Judgment and Mercy: Isaiah 1

 

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Today’s reading: Isaiah 1-4. 

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” Abraham Lincoln

Christians, at least the vocal ones, are too quick to hand down judgment and too slow to offer mercy. Not so with God. Though he is sure to judge, his judgments for his people come only after warnings, and are always followed by mercy. That’s a major theme of the whole book of Isaiah and the prophet places it front and center in the first chapter.

When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:15-18

As Isaiah writes the Assyrians are crushing the northern kingdom of Israel. In one hundred years Jerusalem will fall to the Babylonians. He writes for the Holy One of Israel, his particular name for the LORD,  telling forth God’s word and will for the disobedient people of Judah and Jerusalem. He speaks to their present situation, exhorting them to follow God’s path now, but includes descriptions of a hopeful future when God will redeem them from their rebellion. He drops the hammer of God’s judgment, but then almost immediately applies the balm of God’s mercy.

“I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.” Isaiah 1:25-26

Between the judgment and the mercy lies the Day of the LORD. It is a day that looms large in the imagination of all the prophets, like an “All Traffic Must Exit Here” sign at the end of time. Isaiah sees it this way:

  • Proud men are brought low; God is exalted
  • Men try to hide from God’s judgment in the rocks and caves
  • God shakes the earth
  • Men abandon their idols

But after the Day of the LORD, mercy comes. Isaiah calls him the Branch, for he is the offshoot of David’s line. He will wash away the filth and blood and bring back the spirit of the LORD.  He will be “a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.”

And what of you, Christian? Will you pronounce judgment and withhold mercy? Our judgment is often condemnation instead of discernment, and our tone lacks hope for restoration. We need to follow the LORD’s example and offer as much care as criticism. Jesus said “judge not that you be not judged” and “neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more.”

Image by Dennis Wong on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Love as strong as death: Song of Solomon

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Today’s reading: Song of Solomon 1-8.

Our relationship with God came first. When life on earth is done, our relationship with God will remain. We were created to have fellowship with the LORD and our marriages reflect that relationship. We don’t say, “my love for God is similar to my marriage.” Instead, we know that our marriages derive from and mirror our relationship with God. Like Paul we proclaim, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church.” That is why issues such as adultery, extra-marital sex, and homosexuality are so critical. They are a direct reflection on our relationship with God because God created marriage to mirror our relationship with him.

With that background, consider the Song of Solomon. Is it about human love and marriage only, or is it about the love between God and his children, or between Christ and the church? There is a long tradition of spiritualizing the book and making it almost exclusively about the divine relationship. The Jewish tradition teaches that the book is about the love between God and his people, Israel. The Christian tradition has largely been to read the book as an allegory of love between God and the church. The problem with allegory, however, is that it can make the book say almost anything. We take most of the Bible at face value, and I think we should do the same with the Song of Songs.

So start with an understanding of the book as a poem about the nature of romantic love including all the give-and-take and passion between the lover and beloved. This is not an encyclopedia article about love. It’s a song celebrating the power of love. It’s not so much a story about lovers as a series of snapshots showing love in action. What do those snapshots show?

Lovers see the beauty in each other. ” (He) How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves. (She) How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming!”

Love has its own timing.  “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”

Lovers are exclusive.  “My lover is mine and I am his.”

Lovers give themselves to each other. “Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread abroad. Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.”

Love’s passion is unmatched.  “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.”

Starting with an understanding of the Song as an idealized poem about romantic love, we can then remember that love and marriage are based on the love between God and his people. Whatever we see in human love is a dim reflection of divine love. The adoration, the exclusivity, the abandonment, the consuming passion – these are all features of the love between God and persons or between Christ and his church. Our human love only lives up to the ideal of the Song in moments; even so our love for God is imperfect and unsustained. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” One day our love for God will be perfect. Until then, let us use the knowledge of God’s perfect love for us to enrich our love for our mates; let it be full of expressions of adoration, unhurried, with eyes only on each other, fully abandoned to one another, and sealed across our hearts until death separates us.

Image by Agence Tophos on Flickr, CC by-sa 2.0

How to make the most of life: Ecclesiastes 9

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Today’s reading: Ecclesiastes 9-12.

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.

It’s possible to be so focused on eternity that one fails to enjoy the present. “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good” goes the old complaint. Surely this is just as big a mistake as ignoring death and living as though there is no God and no judgment. No, God tells us through Solomon’s words that death should inform our living, making each day even more precious and worth savoring.

For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun ; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:5-9

The value of life. Solomon doesn’t tell us much about what death is, but instead makes it clear that in death we lose our opportunity to participate in the experience of mortal life. In this way he exalts the value of life on earth – its distinct thoughts and actions, passions and work, pleasures and love.

The pleasures of life. Good food and good company are meant to be a foretaste of the joys of  heaven. We shouldn’t be humorless and always serious. Let the temporary nature of these pleasures make them even more enjoyable. If you want to see a cinematic portrayal of this theme, watch Babette’s Feast.

God’s approval of life. We can enjoy earthly pleasures which God has made available to us. By his grace he has given them to us for our benefit. He’s set down limits to protect us, but within those limits we can participate with gusto. And we can glorify the LORD by thanking him as we happily enjoy his gifts.

Celebrate life. We celebrate what is valuable and worth preserving. God encourages us to make life a celebration; it’s that precious. Put on your party clothes. Break out the perfume and cologne.

Share life. A good meal, a good view, a good life are best enjoyed with someone you love. It’s great practice for the communion we will share with God in heaven.

Image by reway2007 on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Happy at work: Ecclesiastes 5

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Today’s reading: Ecclesiastes 5-8.

“I think the foremost quality – there’s no success without it – is really loving what you do. If you love it, you do it well, and there’s no success if you don’t do well what you’re working at.” Malcolm Forbes

I read quotes about finding joy in work, and must admit that I still wonder if that is always possible or even the ultimate goal. Work is work after all. It takes effort. It continues even when we are tired. It has its hurdles as well as its rewards. If, as we read in Ecclesiastes 1-3, it’s only pursued in a worldly way, “under the sun,” without regard to God, it is bound to end in disappointment. But that isn’t the last word on work. Not according to Solomon.

Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work–this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

Happiness in work – a gift of God. That’s what I want, and I’m glad to see that we’ve been given instructions on how to find it. Let’s dig a little deeper into this promise.

Don’t leave God out of the workplace. It’s easy to be so busy with getting the job done that you forget you are doing it to glorify God. You can focus so much on the client, customer, boss, or paycheck that you forget you are really working for God. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Colossians 3:23

Enjoy the simple pleasures. Work gives us the means to buy and enjoy the basics of life: food, shelter, clothing, leisure time. These simple pleasures are the best, especially when taken with the ones we love. “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” I Timothy 6:8

Expect work to be hard. Solomon calls it toilsome labor. God told Adam he would gain his food by the sweat of his brow. Work takes effort, but realizing that, we can still rejoice knowing our sweat produces earthly and eternal rewards. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

Accept your lot. Some meaning has been lost in the translation of this word, “lot.” We hear it and think – what I’m stuck with, what I’m left with. It’s more akin to portion, share or reward. This is the portion of land you have been given. This is your share of the prize or reward. I don’t think we should look at where we are and say our lot can never change (Jabez nobly prayed for God to expand his influence and territory), but it’s good to remember God providentially provided us with the portion we have today.

Let an attitude of gratitude fill your heart and mind. To be so busy with happy thoughts that you don’t have time to worry about the difficulties of life. Now that’s the kind of work I could get into. Solomon says this kind of busyness is a gift from God. God gives grace to the humble, so if we humble ourselves, and keep giving him thanks for the portion he has given us, we can expect him to bless us with his gifts, including satisfaction in our work. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in – that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible. Mother Theresa

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Finding meaning “under the sun” – Ecclesiastes 1-3

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Today’s reading: Ecclesiastes 1-4.

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive. Joseph Campbell

The meaning of life. Some people feel like there is no meaning, and that can lead to great despair. Solomon’s search for meaning led him to explore every facet of life, but in the end he decided he could find no point to life “under the sun.” He said everything was empty, vain, futile, and meaningless.

  • Meaningless repetition.What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”
  • Meaningless wisdom.  “Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
  • Meaningless pleasure.I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
  • Meaningless end.Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.” For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!”
  • Meaningless work.For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?”

If the story ended there, then despair would be the natural reaction. Fortunately, there is an alternative to life “under the sun.”

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

If we only live “under the sun,” horizontally, for this world and nothing more, then satisfaction will fly away. But if we live with the Son, in a vertical relationship with God that extends beyond time and space, we will find purpose and satisfaction in our work. Solomon goes on to say that there is a time and a season for everything “under heaven.” In relationship with God, the events of life don’t just repeat themselves vainly. They have an appointed time that fulfills God’s purpose. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” The actions and decisions we take have another significance, for there is a time and season for every activity when God will judge them. The world won’t spin endlessly. The end will come, and with it the day when our actions will receive their due reward or condemnation.

Image by Daniel Parks on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

The Super-woman syndrome: Proverbs 31

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Today’s reading: Proverbs 30-31.

First the bad news. Yes, women, there is a checklist in Proverbs 31 with which you can compare yourself. Now the good news. You can draw areas from the list where you want to excel, rather than feeling like you have to accomplish everything on the list.

I think there’s more good news for women in this chapter about the “Noble Wife.” Look at these two items at the end of the chapter:

  1. A woman doesn’t need to compete or excel in terms of physical beauty. Outward appearance is of little value in comparison to the eternal significance of a heart that is right with God.
  2. A woman can compete for rewards and excel in recognition among her peers, both male and female. Proverbs emphasizes, however, that this recognition will be most meaningful when it comes from accomplishing the tasks outlined in Proverbs 31.

So on to the checklist. Again, these are examples of all the areas where women in the time of Proverbs could excel. Farming was more important for each family then, but the importance of helping provide for the family remains. I don’t believe each woman should feel that she has to accomplish every one of these tasks. Perhaps some of them will be more important in one stage of life than another.

  • Gathering food for the family; serving food to the family
  • Buying and selling land
  • Farming (what might substitute for this in our more urban culture?)
  • Making products and selling them; trading in goods for profit
  • Caring for the poor
  • Overseeing the household, providing for their security and comfort, bringing good to the family members
  • Instructing others with wise words

That’s a list of actions, but perhaps the more important list is a description of the woman’s character.

  • She’s trustworthy
  • Eager
  • Strong and vigorous
  • Generous
  • Confident, unafraid
  • Dignified
  • Wise
  • Optimistic

In contrast to worldly stereotypes that  restrict the attributes of women and limit their opportunities, I think these are very liberating lists. God values women much more than the world usually does.

Image by Mike Rastiello on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Economics 101: Proverbs 27

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Today’s reading: Proverbs 27-29.

God’s word doesn’t condemn making money –  just lusting after it. It doesn’t prohibit owning property, but it does recommend holding possessions with a loose grip. Capitalism isn’t forbidden. In fact, Proverbs gives a pretty good description of some of the fundamentals of capitalism.

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations. When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field. You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed you and your family and to nourish your servant girls. Proverbs 27:23-27

Private ownership. “your flocks…your herds.” The flocks and herds belong to an individual, but the principle can be extended to companies owned by groups of individuals.

Motivation by self-preservation. “give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever.” Ownership conveys responsibility, including the responsibility to take care of your belongings so that they remain available to support and feed you or your family. The motivation to take care of your business, and see it prosper, is one of the most powerful factors in the success of capitalism.

Free exchange of goods for profit. “the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field.” The owner of the flock uses the increase of his herd to obtain clothing or land through the exchange of goods in which each party is free to set their price.

Creation of wealth. “You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed you and your family and to nourish your servant girls.” Capital markets are not zero-sum games where one party gains at another’s expense. They create wealth for the owners through profits and for the employees through wages.

Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs, those who organize and manage a business with personal initiative and risk, are the motors of wealth creation. Even the herdsman managing his flocks of sheep and goats is an entrepreneur. It is his capital that bought the initial stock of animals. His initiative keeps them safe and healthy. He sacrifices time and energy to grow the flock. When he makes a profit (not guaranteed), by the wisdom of Proverbs he shares it with his family and uses it to care for his employees.

It’s enlightening to see how God’s word described these economic principles in action long before any professional or academic put them down on paper.

Image by Quazie on Flickr, CC by 2.0