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.

The Insatiable Thirst For More

1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 ESV

Pleasure, laughter, wine, work, possessions. Solomon was on a quest. He was a man on a desperate search for meaning in life. Blessed by God with remarkable wisdom and abundant wealth, he found himself in the seemingly enviable position of being able to afford all that his heart could desire. But that was the problem. Enough was never enough. Despite all of his purchases, possessions, and pleasures, he remained discontent, lacking any sense of fulfillment or satisfaction.

So, he used his wisdom to investigate all the options available to him, and because of his great wealth and influence as king, there was little he could not acquire. And in this chapter, Solomon provides us with a glimpse into the somewhat hedonistic experiment that became his life.

One of the contributing factors to Solomon’s dilemma was likely the peace that marked his reign. Unlike his father, David, Solomon ruled during a time in Israel’s history when the nation enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. The book of First Kings describes the situation.

The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They were very contented, with plenty to eat and drink. Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River in the north to the land of the Philistines and the border of Egypt in the south. The conquered peoples of those lands sent tribute money to Solomon and continued to serve him throughout his lifetime. – 1 Kings 4:20-21 NLT

Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden.1 Kings 4:24-25 NLT

David had spent the entirety of his reign fighting the enemies of Israel and extending the borders of the nation, and his son inherited the kingdom he had established. That left Solomon with little to do, other than maintain what he had been given. So, he went on a building spree. He constructed an opulent palace for himself that took 13 years to complete. He also built a temple for Yahweh, in fulfillment of his father’s dream. But Solomon didn’t stop there.

It took Solomon twenty years to build the Lord’s Temple and his own royal palace. At the end of that time, Solomon turned his attention to rebuilding the towns that King Hiram had given him, and he settled Israelites in them.

Solomon also fought against the town of Hamath-zobah and conquered it. He rebuilt Tadmor in the wilderness and built towns in the region of Hamath as supply centers. He fortified the towns of Upper Beth-horon and Lower Beth-horon, rebuilding their walls and installing barred gates. He also rebuilt Baalath and other supply centers and constructed towns where his chariots and horses could be stationed. He built everything he desired in Jerusalem and Lebanon and throughout his entire realm. – 2 Chronicles 8:1-6 NLT

Solomon built. But none of these massive construction projects brought him lasting satisfaction. So, he set his sights on the pursuit of pleasure.

I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 2:1 NLT

This wasn’t a case of Solomon running headlong into a life of unbridled hedonism. His pleasure quest was well orchestrated and the byproduct of an inquiring mind. Like a scientist in search of a cure for a deadly disease, Solomon was looking for the source of man’s satisfaction and significance.

Being king was not enough. He had discovered that great wealth and unparalleled wisdom were insufficient sources for providing satisfaction. So, he attempted to fill the void with pleasure. He dabbled in wine, architecture, horticulture, and ranching. He purchased countless slaves to serve him and meet his every desire. He surrounded himself with concubines, literally hundreds of them, whose sole purpose in life was to satisfy his sensual desires. He filled his vaults with gold and silver and his palace with the sounds of singers.

Solomon was on a never-ending quest for meaning in life. And he lived by the motto: “Enough is never enough.” In fact, he stated, “Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors” (Ecclesiastes 2:10 NLT).

But none of it brought lasting satisfaction. He describes his efforts as producing nothing more than vanity or futility. It had no more profitable than trying to chase and capture the wind. It had all ended in a dead end of frustration and futility. His accumulation of material goods had left him surrounded by all the trappings of success, but the void in his life remained. He had hundreds of wives and concubines, thousands of slaves and servants, and countless admirers and courtiers, but Solomon was a lonely and discontented man.

It would be a mistake to assert that Solomon received no pleasure or satisfaction from the many things listed in this passage. He most certainly did. The sex was probably satisfying, for the moment. But the satisfaction didn’t last. The gold and silver made his extravagant lifestyle possible and brought him short periods of happiness, but no lasting joy. The palace in which he lived provided all the comforts he could ever desire, but it couldn’t make him content.

Solomon was learning the difficult life lesson that acquisition and accumulation are lousy substitutes for a vital relationship with God. Only He can satisfy our deepest longings and desires. The blessings of God are never intended to be a substitute for God. Somewhere along the way, Solomon had lost sight of his father’s warnings. Nearing the end of his life, David had given his son some final words of wisdom, encouraging him to remain faithful to God.

“I am going where everyone on earth must someday go. Take courage and be a man. Observe the requirements of the Lord your God, and follow all his ways. Keep the decrees, commands, regulations, and laws written in the Law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. If you do this, then the Lord will keep the promise he made to me. He told me, ‘If your descendants live as they should and follow me faithfully with all their heart and soul, one of them will always sit on the throne of Israel.’ – 1 Kings 2:2-4 NLT

And while the early years of Solomon’s reign were marked by faithfulness, it didn’t take long before he began to allow his wealth and power to turn him away from God. He became self-sufficient and self-reliant and began to fill his life with everything but God. He even began to worship other gods, the sad result of his marriages to hundreds of women from other cultures who brought their pagan idols with them.

Solomon forgot God and he lost sight of the fact that his wisdom and wealth had been gifts to him from God. The minute he began to think that he was a self-made man, he began his descent toward self-destruction. Yes, he maintained all the outward signs of success, portraying to all those around him the visible manifestations of extreme affluence. To everyone else, he looked like a man who had it all. He was handsome, wealthy, and powerful. He was admired and envied by all. Kings and queens found themselves jealous of his success, looking on in awestruck wonder at his many accomplishments and extensive political influence.

But it was all a facade, a house of cards. It added up to nothing and provided Solomon with no lasting satisfaction. This great king, like everyone else who has ever lived, was learning the painful lesson that possessions always end up possessing their owner. What we hope will deliver us, almost always ends up enslaving us. And thousands of years later, Jesus, a descendant of Solomon, would speak these powerful words of warning:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

And the apostle Paul would echo the words of Jesus when he wrote to his young protege, Timothy.

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NLT

Solomon had taken his eyes off of God and made the fateful mistake of placing his hope in anything and everything but God. He found himself mired in a never-ending cycle of accumulation and acquisition that always ends in dissatisfaction. In his quest to know the meaning of life, Solomon forgot what it meant to know God, the author of life.

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.

Leaning Your Ladder Against the Wrong Wall

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 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 and a striving after wind.

15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
    and what is lacking cannot be counted.

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.

18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
    and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 ESV

Solomon established the theme of his book in verse two: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

He is the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, addressing his audience with words of wisdom and worldly experience. He is expressing what he has learned after years of living on this planet, and his words are intended to shock and surprise us. After all, he is the king of Israel, and one of the wisest and wealthiest men who has ever lived. He ruled over one of the greatest nations of the world, populated by a people who had been chosen and set apart by God. He lived in an opulent palace, surrounded by treasures of all kinds. His was a life marked by luxury and a lavish lifestyle that made him the envy of every man on earth, including other kings. And yet, as he neared the end of his life and looked back, he could not help but recognize that all his wealth, wisdom, and worldly goods had left him with a feeling of emptiness.

The Hebrew word he used to describe his storybook life is hebel and it can best be translated with English words such “vapor” or “breath.” But what does Solomon mean when he repeatedly states, “all is vanity?” The NLV and NIV translate it as “meaningless.” But the Hebrew word has a much richer and more illustrative meaning. It conjures up the image of something that is without form or substance; here one minute and then gone another. Like fog or dew, it appears and then disappears, leaving no trace that it ever existed. It’s not so much that has no meaning, as it lacks sustainability. It seems that Solomon is attempting to describe the transitory nature of life. Just look at the descriptions he used in the opening verses.

A generation goes, and a generation comes – vs 4

The sun rises, and the sun goes down – vs 5

The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns… – vs 6

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full… – vs 7

There is a certain futility to life because it all appears to be cyclical in nature. These are the words of a man who is near the nadir of his life, and who recognizes that all his many accomplishments and acquisitions will amount to nothing when he is gone. His words would be echoed by James centuries later.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

It was this somewhat morbid perspective that had led Solomon to pen this book. But it is doubtful that his only motivation was to journal his dying thoughts. These are not the ramblings of a depressed man mired in self-pity, but the reflections of a wise man who had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the path of life and was warning those behind him not to make the same mistake.

At this stage of his life, he describes himself not as a king, but as a preacher, a proclaimer of important news, whose sole intent is to instruct others and to open their eyes to the realities of life. His role had changed. In fact, he describes his kingship in the past tense. He had been the king of Israel and he had lived in Jerusalem. It is not that he was no longer king when he wrote this book, but that he was looking back with a detached perspective, viewing his life from the outside. His is a message based on hindsight, the wisdom that comes from analyzing something in retrospect.

Solomon is contemplative and more objective than he had ever been in his role as king. As he nears the end of life, his position and possessions mean little to him. He is an old man nearing death, who knows that his days are numbered and that his title and treasures will do him no good when he is gone. This is what led him to conclude:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV

Solomon had spent his life acquiring everything from wisdom and knowledge to wealth and women. He had been the consummate collector and consumer. He openly admits:

I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. – Ecclesiastes 1:16 ESV

But Solomon’s quest for knowledge had been all-encompassing, including the pursuit of madness and folly. He will refer to these two things several more times in his book, always linking them together. What Solomon means by these two words is essential to understanding the rest of what he has to say in this book. Madness and folly are not references to mental illness, but to moral perversity. For Solomon, wisdom and knowledge represent his pursuit of truth and righteousness. He was on a quest to discover the meaning of life and to find significance in his life. But when he didn’t find what he was looking for, he turned to immorality. In some sense, Solomon used his brain and his body in an attempt to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. He pursued information by using his intelligence, but he also pursued experience by utilizing his physical senses and fulfilling his passions and desires.

Solomon describes his life in stark terms, stating:

I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. – Ecclesiastes 1:13 NLT

Notice his words: Everything done under heaven. He had no barriers. He had removed the guard rails from his life, allowing himself the right to experiment with anything and everything, in a vain attempt to discover meaning and significance. But what is glaringly missing is any mention of God. He was not looking to God for meaning. He was not pursuing God for fulfillment and satisfaction. It had been God who had made him king and granted him his wisdom and wealth. But Solomon had an insatiable desire for more. He was no longer satisfied by or with God.

It brings to mind the scene in the Garden of Eden after God had made Adam and Eve. He placed them in the garden and surrounded them with everything they would need for life, including an intimate, unbroken relationship with Him.

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. – Genesis 2:8-9 ESV

They had it all. There was nothing they lacked. And the only thing God denied them was access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He had warned them, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”(Genesis 2:16-17 ESV).

In other words, they could even eat from the tree of life. In fact, I believe it was the fruit of this tree that provided them with eternal life. As long as they ate it, they would live. Life was not forbidden. But the knowledge of good and evil was. They were to avoid that tree at all costs because God had told them that violating His command by eating its fruit would result in death. And it seems that the death to which He referred was not immediate extermination of life, but the slow, steady decline that comes with aging. Yet, they would suffer spiritual death in the form of immediate separation from fellowship with God. Physical death would come, but it would be the direct result of their removal from the garden and their inability to eat from the tree of life.

It’s important to note that, when Satan tempted Eve, he twisted the words of God, falsely accusing Him of having said, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden.”

But that was a lie, and Eve had corrected him. Yet even she got it wrong because she inferred that God’s ban had included instructions not to even touch the tree. But Satan simply responded with more lies.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

He contradicted God. Even worse, he called God a liar and painted him as nothing more than a cosmic killjoy. Satan presented the real goal in life as that of pursuing the knowledge of good and evil. He portrayed knowledge and experience as the twin values that make life truly meaningful. His portrayal of good and evil was not an attempt to set up one against the other, but to present them as equally valuable and significant. And that seems to be the thought behind Solomon’s strategy for conducting his life.

He tried it all. He dabbled in wisdom, but also in madness and folly. He tried his hand at living both the righteous and the wicked life. And none of it worked. None of it satisfied. This was a man who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. He denied himself nothing. He was an extremist. But when all was said and done, he found himself extremely unfulfilled and dissatisfied. In a sense, he had eaten a steady diet from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He had seen the forbidden fruit and eaten his fill but remained dissatisfied and disillusioned by it all.

And while Solomon was much the wiser for his efforts, he was far from content. This is why he so sadly concluded: “The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 NLT).

He knew things God never intended him to know. His eyes had been opened to things God had never meant for him to see. Satan had convinced Solomon that God was not enough. He had tempted Solomon to believe that God had been holding out and that the real meaning in life was to be found outside of God’s will, not in it. And now, the wisest man who ever lived was looking back on his life and recognizing that it had all been a lie. In a vain attempt to discover the secret to living a fulfilled life, Solomon lost sight of God. He had made gods out of his own intellectual prowess, the pursuit of physical pleasure, and the achievement of power and prominence – only to discover that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14 ESV).

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.

The Self-Deception of Self-Importance

1 “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
    and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria,
the notable men of the first of the nations,
    to whom the house of Israel comes!
Pass over to Calneh, and see,
    and from there go to Hamath the great;
    then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
    Or is their territory greater than your territory,
O you who put far away the day of disaster
    and bring near the seat of violence?

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
    and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
    and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
    and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
    and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts:

“I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds,
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”

And if ten men remain in one house, they shall die. 10 And when one’s relative, the one who anoints him for burial, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and shall say to him who is in the innermost parts of the house, “Is there still anyone with you?” he shall say, “No”; and he shall say, “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord.”

11 For behold, the Lord commands,
    and the great house shall be struck down into fragments,
    and the little house into bits.
12 Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow there with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
13 you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    captured Karnaim for ourselves?”
14 “For behold, I will raise up against you a nation,
    O house of Israel,” declares the Lord, the God of hosts;
“and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath
    to the Brook of the Arabah.” Amos 6:1-14 ESV

In this chapter, Amos addresses both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and he does so by addressing their capital cities: Samaria in the north and Zion (Jerusalem ) in the south. But he focuses his attention on a particular class of individuals living in these two cities. They are “those who are at ease,” “who feel secure,” and are among “the notable men” (Amos 6:1 ESV). In other words, these are the influencers and trendsetters among the people of God, the movers and shakers, the power brokers and policy makers. They’re the well-to-do and looked up to, the social elite, and the upper crust of Israelite society.

But rather than praising these fortunate few, Amos pronounces a “woe” upon them. He uses the Hebrew word, hôy, which is an interjection, an expression of emotion or exclamation. It is sometimes translated as “O!” or “Alas!” And, in Scripture, it is most often associated with mourning over coming judgment. It is the same word he used back in chapter 5, verse 18.

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!”

These people who were enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and famous were in for a shock. At the time when Amos was writing his book of prophecy, the northern and southern kingdoms were experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity. Under the leadership of Jeroboam II, Israel was enjoying a time of geographic expansion and economic revitalization.

He [Jeroboam] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel… – 2 Kings 14:25 ESV

This statement indicates that Israel had been able to restore its borders back to where they had been during the reign of King Solomon, before God divided his kingdom. Things were looking up in Israel, and the upper crust of Israelite society were the ones who benefited the most from these territorial gains. Their land holdings increased, their flocks grew larger, and their financial portfolios prospered. In other words, the rich grew richer. Yet, Amos calls out these opportunistic and self-aggrandizing individuals.

How terrible for you who sprawl on ivory beds
    and lounge on your couches,
eating the meat of tender lambs from the flock
    and of choice calves fattened in the stall.
You sing trivial songs to the sound of the harp
    and fancy yourselves to be great musicians like David.
You drink wine by the bowlful
    and perfume yourselves with fragrant lotions.
    You care nothing about the ruin of your nation. – Amos 6:4-6 NLT

And he goes on to warn them that all of Jeroboam’s geographic gains would eventually be lost and, with them, their financial fortunes and freedom.

“For behold, I will raise up against you a nation,
    O house of Israel,” declares the Lord, the God of hosts;
“and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath
    to the Brook of the Arabah.” – Amos 6:14 ESV

Amos challenges these fat and happy people to consider what happened in Calneh, Hamath, and Gath. These were three “great” cities that had all experienced defeat and destruction. If they could fall, so could Samaria and Jerusalem. The capital cities of Israel and Judah were not exempt or immune from defeat. Amos warns them, “You are no better than they were, and look at how they were destroyed” (Amos 6:2 NLT).

Reveling in their superior social status and relying on their seemingly endless source of financial wealth, these people refused to acknowledge that danger was headed their way. Amos accuses them of living in a state of denial that was only making matters worse.

You push away every thought of coming disaster,
    but your actions only bring the day of judgment closer. – Amos 6:3 NLT 

And he delivers a sobering and somber message from God to these self-made celebrities and social glitterati.

“I despise the arrogance of Israel,
    and I hate their fortresses.
I will give this city
    and everything in it to their enemies.” – Amos 6:8 NLT

Rather than seek God, these people will seek refuge in their well-fortified homes. But when the judgment of God comes, their wealth and walled enclosures will be of no help. Amos describes a scene of utter destruction and widespread death.

If there are ten men left in one house, they will all die.  And when a relative who is responsible to dispose of the dead goes into the house to carry out the bodies, he will ask the last survivor, “Is anyone else with you?” When the person begins to swear, “No, by . . . ,” he will interrupt and say, “Stop! Don’t even mention the name of the Lord.” – Amos 6:9-10 NLT

When the time comes, they will fully recognize that their fall has been the sovereign will of God Almighty, but they will refuse to give Him the credit. And in their pride and stubbornness, they will continue to refuse to seek Yahweh. Despite God’s repeated calls to “Seek me and live” ( Amos 5:6 ESV), they will seek refuge in anything and everything but Him. And, as a result, “When the Lord gives the command, homes both great and small will be smashed to pieces” ( Amos 6:11 NLT). Those inside, regardless of their wealth, influence, or social standing, will all suffer the same fate. Possessions and position will save no one. All their land-holdings, stock increases, and financial gains made through illegal and unjust means will be lost. They will go from celebrating their self-achieved successes to mourning their God-ordained losses. Their pride will be humbled. Their false gods will be exposed. Their possessions will be plundered. And for many, their lives will be forfeited. All because they refused to seek God and live.

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

But the Lord…

17 Instead of bronze I will bring gold,
    and instead of iron I will bring silver;
instead of wood, bronze,
    instead of stones, iron.
I will make your overseers peace
    and your taskmasters righteousness.
18 Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
    devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation,
    and your gates Praise.

19 The sun shall be no more
    your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
    give you light;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory.
20 Your sun shall no more go down,
    nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your days of mourning shall be ended.
21 Your people shall all be righteous;
    they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
    that I might be glorified.
22 The least one shall become a clan,
    and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
    in its time I will hasten it. Isaiah 60:17-22 ESV

Peace. Righteousness. Salvation. Praise. Light. Glory.

In the midst of Judah’s darkest days, as they faced the God-ordained and inescapable reality of their judgment at the hands of the Babylonians, God gave them hope. He spoke a future day in which their darkness would be replaced with light. He promised a deliverance like nothing they had ever experienced before. And that deliverance would be in spite of them, not because of them. In the first 16 verses of this chapter. Isaiah has unveiled a prophetic promise that paints a starkly different picture than the one in which they were currently living. In place of the chaos and confusion brought on by the threat of judgment, God would bring peace and tranquility.

While God’s wrath was going to be unleashed against them due to their unrighteous and ungodly behavior, there was a future day coming when righteousness would reign – in their lives and in the world. God was promising to bring salvation to a people who had repeatedly rerjected His calls to repent and His gracious offers of redemption if they would only do so. The saving hand of God will result in the removal of all violence and destruction from their midst.

In Isaiah’s day, the lips of the people of Judah were full of lies and the mouths spewed corruption (Isaiah 59:3). And when God punished them for their wicked behavior, rather than confess, they called out to Him, asking that He show them justice.

They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me. – Isaiah 58:2 NLT

But again, Isaiah tells them of a day when their praise of God will spill out into the streets and gates of the city of Jerusalem. In place of corrupt and wicked speech, they will offer songs of praise to the greatness and glory of God.

All of these images are meant to convey the radically different atmosphere that will pervade the city of Jerusalem during the thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. This Millennial Kingdom will be like nothing the world has ever seen before. Jesus will rule over the earth in righteousness, dispensing justice and administering the divine will of God without opposition or interruption.

And Isaiah describes a never-before-seen feature of this future Kingdom, in which the source of all light will be the glory of God. The apostle John was given the privilege of seeing this future scene and the responsibility of conveying its reality to the church.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4 ESV

And John confirms that the city of Jerusalem and the world will receive their light from a source other than the sun or moon.

And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. – Revelation 21:23-25 NLT

And this fits right in with comments John made in an earlier letter.

God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. – 1 John 1:5 NLT

The light of God’s glory will permeate everything. His Son, the light of the world, will shed His influence over everyone and everything. And the dark influence of sin will be eliminated by the very presence of God and His Son. Satan will be bound throughout the duration of the one thousand years of Christ’s earthly reign. The apostle John was given a glimpse of Satan’s fate and he recorded it in the book of Revelation.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while.  – Revelation 20:1-3 NLT

There is little doubt that all of this sounds fantastic and difficult to believe. But God is describing end times events that will be truly remarkable in nature. Their reality, while beyond the human capacity to understand, is guaranteed by Almighty God, and nothing is impossible for Him. And He tells us why He is going to accomplish these things.

in order to bring myself glory. – Isaiah 60:21 NLT

And as if to assure His doubt-prone people, God tells them:

At the right time, I, the Lord, will make it happen. – Isaiah 60:22 NLT

It will not be a matter of if, but when. God has promised it, so there is to be no doubt about it. And God is delivering this message of future hope in the midst of Judah’s current context of coming judgment. From their perspective, things looked bleak and foreboding. God had already promised to bring the Babylonians against them and the end result would be the conquering of their city and the captivity of its people. They had 70 years of God-ordained exile looming on the horizon. But they also had the unfailing promise of God that restoration and redemption were their eventual lot. And the fulfillment of the promises found in these verses was not going to be limited to the return of the remnant to the land of Judah under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. God had something far more permanent in mind.

What makes these promises truly incomprehensible is that God eventually sent His Son as the Messiah He had promised to send, but His chosen people had rejected Him. Jesus had not come as they had expected. He was not the conquering King, riding into Jerusalem at the head of a mighty army. They had been looking for a political and military savior, but God had sent His Son to provide salvation from the oppression of sin, not that of the Romans. Jesus came the first time in order to offer His life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He came to conquer sin and death, not a foreign military power. He came to sacrifice His life and offer Himself as the payment for man’s sin debt. And with that sacrifice He satisfied the wrath of God against all those who accept His death on their behalf. The apostle Paul reminds us:

For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. – 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 NLT

you are looking forward to the coming of God’s Son from heaven—Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. He is the one who has rescued us from the terrors of the coming judgment. – 1 Thessalonians 1:10 NLT

The people of Judah were rebellious. They had stiff-armed God for generations, rejecting His gracious offer of restoration and redemption if they would only repent. But one day, God is going to redeem them. He will no longer pour out His anger, but instead He will shower them with His grace and mercy. And the change in them will be be powerful and permanent.

For the Lord will be your everlasting light.
    Your days of mourning will come to an end.
All your people will be righteous.
    They will possess their land forever. – Isaiah 60:20-21 NLT

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

Son of My Right Hand.

11 The lot of the tribe of the people of Benjamin according to its clans came up, and the territory allotted to it fell between the people of Judah and the people of Joseph. 12 On the north side their boundary began at the Jordan. Then the boundary goes up to the shoulder north of Jericho, then up through the hill country westward, and it ends at the wilderness of Beth-aven. 13 From there the boundary passes along southward in the direction of Luz, to the shoulder of Luz (that is, Bethel), then the boundary goes down to Ataroth-addar, on the mountain that lies south of Lower Beth-horon. 14 Then the boundary goes in another direction, turning on the western side southward from the mountain that lies to the south, opposite Beth-horon, and it ends at Kiriath-baal (that is, Kiriath-jearim), a city belonging to the people of Judah. This forms the western side. 15 And the southern side begins at the outskirts of Kiriath-jearim. And the boundary goes from there to Ephron, to the spring of the waters of Nephtoah. 16 Then the boundary goes down to the border of the mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is at the north end of the Valley of Rephaim. And it then goes down the Valley of Hinnom, south of the shoulder of the Jebusites, and downward to En-rogel. 17 Then it bends in a northerly direction going on to En-shemesh, and from there goes to Geliloth, which is opposite the ascent of Adummim. Then it goes down to the stone of Bohan the son of Reuben, 18 and passing on to the north of the shoulder of Beth-arabah it goes down to the Arabah. 19 Then the boundary passes on to the north of the shoulder of Beth-hoglah. And the boundary ends at the northern bay of the Salt Sea, at the south end of the Jordan: this is the southern border. 20 The Jordan forms its boundary on the eastern side. This is the inheritance of the people of Benjamin, according to their clans, boundary by boundary all around.

21 Now the cities of the tribe of the people of Benjamin according to their clans were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22 Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23 Avvim, Parah, Ophrah, 24 Chephar-ammoni, Ophni, Geba—twelve cities with their villages: 25 Gibeon, Ramah, Beeroth, 26 Mizpeh, Chephirah, Mozah, 27 Rekem, Irpeel, Taralah, 28 Zela, Haeleph, Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), Gibeah and Kiriath-jearim—fourteen cities with their villages. This is the inheritance of the people of Benjamin according to its clans. Joshua 18:11-28 ESV

BenjaminCityMap

Of the 12 sons and 1 daughter born to Jacob, Benjamin was the last. His mother, Rachel, died as a result of giving birth to him, but the book of Genesis tells us that, with her last breath, she provided her son with a name.

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. – Genesis 35:16-21 ESV

Ben-oni means “son of my sorrow,” but Jacob would immediately change the name of his new son to Benjamin, which means “son of the right hand.” It seems that Jacob wanted to view this birth from a more positive perspective, in spite of the loss of his wife. The term, “right hand” is a reference to good fortune or prosperity. Benjamin became very dear to Jacob, especially when Joseph, the first son born to him by Rachel, was sold by his brothers into slavery. Thinking his son dead, Jacob turned all his attention and affection on his youngest son, Benjamin. And when famine struck the land of Canaan, his brothers were forced to go to Egypt in search of food. There they were reunited with their long-lost brother, Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery. Hiding his identity from them, Joseph, the second-most-powerful man in Egypt, demanded that his brothers return home and bring their brother Benjamin back with them. And after convincing their reluctant father to allow Benjamin to make the trip to Egypt, the brothers returned to face Joseph. Upon seeing his younger brother, Joseph was overcome with emotion.

29 And he lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” 30 Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. – Genesis 43:29-30 ESV

When Joseph returned, he invited his brothers to eat with him. But the text tells us that he showed special favor to his younger brother, Benjamin.

Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him. – Genesis 43:34 ESV

Not long after this, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers, encouraging them to take heart and letting them know that their evil treatment of him had been all part of God’s plan to provide for and protect His people. Joseph sent his brothers back to Canaan with orders to bring back their father, Jacob, along with all their families, so that they might live in the land of Egypt.

21 The sons of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey. 22 To each and all of them he gave a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes. – Genesis 45:21-22 ESV

The decision on Jacob’s part to rename Benjamin was bearing fruit. There is no way that he could have foreseen these events, but God was honoring Jacob’s faith. In spite of the loss of his wife, Jacob believed that good would come from the birth of his son, not just pain and sorrow. And Benjamin was made prosperous by a very unlikely and unexpected source: His long-lost and long-thought-dead older brother.

It is interesting to note that the tribe of Benjamin was the first tribe among the remaining seven that was awarded its allotment in the promised land. Once the tribes of Judah, Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph) had been taken care of, the lot fell to Benjamin. And their portion “fell between the people of Judah and the people of Joseph” (Joshua 18:11 ESV). There would remain a close affinity between the descendants of Benjamin and those of his older brother, Joseph. The smaller tribe of Benjamin would be surrounded by the lands occupied by the much-larger tribes of Judah and Ephraim. It would be nestled in a kind of protective cocoon, with Judah to its south and the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim to its north. The descendants of the youngest son of Jacob would find themselves the proud owners of 26 cities and their villages. Jacob’s decision to name his last son, Benjamin (son of my right hand), had been truly prophetic.

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

False Gods. False Hope.

They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves; they rebel against me. Although I trained and strengthened their arms, yet they devise evil against me. They return, but not upward; they are like a treacherous bow; their princes shall fall by the sword because of the insolence of their tongue. This shall be their derision in the land of Egypt. – Hosea 7:14-16 ESV

These three verses paint a very pitiful picture of the state of the people of Israel. They had become so addicted to their worship of Baal and other false gods, that even in their times of greatest need, they continued to turn to the very gods that were the cause of their problem. Like a addict who takes more drugs to stem off the tremors caused by withdrawal from those drugs, the Israelites couldn’t bring themselves to turn away from their false gods. God describes them as wailing upon their beds in agony and discomfort, but refusing to call on Him. And in order to convince the god, Baal, to give them abundant harvests of wine and grain, they gashed themselves as part of their worship. This should remind us of the encounter between the prophet, Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah had challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest to prove whose god was the one true God.

Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” – 1 Kings 18:23-24 ESV

Elijah allowed the prophets of Baal to go first, reminding them, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it” (1 Kings 18:25 ESV). And we read, “they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made” (1 Kings 18:26 ESV). As Elijah mocked their efforts and the seeming indifference of their god, they amped up their efforts.

And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention. – 1 Kings 18:28-29 ESV

As part of their religious ritual, they cut themselves, mutilating their bodies in an attempt to get the attention of their god. But no one answered. No one paid attention. There was no voice and no response, because there was no god. And God accused the Israelites of calling on Baal in the same pitiful way, cutting and gashing their bodies in an effort to get the attention of a non-existent god. And the sad reality was – all they had to do was call on God in repentance and He would have answered them. He was the one who had “trained and strengthened their arms” (Hosea 7:15 ESV) and yet they refused to turn to Him. In fact, they were guilty of turning to anyone but God in their moments of need. They appealed to their false gods and they sought the aid of pagan nations, in the hopes that these unhealthy alliances would protect them from the threat posed by Assyria.

It would be easy to roll our eyes in disbelief at the stubbornness and stupidity of the Israelites. We could wonder how they could be so hardheaded as to refuse to turn to God when He was the one disciplining them for their rebellion against them. But before we shake our fingers in judgment, we need to take stock of our own lives and see if we are not guilty of the same thing. How many times have we turned to our own “gods” of comfort, and convenience when we have faced difficulty? How often have we looked to something other than God when confronted when confronted with a need of some kind? We find it so easy to turn to our own capabilities and rely on our own intelligence. If we’re sad or despondent, we turn on the TV in the hopes of finding relief, even if just for a moment. If we face a financial need, we find it easier to go into debt to get what we need rather than to ask God for help. And in doing so, we end up worse off than when we started. Our false “saviors” never alleviate or eliminate the problem, they only enhance it. Our sophisticated “gods” give us the same response as the prophets of Baal received: No voice. No answer.

One of the saddest outcomes of all of this is that the lost world laughs at those who call themselves followers of Christ, because our beliefs seem to make no difference in our lives. We claim to believe in God, but we tend to turn to anything and anyone other than God for our help and hope. We go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week we put our faith in the gods of this world: government, money, materialism, entertainment, health, wealth, work, pleasure, and human reasoning. We chase these false gods, spiritually mutilating and harming ourselves in an effort to make them respond to our calls for help. But God wants us to call on Him. He wants us to trust Him and rely on Him for all our needs. God will not tolerate our affections for other gods. He will not compete for our love. He has proven Himself faithful and loving. He will allow us to chase after our false gods until we realize that they provide neither help or hope, and we return to Him in humble repentance.



 

Proverbs 11c

Sad, But True.

“When the wicked die, their hopes die with them, for they rely on their own feeble strength.” – Proverbs 11:7 NLT

The Scriptures can be blunt. Sometimes just reading through God’s Word can cause us to cringe at what appears to be the politically uncorrect nature of some of the statements that flow from its pages. The Word of God pulls no punches. It takes no prisoners. It isn’t afraid to get up-in-your-face and tell you what you need to hear, whether you want to hear it or not. It’s painfully honest at times. But honest is exactly what it is. It is the word of God and it speaks truth – refusing to sugarcoat the hard facts or soften the impact of its message on the souls of men. Verse seven of Proverbs 11 is one of those I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that kind of statements. “When the wicked die, their hopes die with them, for they rely on their own feeble strength.” The Message puts it this way, “When the wicked die, that’s it — the story’s over, end of hope.” There is not more. Their petty efforts at achieving success in life are proved to be what they have always been – futile and pointless. Any happiness they have enjoyed is short-lived and temporal, rather than eternal. Rather than trust God for their eternal well-being, they have relied on their own “feeble strength” and learned that no amount of money, success, achievements, accolades, or toys will help them when this life is over.

“Evil people get rich for the moment” (Proverbs 11:18 NLT). They live for this life. Their actions and attitudes are self-focused and temporally-based. They may enjoy all that this life has to offer, but this life is not all that there is. “The reward of the godly will last” (Proverbs 11:18 NLT). Those who choose to live their life according to God’s standards and in His strength, not their own, will discover that their reward is long-lasting. “Godly people find life; evil people find death” (Proverbs 11:19 NLT). “The godly can look forward to a reward, while the wicked can expect only judgment” (Proverbs 11:23 NLT). Wow! That’s blunt. That’s cold and seemingly heartless. But it’s the truth. It is a matter-of-fact wake-up call designed to remind us that we are eternal creatures, not temporal ones. Our focus needs to be on eternity, not the fleeting promises of this life. When we have an eternal perspective, we can give freely because we aren’t looking to the things of this world to satisfy us or keep us safe. We don’t look to money to bring us happiness or fulfillment. “Trust in your money and down you go!” (Proverbs 11:28 NLT). No, those who have their eyes focused on God see life differently. Generosity comes naturally. Holding loosely to the things of this world is easy. They inherently know that “riches won’t help on the day of judgment, but right living can save you from death” (Proverbs 11:4 NLT).

These truths are hard to hear and even harder to accept. We hear a steady stream of propaganda telling us that this life is all that matters. We are told to grab all we can while we can because there’s nothing else after this. We are constantly reminded that our own happiness is all that matters. We’re number one. It’s every man for himself. But God has a different perspective. And the godly recognize that there is more to life than pleasure, possessions, popularity and prosperity. There’s eternal life. This world is not our home, we’re just passing through. The best is yet to come.

Father, it’s hard to think about the destiny awaiting those who reject You. It’s difficult to wrestle with the reality that millions of people are willing to sacrifice their eternity for a little temporary pleasure. Give me an eyes-wide-open perspective on life. Let me see it from Your vantage point. Keep me focused on eternity. But at the same time, don’t let me get so heavenly focused that I’m no earthly good. Amen

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org