Day 171: Trouble in the Third (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4)

3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

One of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard was from Dr. Eugene Lowry. He was a professor of preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology for over 30 years, and around 1992 preached the spring revival at my alma mater, the Southern Baptist Theological Semnary.

That was a long time ago, but I still remember Dr. Lowry’s sermon, “Trouble in the Third.” I remember it because not only was Lowry a brilliant preacher, he was also a brilliant jazz pianist, and he preached this sermon from the piano.

Lowry talked about how, throughout the Baptist hymnal, there are countless hymns that follow a similar plotline: the first verse establishes the character of God. The second our relationship to Him.

Then, in a significant number of hymns, the third verse introduces trouble, doubt, uncertainty, sorrow, or sadness. Some examples:

  • The third verse of Amazing Grace: Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…
  • The third verse of “How Great Thou Art:” And when I think that God, His Son not sparing; sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in…
  • Holy, Holy Holy, Verse 3: Holy, Holy Holy, though the darkness hide thee; though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see…
  • Verse 3 of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us…
  • When I Survey The Wondrous Cross: See, from His head, His hands, His feet; Sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Gene Lowry played all these, and more, to make his point that so often, there is trouble in the third verse.

And then, the best hymns resolve the trouble in the third stanza with triumph in the fourth stanza. Take the same examples from above, and consider the fourth stanzas:

  • When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun…
  • When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
  • All thy works shall praise thy name in earth, and sky, and sea…
  • His kingdom is forever…

And, my personal favorite, the fourth stanza of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:”

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The problem in so many churches is that our ministers of music almost always skip the third verse. It’s almost a cliche: “Let’s all stand and sing the first and last stanzas of_________.” We’ve all been in churches like that, haven’t we?

The problem is, if you bypass the trouble in the third, the triumph in the fourth loses much of its impact. It’s hard to really appreciate that “the Lord has promised good to me/ His Word my hope secures” if we haven’t really pondered the “many dangers, toils and snares” through which we have already come.

And this is the brilliance of the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes reads like the third verse of a hymn. And it seems to have been written by someone in the third verse of his life–late middle age, when cynicism sets in, and you wonder what your life has amounted to, and what you will do with the days you have left.

The teacher invites us to ponder the trouble in the third verse. Ecclesiastes tells us that the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. God is a good God. There is nothing better than to enjoy the good gifts He has given us on this earth (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Remember your creator in the days of your youth, because there will come a day, according to the stunning imagery of chapter 12, when:

3 ...the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along,[a] and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 
Ecclesiastes 12:3-7

Like so many old school ministers of music, we’d love to skip Ecclesiastes and go straight to the triumph of the victorious Christian life. But that would be like bypassing Gethsemane and Calvary in order to get to the Empty Tomb. You can’t skip the trouble and go straight to the triumph. There’s trouble in the third verse, but there is triumph just around the corner.

Day 170: Living Under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1-6)

3 What does man gain by all the toil
    at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
    and hastens to the place where it rises.
Ecclesiastes 1:3-5

I always come to Ecclesiastes in a reading plan with gritted teeth because it’s such a tough read. If you’re new to the Bible, you might be surprised that Ecclesiastes even made the cut. It is a brutally honest, depressing look at the futility of life “under the sun.” (Side note— we get to this part of the reading plan when many of you will be on vacation at the beach. I’ve learned that it’s a nice balance to be LITERALLY “under the sun” while reading Ecclesiastes).

Tara-Leigh gave us the count for how often the term “Vanity of Vanities” shows up in Ecclesiastes— 38 times. But a close second is “Under the sun”— 27 times. It’s a little hard to pin down a precise meaning, but most commentators believe it refers to life lived without God in the equation. Life “under the sun” is life as I see it. Life based on what is observed. And so, yeah. If all I see is all there is, then life is meaningless at best and hopeless at worst.

If Ecclesiastes was all you had of the Bible, you would have a really bleak worldview. Pink Floyd, a band not known for their cheery, optimistic lyrics, actually captured the heart of Ecclesiastes in their classic song, “Time:

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again.

The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older

Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death.

Dude. If you’re getting quoted by Pink Floyd, you’ve got a pretty bleak worldview.

In Ecclesiastes, you see the sum total of life lived under the sun. It feels like a book Solomon would have written at the end of his life, as a bitter, cynical old man. He has looked for meaning through hedonism, pleasure, and philosophy. He’s sample the very best that life under the sun has to offer, and it has all fallen woefully short. Ed Young, longtime pastor of Second Baptist Church, Houston Texas, summed up the message of Ecclesiastes as, “Been There, Done That, Now What?”

But the whole message of the Bible is that there is more to life than what we see under the sun. Our call as believers is to look “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient. But the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18).

There is so much more to reality than what can be seen under the sun. As Christians, we have an “above the sun” worldview, because we have an out of this world destination.

Day 169: An Exercise in Praying the Proverbs (Proverbs 29)

Riots in Minneapolis, June 2020

Through the Bible: Proverbs 27-29

This was written on June 27, 2020. This was in the midst of protests over the death of George Floyd.

Every day, I try to read the chapter of Proverbs that matches the date on calendar. Often, it seems like there are striking parallels between stories in the news and what I read in Proverbs. It was like that this morning.

Between George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery; protests and counter protests over reopening the country; looting and violence in the streets; the current threat to pull the plug on Twitter; and the level of dissension and division among Christian brothers and sisters on social media, and the current threat to pull the plug on Twitter, verse after verse from Proverbs 29 jumped out at me.

So when what is in the press matches up with what is in the Proverbs, it is helpful to voice a prayer after each one. Here are just a few of the verses, and the prayers I wrote in my Bible next to them.

8 Scoffers set a city aflame,
    but the wise turn away wrath.
Proverbs 29:8

Lord, parts of Minneapolis are literally burning today. Anger and rage are at a boiling point. People cry for justice, and when they feel like their cries aren’t heard, violence spills over. So Father, please raise up wise men and women who can turn away wrath.

“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” (Proverbs 29:11)

Lord, raise up wise leaders who will not give full vent to their spirit, but will quietly hold it back.

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”
Proverbs 29:18

Oh God, let there be a prophetic vision for how this can end. Your people have cast off all restraint.

“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Proverbs 29:20

 Father, social media, especially Twitter, makes it so easy to be hasty with words. Please give our leaders wisdom to know how to be wise with the platforms they have. And help me remember that just because a thought comes into my head, that doesn’t mean I have to Tweet it.

“A man’s wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.” (Proverbs 29:22)

God, when we are given to anger, we cause sin. Not just in ourselves, but in everyone who reads our posts or retweets our rants. Please keep our leaders and public figures from stirring up strife with their anger. And Lord, let me not merely point fingers at our public leaders. Let me not be given to anger.

Day 167: Nowhere God Isn’t (1 Kings 9; 2 Chronicles 8)

“Solomon brought Pharaoh’s daughter up from the city of David to the house that he had built for her, for he said, “My wife shall not live in the house of David king of Israel, for the places to which the ark of the Lord has come are holy.””
‭‭2 Chronicles‬ ‭8:11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

I was a high schooler in the 80’s, and then a youth minister in the 90’s, when the Christian subculture really started to take root. We talked a lot about the difference between the sacred and the secular. There was Christian music; which was appropriate to play on the bus on the way to youth camp, and then there was secular music, which was what you listened to on the way to football games.

There were Christian T-shirts, and if you wore them it helped your witness. But if you were at a party on the weekend and were wearing a Christian t-shirt, that hurt your witness.

There were Christian bumper stickers and chrome “Jesus” fish you could put on the back of the car. They were meant to let everyone know you were a Christian, but they were also supposed to remind you to act like a Christian, even when you were stuck in traffic.

You could honk, but only if you loved Jesus.

Of course, teenagers are great at finding loopholes. If you wanted to drink at a party, you just made sure you left your WWJD bracelet at home. If you were in your car with the Jesus fish on the bumper, you would only cuss out other drivers if your windows were rolled up. If you went to a raunchy movie, you tucked your cross necklace into your shirt, and you made sure the shirt you were wearing wasn’t from last summer’s youth camp.

We aren’t kids in the youth group anymore, but we still draw lines between the secular and the sacred. So it’s pretty easy to see what Solomon is doing when he builds a separate house for his Egyptian wife. He seems to be saying, “She’s part of my secular life. It’s fine to have her, as long as I keep her separate from my sacred life.

Here’s the problem: if you are a follower of Jesus, there is no part of your life that isn’t sacred. There is nowhere God isn’t.

See, we tend to look at our life like a waffle. We divide it up into compartments, labeled “church self;” “work self,” “social media self,” and so on. And we treat the involvement of God in our lives like maple syrup that we can pour into a few squares of our waffle and leave the others untouched.

But our lives before God aren’t waffles. They are pancakes, and the Holy Spirit has to be poured over every part of our lives; soaking the top and running down and in between every layer. There should not be any part of our lives that God isn’t involved in. Compartmentalizing is incompatible with a Spirit-filled life.

There is nowhere God isn’t. Solomon thought he would be okay if he just kept his pagan wife away from God’s temple. He forgot his own prayer of dedication:

“Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭8:27 ESV‬‬

Centuries later, Stephen would remind his audience of the same thing:

“the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?”
‭‭Acts‬ ‭7:48-49‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Beloved, we are the temple of God. Wherever we go, God is. There is no division between the sacred and the secular. The T-shirt you wear isn’t what bears the image of God. You do.

Day 164: Faithfulness to All Generations (1Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 5)

“and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.”
‭‭2 Chronicles‬ ‭5:13-14‬ ‭ESV‬‬

If you’ve been keeping up with this Bible reading plan since the beginning, a detail in today’s reading may have sounded familiar. When the priests begin singing about how God’s steadfast love endures forever, the glory of the Lord is so overwhelming that they can’t even perform their duties.

The same thing happened when Moses completed the Tabernacle over 500 years before:

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭40:34-35‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The Hebrew word for “glory” is kavod, and it means weight or heaviness. (See Day 043: The Weight of Glory).

There had been centuries of ups and downs for God’s people between Moses and Solomon. But God’s character had not changed. It still had the power to overwhelm, to stun, to fill the place with a holiness that could be felt. In spite of 40 years in the desert, 400 years of decline under the judges, and two generations of a mixed-bag experiment with monarchy under Saul and David, God was faithful to manifest His holiness to His people. Solomon noted this in his prayer of dedication:

““Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant.”
‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭8:56‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Beloved, as we continue through this reading plan, you’ll see that what was true for the 500 years between Moses and Solomon will be true for the 900 years between Solomon and Jesus. God was faithful to His people through centuries of poor leadership, the rise and fall of empires, and shifting geopolitical realities. Even in the 400 years of silence between the last word from a prophet and the first words of an angel to the Virgin Mary, God was working behind the scenes to ensure that not one of His good promises would fail.

And so, beloved Bride of Christ, know that the same God who shook the foundations of the temple, the same God who disrupts worship services with His overwhelming holiness, is still working today. Not one of his good promises will fail.

Not a single one.

Day 163: Hear from Heaven, Your Dwelling Place (1 Kings 8)

Through the Bible Reading Plan: 1 Kings 8, 2 Chronicles 5

Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) at the Jewish Museum, New York
27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! 28 Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, 29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. 30 And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive. (1 Kings 8:27-30)

From 1 Kings 8:31-49, Solomon presents seven situations in which God’s people would find themselves in need and then turn to God. There are several things these seven situations have in common. First, there’s the inevitability of sin. Each stanza of the prayer begins with “when,” not “if.” The clearest expression of this is verse 46: “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—.” The Bible never shies away from portraying human beings honestly. 

Second, these seven stanzas of Solomon’s prayer show the consequences of sin. Because of sin, Israel would be defeated by her enemies (v. 33); suffer drought (v. 35); as well as famine, blight, locusts, warfare, and disease (v. 37). The Bible never says that every negative thing that happens to us is the result of sin. But it does teach that every sin carries with it negative consequences.

The final stanza prophetically anticipates the time when the people of Israel would be overrun and exiled. This would happen over four hundred years later; first when the Assyrians overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and then the Babylonians exiled the southern kingdom of Judah in 586. Sin brought consequences, which eventually brought the people to repentance.

Perhaps the most important thing the stanzas of Solomon’s prayer have in common is that each ends with some variation of the phrase “Hear in heaven, your dwelling place” (see verses 30, 32, 34, 36, 39, 43, 45, 49). Solomon has faith that God will indeed hear when we call out to Him. But Solomon is also reminding the people that although the Temple is dedicated to the Name of God, God does not live there. Go back to verse 27, where Solomon exclaims, “Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less the temple I have built.” These multiple reminders that heaven is God’s dwelling place would ensure the Jews would worship God at the temple, instead of worshiping the temple itself. Furthermore, it would give the Jews tremendous assurance when they were in exile that God was still present with them, even though Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the temple. We have the same assurance today. We don’t have to come to church–make a pilgrimage to Israel—for God to hear our prayers of repentance. He meets us where we are, and He hears.

Solomon’s prayer of blessing praised the character of God. God gives rest to His people, and He is faithful to keep his promises (v. 56). He would be with the people just as He had been with their ancestors (v. 57). This is a promise we can bank on even to today, for the Lord does not change!

Notice that even our ability to be devoted to God comes from God Himself (v. 58). Left to our own devices, we are not able to obey God. But God’s abiding presence with us through the Holy Spirit enables us to live God honoring lives. Jesus taught His disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things, remind them of all that Jesus had said, and convict them of sin (John 14:26; 16:8).

Even though the Solomon’s temple is long gone, believers today can be assured that God still hears, and we can still come to Him. We know this because He is in His heaven, and we ourselves are the temple of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19)! 

Day 161: A Warning Against Transactional Relationships (Proverbs 23)

Through the Bible: Proverbs 22-24

“When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭23:1-3‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭23:6-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Proverbs 23 has a lot to say about how to behave when you are eating and drinking. Verses 1-3 are about not making a pig of yourself if you are eating with a ruler (or at least, that’s what it seems to be about on the first reading. More on that in a minute).

Then, verses 6-8 are about why we shouldn’t even accept a dinner invitation from a stingy person. Verse 7 is a spot-on word picture of the host who, with his mouth is telling you to enjoy yourself, but in his heart he’s keeping track of your bar tab and thinking about how much you are costing him.

In both cases, the writer of Proverbs says, “Do not desire his delicacies” (verses 3,6). In the case of the stingy person, it’s pretty obvious why: No one wants to be at a dinner party where the host is fixated on what you are costing him.

But what about the ruler? Why shouldn’t you make the most of a rare invitation to a palace feast? What’s wrong with his delicacies?

I think maybe it’s because it’s not really about the food. In verse 1, the relative pronoun asher is typically translated “what,” so that the phrase reads “observe carefully what is before you.” But the ESV notes that it could also be translated “observe carefully who is before you.” Which makes the emphasis on the ruler and not on the food.

Proverbs says the ruler’s delicacies are deceptive. What’s deceptive about them? Is Solomon saying they are poisonous? Or that they’re like biting into what you think is a chocolate chip cookie, only to find it’s actually oatmeal raisin? (Ugh. Been there).

Notice that the writer of Proverbs immediately shifts to the dangers of trying to acquire wealth:

“Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭23:4-5‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Solomon seems to be warning his son not to get too enamored with all the trappings of wealth and power. Note carefully who is before you, and know yourself well enough to know that if you are “given to appetite,” you might as well put a knife to your own throat. The “dainties” on the ruler’s table (to use the KJV language) are as deceptive as the fine strands of a spider’s web, and just as ensnaring.

Maybe I’m being too cynical in my reading of these verses. But I would be asking why the ruler would be inviting me to dinner in the first place? What does he want from me? A wise, discerning person would be aware that there’s likely to be an agenda in play whenever someone sits down to eat with a politically powerful person.

Proverbs 23 is a warning, then, against transactional relationships. Whether it’s a stingy man who is worried about what you are taking from him, or a powerful man who is assessing what he can get from you, Solomon’s advice is that you don’t desire delicacies from either one. Invest in people without agendas, and appreciate people for who they are, not for how they can benefit you.

Day 160: The Beautiful Gray (Proverbs 20:29)

29 The glory of young men is their strength,
    but the splendor of old men is their gray hair. (Proverbs 20:29)

Through the Bible Reading: Proverbs 19-21

One of the highlights of my week as a pastor is the hour I spend on Wednesday mornings with Mr. Harold. At 77 years old, Mr. Harold is the oldest person I’ve ever baptized. We’ve been going through the gospel of John together in the weeks since he became a believer. But mostly, we’ve been going through his life together. Mr. Harold is a baby Christian, but he is a wise man.

Me with Mr. Harold, on his baptism day

The older I get, the more aware I am of the bias against old people we have in our society. Millions of dollars are spent (by both women AND men) on products that will wash that gray right out of our hair. The current number one movie in America is Top Gun: Maverick. And while it does feature an older, wiser Tom Cruise, it is notably missing an older, grayer Kelly McGillis, who played Maverick’s love interest in the original. The 64 year old actress hasn’t minced words about why she wasn’t cast in the sequel:

“I mean, I’m old and I’m fat and I look age-appropriate for what my age is. And that is not what that whole scene is about!

But, to me, I’d much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin and who and what I am at my age as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff.”

Wherever our ageism comes from, be assured that it does not come from Scripture. The book of Leviticus commands that we honor the aged:

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:32).

And in Proverbs gray hair is called the splendor of old men. Not their embarrassment. Not our visual cue that we don’t have to take them seriously.

There is nothing sweeter than time spent with a seasoned saint. In Proverbs 16:31, the one other verse in Proverbs that mentions gray hair, we read that,

Gray hair is a crown of glory;
it is gained in a righteous life.

Aren’t we all doing this reading plan because we want to know how to live a righteous life? Aren’t we supposed to be seeking out wise people to walk with, in order that we ourselves can become wise (Proverbs 13:20)? God has designed the human body in such a way that we can readily identify those people!

Listen–I’m not judging you if you decide to color your hair. You do you, and God bless you. But from the bottom of my heart, I want to apologize for all those times I’ve made judgments on people who didn’t color their hair. For all the times I’ve grown impatient with senior adults. For all the times I’ve written off an older person, thinking they were out of touch or had nothing to offer me. Dear God, I am so sorry.

And if you are a “seasoned adult” that has felt forgotten or neglected or marginalized, I am sorry that our culture puts such a dumb premium on youth and the appearance of youth. I’m sorry for family members that don’t have time for you. I’m sorry for casting directors and advertising executives and television programmers that have placed such unrealistic expectations on you. I pray that you will be secure in your skin, however wrinkly or age spotted or saggy it is. And please, please know that God has not forgotten you. As the Lord spoke through Isaiah the prophet,

even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:4)

If there’s snow on the mountain, that means there is depth in the valley. God, help me remember that today.

Day 158: There is a Way That Seems Right… (Proverbs 14:12)

12 There is a way that seems right to a man,
    but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

Through the Bible Reading: Proverbs 13-15

Over the years, my wife and I have developed an affectionate code phrase for whenever I do something that is opposite the way she would have done it. Not wrong, just opposite. It could be about how the dishwasher gets loaded, the car gets packed, or which direction to go through a buffet line. Inevitably, the way I go is opposite the way she will go. And she will look at me and roll her eyes and say, “There is a way that seems right to James…”

And every once in awhile, if I’m really feeling myself, I’ll shoot back, “And guess what? It SEEMS right because it IS right!”

Because I can’t be wrong all the time… can I?

Trish, I hope you read this one…

Part of the issue is that I am left handed, and Trish is right handed. So like most left-handed people, I naturally turn left when there is a choice. And Trish naturally turns right. This actually works to our advantage at Disney World, because most people will turn right when they get through the entrance. (You’re thinking about it right now, aren’t you? Like most of the world, you head to Space Mountain first, don’t you?). But not the Jacksons. We go to Pirates of the Caribbean first. We head left. And as a result, we tend to have shorter lines all day long.

It’s not so much an advantage at the Thanksgiving table. When the dishes get passed around the table, I mess everything up. Because going left just seems… right to me. It is my natural inclination.

When it comes to our human nature, our natural inclination is toward sin. It has been that way ever since the Garden of Eden, when the devil convinced Adam and Eve that they didn’t need God to tell them what was right and wrong–they could decide for themselves. (See Day 001: Genesis 1-3).

The Bible consistently reminds us that human nature is bent toward sin. It’s what caused God to decide to destroy the world by flood and start over:

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

And again, in Jeremiah:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭17:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬

In other words, every Disney Princess is wrong. Following your heart is a terrible idea.

On the other hand, following the Maker of the heart is the way to life and peace. God loves you, and it was never His intention to allow you to just stumble blindly in the way that seems right to you. That’s why early on in Proverbs, the father tells his son,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭3:5-8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The way that seems right in our own understanding never is. But God will direct out paths if we recognize His absolute authority to do so. He tells us, in Isaiah:

“and whenever you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear this command behind you: “This is the way. Walk in it.””
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭30:21‬ ‭CSB‬‬

Day 157: Winning Souls or Taking Lives? (Proverbs 11:30)

Through the Bible Reading: Proverbs 10-12

30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
    and whoever captures souls is wise. (Proverbs 11:30)

There is a verse in today’s reading that, depending on the translation you read from, will have one of two radically different meanings.

In the King James Version, Proverbs 11:30 reads,

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he that winneth souls is wise.

However, in the Christian Standard Bible, you get,

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but a cunning person takes lives.

(Pro-tip: On biblegateway.com, if you type in a single verse reference, you have the option to compare the wording of that verse in all English translations. It is a great tool for comparative Bible study. Here’s the complete list of all the treatments of this particular verse).

When you look at all the English translations, only a few interpret the second half negatively. Notable are the Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation, and The Message.

How is it possible for a verse to be so different between translations? There are some foundational principles that all translation teams have to bear in mind as they do their work:

  • A verse or passage has one meaning. Multiple interpretations result from human limitations. It’s not God’s intention for His Word to “mean different things to different people.”
  • The Bible can never mean what it never meant. Any interpretive grid we apply to Scripture has to be consistent with the what the author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended.
  • Scripture interprets Scripture. Our understanding of a particular verse or passage must be consistent with the rest of the Bible, because the Bible doesn’t contradict itself.

Well, the first issue to contend with is that there isn’t a distinct connecting conjunction in the Hebrew. The character vav at the beginning of the word is sometimes used as “and,” but it can also be “but.” Translators have to decide if the two halves of the verse are complementary or contrasting.

The second difficulty is that this phrase is a one off. Scholars call this a hapex legomenon— a single instance. The phrase “Captures souls” is not found anywhere else in the Bible, so translators are not able to compare the phrase in verse 30 to other places where it is used. Since Scripture interprets Scripture, this gives translators one less tool in their toolbox.

A third difficulty: the word translated wise (hakam) is usually translated wise, but can also be translated as shrewd or cunning. So while most English translations see verse 30 as a positive verse about soul winning, it is possible to take the route taken by the Christian Standard Bible and see it as negative cunning instead of positive wisdom.

One commentary (the ESV Reformation Study Bible) acknowledges the ambiguity. It notes that the usual meaning of this phrase is in reference to killing or taking away life, so they end their entry for this verse with “The translation is uncertain.”

Another, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, suggests that “the idea of “winning souls” means capturing or laying hold of people with ideas or influence.” That would seem to be a positive thing. But curiously, it cross references 2 Samuel 15:6, which is about Absalom “stealing the hearts of the people” when he sat at the city gate and convinced people he would be a better king than his father David. In this case, Absalom was cunning, but not wise.

So which is it? Which translation got it “right,” and how do we decide? Well, I appreciate the humility of the Reformation Study Bible translation team. They acknowledged that it is ambiguous. But if you can’t live with the ambiguity, I’ll give you my opinion.

Laying hold of people with ideas or influence would certainly match one of the larger themes of Proverbs. Over and over, Proverbs tells us that plans fail for lack of counsel (Proverbs 15:22), and that we become wise when we walk with the wise (Proverbs 13:20). So that’s certainly a possibility.

But to be honest, there’s not much in the Hebrew that would suggest this as a possible interpretation. The word translated “souls” is nephesh, and it can mean breath or life. I can’t find anywhere that it means ideas or influence.

And what about the first part of the couplet– “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life?” Normally, there is a clear connection between the two halves of a verse in Proverbs, either comparison (these two things are similar); contrast (these two things are different) or continuity (this thought is a continuation of that thought). So would Solomon have said, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and wisdom is found by surrounding yourself with great thinkers and influencers?” Those two thoughts don’t seem to fit together. Remember, in the absence of a distinct conjunction, the translator needs to determine if it is complementary or contrasting.

Here’s a connection I see:

Living things reproduce. They bear fruit. And all throughout Scripture, we are told to produce fruit. In John 15, Jesus told His disciples that if they remained in Him, they would bear much fruit, and so prove to be His disciples (John 15:1-16). All living things produce fruit according to their kind. Apple trees produce apples. Banana trees produce bananas.

What do righteous people produce? More righteous people. Disciples produce disciples. Christ-followers produce Christ followers.

So when Proverbs says that “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, I think it means that we who are made righteous in Christ are a tree of life to those around us. Through us, others can be introduced to Christ. Others can begin a relationship with Jesus. Those around us can find eternal life because we bear fruit.

When we think about it in this way, the two halves of verse 30 make sense. The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life for those around them, and thus are active participants of God’s saving work in other people’s lives. Through us, God can capture souls.

We get to be soul winners.

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