Author Archives: preacherwin

Breaking Covenant: A Separation from the Body

“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”

(Romans 1:28-32)

One of the many results of worshiping the creation rather than the creator is that people become “covenant breakers.” The word in question is ἀσύνθεστος (asunthestos) and is often translated as “faithless” or “untrustworthy” in our English Bibles. Like many words in this particular passage, ἀσύνθεστος (asunthestos) begins with the “alpha primitive,” meaning that it is the negation of the word συντίθημι (suntithemi), which refers to working our an agreement in good order, typically in the form of a contract or a covenant. Thus, those who are ἀσύνθεστος (asunthestos) are those people who either break said contracts or who otherwise ignore them. 

While the making and breaking of contracts is something found all over in the business world, one ought not expect it within the church — covenant breaking of this sort is the result of idolatry! Nevertheless, a brief survey of the American church will reveal that it is rampant within the walls of God’s house today. People commonly see the vows they take as mere conventions rather than as a life and death covenant before the Living God in the presence of witnesses. 

Thus, when attendance is lagging, people will respond by saying, “Well, you know that I have just been busy.” When they are not teaching their children the Christian faith, they say, “Well, I want them to make their own decisions.” When people are not growing in their faith and understanding of God’s Word, they say, “Well, theology is for the pastor and those who go to seminary” (which, by the way, is the death-knell of a church!). When churches do not practice church discipline, leaders say, “Well, if we do, they will just be offended and attend the church down the street.” And when unBiblical ideas find themselves in church services through the songs that are sung or the ideas that are addressed, people say, “Well, cultural views have changed.”

Cultural views have indeed changed, but not God’s views. And a vow is meant to transcend culture. One takes them before the Living God and asks God himself to hold you accountable to said vows. This is indeed true in our marriages, but it is also true with the vows we take to our local church (and in the case of pastors and Elders, to the denomination). As long as that church remains a True Church, one is bound to abide under that church’s authority. When a church descends into teaching false doctrine, failing to practice the Sacraments as Jesus instituted them, or stops disciplining its members, then one is free from one’s covenant to the church because the church has broken and nullified it…not you as an individual. And the church will be judged by God. 

Nevertheless, what we find in much of the visible church today are groups of people who care little about the vows they make and care even less about holding others to their vows. Discipline has almost disappeared from the church…and sadly, when discipline is practiced, it is often practiced with a vindictive spirit rather than with a spirit that seeks reconciliation. This again is a mark of the culture’s desire to worship the creation rather than the creator — a culture that seeks to please itself in worship rather than pleasing God. 

Anti-Regulation: The Church’s Rejection of God’s Decrees

“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”

(Romans 1:28-32)

Simply spoken, many in the western church today assume that the church is a kind of democracy — or perhaps a democratic republic for those who practice presbyterian forms of government. In a democracy, people have the right to vote or the privilege of voting (depending on the structure of said government). In some cases, voting may need to be earned, but the principle remains the same: the people have a say in the decisions that are made by the body and majority rules. Similarly, in a democratic republic, the citizens elect representatives who, in turn, vote on behalf of those who elected them into office. Contrary to much of the rhetoric in America, our country is structured as a democratic republic, not as a democracy.

Yet, while the church does have elected officers who are charged with various roles and tasks, she is not, nor has ever been, a democracy or a republic. The church is a monarchy with Christ as the King. The role of those elected Elders and Deacons in the church is not to rule but to serve (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Indeed, there is a reason that Elders are called ἐπισκόποι (episkopoi) or “overseers,” for an overseer has the responsibility to safeguard a task or a group of people so that things are done in accordance with the wishes of the King. 

One of the important descriptive uses of the term ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos — the singular of episkopoι) is found in the Greek translation of 2 Kings 11:18. In context, after the death of King Ahaziah of Judah, his mother, Athaliah, ordered that all of Ahaziah’s sons were to be killed, allowing her to assume the throne. Joash, one of Ahaziah’s sons was rescued by his aunt and his nurse and hidden away for six years, until the priest Jehoiada could organize the temple guard and anoint the young Joash to be the King. There is much more to the story than this, as court intrigue fills the pages of the history of the Israeli monarchy, nevertheless, these temple guards (who were mature Levitical priests) played an essential role in protecting Joash (as well as the Temple) and then seeing that temple reforms took place (like the destruction of the altars of Ba’al). 

After the coronation of Joash and the execution of his grandmother, the priest, Jehoiada made a covenant between God, the King, and the people that committed the people once again to being “the Lord’s” (2 Kings 11:17). When the altars of Ba’al were torn down, “watchmen” — episkopoi were posted over the house of the Lord. Further, in 2 Kings 12:11, it is to these same watchmen that the offerings for the temple repairs needed were given and it was by these same men that those funds were dispersed. Thus, what was the role of these overseers? It was not to rule in the manner that they saw fit. Nor, was it to rule in a democratic fashion. They were called upon to protect and facilitate the worship of God. Is that not what Elders in the Christian church are called upon to do? Is this not why Elders are to be able to instruct in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict said doctrine (Titus 1:9)? And note, the doctrine that they protect is not simply that which they happen to like, but it is that doctrine that has been decreed by the King of the Church…namely by Christ Jesus himself. If a church’s Elders are not capable theologians and apologists in their own right, how will the church sail a straight path through the storms brought about by antichrists in this world (Ephesians 4:11-15)? If church Elders simply exist to manage the business of the church, how are they fulfilling their Biblical task?

Friends, if you desire as I do, that the church be a transformative influence on the world around us, as it was during the first three centuries and as it was during the Reformation and the century thereafter, then the church must repent of its worldliness. It must repent of functioning more like a country-club or a civic organization. It must repent of convenience and it must repent of its comfort. It must be willing to obey Christ in each and every manner that the Scriptures set forth and it must call its people to do the same. It must stop thinking like a business and it must start thinking like a military outpost in enemy territory. It must stop worrying about its programs and activities and start asking, “how do these programs and activities prepare us for worship?” They must stop telling people that God loves them just the way they are and start telling people to “repent and believe.” They must begin caring more about God and his decrees and be willing to put self to death. 

Indeed, Elders — real, Biblical Elders, must gird up the loins of their mind not just to refute the errors found in the world, but also those errors found in the church and her worship. Like in the days of Joash, the idols need to be torn down and Biblical worship needs to be rebuilt. Then, maybe, just maybe, the church will stop rejecting the decrees and commands of God, start honoring God in worship (not self), and finally become relevant. 

Ecclesiastical Anti-Nomianism: The Church’s Rebellion

“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”

(Romans 1:28-32)

Having been delivered up to a “worthless mind,” those who worship the creation rather than the creator do what is not lawful, the end result is that they do those things that are not lawful. One might expect this to be the case with those who live outside of the church, but sadly, it is common to see lawlessness within the church itself, most commonly in the context of Christian worship.

If lawlessness is the result of a “worthless mind,” then perhaps we must ask the question as to what constitutes a worthless mind — or perhaps, more idiomatically translated, a “worthless worldview.” The term in question is the Greek word ἀδόκιμος (adokimos), which is the word δόκιμος (dominos) with the “alpha-primitive.” The alpha simply turns the word into its negative, like “theist” and “atheist” or “moral” and “amoral.” If you have followed along with the essay on anti-gnosis, you will recognize the verbal form of the word in question: δοκιμάζω (dokimazo). Thus, δόκιμος (dominos) refers to something that has been tested and found to be true, reliable, or otherwise genuine. In turn, ἀδόκιμος (adokimos) refers to that which has been examined and found to be false, unreliable, and inauthentic. 

How can a worldview such as that be tested? Shall we not judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20)? In the passage above, Paul gives us an extensive list of bad fruit that comes out of a mind that is worthless. These things, in the context of the passage, are things that are unlawful in the eyes of God. Now, when speaking of the law, the Greek word we usually expect to see is νόμος (nomos), hence the word “antinomian” above. In church history, antinomians are those who have rejected the Law of God and have abused Christian liberty as a form of license, permitting any behavior about which their conscience does not condemn in them. 

In the text before us, Paul chooses a different, but related term. Here he speaks of that which is μὴ καθήκοντα (me kathekonta) or that which is “not appropriate” or “not befitting” for a person to do. The nuance is slightly different in that it almost exclusively deals with one’s conduct (where law often extends far beyond conduct to principle). Nevertheless, how does one examine conduct to discover whether it is appropriate or befitting of persons? It is (and must always be) that we go to the law. As Paul will write later in Romans, he did not know that certain things were sins were the Law not to have instructed him (Romans 7:7). One might suggest that these things that are “not appropriate” are more of a reflection of cultural norms and should not be seen as a reflection of God’s Law. Paul puts this notion to rest in the last verse of this passage when he states that those who do things such as that which he has listed are worthy of death. Only Law is capable of assigning capital punishment for its infractions. If we betray a cultural norm, at worst, we shall be looked down upon as an outsider, a persona non grata, or a pariah. Talking too loudly, putting your feet on one’s table, failing to take your shoes off, or eating with your hands may be considered uncouth in many places, but not something worth being put to death. Law, on the other hand, has the power to demand your life in nearly every civilized society. 

Notice, though, in Paul’s writing here that it all stems back to worship. People have chosen to worship the creation rather than the creator and thus, their worldview is corrupted and they refuse to obey the Law. In fact, not only do they do such things as Paul has listed, but they encourage others to do them. They promote lawlessness.

Since Paul’s focus is on worship, we ought to turn our attention back toward the church. Truly, everything that has breath is called upon to praise the Lord, but the church, having been given the Scriptures, is in a unique position to instruct the world in what worship ought to look like. At heart, that means he church most model said worship. David writes that in being forgiven from sin, the proper response is to teach others the ways of God so that they turn back to Him as well (Psalm 51:13). David also writes that when God sends out his light and truth to us, the response is worship as well (Psalm 43:3-4 — note, that as Psalm 43 does not have a superscript of its own in the Hebrew text, but the LXX assigns it Davidic authorship). How shall the world know what worship “in Spirit and in Truth” happens to look like if the church shall not practice such worship itself?

That raises the question as to what constitutes worship in Spirit and in Truth. Sadly, were one to take a poll of pastors from across the United States or even the world, answers would vary greatly. Many people have bought into the notion that worship is a subjective experience that is designed to make them feel closer to God. And, while right worship ought to draw us closer to God, to treat it as a subjective matter makes worship about the individual and not about the God who we are supposed to be worshipping. Further, if worship is about God, then we ought to go to God’s Word to determine what ought to be part of worship and then constrain ourselves to those things.

When the delegates to the Westminster Assembly gathered to tackle this question, they prayerfully searched the Scriptures to determine those things that God commands to be a part of his worship. Their conclusion is that the Scriptures instructs us to worship with six, very specific elements (WCF, Chapter 21). First, we are to pray with thanksgiving as helped by the Holy Spirit. Second, the Scriptures are to be read with godly fear. Third, the Word is to be clearly preached — in the word of many Puritans, the congregation is the “schoolroom of Christ.” Fourth, the preaching is to be heard with understanding; in other words, we are to pay attention to the Word as it is preached so that we may put it into practice in our lives. Fifth, the psalms are to be sung with a grace-filled heart. And sixth, the sacraments are to be practiced as instituted by Christ. Certainly, a window is left open for occasional vows, oaths, fasts, and special thanksgivings, but they were seen as being used (as with Paul’s collection for those suffering in Jerusalem) as necessity dictates. 

All other things, though they might be done with a clear conscience during the normal activities of our week, are not worship and thus, do not belong to the congregational practice when we gather on the Sabbath Day for worship. Reformed theologians refer to this as “the regulative principle of worship,” reflecting on the notion that God orders our worship and regulates it by His word and not by our preferences. Or, to put it another way, God’s Law governs everything we do…especially our worship.

And thus, those who seek to mold worship after their own preferences or likes, those who incorporate elements into worship that do not fit neatly into these categories commanded by Scripture, and those who would incorporate practices found in heathen worship are fighting against the Law of God. They are “ecclesiastical antinomians” and are rebelling against the God of Heaven even as they try and worship that very same God. 

And so, the church faces the criticism from the anti-theist of existing to serve its own needs — being greedy for money and providing opium for the masses. When we worship the way we want and the way that makes us feel good, rather than how God commands, how can we blame the anti-theists for their castigation? More importantly, what will be said to God when those who promote this entertainment and human-centered worship stand before His castigation? That ought to make one’s knees tremble. That ought to drive us to the repentance from those elements we have introduced and to embrace those elements we have ignored. Peter insists that judgment begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Paul encourages us though, that if we would judge ourselves truly (with the Scriptures as our rule!) then we would not be judged (1 Corinthians 11:31). 

If we wish to have a compelling witness in this unfaithful world, shall we not begin with the examination of our worship? Shall we not begin by ordering our worship according to God’s Word rather than according to our preferences? Nevertheless, there will be many who will not be able to let go of the idols they have created — to their art, their drama, their therapeutic sermons, their entertainment, their singing of human songs rather than inspired psalms, their movie-screens, and the glitz and glamor of performance because they are comfortable. And, in doing so, our witness will remain uncompelling, suspect, and without authority.

Anti-Gnosis: The Plight of the Church

“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”

(Romans 1:28-32)

Peter writes that judgment must begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4: 17), which means, when salt and light does not pervade a culture where the church is immanent, there is a problem. And the source of that problem stems from within the church. If salt loses its saltiness, of what good is it? And, when light can no longer be distinguished from the darkness around, is it truly light any longer or has its lamp-stand been removed? There is no question that churches are present within communities throughout the United States, most of which proclaim themselves to be Christian. So, where is the salt and light?

It is my fear that three things have taken place. First, many churches that proclaim themselves to be “Christian” are not Christian by any meaningful sense of the term. They have rejected historic Christian Creeds and Confessional statements and have embraced ideas that have been condemned by the Councils of the Christian church going back to the first Century AD. Secondly, many professing Christians are more interested in a promise of heaven than they are interested in what it means to live out an authentic Christian faith. Many assume that they can live however they choose and worship in whatever way they prefer, so long as they have their “Get Out of Hell Free” pass promised by a person who preaches niceties to them on Sunday morning. Third, many Christians have become so busy with life that they presume that knowledge of the things of God is something for pastors and seminary students only. In fact, many are so used to this notion, that they are hostile to the notion that all Christians are commanded to study and learn the things of God.

Psalm 111:2 boldly proclaims, “Great are the works of Yahweh, studied by all who delight in them.” Do you delight in the things that God has done? Then the way you show your delight is by studying them. In fact, it could be argued that you most eagerly study those things in which you most delight. Billy Graham used to say, “If you want to know where a man’s priorities are, just look at his checkbook.” I say, “If you want to know what a man loves, look at those things that most occupy his mind and thought. 

Paul writes here in Romans that one of the results of people seeking to worship the creation rather than the creator is that they do not “study to have the knowledge of God.” The Greek word in question here is δοκιμάζω (dokimazo), which conveys the idea of examining something to see whether it is right or true and then drawing conclusions about said things on the basis of what has been tested and examined.

Conceptually, this is a powerful notion. For without such careful and detailed examination, upon what does one base their Christian belief? Too many professing Christians simply claim that faith is enough, but is faith not something that ought to be substantiated? Without examination, how is our faith in God any different than the heathen’s superstitious faith in their totems and idols? Is not faith a conviction (ἕλεγχος — elegchos — the act of presenting evidence as in a court case — Hebrews 11:1) of things that are not seen? Is not the faith that results in praise and glory and honor at the revealing of Christ a faith that is examined (δοκιμάζω — dokimazo — 1 Peter 1:7)? If God tests our hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4) shall we also not test every spirit (1 John 4:1) — δοκιμάζω (dokimazo)? How can we make a reasoned defense of the faith if we have first not examined what we believe (ἀπολογία — apologia — 1 Peter 3:15)?

Yet, not only do many (if not most) never bother applying their reason to the faith they possess, many pastors seek to dissuade their flock from doing so. Perhaps they feel as if the reasoned examination will detract from the passion of their worship. Perhaps they do not wish to face such questions themselves. Perhaps they too are blindly following the example of a superstitious faith set for them by others. Worse yet, perhaps they feel intimidated at the idea that someone, upon examination, might discover that the faith and practice inculcated at their church might prove fraudulent and empty.

If this is the state of the American church, then why should we be surprised when the world sees our practice as unintelligent, superstitious, undesirable, and irrelevant to life? They reject the salt and light of the church because the church has lost its saltiness and its light has become so dimmed as to be imperceptible from any other expression of religion or faith? The church in the first centuries did not have a vague witness. They boldly proclaimed Christ’s resurrection from the dead and were happy to have their testimony examined by even the most hostile and critical foes. Shall we not do the same? Yet, we cannot, until we are ready to examine the faith we profess. If we do not do so, then the church will continue to fall into the morass of sin that Paul describes in this passage — indeed, do not many of these sins describe the church of our day (envy, strife, deceit, meanness, slander, gossip, etc…). 

How will Christ be pleased with the playacting that many supposed Christian churches practice week in and week out when the faith therein is never tested? On what basis will Christ say, “well done,” if there is no basis for that statement other than one’s personal preferences? Indeed, many will be expecting to hear the words, “well done,” yet will only hear, “I never knew you.” If the church will not repent of its foolishness, then the lamp-stand will be removed and Christ will spit them out of his mouth. To be ignorant in the church is one thing if one is a new believer. To be ignorant in the church, though one has been in the church for years, is lazy. But to be opposed to the careful examination of the things of God is the work of antichrists (1 John 2:18-19) and should be condemned with the strongest language — indeed, they are preaching a gospel of another kind than what is plainly taught in Scripture (Galatians 1:6-10). 

Antitheism: as a Worldview

“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”

(Romans 1:28-32)

In discussions of Christian worldview and various forms of non-Christian thought, we usually focus on the two categories of agnosticism and atheism. In this author’s manner of thinking, addressing the first is mostly a matter of convincing a person to take time from their busy schedule to examine the question. In terms of the latter, it is a matter of convincing the person to examine the question on the basis of logic, whether that be through logical proofs or through the evidence in the world around us which points to God. In both cases, it seems to me, that they suffer from the presupposition that God is either not worth knowing or that he is not able to be known.

Yet, there are other categories by which those who are against Christian thought may be classified. One of which is “anti-theism.” This is not simply a question of whether God can or cannot be known, but this is a view that the knowledge of God is harmful to both individuals and to society. Such a view is more than a rejection of the knowledge of God; it is a rejection of those who acknowledge God, and there is a difference.

For instance, in the west, the majority of children are raised with the belief that a large, rotund, sprite from the North Pole sneaks into their home (though a chimney or otherwise) to deliver gifts on the night of December 24th. Were one simply agnostic to this view, they might simply say, “to each their own.” Were one in rejection of this view, one might simply say, “That is a foolish notion” and then shake their head at the silliness of others while not practicing the tradition. Yet, for the “Anti-SantaClausian,” the practice would not only be viewed as wrong, but harmful to practice. Such parents would not only train their children up that Santa Clause was a myth, but would actively encourage other parents to do the same. Indeed, they might even look down on other parents for lying to their children at least once a year, for if they will lie on this matter, what other matters will they lie about?

In this passage from Romans 1, Paul is addressing a wide variety of character traits that are manifested in individuals and societies that reject the worship of the One True God. In other words, they will not study or evaluate the arguments for the existence of God (both atheism and agnosticism fall into this category), but in refusing to do so, God has punished them by giving them over to a clouded mind and debased passions. They know the Law of God, but refuse to obey it.

Over the years, there has been a rise in atheism, not just in terms of a philosophical position, but in terms of those who actively consider theism in any form to be harmful. The late Anthony Flew described such people essentially as those who evangelize atheism (as if atheism could ever be labeled as “good news”). Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are examples of those who hold such a view. They have made a study of the Bible (though usually from atheistic presuppositions) and they have rejected it (along with the Q’ran, the various Buddhist texts, etc…). Further, they see the presence of those with a theistic worldview as one that hinders the development of society. 

The point is that the normal approaches of apologetics are not well suited for those who hold to an anti-theistic worldview. They are not interested in examining the evidence on the basis of the evidence itself nor are they interested in having a rational dialogue about the reasonableness of theistic claims. They are militantly against these things. For an anti-theist, a balanced dialogue about the theist’s claims is as irrational as a balanced dialogue over whether Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth-fairy exists. It is a waste of time and energy.

My proposition is that apologetics training needs to be re-evaluated in light of the presence of the anti-theist. While I am certainly not advocating the elimination of the many tools of apologetics that are available to us today, I think that we need to improve the toolbox. As we are in a spiritual war, perhaps a better analogy is that we need to improve our apologetics arsenal in light of anti-theism. Too often, we equip our children with little more than a pellet gun when they are sent onto the battlefield of a thoroughly anti-religious, anti-Christian, and anti-theistic world.

The Last Word Has Been Heard

“The last word as the whole has been heard: God you shall fear and his commandments you shall keep, for this is the whole of man. For every work, God will bring into judgment along with every hidden thing — if it is good and if it is evil.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

And so, Solomon brings this book to a close with these familiar words: fear God and obey his commandments. Why shall we fear? Solomon reminds us that it is God who is in the position to judge — not man. We may act in the best of intentions by our own standards, but it is God’s standards that we will be held to in judgement: sobering, isn’t it?

In modern times, we don’t much like the notion of fear is one that is rather unpopular. Why would we fear one we love and who loves us? Does not a father often instill a sense of fear in the children? Is this not a good thing? If children do not fear their father, they will not obey his instructions and will run amok with their lives. They will behave toward the father as if he is a peer rather than as their father. Further, they will never accept his discipline or instruction. It is no different with people and God. Look at those churches and denominations that have downplayed the fear of the Lord and ask yourself, “How do these people approach God? Do they approach him as one would approach the creator of the universe and the judge of their souls or do they approach him as they might approach a longtime pal?” Which view is more consistent with the teachings of Scripture?

And so, we end our reflections on this book with a reminder that we will all stand in judgment at one point in history. Our works will not save us, but will they not show a great deal about the state of our hearts? Will they not show the things that were meaningful to us in life? Will they not show the extent of our gratitude to a God who saved us? Will these works define us as a disciple of Jesus or as a reckless and undisciplined child? May it be the former and not the latter for each of us.

Exhausting the Flesh

“Over and above this, my son, be warned. Of the making of many books there is no end and of much study there is exhaustion of the flesh.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:12)

For the record, Solomon is not saying that study is unfruitful, though that is sometimes how this passage is interpreted. He states that it will exhaust you physically (don’t miss the “to the flesh”). For indeed, as we have already seen in Solomon’s writings, there is profit in learning and in growing in one’s understanding so long as that learning remains in the context of the Word of God. Such is the significance of the first phrase found within this passage — do not go beyond “these things.” What are the things to which Solomon points? He is pointing toward the collected sayings and the words of the wise. 

And so, there is a principle set before us — set the word of God before you, study it and dig into its depth even if it is wearisome to the flesh. The infinite depth of the word is a testimony to the fact that Scripture is of God; were it not, we would have long ceased to have anything to say about it. Yet, as it is, every generation will add to the corpus of knowledge and understanding of the inspired Word. Study these two, just do not go beyond the Canon of the Bible. 

Can you study secular books then? Yes. At the same time, use the Scriptures as a lens by which you view these secular books. Use the Scriptures as a rule and guide to evaluate such things. So, be warned, though you may find yourself weary in your flesh, your mind and spirit will grow to maturity on the basis of such things…just be warned not to go outside of the collected sayings and words of the wise contained in God’s Holy Scripture.

One Shepherd

“The words of the wise are like goads — like fixed nails are the gathered sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:11)

This is perhaps one of my favorite verses in all of Ecclesiastes. Words and sayings form ideas in our lives and these ideas sometimes prod us to action (the work of a goad) and they sometimes fix us in place when we are challenged (the work of a nail). How essential these fundamental ideas are to a person in general, but especially so to a Christian. Yet, Solomon does not end with this observation. He ends with the observation that all of these words and sayings ultimately come from one Shepherd — the Good Shepherd himself, our God. Here is just one more testimony to the inspiration of Scripture — the Word of God is the testimony of one Shepherd though it was written through many individuals.

A question sometimes comes up as to the phrase, “collected sayings.” The word used here for “sayings” is בַּאַל (ba’al), which is most commonly a reference to a lord or master in the Old Testament (hence the Baals that the people worshiped). The word, though, has a pretty broad usage and we should think about it this way. Do not guiding principles essentially act as lords over our lives? Indeed, they do (and should!). And thus, to speak of them as lords or masters should not bother us too greatly.

The question we really ought to be asking, though, is which sayings? Certainly we are all filled with little proverbs and wise sayings that we have heard over the years, but do they all come from the One Shepherd? If not, they are likely not reliable and will not goad you or fix you in place when you need them to do so. One must be wise as to the source of such sayings and ensure that they indeed do come from the One true Shepherd.

Writing Honestly

“The Preacher sought to acquire words of delight and so he wrote honestly words of truth.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:10)

“I shall not be biased toward a man nor to a man will I give flattery because I do not know how to flatter else in a moment I would be taken away by my maker.” — Elihu

(Job 32:21-22)

Flattery may excite for a moment and lying words may inflate the ego, but truth delights not only God, our Maker, but the ears of a wise man. The bottom line is that if we are going to seek out words that delight, they are only found in one place — the Truth. True, at times, these may not be the words we most want to hear, but they are indeed the words that will be of the most value to us as we grow and they will be the words that produce maturity in our souls.

How often people collect around themselves those who will simply tell them what they most want to hear. In business, we call them “Yes-Men” or “Sycophants,” but they are nothing more than people who refuse to offer an opinion for fear of losing their place. Their loyalty may sound like it is to you, but it is really only ever to themselves. The man or woman who comes alongside of you and who speaks truth, even those truths that are difficult to hear, so long as it is in love, are those men and women who are truly loyal. These are the ones we all most need in our confidence and when things go well because of their insight, you will delight.

Today, though, people seem so insecure that they are almost afraid to receive criticism — constructive or otherwise. Are we so insecure as a culture that we would prefer to speak into a vacuum than to engage human beings with differing ideas? Have our teachers failed so miserably that we genuinely think that an attack against a person’s character is a legitimate form of debate? I fear that the answer to both of those questions is “yes.” Woe to us as a culture, for this is not the mindset that built the great nations of the western world. If we would be “Great Again” (to borrow from a popular slogan), we must recapture what it means to engage with ideas and to recognize that true words are and ought to be delightful, no matter from where they come.

One of my professors in seminary, Jack Williamson, repeated a phrase over and over again to us as we were in class. “Be hard on ideas,” he said, “But be soft on people.” What he meant by that, of course, was to speak truth in love — to attack an idea with great vigor, but do not attack the person bringing the idea. His heart was to see this take root in our churches; but what if we could nurture that idea in our communities, our nations, and our world as well? Then, and only then, will we really appreciate Solomon’s words here.

Balancing Proverbs

“The preacher was more than wise, teaching knowledge to the people, but he balanced and straightened many proverbs.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:9)

At the beginning of our reflections on Ecclesiastes, we discussed the proofs of Solomon’s authorship; here is just one more proof of the same. Who, but Solomon, organized the Proverbs that we have? Indeed, if the preacher here in Ecclesiastes is the same teacher as who organized the Proverbs, it can be no one other than Solomon who has authored this text. Not that this should be a hard sell, but simply a reminder of the trustworthiness of the tradition behind King Solomon’s authorship.

But what does it mean when the text says he “balanced and straightened” the proverbs? One must recall that the proverbs are not just words that were written by Solomon, but he accumulated wise sayings from his generation and from the generations before him. In addition, he grouped and ordered them in a useful fashion and further, it can be supposed, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he corrected the statements that were skewed somewhat because they originated in a pagan culture. That is the work of balancing and straightening in this context.

And so, what is Solomon’s crowning achievement? Most of the time people think of the Temple or of his wealth — both rightly attributed. Yet, Solomon’s crowning achievement was neither of these things — it was his role in teaching wisdom to the people, in his case, through three books of the Bible and two Psalms (72 & 127). Other things are important, but this is the most important aspect of his life — and in these aspects, Solomon points us toward Christ.

How often, the goal of the pastor is to build an empire for himself — leave a reputation behind as a great preacher or as a faithful caregiver to the sick and dying. And while these are very important roles in the life of the pastor, his first job is to faithfully teach wisdom to the people of God. Sadly, this is sometimes the least appreciated aspect of his ministry simply because this is what he ordinarily does week in and week out in all of his interactions. Paul instructs Timothy that he is to strive to “rightly handle the Word of Truth”… Qoheleth (the Preacher) does…may that be said of those of us who pastor and of those who are our pastors. Let our names be forgotten and our empires never emerge from the dirt, but let us teach wisdom to the children of God who are eager to listen and learn.

The Silver Cord

“Until the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl crushed — until the jar is smashed at the spring and the wheel is broken at the cistern — and dust returns to the earth just as it was — and the spirit returns to the God which gave it — vanity of vanity says the preacher, all is vanity.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:6-8)

Solomon completes the poetic digression here in verse 8 with the familiar refrain and much of what was said of the above passage applies well here to these words. Yet I wanted to set these words apart to make an important point about the dangers of speculative theology.

We have already mentioned how this passage deals with the decline and then the death of a man — make the most of your days and learn wisdom in your youth so that when the difficult times of being an old man arrive you are well-prepared. We have also discussed how some of the imagery in this passage was understood metaphorically by Rabbinic leaders to speak about the body of a man (the strong man bent over and the caper not doing its job, etc…). Again, that is a little further than I am willing to take the text, but it is not too hard to see the allegories that they are making.

There are some, though, that have taken these words significantly further and created an entire mystical set of beliefs based on the idea of the silver cord mentioned above. This is called “Sutratma” and is built on the belief that the body is tied to the spirit with a silver cord (when it snaps, you die) and people who follow such beliefs are supposed to be able to engage in things like “astral projection” where their spirits can move about apart from their bodies so long as the silver cord remains intact. For fans of the recent Marvel movies, this is one of the activities practiced by the character, Dr. Strange. All of this ties back to these verses in Ecclesiastes. 

The problem here, of course, is context. Solomon is not speaking of mystical abilities or of separation of spirit from body for short periods of time, Solomon is speaking of death and is using largely metaphorical language to illustrate his point in a poetic way. Perhaps think about it this way. In Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet, the title character discovers the skull of Yorick (a former court jester) in the graveyard. For Hamlet, this is a point that helps provide him perspective on both life and death and is a significant turning point for the character. Yet, the skull, though symbolic of the fact that all die, is nothing more than a skull. Hamlet is not alluding to mystical powers that come from such artifacts, its discover simply provides him the instance to reflect on the reality that all men, great and small, return to dust. Solomon is doing much the same.

Friends, you may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, Pastor Win, we understand — it is a poetic figure of speech and we should not allegorize it or go off and create an entire theology/philosophy based on it, but we were not likely to do so in the first place.” True. Maybe. Here’s the thing. Any time you take a verse out of its context and try to use that verse to prove an idea, you are guilty of doing the same thing as what people have done with the silver cord. Take care in how you use the Word of God and do not take passages out of context. If you do take it out of context, this preacher will echo the words of Solomon… “vanity of vanity says the preacher…”

Remember Your Creator

“Remember your creator in the days of your youthfulness — before the days of evil come and the years drawn near in which you will say, ‘There is nothing of pleasure in them’ — before the sun and the light of the moon and stars are darkened — and the clouds return after the rain — in the days when the guardians of the house tremble and the men of strength are bent over — when the women who grind cease to do so because they are few and the ones who look through the lattice are dimmed — when the doors in the street are shut — when the sound of the mill is low — when one rises to the sound of the bird and all the daughters of song are bowed down — also, they fear what is high and the terrors in the way — the almond blossoms and the grasshopper bears a load — the caper fails because man is going to his eternal home. Around the street are mourners.”

(Ecclesiastes 12:1-5)

There is a lot going on in these verses, but they contain a single train of thought, contrasting the days of our youth, when everything seemed bright and exciting, with the days of our waning years, when things seem dark and foreboding. Isn’t it interesting that almost every generation looks back to the “good old days”… but if we are honest, those days weren’t always all very good. To the young who are enjoying life, Solomon says, “do not neglect your creator.” Why is this so important? Simple. Spiritual maturity grows slowly and it is only spiritual maturity that prepares you for the dark days and for those days leading up to your death. So, in other words, the earlier you begin to develop that spiritual maturity, the better off you will be when the times of trial enter into your life.

The Rabbi Akabia ben Mahalalel (late first and early second century) wrote that there are three things you need to know in life: from whence you came, to where you are going, and before whom you must stand in judgment. In some ways, these words address at least the final two questions and allude to the first. We are born into this world in an ordinary way, but do not think that the God of creation does not have a hand in our individual creation — he is not just a creator in general senses, but he is a creator who functions as a potter, forming each of us in our mother’s wombs and placing within each one of us a soul designed after his plan and for his purposes. Further, unless our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns within our lifetimes, we will all go to the grave, our bodies being held in-trust within the ground for that day of resurrection. And finally, it is before God that we will be made to give an account of all we have and have not done when the books are opened before his great white throne. 

The Hebrews often treated some of this language figuratively (the strong man bent over reminding us of how age and a deteriorating spine bend down with age, the almond blossoms as one’s hair goes from dark to grey, and the caper (used for the vitality of the libido) is not doing its job. And, certainly, the the context of a poetic passage, that reading is not unfair, though it is a little further than I am comfortable going. Such as it is, this is filled with idioms and figures of speech that do not lend themselves to a word-for word translation. Again, such should be no surprise within a poetic passage such as this.

Rejoice in Your Youth

“Rejoice, young man, in your youth and let your heart please you in the days of your youth. Walk in the way of your heart and by the sight of your eyes. Know that God comes to you with judgment in all these things. Turn aside from the vexation in your heart for youth and dark hair are vanity.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:9-10)

“Youth and dark hair”? Literally the Hebrew word toward the end of verse 10 is שַׁחֲרוּת (shacharuth) means “blackness.” Yet, in Hebrew, it is a figure of speech that refers to the dark, black hair of someone at the prime of their youth — before the grey streaks begin to show up. Of course, in the Hebrew culture, Grey hair is a crown of glory gained by a righteous life (Proverbs 16:31), so again, you have a contrast between the wisdom of the old and the folly of the youth. Our various English translations tend to render this idiom in a variety of ways, but in each case, the idea that Solomon is talking about the vanity of youth is meant to be conveyed.

So, what is Solomon saying? There is a tongue-in-cheek tone to these words. He (almost sarcastically) says, “go and enjoy the foolishness of your youth because God will judge you for it.” We might expect him to say, “No young man, turn back from those things,” and this is something that he has already said. Yet, as he wraps up the book he begins driving the point home and saying, “If you insist on this foolishness, in spite of what I told you, go do it, but then you will face the judgment of God.”

How often God permits us to do some things that are unwise. They may be wastes of time, money, energy, or resources, but God does not bring us into direct judgment for them. Indeed, we will have to answer to God, though, for our folly in the time of judgment. In the end, those foolish things we do are vanity — empty. So, does that mean we ought to never do frivolous things in our youth? The reality is, that won’t happen. We are sinners and we have not yet grown to maturity to understand what we ought an ought not do. The sad thing is when old men with the grey hair of age live in the folly of youth rather in the maturity of their peers.

In the end, though, the call upon is to learn to turn away from those things that vex and antagonize our hearts — don’t run into situations in a fit of anger and don’t rush to attack everything with which you disagree around you. Pick and choose your battles and grow in the wisdom that suits the grey hairs forming on your head.

Rejoicing in the Years

“Thus, if man exists for a great number of years, in all of them he should rejoice. Yet, let him remember the days of darkness for they will be many — all that comes is vanity.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:8)

Depending on how you read the word הָאָדָם (ha’adam) — literally, “the man” will determine how you understand the practical application of this proverb. For example, if you read this as most translations seem to render it — as “a man” — then this fits many of the themes we have seen throughout this book. No matter how many years you live — great or small — rejoice in all of them because there are many years of darkness and hardship that you will have to face. If life is just lived for the sake of living, then, everything is vanity.

If, however, you translate this more literally, as “the man,” meaning a reference to mankind, then the take away is a little different. Mankind’s days on the earth are limited; they began with Adam about 6,000 years ago and they will continue until the return of Jesus. And, as Solomon very accurately points out, the days of darkness are many. There are wars and plagues and disasters to face that affect not just the individuals, but cultures as a whole. So, what are we to do in light of this reality? We are to rejoice in that which is “rejoice-worthy.” 

What or whom gives us reason to rejoice in the ultimate sense? Jesus. He is our hope beyond this world of dark days and vanity. We do not know how many more years or millennia he might tarry, but nevertheless, in Him is our only true and lasting hope. In Him we can rejoice in the dark years as well as in the years of peace. And, whether you take this as a reference to the individual or to the race, the application is still the same. Rejoice in Christ all of the years of your life knowing that there will be many difficult years ahead but even in them Christ will give you hope.

Sunny Days are Good

“The light is pleasant; it is good for the eyes to see the sun.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:7)

How appropriate this verse is on this grey and rainy morning in western Pennsylvania. Winters here tend toward grayness and a lot of clouds. It is not that we never see the sun in the winter, but it just does not seem to be the norm for this region at this time of the year. And, for those with depression, I am told this time of the year here can be very difficult as sunshine does affect our moods. And I suppose, too, that if you have a vitamin D deficiency, these grey, cloudy days do not help either.

There is no question that it is good for us to see the sun. Many years back, the job I worked typically had me scheduled from 4PM to 2AM. The fact is, I slept through most of the sun of the day. My mother used to say that I had never been more grouchy and brooding than the two years I worked that set of shifts. Funny how much the sunshine can affect us. And thus, Solomon gives us the reminder that it is good for our eyes to see the sun.

There is a spiritual application to this as well. God is Light, we are told in 1 John 1:5 and in Him there is no darkness. It is certainly true that John is using the contrast between light and darkness as a metaphor to contrast good and evil, truth and a lie, but the principle bears pointing out that if we wish to truly see and understand, we can only do so in the light of God — a light that comes out of and through his Word. If we wish to see, we cannot see without it. If we wish to know truth, we cannot know truth apart from the word of God. And thus, it is very good for the eyes to see the light of God in this absolute sense.

We are promised a time, in the new creation, where there will be no darkness and the nations will walk by the light of the lamp of the Lamb of God (Revelation 21:22-24). In fact, in the new creation we are told here that there will be no sun or moon because the glory of God will give it light. Jesus indeed is the “effulgent splendor” or the “radiance of the glory of God” as the author of Hebrews writes (Hebrews 1:3). He will indeed be the light that is good for our eyes. Until that time though, we must look to and see that light in the Word.

It is good for the eyes to see the sun, but it is far better for the eyes to gaze upon the Son.

Sow Your Seed in the Morning

“In the morning, sow your seed and in the evening do not cause your hand to rest, for you do not know which one will succeed — this or that — or if both ones will be good.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:6)

In short…”Get while the getting is good.” When I was taught to garden, I was always taught to plant 2-3 seeds together at a time to ensure that at least one would germinate. If they all sprout, you can separate them out or you can just thin them out. When you have a good day to plant, you make the most of the day. I am told that the best and worst invention for the farmers were headlights for their tractors so they could continue working after dark. In this part of the country, nowadays, it is common to see farmers out into the late hours of the night working the fields, whether planting or harvesting, because there is no guarantee that tomorrow’s weather will be suitable to do so. 

In my days as a residential carpet installer, September-December was our busiest season and there was as much work as any of us might want and then more. My wife would sometimes joke that we were like passing ships in the night during those times as I often took two jobs during the day and one at night — sometimes working until well after midnight only to get back up at 5AM the next day. Yet, January through March brought a lull and I would often spend days or even weeks without consistent work. The principle is the same — you get as much out of the day as you can and you don’t put things off if you can do them now.

This is as much a spiritual truth as it is a practical truth. How often do we see our Bible study and prayer as being a lower priority during the day? How often, when we have a little time to spare, that we just turn on the television for some mindless entertainment? Would it not be more productive to read or watch a sound program about the Bible? Would it not be more productive to write someone a letter who is suffering. I am not saying that leisure time is a bad thing, but it seems like our culture pursues leisure time above all else — it is a Brave New World indeed!

Loved ones, work at the tasks that God has put before you and at the calling he has given you. Do not think that with the setting of the sun comes a time to put down all things you must do, but instead, labor into the night to complete those tasks because tomorrow may not permit you to do so. This is true in the physical world and this is true of our spiritual needs as well.

Trying to Discern the Ways of God

“Just as you do not know in what way the wind nor how the body develops in the womb, in the same way, you do not know the work of God who does all things.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:5)

“The Spirit blows where He wills and you hear the sound of Him, but you have not known where He goes and when He goes away. Thus it is with all who have been born from the Spirit.”

(John 3:8)

The bottom line is that there is much we do not know. But just like the farmer who will never plant if he is always trying to predict the winds, so too we can be if we try and discern every possible variable and outcome of an action. Do I do this or do I do that? Should I live here or should I live there? Should I go on this mission trip or should I remain home and continue evangelizing my neighbors? And the list of questions goes on. 

In many denominations, those who are recognized as having a call to serve on the mission field are expected to raise their own funding and support. That notion has often struck me as rather odd because it is built on the assumption that if one has a calling to a certain kind of ministry then one also has the gift of raising money to do so. And, while that may be the case for some people, I am not convinced that is the norm. I think that a better model is that when one is identified as having a calling to such a work then others, who have the gifts of raising money should come alongside of said person and ensure that the ministry is supported — and then the person perhaps make up the difference in terms of his family’s needs by taking a job and “tent-making”? 

While my wiring is more geared toward ministry, I have been grateful for those people who have come alongside of me through the years whose gifts and calling is to be resource-minded who can help make that ministry an ongoing reality. At the same time, while I was ministering to the homeless at Gateway Rescue Mission while in seminary, I also worked a trade to make sure the bills got paid. And, when I served Westminster Presbyterian Church, just out of seminary, I also served as a chaplain at a Christian school. Serving bi-vocationally in ministry is not a bad thing and has advantages in many ways (if for nothing else than the fact that the congregation then takes more ownership of the work of ministry rather than dumping it all on the guy that gets a paycheck. Certainly, serving full-time at the church as I do now has advantages as well. The key is to learn to trust God’s provision and the fact that there are parts of the body that function differently — and if the body works together properly, all parts can work as they are designed.

The challenge is developing the trust that both can work side by side toward the same goal. All too often, though, what happens is that one or both sides thinks that their aims will be threatened by the other. Usually, the ministry-minded folks think that the resource-minded folks are stifling their work or the resource-minded folks think that all the ministry-minded folks want to do is to run the church broke. A better way is for the resource-minded people to bless the desires and aims of the ministry-minded folks and say — “run as hard and fast as you can in your calling, but here are the boundaries that we can continue to support this work.” And then for the ministry-minded people to learn to trust the heart of the resource-minded folks, knowing that we are all “on the same team” or more accurately, are part of the same body.

Here’s the place where trust comes in. The ministry-minded people and the resource-minded people will never truly understand the other. They might sympathize on a certain level, but the people are different enough that understanding will be no more present than a hand’s ability to understand the role of the hip or visa versa. In Solomon’s words, though, we are reminded that God works all these things out — and he does so not for our glory, but for His. And so, when both sides come to the table for a discussion, both sides need to come with the recognition that the goal of God’s glory is the same, though the means may be different, and that they are part of the same body.

No, we are not going to understand how a baby is formed in the womb, but that doesn’t stop us from having babies. And we don’t know which way the wind will blow and so, when it is time to plant, we plant. And we do not know many things in the grand scheme of God’s plan and design, but what we do know is that God is sovereign and has ordered all things according to the counsel of his will…and folks, if we cannot trust God’s design, what are we doing in the church?

Watching the Wind

“He who keeps watch over the wind will not sow; he who gazes at the clouds will not reap.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:4)

As we have done with these proverbs, we begin with a practical application. If you spend all of your time watching the weather and fretting over whether it will rain tomorrow or whether the winds will blow down the stalks of grain or corn, then you will likely never end up getting out in the field to work. Something that just about any farmer will tell you is that farming is a massive gamble because you plan ahead for the following year’s seed often before this year’s crops come off and always before you have any idea as to what the following year’s weather will look like. It is a huge challenge, but without those willing to take the risks needed, none of us would have food on our tables. So, we should always be grateful for those men and women who farm the soil.

There is a principle that everyone can learn here as we observe our farmers. Indeed, we all find ourselves at times in our lives where we need to make a decision — do I attempt this business venture, do I ask this woman to be my bride, do I relocate my family to this or that part of the country (or world!). These are all decisions that have consequences that will affect you and your family for years to come, so they ought to be thought out and prayed out well. Yet, if you spend all of your time thinking and contemplating, then there is a good chance you will watch the opportunity go by, just as you watch the wind blow away the clouds. Beloved, changing the world (or your life) begins by acting when opportunities arise.

There is another application that is worth noting. The word רוּחַ (ruach) in this context, is most naturally translated as “wind,” but the word also means “spirit.” Who is the one who watches over the spirit of man? That, of course, is God himself. And what of this matter of God not sowing? Indeed, while God will call all of His elect to himself in His time, he uses men to plant the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of his own. Indeed, it is our responsibility (and privilege!) to plant the seeds of the Gospel wherever we go and in all of the nations of the world. Those who would sit back and say, “If God wants to call someone to faith, let God bring them to my church,” are sinning and need to repent. They are also robbing themselves of the joy of actively laboring in Christ’s fields. God watches over the souls of his own and brings new birth when the time is right but he uses faithful believers to sow the seed of the Word in the lives of men. Be that faithful sower, friend, and be faithful to the one who watches over your spirit as well.

It will Rain

“If the clouds are filled with rain, they will empty upon the land. If a tree falls in the south or if it is in the north — in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:3)

In French, the phrase “C’est la vie” simply means, “that’s life.” It is the pronouncement that things happen in this world — of some we are pleased, of others we are displeased, and of others still we are more or less indifferent. In the end, though, these things happen to all people in all places of the world, so don’t think that you have a cloud hanging over your life — deal with what is before you and move on with life. 

That is the heart of what Solomon is encouraging us to deal with in this verse. Look — when the clouds are filled with rain…eventually that means that rain will come down onto the land. If the rain is advantageous to you, great. If the rain is disadvantageous to you, it will still fall; that’s just the way it is. The same holds true with a tree. It would be convenient, were a tree to fall, if it fell and landed near where you needed the wood. But that is not how things work. If a tree is in the north, it will fall in the north and lay on the ground in the north until someone comes and fetches it. And, if no one fetches it, it will rot where it lays. And the same thing happens when a tree falls in the south. So, if you need lumber, whether you are building a house, a table, or a fire, you best be prepared to go fetch the tree that has fallen and bring it back to your workshop.

The same principle is true with wisdom. Wisdom does not just happen, it must be learned through the study of God’s Word and experience in applying God’s Word. Sometimes people are jealous — “he knows is Bible better than me” or “she has huge portions of the Bible memorized!” — God did not tap them with a wand in their regeneration and give them some sort of super-Bible power. No, they committed time to making the study and application of God’s Word a priority in their lives — won’t you?

Bread on the Water

“Send your bread to the face of the waters for in many days you will find it; give a share to seven and also to eight for you do not know what evil may take place on the earth.”

(Ecclesiastes 11:1-2)

Growing up in church, we always used verse 1 a little out of context — and I confess that even to this day, the verbiage of “cast your bread on the waters” is verbiage that I associate with evangelism and with Isaiah’s words that the Word of God shall not return void (or empty) when it goes it, but that it will do what God designed for it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). And, one can make an argument that this proverb of Solomon’s can be applied to evangelism (I’ll come back to that), but at the heart of it, Solomon is dealing with generosity.

The phrase we have in English that conveys the heart of this passage is “what goes around, comes around.” In other words, be generous to others — give a share of your possessions to seven or even to eight people because you do not know when you will be in a position that you will need others to share with you. Jesus says not to store up your treasures here on earth. Why? There are two answers. The first and most significant is that where your treasure is there your heart will be. There is also a practical lesson — on earth, moth and rust will destroy. Calamities and evil things will happen and rob you of your wealth, don’t hoard it up. Similarly, Jesus tells us to use worldly wealth to make friends on earth so that when your wealth fails you will be welcomed into eternal places. The idea is very much the same as what Solomon is teaching here — be generous with worldly things and in your time of need, others will be generous with you.

Yet, as I mentioned, there is also a spiritual reminder connected to this language. For, what greater investment can be made in the life of another than by sharing spiritual truths? Friends, as I look back on my life, I am eternally grateful for those men and women who fed their time and their prayers into my life in meaningful ways. During my own years of rebellion, for instance, my grandmother organized a group of women from our church to pray for me daily. I think back to Dr. Rick Burnor, a philosophy professor in college, who took time to open his home to me to mentor me in the earliest days of my faith as a Christian (studying the book of Romans together). I am grateful to pastors and other Christian friends who did not completely throw up their hands in frustration with me during those years of trying to figure out my place in this world, and I am grateful to my wife for following as I led even when often she paid a greater price in terms of things being left behind. I am also grateful for Elders who have guided me and protected me over the years, teaching me wisdom and patience with God’s stubborn flock. And then, there will be many whose names I may never know here on earth who have spoken (if only briefly) into my life and have shaped me into the man that I am. Feed into the life of others and in time, what Solomon is saying, it will come back to you in one form or another.

Do not Curse the King

“Also, in your understanding, do not curse the king or in your bedroom curse a rich man; for a bird of the heavens will go with your voice and the master of wings will declare the matter.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:20)

In English, we would say, “The walls have ears.” In other words, “be careful what you say.” Indeed, those things you say in secret have a way of working themselves out in public, usually to your great consternation. My mother used to say to me, “Don’t ever say or do anything that you would be embarrassed to see as a headline in the next morning’s newspaper.” Of course, newspapers are a thing of the past, but the principle holds true. Speak and act with integrity and don’t talk badly about people behind their back.

As Christians, gossip is a sin and the result of a debased mind (Romans 1:28-31), and mostly, what is said behind a person’s back falls into the category of gossip or slander. So, let your yes be yes and your no be no and speak with integrity about all you meet. And, if there is a real matter that needs to be addressed, go to that person face to face and with a spirit of love and see if you can work that out. The wicked talk about a person behind his back and then scheme to ambush him at a time of vulnerability; the righteous speaks to a person directly and with the aim of preserving the relationship. 

In Solomon’s case here, there is a second reminder found in the one’s of whom he is cautioning the reader against speaking a curse. Solomon does not say, “do not curse the poor man” nor does he say, “do not curse your neighbor.” Indeed, we are given permission to curse neither, but Solomon focuses on the rich and the king because these men have authority over those in the kingdom and you never know when you might need to appeal to them for assistance or for justice. And so, guard your lips as to how you speak of them because if word gets back to them that you have cursed them behind their backs, they will be unlikely to assist you face to face.

Perhaps one of the more practical (and spiritual) applications of this principle is found in the life of the church. Children oftentimes overhear how their parents speak about the leadership of the church and about the decisions that the leaders make. And, then tend to adopt their parents’ attitudes without hypocrisy. In other words, while the parents may speak privately of their dislike of the pastor or leaders’ decisions, the children will speak openly about them. And while the parents will still attend worship politely, the children will likely fall away as soon as they are given the opportunity. Be careful what you say, the birds will invariably “whisper in the ear” of those of whom you speak.

Bread, Wine, and Silver

“Bread is for pleasure, wine makes life merry, and silver replies to everything.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:19)

At first glance, this seems that Solomon is advocating a sort of pragmatic hedonism — eat, drink, and be merry and when you get into trouble, you can buy yourself out of your problems. Yet, to teach such a thing would be inconsistent with the content and purpose of this book. One might be tempted, then, to connect this verse with the verses around this — perhaps these are the words of the fool in his midst, yet this passage seems to be a series of individual proverbs listed together — a kind of “Pensees” of Solomon. These problems, then, warrant a closer look at the text.

To begin with, in Hebrew, “bread” is often idiomatic for a meal and sometimes for a feast. That still doesn’t help with the interpretation much, though. It is not until you begin to think through the nature and role of wine in the ancient world. Not only was wine considered a mark of blessing in the Jewish world (and hence, was a staple at the Passover Feast, for instance), it was also a sign of eschatological  (end times) blessing (see Joel 3:18 or Amos 9:14 for example). 

In the American culture, we have become so concerned about the abuse of wine and other alcoholic beverages that we often forget that God has given it to us as a gift and as a boon. Drinking wine with a meal is a good thing — drunkenness is sin (Ephesians 5:18, et al.). If you then ask yourself the question about how Solomon uses silver in his writings, you will realize that he always uses it in a positive way. Even when he is saying that it is better to have wisdom than silver or gold, the silver and gold are lifted up as examples of good worldly things against which wisdom can be compared. And again, like wine and good food, silver is something that men enjoy and celebrate, but (if you have learned anything from Solomon’s words in this book) all these good things come from the hand of God. 

So, what is this proverb telling us? Certainly, Solomon has said repeatedly that we should work hard and enjoy the fruit of our labors…here too is the same notion with the reminder that all of these good things — food, wine, and wealth — come from the hand of God, so honor Him with it. Celebrate God’s providence in your feast days and use the silver you have earned to “reply to everything” — give generously and abundantly where there are needs. Wealth is not bad when it is used rightly and to the glory of God — it is only the love of wealth and its hoarding that is the root of all kinds of evil things.

A Leaky House

“Because of laziness, the timberwork sags; because the hands are idle, the house is leaky.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:18)

The practical observation is obvious. A wise man makes sure that his hands are busy and that he takes care of his house. When my wife and I first got married, we bought an old farm house that had been built back in 1905. In many ways, it was a great starter-home, but it was old and needed a lot of work. Floor joists sagged under the weight of the second floor and while the slate roof never leaked when it rained, when it snowed and the wind was blowing just right, it would blow snow into the attic (so, I had to shovel out the attic as well as the walk!).

Yet, once again, we see a spiritual application. The lazy man does not feed his soul with the word of God. And when one is idle in spiritual matters, it is not a building that falls down, it is the life of a person. Woe to the one who ignores the state of his own soul and then wonders why pagan and sinful ideas infiltrate the life. 

Loved ones, set the Word of God before you like a lamp and examine all of life in its light. Do not compromise the Scriptures for the sake of expediency or pragmatism and do not let anyone in your life intimidate you into letting this word be put to the side. Do not let sloth ruin your house — your personal life or your church — but let the Word of God build both up to be strong and mighty so no matter what the storms of life may bring, both may stand strong and not yield to leaks.

The Appropriate Time to Eat

“Woe to you, O earth, when your king is an adolescent and your princes eat in the morning. Blessed are you, O earth, when your king is the son of a noble one — your princes will eat at an appropriate time, in strength and not in drunkenness.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:16-17)

Certainly Judah would have ample young kings and several would rule well with the aide of their custodians. Of course, such had not been the case prior to Solomon’s lifetime, though certainly it can be presumed that he had seen young kings before and had seen how the princes would oftentimes abuse the king’s youth for their own gain — most typically to the detriment of the people of the land.

There is something more to these verses, though, in the context of the larger passage. And here the key is the word “adolescent.” In a literal sense, this can refer to a boy. Typically this word refers to a young man who is learning a trade and might be eligible for marriage, though has not yet been betrothed. In modern times, we would think of this as a teenager — in Solomon’s times, this would probably refer to someone a little younger. 

Spiritually, though, this word refers to someone who is immature in his faith, and when we begin to think of these words in this sense a very different picture comes to mind. Woe to the land when your king acts like a child. And while that opens up a million-and-one possible places of application, my intention here is to focus on the principle in question — we need leaders on every level that are spiritually mature — men and women of faith — to lead our institutions and our nation, or the people will suffer while our princes get drunk serving themselves.

There was a time in our nation that grew hair was seen as a mark of maturity and honor — even in the church, a congregation considered them fortunate to have an old pastor instead of a young one — because with the old pastor comes wisdom. Today, the trend is to celebrate the young pastor and the energy he brings with him. People often look at churches who have old pastors as churches which are dying. Part of the problem, of course, is that often, when churches hire a pastor, they hire him to do the work of ministry…not to train them to do the work of ministry as the Apostle Paul instructs in Ephesians 4. 

To this — to the church in America — Solomon is saying, “woe to the earth.” Why woe? It is because we are not being salt and light; it is because we have not become pillars and buttresses of the Truth; it is because we have not torn down the idols of our society and striven take every thought captive to the Word of God. Popular, high-energy preachers cannot accomplish this task. Mature pastors who train their congregations to do the work of ministry can and will. 

There is a mindset we must change and it must change one congregation at a time. But that means Christians must repent of their idolatry of the youth and of their cult of personality. Until that changes, our land will continue to spiral into immorality and godlessness.

The Anxiety of the Fool

“The anxiety of the fool continually wearies him; he does not know which way to walk to the city.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:15)

How anxiety incapacitates people. It wears people out, it drains them of vigor and life, and it causes their days to be marked with indecision. They fear so many of the possible outcomes that they don’t know which way to go — even when it is something so simple as that of heading into town. It is not that the way into the city is hidden and obscure; just the fear of the perils along the way bind the anxious person to inaction. And of those in this category, Solomon labels them as a fool.

Why a fool? Is that not rather harsh? While that might sound harsh to our modern ears, the statement that he makes is quite reasonable. If believers are held in the hands of an almighty God, have we anything to fear? If, as Solomon has repeatedly said, God numbers our days and orders our paths, why should we be anxious? Jesus will say very much the same thing about anxiety (Luke 12:22). It is the pagan who has reason to be anxious for his gods can do nothing to aide him; our God is sovereign. But why classify the anxious as a fool? It is because the fool is the one who says there is no God (Psalm 53:1) and then acts accordingly. And friends, if there is no God and all we are is nothing more than randomly evolved organisms, then we have reason to be anxious and fear. But those of us who know there is a God can walk in confidence that all things work together for His glory and to conform me into the image of Christ.

That does not mean to live recklessly; we are called to live with wisdom. Yet, it does mean that we are not to cower or fear when we are called to act or step out in faith. We are called to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do — regardless of what the practical consequences might be — and recognize that in God’s economy, there is no such thing as a “Plan B.” Solomon’s words change the internal conversation that we have with ourselves in this matter — instead of “Will it be popular and well received?” we are called to ask, “Is this what God is commanding me to do?” If “yes,” we do it and trust God for the results.