelief was authentic. Sin and repentance overlapped in his journey. He experienced the peace of the Holy Spirit and the harassment of evil spirits. He knew both the favor and anger of God.

It will not suffice to neatly box Saul as an evil king or dismiss him as a mere preparatory character for David. First, he was a human being made in the image of God and thus infused with tremendous value. This fact alone should give us pause in passing so quickly over any biblical character. Second, the text does not lend itself to a shallow reading of this man—it pushes us into the conflict that can characterize faith and it forces us to sit with Saul in ambiguity. Third, the redemptive historical position of the narrative requires us to handle the text with care. For example, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the text is primarily concerned with vocation and kingship. This helps us understand that the departure of the Spirit in these stories is not concerned with salvation, but with the task of being God’s chosen king. This lens changes the way we read the entire narrative.

The fourth reality that challenges me to read Saul differently is the New Testament’s affirmation that all Scripture is intended to give hope, warning, instruction, correction, and training (Rom 15:4, 1 Cor 10:6, 2 Tim 3:16-17). Saul is not outside of these pedagogical intentions. The New Testament also encourages that readers connect themselves with biblical characters, even very flawed ones (Heb 11). The truth is, broken characters are for broken readers. This includes the one’s limping around with barely a sliver of goodness and faith left. The Saul’s and Samson’s have been placed in God’s story for our benefit—for our encouragement and warning, for our solace and chastening.

To be honest, my reading of this story five years ago would have looked very different. I would probably have read it like a Pharisee. “Oh thank you Lord that I am not like this pathetic Saul with all his anger, bitterness, and spear throwing. Thank you that I am never overtaken by jealousy and rage. Thank you that I am so patient and long suffering when things don’t go my way” (Lk 18:11-12).  But not today, I connect with Saul. I resonate with his fractured existence. I connect to his experiences of abandonment, jealousy, envy, and anger. I can sit comfortably with Saul, empty handed and confused. No self-justification, only an admission of brokenness and a need for mercy (Lk 18:13).

I do not commend the attitudes and actions of Saul, but I do connect with many of them. Ultimately, I resonate with the depth of his need for divine intervention and transformative grace. Only in the knowledge of brokenness are we situated to receive healing. Saul invites us to meet him in fallenness so that we can encounter the God of grace.


The Sovereignty of God: A Remedy for Bitterness?

I spent some time studying and writing on the story of Joseph this month. One of my research assignments was to read the narrative with an eye to the theme of bitterness and forgiveness. I was encouraged by what I learned and a bit surprised as well. You know the story. Here is a thematic rundown of his life.

Joseph was favored by his father, hated by his brothers, and sold by his own flesh and blood. He was wrongly accused for immorality, unjustly imprisoned for integrity, and left to rot in a prison cell. He was forgotten by the cupbearer, remembered by God, and exalted by Pharaoh. He gave food to the hungry, grace to his offenders, and honor to God. He was proud in his early years, humble in his middle years, and stately in his older years.

Joseph had every reason to be a bitter individual. Can you imagine being sold by your own family and then forced into a life of slavery? What about being falsely accused of a crime and then imprisoned for around 13 years at the prime of your life? It is hard to grasp the trauma and pain that Joseph experienced.

In the story, Joseph is brought face to face with his brothers. Amazingly, he gives them grace and forgives them for what they did. It was not easy, the text seems to point to the conflict raging within Joseph. He held a position of authority that would have enabled him to exact vengeance on his brothers. He refuses revenge. Instead, he pardons and absorbs the pain. Forgiveness always requires that someone absorb the pain of the wrong.

What enabled Joseph to give grace? How could he after so much suffering? Throughout the story, Joseph points to his source of strength multiple times. This is where the surprise comes. Joseph’s forgiveness was rooted in and motivated by the the sovereignty of God. What a strange place to draw this type of strength. Wouldn’t God’s sovereignty actually make Joseph more bitter? After all, he was ultimately responsible for Joseph’s suffering.

Joseph didn’t see it that way. He makes some incredible statements in this story about his faith in God’s comprehensive reign. Here are two sections of the story that capture Joseph’s astonishing perspective.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:4-8).

Joseph’s grace toward his brothers came flowing out of the conviction that God put him in Egypt. Three times he calls God the sender. He views his brothers wicked plan as the means through which God worked out his plan. Notice how the people who wronged him fade away in light of his belief in God’s control. His beef was ultimately with God. I would guess that there were many late night wrestling matches with God while in prison that brought him to this place of calm trust.

After Jacob dies the brothers are fearful that Joseph is going to lash out on them. They approach Joseph and get on their knees to beg for mercy. Joseph weeps at their actions. Then he makes this statement.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:19-21).

Again Joseph turns to his faith in God’s sovereignty. He knew his place and he let God have his. He did not attempt to sit in the Judge’s seat. He did not attempt to transgress his creaturely boundaries. He knew his place and he accepted it. He also believed that all the horrible things that happened to him were orchestrated by a God of good intentions. He even grasped that all he went through was for the benefit of the very people that had wronged him so terribly. Joseph waged war on his bitterness and his weapon was God’s sovereignty.

God’s Passion for the Widow

It seemed fitting to provide a follow up from the last post. The theme of the widow is pervasive in Scripture. The testimony is uniform. God is passionate about widows. He cares deeply about their vulnerability and needs. Here is a brief overview of the key ways that God shows his concern for the widow in the Bible.

Widows and the Old Testament

There are 63 references to widows in the Old Testament. It is evident throughout these references that God has a soft spot for widows. The following is a bullet point summary of Old Testament thought on the widow.
  • God requires that widows never be mistreated (Ex 22:22, Deut 24:17).
  • God executes justice for the widow (Deut 10:18).
  • God is the protector of the widow (Ps 68:5, 146:9, Prov 15:25).
  • God punishes anyone who perverts justice for the widow (Deut 27:19).
  • God requires that provision be given to widows (Deut 14:29, 24:19-21).
  • Godliness is expressed by caring for the widow (Job 29:13, 31:16, Is 1:17).
  • Blessing is promised for the one caring for the widow (Jer 7:6, 22:3-4).
  • Wickedness is marked by hurting or neglecting the widow (Ps 94:6, Is 1:23).
Widows and the New Testament

There are 30 references to widows in the Old Testament. This brings us to a total of 93 references to widows in the Bible. The New Testament affirms the Old Testament conviction about taking care of widows. Here is a bullet point summary of the New Testament teaching on widows.
  • Condemnation awaits those who mistreat the widow (Mk 12:40-43).
  • Widows are to be honored (1 Tim 5:3).
  • Widows are to be taken care of by their families (1 Tim 5:4, 16).
  • Widows with no family are to be helped by the church (1 Tim 5:9).
  • Pure religion in God’s sight is taking care of widows (James 1:27).

The Gift of God in the Book of Lamentations

The presence of Lamentations in the canon points us to the kindness and graciousness of our God. The simple fact that you can open up a Bible and find this book there testifies of a God who deeply cares about us. It is God’s voice toward us and our voice toward him all at the same time. It is an inspired account of an anguished people voicing their pain to God. As we listen closely we discern the voice of God in their cries and laments. This is God’s word to us about how God would have us communicate with him. It is a gracious invitation to engage with a gracious God in the midst of horrific circumstances. It’s divine inspiration and placement in the canon is a gift. We are the richer for its solace and voice. Where would we be without such a companion in our darkness? What would we do without such rigorous expressions and metaphors to articulate our deepest emotions?

This book gives us voice. It instructs our voice. It emboldens our voice. It testifies to us that though we lose everything we never lose our voice. All else may be stripped away from Israel, but they still have their voice to cry, petition, and lament. This he will never take away. He has bound himself to us by a covenant that guarantees his ear. He will hear. He must hear. He has bound himself to do so. Thus when all else is removed—possessions, vocations, health, friends, family, and freedom—one thing remains: voice. We see this in Israel, the slave in Egypt. We discern this in the shrill cry of Job. We recognize this in the exiled people of God. The loss of all things except voice is manifest most clearly in a carpenter outside the Jerusalem wall. Stripped of everything but his voice. The cry of forsakenness is a bold refusal of silence.

Do you see the gift of God in authoring such a book?  He knows our frame. He knows our limits. He knows our needs. He instructs us in the way of pain and suffering. He invites us into a bold dialogue with himself and he gives us the words to speak. Pain is inevitable in this earthly sojourn. The pathway through pain to peace and rest is not inevitable. Bitterness, callousness, faithlessness, and despair are very real ending points for our experience of pain. Lamentations is a canonical declaration of God’s commitment to walk with us through the pain. This is a commitment I am thankful to be on the other end of and a gift that I am very glad to receive.

An Embarrassing Book

No one knows what to do with the book of Ecclesiastes. A look at the history of interpretation demonstrates this fact with painful clarity. For most this book is uncomfortable. On the surface it seems to challenge the fundamentals of the Israelite faith. One man has called it an “embarrassment” to conservative Christians. It is the awkward family member at thanksgiving dinner who keeps saying things that makes everyone blush. It is the black sheep of the biblical family. At least, this is how its troubled readers have perceived the situation.

In reality discomfort is not a helpful gauge for assessing the message of various biblical books. If anything our uneasiness may point to the books veracity rather than potential error. The book of Ecclesiastes is a breath of fresh air we all need to inhale. It is a wise voice that we all need to heed. It’s honesty will assault our delusions. Its candor will resonate with our pain.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a sincere look at all our existence under the curse. We have minimized the ravaging affects of depravity and God’s judging curse. We do not want to believe the depths of our sin, the heinous injustices around us, and the decrepit condition of our world. Genesis 3 is Solomon’s microscope through which he analyzes every facet of life here and now. His findings are honest and transparent. Life “under the sun” in the present age is marked by futility, confusion, brokenness, frustration, and pain. And yet God has provided oases of hope, enjoyment, and peace as we journey through this chaos. The author of this book has a robust faith in the God who has cursed the world and the same God who has devoted himself to restoring it.

Here are three helpful quotes from A.B. Caneday on the right way to read and understand the book of Ecclesiastes. These are all taken from his very helpful article, Qoholeth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage? Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986) 21-56.

It is precisely because he was a God-fearing man that Qoheleth was capable of giving expression to such paradoxical and anomalous matters without denying the presence of evil in this world or without destroying his belief in God. Qoheleth records a godly man’s reflections upon a cursed world subjected by God to vanity and frustration. It is the character of such a world which accounts for the polarized expression) and paradoxical observations in his book.

Qoheleth upholds the creational design to celebrate life as a divine gift which is to be enjoyed as good, something to be cherished reverently and something in which man delights continually. This, perhaps, is the greatest enigma in Qoheleth—his bold assertion of the meaninglessness of life “under the sun” and his resolute affirmation that life is to be celebrated joyfully….He was a godly sage who could affirm both the aimlessness of life “under the sun” and the enjoyment of life precisely because he believed in the God who cursed his creation on account of man’s rebellion, but who was in the process, throughout earth’s history, of redeeming man and creation, liberating them from the bondage to decay to which they had been subjected.

The enigmatic character and polarized structure of the book of Qoheleth is not a defective quality but rather a deliberate literary device of Hebrew thought patterns designed to reflect the paradoxical and anomalous nature of this present world. The difficulty of interpreting his book is proportionally related to one’s own readiness to adopt Qoheleth’s presupposition–that everything about this world is marred by the tyranny of the curse which the Lord God placed upon all creation. If one fails to recognize that this is a foundational, presupposition from which Ecclesiastes operates, then one will fail to comprehend the message of the book, and bewilderment will continue.

The heart of the matter: Ecclesiastes must be given its voice. If we let it speak without interruption we will find its message strangely comforting and unexpectedly life-giving. Our hearts will resonate with the frustration and futility of life under the curse. We will be refreshed by his tenacious honesty in a world in love with pretending. The verdict that this book is an embarrassment to the Christian faith says more about the readers than the text. The only thing embarrassing is our dogged refusal to look reality in the face. Ecclesiastes helps us do just that.