The Pilgrim’s Playlist

Come, Bless the LORD | Psalm 134

Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
who stand by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the holy place
and bless the LORD!

May the LORD bless you from Zion
he who made heaven and earth!

Psalm 134 ESV

 

The fact that this final psalm of the ascents is an invitation should cause us to pause for reflection. Come? Hasn’t the point of these songs been that we are already traveling?

Since the psalm seems to be addressed to the Levitical priests who watched over the temple by day and night, it would appear that this psalm is a form of benediction following a worship ceremony. This interpretation fits with the final trilogy of psalms as being a meditation on the pilgrim’s end of journey. Psalm 132 fixed our eyes upon the glories of worshipping God in Jerusalem, where He dwells with His people. Psalm 133 then meditated upon the beauties of that gathered group of worshippers being united as brothers. Now we receive the closing benediction and prepare to return to our homes, to Meshech and Kedar.

BLESS THE LORD // VERSES 1-2

Verses 1-2 are calling the Levitical order to continue their worship before God on behalf of His people. To show why this is important, we would do well to remember that the Old Testament had three main offices of leadership over Israel: kings, prophets, and priests. Kings exercised governing and ruling authority on God’s behalf. Prophets delivered the messages of God to His people. Priests brought the prayers of the people before God. Kings were God’s stewards, while prophets spoke for God to the people and priests spoke to God for the people.

The Levites were priests. God set their tribe apart, as holy, for the express purpose of being mediators between Himself and the people of Israel. This was a tremendously generous grace of God upon Israel. As the Creator almighty who dwells in unapproachable light, He owes no one the privilege of hearing their prayers, let alone forgiving their sins! Yet that is exactly what He did! He established a system by which the Israelites had assured access to their God. May we never forget the graciousness of God in establishing the Mosaic Law with Israel!

According to this system, the psalmist is calling the priests to continue offering the people’s worship before the LORD through the night. His is calling them to keep their hand lifted toward the holy place, a sign of devotion to the Holy One of Israel.

What then do we do with these verses?

In Christ, the Levitical priesthood has been dissolved. Although it was truly a grace of God, it was an imperfect system. One flaw was that the priests were themselves sinful men who were tasked with offering sacrifices for both themselves and other sinners. Another crucial flaw was the insufficiency of animal blood to cleanse human sin. Since animals were created to be under the dominion of humanity, they are of lesser value than human life. As such, they simply could never cover the eternal debt that our sins accumulate. The system relieved symptoms but was powerless against the actual disease.

Jesus, however, has abolished the Levitical priesthood, replacing it with a superior order. Hebrews spends a lengthy amount of time explaining how Jesus is now our great high priest, after the order of Melchizedek, and why exactly that is so important. The flaws of the Levitical system have been overthrown by Jesus’ perfect fulfillment. He is both a better priest and a better sacrifice.

As our high priest, Christ sits at the Father’s right hand, ready to intercede for us at all times. As a man, He sympathizes with our weaknesses, and as God, He is able to look upon God’s face and live since the Son is coequal with the Father. He is the only one truly qualified to be the mediator between God and man. Jesus is our great high priest.

But He is also the better sacrifice for our sins. Hebrews 9:22 says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” While the blood of animals was not sufficient to purchase the forgiveness of sins, Jesus’ blood is. Under the Mosaic Law, animals were continuously slaughtered only for the guilt of sin to still remain. Yet Jesus offered His blood as a sacrifice once of all. His is the perfect sacrifice, who is also our high priest.

Yet under Jesus’ New Covenant, the priesthood has not been entirely dissolved. Indeed, God’s plan for Israel as a nation is now being fulfilled by the church among all the nations of the earth: that God’s people would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Peter makes this explicit: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).

So who are the priests, the servants of God standing by night in the house of the LORD?

We are.

We are the priests to God, and His house is now in us, as we discussed from Psalm 132. As living temples of God, our very lives are now temple worship. This is why Paul urges us to do everything for God’s glory and to use both our words and our deeds for the honor of His name. Worship must become the very fabric of our lives. By day and by night, with other believers and in solitude, we worship.

But how then are we to understand the commands of these verses toward us today?

First, remember that we experience a form of, or a taste of, our heavenly Jerusalem, whenever we gather together each week. So the first application I will give is to keep worshipping tonight… and tomorrow… and the next day. Don’t let worship be only when we gather together. Instead, use this gathering of other disciples of Jesus to strengthen your worship for the week ahead of you. Keep the spirit of worship with you and seek to do all things for God’s glory. In other words, keep your eyes upon and hands lifted toward the holy place. Keep God’s kingdom and throne as first importance in your life. Seek His kingdom above all things in all that you do.

Second, remember your priesthood. As disciples of Christ with the indwelling Spirit, we are Jesus’ physical presence on earth. We are God’s instruments for His work of the kingdom. We are, therefore, called to stand as messengers of heaven on earth. As lesser priests of God, we are tasked with pointing those around us to the great high priest. We are called to show Jesus to the world around us or, as Jesus said it, to make disciples of all nations.

By both worshipping God and calling upon others to worship Him, we bless God. This isn’t to say that we add anything to His holiness or greatness; instead, we bless God by giving Him the honor He rightly deserves. It is much like praying for God’s name to be made holy. God’s name is already holy; we are simply praying for that reality to be seen by throughout all creation.

MAY THE LORD BLESS YOU FROM ZION // VERSE 3

Verse 3 closes the psalm by reversing the imagery. The psalmist is no longer calling God’s people to bless the LORD; instead, he is praying for the LORD’s blessing upon His people. This is a powerfully fitting verse for the Songs of Ascents to conclude with. It is a prayer for the Creator of heaven and earth to bless individuals, to show favor toward His creatures. How flippantly we often invoke the blessings of God upon others, rarely pausing to consider the weight of that action. Too often we assume or even demand God’s blessing, when He sits in the heavens and does whatever He pleases. The blessing of God is no light matter. It is the very manna of heaven for our souls.

Yet also notice the place of the blessing: from Zion. May God bless you from the place of His gathered people, the place of His presence. Dear brothers and sisters, come to church expecting and anticipating God’s blessing and look for it among God’s people. More than that, come ready to bless, to be that very blessing for others. This gathering is a taste of the Zion to come, while also empowering and encouraging us to be miniature Zions to the world around us. As we return to Meshech and Kedar, to our exile in Babylon, we take Jerusalem with us. We carry God’s blessing as His priests, the living breathing kingdom of God, coming to earth. And we remember and long for the day when all other kingdoms fade away, when the glory of the LORD becomes our light, and when we form the glorified New Jerusalem upon the new earth as the collective people of God.

May God bless us, His people, from Zion.

May these Songs of Ascents keep our hearts tuned toward our heavenly home, even as we wander as pilgrims throughout this life.

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Biblical Wisdom

The Call of Wisdom | Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof, 
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when terror strikes you,
when terror strikes you like a storm
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
and have their fill of their own devices.
For the simple are killed by their turning away,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but whoever listens to me will dwell secure
and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 ESV

 

Although most Proverbs’ first nine chapters is written from a father to a son, we now arrive at one of the sections were wisdom herself speaks to the reader. Like a street preacher, wisdom is personified as a woman crying out in the busy streets for people to love and embrace her. The significance is that wisdom beckons to everyone, but few answer her call. In fact, the choice between wisdom and folly is a choice between a narrow or broad gate. Just has few find the hard, narrow gate, few embrace wisdom.

WISDOM SPEAKS // VERSES 20-21

These two verses introduce and set the scene for the literary device used in the remainder of the section: the personification of wisdom. Although wisdom is an abstract concept, Solomon is poetically giving it a voice, and since the goal of Proverbs is to give us wisdom, we could easily say that these glimpses of wisdom personified are the heart and soul of the book.

The backdrop for Lady Wisdom’s speech is not a well-kept college classroom or a philosopher’s forum; rather, Solomon pictures wisdom scream in the middle of the markets and noisy streets. She is standing at the city gates crying out to anyone that will listen. Wisdom is the equivalent of an Old Testament prophet or a street preacher. She is desperate for anyone to hear her message.

Why?

Wisdom is intimately connected with godliness. We cannot have true wisdom without knowing God, and we cannot know God without growing in wisdom. Sin is the epitome of foolishness; therefore, as we walk with God, we will become wiser. Wisdom is an essential element of a Christian’s sanctification. This is why James urges to ask for wisdom when we lack it (James 1:5). Wisdom is necessary pursuit. We cannot know God without it.

Fortunately, wisdom is attainable. In fact, wisdom is guaranteed to those who are willing to ask for it. God is generous, and wisdom is one of His many gifts that He pours out without reproach (meaning that He will not turn us away). The imagery of wisdom street preaching is important because God openly invites humanity to embrace wisdom. He is not withholding this secret of life from anyone. He gives it freely to all who will humble themselves enough to admit that they need wisdom. Of course, such humility is reason why wisdom is short supply. Free gifts require open hands. We cannot ask for wisdom until we first realize that we are fools.

HOW LONG // VERSES 22-31

Lady Wisdom begins her proclamation by crying out “how long” twice. These two words set the tone for the remainder of the passage. Wisdom is being boldly and blatantly offered but continuously refused by the simple, scoffers, and fools.

We’ve already discussed the fools and the simple, but who are the scoffers? “They are cynical and defiant freethinkers who ridicule the righteous and all for which they stand (e.g., Ps 1:1)” (NET). Scoffers stand as a category of their own because of their aggression toward the ways of God. The simple at least have the potential of becoming wise, and the fools despise knowledge and wisdom. But scoffers do not merely hate wisdom, they mock it. They are revelers in their wicked path.

In verse 23, Lady Wisdom explains how wisdom can be attained: by responding to her rebuke. This notion of wisdom’s rebuke is crucial to the passage since it also appears in verses 25 and 30. A rebuke is never fun because it means being convicted of sin or having our faults revealed, but it is a critical aspect of biblical wisdom. Upon reaching a fork in the road, we must choose which way to follow. Likewise, being shown the path of wisdom necessitates having the path of foolishness condemned. Embracing wisdom means we must repent at her reproof.

Wisdom then responds to her rejection with laughter at their calamity. She mocks the mockers when trouble befalls them. She claims that whenever they seek her in the midst of their trials, she will refuse to answer them. This may sound harsh, but verse 31 clearly establishes that when the foolish suffer, they are merely eating “the fruit of their way.” They are being left to their own devices. Their destruction is well-earned because they had plenty of opportunities to repent at wisdom’s reproof.

But what about verse 28? Is that verse teaching that God will refuse those who repent in the midst of trials and hardship? In a way, yes. The repentance being described in verse 28 is not true repentance. It is the half-hearted prayer that many people make to God while in the middle of a storm of life. They do not love and serve God, desiring for His will to be done above all else. They simply want God to bail them out of their problems. It is against this kind of superficial “Christianity” that Hebrews 3:12-14 speaks:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

SECURITY OR DISASTER // VERSES 32-33

These final verses of the chapter summarize Lady Wisdom’s message. Those who listen to wisdom will dwell in security, while fools will be destroyed.

Verse 32 describes the path to destruction in two ways. First, the simple are killed by their turning away. Though the simple are given the choice between wisdom or folly, life or death, many choose folly and death. Instead of turning in repentance, they turn a follow after fools. They die for their lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).

Second, the fools are destroyed by their complacency. This is a terrifying image. While the simple were killed because they turned toward sin, fools are destroyed by doing nothing. The NET translates this as “the careless ease of fools will destroy them.” This is a great warning against “Christians” who refuse to take sin and the things of God seriously. Twice Jeremiah warns the people of Judah against prophets and priests who heal “the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:14, 8:11). These religious leaders refused to take the sin of Judah seriously. They spoke of peace while God was crying out for His people to repent. We must take care that we do not allow a similar complacency to sweep us away. The path to damnation is open wide for those who refuse to let God’s word call them to action.

Those who listen to wisdom, who embrace the fear of the LORD, find a much different outcome. Instead of meeting destruction and death, they find security and ease. They find the true peace that fools only attempt to imitate with their complacency. Because they listened to wisdom’s call, they live without fear of disaster.

Wait. So then what happened to Job? He was blameless man before the LORD, right? Why did the very definition of disaster fall upon him if he was a wise man who feared God? And what about the apostles, most of whom died violent deaths because they preached Christ?

Verse 33 does not promise or guarantee that God’s people will not see disaster; rather, they would not dread the disasters that may befall them. They will dwell secure regardless of what life throws their way. They are a people who possess a Treasure that cannot be stolen by thieves, eaten by moths, or corroded by time. They are a people who, when destitute, afflicted, and mistreated, consider “the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures” of all the world (Hebrews 11:26). The wise are not exempt from suffering; they simply know Him who is their comfort in the midst of the storm.

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

When Brothers Dwell in Unity | Psalm 133

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

Psalm 133 ESV

 

Within this penultimate psalm, the Songs of Ascents prepare to conclude. Psalm 132 called us to meditate upon Jerusalem and its king and people. Particularly, it focused upon the beauty of God choosing to dwell among His followers. Psalm 133 now turns our attention toward that God-inhabited community, reminding us of the beauty of being a unified people for God.

THE GOODNESS OF UNITY

This psalm is a poetic meditation upon the sweetness of brotherly unity. It is a psalm of David, who certainly understood from personal experience the damages that strife within a family could cause. Verse 2 is an image of the pleasantness of unity by describing the anointing ceremony of Aaron as the high priest. The anointing oil was meant to represent the Holy Spirit coming upon the person to empower them for their task. The second imagery in verse 3 is of dew from Mount Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion. The first analogy exemplifies the holiness that must both mark and empower God’s people in unity, while the second emphasizes our dependence on God for our unity. Theses are, therefore, the basic ideas of the psalm; let us now apply them toward the brotherhood that we share in Christ.

We must begin by noting that the New Testament affirms the goodness and pleasantness of God’s people being unified. In the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus asked the Father to unify His disciples even as He and the Father are one. Paul similarly upholds the importance of unity within his letters. In Philippians 2:2, he states, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” To the Ephesians, he claims that walking in a manner worthy of our calling means being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). In the following verse, the Apostle roots our unity in our worship of one God, by one Spirit, into one body, through one faith, in one baptism, for one Lord. To the Colossians, he wrote, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). To the Corinthians, he appealed, “that you may agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). Peter, likewise, urged that “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).

Still, the New Testament’s warnings against disunity are just as numerous.

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

It is worth noting that the list of the flesh’s works in Galatians is presented as the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit. While Paul lists fifteen sins, eight of them are sins which directly threaten the unity of the church. Obviously, therefore, the New Testament places a significant importance upon the unity of the church. But why is unity so highly emphasized in the first place?

The unity of the church reflects the power of the gospel to the world. Paul spends a significant time in Ephesians addressing how the gospel destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, the gospel alone was mighty enough to bridge the gap between those peoples. Similarly, whenever we stand firmly together without anything to link us but Christ, the strength of the gospel is made visible. And given that the gospel message is actively undoing the effects of Babel in the world, we should pray that its power spreads all the more.

Furthermore, unity is an indicator of holiness. God’s people are holy because we belong and imitate our holy God. Those, then, whose lives are marked by God’s grace will be happy givers of grace as well. Those who have been embraced by the Father will be glad to embrace others as well. Those upon whom the peace of God dwells will be peacemakers. When we strive for unity, we image God; we live as His holy people.

This is especially critical because the world cannot duplicate the unifying effects of the gospel. Skim through today’s media, and you will be met with the ideas of diversity and tolerance being held out as some of the supreme dogmas of the day. Yet in practice, uniformity appears to be the actual goal, which is made evident when differing viewpoints are demonized in place of being understood.

Christianity, on the other hand, should be the exemplar of diversity and tolerance. What, after all, could be more tolerant than loving those who hate you and praying for those who persecute you? What could be more tolerant than Jesus healing lepers and demonic mad men in the first century? Yet Christianity exemplifies these ideas precisely by not making them primary. We hold to Jesus alone as supreme, and, because of that joyous truth, we are then able to love others like He did.

Hear this, brothers and sisters, nothing is more unifying than the gospel. The reasoning is twofold.

First, the gospel beings by reminding us that we are all equally damned before God. Ephesians 2 says that before Christ we were dead in our sin. Are there different levels of deadness? Is the one who died five minutes ago less dead than the he who died 500 years ago? No, dead is dead. Likewise, sin condemns. Each sin is an offense against the holy, good, and eternal God, and each one, therefore, earns us a just and eternal punishment.

Second, the gospel makes us children of God by the exact same work. Christians are able to be unified because there is no hierarchy within the body of Christ. The substitutional death of Jesus bought forgiveness for each of us. We, therefore, have no grounds for boasting; our works were worthless. We each have different roles and functions, but we still form just piece of the whole. And we’ve been grafted into the body because of the Christ and Christ alone. We have all been made Christians by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less.

Too often we can begin to believe that being a good theologian makes us a good Christian. We can believe that knowing theology will bring us into a higher form of Christianity. Ben Myers aptly writes against this mentality by revealing the true benefit of a greater theological understanding:

“’All things are yours,’ says Paul: ‘all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God’ (1 Cor 3:21-23). We are not beggars hoping for scraps. We are like people who have inherited a vast estate: we have more than we can take in at a single glance. In the same way, it takes considerable time and effort to begin to comprehend all that we have received in Christ. Theological thinking does not add a thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are. (The Apostles’ Creed, xv-xvi)

Therefore, arguing degrees of sin or righteousness is utterly nonsensical. Gloating that someone is more sinful than you is like being on a sinking ship and rejoicing that someone else went into the water first. Likewise, boasting in your own righteousness is like a man bragging that he has more paperclips than his coworkers. All of our sins, big or small, condemned us to hell, and our good deeds, however great or numerous, were powerless to save us. We are all in the same boat, and that is fertile ground for unity. The gospel is the only solid foundation for true unity. It is the gift of God that He alone rains down upon His people through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord.

UNITY AT WHAT COST?

But if unity is such a good thing, we must then ask when is (or even whether there is) a proper time for severing that unity? The unity described is between brothers, so at what point does a person who claims Christianity remove themselves from the brotherhood? How can we discern between a true brother with whom we may sharply disagree and someone who has ventured into heresy, leaving behind sound doctrine and abandoning the faith?

These are the kinds of questions that particularly shape how we view ecumenical efforts. Ecumenism is typically understood as attempting to unite the various branches of Christianity together. Sometimes it is used as uniting all religions, which is really just religious pluralism, so we would obviously reject that understanding. But unifying all of Christianity, isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor? Should we pursue ecumenism?

First, we must remember that unity is not maintained at the expense of sound doctrine. A departure from the essential beliefs of Christianity is a denial of Christianity itself. Then, of course, comes the question: what are the essential beliefs of Christianity? We might rightly begin with the sort of proto-creed in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Since Paul calls this statement of first importance, we should conclude that a denial of the atoning death of Jesus and His bodily resurrection is a denial of Christianity.

But still, most Christian groups affirm those verses. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and even Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. Should we, then, all unite under this truth? Very early into church history, Christians began to declare a series of core truths during baptism which revolved around affirming the Trinity. This baptismal confession came to be called the Apostles’ Creed. Although it was not written by the Apostles themselves, Christians readily affirmed it as a summary of the Apostles’ teachings. This creed would go on to form the basis of the more detailed Nicene Creed, which clarified the divinity of Christ. If we hold to the truths expressed within those creeds, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are both removed from the stream of orthodoxy.

What about Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox? Both fall into conflict with Protestantism’s declaration of salvation by faith alone. While I have no doubt that there are genuine disciples of Christ within these branches of Christianity, I do not believe that the beliefs themselves align with the truths of Scripture. Our understanding of the gospel is so different that unity under the gospel is virtually impossible. This is especially true of Catholicism, which in the Councils of Trent declared anathema (or eternally damned) everyone who believes salvation by faith alone. By this still standing official doctrine, we cannot be united with Roman Catholicism.

What do we do then with fellow Protestants? We must begin by recognizing the differences between convictions and essentials. This is crucial because a person who denies an essential doctrine of Christianity is a heretic, which means that they are not of the faith, they are not in Christ, and they are still in their sins and under the wrath of God. That is the reality of being a heretic. O brothers and sisters, may we never pronounce that word upon others flippantly. We must remember that God holds unnecessarily dividing His church as a form of heresy in and of itself. To cause divisions within the church over personal convictions is the self-condemning action of a warped and sinful person. We must, therefore, guard ourselves against the extremes of both liberalism and fundamentalism. Liberalism seeks to place all essentials into the realm of conviction, while fundamentalists want to make their convictions into essentials. Both, though in different ways, undermine the essential doctrines of the faith.

But even when we agree on the essentials, we may have deep convictions that make it difficult to be unified. Some of these convictions will certainly run so deep that we are not able to gather together within the same local church each week.[1] Navigating through strong convictions is perhaps made easier if both parties can agree upon the authority of the Scriptures, which is a foundational belief since Paul grounded the death and resurrection of Christ as being “in accordance with the Scriptures.” If we can both agree that Scripture is our final authority, we should at least be able to understand one another’s reasoning. Without the Bible as our authority, we will each appeal to various traditions, philosophies, arguments, and viewpoints, yet if it is, our discussions should have a fairly fixed reference point.

GUARDING UNITY

But how exactly do we fight for unity within the church? Peter said it well: by possessing sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Unity is impossible without these qualities.

Sympathy urges us to seek mutual understanding. Perhaps this is the quality most sorely missing in today’s climate. Too often, even within the church, we tend to presume guilt by default instead of actively giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you actively seek to understand others’ viewpoints? Do you assume the best about your brothers and sisters with whom you disagree?

Brotherly love, then, makes us genuinely seek each other’s good. When you disagree, especially with a fellow Christian, do you seek to win the argument or to build them up in the faith?

A tender heart keeps us sensitive to the needs and weaknesses of others. Consider how a tender heart may be necessary for loving and shepherding someone who is leaving heretical spin on Christianity, such as Mormonism. The indoctrination of those groups is so powerful that a significant length of time might be necessary to help them see the true teachings of Scripture. To label this person who is laboring to leave heretical teachings a heretic could inflict a much deeper wound upon the already wounded. A tender heart, however, keeps us ready to care for the weaker sheep among us.

A humble mind keeps us willing and ready to admit our errors or faults. Note that true humility is ready to concede when necessary. Too often, I am fine with the abstract concept of admitting an error, yet I prove to be unyielding when the time comes. The prideful holding of ground can cause splinters within God’s people, but humility nourishes a church’s unity.

Given that we will continue to wrestle against sin throughout this life, we will need to possess these qualities in abundance. Our unity depends upon them.

Yet ultimately, our unity is reliant upon God. Like dew from Hermon falling upon the mountains of Zion, God must give us the power to remain unified. We must be led and guarded by the Holy Spirit in order to bear with one another in love.

Indeed, whenever unity is present, true and biblical unity, the blessing of God is surely to be found. A people cannot be united by the Living Water and not themselves become fountains of that same Water. A church that is unified both in spirit and in truth becomes a conduit for God’s blessing. We glimpse the glories and goodness of eternal life with God whenever we participate in the blessing of the communion of the saints here.

Unity, indeed, is pleasant. Have you savored it yet?

May we, therefore, strive for unity with one another.

May we earnestly seek unity through sympathy, brotherly love, tender hearts, and humble minds.

May we keep the gospel front and center of our lives, knowing that only it can destroy the walls of hostility caused by our sins.

May Jesus both unify and glorify His church.


[1] Although, I believe, we should balance this thought with the realities of church life within the New Testament. For example, Jesus told the church of Sardis that they were a dead church with nothing more than a reputation for being alive. For the believers in Sardis, there was no other church for them to move to. They were forced to face the reality that Jesus was speaking to and of them. Their collective repentance would also need to be done as individuals.

Biblical Wisdom

Background on Proverbs

Author

Proverbs 1:1 presents Solomon as the primary author of the book, but there are other writers as well, such as Agur and Lemuel.

Theme

Godly wisdom helps us to understand and navigate the broken, sin-filled world around us by con-forming ourselves to God’s pattern for creation.

Background

Solomon, the son of David, is the primary author and/or collector of the proverbs within Proverbs, and the Bible certainly paints him as being qualified. After becoming king of Israel, 1 Kings 3:3-15 tell of God appearing to Solomon in a dream, asking what he desired. The young king asked the LORD for wisdom to lead Israel, which was a wise request itself. From then onward, Solomon became known for his great wisdom, so that people from all over the earth came to hear his words (1 Kings 4:34). With his understanding, Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs and composed 1,005 songs. Many of those proverbs are no doubt within this book.

But the Proverbs is not the sole work of Solomon. The book, as we have it today, was not complete until more than two hundred years after Solomon’s death. We know this because King Hezekiah (one of Judah’s most godly kings) compiled more of Solomon’s proverbs about a dozen generations later (25:1). We know nothing about Lemuel and Agur nor of the anonymous authors of 22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34. Thus, Proverbs began to be composed with Solomon, was still being compiled in Hezekiah’s day, and might have been finished as late as the Babylonian exile. This vast time frame should remind us that God’s wisdom transcends the ages, speaking and guiding whomever has ears to hear.

Purpose

The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to teach us “to know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth (1:2-4).” Proverbs aims to increase the learning of the wise and to give guidance to the one with understanding. This book wants to make us wise, to give us the skills and understanding to navigate life in a way that pleases God.

Principles for Understanding Proverbs

Proverbs can be a very difficult book to understand well, so before we begin our dive into the book, here are a few principles to keep in mind while studying Proverbs.

First, Proverbs is divided into two major halves. The first half (chapters 1-9) are an introductory course of on biblical wisdom, with Solomon writing to us readers as a father teaching his son. Although these paternal speeches form the bulk of the first nine chapters, we are also treated occasionally to speeches from Lady Wisdom. Because of this teaching pattern, it is important for us to approach these chapters as students ready to learn wisdom from experts.

Second, Proverbs are principles, not promises. Many parents can testify that Proverbs 22:6 is does not always happen. Proverbs show us how things should work within God’s creation, but they are not guaranteed. Ecclesiastes and Job show us how biblical wisdom is applied to these situations when life goes against what we expected.

Third, Proverbs cannot make us wise, only God can. Even though Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, they cannot make us wise themselves. We must rather pray for God to use His Word to make us wise, but without His illumination, these words will never change or impact our hearts.

Fourth, Proverbs are not lifehacks to apply immediately; they require wisdom to use properly. Too many people think of Proverbs as being full of sayings that can be grabbed without context and applied to life’s various situations. This approach fails to realize the importance of Proverbs using nine chapters to introduce the concept of wisdom before launching into the proverbs themselves. In fact, Proverbs speaks against trying to use these wise words without wisdom: “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools (26:7.” Or “Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools (26:9).”

Fifth, there are multiple types of literature within Proverbs. Verse lists four types of literature with Proverbs: proverbs, sayings, words of the wise, and riddles. Proverbs are the bulk form of literature present in the book. Most often proverbs are composed in a parallelism format, meaning they have two lines that reflect upon each other. There is plenty of debate over what exactly sayings and words of the wise refer to. Proverbs 22:17 begins a section of thirty sayings that are called the words of the wise, so maybe the two terms are generally interchangeable. Most commentators agree that riddles within Proverbs refer to texts like Proverbs 30:18-19: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” These are obviously not riddles as we have them in the English language; instead, they are sayings that are purposefully ambiguous and we are meant to search out their meaning.

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

The LORD Has Chosen Zion | Psalm 132

Remember, O LORD, in David’s favor,
all the hardships he endured,
how he swore to the LORD
and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob,
“I will not enter my house
or get into my bed,
I will not give sleep to my eyes
or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the LORD,
a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” 

Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah;
we found it in the fields of Jaar.
“Let us go to his dwelling place;
let us worship at his footstool!” 

Arise, O LORD, and go to your resting place,
you and the ark of your might.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,
and let your saints shout for joy.
For the sake of your servant David,
do not turn away the face of your anointed one.

 The LORD swore to David a sure oath
from which he will not turn back:
“One of the sons of your body
I will set on your throne.
If your sons keep my covenant
and my testimonies that I shall teach them,
their sons also forever
shall sit on your throne.” 

For the LORD has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his dwelling place:
“This is my resting place forever;
here I will dwell, for I have desired it.
I will abundantly bless her provisions;
I will satisfy her poor with bread.
Her priests I will clothe with salvation,
and her saints will shout with joy.
There I will make a horn to sprout for David;
I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.
His enemies I will clothe with shame,
but on him his crown will shine.

Psalm 132 ESV

 

Psalm 132 begins the concluding trilogy of psalms within the Songs of Ascents. Much like Psalms 120-122 seemed to provide meditations for beginning our pilgrimage to Jerusalem these psalms seem designed to urge us toward our journey’s end. Furthermore, Psalms 122 and 132 are similar in their intent to fix our eyes upon Jerusalem and God’s presence therein.

Psalm 132 can roughly be divided into two parts, verses 1-12 and 13-18. Verses 1-12 recollect God’s covenant with David with a declaration of worship and prayer to the LORD dividing the recollection into two parts. Verses 13-18 conclude the psalm by reflecting upon the promised blessings upon Zion as the dwelling place of God.

RECOUNTING THE COVENANT // VERSES 1-12

Verses 1-5 and 11-12 serve as a poetic retelling of the Davidic Covenant, which can be read in 2 Samuel 7. After establishing Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel, David realized that the ark of the LORD was still being held in a tent, whereas he dwelt in the palace of a king. Therefore, David made a vow to God to build a house for the ark. Even though God forbade David from building the temple himself, the LORD blessed his desire to serve Him by making a covenantal promise to David and all of his descendants.

Verses 11-12 then recount God’s pledge to David. Within this stanza of the psalm, we are given God’s response to David’s vow from verses 3-5. The LORD’s oath to David has come to be called the Davidic Covenant. In this covenant, God promised to build a house, a lineage, for David, giving to his descendants an everlasting kingdom.

Sandwiched between the retelling of the Davidic Covenant come verses 6-10. Within verses 6-7, we are given a description of the worshipper’s longing to find the presence of God. Verse 6 recalls the ark’s sojourning in the house of Abinadab. Ephrathah was the general region, and Jaar was the city where it resided. Therefore, the ark’s presence was rumored to be in Ephrathah, and they ultimately found it in Jaar. Verse 7 then is a cry to all of God’s people to travel to the ark to worship at the LORD’s feet.

Verses 8-10 then form a series of three petitions to the LORD. The first petition is for God and the ark of His might to enter His resting place. We might certainly imagine this verse being prayed as priests brought the ark into the temple under the reign of Solomon, although it also could refer to Josiah’s return of the ark to the temple. The second petition asks the LORD to clothe His priests with righteousness and to let His saints shout for joy. The third petition asks God not to turn His face from His anointed one for David’s sake. Each of these petitions will be answered by God in verses 13-18.

THE LORD HAS CHOSEN ZION // VERSES 13-15

Now that we have surveyed the first section of the psalm, we will explore how the main ideas from those verses are brought together within these final ones. Having meditated upon God covenant with David and being resolved to worship the LORD at His resting place, he concludes by reminding us that God has chosen Zion for His home among His people. The LORD declares in verses 14-18 five promises.

First, He declares Zion to be His eternal resting place. This promise still stands today, but Jesus has rebuilt the temple and the city. Today, through the sacrificial death of Jesus, God’s presence is now no longer manifested in the ark or within any temple made by men. Instead, the people of the LORD have become His temple. Upon Christ’s death, the curtain that sealed the Holy of Holies was torn in two. Since we have been purified in Christ alone, God no longer dwells with His people; He dwells in them. This is true from the least to the greatest, and it is the spiritual guarantee of what will one day be made a physical reality: that communion with God has been restored. The gospel, therefore, is not simply good news that we are forgiven of our sins; rather, it proclaims that the dwelling place of God is with man. God now dwells within His people. We are God’s temple. The church, God’s people, are now the spiritual Zion, which is why I believe that New Jerusalem in Revelation is symbolic for our glorified state with Christ.

But even though God now dwells within His people, worship is still no less communal. Jesus promised to be in the midst of His gathered disciples. We, therefore, believe that, while worship encompasses the entire life of a Christian, something special happens when we gather together. Mike Cosper says it like this:

It’s no small thing to realize that when a Christian shows up, God shows up. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).

So when the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. (Rhythms, 79)

God is present in the gathering of His people. While it is sufficiently stunning to consider God inhabiting His people, the LORD also says that He desired it. Yet it is a joy that we often neglect.

The neglect of the ark was a dark season for Israel. The LORD graced them with a physical representation of His presence, yet they squandered it. For about twenty years, it remained in the house of Abinadab, until David brought it into Jerusalem, back to the heart of God’s people. How easy is it for us to do the same? Should we not be in eager anticipation of meeting the LORD? Shouldn’t we urge one another to come gather with us to worship God? Too often, I fear that we encourage each other to gather on Sunday out of necessity, obligation, or even guilt. What if, instead, we longed to encounter God in the midst of His people and, from the overflow of that zeal for God’s glory, joyfully invited others to join us?

May we guard ourselves from ever similarly neglecting the supreme importance of worship. May we never place God upon the outskirts of our lives; instead, let us enthrone Him upon the very center of our heart that everything we do would flow from our life of worship.

Second, He promises to abundantly bless the provisions of Zion and to satisfy her poor with bread. Once again, we see that this promise is fulfilled for Christ’s followers today. Even if we might persecution and poverty in this life, God has granted us everything that we need in Jesus Christ. Like Paul, we know the secret of being content with much or little because we have found Christ who is all in all. Even if we hunger for physical food, Jesus is Himself the Bread of Life, and if we thirst, He is the Living Water.

Unfortunately, our sluggish desire for worship often stems from our perceived lack of need. Michael Horton gives an example of this:

When the plague spread across England between 1348 and 1350, the Church of England called for periods of intense prayer and fasting. But in the 1990s, in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Church of England called for more government funding for medical research. We tend to think that shifts like this derive merely from explicit intellectual attacks on a “Judeo-Christian worldview,” but even those of us who do affirm orthodox Christianity divide inwardly between praying for our daily bread and knowing that it’s always there at the grocery store. It’s not merely that our beliefs have changed, but that our way of believing has shifted away from assuming a world “with devils filled” but where God is our “mighty fortress.” Now we must become masters of our own destiny, keeping dangers at bay by our own collective and calculative reasoning. Even if God plays a role, it is a supporting one, helping us to achieve “our best life now” (23-24).

We would do well to remember the Beatitudes of Jesus, particular as they are listed in Luke 6. The poor are blessed because the kingdom of God is theirs. The hungry will be satisfied, and the weeping will laugh. But the rich, the full, and those laughing receive woes from Christ. Such statements aren’t unfair on Jesus’ part; they’re simply truthful. If you currently possess your best life now, then it’s only downhill from here. But if you yearn for more than this world can provide, you will find in the face of Jesus Christ for all eternity.

Third, Zion’s priests will be clothed in salvation and her saints with shouts for joy. In Christ, we are now both priests and saints. We are a kingdom of priests who have each been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ as our salvation. We are saints because God has set us apart as His holy people for His own possession.

Indeed, our salvation is our joy. We have been rescued from the just penalty of our sins by the very one whom we offended. God has delivered us from death by the death of His Son, and we are now His people. As the priests of God, we are also now called to invite others to enter into Christ’s kingdom.

Fourth, a horn will sprout for David. One primary theme of this psalm is God’s favor toward David, which begs us to take a few moments to explore. The psalm begins by asking God to remember His favor toward David. He pleads for David’s sake for the LORD to keep His face upon the anointed one. And, of course, the whole structure of the psalm is recounting God’s oath to David.

Throughout the Scriptures, David is presented to us as a model servant of the LORD. Like Abraham, Moses, and the others, David was far from perfect, yet the Bible repeatedly appeals to God’s favor upon David and his lineage. This psalm is no different. Although we cannot say for certain when it was written, we can clearly conclude that it was composed after the lifetime of David. Whether the psalmist wrote it in light of Solomon dedicating the temple, during the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile, or at another point in Israel’s history, the psalmist is calling upon the LORD to continue showing his favor toward David and his nation even in the present day.

Why did God show so much favor upon David?

As we see in these verses, David desired God’s glory above his own. The psalmist recites David’s vow to find a dwelling place for the LORD before he ate, slept, or returned to his own house. Zeal for the glory of God marked the entire life of the shepherd-king. When facing Goliath, David confidently trusts that the LORD would grant him victory over the one who defied the armies of the Most High. When Saul chased David into exile, David was given multiple opportunities to kill Saul, but he allowed the LORD to undo His anointed one. Perhaps the zeal for God’s glory is what made him a man after God’s own heart, since God Himself is zealous for the exaltation of His name.

Before we continue further, we must pause and consider: are you like David? If you have not repented of sin and believed the good news of Jesus Christ, I pray that today you would be like Abraham, who when he saw the LORD passing by, begged Him to stay. Like David, do not eat or rest until you have become a dwelling place for the Creator of all things.

Yet for all the favor of David, Jesus is this anointed one, which is the meaning of the title, Christ, after all. He is the horn of David. Peter confirms this during his sermon in Acts 2:

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:29-32)

Ultimately, David was only a type and shadow of Jesus. Christ is the better David. Like Moses, God showed favor toward David as a servant, but Jesus has the favor of being God’s only begotten Son, as the author of Hebrews says:

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (Hebrews 3:1–6)

Like Moses and David, we are being built into the household of God, and Jesus is the builder of the house. His glory is far greater than David’s glory, and yet Christ is not ashamed to call us His brothers, to make us co-heirs with Him. If, therefore, the psalmist boldly prayed for God’s promises to be fulfilled for David’s sake, how much more are we able to petition God’s throne for Jesus’ sake.

Fifth, the enemies of David’s descendant will be shamed while His crown shines. This verse encapsulates the end of all things. One day every enemy of Jesus Christ will be put to open shame, even as His crown shines with His glory that gives life to the remade cosmos. Christ will reign supreme as king over all creation, and we shall be His people.

The purpose of these final promises and of the psalm as a whole is to meditate upon the goodness of God as He dwells with His people in Jerusalem. Now, under the kingship of Jesus, God is shaping us into that heavenly city, or as Paul said, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). God has chosen to dwell among His people. He has desired it, and we respond with shouts of joy. For the sake of Jesus, the Son of David, let us worship God both individually and corporately as Zion, His resting place forever.

For Everything There Is a Season | Ecclesiastes 3

There is no book, inside or outside the Bible, like Ecclesiastes. The Preacher, likely Solomon, writes Ecclesiastes in order to analyze life under the sun for any lasting meaning, joy, and purpose. His answer is that all of it is a vanity, with no more substance than a breath of air. All who live will die. Most will be forgotten, and of those who are remembered, what gain does that remembrance bring them in the grave? If all of that sounds rather depressing, rest assured that Solomon also points us to the hope that breaks into the bleakness of our lives.

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with one of the most famous poems of the Bible. This poem muses on the back and forth, give and take nature of time. Good things happen as well as bad things. Some seasons of life are pleasant, while others are bitter. This is simply how life works, and no one is exempt from life’s shifting rhythms of time. The greatest advice that the author can give us, therefore, is to stop battling against the inevitable and start enjoying the lot of life that God has given each of us.

A TIME FOR EVERYTHING // VERSES 1-8

Up to this point, Solomon has described his journey to find meaning through wisdom and knowledge. Despite wisdom and knowledge being very good things, Solomon found that they still left him none the more satisfied with life without Divine interference. Then, since knowledge and wisdom failed him, Solomon sought the opposite: folly. In the previous chapter, the Israelite king described how he partied, spent, and lived grander than any man that has ever lived. Yet when the hangovers wore off, when the elaborate monuments were completed, when he had run out of fantasies, Solomon was just as empty as before. His ardent pursuit of pleasure gave his life no deep sense of purpose or meaning. It was vanity.

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes kicks off with a poem. As a writer of songs and proverbs, it seems only fitting that Solomon would throw a poetic interlude into his mediations. However, in case we get lost in the poetic workings of the next seven verses, Solomon provides the thesis for his poem right from the beginning: everything has its time and place. This statement builds strongly on the thought that a wise person knows when to do or say something. Is laughter good? Yes, we discussed that in the previous chapter. However, is laughter good at a funeral? No, typically laughter is considered rude or disrespectful at a funeral. Why? There is a time and place for everything, and those who are wise will understand when things should be done.

But we must also remember as we read this poem that the Preacher is not commenting on the virtues of the items presented. Many may read “a time for war” and assume that the Bible is therefore endorsing war. Or that the Bible advocates killing under appropriate circumstances. But morality is not the point of these verses. This poem is merely observing the rhythm and flow of life. People are healed, and people are killed. Fact. That’s just the world we live in. William Barrick effectively sums up the message of this poem, which we will continue to address in verses 9-22:

What is the point of this description of time-oriented events? It is that nothing happens haphazardly. No chance, no fate governs the things that happen in the lives of God’s people. He controls all events. (62)

This poem is Hebrew poetry at its finest. We find that the poem spans seven verses, each providing two couplings of opposites, which means fourteen statements total. The number seven is very significant to Jewish thought because it represents completeness or entirety. Thus, Solomon is attempting with a short poem to capture the summation of all events in human life. What a task! The goal of this poem mirrors the goal of Ecclesiastes as a whole. He begins with birth and death, the bookends of human existence. This makes complete sense. Solomon is saying that there was a time for your birth (a.k.a. your birthday) and there will be a specific time for your death. These are two moments which all of humanity will experience, and we have no control over either.

Next, Solomon describes another uncontrollable element: the seasons. The people in Solomon’s kingdom were predominately an agricultural society, and so their lives depended on the weather and seasons. Thus, they would all know which seasons were for planting and which were for harvesting.

God is certainly not telling us to murder in verse 3, and in fact, we do not need to view this phrase as necessarily applying to humans. Every farmer certainly knows that there is a time for painstakingly nursing injured cattle back to health, while a time also comes for putting the animal down.

Similarly, he states that there is a time for breaking down and a time for building up. On the surface, these opposing clauses are likely referring to architecture. There are times for new and fresh buildings and times to condemn old buildings. However, I can also see a figurative interpretation here. In the Christian life, we are called to both rebuke and encourage our brothers and sisters. During a rebuke, we attempt to lovingly tear down idols or fallacies in their life. By encouraging, we build up our spiritual family so that they will be better equipped for future weathering. Is tearing down in love a brother or sister easy or desired? No. Yet, at times, it is very necessary. The wisdom of Christ will guide us as to the correct time for encouragement or rebuke.

Verse 4 tells us that weeping, laughing, mourning, and dancing each have their time and place. As mentioned in the funeral scenario above, laughter, though good, can be used incorrectly and in inappropriate circumstances. Even though weeping and mourning seem like negative things, suppose that an esteemed colleague passes away, would we not mourn his passing? Would it not be inconsiderate to merely shrug off the death of a close friend? I do not mourn much for the death of acquaintances, but how could I not weep at the death of a brother? Mourning is a means of honoring those whom we loved and is appropriate in its season.

Casting stones (v. 5) into another farmer’s land was a common method of destroying an enemy’s produce. Likewise, if you were attacked in such a way, you would need to “gather stones” from your own land. There is also a proper season for sex, namely within marriage, and any other time is the wrong time.

Hoarders need to memorize this verse 6. Solomon speaks about material things here. Trinkets have a way of adding up and becoming overwhelming. However, the Preacher says that there comes a time for seeking things and for keeping them, but there is also a time for things to remain lost or even for us to discard items. Stuff should never become so important that we cannot bear the thought of casting it away.

Have you ever met someone that cannot stop themselves from speaking, even in times when silence is the best option? Such awkward situations are caused by someone not knowing what is appropriate to a certain scenario (I am also sure that we have been that person at least once). That is Solomon’s aim in verse 7. Just last week I spoke with my mother about my brother’s wanderings. She was so distraught over his current actions that she cried the whole time. Over the course of the conversation, I did little more than listen. It was not a time to speak but a time to listen. Similarly, I believe that Solomon is referencing mourning when he says “a time to tear.” It was Jewish custom to tear one’s garments during a time of great mourning or distress; however, there is also a time for sewing those garments and moving on.

Verse 8 is another difficult one with which to reckon. We are typically avid preachers of love and peace, but what about war and hate? Is there really a godly time for war and hatred? We know from Scripture that there is a time for war. Joshua and Judges are filled with war. We are told via numerous prophesies that the end of time will come through God’s “war” on the unrighteous. War, in the Bible, is frequently used as an instrument for God’s wrath. Likewise, we must remember that though God is abounding in love He also experiences hatred. Does this make God unjust? No. In fact, His hatred makes Him just. Would you believe that God was good if He simply overlooked crimes like murder or rape? When faced with terrible injustice, there is a time for the people of God to have a righteous hatred.

THE GOD-GIVEN TASK // VERSES 9-15

Following his poetic interlude, Solomon brings up a similar thought from the last chapter. What purpose can be found in all of a man’s work? In verse 10, you can feel the cynicism. Solomon claims that he has seen everything that God uses to keep mankind busy. He has seen all of the advantages and disadvantages of work, and in the end, it provides no true substance. Jonathan Akin points out that within the previous poem “there are 14 pluses and 14 minuses, and that adds up to zero! Every birth ends in death, every planted crop is pulled up, every building is eventually condemned, every celebration gives way to a funeral, and every peace gives way to another war. Nothing is gained” (40). Since he claims that this comes from the hand of God, we can conclude that God has created everything in such a way that we can only find true satisfaction in Him.

I love verse 11. After looking at the futility of trying to find meaning in one’s work, Solomon turns his focus to God by, first, saying that He makes all things beautiful in their time. This verse should mean so much more after reading the previous poem. In the poem, we saw that “under heaven” life is full of positives and negatives, pros and cons, good and evil. We saw that there is mourning, war, and hate here on earth. Yet now Solomon throws the Divine into the equation. He looked forward to the day when the LORD would make all things good, when there will be no need for war or righteous hatred.

Next, Solomon says that God has placed eternity within our hearts. We are told in the creation story that God created us to be immortal. It was only our sin that caused us to die. Thus, the aftereffects still linger; we still feel as though we are immortal. This is why death seems to be an injustice to us. We have an innate desire to search out eternal things, but we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” God’s ways are higher, deeper, and more profound than we will ever be able to grasp, yet He created us to seek Him out. This endless quest is what Tozer calls the soul’s paradox of love: still pursuing Him after having already found Him. Tozer then quotes St. Bernard in saying: “We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread, and long to feast upon Thee still; we drink of Thee, the Fountainhead and thirst our souls from Thee to fill.”

Time is like the sky. Wherever we look, there it is. Yet, there is a problem. Humanity still has Eden in its veins. We have “eternity” in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Our souls instinctively yearn for a purposed life without end under this time-chained sun. The Preacher teaches us how to speak humanly and honestly about our longing for purpose, the tension we experience, and the reality of handling time with our neighbors. As those who do life with reference to the fear of the Lord, we too have these concerns in common with our neighbors (Eswine, 126).

With this chasing after eternity in mind, Solomon now claims that in this life there is nothing better than being joyful and doing good. Once again we must note that this book is not about the evil of pleasure; instead, Solomon wants his audience to experience lasting joy and pleasure, which can only be found in God. A satisfaction with our work and life is one of God’s greatest gifts, and it must come from God, for there is no other source.

It is also important to remember that this statement is not the same as the nihilistic creed: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Or as a character from a popular television series says, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.” That is hopelessness that desperately hides behind entertainment to numb us from reality. The Preacher’s plea to eat and drink and take pleasure in our toil is form of Paul’s command to glorify God in everything that we do, even eating and drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The aging king further elaborates on God’s actions and sovereignty. Verse 14 mirrors verse 11 in their discussion of eternity. While 11 focused on our desire for eternality, this verse concerns God’s actual perpetuity. We cannot create meaning from what we set our hands to do; whereas, God can only create meaning from His works. Solomon says that God does this so that we might fear Him. The cosmic difference between us and Him should create within us a fearful reverence for the LORD.

Ray Stedman gives us this thought on verse 15:

A better translation of that last phrase is, ‘God brings back what has already passed away.’ The Searcher here refers to the repetition of life’s lessons. We do not seem to learn very well. I have learned some lessons in life and said, “Lord, I see what you are after. I’ve got it now. You don’t have to bring this one back again.” But down the road I make the same mistake. Some circumstance painfully recalls to mind what I had once seen as a principle of life. I have to humbly come and say, ‘Lord, I’m a slow learner. Have patience with me.’ God says, ‘I understand. I’m prepared to have patience with you and teach you this over and over again until you get it right.’ (54)

FROM DUST TO DUST // VERSES 16-22

Solomon’s next vanity is the problem with wickedness. The king looks at the justice and righteous systems and finds that wickedness is there. Even today we can see that this statement is true. United States justice systems are established upon the slogan “innocent until proven guilty.” What a noble thought! Our courts are known for trying in the best ways possible to be just, but injustice is still committed. In the very buildings established to bring justice, have we not heard stories of people being wrongfully accused, of those being abused by authority?

And what shall we make of his statement about righteousness? To what could Solomon be referring? I would venture that religious leader scandals hit fairly close to Solomon’s intent. There are two large Wikipedia page lists of both Catholic and evangelical minister scandals. Why does finding a minister with a prostitute create such a vast dissonance within us? It is not the inherent act of prostitution, though it should be. Instead, we are so shocked by such scandals because those men claimed to be godly. They claimed to be righteous but fell short in tremendous fashion. We know that it is wrong to find such wickedness in places where justice and righteousness should be. It deeply disturbs the aging king.

Over the course of this chapter, Solomon has carefully walked the border of cynical and hopefully reliant. In answer to the previous verse’s cynicism, the Preacher now conveys in verse 17 his hope that God will correct everything. Notice that Solomon prefaces his statement with “I said in my heart.” To the ancient Hebrew, the heart was used much as we use it today: as the seat of the emotions, as the depth of one’s being. Thus, he is saying that from the very core of his soul he believes that “God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” Despite the wickedness of humanity, God will have the last word. He will judge everyone, and He will judge with perfect justice. He then repeats his refrain that there is a time for everything. We must remember, as Solomon remembered, that wickedness is for but a season. In the end, God’s justice will prevail.

Solomon concludes in verse 18 from the previous two verses that God tests man. By allowing wickedness for a time, God shows us that we are nothing but beasts. This reminds me very much of Paul’s writings. Paul claims in the letter to the Galatians that God gave His people the Mosaic Law not to save us but to show us how great our need to be saved truly is. God gave us His perfect law to show us how imperfect we are and how desperately we need a perfect savior. Solomon makes the same sort of conclusion here. God is testing us, not because He is an angry kid with a magnifying glass, but because He wants us to understand how terribly we need Him. This is fitting when we consider the origin of our sin. Although they were made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were not content with being like God; they wanted to be God. We as humans were given the special privilege of displaying God’s character, but we are not content to just be like Him. All sin, therefore, is a proclamation of our own divinity. By sinning, we declare that we know better than God Himself. This is why death is a consequence of our sin. Death forces us to remember that we are merely creatures, which leads us to Solomon’s thoughts in the next three verses.

We must be careful in our interpretation of verses 19-21 since they represent one of Solomon’s furthest dives into pessimism. In the previous verse, Solomon compares man’s depravity to being like the wild animals. Continuing that theme, he states that man has no advantage of the beasts because we die just like them. I cannot stress this enough Solomon is speaking here from his “under the sun” perspective. From a purely physical and worldly point of view, humans are nothing more than intelligent animals. We look at the brutality of the animal world, but we see far greater brutality within our midst. Animals kill for primal urges, yet people have killed simply for the terror of the act. If anything, we should view ourselves as less than the animals because they act in innocence, but we act with terrible purpose. Thus, from this perspective, Solomon’s words ring true. How could we know if the afterlife for mankind was any better than for animals? Do not our bodies decompose and become dust just like the animals? Solomon is not claiming that animals have souls or that we are equal to animals, but he is showing that this worldly way of thinking is nothing but vanity.

Fortunately, this chapter is ended on a more hopeful note. Verse 22 is meant to hearken back to verse 13. In light of man’s depravity and similarity to the animals, Solomon repeats that there is no better course of action than for us to rejoice in our work. Solomon’s greatest advice is that we should enjoy the gift that God has given to us, which is the ability to enjoy at all. The closing question provides some level of difficulty. Does he mean that the afterlife is in doubt? I do not believe so. We have no reason to believe that Solomon questioned, or completely disbelieved, the existence of an afterlife. Therefore, we must take his question to mean that we have no control over what becomes of us. We have no control over what will happen once we are dead, so why not just enjoy today? We should rejoice in each day that the Father gives us because He does not promise another.

Our Creator is in control and makes known His will for His people. We are not to pour more effort into understanding our frustrating and uncontrollable circumstances. Nor ought we to spend our time comparing our lot in life with another’s. We ought not indulge in retaliation, resentment, bitterness, or disappear into a fantasy world. Reject these reactions to life’s difficult circumstances and intrinsic injustices. Abandon self-pity and despair. Identify the advantage to your disadvantage. Thank God that He uses such circumstances to humble you, to make you more dependent upon Him, and to be thankful for what He has given you to enjoy. Your joy of God’s gifts grows greater in the light of your trials while you live ‘under the sun.’ (Barrick, 70-71)

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O LORD, My Heart Is Not Lifted Up | Psalm 131

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me. 

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 131 ESV

 

The penultimate trilogy of psalms within the Songs of Ascents finds its conclusion in Psalm 131. After lamenting over outside affliction in Psalm 129 and repenting of sin in Psalm 130, we now arrive at this Davidic psalm of hope, patience, and trust in the LORD.

O LORD, MY HEART IS NOT LIFTED UP

Charles Spurgeon offers an excellent introduction to this psalm:

Comparing all the Psalms to gems, we should liken this to a pearl: how beautifully it will adorn the neck of patience. It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. It speaks of a young child, but it contains the experience of a man in Christ.

The nearly inexpressible profundity of this psalm is evident at a glance, and the truth of Spurgeon’s words is felt within one’s bones, if you but linger over the text for a moment. No exposition of Scripture is ever capable of fully capturing the vastness of a particular passage, but this psalm feels to me particularly elusive. It is “deep, very deep; who can find it out? (Ecclesiastes 7:24). I urge you, therefore, to dwell and meditate over this psalm before the LORD. Doing so will prove a marvelous blessing, while neglecting it is to pass by an unlocked storage of gold. If I can but give you a glimpse of the glories upon the foothills of this psalm’s mountain, the LORD will have answered my prayer.

The obvious theme of verses 1-2 is humility and patience. But what is the psalm’s most probable context?

We will never know in what stage of his life that David penned this psalm, but we do know that the Psalms’ compiler made it the 131st psalm for a reason. The settings of Psalms 129 and 130, therefore, are fertile grounds for envisioning this one.

First, let us consider how this psalm can spring from Psalm 129. In that psalm, the author began by lamenting Israel’s affliction and ended by praying for God’s judgment upon the persecutors. Affliction of any variety is a difficult pill to swallow, and it certainly does come in a wide variety. We may be afflicted internally or externally, physically or spiritually, verbally or bodily, subtly or overtly. Regardless of the type, affliction is painful, and from that pain, it can be natural to cry out of God with questions. If You are sovereign, why are you letting this happen? If I am Your child, then why am I suffering while those who deny You prosper? Such questions form the heart of laments, and the Bible encourages us to bring these cries before the LORD.

Yet the Scriptures also counsel us not to linger there. Instead, many of the Bible’s laments end in confident expressions of hope in God’s coming deliverance. Even the book of Lamentations, which seems to end with a desperate cry to the LORD, has at its center a confident hope in God’s salvation. Likewise, our present psalm can easily be viewed as a similar expression of hope. After the tears and questions of affliction have been poured out to the LORD in lament, we remember the steadfast love, mercy, and sovereignty of our God and calm and quiet our souls. We step away from the throes of anguish and enter into the shelter of trusting God.

From this place, we content ourselves with God’s plan and will. We remind ourselves that God has a reason and a purpose behind everything that happens and that understanding why He ordains and permits certain things is too great and marvelous for us. As God spoke through Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

But this psalm could also quite naturally flow from the psalm of repentance that we previously studied. The psalmist of Psalm 130 made his cry for the LORD’s mercy and forgiveness from the pit of despair, the depths into which his sin pulled him. After affirming God’s readiness to forgive, the psalmist concluded that he would wait upon the LORD for salvation. Psalm 131 can easily be seen as what such waiting looks like.

Psalm 130:6 described waiting as marked by readiness. Just as the watchmen waits for morning to be off duty, so we wait longingly for the LORD to deliver us presently and finally from our sin. Psalm 131 guards against allowing our yearning to become impatience. Even as we pray fervently for God’s kingdom to come fully with the return of Christ, Psalm 131 calls us to keep Peter’s words in our mind:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)

And of course, the psalm could also be read, sang, and prayed as independently of the other two. From this context, we can read this psalm as a general antidote to pride and impatience (which, by the way, are far more connected than we are often comfortable with admitting). Even without outside affliction or an internal war on sin, we establish ourselves as having sovereign control over our own lives, often by default. Because of the Fall, we occupy ourselves with things too great and marvelous for us on a daily basis. Let us observe a few arenas where this propensity toward pride is most common.

First, it can be broadly seen in our incessant belief that we alone understand what is best for us. The flaws with this nearly baseline assumption are plentiful. We could focus solely upon the complexities of identity. Throughout life, we should be continuously discovering new aspects of ourselves, especially since our personalities are constantly shifting. While those shifts may be subtle, we still become different people as each passing experience shapes us a little more. If we are honest, this makes truly knowing ourselves fully a virtual impossibility, which would also leave open the possibility that we may not know what we really want.

Unfortunately, we tend not to stop with simply becoming captains of our own fate; rather, we, at least within our own minds, often believe our ways and ideas to be superior to those of others. We give advice not really as a suggestion but as a prescription. We nonchalantly consider how we might have handled the situations and circumstances of others better than they did, while not realizing that we cannot hope to fully comprehend the intricacies of even one event in another person’s life without actually being that person. Furthermore, how can we ever think we fully know another person at all if we cannot even know ourselves?

We could then, of course, move into the societal structures. It is not uncommon to presume that we could form a better government, a better system, a better business, a better church. This is especially true in the political sphere from both sides of party line. From the left comes the increasingly postmodern mindset that seeks to replace fixed truths with fluid ones. From the right come defenders of fixed truths that too often haven’t taken the time to understand those very truths.

Suggesting, even leading and guiding, organizational changes certainly isn’t sinful. In fact, because no structure is perfect, such change is necessary, but we should do so with humility. It is the prideful arrogance that we know best that is sinful. Likewise, giving advice about matters not explicitly directed by Scripture can be quite beneficial, but we can fall into sinful presumption whenever we come begin to believe that we could live another person’s life better than they are. Finally, returning to the realm of self, we should delight in doing things that we enjoy, but we are entrenched in pride whenever we believe that we can guide ourselves into sustained joy.

Once again, to think that cannot have any level of understanding or do anything good is false humility. True humility neither exalts nor debases more than deserved. When we are humble, we recognize and embrace our limitations, as the psalmist does here. Humility keeps us from lifting our hearts and eyes into realms that only God can inhabit. In humility, we gladly accept things that are too great and marvelous for us and, therefore, that we are not great and marvelous.

Such humility should find its expression in verse 2. Whether trusting in God’s sovereignty over suffering, His patience toward sinners, or simply that He is beyond us, our humbled view of self and exalted view of God should lead us to a calm and quiet soul. After all, how can we not possess a peaceful soul when the sovereign Creator is also our Father?

Perhaps this is why the Bible warns us not to be anxious. An anxious soul displays a lack of confidence in God’s control and love; whereas faith in those very things creates a peace that surpasses understanding. This battle between the two must be fought continuously. Indeed, notice that verse 2 says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul”, which implies that previously his soul was neither calm nor quiet. The Christian life, the life of faith in Christ, is a constant fight for peace.

The concluding lines of verse 2 provide insight as to how we might battle for that peace: by being like a weaned child for its mother. What does that mean? An infant’s cry is one of desperation, a plea of being in need. Particularly an infant needs its mother’s milk as its sustenance for life. A weaned child no longer depends upon the mother’s milk for its very survival; instead, the child now longs to be with its mother simply for her comforting presence. This is the psalmist’s attitude with God. Although he once cried to God for answers and comfort like an infant for milk, now he has contented himself with God’s very presence. He may never understand why God has orchestrated events to unfold as they have happened, but he is satisfied with knowing that God is in control and that His steadfast love endures forever.

As Christians, this means keeping the cross always before our eyes. Upon those intersecting planks of wood, we are given the most brilliant display of God’s sovereign love for us. Forever we are able to cling to the fact that the Author of life died for us. The crucifixion of Christ, therefore, is our anchor of peace within the storms around us. With the hymn we rightfully affirm: “this is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Of course, the great irony of looking to the cross is that while it requires the utmost humility there is also no place higher that we can set our eyes. Nothing is more marvelous or glorious than the splendor of Jesus Christ, so long as we maintain a proper view of self, we are invited to behold the glory of all glories. After all, the humble will be exalted, and the exalted will be humbled. The last will be first, and the first will be last. In losing our lives, we find them, but if we value our lives, they will surely be lost. Such is the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. Avert your eyes, therefore, from things too great and marvelous for you, and prepare to be shown wonders unspeakable.

O ISRAEL, HOPE IN THE LORD

With this final verse, David turns from praying to God to calling upon God’s people to hope in the LORD. I believe this verse essentially serves as the call to put verses 1-2 into action. Indeed, hope is intimately connected to humility and patience. The biblical conception of hope could be understood as faith in the future tense. Just as faith is the confident assurance of unseen realities now, hope is the confident assurance of things to come. For instance, the return of Christ is called by Paul “the blessed hope” of His followers. Hope, therefore, necessarily involves patience. In fact, we could argue that patience is the fruit of hope, and impatience signifies a lack of hope. And hope also requires humility because hope implies our inability to do something. To hope is to admit that we cannot fix everything so we wait upon the God who will. For these reasons, David’s appeal to hope in the LORD is an appeal for us to lower our hearts and eyes and to calm and quiet our souls before God.

Church, are you hoping in the LORD?

Perhaps you feel afflicted by the circumstances of life. By all means, cry out to the LORD in lament. He is ready and willing to hear our broken-hearted prayers for relief. Yet when the tears run dry, come to this psalm. Do not remain forever in a place of lamentation. Come before God’s throne in humility and patience, trusting the plan of the Maker of heaven and earth.

Or maybe you have lost yet another battle against sin, and your heart cannot help asking why God has not given you deliverance from that temptation. Maybe the thought of never being fully free in this life from the evilness within you is bringing you to the brink of despair. Remember again the forgiveness of our great God and fear Him. Even a lifetime of wrestling with the same stubborn sickness will barely be visible from the heights of eternity with the One who is our joy and treasure. Calm and quiet your soul before God and content yourself with His presence.

Or possibly you are in the throes of anxiety. For reasons that you might not even be able to form into words, your soul is everything but calm and quiet. Turn your eyes to the cross. Although immediately speaking of death, the words of Henry Lyte’s hymn are nonetheless a helpful prayer: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.” We must look to the cross where He who feeds the sparrows and adorns the flowers has shown that He will much more feed and clothe us. A calm and quiet soul does not happen by accident; it comes through fixing our eyes upon Jesus.

Or perhaps you don’t fall into those categories; instead, you view God as an advisor rather than Lord. Your eyes and heart are lifted above their capacity, you have become your own hope, and life is anything but peaceful. If you are a follower of Christ, come once again in repentance to Him. Having tasted and seen that the LORD is good, believe again that He knows best for you and submit to Him in humility. If you are not a Christian, believe in the sovereign love of God toward you and embrace the death and resurrection of Christ as your only hope. Surely, you know how you continue to fail at making yourself truly happy. Come and submit your life to the Maker of heaven and earth and find true joy in being made His child.

Hope in the LORD, brothers and sisters, who made heaven and earth and rescued you from your sin.