Missing the Forest for the Trees

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 ESV

Don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too wicked. Don’t be too wise, but don’t be too foolish. That sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? It comes across like Solomon is recommending a life of mediocrity – a middle-of-the-road kind of mentality that avoids the ditches on either side. His assessment is that the righteous die in spite of their righteousness and the wicked succeed in spite of their wickedness. So, he recommends avoiding the extremes and fearing  God instead.

What Solomon seems to be saying is that a man will end up disappointed if he pursues righteousness and wisdom thinking they will provide him with a long and prosperous life, free from trouble and trials. A life of righteousness, marked by wisdom is no guarantee of immunity from difficulty. Good people still suffer and die. Wise people still make dumb decisions. But at the same time, Solomon warns that a life of wickedness may bring you a semblance of pleasure and happiness, but you’ll end up paying for it in the long run. This leads him to conclude: “Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NLT).

It’s important that we not misunderstand or misinterpret what Solomon is saying. He is not diminishing the importance of righteousness or wisdom. He knows that both are essential and, when pursued properly, honoring to God. He even acknowledges that “One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town!” (Ecclesiastes 7:19 NLT). A wise person possesses an inner strength that provides protection from the effects of adversity. It provides a form of self-reliance and security that is preferable to dependence upon outside sources.   

But wisdom has its limits. So does righteousness. There is no one who is all-wise. There is no one who is fully righteous.

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

That’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s so important that we recognize and come to grips with the truth it proclaims. In this lifetime, we will never experience unvarnished righteousness. We will never be completely holy and sinless. So, while righteousness is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, we must remember that it will never keep us from suffering. Or to put it another way, no amount of righteousness in your life will protect you from pain and suffering. The righteous and wicked both experience difficulties in life. In fact, sometimes it appears as if the righteous suffer more than the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah took pains to share his frustration with this disturbing reality to God Himself.

Lord, you always give me justice
    when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
    Why are evil people so happy?
You have planted them,
    and they have taken root and prospered.
Your name is on their lips,
    but you are far from their hearts. – Jeremiah 12:1-2 NLT

From our earth-bound perspective, it can sometimes appear as if the wicked are being blessed by God. They seem happy and content. Their lives appear to be relatively free from pain and marked by prosperity. But as the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” Solomon had lived long enough to realize that the righteous and the wicked both experience their fair share of suffering. No amount of wisdom can guarantee a trouble-free life. This was a man who had pursued wisdom in a vain attempt to make sense of the incongruities and inequities of life.

And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 ESV

Solomon had been blessed by God with greater wisdom than any other living man. But he had not been satisfied. Instead, he spent years trying to acquire even more wisdom. It became an obsession. For Solomon, the accumulation of wisdom had become the end-game, rather than recognition and reverence for the One who made wisdom possible.

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright describes wisdom as “not the knowledge of accumulated facts but the inner strength that comes from a God-instructed conscience” (J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes). John Piper describes wisdom as “that practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. It begins with the fear of the Lord and consists in humbly hearing and doing God’s will perceived both in Scripture and in the unique circumstances of the moment” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “Get Wisdom”).

Solomon knew and understood the importance of wisdom, so he went out of his way to get his hands on it. But it seems as if he treated it as just another commodity, like gold, silver, horses, houses, chariots, and servants. As John Piper stated, the fear of the Lord is central to getting the full advantage of wisdom. And, of all people, Solomon should have understood that truth. After all, it was he who included the following proverb in his well-known collection:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. – Proverbs 9:10 NLT

But despite his awareness of this truth, Solomon’s self-obsessed accumulation of wisdom left him less than satisfied.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 ESV

Solomon had lived a long life. He had accomplished much and enjoyed all the perks that came with his achievements. And while he could put abundant wisdom at the top of his long list of assets, he still found himself operating in the red.

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

Despite his superior intelligence, the only conclusion Solomon could reach was that wisdom was an antidote to foolishness. It was like a vaccine that protected one against infection from folly.

I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:25 NLT

To Solomon, wisdom was nothing more than a panacea against a life of foolishness. He even characterizes folly as a seductive woman.

I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. – Ecclesiastes 7:26 NLT

And Solomon was somewhat of an expert when it came to seductive women. He was addicted to them. You don’t amass 700 wives and 300 concubines without some kind of a physical and psychological obsession with the opposite sex. And so, when Solomon attempted to describe the attractive nature of folly and the life of foolishness, he tended to use the familiar allure of a promiscuous woman.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
For she cares nothing about the path to life.
    She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. – Proverbs 5:3-6 NLT

Solomon knew that a life of foolishness could be highly appealing, but also extremely deadly. It was an equal-opportunity trap that ensnared both men and women. In fact, when he makes the statement, “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous”, he uses the Hebrew word adam, which can be translated as “man” but is actually a generic term referring to both sexes. Foolishness is not a male-dominated trait. Every human being, regardless of gender, class, educational status, or social standing, is susceptible to the allure of foolishness.

Yet, in verse 28, Solomon seems to be saying that only men can be virtuous.

I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman! – Ecclesiastes 7:28 NLT

It would seem that his use of the term “woman” in the second half of this verse is a direct reference to the seductive woman in verse 26. He is stating that folly is never virtuous. The individual who pursues a life of foolishness will never discover virtue or righteousness. Wisdom can prevent us from succumbing to folly’s temptation, but folly will never produce wisdom or result in a life of righteousness. This is why Solomon closes out this chapter by saying, “God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NLT). God created men and women to live righteously. But ever since the fall, humanity has made a habit of following a divergent path, pursuing darkness rather than light.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. But pursuing wisdom without a healthy reverence for God simply turns it into a commodity to be coveted and acquired. It becomes the objective rather than a relationship with God. Instead of viewing wisdom as a gift from God, designed to help us live in obedience to Him, we make it our end goal. Wisdom becomes nothing more than a tool to make us smarter, wealthier, healthier, and happier.

Solomon had spent decades in search of the meaning of life. And, in his relentless quest, he had tried wisdom and wickedness, viewing both as potential doorways to his desired destination. But God and a healthy reverence for Him were, and still are, the only ways for a man or woman to discover their true purpose in life and enjoy their days “under the sun.”

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.

External Influences

1 Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
    and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.
The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion;
    whoever provokes him to anger forfeits his life.
It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife,
    but every fool will be quarreling.
The sluggard does not plow in the autumn;
    he will seek at harvest and have nothing.
The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water,
    but a man of understanding will draw it out.
Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love,
    but a faithful man who can find?
The righteous who walks in his integrity—
    blessed are his children after him!
A king who sits on the throne of judgment
    winnows all evil with his eyes.
Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
    I am clean from my sin”?
10 Unequal weights and unequal measures
    are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
11 Even a child makes himself known by his acts,
    by whether his conduct is pure and upright.
12 The hearing ear and the seeing eye,
    the Lord has made them both.
13 Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty;
    open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.
14 “Bad, bad,” says the buyer,
    but when he goes away, then he boasts.
15 There is gold and abundance of costly stones,
    but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.
– Proverbs 20:1-15 ESV

“Ears to hear and eyes to see – both are gifts from the Lord.” – Proverbs 20:12 NLT

There are a lot of things that can impact the direction and quality of an individual’s life, and many of them are external in nature. In this proverb, Solomon begins by mentioning the detrimental influence that alcohol can have.

Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls.
    Those led astray by drink cannot be wise. – Proverbs 20:1 NLT

While the Scriptures don’t ban the consumption of alcohol outright, there are clear warnings as to its use and potential abuse. Here in the wisdom literature of Proverbs, we have an in-your-face warning included by Solomon that doesn’t mince words when it comes to the potential danger of alcohol. And he isn’t talking about distilled alcohol. No, he’s talking about the everyday, run-of-the-mill, average household wine that a Hebrew would consume.

He describes it as a mocker. Too much wine or alcohol in the system can turn anyone into an obnoxious, inebriated blowhard who is offensive to be around. The NET Bible puts it this way: “Excessive use of intoxicants excites the drinker to boisterous behavior and aggressive attitudes – it turns them into mockers and brawlers.”

You’ve seen them, been around them, and may have been there once or twice yourself. Alcohol clouds your senses, dulls your thinking, and distorts your perspective. The weak suddenly become strong, the timid feel braver, and the normally quiet ones become increasingly bolder. Inhibitions get tossed aside like a bottle cap and concern for decorum or reputation gets lost in the euphoric, alcohol-induced buzz. The Message has a not-so-subtle way of paraphrasing this verse. “Wine makes you mean, beer makes you quarrelsome – a staggering drunk is not much fun.” How sadly true.

But alcohol isn’t the only thing that can negatively influence an individual’s life. Solomon also mentions quarreling and strife.

Avoiding a fight is a mark of honor;
    only fools insist on quarreling. – Proverbs 20:3 NLT

The fact is, we don’t live our lives in isolation. We are constantly surrounded by other people who may not always agree with or even like us, which can easily lead to disagreements and the potential for strife. But while the temptation to defend our rights and state our minds might be strong, Solomon suggests that it would be better to avoid conflict at all costs. In fact, it is a mark of honor and a sign of wisdom. Only fools insist on escalating a conflict to the point that someone is going to get hurt, either emotionally or physically.

Another negative influence on a man’s life is the tendency toward laziness.

Those too lazy to plow in the right season
    will have no food at the harvest. – Proverbs 20:4 NLT

Essentially, Solomon is describing procrastination – the art of putting off until tomorrow what should rightfully be done today. Solomon was not a big fan of the procrastinator. In fact, in Proverbs 6, he describes this kind of individual as if he had one living in his own home.

But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep?
    When will you wake up?
A little extra sleep, a little more slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit;
    scarcity will attack you like an armed robber. – Proverbs 6:9-11 NLT

But Solomon mentions another external temptation that we must avoid: The use of dishonest means to achieve personal gain.

False weights and unequal measures—
    the Lord detests double standards of every kind. – Proverbs 20:10 NLT

When the Proverbs talk about false weights and unequal measures, it is describing a form of double standard that is aimed at others. It is designed to take unfair advantage of another person by means of intentional deception. The image is that of a vendor using inaccurate weights and measures in order to make the buyer think he is getting more than he is paying for. It is using deception to gain an advantage. But Solomon warns that God is watching and He is totally opposed to such actions – especially among His people.

God hates hypocrisy, and so should we. Yet the double standard is not only tolerated in our society, it’s actually admired. It has become an art form. Living the lie and masquerading as something other than what we truly are has become commonplace – even among Christians. And while we may fool others by our pretense and pretending, we never fool God. He sees and knows all. He is not impressed by our outward displays of righteousness or our Oscar-worthy performances that impress the crowds around us. He can spot duplicity and deceit of all kinds – even when we are trying to trick others into believing we are righteous. God desires honesty and integrity among His people. He wants us to say what we mean and mean what we say. He wants us to keep our word and live in such a way that our behavior is a true indication of our hearts.

Dishonesty has no place in the life of a follower of Christ. Instead, “the godly walk with integrity” (Proverbs 20:7 NLT). The Hebrew word for integrity is tom, and it means wholeness or completeness. It can convey the idea of a simplicity of mind. It is a mind with no deceit, free from mischief and misrepresentation. A life of integrity is a life of wholeness, health, and soundness. To live with integrity as a believer is to live your WHOLE life in a holy manner. It is to give God complete control over every area of your life – not just the convenient ones.

In time, a life of duplicity will always be exposed.

Even children are known by the way they act,
    whether their conduct is pure, and whether it is right.Proverbs 20:11 NLT

As believers, we are to have one standard, not two. We are to live according to God’s righteous requirements, not our own. There is no place for a double standard in our lives. Yet, for many of us, duplicity is a daily companion. We have learned to live the lie, not intending to hurt those around us, but deceiving them all the same. When we act as if all is well and our lives are carefree, yet we are struggling with doubts and troubles of all kinds, we are being duplicitous. We are being dishonest. When we try to impress others with outward displays of spirituality, while on the inside we are wrestling with our beliefs, we are being duplicitous. When we preach to our kids about the importance of God and His Word, but we rarely spend time in it ourselves, we are being hypocrites. And our children are fine-tuned to spot hypocrisy in our lives.

God calls us to be honest, transparent, open, and above board in our relationships with one another. No lying, no deceit, no duplicity, no double standards. We are to be a people of integrity. Not faking it for the sake of those around us, but honestly and openly living our lives knowing that “the Lord’s light penetrates the human spirit, exposing every hidden motive” (Proverbs 20:27 NLT).

Solomon reminds us that we have been given two incredible gifts from God.

Ears to hear and eyes to see—
    both are gifts from the Lord. – Proverbs 20:12 NLT

But Solomon’s mention of sight and hearing has little to do with the ability to see and hear. He seems to know that there are far too many people who have good hearing and great eyesight but who might as well be deaf and blind. Their problem is a spiritual one. Their organs of sight and hearing are perfectly fine, but they are spiritually deaf and blind. God used this imagery on many occasions, telling the people of Judah, “Listen, you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear” (Jeremiah 5:21 NLT). They were unable to see the greatness of God and unwilling to hear the voice of God.

While sight and hearing are both gifts from the Lord, how much greater is the gift of being able to see and hear spiritually. The ability to see life from God’s perspective and to clearly hear His voice is a gift of inestimable worth. Every Christ-follower has been equipped with these God-given senses of spiritual sight and hearing. As a result, we have the ability and responsibility to listen more and talk less. I think it’s interesting that speech is not listed as one of the gifts. We put a high value on what we say, but God seems to put a higher value on our capacity to listen – not only to Him but to what is being said around us. We need to train our ears to hear the pain and suffering in the world. We need to hear and discern the falsehood and lies masquerading as truth. We need to hear God speaking in the midst of all the noise around us. But to hear, we have to stop talking.

And we need to see more clearly the world as God sees it. We need His vision and insight. We need His perspective. It is easy to be fooled by the false images of this world. But things are not always as they appear. God gives us the ability to see clearly and truthfully. He alone can open our eyes to the reality of what is going on in the world. When we see clearly, we see Him at work. We know the value of His righteousness and the greatness of His power. We view the world through the lens of the future. And our vision of the world is not limited to the here-and-now. God has given us a glimpse into the future and we can see that He has a plan that He is working to perfection. The scenes of this present world are not the end of the story. We see the world through the eyes of God and know how the story ends.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Fear God, Not Man.

11 For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”

16 Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. 18 Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 19 And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. 21 They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. 22 And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. – Isaiah 8:11-22 ESV

Like any prophet of God, the greatest danger Isaiah faced was compromise. He had been commissioned by God to speak truth and deliver what would be a very unpopular message to a very stubborn people. They were not going to accept what he had to say and he would find himself facing intense opposition. Isaiah would soon discover that he was a lone voice, crying in the spiritual wilderness of the city of Jerusalem. So, God warns him “not to walk in the way of this people” (Isaiah 8:11 ESV). He had been called to walk a different path. But he would face the constant temptation to soften the message given to him by God in order to find acceptance among the people. If he was not careful, he would end up telling them what they wanted to hear, rather than what God had told him to say. And God was very specific in His warning to Isaiah.

“Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do,
    and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.” – Isaiah 8:12 NLT

The Hebrew word translated as “conspiracy” is qesher and can also refer to “an alliance.” But it refers particularly to an unlawful alliance. If you recall, there had been an alliance made between the northern kingdom of Israel and the Syrians. These two nations had joined forces with the intention of conquering Judah. In their fear, the people of Judah, under the leadership of Ahaz, had made their own alliance with the Assyrians. Rather than trust God, they had chosen to put their hopes in a pagan nation. And God has already warned Ahaz that his unlawful alliance would prove to be disastrous.

Now God is warning Isaiah not to allow fear to cloud his thinking. He is not to see things the way the people do. Their fear of Israel and Syria was driving their behavior and influencing their decision making. And they had determined that the only solution to their problem was an unlawful alliance with Assyria. If Isaiah was not careful, he could easily find himself swayed by the fears of the people and placing his hope in something or someone other than God. But God strongly warns Isaiah not to let this happen.

“Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life.
    He is the one you should fear.
He is the one who should make you tremble.
    He will keep you safe.” – Isaiah 18:13-14 NLT

Isaiah was to fear God, not man. He was to put his hope and trust in God Almighty, not an unlawful alliance with a pagan nation that would prove to be no match for the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. And, as far as Israel and Judah were concerned, God had their fate already planned out.

“But to Israel and Judah
    he will be a stone that makes people stumble,
    a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem
    he will be a trap and a snare.
Many will stumble and fall,
    never to rise again.
    They will be snared and captured.” – Isaiah 8:14-15 NLT

Ahaz and the people of Judah feared the Israelites and the Syrians more than they feared God. And in doing so, they had failed to regard God as holy. They had refused to believe that He alone could keep them safe. As a result, they had allowed their fear of man to trump their fear of God. Now, the God who could have saved them, would be the God would cause them to fall. Because they had refused to see God as their sole source of safety and refuge, He would become a trap and a snare to them.

But Isaiah was to maintain his trust in God, no matter what happened. And when he discovered that the leadership and the people of the nation had rejected his message, Isaiah determined to take it to as many faithful followers of Yahweh as he could find. And Isaiah, having heard the warning from God, boldly claims his intention to remain faithful.

“I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.” – Isaiah 8:17 ESV

Yet God knew that Isaiah’s commitment to remain faithful to Him was going to be constantly challenged. The people around him, even his own disciples, would eventually tempt him to turn to something other than God in order to gain insight and help.

“Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.” – Isaiah 8:19 NLT

In their desperation, people will seek guidance from the dead, rather than turn to God. They will resort to witchcraft and sorcery. In a sense, they will make another unlawful alliance with the occult. Yet Isaiah is encouraged to “Look to God’s instructions and teachings,” because all those who “who contradict his word are completely in the dark” (Isaiah 8:20 NLT). And, not surprisingly, when the people fail to get the answers they are seeking from the unlawful alliances they have made, they will curse God. When they find themselves weary and hungry, they will blame their king and their God. Rather than take personal responsibility for their circumstance, they will find a convenient scapegoat. But everywhere they look, they will see “trouble and anguish and dark despair” (Isaiah 8:22 NLT).

Failure to fear God is costly. It has severe ramifications. Their future circumstances were directly tied to their refusal to place their hope and trust in God. Their decision to make unlawful alliances with the ungodly and unrighteous was going to result in undesirable consequences. But, through it all, Isaiah was to remain faithfully fearful of God. He was to keep on trusting even when everyone around him was abandoning ship. They would find themselves in a state of spiritual darkness. But there is good news and it comes in the very next chapter. In spite of Judah’s rebellion against Him, they would experience His grace and mercy. He would one day penetrate the darkness of their lives with “a great light” (Isaiah 9:2 ESV). But more on that tomorrow.  

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 Healthy Fear of God.

15 And the Lord said to Joshua, 16 “Command the priests bearing the ark of the testimony to come up out of the Jordan.” 17 So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.” 18 And when the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord came up from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up on dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before.

19 The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21 And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” 

1 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel. Joshua 4:15-5:1 ESV

On the tenth day of the first month. The placement of that calendar notation may seem a bit odd or out of place, but it is actually quite significant, providing us with an important time marker. It lets us know that it had been 40 years to the day since God had told Israel to prepare to take the Passover, in preparation for their departure from Egypt.

1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.”Exodus 12:1-3 ESV

This day was already a memorial for the people of Israel, commemorating their deliverance from slavery in Egypt by the hand of God. God had told the Israelites that their keeping of the Passover each year on that day was to act as a reminder and a teaching opportunity.

26 “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord‘s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” – Exodus 12:26-27 ESV

Now, they would have another reason to remember the tenth day of the first month, and another story to tell their children about the greatness of God. Not only had He delivered them from captivity in Egypt, He had brought them into the land He had promised to give them. They were no longer slaves, but freemen. Rather than live as captives, they were to be conquerors, possessing the land promised to them by God by the very power of God.

Notice the similarities between what God told the people of Israel regarding their keeping of the Passover and what Joshua told the people about the stone memorial.

21 “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over… – Joshua 4:21-23 ESV

In Egypt, God passed over the houses of the Israelites. At the Jordan, Israel passed over the border of Canaan on dry ground. In Egypt, God had spared the Israelites from death because of the presence of the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. At the Jordan, God had provided a path to a new life through the presence of the ark, the symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness. And as soon as the feet of the priests stepped out of the Jordan and onto the western shoreline, the waters returned and overflowed their banks. God had faithfully kept back the waters until each and every Israelite had passed over. He had delivered them safely into the land of promise.

And Joshua provides two important reasons for this miraculous provision by God. First, “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty.” This was to be a witness to the nations who occupied the land of Canaan. News of this miracle would spread. The drying up of the waters of the Jordan would not have gone unnoticed by others who lived in the land and who depended upon its waters for their well-being. We are not told how long it took the Israelites to cross over the Jordan, but however long it took, those living downstream would have noticed that the river had dried up at a time of the year when it should have been overflowing its banks. And in the very next chapter we see that the news of this miracle had its intended impact on the inhabitants of the land.

…their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel… – Joshua 5:1 ESV

But Joshua lets the people know there is a second and even more significant reason for the miracle they had just witnessed: “that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” God had just revealed His power. He had displayed His sovereign control over the elements. Just as He had dried up the waters of the Red Sea 40 years earlier, He had dried up the waters of the Jordan. Nothing was too difficult for Him. And they were to fear Him. But it’s essential that we understand what this fear of God entailed. It was not to be a fear of Him, in the sense that they were to cower in His presence or live in fear of His wrath. The fear of God is an expression that communicates faith in God. It is a experiential understanding of His power and provision. God had just done a miracle on their behalf. He had just performed an inexplicable act of divine deliverance, and it was to produce in them a healthy reverence for Him and an emboldened faith in Him. So that, the next time He spoke, they would readily listen and quickly obey. Their God was powerful. Their God was faithful. And there was no other god like Him. The gods of the Canaanites and Amorites would prove no match for God Almighty.

Many years earlier, long before the Israelites had made it into the land of promise, Moses had given them a powerful reminder concerning the fear of God.

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good” – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 ESV

The fear of God was to have an outward expression. It was to be visible and tangible in nature. And it was to be characterized by obedience and faithfulness.

20 “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.” – Deuteronomy 10:20-22 ESV

The Israelites were to fear God, because He was their covenant-keeping, miracle-working, grace-bestowing God. The Amorites and Canaanites would learn to fear God, but for completely different reasons. They were going to learn that He was God, and they would come to fear His power and presence, but they would never bow down and worship Him as their God. But for the Israelites, their interactions with God were to produce a reverence for Him that would increase their dependence upon Him.

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 Weakness of Wisdom.

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
    so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right,
    but a fool’s heart to the left.
Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves. Ecclesiastes 10:1-7 ESV

There is little doubt that Solomon was a big fan of wisdom. He knew first-hand the value that wisdom could afford a man. But he also knew that wisdom had its limits. In the world in which he lived, there was no one who possessed perfect wisdom. Even he, the wisest man who ever lived, had made foolish mistakes. In spite of the vast amount of God-given wisdom he possessed, he had ended up violating the commands of God. During his long life, he had made many unwise decisions that had left their indelible mark on his life and his reign as king. That seems to be his point in verse 10, where he uses the metaphor of the fly in the ointment. The ointment Solomon had in mind was most likely olive oil, which was used as both a perfume and a healing agent. Like wisdom, the ointment was intended to have a positive effect, acting as a sweet-smelling perfume or a health-inducing medicine. But one dead fly could turn the positive properties of ointment into a diseased-filled, stench-producing product that was of no good to anyone. And in the same way, one foolish act can destroy years of wise decision-making. The damaging effects of just a little bit of foolish behavior are immeasurable. It doesn’t take much. And Paul uses a similar metaphor when he warns against the impact of false teaching on the church.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! – Galatians 5:9 NLT

There are two ways we can look at this verse. The first is that a wise person can destroy their reputation for wisdom by making one foolish decision. It can become like a fly in the ointment, quickly nullifying the years of beneficial value established by living a life of wisdom. But it can also refer to the impact one fool can have on a family, community or nation. All it takes is one individual making one foolish decision to destroy years of wise counsel and leadership. And interestingly enough, Solomon’s own foolish decisions were going to eventually result in the end of the kingdom of Israel as it had been established by God under the leadership of Solomon’s father, David. The book of 1 Kings provides us with a description of Solomon’s fly-in-the-ointment failure that led to God’s removal of him as king and the division of the Davidic Kingdom.

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. 11 So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. 12 But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. 13 And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.” – 1 Kings 11:9-13 NLT

And perhaps it was because Solomon had seen the error of his ways, even if a bit too late, that he spoke so often and so highly of wisdom. He knew that godly wisdom was a deterrent to poor decision-making because it tended to direct one down the right path. While the heart of a fool, devoid of godly wisdom, inevitably led in the wrong direction. And it’s easy to spot the fool, because the course of his life gives ample proof that his decision-making is devoid of godly wisdom. His choices provide evidence of his lack of wisdom. And Solomon provides an example that contrasts the actions of a fool with those of a wise man. If you find that someone in authority is angry with you, don’t act like a fool and impulsively quit. Instead, respond in wisdom, remaining calm and allowing your superior time to cool off. Use self-control. Don’t allow your pride to dictate your response.

This is not a guarantee that the ruler will calm down. It doesn’t mean that your wise response will necessarily produce a right reaction from the one who is angry and acting unjustly. But a wise person will not allow the foolish behavior of another to infect and affect their own behavior.

The truth is, there are sometimes fools sitting in places of authority and wielding great power. That seems to be Solomon’s point when he says, “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place” (Ecclesiastes 10:6 ESV). The sad reality is that the undeserving and unqualified sometimes find themselves in positions where they rule over those with greater skills and a proven track record of success. Solomon refers to them as “rich”, but the Hebrew word can refer to someone who is honorable and noble. In other words, they are someone of worth and character, but they find themselves in an inferior position having to submit to the authority of a fool. Solomon describes this sad state of affairs as an evil under the sun. It’s just a reality of life.

Like Solomon, we live in a world that is sometimes topsy-turvy, where everything appears to be just the opposite of what it should be. In his day, he put this incongruity in visual terms, describing the disturbing sight of “slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves” (Ecclesiastes 10:7 ESV). This was just another proof of the injustice and inequities that abound in this life. And we see the same thing in our day. How many times have we had to sit back and witness the promotion of the less-qualified individual for a position of prominence in our company? How often have we seen the undeserving fast-tracked to promotion while the more gifted and talented are overlooked? More than likely, we have experienced this kind of injustice ourselves. But it does not disqualify the value of wisdom over folly. It is simply proof of the pervasive presence of sin in the world in which we live. 

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a glimpse into the mindset that pervades the world.

20 What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
21 What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

That is the world in which we live. And it was the world in which Solomon lived. It is the nature of life in a fallen world. And while wisdom is essential and to be desired above all else, wisdom alone will not suffice to rectify the problem we face in this world. As Solomon so aptly put it in Proverbs 1:7:

Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

Without a knowledge of God and a reverence for who He is, we lack the ability to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness. Without God, we turn to our own wisdom – human wisdom – which always proves insufficient and incapable of guiding us through this life. Paul gives us a wonderful description of the difference between worldly wisdom and that which comes from God.

18 Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say,

“He traps the wise
    in the snare of their own cleverness.”

20 And again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise;
    he knows they are worthless.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 NLT

Surviving in this world requires wisdom, but it must be wisdom that is founded on a relationship with God Almighty. It must be based on who He is and what He desires. Without Him, our wisdom is foolishness. Apart from Him, our wisdom will always prove insufficient and our ability to understand the fallen world around us, inadequate.

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

Wisdom Without God Is Folly.

1 Who is like the wise?
    And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
    and the hardness of his face is changed.

I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. Ecclesiastes 8:1-8 ESV

It shouldn’t be surprising that Solomon has a lot to say about wisdom. After all, he was known for his wisdom. In the early days of his reign, when given an opportunity by God to ask of Him whatever he wished, Solomon had asked for an “understanding heart” so he could govern the people of Israel well. And God responded, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have!” (1 Kings 3:11-12 NLT). And God followed through on His commitment, blessing Solomon with unsurpassed wisdom. Even when the queen of the nation of Sheba (modern-day Ethiopia) made a royal visit to Jerusalem, she was blown away by Solomon’s wisdom.
2 When she met with Solomon, she talked with him about everything she had on her mind. Solomon had answers for all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba realized how very wise Solomon was, and when she saw the palace he had built, she was overwhelmed. – 1 Kings 10:2-5 NLT
Like everything else in his life, wisdom became an obsession for Solomon. Seemingly unsatisfied with what he had been given by God, he constantly pursued wisdom. He even wrote and collected wise proverbial statements and put them in a book. In this book, known as The Proverbs of Solomon, he describes wisdom as a woman calling out from the streets, attempting to get the attention of those who pass her by.

20 Wisdom shouts in the streets.
    She cries out in the public square.
21 She calls to the crowds along the main street,
    to those gathered in front of the city gate:
22 “How long, you simpletons,
    will you insist on being simpleminded?
How long will you mockers relish your mocking?
    How long will you fools hate knowledge?
23 Come and listen to my counsel.
I’ll share my heart with you
    and make you wise. – Proverbs 1:20-23 NLT

But everyone ignored her calls. They rejected her advice and shunned her correction. Nobody wanted what she had to offer. And as a result, they were left in their ignorance and complacency. But when the time came when wisdom was needed, she would be nowhere to be found. For Solomon, wisdom was a commodity worth pursuing. He even explained his purpose for writing his book of proverbs by stating:

Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
    to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
    to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
    knowledge and discernment to the young. – Proverbs 1:2-4 NLT

Wisdom became one of many obsessions for Solomon. He pursued it with a vengeance, and never seemed to think he had enough of it. But it seems that he often forgot his own advice, failing to remember that “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). The pursuit of wisdom without a healthy fear and worship of God is a futile effort. But too often, we make wisdom the focus of our attention, not God. And Solomon knew the benefits of wisdom. He had experienced them firsthand. Which is why he could sing the praises of a life of wisdom. “How wonderful to be wise, to analyze and interpret things. Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its harshness” (Ecclesiastes 8:1 NLT). 

And it’s interesting to note that in the following verses, Solomon provides those to whom he is writing a number of examples of what wisdom looks like in real life. But notice that they all have to do with their allegiance to the king. In other words, their faithful service to him.

He starts out with a not-so-subtle admonition to “Keep the king’s command.” This is the king telling his own people that if they’re wise, they’ll obey him. Sounds more like a threat than a recommendation to live wisely. While there is tremendous truth and wisdom in what Solomon has to say, it can’t help but come across as a bit self-serving. Yes, it makes sense for a servant of the king, someone who has made an oath to faithfully serve the king, to follow through on their commitment. It would be unwise to shirk your duty or to join in a plot to overthrow the king. It’s also a bit foolish to question the decisions of the king, because his word is final, and he has the power to enforce whatever he determines to do. If you obey him, you won’t be punished. The wise person will know when to speak up and when to shut up. He will understand that there’s a time and place for everything, even when facing trouble. And it’s our inability to control our words during times of difficulty that can get us in hot water. We say things we end up regretting. We express thoughts that haven’t been fully thought through. And hasty words spoken in the presence of the king can expose our folly and prove deadly. This thought sounds reminiscent of something Solomon said earlier in his book.

Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. – Ecclesiastes 5:2 ESV

The apostle Paul shared a similar word of counsel in his letter to the church in Colossae.

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. – Colossians 4:5-6 NLT

For Solomon, it simply made sense not to question the wishes of the king. Of course, since he was the king, we can somehow understand why he felt this way. As king, he had probably heard more than one citizen of his kingdom say to him, “What are you doing?” And he most likely found the tone of that question offensive and, its timing, unwise. No one likes to have his wisdom and authority questioned, especially the king. And Solomon appears to view his authority as supreme, almost all-knowing in nature. He states that the one who questions the king “does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7 ESV). This individual has no control over anything, including their day of death. Nobody can hold on to their spirit when the time comes for it to depart. Nobody can get out of their obligation to serve when conscripted for battle. They simply have to go. They must do their duty. And the one who chooses a life of evil will find himself hopelessly stuck, experiencing the inevitable outcome of his decision. There is a certain sense of fate in Solomon’s words. You can’t know the future, so you have no control over it. Which brings us back to Solomon’s earlier admonition: Keep the king’s command.

But what are we to do with this? How are we to take what Solomon says and apply it to our daily lives? I believe it is essential to read the book of Ecclesiastes with a clear understanding of the state affairs in Solomon’s life at the time of its writing. He is an old man, having served as king of Israel for a long period of time. He has not finished well. His kingdom is marred by the presence of many idols to false gods. He has repeatedly disobeyed God, marrying more than 700 different women and amassing a harem of 300 concubines. He has been unfaithful to Yahweh. And his unfaithfulness would ultimately lead to God ripping the kingdom from his hands and dividing it in two. Solomon was still a wise man when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. But it is safe to say that he no longer feared God as he once had. His wisdom had been marred by sin. His perspective had been skewed by his pessimistic take on life. There is a lot of truth in the words that Solomon speaks, but we must remove the gems of truth from the muck and mire of Solomon’s sin-distorted viewpoint. Wisdom is a good thing. Remaining faithful in your service to the king is solid and sound advice. The one thing that is missing is a recommendation to fear the Lord. To his credit, Solomon will weave that message into the verses that follow. But it seems that Solomon struggled with maintaining the vital connection between wisdom and the fear of God. At times, wisdom became a stand-alone for him. He seems to have applied to wisdom the same philosophy of life he used with everything else: More is better. There were occasions when he seemed to sincerely believe that wisdom was all you needed. But wisdom without a fear of God is useless. It too will prove futile and meaningless. It is our fear and reverence for God that gives wisdom its power. Knowing right from wrong, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness, begins with knowing God. Being able to make good decisions stems from a solid understanding of who God is and what He expects of us. When we live to please God, we make wise decisions. When we live to please self, we end up living like fools and, as Solomon put it, eating our own flesh. In our effort to make it all about ourselves, we end up destroying ourselves.

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

Fear God.

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 ESV

Don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too wicked. Don’t be too wise, but don’t be too foolish. Sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? Solomon almost sounds like he’s recommending a life of mediocrity – a middle-of-the-road kind of mentality that avoids the ditches on either side. After all, he observes, the righteous die in spite of their righteousness and the wicked succeed in spite of their wickedness. So, avoid the extremes. Instead, fear God. What Solomon seems to be saying is that if we pursue righteousness and wisdom thinking these things will provide us with a long and prosperous life, free from trouble and trials, we will be highly disappointed. A life of righteousness, marked by wisdom is no guarantee of immunity from difficulty. Good people still suffer and die. Wise people still make dumb decisions. But at the same time, Solomon warns that a life of wickedness may bring you a semblance of pleasure and happiness, but you’ll end up paying for it in the long run. Which is what leads him to conclude: “Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NLT).

It’s important that we not misunderstand or misinterpret what Solomon has to say. He is not diminishing the importance of righteousness or wisdom. He knows that both are essential and, when pursued properly, honoring to God. He even acknowledges that “One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town!” (Ecclesiastes 7:19 NLT). But wisdom has its limits. So does righteousness. There is no one who is all wise. There is no one who is fully righteous. “Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT). Not exactly a revelation, but it’s so important that we recognize and come to grips with this reality. In this lifetime, we will never experience unvarnished righteousness. We will never be completely holy and sinless. So, while righteousness is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, we must remember that it will never keep us from suffering. Or to put it another way, no amount of righteousness in your life will protect you from pain and suffering. The righteous and wicked both experience difficulties in life. In fact, sometimes it appears as if the righteous suffer more than the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah pointed out this disturbing realization to God Himself.

1 Lord, you always give me justice
    when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
    Why are evil people so happy?
You have planted them,
    and they have taken root and prospered.
Your name is on their lips,
    but you are far from their hearts. – Jeremiah 12:1-2 NLT

From our limited perspective, it can appear as if the wicked are blessed by God. They seem happy and content. Their lives appear to be relatively free from pain and marked by prosperity. But as the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” Solomon had lived long enough to realize that the righteous and the wicked both suffer. And wisdom can’t guarantee a trouble-free life. Remember, he had tried it all. And he had used his wisdom in an attempt to understand life.

13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity[g] and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 ESV

Solomon had been given great wisdom by God, and then he had spent years acquiring even more wisdom. In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright describes wisdom as “not the knowledge of accumulated facts but the inner strength that comes from a God-instructed conscience” (J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes). John Piper describes wisdom as “that practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. It begins with the fear of the Lord and consists in humbly hearing and doing God’s will perceived both in Scripture and in the unique circumstances of the moment” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “Get Wisdom”).

Solomon knew and understood the importance of wisdom, so he went out of his way to get his hands on it. But it seems as if he treated it as just another commodity, like gold, silver, horses, houses, chariots and servants. As John Piper stated, the fear of the Lord is central to getting the full advantage from wisdom. And if anyone should have understood that, it was Solomon, who included the following proverb in his collection of proverbs. “Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment” (Proverbs 9:10 NLT). So, as a result Solomon’s pursuit and acquisition of wisdom left him less than satisfied.

16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 ESV

Solomon had lived a long life. He had accomplished much and enjoyed all the perks that came with his achievements. And while he could put abundant wisdom at the top of his long list of assets, he still found himself operating in the red.

23 I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. 24 Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. 25 I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

The real benefit of wisdom, as far as Solomon could tell, was that it kept you from succumbing to foolishness. As he does in the opening chapters of his book of Proverbs, Solomon characterizes folly as a seductive woman. And when Solomon spoke about seductive women, he did so from experience. He was addicted to women. You don’t amass 700 wives and 300 concubines without some kind of a physical and psychological obsession with the opposite sex. And so, when Solomon attempted to describe the attractive nature of folly and the life of foolishness, he used the allure of a promiscuous woman.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
For she cares nothing about the path to life.
    She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. – Proverbs 5:3-6 NLT

Here in Ecclesiastes, he reiterates his warning.

 I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. – Ecclesiastes 7:26 NLT

Solomon knew that the life of foolishness was highly appealing, but also extremely deadly. It was a trap that ensnared both men and women. In fact, when he makes the statement, “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous”, he uses the Hebrew word adam, which can be translated as “man” but is actually a generic term that can refer to both men and women. It would seem that his use of the term “woman” in the second half of verse 28 is a direct reference to the seductive woman in verse 26. Folly is never virtuous. The individual who pursues a life of foolishness will never discover virtue or righteousness. While wisdom can prevent us from succumbing to the temptation of folly. Folly will never produce wisdom or result in a life of righteousness. Which is why Solomon closes out this chapter by saying, “God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NLT). God created man to be right or righteous. But ever since the fall, we have made a habit of following our own downward path, of pursuing darkness rather than light.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom apart from or devoid of a healthy reverence for God turns wisdom into a commodity to be coveted and acquired. Rather than viewing wisdom as a gift from God, designed to help us live in obedience to Him, we make it our end goal. Wisdom becomes nothing more than a tool to make us wiser, wealthier, healthier and happier. Solomon made wisdom and wickedness parallel pursuits, viewing either as potential sources for finding meaning in life. But God and a healthy reverence for Him were, and still are, the only ways for man to discover his purpose and to enjoy his days under the sun.

 

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

A Deadly Mistake.

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. – Acts 5:3-11 ESV

The gospel was spreading. The movement of the Spirit was obvious, with miraculous signs and wonders taking place and thousands of people coming to faith in Christ. These were remarkable days and the power of God was palpable. Earlier in his account, Luke referred to the great power with which the apostles were testifying to the resurrection Jesus. He mentioned the great grace of God that was upon all those in the church (Acts 4:33). There was unity and a true sense of community. The well-to-do were willingly selling their possessions in order to help meet the needs of the less-fortunate in their fellowship. The presence of the Spirit of God was having an obvious impact on all those who had come to faith in Christ.

But then we read of Ananias and Sapphira. This is a difficult story and it seems somewhat out of place. But Luke includes it for a reason. Yes, it comes across as a wet blanket, quenching the flame of the Spirit moving in the midst of the people. But it is intended as a warning to all those who have aligned themselves with the cause of Christ. This was not to be a game. The Spirit’s presence and the gospel’s offer of salvation were all about holiness. The good news concerning Jesus Christ was about freedom from and forgiveness for sin, and a restored relationship with a holy God. It was about new life made possible by the indwelling power of the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit was not someone to take lightly or to treat with disdain. He was the very Spirit of God, holy and divine, and deserving of man’s reverence and awe.

But Ananias and Sapphira are provided as stark examples of those who failed to give the Holy Spirit the honor He deserved. There is much in this story that remains a mystery to us. As detailed a historian as Luke was, he failed to provide us with explanations as to what was really going on behind the scenes. He doesn’t tell us the motivation behind this couple’s decision. He gives us no insight into whether or not Ananias and Sapphira were believers or not. He seems to provide us with a simple, black and white description of a real life event that was used by God as a wake-up call to the rest of the fellowship. It is my opinion that Ananias and Sapphira were believers. They were part of the body of Christ there in Jerusalem. The fact that Peter accuses them of lying to the Spirit of God would seem to indicate that they had a relationship with the Spirit. At some point along the way, they had been included in the thousands of people who had expressed belief in Jesus and, as a result, had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. What is not clear is whether or not they had been impressed by the Spirit to sell their land. Was their decision motivated by the Holy Spirit or by greed and the need for recognition? Or could it have been both? Once again, Peter’s reference to them having lied to the Spirit would seem to indicate that they had been directed by the Spirit to sell their land, just as Joseph had done earlier. But when they realized the profit they had made as a result of the sale, they determined to keep some of it for themselves, evidently in direct disobedience to the Spirit’s leading. In presenting their money to the apostles and claiming it to be the entire proceeds from the sale, they were lying to the Spirit of God, attempting to deceive Him into believing that they had obeyed His will. But Peter, most likely under the inspiration of the Spirit, saw through their ploy. He exposed their little lie and, since Ananias was the one who delivered the money, Peter addressed his accusation to him.

“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? – Acts 5:3 ESV

Peter pointed out to Ananias that the property had been his to do with as he wished. And even after he sold it, he could have used the money as he saw fit. But to sell the land, then bring part of the proceeds to the apostles and fabricate a lie that they were donating all the profit from the sale to the church, was a lie – a lie to God. If the Holy Spirit had been the one to prompt Ananias and Sapphira to sell the land, they could have easily refused. People disobey and quench the Spirit every day. It is wrong and strongly discouraged in Scripture, but the reality is that we all fail to do heed the promptings of the Spirit each and every day. And had they refused to do what the Spirit had commanded, not one would have known. Even if the Spirit had told them to sell the land and they had obeyed, they could have still kept all the money for themselves. They could have given a portion of the proceeds to the church and no one would have been the wiser. But their real sin was lying. It was hypocrisy. They wanted to emulate the sacrificial act of Joseph and receive the same recognition, but without the same cost. They placed higher value on the praise of men than they did on obedience to the promptings of the Spirit. And it cost them.

Luke matter-of-factly states that “As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died” (Acts 5:5 NLT). He dropped dead. Peter didn’t call for his death. It was the judgment of God, and it was immediate, leaving the rest of the congregation in a state of great fear. This was serious business. No one who witnessed these proceedings missed the fact that lying to God was a risky and deadly proposition.

When Sapphira appeared a few hours after her husband had been carried from the room and buried, she probably expected to be greeted with applause and great praise for her generosity. She was totally unaware of what had happened to her husband. But rather than hearing words of thanks from the needy in the church, she was interrogated by Peter. He provided her with a chance to come clean, asking her whether the amount she and Ananias had donated was the full profit from the sale of their land. Unflinchingly and unabashedly, she asserted that it was, and within minutes, she too was dead. We get a bit more clarification as to the exact nature or cause of their deaths when Peter asked her, “How could the two of you even think of conspiring to test the Spirit of the Lord like this?” (Acts 5:9 NLT). Peter clearly implies that heir little plot was a test of God’s Spirit. They essentially asked themselves whether He would hold them accountable? Would He care if they failed to obey completely? They tested the Spirit’s patience and power, apparently thinking He would do nothing. But they learned a costly lesson. And so did the rest of the church. Luke records: “Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened” (Acts 5:11 NLT). 

What we have here is a description of how God worked in the early days of the church. It is not a prescription for how God handles all lying to the Holy Spirit. This was not intended to be construed as standard operating procedures for any and all who disobey or lie to the Spirit. What we have here is a chronicle of the early days of the church, covering a specific point in time and recording events taking place in a particular part of the world. God did things uniquely and differently then. What Luke provided was not intended to be a detailed description of how the church was to appear and work in all ages. He was recording the beginning of the church and taking note of some clearly unique, one-of-a-kind events that were never intended to be repeated or viewed as normative. What happened in the upper room on the day of Pentecost was never replicated. The flames of fire and the ability to speak in foreign languages were God-ordained for that moment in time. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were the work of God, but were not meant to be taken as the normative response of God toward all who lie to the Spirit of God. If God put to death all those who disobeyed or attempted to deceive the Holy Spirit, the church would dramatically smaller in size.

The Spirit was new. No one knew exactly what to expect and there were none who fully understood how to relate to this One who showed up in power, but remained invisible to their sight. They could have easily treated the Spirit as a commodity or power supply. They ran the risk of overlooking His deity and holiness. So, God took this occasion to produce in His people a great fear of and reverence for the Spirit. News of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira spread. Word got out. And there’s little doubt that their mistake was not soon repeated.

 

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

The Folly of Fools.

So they went into the court to the king, having put the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the secretary, and they reported all the words to the king. Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary. And Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. It was the ninth month, and the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot. Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments. Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son and Seraiah the son of Azriel and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel to seize Baruch the secretary and Jeremiah the prophet, but the Lord hid them. – Jeremiah 36:20-26 ESV

This section of chapter 36 provides a sharp contrast between Jehoiakim, the current king of Judah, and that of Josiah, his father. During the reign of Josiah, when the scroll containing the law of God was found during renovation work on the temple, he had reacted quite differently to its reading.

Then Shaphan the scribe told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a scroll.” Shaphan read it out loud before the king. When the king heard the words of the law scroll, he tore his clothes. – 2 Kings 22:10-11 NLT

Then the king sent, and all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant. – 2 Kings 23:1-3 NLT

Quite a difference. Josiah had received the word of God with fear and reverence. He had recognized the sins of the people and understood the gravity of their rebellion against God. And he took full responsibility for it.

But what about Jehoiakim? How did he respond when he heard the words of God as spoken to Jeremiah the prophet and recorded by Baruch?

Each time Jehudi finished reading three or four columns, the king took a knife and cut off that section of the scroll. He then threw it into the fire, section by section, until the whole scroll was burned up. – Jeremiah 36:23 NLT

Arrogantly and fearlessly, he personally burned the scroll containing the words of God – piece by piece – until it was completely destroyed. And he did this even as Elnathan, Delaiah, and Gemariah begged him to stop. But the king and his advisors were completely unmoved by the warnings of God contained in the scroll. Slowly but surely, the king threw them in the fire, to be consumed, and to illustrate his disdain for them. And the text makes it very clear that, “Neither the king nor his attendants showed any signs of fear or repentance at what they heard” (Jeremiah 36:24 NLT).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. – Proverbs 9:10 ESV

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7 ESV

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. – Psalm 14:1 ESV

These verses provide a vivid description of what is going on in the winter room of the palace as Jehoiakim slowly destroys the words of God found on the scroll. He has no fear of God. He is a fool. And, in reality, he is acting as if there is not God. But he was not alone. The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision by God, in which he was able to see hidden things going on in Judah, that no one was aware of, but God.

“Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” – Ezekiel 8:12 NLT

The elders of the people were guilty of committing sins against God, in secret, and justifying their actions because they believed that God was unable to see them. In essence, they were acting as if there was no God. They were fools. They were acting just like the wicked described in Psalm 10: “The wicked think, “God isn’t watching us! He has closed his eyes and won’t even see what we do!” You see this attitude reflected throughout the psalms, revealing a disturbing trend among God’s people.

“The Lord isn’t looking,” they say,
    “and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care.” – Psalm 94:7 NLT

But they were wrong. Their assessment of God’s sovereignty and omniscience was way off the mark. And God lets them know it.

Think again, you fools!
    When will you finally catch on?
Is he deaf—the one who made your ears?
    Is he blind—the one who formed your eyes?
He punishes the nations—won’t he also punish you?
    He knows everything—doesn’t he also know what you are doing?
The Lord knows people’s thoughts;
    he knows they are worthless! – Psalm 94:8-11 NLT

God was watching as Jehoiakim threw the pieces of the scroll on the fire. As each section containing the words of God was consumed, God’s righteous anger intensified. And the fate of Judah became more permanently sealed. Rather than repent, Jehoiakim sent men to arrest Jeremiah and Baruch. Not content with the destruction of the scroll, he wanted to get his hands on the ones who had produced it. He thought that, by eliminating Jeremiah, his problems would be over. He wrongly assumed that his nemesis was a man, but in reality, Jehoiakim was choosing to do battle with the Lord of Hosts, God Almighty. And that was a battle he was not going to win. He could refuse to listen to the words of God. He could even burn them in a fire. He could attempt to eliminate the prophet of God. But he could not make God go away. And none of his efforts would alter the plan of God one iota.

Think about it, you rebels!
Remember what I accomplished in antiquity!
Truly I am God, I have no peer;
I am God, and there is none like me,
who announces the end from the beginning
and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred,
who says, ‘My plan will be realized,
I will accomplish what I desire,’
who summons an eagle from the east,
from a distant land, one who carries out my plan.
Yes, I have decreed,
yes, I will bring it to pass;
I have formulated a plan,
yes, I will carry it out. – Isaiah 46:8-11 NLT

Jehoiakim was a king. He had a palace. He had some semblance of power and authority. He could strike fear into the hearts of men. But he was not God. He was no match for God. While he could burn a scroll in a fire, God could consume an entire nation with a single word. He could bring destruction in the form of the Babylonians and reduce Jehoiakim’s palace and capital to ashes. But in his pride, Jehoiakim acted as if God didn’t exist. In his foolishness, he assumed God didn’t see and, even if He did, He wouldn’t act. He was wrong. Dead wrong. And God was about to let him know just how wrong he was.

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.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson≠≠

Make Godliness Your Goal.

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV

What promises? Paul has just quoted from several Old Testament passages containing the following promises from God:

I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. – Leviticus 26:12 ESV

My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. – Ezekiel 37:27 ESV

I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. – 2 Samuel 7:14 ESV

Now, he declares, with those promises in mind, what should our reaction be? How should we respond? Paul is reminding his readers that they, like the Israelites of the Old Testament, have been set apart by God. He has chosen them to be His people and has graciously agreed to be there God. He has consecrated them, set the apart from the rest of the nations, to be His own possession. As children of God, they were to live separately and distinctively. That does not mean that Christians are to live their lives in isolation or in some kind of segregated society, separated from the rest of the world. This is not a call to monastic isolationism. But it is a call to sanctification or holiness. Paul expected the believers to he was writing to live in such a way that their behavior differentiated them from the rest of the world. As Jesus prayed in the garden on the night He was betrayed, they were to be in the world, but not of it.

I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. – John 17:14-17 NLT

The promise of citizenship in God’s Kingdom was to create in them a passion to live as who God had called them to be. They were His possession and their lives were to reflect that unique privilege and totally undeserved position. They were to cleanse themselves from every defilement of body and spirit. Like a stained and soiled garment, they required removal of the impurities that accompanied their sinful flesh. Their old habits and sinful predilections had to be systematically and regularly done away with. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul emphasized the essential nature of this ongoing cleansing of the believer’s life.

God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. Never harm or cheat a Christian brother in this matter by violating his wife, for the Lord avenges all such sins, as we have solemnly warned you before. God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 NLT

The privilege of sonship carries with it responsibilities. As children of God, we are to behave in such a way that our lives honor our heavenly Father. Ongoing sin is not to be a defining characteristic of the child of God. Paul was not insinuating that Christians cannot and will not sin. He would have wholeheartedly agreed with the apostle John when he wrote:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 NLT

The presence of and potential for sin is not eliminated when we come to faith in Christ, but sin’s power over us is. We are set free from its control over us. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, we have a capability to choose righteousness over unrighteousness. We can refuse to give in to the temptations that once captivated and controlled us. 

Paul’s point in all of this is that our salvation in Christ has a second step: Our sanctification. Coming to faith in Christ is to be accompanied by our ongoing transformation into His likeness. And it is as we cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit that we experience what Paul refers to as “bringing holiness to completion.” The goal of our salvation is our ultimate glorification by God. There is a day coming when He will complete the process of renewal and reformation of our lives by giving us a new body. Sin will be completely eliminated and our transformation into the likeness of Christ will be complete. John describes that day in the following way:

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

In the meantime, while we wait for that day, we are to strive toward holiness. In order to accomplish that objective, we are required to put off our old sinful nature and put on our new nature. We are to allow the Holy Spirit to expose the sin in our lives so we can confess it and enjoy forgiveness for it. We are to flee sin and pursue righteousness.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18 NLT

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. – 2 Timothy 2:22 NLT

…so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.1 Timothy 6:11 NLT

Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:21 ESV

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. – Colossians 3:5 NLT

If you have been called by God to be His child, live like it. If you know the joy of having your debt to God paid for and your sins forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross, your lifestyle should reflect your gratitude and your recognition that you are a new creation with a new capacity to pursue holiness, not sinfulness. The behavior of children reflects back on their parents. Our behavior as sons and daughters of God reflects back on our heavenly Father. Our attitudes and actions should honor Him. Our behavior should bring glory to Him. It was Jesus who said, “let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16 NLT). And it was Peter who echoed that sentiment when he wrote: “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). Pursue holiness. Strive after righteousness. Make godliness your goal. For the glory of God and the good of others.