… And Books Were Opened

[This post is a slightly revised version of a Wascana Fellowship message from 2010.]

The image of judgment in Revelation 20:11-15 mentions that “books were opened” and that people were judged in accordance with what was written in them. We are told that one of them is the “book of life” but I had always wondered what the other books might be. There may be a clue in ancient Israel’s law.

At the time God was settling the Israelites into the Promised Land, He gives them rules about inheritance that feature a novel twist: land cannot be sold in perpetuity, but rather must be returned to the family every 50 years, during what He calls a Jubilee year. Could he be familiar with the human tendency to concentrate wealth?

There was to be a major redistribution of wealth-generating property in the 50th year in order to ensure that each family could have something to call its own to fall back on: a certain minimum net worth, as it were (Leviticus 25:8-55). According to Howard and Rosenthal [The Feasts of the Lord, p. 197], the primary purpose of this was to eliminate oppression among Israelites (though it did not help foreign slaves of Israelites very much).

The announcement of Jubilee was made on Israel’s most sacred day of the year, currently known as yom kippur and translated “the Day of Atonement” in most English Bibles. This was the day that all of Israel’s sins were “covered” by special sacrifices at the Temple. Once the sins were taken care of for the year, the release of Israelite slaves and the return to families of their land was to be proclaimed from God’s holy tabernacle or temple. Imagine the joy and jubilation of that day throughout the land!

Unfortunately, there is no Biblical or historical record that proves this law was ever kept in Israel, and no way to track or calculate the year that it should be happening on, since those records are not clear, either. Therefore: no prediction of Jesus’ return based on a supposed Jubilee year is feasible. (Note to self: Don’t try to predict the day or hour of Jesus’ return.)

Imagine, however, that it were kept. Where would a dispossessed family begin? Surely a family would need proof that the land belonged to them. Where would it get that proof?

We are told in the book of Joshua that the land was divided by lot “before the Lord” to the tribes and familes of Israel (Joshua 18:8-10). I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that there were some priestly scribes taking notes and writing out the deeds to these properties and storing them in a “primitive” land titles registry, probably eventually consisting of scrolls – the “books” of the time. Since there is a such a list recorded in Joshua 18-21 I think I am actually on fairly solid ground.

You are probably way ahead of me by now. As the Day of Atonement draws to a close, the proclamation of freedom and restoration is made, and the priestly books of inheritance are opened so that families can compare their geneological records with the land titles of their ancestors. If their family name is found in the books, they can return to their inheritance. If not, they are a lot more dispossessed than they thought! Those not found in the books do not have an inheritance in Israel.

So now the scene changes to perhaps a bit more than a millennium later, as Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 4:16-21). He stands up to read the day’s assigned reading from Isaiah 61. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He closes the book, and declares that this decree is being fulfilled within their very own hearing.

In other words, Jesus is proclaiming Jubilee! He is declaring God’s own prerogative in setting His people free from the oppression of other human beings. This was Good News! (Though what is good news for the oppressed is not necessarily so for the power elite.)

We do now know when Jesus read his sabbath-day reading to the synagogue, but it identifies the kind of ministry Jesus is engaged in. This is a ministry of providing freedom from oppression, rather than one of restrictive rules.

(Note: While the Old Covenant has been seen as restrictive, this is not how God meant it to be. The problem is that human leaders selectively use or create laws to create restrictions and selectively ignore freedom-granting regulations like the Jubilee.)

Why should there be a connection between the Jubilee and the Day of Atonement? Well, for one thing, being conscious of the release of the burden of our sin should prime the conscience to remove burdens we have placed on our brothers and sisters.

Second, and more important, Jesus promises that human beings redeemed by faith in Him get to inherit with Him in a new heavens and a new earth (Rev. 21-22). Before this, however, there must be a judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). We have tended to see this only as a disturbing image of retributive justice (and so it is), but it is much, much more.

This is also the imagery of judgment to determine eternal inheritance. After the “books are opened,” those who remain get to inherit eternal life in “a better country” (Heb. 11:16).

This is the picture of the ultimate Day of Atonement Jubilee:

Jesus has dealt with sin and continues to extend salvation to those who believe in Him.

Jesus is the Judge who will deliver final sentence at the appropriate time.

Jesus (whose name is the same as Johsua in Hebrew) distributes the inheritance of the saved, which will be fully entered into at the appropriate time.

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Covenant of Moses – Part 3

In this third post about the covenant of Moses we begin by discussing the problems of interpreting how the old covenant interacts with the new covenant.

Instead of resolving the problems of interpreting where we are between the “already” and the “not yet” concerning the application of the law of God in the new covenant, Robertson continues with the contrast between the new covenant and the old.

Because of the law’s effectiveness in revealing sin, it subjected man to curse… Instead of bringing in its wake condemnation and death, the new covenant effects righteousness and life. The superiority of this consummative covenant resides not merely in its having some material characteristic of greater glory. Instead, that which the new covenant accomplishes declares to the world its greater glory. (p. 192-193)

To sum up 2 Cor. 3, the new covenant, in contrast to the old, is more glorious, unfading (permanent) and it reveals that which the previous covenant did not: that the goal of the law was to be realized in Christ. The veil symbolizes Israel’s blindness to the “transitoriness [sic] of the law’s administration.” (p. 193-196)

Paul, however, does not despair over Israel. For no veil coves the ministry of the new covenant. Its glory does not fade. With “unveiled face” (v. 18) every covenant believer stands in the immediate presence of the Lord. He shares in the uniquely privileged position of Moses, rather than simply receiving from Moses the report concerning God’s revelation. Beholding constantly as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, he is “metamorphosized” [sic] from glory to glory. (p. 197-198)

But the participant in the new covenant passes from glory to glory. Because the Lord, who is the Spirit, lives within the believer, his glory never fades. By the Lord, the Spirit, he is changed into the likeness of God’s own son.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus manifested himself as the new lawgiver. His “I say unto you” (Matt. 5:22 etc.) displayed his role in relation to the law as superior to that of Moses. Rather than reporting a revelation which he had received, Christ propounded the law of the new covenant as its author himself. (p. 198)

In Matt. 17:2-5 Jesus is portrayed as superior to Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration.

Moses the law-mediator ministered as a servant in God’s house. But Christ the law-originator rules as Son over God’s house (Heb. 3:5, 6).

Paul the apostle indicates that Christ is the end [goal] of the law to all who believe (Rom. 12:4). The convicting, condemning power of the law exhausts its accusations in Christ.

In order to be that end, Christ fulfilled all righteousness. He kept the whole law perfectly, while at the same time bearing in himself the curses of the law. From every perspective, the covenant of law consummates in Jesus Christ.” (p. 199)

I like the esteem in which Robertson holds the Mosaic Covenant.

Somehow, something of God’s law finds its way into the new covenant. Somehow the church acknowledges the validity of the 10 Commandments (though some parts of the church may disagree about which day to keep holy).

According to the principles mentioned in earlier sections of his book each covenant contains core elements of previous covenants. He does a very good job of explaining how the new covenant transforms elements of the Mosaic covenant into a more glorious salvation that features a more glorious administration of God’s law through Jesus Christ, the “law-originator.”

One thing his analysis misses is how the historical progression of the Mosaic Covenant affects the New Testament interpretation of it.

For instance, we only have a vague notion of what the Apostle Paul meant by the “curse of the law” in his analysis.

A closer look at the end of the book of Deuteronomy fills in some of the gaps. Deuteronomy 28 outlines the blessings involved in adhering to the conditions of the covenant as well as the curses for disobedience. Those curses increase in severity until they culminate in exile from their land as slaves in a foreign country. Not only are they slaves in exile, but God promises to persecute them even in captivity for their faithlessness.

That is the curse of the law. Once these provisions of the curse are enacted there is no turning back.

The only way out is for God to grant entrance into a new covenant that nullifies the penalty of the old. (Deut. 30:1-10)

This is the penalty Jesus takes upon himself to redeem his people. He is handed over to the Roman authorities (exile) who cruelly abuse him, then kill him. (This is an oversimplification, since there is a specific punishment for Davidic kings that Jesus also suffers.)

Another element that is missing in his analysis is one that is missed in any others I have seen as well. The writer of the book of Hebrews exegetes the famous passage about a “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31 as proving that the “old covenant” is now obsolete because Jesus brings a new one. What this common understanding misses is that he is exegeting an Old Testament prophet who writes as Judah is in its final decline, with exile into Babylonian captivity looming. This captivity and exile occurred during his ministry as a prophet.

In other words, Jeremiah knew that the end was near for the blessings of the covenant. Soon there would only be the final curses in force, with no end in sight except the possibility of a new covenant with a Messiah – a new Moses – who would once again lead them out of captivity according to the words of Moses in Deut. 30:1-10.

Note that provision for the possibility of a new covenant was already established within the old covenant. This means that the old covenant continues to be relevant even if its blessings are no longer available. (For that matter, it also remains relevant for those who continue to be caught in its curse.)

With this in mind, Jeremiah was aware that the covenant was already broken beyond repair, even in his own day. The writer of Hebrews even acknowledges this by stating outright that the Israelites broke the covenant in 8:7-8. The words being quoted were spoken by Jeremiah more than 600 years before this exegesis.

If his exegesis is correct: God, through Jeremiah, had made that covenant obsolete more than 600 years before the writer of Hebrews wrote his book.

This explains why the Apostle Paul warns the Galatians not to fall into the trap of relying on that covenant to save them. There is no salvation to be found in a covenant that is already in condemnation mode (no more blessing, only curse). It had been that way for more than 600 years.

And yet…

Moses indicates that any “new covenant” will seemingly follow the same law that was given to Israel as it entered the Promised Land. (Deut. 30: 6-10).

Jeremiah 31:31 reiterates the promise that God’s law will be implanted within their hearts instead of on stone tablets. He does not indicate that it will be a “new” or “different” law from the one God gave Israel.

So… What is a New Covenant Christian supposed to do with the Law of Moses???

As Christians, we need to have a deep and abiding respect for the Law of Moses.

We need to remember that many aspects of that law were administered in a certain context. For instance, while the Israelites were in the wilderness they could hardly administer a Sabbath of the land. For the first two years in the wilderness there was no tabernacle or priesthood. Those things were added as there was a need for them. The same goes for a kingship, which may have been added 3 or 4 centuries later. That law always adapted to circumstances with a certain flexibility.

The condition of Christians is very much like that of Israel in the wilderness, following the “Angel of the Lord” wherever he leads. Jesus is now our light, shelter and guide, but we are not yet fully in the Promised Land. As the writer of Hebrews points out, we are looking for a “heavenly country,” a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” In short, we are looking for a “new heavens and a new earth wherein righteousness dwells.”

We are also looking for new bodies that are incorruptible with which to live upon this new earth.

That is the new covenant.

Because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection we already have: A New Heart for a New Start of a New Life of love and obedience to Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

And when Jesus returns: a New Body to live forever under a New Heavens on a New Earth in perfect obedience to God’s will.

Have we reached the point of perfect obedience yet? Are we at the point where all Christians no longer need teachers? Unfortunately, no. We seem to be living at a time during which the law is still being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Moses’ and Jeremiah’s prophetic visions cover the entire span of human self-rule as well as the time of final consummation of God’s plan. We need to be careful to figure out where we are in that prophetic time-frame in terms of fulfilment before judging others for not being “there yet.” To that end, I would commend two things we can study about in the Covenant of Moses to increase both our understanding and our respect for it.

  1. It is wise to study the Covenant of Moses to see how Jesus fulfills the types and prophecies contained in it. For instance, how does Jesus fulfill the type of the kinsman-redeemer in Leviticus 25:25? (A more detailed look at the kinsman-redeemer occurs in the book of Ruth.)
  2. It is also wise to study the rules themselves to see how they can help us think about love for our neighbour in specific ways. For instance, farmers are required to leave the corners of their fields un-harvested in order to allow poor people to come onto their fields to harvest food for themselves and their families. A certain dignity for the poor is assured because it is not a handout. The poor have at least some of the satisfaction of working for their living. It would be wise to build something like that dignity into our own care for the poor.

We are not an agrarian society, so some imagination will be required to find an equivalent way to help the poor. That ancient law can be a good starting point to help us think through the issues of how to get along with our neighbour in fair and truly helpful ways. Only if we have a deep and abiding respect for it can it be useful in this way.

The Apostle Paul loved the law. He calls it holy, just and true. At no point does he ever denigrate it or put it down, even when he discusses how much better the new covenant administration of it is than the old.

When I was ten years old I was presented with a Gideon’s New Testament (King James Version). As I perused it I noticed that the introductory pages included the Ten Commandments. I found them fascinating and very sensible, at least after my father explained what “adultery” meant in terms a ten-year-old could understand. These sensible commandments stand at the heart of the Old Covenant, yet the church, as a whole, honours them as the law of God. I believe that the church does so with good reason.

We need to remember that the covenant of Moses contains the revealed will of God that includes provision for the Kingship of Jesus as well as provision for a Second Exodus for all whose hearts are circumcised and who call upon Jesus’ name. Even if we Gentile Christians do not adhere to certain provisions that do not apply to us in this time and place, we would do well to honour and respect the Mosaic Law as an integral and necessary part of God’s plan for our redemption.

If we’re not careful, we might even learn something from it.

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Covenant of Moses – Part 2

We begin the second of three posts about the Covenant of Moses with an important question asked by O. Palmer Robertson.

Are we to conclude that all the various covenantal administrations of the Old Testament find continuing significance for believers today with the single exception of the Mosaic covenant? Are we to presume that the covenant of law alone among the divinely-initiated covenants has lost its binding significance? (p. 183)

His answer:

Christians are told repeatedly that their fullest state of blessedness derives from keeping God’s law. Numerous exhortations in the letters of Paul presuppose the necessity of keeping God’s commandments. Even the promise of long life associated with the fifth commandment is held out as a promise of God to the children of the new covenant [Eph. 6:1-3]… No reader can misunderstand the exhortation of James: ‘Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. (James 1:22) (p. 184)

Other New Testament writings imply a standard of law because they deal with judgment:

Christians shall be judged according to the deeds they have done. Scripture is quite consistent on this point. While salvation comes by faith in the work of Christ alone, judgment will be dispensed according to a man’s own deeds, whether they be good or evil. Since the “ten words” of the Mosaic covenant provide a basic summation of the will of God, their abiding significance in the life of the believer is assured. (p.185)

The theological idea of progressive revelation implies a continually improving revelation of God. He develops this argument with an interesting analogy drawn from real life:

Most serious consequences will develop inevitably from a denial that God’s revelation consistently progresses throughout redemptive history. It may be admitted quite readily that the arrival of the full delineation of God’s will brought with it problems which had not previously existed. Ask any distraught parent of a modern teenager if he regards the state of teenage as an advancement over infancy. The parent may hesitate to respond immediately as he recalls the multiplication of problems involved in the abrupt arrival of teenaged years. But in the end it cannot be denied that the gangly youth stands much closer to the full realization of manhood than does the infant.

 In just such a manner, the childlike trust of Abraham may appear to have definite advantages over the sometimes rowdy adventures of Israel under law. Yet the patient student of Scripture will detect a definite progress toward the goal of Christ.

Is that not basically the substance of the example employed by Paul in Galatians 3:23-26? The law is a schoolmaster, an externalized disciplinarian, to bring us to Christ. As teenagers under a tutor, so was Israel under the law. Yet their condition under law was a vital step of advancement over the infancy that had preceded. (p. 188-189)

For these reasons he concludes that the Law of Moses has continuing significance, as well as being an important step in God’s plan of salvation.

On the other hand, the covenant of Moses is less than the covenants that follow – the Davidic and new covenants. The latter two reveal more about God’s will than the Mosaic covenant.

God’s covenant with David clearly embodies an advancement over Moses in the revelation of the law. Particularly, the permanent establishment of a representative king over Israel indicates an advancement in law-administration… Not until God’s covenanting word concerning the house of David was there established some assurance of a maintained stability within the theocracy. With the anointing of David, law began to be administered in Israel by the “man after God’s own heart.” (p. 189)

While the law of God as revealed to Moses has continuing significance, it administration is improved under the new covenant:

The distinctiveness of the ministry of law under the new covenant resides in its inward character. Rather than being administered externally, the law shall be administered from within the heart. The consequence, according to Jeremiah, will be that no need will remain for an externalized propounding of God’s law. All shall know him and all shall conform naturally to his will. Quite obviously, the Mosaic covenant, writing on tables of stone cannot compare with the glories of this new covenant.

This does not answer all of the difficulties of the relationship of the law of Moses with the new covenant, however. He notices some difficulties with the interpretation of the Old Testament’s prophecies about the new covenant and current Christian life and practice.

Several problems arise with respect to the apprehension of the full significance of this prophetic word of Jeremiah. How is this statement to be related to other passages associating the inward writing of the law with the ministry of the Mosaic covenant itself? How does Jeremiah’s assertion concerning the absence of the need of a teaching ministry relate to the actual state of believers today under the new covenant?

Such questions emphasize the need for maintaining a balance between the harmonizing unity of the single covenant of redemption and its historical diversity. (p. 190-191)

The believer under the old covenant may have experienced in essence the same realities of redemption experienced by believers under the new covenant. But heightened revelation also involves a deeper and richer experience of deliverance from sin and its consequences… The new covenant Scriptures now make available to the church in permanent form a God-inspired interpretation of the magnificent benefits made available by the coming of Christ. (p. 191)

We still need to hold some tensions in our minds and our theology between the “already” and the “not yet” of the new covenant. We will return to this subject in the third and final installment about the Covenant of Moses.

 

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Covenant of Moses – Part 1 of 3

This post continues a series of reflections about O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants with a discussion about the Covenant of Moses, often referred to as the “old covenant.”

Robertson begins by stating that “God renews an ancient commitment to his people by the covenant of Moses. The law serves only as a single mode of administering the covenant of redemption.” (p. 172) By saying this he acknowledges that the Mosaic law administration still functions within the overarching “covenant of redemption.” As such, it is an important and necessary step along the way to God’s goal of redeeming humanity through Jesus Christ.

But how is it distinct from the previous covenant administrations? Robertson answers as follows:

The Mosaic covenant manifests its distinctiveness as an externalized summation of the will of God. The patriarchs certainly were aware of God’s will in general terms. On occasion, they received direct revelation concerning specific aspects of the will of God. Under Moses, however, a full summary of God’s will was made explicit through the physical inscripturation of the law. This external-to-man, formally ordered summation of God’s will constitutes the distinctiveness of the Mosaic covenant. (p. 172)

He also makes an important point that is missed by many Christian commentators about that covenant administration.  It is usually seen as some sort of means of getting right with God by keeping all the commands listed within it. He counters this traditional approach by commenting that

Not only did the covenant of law not disannul the covenant of promise; more specifically, it did not offer a temporary alternative to the covenant of promise. This particular perspective is often overlooked. It is sometimes assumed that the covenant of law temporarily replaced the covenant of promise, or somehow ran alongside it as an alternative method of man’s salvation. The covenant of law often has been considered as a self-contained unit which served as another basis for determining the relation of Israel to God in the period between the Abrahamic covenant and the coming of Christ. In this scheme, the covenant of promise is treated as thought it had been set aside or made secondary for a period, although not “disannulled…

However, the covenant of promise made with Abraham always has been in effect from the day of its inauguration until the present. The coming of law did not suspend the Abrahamic covenant. The principle enunciated in Genesis 15:7 concerning justification of Abraham by faith never has experienced interruption. Throughout the Mosaic period of law-covenant, God considered as righteous everyone who believed in him.      (p. 174)

He goes on to say, “Under both the Mosaic and the Abrahamic covenants man experienced redemption by grace through faith in the work of the Christ who was to live and die in the place of sinners.” (Footnote 7, p. 175)

He notes that this misunderstanding of the purpose of the law of Moses stems from Jesus’ critique of the religious leadership of his day. 1st Century Jewish understanding about the law does not reflect the original context or intent of that law. Modern Christian interpreters who adhere to that notion are making the same mistake as Jesus’ contemporaries.

The purpose of the law was to lead to Christ, not to lead away from Christ. The effect of the law on the current Judaizers was not in accord with God’s purpose in the giving of the law. By reading the law in terms of an alternative way of salvation, current Judaism blinded itself to the true intention of God in the giving of the law. (p. 181)

The next post will discuss what Robertson sees as the continuing significance of the Mosaic Law for the New Testament Christian.

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Ecclesiastes: Wisdom From a Godly King

I have often heard the book of Ecclesiastes referred to as a book that records wisdom from the perspective of one who does not know or care about God. I have also heard Bible college and seminary professors refer to it as a book about despair or pessimism about the whole of human life.

Finding out who wrote it and why would go a long way toward figuring out if these ideas about Ecclesiastes are correct, so i undertook the task for a paper in seminary a few years ago. I was surprised by what I found out. It turns out that the book was written as a kind of kingly autobiography to pass on a lifetime of wisdom to the next generation of leaders – usually the king’s own sons. It has a foreword and an afterword by a trusted colleague or editor, just like many modern books do.

In short, this is not the type of book that is meant to pass on an overly pessimistic world-view. Otherwise nobody would want to take the throne after him.

What surprised me even more was who wrote the book. What is normally translated as “the Preacher” or “the Teacher” is more likely his proper name, “Qoheleth.” He tells us that he was the wisest king who ever ruled in Jerusalem and that he cultivated the arts and civil engineering more than any king before him. Most of us have been taught that this has to mean Solomon – but how many Israelite kings ruled in Jerusalem before Solomon? Exactly one: David his father.

I was surprised to learn that there is one king in David’s lineage who is honoured even more highly by God in the Bible than even David: King Hezekiah. Shocking? Here’s what 1 Kings 18:5-7 has to say about him: “5 Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. 6 He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses. 7 And the LORD was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.

For this and other reasons mentioned in my previous post, my money is on Hezekiah as the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. (I’m not the first to mention him as the likely author. That honour goes to an ancient Jewish Rabbi mentioned in the Talmud).

So who we have as the author is one of the most successful followers of God in ancient Israel. One who managed to do things for God that even David and Solomon could not accomplish (taking down high places and idol worship, for instance). He seems to have been even wiser than Solomon in the wives department, having neither multiple wives nor a foreign wife. He led his people successfully through the famous Assyrian siege of Jerusalem with no lives lost by divine miracle. And, unlike Solomon, he never left God. In short, the most successful man of God you can imagine wrote his autobiography to pass on wisdom to his sons and posterity.

This is the man who is supposed to be so negative about life and God? I don’t think so.

Yes, there are many things in the world that are empty and meaningless in themselves. He lists, among others,

  • pleasure through laughter and wine
  • being foolish
  • being wise in a world of fools
  • being a great builder and project manager
  • being rich and famous
  • losing riches in bad investments or scams
  • an unjust justice system
  • oppression of the poor and helpless by the rich and powerful
  • living alone
  • living with a troublesome spouse or family

The problem with any of these comes when you confront the reality of death. If this is all there is, our toil and labour mean nothing. Our lives mean nothing if death is the end.

When we die, we no longer have control of whatever resources we acquired during life. We have no idea what our kids will do with their inheritance. Will they use it to build a good life or squander it? We don’t know.

Will anyone remember me after I die? Maybe a few will for one generation. If I make enough of an impact in life, maybe two or three generations will, but most likely not.

Each time Qoheleth talks about something that he considers a vanity and a chasing after wind he comes back to the one simple thing that a person can do to enjoy life. Eat, drink and find satisfaction in your own work. This enjoyment of your food, drink and work comes as a gift from God, and is not possible without God’s direct blessing.

In fact, he says, “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This, too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

This is why godly wisdom triumphs in the end. It is based on a foundation of fear of the Lord. The difference between the wise and the fool isn’t necessarily in the amount toil in life. It may be that both work equally hard. It is the simple gift of enjoying the simple things in life that comes from God. Enjoy the food and drink that working provides for you. Enjoy the fellowship of like-minded people who love God as you do.

As he points out in 3:7-9, “Everyone’s toil if for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied. What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others? Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after wind.”

The message is pretty simple. Be content with what you already have. If more comes your way, fine. Be happy with that, too. That’s a message that certainly runs counter to the consumer age we live in.

He also adds one piece of wisdom about how to face an unfair world. Chapter 3 brings the famous “there is a time for everything” poem that has been immortalized in a song by Simon and Garfunkel. It turns out that there is a time for another thing a little later in the chapter. “I said to myself, ‘God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.’” (3:17) Knowing that God plans to make it right in the end can help us keep our sanity in a crazy, mixed-up and increasingly godless world.

This mediation on final judgment is a clue that Hezekiah believes that death is not all there is. Somehow God has a planned time and place for making everything right in the world and for judging the good and the evil in the world. There is vindication for obedience to God as well as a very different reward for disobedience.

So, what do workers really gain from their toil? Hezekiah replies,

(3:9-14) “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.”

[Eating and drinking is not everything he has in mind here, as we will see in the next verse.]

“I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.”

This is why it is better to do good and be happy while we live. What God does is what endures forever. Doing his will here on earth not only pleases him, it also cooperates with that which endures forever. God’s will is forever. Somehow Hezekiah knew that, no matter how things look, God is going to take care of his faithful people in the end. He stayed with God till his peaceful death, and was greatly honoured by both his people and his God.

The final words of his editor (12:9-14) capture the flavour of his main point well. Life is only worth living in relationship with our God, the Creator. His editor notes that these words were written by a very wise man. It is important to pay attention to them. The last two verses of the book sum up Hezekiah’s own life mission. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

Jesus, who inspired King Hezekiah long before His own human birth, knew well what the message of that ancient wise king meant. He rephrased it in such memorable terms as

“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33)  as well as

“Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)

He also made sure that his first apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, was aware of Hezekiah’s main point, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Tim 6:6)

This is a time when King Hezekiah’s message needs to be heard in the church with full voice. There are more ways than ever to waste our lives chasing after the wind. Between the pursuit of wealth and ever-more gadgets we could spend a lot of time and money chasing things that don’t mean anything of eternal value.

Not only does the ancient sage talk about using wealth unwisely, he also talks about what to do when things start going badly.

(11:7-10) “Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember (consider) the days of darkness, for there will be many. You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all theses things God will bring you into judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.”

Our age worships youth and vigour. But youth and vigour don’t last very long.

God’s work, however, lasts forever.

Wouldn’t it be much better to put our time and money into doing the will of our lord, Jesus Christ?

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Partners In Time

[Summertime is a time for many things, including falling behind in posting. This post is dedicated to those choosing to begin a life together in marriage. It comes from a devotional I was privileged to deliver at the wedding of the daughter of good friends.]

Sugar and spice and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of. Little boys, it seems, are made of entirely different stuff: Frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails.

Many ancient myths from different cultures describe the beginnings of humankind. In several of them, man and woman are said to be made of different materials and even by different deities. As a result, men and women enjoy (if that’s the right word), very different roles and responsibilities. Mostly, that translates to men dominating women.

Jewish and Christian traditions are based on a common story that has a different – and better! – beginning. God makes the man out of the ground, and then makes woman out of the man’s own body. What does that say about the relationship between man and woman?

A lot of people seem to think this implies that the man is somehow better than the woman because of their order of creation.

What the story actually says, however, is that the woman is made of exactly the same stuff as the man. In ancient times, that was tantamount to saying they were equal. As if that isn’t enough, God also grants dominion over all the creatures to both man and woman, who are both made in God’s very own image. You can read the details for yourselves in the first two chapters of the Bible.

The story says, ‘Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.  The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman, ‘ for she was taken out of man.”  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ (Genesis 2:22-24)

So the reason a man and a woman partner together through thick and thin is because the man realizes that the woman is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” In modern words: her life is his life. Her needs are his needs. Her strengths are his strengths. Her triumphs are his triumphs. Her joy is his joy. Nothing that she accomplishes can diminish his accomplishments because he shares her pride in her work.

Her sorrows are his sorrows. Her tears are his tears, and his heart breaks if he is the one who caused them. They are in it together. All the way.

Imagine the awe and the wonder in Adam’s mind.

He might have noticed different things about her than we modern people might expect, like: Wow! She’s just like me! She has opposable thumbs – we can build things together! She has a mind and an imagination – we can dream and imagine a better world together! Her ideas and my ideas together will be better than just mine alone would be! Wow!

Wow! She’s different from me, too! We can have a family together! We can make more people just like us! Their sameness and differences will change the world! Imagine the possibilities! Wow!

We know in hindsight that things didn’t always go well with Adam and eve. Their mistakes unleashed terrible suffering, toilsome struggle and evil into the world. As a result, our world can be a hazardous and oppressive place to live in at times. However, even when things went badly they stayed together and weathered it together.

Why? Because the only thing worse than facing heartbreak, toil and suffering is facing heartbreak, toil and suffering ALONE.

But there were good times, too. Times for appreciating successes and celebrating victories over adversity. Good times are even better with someone to share them with. Especially that special someone who is just perfect for you.

The one who shares your joy, and appreciates your struggles.

It’s wonderful and awesome to celebrate the recognition that a man and a woman have found that perfect partner for themselves.

We can celebrate with them that they have become lifelong partners in marriage.

 

Partners in good times.

Partners in bad times.

Partners… for all time.

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Seventh Day of Unleavened Bread

In a post from last year called Jesus and the Red Sea Crossing I tried to establish a timeline for the Israelite exodus from Egypt. I was surprised to discover two things I had not noticed before.

The first is that there were only three recorded stops before the Red Sea: Succoth, Etham and Pi-hahiroth. This seemed to indicate that the Red Sea crossing took place during the third night after Passover.

The second is that the waters came back together, drowning the Egyptians, at daybreak on that third day. For me, the link between this and Jesus’ rising at dawn on the third day was an eye-opener. Jesus fulfilled all of the types of the Exodus!

This dawn drowning marked the end of the military threat from Egypt, meaning that the people of Israel were now finally free from the clutches of Egypt.

Or were they?

We’ll return to that question in a moment after we work out the timeline a bit further.

My proposed timeline inadvertently undermined a belief I had (which was widely held in Worldwide Church of God circles) that the crossing of the Red Sea had taken place on the 7th day after they began their journey out of Egypt. So if the 7th day isn’t the day of the Red Sea crossing….

… What is it about the 7th day that makes it so special that God marks it with a holy day?

Reading about what happened after the crossing revealed a clue. Exodus 15:1-21 records a brief morning worship session of singing a victory song about God’s deliverance. Verse 22 states that they then began what turned into a 3-day journey into the desert. During those three days they travelled without finding water anywhere.

After three days they finally end up at a place that has water, but the water is too bitter to drink. (This leads them to name the place “Bitter” or “Marah” in Hebrew.) After an arduous 3-day walk without water, ending up in this place with undrinkable water is the last straw. The people begin bitter recriminations against Moses.

Moses cries out to the Lord, and the Lord answers by showing him a piece of wood. Moses picks it up and throws it into the water. The water immediately becomes healthy to drink. God covenants with them there that if they follow him faithfully he will be their Healer. The context suggests that perhaps the bitter water had been making them sick.

The following day he leads them to Elim, where there are 12 springs and 70 palm trees. Since there are 12 tribes in Israel, the number of springs indicates that this is a special place that had been prepared for them.

I’m not absolutely certain if the 7th day of the exodus occurred while they were at Marah or at Elim.

If they were at Elim, the 7th day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread would represent a rest from their arduous journey. It makes some sense to see a respite from hard journeying memorialized as a Sabbath of rest.

On the other hand, if they were at Marah on the 7th day, there is a very different message. After the bitter complaining of Israel, God not only provides the means to make the water healthy, but also enters into a covenant with them to protect them from “all the diseases of Egypt” as their Healer.

If the 7th day represents the deliverance from bitter water at Marah then it becomes a symbol of how difficult leaving Egypt really is. Leaving Egypt is not a cake-walk. It is a long and arduous journey.

In fact, the adults who physically left Egypt still longed to go back. They complained bitterly each time things got difficult. They even refused to go into the Promised Land later on when the 10 spies made it sound difficult. That refusal cost them a glorious opportunity. It entitled them to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, where that generation all died without inheriting the land.

In that sense the 7th day of Unleavened Bread also becomes a reminder that without God’s help we cannot complete the arduous journey. He must turn the bitter waters sweet. He must provide the healing in our bodies and in our souls for us to complete the journey.

Jesus himself notes that the journey with him will not be easy. The Second Exodus is no less arduous than the First. In John 16:33 Jesus warns his disciples that they will face “tribulation” in this world.

Even the Apostle Paul preaches a gospel of Jesus Christ that includes a warning of tribulation for disciples in Acts 14:21-22. and 1 Thessalonians 3:4 among others.

In all the above Jesus and Paul agree that only Jesus Christ, acting through the Holy Spirit, can keep us faithful under trial and testing. He provides the way through the unpleasant times and the awful circumstances with his presence in us. He gives us the “healing” power to continue all the way to the Promised Land no matter where circumstances take us and no matter who opposes us. For me, that is the message of the Last Day of Unleavened Bread.

Or, as the Apostle Paul put it in Romans 8:34-39:

It is Christ that died , yea rather , that is risen again , who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written , For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.   Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.   For I am persuaded , that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present , nor things to come  Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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