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.

A little bird told me

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Ecclesiastes 10:10-20

When we use this phrase it’s often with a wry smile… “Now what’s this I hear about you and a new lady love..?” we tease. “… a little bird told me you were out with so-and-so.”

In our modern usage it’s a bit of fun and a playful way of concealing our sources.  But used in Ecclesiastes it sounds more ominous…

Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.  (Ecclesiastes 10:20)

This sounds more like a North Korean directive from the thought police.  Yet, as with all of Ecclesiastes, it’s not meant to be wrenched from its context and pressed into service as a moral or religious pep-talk.  Solomon is opening up his spiritual journal and it’s been written from a very particular viewpoint: it’s life “under the sun”.  This is the perspective of someone who won’t accept an in-breaking God or a life-beyond-death.  It’s restricted to life in the here and now.  And from that perspective, Solomon says some very unspiritual things.  Take, for example, the immediately preceding verse:

A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.  (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

There’s a verse for a Christian bumper sticker!  It’s not great advice is it?  But it’s precisely how we will live if “life under the sun” is all there is.

Our birds-as-spies phrase falls into the same category.  This won’t yield us any pithy moral aphorisms, but it is interesting to see the categories of thought which Solomon takes for granted.

Firstly, the saying betrays a deeply ingrained hierarchy. Honour for the king is approved, (unlike the contempt in which we often hold our leaders today).

Secondly, the worst crime imaginable is to curse the king. When Solomon ascended the throne, the people shouted “God save the King!” (1 Kings 1:39)  Ultimately our hope is in the Messiah – the true King – to represent His people, fight their battles and win their victories.  To spurn Him is therefore to spurn all hope.

Finally, Solomon thinks of birds as messengers.  This is an important biblical connection as the Spirit is represented by a dove.   He who communicates our thoughts to God and His thoughts to us.

the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.  For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.  (1 Corinthians 2:10-11)

Now these truths could coalesce in a frightening and condemning way.  We do not always hold King Jesus in the highest regard.  Does this mean the Spirit will inform on us to the Great Stasi in the sky?

No. That’s not how Scripture speaks.  Instead He communicates to the Father the best of sentiments from God’s children…

God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.  (Galatians 4:6)

You see, rather than informing on us to God, He intercedes for us

he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27)

And He brings back the best of news from the King:

The Spirit… beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God  (Romans 8:16)

Allow Him to bring you this good news today.

A fly in the ointment

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Ecclesiastes 10:1-9

–  Doctor, Doctor, there’s a fly in the ointment!

–  Yes, he’s recovering from a nasty soup burn.

Ehem.

“A fly in the ointment” is a minor detail that causes major irritation.

The phrase has evolved from its biblical origins in Ecclesiastes:

“Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”  (Ecclesiastes 10:1)

The King James Bible renders it “The ointment of the apothecary” as though this were the work of the pharmacist.  But in biblical terms, these words refer almost universally to the ointment of the priests.  This is the perfumed ointment you’d find in the temple: literally, the scented “oil” which is being ruined by the stench of death.

We’ve considered how kings, priests and prophets were anointed with oil in the Old Testament.  And how the oil of the High Priest was meant to flow down to bless others.

But in Ecclesiastes 10 there is a problem.  One who is meant to be wise and honourable, acts foolishly instead.  Usually it’s kings who are described as wise and honourable – but here is a priestly king whose rule is ruined by folly.  It might seem like only a little folly.  But then the fly in the ointment is only a little fly.  A small intruder ruins the oil of blessing.  Instead of life flowing down, it is death that spreads.

And so it was with Adam.  He was meant to rule in wisdom and honour.  But through his folly he spread death everywhere.  Far from slight, his eating of the forbidden fruit was the ultimate fly in the ultimate ointment.  Life should have flowed out from that garden but, through sin, it was death that spread from Adam.

Thank God for a true Ruler in wisdom and honour.  This King is also our High Priest.  And as Hebrews declares,

“such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens.” (Hebrews 7:26)

And so, through Christ, the undefiled oil of His Spirit flows out for the blessing of the world.

Two are better than one

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Ecclesiastes 9

You have to pick your wedding encouragements carefully.

The story is told of an uncle who could not make it to the happy day and so telegrammed his greeting as a simple bible reference.  It was 1 John 4:18:

“Perfect love casteth out fear.”

A word in season, as the good book says (Proverbs 15:23).  Except that the telegram left off the all-important “1” at the beginning.  So instead of reading out from First John – the letter – the best man read out the verse from John – the Gospel.

“For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband.”  (John 4:18)

If that verse is scandalous, here’s one that’s mischievous:

Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 9:9)

The verse is pure Ecclesiastes!  Live joyfully… it’s vanity!  Here is an “encouragement” for marriage “under the sun.”

Yet while few would put Ecclesiastes 9 on the wedding card, many write Ecclesiastes 4, which is strange:

6 Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit. 7 Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun. 8 There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. 9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. 10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. 11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In verse 6 Solomon begins by listing the benefit of singleness – quietness!  But he observes from verse 7 and 8 that labour alone “is a sore travail.”  Verse 9 is not, therefore, the most romantic vision of coupledom.  It sees the benefits of togetherness in terms of “industries of scale”!  And verse 11 envisions your other half as a human hot-water bottle.

The benefits of two “heads” – which is how the saying has most famously passed down to us – are not mentioned.  The benefits of two are economic, militaristic and thermal.

It’s amazing how people will tend to sentimentalise sayings from Ecclesiastes.  “There is a season” is not a beautiful protest song but a total resignation to the status quo.  “A little bird told me” is not playful but sinister when on Solomon’s lips.  Yet it’s interesting how much of Ecclesiastes finds its way into common parlance.  Our culture resonates with this vision of “life under the sun”, which is unsurprising but also sad.

However, even “under the sun” we do not escape living in Christ’s world.  And in Christ’s world it is perfectly explicable why two are better than one.  From the beginning, the LORD said of Adam, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  (Genesis 2:18).  And of course Adam was picturing for us Christ and His desire for a bride.  We live in a world where the “travail and vexation of spirit” of community is – in the main! – outweighed by the benefits.  Because we live in a world reflecting Christ’s desire for a bride.

In eternity He has determined to have a wife at all costs.  Not for economic purposes – it would cost Him everything.  Not to make Him stronger – at the cross He would be infinitely weakened to win her.  Not simply to keep warm.  He desires a bride because in His grace He delights to share all that He has.

Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25)

This is the ultimate marriage.  And it’s why, in our experience also, two are better than one.

Eat, drink and be merry

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Ecclesiastes 8

“A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

This seems like good advice.  There is nothing better in life than to eat, drink and be merry.  But this is true only if we are considering life “under the sun.”  Notice how that phrase bookends our saying for today.  Life under the sun is best lived by enjoying what pleasure this world affords.

Solomon does not recommend wasting much time on religion or moral strivings.  His lust for life leads him to the harem, the banquet hall, the university, the building site and the palace… but never the temple.  He mentions God here and there but he never recommends the paraphernalia of religious devotion.  His advice?  If you want to live life well “under the sun”, attend dinner parties, and laugh loud.

It’s good advice, except that the grave makes a mockery of it all.

Centuries later the inhabitants of Jerusalem tried to follow Solomon’s advice when an invading army besieged the city.  At that time God called them to fasting and prayer.  The people responded with “joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine.  [They said] “let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.”  (Isaiah 22:13)  It ends badly for these merry makers.

In the face of coming judgement, Solomon’s advice doesn’t work.

That’s the point of Jesus’ story: the Rich Fool.  Jesus imagines a man who follows Solomon’s philosophy.  He lives for wealth and pleasure and when he gets rich he says to himself,

“take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” But God said unto him, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee”.  (Luke 12:19-20)

It’s a wonderful life philosophy… except for the one eventuality that strikes us all.  In the face of death it’s utterly bankrupt.

Paul makes the same point from the other direction in 1 Corinthians 15:

if the dead rise not, let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.  (1 Corinthians 15:32)

If the grave is the end, we should follow Solomon’s advice – invest in parties.  But if Christ rose from the dead, then there’s a bigger feast to come, and therefore a greater goal to live for.

Paul invests himself in the gospel of resurrection – pointing people to the Messianic banquet.  It was a hope that shaped who he dined with and why.  He ate and drank “to the glory of God… that all men… may be saved.”   (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)

To the Christian it’s not “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”  Instead it’s, “Tomorrow we will eat, drink and be merry, so today let’s invest in the gospel of the coming feast.”

To everything there is a season

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Ecclesiastes 3

Aside from the title – “Turn, Turn, Turn” – Pete Seeger wrote 6 words.   Solomon wrote the other 173.  Yet today, it’s probably the the Byrds’ cover version that’s more famous than either!

No chart-topper has older lyrics than this song.  So why have these words from Ecclesiastes 3 found such enduring and universal appeal?

“1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: 2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; 3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

There is a sorrowful beauty to life under the sun.  A kind of tragic loveliness.  It looks like a protest song.  The six added words from Seeger are these:

“A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

Yet it’s not a protest at all.  Neither Solomon nor Seeger are railing against the natural order.  Theirs is a blanket acceptance of all the turning seasons of life.  Instead of protesting death, the song asks us to give up and enjoy the ride.

Solomon resigns himself to the circle of life (which is ultimately a circle of death), and contents himself with the thought that God “hath made every thing beautiful in his time.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:12)

And why wouldn’t the world sing along with Solomon?  Here is the ultimate philosophy for those bound within the turning seasons.  Embrace it all – love and hate, peace and war, birth and death.  Acknowledge its inevitability.  Enjoy what you can.  Accept it as your lot.  And sing.

But there are other songs to sing.  Isaiah envisages a world transformed by the Messiah.  His chapter 35 is the true protest song.  He even rails against the final enemy, death.  He dares to hope that, through the victory of the Messiah, the natural order will be overturned and the captives set free.  Through Christ, the wilderness blossoms, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap. The natural world is turned right-side-up.

4 Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6 Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. 7 And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.   (Isaiah 35:4-7)

When we merely exist for life “under the sun” we may sing beautiful laments.  But they are fleeting.  This is the song of one with eyes fixed on the Messiah:

The ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

Nothing new under the sun

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Ecclesiastes 2

–  “History repeats itself.”

–  “What goes around comes around.”

–  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Anyone who lives long enough will observe a relentless circularity to life.  That was certainly Solomon’s experience.  And it bred in him a desperate world-weariness.

Here’s how he began his spiritual journal:

“4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11)

Solomon’s father saw the heavens declaring the glory of God. For David it was a daily proclamation of the Light of the world conquering darkness.  With his eyes opened by the law of the LORD (Psalm 19:7-14), he saw sunrise and sunset as a sermon.  It proclaims the Bridegroom Champion taking us from estrangement and into the presence of God. (Psalm 19:4-6).  Therefore, with Scripture in hand, the world is seen to be heading somewhere.  It is not a closed circle but an arrow pointing to glory.

Yet when Solomon looks at those same patterns he sees futile repetition.  He seems blind to the daily proclamation of gospel events.  Instead it’s a meaningless cycle.

This is because Solomon is speaking of the world “under the sun.”  Solomon’s perspective is purely the horizontal.  He is viewing life as though the here and now are all that count.

In the 17th century, Descartes climbed into a stove and embarked on a philosophical method of doubt.  Solomon does something similar in the spiritual realm.  He shuts himself off from divine revelation.  He’s not viewing things through the lens of “the law of the LORD.”  Instead he determines to work only with the raw materials he can see, hear, taste and touch.  And when you close yourself off from divine in-breaking “there is nothing new under the sun.”

But another son of David stood on the earth.  He stood within that cycle of birth and death which imprisons us all.  Yet Jesus did something utterly new.  He didn’t rot.  And He didn’t simply come back from the dead, like Lazarus.  He went through death and out the other side into immortal life.  He broke through the cycle and opened it out to resurrection life.  That is utterly new.  And He offers this new life to all.

Life under the sun can only be a relentless burden.  But allow the Word to crash down from on high.  And allow it to speak of One who came to set captives free.  Because of His resurrection He says:

“Behold, I make all things new”.  (Revelation 21:5)

Vanity of vanities

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Ecclesiastes 1

In Proverbs we heard the wisdom of Solomon.  But here in Ecclesiastes, we eavesdrop on his despair.

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.  Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

Thus begins the spiritual journal of the richest, wisest and most famous man of his time.  And yet Solomon’s project is to tell us about “life under the sun” (a phrase we will consider shortly).  But for now let’s note that Solomon’s perspective is limited to the present.  If all we have is the ‘here and now’ then life is “vanity of vanities.”

Interestingly, the word for “vanity” is actually the name Abel.  We met him very early in the bible.  He was the first righteous offspring of Adam and Eve.  There would have been great expectations for this offspring of the woman.  And yet, instead of bringing life to the world, he is the first to die – slain by Cain, his brother.

What a picture of this fallen world!  High hopes cruelly dashed.  Life under the sun promises much but delivers death.  And so the name “Abel” becomes synonymous with “vanity”, with “meaninglessness.”  When things go wrong, we might cite “Murphy’s law”, but a Hebrew would say “Abel.”  And if things were really rough it would be “Abel of Abels!”  This is the outlook of Solomon.

Here is a sobering thought – if anyone was going to find purpose in “life under the sun” it would be Solomon.  He had all the wealth, power, sex, wisdom and achievements he could possibly pursue.  And pursue them he did.  First he tried wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).  Then came pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).  Then work (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26).  Then riches (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20).  Then family (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12).  Nothing satisfied.

What else do you think Solomon should have tried?

I remember hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes as a younger man and commenting to my friend “That man just needed a girlfriend.”  I wonder what that revealed about me?  Whatever we think Solomon needed, that’s where we think life is found.

Well I was wrong about Solomon needing a girlfriend.  1 Kings 11:3 tells us he had 700 wives and 300 concubines!  Solomon never did anything in halves.  And after sucking the marrow from all of life, his conclusion was this:

“all is vanity and vexation of spirit.  (Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:11,17,26; 4:4,16; 6:9)

Both “vanity” and “spirit” can mean “breath or wind”.  A more modern translation calls Solomon’s pursuits “a chasing after the wind.”  It’s like trying to catch your shadow.   The goal is always out of reach and the ending is always empty.

This is life under the sun.  And Solomon lays bare its pointlessness.  Every time we are tempted to say “Yes, but what about this?”  Solomon replies “Been there.  Done that.  Got the T-shirt.  Vanity!”  The reader is brought to despair along with Solomon and yearns with him for a life that is not just “under the sun.”

But for that to be a real hope and not just wishful thinking there will have to be an answer to Abel.

Such fulfilment is exactly what Jesus brings.  As the Offspring of the woman, He is the true Righteous One.  Though He too was slain, He rose again to bring hope to our death-bound world.  He is filled with the Spirit of Wisdom (as we saw in Proverbs).  And He will give His Spirit to all who seek Him.

Life is not found in sex, money, power, fame, family or accomplishments.  Such things are a chasing after the wind.  Yet Jesus stands as the Fulfilled Man – Filled Full with the Life-Giving Spirit and overflowing to us.  To those weary of “life under the sun” He says:

“If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.  He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.  But this spake he of the Spirit”.  (John 7:37-39)

A soft answer turneth away wrath

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Proverbs 15

Why doesn’t God simply forgive us our sins?  Why do we need the mess and the agony of the cross?  Why is  atonement so elaborate: prefigured through millions of animal deaths, and then purchased with the blood of God?

Surely Jesus could go to our sin folder, hit “Select all” and drag it into the Recycle Bin?  That way, the whole sorry mess could be quickly and clinically deleted forever.

Yet if we think that’s how forgiveness works, we’ve clearly never tried it for ourselves.  Forgiveness is always deeply sacrificial – painful, costly and messy.  As Proverbs observes:

A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.  (Proverbs 15:1)

Have you ever been in an argument where you’re exchanging grievous words with another?  As this verse describes it, anger is being “stirred up”… and stirred up… and stirred up.  A vicious cycle develops as you both descend into increasing harshness.  In this situation, what does it mean to answer the other person with genuine gentleness?  If they have spoken “grievous words” which Proverbs 12:18 says are “like piercings of a sword” – what is it like to make “a soft answer”?

It is painful and hard. This is not like dragging some “sin files” into the Recycle Bin.  It is not a simple matter of forgiving and forgetting – it involves heart-wrenching sacrifice.

And that’s exactly how this proverb describes it.  You see ‘turneth away wrath’ is a phrase in the Bible that’s always associated with sacrifices.  It is blood sacrifices that ‘turn away wrath’.  That’s how atonement works.  Anger is turned away from you because it’s turned on the sacrifice instead.

And Proverbs says: if you’re in an argument and you answer someone gently it’s like being a human sacrifice!  If we’ve ever tried it, we know that’s how it feels.  Forgiveness is always sacrificial.

And nowhere is this more true, than at the cross. In the Bible,  the cross is described as the place where Jesus turns away God’s wrath (Romans 3:25; 1 John 4:10).  At the cross the wrath of God is turned away from us and turned onto Jesus.

So here’s a way of thinking about the cross.  Imagine all our harsh words against heaven.  Imagine our grievous rebellion, like sword-thrusts that pierce the heart.  And now think of the “soft answer” of Jesus.  He receives the blow, He refuses to lash back, He opens wide His arms and absorbs our hatred.  In this way He turns away wrath.

Christ’s grace heals and restores us.  But it’s so costly to Him.  To give us peace, He takes wrath.

There no such thing as simple forgiveness.  It is always sacrificial.  So it is with the ultimate atonement – and so it will be with every reconciliation we seek.

Are there ‘soft answers’ you need to make?  As we look to Christ crucified we can make peace in His strength.  Our soft answers will hurt but they have incredible power to redeem:

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:21)