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Old School Path to Purity

Too often, Old Testament preachers and leaders learned about purity the hard way. So you won't have to do the same, we talked to professor of Old Testament Daniel Block.
Old School Path to Purity
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PreachingToday.com: Purity, the clean and the unclean, the idea of holiness—these are dominant Old Testament themes. As preachers pursue purity in their personal lives, what are some of the important messages from the Old Testament for them?

Daniel Block: There are many places we could go to answer that question. Deuteronomy 17 is a chapter that describes, from Moses' perspective, what Israel's king is supposed to be like. We tend to define our role in terms of the tasks we perform. But it's interesting that when Moses thinks about the king, he doesn't talk about the tasks he is supposed to perform. He talks about the kind of person he is supposed to be.

Actually, first Moses talks about what kind of person the king is not supposed to be. For example, the preacher, leader, king is not to use his office for his own personal gain. In this text, Moses says the king shall not multiply horses for himself, silver and gold for himself, or wives for himself. That means using the office for my benefit. The fact is, preachers as leaders are not called to this position for their own sakes; they are called for the sake of those whom the Lord puts under them in their charge.

It is easy for those of us who preach and teach to tell others how to live, yet we forget that we need ourselves to be putting that Word into practice.

The text goes on to say:

It shall happen when he sits on the throne of the kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll in the presence of the priest. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by carefully observing all the words of this Torah and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right or to the left in order that he and his sons may continue long in the kingdom and in the midst of Israel.

There are some fabulous words here for preachers. It is tempting for us to read the Scriptures with our congregation in view. What does our congregation need from this? And so we are always thinking: How shall I preach this?

Instead, this text reminds us that the Scriptures are to be read for ourselves. This is the one thing in this passage that the king is to do for himself. He's not to multiply silver and gold and horses and wives for himself, but he shall copy this Torah for himself and he shall read it.

Why is it important for the king to read it? The text gives us the answer: "He shall read it all the days of his life that he may learn to fear the Lord his God." That's the first point in a life of purity and godliness—the kind of awe we should have before God. We should be in awe that he would have called us, first of all, to a relationship with himself. And then, second, that he would have called us to be his representatives, his mouthpieces. We need to fear him first.

But how does one demonstrate this fear? "By observing all the words of this Torah and these statutes." It's the personal life, the practical life, the everyday life—not the professional stuff. This text says nothing about how a king is supposed to govern. It talks only about how the king is supposed to live so that he, like preachers, becomes the embodiment of all of the virtues and the values of the covenant relationship.

Verse 20 adds that "his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen." This is a problem for preachers. The more public our ministry, the greater the temptation; the bigger the crowds before whom we minister, the bigger the temptation. And that is why it's so important to keep our minds in the Word for ourselves—that it shapes us—because it will keep us humble. It will keep reminding us that, apart from the grace of God, we are still where all the other Canaanites were. And, apart from the grace of God, we would not be where we are. All that we are and have, we owe to him. He is our benefactor.

I suppose the person we really need to look at is Ezra. In fact, Ezra has kind of become the model of my life. My life verse is Ezra 7:10. He has just been talking about how the good hand of the Lord was upon him, making his journey back from Babylon to Jerusalem such a success. And then he sticks in this interesting verse: "Ezra had set his heart to study the Torah of the Lord, to practice it and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel."

This is the recipe for a preaching ministry that pleases God. There are three parts here. First, he set his heart to study the Torah. Of course, in doing this he is fulfilling what God had told the Israelites through Moses about the king. Ezra has taken that role seriously. Now, Ezra is a priest, so he has a more official proclamation ministry than a king would have had. But in this instance he starts with the study of the Scripture.

Second, he set his heart to practice it. Again, this means he put it into action in his own life. It is easy for those of us who preach and teach to tell others how to live, yet we forget that we need ourselves to be putting that Word into practice. In fact, it's important to do that before we do the third thing, which is to teach.

If we teach before we have studied, we are in danger of communicating heresy and speaking half-truths—we are in danger of teaching without authority. If we teach before we have applied, we teach without integrity. There is no incarnation of the message, and that is what preachers need to be: incarnations of the message they preach. For if we do not live the life of godliness, the life of purity, the life of righteousness, nothing we say matters. In the end, God doesn't look at our hearts through the service we give him, but he looks at the service we render through our hearts and through the lives that we live.

Ezra 7:10 gives us the proper formula in the proper order: study, practice, and then teach.

There are lots of other places we could go to in the Old Testament for examples of preachers. I'd like to talk just a little bit about Josiah. Again, Josiah was a king; he wasn't a preacher. But on the other hand, in the context in which he lived, his role was very much like that of a preacher.

The story of Josiah is very familiar. Here's a person who came to his office very young in life, but he started out so well. And in the course of doing the will of God—cleaning the temple, destroying idols—they stumbled across the Torah, which undoubtedly was the Book of Deuteronomy. And they took it to Huldah, the prophet, who read it for them, and King Josiah tore his clothes and repented on behalf of his people. And Huldah issued a prophecy that the story is over for Judah, but he, Josiah, did not need to worry because he will go to his grave in peace.

Now, the interesting thing about Josiah is this little verse stuck in 2 Kings 23:25. We've talked about personal purity, personal godliness—the personal piety of the preacher. Here's a verse we need to hear: "Before him there was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might according to the Torah of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him."

This is a very special verse. It's a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5, the second hand of the Shema: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might," it's usually translated. That's a strange word there, "might." It's an adverb that everywhere else means "very." "You shall love the Lord your God with all your very," which obviously doesn't make any sense. In this context, it really means with all the stuff that's associated with you. So you can see that in Deuteronomy 6:4, the author is moving in ever-increasing, concentric circles.

He starts with, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart," which actually means "mind" as well. At least half the time in the Old Testament, the word translated "heart" really refers to your thinker as well as your feeler. The heart, the lēb, is the seat of the emotions, the seat of thoughts, the seat of the will, and the seat of resolution. It is the inside of you.

And the second word he uses is nephesh, which is usually translated "soul," but of course the way we understand that is not quite accurate because the Hebrews didn't talk much about the soul as opposed to the body. The word nephesh here means your being. When God breathed into that piece of dirt, it became a nephesh chay, a living being. And so this passage is about loving the Lord your God with all your being—with your head, with your hands, with your feet—every part of you devoted to God without reservation.

The third circle is usually translated "strength," but really means "substance" or "stuff." It's your whole household. And in the ancient world, he's talking here to the head of a household, so it would have meant his family, his animals, his house, his tools—everything committed to God; Nothing reserved for any other god.

And of course the first part of the Shema works the same way. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone." It's usually translated as "the Lord is One," but it really means "the Lord is the One and only One to whom we should be devoted." And that's where we preachers have to start. Everything about us must be devoted to God—our books, our tapes, our families, our talents, our gifts, our congregations. They're not ours; they're God's. Everything committed to God, nothing reserved for self.

And so when the author here says that Josiah turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul (person) and with everything associated with him, he's talking about wholehearted, whole-bodied, covenant commitment to God. It's all of life given to God.

Purity, the clean and the unclean, the idea of holiness—these are dominant Old Testament themes. As preachers pursue purity in their personal lives, what are some of the important messages from the Old Testament for them?

Malachi 2. The problem Malachi addresses throughout the book is that there is no fear of God in this place. And in the absence of fear, you have all kinds of anomalies and problems. Where there is no fear of God—we see it in chapter 1—there's boredom in worship. Where there is no fear of God, people don't fulfill their vows. Where there is no fear of God, people are greedy; they don't give to the Lord what the Lord calls for. Where there is no fear of God, people are heartless toward the poor. Where there is no fear of God, people don't keep their marriage covenants.

But stuck right in the middle of this, the prophet tells us that where there is no fear of God in the life of the priest—that is, the preacher—nothing is right. He talks about the covenant that God had made with Levi, a covenant whose objectives were life and peace and reverence. Surely, the preacher should be the embodiment of all of those. He lives life to the fullest. His life is one of shalom and peace, and he embodies reverence. In this instance, Malachi talks about the day that used to be, when the Levites revered God and stood in awe of his name.

It is God who calls us, and so we speak for him only by the authority of his calling—not our learning, not our giftedness.

Unfortunately, in our day, we have a lot of preachers who lack the gravitas that should come with the awesome privilege of standing before God's people week in and week out and being spokespersons for God. We've trivialized the role. We've trivialized our positions. We've become flippant about it. But the preacher needs to be aware that, like the Levites, his role is to embody awe and reverence.

How do we communicate this? Malachi goes on: "Truth"—that's the professional teaching and preaching work the Levites used to perform—"was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips." Now that may have to do with the preaching and teaching they did, but I think it also has to do with their casual conversation. Everything about them was devoted to God, in honor of God, for the glory of God. So they spoke righteousness.

Then Malachi talks about the next quality of what a Levite used to be: "He walked with me in peace and uprightness." Some pride themselves in their walk with God. Isn't God lucky to have me? Where would God be without me? But of course that's the opposite of what Malachi is talking about.

Micah 6:6–8 says, "With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

A humble walk with God … what does that look like? Well, I suppose it's a walk that is the opposite of the non-verbal signals we send—those signals that say, "Look at me." We're so impressed with our importance. We feel like people should look at us and see who we are. But according to Scripture, the answer is no. It's not about us; it's about God. It's about God, and the call to walk with him is an undeserved privilege and an unspeakable honor.

And then Malachi says, "He turned back many from iniquity, for the lips of the priest should preserve knowledge and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts." This is a part of our task as preachers. We are to call people from sin. We are to teach them, to give them true instruction. We are to preserve knowledge. But the right to do that doesn't come from our training. The right to do that doesn't come from the degrees we have or the seminaries from which we graduated or the talents we have. The right to do that comes only from being designated as a messenger of God. It is God who calls us, and so we speak for him only by the authority of his calling—not our learning, not our giftedness.

Malachi then goes on to talk about how it is in his day: "But as for you, you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by the instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi." And I'm concerned about that in our day. How many preachers have corrupted the covenant of Levi? How many of us are turning people aside, away from truth, in our preaching? And how many of us are refusing to call people out of sin to the glorious grace of forgiveness and the transforming power of Christ through his Word and the Holy Spirit? We've lost that.

We don't embody the passion that is needed for that anymore, and we certainly don't communicate it with our preaching, because our concern these days is often to make people feel good about themselves rather than to speak the truth. After all, we do want them to come back next Sunday. And if you lay guilt on people, they might not come back. We've forgotten that for sinners to learn that they are sinners is the most glorious gospel we can preach, because that opens up the door for us to proclaim the wonderful message of forgiveness that God has made available through Christ.

Of course, in our personal lives, we need to embody the delight that is found in that forgiveness. All of life ought to be a celebration of God's grace and goodness, so that when we stand before the people and proclaim the oracles of God, we don't proclaim them as merely objective truth or a distant reality, but we give voice to that which we have experienced and which the people can see in our lives.

It's interesting that the prophet Malachi doesn't only talk about the problem. He also gives a solution. Right at the end of the book, he answers the question, If there is no fear of God in this place, how do we get it back? It's an interesting answer, and we find it in chapter 4 verse 4: "Remember the Torah of Moses, my servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel." And of course he's talking about more than just the laws. He's talking about the Book of Deuteronomy, which represents Moses' final pastoral farewell addresses.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives us the recipe for fear, because the fear of God is so crucial for the life of holiness and godliness on the part of preachers and others who would lead God's people. In Deuteronomy 31:9 we read:

Moses wrote this Torah. He gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, saying, "At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the feast of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which he will choose, you shall read this Torah in front of all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people—the men, the women and children, and the alien in your town—in order that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God and be careful to observe all the words of this Torah."

Deuteronomy presents a very interesting recipe for life. That recipe starts with reading the Torah. Then it moves to hearing the Torah, learning the Torah, fearing God, walking in his ways, and living. Reading is the key to life, but right in the middle there is that word fear.

In chapter 10, the Lord says through Moses, "What does the Lord ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him and serve him with all your hearts?" The way in which we learn to fear the Lord is through reading the Word.

This is the essence of Psalm 1: "Blessed is the one who does not stand in the counsel of the ungodly, nor walk in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful, but his delight is in the Torah of the Lord."

It's not just law; it is the living Word of God. The Book of Deuteronomy is about life. "His delight is in the Torah of the Lord, and in his Torah he meditates day and night." That kind of person will be like a tree planted by rivers of water. And of course the key here is, "that they may fear me and obey me and live." God has provided a means for life. It's in the Word. It is the Word that cleanses. The Holy Spirit takes that Word and, through it, does his transforming work in us.

What about some of the well-known or little known figures of the Old Testament? Prophets and priests probably have the most direct correspondence with preachers of today. Are there lives we see in the Old Testament who—either through their bad example or their good example—teach preachers something about the pursuit of purity in their own lives?

The prophet with whom I am most familiar is Ezekiel. I lived with Ezekiel for 14 years, and nobody in the Scriptures save our Lord himself has had a greater influence on my life. Ezekiel offers us some interesting illustrations in answer to the question you raised.

At the beginning of the book, Ezekiel is presented as a person resistant to the call of God. My own interpretation is that he is as hard as his fellow Israelites, and that's why the Lord works so hard on him, giving him this overwhelming vision of his glory and of the degradation of the people all around him. And the Lord tells him: Don't succumb to the temptation of being hard like your people.

But at the end of that, in chapter 3, we have a very difficult text in which the Lord says, "Son of man, I have made you a watchman." And the role of a watchman is to blow the whistle, not only on the evil, but to sound the alarm that the enemy is just over the hill. And in this instance, the enemy is God who has put the sword into the Babylonians' hands.

God's evaluation is always based on completely different things than that by which the people evaluate a good preacher.

And so Ezekiel is to sound the alarm, to alert the Israelites that judgment is about to happen. And God says: Ezekiel, if you don't sound the alarm when I tell you to, and people die, I'll hold you accountable. On the other hand, if you are obedient and you do sound the alarm, and people turn from their wicked ways and live, they will live.

But nothing is said about credit. I think there's a lesson in that. The Lord doesn't call us to preach for our own sakes. And if there is a response to our proclamation, it is not to our credit. It is to the credit of God, whose Spirit works in their lives. And we ought to be cautioned against the understanding that this happens because of who I am or what talents or gifts I have.

There are a couple of other things about that passage that intrigued me. One is when the Lord tells Ezekiel right up front that he's going to speak to a hardened audience. If God wanted Ezekiel to go to a responsive audience, he'd have made a foreign missionary out of him. "But I am sending you to a people who are hard and who will not listen."

And the only preparation Ezekiel gets as the preacher of the Word is a hardened forehead, so that he may override whatever comes. There is no promise of fruit. Ezekiel is never encouraged by God to continue because the fruit will come. In fact, when you read the Book of Ezekiel, you discover that there is very little evidence of any impact other than Ezekiel was an entertainer.

At the end of chapter 33 we have an interesting passage that I think is quite appropriate for preachers in our own day, because here Ezekiel describes what was happening to him. Stuck away with all the rest of the exiles in Babylon, Ezekiel was not allowed by God to leave his house. Everything he did was at his place. And so people would come and they'd wonder, What kind of show is he going to put on today? And he performed some very strange acts. He became proverbial for these acts.

But in chapter 33, at the end, we have an interesting picture that's painted of this preacher:

Son of man, your fellow citizens who talk about you by the walls and in the doorway of the houses, they speak to one another, each to his brother, saying, "Come on now. Let's go. We hear there's a word from God at Ezekiel's house. Let's go see what that word is that comes forth from the Lord today." And they come to you as people come and they sit before you as if they were my people and they hear your words.
But they don't do them. For they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouths, and their heart goes after their own gain. And you, you are to them like a sensual song by a crooner, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on the instrument, for they hear your words but they don't practice them at all.

It's an interesting passage. Ezekiel has obviously become a very skillful communicator. And the people are coming to him for the show. Of course, there's a reminder in this that just because we're called to serious business in preaching the Word of God does not mean we should become bland in our communication. On the contrary, Ezekiel offers us an example of a person who knows his audience well, and he uses whatever means it takes to get the message across.

But on the other hand, we need to be aware that carnal people come to us for entertainment. Carnal people come to hear us for all kinds of reasons. Some of them are simply coming out of guilt. We must be in church on Sunday. But in this case it was simply to be entertained. Ezekiel, the preacher, was a good orator.

But Ezekiel had to remember that he was not responsible for the fruit; he was responsible only for being faithful to do that which God had asked him to do: proclaim the message, both in its content and in its form, the way God directed. Whatever response there was, he had to leave in the hands of God. It must have been hard for this prophet to do that. He had to experience some extremely troubling things, embarrassing things, and painful things.

For example, in chapter 24 we have a sad story. The word comes to Ezekiel: "I'm about to take your wife from you, but you are not to mourn." And of course in the morning his wife dies, and he gives no public expression of his grief. And the people ask, "What's wrong with Ezekiel?" But the text then tells us that his wife is a picture of Jerusalem, the delight of God's eyes which is about to disappear.

Sometimes the call of God will make heavy, heavy demands on the preacher. Here's a man who had to sacrifice his wife for the ministry. Other prophets have sacrificed other things—abuse, ridicule. Those of us who stand before God's people stand before them not to hear their applause. We stand before them as those who proclaim the oracles of God so that, at the end of the day, we might hear the Lord's "Well done." And his evaluation is always based on completely different things than that by which the people evaluate a good preacher.

I learned once from a wise old scholar that, when we do the work of scholarship, we need to be good at what we do and we need to be good at who we are. If we're not good at who we are, then what we do will never be listened to anyhow. This is a biblical principle. We who are called to preach the Word of God are called first to live it. In Leviticus 19 (and in many other places) we read, "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." As preachers, our calling is to embody that, so that when people look at us, they don't see us, but they see the glorious Christ, and they see in us what God in Christ can do for them. That's the primary calling of the preacher.

David asks some important questions in Psalm 20. "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?" I don't think he's just talking about the priest. He's talking about worshipers. To "ascend the hill of the Lord" and to "stand in his holy place" means to enter into his house and find acceptance.

When they entered the house of a king, people of David's generation would walk down the long carpet and come to the throne of the king. Then they would be down on their faces, and they wouldn't dare look into the face of the king until they'd gotten a signal. Either one of the attendants would take this person out, or perhaps the king might grant acceptance with a tap of the mace on that person's shoulder. "Stand, that I might speak with you"—it would be the signal of acceptance.

Then David asks, "Who is it that can find this acceptance in the house of God?" His answer: "He who has clean hands." And of course that speaks of life—our deeds, our actions. But it's more than just external, because we can fake that. "He who has clean hands and a pure heart." That means the inside as well as the outside. And then David continues, "He who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood"—which really is another word for idolatry—"and hasn't sworn deceitfully."

Now, if this is true of ordinary worshipers, how much more is it true of those who lead in worship? Those who stand before God's people as his representative, presuming to speak for him? What kind of preparation do we need to go through daily, regularly, before we stand before God's people that we might be clean—vessels of honor without blemish or stain?

And of course the priests and their sacrifices had to be unblemished. And that's how we need to be, because we represent the holiness of God. But we also represent the mercy of God, so that, having been in the presence of God, we can come out of that moment of fellowship and communion and transformation like Moses, with faces aglow. And the people will see that we have been with Jesus. The evidence of that is not just in the words we say, but surely, most importantly, in the lives we live.

Daniel Block is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

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