A Most Offensive Bible Verse

I recently came across what I think must be one of the most politically incorrect verses in Scripture:

“The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a youth left to himself brings shame to his mother.” — Prov. 29:15

Every element of this verse is offensive to modern sensibilities: 1) the rod of correction; 2) the need to impart wisdom (especially by painful correction); 3) the folly of letting a child do things his own way; 4) the reality of shame; 5) and—particularly—the idea of an unruly child bringing shame on a parent.

Totally offensive, right? And yet, remember, this is inspired Scripture.

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That Goofy-Looking King David

In a recent post on King David, we saw that (unlike humans) God looks on the heart… because he can. The contrast of that familiar verse (1 Samuel 16:7) is not: man rarely looks at the heart, but he really should more often. The point is that man is only able to look as far as the outward appearance; but God is able to examine the thoughts and intentions and character of the inner man. You may want to read that article before going on.

So then, the prophet Samuel has been sent to anoint Saul’s replacement—to find the man that God had chosen to be king over Israel. Jesse has seven of his sons come before Samuel; and each time, the Lord tells Samuel no, that’s not him. Samuel thus says to Jesse, “the Lord has not chosen these; are these all the sons you have?” Jesse explains that there remains the youngest, but he’s keeping the sheep. So Samuel has him send for David, and verse twelve says that David “was ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was of good appearance.”

Now, wait a second. Why does it say David was handsome? Why does it draw attention to his appearance? Folks generally react to that revelation for two basic reasons. First: we’ve been taught our entire lives that David was a scrawny, unfortunate looking preteen. And second: we’ve assumed and read right into the text a contrast between his good-looking brothers, and the homely-looking David—who gets a pass only because, although Samuel withdrew in disdain, the Lord was paying attention solely to David’s heart.

We’ve often heard that David was a “redheaded, snot-nosed little kid.” But that’s not the picture Scripture gives at all. He’s a young man. And it doesn’t say, “unlike his brothers, he wasn’t pretty to look at.” He’s much younger—and evidently not as physically imposing as Eliab—but he nevertheless is physically appealing.

“Ruddy,” by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean red-haired. It doesn’t say anything about his hair at all. It’s much more likely that it’s talking about his skin—his complexion. And some of the translations that render it as “healthy” are closer to the idea. It means a glowing, healthy youthfulness—not redheaded.

We tend to assume a contrast between his physical appearance and his heart, but that’s not really what seems to be going on. God has just said that man only looks “to the eyes,” but the Lord looks all the way to the heart; but then it draws attention to David’s “beautiful eyes” (meaning he had bright eyes, he was healthy and vibrant, he was handsome). The point is not that although he was scrawny and ugly, he had a good heart.

He has a really great personality though.”

The point is that David is the whole package. His youth is a problem—Jesse brings attention to it, and then Saul in the next chapter points it out as a problem for the battle—but his appearance wasn’t anything unfortunate.

And he wasn’t necessarily small and scrawny either. I don’t think that Saul, who was physically impressive, was being a blundering idiot when he offered his armor to David. And when David put Saul’s armor and sword on, the reason he gave for not using it is not that he was tripping and falling because of how oversized it was for him, but rather that David had not tested them—he hadn’t trained in them.

Samuel is introducing David to us as the paradigmatic, archetypal model of a righteous and godly king—with exemplary features, both physical and spiritual. Put aside your preconceived notions about David. We’re learning about the real man—the 11th-century shepherd who became the most powerful military leader in Israel… The king whose descendent will sit on the throne of Israel and rule all nations with a rod of iron, establishing perfect and everlasting justice and peace over all earth—far as the curse is found.

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Who is the Scoffer?

The Bible talks quite a bit about scoffers. It warns against being a scoffer, taking advice from a scoffer, befriending a scoffer, and giving honor to a scoffer. But what does it mean to be a scoffer?

A scoffer is someone who, even though he himself may not laugh that much, nevertheless believes that pretty much everything is laughable. It’s someone who doesn’t take life seriously, and, in fact, thinks that it’s silly to do so.

The book of Proverbs explains that the scoffer doesn’t listen to rebuke (Pr. 13:1), doesn’t seek wise counsel (Pr. 15:12), doesn’t take justice seriously (Pr. 19:28), doesn’t take repentance seriously (Pr. 14:9), and brings conflict and insults (Pr. 22:10). Despite their irreverent and mocking attitude, God in fact scoffs at the scoffers—in other words, he sees the scoffer as someone not to take seriously (Pr. 3:34). And despite his flippant pride, God will eventually bring the scoffer to nothing (Isa. 29:20).

The scoffer acts with disrespectful, impudent, insolent presumption. He is someone who is dismissive, flippant, and derisive. If you find yourself thinking that everyone around you takes life too seriously, or that everyone but you is too easily offended, or that others are consistently uncomfortable with how casually, cavalierly, or carelessly you approach life, you may need to examine your heart and ask God if you may be in danger of the warnings directed toward the scoffer.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. — Proverbs 28:13

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. — Proverbs 13:20

Honor and Shame in the Advent

When Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to register for the census, we see yet another aspect of the unimpressive, unfitting arrival of the long-awaited king. In Luke 2:7, it says that Mary laid the baby in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn.” Now, there are three clarifications to make about that one short statement.

First of all, a manger doesn’t refer to the whole stable. A manger is a feeding trough cut out of stone (not wood with crisscrossed legs like we always see).

Secondly, the “stable” was probably more like a crude stone room that would be attached to the house, or perhaps simply the downstairs of the house itself, which would have troughs available because they would bring in the animals during winter.

Thirdly, the “inn” was not a hotel or a tavern. They didn’t have those in towns. The closest thing to what we think of as an inn would’ve been in the middle of nowhere beside a highway for travelers—but that’s a different word. When you went into a town, you stayed with family. If you had no family in that town, the responsibility of hospitality was so great that someone would have you stay with them. The community is honor bound to extend hospitality to visitors. Joseph was from Bethlehem, so he almost certainly had family there.

The word for inn is usually translated “lodging place,” or “upper room.” And that’s what it was; it was the guest room on the top level of the house. It’s the same word for the upper room where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper. It was the guest room, and it was the place of honor.

Now, another way to read the sentence, that gets the sense across a little clearer to our ears, is to read it, “she laid the baby in a manger, because the upper room was no place for them.” The idea is basically this: that the pall of shame and scandal was still heavy over them, such that for Joseph’s relatives (no matter how distant) to welcome them into their house and place them in the honorable guest room would have brought Joseph and Mary’s shame onto that household as well.

So I think we ought to understand Joseph’s relatives as quietly saying to him, “Joseph, we love you… we love Mary. We’ll love this child when he comes. But we can’t endorse what’s happened by welcoming you into the place of honor. We can move some stuff around downstairs, though, and we’ll put some straw and blankets down, and you can stay there if you’d like.”

When the angels announce his birth to the shepherds, the sign they give of how the shepherds will know they’ve found the king is that he would be lying in a manger. Why? Because a feeding trough is no place for the newborn king! Everything about Christ’s arrival was humble, and unfitting for the one who was the fulfillment of every prophecy of the coming king.

The point is this: from his conception, to his birth, to his rejection and execution, the first advent of Christ was marked by humble obscurity, humiliation, and shame—completely unfitting for the birth of a king. But he took our shame on himself, so that he could one day clothe us with his honor.

His first advent was characterized by humble obscurity, lowliness, shame, and rejection. But his second advent will not be the same. His second advent—when he comes again to establish his reign over all nations—will be inescapable, Christ will be honored by all, and he will be victorious over every enemy. He first came as the Lamb of God to take away our sins. But he’s coming back, as the Lion of Judah, to destroy all those who refused to accept his sacrifice, and to give eternal life to all who have placed their faith in him. Jesus’ first advent was characterized by shame, obscurity, and rejection, but his second advent will be marked by honor, vindication, and victory.

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On Joseph and Mary’s Betrothal

Matthew 1 and Luke 2 describe the birth narrative of Christ, and give some fascinating details that point to just how shocking, how inappropriate, how unfitting an arrival this was for the long-awaited king of Israel.

The nativity involved a surprising amount of humiliation and shame. Read the account of Matthew 1:18–25 below, and then ponder with me a few surprising elements of the birth narrative over the next couple of days.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Joseph and Mary were betrothed, as we see in verse eighteen. Some translations use the word “engaged,” and that’s a little misleading. Engagement in modern times just means you’re planning to get married. But what does it take to get out of an engagement? Just break up, right? With betrothal, in the ancient world, you were legally man and wife. And to end a betrothal, you had to get a divorce.

The process of Jewish marriages involved (1) the betrothal, and (2) the wedding feast. When you became betrothed, you were legally married, but you were not to come together to have relations until after the wedding feast. So there was a betrothal period, during which time the bride readied herself for the groom to come get her, and the groom went and built and prepared their house. When the groom was done with all of his preparations, he would come and fetch his bride, and there would be dancing and singing as they paraded to the wedding feast (which would usually last for seven days).

Okay, what’s the point?

During that betrothal period, although they were legally man and wife, they were not to come together physically—it was not an option. So, for Mary to be found pregnant during the betrothal, before the wedding feast, would have been one of the most shameful, humiliating things for her to go through. It’s hard for us to grasp the level of shame that would have been present here—we don’t really work in categories of public honor and shame anymore—but this would have been utterly devastating. It would have shamed not only Mary, but also her family, her husband, and the child.

As far as anyone knew, there was no explanation for Jesus’ birth other than impurity (and, in Joseph’s mind, unfaithfulness) on the part of Mary. So, Matthew 19:1 says, “her husband Joseph, being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” What’s being said here is probably that although he was just man (and therefore of right ought to divorce her before the wedding feast), but also unwilling to put her to further public shame (which he would be fully within his rights to do), he decided to divorce her quietly—in other words not to make a public spectacle of it.

But, verse 20 says, as he was considering these things, an angel appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife.” Now, the Greek doesn’t say, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” which we read as meaning, “don’t be afraid to marry her.” Remember, she already was his wife, as we see in verses 19 and 24. What it says is, “don’t be afraid to take your wife.” In other words, “Go fetch your bride. Don’t divorce her; she’s remained pure; this is of God. So bring her to your house, finish the wedding process. There’s not going to be any celebrating. There will be no parade of dancing and singing. But don’t be afraid, don’t divorce her, don’t delay anymore—go get your bride.”

Right from the start of his life, Jesus’ first advent is characterized by hushed tones, shame, and scandal. This continues in the birth narrative itself, which we’ll look at next time.

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Why the Virgin Birth Matters

A couple of fragmentary thoughts on why Jesus needed to be born of a virgin.

Why was it important that the Messiah be born of a virgin? Well, I think there are three basic reasons.

First, it’s the most unique and powerful sign possible, to mark out the anointed one of God. Isaiah 7:14 gives the sign that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (we’ll talk about the nature of that prophecy another time). Virgin’s didn’t get pregnant back then any more often than they do now, so this was an unmistakable, inescapable miracle, clearly demonstrating that this child is conceived by God to be the promised king.

The second reason the virgin birth is significant is, of course, that by the virgin birth, Jesus could be born without inheriting a fallen human nature. The transmission of the sin nature is through the father, because the man is the representative head. When Adam sinned, as the head of the human race, the entire human race fell. And that fallen nature is inherited through the father. So in order to be a man who could also live a sinless, perfect life, Jesus had to be born without an earthly father.

I think it was also important for a third reason—the curse on Joseph’s ancestor, Jeconiah. According to Matthew 1:12, Jesus is a descendent of Jeconiah. Jeconiah, though, was cursed in Jeremiah 22:24ff, such that none of his descendants would ever sit on the throne of Israel. Now there are three possible solutions to this problem: 1) Some say the curse was reversed; 2) Some say the curse only referred to “in his lifetime;” 3) Some say the virgin birth allows Jesus to avoid the curse.

Now, if you take view #3, as I do, it doesn’t diminish the reality that the virgin birth also allows Christ to be born without a fallen nature. In fact, it gives an illustration of that salvific reason the virgin birth was important. By the virgin birth, Jesus avoided the curse of Jeconiah that he would have inherited through Joseph, which would have precluded Him from being the king of Israel. And by the virgin birth, Jesus avoided the curse of Adam that he would have inherited through Joseph, which would have precluded Him from qualifying to be the sinless, perfect sacrifice, to take on Himself the penalty for sin that we deserved.

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” —Isaiah 7:14

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