Let Your Words Be Few | Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

In almost every book or sermon to be found on Ecclesiastes, the emphasis of these verses is placed upon how we worship God, and while worship does form the bulk of the discourse here, the point of this passage is more interested in why we worship than how we worship. The Preacher is diving at the heart behind our worship of the LORD, and the result is rather like a piece of classical music. Two movements are at play here describing how to properly worship God, and each movement ends with a refrain that muses over the vanity of dreams and many words. The piece then closes with a thunderous crescendo that is meant to cast a new light upon everything that came before. Like any complex work of art, the goal is for us to meditate deeply upon what lies before us. Here, specifically, we should consider what the repeated refrain is teaching us about how to worship God and how the Preacher’s conclusion changes how we worship by reminding us why we worship.

Over the course of studying this passage, I’ve toss around various ideas about how to present it. Like many do with Ecclesiastes as a whole, I considered the wisdom of beginning with the ending, so that we might have the proper perspective over the whole text. Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. Such an approach may be more systematic in leaving no stone unturned, but it also loses some of the potency of the poetry. I’ve heard it said that art is like a frog: you can dissect it into its individual parts, but doing so will kill the frog. I pray then that God will guide our discourse as I endeavor to present the text in its poetic structure.

GUARDING YOUR STEPS // VERSES 1-7

We begin with the matter of how to worship God properly. Let us break the commands issued within these verses down to five imperatives: 1) guard your steps, 2) draw near to listen, 3) avoid the sacrifice of fools, 4) avoid rash and hasty words, and 5) pay your vow.

Guarding Your Steps (v. 1)

The first imperative is a warning for us to guard our steps when approaching God’s house. What does he mean by this? Throughout the Bible, walking is a metaphor for living. And it’s a fitting comparison. As the feet move so does the body. The Scriptures, therefore, repeatedly encourage us to walk down the path of righteousness and wisdom, while avoiding the way of wickedness and folly. Of course, Jesus capitalizes on this metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount by describing a narrow road and gate that lead to life and a broad road and gate that lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). The point then is that the steps you take (and where you take them) have much to say about the condition of your heart.

Solomon’s call for guarding your steps whenever you approach God is really a plea for you to consider the condition of your heart. Where have your feet been lately? What does that say about your walk with God and the condition of your heart? These are important questions to ask before approaching God. After all, God is mysteriously awe-striking and deserving of reverential fear. He is so much greater than us that we must always approach Him with the utmost reverence.

However, what does this mean for us under the New Covenant? Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we are to boldly approach God’s throne. Does that not contradict with this verse in Ecclesiastes? I believe that one of the greatest errors of modern Christianity is that we place little value on Old Testament thought. We tend to think that God used to be vengeful and angry, but now because of Jesus, He is loving and kind. We treat God as if He has changed personalities. But that is not the case! The God that we serve today is the same God that Solomon wrote about here. Instead of treating God like He is bipolar, we must understand that God is still worthy our highest reverence. He is still infinitely greater and more majestic than we can ever imagine. The only difference between us and Solomon is that because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice we can now come before God, as His children, without fear that He will reject us. We should still approach in reverence, but we also know now that we come before Him in the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Draw Near to Listen (v. 1)

Next, Solomon tells us that it is better to come to God for listening “than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” These two form a contrasting couplet, but let us focus first on the positive command. Listening is crucial whenever we draw near to God because listening involves yielding. As I listen to someone, I am surrendering over a portion of myself and my time in order to know them more. In this way, listening validates worth. By listening, I declare that you are worth my time and attention. My focus shifts off of myself and onto you. This explains then why speaking to someone who listens is truly life-giving.

But if humans who are made in God’s image are worth listening to, how much more God Himself? The point here is not that God does not care what you have to say to Him. Scripture repeatedly makes clear that the opposite is true. But we should deeply care about listening to what God is saying and make every effort to listen to Him.

Unfortunately, we often fail to listen to God’s voice. We are like the people to whom God sent Isaiah, who “keep on hearing, but do not understand” (Isaiah 6:9). God’s Word often goes in one ear and out the other without us having truly listened to any of it. Because of this propensity, God often prefaces His declarations with the word “hear.” By default, we are fools who like the sound of our own voices and who don’t care what God has to say. John Piper describes this heart well: “Many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered” (6). We will delight in meeting with God so long as the meeting is centered around us.

But God is God, not us. We desperately need to hear His voice far more than He needs to hear ours. His ways are higher than our ways, and His plans are greater than our plans. Why would we not take advantage of listening to Him?

Of course, this listening is done primarily through God’s Word. As we read the Scriptures, God Himself speaks. Sadly, the rigidness of our private devotions can often hinder this joy. Too often, we can lock ourselves into a pattern of spending so many minutes reading Scripture and so many minutes in prayer. We do this in order to have a dialogue with God. But how many conversations actually work like that? That pattern is more like a debate than a dialogue. Real conversations have more natural flows in them. And we can interact with Scripture in the same way. Instead of rigidly dividing a time for reading Scripture and for prayer, why not mingle prayer into Bible reading? First, this makes our prayers naturally more biblical. Second, it provides a better environment for conversation to flow. Perhaps one day you have much on your heart, so two or three verses lead you into fifteen minutes of pouring your heart out to God. But the next day a different sort of heaviness is upon you, so you simply open the Word, praying, “God speak, and I will listen.” Both are beautiful forms of communion with God.

Avoid the Sacrifice of Fools (v. 1)

Next Solomon encourages us to avoid offering the sacrifice of fools, which are evil in the sight of God. What exactly is the sacrifice of a fool? I believe they are the kind of sacrifices described in Isaiah 1:12-17:

When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Unlike the person who humbly comes before God to listen, the fool’s sacrifices to God are all about himself. He is trying to buy God’s favor with his sacrifices, which in the end becomes a form of self-improvement rather than worship. Mike Cosper captures this idea well:

Likewise, any approach to the Christian life that seeks self-improvement as the end goal will fail too. A life of prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines can easily be a life of empty religious effort if the goal isn’t communion with God. We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home. (45)

Furthermore, I think that this kind of selfish sacrifice typically comes in one of two forms. First, fools can offer the sacrifice of good works with a wrong heart. The Christian is called to do everything to the glory of God, but often we can do good works for our own benefit. Sometimes we want to look good before others, while other times we just want to feel better about ourselves. Both are sinful motives. Second, fools can offer the sacrifice of right belief without good works. Such was the case with the recipients of the passage of Isaiah above. They knew all the religious actions to take, but they failed to do good to those around them. Their theology didn’t lead them in compassion for the world around them.

If you notice, both of these sacrifices fail to account for the whole of a person. One has the actions without the head and heart, while the other has the head without actions or the heart. Fools think that they can separate out our lives. They think that they can give God their lives without giving Him their heart. Or that they can give Him their head without giving Him their hands. But we are holistic creatures, who are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). Everything we have is from God and must be for Him. This is why overeating doesn’t just bloat our stomachs it dulls our spirit. This is why few things are more spiritually healing than good food and good drink shared with good friends. Fools think that they can compartmentalize God, while the wise know that even our daily food and drink are for His glory and our good.

Religious devotion is a meaningless vanity without communion with God.

Avoid Rash and Hasty Words (v. 2)

This verse builds upon the concluding thought of verse 1. In our relationship with God, are we the ones that do all of the talking? Do we ever give God the opportunity to say anything to us? Solomon’s thought is very straightforward: God is bigger, smarter, wiser, and all around more awesome than you, so you should probably listen to what He has to say more than you tell Him what you think. It is my personal belief that we should all memorize these two verses because they are so counter to our nature. We want to be the ones doing all the talking. We want to be the ones that set the grounds in our relationship. But that’s all foolish. It’s foolish to come before God with many words. James 1:19 echoes this thought: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When you approach God, make it about God, not yourself. Be quick to listen to Him, and slow to share your opinion.

Of course, this does not mean that our prayers should be dishonest towards God. Praying dishonest prayers that we think God wants to hear is another sacrifice of fools. In doing so, we attempt to deceive God. But He is in heaven, and we are on earth. The cosmos is held together by His might, and He knows all things. Why then would we try to bring anything to Him other than our honesty? Indeed, letting our words be few is not permitting dishonesty; rather, it is calling us to slow down and understand the weight of speaking to God.

Refrain: The Business of Dreams and Many Words (vv. 3)

Obviously, these refrains are quite important since they are repeated twice, but they are quite difficult to interpret. What exactly does Solomon mean when by dreams? How are the vanity of dreams and many words connected to the rest of this passage? Barrick suggests that as vanities they are meaningless distractions in our life that keep us from true worship. Akin offers that since dreams during sleep after a hard day’s work, these are the works and words that we use to impress God. Moore thinks that words and dreams are cheap; God wants our hearts.

I think, similarly, that the dreams and words of a fool are centered upon himself. Chasing after the dreams in his head provides much business to attend to, but they are mere fantasies with no substance. Likewise, his many words might sound impressive at first, but they too are vanities. With the business of dreams and the fluff of many words, a fool becomes wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15). He becomes fixated upon himself.

Pay Your Vow (vv. 4-6)

Have you ever attempted to barter with God? We say things like, “God, if you just let me find the one, I promise I will be happy and serve you with my whole heart” or “if you give me a million dollars, I promise to give half to my church!” These appear to be facetious examples, but are they not true to our character? We often have an “if you… then I will…” mentality. We make rash vows to God all the time. Our three-thousand-year-old philosopher tells us that this is not such a good idea. We make promises to God in haste, and should God actually give us what we want, we flake out in fulfilling our vows. Solomon says that this is foolish, and God “has no pleasure in fools.” We just discussed that God is far greater than ourselves and we should approach Him with fear, so it would make sense that we should keep any promises that we make to Him. He says plainly, “pay what you vow.” If there is anyone that you should avoid lying to, it’s God. In fact, Solomon says that it would be much better to just, like the previous verses say, keep your mouth shut before God than to make promises that you won’t keep. Jesus gives us this same message in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not to make any vows because we don’t know if we will be able to fulfill them. Instead, let our ‘yes’ be yes and our ‘no’ be no (Matthew 5:37). We are to be a people that fulfill our word.

We must be careful with the words that we say because an unfulfilled vow to God is sin. How true is this that our mouth tends to lead us into sin! The king of Israel also warns that God will not accept the excuse that we made the vow as a mistake and that there will be consequences for us lying to God. Next, Solomon issues the same warning as in verse 3. If there is one lesson to learn quickly when studying the Scripture, it is that God does not repeat Himself needlessly. Since this repetition is here, we must assume that we definitely need to take its words to heart. Here is the thought: words become meaningless when they don’t have actions to back them up. Stop presenting verbal fluff. Fear God. Worship Him with a lifestyle of reverence and intentional actions.

Refrain: The Vanity of Dreams and Many Words (v. 7)

Dreams and many words are vanity because we are terrible at judging what we truly need. We have all sorts of dreams and desires that we long to see fulfilled, but we rarely pause to consider how beneficial or damaging they might be. God, of course, does not yield to our desires, which causes many to question His goodness. How can a God who is all powerful and completely good withhold pleasure from me? Surely His goodness or omnipotence is lacking, right? Wrong. God is our Father who sees things far clearer than we can. Consider my one-year-old daughter, who just today saw her mom painting some shelves outside and decided that she also wanted to play with some paint. For most one-year-olds tasting forms a significant component of playing and our daughter is no different. In that moment, being a loving father meant withholding a desire from her. Forbidding her from eating the toxins in paint is an act of love that she doesn’t yet understand; therefore, she perceives that I am limiting her freedom.

The reality is that we need limits. We need boundaries. We need a heavenly Father who loves us enough slap our hand when we reach for things that can harm us or, more accurately, things that we use to hurt ourselves. Paint itself is not harmful when used properly, but the toxins within can kill if ingested. Likewise, wealth itself is not sinful, but when clutched by immature hands, it often is. Sex was designed by God to foster intimacy between a husband and a wife, but many use it to drag the decaying carcass of intimacy across the floor of self-gratification. Because of this, there are times when God giving us what we want is like handing a toddler a steak knife. In short, God’s refusal to fulfill your dreams may, in fact, be one of His greatest graces upon you.

FEARING GOD // VERSE 7

Thus far, we have addressed five commands regarding how we ought to worship, but now the Preacher will address why we should worship God in those ways. He does this by summarizing the commands above and pointing us to the fear of the LORD.

The Preacher concludes these verses with a marvelous conclusion, which ties together the whole of the text. In many ways, this is final phrase is foreshadowing how Ecclesiastes’ epilogue will enlighten the entire book as well.

If the root problem with in our worship is that we are too focused upon our own dreams and words, then fearing God is the alternative. In fact, the fear of God is the reasoning behind the five imperatives in verses 1-6. Because God is worth fearing, we guard our steps when we approach Him, we draw near to listen to Him, we avoid the sacrifices of fools, we avoid uttering rash and hasty words, and we pay whatever we vow to Him. Each of these can only be properly motivated by first possessing a fear of the LORD.

But why is the fear of the LORD necessary? Fearing God simply comes from understanding that God is God. To know God is to fear Him. He is holy. He is unique and in a class all unto Himself. It is only right and proper to have a healthy fear of Him, and only utter foolishness fails to do so. We fear God by simply acknowledging that He is God, and seeing God as God can only result in living a God-centered, not self-centered, life. The knowing and fearing God smashes self-aggrandizement into bits by pointing us to the magnitude of His glorious worth. All of our pretty words and lavish dreams are particles of dust compared to snow-capped mountains of His sovereign decrees.

But fearing God is not just proper; it is also practical. As humans, we were created to fear the awesome might of the LORD, so when we fail to fear God, other fears take root within the heart. Consider the rise of fear, anxiety, and depression within our society which coincides with the decline of those holding to the Christian faith. Fear of terrorism. Fear of disease. Fear of collapsed economies. Fear of isolation. Fear of people. The list can (and does) go on without end. We fear these things because we fail to fear God. After all, the fear of God is exclusive. We cannot have a proper view of God, while continuing to fear other things. Understanding God’s greatness and His love for us must cast all other fears aside. Why fear the uncertain future when the One who stands sovereign over time is our Father? Why fear death when it ushers us into eternal life with our Savior? Why fear the temporal opinion of others when God’s evaluation of us is eternal? There is an exclusivity to fearing God. By properly revering Him, we realize that all else pales in comparison.

The fear of God is as good as it is exclusive. The fear of Him “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) is the same fear that enables us to say as in Psalm 118:6, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” The Christian’s cry against the fears and anxieties of the world is “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)? Our heavenly Father desires our good, so we are most benefitted by shifting our focus from self and onto God. Our greatest happiness is only found through our trembling pursuit of God. He is the supreme Treasure but not all desire to look upon Him, as Owen warns:

Not all who desire to go to heaven are fit and ready for it. Some are not only unworthy of it and excluded from it because of unforgiven sin; they are not prepared for it. Should they be admitted, they would never enjoy it. All of us naturally regard ourselves as fit for eternal glory. But few of us have any idea of how unfit we really are, because we have had no experience of that glory of Christ which is in heaven. Men shall not be clothed with glory, as it were, whether they want to be or not. It is to be received only by faith. But fallen man is incapable of believing. Music cannot please a deaf man, nor can colours impress a blind man. A fish would not thank you for taking it out of the sea and putting it on dry land under the blazing sun! Neither would an unregenerate sinner welcome the thought of living for ever in the blazing glory of Christ. (p. 7-8)

Indeed, everyone will one day fear God, but there will be two distinct kinds of fear. Those who have not beheld the glory of Christ by faith will be cower before Him, while those who by faith have tasted and seen that the LORD is good will rejoice in awestruck wonder. Because God is God, He will be feared. Let us earnestly seek the second kind of fear. Let us tremble that the One who authored quantum mechanics, photosynthesis, and platypuses is the same God who died in humiliation on the cross to rescue us from our sin. Let us quake that Holy of Holies has become our Father by adopting us as sons and daughters.

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Vanity Under the Sun

The Vanity of Fear Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

Listen to the sermon here.

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 5:1 | Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.   

Ecclesiastes 5:7 | For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.  

OPENING THOUGHT

The book of Ecclesiastes was written by the Preacher (probably Solomon) to reflect upon his lifelong search for lasting meaning, purpose, and joy in life. But even after obtaining all the pleasure, wealth, sex, and power that he could possibly want, he comes to the conclusion that everything under the sun is vanity, a vapor that is here today and gone tomorrow. Of course, the key to properly interpreting Ecclesiastes is the phrase “under the sun.” Solomon’s ultimate goal is to show that nothing on earth can truly satisfy us. We need divine intervention.

In almost every book or sermon to be found on Ecclesiastes, the emphasis of these verses is placed upon how we worship God, and while worship does form the bulk of the discourse here, the point of this passage is more interested in why we worship than how we worship. The Preacher is diving at the heart behind our worship of the LORD, and the result is rather like a piece of classical music. Two movements are at play here describing how to properly worship God, and each movement ends with a refrain that muses over the vanity of dreams and many words. The piece then closes with a thunderous crescendo that is meant to cast a new light upon everything that came before. Like any complex work of art, the goal is for us to meditate deeply upon what lies before us. Here, specifically, we should consider what the repeated refrain is teaching us about how to worship God and how the Preacher’s conclusion changes how we worship by reminding us why we worship.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Solomon presents five commands for worship: guard your steps, draw near to listen, avoid foolish sacrifices, avoid rash and hasty words, and pay your vows. Which of these most resonates with you? Why?
  3. Why are we commanded to fear God? Why does the fear of the LORD cast out other fears? What fears and anxieties do you wrestle with? In what ways can you fight them by fearing God more?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

Sloth: the overlooked sin

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
(Proverbs 6:6-11 ESV)

Here Solomon speaks to the Sluggard, the slothful person who refuses to work. He calls his attention to the ant, demanding that he learn from her. Without an overseer looking over her shoulder, the ant gathers food and works diligently. The Sluggard, on the other hand, is pictured as sleeping the day away. He creates excuses in verse 10, saying that it is only a little sleep, only a little rest. But poverty will befall him like a robber.

The application of these verses is near infinite, and I find the sin of sloth to be deceptively prevalent in both my life and the society at large. I will, therefore, do my best to make sense of my scattered thoughts regarding this sin.

Let’s address two questions: 1) What is sloth? and 2) Why is it a big deal?

First, the sin of sloth is the refusal to do God-glorifying work. Adam was given work in Eden (Genesis 1:28), so work is not a byproduct of sin. Work is difficult and does not always bear fruit because of sin, but God designed us for the activity of work. By denying work, the Sluggard is, thus, denying his role as an image-bearer of God. We should never denigrate the sinfulness of sloth by assuming that it is merely laziness. No, it is, at heart, a rejection of God’s designed order for creation.

Second, because sloth rejects the godliness of work, slothfulness is problem of worship. We worship God whenever we joyfully embrace what He has ordained for and commanded of us. We withhold worship whenever we disobey God’s commands and designs. Paul displays the importance of this in his warning and exhortation to the Thessalonians:

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 | Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

The Thessalonians were wrestling against the sin of sloth (or idleness). Many in the church were refusing to work (likely waiting for Christ’s return). Paul, therefore, gives them the command if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. He even encourages them to keep away from those who refuse to obey this command (thereby issuing church discipline).

Sloth is, therefore, not a sin that can be overlooked or taken lightly. But its sinfulness is subtle rather than overt, which makes it easily ignored while we focus on “more important” sins. Yet sin is sin, and all sin is a rebellion against God. My intent over the three following posts is to provide clarity on three areas where sloth is prevalent in the U.S. culture. These forms of sloth will be as follows: intellectual sloth, spiritual sloth, and busy sloth.

The Providence of God

The Journey to Egypt | Genesis 46:1-30

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Genesis 46:1-4 ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

Because Genesis is the Bible’s introduction, we cannot properly understand the rest of the Scriptures without knowing this book. Here we learn that God made the world good and created humans in His image, but we rejected God’s paradise, choosing rebellion instead. But God did not give up on us. In fact, He promised a Savior that would one day defeat sin and death for good, and that Savior would come from the family of a man named Abraham.

Although none in Abraham’s family have proved to be the Savior, God miraculously uses Joseph (Abraham’s great-grandson) to save his family. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph went from being a slave, to being a prisoner, to becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Through divine wisdom, Joseph guides Egypt through a devastating seven year famine, and now he beckons his brothers to bring his father Jacob down to Egypt.

Regularly fearful and nearing 130 years old, the journey to Egypt would have been frightening for Jacob, but God speaks to the patriarch, encouraging him to make the journey down to his long-lost son. Just as Joseph, the grain supplier in Egypt, is an image of Jesus being the bread of life, so Jacob’s journey into Egypt is similar to the journey we must all make toward Christ.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read chapter 46:1-30 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Genesis 46:1-27? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Jacob responds to the news that Joseph is alive in Egypt by worshiping God through sacrifices. Do you regularly turn to God in worship upon receiving blessings? What does that worship look like?
  3. Even in his old age, Jacob must make the perilous journey into Egypt to meet Joseph and save his family from the famine. How does this journey parallel our daily walk as Christians? How is Judah similar to Jesus in preparing the way for his brothers? In what ways does discipleship help others on their journey toward Christ?
  4. The always fearful Jacob finds peace to die upon reuniting with Joseph. How is this similar to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:6-8? How does the gospel remove the sting from death?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What has God taught you through this text (about Himself, sin, humanity, etc.)?
  • What sin has God convicted or reproved you of through this text?
  • How has God corrected you (i.e. your theology, thinking, lifestyle, etc.) through this text?
  • Pray through the text, asking God to train you toward righteousness by conforming you in obedience to His Word.

The Wisdom & Worship Reading Plan

This Bible reading plan came about because of a few ideas.

First, I wanted to have a daily reading from the Psalms. The past two years I went through two different reading plans: blended and chronological. I enjoyed both of them and certainly recommend them to anyone who might use them to systematically read through the entire Bible. However, I did not like that both plans required a reading of the Psalms that in no way differed from the other books of the Bible. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so, I do not think that the Psalms should be treated that way. Psalms is a collection of God-inspired, Holy Spirit-breathed poems and songs. Many of the Psalms are deeply-emotional prayers to God, either in praise or lament. This prayerful emotionality makes the Psalms completely unlike any other book of the Bible. They are designed specifically for worship, both corporate and personal.

Therefore, I do not want to read the Psalms as I would Genesis or Matthew or Romans; instead, I long to use the Psalms to foster a prayerful intimacy with God. With this in mind, I have established a reading plan that has a daily Psalm reading. Over the course of a year, the Psalms will be read twice with Psalm 119 being read three times. I divided Psalm 119 into multiple readings because it is essentially twenty-two psalms that together form the longest poem in the Bible. Also, because of Psalm 119’s passionate love for the Scriptures of God, I believe that it is the perfect psalm to begin our year of reading God’s Word.

The book of Proverbs follows a similar thought process. Like the Psalms, Proverbs is a collection from throughout the history of Israel. It contains many wise sayings and ponderings upon wisdom from King Solomon and others. If the Psalms are meant to be springboards for prayer and worship, Proverbs give us practical and applicable advice for daily life. Most of the individual proverbs are not exact promises from God, but they are divinely written guides for how to live life. Therefore, I hope that small and daily readings from Proverbs bring about more Godly wisdom in our hearts.

The Old Testament is laid out the traditional order. The average reading length is two chapters, with some days being more or less. Personally, I have a great love for the poetic literature and the prophets, so I have chosen to read through books like Ecclesiastes and Habakkuk more slowly. As this is my first year to use this plan, I will be closely examining the layout to learn if this approach feels natural or not.

As for the New Testament, the plan will take us through its entirety twice. I have decided to organize the books around the four Gospels. Because Luke was a companion of Paul and wrote Acts as well, the book of Acts and the letters of Paul follow Luke’s Gospel. Mark was a disciple of Peter, so Peter’s letters are read after Mark. Jude bears much similarity to 2 Peter, making it included in this grouping. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four gospels, so Hebrews and James are read after it. John’s Gospel is then grouped with his three letters and the book of Revelation (also written by John). I pray that this will be an effective way of organizing and focusing upon each of the four Gospels and how their themes are traced throughout the New Testament.

May this be a year of growth in the wisdom, knowledge, and grace of God through prayer and the Word of God.

Wrestling with God

Jacob & Esau Reunite | Genesis 33

Week 9 | Study Guide & Sermon

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION 

Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. (Genesis 33:11)

And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel. (Genesis 33:19-20)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

OPENING THOUGHT 

Jacob’s life is a continuous war being waged between fear and faith. Even after God prophesied that Jacob would usurp his older brother’s firstborn right, he still took matters into his own hands by deceiving his father into blessing him instead of Esau. Afterwards, Jacob fled from Esau to his mother’s homeland, where he found his wife, Rachel. Unfortunately, his father-in-law, Laban, deceived the Jacob into also marrying Rachel’s older sister. Chaos ensued in Jacob’s family, but eventually God commanded Jacob to return to his home. Jacob chose to flee in fear of Laban, rather than trusting God to care for him. Then upon arriving at his father’s land, Jacob prepared to meet his brother by giving him 550 animals in a series of waves, hoping to appease Esau’s wrath.

Though Genesis 32 built up the tension of the reunion between Jacob and Esau, the chapter ended with the twist of Jacob wrestling God throughout the night. Having now been given both a limp and a new name, Jacob goes forth to greet his brother. Twenty years had passed, and Jacob assumed that Esau still intended to kill him, which Esau’s four hundred men only helped to imply. Providentially, Esau is not angry with Jacob; instead, Esau warmly greets Jacob, embracing and kissing him. Jacob clearly understood this to be the work of God upon Esau’s heart.

But even though God had changed Esau’s heart, one of the biggest questions of this chapter is whether Jacob’s heart has changed as a result of his wrestling match with God. Some commentators are quick to jump to Jacob’s defense, believing that Jacob is an entirely new man now. Others present the opposite opinion, claiming that Jacob acts here in virtually the same manner as before. I will throw my lot in with others still who believe that Jacob is more complex than the other two opinions give him credit for. Jacob’s life has been a battle of fear and faith, and that fight continues here. Sometimes it appears that Jacob’s faith is winning, but at other moments, fear gets the upper hand. We know this to be true of ourselves as well. After encountering God in salvation, we do not miraculously cease sinning and act only in faith; rather, we still face temptations and doubt. But like Jacob, God’s grace keeps growing us in maturity, even if it is inch by inch.

Read verses 1-11 and discuss the following. 

  • The time has now come for Jacob to reunite with his brother, Esau, and Jacob goes through an elaborate display of submission before having Esau embrace and kiss him. Did Jacob act in fear or faith here? Why?
  • With his 400 men and his calm decline of Jacob’s sizable gifts, Esau seems to be quite wealthy himself. It does not, therefore, seem unreasonable that God may have softened Esau’s heart toward Jacob by giving him material blessings. How can material blessings distract us from worshipping God?

Read verses 12-20 and discuss the following.  

  • Now that Jacob has made peace with his brother, he builds booths for his livestock and settles down. Have you experienced a similar peace that comes from reconciliation?
  • Having settled matters with his brother, Jacob buys land and builds an altar to worship God. What was the twofold purpose of an altar? How do we worship God today?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER 

  • Obey. Having been rescued from Esau’s wrath, Jacob builds an altar to worship God. Similar to Jacob, we have been saved from the wrath of God by the sacrifice of Christ, and worship should be our response to that good news. Take time this week to evaluate your worship of God.
  • Pray. Jacob was far from perfect before he wrestled with God, and he was still sinful after that encounter. But by God’s grace, Jacob continued to grow in maturity and godliness little by little. Pray that the same would be true of you.
Wrestling with God

Jacob’s Vision | Genesis 28:10-22

Week 4 | Study Guide & Sermon

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION 

A he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heave. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! (Genesis 28:12)

Tn Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you. (Genesis 28:20-22)

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the Angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)

OPENING THOUGHT 

The account of Abraham’s descendants is already a bumpy one. Isaac followed in the faith of his father, but he also walked after Abraham’s sins. So far, Jacob and Esau have been less than ideal sons. Their fighting began in their mother’s womb and continued to grow with them. After Esau foolishly sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup, we last saw how Jacob also stole Esau’s blessing. Following Jacob’s deception, Esau was so angry with his brother that he began to actively plot his murder.

Our present text occurs while Jacob is journeying to the homeland of his mother, a significant 500 miles away from home. Along the way, Jacob takes rest for the night and finds himself swept up in a vision of God. He sees a great ladder with the angels ascending and descending upon it. Above the ladder is God, who pronounces the covenantal blessing of Abraham and Isaac upon Jacob. He awakes from the vision awestruck and afraid. The text then concludes with Jacob creating an monument, calling the place Bethel (the house of God), and vowing to serve the LORD.

This is easily one of the most important moments of Jacob’s life. Until now, God spoke to Abraham and Isaac but not to Jacob. He had heard of God but not from God. Now the LORD would not merely be the God of his father and grandfather but his God also. The power of this event is also evident even in its structure. First, God calls to Jacob, promising to bless him, and then Jacob responds to God in worship. That is the pattern for all believers throughout history: God gives grace, and we respond in worship.

Read verses 10-15 and discuss the following. 

  • God appears to Jacob for the first time through an extraordinary vision. Does God still use visions or similar signs to speak to believers today?
  • Jacob’s vision is of angels ascending and descending upon a heavenly ladder while God stands above it. How do Jesus’ words in John 1:51 connect to this vision? Why does Jesus use this imagery for Himself?

Read verses 16-22 and discuss the following.

  • Even after receiving tremendous promises of blessings, Jacob still wakes from the vision afraid, which displays a fear of the LORD in him. What is the fear of the LORD, and why is it important for followers of Christ?
  • Jacob worshipfully responds to God’s gracious blessings by vowing to serve the LORD and give Him a tenth of his possessions. In what ways do you live a worshipful life daily in response to believing the gospel?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER 

  • Obey. Consider the actions of worship that Jacob takes in response to God’s blessings. Do you similarly worship God with your life and finances? Ask the LORD to guide you into sacrificial giving.
  • Pray. Though Jacob received a stunning vision, we have in the Bible the full Word of God; therefore, give thanks to God for His revelation in the Scriptures.
COPYRIGHT© B.C. NEWTON 2016