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Othello, Jesus and the Gospel

I just finished reading Shakespeare’s Othello with my sons for school and was once again reminded why Shakespeare is regarded as a genius. He not only had a way with words but he deeply understood the human condition.

Othello is a moving portrayal of the terrible power of slander, suspicion and jealousy. It was painful at certain points as I saw this loving young couple torn apart by the conniving slander of Iago. Othello and Desdemona are devoted to one another, newly married and deeply in love. But, Iago, proud of his “divinity of hell,” insinuates and cultivates baseless suspicions of infidelity in Othello’s mind so that Othello begins to hate his bride and eventually kills her. Part of the power of the portrayal is that it makes sense- you can see why Othello falls for the lies, why others caught in Iago’s web of deceit are sucked in. The frailty of human nature is accurately portrayed.

The tragedy serves to warn us against the danger of slander, suspicion and jealousy. In our own relationships we must beware the insidious erosion of evil suspicion. I’m sure Elvis was pondering Othello when he sang, “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.” There is a proper jealousy, such as God has, but combined with evil suspicion, jealous is warped and deadly. Only open communication and ready repentance can save us from this monster.

Further, I was reminded of how grateful that Christ is a better husband to the church than Othello was to Desdemona. Although we are not faithful and chaste like Desdemona, Jesus remains ever faithful and unlike Othello does not destroy us. Instead he bears with our weakness and forgives us. This also reminded me, once more, that all the great stories are, in one way or the other, reflections of the Great Story.

Singing Psalm 19

This week with my kids we have been singing the following version of Psalm 19 to the tune of “Lead on O King Eternal.” This only covers verses 1-6 & 14, so it would be better if it covered all these verses. It does capture though the connection between natural and special revelation, and the grandeur of God’s word. Joined with this noble tune, it is a grand celebration of the glory of God in creation and the purity of His word as well as a call to faithful obedience.



Psalm 19

The heav’ns declare Thy glory, the firmament Thy power;

Day unto day the story repeats from hour to hour;

Night unto night replying, proclaims in every land,

O Lord, with voice undying, the wonders of Thy hand.


The sun with royal splendor goes forth to chant Thy praise;

And moonbeams soft and tender their gentler anthem raise;

O’er every tribe and nation that music strange is poured,

The song of all creation, to Thee, creation’s Lord.


How perfect, just, and holy the precepts Thou hast given;

Still making wise the lowly, they lift the thoughts to heav’n;

How pure, how soul restoring, Thy gospel’s heav’nly ray,

A brighter radiance pouring than noon of brightest day.


All heav’n on high rejoices to do its Maker’s will;

The stars with solemn voices resound Thy praises still;

So let my whole behavior, thoughts, words, and actions be,

O Lord, my Strength, my Savior, one ceaseless song to Thee.



Bible Conference with Sandy Willson

But As For You: Regaining Our Confidence in God's WordOn March 20-21 the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies, which I direct, will host it’s 7th bible study conference, aimed at helping people grow in their ability to interpret and apply the Scriptures. Sandy Willson will be our guest speaker and he will address the theme, “But as for You: Regaining Our Confidence in God’s Word.” “But as for you” is taken from Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy as he called Timothy to hold fast to biblical principles in spite of what others around him were doing.

This is a timely word as cultural pressure increases against any who would hold firm to biblical truth and practice. I am looking forward to hearing Sandy Willson address this theme. If you know of Sandy and his ministry at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, then you know what a gifted expositor he is. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to hear him.

As always, we will also have breakout sessions led by faculty members from Union’s School of Theology and Missions.

You can see the full schedule online and you can register online as well.

The conference is intended for anyone who wants to study the Bible, including Bible study leaders and pastors.

I hope you will come and join us.

Here is a brief video talking more about the conference:


When Shepherds Play the Part of Wolves

 “When those who have the title of shepherd play the part of wolves, heresy grows in the garden of the Church.”
- Lothar of Saxony, 12th century (cited in Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 123).









[Illustration, "Shepherd Wolf," by Gustave Dore]

The Travels of Marco Polo

marco poloI just finished reading The Travels of Marco Polo with my older sons for school. The historical value of the breadth of information it contains about the eastern lands where Polo travelled is undeniable, but the telling itself is not very compelling. I expected a bit more narrative. While some stories are told, it is largely a catalogue, region by region, of various facts including religion, monetary practice, flora, fauna, and particular practices of the people. These facts are often related in a formulaic way so that it sounds like you are reading the same section over several times. You could get most of the value of the book by reading the prologue.

While not very exciting, there are interesting bits of information if you are looking. I was intrigued to hear how far Christianity had spread into the east with Christians being reported in many of the regions described, sometimes just a few, sometimes a significant group. The main religions were idolatry, Islam (he calls them Saracens) and Christianity. Polo described one group who had somewhere in the past lost much of their religion but continued to cling to what was remembered from their fathers. When Polo investigated he saw the “holy book” they were using was the Psalter and he recognized them as Christians.

The peoples described varied in many ways. The most striking thing to me about the habits of the people across this wide area was the rampant sexual immorality. The immorality took various forms but in most places it was an accepted way of life.

The saddest story concerns Kubilai Khan’s request for Christian missionaries to come and teach the gospel to him and his people. The Khan was interested in becoming a Christian but required people to come to teach the truths of this religion so his people could understand and so he could make a reasonable decision to accept it. As the prologue relates:

He [Kubilai Khan] sent word to the Pope that he should send up to a hundred men learned in the Christian religion … and skilled to argue and demonstrate plainly to idolaters and those of other persuasions that their religion is utterly mistaken and that all the idols which they keep in their houses and worship are things of the Devil- men able to show by clear reasoning that the Christian religion is better than theirs. (36)

However, when Polo’s father and uncle returned to Italy they found the Pope had died, and they waited for two years with no Pope being elected due to conflicting interests in the church. The decided to return anyway (this time taking young Marco with them), and just in time were finally sent two friars to take on the missionary work. However, before they had gotten past modern day Turkey they came into difficulty so that the friars “were scared at the prospect of going farther” (39). The Polos went on, but the missionaries did not.

So, the ruler of much of the Far East requests missionaries but fulfillment of the request is delayed due to division within the church. Then, finally two missionaries are sent (although up to 100 were requested), only to turn back early on due to fear of personal safety. The explorers/businessmen continued, but the missionaries did not. What a rebuke.

Though this is not a thrilling read, there is much to be pondered here concerning missions and Christian involvement in non-Christian societies.

[We read the Penguin Classics edition, and page numbers refer to this edition. Other editions may vary since there is an interesting textual history to this book. The Penguin edition does text critical work to draw from the differing manuscripts]

“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”, Wesley

This Charles Wesley hymn is a powerful presentation of the gospel call, pleading for people to come to Christ.

Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all mankind.

Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.

Come, all ye souls by sin oppressed,
Ye restless wanderers after rest;
Ye poor, and maimed, and sick, and blind,
In Christ a hearty welcome find.

Come, and partake the Gospel feast;
Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of your God,
And eat His flesh, and drink His blood!

You vagrant souls, on you I call;
(O that my voice could reach you all!)
You all may now be justified,
You all may live, for Christ hath died.

His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to His love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.

See Him set forth before your eyes,
That precious, bleeding Sacrifice!
His offered benefits embrace,
And freely now be saved by grace.

This is the time, no more delay!
This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call,
And live for Him Who died for all.

- Charles Wes­ley, Hymns for Those That Seek and Those That Have Re­demp­tion in the Blood of Je­sus Christ, 1747.


Psalm-singing & Beheadings

Last night after getting home from church, as I was about to gather the things for the Psalm my family would sing this week, I saw the news of the Egyptian Christians beheaded by ISIS. I pointed the story out to my older sons. We have talked much over the last year about the call in Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful unto death.”

Then I returned to the Psalm work. I remembered a Psalm we had sung in church recently that I thought worked well (tune & words), and I thought we could sing it at home. When I pulled out the worship guide I saw that it was Psalm 31, the metrical version of Tate & Brady, with some adjustments by Chris Mathews. We sang it to the tune, “St. Thomas,” which my family associates most readily with “Rise Up O Men of God.” The closing verse seemed particularly appropriate in light of the news.

(v24) Ye that on God rely, courageously proceed:

For He will still your hearts supply with strength in time of need.

I was glad to be able to sing this Psalm with my children this morning, God-inspired words to a noble tune reinforcing in our souls the call to carry on courageously in the face of opposition (context of the rest of the Psalm) trusting that God will supply the strength we need.

When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir, Bob Kerrey

when i was a young manWhen I Was a Young Man: A Memoir, Bob Kerrey
(Audio version, Audible Studios, 2014)

I was offered a free review copy of this audio book and accepted knowing I had the semester break to listen. I recognized the author as a politician, decorated war veteran, whom I thought had run for but not received the presidential nomination of the Democrat party. That was as far as my knowledge went, and it was enough to stir my curiosity.
I liked Kerrey’s writing style as well as his reading. It was straightforward and compelling. I particularly liked hearing his description of his childhood. His struggle with asthma while wanting to play football made a compelling story of perseverance. I was intrigued to hear of his church experience as well. Particularly interesting was his discussion of how the stories he heard shaped his world and where the stories came from. Kerrey stated, “My heroes came from stories I heard on Sunday. … I also learned heroic stories downtown at the Stuart Theater” where he watched the serials of Tarzan, Zorro and various cowboy movies. One of the stabilizing effects in his childhood was feeling “drawn to the great stories of the church and the parallel stores I saw on the Stuart Theater screen.” This was a reminder of the powerful impact of stories on our formation, and it made me wistful for a setting in which stories “on the screen” typically ran parallel to and supported the stories of the church.

I was also struck by his account of how a New Testament class impacted him. Since I teach such a NT survey class this was of particular interest. It was interesting that he seriously considered pursuing a ministerial vocation as a result of this class. It seemed that the Viet Nam war sidetracked this potential interest. It was sad that his reading for the NT class was Bultmann and Tillich. I wondered what might have happened if he had been introduced to more orthodox writers.
His experience in Viet Nam was clearly the central place where his story was going. I was intrigued by his first person account of training in one of the earliest SEAL teams and of what it was like to enter Viet Nam not knowing what to expect. Eventually he was seriously wounded, losing his leg, and was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. His angst about the event for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor was clear but the reasons for it were not. Only after doing some web searching did I discover that there was controversy surrounding the event with contradicting stories and charges of killing civilians. I have no insight into sorting out those debates, but this account did demonstrate the terrible realities of war and the lingering effects on those involved.
The book closed in an odd way by returning to the story of his uncle who died in World War II. This left me uncertain as to what the author was trying to accomplish in the book as a whole. However, even with that oddity, the basic stories of a man’s life growing up from the 1940’s to the 1960’s was intriguing.

Resources for Preaching/Teaching Psalm 91

As mentioned in the last post, I intend to comment on the resources I use each time I prepare to teach or preach a Psalm. Recently I taught Psalm 91 in an adult Sunday School class.

Eric Lane’s Psalms 90-150: The Lord Reigns (Christian Focus, 2006) was a bit new to me so I tried it out. Sadly it was not helpful, being thin in discussion and idiosyncratic. I had also recently received a copy of the new NICOT volume on the Psalms written by deClaissé, Jacobson, and Tanner. This volume, also, was disappointing. The exposition covered only two pages (disappointing in such a series) and in that space dealt too much with little details. If that is all the space you have you need to have a narrow focus and nail that well. Not so here. In the closing section the author stated: “It is up to the one hearing these words to decide how these words can serve as a bridge from what came before, to decide what and how things have changed” (701). I may have misunderstood, but this sounded like saying that it is up to the reader to figure out the meaning in the end.

I have previously expressed disappointment with the Hermeneia commentary on the Psalms written by Hossfeld and Zenger (2 volumes so far with the third expected). It is very technical and critical, but the more I’ve used it I have changed my opinion. This is often the first place I go now when needing information on background or on a specific word. Also, perhaps its chief value, is the separate section in the commentary on each psalm for how it is used in the New Testament. I have seen nothing else like this for its comprehensiveness and detail. Theologically we are quite different but just having the info on NT usage, including allusion, is so helpful.

James Mays’ Interpretation volume is brief, but as usual it got to the heart of the issue, profound theological truth from a pastoral angle in pithy expression. He helpfully mentioned the commendation Athanasius gave of this Psalm in his letter to Marcellinus. This was a reminder of why I regularly turn to this volume.

An Indictment on Evangelical Worship

At the start of a new semester, I have chosen for my poem of the week a stirring critique of all too common experiences in our evangelical worship services by Justin Wainscott. We have probably all seen the things skewered here. Let us labor for better.

 An Indictment on Evangelical Worship

Set the stage and dim the lights,
Create my mood; abuse my rights.
Out-do all you did last week,
And never let the silence speak.
Entertain me, at all costs,
Blur the lines ‘tween true and false.
Smile and tell me all’s okay,
I’ll believe whate’er you say.
Give me mirrors; give me smoke,
Fill me with clichés and jokes.
Like an orphan with no story,
Cut me off from all before me.
Hide the pain and fake the smile,
Lamentation’s out of style.
Give me milk and warm the bottle,
Make sure it is the latest model.
Numb my mind with borrowed tricks,
Feed my soul with Pixi-stix.
Don’t confront what lurks within,
Or else I’ll never come again.

- M. Justin Wainscott, © 2007