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John 15:1, Various

It’s All Good!

Studying the Bible can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. If we open our hearts to the truths contained therein, we find many of the puzzling questions in life have reasonable answers.  This is especially true regarding the presence of evil in the world and pain in our own lives. The scriptures teach us that God is a God of love and only allows problems in our lives as the baker allows some nasty ingredients into the recipe because when the cake comes out of the oven, it’s better to have those ingredients. His promise is both old, Jeremiah 29:11 and new, Romans 8:28. He promises us that regardless of the current situation, all things will work out in the end for our good. His good plans and purposes for us will never be derailed by any person, pain, or problem. Jesus taught his disciples this truth on several different occasions.

Jesus explained to His disciples that God intentionally uses our pain, problems, and people to make us all that he wants us to be.  All our problems, pressures, pains, and difficult people are part of God’s plan to make us more productive!   Jesus says that he is “the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1). Now that he has disciples, and us as well, thinking about growing grapes (fruit) on vines and that process, He moves on to something that they are all very familiar with;  the necessity of pruning. He says in the next verse, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

When we think about it, I expect every believer understands this concept. In fact, I’d expect many believers know too much about this already. It seems the most painful pruning experiences in life are brought on by the hands and words of others. God will often use difficult people in our lives to prune us. It might involve ugly things people say to or about us. It might just be operating in an environment where you are certain your style, personality, or appearance is something that is just unacceptable.  Over my years in ministry, I’ve faced and still face many people weekly who disapprove of me and my style. God will use them for good in my life.  It doesn’t matter what their intentions are; God always means it for my good. That’s what our faith is all about. Joseph learned this truth about his own brothers, who wanted to kill him but ended up selling him into slavery. When the power to retaliate was in his hands, he simply stated, “You meant it for bad, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). God always means it for good for you and me, too.

 

John 16:33, Various

Spiritual Baloney!

I’ve heard Christians say that Jesus solved all their problems. Now, I know there have been times when my faith has seen me through difficult times and that circumstances have worked out well for me when the opposite was not only a possibility but an expectation.  Yet, the truth is God never promises to deliver us from the problems that we all face in this world today. One writer asks: “The moment you were born into God’s family, did someone explain that you were going to have many trials in the Christian life? Or that your life may, at times, be harder than it was before you became a Christian? If not, they should have.”  Jesus said, “In the world, you will have problems” (John 16:33). Paul said that all who desire to live godly lives will have problems (see 2 Timothy 3:12). Luke says that we only enter into the Kingdom of God through many problems (see Acts 14:22).

I really struggle with the prosperity theology so commonly proclaimed by many television evangelists today. I get tired of the outright assertions and backhanded suggestions that if you only had enough faith, your cancer would go away. If you only believed stronger, your child wouldn’t be using drugs. If you just had enough faith, your problems would all be resolved! There is a deep theological word that sums up that kind of theology: Baloney! I regularly meet people who have fallen prey to this teaching. I even had one person say that when they became a believer, it marked the end of their problems. I agree with the guy who said, yes, it marks the end of your problems, the front end! I have problems. You have problems. All God’s children have problems.

But we have a resource that we’ve never had before by which to manage the problems of life. That resource is our faith! Faith is not just believing that God exists but that He will deal with all evil in all of its forms sooner or later (See Hebrews 11:1). Faith is trusting God to have our best interest foremost in mind regardless of the problems we may be facing in life. It’s believing God is a God of love and only allows problems in our lives as the baker allows some nasty ingredients into the recipe because when the cake comes out of the oven, it’s better for having had those ingredients. That’s why the author of Hebrews tells us that in the midst of the race, we keep our eyes on the prize. Hebrews 12:2 says we should keep our eyes on Jesus as we hurdle the obstacles in the race of life. He’s the founder and perfecter of our faith. Who suffered more? Who had more problems? Corrie Ten Boom, a woman of faith with huge problems,  put it this way, “When your eyes are on the world, you are oppressed; when your eyes are on yourself, you are depressed; when your eyes are on Jesus, you are at rest.” The rest of Jesus’ quote from John 16:33 is important. It says, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart because I have overcome the world.”

Proverbs 1:4, Various

Purpose In Our Problems

According to Proverbs 1:4, Solomon explains his purpose in collecting and writing down all the wise sayings he could find. He said, “I want to make the simpleminded wise! I want to warn young men about some problems they will face.”  Wisdom, therefore, is not a collection of facts and figures. It’s not a catalog of information. Rather, biblical wisdom, especially as found in the book of Proverbs, has as its goal to instruct us on how to manage life’s problems. The same idea is repeated in Proverbs 27:12. It says, “A sensible man watches for problems ahead and prepares to meet them. The simpleton never looks and suffers the consequences.”

The raw truth about life is that, like my mother used to say, “There’s always something!” She was usually referring to me and my behavior problems. So she’d add, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Yes, in every area of life, there’s always something! I’d argue that it wasn’t always that way. Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Adam & Eve went their own way, and that started all the problems in the world, and the world is broken. Nothing on earth is perfect… the weather, the economy, your body, etc.… relationships… everything is broken. Nothing is perfect except God’s word. God said, “It’s going to be hard…” in Genesis 3. Hard work and hard labor… Further, there’s a cosmic battle going on within us. It’s called the flesh. Our own sinful nature further complicates the issue, and we end up being the cause of many of our own problems.  There’s a battle going on all around us. It’s called the world. Culture attempts to tear us down. Unless you’re the best, brightest, and most beautiful, you’re nothing! There’s also a battle going on against us. He’s called the devil. According to John, these three: the world, the flesh, and the devil conspire to make our lives miserable. In 1 John 2:16, he calls them the lusts of the flesh, the desires of our eyes, and the pride of life.

Yet God has promised us that these problems are really opportunities. He has made it perfectly clear that our problems regardless of their source, are part of His major program to work things out for our very best in this life and, even more importantly, in the next life. Paul reminds us, “All things work together for our good…” (see Romans 8:28). He doesn’t say that all things are good, but that they will work together for our good. In the middle of the greatest “problem” Israel ever faced (their deportation to Babylon), God reminded them in Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord; plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” God has a purpose for every problem in our life.  The wisest man in the world warned us we’d have problems, and he fills the book of Proverbs with wisdom to manage them.

 

Proverbs 30:27, 1 Corinthians 1:10

Working Together

After Agur gleans lessons for us from the ant and the rock badger, he turns to the locust. Proverbs 30:27 says, The locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank.” Locusts are grasshoppers? Growing up in Nebraska, I always thought that locusts were cicadas. So, I was surprised to learn that they were flying grasshoppers. I’ve seen lots of them, but we always called them grasshoppers. Agur tells us to consider the key aspect of these little insignificant creatures, and we’ll learn one of the most important lessons of life. Two are better than one, and three are better still. Our money still holds the motto: “E Pluribus Unum.” We all know that this Latin phrase means “from the many comes one.” As individuals, we’re truly insignificant with respect to what we can accomplish. Yet if we work together, there are no limits to what might be accomplished.

This is such an obvious truth. We see the power of unity all around us in everyday life.  There is a season for all the major sports that require teamwork. In the fall, it’s football. In the winter, it’s Basketball, and in the spring, it’s baseball. The better the players work together, the better the whole team fares. An orchestra demands harmony to produce anything worth listening to. The ancient redwood trees in California have survived for so long and have grown to be huge because their roots intertwine to support each other. A rope is so strong because it’s made up of more than one strand. If this is such an obvious truth, why do we continue to compete, condemn, criticize, correct, cause contention, and sabotage the accomplishment of good works for the greater good?

The locust is indeed an incredibly small creature that, when it bans together with others, will take over hundreds of miles of croplands. It will drive all inhabitants off the land, taking all the spoil for itself, and each individual little grasshopper will have more than enough to eat while the larger, higher life forms experience a famine. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul exhorts the Christians. He writes, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Paul was well aware of the fact that we are at our best when we set aside our own ambitions and throw all our efforts into the common good, instead of putting energy into unhealthy rivalries.

 

Proverbs 30:24-26, Various

An Insignificant Rodent

In Proverbs 30:24-26, we read, “Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer; the rock Badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes in the cliffs.” After telling his readers to look at the ant for instructions concerning wise living, Agur (maybe Solomon) gives us another image. He points out a small rodent (I think?) called the Rock badger. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary describes this animal for us: “The rock badger or rock hyrax is a rabbit-sized furry animal. With short ears, sharp teeth, and black-button eyes, it resembles an overgrown guinea pig (Lev. 11:5; Coney, KJV, NIV). “The rock badgers are feeble folk, yet they make their homes in the crags,” says Proverbs 30:26, holding them up as little things that are “exceedingly wise.” Feeble or defenseless, they may be, but they find safety in steep, rocky terrain. Their feet have a suction-like grip that enables them to scamper among rocky outcroppings. Their enemies easily overlook a rock badger stretched out motionless on a sun-warmed rock.”

It seems the point of calling this small, insignificant little animal wise is that it knows where to go when danger comes. Our Daily Bread, a daily devotional publication, gave one whole entry to this animal. It explained, “The large ragged crags jutting up from the mountains form a perfect hiding place for the badger. If an eagle swoops down and tries to capture him, the little animal is protected by the rock. The eagle would have to tear the mountain apart to get to its prey. When a lion is on the prowl for lunch, the badger goes undetected by lying close to the rock because he is the color of the mountain. As long as the badger hides in the rocks, he is safe. If he wanders away into the grassland, he is dead meat. The most courageous badger is wise enough to know that his strength lies not in working out at the gym but in taking shelter in the crags.”

I’ve been impressed by how God uses the “lower life” forms to teach us profound lessons. I sometimes wonder who the real “low-life” is: the animal or the human. God confronts His own people for their failures when the animal world has set the right example. In Isaiah 1:3, He says, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Jeremiah 8:7 has a similar indictment: “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the LORD.” The quote from Our Daily Bread goes on: “If you have the brains of a badger, you’ll figure out where your strength lies. ‘Be strong in the Lord,’ the Scripture urges us, ‘and in the power of His might’ (Eph. 6:10). ‘The Lord is my rock and my fortress,’ cried David after being hunted by his enemies (2 Sam. 22:2). Badgers know where their strength lies. Do you?”

Proverbs 6:6-9, 30:25

Go To The Ant!

Every parent wants his children to be productive members of society. We are proud of our children and often love to share with others their careers and successes.  It’s always been recognized as a major parental responsibility to instill in our children the ability and self-discipline to provide for themselves rather than becoming a drain on the resources of society. Proverbs, addressing “my son” as Solomon usually does, assists parents in this responsibility. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard” is sometimes used as a condemnation of laziness. The expression comes from Proverbs 6:6–9 (KJV): “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?” Some translations say, “Go to the ant, you lazybones” (See NASB, NIV, NKJV, RSV). The New Century Versions says, “Go watch the ants, you lazy person.” The New Living Translation says, “Take a lesson from the ants…” The Contemporary English version says, “You lazy people can learn by watching an anthill.” The entirety of the reference, as translated by the English Standard Version, says this, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.”

Proverbs 30:25 adds to the wisdom that can be gleaned from watching the ant. It says, “The ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer.” The reference to ants being “a people” addresses the fact that they live in a community. They have authorities that they obey and social expectations that they meet.  Every ant contributes to the good of the whole community, sometimes self-sacrificially. It’s not uncommon to find the positive character traits contrasted with the negative ones in the book of Proverbs. The lifestyle of the ant is contrasted with the lifestyle of the biblical “sluggard” or “lazy person.”

Lennox explains the principles that can be learned from watching the ant. He says, “The ant needs no one to tell it what to do, while the sluggard refuses the direction offered. The ant knows when it is time to work, while the sluggard seems conscious only of sleep, slumber, and rest. The ant is aware of what is coming and prepares for it, while the sluggard seems oblivious to everything, including imminent disaster.” It’s the tenacity of the ant that contrasts with the wimpishness of the sluggard.  Lennox continues, “The ant makes a wonderful picture of efficiency, while the sluggard is worthy of ridicule as he lies in bed begging for a little more time to rest. Unlike the ant, which can count on food in lean times, the sluggard can only look forward to a surprise visit from poverty…”

Proverbs 30:24-28, Various

The Small Things

When we think of the author of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, especially Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, we often say, “Solomon said…” We attribute this wisdom to Solomon because he is attributed to have authored much of those works. However, we will find occasions when someone else wrote a particular passage. Proverbs Chapter 30 is one of those passages. It’s attributed to Agur. However, as the Lexham Bible Dictionary says, “Whether ‘Agur’ is intended as a proper name is not certain—…Agur may mean “gatherer”—and may therefore be meant as an epithet for Solomon, who ‘gathered’ wisdom.” Solomon was well known for collecting wise sayings as well as writing them himself.

I’ve always enjoyed the imagery in the Bible. The book of Proverbs is filled with it. Agur, or Solomon, presents us with pictures that illustrate the truths he intends to teach us. In chapter 30, there are numerous references to images that elicit more than knowledge but understanding and emotion as well.  When he talks about things that are never satisfied, he shows us the leech. It never stops draining its victims. He then mentions hell, a barren womb, a barren desert, and a fire. When he talks about things that amaze him, he sees an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, a ship on the seas, and a man wooing a maiden. Then, Agur directs our attention to four members of the animal kingdom. He begins by pointing out how insignificant these small things are. Yet, they can teach us some of the more “significant” lessons in life. One writer commented, “Bigness is not necessarily the same as greatness.”

In Proverbs 30:24-28, we are introduced to “Four things on earth that are small, but they are exceedingly wise…” The Hebrew expression is literally “the wise trained in wisdom.” The idea of wisdom is repeated in the phrase. The NIV translates this as “extremely wise.” Today’s English Version says, “very, very clever.” The Greek Septuagint renders this as “wiser than wise.” Another one says, “wise beyond the wisest.” The New Jerusalem Bible says, “the wisest of the wise.” These four small animals, the ant, the rock badger, the locust, and the lizard, teach us things that are extremely important in life. Observing these four “small” things can make us “wiser than the wise.” Paul wrote to the Corinthians and told them that “God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant …to bring to nothing what is viewed as something…” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

 

Proverbs 6:19, Various

Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

In Proverbs, Chapter Six, Solomon recites seven things that God hates. The last of the seven things that God hates seems to have an emphasis that the others lack. You see the emphasis in the opening phrase of Proverbs 6:16. It says, “There are six things the Lord hates…” But then the writer says, “No, wait “There are seven that he detests.” Although it’s listed as last in the list, it is positioned and addressed as the most important of the seven. Lennox says, “The conclusion of this list, number one on God’s ‘Top Seven Things I Hate,’ is the man who stirs up dissension among brothers (6:19). By repeating words from 6:14, the writer has joined these two sections into one warning: God wants people to get along with one another. For those who have become part of the family of God, such a reminder is especially important, whether we are at home or church.” It’s a family affair. Did you notice the mention of “brothers?”  I know that God loves people, even sinful people, and He hates the sin. But this verse has always given me pause. You might notice that the other six things that God hates refer to parts of a body: a tongue, heart, feet, eyes, hands, or mouths. But this seventh thing refers to the whole person. It says God hates the “one who stirs up dissension” in the family. This may be a literary device to focus attention on this last thing, giving it prominence in the list, as Lennox suggested. Yet, the focus on the “person” rather than the thing should give us all pause.

Cadmus, in mythology, slew a dragon. He then sowed the dragon’s teeth in a field which later sprouted giants. Being fearful of what those giants might do, Cadmus turned the giants against each other.  He struck one of them with a stone and pointed to another one. This giant then started a fight with the other one, and before long, they were all fighting each other. As they killed each other, Cadmus watched and laughed. Morgan rightly observes that “Our churches are full of potential spiritual giants, but Satan often sows discord among the members, and they end up as spiritual pygmies, fighting one another.”

When Jesus develops this negative into a positive, he blesses those who stop dissension and strife and pronounces a blessing on the “peacemakers” In Matthew 5:9. The blessing consists of a new classification. Jesus says, “They shall be called sons of God.” The Greek word order makes this title emphatic. It literally reads, “for they, sons of God, shall be called.” Regarding this structure, Hughes says, “The idea is that they, and no others, shall be called God’s sons. Moreover, the passive voice indicates that it is God, not man, who assigns the title ‘sons.’ The sublimity of this promise comes from the fact that the title “sons of God” refers to character. The peacemaker partakes of the character of God. He is like God in the way he lives. No wonder God says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’” The Psalmist gives us a blessing similar to Jesus’ blessing on peacemakers.  In Psalm 133:1, we read, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

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