Archive for January, 2022

Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God

I’ve noted that on my most recent vacation, my reading was for fun or spiritual growth. I have reviewed Tripp’s A Shelter in the Storm. I also read (or began to read) Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God by Stephen Smallman. This is a reference to the time Moses spent on the mountain culminating with the moment when God showed Moses some of His glory.

Smallman began these meditations on the character of God during a difficult time in his life. Perhaps it was similar to the difficult time in my life when I read his book. He was drawn to Exodus 32-34. In these meditations (2-3 pages each) he also brings us to the passages in Scripture that refer or allude to God’s revelation of Himself to Moses to further develop the ideas there. Smallman returned home from sabbatical refreshed and reinvigorated for ministry.

He lays out two assumptions that flow through the book. First, we can know God because God wants us to know Him. He has revealed Himself in Scripture! Second, the ultimate and greatest revelation of Himself came in Christ, the Word made flesh (John 1:1-14), the Son through whom He made all things and has spoken in these last days (Heb. 1:1-4).

In his introduction he also lays out three expectations for the reader. The first is to read the book with an open Bible, looking at the Bible references and their context. He also expects you to take time to think through what he wrote. They build upon one another, don’t rush to get the book done (which I why I’m finally done 2 months after starting it). He also wants you to find a place (not the cleft in the rock on the top of a mountain). I generally read in the Mission-style chair in the living room of the Farm while on vacation. When we got home I returned to my nook in the home school room in my comfy chair where I do my daily devotions. Don’t read in the middle of the fray.

“Growing up spiritually is a slow process, and I am thankful that I have been able to take a few more steps as a result of the work of preparing Forty Days. It is my prayer that your time with this little book and The Book will help you do the same.”

Phineas slaying Zimri

The context begins in the sin of the people while Moses is on the mountain to receive the law of God. He’s been gone too long (I usually return from summer vacations to similar problems apparently because I’m gone too long) and the people pressure Aaron to do something. We have at least a breaking of the 2nd commandment (an image of God) if not the 1st commandment (another god beside or before YHWH). Their worship of the golden calf descended into the debauchery that characterized pagan worship. Moses sent the Levites through the assembly to kill those participating in this revelry. Then the Lord visited their sin of the calf upon them through a plague.

While the Lord issues the command for them to prepare to enter the Promised Land, He says He will not go with them. Moses begins to intercede for the people wanting God to come with them. Here we have the famous request: “Please, show me your glory.”

The response comes in two engagements:

19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. Exodus 33

He is told to go up on the mountain where God’s glory will pass by him. He will only see God’s back for none but the Son can see the Father’s face and live. God will then reveal His goodness. His glory is His goodness!

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34

The stage is set for the 40 days to contemplate this self-revelation of God, particularly in light of our stiff-necked sinfulness. It will also trace the difference between Moses’ fading glory and the Son’s unending, transforming glory.

This is a book for those who want to know God. I’ve likened biblical meditation to a cow chewing on its cud. This book helps you chew that cud. Smallman brings us to 2 Corinthians, Colossians, Isaiah, Hebrews and more as he unfolds this revelation. In addition to the self-revelation of God, he addresses the typological function of Moses. Jesus intercedes for us with His blood and prayers.

Many portions of this book are similar to Gentle and Lowly (Forty Days was published in 2007). Ortlund’s purpose is different, and Smallman does spend time meditating on God’s goodness in His justice. Knowing God includes knowing He is just. This magnifies the glory of His grace. Our sinfulness magnifies our need for transformation. That transformation is not accomplished by “trying harder” but by gazing upon the glory of God in the face of Jesus through the gospel. We look deeper into Christ’s work for us and we are changed by our awe.

I found this to be an encouraging book that can be used to disciple people. Those people could be young Christians, or struggling ones. It is not academic. It is not overly wordy (so those who struggle to read shouldn’t be intimidated). It isn’t about the nuts and bolts of Christian living, it’s about who God is and this is the heart of Christianity upon which the nuts and bolts are placed.

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It was a strange year. It will have some very different reads.

Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of God is a warm systematic theology. His Reformed Dogmatics has been boiled down to the essentials. He represents the height of turn of the 20th century continental Reformed thought. This volume is a bit large, but not overly technical. It is an edifying read. I spent much of the year reading this, trying to invest 20-30 minutes each morning.

The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart

Lutheran pastor Harold Senkbeil has done pastors a great service by writing The Care of Souls. It was very popular in 2019-20, just before the world “fell apart”. I think many of us were better prepared to care for others due to this book. I think it is a must read for pastors, and elders since they are shepherds rather than simply decision makers. He draws on his youth on the farm as well as his experiences in ministry. His views are rooted in theology, not simply pragmatism. He covers some important subject like guilt and shame as he reminds us ministry isn’t really about programs, but caring for people.

Devoted to God's Church: Core Values for Christian Fellowship - Ferguson, Sinclair B - 9781848719767

Devoted to Christ’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson is yet another gem from one of my favorite pastor-theologians. It also seems to be a timely book as many Christians struggle with devotion to Christ’s church in the wake of Covid. I want to turn this into a SS class unless he gets around to doing a video series. He talks about conversion and profession of faith, the church as family, being a disciple, worship, sacraments and more. This is rich in theology but also practical in light of his years a pastor, not simply a professor. If you are wondering how and why to be devoted to Christ’s church, I recommend this book.

Rejoice and Tremble by Michael Reeves is one of the few books on the fear of God. While this was not his best book, he’s becoming one of my favorite authors. This is a very good book, but the bar was high from previous books. He takes the time to distinguish the wrong and right fear of God. Our fear is connected to God as both Creator and Redeemer. Only the redeemed enjoy the proper fear of God. In addition to Scripture, Reeves (as usual) pulls from the dead guys.

The Heart of Anger: How the Bible Transforms Anger in Our Understanding and Experience - Ash, Christopher; Midgley, Steve - 9781433568480

Christopher Ash is another author I am developing a liking for. Two of his books show up here. The first is The Heart of Anger written with Steve Midgley who is a pastor and counselor. I’ve read a number of books on this subject, sadly, and this is one of the better ones. It strikes a great balance between the interpretation and application of Scripture, and stories. There are biblical portraits of anger, the reality of God’s anger and defusing our anger.

The other book is Trusting God in the Darkness, a short volume adapted from his lengthy (and excellent) commentary on Job. It isn’t just an edited version. It does capture the heart of the commentary, and Job, in a very accessible fashion. I would highly recommend this to help any wanting to understand this important book of Scripture.

Biographies & History

R. C. Sproul: A Life  - 9781433544774 Nichols, Stephen J

R.C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen Nichols is a very good biography of one of the bigger influences in my life. At times it seems like hagiography but R.C.’s life is fascinating, and his role in many pivotal events for the church in the 20th century undeniable. You get a bit of a glimpse into his friendship with James Boice, but other friendships aren’t really discussed. That is one weakness. He had friendships, and those can be a window into the soul of a man. But Vesta is a constant in R.C.’s life and this book. I think the only time they weren’t together was when he was at the country club “office” writing. You see that he also evangelized there, and his faith wasn’t an ivy tower faith.

Mission at Nuremburg by Tim Townsend focuses on Chaplain Gerecke and his role in the Nuremburg trials. Along the way there are a number of other biographical sketches, particularly of the Nazi prisoners on trial. This also gives us a fresh look at some of the lesser known atrocities committed by the Nazis. I was unaware of the extent of slavery they engaged in, for instance. This is a compelling story. The weak point would be the author’s understanding of doctrine, but that wasn’t why I read the book.

Cheer Up! The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller by Michael Graham is an honest look at another great figure of the Reformed Church in America during the 20th century. Graham paints us the picture of a flawed man transformed by grace who learned from his mistakes. As he notes in the introduction, Miller is not one of the best known figures of his time, but was a profound influence on many you have heard of. This was a very encouraging read in a very discouraging time.

Politics and Social Issues

Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life

I haven’t read many books on the theology of government. David Innes wrote a book for his class at King’s College that is a great introduction to this subject. It is called Christ and the Kingdoms of Men. He draws on Scripture, a variety of theologians, philosophers and statesmen. I’m turning this into a Sunday School class. He gets into the purposes of government, its limitations and the place for submission and resistance as citizens. He refers fairly often to Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty and the two kingdoms views of Augustine, Luther and Calvin. He says very little about R2K. He ends with a chapter on citizens and statesman. This is a good book to think through the subject.

There are a number of books critiquing critical theory these days. Thaddeus Williams does that and more in Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. He discusses the differences between biblical justice and “social justice” using 12 questions. The book begins with a great forward by John Perkins. Williams refers to numerous original sources. I gave this away to some of our graduates since I found this to be an important and interesting read. If you are going to read one book on the subject, this is the one I’d recommend.

No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism by C. Herbert Oliver is a “blast from the past.” It has been reprinted by P&R with the transcript of a lecture at Westminster Seminary as an appendix. Oliver was raised under the Jim Crow laws before heading north for an education that included Westminster Seminary. He was a Presbyterian pastor and civil rights activist. This focuses on Scripture, and the misinterpretations that furthered racism. He develops the unity of the human race, how Darwin sought to advance white supremacy and the problem of segregation. Sadly we see a push for a new kind of segregation by minority groups. This is a book Christians should read.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman sounds like a dystopian book. It has a striking resemblance to the society of A Brave New World. This is a very important book to understand how we’ve gotten to this very strange time in history. It is filled with philosophical developments adopted by politics. He covers its effects as well. This should be considered his magnum opus (not to be confused with the penguin). This tome will not be for everyone because it does take time, patience and a dictionary. It is well-worth the effort.

A Year of Dystopian Novels

Animal Farm

It is called a fairy tale but George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a classic. It’s been a few decades since I’ve read it. It was as good as I remembered it. I got a graphic novel version for #1 son, and he loved it. Orwell warns of the dangers of communism in a story based loosely on the Russian revolution.

Orwell didn’t only write Animal Farm, he wrote another classic in 1984. There is a more elaborate, political theory here behind this. Though a socialist himself, he feared totalitarianism. He introduces us to Winston and Julia who want to see an end to Big Brother but end up being trapped and tortured until we get to a chilling ending. Orwell likes those. Yes, it can be a bit of a slog when Orwell is explaining Ingsoc. He paints a vivid picture of a dingy society.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is another dystopian classic. It is a softer form of totalitarianism. You don’t have the dinginess of 1984 and round the clock surveillance. But you do have the restrictions on information, relational disconnection including marriage in name only, frequent abortions, snitching for the state and the TV “family”. Montag has a quest for knowledge, but doesn’t know why. As a fireman whose job it is to burn books, and the buildings they are found in, he begins to keep copies for himself. And so began his troubles.

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On my last vacation I tried not to read any heavy theology, but rather read to fill my soul (so to speak). One of the two books I read was Paul Tripp’s A Shelter in the Time of Storm: meditations on God and Trouble. This book is a series of meditations on Psalm 27.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm: Meditations on God and Trouble Paul David Tripp cover image (1018202488879)

In his introduction Tripp expresses why he loves the Psalms. “They put difficulty and hope together in the tension of hardship and grace that is the life of everyone this side of eternity.” This Psalm is full hardship and grace. This is why I found this book as a balm for my soul. Life for the last few years has been full of hardship. I’ve experienced God’s grace but had grown weary in recent months. There have been lots of wounds to lick, so to speak.

Tripp also notes some emphases in this Psalm: shock value; regularity; focus on Christ; and call to patient hope. It is honest about how hard life can be generally and situationally, but also the goodness of God. The hardship in this Psalm is about the crowd, the mob, that encamps around him. He is assailed, devoured. But he finds refuge in God, anticipating deliverance.

Tripp does not work through the Psalm verse by verse. He begins with verse 11 which implores God to teach him God’s ways. This is intended to set the tone of humility as we approach the rest of the Psalm. There are 52 meditations (with a few questions for each). I generally read 1 a day but you could do one a week for a year to drill down deeper (re-read and meditate upon the verse and key thoughts in the meditation).

As Tripp does in other devotionals he includes some poetry. I used to write poetry to express what was in me, but have always struggled to read other people’s poetry (perhaps it was that high school report on Emily Dickinson). I don’t bother with those meditations. Possibly to my own detriment.

The majority of the meditations are prose, and for me they were quite helpful. Tripp talks quite a bit about false witnesses (vv. 12). Sadly, in this world people will not seek to understand you but attack you. Jesus is the place for us to hide: in His goodness and righteousness. He reminds us that we need to be honest about life, and aware of how profoundly broken and sinful this world and humanity are. We often struggle with spiritual blindness.

“It really does hurt when you are falsely accused. It is painful to think that someone is convinced that you did something that you didn’t do. It is frustrating to be accused of a wrong you had nothing to do with. It is maddening when you seem unable to do anything to explain or defend yourself.”

Tripp repeatedly brings us back to Christ in the process. His discussion of waiting on God is particularly helpful. He seems to work in cycles, circling back to subject like being a student, false witnesses, refuge, waiting and more. This is what meditation does. It isn’t linear but you circle back, see something that you didn’t notice before. You develop an earlier idea further.

This is book worth living with for awhile. Take time for your troubled heart to marinate in some gospel truths. You’ll be grateful

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
    it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet[b] I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will lift me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
    be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
    “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
    Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
    O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
    O God of my salvation!
10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
    but the Lord will take me in.

11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
12 Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.

13 I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!
14 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

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