Contentment in Christ

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

Verse 10 presents what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat awkward and misplaced transition. It seems as if Paul is jumping to a whole new topic: His recent receipt of some sort of gift from the Philippian congregation. But, while that is the topic, Paul seems to be bringing it up at this point because it has everything to do with what he has been discussing in this section. He is using their gift to make an important point about what it means to “think on these things.”

Remember, Paul has just stressed that they were to fix their thoughts on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. They were to fill their minds with thoughts of those actions and attitudes that reflect those kind of characteristics. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Paul brings up their recent gift to him. But notice that is it not the gift itself that Paul turns his attention to. It is what the gift represented to him. He tells them that he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly,” not because of the nature of what they gave, but because of the heart behind the gift – “you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10 ESV). 

The gift was a tangible expression of their love and concern for him. And, Paul lets them know that he always knew they cared for him, but was aware that they had been hindered in expressing their love in either word or deed because of distance and his own unique circumstance in Rome. For Paul, the gift was not the point. He doesn’t even mention what the gift was. It was simply a timely reminder of their love for him and, as he thought about that, he couldn’t help but rejoice. Their thoughtfulness to send him the gift was an example of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable.

Too often, we allow conditions and circumstances to determine the degree of our joy. When things go well for us, we react with happiness. When they don’t, we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, wondering what we did to make God mad at us. But circumstances were never meant to be metrics for measuring our joy or contentment. And neither were material things. But the truth is, far too many of us place excessive importance on stuff and things, seeking from them a sense of worth and using them as our primary source for finding satisfaction and significance in life.

The Philippians saw Paul as someone in need. He was under house arrest in Rome, so his circumstances were less than ideal. He had no source of income, so his financial situation was challenging. They may have heard that his housing was inadequate and his food supply was insufficient. From their perspective, it must have appeared that Paul was in dire straights, as he awaited trial before Caesar.  So, they sent him a gift. And it was only natural that they would do so. They wanted to do something to help alleviate any suffering he may be experiencing as a result of his conditions.

But Paul, while grateful for their graciousness and love, used this as another teaching moment, letting them know that, in spite of what he was going through, he really had no need. It wasn’t about the condition of his circumstances or the abundance or lack of material things. And Paul makes that point quite clear in what has become one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses from the Bible.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. – Philippians 4:11 ESV

Think about what Paul is saying. His mention of the delay in receiving their gift was not intended to convey that he had lacked in anything. He had not been sitting around waiting for someone to do something about his circumstances. He had not been longing for a gift of some kind that would lighten his load or improve his living conditions. No, he said that he was perfectly content. He was at peace. He appreciated their gift, as an expression of their love, but he didn’t need it. Whatever it was that they sent was not going to make him any more happy or satisfied than he already was.

Over the years, Paul had learned a valuable lesson, that he was not attempting to pass on to them.

I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:12 NLT

Paul refers to what he has learned as being a secret or mystery. The Greek word he used is myeō, and it means “to initiate into the mysteries.” He had been taught something that few people ever get to know on their own. And the lesson he learned was taught to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Remember what Paul stated earlier in this same letter: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5 NLT).  He was humble, obedient, selfless, sacrificial and obedient to God the Father, even to the point of death.

Paul was probably familiar with the story when the disciples had brought Jesus food and had encouraged Him to eat. But He had responded, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). While they debated among themselves how Jesus had gotten this food, Jesus told them, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). And it is likely that Paul was aware of the encounter Jesus had with a would-be disciple, to whom Jesus declared, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NLT).

For Paul, contentment had nothing to do with content. It wasn’t about things. Clothes, food, and living arrangements were not what brought Paul joy. The size of his personal portfolio was not a determiner of Paul’s contentment. The condition of his circumstances was not how Paul measured his sense of satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of material prosperity had no little or no impact on Paul. He didn’t allow the ups and downs of life circumstances to dictate his overall sense of contentment. And the key to this rather radical view on life was his relationship with Jesus. According to Paul, it was Jesus who gave him the strength to live as he did.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

Paul could survive house arrest, because of Jesus. He could put up with less-than-satisfactory living conditions, because of Jesus. He could do without comfortable clothes or good food, because of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just give Paul strength to survive want and neglect. Paul could survive all the temptations that come with material wealth, because of Jesus. He had remained undistracted by the allure of fame and notoriety, because of Jesus. He was not prone to envy other, more popular, ministers, all because of Jesus.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminded them that when he had arrived in their city, he wasn’t out to impress or to gain approval.

I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NT

His emphasis had been of Jesus. His strength had come from Jesus. He came to them, filled with fear and trepidation, but he found the power to do what he had been called to do – in Christ. And, in a second letter to the same congregation, Paul emphasized that the strength he received from Christ allowed him to endure anything and everything so that the gospel might be spread and the church of Jesus Christ might be strengthened.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NLT

For Paul, suffering and troubles came with the territory. They were just part of the job description of being a follower of Christ. And he was perfectly content to endure all that came with being a faithful servant of Christ. Life isn’t about ideal circumstances or the presence of material comforts. It is about contentment in Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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The Disease of Discontentment.

 

Woe to those who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
    and you are made to dwell alone
    in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
    large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
    and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”

11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning,
    that they may run after strong drink,
who tarry late into the evening
    as wine inflames them!
12 They have lyre and harp,
    tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts,
but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
    or see the work of his hands.

13 Therefore my people go into exile
    for lack of knowledge;
their honored men go hungry,
    and their multitude is parched with thirst.
14 Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
    and opened its mouth beyond measure,
and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down,
    her revelers and he who exults in her.
15 Man is humbled, and each one is brought low,
    and the eyes of the haughty are brought low.
16 But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice,
    and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.
17 Then shall the lambs graze as in their pasture,
    and nomads shall eat among the ruins of the rich. – Isaiah 5:8-17 ESV

Judah, the vineyard planted by God in the fertile soil of Mount Zion, had failed to produce the kind of fruit God had expected. Instead of sweet grapes practically bursting with juice perfect for making the finest of wines, they had produced wild grapes, sour to the taste and unfit for anything except the fire. And that is exactly what Isaiah is trying to warn the people of Judah. God’s fire of judgment is about to fall on them for their unfaithfulness and lack of spiritual fruitfulness. Or, to put it another way, they had produced the wrong kind of fruit.

Now, Isaiah pronounces a series of woes against them. The word translated as “woe” is the Hebrew word, howy and it is an expression of exclamation that conveys pity, sorrow, or lament. Isaiah is letting his readers know that what is headed their way will not be enjoyable or avoidable. The word, “woe” acts as an antonym to the word, “blessed.” Rather than enjoying the blessings of God that come as a result of obedience to His will, they were going to experience curses as a result of His judgment. And, long ago, God had provided them with ample warning that this would be their fate if they failed to remain faithful to Him.

“Look, today I am giving you the choice between a blessing and a curse! You will be blessed if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today. But you will be cursed if you reject the commands of the Lord your God and turn away from him and worship gods you have not known before.” – Deuteronomy 11:26-28 NLT

The first woe has to do with their insatiable greed. Enough was never enough. God had blessed them with land, but they lacked contentment, constantly desiring more. And the prophet, Micah, describes them as lying awake at night scheming of ways to take advantage of their neighbors and confiscate what rightfully belonged to them.

Woe to those who devise wickedness
    and work evil on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
    because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and seize them,
    and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
    a man and his inheritance. – Micah 2:1-2 NET

God had made it perfectly clear that the land in which they lived belonged to Him and, as a result, they were to live in it like tenant farmers, caring for the land on God’s behalf.

“The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.” – Leviticus 25:23 NLT

And God had ensured that each of the 12 tribes of Israel was allotted their own portion of land, to remain in their possession for as long as they lived in the land. If anyone was forced to sell his land out of necessity, the buyer was to allow them the right to buy it back.

“With every purchase of land you must grant the seller the right to buy it back. If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell some family land, then a close relative should buy it back for him. If there is no close relative to buy the land, but the person who sold it gets enough money to buy it back, he then has the right to redeem it from the one who bought it.” – Deuteronomy 25:24-27 NLT

But greed had gotten the best of them. One of the greatest expressions of our love for God is our love for others. When Jesus was asked which one of God’s laws recorded by Moses was the most important, He had responded:

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

Yet, the people of Judah had exhibited a love for self that transcended their love for others and, ultimately, revealed their lack of love for God. They were unsatisfied with what God had given them and demanded more. And they were willing to do whatever it took to get what they wanted, even if it meant taking advantage of their own neighbors.

In their obsession to have more, they were actually sealing their fate and ensuring that they would never experience the joy they were seeking. Their larger estates would leave them isolated and alone. And they would learn the painful lesson that bigger is not always better. Because God warned them that their disobedience would bring His judgment.

“Many houses will stand deserted;
    even beautiful mansions will be empty.
Ten acres of vineyard will not produce even six gallons of wine.
    Ten baskets of seed will yield only one basket of grain.” – Isaiah 5:9-10 NLT

The greedy are never satisfied. Their appetite is insatiable because they attempt to meet their needs by seeking something other than God.

The second woe has to do with the love of pleasure. The people of Judah had become hedonistic in their outlook on life. They lived by the philosophy, “Eat, drink and be merry!” They lived to party and filled their days with the consumption of alcohol and the pursuit of pleasure. But Isaiah exposes the root problem: “they never think about the Lord or notice what he is doing” (Isaiah 5:12 NLT). Rather than looking to God to bring them joy and a sense of satisfaction with life, they were turning to physical pleasures.

And God predicts their fate: “Therefore my people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13 ESV). Their real problem was not drunkenness and partying, but a lack of knowledge of God. They didn’t understand that He was to be the sole source of their joy and the primary provider of pleasure in their lives. The apostle Paul would later describe his understanding of God’s role as his source of contentment and satisfaction.

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.  – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

For the people of Judah, their search for satisfaction entailed more land and their quest for joy involved much wine. But they would never find what they were looking for. Instead, they would experience poverty, hunger, thirst, and the humiliation of life as exiles in a foreign land.

But God would be perfectly just in His treatment of them. He would only be giving them what they deserved and what they had brought upon themselves.

But the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will be exalted by his justice.
    The holiness of God will be displayed by his righteousness. – Isaiah 5:16 NLT

He had promised to bless them if they would only remain faithful to Him. And time and time again, He had proven Himself a God who keeps His word. They were blessed. They lived in a land that was abundantly fruitful and more than adequate to meet their needs. He had provided them with ample reasons to experience joy in life, but they had turned to pleasure, possessions, and even pagan gods in a vain attempt to discover what they could only find in God. And the Scriptures are filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness to satisfy every need that man might have.

Let them praise the Lord for his great love
    and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
For he satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things. – Psalm 107:8-9 NLT

The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring. – Isaiah 58:11 NLT

“Is anyone thirsty?
    Come and drink—
    even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
    it’s all free!
Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
    Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
    You will enjoy the finest food.” – Isaiah 55:1-2 NLT

God was more than enough. He was fully capable of meeting all their needs. But they had decided that bigger is better and the pursuit of pleasure is preferable. Unlike Paul, they didn’t see godliness with contentment is great wealth (I Timothy 6:6).

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Faith in, Not Fear of the Unknown.

1 Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.
If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth,
and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,
    in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
    and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 ESV

 

As Solomon begins to wrap up his book, he returns to a theme he has addressed before: The uncertainty of the future and man’s inability to discern what the future may hold. To a certain degree, Solomon finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He has discovered that there is nothing in this life that really brings true joy and meaningful satisfaction. He has tried it all. He is wise beyond belief. He has wealth beyond measure. He has experimented with every imaginable form of pleasure and self-gratification. And none of it has brought any sense of purpose or fulfillment. He describes it as little more than chasing the wind, like trying to catch smoke in your hands. So, his less-than-optimistic conclusion has been that, chasing after all the physical stuff you can see and touch is ultimately an exercise in futility. Wine, women and song are not enough. Palaces, gardens, vast orchards and fruitful vineyards can not produce contentment. Enough is never enough. Life, even with all its pleasure-producing pursuits, ends in death. And that raises the other distressing issue for Solomon: Nobody knows what happens next. Death is a like a door behind which lies a foreboding and forbidden future. Only God knows what lies behind its closed and locked door. So, there is futility in life and uncertainty in death. All the way back in chapter nine, Solomon shared his somewhat pessimistic view of the future.

It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. Already twisted by evil, people choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” – Ecclesiastes 9:3-4 NLT

For Solomon, death was an unknown. But life, in spite of its inherent problems and potential risks, was at least something you could remotely impact. Which is what led him to share the proverbial statements found in the opening part of this chapter. There are certain rewards that come as a result of living life. Solomon was a horticulturalist. He had many vineyards and orchards. As king, he had thousands of acres of crops that produced abundant harvests used to feed his people or fill his treasury through export. And he acknowledges that if you “cast your bread upon the waters”, it will eventually come back to you. In other words, if you export your grain in ships and sell it to other nations, you will eventually reap a financial reward. Your diligence to plant and harvest will come back in the form of profit.

And when you make that profit, invest it wisely and diversely. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. – Ecclesiastes 11:2 ESV

Diversification makes for a good investment strategy. You don’t want to have all your wealth in one place, because you never know what may happen. Disasters come. The market can drop like a rock. Be prudent. Invest wisely. 

And take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth – Ecclesiastes 11:3 ESV

Learn to read the signs. Plant in a timely fashion. If you misread the clouds, you may fail to plant before the rains come. If you procrastinate, you’ll miss the window of opportunity. Once again, Solomon is encouraging prudence and wisdom. You may not be able to control the future, but you can take advantage of the present situation. Plant before the rain, not after it. And don’t let the threat of storms keep you from doing what you know needs to be done. Conditions will rarely be perfect in this life. There will be few times when the stars align and the circumstances turn out just as you had hoped. Don’t delay. Yet, some of us seem to live by the tongue-in-cheek advice of Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

Solomon would strongly disagree with Mr. Twain, instead sharing the insight he gained from years of living and working on this planet: “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest” (Ecclesiastes 11:4 NLT). If you fail to take advantage of the moment, it may just pass you by. Which is what he seems to be inferring when he says, “if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie” (Ecclesiastes 11:3 ESV). In other words, what’s done is done. Once the tree has fallen, you can’t plant it back in the ground. Once the rain has fallen, it makes no sense to plant. If you wait for everything to be just right, you’ll never accomplish anything.

At the end of the day, life is full of mysteries and inexplicable situations. Even with all the advancements in science, we still don’t know exactly how a baby forms in the womb of its mother. We can watch the progress through the use of sonograms, but we can’t see or explain how God has ordained the process of birth, from the moment of conception all the way to delivery. Even with all our technology and scientific know-how, much of it is still hidden from us. Solomon was wise enough to know that he would never understand the ways of God. There are things that happen in life which only God can explain, and He is not obligated to share all that He knows with us. He often leaves us in the dark, wrestling with our questions and struggling to understand His ways.

The bottom line for Solomon was to work wisely and diligently. Start sowing your seed in the morning and don’t stop until the sun goes down. Do what you can do and then leave the rest up to God. You don’t know what kind of outcome your efforts will produce. But rather than worry about it, do what you can to impact that outcome positively. Work hard. Be diligent. Act wisely. Use common sense. Don’t procrastinate. In some sense, Solomon is promoting the idea behind the old adage, “make hay while the sun shines.” None of us knows how long we have on this earth. But God does. And since He chooses not to divulge the length of our days, we should do all that we can to make the most of the days we have. Moses put it this way: “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom” (Psalm 90:12 NLT).

Solomon’s own father, David, put it this way:

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
    Remind me that my days are numbered—
    how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.” – Psalm 39:4-5 NLT

Death is an inevitable reality for all of us. David died. So did Solomon. And so will you. You can attempt to prolong your life. But God already knows your expiration date. Solomon would recommend that you spend more time enjoying the life you have, rather than futility chasing after the life you don’t have. Find joy in today, rather than wasting time pursuing a tomorrow that may never come.

But more importantly, for those of us who are believers in Jesus Christ, we have no need to worry about the future, because it has already been taken care of for us. Our future is secure. Our eternity is set. So, we are free to live our lives free from anxiety, focusing our efforts on doing the work for which God has created us.

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Solomon had an inordinate fear of the future. He let the uncertainty of death rob him of peace. He found himself forced to find all his joy and satisfaction in this life, using the limited resources of this life. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of the blessings of God in the form of a loving relationship or the fruit of his labor. He was able to enjoy a good meal with a close friend, or a deep sleep after a hard day’s labor. But he lived with an unhealthy fear of the unknown. He had lived his whole life pursuing more, but the one thing he really needed was faith.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Simply Better.

1 A good name is better than precious ointment,
    and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
    so is the laughter of the fools;
    this also is vanity.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
    and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
    and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
    for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
    an advantage to those who see the sun.
12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
    and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
13 Consider the work of God:
    who can make straight what he has made crooked?

14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 ESV

Once again, using a steady, staccato stream of parables as his tool, Solomon provides us with yet more proof of the futility of life lived under the sun. Still maintaining his somewhat pessimistic outlook, he utilizes a series of stark contrasts in order to support his central theme that all is vanity: He juxtaposes birth and death, sorrow and laughter, wisdom and foolishness, the beginning and the end, the patient and the proud. In each case, Solomon draws a conclusion, deeming one better than the other, and what he decides is meant to shock and surprise us. He starts out comparing birth with death, and while we might logically conclude that the beginning of a life is preferable to its end, Solomon would disagree. And he uses a somewhat odd comparison to make his point. In verse one, Solomon utilizes a word play, using two similar sounding Hebrew words: shem and shemen, to make his point. Shem means “name” and refers to someone’s reputation. Shemen is the Hebrew word for “oil” and it typically refers to an oil used for anointing that had a strong fragrance associated with it. Solomon states that a good name or reputation is better than precious ointment. To put it another way, he seems to be saying that being good is better than smelling good. A man who hasn’t bathed may douse himself with cologne, but he only masks the stench. His life is a sham, marked by hypocrisy. And Solomon uses shem and shemen to make a point about birth and death. While the beginning of life is associated with feasting and celebration, it masks the reality that much hurt and heartache lie ahead. A baby is born without a reputation. It has had no time to establish a name for itself. And no one knows how that child’s life will turn out. Yet, we celebrate and rejoice the day of his birth. Solomon is not suggesting we cease from celebrating new birth, but that we recognize that it is the end of one’s life that truly matters. We all face the same fate. Death is inevitable and inescapable. And when it comes time to mourn the life of someone we knew and loved, those who have managed to achieve and maintain a good reputation will be missed most. When it comes time to mourn the loss of someone of good character, the sorrow will prove better than laughter, because the reflections on that individual’s life will bring sweet and lasting memories. It will remind the living of what is truly important, and the wise will glean invaluable lessons from a life lived well.

When a child is born, words of encouragement may be spoken, but they are all hypothetical in nature. No one knows the future, so no one can presume to know how that child’s life will turn out. We can and should be hopeful, but we cannot be certain that our hope will be fulfilled. Yet, at the time of one’s death, there is irrefutable evidence that proves the true outcome of that person’s life. A life lived well will be well documented and greatly celebrated. Even in the sorrow of the moment, there will be joy. Solomon puts it this way: “by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3 ESV). The memories of the one we have lost bring joy to our heart and put a smile on our face, and we experience the seeming dichotomy of sadness and gladness.

Solomon’s use of shem and shemen has ongoing application. He seems to be advocating a life that is lived beneath the surface – well beyond the shallow and pretentious trappings of materialism and hedonism. He refers to “the house of mirth,” the place where fools tend to gather. It is the place of joy and gladness, rejoicing and pleasure. The fool makes it his primary destination, believing that it is there his heart will find satisfaction and fulfillment. But Solomon recommends the house of mourning, where sadness and sorrow are found. Again, it is at the end of a life that the true character of that life is revealed in detail. The tears of sorrow may be for one who lived his life well and whose departure will leave a hole in the lives of those left behind. But, in far too many cases, the tears flow out of sadness over a life marked by sweet-smelling oil on the surface, but nothing of value on the inside. The “perfumes” of life are the things we acquire and accumulate, none of which we can take with us. They represent the oil of achievement and visible success. Our homes, cars, clothes, portfolios, resumes, and 401ks may leave the impression that we had it all but, at death, we will leave it all behind. As Job so aptly put it, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave” (Job 1:21 NLT).

Solomon has learned that life should be accompanied by a certain thoughtfulness and soberness. It requires serious reflection and careful examination in order to learn all that life has to offer. But we are prone to live life with our hearts and eyes set on those things that bring us the greatest amount of pleasure and satisfaction, temporary though they may be. We prefer the sweet-smelling, short-lived perfume of a self-indulgent lifestyle. We want it all now. We prefer joy to sorrow, pleasure to pain, happiness to heartache, and a good time to a good name.

But Solomon knew from experience that living in the house of mirth never brought true happiness. He had learned the hard way that a life lived with pleasure as its primary focus rarely resulted in lasting satisfaction or true joy. Like perfume, its aroma faded with time. Which is why Solomon always reverted to wisdom.

11 Wisdom is even better when you have money.
    Both are a benefit as you go through life.
12 Wisdom and money can get you almost anything,
    but only wisdom can save your life. – Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 NLT

Money might improve your life, over the short-term, but only wisdom can save your life. And wisdom can’t be bought or acquired. It comes through observation and application of life lessons, and that requires a willingness to look beneath the surface, beyond the pleasant-looking lies of the enemy. The apostle John gives us some sober-sounding, wisdom producing words to consider.

15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And Solomon reminds us to look at life more soberly and seriously, judging it not from our limited human vantage point, but through the eyes of God. “Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13 NLT). We see death as negative, the end of life. But God sees things differently. We view pleasure as preferable to pain, but God works in ways we can’t comprehend, using the seeming incongruities of life to teach us the greatest lessons. And as Solomon has done before, he boils his thoughts down to one simple suggestion: “Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God” (Ecclesiastes 7:14 NLT). There is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life and the blessings that God bestows on us in this life. But we must recognize that God is found in the extremes of life. He is sovereign over all that we experience in this life: the good, the bad, the pleasant, the painful, death and life, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow. A wise man will look for God in everything, and find Him. The fool will set his sights on finding joy, pleasure, satisfaction, significance and pleasure, but miss God in the process.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When God Is Not Enough.

1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?

All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

10 Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 ESV

From Solomon’s unique vantage point as king, he has been able to see and experience a great deal of what life has to offer. Some of his observations are more objective in nature, providing the perspective of an impartial outsider, viewing the lives of the people in his kingdom. He has been able to witness first-hand, the oppression of the poor. As a judge over his people, he has had to preside over countless cases involving injustice and abuse. He has had to listen to the cries of the destitute and needy, as they have begged for someone to help them in their time of need. But some of Solomon’s most powerful insights come from his willingness to look at his own life and share his more subjective and personal observations. In this chapter, he seems to be speaking from personal experience, revealing his own frustrations over what he sees and what he fears. First of all, he starts with what he describes as an evil or wickedness that he has observed “under the sun” or in this life. He writes from a human perspective, presenting his earth-bound opinion regarding what he sees as a prevalent problem among mankind. There are those whom God has obviously blessed with great wealth, but He has also denied them the power or capacity to enjoy all that they have been given. These people have all that their hearts desire, except contentment and joy. And to make matters even worse, when they die, their God-given blessings are enjoyed by someone else. It’s all a grievous evil. Or is it? First of all, Solomon’s viewpoint reflects the commonly held perspective of his day. Anyone who enjoyed great wealth had obviously been blessed by God. And if they had been blessed by God, their lives must have been pleasing to God. Which is why it made no sense for God to withhold the one thing these people needed: The ability to enjoy what He had given them. Solomon was right when he concluded that all good things come from God. In fact, he would have based his view of the Scriptures themselves.

11 Truth springs up from the earth,
    and righteousness smiles down from heaven.
12 Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings.
    Our land will yield its bountiful harvest. – Psalm 85:11-12 ESV

Even the New Testament author, James, echoes this view.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… – James 1:17 ESV

But where Solomon missed the point was in his assumption that wealth and material goods were to be the sole source of his enjoyment. In other words, he wrongly assumed that it was the blessings of God that brought joy, contentment, satisfaction and significance. He misunderstood the true nature of the source of those things. God was to have been his focus. Not just as the giver of good things, but as the only good thing anyone could ever need. God was to be enough. The apostle Paul expressed this viewpoint when he said:

11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

It didn’t really matter to Paul whether he had a little or a lot. As long as he had his relationship with Christ, that was all that mattered. Solomon placed his emphasis on the tangible and temporal. For him, the proof of God’s love was in the presence of material goods and the ability to enjoy them. And yet, what Solomon was experiencing was the very painful lesson that nothing can ever satisfy our inner longings like God Himself.

For Solomon, the measurement of a successful life was based on both quantity and quality. He pessimistically observed that if a man ended up fathering hundreds of children (and he had), and lived a long life (which he did), but his soul was not satisfied with life’s good things (and his wasn’t), then his life was a waste. In fact, he would have been better off if he had died at birth. Notice what he is saying. He is measuring the significance of life using a quantitative matrix. He operated on the commonly held assumption: The more, the merrier. It was long life and lots of kids that brought joy. But having hundreds of children, none of whose names you know, will never bring satisfaction. Living a long life, but without a relationship with the One who gave you life, will never satisfy. Acquiring much wealth and accomplishing great deeds will never make anyone truly happy or content, if they fail to seek the giver of all good things.

For Solomon, nothing was more futile and frustrating than the thought of living a long life devoid of contentment. He states that a man “might live a thousand years twice over but still not find contentment. And since he must die like everyone else—well, what’s the use?” (Ecclesiastes 6:6 NLT). And, sadly, this is a description of Solomon’s life. This describes where he finds himself. He is at the end of life looking back, and while he can claim to have fathered hundreds of children and lived many years, he cannot say as Paul did, “I have learned to be content.” More was not merrier.

In his mind, it was all about satisfaction. Even the poor, who spend their days trying to scratch out a living and provide food for their next meal, only discover that they’re hungry again. The wise, the wealthy, the foolish and the poor are all faced with the same grievous problem: Enough is never enough. Satisfaction and contentment are illusive. And the only advice Solomon can come up with is “Enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don’t have” (Ecclesiastes 6:9 NLT). But again, his emphasis is on the wrong thing. He is not recommending that we find our satisfaction in God, but that we simply resign ourselves to enjoying what little we have been given by God. He has missed the point.

And because he has missed the point, he misses out on the real meaning and purpose of life. It is not about gaining and getting. It is not about acquiring and accumulating. It is about learning to seek satisfaction, significance, joy and contentment from a relationship with the God of the universe. But Solomon had a warped perspective about God. He refers to God as “one stronger than he.” He doesn’t see God as Father, but as enforcer. He doesn’t approach God as the gracious giver of good things, but as a capricious tyrant who withholds the ability to enjoy what has been given. And while he rightly understands that God knows all and sees all, Solomon seems to resent the fact that God keeps the future fate of man a mystery. Which leaves man stuck in the here-and-now, trying to make the most out of what he has before his life comes to an abrupt end.

What Solomon describes in this chapter is the sad state of all men and women who refuse to see God as the central source of all good in their lives. He does bless. He does give good things. He is the author of life and the source of all that we can see. But God is not to be viewed as some disembodied purveyor of presents, like a cosmic Genie in a bottle. He is the gift. He is the good. He is the satisfaction and significance for which man so desperately seeks. The apostle Paul summarized it well when he spoke to the people of Athens, describing the nature of the “unknown god” to whom they offered sacrifices, but of whom they knew nothing.

24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. – Acts 17:24-28 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Illusive Nature of Contentment.

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

10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 ESV

As Solomon looks back on his long life as the king of Israel, he reflects on the many life lessons he has learned and, in this section, presents them in the form of a series of proverbs. These short, seemingly unrelated maxims, most often utilize comparisons to drive home a point and to present time-proven truths in a manner that makes wisdom practical and applicable to everyday life.

In verses 8-9, Solomon readdresses the issues of injustice and the oppression of the poor, which he initially covered at the beginning of chapter four. The presence of these problems within a society should not shock or surprise us. The wealthy and powerful, driven by a desire to maintain and even increase their social standing, will be tempted to use their power and influence to take advantage of those less fortunate than themselves. And in these verses, Solomon points out that every high official who takes advantage of the poor or practices injustice, must answer to yet a higher official who wields even greater authority. In other words, there is a chain of command that ultimately leads to the king. And the more powerful always control and take advantage of the less powerful. It is the nature of things. Injustice and oppression, abuse of power and unethical leadership seem to be inevitable outcomes of government. It is inevitable. But Solomon seems to conclude that a monarchy is preferable to anarchy. Even with its potential for abuse, government provides a semblance of stability and control that results in cultivated lands. In other words, the very presence of governmental structure and hierarchical authority can result in abuse of power and lead to injustice, but it can also produce corporate benefits that all enjoy. Underlying so much of what Solomon says in this book is the undeniable reality of sin and the fallen condition of the human heart. Even good men are prone to do bad things. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT).

In the next section, verses 10-12, Solomon addresses a related topic: The love of money. Solomon flatly states, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10 ESV). When it comes to wealth, you can never seem to have enough. The pursuit of money can become addictive. And it can be accompanied by a fear of losing what you already have. Money makes conspicuous consumption possible, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “lavish or wasteful spending thought to enhance social prestige.” But as Solomon warns, it doesn’t work. It never satisfies. The primary reason we pursue wealth is in order to satisfy our desires. But we tend to find that, with all our newfound capacity to acquire and accumulate, the one thing we can’t get our hands on is contentment. Timothy warned against the dangers of making money our master.

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. – 1 Timothy 6:6-10 NLT

One of the realities that come with increased wealth is an increase in responsibilities. The more you have, the more must take care of and maintain, and that requires help. And no one knew this better than Solomon. The book of 1 Kings gives us a glimpse into Solomon’s vast wealth and allows us to imagine just how extensive a retinue of servants was required to care for all that he owned.

22 The daily food requirements for Solomon’s palace were 150 bushels of choice flour and 300 bushels of meal; 23 also 10 oxen from the fattening pens, 20 pasture-fed cattle, 100 sheep or goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roe deer, and choice poultry.

24 Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. 25 During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden.

26 Solomon had 4,000 stalls for his chariot horses, and he had 12,000 horses. – 1 Kings 4:22-26 NLT

Back in chapter two, Solomon described his vast and expanding network of servants, slaves, employees and concubines.

I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire! – Ecclesiastes 2:7-8 NLT

He had everything his heart desired, except contentment. And he was forced to feed and care for all those who worked for him. Which is what led him to write, “The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!” (Ecclesiastes 5:11 NLT). And the truly vexing thing about it all is that the man who has it all can’t sleep at night. When Solomon states that “the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep”, he is not speaking of indigestion, but of insomnia caused by constant worry over wealth. What you own ends up owning you. You become a slave to that which was intended to serve you. And yet, in contrast, “People who work hard sleep well, whether they eat little or much” (Ecclesiastes 5:12 NLT). 

With his next proverbial statement, Solomon addresses the fleeting nature of wealth. He describes a “grievous evil” that he has witnessed in this life, and it is likely that he is speaking from personal experience, not objective observation. He had first-hand experience with this kind of evil or misfortune, having had his fare share of bad business deals and risky investments.

13 There is another serious problem I have seen under the sun. Hoarding riches harms the saver. 14 Money is put into risky investments that turn sour, and everything is lost. In the end, there is nothing left to pass on to one’s children. – Ecclesiastes 5:13-14 NLT

In one fell swoop, the money and material assets we have worked so hard to accumulate, can be gone. They can disappear in an instant, leaving us in poverty and our children with no inheritance. And even if we are able to maintain a hold on all our assets to the bitter end, we can take none of it with us. Our wealth remains behind us. And as Solomon stated earlier, “I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 NLT). 

When all was said and done, Solomon was left with one observation that allowed him to extract a bit of hope out of all the meaninglessness and despair of life. He saw that man had been gifted by God with the ability “to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT). Not exactly a cheerful observation, but it seems that, for Solomon, the only recourse he had to keep from being frustrated, discouraged, and angry, was to enjoy life as best as he could in the time he had on this planet. Because, after that, no one really knew what came next. What Solomon concludes must be closely examined.

19 And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. 20 God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past. – Ecclesiastes 5:19-20 NLT

There is a degree of truth to be found in these statements, but we must not fail to recognize that Solomon is speaking from a position of resignation and, in some ways, resentment. He is frustrated by all the inequities and injustices of life lived under the sun. He has tried anything and everything to find satisfaction and significance in life. And when he simply states that the only thing left to do is to enjoy your work and accept your lot in life, he does not appear to bespeaking as one who is content and satisfied, but as someone who has resigned himself to something less than what he had hoped for. There is no joy in his statement. He almost describes God as a divine taskmaster who keeps us busy in order to distract us. If we compare the words of Solomon with those of his father, David, we see a marked difference in how they both perceived life and the God who made it all possible.

11 Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. Everything in the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as the one who is over all things. 12 Wealth and honor come from you alone, for you rule over everything. Power and might are in your hand, and at your discretion people are made great and given strength.

13 “O our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name! 14 But who am I, and who are my people, that we could give anything to you? Everything we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us! 15 We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace. – 1 Chronicles 29:11-15 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Self-Pity and Paranoia.

Now Saul heard that David was discovered, and the men who were with him. Saul was sitting at Gibeah under the tamarisk tree on the height with his spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about him. And Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, people of Benjamin; will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards, will he make you all commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, that all of you have conspired against me? No one discloses to me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is sorry for me or discloses to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me, to lie in wait, as at this day.” Then answered Doeg the Edomite, who stood by the servants of Saul, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, and he inquired of the Lord for him and gave him provisions and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”

Then the king sent to summon Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father’s house, the priests who were at Nob, and all of them came to the king. And Saul said, “Hear now, son of Ahitub.” And he answered, “Here I am, my lord.” And Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, in that you have given him bread and a sword and have inquired of God for him, so that he has risen against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” – 1 Samuel 22:6-13 ESV

These verses provide us with a stark contrast. David was in a cave surrounded by misfits and malcontents, but now we see Saul sitting under the shade of a tree surrounded by his servants. The contrast doesn’t stop there. David provided protection for his family by sending them to the king of Moab for refuge. Yet Saul was busy accusing his own son of treason and of conspiring with David to kill him. David was surrounded by men who were willing to die for him. Saul was surrounded by men who feared him and some had even abandoned him to follow after David. But the greatest contrast between these two men is their relationships with God. David received a prophetic word from God that told him to leave the Cave of Adullam and return to Judah. But Saul had not word from God. In fact, he had no relationship with God at all. God had removed His Spirit from him. Saul was on his on and was by all accounts, God-less. The result was a growing paranoia. He truly believed everyone was against him. His daughter and son had turned on him. His servants were untrustworthy. No one could be trusted. And his paranoia led to a heavy dose of self-pity. He was all alone. And his little speech to his servants reveals the extent of his self-pity.

“Has that son of Jesse promised every one of you fields and vineyards? Has he promised to make you all generals and captains in his army? Is that why you have conspired against me?” – 1 Samuel 22:7-8 NLT

“You’re not even sorry for me.” – 1 Samuel 22:8 NLT

Saul even accused Ahimelech the priest of treason, seeing his actions to help David as a personal attack against him.

“Why have you and the son of Jesse conspired against me?” – 1 Samuel 22:13 NLT

Without God in his life, Saul was susceptible to all kind of irrational and unrighteous thinking. His capacity to mentally process the circumstances of his life was greatly hindered by his lack of God’s presence in his life. He had become a fool, lacking reason and rational thought. He could not even process the fact that all of this was the outcome of the prophet’s warning that God was removing His hand from Saul’s life and giving his kingdom to another. Saul was in a state of denial and suffering from delusion, thinking that he could somehow prevent the inevitable and stay the hand of God. But his unwillingness to accept the will of God would simply cause him to sin against God, committing greater and greater transgressions, all in a hopeless attempt at self-preservation.

Standing among Saul’s servants that day was Doeg the Edomite, who might be better known as Doeg the Snitch. He had hurried back from Nob eager to share the news that David was there and had been given food and the sword of Goliath by Ahimelech the priest. When Saul heard this report, he immediately sent for Ahimelech, his family, and all his fellow priests who served alongside him at Nob. If Ahimelech had been scared when he saw David show up in Nob (1 Samuel 21:1), he must have been petrified at the news of a summon from the king, and any fears he had would prove to be justified.

Saul was a man possessed, both figuratively and literally. He was constantly beset by a “harmful spirit,” the result of God’s removal of the Holy Spirit from his life. Without the influence of God’s Spirit, Saul’s reasoning was impaired. He became self-absorbed and suspicious of everyone and everything. Over time, he would become a man-obsessed, unable to think of anything other than the destruction of David. Essentially, he would no longer act as the king of Israel. His whole life would be focused on one thing: David’s death. The very thing he was trying to protect: His kingship, would get lost in his obsessive-compulsive quest to kill off the competition. Sadly, Saul would be unable to enjoy the benefits of being king, because he lived in constant fear of no longer being king.

One of sad realities of godlessness is that it always results in joylessness, discontentment, fear, jealousy, anger… In fact, the apostle Paul outlines the characteristics or “deeds” of a godless or flesh-based life in his letter to the Galatians.

…sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:20-21 NLT

Saul was miserable, not because he was losing his kingdom, but because he had lost God. His unhappiness, paranoia, self-pity and misguided attempts at self-preservation were driven by his lack of a relationship with God. His decision-making was totally flesh-based, driven by his own sin nature and devoid of any wisdom from God. He had lost his capacity to see things from God’s perspective. Everything had become all about him. He was no longer concerned about the good of Israel or the honor of God’s name. His only thoughts were for self.

The life of the godless is not a pretty picture. And the truly sad thing is that many, who have a relationship with Christ, can end up living godless lives, refusing to seek His will, listen to His Word, or heed His direction. Rather than living God-centered, God-directed lives, they become self-absorbed and susceptible to the flawed input of their own sin natures. While the Spirit of God never leaves them, they quench and grieve the Spirit through disobedience and wilful, unrepentant sin. Rather than enjoying the fruit of the Spirit and the joys of sanctification, they become obsessed with self-preservation and paranoid about protecting what it is they think they have. Jesus said, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10 NLT). Saul had been deceived by Satan into believing that joy would be found in pursuing and eliminating David. But nothing could have been further from the truth. And Satan is constantly attempting to deceive us into believing that our way is preferable to God’s way. But our way is the way of the flesh, and it eventually robs us of joy, kills our capacity to love, and destroys any hope of having a rich and satisfying life. Satan offers what he cannot give. Jesus promises what He died to make possible. The God-less life is a paranoid, self-pitying, joyless life. But the godly life brings joy in the midst of sorrow, peace in the middle of the storm, hope when all looks hopeless, contentment in the face of loss, and strength in spite of our own weakness. 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Change of Heart, Not Circumstance.

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. – 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 ESV

Three times in this passage Paul tells the Corinthians to remain as they were when God called them. He is really addressing the issue of contentment, of remaining in the circumstances of life in which they found themselves when they first came to faith in Christ. The change that God is interested in most is internal, not external. Divorcing your spouse because they are an unbeliever will not make you more spiritual. For a believing slave to somehow get out from under his master’s rule would not make him any more free than he already is in Christ. God is interested in heart change. But as human beings, we tend to deal with externals. We think a change of circumstances is the answer to all of life’s problems. If our marriage is less-than-satisfactory, divorce seems to be the best option to us. If our job is not as fulfilling as we would like, a change in employment is the answer. This was especially true for the believers in Corinth who seemed to believe that their new faith in Christ was a license to start all over. Social status was an important concept within the Greek community. It would have been easy for a slave who came to faith in Christ to immediately assume that his salvation gave him a right to experience freedom just like all the other believers in the church. But Paul would have them understand that their “calling” has nothing to do with their career choice, social standing, marital status, financial outlook, or any other circumstantial condition. God’s call on their life was to live in obedience and submission to Him regardless of what their external circumstances might be. If God called them while they were a slave, He had a perfectly good reason for doing so. His Son did not die in order to set them free from physical slavery, but from bondage to sin. If they were married when they came to Christ, they should remain so. Jesus did not give His life so that they might experience freedom from the demands of marriage, but so that they might love their spouse sacrificially and selflessly. Their calling was to Christ-likeness, not a radical change in their heart that would have a dramatic impact on their behavior. Paul told the church in Ephesus, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV). He prayed for the Colossian believers that they would “be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9-10 ESV).

Like most of us, the Corinthians were convinced that a change in circumstances was the key to contentment. But Paul wanted them to understand that God called them where they were so they He might change who they are. His Son died so that they might be new creations and experience a new nature, not get a new lease on life through a change in circumstances. The Philippian jailer, after coming to faith in Christ, more than likely continued to be a jailer. The Ethiopian eunech, after accepting Christ as his Savior, was no less a eunech than he was before. Zacchaeus didn’t give up being a tax collector after having met Jesus, he simply became an honest one.

One of the most important lines in this passage is the first one: “ Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” This has nothing to do with our career path. Paul isn’t talking about job titles or employment opportunities. God has a unique calling on each of our lives as believers. He has redeemed us for a reason. And rather than worrying so much about what we do for a living, we would do well to think about what God has for us to do on behalf of His Kingdom. Our jobs are simply opportunities to live out our faith in daily life. Our marriages are to be less about self-satisfaction than they are about self-sacrifice and contexts within which we can model our Christ-likeness in tangible ways.

A new job may make you happy, but it won’t make you a better Christian. The idea of a new marriage partner may sound appealing, but God would rather make you a godly spouse and teach you to love the one you’re with selflessly and sacrificially.

All of this does not preclude the fact that God sometimes changes our circumstances. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11 ESV). A change in circumstances was required. Jesus changed the career paths of several of the disciples, making them fishers of men rather than fishermen. Paul himself experienced a radical change in his occupational focus, going from persecutor of the church to proclaimer of the gospel. There are times when God calls us to new circumstances. But His greatest desire is to give us a new heart and to create in us a new desire to live for Him wherever we find ourselves. We need godly husbands and wives, Christ-like politician and plumbers, Spirit-filled teachers and selfless lawyers. To Paul, it would be better to be a godly slave than an ungodly master. He considered it far more important to pursue holiness in less-than-ideal circumstances than happiness in the best of conditions. That is why he could say, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). Our circumstances must take a back seat to our submission to the will of God for our lives: our holiness.

 

Prayer In the Midst of Problems.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them… – Acts 16:25 ESV

Most of us have no problem praying when everything around us is falling apart. In fact, it seems that our prayer lives actually improve drastically when our circumstances take a turn for the worse. We become prayer warriors in the midst of problems. But what kind of prayers do we pray in those moments? If we were honest, we would have to admit that our prayers usually center around our rescue. We want God to deliver us from trouble, fix our problem, remove our pain, heal our sickness, improve our finances, restore our happiness, and we want Him to do it NOW. But the story of Paul and Silas gives us a glimpse into a different kind of praying when faced with troubles and trials. Acts 16 tells of their arrival in Philippi, a Roman colony. Luke records, “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (Acts 16:13 ESV). In virtually all of Paul’s missionary journeys he went to the local synagogue on the Sabbath. But in this case he went to a “place of prayer.” For a city to have a synagogue, there had to be a minimum of 10 Jewish men living there. So evidently, there were only a few people of Jewish descent living in the city of Philippi and, as a result, they had to find a place to gather for worship and prayer. It was there that Paul and Silas met Lydia, who they led to the Lord and baptized. She hosted them in her home during their stay in Philippi. Some time later, on their way back to the place of prayer, they met “a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling” (Acts 16:16 ESV). Actually, she was demon possessed and was used by her masters to tell people’s fortunes. When she saw Paul and Silas, she shouted, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17 ESV). She did this every time she saw them. And while what she said was true, it was not acceptable to Paul and Silas. Perhaps they feared that they would become too closely associated with a woman who was known to be possessed of a spirit. So Paul, “having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18 ESV).

With the removal of the demonic spirit, the girl lost her ability to tell fortunes, and her owners lost their ability to make money. This resulted in Paul and Silas being dragged before the rulers of the city and accused of causing a disturbance. They were beaten with rods, thrown in jail and had their feet chained in stocks. It was in this condition that we find them praying. But not only were they praying, they were singing hymns. The passage does not tell us the content of their prayers, but it indicates that their prayers and songs were heard by the other prisoners around them. Luke tells us that they were “praying and singing hymns to God” in the middle of the night. The very fact that he mentions both prayer and singing seems to indicate that they were joyful, not sorrowful. They were praising God, not just pleading with Him to get them out of their predicament. They were worshiping, not whining about their circumstances. And their actions were getting the attention of those around them. Their unorthodox behavior in the midst of their problems couldn’t help but be noticed by those who shared their lot in life.

Paul was well acquainted to difficult circumstances. He wrote to the believers in Corinth, giving them a glimpse of all he had been through. “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13 ESV). In a second letter to the church in Corinth, he let them know that his experience with trouble and trials was ongoing. But so was his less-than-normal reaction to them. “In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind. We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love” (2 Corinthians 6:4-6 NLT).

It wasn’t that Paul enjoyed pain and suffering. It was that he had learned to trust God regardless of what was going on around him or happening to him. He found peace in the midst of problems because he knew God was there with him. He wrote, “We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us impostors. We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything” (2 Corinthians 6:7-10 NLT).

We aren’t told what Paul and Silas prayed, but I have a sneaky suspicion that they were praising God for His sovereignty, power, protection, wisdom, and unshakeable plan. He knew what they were going through and He knew why they were going through it. He had a plan behind their problem. And Luke records that while they were praying and praising, an earthquake shook the building, their chains fell off and the doors of the prison flew open. But rather than run for daylight and freedom, Paul and Silas led the jailer and his family to Christ. And the amazing thing is that the jailer took them to his home, washed their wounds and fed them, but rather than escape, Paul and Silas chose to go back to the prison. Had they been praying for release, they would have seen this as God’s answer to their prayers. But I believe they were praying for God’s power to be on display, so that more people might come to Christ. They weren’t praying for their problems to go away, but for their God to have His way. And He did.

Permanent Peace.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. – 2 Thessalonians 3:16 ESV

We could all use a little peace. We live in the midst of turmoil. Our lives are inundated with all kinds of demands and surrounded with a thousand different distractions. Technology, designed to make our lives easier, has actually ended up being little more than a huge distraction and time-waster. Phone messages, emails, texts and Facebook requests constantly interrupt our days. Our calendars are jammed. Our schedules are crammed. And our peace disappears under the pressure of it all. And that doesn’t even include all that is going on around us in the world. The news is rarely good. The media provides nothing but a steady diet of stories that leave us either restless, dissatisfied, and fearful about the future. And we long for peace. Which is exactly what Paul prayed for – the peace of God – the Lord of peace. What we all need is peace and the kind of peace that only God can provide. This world can’t provide us with peace. The things of this world are incapable of bringing a sense of peace. Like everything else associated with the Christian life, peace must come from God.

Paul was a student of the Old Testament Scriptures and he was highly familiar with the Pentateuch. So he was well aware of what it says is Deuteronomy 6:26: “May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.” God’s favor carries the idea of Him looking on His people favorably. Rather than looking away in anger at their sins, He looks on them with mercy, grace and love. And that should bring us peace, a sense of calm, tranquility, contentment and joy – even in the midst of all that is going on around us. The God of the universe, the creator of all things, loves us. When everything is falling apart around us, we can know that God loves us, because He sent His Son to die for us. He cares for us. He has His best in store for us. And that sense of His love, care, and compassion should bring us peace. But the peace Paul prayed for was more than just personal or individual peace. He also longed for peace between brothers and sisters in Christ. The Greek word is eirēnē, and it can mean, “peace between individuals, i.e. harmony, concord.” When we get under stress and find ourselves in turmoil, it is easy to get crossways with one another. We can begin to point fingers, pass blame, grow distrustful, resentful and angry with one another. But God’s desire is that we live together in unity. In fact, Jesus Himself prayed for that very thing on the night He would be betrayed: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21 ESV). Oneness, unity, peace – the state of corporate harmony experienced by God’s people as they learn to rely upon Him. The Psalmist reminds us, “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT).

 Peace. It’s what we all need. But it seems so illusive and impossible to find. But we tend to look in the wrong places. We seek it from the wrong sources. We must never forget that when sin entered into the world, God’s peace, His shalom, was shattered. The garden, once a place of uninterrupted communion with God, became marred by the rebelliousness of Adam and Eve. Their desire to be like God brought a disruption to the tranquility of their environment and permanently damaged their relationship with God. Peace was quickly replaced with chaos. Joy was replaced with sorrow. Intimacy with God was replaced by enmity with God. But the prophet Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah came, all of this would change. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 ESV). Long before Jesus appeared on the scene, Isaiah predicted His sacrificial death on the cross and the amazing reality of restored peace with God made available to us through His death and resurrection. Paul tells us, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). We are at peace with God. He looks on us favorably and lovingly. All because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. But we need to be constantly reminded of our new status with Him. We are no longer enemies of God. We are no longer alienated from Him because of our sin. We are His children and He loves us. And that very fact should bring us peace – even in the midst of the storms of life. Paul reminds us, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 NLT).