Sunday, January 12, 2020

Times and Dates

The phrase “unto this day” or its equivalent occurs 92 times in scripture by my count, 86 times in Hebrew and six times in Greek. Well over a dozen Bible authors use it. When I was much younger and more solipsistic, I read it — don’t laugh — as if it meant up until the late twentieth century, as if “this day” meant the day I was reading it. It seemed rather cool to me that so many landmarks in Old Testament history could survive so long.

Later it dawned on me that of course it really means up until sometime between the first moment the writer put quill to papyrus and the moment he finished editing what he had written. No more, no less.

Which Day is That Anyway?

Learning to ask “Which day is that anyway?” is not a trivial exercise. It has immense theological and practical significance. If we sing “This is the day that the Lord has made” while thinking about the warmth of the sun on our skin and all the things we plan to get done on a beautiful weekend morning, we are not complete morons. In one sense, every day is a day that the Lord has made. But that’s not at all what the psalmist meant when he wrote it. If we fail to notice that the “day the Lord has made” is the day in which God takes his resurrected Son and exalts him above every authority in the universe, well, we have missed quite a bit.

Maybe everything.

Theological Significance

But even if we correctly interpret a statement like “[David’s] tomb is with us to this day” to mean only 1,000 years (the day Peter mentioned it to Jews at Pentecost) rather than 3,000 (the day we are reading it), it remains an impressive fact. Not too many men buried a millennium ago could have been easily located. (In fact, there is still a place called “David’s Tomb” today, near the Hagia Maria Sion Abbey in Jerusalem. Who knows, it may even be the right spot.)

But statements like this one remind us history is important, and that there are lessons we can learn from things done in the past even though we live many, many generations downstream. For example, the lesson of Peter’s use of “unto this day” is this: David is dead, and we have hard evidence of that. He stayed in his tomb. We could dig him up if we were so disposed, or at least we could have if we lived in the first century. The Messiah, on the other hand, did not stay in his, as the Old Testament testifies, and the fact that David did strengthens the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is both David’s son and Lord.

That’s theologically important in a number of ways.

Historical Significance

In other cases, the words “unto this day” have historical rather than deep theological significance. When 1 Kings 8 notes that in Solomon’s new temple, the poles used to carry the ark of the covenant protruded from the inner sanctuary “and they are there to this day”, the phrase serves to limit the range of possible dates we can assign the first eight chapters of the book. That statement was no longer true after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 586 BC. Secular historians, who say the books of Kings were written in their entirety during the period of the Exile, need to account for the claim in the text itself that some significant portion of that history was actually completed quite a bit earlier.

You don’t need to be a Bible historian to find that significant. Plain old garden-variety belief in the inspiration of scripture will do it.

Practical Relevance

In yet other cases, the words “unto this day” have great practical relevance. When Jacob blessed Joseph, he remarked that God “has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.” He was 147 at the time. God had been his shepherd in good times and bad, when Jacob had behaved himself honorably and when he had not. So Jacob felt quite confident adding, “The angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys,” his grandchildren. In this case “unto this day” is the evidence God can be trusted in a very personal and practical way.

Hey, a God who can carry a difficult and self-willed man through a life almost twice as long as average can surely handle me and my occasional bouts of foolishness.

Prophetic Significance

Other times the expression “unto this day” has profound eschatological significance. When Moses said to Israel in the land of Moab, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear,” he was complaining that up to that point, Israel had failed to grasp the message of God’s forty years of care for them in the wilderness.

This remained true, at least nationally, even in Jesus’ day. It remained true of the nation when the apostle Paul wrote Romans 11. “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” But it will not be the case forever.

Paul goes on to affirm that there is a day coming in which all that will change. Israel awaits that day, and we Gentiles await it too, “[f]or if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

Amen? I think so. In this case, “unto this day” means God has granted the Gentiles repentance, and he continues to do so until our entire number has come in.

Illustrative Importance

Speaking of Moab, something else happened fairly shortly after Moses’ speech to the people, which effectively illustrates God’s sovereignty: Moses died.

Deuteronomy records, “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and he [the Lord] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” So then, whenever the book of Deuteronomy was finally finished — whether it was wrapped up by Joshua, the seventy elders who served under Moses, or even Ezra — even then there was nobody who knew where Moses was buried. This tells us a little something about the relative balance of the forces of good and evil in our world.

You see, Satan would very much have liked to find out. He made a point of trying to. Jude makes the fascinating observation that “when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment.” We do not know what purpose Satan had in mind for the body of Moses, but the forces of darkness did not get their way at that time, and they still haven’t.

The whereabouts of Moses’ grave remain unknown “unto this day”. When God does something purposeful, no power in the universe can overturn it.

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