The Grammar of Prayer

I am going to write about prayer. I need to make two disclaimers.

First, by writing about prayer, I am not claiming to be a prayer warrior, or saying that I am faithfully exhibiting each facet of prayer that I will address here. In other words, I am telling you up front that I do not practice what I am about to preach. That fact does not negate the truth of what I have to say, but it does point to my own failure in this regard and my awareness of my own failures. Perhaps in the writing of this brief piece I will change my own habits. I hope so.

Second, what I will be saying below will sound like a “rant” about modern prayer practices. That is not what this is. I would (almost) never be critical of the another’s prayer practices. I would not be critical first of all because of what I just said above–that my own practice is likely not much better than the one of whom I might be critical. Also, I would not be critical of another’s practice because praying is better than not praying. I merely want to make some observations about our prayer practices that might help our thoughtfulness in prayer. I do not want someone to read this and walk away thinking, “I’ve been praying wrong all this time.” Rather, I want for that person to walk away being attentive to the way that they pray.

What is Prayer?

People may understand prayer in very different ways depending on their faith background, or the practices of their own particular faith community. People may understand prayer differently based on how prayer is talked about in the world apart from the community of faith. Prayer might be seen very broadly as one’s communion and conversation with God. Seen this way, there is a tremendous variety to the forms and content of prayer.

I would like to address one particular facet of prayer, however, and that is the idea of petition. Petition can be on our own behalf. It can be on behalf of another, in which case we can call it intercession. When we are performing this kind of prayer we are asking God to do something on our behalf or on behalf of someone else. The prayer can sometimes take on a more forceful character when we cease asking and simply tell God what we want him to do.

Examples of Prayer in the Bible

Abraham. Abraham’s prayer on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah stands as the earliest clear example of intercession. Genesis 18:23-25 contains the first part of Abraham’s conversation with the Lord and has the basic elements of the prayer:

Abraham stepped forward and said, “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it way instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?”

Genesis 18:23-25 CSB

There is a whole host of issues related to this scene showing Abraham’s interaction with God concerning the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. I only want to look at one aspect of it, however, and that is the form and the content of his prayer. Notice that Abraham’s prayer really consists of a series of questions he asked of God. He only made one declarative statement in the prayer and that was to answer his own questions concerning God’s character. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” And the answer Abraham gave to his own question was “No.” God will not do so. And the reason that Abraham could answer that way was because of his knowledge of God’s character. God’s own sense of justice would not allow him to destroy the righteous indiscriminately along with the wicked. What a bold prayer this is! In a very real sense, Abraham was reminding God of his own character and did so through a series of rhetorical questions.

Can we pray in this manner? To do so would require a level of confidence and boldness with God with which many of us may be uncomfortable. But it also requires a firm and deep knowledge of who God is so that we can pray accurately. How did Abraham acquire this knowledge? Perhaps our next example of prayer will show us.

Moses. When Israel camped at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt, Moses ascended to the top of the mountain while Israel remained down below. While Moses was with God, Israel fell into idolatry and debauchery. God decided he would destroy the people of Israel and start his plan over with Moses as the father of a new nation. We read Moses’s response in the following passage.

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God: “Lord, why does your anger burn against your people you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out with an evil intent to kill them in the mountains and eliminate them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people. Remember you servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel–you swore to them by yourself and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.'” So the Lord relented concerning the disaster he had said he would bring on this people.

Exodus 32:11-14 CSB

In a separate situation, Moses prayed a similar prayer:

But Moses replied to the Lord, “The Egyptians will hear about it, for by your strength you brought up this people from them. They will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, Lord, are among these people, how you, Lord, are seen face to face, how your cloud stands over them, and how you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. If you kill this people with a single blow, the nations that have heard of your fame will declare, ‘Since the Lord wasn’t able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them, he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ So now, may my Lord’s power be magnified just as you have spoken: The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generation. Please pardon the iniquity of this people, in keeping with the greatness of your faithful love, just as you have forgiven them from Egypt until now.

Numbers 14:13-19 CSB

With the two prayers we see a pattern for Moses’s prayer. He based his request of God on two basic factors. First, Moses appealed to God’s reputation among the nations. In this particular case, the problem was in two directions. The Egyptians behind them would hear what God was doing with Israel, but also the nations inhabiting the promised land would hear what God had done. In both cases, God’s reputation would be questioned by the nations. Second, Moses made his appeal based on God’s promises to Israel, and he specifically appealed to God’s own words in this regard. In the Exodus passage, Moses quoted, or very closely paraphrased, what God had said in Genesis 15:5, 18; and 17:8. The prayer in Numbers quoted from Exodus 34:6-7. Moses did not have to guess about God’s character because he had God’s own words on which to appeal.

Note also the change from the indirect nature of Abraham’s appeals, made with rhetorical questions, to Moses’s direct appeals, “Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people,” and “Please pardon the iniquity of this people, in keeping with the greatness of your faithful love.” Moses used imperative verbs to give instruction to God.

Paul. I am passing over many great prayers of the Bible to get to Paul. Nehemiah 9, Ezra 9, and Daniel 9 (how convenient is that!) contain prayers of intercession on behalf of the nation of Israel that should be studied on their own for their teaching on prayer and corporate guilt. But since this piece has already gone on much longer than I intended, I am going to pass on to a prayer of Paul on behalf of the Ephesian church.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.

Ephesians 1:17-19 CSB

This passage contains not the prayer itself, but Paul’s report of what he has been praying on behalf of the Ephesians. We see none of the form of Moses’s prayer here. There is no appeal to God’s reputation among the nations. There is an appeal to God’s promises to his people, in a sense, but there is not as clear a reference to a past scriptural reference as there was with Moses’s prayers.

Notice the change in grammar here, however. Abraham prayed with indirect rhetorical questions, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Moses prayed with imperatives, “Turn!” “Relent!” “Forgive!” Paul begins each appeal with, “I pray that . . .” Now, it may well be that when Paul was actually praying, he might have used a more direct appeal similar to Moses. But we have to go with what he has given us to work with.

While I find the form of his prayer interesting, what I find of much more interest is the content of these prayers. Paul made two requests, each beginning with “I pray that . . .” His requests are as follows: “that . . . God . . . would give you the Spirit of wisdom . . .” and “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” Each of these requests is more complex than what I have recorded here, but I have simplified them in order to see the basic content of the prayers.

The first prayer is clear enough. Paul asked God to give to the Ephesian believers the Spirit of wisdom. The second prayer is a bit more difficult, however, because he is using a passive verb and there is no clear reference to God. He prayed that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened. When we have a passive verb, we are told who is being acted upon, but we are not told who is doing the acting. The eyes of their hearts are being enlightened, but who is enlightening the eyes of their hearts? That question may sound silly. Of course, it is God who is enlightening their hearts. Perhaps that goes without saying, but it is important to acknowledge that truth. The reason it is important to acknowledge is because of what we see in the next prayer.

Jesus. There are a number of prayers we could look at when we study the prayers of Jesus. Jesus taught us a model prayer that we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught through parables concerning our persistence in prayer and in our need to believe when we pray. But I want here to look at Luke 22:40.

When he reached the place, he told them, “Pray that you may not fall into temptation.”

Luke 22:40 CSB

This verse has at least two possible meanings. Jesus could have meant that his disciples should pray in order that they not fall into temptation. In other words, we are not being told the content of their prayer, but that if they do enter into prayer, they will avoid temptation. The second possible meaning is that Jesus is telling them the content of the prayer, namely that they not enter into temptation. For two reasons, I believe that Jesus is telling them the content of their prayer. First, in the Greek of this verse there is nothing coming in between the command “pray” and the object “you not fall into temptation.” We might translate it roughly, “Pray you don’t fall into temptation.”

One problem arises when we look at Luke 22:46.

“Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you won’t fall into temptation.”

Luke 22:46 CSB

I believe this verse should have been translated the same way as the previous verse, without the word so. There is a difference in the Greek text in that this verse includes a word that can be translated as showing purpose or intention. It is translated here as “pray, so that you won’t fall into temptation.” The phrase so that is indicating purpose. But it does not need to mean that, and it could simply be indicating the content of what they are to pray. Why do I say that? Because in our earlier passage of Ephesians 1:17-19, Paul used the same construction when he obviously meant the content of the prayer. “I pray that . . . God . . . would give you the Spirit of wisdom.”

Now why am I going into all of this? Because Jesus told them to pray that they not fall into temptation. An important question becomes, what is it that God is supposed to do? There is no passive verb as in the Paul passage about the heart being enlightened. The disciples’ prayer would appear to be that they would do something, and not God.

But it gets interesting at this point, because Jesus himself instructed the disciples to pray that God not lead them into temptation. This part of the Lord’s Prayer has always been problematic for interpreters and I will not attempt to solve those problems here, but my point is to say that at the point where a prayer seems to involve the action of the one praying rather than the action of God, Scripture actually shows us that what appears to be the work of the one praying is actually the work of God on behalf of believers.

So . . . What?

So what does this discussion of biblical models of prayer mean? Why spend all this time discussing grammar and prayer? I have started something of a habit when listening to prayer requests of people at church. I am sure this habit is somewhat irritating to others. I will sometimes hear a prayer request and I will respond to the person with a question. “What is it that you want God to do?” If this person has never heard my question before, I am usually answered with a blank stare. “What do you mean? I don’t understand your question.” I often encounter people who express prayer requests and will sometimes go through their prayers without mentioning God as the recipient of their prayer and as the one who would act in response to their prayer.

Sometimes the answer to the question is easy. The requester says, “Please pray for my Uncle Joe. He’s in the hospital and will have surgery next Wednesday. Please pray that the surgery goes well and that he comes home soon.”

I ask, “What is it that you want God to do?”

They respond, “I want for God to help the doctors and heal my uncle.”

I might ask in response why they think God would be interested in answering this request, and we can then look to Scripture and see that our God is a God who heals. We can see a larger biblical theme that sickness is the result of the fall and that God is working to overcome these things. When we do that, we can pray confidently because we know that we are praying in accordance with God’s character and nature. Now God may or may not heal this person, but we know that are praying in accordance with God’s character.

Then the next person says, “I have a big exam next Friday. Please pray that I would be able to prepare well for the exam and get a good grade.”

“What is it that you want God to do?”

“Well, . . . I’m not sure. I guess I want for him to help my preparation, and that he might give me a good night’s sleep before the exam. I’m not sure.”

“Okay then. And why do you think God wants you to pass this exam?”

“Well, there’s Jeremiah 29:11. God wants me to prosper and have a good future.”

“We can talk about that verse later. I’m not sure it means what you think it means. But in the meantime, let’s pray about this, but let’s be clear about what we are expecting God to do.” My goal is not to dissuade the person from praying, and I certainly don’t want for people to think that God does not care about their concerns, but I just want for people to be thoughtful in their request.

I too often see people in the world “sending thoughts and prayers” towards a person in need. I don’t want for our prayers to devolve into “positive thinking” or “warm thoughts.” We are doing something real and that is of grave importance.

The Last Word

I want to leave you with two things then. First, when we pray, be clear about what we are asking of God. It will often help to clarify in your own mind what the precise problem is, and it will make your prayers richer.

Second, I challenge you to know God. Find out whether the things we are asking are in accordance with God’s will and in accordance with his own nature. When Moses made his requests, he quoted God’s own words back to him and held God to his own promises. If we know God through his revealed word, then we can pray with confidence as we bring our requests before his throne.

As I said at the outset of this piece, to pray is better than not to pray. And now at the end I add, to pray thoughtfully is better than to pray without thought and attention.

Why Study Biblical Hebrew?

Students who join my Hebrew classes do so for a number of reasons. Many–I hope most–of them are doing so because they have an honest desire to learn to read Biblical Hebrew so that they can better engage with the word of God. Some–and I hope only a few–do so because they are required to be there due to a degree program they are completing. Whatever the reason for the student being in my class, it can be helpful if that student works through the question of why they are studying Hebrew. The following are a number of thoughts I have on the subject.

First, the word of God, or around 75% of it, is written in Hebrew. This statement should end the discussion. This reason alone is sufficient for us who claim to be Christians and who claim that the Bible is the word of God written. We should therefore want to read it as closely and as carefully as we can.

Imagine traveling to a foreign country where English is not the primary language. While you are there you encounter a university professor who teaches English literature and who specializes in the works of Shakespeare. In your conversation you may quote a line of Shakespeare. Imagine your reaction if this professor of Shakespeare said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you said. I don’t speak or read English. I only read Shakespeare in translation.” You might rightfully say that the teacher is not really teaching Shakespeare if that is the case. How much more should we who are preachers and teachers of God’s word be a little embarrassed to say that we do not know the languages in which the Bible was written.

Second, translations are sufficient, but they are imperfect. This reason is really a caveat, or an admission, that translations are good and serve a useful purpose. Yet they are imperfect. When I was saved as a young man it was through my interaction with an English Bible and through the witness of those who were using an English Bible. I did not have to learn Greek and Hebrew in order to become a Christian. In the same way, I was discipled as a young believer solely with an English Bible. The translation I was using was sufficient to accomplish these things. Yet the translations were imperfect in a number of ways and as preachers and teachers of the Word, we need to be aware of those possible imperfections.

Third, knowing the biblical languages helps us to understand where there are ambiguities in the text. The presence of ambiguity works both ways when reading a translation. That is, we may be reading a translated text in which the English translation allows a number of possible understandings. This ambiguity often arises where the English language is simply less precise than the source language. When we read the original text, however, it becomes clear that only one of those various understandings is legitimate.

On the other hand, and perhaps more often, there is an ambiguity in the original text that has been masked by the precision of the translation. In other words, the translator was reading a sentence that could be understood in a number of different ways. The English language, in this case, did not allow the same ambiguity that the original text had. So, in order to translate the text, the translator needed to make a decision one way of the other. The result is that the translation has only one possible meaning, but the original text allowed for several understandings.

I recall working with Asian and African translators who needed to know whether Peter was older or younger than Andrew. Was James older or younger than John? When I asked why they needed to know this, the reply was that their particular language did not have a natural way to express “brother,” but rather they could only say “older brother” or “younger brother.” So, they were forced to make a decision that was ambiguous in the original text.

Fourth, on occasion, and thankfully these occasions are rare, there are errors in the translation. A knowledge of the biblical languages will help in identifying and understanding why a certain text may have been translated in error.

Fifth, a knowledge of the biblical languages will provide a richer reading experience. This reason is rather vague or abstract, but it is important. When I am teaching Isaiah to English readers, I take some time to explain to them the artistry of Isaiah in his use of poetry and his word choice. Much of the expression of beauty in these cases comes in the sound of the language. Since these students are readers only of the English translation, much of what I say is lost to them. In the same way, when I teach Hebrew poetry to students, we spend a good deal of time dealing with the phonology–the sounds–of Hebrew poetry. This aspect of Hebrew poetry, however, is lost on the student unless they have an ability to read Hebrew. These phonological matters will not show up in the English translation. They have little to do with the meaning of the text, but they have everything to do with the experience of reading the text, of the aesthetics of the reading process.

Finally, I have had the experience many times of a student who takes great pains and much time to work through a text, only to discover that his own translation looks very much like all of the English versions he has seen. There is often a level of disappointment when that happens. The student wanted to discover some secret meaning in the text or wanted to uncover some problem with the translation, only to find that after all the work put into it, he ended up with the same translation he had been using all the time.

I respond to those events by saying, “Congratulations! You have confirmed for yourself the text you are preparing to preach.” Now when the student goes into the pulpit or behind a teacher’s lectern, that student will teach confidently from the English translation, having worked through all the issues, and emerging in the end with a knowledge that the translation he is using is clear and accurate. The work was not in vain. It was not a waste of time. Rather, the experience of working through the translation gave the student a confidence to speak that would have been impossible–or at least unwarranted–if the process had not been followed.

There are surely a whole host of other reasons to learn the biblical languages. There are also a whole host of ways to access this information. Hebrew and Greek grammars abound, for the educated person that can read and be self-taught. There are a number of online resources available that can be used free of charge. If you live near a school that teaches biblical languages you may be able to audit one of the classes, even if you are not a regular student at the school.

However it might look in your particular case, I encourage every believer to at least ask the question, “Should I try to learn the biblical languages?” You will be blessed if you do.

The Progress of Sin and Atomic Habits

When the serpent spoke to Eve in the garden, it tempted her to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree, resulting in Eve’s consideration of her own desires. Here is the story:

“He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You can’t eat from any tree in the garden?”‘

“The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, “You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.”‘

“‘No! You will not die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

“The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”

Genesis 3:1b-6

This story is often used as an example of the progress of temptation leading to sin. Eve listened to the serpent, who drew her attention to the fruit. She considered the benefits of eating the fruit. She acted on that desire. And finally the woman and the man suffered the consequences of the act.

But this is not the only example of this kind of story in the Bible In fact, the following chapter has a similar story. In that story, Cain grows angry with his brother Abel because while Cain’s sacrifices were rejected by God, Abel’s sacrifices were accepted. After we read about Cain’s anger, the following statement from God is made:

“The the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you furious? And why do you look despondent? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.'”

Genesis 4:6-7

In this statement, God tells Cain to be careful. Cain is angry. So angry, in fact, that he is about to murder his brother. Just at this point, God enters into Cain’s life and tells him to watch himself, or else sin will appear and will try to take control of Cain. Before that happens, however, God tells Cain that he has a way out. If he does what is right, he will be accepted, but if he does not do what is right, he runs the risk of being overcome by sin. In other words,–and this is important–concerning Cain’s doing right or not doing right, God seems to be saying that sin is not found at that point. Rather, sin threatens to overcome Cain if Cain does not do what is right. Not doing right will lead Cain to the temptation to sin. In this case, it led him to consider murdering his brother and the acting on that temptation.

So there is a level of doing wrong–not doing what is right–that is not sin. But it leads to sin.

In the New Testament, James talks about this same phenomenon.

“But each one is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.”

James 1:14-15

James adds to the Eve narrative by locating the evil desire within the person. Eve’s temptation was initiated by the serpent. James tells us that we have the desires on our own. We do need an outside tempter. Also, James agrees with the progression we saw in the Cain story. The person has been drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires, but that is what leads to sin. It is not the sin itself. When James talks of being drawn away and enticed, is that what God meant by saying that if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door?

In other words, is the doing or not doing what is right, from the Cain narrative, the same as Eve’s consideration of the benefits of the fruit or James’s being drawn away and enticed? If so, then we have two reactions to temptation that are equally wrong, but in different ways. First, we might respond to temptation as if it is the same as sin. We might hold ourselves or others to a standard in which just the smallest lingering over a temptation is seen as sinful behavior. This standard does not seem to be what is being taught in these passages.

We might, on the other hand, take a laissez-faire attitude toward temptation, viewing it as essentially neutral, as long as it does not lead to sin. But it is at this point in the Cain story that God says to Cain, and to us, “If you do what is right, you will be accepted, but if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door.” If God is here talking about the stage at which temptation is being considered, then God has called this stage “not doing right.” So it is not yet sin, but it is not right and should be avoided.

James Clear talks about this in his popular book Atomic Habits. There he discusses the four stages of behavior and habit formation: the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward. The cue is what draws our attention to something. The craving is our consideration of the benefits of that thing our attention has been brought to. The response is our acting on that craving. Finally, the reward is what happens to us as a result of the action.

So far, his description of the relationship of desire and action is almost perfectly in line with what we see, for example, in the Eve narrative above. What is novel for Clear is that he makes this paradigm work both for bad actions and for good. So this same sequence of cue, craving, response, and reward is at work when we do something good and beneficial. His book is a working out of what this might look like in our everyday lives. He develops strategies for how we might get rid of unproductive habits and instill beneficial ones.

While his book does not appear to be written from a perspective of faith, his model is very much in line with what the Bible teaches about human behavior and the pattern of temptation and sin in our lives. I recommend his book to you if you are looking for strategies for how you might put off what is old and put on what is new. You will not be disappointed.

Keeping Track of the Time: A Plea for Christian Astronomy

“Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years. They will be lights in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights–the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night–as well as the stars. God placed them in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth, to rule the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. Evening came and then morning: the fourth day.” (Genesis 1:14-19)

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work–you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

The relationship of man’s record of time to the heavenly bodies has a long history. Two heavenly bodies have dictated for people around the globe the passing of days, months and years. The rising and setting of the sun has given us the day. That is the smallest unit of time dictated by the heavenly bodies. The moon moves through a cycle of phases, beginning as a waxing crescent, growing to the half moon, to the waxing gibbous, and finally the full moon. After reaching that point the moon begins to decrease as a waning gibbous, half moon, and waning crescent. It then disappears in the night sky as the new moon.

I thought it odd (and still think it odd) that the absence of the moon in the night sky is called the “new moon.” I always thought it would be more appropriate to refer to the reappearance of the moon as the new moon. But I suppose that calling the absence of the night moon the “new moon” gives us a sense of hope. “There is no moon tonight, but just wait until tomorrow . . . “

This movement of the moon through its phases gives us month. Depending on how you calculate the time of the moon’s orbit, the month will be anywhere from a little over 27 days to around 30 days.

Finally, as the sun rises and sets each day, the point at which it rises and sets slowly moves along the horizon. As the days move from winter to summer, one can observe the point of the rising and setting slowly moving south. From summer to winter that point slowly moves north. That movement of the sun from north to south and back again, gives us a year.

So, with the two lights that God created on the fourth day of creation, God provided a celestial system for observing days, months and years.

I want to add two observations. First, the movement of the planets through the night sky are very interesting but not for our tracking of time. The fact that we have a night sky with a fixed pattern of stars, in which these “wandering stars” moved about must have been a great wonder to the ancients–and should be to us as well. With the naked eye, it is easy to trace the movement of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn as they each make a slow movement through the entire night sky. Venus and Mercury can also be seen with the naked eye, but their movements are different. Their movements do not go through the entire night sky, but rather they move back and forth around the sun, not straying far from the sun, before turning and moving back in the other direction. We now know that this is because Venus and Mercury are both closer to the sun than the earth. The other planets mentioned are farther away from the sun than the earth. Because of this, we can observe Mars, Jupiter and Saturn when they are “behind” the earth, on the opposite side of the sky from the sun. But when we see Venus and Mercury, we are always looking in the direction of the sun. Thus, Venus is also known as the morning star or evening star, because it can only be observed just before sunrise {the “morning star”) or just after sunset (the “evening star”).

My second observation is that there is no celestial movement that gives us a seven-day week. In the biblical account, the seven-day week is given to us by the command of God, based on his work creation, taking place on six days with a seventh day of rest. So, it is interesting that we have been given by God observable markers of days, months and years. And we have been given by example and by command the seven-day week with the pattern of work and sabbath.

What does all of this mean?

First, the calendar is not some arbitrary, man-made creation. Rather, it was created by God in the way that he made our world. His command, if you will, was that we would plan our times and events based on our observation of the heavenly bodies that he put in place. At this time of year when many people are making new year’s resolutions, others are criticizing that practice, saying that we are making decisions based on an arbitrary dating system. I say no, we are using the patterns that God ordained in his creation and which he put in place specifically for us to mark these seasons. It is appropriate for us to recognize a new year and to make changes in our lives accordingly.

Second, in light of the first point, I am afraid that we have become woefully ignorant of astronomy. Now I am not encouraging everyone to invest in a sun dial, or to build your own miniature Stonehenge in the back yard so you can observe the calendar in the sky (although that would be a very cool neighborhood attraction). But I am saying that by becoming servants to printed calendars and digital watches, and thus lowering our gaze from the heavens to the earth, we have become ignorant of a beautiful and awesome calendar that God has built in the sky. I believe that Christians, of all people, should have an interest in the observing of the heavenly bodies that God created for that purpose.

Third, while God’s created order gives us days, months and years, and God’s word give us the seven-day week, it seems that the smaller divisions of hours, minutes and seconds are of little interest in the biblical account. Yet it seems that it is these man-made divisions of time that occupy so much of our thinking. We make our appointments based on hours and minutes. We judge promptness or tardiness based on minutes and even seconds. We time our athletic endeavors to the second and even to hundredths of seconds. I am not arguing that we should neglect all of that. But I am suggesting that perhaps as Christians we should be put time and the tracking and recording of time into its proper perspective. Perhaps we need to slow down and give proper attention to the God-given calendar and give less attention to the man-created calendar.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2)

Reading the Bible in (Almost) No Time at All

A few months back I was listening to a radio show that I like. The host was interviewing a Catholic priest who has a podcast in which he reads through the Bible over the course of a year. My initial reaction was that this was a good idea and could be helpful for people, but then I began to wonder, “What is the difference between this podcast and an audio Bible?”

I grew even more skeptical about its usefulness, however, when I heard the interviewer make the comment that his favorite part of the podcast was the explanations that the priest gave concerning the scripture reading.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “So you are going to read the whole text and still have time to comment on the meaning? There is no way you are getting all that done.”

To add further to my incredulity that this priest was going to read through the Bible and add commentary on it and get it all done in a year, the interviewer mentioned that the priest was reading the Catholic Bible and so it included the apocryphal books in addition to our Protestant Bibles

In the end, I decided that this podcast was simply the priest talking about the Bible, but not actually reading it on the podcast.

I was wrong.

I tested one show of the podcast. I chose one at random, but it was sort of a guided randomness. He was in Genesis, and I saw one podcast on Genesis 5. I was curious what his comments were going to be while he was reading a genealogical list from the Bible. Surely this would be a rather boring program. If I remember correctly, his reading for the program was Genesis 5-6 and Psalm 136–a rather longish Psalm. And the program length was about 17 minutes.

As the program started, the priest spent the first two minutes talking about the program, where it could be downloaded, how to find additional resources, etc. I thought there was no way he is going to finish. He’s burning up his time here.

But then he started to read. He read with energy. It was fast, but not abnormally or such that it could not be understood. And then he was done, and I looked at the clock. He still had several minutes to go. So he began talking about the text and the biblical themes found in these chapters. He applied it to the modern listener. And then, just over 17 minutes after he began, he was done for that day. Next day he would do it again.

So I was challenged. If this man could read through the Catholic Bible, with all of its additions, and give commentary on it, in about 20 minutes a day, surely I could read through our Protestant Bible on my own, with no commentary, in 10-15 minutes a day.

As we draw close to the new year, I hope you are taking the opportunity to look back at the successes and failures of the past year. I hope that you are following the words of Paul in “putting off” and “putting on.” We can, of course, do this on any day, or even any part of the day. It is wise, however, to take advantage of the markers that the calendar gives us. When we roll into a new year, we should use the change in the calendar to take stock. Evaluate ourselves to see what we should continue doing and what we should put off.

Once we have put things off, what will we put on in their place? I hope that one thing you put on this year is the daily reading of God’s word. You can read through the entire Bible this year, if you will just commit about fifteen minutes a day. You will not be sorry.

You can find a variety of reading plans here:

Some plans may suit you better than others. I am not a fan of the chronological plans, but I may comment on that at another time. The important thing is that you have a plan, and that you stick to it.

May God bless you richly in this new year!

A Lesson on Names

My wife and I have an experience all too often. We will be in a local grocery store or some other location near our home. A young man or a young couple will pass us in the other direction. As they pass, they will call out, “Hello, Dr. Borger.” I nod quietly and say hello.

After they pass, my wife asks me, “Who was that?” “I have no idea,” I sheepishly answer. “Is he in one of your classes?” she continues. “I don’t think so, but I’m not sure.” I give myself a pass on occasions like this because I have never been good at remembering names and when I do remember the name I often get confused on putting the name with a face. I’ve always been that way.

With that in mind, let me tell you what happened in Nashville a few days ago. We had visited our son and his wife for a few days and were ready to fly home to Raleigh. We had arrived at the airport and settled in at the gate and I decided to take a short walk around the terminal.

Now, I need to give some back story. I play the dobro. If you don’t know what it is, you can look it up. I don’t have time to explain right now. Just let me say that in the last four years or so, I have become borderline obsessive about the instrument. About two years ago I signed up for an online service hosted by one of the top players in the world. He includes scores of instructional videos, but the best part of the website is the personal interaction you can have by submitting videos and getting his feedback. It’s quite a good service. I have been a member there a little over two years. Over that time, I have maybe submitted no more than half a dozen videos to the website.

So, imagine my surprise when my online instructor comes walking through the Nashville terminal. I thought to myself, “That’s my teacher.” I looked at him as he walked by and, sure enough, he was carrying his guitar. When he had passed, I called out his name. He kept walking, so I called it out a little louder this time. He stopped and turned around. He looked my way and said, “Todd Borger? What are you doing here, man?” We chatted a few minutes, and then I let him get to his gate to get his flight.

As he parted and I started back to my gate, it began to sink in, what had just happened. This guy who is going about his day, hears his name being called by someone in the airport. He turns around, sees some random person, a person that he has never met in person, but only by video, and immediately puts a face together with a name and starts a conversation.

And I can’t remember the name of a student I have in person in front of me on a weekly basis. I was more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing.

I heard long ago, I think it is from Dale Carnegie, that every person’s favorite word is their own name. We should use that word as often as we can. I am going to renew my effort to know my students and use their favorite word as often as I can.

The Humor of God’s Plan

I read this morning a devotion from John Piper. In it, Piper spoke of the faith we share with Abraham and thus the promise and fulfillment we share with him. He said that our faithfulness to God may require obedience that is sacrificial even to the point of abandoning what is most dear–in the case of Abraham, his beloved son, Isaac.

What strikes me in the passage, however, is the nature of the sacrifice asked of Abraham. The sacrifice was not only his beloved son–the Bible says that God even called Isaac Abraham’s only son, although for all we know Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, was within earshot–but the sacrifice entailed the abandonment of the long-awaited fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham and Sarah.

God had made an outrageous and laughable promise to Abraham that his wife Sarah would bear a son in her old age. That the promise is outrageous is my own assessment. That the promise is laughable comes to us from Abraham and Sarah themselves. But consider what God was doing. He was saying in effect, “I have a plan to save all the families of the earth. I am going to choose one man and one woman to be the progenitors of a great nation. And from that great nation, all the world will be blessed.” And as he surveys all of humanity to find the father and mother of this great nation, he does not choose a young, virile couple. He chooses instead an old man and his barren wife.

It is outrageous. It is laughable. And yet this is God’s plan.

Years go by before the fulfillment of this promise comes in the birth of Isaac. Then God does something else that is utterly outrageous. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic and even cruel. God tells Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a certain mountain and sacrifice him there.

Piper is right that this command is difficult. It requires of Abraham the sacrifice of what he hold most dear. But there is something else there, is there not? God has made an outrageous promise and has fulfilled it in a miraculous way. And then he says to Abraham, “Take this boy for whom you have waited so long, this boy that was miraculously born to you and Sarah, this boy who is the only chance of seeing my promises to you and to the world fulfilled, and slay him on an altar.”

Of course, we know the end of the story, that an angel of the Lord stops Abraham at the crucial moment and provides a substitute for the sacrifice. This story and its conclusion is one of immense importance to the biblical narrative. But the way that we get there . . . again, it is outrageous.

Then I consider my own life. I think about the things that I know God has done for me and through me. What if I knew with all certainty that God was moving me in a certain direction–to a teaching position, to a church ministry position, to an unreached people–and then, just as it seems that all of the preparation I have made in life and that God has led me through is going to come to fruition perhaps in some miraculous way. Then God says to me, “Now I want you to walk away from it all. I have something else to teach you.”

That would be outrageous. It would be laughable of God to do such a thing. And yet, that seems to be the way that God likes to work. Funny.

PRIME Bible Reading and the Importance of Reading

A few days ago, I wrote a small bit about our PRIME Bible reading program adopted at our church. I wrote there about the P of PRIME, the preparation for reading the Bible. We recognized that reading and understanding the Bible is a spiritual endeavor that must happen as a result of the Spirit’s enabling us to do so. We must begin with prayer if we are to read the Bible in the manner in which its author intended.

Today I will make a few comments about the R of PRIME–Read the Bible. The instructions of the Bible reading plan say to “carefully read the passage and observe details.” I will address this in part in the next post concerning interpreting scripture. For now, I want to make a case for reading Scripture.

Students in my Old Testament classes have various reading assignments during the semester. In addition to one or more textbooks, they must read portions of the Bible. I received an email this semester from a student. It is the same email that I receive almost every semester, and which I answer the same way every semester until this one. The question is whether “listening” to the Bible would fulfill the course requirement to “read” the Bible. My standard answer to these inquiries has always been, “I’m sorry, but no.”

This time around I reconsidered, however. Maybe the student caught me on a good day. I don’t know the reason. But for whatever reason, I began thinking through the question and my answer. Perhaps it was because I had recently completed one of my lectures on communication theory that I traditionally give as an introduction to the prophetic book of the Old Testament. In those lectures I define communication as the movement of an idea from a source to a receiver. Successful communication takes place when the idea in the mind of the source person is recreated or nearly recreated in the mind of the receiving person. In the definition, it matters little about the mode of communication. The thrust of communication is not tied to a medium, but to the transmission of the idea.

Now, The change from reading to listening is not really a change in medium, per se. Rather, it is adding a layer to the process. When we talk of “listening to the Bible,” we really mean something else. Listening to a Bible would be a rather boring process. We would set a Bible on the table in front of us and begin listening. The result would be silence, since the Bible does not make noise. What we mean when we say we are listening to the Bible, of course, is that we are listening to someone else read the Bible. So if we use an audio Bible for our Bible intake, the Bible is still being read, but not by us. We are listening in while someone else reads the words.

But any theory of communication would tell us that the result is or can be the same. Or should be the same. The result is that a message is being communicated from a sender to a receiver. The message may be in written form and read by the receiver. It may be in oral form and listened to by the receiver. But the communication will succeed when the same thing happens, when the idea is reproduced in the mind of the receiver.

Now, about the student that asked about listening to the Bible and the requirement for the course that the Bible be read, I replied to the student that the issue is not the manner in which the information is received, but rather the success or failure of that process. So, for instance, if you are listening so that you can multi-task, you will likely fail. If you want to cook dinner and wash dishes while listening to the Bible, there is certainly value in that, but it will likely fail to produce the level of communication that single-minded attention would give. If you want to play solitaire or scroll Facebook while listening to the Bible, the chances of success, I believe, would diminish further.

Reading the Bible, however, can have the same level of distraction, and this fact is crucial to realize. You can read the Bible while listening to the radio. You can read the Bible while a sports game is on television. In each case, the chances of success of the communication are diminishing.

The problem, then, is not the specific medium chosen, whether written or oral. The issue is your single-mindedness and attentiveness to the task. If you choose to listen to the Word being read, do so fully engaged with the process. If you choose to read the text yourself, do so fully engage in the process.

Slow Food (and Slow Music?)

I blog intermittently over time. As I am getting back into my blog space, I found this old draft from a few years ago. I had entitled it “Slow Food and Slow Music.” In it, I wrote in some detail about a particular meal I had cooked. I talked not at all of “slow music.” I don’t know exactly what I would have written about music, but I do have some thoughts–many thoughts, actually–on the matter. But here are my thoughts that day on “slow food.” This post, however, is incomplete. It is part of a larger program I have on the ethics of producing, cooking, and eating food. Perhaps I will expand upon this later.

In 1986 Carlo Petrini started a movement called Slow Food. It began as a protest against the placement of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Slow Food was a revolt against Fast Food. The McDonalds is still there, garnering two and a half stars on Trip Advisor, so one might think that Fast Food won.

But one would be wrong. Being on the right side of a matter means always being on the winning side. Society may not bend your way, but with your integrity and principles in tact you can withstand losing a battle in order to continue the struggle in the larger war.

I like slow food. I like food that comes from the ground, into my kitchen, onto my plate, and into my mouth. I like food that cooks longer and not shorter. I like to invest time into food since it pays greater rewards later.

My wife and I had soup last night for dinner. I made the soup from some things I had purchased at the store–carrots, celery, ground beef, an onion, the rind from a parmesan cheese that I have saving for such a purpose. I used at least two things from our own garden–a shallot and some shiitake mushrooms. A good friend of mine recently gave me a log seeded with Shiitake mushroom spores, so I now have my a fresh source. I learned from Marcella Hazan that whenever I roll out pasta, I should make some extra so I can cut it, dry it, and use it for soup. Yesterday was the first time to use my homemade dry pasta in soup. I used the remains of a loaf of homemade sourdough bread to make some croutons to put in the finished soup. Perhaps the best ingredient, however, was Timberley’s turkey stock. When we have chicken or turkey carcasses, or more rarely, meat bones, we make stock. It is always ready when we want to make risotto or a pot pie, or last night, soup. And it is always more flavorful than what we buy at the store.

I’m telling you about the soup because as I was cooking it yesterday, a few thoughts came to mind. First, the time cooking the soup itself did not take long. (Of course, what is long for me may not be long for you, and vice versa.) I cooked the onion and shallot in some olive oil and butter. I rolled the ground beef into tiny marble-sized balls and threw them into the pan with the onions. I diced the carrots and celery and added that to the mix. At some point I added some salt, pepper, nutmeg, oregano. I diced the mushrooms and added them. I coated everything well with the fat and let that cook a bit. In the meantime, I took the turkey stock from the freezer and put it into another pan to melt and heat up. While that was working, I cut my crust of sourdough into cubes, put the cubes onto a shallow pan with some butter and put it into the oven at a low temperature. When the stock melted and warmed, I added some water and put the mixture into the other pan with the soup ingredients. I added a bay leaf and the parmesan cheese rind. After the soup had warmed, I added a few handfuls of my dry pasta, turned the temperature to low, put a lid on it, and waited until it was time to eat. I was probably finished in under 45 minutes, but I wasn’t counting, so I don’t know.

As I considered my cooking time, however, I realized that really I had been cooking this soup for days and even months. My mushrooms came to me this summer by my friend and I have slowly been cultivating those mushrooms until I got to use them in the soup. My shallots go back further than that, as I planted those in the spring time, harvested them some time in the summer, and have been storing them in the pantry waiting for the right times to use them. My pasta I had made about a week earlier. My bread, likewise, came from a baking perhaps two weeks ago. My cheese rind has been sitting in the refrigerator for I don’t know long. Finally, the turkey stock I guess has been in our freezer since early this year, since we usually have turkey during the holidays and afterwards when we can get good prices on the leftovers. So this meal did not really take me 45 minutes to prepare, but really six months or longer.

But then the taste. I brought Timberley her bowl of soup, with a small handful of the croutons floating in the top to her while she was working at her desk. (Eating while you are working is likely not a principle of the Slow Food Movement, but we can’t have everything.) I went back downstairs. I took my bowl of soup and went to the small table by our kitchen. I tasted the soup and about the same time I tasted mine, I heard Timberley’s voice from upstairs saying, “Todd . . . this is really good.”

But I knew it had to be good. Not because I trust my cooking abilities, although I do think I am a pretty good cook, but because I knew well everything that went into that soup. The things I brought from the store I washed and chopped myself. The things from the garden I had grown and sweat over. The pasta that I put in I knew intimately since I had mixed the flour and eggs. I had kneaded it for the requisite eight minutes that seems to be the universal kneading time for any product. I had rolled it out thin and sliced it and dried it. I had watched Timberley make her turkey stock. I knew what was in it. It was turkey, water, and some vegetable scraps that we had on hand.

PRIME Bible Reading and the Importance of Preparation

Timberley and I recently joined a new church in our area. The members of the church are encouraged to follow a three-year Bible reading plan, which I have adopted for my own time in the word. On the card that has the Bible passages listed for each week, there is a box containing a guide to follow when reading. There are five steps–the first letters of which form an acronym PRIME.

PREPARE–Begin your time in prayer.

READ–Carefully read the passage and observe details.

INTERPRET–Answer the following questions: What is the main idea of this passage? What does this passage teach about God? What does this passage teach about humanity? How does this passage point to Jesus?

MEMORIZE–Practice this week’s memory verse.

EXERCISE–In what ways do you plan to apply today’s Scripture reading? Is there a truth you need to believe, a sin you need to confess, an attitude or action you need to avoid or embrace, or a principle you need to apply? Who needs to hear what you have learned today?

Too often in these kinds of reading plans, we can get stuck checking off the completion box after we have read the passage. WE are caught in completing the READ step above without attention to the rest. But all of it is crucial to the task of reading God’s word.

I laughed to myself a little when typing the above list of terms, because I thought that the P stood for Prayer, not Prepare. Why didn’t they used the obvious word attached to the letter P? I think it is because prayer is a complex topic and task. Prayer, on its own, can lead the worshiper off into other areas–good areas, mind you, but away from the immediate task of reading the word. By choosing Prepare as the first step, prayer is put into the context of the reading of the Bible. Why do we need to pray before we read? The Bible is a spiritual document. Paul, in praying for the church of Ephesus, talks about our knowledge of God this way

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.

Eph. 1:17-19

Certainly we can read the Bible not as a spiritual document, but as a historical or literary creation. There is some benefit to that, but, importantly, that is not what Scripture is for. It’s author did not intend it to be read that way. Instead as the Gospel-writer John said of his own work

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of is disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that be believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

Since we are reading a spiritual document with a spiritual purpose, we must place ourselves in a place where we can hear it rightly. That will take preparation. And the preparation for that involves praying and asking for God’s help as we read.