The lion shall lie down with the lamb

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Isaiah 11

This phrase has evolved from its biblical origins.  Isaiah wrote about “the wolf dwelling with the lamb while the leopard lies down with the kid… and the young lion” (Isaiah 11:6).  Yet, as with a phrase like “Pride goeth before a fall”, it’s the abbreviation that has survived the test of time: the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

But, however it’s phrased, what could sound more unnatural than a wolf or lion lying down with a lamb?

It’s a vision that has drawn mockery from many quarters:

–  “Only in art will the lion lie down with the lamb, and the rose grow without thorn” (Martin Amis)

–  “No absolute is going to make the lion lie down with the lamb unless the lamb is inside.” (D.H. Lawrence)

–  “The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” (Woody Allen)

Isaiah paints a deliberately provocative scene.  Nature, as Tennyson reminded us, is red in tooth and claw.  How absurd to think that it could be tamed!  What could possibly bring about such a cosmic reversal?

As ever, Isaiah answers by pointing us to the Messiah.  In the face of warring nations and warring nature, Isaiah continues to set our hope on a miraculous birth.  The child will be called Immanuel or the Prince of Peace. Here in chapter 11 He’s called “the Branch.”

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: 4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.  5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. 6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them… 9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11:1-9)

When the true King reigns in righteousness, the world is set to rights.  This is not a spiritual truth divorced from historical and physical reality.  There will be a day when actual wolves and actual lambs graze together contentedly.  When seals will swim happily with great white sharks.   When children will play with crocodiles.

An impossible fairytale?  No.  You see Isaiah refuses to divorce “spiritual truths” from their earthly foundations.  How can he, when the Messiah will be God with us. Christ is the God who becomes a Child.  A God who really enters into our world – to be born as a human king.   The power of heaven enters this world from the inside.  Not just to grant spiritual benefits to spiritual people, but to remake His own creation.

We know that the false king, Adam, brought spiritual and physical death.  But now, is Christ less powerful than Adam?  Is His victory less decisive than Adam’s fall?  No!  Therefore Christ, when He comes again, will bring spiritual and physical redemption to the ends of the earth.

The believer in Christ has a physical hope – death defeated, wars vanquished, disease abolished, nature itself brought to peace and prosperity:

6 And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. 7 And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations.  8 He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it. 9 And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.  (Isaiah 25:6-9)

Unto us a child is born

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Isaiah 9

I grew up with Summer Christmasses.  Mangoes for breakfast.  Cold meats for lunch.  Backyard cricket.  Swims and BBQs.  I loved them: but biblically speaking, a summer Christmas is a contradiction in terms.  Christmas is not a celebration of our sunny circumstances.  Christmas dawns in the darkness.

That’s what Isaiah prophesied in chapter 9.  It’s a famous Christmas reading, written 700 years before the Christ-child was born:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.  (Isaiah 9:2)

Isaiah was facing a terrifying army sweeping down from the north.  The people were “in the land of the shadow of death.”  It seems that he had been meditating on Psalm 23, which uses the same language.  What possible “light” could dawn on this devastating darkness?

Again, Isaiah reminds the people of Immanuel.  He will bring peace when war threatens to swallow them whole (v3-5).  It’s the Messiah who will shine upon this hopeless situation: a rising sun, an other-worldly Light.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.  (Isaiah 9:6-7)

It might seem odd, but the one hope for a people “in the land of the shadow” is a baby.  Of course not any baby – this boy will be called “Mighty God.”  That’s a tough name to live up to!  Unless of course He is the Mighty God.  And then the name fits.

In fact “Mighty God” is a title unpacked by the other three names:  Wonderful Counsellor, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.  This son is Himself the Prince, but in Him dwells the Father and the Counsellor, such that the fullness of deity dwells in this child.

He comes to sit on David’s throne, just as promised.  The Prince of Heaven comes to establish His reign on earth.  The Mighty God comes for man and as man.  And like a Good Shepherd hoisting a wayward sheep onto His shoulders (Luke 15:3-7) so Christ comes to take the government on His shoulders.  He will march us through that darkened valley and out into the sunshine of His resurrection.

And what part do we play?  We don’t.  “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”  We would only get in the way.  No, the whole character of the Messiah’s work is such that we can only be grateful beneficiaries:

The Light shines.  How can we remain in darkness?  The Prince carries the world on His shoulders, how can we take it on ourselves?  The Son is given to us.  How can we not receive Him?

Immanuel

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Isaiah 7

A man begs for change.  Some throw him coins.  Most pass on by.  Now imagine a true philanthropist (meaning “lover of man”).

This man doesn’t just reach into his pocket for some change.  He stoops down and sits in the gutter with the beggar.  He reaches an arm around the man and says “Friend, I’m going to be with you.  From now on my kind of life will be your kind of life.  And I’m going to lift you out so that your kind of life will be my kind of life.”

That’s the meaning of Immanuel.

It’s a Hebrew word that means “God with us.”  And it’s been the hope of the Hebrew people from the very beginning.  Back in Genesis 3 the human race were promised the Messiah, born as the seed of a woman.  Among other things, this meant that

1) divine help would come in human form

and

2) His entrance into our world would involve a miraculous birth.

Men have seed, not women.  Yet the help of a man is not mentioned in this promise of a Deliverer.  The serpent-crusher would be the offspring of a woman – a miraculous gift.

And so, as Isaiah faces the troubles of his own day, he reminds himself and his people of their true hope:

The Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  (Isaiah 7:14)

The Messiah will come, says Isaiah.  And when He comes He won’t be against us, He won’t be over us or above us, He will be with us.  In fact He’ll be so with us He will become one of us.  This is incredible philanthropy!  This is God getting down on our level.

Think again of the homeless man.  Every other religion has the gods walking past and maybe handing out some change.  Other faiths might have helpful deities bestowing benefits from on high.  We have Immanuel.  We have Jesus – God with us, entering the mess, entering the darkness, drawing very near.

And He has not changed.  Though He is seated at God’s right hand, He remains one of us – bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.  He still yearns to stoop, to come close and to be with us in our situation, whatever it is.

Anyone can tell you God is big.  Immanuel tells us He is also small.  May we know Him drawing near us today.

Woe is me

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Isaiah 6

What does a spiritual experience look like?  Warm feelings?  Good vibes?  Not according to Isaiah.

In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet has the ultimate spiritual experience.  He meets the LORD:

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train [i.e. the train of His robe] filled the temple.  (Isaiah 6:1)

Isaiah sees the LORD Jesus Christ 700 years before He was made flesh.  We know that this is Jesus because no-one has ever seen the Father.  Appearances of God are always appearances of God the Son (John 1:18Colossians 1:15).  And John tells us categorically that it was Jesus’ glory which Isaiah saw (John 12:40-41).

How does Isaiah respond to meeting Christ?  In terror!

Then said I, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts”.  (Isaiah 6:5)

The appearance of the LORD is not an explicable event on a continuum with his other experiences.  As Job found when he met the LORD, a divine encounter ruins everything.  Isaiah is “undone”.  He is exposed.  And he cries “Woe is me.”

This is interesting because in the previous chapter, Isaiah had been dishing out “woes” on other people.  “Woe” is a word that combines judgement with just a dash of sympathy.  To say “Woe to you” is to say “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”  And Isaiah has been declaring “woes” to all around him.

In Isaiah 5 he hands out 6 “woes”.  There are “woes” to the greedy, the drunkards, the deceitful, the perverse, the arrogant, the corrupt – a six-fold denunciation.  But, biblically speaking, six is an incomplete number.  It would be like a sailor bragging that he’d sailed the six seas.  He’s missing one.  Where’s the seventh?

Well in the temple we read about the seventh woe.  Isaiah had been saying woe to you, to you, to you, to you, to you and to you.  But when he meets the LORD Christ he is humbled:  “Woe is me!”

That’s where a true encounter with God leaves us.  Unable to point the finger at anyone else but profoundly aware of our own spiritual poverty before the Lord.

This is significant because Isaiah is a prophet and fantastic with words.  His lips are his best feature.  Yet even his best feature is entirely unclean before the LORD Jesus.  That’s how unsettling a true divine encounter is.

What hope is there for Isaiah?

Well surprisingly, hope comes in the form of judgement.

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:  And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged”.  (Isaiah 6:6-7)

Imagine yourself in Isaiah’s sandals.  You have just confessed your corruption before the LORD Almighty.  In response one of His flaming angelic servants flies at you with a burning coal taken from the altar – the place of judgement.  Surely this is the end of the road for Isaiah.  And yet the judgement becomes the cleansing.  The coal from the altar doesn’t harm but heals.

What a picture of Christ’s cross.  His altar ought to be our judgement.  Yet Jesus endures the burnings for us.  And now through His death it becomes our cleansing. We are driven down in confession but raised up in forgiveness.

Have you been too busy declaring “woes” to other people?  Do you know what it is to be “undone” in the presence of King Jesus?

If so, what have you confessed to the LORD Jesus?  What woeful corruption is laid bare in his presence?  Here’s the truth of the matter: if you have named it before Him, know that, through His cross, forgiveness flies to you, touches that guilty part and Christ’s verdict is this:

thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin is purged.

This is a true spiritual experience.  It casts us lower than we’d ever have imagined and lifts us higher than we’d ever have dreamed.

Swords into ploughshares

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Isaiah 2

The comedian, Bill Hicks, used to joke:

“A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. You think when Jesus comes back he’s gonna want to see a cross?”

It’s not an original point.  The incongruity is obvious: a method of extreme torture and humiliating execution has become the most prominent religious symbol in the world.  This is even more astonishing when you understand who is hanging on the cross.  How can the murder of the Lord of Glory be a universal symbol of hope?  It’s an incredible redemption of an unspeakable horror.

And that’s what “swords into ploughshares” is all about.  It refers to the Bible’s Messianic hope, when weapons of war will become tools of fruitfulness and life.

“2And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. 3And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.”  (Isaiah 2:2-5)

Everything will be turned upside-down when this Messianic future “comes to pass.”  The house of the LORD will be lifted up, the nations will flow uphill and war-mongering will turn to peace-making.

We have witnessed the lifting up of the house of the LORD.  Christ – the true Temple – was destroyed and raised again on the third day (John 2:19-22).  He is the true Meeting Place with the living God.  In risen power His word goes out to the nations and the world flocks to find peace in Him.

Yet, for the full benefits of Christ’s peace-making we will have to await His second coming.  He told us in Mark 13 that until His return there would be “wars and rumours of wars” (v7).  But in the meantime we see the principle of His redemption working its way out.

There are countless  modern examples of swords into ploughshares: technology designed for destruction, redeemed for productive purposes.  But the power, the pattern and the prototype for all such redemption is the cross of Jesus.  There, deicide is turned to the world’s salvation.  The sword of judgement fell upon Jesus and yet, as He went into the ground, it was only to become more fruitful! (John 12:24).

Christians know this redemptive power in themselves.  And we await its application to the whole creation.  With eyes fixed on the cross we have hope that the deepest darkness will be turned to light and peace:

Crown him the Lord of peace; his kingdom is at hand.
From pole to pole let warfare cease and Christ rule every land!
All hail, Redeemer, hail, for you have died for me.
Your praise shall never, never fail throughout eternity.

And it shall come to pass

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Isaiah 2

Here’s a lovely piece of over-translation from the KJB.  Six English words are used to render a single Hebrew verb.  They might have simply said “It shall be”.  In fact many times they might have left it entirely untranslated (as many modern translations do).  But we would have missed a beautiful turn of phrase.

There are 526 “comings to pass” in the Old Testament and 87 in the New.  And one of the great benefits of the phrase is its sense of prophetic history.  By using the phrase, the translators manage to convey both a sense of future and past.  These events will not only come, they will come to pass.  That is, they will be established as new states of affairs.  The world will have to reckon with these fresh happenings.  It will be a future that makes history.

Therefore this saying is the very opposite of that similar sounding phrase which comes from Persian poets:

“This too shall pass.”

Legend has it that this saying was inscribed on a ring given to a powerful king.  It was meant to remind him that both his achievements and his sufferings were only fleeting.  It would make him happy when sad and sad when happy.

It’s a phrase invoking the transience of all things.  Yet the words of the Old Testament prophets could not be more different.  For them, the things that “shall come to pass” are earth-shattering events that will change history for good.  The Messiah will come and establish His kingdom, He will shatter His enemies and reign in peace and righteousness.  What will come to pass will never pass.  That is, it will never fade or be lost.  They strained ahead towards this Messianic future.  And while all things in the meantime might pass, the Messiah’s coming would be the real making of history.

For instance, the KJB translates Isaiah chapter 2 like this:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. 3 And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people.  (Isaiah 2:2-4)

Notice how this future event will make history.  What is yet to come will establish a whole new world.  Even the mountains will shift when this “comes to pass.”  The nations will flow uphill to the “house of the LORD”.  At the same time the word of the LORD will flow out to the ends of the earth.

These events indeed “came to pass” when Jesus, the true Temple, was torn down and raised up again through His death and resurrection (John 2:19-22).  Now the nations flock to Him and His word flows out to the four corners of the earth.  The future Isaiah longed for is coming to pass.  But, as we’ll see tomorrow, it awaits a final consummation…

White as snow

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Isaiah 1

“She’s pure as New York snow” goes the song.  That’s to say – not pure at all.  New York snow is quickly sullied by the city’s grit and grime.  But, for the first hour or so, a white blanket covers over a multitude of sins.

Isaiah the prophet knew that his people’s spiritual condition was worse than a New York sewer but he knew too that the LORD ’s covering is more dazzling than gleaming snowdrifts.

In showing us the LORD’s solution to our sin, Isaiah takes us to depths we rarely tread and heights we can’t imagine.

First, the depths.

Isaiah He opens his book with this description of the people:

“Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.  Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.  From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores. (Isaiah 1:4-6)

If we diagnose our own ills, we usually leave a glimmer of hope.  We don’t mind a thorough spiritual check-up as long as the verdict is: “There’s life in the old girl yet.”  But Isaiah sees only wounds, bruises and sores.  He takes us to dire depths.

And then Isaiah surprises us.  He spurns the well-trodden path of religious improvement.  He’s not interested in selling a cheap spiritual salve to the people.  He doesn’t commend religious activities to a sinful people.  Instead he reports the LORD’s speech from verse 13:

“Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.  Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood”.  (Isaiah 1:13-15)

According to the LORD, religion is not part of the solution to sin.  It’s part of the problem.  He could not be more clear that His “soul hateth” the “solemn meetings” of the self-justifying.

The people are much worse than they thought.  And their religious activities are of no help to them.  Isaiah brings people utterly to the end of themselves, and then drops in a wonderful gospel promise from God:

“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”  (Isaiah 1:18)

It’s not that their sins “aren’t so bad after all” – they are scarlet!  Yet there is a covering for sins.  Like a blanket of snow on a grimy city street, God’s purity that can be laid over our filthy lives.

We all need this covering.  How do we get it?

Later on in Isaiah, the LORD Jesus Himself speaks (Isaiah 61:1-3Luke 4:16-21).  He is the true King, full of the Spirit, who comes to preach good news to the poor, blind, bound and bruised.  He binds up the broken-hearted.  Here is a King who comes for those in the gutter.

And He has a covering for them.  He says this in Isaiah 61:10:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.

Christ Himself has a pristine covering.  He has garments of salvation – a robe of righteousness.  But this covering is not simply for Him – the Bridegroom.  It is also for His bride.  He will adorn His beloved.  He will cover His people with gleaming purity.  Those who come to Him are robed in His righteousness.  Through Christ, though our sins are as scarlet, we’re made as white as snow.

My beloved is mine and I am his

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Song of Songs 1-3

The bible begins and ends with a wedding (Genesis 2; Revelation 19).  In the middle Christ comes as Bridegroom to win His bride.  Throughout, the LORD is described as “jealous” and his people as either “faithful” or “adulterous.”

It’s no surprise then, that when Solomon turns from his exercise in spiritual doubt (Ecclesiastes) to pen the “Song of Songs”, it is a love song that he writes.

“The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. (Song 1:1-2)

Here is the wonder of Lover and Beloved calling to each other in tender intimacy:

“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.  (Song 2:4)

“My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.  (Song 2:10)

“Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair.  (Song 4:1)

“Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.  How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!  Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.  A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.  (Song 4:10-12)

It is an unabashed celebration of love.  Yet it is also far more.  Given the meaning of marriage in the Bible it’s vital we see the significance of what we read.

The beloved is likened to a vineyard – indeed she seems to be one (1:6; 8:12).

The lover is a shepherd (1:7) and a king (1:4,12).  He smells like a priest (perfumed with myrrh and frankincense).  And he looks like the LORD – coming up from the wilderness in a pillar of smoke (3:6).

So here is a relationship between the Shepherd-King-Priest-LORD and His vine (His people –Isaiah 5:1-7).  This is the greatest love story ever told. This truly is the Song of Songs.  Here is Christ and His bride, the church.  And the burning love they share is ‘the very flame of the LORD’!

Let me quote to you one of the concluding verses in a more modern translation:

love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.  Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.  (Song of Songs 8:6)

The LORD Himself is a blazing fire of love (1 John 4:8).  Love is the divine nature and it is this love that is shared between Christ and the church.  This is wonderful news: the eternal love of God can be ours.  How?  In marriage union with Christ.

In marriage, all that is ours is shared with our spouse. And all that is theirs becomes ours.  This is a common theme in Song of Songs:

My beloved is mine, and I am his (2:16)

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: (6:3)

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.  (7:1)

This is why Martin Luther sought to explain the gospel as the marriage of a King to a prostitute. We are the prostitute.  We are the beloved, full of sins and shame and spiritual debts.  Yet when the prostitute marries the King, what happens?  All our debts go to him, and all his riches come to us.  Better yet – we belong to him and he to us.

So it is with our union to Christ.  Our sins and shame are taken by our Heavenly Bridegroom. He pays off all our debts on the cross – then He turns to us and gives us all that is His: His royal name, wealth, power and Family connections.  It is all ours.  Better yet – so is He.  And we are His.

“Who can even begin to appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can comprehend the riches of this glorious grace? Christ, the rich and divine bridegroom, marries this poor, wicked whore, redeems her from all of her evil, and adorns her with all of his goodness. It now is impossible for her sins to destroy her, for they are laid on Christ and swallowed up by him. She has her righteousness in Christ, her husband, which she now can boast is her very own. She can set this righteousness over against all of her sins and, in the face of death and hell, say with confidence: “If I have sinned, nevertheless, the one in whom I trust, my Christ, has not sinned. Through our marriage, all that is his is mine and all that is mine is his.”  (Martin Luther, “The Freedom of the Christian”)

Of making many books there is no end

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Ecclesiastes 12

With the threat of electronic media, some traditional publishers may be relieved at this verse:

“of making many books there is no end”

And students can particularly identify with the second half:

“and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

Even wise king Solomon sees the weariness of books and learning.  This is yet one more “vanity of vanities” that he observes: wordiness.  Does the world really need another paperback “bestseller”?  Do we really need another PhD?  Where does the inflation of words and study take us?

Well one verse earlier, Solomon shows us how to prick our word-y bubbles:

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. (Ecclesiastes 12:11)

There is a Good Shepherd whose wisdom does not simply puff us up.  His wisdom deflates our bubbles and gives us true direction.  Even if it’s painful (goads are animal prods) Christ guides us into all truth.

What do you need to move forwards in your Christian life?  The new best-seller?  A subscription to that popular podcast?  To attend that life-changing conference?  Ultimately, it’s much more mundane but so much more powerful.  The word of Christ is where true wisdom is found.

Cast thy bread on many waters

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Ecclesiastes 11

This phrase is both “useful” and “dangerous” argues David Crystal in his book, “Begat”.  The reason? Because no-one knows quite what it means!

What is “thy bread”?  What are “the waters”?  And what is the outcome that is promised?

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.  (Ecclesiastes 11:1)

This begs the question, who would want to find bread again after many days?  Neither water nor “many days” do much for the quality of bread.  Whatever investment is implied by this “casting”, the return of an old, soggy loaf surely fails to inspire.

Sometimes Christians teach this verse as an encouragement towards generosity.  Bread they say,  represents money.  And the waters refer to spreading it abroad.  Thus God will bless a profligate giver.

Well charitable giving might be one application, as we’ll see.  But if this were simply an encouragement towards philanthropy, then it would be the only one in Ecclesiastes.  Remember that just two verses earlier Solomon has told us, “money answereth all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19).  This is “life under the sun”, remember, not a religious treatise.

To get a sense of its original meaning it’s best to read on in the chapter:

2 Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth. 3 If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be. 4 He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. 5 As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. 6 In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.  (Ecclesiastes 11:2-7)

From the context, “casting thy bread” does seem to be financial advice.  But it’s not about giving money away.  It’s more about diversifying your investments to protect you against market variations.

Does this mean the verse has nothing to do with God?

Well actually such a spirit of investment springs from a very particular view of God and reality.  Ancient cultures did one of two things with wealth.  They either hoarded it, as protection against future scarcity; or they displayed it, demonstrating their social standing.

Of course neither hoarding nor expensive displays will be good for the economy.  Everything stagnates when the money is squirrelled away or wasted on needless pomp.  But both Solomon and Jesus speak of another approach.  (Think for instance of Jesus’ parable of the talents, or many others in which the gifts and forgiveness of God are spoken of in monetary terms).  Here is a third way – investment.  Money gained is to be reinvested, or “cast upon the waters,” in the hope of gaining a good return.

There’s a confidence in this that the world’s resources are not like a warehouse of tinned meats – each tin consumed reducing our supplies by one.  Instead this world is a bountiful place – a place that is “fruitful and multiplying”.

This conviction is founded upon belief in a generous God.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are an inexhaustible fountain of life and their gifts are enjoyed more in their passing on.  It works in the spiritual realm – out of the abundance of God’s love and forgiveness we pass on love and forgiveness to other – but it also works in the financial realm.  The same LORD Jesus is Lord of all.  And His world operates according to His character and purposes.

So, yes, I suppose “casting thy bread” can inspire us to be generous with our wealth.  But we can be generous because first we have a generous God whose world is correspondingly bountiful.  For that we can only be grateful.