Faithfulness, Election, Prayer, and Faith: An Exegetical Paper for Genesis 24:12-14

A STUDY OF GENESIS 24:12-14

An Exegetical Paper

 

ABSTRACT OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT

  1. Main Idea.

Abraham’s servant, having been sent to acquire a wife for Isaac that the covenant blessings may be passed down another generation, prayed to the God of his master in faith. He trusted in the will, kindness, and ability of God to fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham. He expected God to perform an act of sovereign election, and then confirm that act by a sign. These themes of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, God’s purpose in election, human faith, and the use of prayer fill the passage and all point forward to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

  1. Genesis 24:12-14
    1. Abraham’s servant prayed for a wife for Isaac (vv. 12-14)
      1. The servant entreated God (v. 12)
        1. Addressed God as “Lord, God of my master Abraham”
        2. Requested success and “kindness” (checed)
      2. The servant set the stage for his sign request (v. 13)
      3. The servant requested a sign of God’s yakach choice (v. 14)
        1. Asked for the sign of a willingness to water both himself and his camels
        2. Expected this sign as proof of God’s checed to Abraham

Introduction

God is faithful, therefore His people have every ground to entreat Him in faith. The truth of this characterization and inference can be found on almost every page of Scripture, but in some places the theme is more prominent than in others. Genesis 24:12-14 stands as a prime example of this dynamic. This passage offers a wealth of riches for the Church when studied in detail. To be more specific, in this text, once properly viewed in historical-cultural and literary context, God’s covenant faithfulness and electing purposes shine bright, with the proper human response of faith and personal prayer to his covenant partner mediated by election setting an example. In addition, as with all of Scripture, each of these themes from the text can be found to climax and find their full meaning in Jesus Christ. None of these claims needs to be particularly controversial, but they do need to be substantiated. What exactly does this passage say? What specifically and exactly did the author (and Author) mean? The investigation must begin in history.

Historical-Cultural Context

To understand any text, the original historical-cultural context is highly relevant. Every part of Scripture was written at a particular time to a particular people in a particular world. This must be acknowledged and treated to avoid appropriating a kind of Docetism into bibliology. So what is the context of Genesis 24:12-14? According to Jewish tradition, as well as the implications of Scripture and even the words of Jesus Himself, the book of Genesis was written by Moses after the Exodus, probably while he was on Mt. Sinai with God. Naturally, not all of this can be verified, and this has been a source of heated debate. Many scholars would like to assign the book, along with the rest of the Pentateuch (or even Hexateuch), to several editors and redactors, and until recently have preferred to divide this up into four primary source materials. These are J (Jehovist/Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly). Traditionally under this schema the entire account of Abraham sending his servant to acquire a wife for Isaac has been associated with the Yahwist. All of this, however, seems quite unnecessary. The purpose and scope of this essay do not permit an attempt at proving or even much defending Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, but enough work on this has already been performed by many scholars. Mosaic authorship can still be, despite many critical protests, affirmed with reason.[1] This places the original context of the writing within the Exodus period. The monumental event of the Exodus is quite relevant because precisely in the shadow of this event God chooses to reiterate to Israel the full story of their origins in the purposes of God. God delivered a people and then called the people to hear the story of how He brought them into being as a foundation for their future as His covenant partner. Genesis 2:14-15 should then be viewed as part of the larger project of establishing Israel’s covenantal identity before God. Yet to go much deeper would turn this into the literary context and thus must be presently deferred.

More important to this particular text may be the historical context of the events described. When did this take place? While many scholars would like to argue that this story is simply one of many legends, folktales, or myths making up Israel’s self-written history, the biblical texts point toward a historical time around the early second millennium BC. Dating from the years given in 1 Kings 6:1 and Exodus 12:40-41 both support this conclusion, no matter which of the predominant views of the Exodus date is preferred. This “Patriarchal Period” has been subject to many accusations of anachronism and fiction, but such accusations do not necessarily convict. There is comparatively little data about the Patriarchal Period from archaeology and other sources, which allows for this kind of ambiguity. Yet the skepticism seems mostly unjustified, as several clues point to an authentic date. Genesis contains, for example, straightforward portrayals of God’s people acting in ways which are taboo later in Israel’s history, such as Abraham marrying his half-sister or Lot sleeping with his daughters. If the accounts originated in later times, these would appear problematic and unnecessary for the authors. Other evidence, such as the information on Ancient Near East customs and practices found in the Nuzi tablets, strengthen the case that, even if the early second millennium cannot be definitively pinpointed as the origin of these stories, the fanciful tale that they were invented much later around the Exilic period seem to lose much credibility.[2]

Given these factors, Genesis (including 24:12-14) should be read as a text written shortly after the Exodus about historical events which took place in the early second millennium BC. Moses wrote to Israel of events from the beginning of their history about half a millennium earlier with no clear indications of anachronism or inaccuracy. From this context, not a great deal is directly relevant to the three verses in question, but two notes are necessary. On the one hand, the mention of domesticated camels in verse 14 is treated as an anachronism by many. Supposedly the domestication of camels in Canaan did not take place until centuries later. This, however, relies mostly on an argument from silence, and frequently assertions like this are found to be false by new archaeological excavations.[3] Beyond this, there is not much of note to the context of this particular passage. Thus the literary context must be the next major focus.

Literary Context

For Genesis 24:12-14, as with any other text (in Scripture or elsewhere), the literary context is the true key to meaning. Where does this text sit in the whole book or collection of books? This particular text is found in the book of Genesis, which is ultimately inseparable from the entire Pentateuch (or even the Hexateuch). While the entire Pentateuch includes a couple of genres, the majority from Genesis 1 to the middle of Exodus is pure narrative. Many will argue that this narrative is fictional, mythical, legendary, or allegorical. While in theory one of these could be true, there is no necessary reason to think so, and the overall story should probably be classified simply as a historical narrative. This is most often contested on the grounds of theological and miraculous content, but neither of these preclude an intent to write real history. Obviously this is a highly controversial route, but the evidence does not ask for any other. In any case, unless the narrative is a pure allegory, the intended meaning of the text’s canonical form is likely the same.

The story of Genesis which sets the context for 24:12-14 is essentially of origins. Genesis tells a story about the origin of the world (Genesis 1-11) and of Israel as God’s people within the world (Genesis 12-50). The latter half about the origins of Israel begins with Abraham and God’s covenant with Him. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be His own people for divine blessing. The selection of Abraham is unexplained, presumably a simple function of God’s free election. This text, then, appears in a transition period as Abraham passed his role on to Isaac, who had also been specially selected by God as the descendant through whom the chosen people would continue. Isaac would become the patriarch for the next few chapters. Thus he, like Abraham, would need posterity, which in turn meant he would need a wife. A wife would enable Isaac to take up his place as the next patriarch and continue the line of promise. Therefore, Abraham sent out a servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac from his own kin rather than from among the Canaanites.

Genesis 24:12-14 lies at this point and must be taken as part of this ongoing narrative of the patriarchs. The prayer of the servant sits in the middle of this crucial transition period. God had made a covenant promise to provide many descendants to Abraham and Isaac after him. At this moment the question came in the form of the servant’s prayer, “Will God be faithful, and if so how?” The ongoing history of God’s people was found once again to hinge on God’s provision, election, and faithfulness, just as for Abraham when he trusted God for a son. John Walton highlights the issue thus:

[G]etting a wife for Isaac in a way that will preserve the covenant ideals is not an easy matter. It is for that reason that the narrator goes to such great length to demonstrate the role that God played in bringing the marriage to fruition. Abraham has not yet become a great nation. Survival of the line still hangs by a thread.[4]

Therefore, the context presents Isaac and even, in a certain sense, Rebekah, as the rightful successor(s) of the first patriarch, and the source of the blessings which are still to come in the rest of the story.

The Basic Content

So, with the context in history and the literature firmly established, the actual content of the passage can be examined. What happened in Genesis 24:12-14? Abraham sent out his chief servant to acquire a wife for Isaac, since Abraham was getting old and would die soon. The servant came to the town of Nahor and approached a well, where he then uttered the prayer of these three verses in question. In this prayer, he asked God to show kindness to Abraham his master by giving success in the wife-finding journey. He asked in particular for God to highlight a woman He had chosen by a particular sign, the sign of extraordinary hospitality in the form of an offer to draw water for both him and the camels from the well. In fact, the text is short enough that quoting the full prayer is probably warranted. The servant’s prayer reads as follows in the NIV, which the standard throughout this paper:

“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”[5]

That is the full text of the prayer which will be discussed. The events afterwards bear note as well, however. In the rest of the narrative, God did give the sign and led the servant to Rebekah, whom Isaac married. Keeping this storyline in mind, the interpretation can begin. What does the text actually mean?

“Kindness” and “Chosen”: Two Key Words about the Faithful God of Abraham

 Key to this passage will be two words which highlight the redemptive-historical themes of the account. The first of these is translated in the NIV as “kindness.” The servant asked God to “show kindness” to Abraham, and at the end of the prayer asked for a sign so he could know that God had shown “kindness.” The Hebrew is the word checed (חֶ֕סֶד), which is used fairly frequently in the Old Testament, occurring 241 times.[6] Checed has a very wide translation range (including in the NIV such diversity as “condemn,” “devout,” and “loving deeds”), but the meaning seems to primarily orbit around some blend of commitment and benevolence. Thus in 174 instances the NIV uses a variant of “love” yet also includes at times “devotion,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” In support of this blend, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, for example, predominantly translates checed as “faithful love.”[7] There is an unmistakable covenantal flavor to the included faithfulness in many of the occurrences, and many times in the Psalms checed could almost be defined: “God’s unswerving mercy and love in being faithful to His covenant with Israel and her king.”

In Genesis 24:12-14 in particular, the common rendering “kindness” fits well enough, but an argument could well be made that God’s covenant faithfulness should not be left out of the picture. After all, as mentioned earlier, this was a pivotal moment. God’s covenant with Abraham was about to transition to his son Isaac. The wife Isaac required would be the means by which Isaac could bear children according to the promise. Thus for God to answer this servant’s prayer would be to show His covenant love to Abraham and his family. Those were the stakes, and as the narrative later explains, God did just that. In yet another moment of importance for God’s people, He came through out of faithful love.

The other significant word in the passage, not repeated but certainly important, is “chosen.” The Hebrew word is yakach (יָכחַ). Though not as common as checed, yakach does show up in the Old Testament enough to notice, namely fifty-five times. The basic meaning of yakach has to do with rightness.[8] The word is quite flexible, with “rebuke” having a plurality of the NIV renderings at twenty instances, but the rest divided between many others like “judge,” “vindicate,” “complain,” or “mediate.” This passage contains the rendering “chosen,” also “appointed” or “prepared” in other translations. Many of the other possible meanings for yakach make intuitive sense (e.g. “vindicate” is to prove right, “judge” to discern right, “rebuke” to correct wrong with right, etc.), but how that ties to the concept of choosing or appointing is less obvious. Perhaps the intended sense is judging that a particular choice is the right one, recognizing that what is being chosen or appointed is right or fit for the purpose.

If this sense of discerning rightness according to a purpose is correct, then the servant implicitly acknowledged that God has a righteous plan with a particular woman who will be the best gift for Isaac. The one God has chosen, yakach, would be right for him and thus help bring about the blessings of the covenant which she was needed to fulfill. The Lord of all the earth does what is right, and the servant fully expected (and entreated) Him to do the same in this particular circumstance, in this moment on which the future of the covenant hang. Thus, even while not used in the same sentence of the text, these two important words function together. The servant prayed for the God of Abraham to show faithful love to the family by his right choice of a woman through whom the covenant could transition to Isaac, and thus God’s plan in election could reach fullness.

The Meaning of the Servant’s Prayer of Faith

These themes of God’s covenant faithfulness and sovereign election are key to understanding Genesis 24:12-14, but they are not the whole. There is the human side as well, the side in which the servant actually did the praying. The faithful God was entreated by a human in need of His faithfulness. The God of the covenant was asked by a member of His partner’s party to fulfill His terms. Clearly, Abraham’s relationship to God was not closed off and private. Instead, his servants were aware of God’s covenant, promises, and terms. All of Abraham’s household had to walk in faith, and in this passage the chief servant did just that. He expressed trust in his master’s God by making an implausible request in prayer. (This is, however, something with which Calvin wrestled.[9] How does a prayer of true faith include a prescription to God for a definite sign? While the discussion might be interesting, there is no room for addressing the question here. May the simple observation that Scripture never recognizes such a tension suffice.)

This prayer presents the basic paradigm of the God/human covenant relationship. God initiates, God gives promises, the humans agree, and finally the humans call upon God to fulfill His promises when they are needed. This basic pattern can be found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, with Genesis 24:12-14 being a prime early example. By itself, the servant’s prayer might not teach anything but the admirability of faith. Yet this prayer was grounded in the faithfulness of God, which was again proved when God heard and answered the prayer in verses 15-20. Thus working in reverse a truth becomes clear: the faithfulness of God to His promises calls forth absolute dependence from His people. Just as Abraham earlier “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,”[10] now the servant trusted in God, and God gave to him the success needed for the covenant to be fulfilled.

One interesting quality of the servant’s prayer is the narrative introduction. In particular, verse 12 opens up saying, “Then he prayed.” The word “prayed” here is translated in the NIV beyond the basic meaning, which is simply “said.” There is no technical sense of prayer here, only a conversation. This is supported by the tone, which lacks any liturgical refinement, specific theological terminology, or accompanying posture or rites. Such a tone is in accord with the general prayer habits of the patriarchs, which tended to be simple, personal, and informal. [11] The servant just spoke to God. He asked God for some help as anyone else might ask a human friend. That God answered such a prayer on multiple occasions, including this one, indicates a profoundly personal orientation between God and His people. Liturgy has a place, as the Torah demonstrated, but this prayer stands as an example that there was never a time when God was first met in rigid procedure rather than personal encounter. Yet even this personal encounter has another layer.

Despite the informal and conversational tone of the prayer, there is also an element of mediation. The servant did not address Yahweh as “my God.” Instead, he called Him, “God of my master Abraham.” The servant may have been implicated in the blessings of the covenant and perhaps by membership in Abraham’s house something of a covenant member, but ultimately the covenant was between God and Abraham, not God and the servant. God chose Abraham specifically. His descendants and other members of his household only could participate by virtue of their relationship to him. The shape of election is visible here as three parties are visible: God, Abraham, and those who belong to Abraham. God elected Abraham freely, and through Abraham’s election the servant received a covenantal status from which he could entreat the God who elected Abraham. A mediation appeared between God and His people, a person through whom His faithfulness and their faith could intersect.

Christ Embodies Checed and Yakach

At this point all of the themes visible in this text—God’s covenant faithfulness, His gracious election, His people’s answering faith and dependence, and the personal nature of a covenant relationship—all cry out for a point of unifying fulfillment. If God is truly faithful to His covenant, if the servant prayed for the fulfillment of that covenant through an act of kindness and election, then how did this all unfold? In the short term, the answer is quite simple. God answered the prayer of the servant by electing Rebekah as a wife to Isaac (in a way suspiciously similar to the election of Abraham in the beginning). Yet the overall context of Scripture points also further. After all, God did not set up His covenant with Abraham to no purpose. Abraham and Isaac were the beginning, but a day of fulfillment was always destined, a day in which all God’s purposes would climax. So what does the canonical context of Scripture add to this text?

Jesus Christ once declared, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.”[12] The wider context, indeed the true meaning, of all Scripture is Jesus. This applies no less to Genesis 24:12-14 than to any other passage. For this reason, He should be viewed as the true key which unlocks the secrets remaining in this text. Jesus fulfills all of the themes of the servant’s prayer and the story in which the prayer is embedded.

In Jesus, God’s checed, His loving faithfulness and faithful love, broke fully into the world and was (and continues to be) truly actualized. Of Him the Scriptures say, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[13] Indeed, the fuller meaning of checed as covenantally faithful love is clear in the rest of Romans, as when Paul declared that God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated through the faithful work of Jesus Christ.[14] The merciful promises that God made to Abraham, which in this particular passage were in a state of transition and needed another divine act to be accomplished, were kept by Him through all the years until their fulfillment in Jesus. Both of the primary shades of checed, the kindness which the servant asked God to show to Abraham, benevolence and faithfulness, were completed once for all in the work of Jesus, Himself both God and the human covenant partner.

The theme of God’s yakach, His choosing or election, is also fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is called the Chosen One.[15] He is the one human through whom all of God’s purposes have finally been accomplished. Rebekah was chosen by God to advance the covenant by helping Isaac have seed, but Jesus is the final chosen Seed[16] who crushed the serpent’s head.[17] The servant prayed that God would choose someone to show kindness to Abraham, and in Christ God chose someone to show kindness to the entire world. The fulfillment of the servant’s prayer for Rebekah was ultimately a fulfillment designed from the beginning of God’s covenant to lead up to Jesus. Moreover, as the Chosen One around whom God’s people are now constituted, the mediation has changed. The servant’s relationship to God was in some sense mediated by Abraham as the covenantal head. Election was defined by relationship to God’s chosen human, Abraham. Now this has shifted. The elect head of God’s people is now Jesus rather than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses,[18] and all God’s people find their election not in themselves, but in Christ[19] and His mediation.[20] Thus the prayer has been fulfilled for God to show kindness through one He chose, and “God of my master Abraham” has been replaced with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[21]

Christ Embodies the Reality of Faith-filled Prayer

In addition to the fulfillment of the prayer itself, the concept of God’s faithfulness calling forth the faith-filled prayers of His people has also been given a new dimension in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus fulfilled the role of the one who is constant in prayer and faith. Like the servant who trusted in God and asked for His will to be done, Jesus had true faith in His Father and persisted in prayer, “and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”[22] The servant prayed for the will of God to be accomplished, and so did Jesus.[23] Jesus in fact went beyond the role of the servant, taking a full and active role in bringing about God’s will, not just as the prayerful man but also as the faithful God. In Christ the prayer and the answer, the faith-filled entreaty and faithful response, became one.

However important the prayerfulness of Christ may be, though, this is not the end of the fulfillment of prayer. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the people of God.[24] Now that the people of God have been given the Spirit, they can pray like the servant but in greater faith with greater power, for their prayers are enhanced. The Spirit they have received is the Spirit of God Himself, who knows the deep thoughts of God,[25] and thus they are given deeper intimacy and deeper power in their prayers. They can entreat the God who has already fulfilled the decisive promises of His covenant, knowing that He has already proved Himself fully and forever faithful in Jesus Christ. Thus the prayer the servant offered in faith has become but a type and shadow of the reality of prayer which Christ has given to His people by His Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus also fulfills the personalization of the covenant between God and man. There was, to be sure, a personal quality to the patriarchal intercourse. The prayers did remain relatively informal and conversational. However, there was always a degree of barrier, if for no other reason that the theophanies and Christophanies were short, temporary, and not of full and abiding human substance. As the old age continued, the barriers between God and man only grew as the Torah was instituted and a personal relationship with God was inhibited by the cultic system designed to shield man from God. Yet in Christ God has made Himself fully personal to His people, taking on their own flesh that He might speak to them, act to them, and know them as one of their own.[26] In the Incarnation God became bone of human bone and flesh of human flesh,[27] fully and personally revealed Himself[28] to His creatures from within the depths of individual human existence. Now God’s people can pray to Him in a more personal and intimate way than the servant ever could, crying out “Father!” by the Spirit Jesus poured out on them.[29] With this relationship in play, God makes good on all of His promises and hears His people as a faithful Father, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Exegetical Conclusions

Having studied the role of the faithful God, the prayer of the faith-filled man, and the fulfillment of both of these in Christ, the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14 should be quite clear by now. In the original, local context, the account of the servant’s prayer to the God of Abraham makes for a powerful display of multiple biblical themes. The faithful love of the covenant God was expressed in both the request itself and the answer. An appeal was made to the electing purposes of God. The necessity of prayer from a posture of faith within a covenant structure of mediation and election was also demonstrated. Abraham’s servant appeared as a great example, and his request glorified God in its fulfillment. All of this is multiplied when taking into account the wider, canonical, redemptive-historical context. The faithful love of the covenant God went from the provision of Rebekah to the self-giving of God in Christ. The electing purpose of God was revealed in the appearance of the Son of God as the Chosen One in whom the Church is also chosen. Prayer and faith found perfect human expression in the life of Jesus, and by His Spirit the people of God can now pray and trust God in a new, more vital sense than in the past, in the days of Abraham, his servant, Isaac, and Rebekah. In all of this, the glory of God in covenant, promise, faithfulness, wisdom, sovereign choice, and love shines manifold.

By this point the basic theological lessons should be clear, but they bear repeating with concision and clarity for the sake of summary. The first point is that God is always loving and faithful. He is always characterized by checed, a devoted will to do good to His people. This is proved in His fulfillment of the promises to Abraham both in answering the servant’s prayer for Isaac’s wife and in providing Christ as Savior and Messiah. Therefore, God’s people can always count on Him today. God can always be trusted to do what is right and fulfill all of His promises, which are a “Yes” in Christ.[30] The theme that God chooses, and chooses for a redemptive purpose, is also important. God’s election is not seen in this text as an exclusionary act by which certain people are selected and others rejected for grace and redemption. Rather, God’s election is shown to be a means of setting the whole world right through the choosing of one important character at a time. First Abraham was chosen, then Isaac, then in this account Rebekah, and in the end Christ was the Chosen One of God through whom all God’s plans were accomplished. Any theology of election today must be oriented around the fact that God has chosen Christ in this inclusive and outward-oriented way just like with Rebekah. An articulation of election must be in accord with something Karl Barth once wrote, namely that Christ “is both the electing God and elected man in One.”[31]

Finally, the power and nature of faith-filled prayer stands as an essential lesson. Through this text God’s will to be faithful to the entreaties and requests of His people is made known. Praying and trusting just as the servant did, just as Christ did, in the power and mind of the Spirit who has been poured out on God’s people by Christ, is immensely powerful and will move God to act, not for no reason at all, but because He has made a covenant to which He promises to be faithful. This text serves as a reminder that God has set the terms by which He may be approached and thus on His character and act alone hinges Christian confidence in the power of prayer.

Application

With Genesis 24:12-14 now exegeted at both the local, simply historical and the wider, theological/Christological level, there remains only a short bridge to find relevant applications to the life of the modern Christian. Indeed, both the event described and the theological interpretation are full of meaty substance. There are in fact three primary applications to draw from the exegetical work in this paper, not to say that nothing else might be added by further or other work. They correspond to the faithful love of God, the electing purpose of God, and the prayer of faith, in accord with the primary teachings of the passage.

First, in this text God’s loving faithfulness is displayed in such a way that Christians today can stake all of their hope and assurance on Him. God was benevolently faithful to the covenant He made with Abraham by answering the servant’s prayer, and He further demonstrated His merciful devotion by completing the telos of the covenant in Christ and His faithfulness. Because of this pattern of faithfulness, God’s people can trust Him in each day, in each battle or struggle. They may find themselves in a crisis or a critical transition in life, but just as He answered the servant to fulfill His covenant love He will answer His people today. Therefore, Christians have every reason to trust in God unfailingly.

There is also an application from the electing purpose of God. God chooses to use particular people to propel His purposes, and He chooses to bring about salvation through covenants He makes real human beings. This began in Abraham, and in this text continued as the servant prayed for another act of election, and God answered the prayer. This serves as a reminder that God can choose to use anyone at any time to accomplish any purpose He wishes. The Church as God’s chosen people in Christ can be seen as a means by which God brings about His will, which should impel her members to find their place and take up whatever action to which they are called.

At the last, then, the final application returns to prayer in faith. If God is faithful, if God loves, if God chooses and works through human beings, then His people have every possible reason to believe, to trust, and to expectantly pray for God to act. God has plans and will fulfill them, and precisely because He works in this way there exists a call for His people to call out to Him. He has bound Himself by covenant to act when entreated, to do His will when His people seek His will. The servant was an example for all today. He trusted in the God of his master Abraham and asked for His help at the appropriate redemptive-historical moment. Likewise, the righteous are called to trust in the God of their Lord Jesus Christ and ask for His help in every moment of need. Prayer and faith, promise and faithfulness, all fulfilled in Christ—this is the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14, and by this meaning Christians must move forward in their lives, submitting to God’s voice in the Scriptures.

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics – Volume 2. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. E-book. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

Kohlenberger, John R., III. NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers. E-book. Zondervan, 2015.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11. E-book. Holman Reference, 1996.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51. E-book. Holman Reference, 2005.

The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.

Walton, John. The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis. E-book. Zondervan, 2011.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Footnotes

[1] Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11, (Holman Reference, 1996), location 1606, Kindle ebook.

[2] All of this is discussed in more detail in Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51, (Holman Reference, 1996), loc. 842-930, Kindle ebook.

[3] Ibid, loc. 950.

[4] John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis, (Zondervan, 2011), “Genesis 23:1–25:18,” Olive Tree resource.

[5] Genesis 24:12-14 (New International Version).

[6] John R. Kohlenberger III, NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers, (Zondervan, 2015), entry H2617, Olive Tree resource.

[7] See, for example, Exodus 15:13 (Holman Christian Standard Bible), compare NIV.

[8] Kohlenberger, NIV Word Study Bible, entry H3198.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), notes on Genesis 24:12, theWord Bible module.

[10] Genesis 15:6.

[11] Matthews, NAC Vol. 1B, loc. 7812.

[12] John 5:39 (HCSB).

[13] Romans 5:8 (NIV).

[14] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), ch. 7.

[15] Luke 23:35.

[16] Galatians 3:16.

[17] Genesis 3:15.

[18] Romans 9.

[19] Ephesians 1:4.

[20] 1 Timothy 2:5.

[21] Romans 15:16.

[22] Hebrews 5:7.

[23] Matthew 6:10.

[24] John 15:26.

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:10-12.

[26] 1 John 1:1-3.

[27] Hebrews 2:14.

[28] John 1:14.

[29] Romans 8:14.

[30] 1 Corinthians 1:20.

[31] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), part 2, 3 (§32).

Life Is about the Trinity

In the wake of recent Trinitarian controversies on the Christian blogosphere, I’ve been given to some very interesting study on the topic of the Trinity. (If such controversy interests you, Alastair Roberts has been working on a round-up of the debate at Reformation 21.) I’m not going to bore you with much of it, even if I don’t find this boring at all, but I would like to offer some thoughts.

In my studies about the Trinity recently, I have been reminded of one crucial fact. This is ultimately what life is all about. By that I don’t refer to technical debates about the finer details of orthodox Trinitarianism. Rather, I mean coming to know God. And the true God is Trinity. As St. Gregory Nazianzen once said, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Yet this God who is Triune is the only God, the God who loves us, the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God for whom and from whom and to whom are all things, including our lives.

This is the subject which I have been thinking about lately. Life is about the Trinity. Life is about God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ, His only Son. It is about the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life. In all things, then, our faith calls us to bear in mind not just that there is a God, but that this God is Father-Son-Spirit. 

The struggle, however, is to see this not as a detail of Christian dogmatics. We must instead recall that this is the living reality of the God to whom we pray and whom we serve on a daily basis. In our devotion, in our prayers, in our walks before God and man we somehow must live out a Trinitarian reality. This can’t be merely abstract, of course. We must recognize in their individual ways the works and persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. We must live and worship accordingly.

But what does this look like practically? How do we will all of our life with the recognition that knowing the Triune God is the meaning of it? Ultimately, it requires intense training, constant reminders to ourselves of who God is. This is why Scripture leads the way for us by teaching us to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), by blessing us with the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13), by imploring us through Christ and the Spirit’s love to pray to the Father (Rom. 15:30). It is why in our churches many of sing a doxology which concludes with “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Many songs and hymns reflect such a structure. The Apostles’ Creed, which many churches recite each Sunday, is ordered around God the Father almighty, Jesus Christ His only Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In our personal lives, we would do well to consume as much of this as we can. Read Scripture and see the shape of the Father-Son-Spirit works and relations. Pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the Spirit. Acknowledge each of the members of the Godhead in your prayer and devotion every day.

Of course, one might still wonder. Can this really matter that much? But the truth is that it can. It does. For life is all about the Triune God, about knowing and worshiping Him. In fact, this vision of Father, Son, and Spirit is eternity, the destiny of the universe. Everything is from Him and to Him and for Him forever. Amen.

Is the Lord’s Prayer for Jesus to Return?

Is the Lord’s Prayer really an eschatological prayer, a wish for God to usher in the Kingdom and finish all things? Some people have suggested so, and it actually seems likely enough. So here is a possible way to read the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer for Christ to return:

Our Father in heaven – The prayer starts off by acknowledging that God is in heaven, where things are already right and where the authority over earth lies. God alone has the power and right to bring in the age to come, and since He is our Father, we can approach and ask this of Him.

Hallowed be your name – This is the ultimate goal of creation: the worship and glorification of God. To pray “hallowed be your name” is to ask God to finally bring the world to its conclusion where all is prayer and praise, and God alone is known as holy.

Your kingdom come – This is the key and obvious point of asking for God to finish the story and send Christ back to us, but I would also argue that this is in a way the intended context and meaning of the rest of the prayer. We pray for the Kingdom to come because that is what life is ultimately all about and is the only hope for the world.

Your will be done – This is what God’s Kingdom looks like, and what we pray for God to accomplish by sending Jesus back. We want a world which is in conformity to His will, where lies and lust and licentiousness are once and for all done with and instead, the world works in the perfect harmony it was created for under people who live as God designed humans to live.

On earth as it is in heaven – Heaven is the control room and the place of God’s throne where His will is actually executed supremely. The goal of all things is that earth should come fully into conformity to God’s will, just as heaven already is. Essentially, we pray for heaven and earth to finally become one.

Give us today our (daily?) bread – This does not sound eschatological at first, but the consensus these days is that the Greek word translated “daily” does not mean “daily” at all. This word appears nowhere else in ancient Greek texts but here. One theory which has gained some ground is that it means “tomorrow” or “the next day.” In essence, it could be taken to mean, “Give us today the bread of tomorrow,” i.e. the bread of the eschatological feast, the wedding feast of Christ’s union with His bride. Give us, as it were, eternal life. (As a side note, another possible translation might lead to a Communion connection, which would make sense as well since Communion is fundamentally eschatological.)

Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors – While we think of forgiveness of sins as primarily a present or past reality, there is an important future dimension. While our sins are forgiven in Christ, we still bear the earthly consequences of our sins and must submit to death, the original punishment for sin. Our forgiveness of sins in the present anticipates the last day, when we will be delivered from all of sin’s consequences, death will be undone, and shame and guilt will be relegated to this passing age. Yet Christ also reminds us that the forgiveness we receive then will be in alignment with the forgiveness we give out now, a pressing reminder to live a life of forgiveness.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – The word translated “temptation” is also frequently translated “trial” or “tribulation,” and it is in this sense we can see an eschatological dimension here. The Jews expected (just as many Christians do) a severe time of trial and tribulation immediately preceding the end. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to be preserved and protected, not subject to grueling trials but delivered from the evil powers which cause them.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – In concluding, we ascribe to God all that we ask of Him in this prayer. We want God to bring in the Kingdom using His power and fill the earth with His glory, and so we acknowledge these perfections of God and praise Him for them. By adding “forever,” we call to mind the eternal bliss which waits on the other side of Christ’s return. His reign will never end.

Thoughts on the Lord’s Prayer

I’ve been in the habit for some time now of praying the Lord’s prayer first in my devotions. I know that not all people do this; many people think of it more as a general model not necessarily meant to be prayed exactly as is. Yet historically praying the Lord’s prayer has been a common and unifying part of Christian devotion, and so I do.

Anyway, my actual purpose in this post is to simply offer some thoughts on the lines of the prayer given by Christ, and so I will waste no more time and do that:

Our Father in heaven
God is Father. This is key to approaching Him. He has been known in many ways and by many names, but when we come into His presence we must remember that He has adopted us graciously as sons and daughters. Because we are united by faith with His only-begotten Son, we are fully and truly His children, and so we can expect Him to listen patiently and lovingly to our prayers. We can trust Him to respond with bread, no snakes or stones.
Hallowed be Your name
This comes first for good reason. God is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Life-giver. The Son upholds the universe by the word of His power. For this reason alone, even if there was nothing else, God deserves His name to be known and cherished. Praying that God’s name is hallowed is essentially to pray, “Let the whole world know who You are and worship in that knowledge.” But why so important? Is God simply vain? Is He merely a selfish monarch demanding praises just because He can? By no means! Rather, God is light, love, and salvation itself. Jesus Christ is eternal life. Therefore there is absolutely nothing more conducive to human flourishing than the global hallowing of the name of God. It is for love that God wants to fill the earth with knowledge of Him, just as love compels a father to announce his presence and saving abilities when he finds his children alone and in danger.
Your kingdom come
There is no greater hope for Christians and the world we live in than the kingdom of God. This is not, as some imagine, spiritual heaven people go to when they die. Rather, the kingdom of God is His rule in the world, redeeming and transforming it to make it into the kind of world He desires. It is God subjecting all things to Christ, and putting all His enemies under His feet. The kingdom was officially established in the world in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and now expands after His ascension through the advance of the Church. Ultimately, the kingdom’s coming will be complete when Christ returns Himself to rule in person. When we pray for the kingdom to come, we are asking God to advance the work of His Church in the present and bring Christ’s return ever closer from the future, so that finally the world may submit fully to the gracious design of God.
Your will be done
I believe people generally misunderstand this phrase. People tend to use it as, “God, I pray for all of these things, but just in case You want to do something different that’s okay with me.” That’s not a wrong attitude to have, and can be expressed in such a way (see Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane), but I do not believe that is what we are praying for in this case. Coming right after the request for the coming kingdom, I believe that this is a prayer for the world to come into alignment with what Scripture reveals to us is God’s will. It is a prayer not for a secret series of events, known only to God as His will, but for what God has told us is His will. This means salvation, healing for the sick, freedom for those in bondage, help for the poor, good works from God’s people, missions around the world, peace on earth, life for the unborn, and the defeat of sin, death, and Satan’s hordes. We can pray boldly for these things. We can pray for them without adding, “if it be Your will,” because all of them are God’s will.
On earth as it is in heaven
Heaven, as the word is used in Scripture, refers to God’s domain, apart from our world. In God’s sphere, the angels minister perpetually, keeping things in accord with God’s will. We pray on earth that God will extend that grace by the ministry of angels and His Church He will extend His will into our world, making earth more like heaven. The ultimate goal of this process is the new creation, where God’s heaven and man’s earth become one in perfection.
Give us this day our daily bread
Sometimes the hardest thing is to simply trust God for our provisions. It is easy not to worry sometimes, but it is difficult to not worry because we’re trusting God. We usually trust our jobs, our families, or the government or anything else, confident that they will keep us fed and sheltered. “Give us this day our daily bread” both invokes on God to provide and reminds us that He, not whatever else, is ultimately the source of what we live on,
Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors
We ask God daily for forgiveness, because of our clear sinfulness. Yet in the Lord’s prayer we are taught to only expect forgiveness inasmuch as we give forgiveness, something Jesus makes more explicit right after providing this prayer. Yet this is not making our salvation something we earn by forgiving people. Rather, our forgiveness and our ability to forgive others have one source: the life of Christ imparted to us by His Spirit. Only by grace can we be forgiven and can we forgive us successfully. This prayer, then, holds us accountable to that fact. We ask for forgiveness, recognizing that it comes as part of a package which spreads forgiveness.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one
This sentence can also be translated, “lead us not into trial, but deliver us from evil.” Both are probably correct, English just letting us down by not having a good way to say both meanings. The point is that we, especially as God’s people, find ourselves subject to many trials and temptations, days of testing by evil forces, people, and events. We pray to God to deliver us from them all, bringing us safely around, through, or beyond the troubles of this life. Evil is ever present, wishing to hurt us, yet we plead with God not to let it, or even to give it an opportunity.
For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Amen!

Another Morning Prayer

I ran across a great new morning prayer today, and though I’d share it for the benefit of all. It opens with the Lord’s Prayer, and then goes on thus:

Almighty and everlasting God, in whom I live and move and have my being; I, Your needy creature, render You my humble praises, for Your preservation of me from the beginning of my life to this day, and especially for having delivered me from the dangers of the past night. For these Your mercies, I bless and magnify Your glorious Name; humbly beseeching You to accept this my morning sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; for his sake who lay down in the grave, and rose again for us, Your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Amen.

And since it is of Your mercy, O gracious Father, that another day is added to my life; I here dedicate both my soul and my body to You and Your service, in a sober, righteous, and godly life: in which resolution, do, O merciful God, confirm and strengthen me; that, as I grow in age, I may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Amen.

But, O God, who knows the weakness and corruption of my nature, and the manifold temptations which I daily meet with; I humbly beseech You to have compassion on my infirmities, and to give me the constant assistance of Your Holy Spirit; that I may be effectually restrained from sin, and incited to my duty. Imprint upon my heart such a dread of Your judgments, and such a grateful sense of Your goodness to me, as may make me both afraid and ashamed to offend You. And, above all, keep in my mind a lively remembrance of that great day, in which I must give a strict account of my thoughts, words, and actions to him whom You have appointed the Judge of quick and dead, Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

In particular, I implore Your grace and protection for the ensuing day. Keep me temperate in all things, and diligent in my calling. Grant me patience under my afflictions. Give me grace to be just and upright in all my dealings; quiet and peaceable; full of compassion; and ready to do good to all men, according to my abilities and opportunities. Direct me in all my ways. Defend me from all dangers and adversities; and be graciously pleased to take me, and all who are dear to me, under Your fatherly care and protection. These things, and whatever else You shalt see to be necessary and convenient to me, I humbly beg, through the merits and mediation of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
Amen.

May the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with me and all who pray in the name of Christ, this day and evermore.
Amen.

You Should Really All Know About Lectio Divina

I just got through the Spiritual Formation 101 course at the Baptist College of Florida. It was a good and useful course, which has, in combination with a few other factors, actually done wonders for my devotional life and prayer life. I was, however, disappointed that in all of our discussions on prayer, meditation, and Scripture reading the topic of lectio divina never came up. This traditional practice has lots of a long history in Christian devotion and, from my initial experiences with it, is quite beneficial. Yet for some reason in the world I’ve grown up in (evangelical Protestant/Baptist) I’ve never heard it mentioned.

So what is lectio divina? It is a Latin phrase meaning “sacred reading,” and it refers to a specific practice combining Scripture reading, prayer, and meditation. Its origins can be traced back as far as Origen (3rd century), but it its current form it goes back to medieval monasteries, where it was finally put into four steps. The goal of lectio divina is to commune with God personally while/by reading Scripture. My explanations will be mostly pointless without giving the details, so I’ll just jump into the four steps:

  1. Read — The first step of lectio divina is to read Scripture. Usually, you will not want a very long passage for this. Generally a verse or two will be plenty, though of course you are not limited and depending on how long you want to spend and how much focus you have you might read much more. A great longer text might be psalm, for example. I like to pick out a verse or two that particularly strikes me from whatever large reading I am doing at the time.
    Anyway, once you’ve chosen your text you read it slowly and carefully, focusing on it as exclusively as you can. You will probably want to read it multiple times, traditionally four. Pay close attention to words and phrases that stick out to you, and try different emphases each time you read it.
  2. Meditate — The next step is to meditate on what you’ve read. This is not a time for technical analysis or study, but more personal reflection with Christ as the central concern. You want to remove anything but the text and how it relates to Jesus from your mind, and focus on that alone. What does God want this word to show you about His only begotten Word through His Spirit? Stop and reflect on all of this for a few moments, minutes, or I suppose even hours if you’re hardcore enough. Don’t stop the answer to that question, but instead if an answer comes to mind focus on the reality in Christ. Does this text reveal that Christ brings peace for weary sinners? Then rest in His peace during this time.
  3. Pray — Having reflected on the text and listened to God in Christ through the Spirit, you then respond to Him in prayer. Whatever you have gathered from your time of meditation, respond to God in an appropriate way. Did His glory impress itself on you? Then respond, “Glory to You, God!” Was your sin exposed to you? Repent and ask for forgiveness. Whatever you have heard in reading God’s word and meditating on it, pray to the Author about it.
  4. Contemplate — Finally, the last step in lectio divina is to stop and be silent. You’ve read, meditated, and prayed. By this point you should just rest and listen. Do not try to move on yet, but rather spend a few moments, as it were, resting in the arms of God. Anything God has said, let it sink in further. Whatever you have said back to Him, let it stand unadulterated and unqualified for a moment. Just be silent, and sit with Your Father.

If the appeal and potential benefits of this practice are not obvious to you, then I don’t really know what to tell you. This is, as I mentioned, a traditional part of Christian devotion, which is quite intimate and fruitful. If you want to try something new, which is nonetheless ancient, in your walk with God, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I pray someone will benefit from it.

A Lovely Morning Prayer

I was doing some research the other day on monasticism and ran across the Prayer Foundation. They have an order of lay monks, the Knights of Prayer, except these monks are evangelical Protestants who use terms like “born again” and “Sinner’s Prayer” without blushing. So that’s cool. But anyway, I only bring them up to point out something lovely I got from their website. Apparently many of the monks of their order pray a particular prayer in the morning. I found it, read it, loved it, and now include it in my own morning devotions. Here’s the full thing, actually a hymn called “I Bind unto Myself Today,” which was adapted from a prayer attributed to St. Patrick.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet “well done” in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.