Four Branches December 2018

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Exegetical Theology: Appreciating Isaiah’s Poetry

If you page through the book of Isaiah in most English editions of the Bible, you will notice that much of the text is displayed as poetry, rather than in paragraph form like prose. The Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to deliver many of his messages in the form of Hebrew poetry. In this first of three articles looking at upcoming lectionary texts from the prophet Isaiah, we will seek to grow in our appreciation of Isaiah’s poetry.

In order to appreciate the poetic aspects of a passage, it is helpful to read the entire passage out loud in Hebrew. This is difficult and cumbersome at first, but with practice one’s reading becomes smoother and one can start to hear and appreciate the poetic aspects of the passage.

The CW first lesson for Christmas Eve in Year C is Isaiah 9:2-7 [Hebrew 9:1-6]. This passage has many poetic features. In his book, Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah, J. Blake Couey discusses the parallelism in 9:2 [Heb 9:1].[1]

The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2 NIV)

Couey also points out the pair of powerful similes used to describe the joy which will overtake those who dwelt in darkness. They will rejoice “as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder” (9:3 [Heb 9:2]).[2] This joy is underlined by the repetition of words from the שׂמח-root: “You have … increased their joy (הַשִּׂמְחָה); they rejoice (שָׂמְחוּ) before you as people rejoice (כְּשִׂמְחַת) at the harvest.”

When one reads the entire passage out loud, one notices the repetition of sounds in certain places.[3] For example, in the last sentence of the pericope, the letter tav (ת) occurs a number of times creating a repetition of the “t” sound.

קִנְאַת יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה זֹּאת

Note also the repetition of lamed (ל) and nun (ן/נ) in 9:6 [Heb 9:5].

כִּי יֶלֶד יֻלַּד לָנוּ
בֵּן נִתַּן לָנוּ

Here Isaiah uses sound repetition, parallelism and a “pronounced rhythm”[4] as he proclaims that a child is born for us.

The child is then given four[5] magnificent names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” E. J. Young noted that these names describe the child’s “being and character.”[6] Similarly, one might say that the names describe his person and work. As to his person, this child is the mighty God (אֵל גִּבּוֹר) in human flesh. As to his work, he is the Prince of Peace (שַׂר שָׁלוֹם) who has come to establish peace between us and God.

The poetic features of this passage are used in the service of proclaiming the joyful news that this child is born for us. God’s blessings, brothers, as you proclaim that good news.

[1] J. Blake Couey, Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah: “The Most Perfect Model of the Prophetic Poetry” (Oxford: University Press, 2015), 92-93.
[2] Couey, 148-149.
[3] Paying attention to the repetition of sounds is another thing I learned from Couey’s Reading the Poetry of First Isaiah. Cf. ibid., 39-40, 206.
[4] August Pieper, “An Exegetical Treatment of Isaiah 9:2-7,” in The Wauwatosa Theology 1, ed. Curtis Jahn (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1997), 351-370; here 358.
[5] Or five if one considersפֶּלֶא  and יוֹעֵץ to be two separate names.
[6] Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 331.

For further reading:

Pastor Daniel Waldschmidt serves at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Burlington, WI.

Systematic Theology: God’s Love and God’s Hatred

“God is love.”

This statement from 1 John 4:16 is something we cling to as Christians for our salvation and an attribute of God that is held up above all others. We know it, but we continually need to be reassured that it is true: God is love.

Sometimes though there are other attributes of God that seem to contradict his love: characteristics like hatred, anger, and jealousy. Although these negative actions & emotions are oftentimes inconsistent with love when it comes to the people of this world, that is not the case with our God. Hatred, anger, and jealousy are actually extensions of his love and highlight his love in unique ways. For these next three months we will take a look at each of these qualities of God, marveling at how God’s love is able to permeate everything he thinks and everything he does.

Hatred is usually considered the antonym of love. It is love’s opposite and cannot peacefully sit side by side with love in a human heart. But God’s hatred is controlled by love and displays his love in the rawest of terms.

It should come as no surprise to us that God hates any kind of sinfulness. “You love righteousness and hate wickedness” Psalm 45 says about the coming Christ. And why shouldn’t he? Sin and its ugly actions contradict God’s Word, defy his will, and destroy faith. Out of love for us he must hate that which causes us harm. Consequently, God hates robbery (Isaiah 61:8), he hates religious gatherings that undermine his truth (Amos 5:21), and he hates all evil and every lie (Zech. 8:17). He would not love us if he did not hate all that was opposed to his people.

Of course, you hear some say, “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” Is that entirely accurate, though? “You hate all who do wrong,” Psalm 5:5 reveals about our Lord. God really does hate the sinner! Is that incompatible with his love for all people? No, not at all. That is simply the difference between law and gospel. The law states that God hates all who sin. The gospel proclaims that God loves all even if they sin. He hates sinners because they are his enemies and are set against him by nature. He isn’t indifferent; he isn’t emotionally detached from them. He hates them and all they stand for, but only because he longs for their salvation. Might we even say that God hates sinners because he loves them so much? After all, God is love.

There are many dogmatics textbooks that speak about this attribute of our Lord and there are countless modern autobiographies that highlight God’s love for the worst of sinners. But if I could be so bold, I want to point you in these three articles towards a deeper search of God’s love in specific portions of his Word. Read Jeremiah 12. The middle verse of this section speaks of God hating his own people. And yet it all stems from and ends in his love.

Pastor Matthew Frey serves Living Word Lutheran Church & Preschool in Montrose, CO, and as chairman of the Colorado District Mission Board.

Historical Theology: Reflecting on the Christological Controversies

Martin Chemnitz shared unrivaled insight as he described the appropriate place of history and tradition in the life of the church. Contra his opponents, he asserted that tradition ought never negate the Word of God or usurp Scripture’s role as the one and only norma normans. All the same, he offered high praise to the faithful teachers of the ancient church and found their testimony to Scripture’s teachings invaluable. “Therefore,” he said, “we examine with considerable diligence the consensus of the true, learned, and purer antiquity, and we love and praise the testimonies of the fathers which agree with Scripture.”[1]

During these joy-filled weeks, the little children of our congregations will be busy proclaiming the Savior’s birth with their songs and recitations. To do that, they don’t need to understand the Christological conflicts of the ancient church. Their full-throated version of Away in a Manger and Luke chapter two will suffer nothing from their ignorance of names like Cyril and Nestorius.

For those of us with the blessing of a theological education, however, let’s not overlook the deeper view that training has given us into the treasure unveiled this precious time of year.

Perhaps in the haste of attending to all the tasks of pastoral ministry, we can fall into the trap of simplifying that history and, as a result, fail to appreciate its significance. The only thing we remember about Nestorius, for example, might be something like, “He was bad because he believed Jesus’ two natures were like two boards glued together.” Of course, that’s not an inaccurate summary. Nestorius did go astray because he insisted on dividing Christ’s two natures. If we dug a little deeper, however, we might appreciate that in his theology Nestorius was doing everything he could to avoid compromising the Godhead’s immutability, a noble goal even though he clearly pursued it too far. Likewise, we might assume Nestorius’ opponent Cyril only and always taught orthodoxy because he championed the struggle against the Nestorian heresy. That summary is accurate too, but once again, a more nuanced view would reveal Cyril came dangerously close to denying Christ had two natures at all, as in fact some of his more extreme followers did.

Why reflect on ancient history when we all face more pressing matters? We’ll consider a few reasons in the next two articles, but perhaps first it’s worth noting that such study leads us to greater personal appreciation for the miracle we are about to celebrate. True God became true man for us and for our salvation!

During these busy days, take a moment to reflect on that miracle. Moreover, once the dust settles from this busy time of year, consider expanding your understanding of this early period of church history. (Here’s one suggested resource.) As you do, you will appreciate more than ever how God worked all things to preserve the good news of great joy we are busy celebrating. God bless your Christmas!

[1] Examination of the Council of Trent, I.2.6, para. 2

Pastor Jacob Behnken serves as pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Midland, MI.

Practical Theology: Dear Pastor, Thank You

A brother in the ministry preparing for a Bible study, e-mailed a survey to a group of pastors, “If there were three nuggets of information you wished your members knew that would benefit your church, what would you want them to know?” We gave our answers. Beneficial discussions followed.

What would these answers look like from the other side of the pew? What three nuggets of information do church members wish their pastor knew that would benefit their churches? I reached out to forty-five of our pastors across the country and asked them to share that question in a survey with some of their members. An anonymous survey doesn’t have the impact of a face-to-face conversation in a member’s home, but it does provide an opportunity to listen.

The goal of this series of articles is to listen. One of the best ways to grow as a counselor, friend, husband, preacher, teacher, and practical theologian is to spend time listening to the souls we serve.  Sixty-five members completed the survey providing almost two hundred answers. These articles will focus on some common themes and often-repeated answers. Among them was encouragement. Many members wanted to be our Barnabas and offer these words of encouragement.

Dear pastor, your members want you to know:

  • “Greeting and interacting with (you) before and/or after worship, and following (you) as (you) lead the worship service and preach, are the highlights of my week. How loving a God I have that he would choose to serve me through a peer (a fellow jar of clay), who also needs my encouragement at times.”
  • “Your congregation cares deeply for you and your family. We pray for you.”
  • “(I want you to know) how much of a blessing you are…You are shepherding me and giving me God’s Word and sacraments, which I need. I take this for granted often.”
  • “We appreciate (your) hard work to share God’s Word with us – even when we don’t act like it.”
  • “Please take time to care for yourself spiritually.”
  • “You should reserve time for yourself and guard that time. You are less effective when you are not at your best, and it’s hard to be at your best without re-charging.”
  • “If at all possible, spend time with your family.”

Dear pastor, thank you! As responsibilities increase this month and the balance of work and rest might be more of an imbalance, your members want you to know that they appreciate you for bringing the means of grace to them. And because they care about you, do not merely listen to their final three comments above, put them into practice.

Pastor Joel Russow serves Faith Lutheran Church in Tallahassee, FL.