A God You Can Count On

1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy. Habakkuk 3:1-2 ESV

Habakkuk has heard from God. The Almighty has provided the prophet with an assurance that Babylon will receive a just sentence for its role in the judgment of Judah. Yes, they will be used by God to bring about the divine discipline of God’s chosen people, but the Babylonians will also fall under His divine wrath for every act of aggression and subjugation they enact against Judah.

And with this assurance from God, Habakkuk begins to sing another tune – literally. This closing chapter is written in the form of a psalm or song. It is a prayer of praise in the form of a poem that was most likely put to music so that it could be sung by the people of God. The phrase, “according to Shigionoth” may be a reference to the melody that was to accompany Habakkuk’s words. The singular form of the Hebrew word is found in the introduction to Psalm 7, a psalm of David.

A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.

But the Hebrew root word, shagah, provides some insight into what Habakkuk may have in mind with his prayer of praise to God. It means “to err, wander, go astray (morally), to sin through ignorance.” In David’s psalm, faced with apparent accusations of guilt from the lips of someone named Cush, he declares his innocence and asks God to either acquit or convict him.

O Lord my God, if I have done wrong
    or am guilty of injustice,
if I have betrayed a friend
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
then let my enemies capture me. – Psalm 7:3-5 NLT

He goes on to ask God for vindication and protection.

Declare me righteous, O Lord,
    for I am innocent, O Most High! – Psalm 7:8 NLT

He appeals to God as the one who “judges the nations” (Psalm 7:8 NLT).

God is my shield,
    saving those whose hearts are true and right.
God is an honest judge.
    He is angry with the wicked every day. – Psalm 7:10-11 NLT

And David is convinced that God will judge him fairly and eventually, fully vindicate him.

I will thank the Lord because he is just;
    I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High. – Psalm 7:17 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk’s song carries the same idea. Nowhere does he claim the nation of Judah to be innocent, but he does seem to appeal to God as a righteous judge who will one day vindicate His people. Having heard from God regarding the future judgment of Babylon, Habakkuk shares his intense longing to see that day come. He is expressing his belief that God will prove Himself faithful by fulfilling every promise He has made regarding Judah’s eventual vindication through Babylon’s destruction.

Habakkuk begins his song with a statement of wonder and praise for God’s remarkable reputation. As a prophet of God, he had been exposed to the very words of God, hearing firsthand what Yahweh had planned for Judah’s future. And it left him in a state of awe and amazement.

I have heard all about you, Lord.
    I am filled with awe by your amazing works. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

But, as a Hebrew, Habakkuk had also been raised on a steady diet of the stories of God’s intervention in the lives of His people. He had heard the creation story, the account of the flood and the preservation of Noah and his family. He had been told the story of God’s call of Abraham’s and the promise to make of him a great nation. As a child, he would have been exposed to all the stories about Joseph and the sons of Jacob in Egypt. The account of God’s amazing redemption of His people and their exodus out of Egypt would have been very familiar to him. The conquering of the land of promise, the rise of King David, the greatness of Solomon, the division of the kingdom, and the historical record of all the kings of Judah and Israel would have been well known to him. And through all those accounts, Habakkuk would have recognized the “amazing works” of God and been blown away by His power and persevering patience with His less-than-faithful people.

Unlike David, Habakkuk could not appeal to God based on a claim of Judah’s innocence. There was no way he could ask God to vindicate them because they were undeserving of His judgment. He knew full well that the people of Judah were guilty. In fact, he had begun his book with the admission that things had gotten so bad in Judah, that the wicked outnumbered the righteous.

So, Habakkuk looked to God’s well-established track record of showing up and delivering His people in times of trouble.

In this time of our deep need,
    help us again as you did in years gone by. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

Sadly, this was not the first time Judah had been faced with difficult circumstances. There had been countless other occasions when the people of God had found themselves faced with insurmountable odds and the potential for a devastating outcome. But Habakkuk knew that God had intervened on behalf of His people. He had repeatedly rescued them from their predicaments, graciously restoring them and providing them with yet another undeserved opportunity to prove their faithfulness to Him. And Habakkuk longed to see God do the same thing in his day.

But Habakkuk recognizes that the people of Judah were fully deserving of all that God was about to do to them. They stood guilty and condemned before a holy God. So, he appeals to God’s covenant faithfulness and track-record of extending undeserved mercy.

…in your anger, remember your mercy. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk would have been familiar with the content of the prayer prayed by Solomon at the dedication of the newly constructed temple. King Solomon had begun his prayer with a statement concerning God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in all of heaven above or on the earth below. You keep your covenant and show unfailing love to all who walk before you in wholehearted devotion” (1 Kings 8:23 NLT).

But Solomon knew that he and his people were prone to unfaithfulness. He was concerned that their behavior would fail to live up to the terms of God’s covenantal agreement with them. So, he began describing potential scenarios in which the nation might violate their covenant commitment and stand guilty before God. And he petitioned God: “May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:29-30 NLT). 

Solomon was appealing to God’s faithfulness because he knew there was little likelihood that the people of Israel would keep their end of the bargain. And when they failed to do so, He wanted to know that God would still intervene on their behalf. Solomon even included a worst-case scenario in which the people of Israel found themselves defeated and living in exile as a result of their disobedience to God.

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you, and if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and return them to this land you gave their ancestors. – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

Solomon knew that the only hope that Israel had for their present protection and future restoration was to be found in God alone. And Habakkuk echoed that same sentiment. He was appealing to his awe-inspiring, grace-bestowing, miracle-working God. And he greatly desired that God would continue to season His righteous anger with mercy. It was all the hope that the people of God had left. They had forsaken God. They had proven themselves incapable of living in faithful obedience to their covenant with God. And unless God showed them mercy, their future would be dark, and any hope of restoration, dim.

The words of the prophet, Jeremiah, written in the book of Lamentations, seem to indicate the heart behind Habakkuk’s prayer.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness
    is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
    as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
    when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!” – Lamentations 3:19-24 NLT

God’s mercies are new every morning. Like the sun that shows up like clockwork at the start of each new day, God’s mercies never fail to arrive when needed. His faithfulness is unfailing. His love is unwavering. And, therefore, our hope in Him should be constant and abiding.

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

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

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

The Infectiousness of Unfaithfulness

For this I will lament and wail;
    I will go stripped and naked;
I will make lamentation like the jackals,
    and mourning like the ostriches.
For her wound is incurable,
    and it has come to Judah;
it has reached to the gate of my people,
    to Jerusalem.

10 Tell it not in Gath;
    weep not at all;
in Beth-le-aphrah
    roll yourselves in the dust.
11 Pass on your way,
    inhabitants of Shaphir,
    in nakedness and shame;
the inhabitants of Zaanan
    do not come out;
the lamentation of Beth-ezel
    shall take away from you its standing place.
12 For the inhabitants of Maroth
    wait anxiously for good,
because disaster has come down from the Lord
    to the gate of Jerusalem.
13 Harness the steeds to the chariots,
    inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin
    to the daughter of Zion,
for in you were found
    the transgressions of Israel.
14 Therefore you shall give parting gifts
    to Moresheth-gath;
the houses of Achzib shall be a deceitful thing
    to the kings of Israel.
15 I will again bring a conqueror to you,
    inhabitants of Mareshah;
the glory of Israel
    shall come to Adullam.
16 Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair,
    for the children of your delight;
make yourselves as bald as the eagle,
    for they shall go from you into exile. Micah 1:8-16 ESV

Micah has a message from God Almighty that contains information regarding His chosen people, the descendants of Abraham. But Micah calls on all the people of the earth to hear what God has to say about the fate of the nation of Israel. Like a judge in a courtroom, God is going to deliver His indictment against the accused, and He wants everyone to hear the vindication of His actions.

He is judging His people for their sins. These are not the actions of some capricious deity who is arbitrarily meting out judgment upon innocent people. They stand before Him as guilty.

All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem? – Micah 1:5 ESV

Here, Micah uses two different designations for the people of God because he is writing during the period of the divided kingdom. Originally, Israel had been one nation with a single capital, Jerusalem, where the king of Israel reigned over a unified kingdom. But during the reign of Solomon, the son of David, things had taken a decidedly dark turn. This young man, who had ascended to his father’s throne, had begun his reign by building a house for the Lord. He had spent seven years and a vast sum of money constructing this elaborate and ornate structure designed to serve as God’s temple.

The inner sanctuary he prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high, and he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid an altar of cedar. And Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold. – 1 Kings 6:19-22 ESV

Upon completion of the temple, Solomon went on to build himself a palace, spending 15 years and an exorbitant amount of money in the process. And sadly, 1 Kings 7:8 reveals that he also built a temple for one of his many wives.

His own house where he was to dwell, in the other court back of the hall, was of like workmanship. Solomon also made a house like this hall for Pharaoh’s daughter whom he had taken in marriage.

We know that Solomon went on to have 700 wives and 300 concubines. This was in direct violation of God’s law.

The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the LORD. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself. – Deuteronomy 17:7 NLT

And it is clear that Solomon ignored God’s prohibition against excessive wealth.

So King Solomon became richer and wiser than any other king on earth. People from every nation came to consult him and to hear the wisdom God had given him. Year after year everyone who visited brought him gifts of silver and gold, clothing, weapons, spices, horses, and mules.

Solomon built up a huge force of chariots and horses. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses. He stationed some of them in the chariot cities and some near him in Jerusalem. The king made silver as plentiful in Jerusalem as stone. And valuable cedar timber was as common as the sycamore-fig trees that grow in the foothills of Judah. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Cilicia… – 1 Kings 10:23-28 NLT

Solomon was obsessed with all the trappings of success that come with royal sovereignty. He enjoyed being the king and he used his great wealth and power to satisfy his every whim. According to his own testimony, Solomon spared no expense in meeting his every perceived need.

I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. – Ecclesiastes 2:4-10 NLT

But Solomon’s greatest sin was his unfaithfulness to God. He allowed his uncontrolled desires to lead him away from the worship of the one true God. His physical passions ended up having spiritual ramifications.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The LORD had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the LORD. – 1 Kings 11:1-3 NLT

And, as a result of Solomon’s idolatry, God chose to split his kingdom in half. He raised up Jeroboam and made him king over the ten tribes located in the northern half of the kingdom. And God left no doubts as to the cause of the split.

For Solomon has abandoned me and worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, the god of Moab; and Molech, the god of the Ammonites. He has not followed my ways and done what is pleasing in my sight. He has not obeyed my decrees and regulations as David his father did. – 1 Kings 11:33 NLT

Upon Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel found itself divided in two. Ten tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel with their capital located in Samaria. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin formed the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. And over the years, these two kingdoms would find themselves ruled by a litany of different kings who, over time, led the people of God further and further away from Him. What Solomon had begun, they accelerated and exacerbated. And by the time Micah records the contents of his book, the overall spiritual outlook for the two kingdoms had grown decidedly dark.

And Micah describes his emotional state when considering the sad reality of the circumstances surrounding him.

Therefore, I will mourn and lament.
    I will walk around barefoot and naked.
I will howl like a jackal
    and moan like an owl.
For my people’s wound
    is too deep to heal.
It has reached into Judah,
    even to the gates of Jerusalem. – Micah 1:8-9 NLT

In these verses, Micah mentions a number of different cities, including Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. The sins of the ten northern tribes had infected the southern kingdom of Judah. The cancer of spiritual infidelity had spread all the way to the gates of Jerusalem. And in Micah’s lifetime, he would see the northern kingdom attacked and destroyed by the Assyrians. God would bring judgment against His people for their unrepentant rebellion against Him. And those same Assyrians would threaten the southern kingdom of Judah.

Micah weaves in the names of cities located in Judah, not far from his hometown of Moresheth. He warns the citizens of Beth-leaphrah, Shaphir, Zaanan, Beth-ezel, and Maroth to consider their fate. They will soon suffer the same fate as the cities in the northern kingdom. They are not immune from God’s judgment. They stand just as guilty before God and are doomed to endure the same tragic outcome.

They “anxiously wait for relief, but only bitterness awaits them as the Lord’s judgment reaches even to the gates of Jerusalem” (Micah 1:123 NLT). City after city will fall under the righteous wrath of God. These two kingdoms, which had once formed the dynastic legacy of King David, were now relegated to positions of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of their enemies. They could run, but they could not hide. They could try to wish it all away, but their sins had caught up with them. And Micah gives them a piece of advice that comes across as too little, too late.

Oh, people of Judah, shave your heads in sorrow,
    for the children you love will be snatched away.
Make yourselves as bald as a vulture,
    for your little ones will be exiled to distant lands. – Micah 1:16 NLT

They should have mourned over their sins generations ago. This problem was not a new one. Their sins were not an aberration or a recent development. The sins of the northern kingdom had grown progressively worse until God was ready to bring judgment against them in the form of the Assyrians. And the infectious nature of their sin had spread to the southern kingdom, leaving the tribes of Judah and Benjamin equally culpable and fully responsible for God’s judgment against them.

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

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

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

And He Healed Them

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise’?”

17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. –  Matthew 21:14-17 ESV

tissot-he-heals-the-lame-in-the-temple-740x545After having cleansed His Father’s house, Jesus proceeded to return it to its rightful status as a place of healing and hope. When Solomon had prayed the prayer of dedication over the original temple, he had asked of God, “listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).

Solomon deeply desired that the magnificent building he had constructed would be a place where God’s presence dwelt and where those who approached God in humility could find forgiveness and restoration. Which is why he had prayed, “whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind)” (1 Kings 8:37-39 ESV).

After His cleansing of the temple, Jesus remained on the grounds, and as He walked through its courtyards, the crowds came to Him. Even the blind and the lame somehow made their way to Him, and Matthew simply states, “He healed them.” And these would be the last healings Jesus would perform in His earthly ministry. Here in His Father’s house, he was extending mercy and grace to those who come to Him with their physical afflictions.

Jesus restored the temple’s status as a house of prayer. Those with physical needs brought their requests to Him, the Son of God, and He not only heard them, but He also healed them. Remember the prayer of Solomon:

whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made…forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways…”

And Solomon had added, “for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind.” Jesus knew their hearts. He was well aware of their true spiritual state. He saw past their physical infirmities and longed to restore their more serious spiritual condition. This is why, within days, He would offer Himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

But the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees speaks volumes. Matthew states that when these men saw “saw the wonderful things that he did,” they became indignant. The Greek word translated as “wonderful” refers to something miraculous or marvelous and worthy of admiration. But instead, these men were filled with indignation or displeasure. They were appalled, not awed. Rather than rendering worship to God for what they had witnessed, they reacted with anger. They were offended by the shouts of the children who were declaring, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And they were appalled that Jesus allowed these ignorant and ill-informed young people to shout their false and dangerous propaganda. 

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus was either deaf, or He found some kind of perverse delight in hearing these children declare Him to be the Messiah. Either way, He was wrong, and they wanted it stopped. But Jesus calmly responded to them, quoting from one of the psalms, of which they would have been familiar.

You have taught children and infants
    to tell of your strength,
silencing your enemies
    and all who oppose you. – Psalm 8:2 NLT

Earlier, when Jesus had first entered Jerusalem, the crowds had shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38 ESV). And the Pharisees had demanded the Jesus rebuke them. But Jesus had told them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV). The reality of Jesus’ identity was going to be revealed one way or the other. And now, the children were crying out and declaring that Jesus was the Messiah. These innocent, humble children saw what the well-educated, religious leaders of Israel could not see: The Messiah standing in their midst. Unhampered by religious dogma and man-made doctrines that clouded the mind and obscured the truth of God’s Word, these children were able to respond to the miracles of Jesus with unadulterated awe and wonder.

Their reaction is reminiscent of that of the blind man whom Jesus healed. The restoration of his sight had caused quite a stir because he had been born blind.  And the Pharisees, unable to discount the miracle, demanded that the man give glory to God for his healing and not to Jesus.

So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.” – John 9:24 NLT

But the man had simply responded, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” (John 9:25 NLT).

He wasn’t going to have a debate about Jesus’ spiritual qualifications. In his mind, none of that made sense or altered the reality of his miraculous healing. He had been blind, but now he could see. And that’s all he needed to know.

The Pharisees were not stupid. They could see that much of what was taking place around them was further proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. But they refused to admit it or accept it. The shouts of the children were a verbal confirmation, echoing the sentiments of the crowds surrounding Jesus. But the scribes and Pharisees remained stubbornly opposed to Jesus, and blind to the evidence taking place all around them. And yet, they could sense the tide was turning. They were losing control. The influence of Jesus was increasing with each passing day. And as it did, their anger grew, and their desperation to do something about this threat to their power and influence escalated dramatically.

Don’t miss the spiritual battle taking place behind this somewhat idyllic scene. When reading these stories, it’s easy to conjure up the image of Jesus healing the lame and the blind. We can even hear the praises of the children. In our minds, it all appears like some kind of maudlin scene from a Hallmark movie.

But in the background lies the wreckage and confusion left when Jesus assaulted the moneychangers and vendors He had found in the court of the Gentiles. Among the overturned tables and amidst the bleating sheep and bellowing oxen, there were vendors trying to restore order to their once-lucrative booths. And there, lurking in the dark corners, were the religious leaders of Israel, shaking their heads in indignation and disgust. Jesus had once again disrupted the status quo. He had invaded their turf and rocked their religious world. And behind these men stood the prince of this world, Satan himself. He saw Jesus as a threat to his rule and reign and was willing to do anything to eliminate Him.

And Jesus, in a final display of His divine powers, graciously healed the blind and the lame. But Satan, in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the plans of God, would use his influence over the spiritually blind and those sickened by sin, to turn them against the Messiah. The forces of wickedness were gathering against the Son of God. The battle for the souls of mankind was entering its final stages. And here, in the temple courtyard, we see the primary participants in this epic struggle gathering for what will be a spiritual showdown in the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus was about to deal a knockout blow to the powers of sin and death. With His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus would make possible the restoration of sight to the spiritually blind. He would bring spiritual healing to those disabled by the devastating and deadly curse of sin. He would provide freedom to all those held captive by the prince of this world and struggling under his oppressive rule and reign.

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

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

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

The Sign of Judgment

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” – Matthew 12:38-42 ESV

As has been mentioned before, Matthew is less interested in providing a detailed, chronologically-ordered history of Jesus’ life and ministry, than he is in supporting the theme of his book. From the outset, he has been working diligently to prove Jesus’ divine nature and Messianic credentials. In this section of his gospel, Matthew has assembled an assortment of incidents involving the Pharisees; designed to illustrate their growing animosity toward Jesus, but also to provide further support to his overall thesis regarding the power and authority of Jesus.

The word “then” should be taken as a link to the previous paragraph, but instead, should be read as “on another occasion.” Matthew is about to share yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in which their evil intentions will be exposed, and the superiority of Jesus will be expressed. Earlier in this chapter, Matthew recorded the words of Jesus, spoken to the Pharisees, saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 11:6 ESV). Now, he shares a similar and equally bold statement from the lips of Jesus: “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42 ESV).

But what is the point Jesus is attempting to make? Why does He describe Himself as greater than or more superior to the temple or even King Solomon? What does He mean when He claims to be “lord of the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:8 ESV).

The temple, Solomon, and the Sabbath were all revered icons of the Hebrew faith. The temple was the house of God, a beautiful and highly ornate structure where God’s presence was said to dwell. It was the focal point of their entire religious system, critical to their practice of the required sacrificial system ordained by God, and a symbol of their unique status as His chosen people. And Solomon had been the one who had been given the privilege by God to construct this magnificent structure. He was the son of David, who had been divinely ordained to fulfill his father’s dream of building a house for God. And the Sabbath was another God-ordained feature of the Hebrew religious system that set them apart from all the other nations on earth.

But Jesus claimed to be greater than any of them. And these audacious assertions did not escape the notice of the Pharisees. They heard all that Jesus was saying and took great exception with His ridiculous and sacrilegious claims of superiority.

So, as was their growing custom, they approached Jesus with the intent of tricking Him into saying something they could use against Him. They were rarely disappointed in their efforts because Jesus was not shy about saying what was on His mind. He had no fear of the Pharisees. In fact, He took every opportunity to expose them as what they were: Religious charlatans and hypocrites of the highest order. They may have fooled the people with their outward demonstrations of piety and righteousness, but Jesus knew the condition of their hearts. And, over time, His attacks on them will only increase in intensity.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT

On this particular occasion, the Pharisees were joined by the scribes. This was a group of learned men tasked with protecting and preserving the law of Moses. As their name implies, they would scribe or copy the law, using painstaking methods to ensure that there were no errors in their transcriptions. They would count letters and spaces in a line of text to check for errors and guarantee accuracy. These men were considered experts in the law and were most likely invited by the Pharisees in order to spot any violations of the law that Jesus might be committing.

The request they made of Jesus was most likely not spontaneous but prearranged. They expressed the desire to see Jesus perform a sign. Earlier, the Pharisees had attributed the miracles of Jesus to the power and influence of Satan. So, it seems unlikely that they are requesting Jesus to perform another miracle. They were looking for something more significant: A sign.

The Greek word is sēmeion, and it refers to a sign by which anything future is pre-announced (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). In essence, they were requesting that Jesus perform a particular type of miracle, something far more difficult than healing the blind or the diseased. If Jesus was truly divine, as He so claimed, then He should be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary and impossible, such as predict the future. They were asking Jesus to make a prophetic prediction. But the motivation behind their request was evil to its core. They knew what the law said regarding anyone prophesied falsely in the name of God.

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. “ – Deuteronomy 18:20-22 ESV

Simply put, they were in search of an excuse to put Jesus to death. But He saw through their ploy and responded to their request with a stinging indictment.

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 12:39 ESV

These were men who took great pride in their righteousness and faithful adherence to the law of Moses. So, for Jesus to address them as evil and adulterous was nothing less than a verbal slap in the face. Not only that, Jesus refused their request for a prophetic pronouncement and, instead, announced a sign of coming judgment. The story of Jonah would have been very familiar to these men. But Jesus gave the story an intriguing new twist. He tied it to His future death, burial, and resurrection. Just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, Jesus predicts His own 3-day-long interment in a tomb. And just as Jonah had been sent by God to bring a message of repentance and salvation to the people of Ninevah, Jesus, by His death and resurrection, would make possible the salvation of all those who hear and accept His offer of justification by faith.

In a way, Jesus was answering the request of the scribes and Pharisees, but not in a way that they would have recognized. He was predicting the future, clearly indicating the manner of His own death and the means of salvation it would make possible. But He was also predicting the fate of the scribes and Pharisees, as well as all those who refuse to accept the salvation that Jesus’ death will make available.

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… – Matthew 12:41 ESV

The pagan, Gentile people of Ninevah heard and responded to Jonah’s message of repentance and were saved from destruction. But the scribes and Pharisees, like most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, would refuse His offer of salvation, choosing instead to rely on their own self-made righteousness. And Jesus made it clear that, at the future judgment, the repentant people of Ninevah would stand as witnesses against the unrepentant Jews. Jesus predicts that the Jews will refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible by His coming death on the cross.

And then, Jesus adds another claim of superiority to His growing list.

something greater than Jonah is here – Matthew 12:41 ESV

Jonah was a prophet of God and the only one who had been sent by God to the Gentiles. The scribes and Pharisees would have related well to Jonah’s initial reluctance to take God’s message of repentance to non-Jews. The story of Jonah attempting to get out of this undesirable assignment would have resonated with them. Now, here was Jesus was claiming to be superior to Jonah.  But, in reality, Jesus was placing Himself on a higher plane than their own Scriptures. He was claiming to precedence over the stories of Scripture because He was the ultimate fulfillment of those stories. Jonah had been nothing more than a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself. Jonah had been just a man, and he had fulfilled the command of God reluctantly. His “death” in the belly of the great fish had been a form of judgment for his own disobedience. But Jesus would prove to be a faithful and obedient servant, willingly giving His life so that others might experience eternal life.

And Jesus used another familiar Scriptural account to drive home His point, claiming to be greater than the wisest man who ever lived: King Solomon. The queen of Sheba had traveled all the way to Jerusalem to see the great wisdom of Solomon. But Jesus claimed to possess a wisdom that far surpassed anything Solomon ever hoped to know.

The apostle Paul would later describe the superior nature of God’s wisdom as displayed in the life of His Son, Jesus.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. – 1 Corinthians 30 NLT

Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 NLT

And Jesus predicted that the queen of Sheba would join the people of Ninevah in witness against the Jews when the coming day of judgment arrived. Jesus was going to die, be buried, and rise again from the grave, and all those who placed their faith in His sacrificial death on their behalf would receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. But when that sign appeared, the majority of the Jews, including the scribes and Pharisees, would refuse to believe the truth. They would refute Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and refuse His offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. And they would stand condemned.

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

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

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

 

Valley of Vision.

1 The oracle concerning the valley of vision.

What do you mean that you have gone up,
    all of you, to the housetops,
you who are full of shoutings,
    tumultuous city, exultant town?
Your slain are not slain with the sword
    or dead in battle.
All your leaders have fled together;
    without the bow they were captured.
All of you who were found were captured,
    though they had fled far away.
Therefore I said:
“Look away from me;
    let me weep bitter tears;
do not labor to comfort me
    concerning the destruction of the daughter of my people.”

For the Lord God of hosts has a day
    of tumult and trampling and confusion
    in the valley of vision,
a battering down of walls
    and a shouting to the mountains.
And Elam bore the quiver
    with chariots and horsemen,
    and Kir uncovered the shield.
Your choicest valleys were full of chariots,
    and the horsemen took their stand at the gates.
He has taken away the covering of Judah.

In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, 10 and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. 11 You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago.

12 In that day the Lord God of hosts
    called for weeping and mourning,
    for baldness and wearing sackcloth;
13 and behold, joy and gladness,
    killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,
    eating flesh and drinking wine.
“Let us eat and drink,
    for tomorrow we die.”
14 The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears:
“Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die,”
    says the Lord God of hosts. – Isaiah 22:1-14 ESV

3d-map-israelGod has spent a great deal of time addressing the nations surrounding Judah. Now, He turns His attention to His chosen people and, particularly, their capital city of Jerusalem. In this chapter, God delivers yet another oracle, this one aimed at the City of David, the place where Solomon’s Temple was located. This impressive structure poised prominently on the Temple Mount, was to have been the heart and soul of the nation. It was there that God had promised to meet with His people, providing them with the sacrificial system as a means of receiving atonement for their sins. But when construction of the temple had been completed, and Solomon had dedicated it to the Lord, he had received a very pointed message from God.

“I have heard your prayer and your petition. I have set this Temple apart to be holy—this place you have built where my name will be honored forever. I will always watch over it, for it is dear to my heart.

“As for you, if you will follow me with integrity and godliness, as David your father did, obeying all my commands, decrees, and regulations, then I will establish the throne of your dynasty over Israel forever. For I made this promise to your father, David: ‘One of your descendants will always sit on the throne of Israel.’

“But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. And though this Temple is impressive now, all who pass by will be appalled and will gasp in horror. They will ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?’

“And the answer will be, ‘Because his people abandoned the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead and bowed down to them. That is why the Lord has brought all these disasters on them.’” – 1 Kings 9:3-9 NLT

But Solomon had failed to keep his part of the covenant. He had not walked with integrity and godliness. Instead, he had surrounded himself with countless foreign wives, in direct violation of God’s commands, and had ended up worshiping their false gods. As a result, God had divided his kingdom in half, allowing the ten northern tribes to form the nation of Israel. The tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi, remained in the south as the nation of Judah.

And this oracle begins to address the coming destruction that God had promised would happen if His people abandoned Him and disobeyed His commands and decrees.

God opens the oracle by referring to Jerusalem as the “Valley of Vision.” This designation, while somewhat cryptic to our western ears, would have been very clear to Isaiah’s original audience. Jerusalem sat on what is known as Mount Zion. Zion was originally an ancient Jebusite fortress that David conquered and took possession of, eventually creating the city of Jerusalem. He constructed a royal palace there, and Zion/Jerusalem became the seat of power in Israel’s kingdom. In Psalm 2:6, God refers to Zion as His “holy hill.” Psalm 48 gives a further description of Zion’s status as God’s city.

How great is the Lord,
    how deserving of praise,
in the city of our God,
    which sits on his holy mountain!
It is high and magnificent;
    the whole earth rejoices to see it!
Mount Zion, the holy mountain,
    is the city of the great King!
God himself is in Jerusalem’s towers,
    revealing himself as its defender. – Psalm 48:1-3 NLT

And yet, in this oracle, God refers to Jerusalem, which sat on and was synonymous with Zion, as the “Valley of Vision.” The Hebrew word for “valley” is gay’ and conjures up images of a low, flat region, just the opposite of how the psalmist describe it. No longer a “holy mountain,” Jerusalem is fated to become a valley – an image of its coming humiliation and degradation. It will be the place where God’s vision or prophetic pronouncements will be fulfilled.

And the oracle describes the people of Jerusalem as running for their lives, in an attempt to escape the swords of their enemies. But while some will manage to escape, only to become fugitives living in foreign lands, many will find themselves captured. And there will be many who die, but not as a result of battle. They will die of starvation because of a long, drawn-out siege.

Isaiah describes his reaction to this future judgment on the city of Jerusalem.

“Leave me alone to weep;
    do not try to comfort me.
Let me cry for my people
    as I watch them being destroyed.” – Isaiah 22:4 NLT

As a prophet of God, he knows that this outcome, while inevitable and inescapable, is still avoidable – if only the people will repent and return to God. But the very fact that God is speaking this oracle against Jerusalem reveals that the people will not listen to Isaiah’s warnings. They will not give up their wicked and rebellious ways. And the oracle makes it clear that this future day of judgment will come at the hands of God Himself.

Oh, what a day of crushing defeat!
    What a day of confusion and terror
brought by the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
    upon the Valley of Vision!
The walls of Jerusalem have been broken,
    and cries of death echo from the mountainsides. – Isaiah 22:5 NLT

God describes a scene of chaos. The enemy’s chariots fill the valleys surrounding Jerusalem. They storm the gates and attempt to destroy the city’s fortifications. The people inside the walls busy themselves tearing down their own homes to repair the breaches made in the walls. They gather their weapons and attempt to ration their water supply, in hopes of surviving the siege. But Isaiah levels a serious charge against the people of Judah.

But you never ask for help from the One who did all this.
    You never considered the One who planned this long ago. – Isaiah 22:11 NLT

In the midst of all the suffering and threats of pending destruction, the people will party rather than repent. They will operate under the fatalistic assumption that all is lost and, rather than turn to God, they will turn to self-gratification.

you dance and play;
    you slaughter cattle and kill sheep.
    You feast on meat and drink wine.

You say, “Let’s feast and drink,
    for tomorrow we die!” – Isaiah 22:13 NLT

Not exactly the reaction God was looking for.

At that time the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
    called you to weep and mourn.
He told you to shave your heads in sorrow for your sins
   and to wear clothes of burlap to show your remorse. – Isaiah 22:12 NLT

God’s judgment was intended to bring repentance. It was meant as a wake-up call for His people, to jar them from their spiritual lethargy and moral stupor. But they would fail to listen. They would prefer to revel and die than repent and live. So, Isaiah delivers a powerful statement concerning the danger of unbelief.

“Till the day you die, you will never be forgiven for this sin.” That is the judgment of the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Isaiah 22:14 NLT

Persistent refusal to believe and trust in God is deadly. It is the unforgivable sin. The people of Judah were faced with a decision, trust in themselves or trust in God. Turn to pagan nations for help or turn to God for salvation. But if they refused to repent and place their hope and trust in God Almighty, they would never experience His salvation.

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

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

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

The Battle Lines Are Drawn.

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise’?”

17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. –  Matthew 21:14-17 ESV

tissot-he-heals-the-lame-in-the-temple-740x545After having cleansed His Father’s house, Jesus proceeded to return it to its rightful status as a place of healing and hope. When Solomon had prayed the prayer of dedication over the original temple, he had asked of God, “listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).

Solomon deeply desired that the magnificent building he had constructed would be a place where God’s presence dwelt and where those who approached God in humility could find forgiveness and restoration. Which is why he had prayed, “whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind)” (1 Kings 8:37-39 ESV).

After His cleansing of the temple, Jesus remained on the grounds, and as He walked through its courtyards, the crowds came to Him. Even the blind and the lame somehow made their way to Him, and Matthew simply states, “He healed them.” And these would be the last healings Jesus would perform in His earthly ministry. Here in His Father’s house, he was extending mercy and grace to those who come to Him with their physical afflictions.

Jesus restored the temple’s status as a house of prayer. Those with physical needs brought their requests to Him, the Son of God, and He not only heard them, but He also healed them. Remember the prayer of Solomon:

whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made…forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways…”

And Solomon had added, “for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind.” Jesus knew their hearts. He was well aware of their true spiritual state. He saw past their physical infirmities and longed to restore their more serious spiritual condition. This is why, within days, He would offer Himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

But the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees speaks volumes. Matthew states that when these men saw “saw the wonderful things that he did,” they became indignant. The Greek word translated as “wonderful” refers to something miraculous or marvelous and worthy of admiration. But instead, these men were filled with indignation or displeasure. They were appalled, not awed. Rather than rendering worship to God for what they had witnessed, they reacted with anger. They were offended by the shouts of the children who were declaring, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And they were appalled that Jesus allowed these ignorant and ill-informed young people to shout their false and dangerous propaganda. 

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus was either deaf, or He found some kind of perverse delight in hearing these children declare Him to be the Messiah. Either way, He was wrong, and they wanted it stopped. But Jesus calmly responded to them, quoting from one of the psalms, of which they would have been familiar.

You have taught children and infants
    to tell of your strength,
silencing your enemies
    and all who oppose you. – Psalm 8:2 NLT

Earlier, when Jesus had first entered Jerusalem, the crowds had shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38 ESV). And the Pharisees had demanded the Jesus rebuke them. But Jesus had told them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV). The reality of Jesus’ identity was going to be revealed one way or the other. And now, the children were crying out and declaring that Jesus was the Messiah. These innocent, humble children saw what the well-educated, religious leaders of Israel could not see: The Messiah standing in their midst. Unhampered by religious dogma and man-made doctrines that clouded the mind and obscured the truth of God’s Word, these children were able to respond to the miracles of Jesus with unadulterated awe and wonder.

Their reaction is reminiscent of that of the blind man whom Jesus healed. The restoration of his sight had caused quite a stir because he had been born blind.  And the Pharisees, unable to discount the miracle, demanded that the man give glory to God for his healing and not to Jesus.

So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.” – John 9:24 NLT

But the man had simply responded, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” (John 9:25 NLT).

He wasn’t going to have a debate about Jesus’ spiritual qualifications. In his mind, none of that made sense or altered the reality of his miraculous healing. He had been blind, but now he could see. And that’s all he needed to know.

The Pharisees were not stupid. They could see that much of what was taking place around them was further proof of Jesus’ Messiahship. But they refused to admit it or accept it. The shouts of the children were a verbal confirmation, echoing the sentiments of the crowds surrounding Jesus. But the scribes and Pharisees remained stubbornly opposed to Jesus, and blind to the evidence taking place all around them. And yet, they could sense the tide was turning. They were losing control. The influence of Jesus was increasing with each passing day. And as it did, their anger grew, and their desperation to do something about this threat to their power and influence escalated dramatically.

Don’t miss the spiritual battle taking place behind this somewhat idyllic scene. When reading these stories, it’s easy to conjure up the image of Jesus healing the lame and the blind. We can even hear the praises of the children. In our minds, it all appears like some kind of maudlin scene from a Hallmark movie.

But in the background lies the wreckage and confusion left when Jesus assaulted the moneychangers and vendors He had found in the court of the Gentiles. Among the overturned tables and amidst the bleating sheep and bellowing oxen, there were vendors trying to restore order to their once-lucrative booths. And there, lurking in the dark corners, were the religious leaders of Israel, shaking their heads in indignation and disgust. Jesus had once again disrupted the status quo. He had invaded their turf and rocked their religious world. And behind these men stood the prince of this world, Satan himself. He saw Jesus as a threat to his rule and reign and was willing to do anything to eliminate Him.

And Jesus, in a final display of His divine powers, graciously healed the blind and the lame. But Satan, in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the plans of God, would use his influence over the spiritually blind and those sickened by sin, to turn them against the Messiah. The forces of wickedness were gathering against the Son of God. The battle for the souls of mankind was entering its final stages. And here, in the temple courtyard, we see the primary participants in this epic struggle gathering for what will be a spiritual showdown in the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus was about to deal a knockout blow to the powers of sin and death. With His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus would make possible the restoration of sight to the spiritually blind. He would bring spiritual healing to those disabled by the devastating and deadly curse of sin. He would provide freedom to all those held captive by the prince of this world and struggling under his oppressive rule and reign.

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

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

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

The End of the Matter.

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ESV

As Solomon wraps up his book, he seems to do so by providing his credentials as proof of the veracity of his words. Referring to himself in the third person, he restates the well-known fact of his wisdom, given to him by God. But he claims to have put a great deal of effort and energy into enhancing that wisdom with further insight and knowledge through the use of diligent study and research. Solomon had collected the wise sayings of the sages, putting many of them in the book of Proverbs. But he had not been content to simply collect and edit these sayings, producing them in written form for others to read. No, he says that his effort included “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (Ecclesiastes 12:9 ESV). Solomon had tested these truths, taking the time and energy to determine their reliability and truthfulness. Like a metallurgist testing the quality of gold, to assess its true value, Solomon had proven the accuracy and soundness of each proverb before passing them on to the people. His goal had been to find teachings that would prove beneficial to life.

Solomon compares proverbs or wise sayings to a goad, a sharp stick used to prod animals along. Like a goad, proverbs are simple in nature, but highly memorable and powerful in terms of their impact. Like a sharp stick to the rump of a wayward cow, a proverb can cause a person who is straying from the truth to quickly course correct and realign their steps. He also compares proverbs to firmly fixed nails that keep things the way they were meant to be. They hold things in place, providing a sense of security and stability to life. Someone who lacks these time-proven truths or maxims, is left to learn the lessons of life the hard way: Through painful trial and error. And one of the reasons Solomon seems to have written this particular book was to pass on to those under his care the life lessons he had learned. As we’ve stated before, Solomon wrote this book near the end of his life, and he had a great deal of wisdom, gleaned from personal experience, that he sought to impart. In one of his proverbs, Solomon expressed this same desire to teach others what he had learned from life.

1 My children, listen when your father corrects you.
    Pay attention and learn good judgment,
for I am giving you good guidance.
    Don’t turn away from my instructions.
For I, too, was once my father’s son,
    tenderly loved as my mother’s only child. – Proverbs 4:1-3 NLT

10 My child, listen to me and do as I say,
    and you will have a long, good life.
11 I will teach you wisdom’s ways
    and lead you in straight paths. – Proverbs 4:10-11 NLT

And Solomon firmly believed that the proverbs he had collected had been given to him by God, making them divine instructions, not simply the words of men. That’s why he refers to them as having come from one shepherd. While their human authors were many in number, the truths these proverbs contained came from God alone. He is the author of all truth. And that’s why Solomon warned, “My son, beware of anything beyond these” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV). There are countless books available and you could spend your lifetime searching and studying the written wisdom of men, but you would be wasting your time. And no one knew that better than Solomon himself, because he had done it. He knew it was all vanity, a chasing after the wind. The apostle Paul would fully agree with Solomon. In fact, he described the wisdom of men in less-than-flattering terms: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NLT).  Earlier in that same letter, Paul asked and answered his own question regarding man’s so-called wisdom. “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20 NLT).

As Solomon prepares to wrap up his book and his life, he can’t help but come back to the one truth that held all his thoughts together. It is the one point of clarity in a long life filled with perplexities and incongruities. He refers to it as “the end of the matter.” It’s the summary or synopsis of life.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV

Now, the thing missing in Solomon’s summary is an understanding and awareness of God’s future plans for his life. Like many in his day, Solomon had no clear concept of or theology concerning the afterlife. It was all a mystery to him. As far as he could tell, what existed beyond the grave was nothing more than a black hole.

Life after death was as enigmatic to him as the unequal distribution of justice. His emphasis was on this life (‘under the sun’) and its opportunities for service and enjoyment; he thought life after death offered no such opportunities. – Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

So, while Solomon’s admonition to fear God and keep His commandments sounds like solid, biblical counsel to us, we have to keep in mind that he is placing all his emphasis on the here-and-now. He knows that God is sovereign over all. He realizes that God controls all things and is the distributor of all good gifts. He can give and He can take away. So, from Solomon’s limited, earth-bound perspective, it made sense to keep God happy by fearing and obeying Him. That way, you could hope to enjoy in this life some of the blessings that only He can bestow. And when Solomon speaks of God’s judgment, he seems to have in mind a judgment that takes place in this life. His rewards or punishments are based on thoughts and behaviors committed in this life. He is fixated is on present, not future rewards. He is expecting all of God’s blessings to show up in this life, not the one to come. Because as far as Solomon could tell, there was no guarantee of a life after death.

But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have been given additional insight into God’s redemptive plan. We have the entirety of God’s Word to guide and instruct us. We know that there is a life after death. Jesus promised it. Paul wrote about it. The New Testament goes out of its way to describe it. Yes, there is a judgment, but it’s rewards are not temporal in nature. They are eternal. In his first letter, the apostle John told those who read its contents: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 NLT). Jesus Himself promised: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT).

There is much we can learn from Solomon. But we have to take all that he wrote and combine it with what we have come to know since the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been provided with the end of the story, something Solomon did not have. So, when he said, this is “the end of the matter; all has been heard”, he was not quite right. There was more to come. As a matter of fact, the Savior of the world was to come, and He has. And it was His arrival on this earth in the form of a man, His sinless life, His sacrificial death and bodily resurrection that remove all the vanity, meaningless, futility and frustration from life. This world, while a wonderful gift from God to be enjoyed, is not all there is. There is far more to come.

Qoheleth’s intent in his writing is to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at mastering life by pointing out its limits and mysteries. He would prefer that man replace such false and illusory hopes with a confidence based on the joy of creation as God’s gift. – Robert K. Johnston, “Confessions of a Workaholic’: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth.”

But even more important than enjoying God’s gift of creation, is placing our faith and hope in God’s offer of new creation. New hope. New life. New joy and the promise of a never-ending, frustration-free, sinless future with God.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 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.

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

A Grave Discussion.

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV

Solomon ended chapter 11 with an appeal to young people:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

And he begins chapter 12 in a similar fashion, addressing the same group of individuals: The young. And it would appear that, because of Solomon’s advanced age, he views everyone as younger than he is. But he warns them, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 ESV). It is as if he wants them to recognize that spiritual wisdom and a God-focused perspective are not attributes that simply come with age. In other words, don’t make the mistake that old age will bring with it a new excitement about and interest in the things of God. That kind of focus begins when you’re young. That’s exactly why Paul told his young protegé Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT). He gave similar advice to Titus, telling him, “…encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:6-7 NLT).

So, in a similar way, Solomon shared his words of wisdom with the young, encouraging them to make the most of their youth because, like everything else in the world, this season of life would come and go. And Solomon uses some very poetic words to describe the not-so-subtle signs of aging. As an old man himself, he describes that phase of his life as “evil days” that have little to no pleasure associated with them. For Solomon, old aged was marked by increasing physical weakness due to the diminishing capacity of the human body as it slowly decays. He describes a scenario in which “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:2 ESV). His words portray life as seen through the eyes of someone who suffers from the effects of cataracts and failing vision. The sun, moon and stars appear darker than they really are. The contrasts and clarity of normal vision are replaced with the flat grayness of a cloudy day.

Solomon writes from the perspective of someone who knows what he is talking about. He describes what it is like when “the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 NLT). The “keepers” are a reference to his legs, the means by which his body stands erect and makes it way in the world. As old age creeps in, the legs tremble, making mobility an issue. And when the legs shake, the whole body follows suit. The “strong men” are his shoulders, bent over and devoid of the youthful strength and vigor they once held. We see these images lived out right in front of our eyes on a daily basis as we watch the elderly among us shuffling their way along, bent over and shakily attempting to manage life in their diminished capacity. 

And for someone who put a high priority on fine food, good wine and a lifestyle built around culinary delights, the next description most likely left Solomon more than a bit frustrated. He states that “the grinders cease because they are few” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). An obvious reference to his own teeth, which had begun to fall out, leaving him with just a handful left in his mouth, making some foods off limits and his diet more than a bit bland and unappealing. Notice what Solomon is doing here. He is describing the loss of those things that were necessary for him to enjoy all the things around which he had built his life. He’s already mentioned the eyes, but he adds, “those who look through the windows are dimmed” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). The eyes become glazed over, incapable of seeing the beauty of all the things with which he has surrounded himself. He can no longer see and enjoy the beauty of the palace he built. He can’t take in the natural beauty of the gardens he designed and planted. Even the 700 wives and 300 concubines he had chosen because of their physical beauty were indistinguishable from one another.

“The doors on the street are shut” seems to be a reference to his loss of hearing. He could no longer hear what was going on outside his own room. Life was taking place all around him, but he couldn’t hear it or enjoy it. Even “the sound of the grinding is low” (Ecclesiastes 12:4 ESV). In other words, you can’t even hear yourself chew your own food. How frustrating to a man who was used to hearing fine music echoing through the halls of his palace. And the real irony is that this same person, unable to sleep, finds himself waking up with the birds singing outside his window, but him being unable to hear them. The “daughters of song” is a reference to musical notes, no longer audible or distinguishable to the one whose hearing has faded with old age. The beauty available in this life becomes increasingly off-limits and unattainable to the elderly. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

On top of that, the aging process comes with increased fears of all kinds. The fear of falling. Fear of harm. Fear of being alone. And fear of death. Along with all the physical changes Solomon has already described comes the reality that the hair on his head had grown both thin and grey, like the white blossoms of an almond tree. And to make matters worse, there were days when Solomon felt like he was dragging himself along like a dying grasshopper on its last legs.

The next comparison Solomon uses is incredibly insightful and probably represents one of the most dreaded aspects of old age for him. In the original Hebrew, he refers to ‘abiyownah, which is a word for the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East. Solomon is bemoaning the fact that the aging process had robbed him of all sexual desire. And for a man used to availing himself of the hundreds of wives and concubines in his harem, this loss had to have hit him hard. There is little doubt that Solomon tried any and all of the known cure-alls available in his day. He was known for experimentation and innovation, so it is likely that he would have checked out every available aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement drug on the market, all in a vain attempt to prolong this aspect of his life.

Notice that Solomon’s focus in all of this is death and the grave, not eternal life. Dying is a slow, inexorable process that ultimately and inevitably results in death, with man “going to his eternal home” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ESV). The literal translation is “house of his eternity.” This is an idiom for the grave, not heaven. It was also a Hebrew euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery. Solomon has his dim eyes set on the grave because he has no idea what happens next. It was all a mystery to him. In verse six, he uses a series of visual illustrations to help convey the abrupt end of life. He refers to the silver cord that is snapped, the golden bowl this is suddenly broken, the pitcher that ends up shattered at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. All of these images conjure up the sudden cessation of life. It just stops. And like a snapped cord, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher and a broken wheel, death is an irreconcilable condition.

And Solomon soberly summarizes his view, stating, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV). The body returns to the earth, where it will decay and turn to dust. The soul returns to God. But notice that Solomon doesn’t state this last fact as if it is good news. There is a finality to his words and a sense of loss. Because for Solomon, the body was the means by which he had enjoyed what life had to offer. With the body gone, he had no way of knowing what would be left for the soul to experience in the afterlife. Which is why he sums up this section the same way he has throughout the rest of his book. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV). So, what Solomon could assess, from his vantage point as an old man, was that young people should enjoy life while they had it. But they should also recognize that it is God who has given them life and the capacity to enjoy all that it has to offer. The sad reality, for Solomon, was that life passed so quickly. It was as if he was looking back, wondering where all the time had gone. He could remember being young. He could recall the pleasures he had enjoyed. But he was also well aware of all the moments he had missed. He had been so busy building, buying, accumulating, experimenting, working, learning, and trying to discover the meaning and purpose behind life, that he had failed to truly enjoy the life given to him by God. And now, his life was about to end. You can sense the regret in his words. You can feel the remorse in his self-revealing description of old age. He would have done things differently. He would have approached life more gratefully and taken his walk with God more seriously. We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of Solomon.

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

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

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

When the Afterlife Becomes an Afterthought.

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 the words of Solomon found 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:

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 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. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 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, he compared life on this 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 this 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 somehow blessed by God, and those who were poor or sick, as having been punished by God for some hidden sin they had committed. The great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, Abraham, had been blessed by God with flocks and herds. His reward was in this life. Solomon himself had been blessed by God with great wealth. It is not so much that the Hebrews did not believe in the afterlife, it is that they had no consistent idea of what it looked like. That was God’s domain. He alone knew what life after death held. And since men cannot see into the future, they were left to experience and enjoy all that this life has to offer – for as long as they could. The Torah, one of the most revered of all Jewish sacred texts, has little or nothing to say regarding the afterlife. The emphasis is placed on this life. And that is how Solomon has treated this entire book.

Even in the closing verses of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, 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 vanity or a meaningless existence. Solomon understood that life carried with it the undeniable reality of a future judgment. 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 what Solomon didn’t understand was the hope that the author of Hebrews had because of his faith in Christ. He immediately followed the previous statement 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). Solomon’s advice was:

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. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

In other words, live your life. Have a good time. Enjoy all the pleasures and joys that life has to offer, but always remember that 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. 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, other than what he could see, touch, and taste. For Solomon, the unknown was nothing more than unknown. The afterlife was a mystery whose secrets were hidden from mere men. So, Solomon placed his emphasis on this life. He embraced each new day with a sense of hope, which is why he stated, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7 ESV). Waking up was a positive to Solomon, because it meant you hadn’t died in your 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 is an old man, sharing his views on life and all that he has learned during his many days under the sun. And his final words in this book are directed at the young. “ Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 ESV). In other words, stop worrying so much. Take care of yourself. Enjoy your youth while you can, because it is going to be gone before you know it. Like everything else in life, it is a vapor, here one day, gone the next. Before you know it, your youth will have been replaced by old age.

So, what do we do with all of this? How are we to respond to the words of Solomon. It seems that, far too often, we attempt to take the book of Ecclesiastes and treat it like his other book, Proverbs. We read Ecclesiastes, picking and choosing those verses or statements that have some kind of positive application to them. 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, not at the beginning? The book of Ecclesiastes provides us with a unvarnished glimpse into the life of a man who had it all, including a relationship with God. He had been raised by a man 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. He made false gods of equal value to the one true God. And if we are 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 in life 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 writers. 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 in his book.

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

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. 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 there is something far greater to come. This world is not all there is. 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. And there is no better way to summarize the final words of Solomon than by listening to the words of Jesus Himself.

16 “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. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

18 “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. 19 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. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 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

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

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

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

Faith in, Not Fear of the Unknown.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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