Thursday, July 21, 2016

Proverbs 21:30 --- The Utter Sovereignty of the Lord

Proverbs 21:30 --- The Utter Sovereignty of the Lord
No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel
    can avail against the Lord.

Verses 30 and 31 deal with the sovereignty of the Lord, which no person ought dare forget.  Along with verses 1-2, which also deal with the Lord's sovereignty and judgment, they form an inclusio[1] that frames this chapter, which has told us about the wicked and what they are like. 

The basic problem with the fallen human race is that we no longer fear the Lord.  And when we lose his fear, then wickedness follows.  O how we need to recover the fear of the Lord in our lives!  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the constant heart attitude that will keep us from wickedness.  As Psalm 19 puts it, "The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever."

A. W. Tozer begins his classic book, The Knowledge of the Holy, this way:

"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. . . . The most portentous fact about any man is . . . what he in his deep heart conceives  God to like. . . . Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, 'What comes into your mind when you think about God' we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. . . . A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well."[2]

This inclusio or frame of God's sovereignty and judgment around this chapter teaches us the key to learning the fear of the Lord.  We must learn who the Lord is and let that truth sink deeply into our souls.  Our God is utterly sovereign.  We cannot outmaneuver the Lord!  We cannot follow our own wisdom, our own understanding, or our own counsel without ending up in utter ruin!  If we oppose the Lord in our thinking or in our lifestyle we will not escape eternal judgment.  His sovereignty is inescapable. 

We are so syncretistic!  Syncretism is gathering wisdom from whatever source we happen upon.  We glean a little wisdom from Oprah, a little wisdom from the latest self-help book, a little wisdom from the Dahli Lama, a little wisdom from the Bible, a little wisdom from this source or that.  But what we fail to see is that the Lord Jesus Christ alone is the source of wisdom!  What we fail to see is that any wisdom or understanding or counsel that opposes him is false and will not avail!  What we fail to see that there is a so-called "wisdom" that is "earthly, unspiritual, and demonic" (James 3:14-17), because it opposes the Lord.  Our syncretism dishonors Jesus Christ our only Lord and teacher.

We have to discern the voices that speak to us in this world.  The world is a noisy place with many voices.  But voices that do not begin, continue, and end with the fear of the Lord can never rightly analyze the true problem of the human race, nor prescribe the true solution.  The philosophers of this world, who are actually theologians, but false ones, always go wrong because they have rejected the fear of the Lord.  And so all their wisdom, understanding and counsel is unspiritual and false because they didn't build on the foundation of the Lord and his words (see Matthew 7:24-27).  One of the more infamous of these false theologians was Friedrich Nietzsche, who is known for declaring that God is dead.  But after Nietzshe's death, someone wrote this:

                "God is dead."  --Nietzsche
                "Nietzsche is dead." --God

The sovereign Lord will have the final word.  "No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord."

[1] An inclusio, sometimes called an inclusion, is a literary device that is used to frame a passage, showing where it begins and ends.  Psalm 8 is an example as it begins and ends with the words, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth."  This device gives us a clue as to what the author wants us to see.  In Proverbs 21, I believe the point is that the fear of the Lord, which the wicked lack, is gained by coming to a right understanding of who the Lord, with whom we have to do, truly is.
[2] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 9-10.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Proverbs 21:28---The New Is In the Old Concealed

Proverbs 21:28 --- The New Is in the Old Concealed
A false witness will perish,
    but the word of a man who hears will endure.

The second line of this proverb seems to puzzle almost all the commentators on this verse.  But one wonders if the reason for their universal puzzlement is their failure to heed St. Augustine's famous maxim, "The new (testament) is in the old (testament) concealed, and the old is in the new revealed."  In other words, Christ and his teaching is found in the Old Testament, but it was concealed or hidden, until Jesus came in the fullness of time and unveiled to us the ultimate meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures.

The first line of the proverb is straight forward.  The Lord hates lying.  It is one of the seven things the Lord finds abominable (Proverbs 6:16-19).  "You shall not bear false witness" is one of the Ten Commandments.  According to Revelation 21:8 "all liars" will have "their portion . . . in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."  That false witnesses will perish is not a surprise, for the Lord incarnate is the way,
the truth, and the life, thus the truth remains forever.

But in the second line, we are told that "the word of a man who hears will endure," and the Hebrew is even stronger, because it uses the word
forever, literally saying, "but he who hears will speak forever."[1]  What could this possibly mean?  How could a mere man speak forever?

When we turn to the New Testament, we find our answer.  In Romans 10, we are told that preachers of the gospel are sent (v. 15).  And, when they are sent, the question becomes, how will people respond?  Romans 10:16 asks, "Lord, who has believed what he heard from
us?"  But verse 17 then teaches that is was not the voice of the preachers the people heard, but it was the voice of Jesus Christ himself: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (v. 17).  Yes, this is the word about Christ, but it is also the word of Christ!  It is similar to what 1 Peter 4:10-11 says, "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God." Since preachers and even everyday believers are able to speak the word of God, and since that word of the Lord is described as "seed" that is "imperishable" (1 Peter 1:23), and a "word" that "remains forever" (1 Peter 1:25), therefore, we can say that just as there are false witnesses in the world, so there are also true witnesses who speak the word that lasts forever.
Our proverb today teaches us that there are false teachers/witnesses and there are true teachers/witnesses in the world today.  Jesus called false teachers wolves, camouflaged in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15).  False witnesses in courts of law can do much physical damage sending to prison or even death, but false witnesses in religion bring far worse damage, because false teaching brings eternal ruin to the souls of men.

The key to being a faithful teacher is found in faithful hearing of the word of Christ!  One cannot preach and teach the word of God until one faithfully hears the words of our Lord and Teacher.  Jesus himself was the teacher par excellence because he was the listener par excellence (Isaiah 50:4-5).  Jesus came as the faithful and true witness, but all who receive his witness come to know the truth as well, so that they too can bear witness to the world.  As John 3:33 says, "Whoever receives his [Jesus'] testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true."  When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he came overconfident, trusting in worldly wisdom.  He said, "We --- me and my group --- we know" (John 3:2).  But Jesus countered by speaking of himself and his group of disciples:  "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony" (John 3:11). 

The first disciples were witnesses of Jesus' life and teaching, and his death and resurrection.  The apostles laid the foundation for the church, leaving a witness for us in the New Testament Scriptures.  But when we receive their testimony, then we too become witnesses in the sense that we come to know the truth as it is in Jesus.  And so we can do good in the world as we share the imperishable and eternal gospel with a world that remains in death apart from this imperishable word!  Praise the Lord that "the new is in the old concealed," and that in Christ we can bring out this wonderful latent meaning!

[1] Lane, Proverbs, 242.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Proverbs 21:23: Our Words and the Image of God

Proverbs 21:23
Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue
    keeps himself out of trouble.

Roland Murphy writes that about 20 percent of chapters 10-29 are focused on speech.  This points to the importance of speech.
[1]    Murphy also says, "Speech is perhaps the truest indication whether one is wise or foolish.  It betrays who one is."[2]  If we are going to pursue righteousness and love intensely, as our last two proverbs have advised, then our speech will indicate where we are in that quest.  A careful look at the words that come from our mouths will expose how we fall short of God's glory and righteousness (Romans 3:23). 

But the importance of speech also follows when consider our purpose.  We were created to image God.  We were made to reflect his glory.  In Christ we have been delivered from vain, self-serving stories that are deadly dull, and given the privilege of reflecting his character, and participating in the life and love of the triune God!  And who is this God?  He is the God who speaks!

Of course, for those who love their sin and are not pursuing the Lord, nor his righteousness and love, it is best to construct a god who never talks!  A God who talks is a God who threatens our control over our lives.  Thus, it is best to make a silent god, who doesn't talk to us, lest he reprove us of our sin or say something mean to hurt our feelings!  If that's the kind of silent god you want, then Proverbs is not for you, because in Proverbs our heavenly Father is constantly instructing, reproving and teaching us for our blessing.  There is pain as his teaching exposes, rebukes, and leads us to the sorrow of repentance, but there is also the joy of faith.

And, one blessing besides the high privilege of imitating the triune God and participating in his life, is what our proverb mentions in the second line.  The man who learns to keep his tongue, learning to speak to bring God glory and blessing to others, has this benefit: he "keeps himself out of trouble." 

I am not sure that this word
trouble in line two, quite captures the difficulty our words can make for us.  John Hartley gives us some examples of the use of this word translated as trouble from the Old Testament:

"It indicates intense inner turmoil (Psalm 25:17).  It describes the anguish of a people besieged by an enemy.  It is comparable to the pain of a woman bearing her first child (Jeremiah 4:31).  It refers to terror at the approach of a raping army (Jeremiah 6:24).  It defines the quality of time when Judah suffers her severest punishment for violating the covenant (Jeremiah 30:7; cf. Psalm 78:49).  The land of a people that reject the Lord's word is described as full of distress (our word
trouble), darkness, and the gloom of anguish (Isaiah 8:22; cf. 30:6)."[3]

After reading Hartley's words, how thankful we should be that Jesus Christ suffered the punishment for our unguarded speech!  He took the punishment we deserved for all of our untrue, unfair, unkind, unnecessary and unedifying words that do not glorify the Father.  And by his salvation he delivers us from our trouble and brings his light into our darkness.  Teach us, Father, to offer our bodies to you in view of your mercies, including our mouths and lips, for your service.  Amen.

[1] Murphy, Word Biblical Commentary, 258.
[2] Ibid., 259.
[3] John Hartley, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 779.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

What We Trust Is Our God --- Proverbs 21:22

Proverbs 21:22
A wise man scales the city of the mighty
    and brings down the stronghold in which they trust.

The key to unlocking the meaning of this proverb is the last word,
trust.  On a literal level, no doubt wise tactics have often been the key to military victory.  In the Bible, David's capture of Jerusalem, and Cyrus' capture of Babylon, both thought to be impregnable, are helpful pictures of the imagery of this proverb.  But in the broader context of this section of the book, we are dealing with spiritual warfare.  We are dealing with the pursuit of righteousness and love --- a life pleasing to our heavenly Father.  What we trust in is vital in this spiritual battle.
What we trust and hope in is truly our god.  Martin Luther famously said, "The trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God.  For these two belong together, faith and God.  That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God."[1]

Recently I was in Madison, Wisconsin and visited its capitol building.
  It is the largest dome in the United States, and only three feet shorter than the United States capitol building.  It is a beautiful building, but I was struck by its temple-like feel.  It was a reminder of how easily the human heart makes the state and power its god.  Our proverb is teaching us that trust in anything other than the Lord is foolish.  Wisdom is superior to power, because its foundation is in the fear of, and trust in, the Lord, to whom alone belongs "the kingdom and the glory and the power forever," as the last line of the Lord's Prayer teaches us.

Making an idol of the state and power is very tempting when you live in the most powerful nation in the world.  Our obsession with politics and power can betray the fact that we believe the real issues of life are located in Washington D. C., or in the latest headlines of the newspaper.  But the truth is, the real issues of life are always fought in the human heart.  What we trust and hope in is our god/God, and Proverbs teaches us that it is foolish to put one's trust in anything other than the living God.  The sage is teaching us that wisdom is better than might, because wisdom's foundation is in trusting the Lord.  The beloved apostle John put it like this:

" For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.
  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5).  

[1] From Luther's Large Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert.  Fortress Press, 1959, p. 365.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Christ in the Proverbs: Icons of Discipleship

Proverbs 21:19
It is better to live in a desert land
    than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman.

This section of Proverbs has been dealing with the anti-social aspects of wickedness.  The biggest problem of the wicked is their "quarrelsome and fretful" nature.  The wicked are fighting against the Lord and his revealed Word, refusing to trust him.  The wicked are quarreling with their Creator.  The wicked refuse to submit to the Lord, and thus, they become rebels, causing social disorder.  Having rejected the Lord and his Word, they make this world a hellish place of fighting, quarreling, and even violence, the opposite of the triune love.

The woman, more so than the man, is a better physical icon of discipleship.  Besides her beauty, her body is more receptive, which is the appropriate attitude toward the Lord and his Word.  While Proverbs' main image of God is Father, we should not forget the Lord is also the Husband of his people.  We are betrothed to our Lord.  The proper attitude to the Lord is one of trust, love and reception.  We are to receive the words he implants in our souls.  In this way, we bear fruit, and Christ is formed within us (see Galatians 4:19).  The imagery of Scripture is in some ways sexual, and is so meant to be.  Women beautifully picture what discipleship is supposed to be, and this discipleship is seen throughout the Gospels in women like Mary, who humbly receives the word of the Lord, and so Christ is physically formed in her; in the woman in Luke 7:36-50 who gives Jesus the lavish reception he deserves, when the male host so grievously does not; and in Mary who sits at Jesus' feet to humbly learn from him.

Maybe the best icon of discipleship in the Old Testament is Ruth.  After repeated urging from Naomi to depart and "find rest . . . in the house" of a husband from Moab (Ruth 1:9), Ruth refuses and instead she
clings to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), a covenant word often used for how we ought to cling to the Lord.  One gets the feeling that the One Ruth is really clinging to is, not Naomi, but the Lord, who has become her true Husband.  Her words to Naomi express trust and receptive discipleship, and seem at times to be more directed to the Lord, her Husband, than Naomi.  They are beautifully receptive words that speak of dwelling and lodging in the Lord, the opposite of the disorder and chaos created when the wicked quarrel and depart from him:

"Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).

Therefore, once again, these humorous transitional verses about the quarrelsome wife teach us deep lessons about both the wicked and the righteous, and tell us what makes a place either heavenly or hellish here on earth.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Poverbs 21:17: The Pleasure Paradox

Proverbs 21:17
Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man;
    he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.

The kind of wickedness envisioned in this verse is sadly relevant for today.  2 Timothy 3 teaches us what it will be like in the last days, the time between Christ's first and second comings.  One of the vices it lists is this: people will be "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (3:4).

The word "pleasure" in line one of our proverb is the same Hebrew word translated as "joy" just two verses earlier in verse 15:  "When justice is done it is a joy to the righteous."  As John Kitchen says, "The two verses help form a theology of pleasure."[1]  Verse 15 teaches that pleasure/joy is a by-product of the pursuit of the Lord and his righteousness.  Verse 17 teaches that the pursuit of pleasure/joy directly is self-defeating and brings spiritual poverty.  Sandwiched between the two verses is verse 16, warning us "that more than pleasure is at stake."[2]  Which theology of pleasure we opt for carries eternal consequences.

The competing theologies of pleasure form the pleasure paradox.  The direct pursuit of pleasure is self-defeating and brings spiritual poverty.  But the pursuit of righteousness or right conduct brings the spiritual by-product of joy.  The pursuit of pleasure is idolatry and it will lead to spiritual emptiness.  But the pursuit of the Lord and his kingdom brings pleasure and joy, which the direct pursuit of pleasure can never bring.  Jesus taught this paradox in the Beatitudes, when he said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6). 

I often hear people in our prosperous culture talk about how good life is.  It doesn't get better than this, they say.  One of our modern heretic's most famous slogans is about living "your best life now."[3]  But these sentiments are hard to square with Jesus' words from John 12:25: "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."  I rarely hear people say, I hate my life in this world.  What would make anyone hate their life in this world?

At the heart of our proverb is what a person loves.  In fact, in Hebrew there is a chiasm that is hard to duplicate in English that might be rendered rather clumsily like this:

                Will be poor a man whoever pleasure loves;
                loves wine and oil he will not be rich.

The pattern is ABBA, with the A elements contrasting the poor and rich man, and the B elements in the center of the chiasm emphasizing the word "loves."  Thus, love is at the middle of the proverb and is central.  Love is the key to what we are and become.  What we love determines what we pursue.  If we love the Father, we will, as Jesus taught, "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).  But if we love an alternative kingdom --- a different view of what constitutes the good life --- then we will pursue that kind of life.

Who, then, would say they hate their life in this world?  The answer is someone who loves the Lord and his righteousness.  The answer is a person who is longing for his kingdom to come.  The answer is someone who sees the beauty and glory of the triune God of love, who is blessed (joyous) forever.  The answer is a person who sees that this world is a place where his Father and his Lord are dishonored; a place where death has entered because of sin; a place that is filled not with the self-giving love that comes from the triune God, but rather the self-grasping desires and passions that James says causes conflict and enmity between persons, families, communities, and nations (James 4:1-5).

Our Lord is not a kill-joy.  But he is a jealous God.  He is our Husband, and he calls us to have no other gods before him.  We must forsake false husbands/gods in order to love the true God.  Pleasure/joy is one of those false gods we must forsake because we love Christ our heavenly husband.  Will we lack joy and pleasure if we forsake pleasure and joy as our god?  No, actually in forsaking pleasure/joy and serving and loving the Lord, our joy will be great and our hearts satisfied.  This is the pleasure paradox, and how relevant it is for our hearts to learn in a world that hungers for pleasure, but not for the Lord, his righteousness, and his kingdom!

[1] Kitchen, Proverbs, 475.
[2] Kidner, Proverbs, 136.
[3] Joel Osteen

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Proverbs 21:9: The Foundation of Human Community

Proverbs 21:9
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
    than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.

There are a series of these better-than proverbs sprinkled throughout Proverbs, some of which deal with the quarrelsome wife.  I have to admit I find them humorous.  It's almost as though this form of the better-than proverb took on a stereotyped formula, with each new version trying to top the next in where it would be better to live than with a contentious wife!

The section of Proverbs we are in runs from 20:29 to 21:29, with 20:29-21:3 the introduction, and 21:4-29 the main body.  The section has three sub-units: verses 4-8, 10-18, and 20-29.  Strangely, two of these better-than proverbs, dealing with a quarrelsome wife, divide the sub-units.  It seems odd at first that these two proverbs, which seemingly have no connection to this section as a whole, would be chosen as an "organizing principle."[1]  But I have a thought on why these two verses are a brilliant piece of divine wisdom perfect for this section, which is telling us about the anti-social behavior of the wicked.

The Book of Proverbs sees a wife as a gift of God.  Proverbs 18:22 tells us about this wonderful gift:

                He who finds a wife finds a good thing
                   and obtains favor from the Lord.

Mothers, along with fathers, are viewed as teachers of their children.  In fact, the book's main body after the introduction, includes the mother's teaching alongside the father:

                Hear, my son, your father's instruction,
                    and forsake not your mother's teaching. (Proverbs 1:8)

But the better-than proverbs often recognize the imperfect situation we are now in after the fall.  The better-than proverbs sometimes describe "two less than perfect conditions.  The sage weighs their relative worth and declares one preferable---although neither is entirely satisfactory."[2]  And so, in our verse, the "two less than perfect conditions" compared are a spacious house with a quarrelsome wife, or the corner of a roof without a quarrelsome wife.  Solomon advises it is better for the husband to take a chance on nature's storm on the roof than with the wife's storm in the house![3]  Again, it is hard to miss the humor, but in seeing the humor we don't want to miss the serious message.

The first message is this.  While a good wife is a good gift, not every wife is righteous and good.  The relationship between husband and wife, after the fall, is more difficult because of sin.  Men are prone to selfishness and lust, rather than self-giving love.  The tendency for men to objectify women, after the fall, is strong, and this tendency must be fought and put to death in the believing man's heart.  Self-emptying love must be cultivated, rather than self-grasping lust.  

Women tend to a slightly different problem after the fall.  It is expressed in Genesis 3:16: 

                Your desire shall be for your husband,
                   and he shall rule over you.

The word desire in this verse is the same word used in the words the Lord spoke to Cain just a bit later:

                "sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it" (Genesis 4:7b).

The idea, then, in 3:16 is that after the fall, the wife's tendency is to rule over her husband, just as sin wanted to rule the heart of Cain.  The wife's fallen tendency is to want to control her husband.  But just as in the case of the man, so in the case of the woman, she must fight this tendency and put it to death.  She must learn, like godly women always have, the precious jewel that is the true beauty and glory of a woman:

"but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:4).

In a marriage, just as it is the case in all human communities, selfishness destroys relationships.  While love builds up, selfishness tears down.  And this, I think, is why this seemingly unrelated proverb fits perfectly into this section which deals with the anti-social aspects of wickedness.  Marriage is the primordial sacrament that is meant to teach us what life is really all about!

First, marriage in its physical union of mutual indwelling is a sign that points to the mutual indwelling of the trinity.  The Father indwells the Son and Spirit.  The Son indwells the Father and Spirit.  The Spirit indwells the Father and the Son.  And this mutual indwelling is not impersonal, but self-giving in its love.  The Father makes room for the Son and Spirit.  The Son makes room for the Father and Spirit.  The Spirit makes room for the Father and Son.  And all of this is pictured in marriage, which is foundational for human society.  And so, we see how the mutual love and indwelling of the trinity is to be pictured in the sexual union and everyday relations between a husband and wife.  The trinity is the model for the most basic model of community --- marriage --- from which all of us come forth.  Thus, the trinity is the model for all human community.

But there is also a hierarchy among the equal members of the trinity.  Each person in the trinity is fully God.  The Father is fully God.  The Son is fully God.  The Spirit is fully God.  There are not three gods, but one God.  But within this unity there is diversity.  And within this unity there is hierarchy.  From eternity the Son has always done the Father's will, delighting in it.  So too the Father and Son send the Spirit.  This order is seen especially in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, where we read that even the Son, who is fully divine and equal with the Father, willingly subjects himself to the Father.

Therefore, the picture of the quarrelsome woman, is a picture that shows us how humanity fights against the way things really are.  We live in a world where everything is modeled after the triune God.  And from that model we learn that two things are especially important for us to live rightly in God's world with our God and others: self-giving love and humility, for it is selfishness and pride that destroy relationships and fail to reflect the image of the triune God.

[1] Waltke, Proverbs, vol. 2, 169.
[2] Schwab, Proverbs, 535.
[3] Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 193,

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