August 23, 2015
Scripture and Commentary, August 23-29
Prov. 27, Mk. 6:1-29
Prov. 28, 1 John 1
“A prudent man seeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on , and are punished.”
Like many of the proverbs, this verse gives light to our conduct in worldly and spiritual endeavours. “Evil” can refer to the problems and troubles of life. These can come to us from other people, natural catastrophes, or from social problems and upheavals. The wise man prepares for such things. He knows other people can hurt him, so he tries to avoid dangerous people, and dangerous places. He avoids exposing himself to danger. He knows jobs can end, so he saves money for emergencies. He knows electricity can go off, so he keeps emergency supplies on hand. He sees possible problems, and prepares to keep himself safe if they happen. The simple (foolish) man pays no heed to potential problems or dangers. “It can’t happen to me,” seems to be his motto. So he exposes himself to danger, walks into dangerous places, and does not prepare for the storms of life. He often suffers because of this. The simple man is also often conspicuous for bad habits, sloth, overspending, and revelry.
“Evil” can also refer to problems in our spiritual lives. We all face the temptations of spiritual sloth, neglect of the means of grace, and neglect of the fellowship of the Church. The prudent man doesn’t expose himself to temptation or join others in sin. He makes diligent use of the means of grace, associates with the Church, forms the habit of prayer and Godliness, and avoids revelry and dissipation.
Prov 29 Mk. 6:30-56
1 Jn. 2
Chapter 29 returns to the thesis/antithesis form of proverbs. A thesis is stated, such as, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice” (29:2). This is followed by the antithesis, which proves the truth of the thesis by declaring the opposite; “but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.”
The best known words in this chapter are in verse 18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” They have been used to encourage people to plan for the future, and to envision what the future can be. That is excellent advice, but “vision” actually refers to the activity of God, by which He reveals Himself and His will to people. In verse 18 they refer primarily to the law of God, which directs us in the ways of goodness and peace (see Ps. 19:7-13). Without the knowledge of God, people perish: life at every level, from personal to national, is thrown into chaos. Corruption and violence rule the street; alienation and abuse destroy homes and lives. Without standards of conduct, which apply to all, life becomes a free-for all. Or a group of people seizes power and enforces arbitrary standards, which reward them and their cronies, at the expense of the masses. In such circumstances, many may people perish physically at the hands of those in power. But many more perish spiritually as freedom and hope die within them.
Obviously, the difference between a solid standard that applies to all, and a fluid or arbitrary standard for the benefit of the elite, is a spectrum, and cultures and societies can be found at many points between the two extremes. But the further they stray from the solid standards given by God, the more the people perish. Fortunately, completely arbitrary cultures are rare, if they exist at all. People naturally know it is wrong to murder and plunder, and even if their standards allow them to murder and plunder people in other villages, races, religions, cultures or classes, they usually forbid it among their own. And they usually have some limits on what they do to others. If this were not so, the human race would have annihilated itself long ago.
The thesis if this verse, “where there is no vision, the people perish,” is now proven by the antithesis, “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” The law of God is perfect justice. Its standards are just, and, if applied equally to all people in all stations of life, they are the way of peace and contentment for all people.
Prov. 30, Mk. 7:1-23
Prov. 31, 1 Jn. 3
Agur, which can mean, “collector,” probably refers to Solomon, who authored the Proverbs and collected them into the document we call the book of Proverbs.
Ithiel can be translated as, “God is with me,” and Ucal as “The Mighty One.” Accordingly, many scholars ascribe the names, in their fullest sense, to Christ, and see verses 1-9 as fulfilled in Him. According to Matthew Henry, the author has a three-fold purpose as he writes.
First, he writes to abase himself. Solomon acknowledges his failures, and his unworthiness to write anything about God. According to Henry, it is as though Solomon is saying, “Surely I cannot but think that I am more brutish than any man; surely no man has such a corrupt deceitful heart as I have. I have acted as one that has not the understanding of Adam, as one that is wretchedly degenerated from the knowledge and righteousness in which man was at first created; nay, I have not the common sense and reason of a man, Else I should not have done as I have done.” Most of us would use similar phrases about ourselves in those rare moments when God allows us to see some of the depth of our sin and sinfulness. Even Paul called himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15).
Second, he writes to “advance Jesus Christ.” Ithiel and Ucal refer to God the Son and God the Father. Henry especially sees Christ in the One who has ascended up (Eph. 4:10), bound the waters in a garment (Jn. 1:3) and the Son (Jn. 1:18) and word (Jn. 1:1) of verses 4 and 5.
Third, he writes to “assure us of the truth of the word of God, and to recommend it to us.” Solomon’s words have the effect of saying, “I cannot undertake to instruct you; go to the word of God; see what He has there revealed of Himself, and of His mind and will.” Everything you need to know about God is taught there, and you may rely on it is sure and sufficient. “Every word of God is pure” (5). “Add thou not to His words,” (6).
Verse 10 warns against abusing people with less money or power than we may have. Rather than arrogance and mistreatment, they have the right to our encouragement and good treatment. We are not to allow our own estimation of ourselves to become lofty, or our own teeth to become swords. The rest of the chapter continues with wise sayings and proverbs.
Ecclesiastes 1, Mk. 7:24-37
Ecc. 2, 1 Jn. 4
Commentary, Ecclesiastes 1 and 2
Boredom is one of the major social problems of our time. Not too many generations ago children were in the workforce. Elementary school age children worked long, hard hours in dangerous factories and sweatshops and mines and farms. And they worked not to buy new trinkets, but to put food on the family table. We, as a culture, have done much to get children out of that predicament. We have passed laws against child labor, and built schools to give them a chance to do something safer with their lives. In addition, we have formed extra-curricular activities, and summer athletic leagues, We have given them movies and TVs and cell phones and cars and computers, and everything under the sun. Kids today have more free time, more freedom, less work, less responsibility, more money, more things, and more time to enjoy their things than any previous generation But what do we hear from kids today? “I’m bored.”
Adults, too, are often just plain bored with life. Here again, we have more time, more freedom, more money, more leisure, more toys than any previous generation, and we’re bored to tears. And this is across all lines of race and class. At a social event I was standing within earshot of young adults of two of Virginia’s wealthiest families. They didn’t know I heard them, but I did, and their conversation went something like this, “Get drunk last night?” “Yeah, wasted. You?” “Yeah, I don’t remember nuthin.” “Must have had a great time.” These were the pampered rich. They had everything, yet the only thing they could think of to do was drink away their boredom. And they’re not alone. Could part of the hectic pace that is so prevalent in our culture be due to our need to relieve our boredom by filling every minute with so much stimulation we don’t have time to notice how bored we are? Could the illegal drug and alcohol pandemic be due in part to bored people just looking for their next thrill to help them forget how bored they are?
If boredom truly is a social problem, ours is not the first generation to notice it. Solomon wrote about that very issue almost a thousand years before the time of Christ. He didn’t use the word, “boredom.” He wrote of vanity. “All is vanity.” But, if you listen to his story you find he is just plain bored with life. Solomon was a man who had it all. He had power, money, possessions, fame, houses, land, servants. There was no finery or luxury of that time, that he didn’t have, and he indulged his every whim. Yet life had brought him to the point of total boredom. Listen to his own words. Hear the boredom in them.
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.” “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” “The rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Solomon did not come to this conclusion in a philosophical discussion about the meaning of life. Solomon was not reiterating the teachings of a philosopher, or some favourite teacher at school. We sometimes adopt ideas simply because we admire the person who holds them, but Solomon did not become bored because someone told him he should be. He was bored because he had tried it all, and none of it gave the thrill and meaning to life he wanted. He gave himself to the pursuit of wisdom, but he found that the increase of wisdom brought a corresponding increase in sorrow. Furthermore, there are anomalies in life that simply defy human understanding. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the good suffer? Why doesn’t God, who claims to be good and who promises that the meek shall inherit the earth, do something about it?
He turned to revelry and drunkenness. Many today are following his example. They give themselves to alcohol and drugs, club hopping, and keg parties trying to escape from their boredom. But Solomon became bored with these things, too.
Next, Solomon gave himself to building wealth. He became fabulously rich, by opening ports in his country and transferring goods from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean Sea through his land. But he soon had everything money could buy, and he became bored again.
He tried art and culture, and he built great cities and palaces. And one day he just said, “this is boring.” Someone said classical music is just a thin veneer over our savagery. If the music is simply a way to make an appearance, he is right. And the same can be true of art, architecture, and culture in general, for these things must be an expression of ourselves to have any deeper meaning. Trying to conform to a certain form of music that means nothing to us, is boring.
So here is the conclusion of Solomon. It is found in Ecclesiastes 1:14. It says;
“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Reading these words is like reading today’s paper, or the latest best selling book, or watching some of the contemporary films, or listening to the words of popular “music.” The Bible’s assessment of the human situation is as up to date and relevant as this morning’s news. Its answer and solution is equally up to date and relevant. The answer is Christ. Solomon did temporary relief in his pursuits. They all helped for a time. But soon he began to see the emptiness, the vanity of them, the boredom of them. People today trying to end their boredom in the same ways, and finding the same results. Those forms of escape cannot bring long-term help. But one thing can. One person can. His name is Jesus, and He lived and died and rose again to give meaning and hope to life by freeing us from the burdens of sin and unbelief. Life as His disciple is often tough, but never boring. God grant us grace to trust Him.
Solomon makes two important points in this first two chapters of his book. The first, life is boring. The second, is, life is meaningless. The hippie generation had a motto, “drop out, tune in, turn on. It referred to the view that life is meaningless, and the best way to get through it is to stop striving after material things, “drop out” of the rat race, “tune in” to the sheer meaninglessness of life, and “drop in” on LSD. In the 1960s, meaninglessness was the view of a vocal minority. Today, it is widespread and is the prevalent view of life among the children and grand children of the hippie generation. It is expressed to perfection in their motto, “whatever.” Whatever, means life is empty, vain, and meaningless, therefore, nothing matters.
You can see that it is a short hop from “whatever” to “don’t bother.” If life has no meaning, why bother to apply yourself to anything? Why bother with school, or a job, or family, or anything that gets in the way of your pleasures for the moment? And so, “whatever” has robbed many of today’s young people of their initiative to make a life for themselves. But theirs is not the first generation to feel this way. Solomon felt the same way 3,000 years ago. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” is his way of saying all of life, and therefore, all manner of pursuit in life, is meaningless.
Solomon is not reciting the philosophy of a favourite teacher, or even voicing the “spirit of the age.” He is speaking from his own experience in life, and he voices his conclusion from having tried it all. Solomon gave himself to the pursuit of wisdom. We may read this as the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Solomon was renowned for his wisdom. Yet he realised there were things he would never understand, and that these were some of the most important issues of life. So he concluded that the pursuit of knowledge is a meaningless pursuit. Young people today are throwing away their opportunities for education with both hands. It is no secret that our public school system is broken. It was once the envy of the world, but now is outclassed by many nations. But, whether a school is first rate or fifth rate, the education is there for anyone who wants to get it. I know many public school teachers with whom I disagree radically on fundamental issues of life. But I don’t know any who will not help a child get an education. The problem is that many American students don’t want an education. Why? Because, to them, life is meaningless, so, why bother?
Solomon turned to the party circuit. The pursuit of pleasure and mirth. This is a time honoured tradition, and is prevalent today. Why do people drown their lives in pleasure, alcohol and drugs? In part because they find no meaning in life, and the weight of that thought is too much to bear. On a deeper level, if life is meaningless, then the pleasure of the present moment is all they have.
It is the same with art, culture, wealth, fame, and success. Solomon tried them all and he found them empty, meaningless, and powerless to make life worth living. Do you know why he found them meaningless? Because, once you take God out of the picture you remove the meaning of life. Remove God, and you reduce the universe to chance and chemical reactions. Remove God, and you remove morality. Remove God and you remove purpose. You remove good and evil, and right and wrong. Remove God and you remove the reason for anything. There is no reason for manners, or modesty in dress, or family, or relationships, or work, or being a good citizen or a kind person, or driving your car in a responsible manner. Remove God, and all you have left is, “whatever.” That is exactly the point Solomon is trying to make in his book. And he knows because he tried it. So have others. The German philosopher, Nietzsche said God died in the 19th century, and an astute observer added, “and man died in the 20th century.” Surely Western culture is rapidly abandoning God, and the further we get from Him the deeper we sink into despair and decay. Look at America. Crime, corruption, hate, violence, and abuse are killing our country like cancer. And every new solution offered by our various institutions simply creates more problems.
But with God, everything is different. With God life means something. It has purpose. We have a reason to do everything. With God, we are alive, and “whatever” is dead.
But we cannot simply adopt “god” as a philosophical principle because the idea of a god is good for people and good for the world. It is good for us, but we must have something far greater than an idea adopted for purely utilitarian purposes. We must have not the god of philosophical speculation, we must have the Living God. Only the true Creator can make sense out of life, and sense out of death. Only the true God can give the answers to all our great questions and all our great problems. Only Divine help can change the souls of people, and thus, change the world. No god of any religion offers this, except one. In that religion there is a story of a world created good but gone horribly wrong. In that religion there is a story of a world lost in darkness, very similar to that described by Solomon. In that religion there is a story of people caught in a death trap of evil and sin with no way out; of people justly under the penalty of everlasting banishment from the One Thing that is everything they need and want, but don’t know it, and when they find out, they resist it because it reproves their sin and calls them to repent and do right. In this religion there is a story of a wonderful God who somehow became a Man and lived in this world, and set aside His rights and privileges, and lived and laughed and cried, and finally died, just like other men, except for two things. First, He died for our sins. He died on a cross, and He bore in His own flesh there the wrath of God for the sins of the world. He died, not for His crimes, but for ours. Second, He rose again. Do not look for His body in a tomb or an ossuary. They are not there. He is risen. And He offers meaningful life, and forgiveness, and peace with God as a free gift. All you have to do is let Him give it to you. That “religion” is Christianity, and that God is Jesus Christ. He is the God we need. May God grant us the wisdom to receive Him.
Ecc. 3, Mk 8:1-26
Ecc. 4, 1 Jn. 5
Millions of people have accepted the view of the absolute meaninglessness of life. Why? Many have grown up with the idea that happiness consists of having things. That is simply another way of saying meaning is found in things, whether toys or circumstances, or friends, or something else. There are many variations of this theme. For one person, it could be having a yacht with a helicopter pad. For another it could be having a hot rod tractor to take to the tractor pull competitions. For yet another it could be landing a big promotion and salary. But when they get their things, and reach the pinnacle of success, they find out there is something missing in their lives. Siegfried Sassoon wrote in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man that the winner of the last race is forgotten as soon as the next race begins. And so it is in all of life. Fame is fleeting, worldly goods rust, and the new toy that lights up the child’s eyes on Christmas morning, is forgotten by Christmas evening. The hard truth is that things can never provide happiness or meaning. When these people learn that truth, they conclude life has no meaning.
Others have concluded that the presence of insurmountable obstacles shows the meaningless of life. You may reach the top of your field and exceed all your dreams, but you can’t stay there. You may be Miss America this year, but another golden girl will take your place next year. You may be young and beautiful and filled with potential, but soon youth will pass, and you will experience health problems, and, one day, the little empire you create for yourself will go to someone else. There are problems in life and issues in life, like poverty, the success of the wicked and the oppression of the righteous, sickness, suffering and death, that cannot be escaped, and which we seem to be unable to eradicate. And because of them many people have concluded that life is ultimately meaningless.
Some have said life would have meaning if only they could see God, but they have looked for Him and not found Him. Instead they have found war and famine, oppression and suffering, sorrow, loss, grief and death, and they have concluded there is no god, therefore, there is no meaning in life.
Many have accepted the idea that science disproves God, and that we are merely chemical reactions on a rock in space, who got here by pure chance and accident. Therefore, life has no meaning.
No wonder people today are depressed. No wonder people today need drugs, illegal or prescription, to get them through life. No wonder the psychologists and psychiatrists have people standing in line to see them. No wonder suicide is a growing problem. People are searching for ways to help them deal with this utter meaninglessness.
Here is how some people deal with it, apart from drugs and therapy. Some adopt the view that says, “life is short, play hard.” Some try to invent their own meaning by finding their “passion” and throwing themselves into it. Some just try to act like life has meaning, even though they “know” it doesn’t. Some adopt another option that has always been popular, and, which is growing rapidly today. Let’s call it “theistic agnosticism.” It is simply the general idea that “god” exists somewhere, but we can’t know very much about Him/Her/It/Them. So just do the best you can. Be a good person, play fair, give a little back to your community and your world, and hope for the best. One reason people accept this idea is because the god they conjure up this way requires nothing of them. He is just a nice feeling which doesn’t make any demands, doesn’t require worship, and doesn’t require obedience, discipleship, and sacrifice. In other words, this god is easy, and many prefer it to the tough, demanding God of the Bible. But many adopt this view because it does give some meaning to life, and they desperately want meaning.
None of this is new “under the sun.” Solomon came to these same conclusions 3,000 years ago, and he was not the first or the last. If you have studied philosophy you know these ideas have a long history with humanity, and you can give the philosophical names for them, along with influential thinkers who have taught them. But Solomon is significant for three reasons. First, he was the civil ruler of the people of God, therefore, he should have been a man of exemplary faith, not a skeptic and critic of it. Second, he chronicled his conclusions in this book, which was a rare thing in those days. Third, he changed his mind. As Solomon traveled through life he came to an entirely different conclusion, and his book chronicles his journey from doubt and despair back to faith and confidence. You could make a Hollywood movie out of this book. Start with an elderly man reminiscing about his life. Then flashback to his early days as king. See him young and confident, full of hope, believing God has brought him to this point, and determined to be the best king in the world. See him grow weary of the never ending problems, disillusioned at the lack of cooperation among his own people, and disappointed at the fact that the harder he worked to make things better for his people and his country, the more things stayed the same. See him turn from God to pleasure and power. See him sink into despair until he concludes, “vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” Then see him find his way back to God. In God, see him find meaning again, and life, and hope. His story has everything Hollywood wants, money, sex, power, exotic locations, a cast of thousands. The only thing some producers might not like is his return to God, but they could edit that out.
So in the third chapter we see a change in Solomon’s book. The first two chapters express despair. Look at these verses from chapters one and two.
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” (1:2). “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” (1:3). “Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” (2:17).
Now look at these verses from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven,” (3:1). “He has made everything beautiful in his time,” (3:11).
Solomon has discovered a sense of order in the world. “To everything, there is a season.” He refers to work, to life, even to the trials of life, such as death and war. He has found purpose in life. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. Notice the change here from “under the sun” to “under the heaven.” The sun is just a ball of fire that crosses the earth everyday, but heaven has a religious meaning. It is the realm of God which lies beyond this physical universe. So, you can see Solomon changing, and even though he continues to give the arguments for the meaninglessness of life through the rest of his book, he no longer believes them. He presents them only to discredit them. He presents them to say they are wrong, because there really is meaning to life. There really is purpose to life. And if you live according to this meaning and purpose, you will find “fulfilment,” “self-actualisation,” and a way out of your “existential angst.” You will find peace in your soul, and the happiness you always hoped for but could never find “under the sun.” One of the most telling marks of Solomon’s conversion is found in 3:11, “He hath made everything beautiful in his time.” Beautiful is a term of value and worth. It is a term of meaning. A mass of accidental chemical reactions on a rock in space, has no meaning. Therefore, it cannot be beautiful in the philosophical sense of the word, no matter how pretty it might be to look at. But “He,” God, “has made all things beautiful.” He has given them meaning, because meaning comes from God. Purpose comes from God. Existence comes from God.
Ecc. 5, Mk. 8:27-38
Ecc. 6, 2 Jn., 3 Jn.
Midway through the fourth chapter, Solomon turnes again to writing short proverbs, similar to those in the book of Proverbs. In chapter 5, the first 7 verses are proverbs about right conduct in the worship of God, and how that applies to the rest of life. This is an important connection, for, to the Christian, worship is not a compartment in our lives, it is our lives. We live to worship God, and everything we do is, or should be, worship. This does not preclude special times and places and means of worship. It does not mean we can dispense with private and family prayer, or the meetings and liturgies of the public worship of God’s Church. It does mean that worship in these settings overflows into the rest of life, directing and colouring everything we do.
Reverence in the House of the Lord, is commended, along with a humble spirit that is more willing to hear and learn than to speak and attempt to teach others. Completion of vows made to God is stressed in verses 4 and 5. How lightly people take such vows today. The marriage vow is not only a vow to your spouse, it is a vow to his/her family, your children, and to God Himself. Yet people utter the words thoughtlessly, and break the vows as though they were simply nice words instead of a life commitment. The same thing occurs in the membership vows of the Church. Every Church has some requirements for membership, and joining is a solemn vow and commitment to the congregation, minister, and God Himself, that you will faithfully perform and submit to those requirements. A reasonable summation of the vows is found in the Anglican 1928 Book of Common Prayer, pages 273-299. Though these refer specifically to Anglican Churches, the requirements for other denomination are similar. They basically require a belief in Christ as Lord and Saviour, acceptance and agreement with the major doctrines of the Bible, and a commitment to support the Church and its ministry with cheerful giving and obedience.
Verses 8-20 deal primarily with financial problems and responsibilities. We are warned that riches can actually be a source of harm to us (13), and that it is better to pursue Godliness than wealth.
The chapter continues the description of the the problems that accompany wealth. Most of the problems in this chapter are caused by the shortness of life, and the fact that all our wealth is left behind when we leave this life. We labour to build wealth, but someone else will enjoy it. Of course, this can be good, if we leave our children in prosperity. But the point is that there are things more valuable than money, which we should pursue with more energy than we expend chasing money.
Ecc. 7, Mk. 9:1-30
Ecc. 8, Jude
Wealth is still a primary topic in this chapter, which can be summarised in verse 11, “Wisdom is good with an inheritance; and there is profit to them that see under the sun.” Money is good. Prosperity is good. A person should work, and should enjoy the fruit of his labour. And it is good to leave an inheritance for your children. Money can be a defence from many things. But money without wisdom is a terrible burden, or wasted on riotous living. Wisdom, meaning, the wisdom of God, especially as it is revealed in the Bible, not only teaches us how to deal with money, it also teaches us about our relationship to God and the perils of sin. Thus, wisdom is a defence against more dangerous troubles than poverty.
Wisdom, here, as in Proverbs, means the wisdom that is from God. In Solomon’s time it came through visions and dreams and the words of the prophets, as well as the Books of Moses. In our time it is found in the Bible. This wisdom is our defence against the temptations and troubles of life. Here we are taught to respect legitimate government (2-5), and warned that government can become oppressive (9). Especially, we must submit ourselves to the government of God, trusting that He will deal with evil and establish justice for His people.