Archive for January 2008

Hesed and ‘Emet

January 31, 2008

Let not steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness [‘emet]
forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart. (Prov. 3.3)

Let me introduce you to the two most important words in any language. In Hebrew, they are hesed (clear your throat as you begin to say the “h”) and ‘emet. Hesed is a God-kind of love. Unlike the sappy stuff of Hollywood or even the friendly-feeling of everyday life, hesed (like still water) runs deep. Hesed is “forsaking all others till death do us part,” a father who cares enough for his children to invest himself in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6.4), a brother forgiving a brother, and the Son of God on the cross, because “God so loved the world” (Jn. 3.16).

Emet, on the other hand, is a God-kind of reality, truth with a capital “t,” truth that corresponds to the way things really are. ‘Emet has no patience with pretence or “p.r.” ‘Emet doesn’t speculate, hypothesize, or merely hope for the best. No rose-colored glasses. No “little white lies.” No “fast and loose” with the facts. But ‘emet also means that which corresponds to the way things ought to be, or in a word, “faithfulness.” As when Solomon says in this proverb, “Let not steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness [‘emet] forsake you.” ‘Emet says, “I will,” and does it. ‘Emet says, “I am,” and proves it. ‘Emet says what it means, and means what it says.

Here they are: hesed and ‘emet. In Greek, agape and aletheia. In our language, love and truth. The two most important words in any language.

Together these two words transform the world – but only together. Love without truth quickly degenerates into sentimentalism, as when a thoroughly modern couple vows to stay married “as long as we both shall love.” But truth without love just as quickly calcifies into legalism, as when airport security confiscates a grandmother’s half-full tube of toothpaste because it reads 3.25 ounces, not 3.0. (There is no tyranny,” said Francis Bacon, “like the tyranny of laws.”) Truth is unbending, unyielding, unforgiving. Which explains why holy God must judge all and every sin of every human being (Rom. 1.18). But love must find some way to help, some way to forgive, some way to set free. Which explains why God “gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” By themselves, love and truth will lead us only to humanism or to moralism. Together they lead us to life.

Together these two words paint a picture of God. The Apostle John says so, in so many words. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he says, “and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace [mercy, compassion, love] and truth” (Jn. 1.14). And again, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1.18). These two words together bring us as close as we can come to describing in simple terms the indescribable God.

We might even dare to say that these two words are almost all we need to live as Christians – for, Paul says, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ’ (Eph. 4.15). And what does Solomon say? Let not steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness [‘emet] forsake you.” Bind them around your neck,’ as a constant reminder. And “write them on the tablet of your heart,” for from the heart “flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4.23). You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Frantic Boast and Foolish Word

January 25, 2008

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger and not your own lips. (Prov 27.1, 2)

It is one of the remarkable paradoxes of human life that everybody disapproves of boasting – except in themselves.  We hate boasters, but we love to boast.

It’s no wonder we hate boasting, for one can hardly imagine a more galling form of pride.  Dizzy Dean, of long-ago baseball fame, once famously said that “It ain’t bragging if you really done it.”  But that isn’t true.  We can brag even when we “done it,” and even when we tell the truth about what we “done.”  What makes a boast a boast is not just what we say about ourselves (which may be false or true), but why we say it – which is always to make ourselves seem superior.

In these two proverbs, Solomon brings us face to face with this tendency we all have to make ourselves seem superior.  The first proverb looks forward – to boasting about plans and goals and visions.  We can cite many obvious examples – the “trash talking” athlete who “guarantees” victory; the candidate who glibly says, “when I am elected . . . ;” the dreamer who never actually does anything.  But all of us make rash promises – to our spouses, our children, even ourselves (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?) – or we make plans that leave God out.  The counter to this kind of boasting is the humble recognition that we do not control the future.  James gives us counsel along these lines:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil. (Jas 4.13-16)

The second proverb looks back – to boasting about accomplishments, achievements, successes.  The temptation here, of course, is even greater than the first (“It ain’t bragging if you really done it!”), but again, Solomon offers a simple, straightforward solution: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger and not your own lips.”  If there is to be praise for anything you have accomplished, let others see it and say it.  C. S. Lewis says somewhere that one mark of a truly great man would be that he himself would not be aware of his greatness.  It is telling, perhaps, that a friend of Lewis (Walter Hooper) once said of him that he seemed to reach a point in his life where he “just lost interest in himself.”

But every success brings fresh temptation to boast, so we need constant reminders that all we have and do, we have from God and do by His grace.

In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee (60th year in the English system), as the longest reigning monarch in the history of the world’s greatest Empire.  For the occasion, Rudyard Kipling composed a hymn called “Recessional” – a most remarkable hymn, for in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, it called for humility, and ended with a prayer – asking God’s mercy “For frantic boast and foolish word.”  You won’t find “Recessional” in the hymnbook – but we can look to the top of the page and read Proverbs 27, and fall on our knees.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Dr. Richard Wells

Provoking the Lion

January 19, 2008

The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion;
whoever provokes him to anger forfeits his life (Prov. 20.2).

On September 30, 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stood in front of No. 10 Downing Street holding in his hand a copy of an agreement signed in Munich just hours before. In an effort to avoid war with Germany, Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier had agreed to Adolf Hitler’s demands for control of German-speaking Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain returned to London in triumph; and now standing in front of the famous Prime Minister’s residence, he read from the Munich Agreement, ending his speech with one of the most famous sentences in the history of political oratory: “I believe,” he said, “it is peace for our time.”

Six months later, ignoring his promises, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and on September 1, 1939, he invaded Poland. Two days later, 338 days after Chamberlain’s “peace,” Britain declared war on the Third Reich. World War II had begun.

At first glance, Britain’s appeasement policy seems to discredit this proverb. For in hindsight, giving way to Hitler only made him bolder and gave him time to strengthen his hand. (Even at the time, Winston Churchill called the Agreement “a defeat without a war.”) The lion (Hitler?) was not provoked, but he growled anyway. Or so it might seem.

But elsewhere in the Proverbs, Solomon himself compares the “righteous man who gives way before the wicked” to a “muddied spring or a polluted fountain” (Prov. 25.26). And Scripture is filled with examples of godly conflict with the powers that be. Remember the message Jesus sent to Herod, the “lion” of His day? When certain Pharisees warned Him of threats from the King, Jesus replied, “Go and tell that fox” that I will “finish My course” (Lk. 13.32). Think of Moses before Pharaoh, Nathan confronting King David (2 Sam. 12.14), or Peter and John defying the Sanhedrin (Acts 4.19). In the same way here, Solomon does not advocate compromise or appeasement, giving way before the wicked, or “peace at any price.”

What he does advocate is the kind of wisdom that avoids unnecessary conflict by recognizing legitimate authority. Authority is ordained of God, and while resistance will sometimes become necessary, obedience is always the default position for a believer. Remember that Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den, he didn’t jump in! “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” Paul declares, “For there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13.1).

God’s command would be reason enough to obey, but notice that Solomon adds a practical motive as well: “whoever provokes him [the ruler, the ‘lion’] to anger, forfeits his life.” We naturally think of legal troubles (“I fought the law, and the law won!”), but the same principle applies at every level of authority in our lives. Submission to authority brings blessing; rebellion brings a curse.

That principle does not play very well these days, for we are living (as John Stott observed twenty-five years ago) in an “anti-authoritarian” culture, the likes of which history has never known. Provoking the “lion” is what we do. So let me offer a suggestion. Take some time this week to think about the “authority” figures in your life. How do you relate to them? Can you detect an “anti-authoritarian” attitude? If so, how has that attitude affected you? And, most important of all, what about our attitude toward the King of Kings? You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Taking Serious Things Seriously

January 9, 2008

A wise son hears his father’s instruction,

but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. (Prov. 13.1)

Everybody knows that we often learn more from our failures than we learn from our successes.  Everybody knows it – but nobody wants to hear about their failures.  No one welcomes a bad evaluation.  Nobody likes criticism.  For that all-too-obvious reason, this little proverb confronts every human being on earth.

But as the proverbs usually do, this one takes us further in than we first think.  Notice, for example, how Solomon links “rebuke” to a “father’s instruction.”  Almost by necessity, a good father’s “instruction” is often (if not mostly!) negative – as another proverb says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son” (Prov. 13.24)!  And it must be so.  “Rebuke” is essential because Christian growth depends on getting rid of sin, just as health depends on getting rid of disease.

The writer of Hebrews appeals to this very fact in writing about growth.  We “had earthly fathers who disciplined us,” he says, “and we respected them.  Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?”  He acknowledges that “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant,” but in time “it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12.9-11).  So it’s not just a truism, it’s a biblical truth – we grow from our failures.  Our earthly fathers “disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them,” but our Heavenly Father “disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12.10).

That is, if we take the discipline seriously – “but the scoffer does not listen to rebuke.”  It’s not that he doesn’t hear it (or deserve it!); it’s just that he pays no attention.  It makes no difference to him.  He doesn’t care.  He shrugs his shoulders, or shifts the blame, or makes excuses, or laughs it off, or retaliates.  He “disses” all criticism, and thus makes light of serious things.

No doubt King Solomon learned these kinds of life lessons from his own father, David-the “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13.14).  For all his greatness, David had clay feet – like every one of us – and he often sinned, and often in tragically spectacular ways.  But when confronted, the man after God’s heart always responded the same way: “And David said to God: ‘I have sinned . . . . please take away the iniquity of your servant'” (1 Chron. 21.8).

Not every “rebuke” that comes our way is justified – criticism being another of Satan’s amusements – but when it is, what I do with it tells the world how serious I am about the things of God and about my relationship with Him.  Or to say it another way, confession is good for the soul, because it proves that we take serious things seriously.  You are dearly loved.

Your Pastor

Surety for Strangers

January 3, 2008

My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger, if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, then do this, my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor; go, hasten and plead urgently with your neighbor.  (Prov. 6.1-3)

The Brown-eyed Baby and I got started in home ownership because my dad co-signed the mortgage.  It was a very small mortgage, to be sure, but without his signature on the dotted line it might as well have been a fortune.  (And in the interest of full disclosure, Dad also loaned us the down payment!)  Years later, as parents ourselves, we would do the same for our children.

But should we?  Take a moment to read Solomon’s stern warning from Proverbs 6 about surety.  What do you think he would have said to my dad?

For starters, he would have said that his warnings have little to do with loving fathers and newlywed sons.  The operative phrase is “for a stranger” (v. 1).  The “neighbor” in this case is (in Hebrew) a zār, a “casual acquaintance,” as we say, some somebody with whom you happen to have some kind of relationship, either bad (Prov. 24.28) or good (Prov. 27.2).  What Solomon describes here is not a parent’s sacrifice, but the all-too-familiar “need to be needed,” the rescue mentality, good works gone wild, the nearly neurotic need to find significance and self-esteem by playing knight in shining armor or psychological paramedic.

The Apostle Paul once warned against this subtle danger.  It is “always good to be made much of for a good purpose,” he told the Galatians-to be needed, wanted, valued.  But beware of those (like the false teachers of Galatia) who would seize on the need to be needed and make you a prey: “They make much of you, but for no good purpose”-they only want you to “make much of them” (Gal. 4.17, 18)!

Even so, doesn’t Solomon’s response seem a bit over-the-top?  Just listen!  “Save yourself,” he says, “go, hasten, plead urgently with your neighbor” (v. 3).  Don’t sleep until you’ve freed yourself, he goes on to say (v. 4), escape like an animal from a trap (v. 5).  Why do you suppose Solomon is so vehement?

Whatever the reason, it’s not a money matter.  The text does not contain the slightest hint that financial exposure has anything to do with it; and besides, the Scriptures encourage us constantly to give freely to those in need, expecting nothing in return.  No, this is a matter of principle-you are “snared” and “caught” in “the words of your mouth,” Solomon says, you are at the mercy (“have come into the hand”) of your neighbor.  We make ourselves slaves of whatever we choose to obey (Rom. 6.16), so the moment you sign the note you became dependent on (a slave to) the moral integrity of others.  It would be far better to sell all that you have and give it away.

The moral of the story is: Beware of anything that puts your spiritual life at risk in any way.  At the beginning of this new year, would you ask God to show you the risks in your life?

And “give your eyes no sleep” (v. 4) until you are done with them.

You are loved.