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How to Respond to An Angry Boss

“If the spirit of a ruler rises up against you, your position shall not be put to rest, for calmness will put to rest great sins.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:4)

Both Jewish and Christian translators wrestle with how to handle the translation of this verse…and both groups fall on various sides of the conversation. Literally, the text begins, “If the spirit of the ruler…” — the term in question that is used here is רוּחַ (ruach), or “spirit.” Most are in agreement that what Solomon has in view here is when a ruler or other man of power happens to become angry with you — he loses his temper or is enraged (the idea of that spirit “rising up”). As a result, many translations will render it more idomatically (see the ESV, NASB, NIV, etc… along with Rabbinical Scholars like David Altshuler {Metzudot}). Other translations (see the KJV, YLT, WEB, etc… along with the Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda) render the text more literally as “spirit.”

My purpose here is not to extol the “more literal” or the “more idiomatic” approach to translation issues, though it is an important conversation to have. Instead, it is to point out that the variations we see between the translations we use do impact how we read and understand the text. Every translation, no matter how formal in nature, is an interpretation and when we understand that important truth, I think it helps us have more confidence in the texts we have when we see differences between our preferred translation and the preferred translation of another.

If we get too hung up here on debating the differences in word choice, though, we will lose the more important application that is found in the text. When you make a ruler angry, don’t just leave your position, don’t step down (unless you are commanded to do so by the ruler), but stay firm and stay calm because that calmness will cover over great sins.

Let’s bring this into our own context and then take it back into the ancient world of the Biblical context. How often people, when their employer is upset with them, just throw up their hands and storm off to write a letter of resignation — or worse yet, storm out the door, saying, “I Quit!” What was that country-western song that was popular several decades ago? “You can take this job and …”

Again, don’t hear me wrong, there is a time to resign from a job. If, perhaps, your employer would require you to do something unethical or that is contrary to God’s word, then you have to obey God and not man — in many cases, this would mean stepping down from your job. Yet, in very many cases, that’s not the context of which I speak. I am speaking of that impulsive response — your employer doesn’t like the way you handled a particular situation or client or perhaps your employer is unhappy about some decisions you have made. True, the meetings that follow may prove to be tense, but a level head and a calm demeanor will go a long way toward working through the problems and over time, allow you to earn the respect of those for whom you work.

I am reminded that when I first started as Chaplain for the Christian School in Florida where I served, the Superintendent and the Principal both told me that the scope and sequence for the Bible department was broken and that the Chapel program needed to be overhauled. When I was hired, the Superintendent told me his plan to fix the chapel program. I tested his plan out and realized very quickly that his plan was going to further damage the already broken system and would not restore it to prominence. Because Chapel was almost entirely under my jurisdiction, I put an abrupt end to the model that had been used, restructured the program, and rebuilt it from scratch. 

This did not make my Superintendent happy, it did not make some of the teachers happy, it angered some of the pastors in the community (who were used to coming in and doing their own thing in our Chapel program), and it made some of the students and parents upset. Gratefully, my Superintendent “gave me enough rope to hang myself” and though he did not like my decision, gave me his support. It was a bumpy year and I received not a little bit of grief. Nevertheless, by the grace of God and with the counsel of Solomon in passages like this, I responded gently and with a calm spirit. Further, the whole tone and tenor of Chapel changed for the better and something very healthy (though not perfect) replaced something that was unhealthy and was otherwise broken. “A soft answer turns away wrath,” as Solomon teaches in Proverbs 15:1.

Now, with the principle before us, I encourage you to think about the examples set by Joseph, Daniel, and Esther. Each of these were in positions of power and influence and each had to face challenges brought upon by an impassioned king. Yet, rather than throwing their hands up in the air, they calmly continued doing what God had called them to do and each would be rewarded for their wisdom and tranquility. Shall we not do the same? 

Initiated into Excellence and Failure

“I also know how to be humbled and I know how to excel. In anything and in everything I have been initiated. Either food or hunger, excellence or failure, I can do all things in the one who strengthens me.”

(Philippians 4:12-13)

I expect that it is a fair statement to say that Philippians 4:13 is one of the most misquoted verses of the Bible. This passage is not stating that I can win an NFL contract just because I have faith (truly, I don’t have the skills!) nor is it even stating that Paul can be content in all things, though that statement is closer; the difference being that contentment often implies a degree of acceptance toward one’s situation.

In context, Paul has been stating that there is no circumstance that he fears — whether hunger or an abundance of food — whether success at what he does or failure (at least by human standards) — that he can face all of these things in the power of the one who strengthens him…namely, Jesus Christ.

How often we are tempted to judge success and failure solely on human terms. I recall when I began doing homeless ministry while in seminary, we initially envisioned that we would see revival on the streets of Jackson, MS. We didn’t and the temptation was to be discouraged. At the same time, God used this experience along with our initial setbacks and failures, to teach us an important lesson. My success or failure is not found in numbers nor is it found in terms of one’s fame or reputation; my success is found in whether or not I am being faithful to what God is calling me to do. Regardless of the fruit I see around me, the fruit that is most important is the fruit of my own obedience.

And that, loved ones, is the heart of Paul’s message in these words. The important thing is obedience. And if we face hunger or abundance, human success or failure, whether we are humbled or lifted up…the question that we must ask ourselves is whether we are being faithful to God’s call upon our lives. If we are being faithful, we can face all of these things that the world might throw at us in the strength of the Spirit. If we are not faithful, these things (even human success) will crush us under their weight.

A note should be made in terms of the word “initiated” as Paul uses it. This is the Greek word mue/w (mueo), which is understood to refer to being initiated into or made part of a group of people. The term is only found here in the New Testament, but is also found in 3 Maccabees 2:30 where it is used to refer to one who has learned the rules for living within a particular community. Today, we often use the term “initiate” to refer to one’s entrance into a secret fraternity or organization, but that is not so much the way the term was used in Paul’s era. In Paul’s era it referred to one who was not new to a given lifestyle…Paul was no amateur at ministry and in doing so, had faced plenty and hunger and he had faced successes and failures. Yet, Paul persevered in the strength of the Spirit. That is what it means to say that he had been initiated. Indeed, we should not forget that our Lord, too, endured both good times and bad times, successes and times of great humiliation and suffering, yet was infinitely faithful to the task for which he had been sent — and praise the Lord for that success!

Remembering You

“I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you.”

(Philippians 1:3)

Our experience, C.S. Lewis wrote, does not end with the event that causes the experience, but the experience works on us, matures within us, and grows into something beautiful as we reflect on and remember the original event. Biblically, remembrance of the works of God is seen as something that helps keep us living faithfully when tempted to go astray. Our lives are filled with experiences and interactions with people and ideas, but it is our remembrance that ties all of these experiences together into a unified story…it provides cohesion and continuity and of course, is one of the reason that diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease is so devastating…for it robs a person not only of individual memories, but also of the continuity that binds these memories together in a unified way.

Thus Paul, as he remembers back to the people that form the church in Philippi, rejoices, for their kindness and grace stirs in him good memories and a greater reminder of God’s own grace. This, of course, is especially important, for Paul is in jail as he writes this letter. Thus, these memories must also provide a piton of hope upon the mountain of trial that he sees before him. How, indeed, we all need such reminders of God’s grace to us through others to remind us why we press onward in the calling to which our Lord has called us.

It is my prayer that remembrance of God’s people that have influenced your life in the past would also bring you thanksgiving and that the faithfulness that such people demonstrated would spur you on to faithfulness. It is my prayer that you would rejoice in the God that has given you such people in the past, no matter how dark or difficult your life may seem at the present. It is my prayer that the memory of God’s hand in your life directly and through others may also remind you that you have a God that will never leave nor forsake you. And it is my prayer that these memories will serve as the unifying theme of your life, helping us to rejoice in the successes and learn from the failures, that we might grow more faithful as we mature in faith. Friends, may we rejoice in the memory of one another and give our God thanks that he has seen fit to bring us together in the way he has so done.

A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Speak

“But Peter followed him from a distance up to the court of the High Priest and going in he sat with the subordinates to witness the end.”

(Matthew 26:58)

 

“And Peter, from a distance, followed him as far as the courtyard of the High Priest and he was sitting with the subordinates and warming himself by the fire.”

(Mark 14:54)

 

“And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down in the midst of them.”

(Luke 22:55)

 

“The servants and the subordinates were standing around a charcoal fire they had made because it was cold and they were warming themselves. And Peter was also in that place and warming himself.”

(John 18:18)

 

Probably the obvious question to ask is with whom did Peter sit? Matthew and Mark speak of subordinates and John adds servants, but the question is, who are these people gathered in the middle of the night in Caiaphas’ court. Luke implies that these were amongst those who arrested Jesus, leading some English translations to render these verses as Peter sitting with the “guards.” Yet, the cohort (the official soldiers from the Temple) seems to have either departed or faded into the background for a variety of reasons, leaving us more likely with the rabble-rousers that made up the mob that accompanied the Cohort from the temple. Needless to say that this crowd is not a casual crowd and they are anything but neutral to the events that are transpiring.

Often this courtyard scene with Peter’s denial is portrayed as if Peter is being asked innocent questions about his association with Jesus and that his denials are out of an unfounded fear of what might happen. I don’t think that is what is implied here, though. These questions come from a very hostile crowd that is wanting to see blood — thus, while we still might speak of Peter’s cowardice to follow Jesus even to prison or death (Luke 22:33), prison or death most certainly would have been the end of this night for Peter had he spoken boldly of his connection with Jesus. Peter had escaped capture in the garden just hours earlier (if that long!), it is sure that this escape was fresh in his mind and he knew the climate of the people with whom he would be mixing in Caiaphas’ courtyard. Danger was all around.

It should be noted that some English versions translate Peter as standing by the fire while the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) portray him as sitting. This objection, if it be a real objection, can be answered in two ways. The simplest way is to recognize that Peter first approaches the fire standing up and remains standing so long as those around him are standing. Then, as Caiaphas takes his position for the trial, people settle down and sit. Peter, not wanting to stand out chooses to sit as well. The second way — if it be a way at all — is to note that the word that John uses, i¢sthmi (histami), can simply mean to be located in a particular spot (standing or sitting). Thus, there is no real contradiction between John’s account and the account of the other four evangelists.

While these questions may be curious, there are two clauses in these verses that are very striking. The first is how Mark refers to the fire around which Peter and the subordinates are gathered. Instead of using the ordinary word for “fire,” which in Greek is pu◊r (pur), he chooses to use the word, fw◊ß (phos) — “light.” One might be tempted to dismiss this as a curiosity, that perhaps Mark was simply looking for a different word to use for variety until one points out that this is the only time Mark uses the term fw◊ß (phos) in his entire Gospel. Furthermore, this is the only occurrence in the Greek New Testament where the term fw◊ß (phos) is used to refer to a fire.

One still might be tempted to suggest that Mark is just referring to the light that is emitted from a fire to foreshadow the fact that Peter would be recognized by those around him. Of course, this is presuming that this fire is the only source of light in the courtyard, which seems to be an odd assumption as oil lamps likely would have filled the space with light. A better answer is to recall that Mark is traditionally understood to have served as Peter’s scribe in Jerusalem, and thus this gospel was written under Peter’s oversight. Thus, there seems to be the suggestion here that the one thing Peter does not intend to do (at least initially) is to hide. His presence by the fire, in other words, is not just to warm himself (though that is one of the reasons), but is also to be present “in the light” and not in the midst of shadows. Of course, Peter’s nerve is lost as the proceedings go on and he realizes that he is noticed, but it is likely that at least at first, Peter’s intent was to be visible.

The second thing of particular interest is Matthew’s statement that Peter followed to see “the end.” The end of what? If Matthew is referring to “the end” of Jesus’ life, could it have been that Peter expected Jesus to be tried and executed even before dawn? Could Matthew have been speaking of “the end” with respect to their pilgrimage from the Sea of Galilee to Caiaphas’ courts? This latter explanation seems to be a better answer to the question. And, while likely not “the end” as Peter anticipated at the time, it indeed was the end — the end of Peter being only a follower and time for Peter to stand up and lead — though that final aspect would not be fulfilled until Pentecost. Solomon writes that to all things there is a season — for Peter (and for the other 10 who remained faithful), the time of following Jesus as he walked and taught in this earth had come to an end. Soon, the time would be for him to speak — and speak boldly he would.

Eber…

“It came to pass that Shelach had lived for thirty years, and he begat Eber. And after he began Eber, Shelach lived another four-hundred and three years and he begat sons and daughters.”

(Genesis 11:14-15)

 

And here the pattern continues. At times this may seem to get redundant, but the presence of these genealogies reminds us of God’s patience through the generations and the long gaps of time in between his covenantal activities. Our tendency is to be impatient and we want everything yesterday. God’s design is that he may never intend to bring earth-shattering events in our generation, but it may be through our children, our grandchildren, or through our great-great-great grandchildren whom we will never live long enough to meet in this life. There are basically ten generations that are traced here from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham. In which generation are we? We may be called simply to live in faith and obscurity, setting an example in our children or grandchildren to follow, for it may be in their generation that God is going to fulfill our prayers and move. We may pray for revival, but God is the one who brings such revival and he does so in His timing.

The name Eber comes from the Hebrew word meaning, “to pass by” or “to cross over.” Typically this is seen to reflect the nomadic lifestyle given to the descendants of Noah (they were to multiply and fill the earth — Genesis 9:1). It could also reflect the deliverance that God had given to his people through the flood as they passed over the waters of judgment if only still in the loins of Shem. It is also rather prophetic, because the people of God would pass through the Red Sea and the Jordan River by God’s divine working. There is some debate as to the origin of the word Hebrew, but some trace the word back to this son of Shem’s name. Hebrew traditionally is understood to be taken from the term “the ones who come from across the river.” Prophetic indeed.

The bottom line is that God is still continuing to work. Shelach and Eber may not be mighty judges or covenant mediators, but they prove faithful to God and hand down what they know from one generation to the next — something that we are all called to do as believers. We must be engaged in this privilege — teaching our children and grandchildren about the mighty works of God. The sad thing is that in our culture today, many parents are not doing that, but rather are taking the attitude that children should make up their own mind on such matters. Yet, for a plant to grow strong and healthy, it must be biased by good soil, plenty of water, and good sunshine; for a child to grow strong and healthy, he or she must be biased toward the truth — we are called to do that biasing by the way we live and by the way we teach our children. And while history may simply record us as a name in the line of another, our faithfulness will bear fruit in the generations that follow in faithfulness to God’s call and design.

Driving out the Nations; Crushing the Strongholds

“He drove out peoples under us;

Nations under our feet.”

(Psalm 47:4 {verse 3 in English Translations})

 

“The God of Peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet — the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”

(Romans 16:20)

 

The Biblical testimony is consistently that if you remember the things that God has done for you in the past, that ought to help you remain faithful in the present. In other words, it is coming to terms with the principle that God has always shown himself faithful, why do you think that this particular crisis will prove to be any different. Historically, when the people remember their roots, God blesses them as they seek to pursue Him; when they forget, they fall into sin and disobedience — often in extreme ways.

In this case, the psalmist is looking back to the conquest of Canaan. A time when none of the opposing nations could stand before the people of Israel as they entered. Even that event, though, was marked by the disobedience of the people and ultimately some Canaanites remained in the land. God allowed them to remain to be a thorn and a snare (Judges 2:3) and to teach them war (Judges 3:2). Even so, it is God that established them in the land; it is God who is the warrior of Israel; and it is God that will cast out the nations before them. Had they been faithful to God in that task, things would have been quite different than they ended up.

Yet need we simply see this as an ancient mandate? By all means, no! The God we worship today is the same God that led Israel through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. He is quite capable of leading us through whatever situation and trials we face in our lives today. Granted, we are not facing wild tribes of Canaanites that want to kill us and whose cities we are to commit to destruction, but we are facing the devil who wants to kill us spiritually and whose strongholds in this world (including those in our lives) we are called to tear down (2 Corinthians 10:4; Matthew 16:18). Will you be faithful is putting these sins to death and tearing down the strongholds that they have created in your life? Will you engage the strongholds of sin in your community as well, seeking to marginalize their influence over your life, your family, your church, your school, your nation? Praise be to the God who crushes those strongholds underneath our feet.

‘I Will Go’

“And they said, ‘Let us call to the young girl and hear it from her mouth.’ And they called to Rebekah and they said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she said, ‘I will go.’ Thus, they sent out Rebekah, their sister, and her nurse as well as the servant of Abraham and his men.”

(Genesis 24:57-59)

 

It almost seems as if, knowing that they are not going to persuade Eliezer to stay, they turn to Rebekah to buy more time. Rebekah’s response is short, simple, and typical of a woman of God. She simply says, “I will go.” While hesitation grips the family (likely out of hopes for personal gain), no hesitation afflicts the mind of Rebekah. She sees the hand of God at work and decides to simply follow God’s leading through the open door.

If the main theme of this chapter of the Bible is God’s sovereignty and faithfulness to his people, one of the next most significant themes is that of how God’s people are to follow God’s lead without hesitation or qualm. It is easy for us to get comfortable in our setting, no matter what that setting is. Even if the context is difficult, it is a “familiar difficulty” in the light of the unknown world that lays before us. Yet, when God calls us to go, we must follow His lead. Rebekah models that faithfulness for us in a pretty radical way. How often we fail even in simple ways.

Let the testimony of Rachael be your example and model. When God opens the door for you to serve him in a new (or in a fuller) way, step through that door and see where God will lead. There will be comforts enough in heaven, let us risk discomfort here to lift high the name of our mighty Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

WIll You be Faithful to My Lord?

“Now, if it is in you to show steadfast love and truth to my lord, declare it to me; if not, declare it to me so that I may turn to the right or to the left.”

(Genesis 24:49)

 

It is interesting to me how Eliezer couches his request for Rebekah to return with him. He does not say here, “Are you willing to wed your daughter to Isaac, son of Abraham?” What he says is, “Are you willing to be faithful to Abraham.” The first would simply be a yes or no question based on the wishes and preferences of the family. This way of asking bases the question on the relationship that Bethuel has with his Uncle Abraham. If Bethuel rejects this requests, it is no longer a matter of preference, but it is a rejection of the relationship that is had between these two men. Indeed, it is a rejecting of Abraham’s family line and right to find a wife for his son within his extended covenant family.

The idiom of the right hand and the left hand is often one that expresses a lack of knowing where else one should turn even to find what is true. God has led Eliezer here and Eliezer is basing his actions upon the principle that what God directs is true and right. If he is rejected, then where can he go? Can one hope to honor God by looking for a spouse in a place other than where God has led him? Abraham and Sarah know the difficulties that come as a result of trying to circumvent God’s design, for that is how Ishmael came into the world. How often we pursue our own ends rather than submitting to God’s and found we have embarked on that which will bring disappointment and failure?

Loved ones, it is God’s plan and design we are to follow. Indeed, discerning that design is the trick at times, though the principle that Eliezer is following is sound. Ask God to open the doors through which you are to go and wait on him to do just that in His timing. God is about to work in Rebekah’s life in a visible and magnificent way; he does that in our lives as well. May we be faithful to that call.

Tell Me the Story of Jesus…Again and Again!

“Even before I had finished speaking in my heart, behold, Rebekah came out with her jar on her neck! She went down to the spring and began to draw water. So I said to her, ‘Please provide for me a drink.’ She quickly let down her jar and said, ‘Drink and I will also provide a drink for your camels.’”

(Genesis 24:45-46)

 

On one level, it might be tempting to dismiss this section of the story as redundant and skip to the end. And if we were to do that, we would miss an important element of Hebrew narrative, and that is repetition. The repetition is there to reinforce the account in a culture where many of these stories would have been passed down in oral form, but there is still more to the picture that we should note. This historical account has been preserved by God in his scriptures for our benefit. It is here not to make us groan at the repetition, but it is designed to help us see the intimate nature of a God who takes such interest in even the smallest aspects of our lives that he would record the event of Eliezer’s meeting Rebekah over and over again. Our testimonies are not only important to our witness, but they are important to God himself. He loves our testimonies so deeply and so dearly because our testimonies are part of God’s work of redemption in the life of his people.

How we should too be fond of retelling of the goodness of God to us through the years and how quick we ought to be to retell it. How often, though, we fail to mention these stories even to our children and then we wonder why our children often walk away from the church and any meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. When we ignore the hand of God’s providence in our own stories and when we fail to share those stories (repeatedly) with the next generation, the faith of the people grows shallow and often becomes little more than lip service. Yet, when we tell the story of Jesus’ work in our lives to our children and to our grandchildren — over and over — then the faith we will see around us will grow deep and it will be vibrant. Which do you prefer?

So the next time you are reading in the Bible and run across repetition or a long list of genealogies or a list of who gave what toward the building of the temple, don’t just skim over that. Instead, look to the text as God might look to the text — with great pleasure at the faithfulness of his people. Then look to your own life and ask yourself how you are living and whether God and the future generations would view your life in the same way. Beloved, tell the story of Jesus and do not relegate it to a series of events that took place two thousand years ago, but remember to tell it as one who is part of the greater story of God’s redemption. May such stories never grow old no matter how often we hear or read of God’s hand at work.

Rehearsing the Commands of God

“And I said to my lord, ‘What if the woman will not follow after me?’ And he said to me, ‘Yahweh, before whose presence I have been made to walk, shall send his angel with you and he will cause your way to succeed and you shall take a wife for my son from my family, from my father’s house. At that time you will be released from my oath when you have come to my clan. And if they will not give her to you, you are released from my oath.’”

(Genesis 24:39-41)

 

Again, Eliezer continues to rehearse the instructions that he has been given for the family of Rebekah, though this time not quite as verbatim as before. Even so, all of the principle portions are in place and it provides us with an important reminder as to how we too should actively work to remind ourselves of the instructions we have been given by our Lord as we go about life in this world. Instructions such as “Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Matthew 22:37), “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19), “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) and idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14), “Forgive others” (Matthew 6:14-15), and “Pursue righteousness, love, peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22) to name just a few.

How often, as those claiming to be born again and given salvation as a gift of God’s grace through faith in the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, we fail to act like it. We often live like spoiled princes, pursuing sin rather than living after the character of our Father and our greater brother, Jesus Christ. We who are indebted to God for everything rarely express that thanks in obedience. We may sing all of the praise songs on Sunday, but on Monday our lives betray that the words were empty to our souls. Often we obey those expectations that are easy; ignore those that are hard, and never strive to grow in Christian maturity and grace.

Loved ones, let the humility and submission of Eliezer be a challenge and a model for your days. Rehearse the commands of God that he would place on your life and strive prayerfully to live them out. We will not be perfect in this life, the Holy Spirit will bring any success we will have, but at the same time, that should never stop up from striving toward the goal of Christlikeness in the strength of the Holy Spirit and under the direction of God’s word. If you attend only to earthly things, that to which you attend will pass away. If you attend to spiritual things first, the earthly things will find their proper place in God’s providential care.

Fidelity to God’s Word

“And my lord made me swear, saying ‘You must not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell. Instead, to the house of my father you should go and to my family. From them take a wife for my son.”

(Genesis 24:38)

 

We have already discussed the importance of a believer not marrying a pagan in the plan and decree of God (see verses 2-4), though it is a principle of which we ought regularly be reminded. This does not mean we cannot do business with or be neighbors to an unbeliever, but it reminds us that for the covenantal union to make any sense whatsoever, both parties in a marriage must be committed to the same God who is forming the union. If both are not committed to Christ, how then can two become one? They would be a divided person at best. Thus Eliezer explains his vow to the family of Rebekah as commanded by his master, Abraham.

Having already discussed being unequally yoked, what is worth noting here is Eliezer’s fidelity to the call. Here he takes great pains to quote Abraham verbatim and not to simply summarize his master’s words. Because Eliezer recognizes that he is a servant and thus an emissary of Abraham, he recognizes that he does not have the liberty to insert his own interpretations here.

Inserting interpretations, of course, is what always gets us in trouble. It was Eve’s error when debating with the Serpent in the Garden and it is regularly our failure when speaking of God’s word with others in the community. We feel like we have the gist of the statement and just choose to summarize it rather than sticking to the literal word itself. When we summarize like this, we typically insert our own preferences into the teaching and we also tend to denude the Word of its sharpness and power.

Of course, unless we hide the word of God in our heart, regularly meditating on it and memorizing it, how can we have fidelity to that word that God has given us? We have often become lazy in our approach to God’s word and in doing so become guilty of making it say what we would prefer for it to say. When we do this, we cease to be a faithful servant, committed to God’s call upon our lives. Friends, mark the example of Eliezer well, for his fidelity to the very words of Abraham should be reflected in our fidelity to the word of our Almighty God.

Swearing

“So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his lord and he swore to him on these matters.”

(Genesis 24:9)

 

Isn’t it interesting how there seems to be such a different emphasis in the Old and the New Testaments when it comes to swearing an oath. Here we find Abraham requesting his chief servant swear an oath to him regarding the journey that he will go upon looking for the woman we will later know as Rebekah. In fact, God himself commands that his people, if they swear, they shall swear by his name, Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20). When the command is given about not taking the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) it is not implying that God’s people should never use God’s name nor is it implying that we ought never swear by God’s name, but it is saying that we should not do so for vain (empty or thoughtless) purposes. The same command is given in Leviticus applying to all oaths taken (Leviticus 5:4) and clarified later that we are not to swear by God’s name falsely (Leviticus 19:12; Psalm 24:4). In fact, when it comes to God’s wrath in judgment, He puts those who swear falsely in the same category as sorcerers, adulterers, and those who abuse the widow and orphan (Malachi 3:5).

Yet, when we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus speaking these words:

“Again, it was spoken in ancient times, ‘You shall not perjure yourself, but you shall pay out to the lord your oath. But I say to you do not swear at all — neither by heaven for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth for it is the stool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Neither should you swear by your head for you do not have the power to make one hair white or black. Instead, let your word be, ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no;’ anything more than this is from the evil one.”

(Matthew 5:33-37)

So how do we reconcile these two things? Is this just a change in the way that God expects us to do business or is there something else going on here? The answer to these questions seems to be rooted in the context of what Jesus is teaching as well as in the use of the term “lord.”

In New Testament Greek, the  term ku/rioß (kurios) or “lord” has both a general and a specific meaning. In terms of the general meaning, it can refer to anyone who is in authority over you — an employer, a master, a leader, etc… It can also be used as a simple term of respect, much like we would use the term “sir” today. Its specific use is essentially the superlative of the idea of lordship and is only used of God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint or the LXX, the word ku/rioß (kurios) was used to translate both the Hebrew words yˆnOdSa (Adoniy — usually written as “Adonai”) and hwhy (Yahweh). Thus, when the specific use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, we recognize it to be the application of the covenantal name of God to our Lord and Savior.

The practical question, though, is which use of the term ku/rioß (kurios) is Jesus intending in this passage? Typically, translations of the New Testament have seen this as a specific use of the term “Lord” thus have written it with a capital “L.” This is based on the references to the Third Commandment that are found in the Old Testament in terms of not vowing falsely when you use the Lord’s name (see references above). And while that might seem the plain reading of the text at the onset, the statement that Jesus makes is not implying that one is using the Lord’s name as part of the oath, but instead it is toward the lord that one is making said vow. Thus, it seems that it is better to understand this passage as a comment on the Ninth Commandment, not on the Third. In turn, the “lord” in reference, being the one to whom you are making an oath, is a human master or leader.

A reading focused on Jesus’ interpretation of the Ninth Commandment would also be consistent with the rest of this section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus addresses the Sixth Commandment (Matthew 5:21-26), the Tenth Commandment (Matthew 5:27-30), the Seventh Commandment (Matthew 5:31-32), and the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 5:38-42) respectively. This covers Jesus’ interpretation of the second half of the Law (Commandments 6-10) if understood in this way. Jesus then teaches that we ought not ever be in a position where we need to take oaths to confirm the truthfulness of our words — in other words, because we build a reputation where our “yes is yes” and our “no is no,” there is no question of a need to swear an oath.

If that is so, then we are still left with a bit of a quandary. If Jesus is teaching us that we should never need to swear, why here is Abraham still demanding the oath from his servant? Surely Abraham knows the character of his chief servant by this point in his life. The easy out is simply to say that Abraham slipped in his faith and demanded something from Eliezer that he ought not have demanded. Yet that answer is a bit of a cop-out based not only on the context of Abraham’s request but also on the various teachings of scripture calling for oaths in God’s name. It is also tempting to draw a line of division between different kinds of oaths. It could be argued, and rightly so, that this oath that Abraham is swearing his servant to is an oath in connection with the covenantal promises of God, not simply a human transaction to which Jesus (and the Ninth Commandment) arguably is speaking. While at the onset, this might seem to be appealing, it creates divisions that seem a bit artificial to the reading of the text.

The better answer seems to be the way in which Jesus is interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. He is deliberately intensifying them not only to show the intention behind the commandment, but also to make sure that none of us walk away from the Ten Commandments feeling as if we have somehow satisfied the command by satisfying the letter of the law. Thus, Jesus states that if you are angry with another person, you are guilty of breaking the law against murder; if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery, and thus, if you have taken an oath by anything that is outside of your sphere of control (which, apart from your word is not much), you have broken the commandment about not bearing false witness.

And here we have an answer, I believe, that suits the context of Abraham’s action while also understanding what Jesus is trying to show us in the Sermon on the Mount. Abraham is a man of faith, but he is also a sinner — as we are all. Indeed, we should strive to live a sinless life, but the reality is, we all fall short of the mark in our daily activities and we need to take that principle and set it before us always.

So, then, what ought we do when making a contract with another? Should we take an oath or not? The best answer to that is first, never bear false witness against another so that they want anything more than a “yes” or “no” from you along with a handshake or a signature. Yet, if their conscience is burdened or if they do not know you and desire a greater assurance, said oath may be taken, but do not take the oath on heaven and earth or even on the hairs of your own head. First of all, you neither made them nor can control them. Second of all, there is someone higher and greater than the heavens and the earth — compared with whom the heavens and the earth are rather puny. Indeed, God states (and Jesus does not contradict) that we ought to swear an oath by the name of Yahweh, the God and creator of all things. He is the superlative of superlatives and you belong to him. It is not that your oath will compel Yahweh to complete what you cannot complete, but your oath, taken in holy reverence for the one in whose name you are taking it, ought to compel you to truth and action. May your word be your bond, but if you are compelled to swear an oath, do not do so by anything in creation for the earth and the stars cannot compel you to action; God can and will.