Sunday, December 19, 2010

Proverbs 10:29 and the Way of Yahweh

In the New American Standard Bible (1995), Proverbs 10:29 reads:

The way of the LORD is a stronghold to the upright, But ruin to the workers of iniquity.
This verse struck me as odd. Why would Yahweh's way be ruin to anybody? So I decided to investigate.

The phrase "way of Yahweh" occurs seven times in the OT, five of which are conceptually parallel Proverbs 10:29 (Gen. 18:19; Jdg. 2:22; 2 Kgs 21:22, Jer. 5:4, 5). God “knows” Abraham so that he will command his children to “keep the way of Yahweh” by doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19). This set of collocations—the way of Yahweh is kept by doing righteousness—shows up in Judges 2:22, where the Lord tells Israel he will leave Canaanites in the land in order to test them to see whether they will keep the way of Yahweh as their father’s did. The clear implication is that keeping the way of Yahweh involves doing what is right and good in His eyes.

Amon, son of Manasseh, unmoved by his Father’s late-in-life repentance, “forsook Yahweh, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of Yahweh” (2 Kings 21:22). Here failure to walk in the way of Yahweh is the consequence of forsaking Yahweh. One cannot cleave to Yahweh and not walk in His way. The previous two verses fill out the “way” Amon walked: he did evil in Yahweh’s sight, walked in all the way Manasseh had walked, and served the idols his father had served.

In Jeremiah 5:4, 5, the prophet seeks for those who “know the way of Yahweh, the mishpat of God.” The way of Yahweh appears to be appositionally modified by the phrase mishpat of God. Keil & Delitzsch comment on Jeremiah 5:4-5, “They know not the way of Jahveh, i.e., the way, the manner of life, prescribed to men by God in His word; (cf. 2 Kgs 21:22; Psa 25:9). The judgment of their God, i.e., that which God demanded as right and lawful (2 Kgs 17:26)."

This background illumines Proverbs 10:29 and helped me know how to interpret its cryptic lines. A paraphrase of the passage would read, “The upright—those who do what is right and good in Yahweh’s sight—find that Yahweh provides them protection because they know, keep, and walk in His way; the wicked—those who do what is wrong and evil in Yahweh’s sight—find that their way leads them to destruction; they have no protection from Yahweh."

I think the NASB mistranslates the second half of this verse by not supplying a linking verb. It should read, “but destruction [is / shall be] to the workers of iniquity.” As it stands, the NASB’s rendering implies that the way of Yahweh is destruction to the workers of iniquity. This rendering depends on understanding Yahweh as a subjective genitive, and ignores the phrase’s predominant usage throughout the OT--as a shorthand for the lifestyle Yahweh desires and requires from His followers.

Those who choose not to walk in His ways (the wicked) will be destroyed. On the other hand, those who live the way Yahweh prescribes find Yahweh is indeed their stronghold.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vows: foolish, sacred, forgivable?

Recently, someone asked me:
Are there foolish vows and sacred vows? Are there vows God will forgive, or does God hold one accountable for all vows until death?
My short answer is all vows are sacred; some are also foolish (Pro. 20:25; Eccl. 5:2 4). Breaking any vow is sin (Deut. 23:21; Eccl. 5:5-6; Num. 30:15). God will forgive vow-breakers (Num. 30:6, 9, 13); though He warns there may be dire consequences for failing to keep a vow (Eccl. 5:6).

My best understanding of Scripture is that God does not continue to hold a person responsible to fulfill a vow that has been broken, repented of, and forgiven. God did, however, require those who vowed to give Him a non-cash asset (a field, house, etc.) and then changed their minds to give instead the monetary equivalent plus 20% to the Lord (Lev. 27).

The key texts where God reveals His perspective on vows are Leviticus 27, Numbers 30, Deuteronomy 23:21-23, and Ecclesiastes 5:1-7. Interestingly, the two New Testament texts (Acts 18:18; 21:23-24) that mention vows give no indication that God’s perspective on vows has changed.

A vow is a voluntary promise to God to do or not do something (cf. Deut. 23:23). Vows are not limited to “If-you-do-this-for-me, I’ll-do-that-for-You” bargains with God (cf. Psa. 56:12-13). You don’t have to use the words “vow” or “promise” to make a vow. Anytime you voluntarily tell God you are going to do or not do something for Him, it is a vow.

In Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon warns us that vows should not be made lightly: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; Therefore let your words be few” (5:2). In verse 4, he cautions us not to be late in paying our vows, for God takes no delight in fools who fail to pay their vows. It is better, the wise man counsels, not to vow at all, than to vow and fail to pay (Eccl. 5:5). This echoes Deut. 23:22 where Moses informs Israel it is not sin to abstain from vowing: “if you abstain from vowing, it is not sin.”

On the other hand, if you vow and fail to pay, it is sin (Deut. 23:22; Eccl. 5:5). Not only is it sin, but Solomon warns, “Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger, “It was a mistake.” Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Eccl. 5:6). In other words, God punishes those who break their vows. Claiming that you made a mistake and shouldn’t have vowed or didn’t really mean what you vowed arouses God’s anger against you. Thus, Solomon concludes, “Fear God” (Eccl. 5:7).

The seriousness of vows is further underscored in Numbers 30 where God identifies which vows are automatically binding and which may be nullified. God distinguishes the vows made by adult males, widows, and divorced women from those made by female children and wives. In the case of adult males (Num. 30:2), widows, and divorced women (Num. 30:9), they must fulfill any vow they make. In the case of female children (Num. 30:3-5) and wives (Num. 30:6-8; 10-15), if their father or husband nullifies their vow on the day that he hears it, then they are absolved of their vow (Num. 30:5, 8, 12). However, if the father or husband does not nullify their vow, then their vow stands. They are responsible to fulfill it. If the father or husband does not say anything the first time he hears it but chooses to nullify it at a later time, then he will “bear the iniquity” of the broken vow (Num. 30:15).

Because Numbers 30:2 includes “swearing an oath” as an equivalent of taking a vow, the guilt offering prescribed for breaking an oath (Lev. 5:4) would likely apply to a broken vow. Since God provides a sacrifice for atoning for a broken vow, we can infer that forgiveness for breaking a vow is available through Christ, who is our guilt offering (Isa. 53:10).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Secular Work in Biblical Perspective

I was recently asked something like the following:

I work a secular job that I don’t enjoy. I’d much rather be involved in a ministry-related job. How can I be in the center of God’s will in this kind of a job? How can I be contented and fulfilled when I’m not happy in my job?

I think 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 provides a good starting point to answer these questions.

In this passage Paul addresses Christian slaves who had zero control over their lives, let alone their work. He encourages them to take advantage of any opportunity to become free (7:21). At the same time, he emphasizes (7:17, 24) that they do not have to change their life-situation in order to live in service to Christ (7:22).

We can infer two principles from this passage. First, it is biblically acceptable to take opportunities that God brings our way to change from a less favorable situation to a more favorable situation (i.e., from slave to free). Second, any kind of legitimate occupation, including being a slave, can be done as service to Christ. (Paul would not regard as a “legitimate occupation” forced prostitution or other sins the OT penalized as capital crimes.)

In Colossians 3:23-25, Paul addresses the situation of slaves in Colosse. In verse 23 he tells them, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” The phrase “as for the Lord” is the key. They were to view themselves as serving Jesus in their slavery rather than serving their human master. Whether it was taking out the chamber pot, plowing the field, or cleaning the stable, they were to do their work in the same way they would do it for Jesus: heartily. Heartily means willing diligence. It is the opposite of foot-dragging reluctance. Someone who does work heartily does their best with a positive attitude.

In verses 24-25 Paul gives three reasons they should serve their human masters heartily. First, “knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.” In other words, when you serve a human master as you would serve Christ, you will be rewarded by Christ. This conclusion is supported by the parallel passage in Eph. 6:8, “knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” Even taking out the chamber pot receives its reward!

Second, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” Since we are actually Christ’s slaves (Rom. 622), everything we do is service to Him. In other words, this is not just a matter of acting as if Jesus were our master or boss. He is our master!

Third, if you do wrong, you will “receive the consequences of the wrong which [you] have done, and that without partiality.” Jesus has no tolerance for slip-shod work. If we wrong our human master, Jesus will see to it that we receive the appropriate consequences.

What does all this mean for Christians who work in “secular” jobs? It means that there is no such thing as a non-ministry job for a Christian. You are serving God just as much as the person who works in a “ministry” job. God calls Christians to jobs in the secular work place precisely so that they can be salt and light as they work for Him in those capacities. Since God is fully sovereign over our lives, if we’re walking in the light, we can assume that the job opportunities He does or does not open for us are reflections of His will for us.

Regarding contentment, remember what Solomon taught us: meaning and satisfaction are not found in any of life’s components but only in life’s Creator (Eccl. 2:24; 5:18; 12:1, 13-14).When we know that we are going to be rewarded for our work and that we are doing what God wants us to do, how can we not be fulfilled? Whether or not we enjoy our work, we can choose to be thankful and joyful in doing it (Col. 3:17). Such an excellent spirit will glorify God (Dan. 6:3; 1 Cor. 10:31).

Here are a set of numbered commitments that I think reflect the Bible's perspective on "secular" work:

1. I will do it for Jesus (“as to the Lord”; Col. 3:23).
2. I will perform my work at the quality level I would produce if Jesus’ were my boss (Col. 3:23-25).
3. I will commit to do all I do “in the name of Jesus,” i.e., as a representative of Jesus, with thankfulness (Col. 3:17).
4. I will consciously seek his help to do the best that I can do (John 15:5).
5. I will remind myself regularly that God is going to reward me for how I perform my job (Col. 3:24-25).
6. I will ask God to help me be salt (Matt. 5:13), light (Matt. 5:14-16, a discipler (Matt. 28:18-20), and a reprover of evil (Eph. 5:11-12) through my life and my words as I work.
7. I will choose to believe that God has me here for eternal purposes: both my good and the good of others (Rom. 8:28-29), that God is sovereign over my boss(es), that God can open or close any door of opportunity He desires (Psa. 75:6-7).
8. I will choose to be content by
a. remembering that meaning and satisfaction are not found in any of life’s components but only in life’s Creator (Eccl. 2:24; 5:18).
b. choosing to be thankful each morning that I have this job and this opportunity to serve Christ (Col. 3:17)
c. Rejecting any temptation to compare myself with others (2 Cor. 10:12). This leads to envy and discontent.
9. I will ask God to open any doors of opportunities He wants me to walk through (2 Cor. 2:12).
10. I will ask God to help me have a cheerful, excellent spirit as I stay where He has placed me (Deut. 28:47; Dan. 6:3).
11. I will view my earnings as God-given to provide for my family (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:12; 1 Tim. 5:8) and to enable me to give to those who have need (Eph. 4:28).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why should we count it all joy? Second Reason

The first reason we should "count it all joy" is that trials build our faith's capacity to endure (James 1:3).

James gives the second reason in verse four: "... that you may be perfect, complete, lacking nothing." (ἵνα ἦτε τέλειοι καὶ ὁλόκληροι ἐν μηδενὶ λειπόμενοι.)

But before he gives the second reason, he gives a second command: "Let endurance have its perfect work." (ἡ δὲ ὑπομονὴ ἔργον τέλειον ἐχέτω)

What does it means to "let endurance have its perfect work?" Think of the 10k marathon. If a runner gives out after 9k, his endurance did not complete or finish the job. Endurance "has" its perfect work, when it makes it all the way to the finish line. That's what endurance is supposed to do: take you the distance.

Here's James' point. When you're still in pain, or you're out of a job, or you're still not sleeping well, or your situation is getting worse not better, or all of the above are true simultaneously ... don't quit trusting God! Don't jump off the Potter's wheel! Continue affirming and trusting in God's goodness, wisdom, faithfulness, and sovereignty.

Easy to say!! Sure it's easy to say, and Yes, it's teeth-clenchingly difficult. But that is what James is saying.

But HOW do you "let endurance have its perfect work?" Just mindlessly mantra Romans 8:28?!! No ... but to answer the how question will require a separate post ...

So ... A key reason not to give up and the second reason we should could it all joy when we fall into various trials is God is using them to make us perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

I think it is a mistake to try to distinguish between "perfect," "complete," and "lacking nothing" here. James is piling on the synonyms for effect -- like we do when we say it is a wonderful, fabulous, glorious day.

What does perfect mean? It doesn't mean God is fixing our minds, so they think without logical error. It doesn't mean God is fixing our bodies, so that they are always hale and hearty.

"Perfect" in James describes the kind of gifts that come down from the Father of Lights (James 1:17), the law of liberty (James 1:25), and the man who is able to bridle his whole body (James 3:2). The variety of items James describes as "perfect" makes it a bit difficult to determine precisely what he has in mind.

Perhaps it is best to allow the other two synonyms he uses to focus his idea for us: complete and lacking nothing. The perfection God is working in our lives is a completeness where nothing that should be present is lacking. That sounds like what Paul describes as "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). In other words, full Christlikeness of character.

Now, unless you are really enthused about gaining spiritual maturity or full Christlikeness, learning that your trials are helping you become fully like Jesus won't incline you to "all joy." And, frankly, that is a major part of our problem. We have forgotten that being a disciple of Jesus means making being like him the ultimate and focal object of our life (Mat. 10:24-25).

When we do long to be like Jesus more than we long to be like anyone or anything else, then knowing that God is perfecting us into the image of His Son will be a grounds for great joy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why should we count it all joy? First Reason

In my previous post, I argued that James has in mind trials that challenge our confidence in God's goodness, wisdom, faithfulness, or power. Why are we supposed to count falling into such trials all joy?

James gives a two part answer. The first part is in Jam. 1:3 -- "knowing this that the trying of your faith works patience."

The word "knowing" is a participle both in English and in Greek. In both languages, participles are usually subordinate to (dependent upon) the main verb in a sentence. That means that participles give additional information about the main verb.

In this case, the main verb is "count" (ἡγήσασθε) in Jam. 1:2. The participle in v. 3 gives the reason why James is telling his readers to count faith-testing trials all joy: because we know that such trials of our faith produce patience.

As noted previously, the word translated patience (ὑπομονήν) is not the ability to stand in a long checkout line at a Walmart without losing your cool. It is the ability to keep on running the 10k marathon when you hit hills in the 7th kilometer.

But James isn't talking about endurance in general. He certainly isn't talking about physical endurance. He is talking about faith's endurance. Our faith is like a set of muscles that require practice and exercise to build the stamina necessary to endure the rigors of spiritual battle.

God is much like the drill instructor who wisely and appropriately pushes his soldiers to their limits to build their endurance. An officer knows that his soldiers will be worthless in battle without stamina. We too are soldiers (2 Tim. 2:3-4), but we are of no value in Kingdom warfare without enduring faith (Eph. 6:16; Heb. 11:6).

He whose faith in God's wisdom, power, goodness, or faithfulness wavers in the battle is unsteady, unstable, and displeasing to God. "Let not that man think that he shall receive anything from the Lord" (Jam. 1:6-7).

So God intentionally puts us through tests, not primarily to see IF we will believe Him, but rather to strengthen our faith, our confidence in Him. As we come through faith-tests, by His grace, our confidence in God grows firmer and firmer.

Steadfast and immovable faith greatly glorifies God. It magnifies Him as the All-Sufficient, Fully Trustworthy One. His goodness, wisdom, power, and faithfulness shine brightest when His children continue to trust Him in trials that appear to belie His character.

This is the first reason we should rejoice: God is strengthening our faith and glorifying Himself through our trial(s).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The kind of trials James has in mind (Jam. 1:2-4)

Most commentaries will note that the word translated "trials" in James 1:2 means a "test." BDAG offers "a test to learn the nature or character of something."

That suggests synonyms like problems, difficulties, issues, inconveniences, or perhaps examinations. If we work only with verse 2, then James seems to be talking about counting it all joy when you encounter life's difficulties, regardless of their nature.

However, verse 3 narrows the focus of this passage and further defines the specific kind of trials that James has in mind. Specifically, James is addressing trials that test a person's faith.

What is a "trying of faith?" A trying of faith is a test that challenges what you believe about God. If the trial you are facing doesn't raise questions about God's goodness, power, wisdom, faithfulness, or love, then it isn't the kind of trial that James is thinking about.

I have my share of problems, difficulties, issues, inconveniences, etc. But the vast majority of them never raise any questions about God's character in my mind, let alone serious questions.

But when I'm standing by the bedside of my wife who's starting to be out of her head with pain, and she's pleading with God for mercy and relief, which does not rapidly materialize, that's an opportunity for questions to arise about God's goodness.

Or, I'm sitting on the chapel platform and hear prayer requested for a young father who accidentally ran over and killed his four year old son who was running to greet him as he returned from work -- questions about God's wisdom, love, and goodness easily enter the mind.
  • How can God be good an allow this?
  • Why doesn't God answer my prayer ... Does He care?
  • Things sure don't look to me like God's in control ... is He really sovereign over all of life's circumstances?
When these or similar thoughts enter your mind, welcome to a James 1:2-4 kind of trial.

But don't quit with verse 3. Verse 4 adds an additional dimension to the kind of trials James has in mind.

But let patience have her perfect work
that you may be perfect, complete, lacking nothing.

The first half of the verse is fairly obscure until you understand that "patience" (hupomone) is "endurance, staying power, fortitude." It is the ability to keep on keeping on when the road is rough and the journey long.

In other words, verse 4 indicates that at least some of these faith tests may be long. It is one thing to affirm God's wisdom, love, power, faithfulness, and goodness 24 hours after the enemy rolls up his faith-toppling battering ram. It is quite another thing to continue unwaveringly in that affirmation as days stretch into weeks and weeks into months, even as Grond continues its unrelenting blows.

At least two places in the rest of this epistle touch on examples of faith-tests: legal abuse of poor Christians by the rich (Jam. 5:4-6), and extended bed-fast sickness (Jam. 5:14-16).

It is in the midst of such faith-testing trials that James directs us to count it all joy!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When you fall into various trials ... (Jam. 1:2-4)

I have fallen into various trials over the past month:
  • Three weeks ago my wife's post-op pain got out of control and she was hospitalized for 2 days..
  • Five days later all five members of my immediate family, myself included, plus my father-in-law, got food poisoning and we were vomiting in turns and simultaneously over a period of 12 hours.
  • Four days later my wife reacts horribly to a medicine prescribed by her gynecologist--burning in the chest, then overwhelming nausea, then overwhelming irrational fear, then return to normal, to be repeated every 30-40 minutes for the next 24-36 hours.
  • Another four days and another medicine is prescribed to which she reacts even more violently and that puts her in the hospital for three days. (She does not tolerate SSRI or SNRI meds!)
The results of all the above plus the stress of the surgery and a long list of other stressors preceding the surgery: her adrenal glands appear to have gone haywire, messing with her ability to sleep, putting her out of commission for a while as she attempts to rest enough to recover. That placed her care and the care of our three boys on my plate: all summer projects out the window!

I think that qualifies for James' "various trials." And regarding all such trials he commands, "Count it all joy!"

James' command raises a host of questions: What is joy? What is "all joy?" What does it mean to "count" it all joy? Why should we count falling into various trials all joy? And how do you do that?

In this and the (hopefully) following posts I'm going to try to answer these questions. But a little background first. I first worked on this passage back in 1992 for second year Greek exegesis project. I've preached this passage probably more than I've preached any other passage in Scripture. And, since 2002 I've been requiring my Advanced Homiletics students to preach this passage. So I've heard it preached, both well and poorly, quite a bit!

All that to say, I've been mulling this one over for a long time. As the Lord takes me through deeper waters, I have found this passage to be unshakable bedrock. My appreciation for its profundity only grows as I face more difficult trials.