Psalm 52 – I am like an Olive Tree

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

Psalm 52:8–9 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. 9 I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.

There is an interesting metaphor used in Psalm 52:8 which provides an opportunity to explore the use of figurative language in the Psalms.  Earlier in the Psalm David described his enemy as a plant which will be completely uprooted (verse 5).  Unlike this boastful enemy, David is like an olive tree in the House of the Lord (verse 8).  While the enemy will be uprooted and destroyed, David’s roots are like a well-watered olive tree, fruitful and abundant.

Where there olive trees around the sanctuary?  Perhaps the town of Nob had olive trees, near where the Tabernacle was set up.  It is also possible that the sanctuary was set up among the olive groves around Jerusalem and the image of an olive tree is drawn from the later location of the Tent.

But that there were literal olive trees within sight of the Tabernacle or Temple is not the point, this is a metaphor.  As a metaphor, David is highlighting something about the olive tree. Probably the main thing he wants to show here is the continual, almost eternal life of an olive tree.  They are like weeds and will continue to grow for hundreds of years. According to radiocarbon dating, an olive tree in Algarve, Portugal, is 2000 years old. In fact, there are many 2000 year old trees, including many in Israel and Galilee today which are nearly 3000 years old and still continue to produce fruit!  Sometimes guides will tell tourists int he Garden of Gethsemane that the olive trees next to the Church of All Nations are 2000 years old, from the time Jesus prayed in that very garden.  While the trees are likely very old, it is unlikely that trees so close to Jerusalem would have survived two Roman sieges

Since the trees grow quite large and wide, the root system of an olive tree can be massive.  In contrast to the little plant of the wicked enemy which is easily uprooted, there is nothing which is going to remove the massive olive tree!

Another aspect of the olive tree which he may have in mind is the fruitfulness of the tree.  The trees provide abundant fruit which can be eaten, but more often the olives are pressed and used for cooking oil, lamp oil, even oil for skin.

The point of the metaphor therefore that David is like a tree which is practically eternal, so well rooted that nothing can possibly harm him.  He will continue to grow and prosper since he is planted in the most ideal place possible, near the sanctuary of the Lord.

Bibliographical Note: This is an oft-cited article which indicates that there are potentially 3000 year old olive trees in Galilee.  The journal article is in Hebrew and I cannot locate it in a nearby library.  I suspect that most of the articles which site this source have not read the article either, hence my hesitancy to fully accept these claims.  If anyone has access to this article and can confirm that it does have some evidence for olive trees which are 3000 years old, I would love to hear from you.  M. Kislew, Y. Tabak & O. Simhoni, “Identifying the Names of Fruits in Ancient Rabbinic Literature,” Leshonenu 69 (Hebrew): 279.

Israel Tour in the Grand Rapids Press

Last month I was interviewed by Matt Vande Bunte of the Grand Rapids Press about our May 2011 trip to Israel.  The article appeared in today’s Grand Rapids Press Religion Section (follow the link for the MLive version).  The article is primarily about  our stay at Tamar, managed by DeWayne Coxon and Blossoming Rose.  Matt’s article is great, I appreciate his interest in the Biblical Tamar park.  You can see more photographs from my previous tours by clicking through the Flickr gadget to the left, of this previous post from the 2009 tour.  You can also view this short student video on YouTube.  This is a five minute documentary on Tamar featuring DeWayne Coxon and Tali Erickson explaining the archaeology of the site.

Our tours are unique in that we spend significant time southern desert (the Negev).  I am particularly excited about this year’s trip since we have arranged an archaeological project at Tamar. There is still time to join the spring tour to Israel and Jordan (May 2-16, 2011).  I am planning a January 2012 trip designed for adults with less hiking. if you are interested in either tour, please feel free to contact me.

Acts 2:42-47 – The Early Community of Believers

Clint Arnold points out in his Acts commentary that they community in Acts Two was characterized by four types of activities. Acts 2:42 says that the believers were devoted to these four activities.  The verb here (προσκαρτερέω) has the idea of being busy with something, or even “to persist” (BDAG).  The word appears twice in this paragraph, in verse 46 the community is daily worshiping in the temple and sharing meals together.

First, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (διδαχή). This instruction is for new converts who may not have heard Jesus teach.  The apostles are witnesses passing along the things which they have seen and heard.  It is entirely possible that the apostles had common set of instruction which they regularly passed along to new converts.  If this is the case, then there was a basic body of tradition within months of the death of Jesus which could be called the “teaching of the apostles.”

Second, they devoted themselves to fellowship (κοινωνία). Since this word has the connotation of sharing common, this is likely an allusion to the communal life described in the next verses (Fitzmyer, Acts, 269).  At the very least this includes alms and care for the poor.  I would suggest that many of those who needed assistance were Diaspora pilgrims who accepted the message of Jesus and remained in Jerusalem rather than to return home after Pentecost.

Third, they devoted themselves to “breaking of bread.” While this phrase can be used of sharing a meal together, it is likely that Luke is describing the community as celebrating some form of communion.  In Luke 21:19 the same words are used as Jesus takes bread and breaks it.  In Luke 24:35 it is used for the resurrected Jesus breaking bread as two disciples realized who he was.  I think that Jesus’ practice of common meals was the foundation for this practice — they all ate and drank together as one group.

Fourth, they devoted themselves to prayers. Since the Greek is plural this is plausibly a reference to daily prayers in the Temple.  It would not be unusual for Jewish men to go to the Temple several times a day to pray, so the community continues to worship at the Temple regularly.  In fact, Acts 2:46 indicates that the disciples met in both private homes and in the Temple.  This likely put them into contact with other observant Jews who would then be introduced to Jesus as Messiah.

Since a major interest in this series of studies is how to “apply” the book of Acts, it is critical to ask if  Luke is describing an ideal Christian community, or the specific community in Jerusalem.  While it is easy to see these four elements as generic components of Christian community everywhere, there are other elements in this paragraph which do not seem to be found elsewhere.  I will come back to this later, but notice for now that the community sold property, pooled resources, and distributed these funds to the poor.  Giving to the poor is a standard description of Christian community, but “living in common” only appears here in Acts 2.  There is nothing which makes me think the Antioch church was pooling resources, nor does Paul give any such instruction to his churches.

The fact that these earliest believers are devoted to these activities daily is also unique in the apostolic period.  There is no other group of believers who appear to have left their jobs to devote themselves to spiritual activity.  In 1-2 Thessalonians Paul seems to instruct the members of the church to not retire from daily life and be constantly devoted to ministry.  2 Thess 3:11-12 specifically tells people to go out and get jobs so that they are not a burden.

What is the reason Christians are quick to apply Acts 2:42 but not Acts 2:43 (miracles) or 2:44-45 (communal living)?  What is the difference between what is happening in Acts 2 and 2 Thessalonians 3?

Psalm 34 and Wisdom

[The Audio for this week’s sermon was accidentally deleted. Sorry about that!  Here is a PDF copy of the notes.]

When reading scholarly commentaries on the Psalms, there is a tendency to disregard the Psalm Heading as an interpretive grid for the Psalm since it is assumed that the header comes from an editor at a later date.  This is especially true for the psalms which relate the song to an event in the life of David.  Since the header is from much later date (usually post-exilic), in cannot contain historically valid information.  An editor is simply suggesting a context for the Psalm.

What I am proposing in this Sunday series on Psalms is that we take the header seriously and use the historical event as a lens through which we can read the Psalm.  Sometimes this is easy (Ps 51, for example), in other cases the connection to the historical event is thin at best.  Psalm 34, for example, the header to the Psalm says that it was written after David “changed his behavior before Abimelech.”  There are a few problems here.  First, in 1 Samuel 21, the king is named Achish, not Abimelech.  This is not a difficult problem, since the name “Abimelech” means “My father is king” and may very well have been an alternate name for the king of Gath (Dahood, Psalms, 1:205).   Second, in 1 Samuel David does feign madness, but it is not clear that David driven out of Gath by the king.  22:1 says he escaped, but the previous section does not say he was captured or imprisoned.  As I observed last week, the story in 1 Samuel 21:10-22:1 leaves out many details. All we know is that David escaped to Gath, was discovered and had to pretend to be insane, and eventually escaped from there.

Another problem is that Psalm 34 is clearly an example of Wisdom Literature.  It is an acrostic poem which invites the listener to “fear the Lord” in order to live a long and prosperous life.  This is more or less the theme of Wisdom Literature as found in Proverbs (Prov 1:7).

In this period of his life his family joins him for fear of Saul.  In 1 Sam 22:3-4 he petitions the king of Moab to give refuge to his family.  David then gathers people who are outside of normal society.  First, those who are “in distress” (ESV), although this noun (מָצוֹק) might be better translated as “outlaw.”  It is used three times in the Curses section of Deuteronomy to describe the ultimate suffering and distress the nation will face when they break the covenant (28:53, 55, 57).  Second, those who are in debt, the noun (נשא) refers to money-lenders and usury.  These are people who have found themselves in extreme debt because people have preyed upon them economically. Since usury was forbidden in the Law, it may be that these people were victimized by the law-courts, perhaps even the king himself.  Third, those who are “bitter in soul,” a phrase which only appears here in the Hebrew Bible.  This probably has the sense of “discontented,” specifically with King Saul. David builds up a small army of 400 men who have fled King Saul.  This army will continue to grow and will eventually be the core of David’s elite soldiers when he comes king.

In Psalm 34 David describes himself as poor and in grave distress, afraid and in need of rescue (verses 4-7).  The singer of the Psalm identifies himself with the lowest levels of society, perhaps like the men gathered by David in the wilderness.  David’s men need to be told that the Lord is good to those who fear him, but they also need some basic instruction on what it means to “fear the Lord.”  Verses 11-14 invite the listener to fear the Lord by speaking the truth, shunning evil, and seeking peace.  All three of these are Wisdom themes, but they are also the message the men described in 1 Sam 22:3-4 would need to be David’s “mighty men of valor.”

It really does not matter if David wrote this Psalm in order to instruct these men or a later psalmist wrote the Psalm using the story of David in Gath as a model.  Within the world of Psalm 34, David’s instruction to his men is to begin their life of service to the King of Israel by Fearing the Lord.

Applying Acts (Part 2)

One of the most important issues we need to sort out at the beginning of a study on Acts is how we ought to apply the book to the present church.  Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.  For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3.  Claiborne popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.  The Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism is an example of people who are trying to live out a lifestyle modeled on the church as it appears in the book of Acts.  I have a great deal of respect for this kind of ministry and think that these sorts of projects are healthy for the Church in general.

On the other hand, the majority of the church (historic and modern) has dispensed with the book of Acts as a model for doing ministry.  It is far easier to do what works in our community than carefully examining Scripture and attempting to synthesize Paul’s methods and draw some analogy to present situations. I suspect that Shane Claiborne is less interested in Pauline mission than using Jesus for a model.  He can correct me on this, but The Irresistible Revolution is an excellent attempt to live out the life and thinking of Jesus, not apply Paul’s missionary strategy.  In fact, there is little in the book that can be described as “Pauline” and pretty much ignores the book of Acts after the first few chapters as a missional model.

My guess is that Paul would not have created a commune-like community in Corinth or Ephesus.  In fact, I take great comfort in the fact that Paul founded a school (a Bible College, I assume) in Ephesus and functioned as a scholar-teacher in the Greco-Roman world.

But I also think that he was not at odds with Jesus on how to live out the Christian life.  Jesus did not do “mission” in the sense defined by Schnabel, even though he modeled a lifestyle that can be described as “missional.”  As Schnabel says “whenever we move from Scripture to our own time, seeking to let Scripture shape the life of the church, we face the dichotomy of a historical past and a contemporary future” (Paul the Missionary, 37-8).   The question is less about “can we re-create the church of Acts 2” and more about “should we re-create that church”?  But is it legitimate to desire to recreate the church in Ephesus or Corinth?

Applying Acts (Part 1)

It is fairly obvious that the main method of evangelism in the first century was oral.  Paul and other missionaries proclaimed the Gospel to people who “hear the word of God.”  Since travel was limited in the ancient world, the missionary had to travel to places where the most people will hear the message.  It is doubtful if Paul’s mission would have done very well at all if he had stayed in Antioch and taught people who came to hear his message.  Since he was called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, he needed to travel to large cities where he could find public venues for his proclamation of the Gospel.

As Schnabel points out, this need for maximum exposure means the market place, where people were accustom to hearing various speeches (Paul the Missionary, 37).  Traveling orators frequently turned up in the agora, gathered a crowd and made philosophical speeches.  For example, Dio Chrysostom describes the Cynics as hanging around public places and publicly mocking other philosophers:

…still these Cynics, posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, pass round the hata and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place. Accordingly they achieve no good at all, but rather the worst possible harm, for they accustom thoughtless people to deride philosophers in general, just as one might accustom lads to scorn their teachers, and, when they ought to knock the insolence out of their hearers, these Cynics merely increase it. (Orations, 32.9)

When describing orators in Tarsus, Dio Chrysostom says:

Accordingly men come forward to address you who are both empty-headed and notoriety-hunters to boot, and it is with mouth agape for the clamour of the crowd, and not at all from sound judgement or understanding, that they speak, but just as if walking in the dark they are always swept along according to the clapping and the shouting. (Orations, 34.32)

For Paul, this may have been a problem since he consciously separates himself from the orators. Because of the nature of his mission he must go to the market place and speak to crowds when possible, but he does not want to be confused with the others working these crowds.  In 1 Thess 2:3-8 he makes it clear that he does not use elements of rhetoric (flattery, etc), but rather the Gospel is successful because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  Because he proclaims the gospel Paul runs the risk of appearing as an orator, but he works very hard not to be confused with them.

But Paul did not go everywhere – there is no record of his preaching in a pagan temple.  He seems to avoid them altogether in his mission.  In Lystra, he may have been in the temple precincts since the priests of Zeus try to make a sacrifice to him (Acts 14), and in Athens he preaches on Mars Hill near the altar to the Unknown God.  Neither case went the way Paul would have liked.  If Paul had gone into a temple or temple court, how might the have addressed any crowd which might have gathered?

Here is the problem for the application of Paul’s mission to present mission efforts: How do we to people “where they are at” while making it clear that we are not “where they are at”?  Are there lines which cannot be crossed if the Gospel is to be genuinely given?

Psalm 56:8 – Tears in a Bottle

Psalm 56:8–11 (ESV) —  You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? 9 Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. 10 In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, 11 in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?

Verse 8 is particularly difficult to translate (observe the differences between the KJV, NIV and ESV on this verse).  There is some rare vocabulary and wordplay and two or three unclear sections which make the translation of Psalm a challenge.

The first line  of the verse begins with nodi, my “tossing” or “wandering” (NIV, KJV), even “homelessness.” This appears to come from a root word which is used for a reed tossing in the wind, or  aimless, homeless wandering.  The verb is used twice in Job (2:11 and 42:11) as people comfort Job in his despair.  Since the next line of poetry refers to tears, it seems best to read this word as an emotional tossing, perhaps David laying awake at night, in fear of his enemy.  God has kept a record of David’s anxiety (sepher).

The second line, “you have put my tears in a wine-skin,” the noun no’d.  The word sounds nearly the same as “tossing,” but refers to a leather skin used for holding wine (Josh 9:4, 14, the Gibeonites), or milk (Jdg 4:19, Jael).  While the first and the third line have words related to writing, it is better to see this as God collecting David’s tears as he tosses in the night, worried about what tomorrow might bring.  The NIV tries to preserve the metaphor or writing in all three lines by reading the word for a leather wine-skin as a writing surface.

The third line uses sephred, a noun similar to the first line:  “have you not kept records?” or “are they not in your book?”  The noun can refer to a book or scroll, and in Mal 3:16 it is used for a remembrance book, a scroll on which someone might jot notes so they do not forget things.  The metaphor is of God recording all of David’s suffering so that can be used as evidence when God vindicates him and judges his oppressors.

What is the point of this metaphor?  David’s emotional response extreme fear and danger has not been ignored by God, in fact, the sleepless nights and tears have been carefully recording in God’s records and not a single tear has gone uncollected.  God treats David’s tears like precious water or valuable wine or milk.  In a desert environment, water in a skin is one of a most valuable possession.  God is pictured as collecting and preserving David’s tears.

This is a picture of God’s care for the suffering of his people.  He makes a record of every tear and every sleepless night and remembers them all.  When the time comes, David is confident that the Lord will turn back his enemies and oppressors, recalling his long nights of worry and anxiety.