Do the Right Thing

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.

10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?

12 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.

17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this. 20 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” Ezekiel 33:1-20 ESV

In this chapter, Ezekiel records the message he received from God concerning his ministry and mission. It seems to announce a shift in the focus of Ezekiel’s message. The earlier portions of his book contain repeated warnings of God’s pending judgment. They foreshadow the coming destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem. But in chapters 32-33, Ezekiel received and delivered the news that those prophetic events had become reality. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem had ended and the city had been destroyed.

At this point, it seems that any calls to repentance would be unnecessary. The people of Judah had failed to turn from their sins and return to the Lord, so the judgment of God had come just as He had promised. But this chapter provides the people of Judah with a much-needed reminder that God was not done with them. His judgment, while just and well-deserved, was not the final chapter in His relationship with them.

The chapter opens with a personal message from God to Ezekiel that explains his role as “a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7 ESV), and it is not the first time the prophet has heard these words. All the way back in chapter 3, Ezekiel recorded the original commission he received from God.

“Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately.” – Ezekiel 3:17 NLT

It is as if God is recommissioning Ezekiel. With the fall of Jerusalem, it would have been easy for Ezekiel to assume that his work was done. He had warned of Judah’s coming destruction and now it had taken place. Jerusalem had been leveled and its people taken into captivity or scattered to the four winds. There was no longer any incentive left that might provide the people with sufficient motivation to repent. But God was not done and He wanted Ezekiel to know that his mission had not ended with the fall of Jerusalem. There was more to do.

God begins by reminding Ezekiel of the watchman’s role. He describes the scene of a city facing a possible attack from enemy forces sent by His hand. With the threat of divine judgment looming, the citizens of that city would appoint an individual to serve as an early warning system. His job would be to patrol the walls and announce any signs of enemy encroachment.

In ancient days, most of the larger cities were surrounded by massive defensive walls. On those walls were posted sentries or watchmen, whose responsibility it was to watch for potential threats. Day and night, as long as they were on duty, they had to keep an eye out for possible enemy attacks. When they saw trouble on the horizon, they were to sound an alarm to let the people inside the walls know that danger was imminent and that appropriate action was needed. If the watchman did his job and the people failed to listen, he was absolved of any responsibility for their deaths. But if he saw the threat and refused to warn the people, their deaths would be on his head.

Everything in this message is a repeat of the one Ezekiel received in chapter 3. God is reiterating His call for Ezekiel to serve as the watchman for the people of Israel. While he wasn’t standing high on the wall of a city, Ezekiel was prominently placed in the middle of the exiles living in Babylon. He had a unique vantage point that allowed him to see the future and warn the people of God what was going to happen next. As has already been proven true, his warnings were not idle threats, but God-given predictions of coming disaster, and his job came with obvious dangers. The most prominent one was that if he failed to sound the alarm and warn the people, he would be held responsible for the fate of their souls. But God makes it clear that if Ezekiel continues to do his job and the people fail to listen, then he will be absolved of any responsibility. He would have done his job.

But God wants Ezekiel to know that his ministry is far from done. Though the judgment of God had come and the nation of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, there was more for Ezekiel to do. That is why God recommissions His prophet by stating, “Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7 NLT).

This time, God gives Ezekiel a message to deliver to the people that is much more personal than corporate. It focuses on the actions of the individual.

“If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn them to repent and they don’t repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself.” – Ezekiel 33:8-9 NLT

With the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews living in exile alongside Ezekiel found themselves in a state of depression and despair. They had lost hope of ever returning to their homeland and wondered what was going to happen to them. There was a palpable sense of guilt pervading the exiles as they questioned their own culpability in Judah’s fall. Were they responsible? Was God going to bring judgment on them? They had become conscious of their sins and were fearful of the possible repercussions, and God knew exactly what they were thinking.

“Son of man, give the people of Israel this message: You are saying, ‘Our sins are heavy upon us; we are wasting away! How can we survive?’ – Ezekiel 33:10 NLT

The hope of returning to Judah one day was all that had kept them going. Now that hope was gone. With their homeland in shambles, they were stuck in Babylon and facing an uncertain future. But God wanted them to know that it was not too late, and He gave Ezekiel a new message to deliver to His despondent people.

“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?” – Ezekiel 33:11 NLT

In the next nine verses, God delivers a simple message of repentance. He calls on His people to do the right thing. Yes, they were guilty of sin and rebellion against Him, but they could reverse that trend. It was not too late.

In this passage, God is not suggesting that behavior can guarantee one’s eternal security. He is not promoting salvation by works. He is simply explaining the natural consequences of human actions. A man who lives a righteous life and yet commits a sin against God, cannot assume that his past acts of righteousness will exempt him from judgment. And an unrighteous man who decides to turn from his wicked ways must not assume that his past deeds will prevent him from enjoying God’s forgiveness.

God knew that the exiles were accusing Him of injustice. They felt as if they had been treated unfairly and that His judgment of them had been too severe. They exclaimed, “The Lord isn’t doing what’s right” (Ezekiel 33:17 NLT). But God turned the tables on them by stating, “it is they who are not doing what’s right” (Ezekiel 33:17 NLT). He was calling them to repentance and they were refusing to obey. God was looking for a change in attitude that showed up in a change of actions. He expected the righteous to continue pursuing righteousness. If they didn’t, they would face the consequences. He expected the wicked to turn back to Him in repentance. If they did, they would receive forgiveness. If they didn’t, they could expect to be judged accordingly.

And through it all, Ezekiel was expected to maintain his role as God’s watchman and messenger. He was to watch and warn. He was to continue encouraging the people to do the right thing by calling them to pursue righteousness rather than wickedness. God makes the message plain and simple.

“…when righteous people turn away from their righteous behavior and turn to evil, they will die. But if wicked people turn from their wickedness and do what is just and right, they will live.” – Ezekiel 33:18-19 NLT

And God knew that the people would continue to accuse Him of being unjust and unfair, but He reminded them, “I judge each of you according to your deeds” (Ezekiel 33:20 NLT). They each had a personal responsibility to heed the warnings of the prophet and respond accordingly. God, the just and righteous one, was simply reiterating the call He had given them from the very beginning.

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2 ESV

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.

Polluted Prophets, Priests, and Princes

17 And the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are dross of silver. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have all become dross, therefore, behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. 20 As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. 21 I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. 22 As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have poured out my wrath upon you.”

23 And the word of the Lord came to me: 24 “Son of man, say to her, You are a land that is not cleansed or rained upon in the day of indignation. 25 The conspiracy of her prophets in her midst is like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows in her midst. 26 Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Her princes in her midst are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. 28 And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ when the Lord has not spoken. 29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 22:17-31 ESV

God pulled no punches in His indictment of His disobedient people. There were no bright spots for Him to point out and very few reasons for Him to offer compliments or commendations. His assessment of the Israelites was dark and far from flattering, and it left no one unscathed.

“…the people of Israel are the worthless slag that remains after silver is smelted. They are the dross that is left over—a useless mixture of copper, tin, iron, and lead.” – Ezekiel 22:18 NLT

The entire nation had become contaminated by centuries of sinful behavior, produced by their penchant for idolatry and immorality. Israel, once the prized possession of God Almighty, had allowed itself to become defiled and corrupted through its ongoing love affair with the world. They had lived out the stark reality of 1 John 2:15-17.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave.

And God informs Ezekiel that He would use His coming judgment as a refining fire to purify His contaminated people.

“Just as silver, copper, iron, lead, and tin are melted down in a furnace, I will melt you down in the heat of my fury. I will gather you together and blow the fire of my anger upon you, and you will melt like silver in fierce heat. – Ezekiel 22:20-22 NLT

God’s judgment was far from just punitive in nature. It had a positive aspect to it. God was going to use it to purify and cleanse His people; an act they had failed to carry out on their own. All throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses provides the Israelites with repeated instructions to “purge the evil” in their midst. These admonitions to practice corporate cleansing were written before the Israelites ever set foot in the land of Canaan. Moses was warning them that God expected His chosen people to pursue holiness at all costs.

Moses listed a variety of instances in which corporate cleansing would be necessary, including when any individual violated God’s covenant by practicing idolatry.

“…they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden…” – Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT

When that happened, an investigation was to be launched, guilt determined, and punishment served.

“…then the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death…” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

And Moses states the desired outcome of this display of corporal punishment: “In this way, you will purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:7 NLT). And he would apply this same exacting standard to false prophets (Deuteronomy 13), false witnesses (Deuteronomy 19), rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21), and those guilty of adultery (Deuteronomy 22). In each case, Moses affirmed that the goal was to “purge such evil from among you.”

But the Israelites had failed to heed Moses’ warnings. Over the centuries, they had developed a bad habit of excusing sin and turning a blind eye to its damaging effects on their corporate purity. As a result, by the time God was delivering His message of coming judgment to Ezekiel, He had determined that Israel was “a polluted land” (Ezekiel 22:24 NLT). They were damaged goods. And the cancer was widespread and went all the way to the top of the Israelite leadership structure.

In the closing verses of this chapter, Ezekiel includes God’s indictments against the prophets, priests, and princes who had played a role in the nation’s moral collapse. He accused the princes of devouring innocent people, seizing treasures, and extorting wealth (Deuteronomy 17:25). The priests were guilty of violating His instructions and defiling His holy things. They made no distinction between what is holy and what is not (Deuteronomy 17:26). The princes and priests were in it for the money, and the prophets were complicit in their sin by covering up for them by announcing false visions and making lying predictions (Deuteronomy 17:28). This unholy trinity of civic and religious leaders had done irreparable damage to the nation.

These men were in positions of responsibility. They should have been in the vanguard of those seeking to restore the holiness of God’s people. But sadly, God states that when He sought to find someone who would stand in the gap and restore the purity of His people, He came up empty-handed.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” – Ezekiel 22:30 NLT

It’s difficult to read this verse and not be reminded of the famous WWII recruitment poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying, “I want you!” Here in Ezekiel 22, God is pointing His finger and saying that He looked for a few good men, but found none. There was no one who might help rebuild the spiritual walls of the nation of Judah. Not a single man could be found who was willing or able to stand in the gaping holes of the nation’s proverbial spiritual wall. There was no one willing to protect the people and preserve the integrity of God’s name.

God said, “I searched…but I found no one!” He could find plenty of murderers, unethical leaders, immoral husbands and wives, extortioners, swindlers, unrighteous priests, and false prophets, but He couldn’t a single, solitary man to “stand in the gap.”

From God’s perspective, the land was polluted. The people were like worthless slag, the leftovers of the refining process. The chosen people of God had become valueless because they were no longer holy and set apart. Rather than live their lives as God’s special possession, set apart for His use and His glory, they had chosen to defile themselves and dishonor God by serving other gods. After all that God had done for them, there was not a single individual whom God could point at and say, “I want you!” Yes, He had Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and a handful of other prophets, but there was a glaring absence of faithful men and women who could be trusted to help rebuild the spiritual legacy of the nation of Israel. Things were so bad that even God’s faithful prophets would prove unsuccessful in stemming the tide of sin and rebellion. The moral condition of the nation had reached an all-time low.

But this chapter reminds us that God is always looking for men and women who will rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. Today, we face similar conditions to that of Ezekiel’s day, including immorality, unethical leadership, graft, greed, corruption, and a growing sense of spiritual apathy. And God is looking for a few good men and women who will stand in the gap and help preserve righteousness.

It’s not that they don’t exist, but that they seem to be few in number. The righteous seem to be overwhelmed by the unrighteous and the spiritually indifferent. But God has always worked with a remnant. He is looking for the faithful few through whom He can restore the spiritual walls that have been damaged by constant exposure to sin and unrighteousness.

God is still looking for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. He continues to search for someone to stand in the gap in the wall. Has He found you? Are you willing, ready, and able to do your part?

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.

Repent and Turn

19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.

25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” Ezekiel 18:19-32 ESV

God has made it clear that the previous generations of Israelites had failed to live their lives in faithful obedience to Him. But He was not going to allow the present generation to blame their current condition on others. They were just as guilty and deserving of punishment as their parents and grandparents had been.

In this message to Ezekiel, God clears up a common misunderstanding and lets them know that each and every individual is responsible for their own behavior. But God has anticipated the reaction Ezekiel will get from his audience.

“What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.” – Ezekiel 18:19-20 NLT

God informs His people that His justice is not indiscriminate or applied in a one-size-fits-all manner.

“…if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. – Ezekiel 18:21 NLT

God was reminding His chosen but rebellious people that there was a way to restore their relationship with Him. All they had to do was reject wickedness for righteousness. If they make the decision to live in obedience to His commands, “all their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done” (Ezekiel 18:21 NLT). And God informs them that He takes no delight in the deaths of the wicked. His desire is that they repent and replace their wickedness with righteousness.

I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.” – Ezekiel 18:23 NLT

This divine mindset was meant to be a source of encouragement to the rebellious people of Judah. They still had time to change their ways. They could reverse the downward spiral of their spiritual trajectory by returning to God in humble contrition. It was not too late. But God was not interested in those who were simply seeking “fire insurance.” In other words, He was not offering His forgiveness to those who thought they could go through the motions by offering up a temporary display of repentance to buy themselves time. God wanted to see true repentance that resulted in a long-term lifestyle of righteousness. To return to a life of righteousness only to reverse course and embrace wickedness again would not cut it with God.

“…if righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things and act like other sinners, should they be allowed to live?” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT

God answers His own question with an emphatic, “No!” An individual’s temporary display of righteous behavior would not preserve them from judgment if they decided to jettison a  life of godliness for one of wickedness.

“All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT

But God knew that His people found His methods appalling. They even accused Him of practicing injustice.

“The Lord isn’t doing what’s right!” – Ezekiel 18:25 NLT

Because the Jews living in exile believed themselves to be undeserving of their punishment, they found God’s treatment of them to be unfair. He had wrongly punished them for the sins of their forefathers. In their minds, they had done nothing wrong or deserving of such harsh treatment by God. After all, they were His chosen people, the apple of His eye. How could He have allowed their deportation to the land of Babylon?

Yet God pulls no punches when He states, “O people of Israel, it is you who are not doing what’s right, not I.” (Ezekiel 18:29 NLT). They couldn’t blame Him for their predicament. They had brought it on themselves through their repeated acts of unfaithfulness and unrighteousness.

The judgment of God was inescapable without repentance. So God offers them another gracious opportunity to do the right thing and revive their status as His chosen people.

“Therefore, I will judge each of you, O people of Israel, according to your actions, says the Sovereign Lord. Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel?” – Ezekiel 18:30-31 NLT

As the righteous judge of the universe, God is obligated to deal justly with sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. He cannot turn a blind eye to HIs peoples’ blatant displays of rebellion and their refusal to live in obedience to His commands. But He wants them to know that His preference for them is that they choose life over death.

I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live!” – Ezekiel 18:32 NLT

God’s standard of righteousness was demanding. He expected obedience, faithfulness, adherence to His Law, and unflinching worship of Him and Him alone. And no man was able to meet that standard. That is the whole reason God gave the Israelites the sacrificial system. It was intended to provide His people with a way of receiving atonement and forgiveness for the sins they committed. But they had turned the sacrificial system into a mechanical and ritualistic performance. Their hearts weren’t in it.

“These people say they are mine.
They honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
And their worship of me
    is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah declared God’s dissatisfaction with His peoples’ meaningless sacrifices.

“I will not accept your burnt offerings.
    Your sacrifices have no pleasing aroma for me.” – Jeremiah 6:20 NLT

Hundreds of years earlier, God had given His prophet, Amos similarly stinging words to convey to the rebellious citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had ignored God’s calls to repentance, wrongly assuming that they were immune from God’s judgment. They viewed themselves as deeply religious and, therefore, as righteous in God’s eyes. But God had a different perspective.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living. – Amos 5:21-24 NLT

When King Solomon finished constructing the temple in Jerusalem, he held a magnificent dedication ceremony to commemorate its grand opening. At that event, God made the following promise.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

That time had come. The people were wicked and the wrath of God had begun to descend upon the citizens of Jerusalem. But more was on its way. God was far from done because the people were far from repentant. But there was always an opportunity for God’s people to humble themselves, pray, seek His face, and turn from their wicked ways, and Ezekiel was letting them know that there was no time like the present.

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.

Our Right and Righteous God

12 And the word of the Lord came to me: 13 “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, 14 even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.

15 “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, 16 even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate.

17 “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, 18 though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered.

19 “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, 20 even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.

21 “For thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! 22 But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. 23 They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord God.”  Ezekiel 14:12-23 ESV

Even prophets of God have their moments of doubt and discouragement, and Ezekiel was no exception. Although he was a divinely-ordained spokesman for the Almighty, there must have been times when Ezekiel grew concerned about the message he was commanded to deliver. Standing before his peers each day and communicating God’s blistering message of condemnation and judgment could not have been easy. It’s likely that the shocked members of his audience registered their dissatisfaction with his raging rhetoric and raised questions of their own, causing Ezekiel to have second thoughts about God’s proposed plan for Jerusalem’s destruction.

Somewhere along the way, the young prophet must have considered the story of God informing Abraham of His intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s little doubt that Abraham knew about the less-than-flattering reputation of this pair of pagan communities. The tales of their immoral exploits had become legendry, and Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who had taken up residence in Sodom, had likely confirmed the truth behind the stories. So, when God informed Abraham that He was going to judge these cities “because their sin is so flagrant” (Genesis 18:20 NLT), Abraham grew concerned about the fate of Lot and his family, and he raised a concern about God’s plan.

“Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” – Genesis 18:23-25 NLT

It seems only logical that Ezekiel would have harbored similar apprehensions concerning God’s plans for the righteous remnant in his own day. He would have known about individuals back in Jerusalem whom he considered to be faithful followers of Yahweh. Were they to suffer the same fate as the wicked? Were they doomed to the same destruction as those who refused to honor God?

Whether Ezekiel had expressed his concerns verbally or they remained as unspoken thoughts in his mind, the all-knowing God of the universe knew what His prophet was thinking. So, He addressed the 800-pound gorilla in the room by proposing a not-so-hypothetical situation.

“Son of man, suppose the people of a country were to sin against me, and I lifted my fist to crush them, cutting off their food supply and sending a famine to destroy both people and animals. Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were there, their righteousness would save no one but themselves, says the Sovereign Lord. – Ezekiel 14:13-14 NLT

God was describing the fate that awaited Jerusalem and Ezekiel knew it. But God informs His prophet that the presence of a handful of righteous individuals would not be enough to spare the city from judgment – even if they were well-established icons of religious virtue and moral respectability. And to drive home His point, God lists the names of three such men: Noah, Daniel, and Job.

As a priest, Ezekiel would have been familiar with all three men. He was well-versed in the Genesis account of Noah and the great flood that destroyed all living things on the earth.

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:6 NLT

In the midst of the growing wickedness, there was one man in whom God found favor: Noah. He was a solitary ray of light in the pervading darkness of sin.

Noah was a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time, and he walked in close fellowship with God. – Genesis 6:9 NLT

Yet, Noah’s righteous standing did not forestall the destruction God had ordained. The flood came and the wicked were destroyed. But Noah and his family were preserved in the safe confines of the ark. While all humanity perished, Noah and his seven family members were spared.

What about Daniel? He was a fellow exile who had also been taken captive in the first deportation but had ended up living in the Babylonian capital. The book of Daniel provides the story of his life and affirms that he was a godly young man who had grown up in Jerusalem. But his righteousness had not prevented the fall of the city or kept him from being sent as a captive to Babylon. And while God knew that Daniel continued to walk in keeping with His commands, even while living as an exile in Babylon, the righteous behavior of this one man would not deliver Jerusalem.

Then there’s Job, an Old Testament character whose righteous reputation would have been very familiar to Ezekiel. His story, recorded in the book that bears his name, portrays him as a righteous man who enjoyed great favor with God.

He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil. – Job 1:1 NLT

God even confirmed Job’s sterling reputation.

He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.” – Job 1:8 NLT

And yet, the book of Job tells the story of how this righteous man was forced to endure great suffering and undergo a devastating series of painful losses, including the deaths of all his children, devastating economic failure, and debilitating physical ailments. Yet, through it all, Job remained faithful to God. He was able to say, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10 NLT). This man’s righteousness did not immunize him from suffering. It did not prevent the deaths of his children.

God wants Ezekiel to understand that the presence of a righteous remnant would not be enough to save the city of Jerusalem.

“…even if those three men were there, they wouldn’t be able to save their own sons or daughters.” – Ezekiel 14:16 NLT

War, famine, wild animals, and disease were coming. There were the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of Judah’s sin. But God acknowledges that He will preserve any who are righteous. If there are any in Jerusalem who model their lives after Noah, Daniel, and Job, they can expect to enjoy the same fate as these three men.

“They alone would be saved, but the land would be made desolate.” – Ezekiel 14:16 NLT

“They alone would be saved.” – Ezekiel 14:18 NLT

“They alone would be saved by their righteousness. – Ezekiel 14:20 NLT

But the rest will experience the full extent of God’s wrath.

“How terrible it will be when all four of these dreadful punishments fall upon Jerusalem—war, famine, wild animals, and disease—destroying all her people and animals.” – Ezekiel 14:21 NLT

Yet, God will mercifully spare some, and they will end up as exiles in Babylon just like Ezekiel and Daniel. And when Ezekiel sees them for the first time, he will fully understand the nature of God’s ways.

Yet there will be survivors, and they will come here to join you as exiles in Babylon. You will see with your own eyes how wicked they are, and then you will feel better about what I have done to Jerusalem. When you meet them and see their behavior, you will understand that these things are not being done to Israel without cause. – Ezekiel 14:22-23 NLT

Even after experiencing the fall of Jerusalem, witnessing the destruction of the temple, and enduring their forced march to Babylon, these wicked and rebellious people will have learned nothing. Their unrighteous behavior will be on full display and provide ample justification for God’s actions. Ezekiel will know with unquestionable certainty that the Sovereign Lord has administered justice and displayed His glory and holiness in the lives of His rebellious people. The Judge of all the earth has done what is good and right.

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.

You Reap What You Sow

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 ESV

Back in chapter one, James encouraged his readers to seek wisdom from God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV

And he added that God is the source of all good gifts.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17 ESV

Through their relationship with Jesus Christ, the Christians to whom James wrote enjoyed access to the indwelling Spirit of God and the life-transforming truth of the gospel. According to James, a Christ follower is to be characterized by obedience to the word of God. It’s not enough to hear it; you have to live it out in everyday life.

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

And James pointed out that a person who claims to be spiritual but fails to control their tongue is practicing a hypocritical and powerless form of religion.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

James described the tongue as a powerful and virtually uncontrollable source of destruction – even within the body of Christ. With his lips, a believer can declare his faith in Christ and then turn around and spread vicious rumors about a fellow Christ-follower. Ironically, the same tongue could be used to glorify God and vilify other believers.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:9-10 NLT

Now James explains how to determine whether you are operating according to godly wisdom and displaying an understanding of God’s will and ways. It’s all in how we behave. Our outward actions reveal whether we are walking in step with the Spirit of God. The things we say and do are the most accurate barometers of our spiritual health. They provide irrefutable evidence of the condition of our hearts. That’s why James demands that Christ-followers put the wisdom of God into practice through humble obedience to His will.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. – James 3:13 NLT

The apostle Paul stressed the non-negotiable nature of the Spirit’s involvement when it comes to living a godly and honorable life.

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

And Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides us with the power to tame the tongue and produce the fruit of righteousness.

…the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT

The Spirit is a God-given source of wisdom and supernatural strength, and His primary role is to guide and empower believers as they navigate the sometimes difficult path from salvation to future glorification. And Paul would have us remember that the Spirit wants to influence every area of the believer’s life – from his attitudes and actions to the words that come out of his mouth.

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. – Galatians 5:25-26 NLT

And James points out how easy it is to try and mask our lack of godliness through deceit and lies. When we fail to live in obedience to the Spirit, our lives inevitably produce a whole range of destructive deeds and Paul provides a shocking but incomplete list of them in his letter to the Galatians.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division,  envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

We’re either living in step with the Spirit of God or giving in to the desires of our own sinful natures. And it’s fairly easy to determine which path we have chosen based on the “fruit” our lives produce. That’s why James warns against attempting to cover up our godless lifestyle through lies and deceit.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. – James 3:14-15 ESV

When the wrong fruit appears in our lives, we’re tempted to cover it up by portraying ourselves as super saints and spiritual rock stars. We posture and pretend, trying to convince others of our superior spirituality. But all the while, we are living a lie. Yet we end up excusing and justifying our behavior and, in doing so, we display a form of wisdom that is anything but godly. Driven by selfish ambition and jealousy, we rationalize our behavior and promote a brand of wisdom that comes from the enemy and not God.

Jesus gave a perfect example of this self-righteous but self-deceiving kind of wisdom when He told the following parable to His disciples.

Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 NLT

The Pharisee was self-deceived. He wrongly viewed himself as spiritually superior and worthy of God’s praise. But Jesus declared him to be a self-righteous and pretentious hypocrite whose pride left him unjustified before God. He had lived this lie for so long that he eventually believed it to be true. He went home believing he was fully accepted before God, but he was wrong.

You can attempt to disguise the jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart but, in time, it always makes itself known. And James states that “wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind” (James 3:16 NLT). In other words, those two traits are never alone. They’re always accompanied by other, equally disturbing “fruit” that produce death rather than life. 

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. – James 3:17 ESV

God’s wisdom, which is available upon request, is capable of producing a host of outcomes that positively impact the life of the recipient and all those around him. It produces a desire for peace rather than jealousy and strife. In place of self-promotion, it displays a heartfelt concern for the well-being of others. It is reasonable rather than contentious and confrontational. It manifests itself in mercy toward others and produces fruit that is for their benefit. Godly wisdom allows no room for favoritism or partiality. It fosters unity and encourages an atmosphere of humility and selfless service to others.

James’ point is clear. Those who seek the wisdom of God will receive it. And when they avail themselves of it and live in obedience to it, it will produce a harvest of righteousness. The wisdom from above is fruitful but it must be cultivated by those whom God has chosen as His caretakers. If we obey His Word and live in keeping with His Spirit’s guidance, we will “plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18 NLT).

The apostle Paul reiterates this promise of fruitfulness when we choose to avail ourselves of God’s wisdom. But the choice is ours and we must make it every day of our lives.

You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:7-10 NLT

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

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

A Little Folly Goes a Long Way

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 has 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. Despite 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 an indelible mark on his life and his reign as king.

That seems to be his point in verse 1, where he uses the metaphor of a 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. In the same way, one foolish act can destroy years of wise decision-making. The damaging effects of even a modicum of foolish behavior are immeasurable. It doesn’t take much. And Paul used a similar metaphor when he warned 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 Ecclesiastes 10:1. 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 a single individual making one foolish decision to destroy years of wise counsel and leadership. And interestingly enough, Solomon’s own foolish decisions would eventually reap devastating consequences for the nation of Israel. The kingdom his father David had established would end up divided in half and would never regain its former glory. The book of 1 Kings provides 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. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. 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. 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. 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 led its adherents down the right path.

But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light,
growing brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like gloomy darkness;
they do not know what they stumble over. – Proverbs 4:18-19 NLT

Solomon knew that a fool, devoid of godly wisdom, would allow his deceived heart to lead him down the wrong path. And it’s not difficult to spot a fool, because the course of his life gives ample proof that his decision-making is godless and unrighteous.

Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool. – Ecclesiastes 10:3 ESV

He’s unable to hide his foolishness because his life choices provide glaring evidence of his lack of wisdom. And Solomon provides a real-life example that contrasts the actions of a fool with those of a wise man.

If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. – Ecclesiastes 10:4 ESV

If you find that someone in authority is angry with you, don’t act like a fool and impulsively quit. Instead, respond with wisdom, remaining calm and allowing your superior time to cool off. Use self-control. Don’t allow foolish pride to dictate your response and determine your fate.

This is not a guarantee that the ruler will calm down. It doesn’t mean that your wise response will necessarily produce the 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 who wield great power. That seems to be Solomon’s point when he writes, “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 are sometimes rewarded with positions of power where they rule over those with greater skills and proven track records 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 who finds themselves placed in an inferior position and having to submit to the authority of a fool. Solomon describes this sad state of affairs as an evil under the sun. But 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 further 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 witnessed the promotion of a 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? We have experienced this kind of injustice ourselves. But the fact that it happens doesn’t disqualify the value of wisdom over folly. It’s simply proof of the pervasive presence of sin in the world. 

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a glimpse into the mindset that permeates our fallen world.

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.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

What an apt description of the world in which we live. And it was true in Solomon’s day as well. It is the nature of life in a world where godlessness has produced a pandemic of foolishness. And while wisdom is essential and to be desired above all else, wisdom alone cannot 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, humanity lacks the ability to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness. Without God, mankind invariably turns to human wisdom, which always proves insufficient and incapable of providing reliable help in navigating through life. The apostle Paul gives us a wonderful description of the difference between worldly wisdom and that which comes from God.

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. 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.”

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. The wisdom we need must be based on who He is and what He desires. Without Him, our wisdom becomes folly. Apart from God, man’s wisdom always proves insufficient and inadequate to comprehend the dangers of a fallen world and a foolish heart.

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

Learning to Trust the Ways of God

All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. Ecclesiastes 8:9-17 ESV

In this life, things don’t always turn out the way we think they should. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Good people experience a lot of bad things. And, far too often, bad people seem to come out on top. Solomon is wise enough to know that, in the end, everybody dies. But some wicked people can spend their whole lives fooling others into thinking they were actually good and godly people who lived religious lives. So, when they die, they receive the unmerited praise and honor of men.

I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 8:10 NLT

They lived a lie, and in death, they receive unwarranted admiration. As far as Solomon is concerned, this is just another proof of the vanity and futility of life. At the time of death, good people get forgotten, while the wicked get a parade in their honor.

When Solomon mentions the wicked, he is not just speaking of the godless and immoral. He is referring to those who hurt others, abusing and taking advantage of them. They are the oppressors he mentioned in chapter four.

Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. – Ecclesiastes 4:1 NLT

These people don’t commit their wicked deeds in a vacuum. Their behavior inevitably impacts the lives of those around them. There are always victims involved because wickedness is an equal-opportunity destroyer. And sadly, it is usually the innocent who end up suffering because of the lifestyle choices of the wicked. For Solomon, the actions of the wicked against the innocent are just another example of life’s meaninglessness.

I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other. – Ecclesiastes 8:9 NLT

Prostitution and human sex trafficking destroy the lives of countless individuals every year. The drug cartels line their pockets with cash paid out by those seeking yet another high in a hopeless attempt to escape the lows of life. Abusive husbands have abused wives. Rapists have victims. Con artists have their marks. Bullies have the helpless. Liars have the naive and gullible. The powerful have the defenseless. The list goes on and on. And when the wicked see that they can get away with whatever it is they do, they feel emboldened to do more. Solomon put it this way: “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NLT). 

But Solomon introduces a vital point of clarification. Even though the wicked may appear to escape any retribution or justice, he knows that eventually, there will be payback. He has confidence that God’s justice will one day be meted out on all those who have made wickedness their lifestyle.

it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. – Ecclesiastes 8:13 ESV

From our perspective, it may appear as if the wicked just keep on sinning, committing evil after evil, with no apparent consequences. It can even seem as if they live charmed lives, marked by longevity and free from accountability. But Solomon knows that it is those who fear God who will prosper in the long run. They may not experience it in this life, but our righteous God will one day ensure that all is made right. In the meantime, we have to live with the incongruous reality that things don’t always add up in this life. It is full of contradictions and apparent paradoxes. This is why Solomon observes:

good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. – Ecclesiastes 8:14 NLT

It can feel so meaningless and futile. And trying to make sense of it all is about as productive as chasing the wind. You get nowhere. You expend a lot of energy but have nothing to show for it in the end. So, Solomon simply concludes. “I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NLT).

Is this advice from Solomon wise? Does it even make sense? It may sound appealing but just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s godly counsel. This isn’t the first time that Solomon has reached this conclusion and passed it on to his readers. He offered up the same basic conclusion back in chapter five.

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. – Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT

He said virtually the same thing in chapter two, verse 24. He repeated it in chapter three, verses 12-13, and then again, here in chapter five. Eat, drink and enjoy your work. Eat, drink and be joyful. What’s Solomon saying and how should we take his advice?

He is not advising a life of hedonism and self-centered pleasure. He is not advocating unbridled self-satisfaction. But he is suggesting that there are joys associated with hard work and diligent effort in this life. We get to reap the rewards of our work. We can enjoy the warmth and safety of the home our labor helped to we helped to provide. We can take advantage of the many material blessings that God allows us to enjoy as a result of our work. Unlike a slave, who receives no personal benefit from his labors, but must watch the rewards be consumed by his master, we can enjoy the fruit of our effort. We can find joy in a job well done and the benefits it offers. And Solomon would have us remember that “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God” (Ecclesiastes 8:20 NLT).

We may not have much, but what we do have, we should appreciate and view as a gift from God. The ability to find joy in our labor is something God supplies, and it comes from having a healthy reverence for God. If you despise your job and resent the time you spend having to work for a living, you are essentially expressing to God your ungratefulness for His provision. Your job is not good enough. The benefits it provides are not sufficient enough. So, rather than joy, you express resentment and disappointment. You begin to look at the apparent prosperity of the wicked and question the goodness of God. This can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that produces a ledger of God’s failures to provide for you. This can lead to a lack of fear of God. And this can result in a failure to show Him reverence, honor, glory, or gratitude.

A big part of learning to fear God is learning to trust Him. It is coming to grips with who He is and who we are in comparison. He is God. He is sovereign, all-knowing, and all-powerful. He is not wise; He is wisdom itself. He knows what is best. He always does what is right. Moses expressed it this way:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    how glorious is our God!
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect.
    Everything he does is just and fair.
He is a faithful God who does no wrong;
    how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:3-4 NLT

Yes, there are many things in this life that appear unfair and unjust. There are paradoxes and incongruities galore. Our circumstances may scream to us that God is nowhere to be found, but the Scriptures tell us something radically different. He is always there. The wicked may appear to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, but God is still in control. He has a plan. He will do what is just and fair. He can do no wrong. And if we could learn to view life through the lens of God’s transcendent power, glory, goodness, and love, we would be better able to enjoy our lives on this planet – in spite of the seeming contradictions and incongruities that surround us.

Solomon realized that “no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim” (Ecclesiastes 8:17 NLT). God’s ways are not our ways. His sovereign plans are sometimes a mystery to us, but they are always righteous and good. Attempting to judge the faithfulness of God based on the incongruous circumstances of life is a dangerous game to play. The apostle Paul warned against presumptuous behavior.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” – Romans 9:20 NLT

And Paul borrowed his analogy from the prophet Isaiah.

How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    “He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
    “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

Both men believed it was ludicrous for a mere man to question the goodness of God just because life had not turned out as expected. For Isaiah, it was ridiculous for the creature to question the Creator. The one who was made had no right to call into question the integrity and righteousness of his Maker.

…can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it? Is the saw greater than the person who saws? Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it? Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT

In the end, Solomon recognized his inability to understand the ways of God. No amount of wisdom would ever explain the vagaries of life and the mysteries of God’s ways. And it was the apostle Paul who succinctly summed up the lesson that Solomon was learning.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!

For who can know the Lord’s thoughts?
    Who knows enough to give him advice?
And who has given him so much
    that he needs to pay it back?

For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 NLT

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

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

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.

Getting to Know God

1 The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.

The man declares, I am weary, O God;
    I am weary, O God, and worn out.
Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
    I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom,
    nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
    Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
    Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
    Surely you know!

Every word of God proves true;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.

Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God. – Proverbs 30:1-9 ESV

The closing chapters of the book of Proverbs are attributed to two different individuals whose identities remain a ministry. The first is Agur, the son of Jakeh. The second is referred to as King Lemuel. But we know nothing else about these men. Lemuel’s name does not appear anywhere in the list of the kings of Judah or Israel, found in the books of Kings or Chronicles. So, it is unclear where his kingdom was located. Some have speculated that Lemuel was a pen name for Solomon, but without evidence to back up their claim. The names Agur and Jakeh appear nowhere else in Scripture, so we have no way of knowing who they were or when and where they lived. But Agur and Lemuel were considered to be sages whose wise sayings were included in Solomon’s compendium of proverbs.

The first part of Agur’s collection of proverbs deals with man’s relationship with God. The author opens his list of three proverbial statements regarding God by speaking in the third person, describing himself as “weary and worn out” (Proverbs 30:1 NLT). He addresses his statements to God and makes a stunning confession:

I am too stupid to be human,
    and I lack common sense. – Proverbs 30:2 NLT

Agur acknowledges that his lack of wisdom has left him unable to truly know and understand God.

I have not mastered human wisdom,
    nor do I know the Holy One.
Proverbs 30:3 NLT

Agur is not declaring himself to be a fool, but he is simply acknowledging the transcendence of God. Agur’s wisdom is limited in scope and incapable of plumbing the depths of God’s character and nature. That is why Agur asks five probing questions that are intended to reveal man’s incapacity to fully know and appreciate the greatness of God.

Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down?
Who holds the wind in his fists?
Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak?
Who has created the whole wide world?
What is his name—and his son’s name? Tell me if you know!

It’s almost as if Agur was familiar with the book of Job because he seems to mirror the questioning style found in chapters 38-42. In the book of Job, God confronts the main character with a series of questions that are designed to reestablish His own greatness and Job’s insignificance.

“Who is this that questions my wisdom
    with such ignorant words?
Brace yourself like a man,
    because I have some questions for you,
    and you must answer them.”  – Job 38:2-3 NLT

And God precedes to expose Job’s unwarranted boldness to question His goodness and glory by asking a series of rhetorical questions.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” – Job 38:4 NLT

“Have you ever commanded the morning to appear
    and caused the dawn to rise in the east? – Job 38:12 NLT

“Have you explored the springs from which the seas come?
    Have you explored their depths? – Job 38:16 NLT

For two solid chapters, God levels question after question to Job. And when He is done, God asks Job, “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT). To which Job humbly responds:

“I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers?
    I will cover my mouth with my hand.
I have said too much already.
    I have nothing more to say.” – Job 40:4-5 NLT

Like Job, Agur understands that he has no right to question God. His wisdom is insufficient to comprehend the will and the ways of God. And he is worn out from attempting to gain enough wisdom to know and understand God.

But he has learned enough to know that God’s word is always true. Agur’s God is faithful and can be fully trusted.

In reading the book of Proverbs it would be easy to focus on what appear to be the main themes or topics of the book: Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. There is a natural tendency to make the gaining of these three things our sole or primary objective. After all, no one wants to be a fool, so it would make sense to pursue wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. But in doing so, we would miss the real objective of the book.

If you recall, in the very first chapter, Solomon stated that “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). In other words, while wisdom, knowledge, and understanding are worthy objectives, they are only available through a right relationship with God. The Message paraphrases Proverbs 1:7 this way: “Start with God — the first step in learning is bowing down to God.”

It all begins with God. In Proverbs 30, Agur confesses, “I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too stupid to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One” (Proverbs 30:2-3 NLT). When we fail to start with God, and we neglect to get to know Him for who He is, we end up worn out, and lacking in the very things we need to survive and thrive in this world: wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

Yet, when we make getting to know God our objective, we discover the true source of all wisdom. He is the creator of all things. His wisdom and knowledge are beyond our comprehension, yet He makes Himself known to us when we seek Him. He gives us His Word and it is completely reliable and true. Growing in our knowledge of God gives us a greater understanding of ourselves – our weaknesses, limitations, sinful tendencies, and our total dependence on Him.

Getting to know God gives us a new perspective on life. It changes our priorities, which is why Agur could say, “O God, I beg two favors from you; let me have them before I die. First, help me never to tell a lie. Second, give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord!’ And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name” (Proverbs 30:7-9 NLT).

Growing in our knowledge of God refocuses our priorities and puts Him at the center of our lives. When we begin to understand just how much God hates pride, we will no longer desire to see it in our own lives. When we see it in others, we are turned off by it. We understand the danger of pride, arrogance, and over-inflated self-worth in our children. A growing knowledge of God will expose the ever-present danger of gluttony in our lives – in all its forms.

We are prone to discontentment and incessantly desire more and more of just about everything, including pleasure, food, attention, accolades, money, and power. Like the leech, we cry out, “More, more!” A person who has an intimate understanding of God is able to see through the facade of temptation and spot the dangers that lurk behind the lure. The fool is simply that person who doesn’t know God and, as a result, lacks wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and basic common sense. Like Agur, they end up weary from trying to live life in this world with nothing but their own human understanding to rely upon. That’s why it pays to start with God. The first step in achieving wisdom is learning is bow down before God. He is the key to 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.

A Leadership Void

15 Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.
16 A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor,
    but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.
17 If one is burdened with the blood of another,
    he will be a fugitive until death;
    let no one help him.
18 Whoever walks in integrity will be delivered,
    but he who is crooked in his ways will suddenly fall.
19 Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
    but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
20 A faithful man will abound with blessings,
    but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.
21 To show partiality is not good,
    but for a piece of bread a man will do wrong.
22 A stingy man hastens after wealth
    and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
23 Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor
    than he who flatters with his tongue.
24 Whoever robs his father or his mother
    and says, “That is no transgression,”
    is a companion to a man who destroys.
25 A greedy man stirs up strife,
    but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched.
26 Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
    but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
27 Whoever gives to the poor will not want,
    but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.
28 When the wicked rise, people hide themselves,
    but when they perish, the righteous increase. 
– Proverbs 28:15-28 ESV

We have a leadership void. Don’t get me wrong; we have no shortage of leaders in this country. It’s just that we don’t have very many godly leaders. There are plenty of ambitious, intelligent, capable, and sometimes even moral men and women who hold positions of leadership in our nation, but most of them lack the wisdom that only God can provide.

The following verse above paints a pretty bleak picture for a nation that finds itself with a moral and spiritual leadership void.

When there is moral rot within a nation, its government topples easily.
    But wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability. – Proverbs 28:2 NLT

The Message paraphrases verse two this way: “When the country is in chaos, everybody has a plan to fix it – But it takes a leader of real understanding to straighten things out.”

What an apt description of our own country at this stage of the game. We are in chaos, and everybody has a plan to fix it. We have an abundance of “princes” as the NIV describes them. These so-called leaders and a host of political pundits each offer up solutions to our nation’s myriad problems, but none of them really have a clue as to what should be done about the economy, terrorism, or any other issue facing us. They fail to realize that the root of all our problems is a spiritual one.

A wicked ruler is as dangerous to the poor
    as a roaring lion or an attacking bear.

A ruler with no understanding will oppress his people,
    but one who hates corruption will have a long life. – Proverbs 28:15-16 NLT

Because they lack the wisdom of God, these godless rulers have no way of understanding that the troubled economy is a symptom of a much more serious issue. Raising or lowering taxes is not going to fix what is broken. A larger or smaller government will not be the panacea for our problems. In the very next chapter, Solomon gives us the real solution.

When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice.
    But when the wicked are in power, they groan. – Proverbs 29:2 NLT

In other words, when godly men and women lead a nation according to godly principles and provide wisdom and insight directly from God Himself, the people find themselves living in peace and moral prosperity. Godly leaders make godly decisions. They are not selfish and self-centered. They are not greedy and out to benefit only themselves.

Greedy people try to get rich quick
    but don’t realize they’re headed for poverty. – Proverbs 28:22 NLT

Leaders who lack godly wisdom operate in a spiritual vacuum and are unable to see things from God’s perspective. They are motivated by pride and consumed with the need for recognition. But a godly leader views any power they possess as having been given to them by God, to whom they must report and by whom they will be held accountable.

The trustworthy person will get a rich reward,
    but a person who wants quick riches will get into trouble. – Proverbs 28:20 NLT

What we pass off as leadership today is a far cry from what God had in mind. All you have to do is look at Jesus to see what God views as godly leadership. Jesus came to earth to be the Messiah of Israel. He was to be their King and set up His kingdom on earth. And yet, Jesus claimed that He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV).

Jesus came to give His life away for the sake of others. He was concerned with and consumed by the will of His Father. He was obedient to God to the point of laying down His life. He knew that the world’s problems were spiritual in nature and the solution would have to be a spiritual one. Toppling the Roman government was not going to bring peace to the Jews. Only a Savior could heal them from what ailed them. They needed deliverance from sin, not relief from high taxes. They needed dependence on God, not independence from Rome.

Jesus did not come to tell people what they wanted to hear. He refused to tickle their ears with pleasant-sounding platitudes or comforting words designed to placate their guilt. No, as the apostle Paul makes clear, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). And as this Proverb so powerfully states:

In the end, people appreciate honest criticism
    far more than flattery. – Proverbs 28:23 NLT

Jesus was the ultimate example of a godly leader. After all, He was God in human flesh and as a man, He manifested all the wisdom of God perfectly and completely. Jesus lived to do the will of His Father.

“My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.” – John 4:34 NLT

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. – John 6:38 NLT

Jesus was not a flatterer or glad-hander. He didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear but, instead, He boldly proclaimed the words of His Heavenly Father and demonstrated the attributes of a godly leader. And His example was emulated by men like the apostle Paul.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else. – 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6 NLT

Paul and his fellow apostles modeled their lives and ministries after Jesus. They fully understood the wisdom found in Proverbs 28:26.

Those who trust their own insight are foolish,
    but anyone who walks in wisdom is safe.

But we live in a day when everyone seems to be doing what is right in their own eyes. Our society is obsessed with the idea of individual autonomy and freedom from restraints of any kind. Everybody wants to be their own king ruling over their kingdom. And yet, when things don’t turn out quite the way we expect, we look to the government or a political leader to bring us relief and restoration. We naively expect a flawed and failed system to deliver us from our self-inflicted predicament.

Yet God has already provided a deliverer in the form of His very own Son. Godly leaders point a nation back to God. They don’t try to act as a substitute for Him. We find ourselves in trouble as a nation, not because of a bad economy, social inequities, or global warming, but because we have appointed leaders who have no respect for God. Without Him, they are helpless and hopeless to lead us because they lack the wisdom required for the job.

We need to pray that God will raise up men and women who know Him, love Him, and are willing to live for Him. But we also need to pray for a spiritual reawakening among the people of God who have become complacent and sometimes even contributors to the moral chaos facing our nation. We lack godly leaders because we have become a godless nation. But the wise see things from God’s perspective and always know there is hope.

When the wicked take charge, people go into hiding.
    When the wicked meet disaster, the godly flourish. – Proverbs 28:28 NLT

In the end, the godly win. The wicked may have their 15 minutes of fame, but the righteous will always come out on top. Those who walk the way of the wise will find that their path ultimately leads to joy, peace, comfort, and blessing.

trusting the Lord leads to prosperity. – Proverbs 28:25 NLT

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