Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 32
Old Testament Understanding of Time
In this lesson, you will learn about the Old Testament understanding of time, exploring the concepts of linear and cyclical time, and the significance of numbers and patterns. Additionally, you will delve into the role of time in biblical prophecy, specifically in the Book of Daniel, and the theological implications of time in the Old Testament, such as God's sovereignty over time and the importance of human responsibility within the framework of time.
Old Testament Understanding of Time
TH730-32: Old Testament Understanding of Time
I. Concept of Time in the Old Testament
A. Linear Time
B. Cyclical Time
II. The Significance of Numbers in the Old Testament
A. Symbolic Numbers
B. Numerical Patterns
III. The Role of Time in Biblical Prophecy
A. Prophetic Time Markers
B. Time in the Book of Daniel
IV. Theological Implications of Time in the Old Testament
A. God's Sovereignty Over Time
B. Time and Human Responsibility
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This course of lessons that we are recording on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity.
First of all, there’s the linearity of personal narrative. We have the story of the patriarchs. They give us their narratives. Their character is illuminated by their actions. Their acts are what create their own personal time: this and this happened to me and this is what I responded to and this is how I am. You get these stories. There’s narrative time. And as you look at your life and you’re trying to resolve this tension between what’s immanent in your life and what’s transcendent in your life, you begin by telling stories about yourself and those incidents become significant because they cast their shadows before them and you realise I’ll never be the same again. We think of the incidents of our own grandchildren that I’m listening to all the time. And I realise that every story that they tell is another step forward in time. And she’s having a new understanding of God, or he’s having a new understanding, as a result of what just happened to me yesterday. So that’s a very important way in which we assimilate transcendence and immanence in the Christian narrative of our times.
And we realise that one of the wonderful things about Biblical narratives—that God is always present in the story. You’re getting insights about these different people that they’ve never told to anybody, so who in the world is narrating it? It’s God who’s telling you about them from His perspective. So the inspiration of scripture is that these narratives are God’s narratives. It’s God who’s telling you about Elijah and all the stories that go with his life. Who else could enter into the story other than somebody who’s standing over the story in a way we find in these Biblical stories? So one of the things about Biblical stories is that they go on having a life of their own because God is in [their midst 00:02:23]. And so we find that God is the referent of time. Time past, time present, time future, they’re all in His hands.
And so one of the significant things about God entering into time and being the master over time is that every point of time is equidistant from the eternal. There’s a continuity and a freshness that has interwoven the one with the other. This is so anti-Aristotelian, so countering both the Greek mindset and the secular mindset today. Thus, the story of the patriarchs becomes the story of Israel. So you have the Exodus; you have the march in the desert; you have all its wanderings; you have the episode of Sinai; you have entry into the Promised Land. And then you discover that the story of Israel is your story too. And so we find that the motif of the desert is not just once told in the Old Testament; actually, scholars have traced references to the hint of that experience three or four different times, different levels, throughout the narrative of the Old Testament. You see, it’s actually the story of your own heart when you go into the desert, when you’re tested, when you suffer, you say I’m with this story. You identify with it.
Well, storytelling is, of course, a very important part of Biblical time, but it’s only one part. So secondly, we find that interwoven with these narratives are the laws and statutes of Israelite covenant life. So we have the Pentateuch and we find that within the Pentateuch there’s Leviticus that’s a very different genre from the Book of Genesis. And Deuteronomy, again, is different from the rest of the Pentateuch because it’s already having had the statutes, you have to keep remembering them. You have to be revived. You have to be reformed. So it’s a book of remembrance and a book of remembrance is going back over the story and learning to live again. In a sense, all of us have to live Deuteronomic lives: I was converted yesterday, but I need it again today. And so you go back over the narrative and you go back to the statutes in the narrative and you realise that the laws and statutes are what shapes the covenant life of Israel. And what shapes your life and mine is that the pulse beat of your life is that you’re now living with perhaps the Lord’s Prayer and with the Apostles’ Creed and with the Ten Commandments. These are much fresher to you than perhaps the statutes of Israel, but the one is in continuity with the other. They have the same purpose: to make us God’s people.
As Martin Luther could recognise in his devotion, he says I’m always looking into a triptych mirror. He has, of course, that Venetian glass that enables him to see his face, not a metallic piece of metal that makes him obscure. So he’s now focused very clearly as to who is the face of Martin Luther. But he sees that he has to have three mirrors. He calls it the mirror of the Ten Commandments, the mirror of the Lord’s Prayer and the mirror of the Apostles’ Creed are now all giving a tri-dimensional focus on how he should and who he should be as a Christian.
That’s the second, but then there’s a step further when we come to the prophets, when we start with Amos and Hosea onto Zachariah, and there you’re facing a confrontation. You’re forgetting your narrative. You’re forgetting Biblical time that you are supposed to live in. And so now what you’re doing is you’re disobeying and you’re forgetting. You’re living like the harlot that Hosea envisages Yahweh is chained to her as He is chained to a disobedient Israel, because His covenant is still with Israel even though they’ve broken it. So now we have the narrative of judgement. There’s confrontation. There is the recognition of these ominous words: thus sayeth the Lord. It’s a time of misfortune because it’s a time of judgement. It’s a time of the threat of the end of covenant. But God keeps His covenant, so if Israel is disobedient and breaks that covenant, Israel is, in a sense, both in judgement of God, but in self-judgment for one’s forfeiture of that inheritance. So is that the end of the story? No. God’s time continues. There’s a time of reversal. There’s a new time. There’s the promise of a new creation, of a new Exodus, of a new Zion, of a new temple. There’s a new Davidic, a new Messianic, descendance. And so in the later prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Malachi, all of these are indicating there’s a time of restitution. There’s a time of redemption.
Well, that still doesn’t fill out all of Biblical time because we now read about a time of non-narrative. It’s what we might call a time of more immanence. It’s the time of wisdom sayings. We’re now entering into the books that we call the wisdom books. And it begins with the immanence of the book of Proverbs, because it’s now talking not about transcendence, but what’s happening in the kitchen today or in the office today. It’s time that is recognising very practically how I live today. And so we can think at the same time that in the shadow there is the eternal awareness of wisdom as God’s companion before creation. There’s an awareness then that you can never at the kitchen sink or at the office or in the study ever forget that you are standing immanently, but you still have to do so in a wisdom that’s eternal. So you’re living now in the foreground perhaps more and you have to know how to manage your household or your family or your office workers or your students, whatever it is that is your responsibility. You have to be wise as you manage yourself in this world that now is.
And then we move into Job. And now, instead of living with the everyday, which seems so prosaic perhaps, so ordinary, living by the clock and by the week, you now find yourself living in cataclysmic times. You’re on a fault line where everything has become disastrously destroyed in an earthquake. You’re living in Ur of the Chaldees and there’s an earthquake that happened a few weeks ago, because now everything’s taken from you. You’re living with Job. This time, events don’t need to get narrated. You’re facing catastrophe. You’re living with a time then of radical questioning and you’re asking why did this happen to me. Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper? How long is this misery going to continue? How can the human being be dragged to such a liminal situation of terrible disaster? This is time of liminality. And what we mean by liminal reality is that you’re living on the edge of the precipice. It’s intolerable. It’s unbearable. It becomes overwhelming.
Now what becomes significant is the person on the edge. It’s not now the crowd. It’s you alone. Job is alone. His friends are not with him. They’re clueless. And Job seems to be stripped of all history. His narrative doesn’t matter any longer. All the wealth he had, all the friends he had, all the family he had, even the spouse he had, have all gone. One of the things that is so powerful is, as I will read now, from 1 Corinthians 2. Standing alone, Job’s comforters are no comforters. They have no wisdom. What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him, these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person which is in him, so also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. And we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God that we might understand the things freely given to us by God and we impart, says Paul, this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural man doesn’t understand this, says the Apostle.
What Paul is saying is an echo of his rebuttal of the four wise men—who are not wise at all. Each of them is expressing some view of immanence unaware of transcendence. Eliphaz. What is he saying? He’s saying even as I’ve seen, so I communicate to you. I’ve seen all this, but no eye has seen. Bildad is appealing to the fathers. He says you go back and listen to what the fathers have to say. No. It’s not observation, nor is it tradition. Tradition doesn’t help us. Tradition is unreflective about God’s dealing in the past. You haven’t heard what you thought you should have heard is the rebuke to Bildad. Or Zophar is the romantic. He says my thoughts are the things that are the precept for my wisdom. I’m intuitive about it. He’s a romantic about it. Nor has it entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. And it’s only Elihu who has an awareness that it’s the Spirit of God that interprets the tensions that we sometimes live in, between immanence and transcendence.
Well, this is a very powerful genre that we’re entering into and it’s one that we so often have with so much of our suffering. So then we pass from Job to a book that seems to be entirely a book about immanence: the book of Ecclesiastes. But Ecclesiastes is describing to us a society like our society that is only living with immanence. So when we live only with immanence, we have the boredom of the two tramps waiting for Godot, but he’s not turning up. We’re living with the emptiness of a material world. We’re living with no awareness of the windows that we should be looking through into the eternal. But we are seeing a kind of eternal monotony of meaninglessness. It’s all cyclical. It’s all vexation of spirit. And so it’s a very good text for us as Christians to deeply reflect upon as we confront precisely these attitudes in our own contemporary world.
And then, almost dramatically, there’s a completely different genre in the Song of Songs. And here we find there is this awareness of the immediacy of immanence and transcendence. The bride is waiting for the bridegroom, but it’s not the waiting of Godot. It’s the waiting for the one who has enraptured my heart and is transforming my life. God is my lover. And so this is the great love song of Israel with Yahweh. It’s the great love song of Christ and the Church. It’s the great love song that you and I can have with our beloved. And in the purity of love, all what we think of as sexual imagery is so different when we’re pure in heart.
I was amused some years ago at one of our Californian exegetes really being very embarrassed with his Californian sexual culture of how in the world do we interpret the Song of Songs to Californians today. Well, the answer is it’s very difficult because they’re not pure in heart. They’re living too much with exotica. But there is no better way to realise that this is a time of renewal when once again we are in love with God. But God’s Word has still more times to reveal. And so we’ve already touched on the time of the Psalms, so we won’t say more about it, but the time of the Psalms are the times of the inner swings of our own emotional life. We oscillate as human beings with times of depression, with times of confession, with times of praise, with times of thanksgiving, with seasons of festivity, with times of deliverance, with times of pilgrimage, with times of rejoicing [inaudible 00:21:00]. Yes, and supremely it’s a time for worship. There is that space for the transcendence that every Sabbath day enables us to be revitalised in soul.