Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A faithful witness in the changing world


My Hebrew translation is made possible by the sponsorship of Committee on Preparation for Ministry at Presbytery of Boston, Church of the Covenant, and Taiwan Presbyterian Church of Greater Boston in my Summer Language Program at Harvard Divinity School.

My Approach

In the article below, I am adopting an Observation-Interpretation-Application (OIA) style which I acquired during my college days in Chinese Varsity Christian Fellowship at National University of Singapore. I am also inclined to a canonical approach in reading the Scripture even though I have made use of biblical criticism material.


In the midst of our economic downturn, what hope can we cling onto? Is my world crumbling because of the imminent retrenchment? How is my self-esteem rooted in God's promise? In this article, I will explore the proclamation of the Chronicler, a similar claim exerted by the writer of 1 Peter, and a translated quote from Karl Barth, as I reflect the implications for us today.


17 Now when David settled in his house, David said to the prophet Nathan, "I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent." 2 Nathan said to David, "Do all that you have in mind, for God is with you." 3 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying: 4 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: You shall not build me a house to live in…. Moreover I declare to you that the Lord will build you a house. 11 When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. (NRSV 1 Ch 17:1-4; 10b-12, bolded mine)

1 Chronicles is written around 430 B.C.E. to the returned exiles. Judah has fallen to Babylon in 587 B.C.E., and their Temple destroyed. The first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem about fifty years later to start rebuilding the Temple. In 445 B.C.E., Nehemiah returned to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem's city walls. How would the returned exiles view themselves as they are supposed to be the people chosen by their sovereign LORD God? They have been conquered, their Temple has been destroyed, and their kingdom has dissolved.

The author of the 1 Chronicles has an ardent task of narrating the covenant their LORD God made with their race. They are the Jews, the elected race, and the magnificent Solomon Temple is the dwelling place of their LORD. The story of how the LORD God elected them and established covenant with them must be recounted from one generation to the next. In the selected narrative above, the event took place after King David subdued his enemies, brought the ark back to Jerusalem, and had united the northern and southern tribes. It was a grand achievement, in spite of the fact that he was the youngest son of Jesse, and a shepherd from Bethlehem. In verse 1, it says that King David settled in his house, the root word in Biblical Hebrew is bayit meaning dwelling place. In this context, it is King David's dwelling place or translated simply as palace. In verse 4, the Chronicler uses the same root word, bayit, but this time it is not palace, it is the temple of God. The latter half of verse 10 uses the same root word, bayit, again. This time, it is neither palace nor temple of God, but a dynasty! To summarize, it means that King David is in his dwelling place, and he wants to build a temple for God. But God doesn't want him to build the temple, but insists David's son to be the one building it. On top of that, God wants to build an everlasting covenant with David and his descendants. The covenant God wants to make with him and his descendants is beyond all possible imaginations, and this is an everlasting covenant!!! This covenant remains unbroken for the returned exiles. Their LORD God is not only powerful, but is in solidarity with them.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Ps 8:3-4, NRSV)

The returned exiles will no doubt recall the Davidic Psalm 8. Their LORD God cares for them even though they have been subdued by the world super-power, Babylonians, and by 430 B.C.E., the Persians have taken over as their overlord. The returned exiles and their descendants need to hear the message of the unbroken covenant their LORD God made with them, and that God the Almighty Powerful One who creates the universe still cares for them.

How does the passage above speaks to us today? Even though we are not Jews, but through Jesus Christ, we have been adopted as God's own people.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pe 2:9-10, NRSV)

Christians are entitled to echo a similar response attributed to King David in Psalm 8 because God has given Godself to us through Jesus Christ. The author of 1 Peter exerts the claim that is familiar to the Jews, and this claim is built on Jesus Christ, the living stone. Because of the work of Jesus Christ, we are God's children through Him. This is not due to any of our effort, and can never be achieved based on our effort. It is wholly due to God's initiative, not our own! God's covenant with us stretches to eternity, and ultimately defines who we are. What we can do and are capable of doing is of a very finite magnitude, even if one were able to set up a monument similar to Solomon's magnificent temple (bayit). Just like God taking the initiative in establishing an eternal dynasty (bayit) with David, God takes the initiative in building an eternal relationship with us. Instead of grounding our self-identity in material possession, status, and power, it is grounded within the covenant which God has actively wrought with us. Karl Barth points out in his Church Dogmatics, Volume III, 1, Creation and Covenant

It is striking, but incontestable, that in his description of the grace of God in this final and supreme act of creation, the biblical witness makes no reference at all to the peculiar intellectual and moral talents and possibilities of man, to his reason and its determination and exercise. It is not in something which distinguishes him from the beasts, but in that which formally he has in common with them, viz. that God has created him male and female, that he is this being in differentiation and relationship, and therefore in natural fellowship with God. [1]

God is the active covenant maker, and we are the passive recipient. Yet in our passivity, we seek to respond actively based on our relationship with God. Our relationship with God defines the essence of who we are, and our active response is the extension of our essence. Material possession, status, and power must not be the benchmark which we measure ourselves, though it is a daily temptation to do so. What distinguishes us from other created beings is being made in God's image, and having a relationship with the Creator. For those who are rooted in a relationship with God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we are called to a daily thanksgiving, and to witness our relationship with God and with one another (as we believe in the communion of the saints) in the wider world.


Today, we need to hear the message that God has an eternal relationship with us; God has initiated a covenant with us; and God is with us from the beginning of human history till today even in the midst of this economic downturn, and is still speaking to us even though we may have lost our dignity due to retrenchment. We are called to witness this relationship that defined who we are essentially, and this in turn frames how we relate to others, and how we govern God’s creation. It is not an easy task to be a faithful witness, but we can respond with courage and love from the depth of who we are called to be by stretching out our hands to steady the step that we can take together, as one community of saints who are in an eternal relationship with God. Look around us, is there any brother or sister in need of help? Are these brother and sister a separate entity from us or are we one people of God? Are we strangers who happened to worship in the same building on a Sunday morning or are we co-priest who pray to the same God, and who partake in the same communion? Do we formulate policy that discriminates against other race and gender or do we perceive ourselves as one holy nation sharing a common reference point that makes social justice possible? As part of God’s called community, we help one another and learn to accept assistance from others in our daily journey of witnessing who we are and in our daily journey of proclaiming our self-identity through our actions.

As God is the Creator whom we owe our existence, and God does not forsake us by taking the initiative in calling us into an eternal relationship with Him, our self-identity is based on our fellowship with God, not on our wealth nor status nor power nor other created being. Neither of these can gain God's favor, nor satisfy our deep longing for the spiritual. We are made to find rest in God, and to be fully satisfied in God. Material object is part of God’s creation, and we are called to be God's faithful steward , and not to be enslaved by what is finite. We are called to a vocation, and we have a special place in the society because of our calling. Promise of wealth, power and status is not our master and neither must it hold power over us. No matter where we are, what vocation we are called to, we are priceless and worthy because we are God’s child, and called into a relationship with God bought at the price of Christ. Precisely because each of us is a child of God, we are free to be who God called us to be. Howard Thurman says it well, "The awareness of being a child of God tends to stablize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness and power ... A man's conviction that he is God's child automatically tends to shift the basis of his relationship with all his fellows." [2]

As we continue in the journey of being a faithful witness, may we be conscious of being a child of God, and be a beacon of light to those around us. Let us witness the goodness of God, the sovereignty of God, and the presence of God in our midst. I pray that one day, all of us, including our friends, may join us in unison and praise “Adonai (Yahweh), our LORD, how majestic is your name on all the earth!” (Ps 8:9, my translation from Biblical Hebrew). Amen.


[1] Karl Barth, The Digital Karl Barth Library, (Accessed, Aug 25, 2009).

[2] Howard Thurman,
Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, 1996), 50-51.

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