Twigs and forests
Isaiah 11: The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over him.
The flow from current events to spiritual events of the future makes some passages hard to read. Isaiah has declared that the army of their enemy, Assyria, was used of God to purge his people, but went too far. He pictures Assyria as a great forest filled with huge trees. However, for all its majesty, that forest will be leveled because of the anger of God. Then, with no real segue Isaiah continues with his “forest” illustration, proclaiming that out of the remains of Judah just one small twig will spring up. Compared to the great “forest” that is Assyria, this green twig might seem insignificant. That “twig,” though, will be overshadowed by the Spirit of God. It will grow to such a size that all the forests of the world will seem small in comparison and that “twig” will reach out in wisdom, understanding, direction, strength, and knowledge. I don’t know what Isaiah or his contemporaries thought of the unexpected direction of this prophecy, but to a Christian reader it makes perfect sense. The army of Assyria is long gone, only of interest to historians and archeologists. However, that “twig” — the one who sprang up as a helpless baby in Bethlehem so long ago — well, his Kingdom continues to flourish to this very day.
Take Away: “And he shall reign for ever and ever more. Hallelujah!”
When all is said and done…
Ecclesiastes 12: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it.
The book of Ecclesiastes is about a wise man’s search for meaning. That search takes on a pessimistic flavor as he tries one thing and then another, concluding that it’s all just “smoke” that quickly vanishes. As he nears his conclusion he says that life passes quickly as the body begins to wear out. In other words, life, in general, is just so much smoke. Obviously, this book is not a Gospel. It doesn’t conclude with a resurrection and words of hope. Instead, it simply winds down with the big questions left pretty much unanswered. Well, kind of. When Solomon has considered everything from constructing impressive buildings to collecting words of wisdom, from living a pleasure-focused life to making the most of one’s youth he concludes that it’s all smoke. Basically he says that everything that people think brings meaning to life can be dismissed as failing to live up to expectations. Now, in his final words, he concludes that meaning must come from outside of all that. The book of Genesis starts with “In the beginning, God….” This book of Ecclesiastes concludes with “In the end, God….” Meaning to life only comes through the Creator of life. Really, Solomon has done the best he can do at this point in history. There’s more, in fact a whole lot more, but we have to turn ahead in time to those Gospels I mentioned for that part of the story.
Take Away: Meaning to life only comes through the Creator of life.
Delight in the light
Ecclesiastes 11: Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted.
A light reading of Ecclesiastes (if such a thing is really possible) leaves me with the feeling that the writer is a hardened pessimist who’s concluded that everything is “vanity.” While there are plenty of statements about how worthless things are, there’s also a positive, yet realistic theme here. He advises me to cherish every day. Some days, he says, are going to be dark, but there’s also plenty of light and I’m to “delight in the light.” I don’t want to be one of those people who only focuses on all that is going (or can go) wrong. God has blessed me with so much! I don’t want to take any of it for granted. True to form, the wise man adds, “most of what comes your way is smoke.” That is, most things in life are temporary, and a high percentage of those things aren’t all that important anyway. On one hand then, I don’t want to get so focused on the problems of life that I lose sight of the blessings. Those problems are pretty much “smoke” anyway and are temporary. On the other hand, I want to appreciate the little blessings while I have them. They too are smoke and will be gone before I know it and I don’t want to take them for granted.
Take Away: Cherish every day.
The purpose of life
Ecclesiastes 7: God made men and women true and upright; we’re the ones who’ve made a mess of things.
As part of his search for purpose Solomon seeks out people of wisdom. The result of his search is disappointing. He reports that not one person in a thousand measures up to that standard. Solomon is looking for people of depth, who have thought out the meaning of life and come to some conclusions. Instead, he finds that most people stay in the shallow end of the pool, never considering much beyond their next meal. The saddest thing, as far as he is concerned, is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The Creator created humans with the potential for greatness. This isn’t about the possibility of solving the mysteries of science. Instead, it’s about finding meaning to life itself. It’s of great value to consider “why I am here and where I am going.” The answer is the one we seem most intent on ignoring: “God.” It’s my connection to the divine that gives meaning to my life. He not only made me, but he made me for a purpose. When I live without recognizing that, I, in the words of Ecclesiastes, make “a mess of things.”
Take Away: It’s my connection to the divine that gives meaning to my life.
Life after death
Ecclesiastes 3: Who knows if there’s anything else to life?
One of the concerns of Solomon as he seeks meaning is what happens when life is finished. As far as he can tell animals and humans are pretty much alike; made of flesh, breathing the same air, and, upon death returning to the dust. It may be, he theorizes, that the human spirit survives death, but he really doesn’t have any proof of that. His conclusion is that since there’s uncertainty on this topic that a person ought to live life to the fullest right now because there may be no tomorrow. One thing we need to remember as we read Ecclesiastes is that we’re following Solomon on his quest for truth. He’s telling us his “in process” conclusions. To pick out a line here and there and state it as though this is Solomon’s final verdict is unfair to him. In the first part of the book he explains what he’s doing and we ought to remember that as we read his words. Another thing to remember is that he speaks from a purely Old Testament perspective. It isn’t until the first Easter and the understanding of life after death that develops from it that we have, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” In these words of Solomon we have the opinion of the secular humanist. When Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will never die we have the authority of the Son of God. The answer to Solomon’s “who knows” is this: “Jesus knows.” For someone who doesn’t have faith in Jesus to arrive at the same conclusion as Solomon is perfectly reasonable. As a believer in Jesus, though, I have the answer: “My Lord knows and he has told me that there is life after life.”
Take Away: The only real authority on the subject has told us that there is life after death, and that how we live now has a direct bearing on what that after-life will be like.
Ecclesiastes 3: God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time — but he’s left us in the dark.
One of the famous parts of Ecclesiastes is his “a time to plant and another to reap” section in which he lists all the opposites of life and decides they all have their proper place. The writer is impressed by all God has done in the world, but frustrated that he can’t understand the meaning of it all. I played golf with a fellow who had a long pre-shot routine that he went through every time he hit the ball. He shuffled his feet a specific way, waggled the club for what seemed to be an eternity, and then stood frozen over the ball before finally hitting his horrible slice. I wanted to shout out, “Just hit the ball!” No doubt, he needed some golfing lessons, but even I could see that he was over-thinking his golf swing. He had himself tied up in knots and it created, not an athletic, fluid golf shot, but a poor shot and a frustrated golfer. Solomon is frustrated that, after all his thinking and considering, he can’t understand all God does. He decides that “there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.” That isn’t a ticket to living an immoral, God-ignoring life, but it’s a reminder that life is a gift of God and if we over-think it we, like my golfer friend, will spend way too much time out in the weeds rather than enjoying the beauty that has been freely given to us.
Take Away: Life is a gift meant to be enjoyed.
My most precious gift
Proverbs 8: Don’t squander your precious life.
Proverbs eight and nine contain an imaginary conversation with “Lady Wisdom.” She offers us all kinds of advice as well as shares her lofty credentials. My favorite statement from her is “don’t squander your precious life.” Some things I think are valuable are like counterfeit money; not worth the paper it’s printed on. The day will come when someone will sift through all of my “valuables” deciding what’s worth passing on and what needs to go out to the curb to await a trip to the land fill. I’m pretty sure most of it will come up short. Sadly, we’re all prone to spend our lives chasing after things that prove to be worthless when all is said and done. Today, as I read these words I remember that life is precious indeed; an amazing and undeserved gift from God. Every breath is to be prized and great care should be taken to not waste it. I don’t want to live my life in pursuit of worthless things, spending my most valuable resource foolishly. On the other hand, I can use up my life in a quest of excellence. The question I must ask myself is, “How can I best live my life and spend this, my most precious gift?”
Take Away: How can I best live my life?
Looking at life “backwards”
Proverbs 4: Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions.
When the proverb writer advises us to ignore all the distractions of life he’s just stating common sense but, obviously, it’s something easier said than done. For instance, before I can focus on the goal I have to know what that goal is. Right off the voices of the snake oil huskers begin selling me their bill of goods. They tell me that whatever they’re selling is just the thing I should give my life to. Some of the offers contain just enough truth to sound right. I’m reminded of all the sports leagues that demand so much of a families’ time. There’s a great deal of good happening in such activities, but, honestly, they aren’t worth committing one’s life to and they sure don’t deserve the status they’re given in many families. So what is it that’s worthy of my focus? I think the answer can be found by looking at life “backwards.” When I’m at the end of my life, when they’re closing the lid on my coffin, what will matter? I say it’s my relationship with God. Of course, other things will matter: family, friends, and how I’ve impacted the world in my brief life. However, eternity is, well, forever. The goal of life has to be to prepare for forever. With that in mind, I can read this proverb and better identify not only what truly matters, but what needs to be kept in its proper place as well.
Take Away: How are you doing in preparing for forever?
Put God first
Proverbs 1: Start with God.
The Bible tells us about God and about ourselves. Many of its pages contain a history of God and us, telling us not only where we have been but God’s desire for us in the future. However, there’s more than even that. The Lord doesn’t just want all of us to go to heaven when we die. Rather, he wants us to live the best lives possible in the here and now. That’s what the book of Proverbs is about. These wise sayings aren’t written to tell us our history and they aren’t written to point to way to heaven. They tell us how to live the wisest way today. So, as we begin to read this collection of insights into life we’re immediately given the foundational secret: “Start with God — the first step in learning is bowing down to God.” Theoretically, I might get everything else right, but if I miss this number one concept before long it will all tumble down. Wisdom begins with God and because of that the satisfied, complete life starts here too. Jesus says it this way, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Take Away: When we build our lives around the Lord we have the potential of building a rich, satisfying life…“Start with God.”
Life after death?
Job 13: How many sins have been charged against me?
In response to Zophar’s counsel, Job replies with some choice insults. He doesn’t need Zophar to lecture him. In fact Job already believes all the things his friend has said. Beyond that, Job assures him that everyone believes that stuff. Since Zophar and Job believe the same thing (that bad things only happen to bad people) Job again turns his attention to God. He wants to know exactly what sins have been charged against him. Perhaps there needs to be an audit of God’s bookkeeping system so the error against Job can be found. Still, even as he pleads with God to tell him what he’s done wrong, Job’s reminded of the uncomfortable fact of the unfairness of life in general. It may be that Job has never admitted this to himself before. It’s only as he sits here in absolute misery listening to his friends saying all the same things he’s said many times that he acknowledges that life isn’t as neatly ordered as he has believed. Both good and bad people alike have plenty of trouble come to their lives. It seems to Job that even a lowly ditch digger gets a day off once in a while. Shouldn’t God make life easy for human beings who only have a short life anyway? And, since our lives are so limited, is there something more, beyond this life? Job has no Easter story to draw from, but even in this distant day, he’s considering the possibility of life after death as a way God might “balance the books” of life.
Take Away: We know more about this than Job does; that ultimately the Lord will set all things right.