Spare the rod and spoil the child

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Proverbs 13

This phrase is biblical in origin, but distilled through the poetry of Samuel Butler:

“Love is a Boy,
by Poets styl’d,
Then Spare the Rod,
and spill the Child.”

In 1662 “spill” was an alternative spelling for “spoil.”  But it seems that Butler relied on a yet more ancient poet.  In 1377 William Langland wrote:

“Who-so spareth ye sprynge, spilleth his children.”

Both of these drew on the book of Proverbs which often speaks of disciplining “thy son” with “the rod” (see verses here).  Perhaps the closest that Proverbs gets to this actual phrase is Proverbs 13:24:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

Why this emphasis on the “rod” of discipline?

Well, let’s remember that Proverbs is a fire-side chat between the King and his son, the crown prince.  The son who will face “the rod” is no ordinary son!

Second, think of how the word “rod” is used throughout the bible.

The word appears first in Genesis 49:10 (though the King James translation renders it as “sceptre”).  It’s a wonderful prophecy of Christ’s coming as universal King:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

Here the rod (or sceptre) is being passed from king to king to king “until Shiloh come” – and He will be a universal Ruler.  That’s interesting, because generally in the Bible if someone comes at you with a “rod” you are about to get a beating.  But here, when the dying king comes at his son with the rod, he is passing on the rule.

And so the “rod” combines glory and suffering.  We see the glory of the “sceptre” and the suffering of the “rod”.  The Crown Prince experience both.

The theme continues.  In Exodus the rod is the staff by which Moses rules.  But it’s also used to “strike” Egypt with plagues, to “strike” the Red Sea and to “strike” the rock so that water will flow for the people.  Again we see how the rod is both sceptre and club!

When we come to 2 Samuel 7, David is given a prophecy about the Future King – “Shiloh” – to Whom the sceptre will be handed:

12 And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: 15 But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. 16 And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.  (2 Samuel 7:12-16)

Even for Jesus – in fact, especially for Jesus – the sceptre will mean a rod.  Verse 14 is not referring to Christ having committed iniquities.  The word “commit” is not there in the Hebrew.  But Jesus did take our sins to Himself and was punished with the rod on our behalf.

So then here’s what this means: Even for Christ the sceptre means suffering.  The Crown Prince of Heaven inherits His rule only through the cross.  He would hold the rod because first He was struck by it!

Now that we are in Him, we cannot expect to enter glory via any other route:

Jesus [was] crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death (Hebrews 2:9)

Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;  (Hebrews 5:8-9)

Not even the Eternal Son is spared the rod.  Therefore…

My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:  For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?   (Hebrews 12:5-7)

When hardship comes, remember: your Father in heaven loves you.  That’s why He does not spare the rod!

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart

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Proverbs 3:1-35

This is many people’s favourite Scripture.  In fact, it was the verse written by my mother into my confirmation bible:

“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:4-5)

What’s your approach to the question of guidance?

Some people approach guidance like a tight-rope walker.  They think life is all about making the right choices.  There’s one best path for them and if they miss it, they’ve fallen off God’s will for their life.  Is that how you see guidance?

Or perhaps you’re a boundary keeper.  For this person, life is all about cutting loose.  Yes, there are some boundaries.  But as long as I’m not breaking any major commandments, I can get on as I please.

Which are you: a tightrope walker or a boundary keeper?

Both are wrong. And Proverbs explains why.  Listen to how the verse begins:

“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart.

This is about confidence – not the fear of the tightrope-walker.  And it’s about love – not the detachment of the boundary-keeper.  Neither the tight-rope walker nor the boundary-keeper are thinking in personal terms.  They’re too busy “getting it right” or “doing their own thing” to bother with relationship.  But as we saw yesterday – the essence of wise living is to be joined to a Person called Wisdom.  We’re not on a tight-rope, nor in a wide-open plain.  We’re in a relationship – a trusting, heart-to-heart relationship.  This is the context for guidance.

Once we’re clear on this, Solomon continues with a note of wonderful freedom:

In all thy ways acknowledge him.

The verse doesn’t say “As you travel along God’s one and only path…”  It says “In all thy ways…”

You see we do have different ways that we can travel.  And they are truly our ways.  Jesus lets us own our own decisions.  He entrusts us with wonderful freedom.  And he presents to us a glorious opportunity:

“In all thy ways acknowledge him.”

Literally, “acknowledge” means “to know” him.  Whatever path we take we are to walk it with the LORD in order to know Him better.

So, whether I take the job or turn it down.  Whether I marry or stay single – whatever I do, I am to know the LORD.  The point is not so much to make “the right decision”.  The point in all our decisions is to know Jesus!

So much of our tightrope-walking is about wanting to be right – this is why we reject relationship. But boundary-keeping is also a rejection of relationship – in this case, in order to be free. Yet the Christian makes decisions not to be right and not to be free, but to enjoy their close walk with the LORD.  He is the point.

In that context, Solomon gives us a promise: “and he shall direct thy paths.”  Some doors will open as others close.  He will redeem old mistakes and unfold new options for the future.  He directs our steps.  We are simply to keep our eyes on Him.

No wonder these verses are precious to so many:

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:4-5)

Words of the wise


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Proverbs 1:1-33

We’ve looked at Job and the Psalms.  Now we turn to Proverbs, the next book in the category of “wisdom literature.”

Here we have a long and colourful fireside chat.  It’s the words of a father to his son.  Verse 1 introduces us to the father:

“The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel”

We are already familiar with “the wisdom of Solomon”.  Verse 8 reminds us who he’s addressing:

“My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.”

Solomon repeats “my son” over twenty times in this book .  The King is addressing the crown prince.  He is offering “the words of the wise and their dark sayings” (Proverbs 1:6).  This isn’t a philosophical treatise.  Instead, these “dark sayings” are riddles to be chewed over and reflected upon.

Sometimes we dip into Proverbs the way we might sample “pick and mix” sweets.  Those bite-sized proverbs – especially of chapters 10-31 – seem like a handy snack for Christians on the go.  We think we can open the book for an apt aphorism.  But proverbs are not the “fortune cookies” of the bible.  These are “dark sayings” – riddles – given from the King to his son.

This means that,

1) They must be chewed over thoughtfully, not gobbled in a hurry,

2) They are  words which are addressed first to the crown prince, and then to us, and

3) The last twenty chapters (where the bite-sized proverbs appear) must be read in the light of the first ten.

In the first ten chapters there is one message which the King drums into his son above all others: Watch out for the ladies!

In particular there are two ladies the son needs to watch.

There’s a lady called Wisdom.  She is everything you need: captivating beautiful, more precious than rubies, and she brings the “favour of the LORD”.

“Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.  Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee.  Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom”:  (Proverbs 4:5-7)

Throughout the book, Wisdom and the good wife are spoken of almost interchangeably.  A good wife is also “more precious than rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).  She also brings “the favour of the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22).  The young prince needs to marry Wisdom.

But she’s not the only lady on the scene.  The other is described like this,

“A foolish woman is clamorous: she is simple, and knoweth nothing”.  (Proverbs 9:13)

This woman is folly itself.  She is loud, flashy, deceptive, seductive and deadly.  She’s the original femme fatale and if you get her you will lose everything.  Therefore, counsels Proverbs, avoid her, ignore her, resist her seductions, and don’t let her ensnare you.

And so folly is spoken of, almost interchangeably, as an adulterous woman.  Chapters 5-7 weave together warnings against folly with warnings against adultery.

So this is the message of the King:  My son, watch out for the ladies.  Embrace Wisdom, shun Folly.

According to Proverbs, success in life is not ultimately a matter of the intellect.  Nor is success about the will.  No, Wisdom and Folly are matters of the heart.

Solomon says to the prince in Proverbs 4:23:

“Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life”.

The heart is our wellspring.  What – or rather, who – we love will flow out into every area of life.

We say “who” because Wisdom is very definitely a Person.  She is Lady Wisdom.

Chapter 1 introduces her like this:

“Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets: 21 She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying, 22 How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? 23 Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you”.  (Proverbs 1:20-23)

She has words to speak, a reproof to give and the spirit of Wisdom to offer. She’s very attractive to the crown prince.  But who is she?

Well she will be very attractive to the crown prince.  In Proverbs 8 she says,

By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.  (Proverbs 8:15)

She empowers kings.  But she is not just the Wisdom of rulers: she’s the Wisdom of the entire cosmos.  In chapter 8 she speaks of her role in creation:

30 “Then I was by [the LORD], as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.  But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death”.  (Proverbs 8:30-36)

As the crown prince hears these words, Wisdom wins his heart .  Wisdom will be his true partner, the one by whom he will rule.

If we imagine ourselves listening to this Father-Son fireside chat, it’s obvious who Wisdom represents.  Wisdom is the eternal Spirit, the Son’s true Partner, the One by Whom He will rule.

But what about us?  We’re not the crown prince.  Can we expect to know Wisdom for ourselves?  And how?  The Apostle Paul tells us:

[Ye are] in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom  (1 Corinthians 1:30)

The Spirit belongs to Christ.  But if we belong to Christ, we get Wisdom.  So as we read Proverbs, we read it in Christ.  Therefore Christ is made unto us Wisdom.

This means that the Christian hears Proverbs 8:35 from Christ’s lips – and here is the key lesson for the book, in fact for the whole bible:

For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.

Forget “fortune cookie” aphorisms.  These are the most fundamental “words of the wise.”  Come to Christ and share in His Spirit.  Whatever else you get in life, get Wisdom!

Praise the LORD

Psalm 150

The book of Psalms concludes as all things will – with noisy, joyful praise.  Psalm 150:

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.  Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.  Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.  Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.  Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.  Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.  (Psalm 150)

In Hebrew, “praise the LORD” is a single word: “Hallelujah”!  And here the Psalmist invites the whole world – everything with breath! – to praise God.  It’s not a request.  It’s a command:“Praise ye the LORD!”

How do we feel about such heavenly dictates? One person who struggled was CS Lewis.  In “A word about praise” (from his Reflections on the Psalms), he wrote:

“When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way”.

Lewis found an answer in the universality of worship:

“The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game…  [And] just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’”

So then, praise is not alien to us at all.  In fact, we are worshippers.  Why?  Lewis answers:

“…I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; …to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . ”

Here’s what Lewis is saying this:  When I declare that “I love you”, I’m not simply updating you on the status of my affections.  The expression of my love is a part of it.  Love overflows into expression.  It would be less than true love if it remained unexpressed.

And so it is with God.  To know God must mean praise.  This ‘must’ is not written in stone – it’s written into the nature of reality.  A smiling grandchild, a gorgeous sunset, a spine-tingling performance naturally provokes a joyful, heart-felt response.  We can’t help but praise the praiseworthy.

Lewis continues…

“If it were possible for a created soul fully… to ‘appreciate’, that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude…  To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God — drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy is no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds”.

I find it promising but ultimately disappointing.  You see, I am not a “drunk… drowned… dissolved” worshipper.  I’m not in “supreme beatitude” and I can’t really imagine being so either. I’m left feeling that “praising the LORD” seems a really good idea for someone.  But I can’t imagine that person being me.  Not, at least, given the current state of my sluggish heart.

Well there’s good news for me and others like me.  There is Someone “in supreme beatitude” – a Blessed Man.  And in Psalm 22:22 He speaks to God as our Vicarious Worshipper:

“I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee”.  (Psalm 22:22)

Calvin, commenting on this verse, calls Christ ‘our heavenly Choirmaster’ who tunes our hearts to sing God’s praises.  He is the King who truly praises the LORD.

What a relief!  Because, left to myself I do not, I cannot, praise God as I ought.  I am not a white-hot worshipper like the Psalmist.  And I can’t whip up such intense passion.

But first I need to see that the Psalmist is my Priest and King.  He is “drunk… drowned… dissolved” in love for God.  He has always been the Man after God’s heart.  For now I will say my Amen to His worship, even before I feel it.  Though the Praise-Worthy might not elicit my praise, I allow the Praise-Giver to offer my response.  And I watch as He shows the way.

Christ is like the first Dancer onto the floor, moved by the Music, laughing and clapping and dancing as we never could.  The more we watch Him dance, the more our foot starts to tap, then we begin to clap.  Pretty soon we’ll link arms and join in.  The Music itself should get us on the dance floor.  But in fact the Music never does – not really.  It’s the Dancer who inspires, who links arms and who leads.

“Hallelujah!” He cries.  And if this command came merely from the prayer diary of an ancient poet it could only judge my apathy.  But it’s not.  The Psalmist is my King.   This is Christ my Substitute, my Priest, my Vicarious Worshipper.  He bears my name on His heart as He praises the LORD in joyful abandon.  And as I watch Him, I might just find an Hallelujah rising of my own.  As I’m led by Christ, I’ll soon find myself joining in with all of creation: Praise the LORD!

They that shall sow in tears shall reap in joy

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Psalm 126

From slavery to freedom, from the wilderness to ‘the land of milk and honey’, from darkness to light, from the cross to the resurrection – the Christian life is an experience of redemption.  The LORD is always defined as One who “brings up” His people – from Egypt to Canaan, from exile to return, from death to life.

What does that feel like?  Psalm 126:4 describes it like this:

“Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south.”

“The south” was a desert area – its name means “dry.”  But the LORD’s restoration is like gushing water in the desert.  Here’s the promise: however spiritually and emotionally arid we are, there is a Fountain of Living Waters who is more full of refreshment than we are of thirst.  He is more full of grace than we are of sin.  He is more full of comfort than we are of sorrow.  He has an overflowing fullness – like streams in the desert.  So come to Christ, continually, for times of refreshing (Acts 3:19).

And in the meantime, the Psalmist gives us a powerful image to ponder:

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.  (Psalm 126:5-6)

Perhaps you are shedding tears at the moment.  But if you belong to the LORD Jesus who ‘brings us up’, none of those tears are wasted.  None of them are forgotten.  They are like seeds that will one day bear fruit for joy.  When Jesus returns He will wipe them away and turn your sorrows into resurrection glory.

It might not feel like it right now.  But think of the Israelites who had come through the Red Sea.  They were saved and singing for joy.  But the path to joy was sorrow.

Or think of the Jews returning from exile.  Again, they were saved and singing.  But how did they get there?  Through suffering.

Or think of Easter Sunday, the worship, the celebration and awe.  But how did we get there?  Through the cross.  The path to joy is always through tears.

Therefore our tears are not senseless.  They are seeds.  And in Christ’s grace, they will bear fruit for joy.

16 For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.  (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)

At their wits’ end

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Psalm 107

There’s a saying: “Most people only look up when they’re flat on their backs.”  It’s proved in the bible time and again.  And this phrase “at their wits’ end” is a perfect description for where people find Jesus.  Or rather, where He finds them.

“Wits’ end” is quite a creative translation from the AV.  If Psalm 107:27 was rendered more literally,  it would say, “all their wisdom was swallowed up / ruined”.  But “at their wits’ end” is wonderfully pithy.  And it’s stuck.  Modern translations can’t seem to improve on the saying and it has passed into common parlance.

When a person runs out of ideas and hope, they are said to be “at their wits’ end.”  In the Psalm it’s a mighty storm that brings people to this point.

(It’s worth knowing that storms are symbols of chaos, of disorder, of trouble in life):

“They that go down to the sea in ships,  that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.  For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.  They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.  They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.   Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.  He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.  Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.  Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!  (Psalm 107:23-31)

Here’s an eerily accurate prophecy of the storm which Jesus calms in Mark 4.  The disciples – led by hardened fishermen – set sail, confident in their years of experience on the Sea of Galilee.  The wind gets up and we can imagine them steeling themselves to press on.  The waves crash into the boat.  They try to bail themselves out, but start to sink.  Still, whatever the storm dishes up, they determine to handle.  The storm is not beyond them.  So they think.  Until at some point, they realise the truth: they’re out of their depth.

“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.  Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble.” (Psalm 107:27-28).

The word “then” is very revealing.  The LORD is not their first port of call but their last.  But, He doesn’t hold this against them.  Immediately “he bringeth them out of their distresses.  He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.”  (Psalm 107:28-29).  This is precisely what Jesus does in Mark 4.  He simply speaks to the wind and the waves and brings instant calm.

The disciples are not equal to the storm.  But they find that Jesus is infinitely superior to it.  When He proves it, He leaves His people staggered and breathless, asking “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).

With Psalm 107 before us the answer is obvious : He is the LORD.  But as the disciples come to terms with having God in the boat “they feared exceedingly” (Mark 4:41).  One more powerful that a hurricane sails with them!  Jesus is the LORD.

But what’s most frightening is this – He’s the LORD who doesn’t always bring “plain sailing.”  In fact He “raiseth the stormy wind”.  Many times Jesus sets sail for rough seas.  He even creates the rough seas!

Why?

Because He’s the LORD who is known best in storms.  Think of it this way:  Did the disciples know Jesus before the hurricane?  Yes, to a degree.  But how much more did they know Him after the hurricane?  With awe and wonder they cry out “What manner of man is this!”

“Wits’ end” experiences have a unique ability to reveal Jesus.  There’s a sense in which we only begin to know Him as LORD when we come to the end of ourselves.

As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth

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Psalm 103

Psalm 103 gives us a sobering contrast between the life of man and the love of God.  One is fragile and short-lived, the other is eternal and unchanging:

“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.  For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.  But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children.”  (Psalm 103:15-17)

The actress in her dream role, the athlete breaking all records, the musician with the world at his feet – they’re like brilliant floral displays.  Brimming with life, they dazzle and delight.  They reflect the glory of the Word, their Maker.   But just a change of wind – and they’re gone.

It’s not that our lives are pointless.  Instead they testify to an extravagant God who lavishes His world with beauty at every turn.  Human life is not a cruel joke.  But it is very, very brief.

As quickly as the seasons change, the actress loses her looks, the athlete is injured and the world moves on.   And so soon those bodies will be compost for the flowers their lives once resembled.

We may erect monuments to the dead, but before long their place “shall know (them) no more.”  I don’t know the names of my great-grandparents – and my great grandchildren will not know mine.  We don’t live on, even in the memories of those that are left.

This is the fleeting flourishing of the flesh.

But — verse 17 continues — the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him.  Now that’s quite a claim!  Though insubstantial, we belong to an eternal reality.  Though we are withering bluebells, we know a merciful love that goes on forever.

This love lasts, not just into the future, but is “from everlasting”?  The love of God does not just preserve the God-fearer to all eternity.  It is upon the God-fearer from all eternity.

How can this be?

I was not in existence from everlasting.  How can the love of God be on me from eternity past?

Here’s the Bible’s stunning answer:  God the Father loves me with the very love which He has for His eternal Son, Christ.  You see only Christ could be said to be loved “from everlasting to everlasting.”  If such a love is upon me it’s only because I’ve come in on God’s love for Christ.

When the Son took on flesh He drew us into His life.  God-fearers (another name for believers) become incorporated into Christ, and in Him we could not be more secure.

Now that we are in Jesus, God’s love for us is not like His love for Jesus.  God’s love for us is not based on His love for Jesus.  God’s love for us is His love for Jesus.  We are so identified with Christ that we are loved by God as the eternal Son.  In Christ we share in something unbreakably, unwaveringlyand  unimprovably wonderful – the everlasting love of God.

This is incredible.  Perishing plants like ourselves can get grafted into the true Vine, Jesus Christ.  In Him we participate in a love without beginning and without end.

No wonder the Psalm ends with rapturous praise:

Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul.

Threescore years and ten

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Psalm 90

Your days are numbered.

That is a sobering thought.  You have a finite number of heart-beats left.  When you’ve reached your allotted tally there will be no more.

To put it starkly, we are in the queue for the crematorium.  It may be a long queue, but it’s getting shorter all the time.

Queen Elizabeth the First is supposed to have said on her death-bed “All my possessions for a moment of time.”  In her day she was the richest person alive, yet she had no bargaining chips with death.  And neither do we.

One person who felt this very keenly was Moses.  He wrote Psalm 90 (the only Psalm of the 150 which is attributed to him).  He knew from bitter experience that the LORD places a final limit upon us.  Though he was loved by God, he perished in the wilderness, short of the promised land.  This death sentence is often spoken of in Numbers and in Deuteronomy.  It was a non-negotiable decree: Moses will not cross the Jordan.  He must die in the desert.  Therefore he journeyed through the wilderness and prepared his people for the future with the certain knowledge that he would not make it.  The shadow of death fell across everything he did.  And so he writes these verses from experience:

For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.    The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.  Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.  (Psalm 90:9-12)

We naturally fear death and seek to put it out of our minds.  But Moses instructs us in a different course.  To “number our days” is to apply our hearts to wisdom.

Perhaps this means more than simply embracing our mortality.  It takes no great spiritual insight to figure out that the grave awaits.  But I wonder whether the numbers themselves are important here:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years (Psalm 90:10)

Threescore and ten (70) and fourscore (80) have theological significance.  Seven (and its multiples) represents completion.  There are 7 days in the week, the seventh is a day of rest and then the week is over.  The eighth day is the first day of a new week.  8 (and its multiples) mean we have broken through to a whole new beginning.

And so Jesus lay in the ground on the seventh day.  His natural life had come to an end.  But “by reason of Almighty strength” He burst through into a whole new beginning on the eighth day.

And in Psalm 90 we have a trace of this.  There is a natural life-span of seven-ness.  But then there may be an operation of “strength” whereby a lifespan breaks through into eight-ness.  Here is a little gospel proclamation in the midst of our mortality.  Though our natural lives will run their course, there is a “strength” that will deliver us into life beyond natural life.

So to “number our days” is not simply to consider our finitude – though that is essential.  If we really want to apply our hearts to wisdom we must know that “by reason of God’s resurrection strength” there is life beyond limit.  Yes, there is an end to this natural lifespan and I must face that.  But through Christ there is also an eighth-day-reality – a new beginning on the other side of death.

One day, beyond our last day, there will be days without number.  And, today, every day is a day closer.

Strength to strength

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Psalm 84

The way we think about it, careers, businesses and sports teams go from “strength to strength.”  And usually they go from “strength to strength” because of hard work and perseverance.

But in Psalm 84 both those assumptions are challenged.

First of all, it is God’s people who go from “strength to strength.”  (Psalm 84:7)  Now isn’t that an attractive thought?  We speak of impersonal things – like the stock market – going from strength to strength.  But our personal experience is the exact opposite.  In our “green salad days” we might be full of life and vitality.  But isn’t it true that we go from “strength to weakness“?  How can we go from strength to strength?  Such a trajectory goes against everything we know in nature.  Well, listen to the context…

Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee… They go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:5-7)

Consider this example:  A man tells you he is rich.  You might expect that his riches are in his possession.  But he says, no, his wealth is in his father’s bank account.  What’s more, this money is earning interest, and one day it will come into his name.  Right now he doesn’t have a penny to his name.   Nonetheless, you could well say that his money is going ‘from wealth to wealth’.

So it is with strength.  The Christian has no strength in themselves.  Indeed we step out into the world looking just like our Lord.  We turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, forgive our enemies and answer evil with blessing.  It looks very weak.  But actually we have entrusted our strength to a Lord who, by His cross and resurrection, knows how to turn such weakness into strength.

In all our weakness, our prayer is verse 9:

“Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine Anointed.”

Our strength is not in ourselves.  We do not protect ourselves. But we have a Shield in heaven who is strong enough for all of us.  Another name for Him is our Anointed – the Messiah.  He is our protection and strength.  So He is the One to whom we look.  Just as the Father entrusts all things to Christ, so we entrust ourselves (our strength) to Him.

This is an investment that will pay eternal dividends.

“I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.”  (1 Timothy 1:12)

And in the meantime:

“though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  (2 Corinthians 4:16)

The whole world follows the pattern of “strength to weakness,” because the whole world believes the lie of “strength in ourselves”.  But the Christian is different.  We know “strength in Christ.”  And therefore we experience “strength to strength” – now and forever!

Bite the dust

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Psalm 72:9-20

It’s a euphemism for death, but these days we rarely talk of people “biting the dust” – not in a final sense anyway.

We might say that a plan or project has bitten the dust.  But describing a person’s death as biting the dust seems the preserve of tough-talking cowboys.

The exact wording – bite the dust – is found nowhere in the bible.  Yet it is thoroughly biblical in origin. This is because the phrase depends on a whole biblical theology of dust and eating.  Let me explain:

In Genesis 2, man was made from the dust.

In Genesis 3, man listens to the serpent (i.e. Satan) and so must return to dust.

And Satan is cursed to eat dust all his days (Genesis 3:14)

Thus Satan is set up as a man-eater (1 Peter 5:8)

Christ will join man to crush the man-eater (Genesis 3:15)

How will He do this?  Incredibly, by being Man eaten (John 6:51)

Only in this way does He swallow His enemies (1 Corinthians 15:54)

Now those who don’t eat (with) Christ get eaten (Revelation 19:18)

But those who do eat Christ join Him in crushing the man-eater (Romans 16:20)

Therefore Satan will eat dirt all the days of his life (Micah 7:17Revelation 20:10)

And all those who follow him will likewise “lick the dust” (Psalm 72:9)

[The Messiah’s] enemies will lick the dust.  (Psalm 72:9)

So Christians can do their own John Wayne impression.  Because of Christ’s victory we can use some very tough talk on Satan.  We can say:

“Eat dirt man-eater!  There’s one Man you couldn’t swallow.  He’s swallowed you.  Our food will be the Man eaten.  And you will lick the dust forever.”