The Danger With Discontentment

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” Numbers 16:1-14 ESV

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is a fascinating one, filled with plenty of twists and turns, plot changes and story lines. It is easy to read this chronicle of the lives of the people of God and wonder how they could be so slow to learn. How could they refuse to obey God after all He had done for them? Why would they continue to whine, complain, and moan about their lot in life when the God of the universe was leading them, providing for them, and revealing Himself to them day after day? But the truth is, as believers, we have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God made available to us and yet we still struggle with obedience and belief. So, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to harshly judge the Israelites.

Yet in today’s story from chapter 16 we have another occurrence of jealousy and rebellion. It seems that Korah, a grandson of Kohath, and a member of the tribe of Levi, decided that he wanted to be free to take part in the priestly responsibilities. As a Kohathite, he was part of the clan responsible for the transportation and care of all the vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle. They had been assigned that role by God.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects.” – Numbers 4:4 NLT

According to God’s instructions, the Kohathites had a very specific role to play. And in order for them to do that job, Aaron, the high priest, and his sons had to prepare all the sacred objects for transport.

“When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:5-6 NLT

Every item had to be carefully prepared according to God’s painstaking instructions. If Aaron and his sons failed to do everything just as God had commanded, it would have devastating consequences for Korah and the rest of his clan.

“The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:15 NLT

“Do not let the Kohathite clans be destroyed from among the Levites! This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:18-20 NLT

All the holy objects were to be covered with cloths to prevent the Kohathites from inadvertently touching them. And the larger items had poles inserted into the specially crafted rings that allowed them to be carried safely and securely without risk of death. It should have been considered an honor to carry these priceless objects that were essential for the worship of Yahweh. Yet, we learn that Korah was not content with the God-ordained role he and his clan had been assigned. He wanted more.

Driven by jealousy and a desire for greater prominence, he enlisted the support of others and, together, they incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 4:2 NLT). It was a coup.

Korah appealed to other men in the camp to join him in his rebellion. He stirred up men from the tribe of Reuben by getting them to see that Moses had taken away the right of the firstborn of every tribe to serve God by replacing them with the sons of Levi. His argument was that every single Israelite was holy; not just Moses, Aaron, and the Levites.

He accused Moses of exalting himself above everyone else. He and his compatriots went to Moses and said, “You have gone too far! Everyone in Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Although Korah was from the tribe of Levi, he and his clan were not allowed to serve as priests, and he found this slight to be unacceptable. He viewed their role as “moving men” to be less-than-acceptable and more than a bit demeaning.

In his defense, Korah was basing his argument on a statement given by God when the people of Israel were still in Egypt.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But what Korah failed to remember was that the entire nation had done irreparable damage to their holy status when they had been encamped at Mount Sinai. While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to turn their back on God and worship a newly constructed golden calf (Exodus 32). And as punishment for their sin, God had given Moses orders to execute all those who had taken part in the idolatrous festivities.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

It had been the Levites who stood by Moses’ side and carried out God’s orders. As a result, Moses rewarded them for their show of faithfulness and obedience.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

But Korah wasn’t satisfied with God’s will. He demanded that a new plan be put in place. Yet, Moses attempted to reason with his disgruntled kinsman.

“Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well?” – Numbers 16:9-10 NLT

Moses couldn’t understand why Korah considered himself and his clansmen as second-class citizens. Why was he unable to view their God-ordained role as vital and worthy of their best efforts? And Moses tried to warn them that their complaint was really with God, not himself or Aaron.

The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:11 NLT

Korah was walking on thin ice. He was venturing into uncharted waters that would not bring him to a far-from-pleasant destination. And Moses attempted to reason with Korah’s compatriots, but they refused to listen to what he had to say.

“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” – Numbers 16:12-14 NLT

The stage was set. The lines were drawn. Korah and his disenchanted companions stood their ground and refused to heed the warnings of Moses. They were done taking orders from Moses and Aaron. As far as they were concerned, it was their time to shine and they would not be satisfied until they were the ones calling the shots.

But they failed to recognize that their complaints had reached the ears of God. He had been listening to their arrogant demands and knew that their discontentment was ultimately directed at Him. And it’s interesting to note that the very people who were responsible for transporting the holy objects from the tabernacle were carrying resentment for the very one for whom the tabernacle had been constructed.

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.

 

Mistakes Will Happen

22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” 

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 15:22-36 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.

But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.

Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.

God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.

And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT

The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the  offense.

“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT

Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.

And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.

“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed. – Leviticus 4:3 NLT

And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.

Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.

“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT

But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?

But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT

The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”

This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.

The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.

“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty. – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT

Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.

“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT

And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.

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.

 

Close, But Yet So Far

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.” Numbers 14:13-25 ESV

God was angry. He had deemed the ungrateful and disobedient response of the people to His leadership as unacceptable and worthy of judgment.

“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:11-12 ESV

But this was not the first time that God had grown impatient with His chosen people. When they had been camped at the base of Mount Sinai, He had reached a similar conclusion because of their blatant display of rebellion. While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to fashion and worship a golden calf. To make matters worse, the Israelites were crediting their new idol with their recent deliverance from Egypt. So, God told Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” – Exodus 32:9-10 ESV

In both cases, God declared His intent to destroy the people of Israel and start from scratch. But notice that in neither scenario would His destruction have included Moses and his family. God was willing to spare His chosen leader and start the process of building a great nation all over again. He had started the original plan with Abraham, and there was nothing to prevent Him from doing so with Moses. Except for Moses.

On both occasions, one person stood in the way of God carrying out His plan to completely destroy His rebellious people. Moses intervened. He interceded on behalf of his fellow Israelites. Despite the fact that these very same people had repeatedly questioned his leadership and had even attempted to replace him, he boldly defended them.  In Exodus, we read that “Moses implored the Lord his God…” (Exodus 32:11 ESV). And in Numbers, it states that “Moses said to the Lord…” (Numbers 14:13 ESV).

This beleaguered and often discredited man stood by his fellow Israelites and begged God to consider the impact His destruction would have on His reputation. At Sinai, Moses had raised the prospect of the Egyptians gloating over the annihilation of the Jewish people by their own God.

“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” – Exodus 32:12 ESV

Moses appealed to God’s sense of honor and reminded Him of the covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:13 ESV

As a result, “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14 ESV).

In the wilderness of Paran, Moses employed a similar tactic with God, arguing that news of His destruction of the people would get back to the Egyptians and they would spread rumors among the Canaanites about His unfaithfulness.

“Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land…” – Numbers 14:13-14 ESV

Moses reminded God that the nations that occupied Canaan had already heard of His presence among the people of Israel.

“They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.” – Numbers 14:14 ESV

News of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt had already reached Canaan. They had heard about God’s power and the devastating plagues He had poured out on the Egyptians. Rumors concerning this massive host of people traveling through the wilderness had made their way to the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. Reports of Israel’s God going before them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night had reached their ears and left them shaking in terror.

But Moses warns God that if He follows through with His plan to wipe out the Israelites, it could do irreparable damage to His reputation among the Canaanites. They will go from fearing Him to feeling sorry for Him.

“Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’” – Numbers 14:15-16 ESV

So, Moses appeals to God’s love, patience, and faithfulness.

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Numbers 14:18 ESV

Moses was not denying the guilt of the people; he was simply calling on God to only punish those who were responsible for the rebellion. He pleaded with God to “pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (Numbers 14:19 ESV). From Moses’ perspective, the people had been misled and negatively influenced by the report of the ten spies. These men had coerced the people into rejecting God’s command to enter the land of Canaan. Moses believed the spies were deserving of God’s judgment but the people deserved God’s forgiveness. And God agreed. He pardoned the people but declared His intent to punish the ten spies.

“…none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 ESV

But what Moses failed to understand was the deep-rooted rebellion among that generation of Israelites. The problem was greater than Moses realized. And while God was willing to pardon the nation as a whole, He would not forgive those who had questioned His integrity and rejected His command to enter the land. The ten spies would suffer immediate death as a result of a God-ordained plague (Numbers 14:36-38). But the rest of that generation would be spared. Yet, as the following verses reveal, they would ultimately die of natural causes in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-33).

They had listened to the report of the spies and refused to obey God’s command to enter the land of promise. In doing so, they were denying God’s power to give them victory over their enemies. They were discrediting God’s promises, inferring that He was incapable of doing what He had said He would do. And they were displaying their ingratitude for all that He had done on their behalf. God would remain faithful. He would continue to display His steadfast love and extend His grace and mercy. But that generation would pay dearly for their refusal to do His will. He had wanted to bless them but they had forfeited that right through their stubborn disobedience.

God would not destroy them, but they would never set foot in Canaan. They had been delivered by God but would never experience the joy of entering into His rest.

“…when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest.” – Psalm 90:9-11 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.

Holiness Comes With a Price

11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13 if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14 and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

16 “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’

23 “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25 And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

29 “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.” Numbers 5:11-31 ESV

It was literally impossible for the Israelites to maintain their holiness and purity before God. Sin and sickness, both inevitable outcomes of living in a fallen world, were going to be a constant part of their lives. And because God dwelt in their midst, the ramifications of their sinfulness and sickness were serious. Disease and disobedience both separated the people from God. The very existence of disease was a direct result of sin’s entrance into the world.

Ultimately, disease and disobedience both lead to death. God gave Moses strict instructions about what to do with those who found themselves suffering from potentially contagious diseases; they were to be removed from the camp. This was not an indication that their illness was due to a specific sin they had committed, but a recognition that sickness was the inevitable byproduct of sin’s presence in the world. God expected His people to remain pure, both spiritually and physically, if they wanted to enter into His presence. But as always, God provided a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with Him, in spite of sickness or sin.

In today’s passage, we see that God even expected the marriages of His people to be pure and above reproach. To our modern sensibilities, these verses contain some rather bizarre and disturbing counsel for dealing with marital unfaithfulness. But while it may be easy to fixate on the almost cultic nature of God’s instructions, it’s important that we not miss the motivation behind them.

God provides Moses with detailed instructions for determining whether a man’s wife was guilty of adultery. It’s interesting to note that in the “test” God provided, the hidden sin of the woman, when revealed, would result in sickness. In this case, her sickness would be proof of her sin. And it’s no coincidence that the resulting sickness attacked the very organs that had been used to commit the sin in the first place. There is much about this passage that is difficult to understand, but it is clear that God was dealing with sin among His people in a powerful and pronounced way. This “test,” when witnessed by others, would prove to be an effective deterrent to further adultery in the camp.

In the closing part of chapter 6, God gives Moses a blessing to pronounce over the people.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. – Numbers 6:24-26 ESV

This simple, yet profound blessing reminds us that, ultimately, it was God’s desire to bless His people. And one of the greatest blessings God could bestow on the people of Israel was the guarantee of His abiding presence. But for God to remain within their midst, He had to deal justly and firmly with the sins committed by them. It was up to God to provide them with peace when their repeated sins and inevitable exposures to disease would leave them alienated from Him.

God alone is the instigator, arbiter, and maintainer of the relationship He has with mankind. It is He who seeks us and not the other way around. Left to our own devices, man will always seek a god of his own choosing. And man will tend to make the relationship with his god based on his own performance and acts of self-righteousness.

Humanity has always lived under the delusion that life can be lived apart from God. Even those who long for God, believe that He is little more than an objective to be pursued, a giver of gifts whose favor must be earned. They make God the means rather than the end. He becomes little more than a resource to get what they really want: peace, prosperity, contentment, happiness, fulfillment, and significance. This is why men make gods out of anything that even remotely seems to promise those things. But we can’t earn favor with God. And we can’t turn God into some kind of divine lottery ticket that we hope will grant us our heart’s wildest desires.

It was impossible for the people of Israel to live up to God’s exacting standards. They would and did continually fail. But God had provided a means of atoning for their inevitable sins and dealing with the inescapable reality of sickness. It is interesting to think about the fact that sickness was hard to hide. Skin disorders and diseases would inevitably reveal themselves to the rest of the faith community. And as soon as the sickness became apparent, it had to be dealt with. But sin can remain hidden for a long time, unobserved, and invisible to the faith community. Sin was like cancer that was undetected among the people of God, slowly spreading and infecting the body over time.

The passage in Numbers 6 contains some rather disturbing and difficult-to-understand directives for dealing with marital unfaithfulness. What God commands almost sounds like a form of witchcraft. It involves the mixing of strange potions and the incantation of curses. There are offerings made and mystical symptoms to be observed.

The whole thing comes across as something the pagan nations might practice. But this was the will of God for His people. It was a divinely ordained process for exposing sin in a marriage that could easily infect the entire faith community.

“Marital deceit is a matter of such seriousness that the truth must be discovered. It is harmful to the sanctity of the community at large, and destructive of one of the bases of community life.” – Philip J. Budd, Numbers

God takes sin seriously and He expected His children to do the same. There was no place for sinful activity among the people of God. But He knew it would inevitably take place. That is why He established strict guidelines for exposing sin so that the people might continue to enjoy His abiding presence and power in their midst.

“. . . this particular case law is included here because it gives another illustration of God’s personal involvement in the restitution for the sin of the nation. Within God’s covenant with Israel, there could be no hidden sin among God’s people nor any hidden suspicion of sin.

“The law of jealousy shows that through the role of the priest, God was actively at work in the nation and that no sin of any sort could be tolerated among God’s holy people.” – John H. Sailhamer, “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991):241-61.

Sin carries a cost. It promises joy and fulfillment but rarely delivers. And hidden sin is one of the most egregious and dangerous. It may lie undetected but its influence continues to spread throughout the body of Christ. We may fool all those around us, but our all-knowing, all-seeing God cannot be deceived or duped. And because He cares for His people, He will see that sin is exposed and expunged. Out of His deep desire to bless His children, God lovingly purifies their lives from the damaging effects of sin.

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.

Sin the the Camp

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. But if the man has no next of kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him. And every contribution, all the holy donations of the people of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. 10 Each one shall keep his holy donations: whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.” Numbers 5:1-10 ESV

God puts a high priority on holiness and because He set apart the people of Israel as His own possession, He expected them to live up to His exacting standards.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

Having dealt with the Levitical responsibility for the care of the tabernacle, God now turns His attention to the rest of the tribes of Israel. And in the next two chapters, He provides Moses with some rather strange instructions that deal with a wide range of topics – from the seemingly harsh treatment of lepers and those individuals suffering from potentially contagious diseases to the trial of a wife accused of adultery and the strange regulations concerning the Nazirite vow.

But the underlying point seems to be fairly simple: God is highly concerned about the moral purity of His people. He takes the vows of His people seriously. He expects them to maintain moral and ethical standards that are superior to those of other nations. He holds His chosen people to a higher standard than the rest of the nations.

It’s interesting to note that these two chapters talk a lot about moral failure, uncleanliness, and defilement. Yet in the end, there is a beautiful statement regarding God’s desire to bless and protect His people. God wanted to show His people favor and grace. He wanted to shine the light of His glory on them. But He couldn’t do it if there was sin in the camp. He couldn’t dwell in the midst of uncleanness and defilement. He would not make His home in a place surrounded by sin.

So God takes special care to maintain external cleanliness in His people. In verses 1-4 of chapter 5, God commands that those who carry potentially deadly diseases be removed from the camp. This seems like harsh and unloving treatment of the disadvantaged, but its intent was protective and not punitive. They were placed outside the camp so that their disease would not spread, bringing disaster and death to the entire nation.

This rather startling command was meant to provide a not-so-subtle picture of how God’s people were to deal with sin found in their midst. They were to view it as dangerous and potentially deadly and remove it. Like a communicable disease, sin posed a real threat, threatening to spread throughout the camp if left unchecked. The risk of contamination was real and needed to be dealt with decisively. But God’s people always find it much easier to allow sin to exist. We are reluctant to judge, lest we be judged. Yet God seems to be reminding us that the regulations made for ensuring cleanliness in the camp of Israel suggest the adoption of similar means for maintaining purity in the church.

“And although, in large communities of Christians, it may be often difficult or delicate to do this, the suspension or, in flagrant cases of sin, the total excommunication of the offender from the privileges and communion of the church is an imperative duty, as necessary to the moral purity of the Christian as the exclusion of the leper from the camp was to physical health and ceremonial purity in the Jewish church.” – Matthew Henry, The Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible

God wanted to bless His people. He wanted to shower them with His favor, but He expected them to take seriously those things that might defile them and diminish their holiness. And He had given Moses very detailed instructions regarding those physical conditions that would render a person impure and, therefore, unholy.

“If anyone has a swelling or a rash or discolored skin that might develop into a serious skin disease, that person must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons. The priest will examine the affected area of the skin. If the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, it is a serious skin disease, and the priest who examines it must pronounce the person ceremonially unclean.” – Leviticus 13:2-3 NLT

“If anyone has suffered a burn on the skin and the burned area changes color, becoming either reddish white or shiny white, the priest must examine it. If he finds that the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, a skin disease has broken out in the burn. The priest must then pronounce the person ceremonially unclean, for it is clearly a serious skin disease. – Leviticus 13:24-25 NLT

These instructions go on for several chapters and make for a far-from-pleasant read. But the point behind them is clear. God viewed these skin conditions as potentially contagious and, therefore, dangerous to the well-being of the nation. The one inflicted with them was to be declared ceremonially unclean and separated from the rest of the camp until healed.

Anyone who had come into contact with a dead body was also to be considered ceremonially unclean and placed in isolation for a period of seven days (Numbers 19:11). And God provides the reasoning behind this command and the others that demanded removal from the camp.

“Remove them so they will not defile the camp in which I live among them…” – Numbers 5:3 NLT

God’s presence demanded the purity of His people, both physically and spiritually. The Levites had been charged with keeping the tabernacle holy and consecrated to the Lord. Now, God was letting the rest of the tribes know that His tabernacle must dwell in the midst of a holy people.

These chapters reveal that the purity of God’s people was a high priority to Him. Why? Because He wanted to bless them and dwell among them. He desired to show them His favor. But sin separates. Sin brings God’s anger instead of His favor. Sin destroys. And God made sure the people made the connection between physical defilement and moral uncleanness by declaring the danger of sinful behavior among His people.

“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If any of the people—men or women—betray the Lord by doing wrong to another person, they are guilty. They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged.” – Numbers 5:6-7 NLT

Sin was not to be tolerated or treated lightly. It was to be dealt with decisively and immediately. And God clarifies that sin is ultimately an affront to Him. It is a betrayal of the Lord. The Hebrew word is מַעַל (maʿal), and it refers to an act of treachery or betrayal. In committing any sin, the guilty party has displayed their unfaithfulness to the Lord. While their sin harmed another human being, it was done in violation of the will of God. So, God required that restitution be made. Their sin came at a cost. Restoration to God was not possible until payment was made to the innocent party. But if restitution was not possible, the guilty party was obligated to make things right with God.

But if the person who was wronged is dead, and there are no near relatives to whom restitution can be made, the payment belongs to the Lord and must be given to the priest. Those who are guilty must also bring a ram as a sacrifice, and they will be purified and made right with the Lord. – Numbers 5:8 NLT

While God was concerned about the interpersonal relationships between His people, He was even more concerned about their status with Him. Sins committed against others were ultimately an affront to God because He had provided strict laws concerning the interactions between His people. They were prohibited from committing murder, practicing adultery, lying, stealing, dishonoring their parents, coveting, and speaking falsely about one another.

But God knew that they would have a hard time adhering to these commands. That’s why He provided them with the sacrificial system that provided a means of atonement. Even when they committed unintentional sins, they would need a means of restoring their broken relationship with God.

“Suppose you sin by violating one of the Lord’s commands. Even if you are unaware of what you have done, you are guilty and will be punished for your sin. For a guilt offering, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process the priest will purify you from your unintentional sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. This is a guilt offering, for you have been guilty of an offense against the Lord.” – Leviticus 5:17-19 NLT

God made provision for sin. And for the people of Israel, it involved the sacrificial system. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that the sacrificial system was never intended to be a permanent solution to man’s sin problem.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:1-5 NLT

God has given His Son as payment for our sins – past, present, and future. We no longer have to pay the penalty that sin requires – which is death and separation from God. But we still must take sin seriously. Paul asks this powerful and probing question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1 NIV). Then he provides the answer: “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2 NIV).

Paul goes on to tell us: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7 NIV). We no longer have to sin. We have been set free from its power and its penalty. Yet we find that we still have a propensity to sin. And God expects us to treat sin with the same soberness and seriousness that He demanded of the people of Israel. So He can bless us with His favor.

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.

Repentance, Reconciliation, and Restoration

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:13-20 ESV

Back in the previous chapter, James wrote, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2 ESV). He accused his readers of two sins. The first had to do with allowing their unfulfilled passions to turn into covetousness and greed. Unable to get what they believed to be rightfully theirs, they were attempting to get it by force, even expressing a willingness to kill for it. But that raises the second sin of which they were guilty. They never made their request known to God.

These people were fighting amongst themselves because their unmet desires were producing uncontrollable jealousy and envy. Rather than expressing their so-called needs to God, they were taking matters into their own hands. And, on those rare occasions when they did manage to ask God for what they craved, they did so with the wrong motives.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:3 ESV

James accused them of spiritual adultery because they displayed a greater love for the things of this world than they did for God. The things they so greatly desired were of more value to them than their relationship with God.

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addressed a conflict between two women in the congregation.

Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. – Philippians 4:2 NLT

These two godly women were experiencing some kind of personal disagreement that had become apparent to the rest of the church members. And Paul called on the church to come to their aid so that their dispute could be resolved and their relationship restored. Then he addressed the entire faith community.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7 NLT

There was no place for quarreling and fighting within the body of Christ. Jealousy and greed should not exist among believers because we serve a God who is fully capable of meeting all our needs. But we must never forget that God is not obligated to fulfill all our desires. At times, we treat God like a cosmic genie in a bottle by demanding that He give us whatever we wish for. But God does not exist to obey our every command and to fulfill our deepest cravings and desires.

Notice that Paul told the Philippians to make their requests known to God, but he didn’t promise them that all those requests would be fulfilled. Instead, he assured them that God would give them the one thing they needed more than anything else: peace of mind. God would replace their craving with contentment. Oftentimes, the things for which we ask God reveal that our hope is misplaced. We wrongly believe that our answered prayer will bring us joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. If we’re sick, we become convinced that healing is what we need most. If we are having financial difficulties, a sudden influx of cash will surely make all our problems go away. If we’re experiencing a relational conflict, we convince ourselves that if God would only change the other person, everything would be better.

But prayer is less about getting what we want from God than it is about us learning to trust Him. Prayer is the believer’s primary form of communication with the Father and it is intended to be a conversation, not a monologue. Too often, we craft our list of petitions and methodically communicate them to God, fully expecting Him to fulfill each and every request. And we base our belief in this make-a-wish approach to prayer on the words of Jesus. After all, didn’t He say, “Ask, and it will be given to you…” (Matthew 7:7 NLT)? And wasn’t it Jesus who promised, “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you” (Matthew 18:19 NLT)? And didn’t He tell His disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22 NLT)?

But Jesus was not offering His followers carte blanche when it came to prayer. He wasn’t providing them with a blank check that obligated Him to give them whatever their heart desired. There is a sense in which our requests need to line up with the will of God and demonstrate faith in His greatness and goodness. We are not free to dictate to God what we have determined to be best for our lives. He is sovereign over all things, including our desires. Only He knows what we truly need at any given moment. In making our requests known to God, we are expressing our hearts and desires to Him, but we are also placing our hope in His providential plans for our lives. We are trusting Him to do what He deems best.

And that is the gist of James’ closing words to his audience. He wraps up his letter by calling them to pray. Rather than fighting amongst themselves, they were to take their problems to the Lord. If they were suffering, they were to pray rather than figure out ways to get out of it on their own. On the other hand, if they were experiencing joy and contentment, they were to offer up prayers of praise to God for His goodness and grace. If they were experiencing poor health, they were to call on the elders of the church and seek their wisdom and prayers.

James seems to be suggesting that there are some illnesses that are spiritually related. His instructions to call on the elders would indicate that there are times when there is more to a physical illness than meets the eye. Verse 15 seems to suggest that the one who is suffering may have unconfessed sin in their life?

Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. – James 5:15 NLT

We must be careful to not assume that all sickness is the result of sin. That was a false perception of Jesus’ own disciples. One day, they encountered a man who had been blind since birth, and they asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT).

They wrongly assumed that this man’s condition had been the direct result of somebody’s sin. He was suffering because someone had offended God. But Jesus corrected their misconception by stating, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT). According to Jesus, this man’s blindness was nothing more than a perfect opportunity to display God’s power through healing, and Jesus went on to restore his sight. 

But James makes it clear that there can be a direct correlation between continued sickness and unconfessed sin.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

James has already accused this congregation of committing spiritual adultery. They were displaying jealousy and greed, fighting and quarreling amongst themselves, and manifesting an inordinate love for the things of this world. They had offended one another. They were guilty of treating one another with contempt and unjust discrimination. Feelings had been hurt. The poor had been mistreated. The name of Christ had been damaged in the community. And repentance, reconciliation, and restitution was required.

And James insists that their less-than-ideal spiritual state could be changed for the better – through the power of prayer. And he used the story of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, as an example.

Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. – James 5:17-18 NLT

This story ties into James’ earlier statement: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). Elijah was a righteous man who made his request known to God and his prayer was answered – in a spectacular and supernatural way. This one man, praying in tune with the will of God, had been able to summon a three-and-a-half-year drought. And then, at just the right time and in keeping with God’s will, Elijah brought down much-needed rain.

In order to understand James’ use of Elijah as an example of a righteous and prayerful man, you have to go back to 1 Kings. There we can see the spiritual conditions that led Elijah to pray for a devastating drought, and it all had to do with the ungodly leadership of the king.

Ahab son of Omri began to rule over Israel in the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign in Judah. He reigned in Samaria twenty-two years. But Ahab son of Omri did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, even more than any of the kings before him. And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal. First Ahab built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. Then he set up an Asherah pole. He did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him. – 1 Kings 16:29-33 NLT

The drought was intended as punishment for the unfaithfulness of Ahab. The king had sinned against God by leading the people of Israel to commit idolatry. By withholding rain, God was punishing His rebellious people and encouraging them to repent and return to Him. And the restoration of the rain was God’s gracious attempt to remind them of His goodness.

And James ends his letter with a similar call to repentance and restoration, so that the church to whom he wrote might experience the grace and goodness of God.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

It’s clear from the rest of the letter, that there were some who had wandered away from the truth of God’s Word. They were living apart from the will of God and damaging the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ. And it was up to the entire congregation to take seriously the sin within their midst and call one another to repentance and reconciliation. Because unconfessed sin can result in spiritual death or separation from God and the community of faith. But repentance can bring forgiveness and restoration.

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.

The Dawn of a New Day

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 ESV

For Christians, reading Solomon’s words in the book of Ecclesiastes can be a bit disconcerting. After all, we place a high priority on eternity and heaven. The New Testament is replete with encouraging words regarding both. In fact, right before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:1-3 NLT

The apostle Paul wrote a great deal about the afterlife and always in glowing terms and with a great deal of eager anticipation. He told the believers in Corinth:

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die – 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NLT

In his second letter to the same body of believers, Paul compared life on earth in our physical bodies with the life to come, when we receive new, glorified bodies.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

And yet, all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to paint the afterlife in a negative light, almost as if it is something to be avoided at all costs. How could this man, who had been given wisdom by God, and who had been called to lead the people of God, have such a dim view of eternal life?

Part of what we must understand is that the Hebrews did not have a well-developed theology of heaven. Their concept of rewards, for instance, tended to focus on the present life. Their understanding of the covenant relationship between God and His people was tied to earthly rewards and blessings. That’s why they viewed those who were wealthy as having been blessed by God and those who were poor or sick as having been punished by God for some hidden sin they had committed.

They considered the life of Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, who had been blessed by God with flocks and herds. He seemed to have received his reward in this life. Solomon himself had been blessed by God with great wealth.

It’s not that the Hebrews had no theology of the afterlife; it’s that they had no consistent concept of what it entailed. The afterlife was God’s domain. He alone knew what comes after death. And since men cannot see into the future, they were left to experience and enjoy all that life has to offer – for as long as they could. The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, has little or nothing to say regarding the afterlife. Instead, it places the emphasis on the here-and-now. And Solomon took the same tact in the book of Ecclesiastes. Even in the closing verses of the final chapter, Solomon returns to his fear-filled view of death. He states:

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 11:8 ESV

Notice that he believes in some kind of existence after death, but he describes it as “days of darkness” and concludes that whatever comes after death will be a meaningless existence. Solomon understood that life carried with it the undeniable reality of a future judgment. That’s why he warned the younger generation to make the most of their time on earth but to understand that their choices would have eternal consequences.

Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 NLT

He knew that God was holy and just. He recognized that there would be a day when God would mete out His judgment on all mankind, and no one could be fully assured how that would turn out. Solomon would have fully concurred with the words of the author of Hebrews: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV).

But Solomon didn’t share the same sense of hope based on faith in Christ. The author of Hebrews followed his previous statement concerning future judgment with the encouraging, hope-filled words: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV).

Yet Solomon’s advice was to live your life and have a good time. He recommended that you enjoy all the pleasures and joys that life has to offer, but with the following caveat: There will be a judgment. God will one day reward you for how you lived your life on this earth.

That was Solomon’s perspective, and we can only imagine how his theological thinking had been skewed by the influence of all the false gods he had embraced. His religious views had to have been a toxic blend of pagan beliefs and Jewish doctrine. He was a man who wasn’t really sure what he believed in anymore. His faith system had become heavily influenced by the tangible and experiential – all that he could see, touch, and taste.

For Solomon, the unknown was unknowable and, therefore, not worth worrying about. The afterlife was a mystery whose secrets were hidden from mere men. So, Solomon placed his emphasis on the present life. He embraced each new day with a sense of hope, which is why he stated, “Light is sweet; how pleasant to see a new day dawning.” (Ecclesiastes 11:7 NLT).

Waking up was a positive experience for Solomon because it meant he hadn’t died in his sleep. Remember what Solomon said earlier in his book: “There is hope only for the living. As they say, ‘It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!’” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT).

Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes later in life, so the views he shares are those of a man who had lived a long life and learned a lot of valuable lessons. And his final words in this chapter are directed at the young. “So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy. But remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 NLT).

Solomon’s sage wisdom is to stop worrying so much. Rather than worry about tomorrow, take care of yourself and enjoy your youth while you can, because it is going to be gone before you know it. Like everything else in life, youthfulness is a vapor, here one day and gone the next. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself old and facing the uncertainty and inevitability of death and judgment.

So, what are we to do with all of this? How are we to respond to the words of Solomon? It seems that, far too often, we attempt to treat the book of Ecclesiastes like it’s the second installment of the book of Proverbs. We read Ecclesiastes selectively, picking and choosing those verses or statements that we find encouraging or that contain a positive application for life. We seek out the wise sayings of Solomon about diligence, hard work, prudent investing, and the avoidance of foolish behavior. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that strategy.

But the question we must ask is why the Spirit of God inspired Solomon to write this book in the first place. Why Solomon? And why was he prompted to write this book at the end of his life and not at the beginning? The book of Ecclesiastes provides us with an unvarnished glimpse into the life of a man who had it all, including a relationship with God. He had been raised by a father whom God described as a man after His own heart. Solomon had been given every opportunity in life. He had been provided with the privilege of building the temple for God. He had been blessed with wisdom from God. But at some point in his life, Solomon walked away from God. He allowed himself to become obsessed with his possessions. He compromised his convictions, and he made false gods of equal value to the one true God.

If we’re not careful, we can fall into the same trap. Even as believers in Christ, we can allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of spiritual complacency and moral compromise, searching for meaning and purpose from the things of this world. The book of Ecclesiastes was not meant to be a stand-alone reference for godly living. It is one book among 66 books that make up the entirety of God’s inspired Word. The Scriptures are to be read in their entirety so that they can provide us with a well-balanced, Spirit-inspired understanding of God and our relationship with Him. It is essential that we take the views expressed by Solomon and compare and contrast them with those of the New Testament authors. When we read the words of the apostle John, found in his first epistle, we begin to get a clearer view of what it was that Solomon was missing.

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. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This world is a wonderful place, created by God for our enjoyment. But it is fallen and suffering from the effects of sin. Everything has been marred by the fall, including mankind. Yet God has provided us with tremendous blessings in this life. This planet provides us with incredible pleasures to be enjoyed as gifts from the hand of God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that this world is not all there is. God has something far greater in store for His people. Our faith is in God and our hope is in what He has planned for us in the future. And that preferred future is available only through faith in His Son. There is no better way to summarize the final words of Solomon than by listening to the words of Jesus Himself.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:16-21 NLT

Solomon found solace and comfort in the light of a new day. But Jesus offers something far more profound and life-changing than one more 24-hour period of earthly existence. He offers the gift of eternal life and freedom from judgment – two things Solomon could not fathom or place his faith in. But we can.

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.

Just Do It

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 ESV

Up to this point, Solomon has provided us with a somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal look at life. He has revealed a perspective on life as seen from his unique vantage point as an aging monarch whose reflections are filled with regret and remorse. Yet, he sees himself as a preacher or teacher, whose responsibility as a leader of his people is to share his mistakes and the insights he has gleaned from them.

In this section, Solomon’s writing style becomes less autobiographical and more proverbial, similar to that of the book of Proverbs, which he wrote and edited. Proverbs are succinct, simple statements designed to teach powerful truths using few words, but in a memorable and impactful manner. Typically, proverbs are gathered in collections, with what appears to be little or no rhyme or reason as to their order or flow. They appear as isolated and seemingly unrelated thoughts, with each operating as a stand-alone truth claim.

In chapter five, we have a series of these proverbs, and the first few all have something to do with making vows before God. As has been the case before, Solomon appears to be writing from personal experience. These are not simply words of wisdom he has run across and deemed worthy of inclusion in his book. They are practical life lessons that he has experienced firsthand. And the very first one he shares has to do with the attitudes one should bring into the house of God. They concern one’s worship of God.

When entering into the presence of God, attitude and actions should not be separated. He warns against offering sacrifices to God in a flippant and disrespectful manner. For Solomon, it was a dangerous thing to go through the motions of worship while showing no reverence or fear for God. He describes a form of worship that is self-motivated and manipulative, offering sacrifices and making rash vows to God in order to get something from Him. He recommends listening over sacrificing.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. – Ecclesiastes 5:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “listening” is shama` and it carries with it the ideas of hearing and obeying. Solomon knew that there was a real risk of showing up at the temple to offer the required sacrifices and failing to hear what God might be trying to say. You could end up going through the motions of worship while ignoring the very one to whom you were offering the sacrifice. There is little doubt that Solomon was very familiar with the words that the prophet Samuel spoke to Saul, the first king of Israel.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT

Solomon’s own father, David, had discovered this same truth.

“You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings.
    Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand—
    you don’t require burnt offerings or sin offerings.
Then I said, “Look, I have come.
    As is written about me in the Scriptures:
I take joy in doing your will, my God,
    for your instructions are written on my heart.” – Psalm 40:6-8 NLT

And after the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the law by harvesting grain on the sabbath, Jesus responded, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices” (Matthew 12:7 NLT).

Jesus was condemning these men for placing a higher priority on the sacrificial system than on the God to whom the sacrifices were being offered. And Solomon warns his readers: “Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3 NLT).

Solomon is not simply spouting a clever-sounding maxim, but revealing a painful, yet valuable lesson learned from real life. He reminds us that God is transcendent. He is in heaven and we are on earth, and there is a great gulf that separates us, both literally and figuratively. God is holy and we are not. God is sinless and completely righteous in all He does. We are just the opposite. And we cannot afford to enter into His presence with a sense of dishonor or disrespect.

And one of the areas in which we can get ourselves into trouble with God is through the making of vows or commitments to Him. Vows were commonplace in Solomon’s day. They were verbal commitments made to God. A vow was a solemn promise to do something for God or to offer a sacrifice to God in the hopes of receiving blessings from Him in return. And Solomon warns, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4 ESV).

There is little doubt that Solomon had made many rash vows to God, promising to do something for God in return for His blessings. But Solomon knew the truth. He had failed to keep his side of the bargain, and he had learned the valuable lesson that God does not suffer fools lightly. The kind of vows to which Solomon refers could have been free-will offerings that were not part of the normal sacrificial requirements. When going through a time of difficulty or trial, it would be easy to promise to offer God a free-will offering in return for His rescue or relief. But it’s nothing more than a form of bargaining with God., and the book of Judges records just such a rash vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31 ESV

And the story goes on to record that God gave Jephthah victory over the Ammonites, but it also reveals the tragic outcome of Jephthah’s rash vow.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” – Judges 11:34-35 ESV

Solomon wants his readers to know that God takes vows seriously, which is why he states, “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5 NLT). Keep your mouth shut. Don’t be hasty. Treat God as holy and don’t be too quick to make promises you have no intention of keeping. Because God will hold you to your word. Again, Solomon seems to speak from experience when he writes:

Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 5:6 NLT

And it would seem from this verse, that Solomon has widened the application to include vows or promises made to other individuals. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it. You can’t get out of it by stating your original promise was a mistake.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had some serious things to say about the matter of vows.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-36 NLT

Don’t miss what Jesus is saying. The prevalent perspective in His day was to keep any and all vows made to God. But Jesus warns not to make any vows at all. His reason for this was that the Jewish religious leaders had developed a variety of loopholes and workarounds that would allow people to make vows without having to keep them. And Jesus lists just a few. They had developed a system by which you could make a vow that was legally breakable because you made it based on something that was non-binding. Through clever use of words, you could make a vow that sounded binding but wasn’t. It gave the impression that you would follow through on your commitment, but with no intention to do so. These kinds of vows were little more than lies, and Jesus warned His followers not to make them. Instead, they were to say “Yes, I will!” or “No, I won’t!”

Solomon wraps up this short section with a somewhat enigmatic verse.

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:7 ESV

The New Living Translation sheds some light on what Solomon may have been trying to say. “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.” Someone who experiences an abundance of dreams ends up struggling with whether what they have dreamed has true significance or meaning. What are they to believe? The same is true when we use too many words and make too many vows. No one knows whether what we are saying is true or to be believed. Dreams mean nothing unless they are put into action. And words are of little value if they are not accompanied by follow-through. Remember what Solomon said: Let your words be few. Verbosity is no substitute for integrity. Why waste your time making promises? Just do it.

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.

Hope in the Hereafter

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 ESV

For Solomon, life had become little more than a never-ending cycle of unavoidable outcomes. Planting was followed by harvesting but eventually required that the whole laborious process begin again. Periods of peace would be interrupted by times of war. Efforts to build something of significance would only result in its eventual demolition. Seeking for something that was lost might result in finding it – only to lose it again. Feelings of love could give way to thoughts of hate. And ultimately, life would be trumped by death.

And as he notes in this passage, even while man lives, he experiences the inevitability of injustice. Where he expects to see righteousness rule and reign, he instead finds wickedness. Solomon describes life lived “under the sun” as a disappointing and difficult experience, and the only silver lining he can find in this dark cloud of despair is his belief that God will judge the righteous and the wicked. But it is likely that Solomon is not thinking of a future judgment related to the end of the world and the eternal state. He has his eyes fixed solidly on the here-and-now. Consider his closing statement in this passage. “Who can bring him [man] to see what will be after him?” (Ecclesiastes 3:22 ESV).

The idea of a future judgment was almost impossible for Solomon to fathom. His perspective was immersed in the present, bound by time, and hampered by his inability to see anything beyond the grave.

Two different times in this passage, Solomon uses the phrase, “I said in my heart.” This is a statement of deep reflection. He is wrestling with substantive issues, turning them over in his mind, and trying to come to some sort of resolution. He is attempting to use his wisdom to reconcile his many observations concerning life’s inequities and futile inevitabilities, and he draws some less-than-encouraging conclusions.

These verses are not random, off-the-cuff thoughts, but the well-reasoned reflections of a man who has spent countless hours struggling to resolve what he believes to be concerning contradictions. And yet, so much of what he has concluded is wrong. His views on life and man’s existence lack a divine perspective. Yes, he acknowledges the existence of God and even concedes the sovereignty of God over all things. But he views God as nothing more than a distant deity, far removed from everyday life, who stands in detached judgment over the affairs of man. In fact, when considering the human condition from his limited earthly perspective, Solomon concludes, “God proves to people that they are like animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:18 NLT).

That view of God fails to focus on His love, mercy, and grace and exposes Solomon’s  lack of an intimate and interpersonal relationship with the Almighty. While Solomon was the son of David, he did not share his father’s opinion about God. Compare the rather pessimistic conclusions of Solomon to those of his father.

But you, Lord, are a shield that protects me;
   you are my glory and the one who restores me.
To the Lord I cried out,
   and he answered me from his holy hill. – Psalm 3:3-4 NLT

You make me happier
   than those who have abundant grain and wine.
I will lie down and sleep peacefully,
   for you, Lord, make me safe and secure. – Psalm 4:7-8 NLT

But as for me, because of your great faithfulness I will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple as I worship you. – Psalm 5:7 NLT

David had a deep and abiding love for God and saw Him as intimately involved in the everyday affairs of his life. His God was personal and relatable, not distant and disconnected. But for Solomon, God was little more than a powerful, unseen force, directing the affairs of life and determining the destinies of men with a certain degree of detachment and disinterest. In fact, Solomon accuses God of using His divine power to prove to men that they are little better than beasts.
For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! – Ecclesiastes 3:19 NLT
Yet David had a remarkably different perspective.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8:3-9 ESV

David fully acknowledged the inferior nature of man when compared to the majesty of Almighty God but he also recognized man’s God-given status as the crowning achievement of creation.

Yet, all Solomon seemed to see was the fact that men were doomed to the same fate as animals. Death and decay await them both. And Solomon further expresses his dire outlook by asking the question, “who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21 NLT).

In other words, what guarantee do we have that there is something out there after death? How do we know that there is any existence beyond the grave? You can begin to see why Solomon reached the conclusion, “there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 NLT).

When he considered the fact that the wise and the foolish both end their lives in death, he concluded, “there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

Enjoy it while you can. That seems to be Solomon’s philosophy of life. Since he had no guarantee of what would happen after death, he was going to grab for all the gusto he could in this life. He resigned himself to the reality that this is all there is, which led him to say, “I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 3:22 NLT).

But notice that he has relegated all of life to this world. He displays no concept of eternity or the hereafter. Once again, a comparison of the mindset of Solomon with that of his own father reveals a startling disparity in their viewpoints. David repeatedly expressed his belief in the eternal nature of his relationship with God.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. – Psalm 23:6 NLT

I have asked the Lord for one thing—
   this is what I desire!
I want to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
   so I can gaze at the splendor of the Lord
and contemplate in his temple. – Psalm 27:4 NLT

Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! – Psalm 61:4 NLT

There is little doubt that life can be filled with injustices. We all know that death is inevitable and inescapable. But we have an assurance from God that all injustices will one day be rectified. It may not be in our lifetime, but we can rest assured that God will ultimately replace all wickedness with righteousness. He will mete out justice to all those who have lived their lives by taking advantage of the innocent and abusing the helpless. And while the fall brought the inescapable reality of death to God’s creation, He plans to redeem and restore all that He has made.

And for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, we have the assurance that our existence does not end with our death, because He died so that we might live. And nobody expresses this reality better than the apostle Paul.

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. – Romans 8:22-25 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.