Rethinking Redemptive-Historical Interpretation
K. Schilder and Redemptive Historical Preaching
1990 is a commemoration year of the important Dutch theologian K. Schilder. The occasion for all the attention paid to Schilder this year is the fact that he was born one hundred years ago, on December 19, 1890. He was a minister in the Reformed Churches from 1914 to 1933, and became professor of dogmatology in 1934. Synod 1942 (-1944) first suspended and later dismissed him as professor and as minister of the Reformed Churches (1944). Those churches that liberated themselves from the dogmatical and church-political decisions of this and the following synod, asked him and Dr. S. Greijdanus to continue their teaching at their Theological Seminary. Schilder did so from 1945 until his death in 1952.
K. Schilder has on many points stimulated a renewal of Reformed theology. One of his most important contributions was in the field of preaching. He addressed the problem how to preach on the historical parts of the Bible. His famous articles Some remarks on the Unity of "Redemptive History" in Connection with Preaching appeared almost sixty years ago in De Reformatie, the weekly in which he wrote so many important contributions. This article dates from the period when he was still a minister. This series of articles, and sermons, meditations, and even a trilogy (Christ in His Suffering) led to a practically new preaching method, called the Redemptive-Historical Method. This approach is not only important for preaching, but also for all Bible study. It seems appropriate in this year of Schilder commemoration to rethink this approach to biblical history.
Everyone who reads Scripture will feel the need to know what it means. Of course, this is not only the case with Scripture; it applies to every book. The reader wants to know what it means. Books usually are not read as an exercise in spelling but as a source of knowledge or pleasure. But in both cases the reader will try to understand what he reads. This is also the way reading is taught in school. The teacher will ask the students: "Can you tell us in your own words what we have just read?" Reading requires our effort of interpreting and understanding.
In the case of Scripture the reader should certainly know what it means. It is not meant to be a spelling book but the book containing the good news. This makes not only the minister, but every reader of Scripture an interpreter. That is why Christians at Men's and Women's Societies together try to understand what God has revealed in a certain part of Scripture and discuss what it means for us today. This is also the reason for the excellent custom of reading a part of the Bible after meals. We read to realize afresh something that God wants us to know. Therefore it will do no harm if father or mother, after having read a number of verses, tries to summarize it in one or two sentences. Or a parent can stop somewhere and ask one of the children what he thinks the last words mean. Often some discussion will help to bring the main point across. Anyway, reading after meals too is done for the sake of understanding. The hardest thing is often personal Bible reading. You have to force yourself to read with understanding. In all these forms of Bible reading the emphasis is on understanding. What does a particular part of the Bible mean, and what can we do with it in our personal life?
I intend to discuss not the way to understand the whole Bible, but only of a certain part of it. Several things are described in the Bible: history, law, psalms, prophecies, explanations on matters of faith and life. Among all these the historical part is certainly not a minor part of the Bible; about one third of the Bible recounts history. This part is probably the best known part of the Bible, since the stories are already told to us as children. But there is a specific problem connected with these stories. They are all about other people, even people who lived a long time ago. Since they are not about me, the question arises how they affect me. What should we learn from those parts of the Bible that speak of what happened to people long ago?
The starting point for all true explanation of Scripture should be that Scripture is the Word of God. The Bible is the Word God addresses to people of all centuries, also to us today. This is decisive for the way we have to explain and apply it. And to add the reverse, if someone does not believe Scripture to be the Word of God, then his way of explaining it and applying it to our situation today will be different.
Many theologians and readers of the Bible today will say that Scripture is a book that shows us how different people living between 1200 B.C. and 100 A.D. saw God. If this is true, then we need no longer believe Scripture. And everyone can explain its stories as he likes. For then the stories of the Bible will tell us how people in the olden days thought about God, the world, etc. But we are entitled to have our own opinion. Then we are allowed to distinguish within Scripture between what is acceptable today and what is not. And we can say: I can agree with what this person said, but I can't agree with that one. Then we will accept those parts of Scripture we can agree with, but reject other parts we cannot agree with.
Even more important for our discussion are the results of this view for the interpretation of Scripture. If someone does not believe that Scripture is the Word of God, then he can also disagree with the way an event is recorded in Scripture. He may say: "It is true that about 2000 B.C. a man called Abram left the place where he was born. The writer of Genesis describes this fact as the result of a calling of God. But that is only his interpretation; my interpretation is that Abram for some reason (famine? troubled relations?) had to leave the place of his birth. I accept the fact but I explain it in my own way." This kind of explanation is far from uncommon today. Actually it is this explanation that is generally taught at theological schools. The reader of the Bible goes beyond the description given in the Bible, and tries to give his own interpretation. This is only possible when Scripture is considered to be not the word of God but the word of man.
On the other hand, if Scripture truly is the Word of God, then we are bound to the interpretation that is recorded. For who would know better than God what the significance is of a certain event? This attitude is no doubt required by Scripture itself. It introduces itself as the Word of God: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness…," 2 Timothy 3:16. Therefore we are not allowed to explain it as we think fit: "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God," 2 Peter 1:20, 21.
That means we have to interpret Scripture according to God's will. For our subject, the interpretation of the historical parts of the Bible, it means that we have to explain the historical events according to the way they are presented in the story. For the way they are presented has been determined by God. God is of the opinion that the facts in the way they are recorded are profitable for us.
What then does God want us to learn through the events recorded in Scripture? Everyone who reads the stories will learn many historical facts from them. Genesis 11 gives an idea how people built towers already before the days of Abram. They already knew how to make bricks, and how to cement them together. Another fact that can be found in the Bible is that people in the time of Abram already had domesticated camels (Genesis 12:16). When the people of Israel left Egypt, somewhere between 1400 and 1200 B.C., the Egyptian army included chariots (Exodus 14:6). It is also possible to reconstruct at least a part of the religion of the Philistines from such chapters as 1 Samuel 5. And from the story of the fall of Jerusalem we can learn about the policies of Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24).
These are all true facts and we are not allowed to deny them. In the past several scholars denied that the Egyptians had domesticated camels at the time of Abram. Now they will not deny this any more because it has been confirmed by archaeological finds. But this approach undermines the historical trustworthiness of the Bible.
Scripture is, also in the historical details, the Word of God. Denying the historicity of it or believing it only after confirmation from other sources means not trusting God in His speaking to us.
On the other hand, we should not think that the historical details are the very message God wants us to know and to believe. The goal of the Bible is not to teach us historical details about the life of tribes and nations in the Ancient Near East. The Bible is not even the textbook for Israel's history. Although God needed such historical details to bring his message across, God's goal in giving the Bible is not teaching history.
When we therefore read the story about the building of the tower of Babel, we should not concentrate on the tower itself. It is not enough to say: "How interesting, that man already that early was able to build large towers." Such a reaction would damage the meaning of God's Word. And if we, reading the story of the Babylonian captivity, would only be interested in the year in which this occurred, we would not do justice to God's revelation here. For the thing God wants us to focus on is not this kind of facts. Scripture has been given to us "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." God's goal in having these histories recorded is not giving historical details, but giving information we need to know in order to live as we should.
Historical Facts can Prove Anything
When we read the Bible we have to seek the significance of its historical accounts. But what kind of significance are we looking for? Are there no limitations? For often very strange applications could be made on the basis of those old histories.
It is very easy to show from the Old Testament that bigamy is allowed. When we read the story of Jacob, we see that he first married Leah, and then married her sister Rachel (Genesis 29:16ff). In describing this fact Scripture does not even say that this was wrong. New believers have often expressed their astonishment about this story. An application of this fact could easily run like this: If a man today does not like the wife he married, he too can marry another woman. This kind of application can even be extended to include a harem. For Jacob took, at the wish of his wives, their maids Bilhah and Zilpah as concubines (Genesis 30). Is this also allowed today?
In the same way we can derive the application from the story of Absalom that it is wrong to have long hair. Or at least that it is wrong for a man to let his hair grow long. Part of the beauty of Absalom was his hair (2 Samuel 14:25f). But his hair caused his downfall. When he rebelled against his father king David and had to flee, his head caught fast in an oak, and so Joab could kill him (2 Samuel 18:9ff). Can a mother use this story to warn her son: "It is very dangerous to let your hair grow long. You may get yourself killed?"
Historical facts in the Bible can be (and have been) used to teach people that they have to avoid all luxury. They have to give up nice clothes and delicious food. Think of John the Baptist. It is said about him that he was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6). Don't we dress too expensively, compared to John? Then there is of course the complicating factor that you cannot apply this directly to ourselves, since today a mantle of camel's hair would be rather luxurious. However, shouldn't we use this as a general warning not to buy expensive clothes? The same could be said for the food. We need not eat exactly the same things John ate (in some countries honey is very expensive!) but can this story be used to urge people to eat frugally?
The Bible could also be used to provide an argument against speaking in a dialect. When Peter entered the palace of the highpriest to be present at the trial of Jesus, someone recognized him as a follower of Jesus. But Peter denied having had anything to do with Him. This denial betrayed him. For when the people heard him speak they said: "Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you" (Matthew 26:73). His identity would not have been revealed had he been able to use the standard pronunciation of Jerusalem. The seriousness of the situation has prevented people from making this ridiculous application, but what is the difference between this and the preceding examples?
The Mistake in these Applications
Most Christians (would it be too optimistic to say: all Christians?) would agree that the examples of application given in the preceding article, are wrong. But where did the train run off the rails? The mistake was not, as in the case of the historical details, that there was actually no application for today. For in this case the stories of Scripture were used as something profitable for teaching, reproof, etc. What was mentioned were very practical things concerning marriage and lifestyle. If we are convinced that this kind of application is wrong, we have to find the reason for it, in order to avoid this wrong type of application everywhere.
First of all it should be pointed out that the presented applications all go against the goal of the Scripture passage from which they were taken. It is true that Jacob had two wives, and that he even had concubines. But Genesis 29 neither agrees with it nor does it hold up this situation for us as a good example for our marriages. The situation was caused by the deception of father Laban and the wish of Jacob to marry his beloved Rachel anyway. Actually the rivalry and the fighting that was going on in the house of Jacob do not exactly make this marriage of Jacob the prototype of successful bigamy.
But all this does not belong to the goal Scripture has in recording this story for us. God is telling us in this part of the Bible about the origin of His chosen people of Israel. This nation cannot be proud of its ancestry. Their origin lies in cheating and greed. But God used the fraud of a father-in-law and the strife between two sisters about who could produce most sons, to build His Old Testament church. He in this irregular way gave many sons (and daughters, Genesis 46:7, 15) to Jacob and thus began to establish the nation He had promised to Abraham. In other words, the bigamy of Jacob is recorded in Scripture not as an example (either positive or negative) for marriage, but to show that the church is not the result of human effort, but only the work of God who, even through sinful human actions, fulfills His promise to Abraham.
The story of Absalom's death is not meant to be a warning against a certain hairstyle. The point is that Absalom rebelled against the anointed king and disobeyed God's ordinances. God showed this in the way Absalom died. Absalom was not taken prisoner by someone on the battlefield; without man's doing Absalom was trapped in the boughs of a tree. In this way God showed that He protects His anointed king.
Next, the food and clothes of John are not mentioned in Scripture as an example to stimulate us to eat and dress likewise. There is no trace in the text of a command like: Do as John the Baptist did. If it were really important for Christians today to follow John's example, it would have been a part of his sermon. But even though a summary of John's preaching is preserved in Scripture, in which several very practical applications are mentioned (Luke 3:10-14), a warning against a luxurious lifestyle is missing. As a matter of fact, John the Baptist was wearing desert clothes, and eating desert food. He showed in dress and food that he was the one who in the wilderness had to prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3; John 1:23). In other words, food and clothes belong to John's unique calling to announce the coming Messiah, and are not a general protest against luxury.
It is clearer than daylight that the story of Peter's denial of Jesus is not a story about the dangers of using dialect. This part of history shows the fulfilment of Jesus' prophecy that all disciples would deny Him. Even Peter did not dare to follow Him on the road of His suffering. Jesus Christ had to suffer all alone, and it looked as if His careful work of preparing the New Testament church in His disciples was a complete failure. Even His staunches! disciple failed Him. The denial of Peter was, seen in this light, part of Christ's suffering.
The first answer to the question why the applications given above are wrong, is therefore that they do not fit in with the goal of the text. The Author of the Bible had something else in mind when He had these stories recorded. This leads immediately to the next question: What then is the goal God has in making known to us the stories recorded in the Bible? That goal can be summarized in a few words: It is to tell us of God's redemptive work. The basic reason why the examples discussed above were not satisfactory is that the stories were not seen as a record of God's redemptive history.
What then is this redemptive history? As a short description the following may serve: Redemptive history is God's gigantic rescue operation spanning all centuries to save His people from their sins and the punishment which followed it. This redemptive history has two focal points: God who saves and man who needs salvation. When man through sin had become corrupt, God did not leave him in his sin but went out to him. God told Satan in man's hearing that the seed of the woman would fight and finally overcome him (Genesis 3:15). Since that time God works in this world to fulfill this promise. God will continue to do His salvation work till the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This redemptive history is a unity. This unity stems first of all from God. One God is performing the work of redemption. He made the plan of salvation before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4ff., 1 Peter 1:20). During the Old and the New Covenant the same God is giving Himself to His people and saving them (Genesis 17:1, Mark 12:26). He also announced redemptive history as a unity (Genesis 3:15).
The unity of redemptive history is also visible in the Christ. He has laid the foundation for our salvation in His suffering and death, and has brought to light full salvation in His resurrection. The believers of the Old Testament could not receive salvation without Christ, and we who live now while Christ is no longer among us, can only be saved through Him.
The third mainstay in the unity of redemptive history is faith. Already in the Old Testament, God in guiding His people showed that they could trust Him, and He required faith. The New Testament is no different. This is why Abram's faith can be the example of faith for New Testament believers (Romans 4:19ff.).
Also the final goal of redemptive history is the same for all. The believers of the Old Testament did not just expect earthly blessings, they expected the new Jerusalem (Hebrews 11:10, 16). We today are looking forward to the same goal of history, the restoration of this perverted world.
Redemptive history is a unity, but at the same time it saw a number of important changes. We can distinguish different periods. The central period is no doubt the time that Jesus Christ came into this world to live, teach, suffer, die, and live again. The preceding time can be divided into two periods. There is first the period from the beginning of sin until Abram; during this time God worked salvation in the whole world. This was followed by the period from Abram to John the Baptist; during this time God concentrated His redemptive work on Abram and his offspring. The time after the ascension of Jesus Christ can also be divided into two periods. First the period of the apostles, in which became visible the difference Christ's work made for church life. Finally the period after the apostles, in which we are living now.
The changes are connected with a difference in the scene of action where God performs His redemptive work. This first took place in the whole world. Then it concentrated on Canaan, beginning with Abram and continuing until the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But since Pentecost, God's redemption is again going out with power into the whole world.
There is also a difference in secondary promises. The main promise is of course the same: communion with God on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. But for the patriarchs this promise was connected with a promise of a son. It is important for the believers today to realize that God did not promise sons (or children, for that matter) to everyone in the church. Later the people of Israel received the land of Canaan by way of a special promise. It was a kind of guarantee for the fulfilment of God's promise of salvation. The New Testament church does not have a country promised to them. The New Testament believers however receive the Holy Spirit in a sense in which He was not given to the Old Testament church.
Another difference concerns the offices. In the period preceding Christ the offices of prophet, priest, and king appeared gradually. During the first period after Jesus Christ's ascension God gave apostles and prophets in the church. But we also see gradually appearing the offices we have now: deacon, elder, minister. This is connected with a gradual increase in the content of revelation, until this replacement of prophets by ministers and elders heralded a new era, without any further increase in the content of revelation.
Besides the basic unity of redemptive history and the differences that have occurred in the course of this history, one more aspect should be noted. It is the fact that not everything that ever happened in redemptive history has been recorded in the Bible. To follow our division in five periods, the Bible narrates only a few things about the first period. A history of thousands of years from sin entering into this world up to Abram is recorded in only eight chapters (Genesis 3-11). The history of Abram and his family, leading to the history of the people if Israel, is relatively well documented, but here too several gaps can be noted. About the life of Israel in Egypt and about the last centuries before Christ's birth we have almost no records in Scripture. Again, Scripture covers the important redemptive acts that occurred in the first century A.D. But nothing is recorded about the progress in the following centuries.
When we say that Scripture in its historical parts describes the history of redemption, this cannot mean that the whole of redemptive history can be found in Scripture. Redemptive history begins with God calling Adam after his sin, and will not end till Jesus Christ returns. But the Bible records of this great history only so much of the crucial moments and the progress as we need to know.
Moralizing and Psychologizing
Everyone who has really read Scripture will agree that its historical parts tell the story of God's redemptive history. But the strange thing is that, as soon as the historical parts are used for teaching, reproof, etc. this character of Scripture is forgotten and redemptive history ignored. When it comes to applying the stories to our situation, suddenly not God and His redemptive work, but man and his life take centre stage. This results in two ways of explanation which we can call: moralizing and psychologizing.
Moralizing concentrates on man's behaviour. When Scripture tells us about a person doing something good, this is used as an example to follow; when it speaks about someone doing wrong this is used as an example to warn against sin. To give some instances of this approach: Just as Jonathan helped his friend David along (2 Samuel 20), we too have to help our friends. Or the opposite: We should not persecute someone as king Saul persecuted David.
This kind of approach often has a reward system connected with it. Then the events recorded in Scripture are used to show that good behaviour will be rewarded, while bad behaviour will be punished.
The other approach is psychologizing. This method concentrates not so much on the outward action as well as on the inward state of man, his feelings and experiences. To give again some examples: Just as David was sad when he saw his city Ziklag destroyed (1 Samuel 30:4), we, too, as believers have our sad experiences. And in the same way as David, when he had to flee for Absalom, received food and other support from Barzillai (2 Samuel 17:27ff.) so our faith too wilt receive unexpected relief even in sad times.
What to think of this way of applying the stories? Here Scripture is not used just to get some historical information without any application. There is a clear message for our lives. Also it is not a message that has nothing to do with faith; the relation of the event to faith is made clear. But there is yet another important question to be answered: Are these applications in accordance with the goal of Scripture in its historical parts?
Reading the Scripture passages these examples were taken from, we will notice several unsatisfactory elements. The first is that only one element is taken out of the complete event and is generalized. Why then are the other elements not generalized? It is perfectly true that David, when he saw Ziklag destroyed, was sad. Scripture says he wept. But why is only this element taken out of the story and used as a general example? Scripture goes on to tell that David's soldiers now turned against him and wanted to kill him (2 Samuel 30:6). Of course this fact cannot so easily be generalized as can the fact that David wept. But using one out of two connected events and neglecting the other seems to be a rather arbitrary way of applying Scripture.
Further, the specific position of the people who play a role in the story, is neglected. Once someone starts thinking about it he will realize that the stories in the Bible are almost without exception about people who have a special position which the general believer does not have. They are patriarch or ancestor of the nation of Israel, prophet, priest or king, and apostle. That makes it hard to apply what happened to them directly to ourselves. E.g., David was the anointed king of Israel. So when Jonathan became the friend of David and helped him, the true picture is that the crown prince Jonathan took a step back and recognized David's precedence (1 Samuel 20:13-15). This story shows more than just friendship; it shows Jonathan's obedience to God in serving in love the future king of Israel. When this is a central aspect of the text, it may not be left out as soon as we start applying the text.
Another factor which is often neglected in a moralistic or psychologizing application is the result of an event. Jonathan, who recognized and loved David, and Saul, who persecuted him, died on the same day. A consistent moralizing application would run like this. He who persecutes his neighbour, will be punished, as Saul was killed. He who helps his neighbour, will be … punished, as Jonathan was killed. This application though logically consistent, is blatantly wrong. Does this not show that the stories in the Bible cannot be used for a simple reward system?
The most important question is, of course, what is the role of God in the application? In moralizing and psychologizing the emphasis is on man, on his actions and his soul. God is at best only indirectly referred to. Recall the moralistic application that we should help poor refugees just as Barzillai once helped David. In this application God is not mentioned, nor is there any need to refer to God. The fundamental reason why these applications fail is the fact that God's place in history is neglected.
This leads to the conclusion that redemptive history as it is recorded in Scripture is not given to us for easy moralizing or psychologizing. The connecting link between then and now which is emphasized in Scripture is not moral behaviour or psychological experiences. The connection is that the same God is realizing the same salvation by the same faith because of the work of the same Jesus Christ, to us who are living in a different period of redemptive history. In brief, the connection between the people in Scripture and us today is God's redemptive history.
Therefore the application of the historical parts of Scripture should be redemptive-historical. The following four examples will try to show and explain this further.
Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)
Genesis 4 begins by telling that Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. When the boys grew up and each had chosen his profession, the relation between them soured. Cain became angry at Abel and finally killed him.
A moralizing application could run along these lines. Cain committed a terrible sin in killing his brother, but we should realize that we all have the same sinful nature as Cain. Therefore we should be very careful to avoid the temptation. You can see it every day in the newspaper: family members shooting and killing each other. Don't have firearms in your house! To this can be added that the end of the story shows that God punishes murderers severely.
But probably the story lends itself more easily for psychologizing. Then the emphasis is on the motive behind Cain's action. Cain is said to be very angry. Even though God warned him, Cain allowed his grudge to grow till he finally killed his brother. Then the application is: Do not let your anger rankle. You won't be able to contain it. And if you let go, you will be punished.
There is nothing in this kind of application that goes against Scripture. God warns against killing (sixth commandment) and a building up of anger (Ephesians 4:26). The problem is, however, whether this use of Genesis 4 explains the story of Cain and Abel according to God's intention in having it recorded. There are several problems that make us feel uneasy about this.
The text does not only speak of anger against a brother but first of all of anger directed against God. When Abel brought an offering to the Lord, God regarded him and his offering, but when Cain brought an offering, God did not regard him. The anger Cain showed against his brother Abel was in fact directed against God, who seemed to favour Abel more than him. When Cain killed Abel, he robbed God of someone who obeyed Him. Cain did not want to really bow before God, and this killing of his brother was the final step in his rebellion against God. The first objection against the applications given above is that God was there only a supporting actor, while in the story He is the main character.
The context shows in what light this story should be seen. Of particular importance is Genesis 3:15. On that occasion God had announced that He would put enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Genesis 4 tells us how the serpent in Cain attacks God's faithful servant Abel. This is neglected in moralizing and psychologizing explanations.
God's punishment is referred to as a deterrent against killing or hating, but is not seen in its significance. If the goal of the story was to warn against killing, why then does not God execute the murderer? This would also be consistent with later Old Testament law. Instead, Cain is driven away from the land where his relatives live (4:11, 14). True, Cain is not let off lightly, but it is also not the maximum punishment, the death penalty.
However, to understand the meaning of this punishment we should realize that at that time the family of Adam and Eve constituted the church. This extradition means excommunication (see vs. 16). If Cain does not repent, this will mean the beginning of eternal punishment. And it is already a sign of his unbelief that Cain does not worry about his expulsion but about his death (vs. 14).
All this leads to a different, broader and more religious explanation. The focus of Genesis 4 is not: Do not kill or hate your (physical) brother, but: Serve God. For whoever does not serve God will, according to God's institution of Genesis 3:15, dislikes those who serve God. This dislike does not necessarily lead to fratricide, but it will lead to attempts to rob God of his servants. This explains why Christians in this world will always feel the pressure of the world in lifestyle, oppression, and ridicule. God's punishment of this will be excommunication, first from the community of the church, but, when there is no change, from the New Jerusalem.
Elijah (1 Kings 19:4)
After Elijah had gained a victory at Mount Carmel, and the priests of Baal had been executed, the opposition against Israel's God had not died in Israel. Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah vowing that she would have him killed by the next day. Then Elijah prayed: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life."
Bible readers tend not so much to moralize but to psychologize this text. But a moralizing explanation is possible. It could be done in this way: The fact that Elijah prayed was not wrong in itself, but this prayer went beyond the limits of a good prayer. For he prayed to be allowed to die. This contains for us a warning to be careful when praying. We should not exceed the limits of what one is allowed to pray for. We should never pray for our death.
When we do not want to evaluate this prayer so negatively, a more positive approach is also possible. Then we can draw a moral lesson from the place where Elijah prayed. To concentrate on this very important prayer, Elijah went to the wilderness. When we therefore have to pray for something really important we should leave the noise of everyday life behind and try to find a place where we can concentrate.
This text is, however, mostly used for psychologizing. Then the mood of Elijah behind this prayer is analyzed! Elijah in this life-threatening situation went to the wilderness to pray alone to God. He felt he could no longer carry on. His duty was too heavy. Therefore he asked God to be allowed to die. Many people feel the same way, at one time or another. Their burden in life becomes so heavy that they wish to die. It can also happen to us that we despair. But just as God gave new strength to Elijah, God will (sometimes weakened to: can) give new strength to us. Through God's help we will be able to live on in the midst of troubles.
There are also other, more positive possibilities for psychologizing. E.g., many people fear death but Elijah was not afraid to die. He could die without fear and could even wish for death, because he had always faithfully served the Lord. Therefore someone who has always faithfully served the Lord has no reason to be afraid for death. He can even pray to be allowed to die.
The preceding shows that one text can give us a fair number of different lessons. Do we have to choose among them or can they all be used? First of all we have to consider whether these applications do justice to the story. A closer reading of the text will reveal that several important elements have been neglected.
There is the fact that Elijah was not just anyone. He was not only a prophet but as a prophet he had a special duty to fulfill at that moment in history. It fell to him to be the leader in the deadly struggle with the Baal worship which had become popular among God's people.
Further, the role of God is minimal in these explanations. At best He comes in at the end of the story, as the address of Elijah's prayer.
Then the context, especially God's reaction to Elijah's prayer, is neglected. Yet it is very important for a correct evaluation of Elijah's prayer. Elijah went to sleep after he had prayed, but an angel woke him up and gave him food. The angel did not solve Elijah's problem, he only prevented Elijah from dying peacefully in his sleep. Elijah had to eat and drink and had to travel forty days to meet tie Lord. From this it is evident that the Lord disagreed with Elijah's prayer.
Before we apply this to our situation today, we first have to take into account the specific situation in which Elijah lived and his role in it. That seems only to make the application more difficult since Elijah's time was different from our time, and his role was unique. Elijah had to fight the Baal worship in Israel. But for his prayer in the wilderness he left the country. This means that he left the battlefield and gave up the fight. Another element in the text points in the same direction: Elijah had left his servant behind (vs. 3). Because he was not going to fight any longer he no longer needed a servant. So what Elijah was doing comes down to desertion.
But here is not a private soldier who leaves the battlefield, it is the general who gives up the battle. Whatever psychological tensions may be behind it, and we may surmise they were considerable, this leaving the country of Israel was a sin. Then the prayer connected with it, the prayer to be allowed to die, is an expression of the same sin – a sin all the greater since Elijah was so important for the struggle.
We can again connect this with the prophecy of enmity and Satan's destruction in Genesis 3:15. This prayer shows that even the powerful Elijah could not be the one who conquered God's adversary. God's people needs another, a better general to gain the victory in this struggle, someone who would not buckle down under the strain of continuous opposition. In this negative way the story points forward to Jesus Christ, who did not give up the fight even on the cross, but conquered Satan in His death and resurrection.
To see all this clearly is very important for a correct application of Elijah's prayer to ourselves who live in a different situation. The battlefield is no longer Palestine, but the whole world. Also our position in the battle is different from that of Elijah; we are not generals but only private soldiers. And we have to reckon with the fact that though the struggle still goes on, our general Jesus Christ has gained the decisive victory.
From here follows the application for today. If God did not allow Elijah to give up the struggle before Christ's victory, all the more we who live after this victory cannot and should not give up struggling against the influence of worldly religion in the church. Worldly religion can come under several guises: from scientific to New Age. People are gullible, and the priests of worldly religion seem to be in the majority. People in the church can begin to think: "When so many believe it, there must be some truth in it." And their obedience will be divided. Partly they will obey God, and partly they will follow the current God of the world. Then the opponents of this worldly religion can get weary. What is the use of their struggle against it? But through this story they have to learn that God does not want to hear their wish to give up. Even less today than in the days of Elijah. For Jesus Christ has gained the decisive victory.
Therefore the prayer of 1 Kings 19:4 cannot be used as an example to follow in disappointment. Then the approach would be that we can understand Elijah's disappointment, and that we too have at times the same feeling. But in fact the text warns us not to give up the good fight of faith as long as God allows us life on this earth.
Daniel (Daniel 1:8-16)
This first chapter of Daniel tells us the story of Daniel and his friends, who did not eat the food the king of Babylon had assigned to them. Daniel first asked the chief of the eunuchs to be allowed not to eat it (vs. 8). When this request was turned down (vss. 9, 10), Daniel asked someone else for permission to experiment for ten days with plain food and water (vss. 11-13). The result was that Daniel and his friends looked healthier than all the others (vs. 15).
This text too allows for a number of attractive lessons. E.g., Daniel was so strong that he dared to go against the majority. We too should in situations where we have to choose between obeying God and following the ways of the world, act as bravely as Daniel did. This is expressed in the song:
Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone.
Another lesson can be derived from the fact that Daniel saw the danger of seemingly unimportant things like food. Most people would say there is no relation between faith and food. But Daniel knew that the law of God applies to common daily things like food too. We should do likewise. We have to apply God's commandments not only to the food we eat, but also to the books, magazines, and newspapers we read. We should treat even our business competitors fairly.
Noteworthy is also the way Daniel acts. He has decided not to eat this food of uncertain origin, but he does not in a surly manner say: "I'm not going to eat that stuff." He presents a petition. And when it is turned down by the chief of the eunuchs, who was afraid for his life, Daniel does not laugh at him, but still respects him. He acts wisely in turning next to a lower official who did not have so much responsibility. This shows us that we too should act wisely when we in obeying God have to differ from the world. It cannot be denied that these are all good lessons; there is no application we have to call unscriptural. The question we are faced with is not whether the applications are right in themselves, but whether they do justice to the text. Again we have to say that several important elements in the text are left out of consideration.
The time and the place of this event. The event took place not in Canaan but in Babylon. And the reason why Daniel and his friends were in Babylon was that they were a kind of hostages, to make sure that their country would not rise up in rebellion. So in Israel, God's chosen people, the king had been deposed and together with the people had gone in exile. It seemed as if God had left the house of David and had abandoned His people Israel.
Again, in these lessons God is irrelevant. But in the text He is very much present. Vs. 9 says that God gave Daniel favour and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs. And the fact that Daniel and his friends after their ten days' test looked healthier than the other boys cannot be ascribed just to natural reasons; it is a special work of God.
At the same time here we have found the reason why the lessons from this text are drawn from man, not from God. The reason is that man's actions can be generalized, but God's actions cannot. It is easy to say: "We all have to act like Daniel." But it is impossible to say: "If you act like Daniel, God will help you as He helped Daniel." Christians just as obedient as Daniel have been thrown before the lions or have died at the stake. Daniel and his friends were healthier after their ten-day trial period, but other faithful believers have died of hunger. Because God does not necessarily act towards us in the same way He did with Daniel, we have the idea that it is by generalizing our human actions or feelings that we have to derive the lessons taken from Scripture. But if with this method no justice can be done to the goal of Scripture, as can be evident from the fact that important parts of the stories have to be neglected, the price we pay for the lessons is too high. Even though we cannot generalize God's actions, we have to maintain that He is central, also in the application of a biblical story.
So the question becomes urgent: When we take into account the specific situation of Daniel and his friends, and the centrality of God, can we still apply this text to our situation? To begin with the situation, the people of Israel had been conquered, the leaders had been brought to Babylon as prisoners. This was God's punishment for Israel's sin. But the nations could think that Israel's God was a powerless God. And Israel could think that God had given up his salvation work.
In that specific situation God showed that He was very much present and powerful, even in the capital of the new world power. Daniel 1 relates that He can influence people's minds so that they are favourably inclined to Daniel and his friends. And He proved that He could keep His servants healthy even on a not very nutritious diet.
In the following chapters God proves time and again that He is stronger than all the kings of the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians. This could be called the theme of the first, historical part of Daniel. The book of Daniel shows that the downfall of Israel does not mean the downfall of Israel's God. Even in Babylon He is in control of world history.
To return to the first chapter, if it is true that God here begins to show that He is present in the most powerful palace of that time, how can that be applied to our time? The answer is that Christians, even when they are alone, should dare to put their trust in God alone and do His will. This is much similar to one of the lessons given above. But the reason for it is different. The reason is not that we, through this event, have seen how Daniel trusted God, and how God protected him, but the reason is that God has proven in this history that He is God even in the most hostile centres of the world.
When Christians today just trust God and obey His commandments, they do not know what will happen. There is no need for God to do exactly the same in our situation as He did in Daniel's situation. What God does will depend on His plans with us. But because we through Daniel's life have again learned about God and His omnipotence we know we can trust God wherever we live. As a matter of fact, we do not just know God as Daniel did; we have seen more of God's power, e.g., through Christ's resurrection. Therefore we can trust God even more than Daniel did, and we should show our faith in everything, including our daily food.
The Jewish girl Esther had become the queen of the nation of Persia and Media. The prime minister of the country Haman, had a grudge against the Jew Mordecai and conceived the plan to kill all the Jews. At first Esther, as a queen safe from Haman, did not want to interfere. Later, disregarding the dangers for her own person, she went to the king to plead for her people. Then she spoke the famous words: "If I perish, I perish." However, the king had mercy on her, listened to her pleas, had Haman executed and saved the life of the Jews.
This story about Esther has often been used as an example. Esther is taken as a model of self-sacrificing courage. During group Bible study the question may be put to each: "How would you act in a situation like that of Esther? Would you give your life for your fellow countrymen?" Some, full of self-confidence, may say that they will act like Esther; others will doubt their courage and hope and pray that in times of war and oppression they will be as brave as Esther was. Esther is then used as an example of self-sacrificing love for her people.
It is important to stress this love in a time when individualism often leads to egotism. But we have to ask whether this use of the story agrees with God's intention in having this story recorded. The answer must be that this may well be the worst application in all the examples given above. In the other cases God was at least present, be it not in the centre. But here God is completely absent, and He is not needed either. An application of God's Word that can do without God, cannot be correct.
Also the fact that the story is about a special nation is neglected. Israel is not a nation like the other nations of the world. Israel had received special promises from God, and the Messiah was to be born from this nation. Therefore this text cannot be used for patriotism in general.
The story also takes place at a specific time. At that time the kingdom of Persia and Media controlled all the nations in the Near East Among them was the nation of the Jews. A part of the Jews had returned to their homeland, Canaan; others were still living in the land of their captivity, where some had become quite respectable. However, all the Jews were living under the control of the kingdom of Persia and Media. And Haman's threat against the Jews extended to all of them.
To find the true significance of the story we again have to begin from God. God is present in Susan, the capital, and from there protects His people Israel. Then we have to realize that according to God's promises the Messiah will be born from this nation. If Haman's attack on the Jews succeeds, the Messiah will not be born and God's plan of salvation cannot be realized. That will mean the failure of redemptive history. And that, in turn, will mean that we cannot be saved. Here is the point where we come in. Our real interest is the salvation we need and which God was in the process of realizing also in the days of Esther.
To protect His people and finally to bring about our salvation, God used Mordecai and Esther. Even before Haman's attack was conceived, God was prepared and had the Jewess Esther placed in a strategic position as queen at the side of king Ahasverus (3:1). At first Esther does not want to use her influence to save her people (and to keep the door open for the coming of the Messiah). Esther almost has to be forced to intercede. But finally she does what she should do. And God uses her beyond her wildest dreams (7:8) to destroy the enemy of His people and to continue protecting His people (10:3).
Through this book we first of all learn much about God. With irresistible power and with incomprehensible wisdom God is working towards the coming of Jesus Christ. God had revealed centuries before that the Saviour would come from the Jews. In Esther He continues to realize this coming. He uses even people who do not want to be involved.
It is this fact that should give us courage today. Jesus Christ has come; no power was able to prevent His coming to perform His saving work. And as long as Christ's church is on the earth, God will not leave it alone or give up the work He does for it, but His plans for it He will fulfill.
Therefore a Christian who uses Esther as a model of courage will only be halfheartedly courageous. For Esther was not very courageous at first. But a Christian who sees God's work in Esther can really be courageous. For he knows from this story that he can trust God to fulfill His plan of salvation in Christ. Looking at this God he will be encouraged to serve Him in his own place in life.
Since the historical parts of the Bible are told to show us how God's redemptive plan has unfolded, the explanation of these parts and the lessons drawn from them should be redemptive-historical. Of course, then the designation "redemptive-historical" in itself is not the most important thing. Decisive are not the words on the label but the contents of the bottle.
The main concerns of the redemptive-historical method can be summarized in the following four rules:
- God's central place should be honoured in each history. If the application goes directly from a person in the Old or New Testament to us today, and God can be omitted from it, then there is something wrong with the application.
- The relation of that specific event to God's work of salvation should be made clear. If this relation is absent, then the connection between then and now will be on a moralistic or psychological level, and not be specifically Christian.
- The development of redemptive history should be taken into account. An application that places us back in the time of Israel or of the apostles must go wrong somewhere.
- The specific function of a person in the Bible (prophet, priest, king, apostle) should be taken into account for a correct application. That means we have to concentrate on what God did (or wanted to do) through this office-bearer, and that we cannot just place ourselves in the position of that person.
This concentration on God's work does not mean that man disappears in the application. Man is present, he is important in redemptive history. The real question is not whether man is involved in the application, but how he is involved. The answer is that man today should not do something because a person in the Bible did something. In such applications God and His work of salvation are neglected. Man today should do something because the story shows that God wants it, that God governs the universe, that God can be trusted.
Only when the historical parts of the Bible are explained according to their own character, God will be honoured as our Saviour and we will receive the stimulus we really need for a life in faith.