Thursday, July 28, 2016

Proverbs 22:1: Choosing the Good Name

Proverbs 22:1 --- Choosing the Good Name
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.

We enter the final section of Solomon's second collection, which runs from 10:1-22:16.  It begins by relativizing money and wealth.  There is something far more valuable than silver and gold.

Earlier in the Book of Proverbs, wisdom has been the treasure that relativized earthly wealth.  Verses like these showed us that we should consider wisdom to be more valuable than money or possessions:

            Take my instruction instead of silver,
                and knowledge rather than choice gold,
            for wisdom is better than jewels,
                and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. (Proverbs 8:10-11)

            How much better to get wisdom than gold!
                To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Proverbs 16:16)

But in our proverb, it is not wisdom that relativizes wealth, but rather a good name.  But the question then arises:  Whose name could relativize wealth like this?  Scripture's answer is given in Philippians 2:9-11:

"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Jesus Christ is the One in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found (Colossians 2:3), and he has been given the name by the Father that is above all names.  Therefore, he is the great treasure we should seek above all else.  He is the treasure a man finds, and in his joy gives all he has to obtain (Matthew 13:44).  Such is his worth!

As believers in Christ we are given the highest privilege to bear the name of Jesus Christ.  We are baptized into his name (e.g., Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48 et. al.).  We bear his name.  We are restored to the incredible privilege of the image bearers of God.  We are Christ's new creation, restored to represent his name in all we say and do in an unbelieving world.  Though this may make us unpopular with some or many, it does not matter.  What matters is to have the love and favor of God our Father through Christ our Lord.  The flame of faith is quenched and put out when we seek the favor of man, rather than the favor and glory of God: "How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5:44) Jesus asks. 

O may we rejoice, not in the praise of men, for Jesus tells us plainly this will not always be the case for his faithful people (Luke 6:26).  But, rather, may we rejoice in this:  we belong to Jesus, whose name is above all names; through his name our "names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20); and through his name we have the favor and blessing of God forever.  Amen.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Proverbs 21:31 --- Don't Fight Without the Lord

Proverbs 21:31 --- Don't Fight Without the Lord
The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
    but the victory belongs to the Lord.

If verse 30 teaches us our need of the fear of the Lord, verse 31 teaches us our need to trust in the Lord.  Fearing the Lord and trusting the Lord are intimately connected.  Derek Kidner summarizes verses 30 and 31 this way:  "If verse 30 warns us not to fight against the Lord, 31 warns us not to fight without him.  It condemns, not earthly resources, but reliance on them."[1]

While the literal meaning of this passage concerns war, and while there are many examples of how the Lord defeated flesh and blood enemies for his people in Old Testament times despite overwhelming odds, I believe the real battle in view in verse 31 is the spiritual battle every believer fights with the world, the flesh and the devil, in his pursuit of righteousness and love (see 21:21).  Just as Paul interpreted the verse about muzzling the ox in Deuteronomy 25:4 as being really about the support pastors who preach and teach the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 9:9ff), so this verse is really about trusting the Lord and relying on him in the spiritual warfare each believer (and church) is involved in.

Spiritual progress and character are not developed ex opere operato (by the work performed).  This is the view of Roman Catholicism, that just taking the sacraments of the church convey grace regardless of whether one has faith.  But Reformed and Lutheran churches denied this view, and held that faith must be present if the Word, the Supper, and our baptism are to function as means of grace.  It is faith that unites us to Christ.  Faith is the hand that receives Christ and his blessings.  We need more than instruction to walk with our heavenly Father and his Son each day, although instruction is vital.  We also need the Father's grace and strength in Christ.  And so we live not only for Christ, but also through Christ.

In practical terms, each day we must offer ourselves to our Lord in view of his mercies:  "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).  For, as the apostle says in another place, "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19b-20).  In other words, each day we must meet with the Lord to both receive his mercies and strength, and to offer bodies to him for the spiritual warfare of the day.  He is our Lord, our General, our Savior, and the One who commands us for our good and his glory.  But the battle is fierce and we are only wise if each day we put on the armor of the Lord in this fight with the spiritual forces of wickedness (see Ephesians 6:10-18).

It is a great mistake to fight against the Lord.  But it is also a great mistake to fight without him!  Let us not make that mistake in our daily struggle against sin (see Hebrews 12:3-4).  Instead, let us trust and rely on the Lord Jesus Christ, receiving his grace, so that we might offer ourselves to him completely every day.  Then sin will not have dominion over us (Psalms 19:12-13 and 119:133) and we will live lives that please and honor him.  Amen.


[1] Kidner, Proverbs, 138.                                          

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.

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