Monday, June 27, 2016

Inbox: Booking It

In connection with the episode in Exodus 32 where God says, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book,” WD wonders, “What about those who repented (if any did)?”

Good question. I think this might be the first mention of such a heavenly “book” in scripture (assuming we take the reference literally), but similar language comes up in other places more than once. The Hebrew in Exodus is çêpher, an umbrella term for all kinds of written decrees, long and short, variously translated “book”, “letter”, “scroll” or “evidence”. The sense of the word is not merely a communication but a communication that has legal force.

That part we can all agree on. Don’t worry, it won’t last ...

Some initial questions arise:

1. Where Did the Idea of a Heavenly Book Come From?

Moses makes reference to a “book” that belongs to God in which names are recorded. Think about this: Where did he latch on to this idea? It’s certainly not intuitive. Further, it’s not a concept found in Genesis or earlier in Exodus. And if Moses is speaking figuratively when he refers to “your book”, then God not only indulges him and plays along, responding to Moses in his own chosen imagery, but subsequent prophets, psalmists and apostles go on to make this book and others a recurrent theme in God’s word.

Other ancient religions had their books too. The Egyptians had a “book of the dead” dating prior to the Exodus. Some have speculated that Moses was riffing on his knowledge of other religions, assuming that the God of Israel had a book just as other ‘gods’ did. Possible, but certainly not necessary.

More likely, I think, is that early man passed on a lot of information orally, including information that came via direct revelation. The Bible contains everything we need to know about God, but not necessarily everything that has been known about God throughout history. Moses may have been making reference to something previously revealed to the patriarchs.

2. What Sort of Heavenly Record?

So far it is evident from the discussion between God and Moses that some sort of permanent official record of men and women exists. We can also reasonably conclude that it exists for the benefit of created beings and not for God, who needs no reminders.

Whether such a record exists in heaven literally and tangibly (as a bound volume with a spine, a scroll or even a database), or whether Jehovah is using the language of accommodation for Moses’ benefit remains an open question. What we may want to take away is the fact that God makes his judgments a matter of public record, so we can be confident he plans to abide by them. There will be no backroom deals, no reprieves for the guilty and no unfairness in his methodology.

In Exodus 32, this record is merely called “your book” by Moses and “my book” by God. There are no adjectives or other modifiers to help us pin down exactly which heavenly book Moses is referring to, a fact that complicates things a bit, because there’s more than one book of records in heaven. Revelation 20:12 tells us that at the judgment of the Great White Throne, “books [plural] were opened”, and that the dead were judged by what was written in them.

Careful attention is required to ensure we don’t mix up our heavenly books.

3. So Are We Safe Stringing a Bunch of Verses Together?

The thing about tracing subjects like ‘God’s book’ through all of scripture is that we may easily group together apples and oranges in our eagerness to create a system of thought about them. The love of order is not in itself a vice (and may be a very good thing), but we need to be careful that we do not get so carried away in fleshing out our ‘heavenly book theory’ that we fail to look carefully at the context of each verse from which our system is built.

For example, scanning the Internet for references to the “book of life” reveals numerous theories, each of which is its own mini-system and many of which go in very different directions. Often this is because the theorist had a prior agenda or a bigger, pre-existing theological system into which he was trying to squeeze all his thoughts about the subject. Thus Calvinists theorize about the book one way, and those who believe Christians can be saved and lost have different ideas, and so on.

In the end, we need to remember that each reference we encounter in scripture, while forming part of a larger revelation, is also a unique message from God that had an original writer, an original point and original audience. Even more important, that original audience was blissfully unaware of other revelation on the same subject that had yet to be given, and in many New Testament cases, probably unaware of other revelation on the same subject that had already been given to other churches. It was impossible for pious Jews reading Exodus, the Psalms or Daniel to think about the verses they read exactly the way you and I might think about them, because they only had one piece of the puzzle.

What is often forgotten is that for the original audience, the part of the big picture that they were given was absolutely sufficient for their immediate practical spiritual needs. That doesn’t make a system built later superfluous, but we must be careful not to get big heads about being blessed to live at the end of the age with a completed revelation in front of us.

All to say, a system built primarily on a web of speculations about what this or that “might mean” is of dubious value, whereas a careful examination of what each reference must have meant to its original audience remains a profitable exercise in any age.

So before we try to answer WD’s question, let’s look at a bunch of verses about heavenly books in their original contexts.

The Book of the Living

In Psalm 69, a psalm that is personal as well as inarguably Messianic, David says:
“Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.”
This is just one line in what is essentially a string of invective. David depicts the “book of the living” as a place where God keeps his record of the righteous, and from which the names of David’s enemies (and Messiah’s) will one day be expunged.

While it’s certainly possible David is referring to precisely the same book as Moses, it’s also conceivable he’s simply using poetic imagery to describe one of the many remedies justice would naturally demand for the enemies of Messiah. It’s an intriguing reference but not one I’m inclined to read too much into, though the words “blotted out” suggest a similarity to Exodus 32.

Written in “the Book”

A third OT reference appears in Daniel 12, after what appears to be an executive summary of the Great Tribulation:
“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”
Daniel is promised that a subset of his Jewish brothers, “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book”, can expect divine deliverance. As in Exodus 32, there are no convenient modifiers to “the book”. It may be the book Moses and/or David refer to, but this is not made explicit.

Note also that there is no suggestion that ONLY Jewish names are written in the book, though that may have once been a natural assumption for faithful Jews.

We can wedge these other two Old Testament references into our system if we wish, but we have to recognize that, for various reasons, other commentators don’t.

Written in Heaven

Moving to the New Testament, the Lord Jesus makes no mention of a book, but tells his seventy-two returning disciples this:
“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written [grapho] in heaven.”
While the semantic range of the Greek grapho is not identical to the Hebrew çêpher, the Lord and the gospel writers only ever use grapho about scripture generally and the Law of Moses specifically. The idea is, again, of a communication that carries significant legal and/or moral force, not something to be taken lightly or amended regularly.

The Book of Life

In Philippians, Paul makes reference to a “book of life”, language that evokes David’s in Psalm 69, except without any “blotting”:
“Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
This seems almost a passing reference. There is nothing in the context to tell us more about what Paul means, though it is likely his readers in Philippi understood. Yet it also does not seem to be the sort of comment one makes if either: (i) the book of life contains the names of everyone, saved and unsaved, indiscriminately, or (ii) a moment later the believers in question might find themselves erased from blessedness due to some sort of sin against God, as the Exodus passage has been occasionally read to suggest. William MacDonald seems to agree:
“This is a lovely way of expressing the eternal and unspeakable blessedness that attaches to faith in Christ and service for Him.”
“Eternal and unspeakable blessedness” does not sit comfortably alongside the terror of being the object of divine erasure, a subject which is perhaps better explained when we come to Revelation, where all but one of the remaining references occur.

Enrolled in Heaven

But first, the book of Hebrews:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled [apographō] in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
In this case no book is mentioned, but the word “enrolled” certainly suggests it. Like the other words in this study, the Greek apographō has an official ring to it. It suggests being written into a register or enrolled, something to which (if you remember) David also makes reference in Psalm 69. There is nothing about the word that suggests impermanence.

The superiority of New Covenant to Old in all its aspects is the burden of the book of Hebrews. We should hardly be surprised to find that the person and work of Christ are sufficiently pleasing to God that those “in him” enjoy a different status from the faithful under the Old Covenant, who I believe are denoted with the phrase “the spirits of the righteous made perfect”.

On to the book of Revelation ... and I promise to get back to the original question at some point.

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