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Wisdom in Lament (Wisdom Wednesday #4)

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Our sufferings don’t surprise God. Neither do our tears. God can sustain us in sufferings, and he can comfort us in our sorrows. That’s why it’s wise to lament as the Psalmists so often did. Some Psalms are particularly known for being “Wisdom Psalms,” such as Psalms 1 and 127. But even Psalms that are commonly called “Psalms of Lament” are examples of divinely inspired Wisdom Literature (as much as are the other “poetical” books of the Old Testament).

Take, for example, Psalm 10. This is a typical Psalm of Lament: the Psalmist is suffering at the hands of wicked people (vv. 2-11). He feels separated from God by his suffering (v. 1). He prays for God both to punish the wicked who are causing suffering (vv. 2-11 and 15) and to alleviate his suffering (vv. 12-14). Psalm 10 is a Psalm of Lament.

As a Psalm of Lament, however, Psalm 10 is also a Wisdom Psalm; it teaches us how to live wisely. In the Bible, wisdom is God-centered. Proverbs 9:10 teaches, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references). And the Psalmist, even in the midst of his suffering, fears the Lord. The Psalmist feels like God his “stand[ing] far away” from him and “hid[den]” from him, but he addresses God as “LORD,” Yahweh, the God who is in a compassionate covenant relationship with him as he is with all his people (Ps. 10:1; cf. Exod. 34:6-7). From this attitude of faith, the Psalmist cries out to God in prayer (Ps. 10:2, 12, and 15). The Psalmist ends his lament confident both in God’s sovereignty (Ps. 10:16) and in God’s goodness (vv. 17-18). Biblical wisdom denotes rightly relating to God (and others) in everyday life. By modeling for us how to relate to God in the midst of suffering, the Psalmist who penned Psalm 10 illustrates the truth that Psalms is not only a book of poetry but also a book of wisdom, a book of how to live by faith in God, especially when that faith is so sorely tested by suffering.

Like the Psalmist, we should cry out to God in prayer. We Christians are in a covenant relationship with God because Jesus is our Passover lamb. By faith in his sacrificial death for us we are freed from our bondage to sin, as the Israelites were freed from bondage to the Egyptians. Like the Psalmist, then, may we through prayer come before God’s throne of grace boldly to receive help in our times of need (Heb. 4:14-16).

Why is it wise to pursue God in the midst of suffering, when perhaps he himself seems to be allowing it—if not directly causing it? Psalm 10 teaches us that it is wise to pray to God in our suffering because atheism is a trait of the wicked (v. 4) and is a self-imploding dogma (vv. 11, 13). It is wise to pray to God in our suffering because he sees us in our suffering and “note[s] mischief and vexation” (v. 14). To borrow from the New Testament, we should cast our cares on God because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). It is wise to pray to God in suffering because one day he will alleviate the suffering of his people—for all eternity (Ps. 10:17-18). The apostle John describes our eternal deliverance from suffering this way:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

Abandoning God because we feel abandoned by him in our suffering is the most foolish thing to do. As Psalm 10 (and, indeed, the whole Bible!) teaches us, we should instead wisely cry out to God in prayer for final salvation from the very presence of sin, which is the true source of all earthly suffering. John understood the wisdom of Psalm 10 and cried at the end of his book (despite his own adversity of being exiled on Patmos), “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). May we wisely join him in the midst of our own varied sufferings by earnestly pleading for Jesus’ soon return, when he will make all things new.

Walking the Wise Way (Wisdom Wednesday #3)

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One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It begins,

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; (lines 1-5)

Frost is talking metaphorically about one’s life journey. Throughout life, you make choices that determine your “way.” These choices can be simple and bear little consequence. What shirt will I wear? Do I want fries with that burger? Those choices can be more complex and have significant consequences. Do I stay single or get married? Do I attend college after high school or immediately embark on a career? The most important choice of all has eternal consequences. Will I take God at his word, the Bible, and follow Jesus as my Savior and Lord? How you answer this question will determine not only your eternity but the rest of your life. And the wrong answer could easily lead to the “worldly grief” that “produces death” instead of “repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible references), which is the kind of regret Frost expresses at the end of “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (lines 16-20)

Frost’s regret is expressed in his “sigh” and in the fact that he has entitled this poem, nostalgically as it were, “The Road Not Taken.” A major theme in Proverbs is the “two ways” to live life, the wise way and the foolish way. The foolish way leads to regret, like Frost’s road “less traveled by,” and ultimately eternal death, whereas the wise way leads to joy, like Frost’s “road not taken” presumably would, and ultimately eternal life. Which way will you choose? That is the question Proverbs poses to us.

Proverbs exhorts us to choose to walk the wise way of pursuing God. According to Proverbs 21:6, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.” We can justify anything we do, but what matters is whether God justifies us. As we read elsewhere in Proverbs,

Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the LORD,
but those of blameless ways are his delight. (11:20)

The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is upright. (21:8)

In other words, God delights in the pure, the blameless, the upright; he hates the crooked and justly condemns them as guilty. The wise way is the way of loving God and loving others, to sum up the Old Testament as Jesus does in Matthew 22:34-40. The foolish way is the way of rebelling against God and harming others.

When taken in the context of the whole Bible, the foolish way is the road we’re all traveling from birth. The Ephesian Christians, prior to their conversion, Paul writes, “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). Paul here tells us that we’re all naturally under God’s wrath, we’re all an abomination to him, because we’re all foolish and crooked; to use Paul’s phrasing in Ephesians, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh,” which means we were living in rebellion against God. And James adds that the cause of human conflict–failure to keep the second greatest commandment–is our “passions” (Jas. 4:1). We’re all sinful, all foolish, all on the way to hell.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus offers a way–the only way–off of the path of folly and onto the way of wisdom. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14)

Jesus calls everyone to enter by the narrow gate, to take the road that isn’t taken by most othersAnd Jesus himself is the gate by which we embark on the wise way: “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. … I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture'” (John 10:7, 9).

How do we take the road not taken? The gospel breaks into the world of Frost’s poem by giving hope, hope that you can get onto the wise way no matter how many times you’ve taken instead the foolish way before. As Paul promises, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Everyone. No matter how foolish and sinful you are. If you call on the name of the Lord to save you, if you repent, turning away from your sin, and trusting Jesus to save you from your sin by his death and resurrection, you will be saved.

And fellow Christians, following Christ on the way of wisdom means following him in holiness. Paul exhorts us: “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Peter concurs: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Ultimately, God himself speaks to us throughout Scripture to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Fellow Christians, let us walk by faith in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit the wise way set out for us in Proverbs and in all the books of the Bible, to the glory of God the Father.

Wisdom for a King (Wisdom Wednesday #2)

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Two basic questions to ask when reading a book are (1) who wrote this book? and (2) to whom was this book written? Knowing both the author and audience of a book helps the reader to read the book well. Applying these questions to Proverbs is thus helpful in understanding how it applies to us Christians today.

Solomon wrote and compiled Proverbs in the tenth century BC. Proverbs begins by identifying him as the author of the book as a whole: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (1:1). According to Prov. 10:1, “the proverbs of Solomon” continue through 22:16. According to Prov. 22:17, the following two and a half chapters are comprised of “the words of the wise” that Solomon has incorporated into his “knowledge.” Chapters 25-29 “also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied” (25:1). Proverbs 30 and 31 conclude with “the words of Agur” and “the words of King Lemuel,” which “his mother taught him,” respectively (30:1 and 31:1). Solomon is thus the main author of Proverbs, both by writing original proverbs and by compiling others, all under inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.

Solomon originally wrote Proverbs to his sons, especially Rehoboam who was to succeed him on the throne of Israel. The father-son dynamic in Proverbs is apparent early on and throughout the book. In Prov. 1:8, Solomon writes, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” He also addresses his “son” in 1:10 and 15, as well as 2:1; 3:1, 11, and 21. Solomon addresses his “sons” in 4:1-9 before focusing again on his “son” in 4:10, 20; 5:1; 6:1, 20; and 7:1. Solomon, the wisest man ever to live, recorded his God-given wisdom for his sons, especially Rehoboam, who would need this wisdom in order to govern the nation of Israel well.

The individual Proverbs of Solomon gave Rehoboam practical advice for being a wise king. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (11:14). “By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts [or taxes heavily, ESV footnote] tears it down” (29:4). “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness” (16:12). Biblically, a king should be just and merciful. Sadly, Rehoboam was neither. Though the wisest man in the world, Solomon was not perfect, and in Proverbs he urges his sons not to repeat his mistakes but rather to learn from them. Rehoboam, however, both repeated and worsened his fathers mistakes, which cost him ten of the twelve tribes of Israel (1 Kings 12:1-24). The wisdom for a king found in Proverbs was humanly impossible even for the wisest man on earth and his descendants, which ultimately lost the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:1-21).

To understand how Solomon’s wisdom for kings applies to us Christians today, we must go through the perfectly wise king, King Jesus. Jesus “established” his throne “by righteousness.” As it is written in Romans 3:21-26,

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Jesus’ life and death were wholly righteous, and his righteousness established his eternal throne over the universe, as Paul puts it elsewhere,

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:8-9).

Jesus is the perfectly wise king who established an eternal and universal throne by his perfect righteousness.

Which brings us to how Proverbs’s wisdom for kings applies to us Christians. Adam and Eve were originally meant to rule over creation (Gen. 1:28) but abdicated the throne of this world to Satan when they sinned in Eden (Gen. 3). Jesus, however, has fulfilled God’s promise in Gen. 3:15 to crush the head of the serpent. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has defeated Satan. Although Satan still functionally rules over nonbelievers, Jesus has established his throne over all the universe, and we believers are no longer under Satan’s dominion. Paul says that we believers are “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17)–and if fellow heirs, then restored vice-regents as were Adam and Eve before their fall. We believers should therefore strive to live righteously in this life. Put simply, Solomon’s wisdom for kings is universally wise. Kings should be righteous as an example for their people to follow. King Jesus is perfectly righteous, and by the grace of God, we his people are being conformed to that righteousness day by day (Rom. 8:29). Let us Christians therefore wisely “walk in newness of life” because through faith we have been “raised from the dead” with Christ (Rom. 6:4).

God in Solomon’s Proverbs (Wisdom Wednesday #1)

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In the Introduction of his commentary on Proverbs, Tremper Longman III rightly confronts the tendency among some scholars to conclude that Proverbs is a book of “secular advice” in which any mention of God’s name Yahweh “is a sign of a late addition to a consistently secular book” (Proverbs, 57). God is as central in Proverbs as he is throughout the Bible. As Thomas R. Schreiner points out, Proverbs is, in fact, “God-Centered” because “even if Yahweh is not mentioned [in individual proverbs], there was no arena of life in Israel where he was absent” (The King in His Beauty, 281). To take Solomon’s proverbs specifically (10:1-22:16 and 25:1-29:27), we see that God was central to all of Solomon’s wisdom, for he was its source (1 Kings 4:29-34). Not only is God central to Solomon’s wisdom on a variety of subjects as diverse as wealth and speech, work ethic and anger, but Solomon also writes proverbs specifically about God himself. Solomon writes proverbs about God’s divine attributes as the basis for how people should respond to him in faith and obedience.

In his proverbs, Solomon focuses on four attributes of God. First, God is all-knowing. Solomon writes, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3; cf. 20:27). Second, God is just: “The eyes of the LORD watch over knowledge, but he overthrows the words of the traitor” (22:12; cf. 16:2). Third, God is meticulously sovereign over all things, even things as seemingly random as a roll of dice (16:33). Fourth, God is the all-powerful Creator: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both” (20:12). God’s omnipotence is also evident because nothing “can avail against the LORD” (21:30), not even the strongest armies (21:31). Like the rest of the Bible, Proverbs presents God as the all-knowing, just, sovereign, and all-powerful Creator.

The proper response to this Creator is faith. In Proverbs, “fear of the LORD” is the dominant phrase, but it is comparable to “trust in the LORD.” For example, “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27) and “blessed is he who trusts in the LORD” (16:20). Those who properly fear God do not fear his power without also trusting in his goodness. And as the New Testament repeatedly makes clear, Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah Savior who is not only human but also divine. In Jesus’ own words, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30; cf. 17:11, 21). In light of the New Testament, we see that to fear/trust in the LORD is to trust Jesus for salvation. Peter and Paul agree with one another: “You have been born again, not of a perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; … And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25), for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Before Christ’s first coming, people were saved through faith in a vague but certain “Messiah” who was to come. Since Christ the Messiah has come, we must believe according to the revelation given us. It is not enough to believe in a generic God or a generic Savior; to be saved we must trust Jesus, the God-Man, to save us from our sin by his life, death, and resurrection.

Obedience to God must be based on such faith in him and his Christ. In Proverbs, true wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD. Good works apart from faith are damning, for apart from faith they are filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Nevertheless, we Christians should begin to respond to God wisely on the foundation of our faith in Jesus for salvation. As Solomon writes, we are no longer to fear people (Prov. 29:25); rather, we should always fear the LORD (28:14). Persevering faith is a central theme in Hebrews (see, e.g., Heb. 3:12-15). Furthermore, we Christians should do good to others, even to our enemies, out of faith in God’s ultimate justice (Prov. 20:22; 25:21-22). (Paul offers the same lesson as Prov. 20:22 and quotes Prov. 25:21-22 in Rom. 12:19-21.) Obedience to our Creator must flow from faith in him as our Savior and Lord.

Proverbs thus confirms the message of the rest of Scripture. As the author and primary actor throughout Scripture, God is prominent in Proverbs, as well. James M. Hamilton Jr. maintains that the message of the whole Bible, of biblical theology, is summed up as: “God is glorified in salvation through judgment,” and Proverbs “teaches” this in addition to every book of the Bible (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 301). As I have noted in a review, I agree with Dr. Hamilton’s center of biblical theology. I thus believe that the above exposition of Solomon’s proverbs that are explicitly about God (and not tied to other specific topics) demonstrates the centrality of God in Proverbs.

God is central in Solomon’s proverbs. The question posed to us now becomes threefold: Is God central to us in our daily lives? Is Jesus the Son our personal Savior and Lord? Do we strive to please God in faithful obedience to him? May God use the wisdom contained in Proverbs to convict us of sin, to turn us to the only Savior for our sin, Jesus Christ, and to turn us from foolish sinfulness to wise, righteous living for his glory.

Sources

Hamilton, James M. Jr. God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Longman, Tremper III. Proverbs. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Schreiner, Thomas R. The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

 

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