22. Aspiring to Wisdom

Aspiring Meditations: 22.  Aspiring to Wisdom

Psa 111:10   The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom

Psa 104:24   How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all;

Prov 14:8   The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways

Knowledge, understanding and wisdom go together we said. We have considered the first two and so now we are left with ‘wisdom’ and here we are in for some surprises.  Knowledge is given, understanding follows and together they challenge us to live out what we have learned to be the way to live, and that is wisdom.

We have seen previously that the “fear of the Lord is beginning of knowledge” and now we see that it is also the beginning of wisdom. When you realise who God is and what He is, you bow before Him, and surrender to Him. That is wisdom. It is also not surprising that the psalmist tells us that everything God has done, He has done with wisdom. He knows everything and so with that knowledge He brought the world into being. For example, think of Him imagining the world He is going to bring into being. He imagines oxygen and He imagines hydrogen and He sees that the two together make water. He knows the characteristics of the things He brought into being and He knew how they would work – and that includes us.

Wisdom is a potential characteristic He has made for us, but it is not guaranteed and even when it is, there are question marks. Most people know the story of Solomon being given wisdom by the Lord (1 Kings 3) and we see how that worked so wonderfully by the time the Queen of Sheba came to visit him (1 Kings 10). Everything he has done and everything he has achieved is attributed to the wisdom the Lord gave him and yet in the very next chapter (1 Kings 11) we find Solomon taking many foreign wives and giving way to their foreign false religions. It is always possible to walk away from the blessing of God and turn to our own folly, energised by sensual desires, and suffer the consequences of that. Wisdom is not a guarantee. We can reject it even when we have it.

Wisdom comes from a right respect (fear) of the Lord and part of that means we simply accept His will is always best and when we follow it, blessing will always follow. Moses knew this when he instructed Israel on the Plains of Moab: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut 4:5,6) Keeping the Law would reveal an orderly and peaceful and harmonious and prosperous society that should have been the envy of the world, showing a wise people (and it did happen initially with Solomon as witnessed by the Queen of Sheba).

That was wisdom in the Old Testament but when we come to the New we see something different. The apostle Paul wrote, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor 1:22-24) Now that is interesting because he shows us two different sorts of wisdom. First, he refers to the wisdom that the Greeks sought after which was more based on knowledge and logic. However, that logic could never have guessed at the plan of God, hidden as a mystery from before He made the world, a plan that involved the death of His Son. That was the second wisdom in those verses, the wisdom that comes from knowing God’s will, what God has decreed, how God has laid down His strategy to save the world: “we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” (1 Cor 2:7)

But how about the practical “how to live” wisdom? “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (Jas 1:5) We get it when we first come to God and we get it every time we ask the Lord for guidance as to how to live out our lives. Later in his letter, James goes on to contrast these two sorts of wisdom we’ve already hinted at, and see in the desires of the Greeks.

See: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (Jas 3:13-17) Let’s look at this in some detail.

Human ‘wisdom’ puts ‘self’ first and therefore the life of pursuing selfish desires and selfish ambitions inevitably involves coming into conflict with others. That is what James recognizes and speaks about here, but the wisdom that comes from God pursues the plan and strategy formulated by the Godhead before the Creation and it is built on the total knowledge of how the world is designed to work at its best – including how to deal with it when it doesn’t work according to design (and this includes us). The end goal is always to bring mankind back into a place of being able to receive God’s blessing, and that means coming into a place of peace, harmony, divine provision and a glorious destiny in eternity.

Knowledge recognizes that God has given us, for example, many good things to eat and drink. It also observes that eating too much means obesity. It then understands the link and sees the folly of eating to much and the resulting threats to health that follow, and so wisdom sees how to live with a healthy diet and self-control. The same sort of thing can be applied to all bodily desires. Ignoring God’s design, ignoring God’s will, means we stray outside His parameters with all the accompanying ailments we see in modern Western society.

Do I want (need) to aspire to this godly wisdom? Yes, definitely. Why? Because it works and brings God’s blessing, and rejecting it for human, self-centred ‘wisdom’ (which is in fact folly) means my life will start breaking down and falling apart. When we rely on self-centred desires for our immediate pleasure, that reject the will of God, we will get into trouble. Eve knew that would happen when she took the forbidden fruit but for the ‘pleasure’ of the moment, she gave way. It is that example that we see around us so much of the time in the West – obese people, people with problems with alcohol, broken marriages, insecure relationships, children without a father, sexual diseases etc. All of this is because our society has rejected the wisdom of God. May it not be true of you and me!

29. Proverbs (2)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 29.  Proverbs (2)

Prov 1:7    The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

I feel a coward! I often want to say to groups studying the Bible, hey, let’s move away from the comfortable and easy stuff, let’s study the more difficult parts of the Bible, and yet here in this part of the Scriptures I wanted to shy away from some of the most basic and fundamental truths of the Bible – and perhaps that is why I wanted to avoid them, because they are so basic and really need thinking about.  So forgive me, and come with me, please, to this very basic verse early on in Proverbs. Let’s chew on it, let’s wrestle with it and see what it might say to us today.

Our obvious starting point has to be to consider the word, ‘fear’ but more especially, ‘fear of the LORD’. The expression, “the fear of the LORD” occurs a number of times in the Scriptures: 2 Chron 17:10, 19:7,9, Job 28:28, Psa 19:19, 34:11, Prov 2:5, 9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 15:16,33,  16:6, 19:23, 22:4, 23:17, Isa 11:2,3, 33:6, Acts 9:31. Moreover there are countless other injunctions to fear God. When Scripture speaks of “the fear of the LORD,” it refers to a characteristic or attitude that a person can hold. I confess I used to play this down and speak of ‘awe and respect’ for God but in reality it is stronger than that. Let’s consider one such use of this phrase, “the fear of THE I AM” (see Ex 3 – remember that’s what LORD in capitals in your Bible means).

Let’s consider what the psalmist David taught: listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (Psa 34:11) He then spoke about behaviour that avoided wrong speech, that turned from evil and did good, seeking and pursuing peace (v.12-14) i.e. this behaviour would be a response or outworking of this attitude. But then David gives two things the Lord does, things that should cause us to have a holy, awesome, even fearful respect for God: i) “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry” (v.15) and then ii) “the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” (v.16)

Wow! This is a God who acts against wrong. He watches over the righteous and responds to their cries, but those who do evil…. He wipes them out!!!! Now whether He does this quickly now, or delays and then does it, or even waits until the Final Judgment, is really irrelevant; the fact is that He IS going to hold ALL sinners accountable and He will bring judgment on those who refuse to repent. Now if that doesn’t make Him scary, I don’t know what does!

Now the next word that bears consideration here is ‘knowledge’ which in ordinary usage simply means a body of facts or information. Knowledge is often linked with ‘understanding’ but understanding means realizing the significance of something. Knowledge at this moment refers to observing and recognising and taking in this verse. Understanding speaks of realizing its significance. So, the fear of the Lord refers to the attitude that has come to learn that ‘THE I AM’, the Eternal One, the one Abram, Moses etc. encountered is one who holds people accountable and when they fall short, He deals with them, e.g. Eli in 1 Samuel, Saul in 1 Samuel, and so on. ‘Understanding’ this phrase means we realise that His demand for accountability puts us in the firing line, it puts ME right in front of Him, having to account to Him. This is what this is all about.

But there is another word we need to consider: ‘beginning’. Now that is tricky because the writers here and elsewhere are saying that the starting point for any real knowledge about existence starts at this point. That drives us back to the word ‘knowledge’ which in this use must be more than that basic usage – information, facts, data etc. – it must mean the basic, fundamental knowledge of what life is all about.

Really understanding what this world, this life, is all about starts here, it starts with the realization that a) there IS an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise God as revealed in the Bible and b) He is not far off but is here and c) He involves Himself in the lives of the people on earth – His earth, the earth He designed and made and thus d) He acts for those who are righteous (living according to His design) and against those who are unrighteous (living by rejecting His design and contrary to it). The end product, as far as we are concerned, should be fear of Him, an awesome, scary respect, that recognizes that He holds ME accountable and without His grace, His mercy and His salvation I am doomed.

When we truly understand this, then when we are confronted with the news of His salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ, we will grab at it like a drowning man at a straw, and we will receive it with gladness and wonder and thankfulness.

And the rest of the verse? “but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” OK, quickly. ‘Wisdom’ = the knowledge of how to do, or how it works. Wisdom comes to realise that the knowledge and understanding we have been considering needs to be applied to me. ‘Discipline’ = taking control of oneself and bringing change. A footnote in your Bible probably says, “The Hebrew words rendered fool in  Proverbs, and often elsewhere in the Old Testament, denote one who is  morally deficient.” The person who ‘falls short’ does so in God’s sight. It is God who declares them what they are. They are what they are because they refuse wisdom, they refuse to take note of these truths that will be put before them at some points in their lives, and they refuse to respond accordingly.

So, sorry, we nearly missed the wonder of this verse that is clearly a highlight verse. Think on these things, act on them, for they are fundamentals of life, and a key to how we live and to our future destiny.

17. 1 Kings

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 17.  1 Kings

1 Kings 3:12   I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.

1 Kings 11:1 King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter–Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites.

When it comes to 1 Kings, one verse is not enough for one verse alone would paint a distorted picture and two verses apart would take up unnecessary space, so I pull together these two verses even though they come years apart.

The first verse and all that comes both before and after it is quite remarkable. King David is dying and Solomon is brought to the throne though clever strategies (see 1 Kings 1 & 2.)  To cut a long story short Solomon has a dream in which the Lord comes to him and says He will give him great wisdom to enable him to rule his kingdom. The extent of the Lord’s promises is worth noting: I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for–both riches and honor–so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (1 Kings 3:12-14) First the promise was of great wisdom and a discerning heart. Second the promise was of great riches and honour. All the Lord required was for Solomon to obey His laws.

Now again, to cut a long story short, these promises were fulfilled in abundance. The kings wisdom and discernment was shortly seen in a wise judicial decision (1 Kings 3:16-27) with the result that, “all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.” (v.28) We read of his rule, “The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life,” (1 Kings 4:20,21) and “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.” (v.29,30) He also built the first temple and, “When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple.” (1 Kings 8:10,11) Sometime later the Lord appeared to him in a second dream with a call and a warning to ensure he kept to all the Lord’s commands and did not worship foreign gods (1 Kings 9:1-9). It was a very clear warning.

The extent of his blessing is perhaps nowhere seen so clearly as in the visit of the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13) and her testimony of how incredible it all was. If you have never read it, pause now, look it up and read it. The rest of the chapter 10 extols all the greatness of what he was doing. Thus our first highlight verse showed the reason for what followed in chapters 3 to 11. Amazing!

Which brings us to our second verse and I suggest it is a highlight verse because it highlights the human folly that resides in each one of us (oh yes, don’t kid yourself that you are different from the rest of the human race!). “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter–Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.” (11:1,2)  Moses had prophesied about Israel’s future and their desire to have a king and warned about him, “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.” (Deut 17:17) but worse than that, the Law warned again and again against taking foreign wives (see Ex 34:16; Deut 7:1-3; Josh 23:12-13; Ezr 9:2; 10:2-3; Ne 13:23-27) but Solomon ignored that.

And there was his downfall!  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.” (11:4-6) In response to this the Lord declared (11:9-13) he would split the kingdom and leave only one other tribe with his son’s tribe after he had gone. The practical reason for the split is not given but possibly the Lord knew that his son was foolish and rather than let him lead the whole of Israel astray He limited his reign to just two tribes that we refer to as the southern kingdom. What is tragic is that every single king of the northern kingdom tolerated idols at a national level and every king was a poor king. Did the Lord think that ruling just two tribes would be easier, we don’t know but that was the future.

Our area where I live is visited every summer by a circus, not always the same one. Often the circus tent is of the sort supported by two main poles with a horizontal ridge between them. In silhouette at dusk there is this sloping roof and you can imagine a figure scaling the slope on one side up to the first pole, then along the ridge to the second pole and sliding down to the slope on the other side, shooting off the eaves and dropping eight feet to the ground. That is how I see these two highlight sets of verses. After David, the Lord offers Solomon greatness and it will come through the first verse – through great wisdom. Solomon will operate at that level for much of the earlier part of his reign but as he gets older, he reaches the second verse and from there it is all downhill until he dies and the kingdom crashes to the ground in two pieces.

It is a terrible picture of the folly of mankind or, if you like, of the terrible power of sin which, if you give way to it, leads to calamitous outworkings. Here was Solomon who is handed the throne that had been well established by his father who, mot of the time presented a good example of a heart following God. David’s lack of wisdom came through having a number of wives and even though he was not swayed by them (Deut 17:17 warning) the many children fought. Solomon had not learned from that.

And us? beware the temptations to think that God doesn’t know best! Beware making excuses about teaching you don’t like and becoming disobedient. Even the most blessed of us, and with the most powerful ministries are vulnerable to the outworkings of Sin. The call is to always we alert to these things and resist them.

69. A Challenging Offer

Meditations in Exodus: 69. A Challenging Offer

Ex 32:9,10  “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” 

We said in the previous study that sin has consequences and the first consequence is that it comes to the attention of the Lord: Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’  “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. (v.7-9) There is within us sinful human beings a tendency to believe that God won’t see our misdemeanors – but He does, He sees everything. Not only does He see, but He responds emotionally. These words, as we shall shortly see, are words of anger.

Now as I have studied the judgments of God I have thought hard and long about anger. Anger is a righteous response to wrong doing. Anger, a dictionary says is ‘passionate displeasure’. God is not pleased by sin, and neither should we be.  Unfortunately, we live in a society in the West where ‘toleration’ reigns. Toleration says, ‘we are all the same so don’t judge anyone.’  Toleration says sin is all right but God says it isn’t!  When you see a CCTV video of thugs beating up an old man, or you see vandals going into an art gallery and carving up wonderful old paintings, your emotional response reveals the sort of person you are. It is right to be angry about such things because anger then acts to punish such things and stop such things degrading society.

Now what we do with our anger and what God does with His anger is the big question. Isaiah shows us how God works: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.” (Isa 54:7,8) Anger rises to highlight the wrong but then, I have observed, the Lord looks calmly at the situation and determines what should be the appropriate response. Where He sees hearts that can be turned He brings ‘disciplinary judgment’ but where He sees that hearts are so hard they cannot be moved He brings what I call ‘terminal judgment’ and a life is taken (what I have also called ‘judgments of the last resort’ because nothing else will work).

Now see the Lord’s apparent response to this situation as He expresses it to Moses: Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation. (v.10) i.e. I will wipe them out and start to make a new nation from you. What a challenging offer! If you have never seen this before, realise that sometimes the Lord lays out an apparent pathway to test us to see what our heart response it. It is NOT what He wants to do but He wants to see our response. We see it in His instructing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:2). He did not want Abraham to do it for He clearly has a substitute at hand, but He wants to provide an opportunity for Abraham to show the level of his obedience.

Similarly, here He wants to give Moses an opportunity to show his heart. And he does: But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: `I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ (v.11-13)

What an intercessor! Moses sees the big picture. God has gone to all the trouble of getting Israel out of Egypt – point 1. He had promised the patriarchs He would multiply their descendants – point 2. To destroy Israel now would be to annul those two things, and He won’t do that. It is tempting to be considered the father of a new nation but that is all it is, a temptation, and it surely cannot be the will of God. So Moses intercedes with the Lord on behalf of Israel on this basis and Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (v.14) Of course He relented, He never wanted it to happen in the first place. We will see this happen again soon. Moses has passed the test.

I have had people say to me, “I have had this opportunity put before me, it must be the Lord’s will for me.” Is it really? Is that what you really want and is that what the Lord really wants for you? We need to learn to be a discerning people for the Lord will put before us things to test our hearts. If the Lord lifts off His hand of restraint over the world to let them do the things their sinful hearts want, by way of disciplinary judgment, He will from time to time lift His hand of restraint off you as well, to test your heart. In such times we need to ask, what really is God’s heart here, what does He really want of me, what will truly bring Him glory? Even then we have to ask, ‘Lord, grant me wisdom to know what to do here.” (Jas 1:5) but even in that we will show the right heart we have. May it be that that is the sort of heart that is revealed in each of us.

45. The Wisdom & Provision of God

Meditations in Exodus: 45. The Wisdom & Provision of God

Ex 13:17,18   When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.

These chapters appear to be made up of blocks of information, each one different and yet each one highly significant in its own way. This block of the remaining verses in this chapter contains three distinct sets of information.

The first set of information (v.17 & 18) is about the route that Israel took at the Lord’s leading and in it we see the Lord’s wisdom: When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.” (v.17,18)

Their end goal is the Promised Land or what we have often called Canaan and in more modern times, Palestine, directly north on the cost of the Mediterranean Sea. However the most direct route to it was through the land of the Philistines (south west of what became Israel) and they were known for being marauders and that route, as it left Egypt, was heavily guarded by a string of Egyptian fortresses. Neither wanting His people to have to contend with the Philistines nor possibly have trouble with the outlying Egyptian fortresses, the Lord led them more to the east towards what is known as the Red Sea or Reed Sea, or Sea of Reeds. If Israel found immediate conflict with the Philistines the Lord foresaw that they were not yet a great fighting force but more of a motley mass of individual families, and they might lose heart and turn round and go back to Egypt. This is the declared reason of the Lord but as we shall see there might yet be another double reason why He took them this more easterly route but we will have to wait until the next meditation to see that.

We then come in the second mini-block of information (v.19) to what is an action based upon history: Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (v.19) In Gen 50:24,25 Joseph had made his brothers make this promise which Moses now fulfils and Joshua will see is done (see Josh 24:32). It is a prophetic fulfillment sign that emphasises the strength of the will of God that had been declared to the Patriarchs and was now being fulfilled. Jacob had already been buried in Canaan and now Joseph can be as well (when they reach there! Amazing to think  they carried Joseph’s bones around with then for what eventually turned out to be over forty years!)

In the final mini-block of information we see the Lord’s ongoing provision for this people – His visible guidance! “After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” (v.20-22) In 12:37 we noted they had moved to Succoth, thought to be west of the Bitter Lakes, and now they move north east to Etham, thought to be nearer the Bitter Lakes in the north of Egypt.

Now note very carefully this is no random moving but they moved as guided by God and only when God guides. His provision of guidance is clearly visible and can only be described as divinely supernatural, a pillar of cloud by day which turned into a pillar of fire by night. Both of these pillars indicate the presence of God (see Ex 14:24). It would appear that subsequently the Lord often spoke to them from the pillar (see Num 12:5-6; Dt 31:15-16; Psa 99:6-7)

There are those (who presumably don’t read the text carefully) who would make suggestions for a variety of paths for Israel to take but I suggest there are sufficient names to make it quite clear. Some would like to suggest theirs was a random wandering but the Lord’s very obvious presence with them in these two ways challenges that. Now this is going to become significantly important shortly and so we will retrain making comments that are more applicable in the next study. Simply bear it in mind that Israel are where they are NOT by accident but by the Lord’s design. I will stop at that point.

However, there is one further point to be observed in passing, the final part of verse 18: The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.”  Although we were told earlier that the Lord didn’t want Israel to get into skirmishes with the Philistines, nevertheless they go out fully armed. One can only surmise that this was part of their “plundering the Egyptians” (12:36).  Before they enter the Land many years will pass but when they eventually do they will need to fight both on their way towards the land and once they are in it. At least they are equipped for a fight even if mentally they may not yet be ready for it. Is there something for us to ponder on in that?

As I view what went on here, I sometimes wonder how the Lord may ‘interfere’ with our lives to protect us? Does He stop us moving into certain activities because He sees that in the long-run it will be harmful for us? Does He stop us doing some things because He sees that it would develop pride in us that would overwhelm us? He certainly gives us great leeway as our mistakes show, but I still have this feeling that He keeps us away from other things to protect us. Check your life and see if you feel the same – and then give thanks.

1. So what is Faith?

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 1 :  So what is faith?

Heb 11:1  Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

I need to start this new series of meditations with a confession, well, perhaps two confessions. The first confession is that I have often sat in church services and wondered, “What about this is faith?”  Now that wasn’t always a negative denunciation of sterile ritual, but an honest desire or appraisal to know what, in what we were doing, was genuinely faith and, as we’ll see as we go on, I have been surprised that there was more of faith in our services than I had thought. The other confession is that I sometimes sit and ponder and wonder how much faith plays a part in my own life and that has had more negative overtones, and yet by the very fact that I am writing these meditations suggests an element of faith, which we’ll see in the days to come. I’m not sure where this is going but I suspect we may need to look at what is faith, why is faith important, how does faith come, is faith static or does it grow, and no doubt a few more things about ‘faith’.

The starting place has to be the so-called ‘hall of faith’ in Hebrews 11 and the writer’s opening statement, our verse above. Faith he says is being sure about something, about being assured of something. There is a confidence about faith. There is a sureness about faith. It is not wishy-washy half-hearted wondering. To reflect on that more fully we perhaps need to turn to the apostle James’ letter.

The apostle James, while not actually using the word faith in the opening part of his letter, clearly has it in mind when he speaks about our needing wisdom: 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jas 1:5-8)

Verse 5 builds faith as he says we need to ask God for wisdom  because he says God gives (a) generously, (b) to all and (c) without finding fault and (d) He will give it when we ask. Do you see that? God is a generous giver, you don’t have to earn wisdom, He’s got lots of it and is very happy to give it away. Moreover He is very happy to give it to anyone who comes to Him asking, “to all”.  Further He is not going to interrogate you to check to see if you are good enough or up to it, He isn’t looking for faults in you that will put you off getting His wisdom, He simply will give it when you ask.

Now after you have read that verse, hopefully you are feeling confident about asking God for wisdom (the knowledge of ‘how to’).  It may be that there have been other negatives in your life that quench belief  but in the absence of those things, something will have risen in you that says, “Yes, I CAN ask God for wisdom.” That is faith, a sureness about a course of action which has been brought about by the word of God (James’ writing) and no doubt prompted and confirmed by the Holy Spirit as I encouraged you. When you go away and ask the Lord for wisdom for some aspect of your life now, that is faith. It came by God’s word, it stirred the truth in you, witnessed by the Holy Spirit in you, and brought a confidence on which you act.

But James knows that not everyone is open like this, hence verse 6: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”  Doubting has no place in asking and getting, doubting has no place in faith. Remember the two key words at the beginning – ‘sure’ and ‘certain’. You cannot be sure and certain AND doubt. If you doubt, nothing is going to happen. God responds to faith – He responds to you responding positively to His word coming to you, bringing in you a sureness. You see, to take the example above, when you ask for wisdom but are uncertain about it, you spend more time thinking about your doubts than taking notice of thoughts that may be coming from God. It’s not that God doesn’t want you to have the wisdom for the situation; it is that you clutter your mind with doubts (unbelief) and so CANNOT hear God. When you are sure and certain, you ask God for it and then listen and, with an open, believing heart, suddenly ideas start flowing in your mind and you realise you have the answer to your problem that needed wisdom. You HAVE the wisdom!

You can recognize faith when you are alert to these sorts of things. You have faith when you suddenly know “It’s true!” or “He’s here!” or “Yes, I can do it because He’s said so!” You suddenly recognize a confidence that wasn’t there previously. You have a gift from God (which we’ll see some way down the line) and it is a confidence in Him; what He says IS true. That is faith Now of course there was another whole side to our starting verse – the ‘hope’ and ‘unseen’ part of it, and we’ll look at that in the next meditation.

22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!