searching for meaning

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1

My go to book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites, anyhow) is an acknowledgment in part of the futility of life, and of thinking that one can find any real meaning under the sun. The idea ends up simply enjoying what is, to the fullest, and not taking it too seriously, since in the end it will all be gone.

But there’s some stealth thoughts interjected along the way, such as the fact that God will judge, which is roundly stated in the end. And that we shouldn’t say much when we enter into the space where God is present for worship, but simply be silent. Those are clues that there may be more to this, to life than what often meets the eye. And in the end again, the charge to fear God and keep his commandments caps what has been an interesting read.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to what we regularly profess and confess. We need to let the weight of the narrative in Ecclesiastes have its affect on us. That is the way we’re to read scripture. And preferably with others.

I think it’s best to embrace the reality of how all these means which are made to be ends are not ends themselves at all. They have usefulness, to be sure, their place in life “under the sun.” But none of them in themselves can fulfill what only God and the promise of God in the grace and kingdom come in Jesus can. But we need to feel the full weight of the emptiness of the endless pursuit of humanity to arrive and achieve. While some satisfaction might be found in it, it will end, and then what? (Another theme in Ecclesiastes.)

We have to look “above” (or beyond) the sun to find meaning in life “under the sun.” The meaning we find won’t be in what is done in this life, but the transcendence which is imminent, and therefore gives meaning either to or in the midst of all that happens here and now. So that while these things in the present are empty and meaningless in themselves, they derive meaning and fullness in the Creator God, and the covenant God makes with humans. A covenant fulfilled in Jesus, full of meaning, which then translates to all the emptiness and meaninglessness down here. In and through Jesus.

pursuing, being attentive to, and following the wisdom of Proverbs

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
    for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
    doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1

I am going through the book of Proverbs right now in my slow ponderings. And I am reminded of a number of things. But I begin with the fact that when we read the Bible, we have to read it first of all in its original context as best we can. That may be limited, though we can get some good helps. But we have to remember it was written at a specific time in a specific cultural context. But if we read it no other way at all, then we have to read it from the context of all of scripture, and especially of Jesus, considering his fulfillment of it all. In Christ we are told are hidden all the treasures of wisdom (Colossians).

But back to the book of Proverbs itself, if we need to err in any way, we need to really seek to take to heart all it has to say. We don’t do everything literally, but the essence or point of every saying, or thought, what it’s getting at, the underlying principle one might say, we do want to understand, and seek to hold on to it for dear life. It is a matter of life and death, but too often we drift away from that, since we either think we know better, or we don’t take it seriously enough.

Proverbs helps us both explicitly and implicitly in giving us direct specific instruction and in helping us have discernment in areas in which it doesn’t directly speak. Proverbs helps inculcate in us a capacity for learning and implementing wisdom for life.

And of course this wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. We don’t trifle with God. God is love, and God is God. That sense of fear has to do with respect which becomes awe for pursuers of God, and dread for those who fail to pursue him. And that is all by grace in and through our Lord Jesus.

Read Proverbs slowly. The best reading is slow reading, I think. We need to let it soak into our bones, into our heart, and out from that, into our very lives day after day. An essential part of our growth in and through our Lord Jesus.

the fear of the Lord providing security

Whoever fears the LORD has a secure fortress,
    and for their children it will be a refuge.

Proverbs 14:26

The fear of the Lord is called the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, referring to something of an inside understanding from God. There is certainly a reverential awe with surely a sense of wonder. But never a cowering fear. Through Jesus we know God as a loving Father, whose love knows no bounds (see Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son, which also could aptly be called the Prodigal Father). But this God who is love is still God.

This fear of God paradoxically makes one secure, in a sense fearing nothing. We read in 1 John that there is no fear in love, that perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with judgment. Although we know that in ourselves we are unworthy, yet living in the fear of God and what he has provided for us in Jesus gives us a security that is not only like being a part of the family, but actually is. Somehow, in whatever way this might best be expressed, and probably in a number of ways, we find security, or a fortress of safety in fearing the Lord, and best of all along with that, this is a refuge for our children. They too can find it, as we live in it. A wonderful reality for us all, in and through Jesus.

a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus

Psalm 106 is a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. Glenn Paauw’s book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well helps us see the importance of reading scripture and considering its entire historical narrative before we start claiming its promises. That might be a bit overstated, but I think the point he makes in the book is an excellent one, and sorely needed.

I ran across the sentence perhaps in that very book, which makes the point that God’s wrath in judgment is directed against human machinations, and even against humans themselves, whose actions make not only a mess of things in this world, but bring much harm to others. Of course God is the God of mercy as well. And not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter). Not desiring the death of the wicked, but that they might repent and live (Ezekiel). That’s the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. The God who is to be feared, who is holy, righteous, just and good, essentially love, that love not cancelling out the rest, all else actually being an expression of that.

God is not the God so many seem to want to see as the soft, cuddly teddy bear who simply affirms all we do, the point a Christian brother (who happens to be Eastern Orthodox) was making yesterday. God is a God to be feared, as he would say, and yet all of what God is in all its awe and wonder is encapsulated in love. God is love. That comes across to us in Jesus, but beware of watering down what the Bible makes plain, even in the account of Jesus, including Jesus’s own words.

Psalm 106 in its entirety is an account of the picture scripture gives us of the God who comes to us in Jesus.

Praise the LORD.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are those who act justly,
who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people,
come to my aid when you save them,
that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may share in the joy of your nation
and join your inheritance in giving praise.

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.
When our ancestors were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
to make his mighty power known.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up;
he led them through the depths as through a desert.
He saved them from the hand of the foe;
from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.
The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
Then they believed his promises
and sang his praise.

But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.
In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wilderness they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease among them.

In the camp they grew envious of Moses
and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the LORD.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan;
it buried the company of Abiram.
Fire blazed among their followers;
a flame consumed the wicked.
At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
So he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him
to keep his wrath from destroying them.

Then they despised the pleasant land;
they did not believe his promise.
They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the LORD.
So he swore to them with uplifted hand
that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
make their descendants fall among the nations
and scatter them throughout the lands.

They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
they aroused the LORD’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.
By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;
for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips.

They did not destroy the peoples
as the LORD had commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs.
They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to false gods.
They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.
They defiled themselves by what they did;
by their deeds they prostituted themselves.

Therefore the LORD was angry with his people
and abhorred his inheritance.
He gave them into the hands of the nations,
and their foes ruled over them.
Their enemies oppressed them
and subjected them to their power.
Many times he delivered them,
but they were bent on rebellion
and they wasted away in their sin.
Yet he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
He caused all who held them captive
to show them mercy.

Save us, LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.

Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.

Let all the people say, “Amen!”

Praise the LORD.

knowledge: the blessing, and the curse

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.
    Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
Cherish her, and she will exalt you;
    embrace her, and she will honor you.
She will give you a garland to grace your head
    and present you with a glorious crown.”

Proverbs 4

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.

Ecclesiastes 1

Knowledge is the watchword nowadays. At our fingertips is the answer to nearly any question people might ask, often without much effort. That’s good in a lot of ways, and can save people some grief, if they use it wisely. On the other hand, by itself, it simply is a part of “life under the sun,” which the book of Ecclesiastes (see link above) is largely about. That book, when considering knowledge is looking at it as if that is all that exists. What is not factored in, at least not sufficiently in Ecclesiastes (and that book is hard to interpret, biblical scholars differing from one another), is the reality of God and that all of life under the sun does matter to God, made clear at the end of the book. One of my favorite biblical books, by the way, because it shows the emptiness of what people are often full of in this life.

Proverbs, in the tradition of the wisdom of Solomon, puts knowledge and wisdom, nearly synonymous in that book, at the forefront of what one should desire in life. And that knowledge has nothing directly to do with the plethora of the knowledge of “life under the sun,” in which people ordinarily live and breathe. Although of course, it’s meant to help us navigate such knowledge with the wisdom from God, to put a proper evaluation on itself, what is called discernment. And that combination certainly not only has value, but is actually crucial for us living in the world as people of faith.

A key, which is fulfilled in Jesus, who is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians; Colossians) is that the knowledge we need begins, and in a sense actually ends with God. Apart from God in Christ, the knowledge we have is incomplete. In it, we find not only the meaning of life, but life itself, since Jesus himself is the Truth, bringing us into the reality of the life of the Triune God, the eternal life. That is why when we have something of a strong sense of that, other things not only pale in comparison, but are exposed. And yet we necessarily live in the seemingly mundane, endless routine of everyday life. And Psalm 131 is so important for us to not only remember, but take to heart. It is good to try to think God’s thoughts after him. But in so doing, we will quickly learn just how dependent we are on God and interdependent on each other.

We need to ever and always keep this foundational truth in mind:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1

And by God’s mercy and grace through Jesus, not live foolishly, but grow in wisdom in the knowledge of God, and learn to see everything more and more in that light. Through turning the pages of scripture, together as the church. And ultimately in the light of the revelation of God in Christ.

we impact each other, for good or ill

Walk with the wise and become wise,
for a companion of fools suffers harm.

Proverbs 13:20

The original idea for this post was that we become like the people we hang out with. And there’s plenty of truth in that. But I want the emphasis here to be not only on how others affect us, but how we can affect them, how we all can and do impact each other.

Wise parents will want their children to have good company, other children who are being brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Proverbs 6:4). I struggle much with that thought, not so much on parents watching out for their children. And let me add here that I don’t think for a moment that the only children friends for our children are those of Christian households. Not at all. It’s more of a point that we want them to have friends who are being raised in the same way we are seeking to raise them, in the grace and fear of the Lord.

What I struggle with is mostly on the children’s level, though certainly can apply to us adults, particularly for those who are not seeking to walk close to the Lord. Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” He hung out regularly with such in a way which chafed against the sensibilities of his people. And we who are seeking to follow him should do the same.

We can relax and enjoy such people, and even be impacted by them in ways that are helpful. They too are made in God’s image, even if they may deny the God in whose image they are made. We love them, and therefore wish and pray for their salvation, but our love for them has no strings attached. It’s not if they do or don’t do this or that, or become such and such, then we will continue to be their friend. And we follow and live in the one whose holiness was not defiled by sinners, but whose holiness could be used to make the unclean clean, and the unholy holy.

Where the danger for us comes is when we are not seeking to walk close to the Lord, which in significant part involves what is called the common life of the church in which we regularly meet together and interact to build each other up in the Lord. If we flag there, and start lagging behind, we can set ourselves up to be influenced by people of the world (the media being a major player in that) for ill.

We can’t think we’re foolproof either, just because we’re seeking to follow Christ. And even if we hung out only with others so doing. And an important part of the life we are to live in the present is to reach out to those who do not know the Lord, who may be plagued with this or that in their lives. We are there to help them. And even to receive whatever help God may give us through them.

And so we live in the love  and joy, as well as the fear of the Lord. Seeking to know him and others, and to be known. Even as we seek to walk closer and closer with our Lord.

 

trying to be wise

This is nearly an oxymoron: trying to be wise. One is not wise simply by trying, though to seek wisdom, and specifically wisdom from God is indeed a good thing. Being wise in some ways is a matter of degree, and in other ways not. A certain aspect of wisdom can be to receive it in a moment, but another aspect of it can be accumulated over a lifetime.

Wisdom comes through revelation along with a combination of tradition, reason and experience. Of course it is not automatic. And there’s false kinds of wisdom, as well. People can be well learned in different versions of worldly wisdom. The wisdom spoken of here is one of reverential awe and simple trust in God. It is a wisdom steeped in coming to know God through God’s revelation of himself. Both in terms of actual head knowledge in propositions, but also necessarily in no less than a personal way, having a personal sense of acquaintance with this God.

A big part of wisdom, or at least of moving its direction is simply to acknowledge that one is lacking in it. And to live accordingly, both in humbly seeking it from God, and being teachable in life. We need not wait until we’ve arrived in terms of wisdom to act. But we need to be those who are looking to God for it, ready to humble ourselves and learn from whatever source it may come. And it may come through some unusual sources, as well as seemingly more directly from God.

Jesus is our wisdom from God, so it is always good to reflect on that, and on God’s revelation of himself in and through Jesus. Jesus in terms of his life and death along with all of his teaching. Specifically Jesus in his cross shaped life. This is the true wisdom from God. All the treasures of wisdom are found in Jesus. Whatever specific knowledge or abilities from wisdom we may have are to be tempered within the wisdom of God found in Jesus.

And so we go on. Hoping to receive as well as to live and learn and become steeped in true wisdom from God in and through Jesus.