All Has Been Heard

“That’s what the Preacher is saying: a coffin preaches better sermons than a cot. ‘Look forward,’ he says as he grabs us by the shoulders. ‘Don’t be a fool! Stop trying to escape life’s agonies by drowning them away, by laughing them off and pretending they don’t exist. Look forward to the day of your death and ask yourself, what kind of person should I be? For one day I will be dead.'” -David Gibson

living life backwardFrom early on as a Christian, I have been drawn to that strange and curious book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. I’ve found its attraction lies somewhat in the fact that it at times is so confounding. Why does the Preacher travel down this road and not that one? Is the author’s main message really that “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”?  How come this book seems to have no real outline to it? What are we ultimately to make of it?

David Gibson has written a marvelous book that seeks to tackle the message of the Preacher (or the Teacher, or Qoheleth). In Living Life Backward, Gibson tries to tie the many strands of the Preacher’s message into something we can put our arms around. Reading through Gibson’s book along with Ecclesiastes, the message gets a bit clearer: focus your eyes on your death – for then you will understand how to really live.

“Whatever it is you think you’ve gained, it will soon vanish from the earth like morning mist, and you along with it too. Part of learning to live is simply accepting this. One day you will be dead and gone, and the world will go on, probably without even remembering you. A hundred years after your death, the chances are, no one will ever know you lived.”

In this quote, and others like it, Gibson tries to get us to understand our limitations. We are not the Creator – we are His creatures. With that, some humility is in order. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to know and understand all there is to know “under the sun”. True living, suggests Gibson, comes instead when “…we take the time to live inside the gifts themselves and see the hand of God in them.” As we begin to grasp this, we understand all of life is a gift, but still one that is moving towards an endpoint on this earth. With that we are reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-39 – “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NIV). To live like this, Gibson argues, is really how to be remembered:

“But the wise person sits in the funeral home and stares at the coffin and realizes that one day it will be his turn. The wise person asks himself, ‘When it is my turn, what will my life have been worth? What will they be saying about me?’ He loved his bowling and his partying and his holidays. Is that it?”

How often do we think about our impending death? A few times a year, perhaps, if we’re really honest? I had a milestone birthday a few months ago and began to think of this more than I ever have before. In their 90s hit “Right Now”, Van Halen had a graphic in the video for that song that said “Right now your memory is getting longer while your life is getting shorter”. I think Gibson would say to that, “Exactly! Now listen to the Preacher and his message. What are you going to do with that?”

David Gibson has written a book that I think will stay with me a long time. His extended meditation on the Preacher’s message in Ecclesiastes gets us to view life in the light of death. Yes, it may make us uncomfortable. It may make us anxious even, or sad. But in doing so, we are given light to see how to truly live.

“Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.”
-Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NIV)

 

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Luke 14:10

Church Pew“I thought that I was the greatest debtor to Divine grace, and would sing the loudest to its praise; but when I came down out of the pulpit, there was a venerable woman who said to me, ‘You made a blunder in your sermon this evening.’

‘I said, ‘I daresay I made a dozen, good soul, but what was that particular one?’

‘Why, you said that you would sing the loudest because you owed most to Divine grace; you are but a lad, you do not owe half as much to grace as I do at eighty years of age! I owe more to grace than you, and I will not let you sing the loudest.’

“I found that there was a general conspiracy among the friends that night to put me in the background, and that is where I meant to be, and wished to me; that is where those who sing the loudest, long to be, to take the lowest place, and praise most the grace of God in so doing.”

-Charles H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, The Early Years, 1834-1859

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Bleed Your Bible

Bible“I have never met a mature, fruitful, strong, spiritually discerning Christian who is not full of Scripture, devoted to regular meditation on Scripture, and given to storing it in the heart through Bible memorization — and that’s not a coincidence…reading and meditating on and understanding and memorizing and enjoying the Scriptures is absolutely essential for the Christian life, which would include being in the word every day with the aim that we will meet God there and, little by little, the glory of his truth will fill and transform our lives.”

-John Piper

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Matthew 5:16

mountains“Let your Christianity be so unmistakable, your eye so single, your heart so whole, your walk so straightforward that all who see you may have no doubt whose you are, and whom you serve. If we are quickened by the Spirit, no one ought to be able to doubt it…

“It ought not to be necessary to tell people, as in the case of a badly painted picture, ‘This is a Christian.’ We ought not to be so sluggish and still, that people should be obliged to come close and look hard, and say, ‘Is he dead or alive?'”

-J.C. Ryle, from Old Paths

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Who Shall Have The Saviour?

moon-5830698_1280“You do not know much of yourself, or think much of yourself; you can scarcely read, perhaps. Or if you have some talent and ability, you are despised amongst men; or, if you are not despised by them, you despise yourself. You are one of the little ones. Well, Christ is always born in Bethlehem among the little ones.

“Big hearts never get Christ inside of them; Christ lies not in great hearts, but in little ones. Mighty and proud spirits never have Jesus Christ, for he comes in at low doors, but he will not come in at high ones. He who has a broken heart, and a low spirit, shall have the Saviour, but none else. He heals not the prince and the king, but ‘the broken in heart, and he binds up their wounds.’ Sweet thought! He is the Christ of the little ones.”

-Charles H. Spurgeon, from The Incarnation and Birth of Christ

 

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sunrise

He Is Gracious

“Sometimes I indulge a hope that I am growing wiser, and think surely, after such innumerable proofs as I have had, that he does all things well, I shall now be satisfied to leave myself, quietly and without reserve, to his disposal. A thousand such surrenders I have made, and a thousand times I have interpretatively retracted them. Yet still he is gracious. Oh, how shall I praise him at last!”

-John Newton, November 23, 1774 from The Works of John Newton, Volume One, pgs. 456-457

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mountains

Hebrews 12:2

“The question isn’t whether you’re going to believe, but who; it’s not merely about what to believe, but who to entrust yourself to. Do you really want to trust yourself? Do we really think humanity is our best bet? Do we really think we are the answer to our problems, we who’ve generated all of them? The problem with everything from Enlightenment scientism to mushy Eat-Pray-Love-ism is us. If anything looks irrational, it’s the notion that we are our own best hope.”

-James K.A. Smith, from On The Road With Saint Augustine

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The Old Book

“I warn everyone to beware of a hope not drawn from Scripture. It is a false hope, and many will find out this to their cost. That glorious and perfect book, the Bible,
however people despise it, is the only fountain out of which man’s soul can derive
peace. Many sneer at the old book while living, who find their need of it when dying.

“The Queen in her palace and the pauper in the workhouse, the philosopher in his
study and the child in the cottage—each and all must be content to seek living water from the Bible, if they are to have any hope at all. Honor your Bible—read your Bible—stick to your Bible. There is not on earth a scrap of solid hope for the other side of the grave which is not drawn out of the Word.”

-J.C. Ryle, from Old Paths

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Fields

Abide in Him

“I am amazed at times at the fact that I, or anybody else who is a Christian, can remain so silent, can live such a poor, unworthy life. Was I not right when I said at the beginning that the whole trouble with us all is that we do not realize what we are? We insist on thinking about this Christian life as some great height which we have to climb. But before we are asked to do anything, we have been made something; we have eternal life abiding in us, otherwise we are not Christians at all.”

-Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, p. 344.

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Cross

Redeemed and Sanctified

“Do not put your finger now upon some sin that seems to you peculiarly flagrant and say, I fear some trace of that remains. It is not so. For covered is your unrighteousness; no spot or defilement remains on those who are redeemed and sanctified. There is therefore now no condemnation – no righteous condemnation – from conscience or from God. How brave was our Apostle when he had drunk deep into the spirit of this truth, when he defied heaven and earth and hell to accuse him!”

C.H. Spurgeon’s Sermons Beyond Volume 63, p. 324

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road

2 Chronicles 1:5

“In many things, perhaps, in the experience of the seeker after God it is right for him to confess ignorance or doubt. But when God has told us clearly where we may find what we seek, then to ignore his map in the name of a ‘reverent agnosticism’ is not only folly but rebellion. If we are truly seeking the Lord, then more often than not we shall have to acknowledge that we do know the way to Gibeon, and we do know what we shall find there.”

-Michael Wilcock, from The Message of Chronicles

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Visiting With The Chronicler

“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through perseverance and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” – Romans 15:4 (WEB)

It is, of course, one of society’s most well-known cliches – “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. As well-known as it is, we often find that history is repeated in some form or fashion nearly every day. We are left to wonder – weren’t you aware of that? Why did you do that again?

Whenever I think of the phrase, “those obscure sections of the Bible”, my mind seems to move towards 1 & 2 Chronicles. You don’t hear many sermon series these days from these two books! I think that’s somewhat unfortunate. The author of these two books – the Chronicler, as the author is sometimes called – has it in mind that we should remember our history. So much so in fact, that the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles consist of a long list of names. And what’s interesting is the list of names sometimes includes folks we would not expect to be mentioned.

“Shimei had sixteen sons and six daughters; but his brothers didn’t have many children, and all their family didn’t multiply like the children of Judah.” – 1 Chronicles 4:27 (WEB)

Curiously we don’t find a long rehashing around Abraham, Moses, or others we might expect. But in these long lists of names, we can find encouragement. Why?

Our always-on age and the need to share breaking news even in Christian circles the millisecond after we receive it I think have left us lacking in some ways. We become so now oriented in doing these things that we forget there is often a better choice to stop for a moment and reflect. More specifically, I think as Christians in 2020 we may feel that we are the first people to experience God in the way we do, the first to have these trials and weights to bear – we have the market cornered! And I think one of the reasons why we do is we have a woeful lack of understanding of and appreciation for history in general, and the history of God’s people and the Holy Spirit’s work among them more specifically. In writing “to all those in Rome”, the Apostle Paul understood that and reminded them late in his letter why God’s Word was not to be neglected. And the Chronicler does so as well. There is a chain that connects us to Adam, of course, and the effects of sin. But it also connects us with God’s people who have lived faithfully for Him, imperfectly, but have lived for Him nonetheless for these thousands of years.

One of my companions for my current study in these books is Michael Wilcock’s The Message of Chronicles. Wilcock gives a great summary of what the author is attempting to do:

“The overall connection, binding the generations of antiquity to those of the Chronicler and ourselves, implies also that old and new are equally factual. We must not let ourselves be persuaded at any point in Chronicles we have to do with mere legend or invention. The main characteristic of all stories which begin ‘Once upon a time…’ is that their ‘time’ nowhere actually connects with any real historical time of ours. But that his records do all belong to the same continuum is the very point the Chronicler is labouring to make. The connection between these ancients and us means that they are as real as we are.”

There are reasons why cliches are cliches – they all hold some bit of truth in them. History does repeat itself and we often ignore it at our own peril. The Chronicler knew that as well. The long line of names can seem daunting. Reading them this time around, though, I feel a new sense of appreciation for these men and women. God has been at work in history long before us (even before Twitter!) and will be long after (unless Jesus returns first of course). I’m thankful for the Chronicler and those reminders today.

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The Blood of the Lamb

“Sinner, you will never go out of the Egypt of your bondage to sin, till the blood of the Paschal Lamb has been sprinkled on the lintel and the two side posts. You may strive against sin as you will, but you will never overcome it, except through the blood of the Lamb. Inquire of those in heaven who have conquered sin and do now wear the snow-white garments.

“Never till you see a bleeding Savior will you be able to put your sins to death. They must be crucified on the cross. They will die nowhere else than there.”

-Charles H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 61

Matthew 5:4

grapes“And the joy which a true penitent finds, is a pre-libation and foretaste of the joy of paradise. The wicked man’s joy turns to sadness; the penitent’s sadness turns to joy. Though repentance seems at first to be thorny and bitter, yet of this thorn a Christian gathers grapes. All which considerations may open a vein of godly sorrow in our souls, that we may both weep for sin, and turn from it. If ever God restores comfort, it is to his mourners.”

-Thomas Watson, from The Ten Commandments, p. 210.

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Acts 14:22

water rocky“You seem to differ from others, and begin to be looked upon with a jealous eye by old acquaintance, as holding certain strange doctrines. All this promises well. You are, I trust, now considered very strange and peculiar people, and I hope that you differ not only in doctrine, but also in life and conversation. Remember this, ‘through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Satan will frequently magnify the difficulties which you must encounter as children of God.”

-Letters of William Tiptaft, September 3, 1830

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He Was There

“Is it not then the task of the church and of the individual believer to go back over life and experience and try to itemize those moments when Yahweh was clearly but quietly present to save and support? I don’t mean a kind of self-fixated, trivial existential overkill…

“But as you ponder the ground you’ve traveled, the murky stuff the Lord has carried you through, the twists and turns of your life, can you not see glimpses of silent mercy, of quiet care? There was no noise or tempest. Yahweh was there, but not obviously.”

-Dale Ralph Davis, from 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, p. 304.

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A Royal Mess

But we keep no check
On our appetites
So the green fields turn to brown
Like paper in fire

-John Mellencamp

Most of us in our daily lives crave stability. As much as we enjoy new adventures, I think there is probably a sense of comfort knowing what to expect of our work lives, for example, on a daily basis. About 3,000 years ago, there were signs that at long last, Israel was heading into that type of stability. The aimless desert wanderings were in the past and the tumultuous run of judges was about to end. Against Samuel’s hopes, Israel now had a king of their very own in Saul.

It would be unfair to say that Saul had no redeeming qualities. He certainly looked the part, as described in 1 Samuel 9:2 – “…a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel; from his shoulders and up he was taller than any of the people.” (NASB). Very early on in his reign, he appeared obedient and able to take counsel, as his interactions with Samuel indicate. But all that had been given to Saul, even the simple fact of being the first king in the nation’s history, apparently wasn’t enough. He became impatient with Samuel’s wise advice. He appeared to jump seemingly at random from one issue to the next without an ability to really focus. And jealousy ultimately got the best of him.

You wonder what it was like for Saul growing up. He probably had few peers in physical stature and most likely was the center of attention. Did those factors contribute to his impatience in not getting his way and his distrust of others? It certainly may have. After David’s conquest of Goliath, the word was out. Saul now had to share the spotlight and this agitated him. It led him away from his own family and ultimately to his death.

I wonder how much we see of ourselves in Saul. The appetites that we have to be seen and admired and the center of attention, much of which can be easily manifested online. I think those well-known words of 1 Samuel 18:7 (“Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands”) feels like a commentary on our need to get likes and retweets. A few years ago, as a user of Twitter and Instagram, I started to wonder why the number of likes on what I posted meant anything to me. I couldn’t come up with an answer. Sadly, these things can easily cloud our vision of God and His plan for us. And those green fields can turn to brown awful quickly. Sometimes people’s lives can serve as a great example for us – in how not to live. Saul seems tragic in that light.

 

Such a Great Salvation

“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets”
-Hebrews 11:32 (NASB)

samson_crusader_bible

Image via Unknown medieval artist / Public domain

One of the things I’ve always found amazing (and disappointing) about movies or series that are supposedly based on the Bible is how often they detour from the actual text. I don’t know what it is about those who are involved in these productions – do you mean to tell me the Scriptures need to be improved upon or embellished to be interesting so the audience will keep their attention? And you’re the one to do it?

The book of Judges to me has always seemed even too outrageous for Hollywood. The cyclical pattern of the book – crying out to God, redemption from God, period of rest, departure from God, crying out to God, etc. is difficult to handle at times. There is wickedness in this book that in some ways surpasses anything else we see in Scripture.

“When he entered his house, he took a knife and laid hold of his concubine and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout the territory of Israel.”
– Judges 19:29 (NASB)

Even the so-called heroes of the book – Samson, Jephthah, and others – had holes in their character you could drive a truck through. Another of the judges that is often held up for his faith is Gideon, which has always baffled me. He put God to the test time and again with his wet fleece / dry fleece act and other acts of timidity. One of Gideon’s own sons (Abimilech) marred whatever legacy Gideon had left with such destruction in the family in his misguided attempt to be “king”. Judges covers a dark period of about 180 years (1200 BC-1020 BC).

The Bible, however, spares nothing of the reality of the human condition, so we should not expect much different than what we find in Judges overall. One of my companions for my study this month is Dale Ralph Davis’ superb commentary titled Judges: Such a Great Salvation. Davis combines his trademark wit and humor with a relentless attention to the text – so much so that I wondered if I had read the same passage he did when I read his comments on it. As a side note, this is a reminder that we have to continue to ask questions, make observations, mark up what we’re reading – as familiar as we may be with our Bibles, we can never know them well enough.

Summarizing Judges in his preface, Davis remarks:

“The church (in general) has a problem with the Book of Judges. It is so earthy, so puzzling, so primitive, so violent – in a word, so strange, that the church can scarcely stomach it.”

I have read through Judges several times over the years, but this quote from Davis pointed at me a bit. I put my own name in the quote in place of “the church” and realized why I have a problem with Judges and “can scarcely stomach it”. In short, it’s because I see my own patterns in these flawed judges and the nation of Israel during this time period. The wickedness in my own heart, the crying out to God, a period of rest, and then departure from Him, only to cry out to Him yet again. What I appreciated so much about Davis’ commentary throughout was the constant pointing back to that word that is so well-known but not so well-grasped – grace.

“He is patient with our weakness. God doesn’t mind humbling himself in order to bolster our fragile faith, our wavering grip on his word. He is so eager to do just that that he has provided a table instead of a threshing floor, and bread and wine in place of a fleece.” (p. 100)

That’s it, isn’t it? He is patient with our weakness. I mean if it were me, I would have turned my back after all of Gideon’s antics and headed for the door. But the often dizzying cycles and patterns of failed repentance throughout Judges I think means to emphasize that word – grace – and how in Judges’ 21 chapters God is giving us a picture in miniature of what that word means. The silliness of Samson, even as a grown man; the unwise vow of Jephthah; the sickening ending to the life of the Levite’s concubine; the tragic infighting between Israel and Benjamin – all of what seems like bottomless wickedness – all of it seems to point to reminders of God’s unfailing grace. Grace finds a place even here in the darkness of this Old Testament book. And because it does, and because we as followers of Christ are people of “the Book”, it finds a place with us as well 3,000 years on.

Upon reflection, at the end of his commentary, Davis notes that perhaps the title of his book is a bit of a misnomer:

“…Yahweh’s grace is far more tenacious than his people’s depravity and insists on still holding them fast even in their sinfulness and their stupidity. Nor is he finished raising up saviors for them…All this sort of wrecks the title of this book, doesn’t it? Biblical as it is, true as it is. ‘Such a Great Savior‘ would be far more accurate.”

Maybe Davis is right. And if he is, that is cause for encouragement for us all.

Romans 8:1

The Cross“I spoke with one earnest soul a little while ago, and she said, ‘I have no rest.’

“I replied, ‘Have you believed in Jesus Christ?’ She answered, ‘Yes.’

‘But,’ I asked, ‘Do you not know that as soon as you believe in Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven you, and you are saved?’

‘I did not grasp that,’ said she.

“Yet that is the gospel— that whosoever believes in Jesus is not condemned. He that believes in him has everlasting life, and is saved the moment he believes— becomes changed from the power of sin and made into a new man, possessing a new life which can never die. This assurance is worth getting hold of, and he that has it, let him hold it fast, and rejoice in it; yet it is not to be obtained anywhere except from the dear hands that were nailed to the wood.”

-Charles H. Spurgeon, from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 28

 

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