Vanity Under the Sun

Two Are Better Than One | Ecclesiastes 4

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 4 ESV

 

The issue of community is Solomon’s primary focus within this chapter of Ecclesiastes. Though he will highlight the benefits of being in community, much of this chapter is devoted to how we sabotage community with our selfishness.

THE VANITY OF OPPRESSION // VERSES 1-3

In verse 1, the Preacher notes how community is ruined by recalling the oppression that he has seen. There is a deep hurt that is felt in Solomon’s words. It should remind us of someone who placed their trust in authority, an authority that was supposed to have the people’s best interest at heart, but only saw harm come from them. In a godly community, those with power should be servants, not oppressors. A great evil is committed when those in power abuse those without it.

He says that the situation of the oppressed is only accented by the fact that their oppressors have all of the power. They can do nothing to change their situation. Yet if Solomon was the king of Israel with all of the power and wealth that we have discussed, which oppressors was he describing? With the complete authority of the king, could not he have righted any wrongs that he saw? I believe there are two points to pull from these questions.

First, since we are told that Solomon’s heart was turned from the LORD, it is possible that he has been one of the very oppressors that he describes. Lending validity to this thought is the statement of the people to Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, in 1 Kings. After Solomon’s death, the people assemble before Rehoboam and pleaded, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). Is it not a sad sign that the people’s first reaction following his death was to beg for his son to be a better king? Thus, perhaps this verse is Solomon’s regret of how his reign declined as his heart turned from the LORD.

Or Solomon could be making a statement that, even with all of his power as king, he was still powerless to cease all of the oppression that he saw. This is certainly possible as well. Even the greatest of earthly kings are not omniscient. Policies may, therefore, attempt to limit oppression, but evil men with power will always find ways around the laws that seek to limit them.

Furthermore, notice the language that Solomon uses to build our emotive connection: “tears of the oppressed” and “no one to comfort them.” He mentions the comfort of the oppressed twice in this first verse, but not once does he explicitly mention the combating of oppression. It seems as if the Preacher understands that oppression is an inevitability in this life under the sun and east of Eden. No one can stop the abuse of power. That’s just the reality of life, and he can deal with that. But what seems to truly stir his emotions is the lack of comfort given to those who are oppressed. Abuse by the ungodly is understandable and even expected, but the lack of concern from the godly is truly sorrowful. In a powerfully written article, Matt Walsh argues that our lack of concern for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for the faith stems from our moral cowardice. I’ll cite the first few paragraphs of this article, but it is worth reading in its entirety:

I was recently invited to attend and give a reflection at a prayer vigil for persecuted Christians, hosted by a church in Maryland. The church was hoping that 150 congregants would come. They got about three.

To be fair, there was some bad weather that afternoon. And it was on a Friday night, when most people would rather be relaxing on the couch or going out to a nice dinner with their spouse. There are a million reasons — a few of them even legitimate — why you might not show up to something like this. But it was sad, all the same, to see the bare pews, and to hear a couple of speakers deliver beautiful and impassioned pleas to an empty church. At the end they collected donations for a Christian school in Iraq, but nobody was there to give anything.

Before the vigil, I remember saying to my wife that every church in the country ought to do something like this at least once a month. Now I know why they don’t.

I reflected on this when I read a report that Christian persecution and genocide is worse now than it has ever been in history. Christians in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Egypt, and many other countries, are regularly imprisoned, tortured, beaten, raped, and martyred. Their churches are destroyed. Their houses burned. They meet and worship in secret, risking their lives in the process. They live every moment in constant danger.

About 215 million Christians face what is called “extreme persecution” for their faith. It’s estimated that around a million have been slaughtered since 2005. There is no way to know exactly how many. What we do know is that Christianity has been dramatically reduced in parts of the world where it had existed for nearly 2,000 years.

Tradition tells us that St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the early part of the first century. Today, the seed he planted has been ripped up. Two churches in the country were attacked and 44 Christians massacred on Palm Sunday last year. In the same year, 28 Christian pilgrims were martyred while en route to a monastery. The Muslim assailants gave them a chance to save themselves if they would recite an Islamic profession of faith. They refused and so they were shot in the head. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence in Egypt and in several other nations across the globe.

But what do we care?

There are other things to worry about here. Hollywood sex scandals. Twitter disputes. Whatever controversial thing Trump said this week. So on and so on. We — myself included — spend far more time, and spill far more ink, on these issues than we ever have on the coordinated genocide of our fellow believers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Why?

I have come to believe that our disinterest stems not only from the general apathy that defines western society and the western church, but from moral cowardice. To face the plight of our brothers and sisters is to face ourselves. To see these Christians who would rather be shot dead in the desert than renounce their faith is to see our own faith as a shabby, pitiful, hollow imitation. To see Christians who would risk their very lives to go to church and preach the Gospel is to question why we will do neither of those things, even though we are perfectly free and able. We cannot confront these truths of ourselves, so we will not confront the truth of Christian persecution.

Persecution of Christ’s followers is inevitable, just like general oppression. Like Solomon, Walsh understands this. What he cannot fathom is our indifference toward comforting (and praying for) these brothers and sisters.

In light of all the oppression and evil that Solomon sees, he claims in verse 2 that the dead are better off than the living. How could Solomon conclude this? He is, after all, the one that has been encouraging us to find our enjoyment in life through God. For a believer in Jesus Christ, this verse is wholly true. We will see in the first chapter of Philippians that Paul claims that death is far better for him because he will get to be with Christ! For the Christian, there is nothing to fear from death. What shall we fear, the end of oppression, evil, and sorrow?  For us, Solomon’s words of seeming cynicism become words of truth that we might proclaim through our hope in Christ.

Solomon’s pessimism seems to hit an all-time low with verse 3. If the dead are better off than the living because of all of the oppression and depravity, then the stillborn must be the most blessed. Why? They do not have the chance to ever experience any of the evil and oppression that Solomon describes. This is a difficult verse with which to wrestle. There is no doubt that having a miscarriage is unspeakable sorrow, but also Solomon says that their seemingly untimely death is actually a mercy of God because they get to avoid seeing the fullness of man’s depravity. How difficult to speak, but how true as well.

HOW TO RUIN COMMUNITY // VERSES 4-6

Solomon’s lens now shifts from society in general to us as individuals. Particularly what we find within these three verses are

Verse 4 reveals the first way that we destroy community is through envy. Are his words not true: “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy?” We can see this on display in any city or in all of history. Why are we never content with our current iPhone whenever a new version is released? We see someone else with the new iPhone, and we want it because they have it. This very idea of covetousness that Solomon describes is what tech companies base their entire sales around. If we ceased to be envious of our neighbors, would we really want a bigger house? It’s all pointless. We constantly chase after the things that others have, and even if we actually got it all, we would be none the happier for it. Envy both fails to satisfy us and can place a barrier between us and our neighbor.

I admit verse 5 is rather strange, even for Solomon. Is he advocating self-cannibalism? Thankfully, he is not. When Solomon refers to hands, he speaks figuratively of our actions, the things that we do. That being the case, I have found it very difficult to perform most tasks with my hands folded. He is referring here someone that is so lazy that they might as well be eating their own flesh. That is how self-destructive their behavior is. Have you ever known anyone that was miserable, completely and totally miserable and lonely, and yet they were too lazy to do anything about it? Relationships of any kind are not simple, and laziness can be detrimental to their growth.

Approximately thirteen movies are released every year about verse 6. As Driscoll says of this verse, we were created to be two handed people. The thought of using two hands to toil implies that we put our entire being into our work. Movies like Click detail the tragedy of people that live this kind of a life. Everything is about work. Everything is about the next promotion. Everything is about a higher salary. But what point is there? It’s as vain as chasing after the wind, and it will shatter our relationships with family and friends.

However, for this point, Solomon also lists an alternative: have one hand that’s full of quietness. Do not be lazy with folded hands, but don’t place all of yourself into work either. Enjoy life. Be with family and friends. Take a Sabbath. Worship Jesus.

THE BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY // VERSES 7-12

The aging king writes verses 7-8 as a bridge between the ideas of how we ruin community and the benefits of being in community. He achieves this by lamenting on how terrible it is for a person to work, accumulate wealth, and yet have no one to be with. If we allow it, the search for riches can easily take over our lives because we are never satisfied with our riches. We always want more, but when we die, we will leave our riches behind. So what use is it?

Some people keep on toiling although they have no one to work for, and nothing to do with the money they make. They even deny themselves the pleasures of life so they can continue to amass funds. What a sharp example was given to us in the story of the late billionaire Howard Hughes. He did not know what to do with his money. His heirs, who have been impossibly difficult to identify for certain, were left to squabble over it… Such is the folly of toiling for riches out of ambition and ego. (Stedman, 66)

In verse 9, Solomon speaks plainly that “two are better than one” because their reward is better. What kind of reward could he be speaking of? I believe that it is the reward that eluded the hypothetical workaholic in the previous verse: the ability to enjoy the fruit of one’s work with someone else. After I get finish working each day, what I enjoy the most is to simply be with my wife. There is nothing I enjoy more than just sitting on the couch or going for a walk with her and just reminding myself that life is not about how much I work. But this is not speaking only about romantic relationships. When I lived in a house with seven guys, I would spend any amount of free time just hanging out and being in community. Two are better than one.

I believe that the reason that we find this statement to be so true is because God created us to be in community. If we recall back to Genesis 2, why did God create woman? He created her because He said that it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Man’s solitude was the only aspect of pre-fallen creation that God said was not good. We were made to interact, to love and serve one another. This is why the Church is so beautiful because it is intended to be community at its best, which is glorifying Christ.

We see the call for application of verses 10-11 in Galatians. Paul tells the people of Galatia to restore one of the brothers (or sisters) gently when they fall. This is why we have community: to help each other. How beautiful it is when a brother is rescued from traversing a path that leads to death by his friends!

What about verse 11? Is it only referencing marital benefits? No, do not believe so. Instead, I believe that Solomon is referring to the practical benefit of human contact and protection. There is little that can brighten my day like a firm handshake from my father telling me that he is proud of his son. The hug from a good friend can quickly make all the stress of the day vanish away. There is something profoundly impactful about human touch. Of course, you could also interpret this verse as biblical justification for at least one scene in Without a Paddle.

Having a best man and groomsmen at a wedding came from the tradition of the groom’s best friends not only giving their support to the wedding but also being prepared to give physical support to the groom in case the neighboring tribe attacked.  They literally stood beside the groom, swords ready, to defend him from anyone trying to stop the wedding. In any sort of situation like that, is it not better to have your friends by your side? This is what Solomon means by verse 12. In any given situation, it is more difficult to overcome three people than one. Community offers us the safety of numbers.

THE VANITY OF DISSATISFACTION // VERSES 13-16

To be honest, it would be nice if Solomon had concluded the chapter with verse 12, since it seems that each commentator has a different slant on what exactly he is saying. Yet they are inspired by the Holy Spirit as well, so let’s tackle them head on.

First, consider the opening words: “better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king.” One of the scariest things that comes from this verse is the reality that, contrary to popular belief, wisdom does not naturally come with age. Physical aging does not innately mean that you are getting the wisdom of God. Having grey hairs does not equal being a sage. Wisdom must be sought, and it must sought constantly. Wisdom does not come naturally. It comes through fearing the LORD.

Second, I believe the key to understanding the main point of these verses is the phrase “yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” The story, of course, is of a foolish king that is usurped by a wise and beloved youth, in whom the people delighted. Perhaps David’s rise over Saul was even Solomon’s inspiration for this parable. Or perhaps Solomon was reflecting on his own foolishness and God’s promise to raise up Jeroboam to be king. Either way, the principle is that the young, wise king who was held up as a savior of the people eventually falls out of favor with the people as well. The people will eventually become dissatisfied with him, just as they were with the old, foolish king before.

I believe; therefore, dissatisfaction is a good description of these verses. We see the truth of this principle today in presidential elections. Everyone rallies behind their candidate, proclaiming that he will be the one to change the world, to right the wrongs. Yet their ratings eventually fall as well. Even the men that we would deem the greatest presidents of the United States (men like Washington, FDR, and Lincoln) faced significant criticism during their own days in the White House. It doesn’t matter who is in the office. People cannot save us. Our leaders will one day fail us, and we will be left dissatisfied. And the cycle will only continue to repeat.

THE MIND OF CHRIST // PHILIPPIANS 2:3-11

So where is the hope in all of this? I would argue that each way that we destroy community (oppression, envy, laziness, busyness, and dissatisfaction) are all rooted in one thing: selfishness. Oppressors oppress because they are selfish. Kim Jong Un is willing to let his own people starve to death in order to pretend that he is a god. We envy others, not because we see them as valuable images of God, but because we see them as people who have what we want. We are lazy because we care about our pleasures more than we do the needs of others. We are busy because we want to feel valuable. When fear that if we stop and pause to rest, our worth will diminish. We are dissatisfied because the world is supposed to revolve around our wants and desires. All of these forms of ruining community derive from a selfish heart. Lewis, after all, called pride the great sin, and pride is simply self-aggrandizement.

For our hope, we must lift our eyes beyond the sun. Philippians 2:3-11 will help us do so.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What we have in verse 3 is a command that I doubt any of us can do very well for more than five minutes at a time. Perhaps not even that long. One problem with fallen humanity is that even when we do good to others we often do so from impure motives. Often, we do good works in order to be seen as being selfless by others. Or sometimes we serve others in an attempt to offset our guilt over having sinned. Paul peels these things away by upholding that good works are not sufficient in and of themselves; we must also do them without any form of selfishness.

How is this even possible? Verse 5 gives us the answer. This mindset of humility can only come from Christ. Notice that he does not say, “have these deeds among yourselves”; instead, he says, “have this mind among yourselves.” Brothers and sisters, even the world loves to talk about being like Jesus, just as they love to speak of imitating Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Yet they know nothing of having the mind of Christ. After all, we see Jesus not only showing compassion to the masses but also telling them to eat His flesh and drink His blood. This Jesus does not simply heal the sick; He also declares Himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. We must by all means serve the poor and alleviate the sick as imitators of Christ, but we are also called to greater things. We must imitate the mind of Christ as well. Serving can be one of the most deadly acts for our souls if we do not have the mind of Christ. After all, if we do not have a mind of humility, our very acts of service can create a superiority complex within us.

We must instead clothe ourselves with the mind of Christ, which Paul says is already ours! How in the world could we already be given the mind of Him who willingly left His cosmic throne in order to submit Himself to the humiliation of death on the cross? We cannot possibly hope to do anything remotely that selfless. To die for a single ant is too small of an analogy for Him dying for us. Yet when we are given the Holy Spirit, Paul declares we are given the mind of Christ.

The answer to how we have true community within a broken, fallen world is not just to do more; we must trust more. We must turn to the One who gave Himself for us. We will never be able to anything ourselves out of an entirely pure motive. Isaiah rightly calls our righteous acts filthy rags before the LORD. This is why Peter says that if we serve, we must serve from the strength that God provides, and if we speak, we must speak the oracles of God. Or to put it another way, whatever we do, even serving others, outside of faith is sin. We, therefore, are in desperate need of grace. We need the Savior whose blood was spilled for us to become His bride and His body. Outside of Him, we can do nothing. Our communities and our lives will never be marked by the sacrificial love of Christ until we turn to Him in everything that we do.

Let us have this mind among ourselves, which is ours in Christ Jesus.

Let us exalt Him whose name is above every other name as we seek to also treat others as better than ourselves.

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Biblical Wisdom

Walk with the Wise | Proverbs 13:20

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise,
but the companion of fools will suffer harm.

Proverbs 13:20 ESV

 

Wisdom, the skill of living, can be found in walking among the wise. Choosing to associate with wise people will inevitably lead to wisdom.

Why is this?

The heart dwells wherever the feet traverse. Movements, actions, habits have direct relevance to the status of the heart. Listening to worshipful music (or better yet, singing worshipful music) causes the heart to follow in worship. The path is not always instantaneous, but it is present. Companions, the voices and messages that ring in one’s ears throughout the day, are often foolish.

I often consume frivolous YouTube videos and podcasts, and they nudge me ever so slightly toward harm. They draw my soul away from the wisdom of God. They pull my thoughts and desires toward things that do not contribute to my eternal joy.

This isn’t to say that I cannot enjoy entertainment in this life. The question is whether such entertainment is ultimately contributing to my growth in godly wisdom. Few things are more entertaining to me than diving again into the worlds of Middle Earth or Narnia. Yet these stories do not merely provide an escape from reality; instead, they offer valuable insight into many biblical truths.

So many voices are screaming to be heard. They each long to be my companion. To be wise, I must walk with the wise. Ultimately, of course, this means that I must walk with Christ. His Word above all else must daily be my delight and the meditation of my heart.

Biblical Wisdom

Choose Wisdom | Proverbs 9

We now conclude our study through Proverbs’ introduction. Our text brings to close the messages and themes of the first nine chapters, while also inviting us to dive into the collection of proverbs that follow. In many ways, this chapter is an expanded and illustrated explanation of Proverbs 1:7. Two paths in life are before us: the path of wisdom and the path of folly. Here Wisdom and Folly are personified as women throwing lavish feasts and extending to us an invitation to join them. Each of us will ultimately dine with one or the other, so which will you choose?

TWO INVITATIONS // VERSES 1-6 & 13-18

Notice that there are eighteen verses in this chapter, and as such, it divides very nicely into three sections of six verses each. The poetic symmetry is astounding, and I will attempt to highlight this structure as we walk through our study of it. Verses 1-6 and 13-18 are reflexive of each other. The former is Lady Wisdom’s invitation to join her feast, while the latter is Folly’s counter invitation. Thus, we will compare and contrast these two feasts first before diving into Lady Wisdom’s final teaching to us in verses 7-12.

Notice first that verses 1-2 and 13-14 describe the context of their respective feasts. Wisdom’s house has seven pillars[1]. The beasts have been slaughtered. The wine is mixed. The table is set. Woman Folly, however, is loud, seductive, and vapid. She knows nothing (meaning that she does not possess true wisdom and knowledge), yet she sits at the door of her house, beckoning everyone to dine with her.

The primary difference between these two sets of verses is that Folly’s character is described rather than her feast being offered. This is essential because Proverbs has yet to introduce us to this personification of folly. We’ve already been given two speeches from Lady Wisdom in chapter 1 and chapter 8, but we haven’t met Woman Folly until now. We have, however, seen glimpses of her through the lens of the Adulteress. Indeed, we could view the Adulteress as the exemplary disciple of Woman Folly in the same way that the Noble Wife in chapter 31 is model follower of Lady Wisdom.

Next, verses 3-6 and 15-18 are the invitations to the paralleling feasts. Indeed, verses 4 and 16 are nearly identical to one another. Both women are targeting the same audience of those who are simple and lack sense. As we discussed previously, the person who lacks sense is a fool. He is one who is not following God’s wisdom but is, instead, wise in his own eyes. Or, as the phrase could be translated literally, the fool lacks heart. Following our own wisdom always results in the loss of our heart, the core of who we are. The simple, on the other hand, are those who are staggering between wisdom and folly. They are not outright fools, but neither are they wise. This, of course, means that throughout this life we will perpetually be simple to some degree. Each day certainly presents us with a renewed opportunity to choose wisdom or folly. These duel invitations also point to this constant limbo of life. Lady Wisdom calls out the simple and fools to come join her feast, to leave their foolish ways and embrace her path of life. Yet Woman Folly is always constantly wooing them to stay with her. As long as we are still breathing, we must constantly reject folly and choose wisdom.

Yet in verse 15 we learn that Folly is also calling out to another group: those who are walking straight on their way. This could mean two things. First, it could mean those who are presently walking down the path of wisdom, showing that she is actively hunting the wise. Second, it could be describing those who are unsuspecting. Either way she is being portrayed as a predator, whereas Wisdom is painted as offering nourishment to the weary.

Notice also the difference in how these women are calling us to join their feasts. Folly stands at the door of her house and cries out herself. Lady Wisdom, however, sends out her young woman to summon us. Why is this difference significant? The young woman who carry the message of Lady Wisdom are her disciples. Folly, though, has no disciples. She killed them all. Her previous guests are now dead, stored “in the depths of Sheol” (v. 18). When we consider that sin is embodiment and essence of folly, this makes complete sense. Sin’s allure is a promise that is never fulfilled. Sin promises a banquet, but it only yields death. Still, it continues to deceive. It continues to ensnare.

We, however, are called to be Lady Wisdom’s young women. We are meant to be her disciples, calling others to join us in her feast. The feast of Lady Wisdom is an actual feast, with other people and everything. Our very invitation is intended to be proof of the reality of the banquet. God chooses to let us take part in the expansion of His kingdom, in the invitation to His wisdom.

Both Wisdom and Folly are also offering bread and drink, our two primary elements of daily sustenance. This is highly symbolic for how we need wisdom only a daily basis. Just as we need food and water to sustain us, so we also require God’s wisdom to keep us on His path. Furthermore, God’s wisdom is a feast indeed. It connects us to one another, uniting us around the LORD. Indeed, community is an essential aspect of God’s wisdom. Community is necessity for wisdom.

Folly, however, cannot offer a feast. Her guests are dead, so there is no fellowship. She has no community to present; therefore, she invites us to partake in stolen water and secret bread. Sin can never build community and fellowship. It can only divide, isolate, and destroy. Folly and sin, therefore, thrive in isolation. Separating oneself from other believers is an invitation to folly and sin.

The ultimate difference between these two invitations is, of course, that Wisdom is calling us to life while Folly is beckoning us to death. Once again, this is yet another various of the two paths that every person must choose between. Jesus called them the narrow and broad roads. Here in Proverbs they have been the paths of wisdom and folly. Now they are presented as invitations to two feasts, one of life and one of death.

The question then that we should be left with after reading these two invitations is: how do we accept Wisdom and reject Folly? Thankfully, Lady Wisdom answers this question in verses 7-12.

LADY WISDOM’S TEACHING // VERSES 7-12

I’ve placed these verses last because I believe the chiastic structure of chapter is pointing toward them as the central focus of our text. As noted in the introduction, these six verses seem to be a reflection upon the thesis verse of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7).

Verses 7-9 are essentially an expanded view of the second half of Proverbs 1:7. These verses contrast the wise man with a scoffer, and the primary difference between them is teachability. A wise man loves reproof and instruction because they increase his wisdom. Correcting a scoffer, however, incurs their hatred and violence. Teachability is necessary for wisdom because wisdom comes through teaching. In fact, teachability could in many ways be used as a synonym for humility. Being teachable requires acknowledging the limits of one’s own understanding. Scoffers, however, are unteachable because they are proud. They are confident in their own knowledge and reject anything that challenges them.

What makes this difference between someone who is teachable, then, and someone who is a scoffer? Verse 10 gives us the answer: the fear of the LORD. Proverbs 3:5-6 is perhaps the great display of what fearing the LORD looks like: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Fearing God means seeing God as God. True humility and teachability begin here. If we will not be taught by the Creator of all things, how can we truly be taught anything? Indeed, wise teachability does not mean that we allow ourselves to be taught by anyone. Paul, after all, warned the Colossians to avoid being held captive by philosophies and empty deceits. We must be guarded against the lies that prevail throughout the world, yet when God speaks, we must listen. And we must obey. The very purpose of God’s inspired Word is to teach us, correct us, reprove us, and train us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

The epitome of foolishness is thinking that our few decades of experience make us wiser than God the Creator. Yet that is the very essence of sin. Whenever we sin, we declare that we are more knowledgeable than He who is omniscient. Fearing God, however, turns us from this foolish path of sin. It makes us teachable to God’s perfect instruction.

Verse 11 reminds us of another benefit of wisdom. By wisdom, our days will be multiplied, and years added to one’s life. As we previously discussed, this is generally true in the physical sense. Wisdom often prolongs life if for no other reason than it teaches us to avoid the dangerous practices of folly. Ultimately, however, it is true eternally. Those who follow God’s wisdom will have their days multiplied without end as we dwell forever with God.

Finally, verse 12 concludes with a final warning that is a perfect note on which to conclude our study through these opening chapters of Proverbs. “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it.” This is reminder that the choice between wisdom and folly is given to the individual.

No one can choose wisdom for you. You alone must obtain it, and if you instead choose to scoff, you alone will bear that consequence. You cannot rely upon the pedigree of your family or of your church. You either embrace Christ and His wisdom or you do not. God has called you to love wisdom, to fear Him. Community is certainly crucial for helping us continue choosing wisdom, but ultimately the decision is ours alone to make.

Consider the sobering reality of this choose. One day we will each stand before God, naked, bare, and alone. Before His holiness, our greatest deeds of righteousness will be truly seen as nothing more than filthy rags in His presence. On that day, we will either hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” or “Depart from me, I never knew you”. The wise will enter into Wisdom itself, while the scoffs will bear away their scoffing.

This is the weight behind these two feasts, these two invitations. The choice between wisdom and folly is an eternal one. It has many consequences on this present life, but its ultimate consequence is our eternal joy or eternal suffering. Biblical wisdom, therefore, is not optional; it is how we know God!

In fact, Jesus Himself invites us to a feast in the same vein as Lady Wisdom. In John 7:37-38, we read: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

Furthermore, John’s Revelation ends with this message from Jesus: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (22:16-17).

The feast of wisdom, the feast of Jesus Christ, is free to whomever will humble himself to come. May we come to His banquet. May we be sustained by His body as our bread and His blood as our drink. May Jesus be our wisdom as we follow wherever He leads. Furthermore, may we be His Bride who calls out for others to come. May we be the young women whom Lady Wisdom sends to the highest places in town, calling for the simple and fools to leave their simple ways and live. May we proclaim the wisdom of gospel to those ensnared by folly around us.


[1] Many theologians offer differing interpretations concerning what exactly the seven pillars represent. Since their suggestions are all speculative, I would offer that, since seven is a number often associated with God, they indicate that her house is built and established upon the wisdom of God.

The Crucifixion

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.

 

Bruce Shelley opens his account of church history with this statement: “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.” Indeed, it is no small fact that all four Gospels give extensive time and detail to the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. If the Gospels, therefore, provide the very center of the biblical narrative and if the passion of Jesus Christ is the central event of the Gospels, then those dark days must be the most significant in all the Bible (and, thus, all of history). Paul affirms this by calling the word (or message) of the cross the very power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18) and claiming to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST

We must remind ourselves regularly of the death of Christ for our sins, yet we must never glance over the fact that Jesus suffered either. His death via crucifixion was not a pleasant or peaceful one. It was bloody, vicious, and sickening. Jesus suffered. He anguished and agonized.

Rome maintained its vast empire by having roads to quicken travel and by using the cross to discourage rebellion. The cross perfected wholistic torture. The body suspended upon raised planks of wood by nails driven through the person’s hands and feet. The scourging preceding crucifixion would rip skin and flesh to shreds, causing the condemned to lose enough blood to induce hypovolemic shock as their heart strained to provide enough blood to the vital organs, which would begin to ache with the strain of maintaining life. This trauma would cause fluid to build up in the lungs so that breathing could only be done by pushing against the nails in the feet. Between the constant lack of oxygen, the splinters digging into open wounds, and nails grinding against nerves, the cross punished more than the body; it broke the mind, the spirit, and the soul. After being suspended naked for all to see, the dead body would be thrown into the landfill, reminding everyone that this person had become nothing more than garage to be disposed of.

This was the suffering, the passion, of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.

The addition of suffering under Pontius Pilate into the Apostles’ Creed is significant. Pilate was the Roman prefect who governed over the province of Judaea from 26-36 AD. This subtly reminds us of the historical reality of what we believe. Jesus is not a myth. He is not a fanciful tale in line with the work of the Brothers Grimm. Jesus lived. He existed. He walked this earth two thousand years ago. He was executed by the command of Rome, the empire that continues to influence us today. The historical reality of Jesus is clear. The Gospels are themselves historical records of Jesus’ life. This Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried.

Next, the creed tells us that Jesus descended to the dead or, as many translations read, to hell. There are three primary views as to what is described here. First, it can be viewed as adding emphasis to what was already stated, that Jesus really died. He did not swoon or sleep; His body lay in the grave lifeless. Second, we could read it as Jesus descending into the holding place of the dead, a kind of limbo. This is typically coupled with the belief that Jesus went to liberate the Old Testament saints from their place in Abraham’s Bosom and bring them into the presence of the Father. Third, it can be viewed as Jesus descending into hell, the place of torment for our sake.

1 Peter 3:19 is a text that inspires this phrase, which states that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Also Psalm 16:10 reads, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption”, which Peter explicitly applies to Jesus in Acts 2:31. Sheol, it should be noted, is the Hebrew equivalent of Hades, since both can mean the grave in abstract and the holding place of the dead.

Which then is the correct understanding? We can’t say. Such things will remain a mystery to us in this life. While none of the interpretations are heretical[1], I would encourage us to hold to the first. It is crucial to Christian orthodoxy that we believe that Jesus really died, and anything beyond that can too easily dive into dangerous speculation.

THE NECESSITY OF ATONEMENT

Now that we’ve addressed what the creed says about Jesus’ crucifixion and death, we must now ask the question: Why? Was the cross really necessary? Behind this question lies the necessity of atonement, which is the idea of repairing or satisfying a wrong that has been committed. While church history has produced numerous theories for how Christ’s suffering and death atoned for our sins, all Christians must agree that Jesus did atone for our sins by His crucifixion.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3). The death of Jesus as reparation for our sins is of “first importance” to the Christian faith. This truth cannot be negotiated or removed without the entire message of Christianity collapsing into pieces. Jesus came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Without faith in the atoning death of Christ, one cannot truly be a Christian.

What then does it mean to believe in the atoning death of Christ?

First, a proper understanding of sin is required. Many branches of Christianity debate the extent of sin’s corruption, yet every Christian must acknowledge that our sin has severed our communion with God beyond repair. Our active choice to disobey the Most High removes us from His presence and eternal life in Him.

Further, we must also affirm our own inability to undo the effects of sin. We reject Christ’s death as being merely an example for pointing us down the path for reuniting with God. Such a stance views Jesus as nothing more than a spiritual guru showing us the way. It forces Christianity to become Western Buddhism. But Jesus did not come to make us enlightened; He came to restore our lost communion with the Father. We were utterly incapable of crossing the chasm between us and God caused by our sin, but Jesus did that very thing for us. Therefore, every Christian must recognize that “Christ died for ours sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

The theory of penal substitution, I believe, gives the most encompassing view of how the Scriptures present Jesus’ payment of sin[2]. For instance, Isaiah 53 is one of the clearest teachings on the crucifixion, even though Isaiah lived 700 years before Christ. Verses 4-6 could almost serve as a definition of penal substitution:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Our sin is an act of cosmic treason against God. Therefore, each sin requires a just retribution by God. To do anything else would make God unjust. Jesus, however, gives Himself in substitution for us. This is what is meant by penal substitution. Jesus took the penalty of our sins upon Himself, satisfying the justice of God.

Or we could simply quote the words of Isaiah once more, “he was crushed for our iniquities.”

Unfortunately, some argue that this view of the atonement is nothing more than divine child abuse. Indeed “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (v. 10), but the Father did not send Jesus as an unwilling sacrifice. As said already, Jesus came to give Himself as a ransom for us. Furthermore, Jesus claimed, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:11; 18). The plan to rescue us from our sins was a deliberate and loving act of the Triune God.

Why then did Jesus suffer the humiliating death on a cross?

To offer Himself as a substitute for us, to save us from our sins.

Second, we must also believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. Multiple times, the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus died once for all of our sins, often contrasting the crucifixion with the Levitical sacrifices of the Old Testament. Unlike those sacrifices that needed to be made constantly, Jesus’ blood fully and completely paid the penalty of sin. If you are a follower of Christ, this means that He has already pardoned every sin that you have committed, are committing, or will ever commit. He cleansed it all in one horrific sacrifice upon the cross. This means that our best efforts to work off any guilt over our sin is, in reality, an act of scorning the cross. To attempt covering up sin on our own is effectively a declaration that Jesus’ death was not enough. It reflects a false view of the gospel.

A CALL TO COME AND DIE

How then are we to respond to the crucifixion of Christ?

In Matthew 16, after telling His disciples that He must suffer and die, Jesus then teaches them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v. 24). Notice that this is a blanket proclamation for all of His disciples, even us today. Whoever wants to follow Jesus must deny himself, grab a cross, and follow Him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously summarized this by saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He goes on to explain that while some followers of Christ may be called to a martyr’s death, every Christian is called to die to self. Following Christ means the denial of self, the crucifixion of self. Yet from this death comes new life in Christ. As Paul told the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). The Christian life, therefore, is very much a new birth, a death and resurrection. Our new lives are now marked by following Christ.

But how are we to follow Christ? What does being His disciple look like? More than any other factor, I would argue that a disciple of Christ is in love with His Word. Donald Whitney affirms this by stating, “No Spiritual Discipline is more important than the intake of God’s Word. Nothing can substitute for it. There simply is no healthy Christian life apart from a diet of the milk and meat of Scripture” (22). Indeed, this is because Bible is the inspired and collected writings of God Himself to us. It is the Bible that prophesied the coming of Christ and presents Him to us, crucified for our sins. The Bible gives to the teachings and commands of Jesus our Lord. In order to follow Jesus and deny ourselves, we must know what He has commanded of us. We must know the Scriptures. We must be saturated in them. To know and submit to the Word is the context for every step we take as we follow Jesus. We must daily crucify our wisdom and passions in order to abide in the wisdom and passion of Jesus our Redeemer. Many Christians will not suffer as martyrs, yet we are all called to unite ourselves to the suffering of Christ through following Christ instead of self.

Do you, therefore, believe that Jesus died for your sins? Are you following Christ? Are you denying yourself, crucifying yourself with Christ daily? Is your confidence entirely in Jesus’ finished work on the cross?

We believe in Jesus Christ, the God-man, who, suffered, was crucified, died, and buried as a substitute for us, paying the penalty of our sins. We, therefore, can never stop speaking of the wondrous cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Do you believe?


[1] Some may shirk to hear me claim that the view that Jesus descended hell as a place of suffering is not heretical. Word of Faith teachers have recently made this understanding so uncomfortable by explicitly claiming that Jesus needed to suffer in hell for our sins. This, of course, takes the focus away from the cross and is incredibly dangerous. However, the traditional understanding for this view by theologians like John Calvin is that descended into hell to “fight hand to hand the powers of hell and the terror of everlasting death” (Institutes, 251). This falls in line with one of the most popular theories of atonement: Christus Victor.

[2] This does not mean that the other theories of atonement are without biblical validity. Indeed, we should always strive to speak holistically about Christ’s atoning work. Just as Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, He is also our ransom from sin and the victor over sin.

Biblical Wisdom

Wisdom Speaks | Proverbs 8

Does not wisdom call?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:
“To you, O men, I call,
and my cry is to the children of man.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
O fools, learn sense.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right,
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to him who understands,
and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.

“I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
and I find knowledge and discretion.
The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.
I have counsel and sound wisdom;
I have insight; I have strength.
By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;
by me princes rule,
and nobles, all who govern justly. 
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me.
Riches and honor are with me,
enduring wealth and righteousness.
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness,
in the paths of justice,
granting an inheritance to those who love me,
and filling their treasuries.

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, 
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.

“And now, O sons, listen to me:
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Blessed is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who that me love death.”

Proverbs 8 ESV

 

Chapter five through seven stand as dire warnings against sin, particularly the sin of sexual immorality. Solomon gave such extensive warnings because the dangers are far too real and immanent to ignore. But now the ancient Israelite returns to the plea for us to find wisdom. Last seen in chapter one, Lady Wisdom returns for the final two chapters of Proverbs’ introduction. To properly understand this chapter, we must remember that Lady Wisdom is Solomon’s poetic personification of the abstract concept of wisdom. He uses this literary device to further emphasize the necessity of obtaining wisdom at all costs.

THE CALL OF WISDOM // VERSES 1-11

The chapter opens with two rhetorical questions. Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? The answer, of course, is that she does. The final section of chapter one consisted of Lady Wisdom’s first address to the readers. In fact, verses 2-3 give a setting for this speech that runs parallel with her previous speech. Proverbs 1:20-21 described Lady Wisdom as a street preacher, crying out in the streets to anyone who would listen. The same is true here as well. She positions herself on the heights where her voice might travel further. She stands at the crossroads, gates, and city entrances, knowing that traffic will be heavy there. She goes to densely populated areas and cries out. In verses 4-5, she makes known her intended audience, the children of man, which is to say all of humanity. Verse 5 cites a more specific target for her words: the simple and the fools. We have already established who the fools and simple are. They are both without wisdom. The fool is in sin’s grasp, and the simple is in danger of becoming a fool. Yet Lady Wisdom calls out to these groups specifically, that they would learn prudence and sense. We should take heart upon reading these verses. Even if we are simple or foolish, there is still hope. God’s wisdom goes out to all people.

The glorious truth that God’s wisdom calls to everyone demands that we listen carefully. If this message is truly for all of humanity, we must diligently hear it. And this is precisely what Lady Wisdom calls us to do: hear. That is our command. God has spoken; we must listen. Accordingly, verses 6-11 tell us why we should hear. Verses 6-7 describe Wisdom’s speech as noble and true. Verses 8-9 describe Wisdom’s words as righteous and straight. And verses 10-11 describe Wisdom’s teachings as better than gold, silver, or whatever we may desire. Together these verses are reinforcing the necessity of hearing (and obeying) Wisdom’s teaching.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF WISDOM // VERSES 12-21

As a nerdy history buff, I have a great appreciation for historians. They do the tremendously difficult work of learning and interpreting the lives of people they will (often) never meet. In order to do this well, a biographer (for example) will tend to rely as much as possible on the actual words of the person being studied. They do this because the greatest earthly authority on a person is that same person. For this very reason, verses 12-31 are particularly wonderful in Proverbs. Herein Lady Wisdom first describes herself (vv. 12-21) and then recounts a short autobiography (vv. 22-31).

Wisdom’s characteristics, as presented here, are also benefits to us whenever we possess wisdom. There are several distinct characteristics and benefits of wisdom presented here, so we will briskly walk through them. First, wisdom dwells with prudence, and she finds knowledge and discretion (v. 12). Prudence, a wise understanding of how the world works, walks hand-in-hand with wisdom. It is also worthy noting that craftiness, in many ways, is the ungodly foil of prudence. Both are forms of being street-wise, but craftiness seeks exploitation while prudence seeks God’s glorification. Knowledge, the accumulating of information, and discretion, the ability to develop and enact wise plans, are both outflows of wisdom. Of course, this is not to say that wisdom must always proceed knowledge. Knowledge, in fact, often proceeds wisdom. The point, instead, is that knowledge and these variously related attributes are all intricately connected to wisdom. Gain wisdom, and you gain knowledge, prudence, and discretion as well. To simplify: wisdom comes with many benefits.

Second, the fear of the LORD, which is wisdom’s beginning (9:9), is also the hatred of evil (v. 13). Because wisdom understands that God is worthy to be feared, wisdom despises wickedness. There can be no other way. Evil is an abomination to God; therefore, we cannot both fear Him and love (or even tolerate) evil. We simply cannot love God and remain apathetic to sin. Do you, therefore, hate sin?

Third, wisdom is necessary for righteous and just leadership (vv. 14-16). Counsel, sound wisdom, insight, and strength are benefits that accompany wisdom, and they are also qualities that are essential for leaders. But verses 15-16 provide an even greater benefit of wisdom upon leaders: it keeps them just. True wisdom guides toward righteous and just decisions.

Fourth, Lady Wisdom loves those who love her (v. 17). This is a wonderful promise for us to cling to. When we love and value wisdom, she loves us in return. When we diligently seek her, she will be found. But the inverse is also a tragic rebuke. If all who seek wisdom find it, then fools do not have wisdom simply because they refuse to seek after it.

Fifth, many riches are found in wisdom (vv. 18-21). Wealth often follows wisdom, as do honor and righteousness. But notice that the true treasure of wisdom is not material wealth because the fruit of wisdom is better than gold. What could possibly be better than gold and silver? The way of righteous is far more valuable than all the riches of this world. Wisdom takes us down the godly path, which leads to a true inheritance, full of treasures. Wisdom, by causing us to fear God, points us to the supreme Treasure. Jesus also affirmed this (and appealed to wisdom in gaining lasting treasure) in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:19-21 | Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

WISDOM’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY // VERSES 22-31

Lady Wisdom, having described her attributes, proceeds now to tell her autobiography. We have already read a short version of the story in Proverbs 3:19-20, but now wisdom provides a lengthier meditation upon her existence. The bulk of this autobiographical poem is meant to emphasize wisdom’s preeminence. Plenty of debate has been waged regarding the exact translation of possessed in verse 22. Many theologians hold that Lady Wisdom is actually pre-incarnate Jesus, so possessed makes more sense than fathered or created, which are possible translations. I have already discussed this issue from Proverbs 3:19-20, but I will reiterate it simply here. I do not believe that Lady Wisdom is Jesus. Many cite 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, where Jesus is called the wisdom of God, as evidence that the concept of wisdom in Proverbs is Christ. While I certainly affirm that Jesus is wisdom (which means that wisdom is an attribute of Jesus that He perfectly embodies), I do not believe that wisdom is Jesus. Once again, it is the same principle as saying that God is love, but love is not God. God is love because it is an attribute of His nature and He fully embodies love. But love, as an idea, is not God. We do not worship love; we worship God. Likewise, we do not worship wisdom; we worship Jesus. Again, I am not arguing that theologians who view wisdom as Jesus are heretical. That is not the case at all. But I do firmly believe that the safer and more biblical interpretation is that wisdom in Proverbs is an attribute of God and a principle upon which He ordered creation.

Wisdom as a principle (or perhaps we might say law or rule) upon which God ordered creation is the subject of these verses. Obviously, the primary emphasis of these verses is that wisdom was with God at the beginning of creation. But why is that significant? Buzzell provides, what I believe, is the best answer: “If God involved wisdom in His creative work, then certainly people need wisdom” (923)! If wisdom was with God creation and God even used wisdom to create the world, we should leap at the chance to partake in that wisdom.

FIND WISDOM; FIND LIFE // VERSES 32-36

In this final section of the chapter, Lady Wisdom reiterates the commands that Solomon has issued throughout the previous chapters. She even takes up calling the readers of Proverbs sons. What follows is a twofold pronouncement of blessing (vv. 32, 34), where the first is followed by a command and the second is followed by promise/warning. With nearly eight chapters behind us, these could be seen as Lady Wisdom’s closing words (with chapter nine providing the transition into the collection of proverbs). They certainly sum up the overall message of the Proverbs’ introduction; let us, therefore, obey Lady Wisdom by listening diligently to her.

The first declaration of blessing is to those who keep wisdom’s ways, meaning those who follow and obey wisdom. The command (v. 33) follows suit, calling us to hear instruction, be wise, and not neglect wisdom. Remember that God’s wisdom is ultimately found in His Word; therefore, hearing instruction is primarily a call to hear and obey the Scriptures. Of course, godly instruction can come from other sources, but we receive the teaching of wisdom first and foremost via the Bible. The second proclamation of blessing is fittingly to those who listen to wisdom, watching at her gates and waiting beside her doors. This describes someone who is actively looking and waiting for wisdom. The Bereans are a good example of this, of whom Luke wrote: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Let us too receive God’s wisdom and His Word with eagerness. How then are you keeping God’s Word? Are you actively listening for it? How has Proverbs’ repeated emphasis of this issue changed the way you read the Bible?

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is important to remember that the movement of revival came from people longing to know God’s Word. That hunger for the Bible proceeded the actual reformers. MacCulloch writes about the revival of preaching in the centuries leading to the Reformation: “Surviving sermon texts suggest that sermons were long, and since there was then little seating in church, there must have been a popular appetite for absorbing ideas and biblical stories which overcame physical discomfort” (p. 31). Let us always strive to be a people whose love for God’s Word always triumphs over our physical discomfort.

Verses 35-36 close the chapter with a dichotic promise/warning. He who finds wisdom finds life, but those who hate wisdom love death (in many ways, this premise will be expanded in chapter nine, where we will be invited to feast with either Lady Wisdom or Lady Folly). The point here is that obtaining wisdom is not a secondary matter; it is life or death. Yes, life may function better with wisdom, but wisdom is far more valuable than helping life go smoothly. Wisdom means fearing God, loving and submitting to Him and His designs and instructions. We cannot follow Christ without wisdom because the very act of following Christ is wise. Conversely, denying Christ is the ultimate act of foolishness because it rejects trusting God in favor of leaning upon our own understanding. Be wise, therefore, and find life and favor in the LORD.

When Technology Replaces the Holy Spirit

Leaving pieces behind, in my opinion, is the most difficult aspect of sermon preparation. Yet for the sake of clarity and precision, some must be left on the cutting room floor. The following is one of those.

While preparing to preach on the incarnation, I wanted to show how God becoming flesh proves that our physical bodies are important and not innately evil. Two threads emerged from this general idea. One addressed the need to both enjoy the pleasures of our physical existence and to discipline ourselves against abusing those same enjoyments. The other targeted how, like the people of Babel, we use technology to try to transcend our bodies. Ultimately, the first felt more cohesive to the rest of the sermon, so the second one was scrapped. Yet the idea of technology replacing the role of the Spirit in our lives is worth sharing (and considering), so here it is.


To have a physical body means being limited. The people of Babel understood this all too well. After learning how to form strong and durable bricks, they began to use this new technology to build a tower. This proto-skyscraper was meant to ascend into the heavens; it was to be their stairway to the throne of God, a means of making a name for themselves. They not only wrongly believed that they could transcend their earthly limitations; they also believed that God was small enough to be reached by human effort. God, of course, displays their tininess by stooping down to disassemble their tower and scatter them across the earth.

Unfortunately, the spirit of Babel has never left us. Today, more than ever, we continue to use technology with the hope of breaking free from our fleshly limitations. We keep creating towers to the heavens, attempting to transcend any need of our Creator, while also trying to stay united together in the midst of a world broken by sin.

Consider a few examples.

Electric lights break us free from the tyranny of day and night. For millennia, our bodies were guided by the patterns of our Circadian Rhythm, but now we create our own schedules. We dictate the best time to sleep and stay awake.

Cars and planes liberate us from the confines of distance. Being able to drive across town at any moment or fly across country (and even oceans) within 24 hours has expanded our village of family and friends onto a much wider area. Unfortunately, the actual village lifestyle of the past is vanishing into a memory. Although we may be able to drive to one another’s home at any time, it’s quite a different practice than “just dropping by to say hi” while on a walk through the neighborhood.

Phones and social media guard us against solitude and seclusion. They ensure that we are never truly alone, yet they also ensure that a significant portion of our communications happen through a buffer. Face-to-face conversation was once called simply conversation, but we now speak to one another primarily without all the nonverbals of facial expressions and body posture, which thankfully were never very important for conversation anyway (side note: since you can’t see my face… yes, that is sarcasm).

Modern medicine protects us from the pain and discomfort of symptoms. Unfortunately, the prevalence of pain medication seems to ignore the reality that pain is warning signal for something that has gone wrong. We treat headaches and stomach pains without much consideration as to what our body is trying to tell us. We snuff out cold and flu symptoms without pondering why our immune system was weak enough to allow such pathogens to survive so long.

Grocery stores assure us that food is plentiful and easily accessible. This appearance is by design, since we are more likely to buy produce if the display is fully stocked. Of course, this leads to grocery stores forming 10% of the 133 billion pounds of food (or 1/3 of all that is produced) that we throw away. All of this is to say nothing about our consumption without all the mess of having to grow or kill whatever we eat.

The list could go on.

Our modern lifestyle gives us greater comfort and luxury than any ancient royalty could ever possess. We live in an unprecedented time of technological advancement in history. And none of these things are wrong or sinful in and of themselves. Having too much food is certainly a better problem than not having enough. Even two decades ago, medicine would not have been advanced enough to save my dad’s life after his accident. Electricity, transportation, and communications have made our vast network of civilization possible. But neither was the development of brickmaking the sin of Babel; their sin was attempting to be gods, trying to transcend free from their physical limitations. Similarly, whenever we use technology to sedate the hungers and needs of our flesh entirely, we end up rejecting God as our Provider and Creator. Our gadgets help us perpetuate the lie that we can save ourselves.

But God alone offers us both the sustenance and transcendence that we crave. In fact, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 plays out like an anti-Babel. The tower was an attempt to reach the heavens, but the indwelling Spirit truly carries our prayers to the very throne of God. The people of Babel were united by a common language, but the Spirit forms us into a new people from every nation, tribe, and language on earth. The people of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves, but the Spirit enables us to joyously glorify the Triune God. Also, by the Spirit, we are reminded that we will one day be given glorified bodies as we dwell with God and His new creation for all eternity.
Through the Spirit, we both transcend this present reality while simultaneously becoming more firmly embodied in it. In fact, we could simply say that by the ordaining of the Father, through the work of Christ, and by the empowering of the Spirit, we are entering back into reality itself, communion with God, which then empowers us to be united with one another. The Spirit connects us and gives deeper meaning to our lives than technology ever can.

Sadly, technology will continue to be used as a substitute for the Holy Spirit to break us free from the limitations of our bodies. But, as Christ’s followers, we must reject this and keep technology within its place. We must use it to cultivate and subdue both the earth and ourselves, but it cannot save us. It cannot bridge the hostility caused by our sin. It cannot take us beyond the limits of our flesh.

Use technology to serve you, not save you.

And embrace the limits of your body. They are displaying your need for the Creator.

The Incarnation

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary

 

Our journey through the Apostles’ Creed brings us now into a multipart study of the life and work of Jesus, which, of course, begins at His birth. The virgin birth, which Lewis called the Grand Miracle, has long been given the rightful attention of theologians. As we will see, without this opening act of God, the gospel is undone. The incarnation of Christ and His virgin birth is not a belief to be negotiated; it is the wonder of all wonders. It is our hope and our redemption.

THE DOCTRINE

Far more can be said about Christ’s birth than what we have time for here; we will, therefore, paint with broad strokes, attempting to cover the basics of this doctrine. In doing so, let us begin with the title given for this event by which we still divide all of human history: the incarnation. Incarnation means the taking on of flesh, of a body. A central text from which we can center this study is John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word was both distinct from God, while also being God (1:1). This Word was the means by which God created all things, such that nothing created was created without Him (which can only mean that He, like God, was not created). This Word is Jesus, as is made clear in verse 17. He has brought life to men, shining light into our darkness. God the Son, the eternal Word, has displayed His glory to the world that He made, such glory that could only radiate from the Son as He comes from the Father. How did He reveal to us His gracious and true glory? He became flesh and dwelt among us. God the Son became human. This is the incarnation of Christ.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the incarnation with two phrases: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. The two are inseparably linked to one another. Without the conception by the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth is impossible. Without the virgin birth, the conception by the Holy Spirit rendered false. We cannot affirm one without the other; we must accept or reject them together.

But why were such things necessary? Let us begin with why a virgin birth was necessary. The virgin birth is not simply a silly myth for describing Jesus’ origin as a great teacher. It is a historical reality that is also a crucial component to the message of the gospel. In fact, the first promise of the gospel also prophesies the virgin birth. In Genesis 3:15, after humanity fell into sin, God pronounced this curse upon the Serpent: “I will put an enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The curse must have given comfort to Eve. She was deceived and led into sin by the Serpent, but one of her offspring would destroy the Serpent. Through a woman, Adam plunged humanity into sin, but through a woman would also come humanity’s Savior. The incarnation of Jesus only deepens this symmetry by revealing that the Serpent-Crusher was not just born of woman, but He was exclusively born of a woman since she was impregnated by no man.

Many theologians have pointed to the virgin birth, therefore, as the catalyst for Jesus coming into the world as the second Adam (that is, without inheriting sin). Being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, Jesus was born free from the cycle of sin, which, of course, made it possible for Him to live a sinless life. Without the virgin birth, Jesus could not rightly be called the second Adam, and He could not give His life as payment for our sins. The virgin birth, therefore, is necessary for the gospel.

Furthermore, the two statements also point us toward the two natures of Christ. As being conceived by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that Jesus was sent by the Father to earth. He did not begin existing with His conception because He was eternally existing as God the Son. He is, therefore, divine. He is God the Son sent by God the Father.

But He was also born of Mary the virgin. He was born. Think about it. He was born. Nine months of developing in the womb and the whole shebang. He came into the world like we all came into the world: by the body of our mother. Jesus, therefore, is human. While His birth was not the beginning of His existence, it was His incarnation, His becoming flesh, a human.

This stands beside the Trinity as one of the great mysteries of Christianity. Jesus is one person, yet He bears two natures, God and man. He is fully human and fully God. He is not a glorified man who looks kind of divine, as the Arians believe. Neither is He God who only appeared to look like a man, as Docetism teaches. He is not a demigod, who is part God and part man, nor is He sometimes God and sometimes man. The Chalcedonian Creed (or the Definition of Chalcedon) gives us very specific language for affirming this reality:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

APPLICATION

Having now addressed some of the basics for understanding the incarnation, we now will look at how this doctrine applies to us. While the applications for the incarnation are numerous, I will discuss three: 1) by becoming human while retaining His deity, Jesus is able to mediate between God and man, 2) since Jesus became flesh, our bodies are not evil, and 3) by condescending to us, Jesus is the supreme model of humility for us.

Jesus as Mediator

Paul wrote these words to his disciple, Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus is only mediator between us and God. But why do we need a mediator at all?

Adam and Eve needed no mediator. They were free to bathe in the presence of God and to enjoy the world that He had given them to rule. But they rejected their communion with God in a feeble attempt to seize power. Their disobedience opened a chasm between them and their Creator. As a symbol of this separation, they were exiled from Eden, cast away from God’s presence. God gives the judgment, but the damage is self-inflicted. When we sin, we follow the footsteps of our ancestors and keep the path clear for our descendants to tread behind. We reject God, and there remains nothing for us except a gulf between us.

In His mercy, God repeatedly crossed the chasm to reveal Himself to His people. He spoke to them through prophets. He gave His Spirit to their kings. He established priests to pray and sacrifice on their behalf. Yet these were all messages from afar, letters to exiles to remind us that we were not forgotten nor unloved. But the abyss remained uncrossed.

Enter Jesus, who bridged the gulf. As a man, Jesus was able to be truly human, as we were designed to be. He became like us in every respect, except better, as we should have been. He became the second Adam, resisting the pull of sin that the first Adam fell into. When offered the forbidden fruit from Eve, Adam ate. He should have rejected the opportunity to sin. More than that, he should have offered himself to take the judgment of Eve’s rebellion. Instead of correcting and then dying for her, he chose to follow and then blame his wife. Jesus, however, never yielded to sin and died in our place to rescue His Bride.

Yet Jesus’ death would have been insufficient unless He was also God. How can one man’s physical death cover the eternal spiritual death that was the consequence of sin? Only the Infinite Himself could pay our infinite debt. Since God was sinned against, only God could also redeem. As God, the death of Jesus was the death of God. The Holy One died to make us holy, to bridge the chasm and restore our communion with Him.

Without both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, He could not be our mediator. Yet He, the God-man, is. He is the way that has been made across the divide, and there is no other. How could there be? To claim another path to God makes a mockery of the cross. Further, it makes a mockery of God humbling Himself to become a man. Jesus has not left other options open. We must either accept Him or reject Him, but we cannot view Him half-heartedly as one of many roads to God.

“There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.”

The Flesh

Gnosticism was one of the first heresies to rise up against Christianity. Gnostics primarily believed that Jesus had given to some individual a secret knowledge that was hidden from the others. Who this individual was varied between different teachers (Thomas, Judas, Peter, Philip, Mary, etc.), which is why there are so many Gnostic Gospels. Yet most Gnostics shared the idea that this secret knowledge would free them from the physical world and enable them to transcend into the spiritual world. They longed for this because they believed all things physical to be evil and all things spiritual to be good. This view led to two extreme applications. First, some Gnostics would give themselves fully to ascetism, punishing their bodies and denying themselves any earthly pleasure. Second, others would yield entirely to self-indulgence, reasoning that the body could only do evil since it was evil so why try to stop it? Both were drastic attempts to be liberated from our flesh and from the material world. Doesn’t that sound spiritual?

This swaying between extremes is still present today. While Western culture has predominately been hedonistic (as consumerism must be), society almost always fights extremes with extremes; thus, when the American dream leaves us empty, many turn to an ascetic lifestyle. The flashy steam of dopamine that is social media is only fueling this division at an even quicker pace. Social media feeds are inherently hedonistic by design. The blend of having screens as buffers between us and others, endless information novelty, personalized news feeds, and vast social connectivity has created a kind of cognitive candy. We should not be surprised then to find the disillusioned turning to Buddhism and Stoicism (often condensed into the idea of mindfulness), both of which emphasize the primary importance of disciplining our desires and impulses. Islam fits this narrative as well by requiring physical acts of daily prayer and an extended time of fasting each year. They are appealing as ascetic alternatives to the Internet-driven hedonism. They appear to give an answer for what we are to do with our bodies. Feed them relentlessly, or starve them into submission?

Christianity reaches toward both with the truth as revealed in Christ. Jesus’ resurrection blasts a hole in the Gnostic logic of asceticism. God chose to dwell in flesh; therefore, flesh itself cannot be an inherent evil. Jesus comes to redeem our bodies, not destroy them. This will occur through the death of our current bodies, but when Christ comes again, He will resurrect us into new, glorified bodies. Our flesh is not evil, just broken. This means that the life of a Christian must embrace the shades of truth that mark both hedonism and stoicism. We must recognize that God purposely made us with taste buds. He also created chocolate with a different flavor than strawberries, and He made both of those flavors wonderful to combine. As His children, God delights whenever we enjoy the gifts that He has given to us. Yet because our flesh is marred by sin, we constantly valuing God’s gifts more than God as the Giver. We must, therefore, discipline our bodies so we are not consumed by the lure of more.

We see this balance imaged in marriage. Proverbs commends us to delight ourselves physically with our spouse. Properly understood, enjoying the body of one’s spouse is taking pleasure in a gift that they have given exclusively to you. Delight is statement of love, a declaration that their body and their self is satisfying and sufficient for you. Failing to enjoy your spouse can, therefore, rightfully be seen as being unsatisfied with them and their gift, while an obsession with your spouse’s body makes them into an object to used. Both extremes are unloving and ultimately destroy the pleasure itself.

The same can be said of every gift that the Father gives to us. To reject His gifts is a rejection of His gracious love toward us, but to be consumed by His gifts is an idolatrous rejection of Him. May we, therefore, as followers of One who is both God and man be the most satisfied in our enjoyment in our enjoyment of the earthly pleasures that the Father as given us, while also being the most disciplined against letting our desires and longings consume us.

Humility

Finally, the incarnation of Jesus teaches us by example what true humility looks like. Simply stated, Jesus becoming a human is only rivaled by His crucifixion as the greatest act of humility ever committed. Consider the reality of it. God became one of His creations, like a potter choosing to become a jar. The Infinite One became finite. He clothed Himself in the limitations of a body. He willing submitted Himself to hunger, thirst, and pain. He became like us in every respect yet without sin.

Indeed, Jesus was more human than us because of His freedom from sin. As Chesterton argues, sin deadens the senses, leading to a kind of spiritual and emotional paralysis or vegetation. Yet Jesus’ heart was not dulled by sin. His spirit was not deadened to the brokenness around Him. We flinch and distract ourselves from thinking too long or hard about the present reality of atrocities like the child trafficking for organ-harvesting or systemic rape in countries like Myanmar or Libya. Yet Jesus saw every single sin as the act of cosmic treason that it is. We, therefore, cannot even begin to fathom the depth of suffering that even viewing our “small” sins would have caused Him. Yet Jesus chose this life. He willingly descended from heaven to take on flesh and blood and to ultimately have that flesh and blood broken and spilled in our place for our sins.

We must follow His example of humility in at least two ways.

First, since Jesus humbled Himself to become flesh and came not to be served but to serve us, no one is too lowly for us to serve. As our Lord, Jesus modeled how we must live by serving. If we are not greater than Him, how then can we do anything but serve as He served?

But it’s not just the act of serving that Jesus has modeled for us, but also the heart of serving. If we are not guarded, too often serving others can actually build up our pride. We can subtly develop a pharisaical mentality where we believe ourselves to be superior to others precisely because of how selfless we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, this can also limit how we serve others. By believing that we are doing others a favor by serving them, we can view our acts of service with a kind of take-it-or-leave-it mindset, which is not an act of genuinely seeking their good. Therefore, we must be constantly vigilant to conform our hearts to the likeness of Jesus, who served out of selfless and humble love for others.

Second, as we studied last week, a failure to embrace Jesus as Lord is an obstinate declaration of our own supremacy, while bowing to Jesus as Lord is a humble act of submission to Him. Embracing Jesus as our Savior and Lord means dying to self and killing our pride. Yet this act of humility pales in comparison to Jesus’ descension into the flesh. When Jesus commands us to follow Him, He is not making a demand of us that He has not exceeded Himself. He humbled Himself to rescue us; therefore, we must also humble ourselves to receive Him.

Indeed, John Flavel writes a warning in vein of the author of Hebrews about pridefully neglecting “such a great salvation”:

Does he [Jesus] veil his insupportable glory under flesh, that he may treat the more familiarly and yet do you refuse him, and shut your heart against him? Then hear one word, and let thine ears tingle at the sound of it: thy sin is thereby aggravated beyond the sin of devils, who never sinned against a mediator in their own nature; who never despised, or refused, because, indeed, they were never offered terms of mercy, as you are. And I doubt not but the devils themselves who now tempt you to reject, will, to all eternity, upbraid your folly for rejecting this great salvation, which in this excellent way is brought down even to your own doors. (59)

Do you, therefore, embrace the incarnation of Jesus? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine? Do you believe that Jesus is the only mediator between God and men? Do you believe that He is your mediator? Are you caring for your body in reflection of the good gifts that God has given? Are you following Jesus’ example of humility? Have you humbled yourself to receive salvation from His hand?

We believe in Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, was born of a virgin, becoming a fully human, while still retaining His divinity, so that He could stand as the only mediator between God and us. To embrace these things is to take hold joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Do you believe?