Vanity Under the Sun

He Who Loves Money Will Not Be Satisfied With Money | Ecclesiastes 5:8-20

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, ado not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions land power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 ESV

 

After taking a brief intermission to discuss how to properly fear and worship God, the Preacher now resumes the report of experiment by turning to the vanity of wealth. Money and the love of it are some of life’s chief motivators. Actions are driven by it. Thoughts are captive to it. Partnerships are forged with it. Betrayals are bought by it. Money and the power that it buys is seductive to nearly every human. Yet even though Solomon was one of the wealthiest men to ever live (if not the wealthiest), he writes from personal experience that the quest for more money is never ending nor satisfying. Wealth will always fail to provide true lasting joy and meaning in life.

OPPRESSION REVISITED // VERSES 8-9

To begin this next section on the vanity of wealth, Solomon turns his eye once more to the oppression that he sees. However, this time he tells us that we should not be amazed by the injustice that we see being done. His reasoning for such as statement is that there is always a hierarchy of officials. Thus, we can be certain that the person who creates oppression in our lives also has someone above him creating oppression. It is an endless cycle of injustice, but don’t be amazed, this is simply the conditions of a fallen world. This is not cynical of Solomon, just realistic. He is merely describing this aspect of a post-Genesis 3 life.

Fortunately, verse 9 quickly tells us that a king cultivating the fields is a gain for the land in every way. To be honest, upon first reading this, the structure of verses 8-9 made it sound like the Preacher is saying that oppression is a way of cultivating the fields, and so it is good for the land in every way. Thankfully, that is not what this verse is saying. Instead, Solomon is providing an alternative: a king cultivating the fields. In other words, just because authority tends to be abused doesn’t mean that authority itself is bad. Authority is ultimately good for everyone, even when it is occasionally misused. Since we in the United States lean toward possessing a phobia for authorities, we need to keep this reminder in our minds. After all, God Himself is the ultimate authority, and throughout the Bible, He gives portions of His authority to finite and fallible creatures like us. Genesis 1:26 provides the first example as God grants dominion over the earth and its creatures to humanity. The judges and kings of Israel continue this cycle. Romans 13:4 applies this to all governmental authorities saying: “for he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” We rejoice whenever the legal system enforces justice rightly because it is a physical instrument of God’s judgment on earth. And this is not just righteous governments. Throughout the Bible, God even used pagan nations like Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon to enact His judgment. Therefore, as followers of Christ, let us never be a people who wholeheartedly reject authority. We lament that authority will be abused in this life, but in general, God has ordained authority for the benefit of all people.

THE LOVE OF MONEY // VERSES 10-12

Within these three verses, the Preacher presents three truths regarding money and wealth.

The first truth, found in verse 10, is that money cannot satisfy. Don’t you love how Solomon doesn’t add any qualifying comments to that statement? Quite simply, if you love money, you are chasing after something that cannot be captured. To illustrate this, a commonly told account of Rockefeller says that during an interview, the reporter asked him which was his favorite million dollars. Rockefeller simply responded, “The next one.” Even with all the money he could ever hope to spend, his heart was set on the next earning. The love of money runs contrary contentment. The two cannot coexist as they are mutual exclusives. This is why Hebrews 13:5 warns against the one and commands the other: “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The love of money and contentment are like oil and water, like black and white. They oppose one another. Since contentment cannot exist alongside the love of money, the often misquoted 1 Timothy 6:10 makes much sense: “for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” Discontentment caused Adam and Eve to eat the fruit in order to become more like God than they already were as image-bearers. Of course, we can go one step further by concluding that the root of discontentment is pride. Discontent first forms because we are prideful enough to believe that we deserve something more than what we actually possess. Love of money ultimately creates within us a heart of envy, jealousy, and dissatisfaction. Eventually, it will bring us to the place where we are willing to do anything to get what we want.

Verse 11 gives us our second truth: needs increase along with wealth. Whenever goods increase, so do the eaters of those goods. This can point to two things. First, wealth brings beggars. Time and time again, we read stories of people winning the lottery only to have a multitude of distant friends and family flock around them. This is likely Solomon’s primary meaning. However, we can also see the principle that vacuums must be filled being described here. A large surplus of income often means more spending. We see this whenever someone buys a larger home thinking that it will not be as crowded with things, but having a larger home just means it gets filled with more stuff. Because needs tend to increase with wealth, lower income families are not the only ones who live paycheck to paycheck. More money simply means more spending.

The third truth is presented in verse 12: anxiety increases with wealth. Solomon describes the laborer as coming home from his day of work and finding sweet rest in his sleep. The wealthy person, however, is restless because of the great needs that accompany his great wealth. An interesting thought struck me as I meditated on this verse: which countries tend to have the highest cases of sleep deprivation? Often it is the wealthier nations of the world. Writing primarily to a Western (and therefore generally wealthy) audience, Tish Warren Harrison notes the following about sleep:

According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, nearly 30 percent of adults average less than six hours of sleep per night, significantly under the recommended seven to eight hours. Only about 30 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, though they need around ten. In one national study, over 7 percent of people between twenty-five and thirty-five admitted to actually nodding off while driving in the past month. In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared, “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem.” Most of us have heard statistics like this before. And we yawn and pour more coffee. We know, we know. We’re busy, we’re tired, we’re worn out. But this public health epidemic is indicative of a spiritual crisis—a culture of disordered love and disordered worship. We disdain limits. Wendell Berry warned, “It is easy… to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”

We skip sleep because there is simply too much to do. There aren’t enough hours in the day. But often the reason we continue to have more things to do is because we continue to have more things that we want. Our lack of contentment with what we have leads to our exhaustion-inducing efforts to accumulate more and more.

An example of this type of contentment stands out vividly in my mind. About two years ago, my wife and I bought our first home, a nearly 100-year-old space of 1400 feet. Upon first seeing our house, people would often comment that it was a beautiful and quaint starting home. The underlying idea, of course, being that we will need to upgrade in the future. But those comments stood in sharp contrast with my wife’s visiting grandparents from Colombia, who immediately asked if such a big house was only for the two of us.

Unfortunately, much of our stress is self-induced, stemming from our lack of contentment. We may not think of ourselves as possessing a love of money in the traditional sense. We can, however, very easily fall for the trap of trying to keep up with the Joneses. We become dissatisfied with things that are sufficient and long for things that are ultimately unnecessary. Agur, in Proverbs 30:7-9, gives us a prayer that stands in sharp contrast to modern consumerism: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” How many of us make prayers like that? Our prayers tend to be for God to increase our possessions and wealth, not for Him to keep wealth out of our hands. Agur essentially prays, “God, I know my heart. I know my desires. Keep me out of poverty and riches. If I have too much wealth, pride will grow in me as am able to provide for myself. I will reject You and believe that I am self-sufficient.” May we learn from Agur’s prayer to be content.

A CASE STUDY // VERSES 13-17

Here Solomon provides a helpful example of how wealth is vanity. He describes a man who, after damaging himself through hard work, loses everything in one bad venture. Then having nothing to give to his son as an inheritance, he dies with nothing, leaving behind a life of misery and sorrow. Being a financial burden instead of a blessing upon his son would have been a severe shame in the ancient world, which only serves to emphasize the vanity of this man’s backbreaking work to accumulate wealth. His final days are nothing but sick, vexation, and anger.

This example may be a hypothetical case study, but many have unfortunately walked through this as a reality. Last week, I finished reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The general of the Union Army during the Civil War, who went on to serve two terms as president of the United States, lived a life of success that few could match. However, during the final days of his life, Grant fell victim to one of the first Ponzi schemes and lost all of his wealth. Eventually, he spent the final days of his life desperately writing a memoir as he was dying from esophageal cancer with the hope that his wife would be able to live off of the book’s sales. The memoir sold beautifully and is still considered a masterpiece, but Grant died only a few days after completing it.

In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus gives us another hypothetical account of this kind of misfortune as a warning against all covetousness:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Isn’t the fool in the parable how many view retirement? We await the ceasing from work in order to eat, drink, and be merry, but we do not know that we will ever be able to enjoy the rejoices that we have stored. Solomon’s case study and Jesus’ parable are both presenting the same idea: wealth is vain. It is a terrible god that can be taken away in a moment. And if it is not taken away from us, we might be taken away from it.

What is the answer then, if wealth is a vanity? Our final three verses present the answer.

CONTENTMENT: THE GIFT OF GOD // VERSES 18-20

The hopeful refrain of Ecclesiastes returns! Notice that when Solomon says that everything under the sun is vanity he is not saying that nothing is good on earth. The Preacher emphasizes that he sees with his physical eyes that it is good and fitting to eat, drink, and find enjoyment. Just because life is fleeting doesn’t make it bad. Christianity does not align with the gnostic heresy that threatened it in the first century. We do not believe that spiritual things are good and physical things are bad. No, we believe that in the beginning God made a physical world and declared it to be good. Things may be broken after the Fall, but they are not utterly broken. If we are not careful, we can fall victim to such hyper-spiritualizations that declare all wealth and possessions to be evil. But the Preacher explicitly states that wealth, possessions, and power are gifts from God, along with the ability to enjoy them.

How exactly do we enjoy these gifts of God properly? Enjoying God’s gifts means accepting our lot in life and rejoicing in the toil that He sets before us. We are to be content, and God gives contentment by keeping us occupied with Him. How are we kept occupied with God? With joy in his heart. It is all too common for people to think of God as a cosmic killjoy, that His commands limit our freedom and force us to obey His arbitrary guidelines. But Solomon emphasizes that God is not a killjoy but the giver of joy.

Later in Luke 12, verses 32-34, Jesus gives us these words:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Jesus (and Solomon) are both calling for us not to forsake all treasures and wealth but for us to chase after eternal and lasting riches. Money is fleeting; God desires for us to know real wealth. The Bible is commanding us to pursue treasure, wealth, and riches because God alone is the greatest of all treasures. Furthermore, if He is more valuable than everything else put together, then He often loves us by stripping us of our lesser loves in order to bring us to Himself. God does not forbid idolatry because He is a killjoy. He forbids idolatry because idolatry will kill our joy. The wealth of this world is appealing, but even the very words of God are better than gold (Psalm 19:10).

Of course, the Christian life is one of suffering, a call to grab our cross, to come and die. At the epicenter of our faith is the humiliating death of our God after all. We must never ignore such difficult and sobering truths. But let us also never neglect the joy of the following after Christ. Let us sing with the psalmist to God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). He is a God is worthy of following, of treasuring, and of enjoying.  God is not a megalomaniac who says, “Worship me or else.” He is a loving Father, who offers Himself freely as the highest good and richest treasure.

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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.

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Out of the Depths I Cry to You, O LORD | Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

Psalm 130 ESV

 

If Psalm 129 addressed the distress of facing outside hostilities, Psalm 130 focuses upon our inward ones. As a penitential psalm (others include Psalms 6, 25, 32, 38, 51, and 148), repentance of sin is the primary theme. Given that repentance is crucial to our life as Christ’s disciples, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with how the Bible itself teaches us to repent through psalms like this one.

O LORD HEAR MY VOICE // VERSES 1-2

The psalm begins on a thunderous note. A tension between a deep sense of urgency and expectant patience in God’s omnipotence is found throughout the psalm, but the psalmist’s desperation is felt right from the start. He was within the depths, the pit of despair, from which he cried out the LORD for mercy. We must take note of a few things from these initial verses.

First, sin sinks us into the depths, whether we realize it or not. Sin is not a simple defect, a blemish to be healed with a little bit of balm and time. Sin is a chasm, ready to swallow alive all who venture to look over its edge. Sin is death. Without this understanding, the very concept of repentance becomes nonsensical, but if we see sin for what it truly is, it may lead us to call upon the LORD.

It should also be said that guilt over sin is of no use unless it leads us to actually calling upon the LORD for salvation. When guilt becomes condemnation, we are given a tour of the depths of our sin, but we are given no hope of rescue. This is equally as damning as never realizing sin’s sinfulness at all. We must have a brutally honest detestation of our sin, but we must then turn toward God. Only then can we be saved.

Second, repentance must include crying out to the LORD. Like a child for his mother, we must cry out to God for His mercy. An infant cries because it is utterly helpless. It possesses no strength on its own to feed itself, clothe itself, or comfort itself. It is entirely dependent upon its mother. Its cry, therefore, is one for mercy. Mercy for relief from hunger, from fear. So must our cries be to the LORD, a cry of absolute inability.

WITH YOU THERE IS FORGIVENESS // VERSES 3-4

After calling to the LORD for mercy from the depths, the psalmist now turns his attention toward God’s forgiveness of sin. Verse 3 places verse 4 in its proper perspective. Our God is a God of forgiveness, but He is also both holy and righteous. If God were to count each of our sins against us, who could stand in His presence? No one. None is sufficiently presentable. Even our best righteous deeds are filthy rags before Him. His readiness to hear our cries for mercy (let alone respond to them!) is a pure grace from His hand. And yet He gives to us that very grace. With Him there is forgiveness.

Of course, as Christians, we now understand the true price of that forgiveness. By God’s design, He could not simply erase away our sins as if they had never occurred. If, after all, He swept our sins under the metaphorical rug of heaven, He would not be entirely just. Justice demands a payment for sin, for each and every sin.

Our sin against God is no different. Sin can, therefore, only be forgiven whenever retribution has been made. Yet because of God’s eternality, our sin against Him bears an eternal consequence. Such is the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice for us. As the eternal God, Jesus was able to pay our debt in full. This is the means of our forgiveness: God dying in our place. The LORD willingly ventured into the depths in order to rescue us from the depths of our sin.

Because of such an amazing grace, we learn all the more to fear God. Does that statement seem correct to you? I would imagine that seeing the logic of verse 4 is a bit difficult. How exactly does God’s forgiveness lead to a greater fear of Him? The connection of the two is crucial because grace that does not lead to fear is what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. This is the kind of grace that many believe in today. It costs nothing of God, and it requires nothing of us. Under this grace, God becomes our sponsor, not our savior. He funds our hopes and dreams as we pursue them endlessly. When we fail, He is always ready to forgive, as long as we do so sincerely. According to cheap grace, sin is an inconvenience, a mistake that the wise will overlook. The logic of atonement is, thereby, shifted. God’s punishment of sin is no longer just. In fact, we place the burden upon Him. We come to believe that a refusal to pardon sin is an unjust action. Grace and forgiveness become cheap because they are assumed to be intrinsic rights. The fear of God cannot coexist with this kind of grace.

Yet cheap grace is a counterfeit. God’s grace is not cheap. It cost the blood of Jesus, which is worth more than all creation combined. This grace is priceless and, being invaluable, being invaluable must be received with fear and trembling. Like holding a delicate artifact worth more than several lifetimes of wages, we should hold onto the grace that we have been given in awe. God’s forgiveness, therefore, must increase, not decrease, our fear of Him.

MY SOUL WAITS // VERSES 5-6

Having cried out to the LORD and expressed his confidence in the LORD’s forgiveness, the psalmist now turns toward his current plan of action: waiting. This isn’t what most of us would expect. We would rather do something, anything, to try to display our changed ways. But the psalmist simply waits. Such waiting upon the LORD is an expression of faith, evidence of our hope in God’s coming deliverance. Waiting reminds us that God alone can truly save. We cannot make God’s forgiveness of our sins “worth it” by merely doing better. That’s retroactively attempting to atone for our own sins. Instead, we wait in hope for God’s deliverance.

In the psalmist’s context, he awaited the forgiveness of his sins in Christ. In that sense, we are no longer waiting. The Savior has come, and we are saved. Yet we still feel this hopeful longing in at least two ways. First, although God’s forgiveness comes now without delay upon repentance, God may not immediately or even at all deliver us from sin’s consequences in this life. Second, even as we are reminded of our forgiveness in Christ, we still await to be fully freed from sin. Paul went so far as to call this our blessed hope. Each time we repent of sin, we would do well to cry out for this kind of rescue as well.

Do you long to be free from sin? Like watchmen are ready for morning, are you ready to be done with your wrestling against the flesh?

O ISRAEL, HOPE IN THE LORD // VERSES 7-8

Our psalm now ends with a theme which occurs in other penitential psalms as well: proclamation of the LORD’s graciousness to others. Psalm 25 ends by saying, “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles” (v. 22). Psalm 32 concludes by calling the righteous to “be glad in the LORD” and “shout for joy” (v. 11). Psalm 51, the most well-known of the penitentials, sees David pleading for the LORD to open his lips for praise, for God to do good to Zion, and the pledge that he will teach fellow sinners the ways of the LORD. Why is this theme so present within the repentance psalms?

These psalmists understood the nature of God’s salvation. Yes, God rescues each individual from their own sins, and without their own personal faith in Christ’s atoning work, no one is saved. And yet we are each saved for more than just ourselves. We are delivered from sin in order to then act as messengers of God’s redemption to others. While there are obviously evangelistic implications here, notice that the psalmist is particularly calling out of God’s people, Israel. Why is this? The repentance of individuals is meant to be a communal reminder that God still saves. Even though every sin is forgiven in Christ, we each continue to sin and, therefore, have continual need of repentance. The repentant praise of our brothers and sisters remind us that God’s mercy is still great, that our hope is still secure in Him.

May we, as God’s church, repent alongside this psalmist. May we see the depths of our sin and cry out to the LORD for mercy.

May we have faith in His forgiveness, even as He teaches us to fear His name.

May we wait with unwavering hope upon our deliverance from sin both here and to come.

In our repentance, may we declare to one another that “with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.”

O church, hope in the LORD!

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Unless the LORD Builds the House | Psalm 127

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127 ESV

 

Being the eighth of fifteen psalms, we are now midway through the Songs of Ascents. Establishing that these psalms can generally be divided into five groups of three, we discussed previously that these center three psalms are concerned with how our pilgrimage to New Jerusalem will shape and transform our ordinary day-to-day lives, and within Psalm 127, Solomon provides us with a thought-provoking song about work and family. The psalm is clearly divided into two main sections (verses 1-2 and 3-5), so we will address each separately before attempting to connect them together at the end.

IN VAIN YOU STRIVE

Work’s vanity without the LORD is the thesis of our first stanza. Verse 1 gives two paralleling images that form one united truth. Building a house is futile labor unless God Himself is its builder, and a watchman’s vigilant guard is worthless unless God is the city’s true protector. Solomon is clearly emphasizing our dire need for God’s support and protection above all else.

But is that really true?

Surely many homes built long ago by someone with no concern for the LORD endured long years or even still stand today. Although not a home, my wife visited a Buddhist temple in East Asia that was 3000 years old. That shrine to idols was built before this psalm was written and is still standing today. Their labor does not seem to be in vain.

Furthermore, how many wickedly corrupt cities and nations have triumphed brutally over lesser ones throughout history. Why did God allow the terroristic warfare of the Assyrians to spread so wide across the globe? Why did He permit the Christian city of Constantinople to fall to the Turks? Why does He today tolerate the beatings and beheadings of His church in lands that were once predominately Christian?

How are we then to understand this verse? We should first note the careful wording. Solomon does not say that without the LORD’s intervention a house cannot be built nor can a city be guarded. Both are certainly possible. Instead, he is claiming that doing so is in vain, which is a fitting word for Solomon to use when he is traditionally held as the author of Ecclesiastes. Building a house and guarding a city without the LORD is vanity because there is no lasting meaning without God. The truth that Ecclesiastes bombards us with is that even the greatest human achievements are a vapor in the air. In the span of eternity, our supreme efforts are worthless and futile. Of the wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramids of Egypt still stand, and even then, of what use are they? Majestic they may be, but ultimately their grandeur is no more than a requiem to fallen kingdom, a mere reminder of the once-great.

Nevertheless, the episode of Babel is stuck on repeat. We build monuments to our excellence, attempting to prove our independence from God, yet in the end He stoops down to each one, asking, “Is that all?” Even the glories of a 3000-year-old stronghold of demons is a blink of eye in the light of eternity, when only God’s glory will remain.

Yet the fleeting nature of a house or city does not mean that we should forsake building and guarding them. Solomon is not calling us to the monastic lifestyle of striving to live without physical comforts and securities. We are dust animated by God’s own breath. We are of the earth by the Creator’s design; therefore, we need shelter, a place to call home. Further, we need the shelter of each other, so we congregate into cities. We gather as communities for friendship and protection. Building a house is good. Guarding our city, likewise, is good. They cannot, however, be ends unto themselves. Life’s vanity is only transcended by living for and according to God’s design.

How is this so?

Only the works of God can endure forever. As C. T. Studd wrote, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” His kingdom alone will stand throughout eternity, while every other monument, temple, and edifice will crumple into dirt. 10 billion years from now the 3000-year demonic rule over a stretch of land will seem to have passed by in the blink of an eye. Jesus’ command to seek God’s kingdom first, therefore, is unabashedly practical. Even as we do such mundane tasks like building a house or looking out for the good of our city, we must submit that very labor to the LORD, for the good of His reign, so that He works through us as we work. As He then supplies the strength for the work, He receives the glory for its completion. And because His kingdom is of first importance, our work will never prove unfruitful (even if it may appear so for a length of time).

Verse 2 then describes how this truth should affect our work in the day-to-day. Anxious toil is not befitting of God’s laborers. Work is good. In Eden, God issued jobs to Adam and Eve. They were to be God’s managers over the earth, cultivating the earth to reflect the garden and multiplying to spread God’s image across the planet. The LORD made us for work; sin has simply corrupted it, making it more difficult. We, therefore, must not shirk labor but, rather, meet it head on. To not work, after all, would be to go against God’s created order.

Yet even in working, we have opportunity to sin. Even though our work is meant to imitate God’s creation further into the world, we often use our very reflection of His character to assert ourselves as the creators, as gods who fashion the world as we see fit. Thus, by the very act for echoing God we aim to rid ourselves of Him. In other words, we frequently tend to be come self-reliant as we work.

Such self-reliance is idolatry, a declaration of self as divinity. Solomon describes the symptoms of this disease: getting up early to work, going to bed late from work, anxious toil becoming one’s daily bread. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with waking up early or going to bed late; the crux is in the reasoning. If we are burning the candle at both ends in a desperate bid to earn our own security, our work has become sinful. We are trusting in the steadfastness of our own hands, not in the faithfulness of the LORD.

God’s people are contrasted as receiving sleep as God’s gift. Sleep and rest are necessary components to a proper theology of work precisely because they keep us humble. While ceasing from work, we are forced to face the reality that we are not God. The universe is not upheld by our power, and it will survive our inactivity. Death exemplifies this idea even further. After a loved one passes, we grieve and mourn, but life moves on. For the doctor, it’s another pronouncement. For the funeral home, it’s another client. For the acquaintances, it’s a “he/she will be missed.” Eventually, even for those closest, an altered normal begins. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). If the world will survive our final passing, how much more can it bear our rest? As God’s people, we know that we can sleep and rest from our labors because our trust is not upon our own ability but upon God’s. May we, thereby, give glory to God with both our work and our rest.

CHILDREN ARE A REWARD

The blessing of children is the grand theme of verses 3-5. The images are overwhelmingly positive. Children are an inheritance from the LORD. Children are a reward. Children are like arrows for a warrior. Children are a blessing. Children guard us from being shamed by enemies. Why such exuberance over children? They demand your time, energy, and money. You become fully responsible for the life and care of fellow human beings during their most vulnerable stage of life. They drastically cut into your free and alone time. They will defy you, rebel against you, and fight against you, often in the simplest of things. They’re messy and destructive, loud and unpredictable. In less than two weeks, my wife and I will take an anniversary trip without our daughter. A few nights ago, my wife mentioned that we would be able to sleep in during this trip. I almost began to cry. Such is life with children.

Yet despite the difficulties of childrearing, the Scriptures fully regard them as a blessing. To bring children into the world is to fulfill the cultural mandate of God, the First Commission. As a new human is born, God’s image is further seen. Sin, of course, makes it so that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15), but that does not negate the goodness of propagating life. God’s image upon mankind may be marred by sin, but we each still bear it. The growth and spreading of humanity are the good designs of the LORD.

Unfortunately, not many believe such things any longer. The increasingly influential Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said,

There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead, I think young people, to have a legitimate question: is it okay to still have children? And I mean, not just financially, because people are graduating with $20, $30, $100,000 dollars of student loan debt, so they can’t even afford to have children in the house. But also just a basic moral question, what do we do. And even if you don’t have kids, there are still children here in the world, and we have a moral obligation to them. To leave a better world for them.

From people like Ocasio-Cortez who are entertaining childlessness on the grounds of “morality” to the rise of anti-natalism[1] as a philosophical worldview, western society is becoming increasingly anti-children. As Christians, it can become easy to fixate upon certain elements of this ideology (i.e. abortion), yet they are simply individual heads of the hydra. Granted, some of the beast’s heads are deadlier and more grotesque than others (certainly like abortion or pedophilia), but we must never lose sight of the whole monster. The general negative attitude toward the very idea of children, the denigration of childrearing as a primary calling, and the idolatry of comfort provide the well fertilized ground for seeds like abortion to grow.

Even the change in wording, from childrearing to parenting, reflects our “modern” mentality. The linguistic shift reveals the primacy of the parent. Someone might interject with the opinion that children have never been more carefully raised as they are today. Yet the root of much “helicopter parenting” is, I believe, ultimately parent-centered. The notion of childrearing, however, implicitly sets our focus toward the growth[2] of the child.

For all the value that secular humanism claims to place upon humankind, statistics reflect the reality, and as birth rates continue to plummet, anti-natalism increasingly comes to the forefront. The Bible opposed to such thoughts. Yes, our children will require our time, attention, and patience. Yes, they will experience the pain and suffering of life. No, we are not promised that they will not stray from the LORD. Yet even so, the simple reality that children are a blessing still stands.

If nothing else (although there certainly is much more), raising a child helps us understand the character of God better, while also enabling us to better reflect His nature. Every time I begin to lose patience with my daughter I quickly remind myself of God’s endless and fatherly grace toward me. How can I not be loving, even in my discipline, toward her when God is so loving to me? Furthermore, how can we claim the moral high ground for not having children because of pain, suffering, or anything else when God chose to create us, even knowing that we would sin against Him and that He would die to save us? Perhaps there is no greater argument for the blessing of children than this: selflessly pouring out our love upon those who can never pay us back is a blessing because in doing so, we reflect and become like our Father. The gospel should be clearly visible to the world around us through our love for our children.

There is plenty more that we could say regarding the blessedness of children, yet for the sake of time, I will simply ask this question: Do you believe it?

BUILDING A HOME IN BABYLON

Before diving into Psalm 126, we spent time reading Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian exiles and considering how we too are living as exiles. We then discussed how the Indigenous Principle is at tension with the Pilgrim Principle in the life of Christ’s followers. As we now briefly attempt to view this psalm as whole, I want us to return to that very conversation.

In Jeremiah’s letter, God told the exiles to spend their time in Babylon building houses, planting gardens, and having children. In the midst of these things, He told them to seek the welfare of the city. He commanded them to live their lives and do good to the Babylonians around them. Through these ordinary actions, God would bless them and use them to bless those around them. This is God’s normal mode of operations. Many look for God to work through burning bushes, fire falling from heaven, and treatises nailed to doors, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Consider Rome’s view on infanticide. Rome’s founder, Romulus, issued the generous law that no child under three could be killed unless he was deformed. So the practice of leaving unwanted infants to die of exposure in trash heaps became a common fixture of Roman life. The advent of Christianity, however, inserted a wrench into infanticide’s wheels, and within a few centuries, the practice was virtually eliminated in the western world.

How did Christians achieve such a feat, such a dramatic shifting of cultural norms? They did it by regularly visiting garbage dumps to rescue and adopt abandoned babies. Yet that practice cost more than just having another mouth to feed. Tertullian wrote against a pervasive rumor that Christians were “accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it” (Apology, 7.1). The spread of this conspiracy theory gave a further degree of credibility to the official waves of persecution.

Yet one baby, one family, one generation at a time, the early Christians methodically created a culture of life that swallowed up the culture of death. For more than a millennium, we have walked in the fruit of their labors, fruit that we now watch being burned. Like our brothers and sisters before us, it is not enough for us to be anti-abortion or even pro-life; we must fundamentally be pro-children. We must not merely defend the abstract concept of life; we must spread it.

As alluded to in both sections, this psalm is in many ways a poetic meditation upon the First Commission. Work and have children. That was the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve. By doing so, they would act as God’s steward over the earth, cultivating the earth and filling it with His image. As Christians, we’ve been given another commission, to make disciples of all the nations. The Great Commission is the cultural mandate of the new creation, of the God’s kingdom. As we make disciples, we cultivate the earth into the kingdom of heaven by filling the earth with God’s children, followers of Christ.

Even still, the Great Commission does not negate the First Commission. Not everyone will have children for various reasons, and not everyone will be physically able to work. Nevertheless, the cultural mandate still stands. Often, both commissions will be filled together. We win the inhabitants of Babylon for Christ, one child, one family, one generation at a time.

Of course, this isn’t to say that missions into unreached lands is not important. It absolutely is! Yet still, the goal of these mission endeavors is still to establish local churches made up of believing households that reach other households with the gospel and plant more churches.

If we view ourselves as the protagonist in our walk with Christ, we will easily become disheartened that we cannot do enough for God’s kingdom. If, however, we place ourselves within the scope of God’s unfolding hand in history, we quickly understand that we are standing upon the shoulders of the millions and millions of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, and by God’s grace, we will help prepare the way for those who will follow after us. Collectively, His kingdom advances further than any one of us can do alone, and it advances primarily through the ordinary and daily faithfulness of His followers.

May we, therefore, build houses and do good to the Babylon around us, praying for the LORD to advance His kingdom through our work and rest.

May we have children and not decrease, both physical and spiritual, discipling the nations by first discipling our households.

May the LORD bless the ordinary work of our hands and use it for the extraordinary proclamation of the name of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.


[1] Anti-natalism is essentially an extension of hedonism that believes the greatest path to avoiding pain would be to simply stop having children altogether. David Benatar’s book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is an introduction to this philosophy.

[2] Not primarily the protection of and provision for the child. It seems that there also exists a lack of intentionality in modern-day parenting as expressed through a failure to continuously shepherd a child toward adulthood.

Jesus Rejected in Nazareth | Luke 4:14-30

And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.

Luke 4:14-30 ESV

 

The Gospel of Luke was written by Paul’s companion, friend, and physician, who sought to compile “an orderly account” of Jesus Christ. Thus far in the book, Luke has been informing us of Jesus’ birth, the ministry of John the Baptist, and Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness. Within our present text, Luke begins to describe the earthly ministry of Jesus. Particularly he begins by describing how Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth, received His claim of being the long-awaited Messiah.

JESUS BEGINS HIS MINISTRY // VERSES 14-15

Following the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, He returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. This power was evident to all who encountered Him since we are told also that a report of Him spread throughout the surrounding country. The ministry of Christ would be relatively brief, only about three years, and yet this man from Nazareth would irrevocably change the world. Significantly, that impact was felt from the very beginning of His ministry. Many leaders claimed to be the Messiah throughout the years, but Jesus alone had the power of God to reinforce His claim.

The focus of Jesus’ ministry is also important to note. We tend to think first of His many miracles and healings, yet Jesus will explicitly state those to be of secondary importance at the end of this chapter (4:43). As an itinerant minister, Jesus would travel from town to town, teaching the Scriptures within their synagogues. Teaching God’s Word was the primary focus of Christ earthly ministry, and as we will continue to see, people were just as amazed by His teaching as they were by His miracles. This is crucial for us to understand. The miracles and healings of Jesus were always intended to affirm His words and message; they were never an end unto themselves. They reinforced the gospel He preached and pointed toward our true healing from the disease of sin.

It is also worth noting, especially given the events that transpire in the following verses, that the working of the Spirit always causes a reaction. The initial reaction to Jesus’ teachings were positive: “being glorified by all.” But this will not always be the case (see verses 22-30 below). When the Spirit empowers the proclamation of the gospel, a reaction, even if a subtle one, is guaranteed. We will either respond in repentance, glorifying Christ, or we will scorn God’s message, rejecting His Son. But a reply must be made. No one can remain neutral to the Spirit’s movement.

SCRIPTURE FULFILLED // VERSES 16-21

I’ll be honest: this is one of my favorite passages in all the Gospels. Picture the scene with me. Jesus, being about thirty now (3:23), returns home from being publicly baptized by John the Baptist (the most divisive religious figure at the time) and from spending forty days fasting in the wilderness alone. Perhaps rumors had already spread about God’s voice breaking through the opened heavens after John immersed Jesus in the Jordan. Maybe the Nazarenes had also heard stories whispered of Jesus’ unusual birth, of shepherds and foreign kings worshiping an infant. But this was Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter. And Nazareth was nothing but a blip on the map. With a population of probably around 400 people, who would ever believe that the Messiah could come from Nazareth anyway?

So as Jesus sat in the Nazarene synagogue to teach, He saw faces that both grew up alongside Him and watched Him grow from a boy into a man. They were familiar in the utmost sense of the word. Jesus knew them, and they thought that they knew Him. As He was handed the scroll of Isaiah, maybe they were excited to hear what message this newly revealed prophet would bring to them. What new revelation would He teach them about God?

But Jesus simply reads Isaiah 62:1-2 (while also quoting Isaiah 58:6). Rolling up the scroll, He assumed the authoritative teaching position by sitting down. With glued eyes, they awaited His message, and He speaks: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It is difficult for us to grasp just how audacious Jesus must have seemed to His fellow Nazarenes.

Joseph’s son, Jesus, is here in the synagogue, saying that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words!

How ludicrous!

Sure, Jesus may have possessed an uncanny understanding of the Scriptures, but to think that they prophesied about Him would be ridiculous! Right?

And yet this is what Jesus presents to His hometown, to the people who have known Him all of His life. In no uncertain terms, He claims to be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the Son of David, the Prophet like Moses, the Seed of Abraham, the Serpent-Crusher whom God promised Adam and Eve to send into the world. He asserts to be the One at the center of God’s very Word.

Remember, this is the same Jesus who was most likely still doing regular contract jobs just a few months ago. Now, however, He is claiming to be the fulfillment of the ancient and sacred prophesies.

PHYSICIAN, HEAL YOURSELF // VERSES 22-30

What would you think of Jesus if you were one of the Nazarenes?

It is far too easy to stand in judgment upon biblical and historical figures from the high ground of hindsight. The hard reality is that most of us would have reacted exactly the same way as Jesus’ neighbors did in these verses.

Verse 22 is quite interesting because it reveals the internal conflict within the people’s minds. On one hand, they couldn’t keep from marveling at the Jesus’ words, but on the other hand, they simply couldn’t excuse the fact that Jesus was just as ordinary as any of them. After speaking one sentence, the words of Jesus have already created turmoil within His hearers’ hearts.

Jesus responds to their turmoil by addressing the biggest question in their minds: would He perform some miracles in Nazareth like He did in Capernaum? By citing the proverbial statement “physician, heal yourself”, Jesus is exposing what the people are actually hoping for. Already they are scheming about how Jesus’ status might be leveraged to benefit their town.

But Jesus refuses. To lend weight to His refusal, He reminds them of miracles from the ministries of Elijah and Elisha where Gentiles were blessed instead of God’s people, the Israelites. This, of course, only makes them murderously angry with Jesus. But even though they attempted to stone Him, Jesus escapes from their hands, which in verse 30 seems like a miraculous event.

But why did Jesus refuse to perform a miracle in His hometown?

Wouldn’t it have been easier to humor them for a bit in order to prove that He was the Messiah?

Jesus knows the hearts of all men. They did not have a holy fascination and amazement with Jesus as we often find throughout the Gospels. They were not, by faith, eagerly longing to learn by a sign or wonder whether Jesus was truly the Messiah; instead, they were demanding proof from Jesus. The difference may appear subtle, but in reality, it is vast. Countless times, Jesus comforted the brittle faith of those who hoped beyond hope that He was the Savior, but He refused to play the game of those who presumed to have the right to judge His messianic ministry. After all, the scribes and Pharisees likewise asked for a sign, but Jesus rejected their request as well (Matthew 12:38-39).

Perhaps authority is the key. Those of weak faith (like the man who cried, “I believe. Help my unbelief!”) cast their weakness upon the mighty feet of Christ. They received mercy because in their failings, they looked to the One who cannot fail. They acknowledged Jesus’ authority as the Messiah. The Nazarenes here (like the Pharisees elsewhere) presumed to have authority over Jesus. They were prepared to judge the authenticity of His ministry themselves. Jesus refused to indulge such prideful arrogance.

This mentality is still present today as many still view themselves to be the proper judge of Jesus’ credibility and authenticity. They refuse to acknowledge the lordship of Christ, claiming to need more proof in order to believe His assertions. Once again, I’m not talking about humble questioning, broken doubting, or genuine truth-seeking but instead a thinly-veiled refusal to see Jesus as lord until He meets one’s standard. Sadly, many heresies were born in attempt to assuage such lofty hearts. Often these heresies revolve around someone questioning or blatantly rejecting a portion of Scripture, to which the heretic responds by reinterpreting or wholesale dismissing the offending passage. The root heresy is the presumption of being Scripture’s arbiter. Like Jesus, we must always be ready to comfort and answer the doubting, broken, and confused, but, also like Jesus, we must never fall for the lie that Jesus or His Word must be subject to the scrutiny of unbelieving men.

Of course, the irony is that in their anger to stone Jesus to death He appears to miraculously escape by passing through the crowd. Thus, a sign was given to them after all. It was a sign of judgment upon their heads. A sign that they were neglecting the great salvation of God because they simply could not believe that Jesus was actually the Messiah.

All of this should make us marvel anew at Isaiah’s words about Christ: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2). Such was Jesus’ humanity. Those among whom Jesus was raised could scarcely believe that someone as ordinary as Jesus could actually be the promised Messiah. Obviously, they sensed deeply that something was profoundly different; otherwise, they would not have been spellbound by Jesus’ teaching. Yet His plainness was so evident that it became a stumbling stone for His neighbors.

Living in the Bible Belt can kind of feel like Nazareth sometimes. Jesus is so cultural that it’s almost like living in His hometown. Everyone’s heard His name. Almost everyone thinks that they know Him. But also like the Nazarenes, most think He is a good guy with some wise and godly words to say, but He’s not their Lord. He’s not their Messiah. He’s not their Savior. As back then, so too today Jesus refuses to yield. He refuses to play the game of cultural Christianity. He refuses to be judged by arrogant eyes. He refuses to cure those who obstinately declare themselves to be well.

And He passes onto the next town.

May we face Jesus fully and truthfully, not according to our own terms, but as He presents Himself in the Scriptures. May we elevate Him as the Messiah who has and will fulfill every prophesy foretold. May we hear His words and respond by clinging to His cross for salvation. May we never be like Nazareth.

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills | Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 121 ESV

 

Last week we began the Songs of Ascents with Psalm 120’s lamentation over living among those who reject God, which was fitting since every pilgrimage must begin with a discontentment for present circumstances. Psalm 121 presents the next steps of fixing our eyes upon our destination and establishing our hope that God will keep us safe through the many dangers that meet us along the way.

LOOKING TO THE HILLS

No one will ever venture away from home and the comfort of normalcy unless a yearning has stirred within them for more. Such is the holy discontentment that we described previously. We cannot live as strangers and exiles in this world until we have become sufficiently disillusioned with the world’s many promises of joy and satisfaction. To use the language of these psalms, we will not take the risk of traveling to Jerusalem without being first convinced that it is more glorious than Meshech and Kedar.

But now that we have experienced this discontentment, what is the next step? We lift our eyes toward our destination, toward God’s holy hill, Jerusalem. Interestingly, even though these first two verses sound much more hopeful than Psalm 120, they are actually expressing the same essential idea. Through his lament, the psalmist of 120 expressed his hope that God would ultimately rescue him from his sojourning in Meshech and dwelling in Kedar. Verses 1-2 of Psalm 121 now provide an explicit declaration of God’s expectant rescue as well.

We should make a note that many commentators view the hills of verse 1 in a negative light. They suggest that the psalmist is declaring that he will not fix his eyes upon the worshiping of idols that often occurred on the high places. While this interpretation is certainly plausible, I believe that the hills are instead representative of Jerusalem, and the psalmist is declaring his intention to look away from the things of this world and upward to God.

Sight is a crucial symbol within the Bible because we will walk toward what we are looking at. Only foolishness would claim that we can continue to move forward while setting our gaze upon what is beside or behind us. The high speed of automobiles helps to solidify this point. Far too many accidents occur because the driver is distracted with something in the backseat. Likewise, no hiker would ever attempt to navigate a rocky trail with his eyes fixated on something behind him. In the same manner, the hard and narrow path that leads to life is easy to stray from if our eyes are not set upon our destination. Our goal of eternal life, the Celestial City, is like the hill of Jerusalem, and we must have our eyes lifted toward it. The danger of veering off the path is too great to do otherwise.

Jesus gives this very warning to a potential follower in Luke 9. In verse 61, the man declares to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Seems reasonable, right? Who knew when the man would see his family again since Jesus had an itinerary ministry? Furthermore, many who became disciples of previous “messiahs” met their end via the sword of Rome. Why should he not want to say farewell to his family? Yet Jesus answers the man, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62).

Does this seem harsh?

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan portrays a similar scene. The main character, Christian, becomes convinced that his city (the City of Destruction) is doomed to meet the fiery wrath of God and that he must journey to the Celestial City in order to be saved. Upon learning this knowledge, Christian becomes incredibly distraught, and his wife, children, and neighbors all attempt to calm his fears. Eventually, he is told by Evangelist to flee this destruction by going to the Wicket Gate and beginning his journey down the Narrow Way. Christian’s response is immediate:

Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! Life! Eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain. (4)

Such an extreme response is necessary for following Christ. He has also demanded, after all, that we must love Him more than our own family (Matthew 10:37). The choice to follow Christ, therefore, cannot be made flippantly. To be a disciple of Jesus is to bear a cross (Matthew 10:38), being marked by death even as we yet live. If we seek to be like our master and teacher, how can we expect anything more pleasant than the humiliating rejection that He was given via the cross (Matthew 10:24-25). Becoming Christ’s disciple means choosing the path of greatest resistance, the way of rejecting the comforts and promises of this life. It means lifting our eyes toward the hills and the God who dwells in them. It means becoming an enemy to those who hate God and His Word. It means becoming a foreigner in the very place we once called home. It means considering our life lost for the hope of finding true life in Christ.

Such an action is exclusively individualistic.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying.

Far too often we forget the essential component of community in the life of the believer. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian who is outside of a local church. The assurance of our salvation is given to us through the affirmation of our brothers and sisters around us. We need each other far more than we can truly comprehend.

Yet salvation itself is not a communal event. The blood of Christ does not redeem entire families by simple proximity to a Christian. The journey of faith is one that each of us must walk, and in the end, we must each stand before God alone, naked and bare before His judgment. No one will simply wander into the gates of heaven. Many will enter stumbling and crawling, but no one will just happen to find the entrance. Few will find the narrow gate that leads to life. Find implies the necessity of searching.

Are you searching?

Have you lifted your eyes to the hills of the LORD?

Like Christian, have you placed your fingers in your ears and fled from sin and onto the path of life?

The journey can only begin with eyes lifted toward Jerusalem, toward our eternal home with the LORD.

THE LORD IS YOUR KEEPER

The main theme from verse 2 onward is God’s preserving power upon His people. Keep (or keeper) is used six times within the final six verses, making the point of these verses far from obscure. Like a resounding gong, this psalm seeks to drive the promise of God’s providential protection of His people into our minds and hearts. The LORD, our God, will keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.”

But why do we need this promise?

From what dangers do we need to be kept?

While I am not frightened of flying, few can deny how unnerving the idea of speeding hundreds of miles per hour tens of thousands of feet in the air for several hours at a time is. Consider that the first commercial airline flight took place on January 1, 1914, which means that the airline industry is only 105 years old. Something should be slightly unsettling about that knowledge. And yet before June, I plan to spend approximately 56 hours in the air.

Why take such risks?

For the sake of reaching the destination.

Journeys are dangerous, but some destinations are worth the danger. A pilgrimage is not for the fainthearted because staying home is always safer than traveling. By foot, car, boat, or plan, traveling is risky business. To quote Bilbo’s wise words to his nephew: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Fittingly, the first danger that the psalmist acknowledges is that our feet might slip. In a society where walking was the primary mode of travel, a sprained or broken ankle is a far greater inconvenience than a flat tire. But there is also the danger of our feet being swept off the path. This may come through carelessness, a failure to diligently follow directions. Or it could occur through dangers that force a detour. Whether our feet become injured, we wander from the path, or we are pushed off the road, each poses a serious threat to reaching our destination.

The elements are the second danger of which the psalmist warns. Being struck by the sun and moon in verse 6 may not sound like great threats today, but let’s consider their meaning. The sun is certainly easier to understand. Living in the southern Oklahoma, news stories can be read each summer of individuals who passed away due to having a heatstroke.

The moon is a bit different. The word lunacy derives from the belief that the moon could have direct effects upon one’s mental health. Perhaps this thought could be easily dismissed as a worldly superstition, since the moon’s varying gravitational pull does not seem to impact cognitive behavior. Or perhaps being moonstruck was caused by the comparatively great light of a full moon in a world without electricity. Maybe this “lunacy” was the result of a disrupted circadian rhythm, which we now know can have serious ramifications upon a person’s mental health.

Regardless, the psalmist’s point in using the sun and moon is to illustrate the unavoidable dangers of the natural world. Due to the sin of Adam and Eve, all of creation was plunged into the darkness and brokenness of sin. The earth, which was once meant to be cultivated into a gigantic Eden, now frequently harms we who were placed in dominion over it. Without proper protection, the sun and moon that give us light can also strike us down.

For the third danger, the psalmist simply states all evil. Unfortunately, the risk of traveling is greater than simply losing our way or meeting an unavoidable natural disaster; there is also the threat of wicked men. The heartbreaking reality is that there are people who earn profit for themselves through inflicting harm on others. White-collar conmen, drug dealers, or sex traffickers, the world has a greater number of truly malevolent individuals than we ever dare to think about. Especially when people design attacks purely to cause terror, the natural response is to shrink back in fear, to hide ourselves away from the rest of society, to retreat from the world.

It truly is dangerous business to walk out your door. Possibly more so than we understand. In fact, given that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is symbolic for the life of a Christian, we should not be surprised to discover that these dangers can also be symbolic for our spiritual journey. It is often said that the three enemies of our walk with Christ are our own flesh, the influence of the world, and the wiles of the devil. The dangers within this psalm seem to parallel those enemies.

Psalm 73 uses the imagery of feet slipping to describe the psalmist almost falling into his envy of the foolish and prosperous. Therefore, our wandering feet could easily be counted as our flesh’s tendency to wander away from the LORD.

The sun and moon, which are ever-present in this life, parallel with the influence of the world upon believers. Like the sun and moon, we cannot exist apart from the world, yet we must always be wary of their dangers, which are all the more intensified by their ubiquitous presence.

Finally, the maliciousness of men is readily compared to the evil one, from whom we pray to God for deliverance. If these symbolic interpretations seem like a stretch, I would argue that the poetic nature of the Psalms absolutely warrants these types of application.

To be honest, with all these dangers in mind, life will probably go much smoother if you do not follow Christ, just as staying home is less risky than traveling abroad.

Walking out your door will always have greater risk than staying behind it.

Picking up a cross will always be harder than leaving it on the ground.

Dying to self will never be immediately more appealing than living for self.

Following Christ is a call to come and die. It means acknowledging that our very bodies are not our own but were bought with the price of Jesus’ blood, making us His bondservants, slaves to His grace.

His yoke is easy.

His burden is light.

But the way is narrow and hard.

Few will find the gate to life at the path’s end.

Following Christ is a one-way flight, a journey from which there is no return.

Only those who endure to the end will be saved. The call for endurance, of course, implicates difficulty.

With so many “dangers, toils, and snares,” how can we ever hope to arrive safely at Jerusalem, the Celestial City?

The psalmist answers by admitting that we have no such endurance within ourselves. God alone can keep us secure until the end. He expresses this confidence in God for three reasons.

First, God does not slumber. By God’s design, we are never more vulnerable than when we sleep. Of course, we can certainly wake ourselves quickly when danger may be near, but sleep itself remains a state of helplessness. I believe this is meant to be a divine limitation upon our pride. We can never escape the necessity of sleep; thereby, we are daily reminded of our creatureliness, that will never be gods. Repeatedly the New Testament writers urge us to be watchful and to stay awake, yet we are only capable of so much vigilance. Our own attentiveness can never fully protect. We are limited, finite, and dependent upon rest. Our God, however, is not. His rest upon the seventh day of creation was, much like Jesus’ baptism, intended to model our behavior. The LORD has no limitations nor does anything lie outside His watchful gaze. Even among the dangers around us, we can pray with David: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

Second, as God kept Israel, so He will keep us individually. Here the psalmist is calling us to reflect upon God’s steadfast love toward His people in general in order to find confidence in Him personally. The account that is repeatedly remembered in the Scriptures is the Exodus. But as Christians, we are now able to also recount the greater exodus, how God freed us from our slavery to sin. If God was willing to rescue us from our sins by the blood of His Son, how much more will He be faithful to deliver us from other dangers as well!

Third, God made the heavens and the earth. It is glorious news that God desires to be our helper and keeper, but that fact remains nothing more than a pleasant sentiment unless God can actually do it. Joyously, the LORD’s hand is not to short to save (Isaiah 59:1)! Because He is the all-mighty and sovereign Creator, God is entirely able to keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.” What a magnificent truth! God absolutely can preserve us to the very end of our journey, and, in fact, this is our only hope of reaching our destination. Just as we are justified by God’s grace, so are we also preserved by His grace. Without the strength and guide of the Spirit within us, we could never endure to the end and be saved.

Of course, this promise of perseverance does not guarantee ease. God does not promise to make the journey smooth for His people; He promises to see them safely to the end. Often it is through the challenges and hardships that God both teaches and shapes us. By His providence, the dangers around us become the instruments of our growth and progress. Our great hope, therefore, is not that we will be spared from all tragedy, sorrow, and pain; it is that in the midst of those things God will ultimately work each of them out for His glory and our good.

Brothers and sisters, lift your eyes up to the hills. Set your sights upon Jerusalem, our heavenly home with the God. The journey is perilous indeed with dangers always at hand. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), yet by the LORD’s strength and provision, those who seek it will find it (Matthew 7:7-8). Follow Christ and look to Him as your keeper both now and forevermore.