Category: Bible Study


. . . in Him you have been made complete . . . (Col. 2:10)

This statement comes in the context of Paul’s encouragement to the Colossians regarding Christ’s triumph on the cross. In the role of our Savior, Jesus was crucified and, in that act, the justice of God was satisfied and the demands of the Law were met. Our sins were paid for, our souls were redeemed, and we no longer live under the condemnation of God.

The fact that Christ represented us, the apostle explains, means that we gain the benefits that He secured. Every charge pending against us was nullified and every need was met in Christ. His atonement was perfect; consequently, there is nothing lacking, nothing to be added, and nothing to be modified. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the definitive declaration from God that the Son’s sacrifice was accepted and all those on whose behalf the sacrifice was made were eternally secure.

This is our position before God today—no guilt, no fear, no debt, no judgment. We are free in the purest and most magnificent sense of the word. We are free to live in peace, we are free to enjoy what we have been given, we are free to rejoice in God and express our gladness to Him. We are free to sing and praise and pray. We are free to set aside every concern we once had about winning God’s favor. We are free to be who we are in Christ and pay no attention to what others may want us to be. We are free to follow the Word and ignore man-made rules and regulations, and we are free to live in hope of that coming day when we will join our wonderful Savior in heaven.

All of this is what Christ has provided. This is what Paul meant when he wrote: “in Him you have been made complete.” We pay Christ a great honor when we live out our days as a free, sanctified, and confident people. If there is any area in your life in which you are in bondage to the dictates of man, you may cast off those shackles at this very moment in the name of your Savior. If there is any aspect of your life in which fear of condemnation is present, you may reclaim it right now in the name of your Deliverer.

Advertisements

The Gospel in Psalm 130

July 19, 2015

 

Introduction

Psa. 130:1 A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. 3 If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning; indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Based on the text of this Psalm, it seems appropriate to begin with some questions. How many transgressions of all the principles and commandments and precepts that are found in Scripture did you violate last week? What would the list look like if all of your sins, up to this moment in time, had been recorded? How would you like to appear before God and see such a list displayed before Him?

The truth is, you don’t know how many times you’ve violated the holiness of God just since you opened your eyes this morning. Even if we attempted to record all of our sinful thoughts and words and actions for just a day, we would miss most of them. We don’t go through life thinking in terms of cataloging our sins—and for good reason. We don’t have to live like that. But that shouldn’t stop us from considering how often we violate God’s standard and that shouldn’t stop us from meditating, at times, on all the ways in which we sin against God. Such times of reflection can be most beneficial, as we are about to see as we turn our attention to Psa. 130.

This obviously is a prayer offered by a worshiper of God; it is a prayer expressing anguish, to a degree, and relief as the writer acknowledges certain facts about God. These facts, as they are recalled, provide him with a much needed encouragement and corrected perspective on whatever it was that drove him to describe himself as being in the “depths.”

I would note that the first truth that stands out is this writer’s apparent conviction that the LORD establishes the standard by which we are judged, the standard by which our lives are measured. This critical truth comes after the writer’s introductory remarks in which he expresses his distress and his desire that the LORD would hear his supplications. In v. 3, the writer asks a question that carries such momentous implications that I fear we will not be able to grasp them all. The writer of this Psalm asks: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Before I talk about the most sobering aspects of this question, I want you to notice that the writer automatically assumes that it is the LORD’s place to decide what is and what is not an iniquity; he assumes that the LORD is the One who sets the standard to which all are held.

The writer does not suggest that if the LORD were to be the One with the authority or right to mark iniquities, we might find ourselves in trouble; he assumes that the LORD is the One whose nature is such that He determines that which constitutes acceptable thinking, speaking, and conduct. This fact, in itself, declares to us something vital concerning God’s nature—His nature is the standard of morality. Whatever God is, that is what it means to be morally upright; whatever contradicts what God is, that is what it means to be morally corrupt and fallen.

With this tremendously important assumption operating, the writer asks his question: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” If God, whose nature is the standard of judgment in this universe, were to “mark iniquities,” no one would survive, the writer asserts. Let me define two words at this point before we continue. First, the word translated “mark” (shamar) means “to keep” as it to preserve something for an indefinite period of time. Second, the word “iniquities” (avon) means “perversity, depravity, sin.” Now, look again at the question: “If You, LORD, should keep or preserve a record of sins or acts of perversity or thoughts of depravity, O Lord, who could stand?”

I already noted that the writer operates with the assumption that the LORD has the authority to determine the standard by which we are judged. Another assumption, which is obviously held by this writer, is that we are a people characterized by that which qualifies as iniquity. He doesn’t speak as though iniquity is a rare thing; he speaks as though everyone on this earth is characterized by enough iniquity to render them worthy of destruction were the LORD ever to decide to call them to account. This Psalm tells us that God sets the standard and it tells us that He is not like us; we are different from God because we are characterized by various elements that are contrary to His nature; therefore, we deserve judgment—that is a clear message from this writer.

We deserve judgment because we commit violation after violation of God’s standard, and yet we do not perish. Why is this? It is because the LORD is pleased not to mark our iniquities, and He is pleased not to keep a list of our sins current right up to this present moment in time is a running count of accusations against us. He is pleased not to call us to account for our transgressions. Now the writer has revealed a truth about God that should leave us astounded —we are creatures of depravity, but the LORD chooses not to hold our sins against us. He chooses not to mark our iniquities. If we could simply comprehend this one primary point, we would have an understanding of the gospel that would change us forever; we would understand the power of the gospel, the beauty of the gospel, and the comfort of the gospel. The LORD does not mark our iniquities because “there is forgiveness with [Him], that [He] may be feared.” (v. 4)

Forgiveness—that is the explanation. We are characterized by iniquities, but the LORD doesn’t hold on to those transgressions and He doesn’t bring them against us time after time because He forgives us. It’s not that we learn to do better and it’s not that God cares less about His holy character as time goes by and it’s not that our offenses are any less offensive the tenth time we commit them as opposed to the first time. The answer is forgiveness. God forgives us, which means, as the writer’s word structure indicates, that forgiveness is the very opposite of marking iniquities. Knowing that God forgives, the writer states, leads us to fear Him. He uses a Hebrew term (yare) that refers to the deep reverence we have when we stand in awe of something. This word is used extensively in the Old Testament to describe a proper attitude toward God. This fear is not that He will harm us, the fear is reverence, respect, standing in all of the magnificent God of the Bible. To meditate on the forgiveness of God leads to this worshipful attitude; it is an attitude of humility and thanksgiving.

The only way for you to understand the richness of your salvation is to first grasp the enormity of your sin. This is the idea here in our text. The enormity of our sin is revealed when the writer says, in essence, that if we had to answer for our conduct, we would perish; the richness of our salvation is revealed when he says that, instead of being called to account for our sins, God forgives us—which explains, by the way, what forgiveness is; it is relating to the offending party without regard for his sins. Here I must make something absolutely clear; what I want to make absolutely clear is how this kind of situation can exist. I want to make clear how it is that God forgives the guilty.

If anyone ever had a doubt regarding the presence of the gospel in the Old Testament, here is a prime example of how the Old Testament reveals the nature of redemption without speaking as directly about Christ as is the case after the incarnation. We know why the LORD doesn’t mark our iniquities; it is because He forgives us. But we also know that God’s holy nature makes it impossible for Him simply to overlook transgressions. The kind of statement found in this Psalm would have led any pious mind to thoughts about what was taught in the Levitical system, namely, that sins are forgiven on the basis of a substitutionary atonement. If there is forgiveness with God, as this writer says, it is because something has been done about our sins—and that “something” is that God has provided Another to bear the consequences of our iniquities.

As I said before, we do not escape answering for our transgressions because God forgets about them or because He knows that we are “doing our best.” We escape because our Savior takes our place. That is the underlying truth of this portion of Psa. 130. Here is a brief, but truthful reminder of what God had been promising for ages; and the writer of this Psalm relates in a simple fashion the reality of redemption.

This Psalm tells us that God determines the standard to which we are held, that He does not count our transgressions against us even though we violate His standard, and that in the place of destruction God provides forgiveness. Consequently, as the writer goes on to teach, God becomes the focus of his hope (cf. v. 5). Because he knows what the LORD has done, because He knows that the LORD forgives and restores, the writer found great comfort for his soul as he faced hardships. We’ll see in a moment the manner in which he describes this hope, but for now the important point is that the way in which God treats His people makes Him the object of their trust and hope.

This Psalm is a wonderful assertion of some of the primary truths of the gospel. Sinners who are condemned and deserving of destruction are forgiven by the very God against whom they have committed innumerable acts of transgression. Imagine the God who would operate in this manner! Imagine His love and His mercy and His patience.

Clearly, as we’ve seen in many of the other Psalms in this current series, this Psalm tells us that these were people who quickly and confidently turned to the LORD in times of distress. Routinely, these Psalms have given testimony to the fact that the worshipers sought guidance, comfort and confidence from the LORD in the many adverse circumstances they encountered. In this case, the writer describes himself as crying to the LORD “out of the depths.” (v. 1) Whenever this word (“depths”) is used in the Old Testament, it normally refers to the deepest parts of the ocean. Figuratively, therefore, it is used to express a state of great anguish and despair.

Although the writer doesn’t provide specific details concerning his situation, we do have some indication of what was bothering him. After expressing such anguish, he begins speaking of iniquities. It is possible, therefore, that the writer was deeply troubled by his transgressions or those of the nation. For some reason, sin and forgiveness were on his mind when he wrote this song. Rightly, as I noted, he turns to the LORD and pours out his distress in those few words found in vv. 1 and 2. This writer is in a position where only the LORD can help him and it is to the LORD that he directs his cry for assistance.

Those who, along with this writer, worshiped the LORD at this point in history knew the fundamental truth that God is the one to whom we turn in times of distress, especially if that distress is caused by the contemplation of our sin. Where else can we turn to find relief for our troubled soul when, upon the contemplation of our depravity, we find ourselves near despair? The very act of meditating on one’s fallen state quickly leads to the conclusion that there is no help to be found in self—self is the problem! We are sinners and when sinners think soberly on their condition, they certainly do not conclude that deliverance from condemnation and the torment of guilt is to be found in their own devices. It is to the LORD and to Him only that we turn in such moments and it is that perspective that is recorded in this Psalm.

This apparent deliberation on his condition led this writer to a sobering conclusion: “If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (v. 2) Realizing, even to a slight degree, how unfit he was to stand before the LORD, this writer confesses the truth that if the LORD were to require an accounting from him for his transgressions, he would be doomed. And, in fact, the way he states the question makes it obvious that he held this same opinion about all of his countrymen. If the LORD were to keep track of our sins, he says, and then require a reckoning from us, we would be lost. We could not possibly stand before the LORD were He to produce a list of our sins.

Imagine knowing that the LORD was, in fact, marking iniquities, was keeping a record and would demand an accounting. This would be enough to unravel any pious person, or any person who truly wanted to walk before Jehovah in faith. But just as such disturbing thoughts occurred to this writer, he adds that astounding statement in v. 4: “But there is forgiveness with You…”

These worshipers were not free of sin and they were not free of guilt before the LORD, but He was not relating to them based on their sin because with Jehovah there is forgiveness. With Him, there is a remedy for sin—because there is forgiveness with the LORD. What a change of perspectives! If the LORD should mark iniquities, these worshipers knew that they could not endure before Him, but the LORD did not keep a record of their sin in order to bring it against them. Instead, He offered them forgiveness; instead, the LORD, the holy One, the offended One, made a provision for their deliverance.

It’s no wonder that the writer goes on to express how he eagerly waited for the LORD (vv. 5 and 6). As he considered his sin and the fact that the LORD forgave him, he wanted nothing more than to be with the LORD who loved him so. The truth of God’s forgiveness was the hope to which this man held as he made his way through life. It was communion with God that brought this man joy and comfort.

The word translated “wait” (qavah) is interesting (cf. v. 5). It’s a term that refers to remaining or abiding in a specific state as you anticipate something beneficial. When the writer says that he waited for the LORD, he doesn’t mean he was expecting the LORD to show up at some point. He means that he was resting in the LORD. And from that perspective, he was anticipating a time of communion with God, perhaps through worship or perhaps through his departure from this life into the presence of God.

In this frame of mind, the writer could urge his fellow-worshipers to “hope in the LORD.” (v. 7) He could assure them that they served a God who is known for His lovingkindness. In Him, the writer declares, there is “abundant redemption.” He presents a picture of the LORD that is completely uplifting and perfectly suited for those who were on their way to worship Jehovah.

At some point, this writer was made aware of his transgressions or something caused him to pause and think about the fact that he was a sinner and his sins were committed against a God of purity and holiness. And as he was going through this thought process, he realized that he deserved destruction. But there he was—alive and well and able to worship the LORD. The contemplation of his sin led, of course, to the contemplation of God’s forgiveness of his sin. Those two realities—his sin and God’s forgiveness of his sin—overwhelmed him and he had to exclaim praise for the LORD.

If God marked your iniquities, if He kept a record of your sins and called you to account, would you be able to stand? If God took note of your transgressions and preserved a list of them, would you be able to appear before Him with confidence? You know the answer to those questions. Our problem is that we don’t face these kinds of questions often enough. We rarely consider the implications of such a question as: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

Meditation on such questions leads inevitably to the conclusion that God forgives—otherwise, we wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t have a life and we wouldn’t know the LORD. Meditation on what God has done for sinners is where God-honoring worship begins.

When the writer of this Psalm thought on such things, he was moved to fear the LORD. How about you? We don’t hear much talk about fearing the LORD these days. To fear the LORD means that you relate to Him as God, as a holy and righteous God. It means that we look to Him with thankful hearts realizing that He is the One who saves us and who watches over us. To fear the LORD is to stand in awe of Him.

These kinds of thoughts come much more easily when we keep before us the fact that God has forgiven us. It was that truth that caused the writer to find hope in spite of his sins. He knew that God had provided for his forgiveness. As I said before, the gospel is portrayed in Psa. 130. There is the undeniable teaching of atonement in this Psalm. There is recognition of sin and there is recognition of forgiveness—the two key elements in redemption.

Therefore, we cannot study this Psalm without being directed to Christ. There is no way to read this Psalm and even begin to have the slightest understanding of it without turning our eyes to Christ. It is impossible for us to think about our transgression and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they have been forgiven without turning our minds to Christ. He is the explanation for sins forgiven. The Messiah is the explanation for this writer’s conclusion that, although he was a man of iniquity, there was forgiveness with the LORD. Amen.

No topic in the book of Proverbs more clearly illustrates the way of God and the way of fallen man, or the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness, better than the subject of the tongue. The Proverbs address the incredibly diverse effects that can be accomplished with our speech. The tongue can bring life or it can bring death. It can cheer or it can cause despair. It can guide or it can mislead. It can bless or it can curse. It can honor God or it can be the instrument of blasphemy. Due to the tongue’s potential for both good and evil, it receives some of Solomon’s most precise analysis.

You don’t have to live too many years before you learn first-hand about the potential for good and the potential for harm that resides in our tongues. Generally speaking, we are so very careless with our words. Some of our most bitter memories are not of being struck by another person, but of being spoken to or spoken of harshly by another person. Most of us can recall episodes when we felt crushed by the words of another, or when we felt the keenest sense of betrayal due to words spoken by another. Set against these experiences are those times when someone has spoken kindly to us or about us and that has brought us satisfaction. And we all have known the comfort that comes from words of encouragement and support during a time of trial.

Our words are the most effective weapon we possess for destruction and the most effective means we possess for building up. The difference between these two extremes is the words we choose to utter and the manner in which we choose to utter them.

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Pro. 10:19)

This is a verse that serves as one of the foundational principles when it comes to understanding the Biblical doctrine of language, in general, and the use of the tongue, in particular. Solomon doesn’t say what we might expect him to say. He doesn’t say “when there are many bad or hurtful or hasty or negative words, transgression is unavoidable, he simply writes that when there are “many words,” transgression is unavoidable. This should tell us something about communication immediately; it should tell us that much talk tends to result in a negative outcome. Our words, when they are prolonged, tend to degenerate in character and that means that transgression is always a potential product.

Because of our fallen natures, if we speak a lot, we are going to sin. This is a simple formula that Solomon sets before us. Consequently, the second half of this verse makes complete sense: “but he who restrains his lips is wise.” If, because of our sin natures, much talk is likely to produce transgression, then the person who wants to please the LORD and not cause offense with words will be the person who governs the tongue. Much talk leads to sin, so less talk eliminates the opportunity for sin.

Let’s consider some of the vocabulary Solomon uses in this verse. First, there is the word “transgression” (pesha). What exactly does Solomon mean when he says that when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable? This term is a basic Hebrew word meaning “trespass” or “sin.” There’s no mystery here. Solomon says that many words lead to sin—that is, the violation of some aspect of God’s Word. In fact, you’ll notice, he says that sin is unavoidable when we speak many words. The phrase Solomon uses refers to something that cannot be stopped, something that must occur given a set of circumstances. In this case, sin is that which cannot be stopped or that which must occur when this circumstance—many words—is present.

Solomon sets before us the opposite of speaking many words: “but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Here, the word translated “restrains” (chasak), of course, is significant. This term means “to spare, to keep back, to withhold, to hinder, to hold in check.” This notion is clear enough. This word describes an act of self-discipline or self-control by which the words that are spoken are few and do not, therefore, lead to transgression.

Solomon teaches that the preferred alternative to the use of many words is the use of controlled speech. If speech is controlled, and we’re talking about quantity as well as quality, we are less likely to commit a sin with our tongue. Therefore, since avoiding anything that violates God’s will is a chief mark of a wise man, Solomon pronounces that man who governs his mouth as “wise.”

This is, once again, a foundational verse because it deals with words, in general, not just “bad” words or inflammatory words. This text warns us that if we talk too much, we are going to sin—and I would point out that Solomon says nothing about our motives or our sense of justification for speaking many words. He flatly warns us that if we talk a lot, we are going to sin and he says that this outcome is unavoidable. Only a fool will hear what Solomon says in this verse and think he is immune or think he can still talk much about people or circumstances without falling into sin. If we take this verse seriously, we should be people of measured speech; we should be people who are known for their reserve when it comes to talking.

In terms of a practical response to this teaching, I would say be aware of the tremendous power of language. We need to give attention to this aspect of how God has made us. We are made in such a way that words have deep and lasting impacts on us. We cannot control how others use words, but we can control how we use them. And in recognizing the power of the tongue, determine that you will use it in a God-honoring manner. Discipline yourself to speak responsibly and in a controlled fashion. Make it your goal to build up others by your words—not through false flattery, but through words that edify.

Self-image

When I use the term “self-image,” I’m referring to the manner in which we are to think of ourselves as the creatures of God, living in His world, subject to His Word. I’m not thinking of the popular notion of self-esteem. In the book of Proverbs, we find a number of verses that establish the perspective we are to hold as we walk before the LORD. And, as is to be expected, we also find a number of statements telling us what we are not to think about ourselves or how we are not to determine our significance in this world.

The perspective that is commended in the Proverbs reflects the facts that we are creatures and God is the Creator. This perspective is essential, Solomon teaches, to a well-ordered life. It won’t take us long to understand why Solomon held such an opinion; nor will it take us long to realize how easily the perspective of Proverbs is lost or obscured or ignored. Because we are fallen creatures, our tendency is to think more highly of ourselves than we should; our tendency is to have more confidence in ourselves than we should.

Our verse was chosen to illustrate the essence of what the Proverbs teach us about how we deceive ourselves regarding our place in this world and how we are to correct that self-deception.

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the LORD weighs the motives. (Pro. 16:2)

Here is an example of antithetical parallelism; and in this case, it is particularly significant because this verse presents two diametrically opposed approaches to life—one that is “natural,” we could say to fallen creatures, and then the one that is truthful. In terms of generalities, Solomon sums up the way fallen human beings think of themselves and their abilities to perceive and act rightly. In contrast to that perception, he sets the One who knows our hearts and that is the LORD.

Let’s consider the first phrase of this verse: “all the ways of a man are clean in his own sight…” What does this tell us about how we tend to think about ourselves? What does this tell us about how, without correction, we will view our abilities and actions? This phrase declares that to the uncorrected mind—and this is the way to think of what Solomon means here because he contrasts a man’s ways with what the LORD knows in truth—whatever it conceives is truth. Therefore, what the uncorrected mind, that is, the mind not trained in truth, not subdued to the Word of God, perceives becomes the basis for conduct.

A fallen man examines his world and assumes that his analysis is correct; he assumes that what he concludes about the nature of this world is correct. So, a fallen man further assumes that any actions or decisions based on his observations must be correct—a fallen man, in other words, simply acts in a manner consistent with his fallen nature. He analyzes, concludes, thinks, and acts based on the belief that he is capable of rightly understanding his environment.

This characteristic is directly traceable to the fall of Adam and Eve. Adam’s sin was disobedience to the will of God and at the heart of all disobedience is the belief, however obscured, that I know better than God. Adam, in his actions, declared that he knew better than God, that God’s assessment of his environment was not necessarily the only assessment that might have validity. Consequently, Adam acted on his own, apart from what God commanded. Adam did what he thought was right, not what his Creator had declared was right. And that is what Solomon encapsulates in this first phrase.

It’s a simple truth that we hold the opinions we hold and we take the actions we take because we believe we are correct. Otherwise, we would hold another opinion or act in a different manner. Every person holds opinions they believe are correct or they would believe something else. Every person behaves according to what they believe is right; otherwise, they would behave differently. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. Solomon, as I said, encapsulates the very heart of fallen man’s reasoning process—he assumes that his ways are clean.

Apart from God’s correction, we are left with only ourselves as the measure of all things. If we are not looking to the standard of God, we must look to our own standard—there are no other choices. Now our standard may be a compilation of opinions taken from different sources, but it is still a standard assembled apart from the Word of God. And we go through life applying this standard and viewing the world according to this standard; and we remain in that mode of thinking and behaving unless, at some point, we are regenerated. And even then, we must battle for the rest of our lives to subdue our opinions and our conclusions in light of the Word of God that has become the standard by which we are to measure all things.

There is a lot in this first phrase. It speaks not only of how we behave and think, but also why we behave and think as we do. Remember, that in such verses, when Solomon speaks of “a man” he is referring to a man who operates apart from the wisdom of God.

And that brings us to the second half of this verse: “but the LORD weighs the motives.” As I said, this is an absolute contrast in two perspectives—the perspective of fallen man and the perspective of fallen man’s Creator. That something might be wrong with “the ways of a man” is immediately indicated. Fallen man assumes, as I’ve emphasized, that his assessments are correct and he acts on them. But the LORD assesses the man himself and in that assessment, Solomon implies, fallen man is found wanting.

The word translated “weighs” (takan) conveys the idea of subjecting something to examination by which its true nature or worth is revealed. This implies that what a man thinks or what conclusions he holds are not necessarily correct. The LORD, as only He can do, examines that which is behind a man’s thoughts or actions—and that is the state of his heart. This is made clear when you consider the word translated “motives.” It is a word (ruwach) that refers to the mind or the heart; it refers to one’s disposition.

Therefore, while a fallen man may believe he sees correctly and is rightly interpreting his environment so that he has great confidence in himself and his decisions, the LORD is able to see the condition of his heart; and that is something that the man himself cannot do. As a result, if a man is to know the truth about himself and his environment, so that he can think rightly and behave rightly, he must look outside himself for guidance. With that guidance, that revelation that God supplies, a man can then begin to think and act in a truly proper manner.

In conclusion, then, as far as this verse is concerned, we must say that we are taught to be distrustful of the uncorrected perspective we all hold—uncorrected, that is, by the Word of God. It is His Word that reveals to us the truth about the world in which we live, and the truth about our relationship with Him and others. We are not to think of ourselves as understanding anything apart from the context of God’s revelation; we are to understand that if we seek to interpret our environment or discover our duties apart from the Word of our Creator, we are bound to stumble. Our fallen natures will lead us astray. There is no question about that fact.

Solomon teaches, therefore, that self-image begins with the admission that we cannot trust our perceptions; we must subject them to the Word of God. We are not independent creatures, we are dependent creatures. We are not trustworthy sources of interpretation, we are, on the contrary, most untrustworthy. We are creatures that must rely on our Creator for understanding.

Additional Verses

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. (16:1)

This verse says much the same thing. I include it here separately because it speaks even more directly to the nature of our dependence on the LORD. Solomon acknowledges that we make plans in our heart, which has already been emphasized. But then, instead of saying that those plans are subject to the LORD’s oversight, which we know is true from our study already, he says something more significant: “but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”

This speaks to the LORD’s sovereign orchestration of our lives. We make our plans, but ultimately God can overrule the words we speak—or, to better explain what Solomon means here—the expression we give to those plans. We are laboring under a false notion if we think that whatever we determine in our hearts will inevitably come to pass.

For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths. (5:21)

In terms of what we think about ourselves and this world in which we live, one false assumption fallen man makes is that he is accountable only when and how he chooses to be accountable. In human relationships, we make ourselves accountable and, when it no longer pleases us, we throw of that accountability (marriages, jobs, church participation, daily observance of civil law, etc.). Normally, we don’t live apart from several human relationships in which accountability is a factor. And we know that the Bible teaches that accountability is a necessary and beneficial element because we are sinners and sinners need to be held accountable at every level.

But suppose a man manages to extricate himself from every significant form of accountability. Is he then truly without accountability? Solomon says “no.” A man’s ways—his life, his actions, that which constitutes his particular existence—are “before the eyes of the LORD.” No person is ever free of scrutiny or accountability because, after all other restraints or restrictions are removed, a man still lives out his entire life before the eyes of the LORD. There is no changing this and there is no escaping this truth. We are creatures and we exist in the presence of our Creator. He knows all and sees all—whether it be concerning some far off place in the universe or the thought that just this moment passed through our minds. We are not, as I said before, independent creatures, we are dependent creatures.

Practical Responses

I’ll close with a couple of thoughts regarding how this study should affect us.

Once again, you’ll notice, that the Proverbs have spoken to us about our fallen condition. As with the last topic of self-control, we also have a particular tendency when it comes to self-image or how we think about ourselves and our place in this world. Our tendency is to overestimate our abilities and under estimate our need for the instruction of the Word. The wise person, therefore, will “force-feed” his spirit with the Word of God knowing that while the flesh may resist, this is an essential exercise.

We must always be measuring our opinions against the Word. I won’t even attempt to speculate how much trouble would be avoided in our lives if we simply developed a habit of submitting our views to the Word and did so by humbly offering our views to others while inviting response based on their understanding of the Scriptures. As it is, though, we hold tenaciously to our opinions and are offended when they are challenged even in the most innocent and well-intentioned manner. This is not the way of wisdom, it is the way of ignorance. As much as we would like to believe it, and as tempted as we are to act on the idea, we are not the measure of all things and we must discipline ourselves to become people who receive instruction—and we must do this because we recognize that, as fallen creatures, we need it.

 

The issue of self-control is much more extensive than we might think initially. We normally think of self-control in conjunction with anger. Typically, we consider a person who is easily angered to be a person with a lack of self-control. But the topic of self-control takes us to the heart of one of the main themes in Scripture, which is our sanctification.

The process of sanctification is largely about self-control or about learning to think, speak, and act according to God’s principles rather than according to what comes “naturally,” which is some manifestation of our fallen natures. Self-control, then, has to do with subjecting our fallen natures—our sinful impulses—to the Word of God.

 

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Pro. 16:32)

The importance of this issue is clearly established in this single verse in which we find Solomon’s opinion regarding self-control or self-rule. Note the extreme comparisons he draws. One who is “slow to anger” is compared to “the mighty” and one who “rules his spirit” is compared to “he who captures a city.”

Initially, we would assume there would be no beneficial comparison to be made between a man who is slow to anger and those labeled “mighty.” The word Solomon uses is gibbor, which refers to a man of great strength or a man of great courage. This word conveys the sense of the heroic, the kind of person legends are made of, the kind of person who accomplishes seemingly impossible feats and faces dangers and threats that would make most others tremble. But Solomon says that the man who is slow to anger is better than such a man. He does not simply say that a man who is slow to anger is like a mighty man or similar in constitution to the mighty man; he says that a man who is slow to anger is superior to the man of great strength or the man of great courage.

Who do we admire most—the person who controls his anger or the person who demonstrates unusual strength and bravery? Who should we admire most? The first question is answered by what we observe in this world and the second question is answered by the Word of God. A man who rules his spirit is considered of better character and is considered a better man than he who captures a city.

Implied here is insight regarding the nature of man. If control of our initial impulses is defined as a good thing, then that must mean that those initial impulses are bad things; and that tells us something, therefore, about ourselves. It tells us that we are, by nature, given to reactions and responses that are negative in character. So this verse reflects the Bible’s teaching concerning the nature of fallen man.

Additional Verses

A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated. (14:17 )

Solomon says that a man who is “quick-tempered acts foolishly.” Notice that this description is the opposite of the man in 16:32 who is described as “slow to anger.” There you’ll recall, Solomon uses a word that refers to having patience. Here, two words are used that are translated “quick-tempered” and one of them (qatser) refers to a lack of patience.

This is interesting. In just two verses, we’ve discovered that patience (or the lack thereof) is one of the core elements of self-control. This implies that one of the keys to self-discipline is learning to be patient with circumstances and people. And patience is one of the hallmarks of spiritual maturity in the Scriptures. This is true, I think, because patience implies trust in God and contentment with what He has ordained.

A man of great anger will bear the penalty, for if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again. (19:19)

Briefly, this verse speaks of habitual lack of self-control. There is a danger in failing to exercise self-discipline. The danger is that your impulsiveness, which is nothing more than an immediate expression of your fallen nature, becomes your pattern of conduct. You will rarely find a man who loses his temper in a significant way only once in a while. Normally, if a man is easily provoked by circumstances or words, you’ll find that he is frequently provoked by circumstances or words.

Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel. (20:3)

Solomon sets before us two kinds of behavior, two kinds of people, two descriptions of character. Self-control may manifest itself in avoiding a circumstance, not simply in reacting patiently to a circumstance. That’s the idea in this verse. If he can avoid it, a wise man will not put himself in a position where there is likely to be strife. This phrase takes us in yet another direction in our understanding of self-control. Here the notion of discernment comes into play.

When a man avoids strife, Solomon teaches, he has done an honorable thing. How different this is from the way we operate so often! We sometimes think that we must enter into strife in order to make our point and so that we make sure our opinion is heard. Our natural tendency is to create strife, not avoid it.

Practical Responses

I would offer three short suggestions:

One, make sure you understand how fundamentally important this issue is. As I tried to make clear, self-control deals with the very heart of who we are, how we think and behave; self-control is self-discipline and that is what we are concerned with when we think of our sanctification. This is not just a matter of controlling our tempers, it is a matter of determining that by which our lives will be characterized.

Two, understand that self-control, as fundamentally important as it is, begins with our temper or our handling of those natural impulses that rise up in us in response to circumstances. Yes, there is much to the topic of self-discipline because it is such an essential aspect of our existence, but it begins with simple, everyday situations in which we have opportunities to give way to expressions of our fallen natures or subdue them for God’s glory.

Three, every person, from children to adults, has room to improve in this matter of self-control. Don’t think that because you don’t lose your temper often that you have no problem with self-control. Self-discipline touches many aspects of our lives. There are obvious examples where self-control is needed, and then there are some not-so-obvious examples where self-control is needed. Some examples are seen by many people, and some examples are known only to you and God. Therefore, meditate on these proverbs, memorize them, pray that God will cause the characteristics commended in the proverbs to be true of you.

Some Thoughts on Thankfulness

Psalm 77

Introduction

One of the most difficult challenges we face is that of developing a genuinely thankful attitude. Because we are sinners, the concept of acknowledging a source outside ourselves, a source that is responsible for the things in life that we consider good and desirable, a source that gives but does not require repayment, can be most uncomfortable. To be thankful, we must first admit that we are the recipients of so much that we did not pursue and so much that we could not achieve on our own under any circumstances. The concept of giving thanks also requires us to admit our limitations, especially in light of the fact that we are spiritually crippled by sin.

I believe that developing a thankful attitude, one that endures throughout the year and one that seriously influences the way we think about ourselves and our nation and our relationship with God is of fundamental importance. Living without thankfulness in our hearts produces a false sense of security and a false apprehension of what we are able to do as human beings.

We are, by nature, selfish, self-centered people and we have to train ourselves to be grateful, not only to other human beings, but especially to our Creator. I also want to point out the Bible has a tremendous amount to say about this topic of thankfulness. Based upon this fact and the prominent place given to thankfulness in our development as Christ’s disciples, I believe it is safe to assume that God is pleased when His people behave contrary to their fallen natures and actually raise their eyes to heaven and praise Him for all that He has bestowed upon us.

You probably encounter very few genuinely thankful people when you leave your home during the week. Often, either directly or through the media, you encounter selfish people, people who want everything they have and more, people who think they deserve a better life than what they are experiencing. This is not really a surprising attitude when you remember that we are sinners; and one thing that sin does is make us complainers.

In Psa. 77, the writer provides us with steps which, if followed consistently, will gradually produce and sustain an atmosphere of thanksgiving in our hearts and homes. The historical setting for this Psalm is uncertain. Circumstances were such that the writer was emotionally overwhelmed. It could have been that the nation was experiencing a particularly difficult time or perhaps this Psalm only reflects a personal experience of the writer. Whatever the case, we can learn something about the state of the writer’s mind from the tone of this Psalm.

Psalm 77:1 My voice rises to God, and I will cry aloud; my voice rises to God, and He will hear me. 2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; in the night my hand was stretched out without weariness; my soul refused to be comforted. 3 When I remember God, then I am disturbed; when I sigh, then my spirit grows faint. 4 You have held my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I have considered the days of old, the years of long ago. 6 I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart, and my spirit ponders: 7 Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favorable again? 8 Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? 9 Has God forgotten to be gracious, or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion? 10 Then I said, “it is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” 11 I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. 12 I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. 13 Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God? 14 You are the god who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples. 15 You have by Your power redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. 16 The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were in anguish; the deeps also trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth a sound; Your arrows flashed here and there. 18 The sound of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; the lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footprints may not be known. 20 You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

We can conclude that the writer passed through a time of desperation and doubt. He speaks of seeking the LORD throughout the night (v. 2). His soul was so troubled that he could not sleep and didn’t know what to say (v. 4). The writer thought much about the past—perhaps remembering better times or times when the LORD came to his aid (vv. 6-8). Whatever happened led this writer to wonder if God had forsaken him forever. Would he ever again experience God’s favor? Had God withdrawn His grace? (v. 9) In his intense grief, this man thought that perhaps “the right hand of the Most High has changed.” (v. 10)

For us to gain the most from this Psalm, we need to understand the state of the writer, which is indicated in the verses I just cited. I want to take time, therefore, to define three of the words that are used in these opening verses. This will give us insight regarding the anguish being experienced by this writer as he turns to the LORD for help.

In the second verse, Asaph, the author of this Psalm and one of the leading figures in the establishment and use of Psalmody in the worship of God, speaks of “the day of [his] trouble.” He uses a Hebrew word (tsarah) that refers to severe anguish and affliction. This is not a case of a writer having a “bad day.” This man was experiencing deep distress and his whole life was unsettled as a result.

In the third verse, Asaph states that thoughts of God “disturbed” him. Here he uses a word (hamah) that refers to a loud roar, a frightening clamor, or a threatening growl. At this point in his Psalm, Asaph could not even think about God without great unrest in his soul because his situation made it appear that God had gone away.

And finally, in verse four, we have another word that is also translated “troubled,” but it is not the same one used earlier. This time, the writer states that he was so troubled, that he was unable to speak. The Hebrew term in this case (paam) means “to be persistently beaten.” The picture is that of a man overwhelmed by an adversary who is being crushed under the attack.

With all that in mind, we can now ask an important question: How does one recover from such spiritual and emotional depression? This writer reveals a method of dealing with his circumstances that brought stability. He was able to replace his doubt and depression with thanksgiving. The formula contained in this Psalm can serve all of God’s people. We need not be in the condition experienced by this writer before we make use of his wisdom.

What, then, did this writer do that can be imitated by us? What steps did he take that can be repeated by us? The answers are given in vv. 11-15. Just after the writer tells us how distraught he was, he also tells us what he did to relieve his fear and regain his confidence so that he could respond to his situation as a thankful man instead of a fearful man.

  1. Thankfulness comes when we remember the deeds of God (v. 11)

The writer reached the point where he thought God had deserted him. From this pit of despair come these words: “I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Thy wonders of old.” (v. 11) This writer could find no comfort in his present circumstances. He had considered various explanations, including the idea that the LORD had forsaken him. But, before he is lost in total despair, he does something that turns his situation around. He begins to think about what God had done for him and his people. He reflected on the past to gain comfort and confidence in the present. Therefore, instead of continuing to dwell on his present misery, he found solace in the past works of God.

This is where the turn-around begins. God’s deeds are spectacular; they are incredible. They reveal a God who rules, loves, and provides, not a God who terrorizes, hates, and withholds. To think that this God would actually care for us while we live out our few years on this earth is also an amazing notion. This is what the writer of this Psalm does. He thinks on these and other truths about God. From this point on, the tone of this Psalm changes dramatically. This passage becomes a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.

The lesson here is obvious. If you wish to maintain the proper attitude toward life and toward God, you must remember the past wondrous deeds of God. You must not forget what He has done for you and your family. You must not forget how He has cared for you and how He has comforted you and how He has given you purpose and understanding. If you wish to create a spirit of thanksgiving, take time to remember the ways in which God has expressed His love for you in the past. Make this a regular practice now and even throughout the year.

  1. Thankfulness comes when we meditate on the deeds of God (v. 12)

An important element is added in this second step. We tend to miss the point when the Old Testament Scriptures talk about something being “remembered.” We think that means to recall something to mind and then be off to the next thought or activity. But in the Hebrew mind, to remember something involved more. And this writer explains this concept clearly when he says that beyond merely remembering God’s past acts, he will contemplate them: “I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds.”

For the Hebrews, to remember something was to ponder it. The writer means that as he remembered God’s past acts, as he remembered things God had done before, he took the time to linger over them in his mind. This brought satisfaction to his troubled soul.

What is pictured here is a sincere and prolonged reflection. It’s the kind of thing we don’t do very often these days. We are too busy to linger over the promises of God and we are too busy to ponder what God did for us last year or five years ago or twenty years ago. We are not people who mediate on such things for any length of time. And, as a result, we are spiritually poorer than we need be. This man paused long enough to draw lessons from God’s past actions. This is something that takes time and dedication.

As this writer meditated on the past, he recalled that God had always shown Himself to be gracious and compassionate. He had never broken His promise. He had never forsaken His own. Based upon this knowledge, the writer was strengthened. His confidence was renewed. In spite of the trying circumstances he was facing, he was able to compose himself and control how his circumstances affected him rather than being at the mercy of that which he could not control.

  1. Thankfulness comes when we have the proper opinion of God (vv. 13-15)

This third step is actually a product of the first two. When you remember something and then ponder it, you obviously become more familiar with it and gain a more accurate perspective. The same is true with God:

13 “Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God? 14 You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples. 15 You have by Your power redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

In this Psalm, the writer takes us to the expected result of having meditated on the acts of God in his past. This exercise naturally served to remind the troubled writer of God’s character. God’s character is revealed in His works for His people; this man, who was so distraught at one point, is rescued from that condition by thinking on God’s ways and, thereby, remembering who God really is and what God is really like.

We don’t want to miss this simple truth: God’s past actions reveal truths about His nature. You’ll notice that three chief attributes stand out in these verses. First, God’s past manner showed that His ways are holy (v. 13). The writer’s circumstances are immediately put into perspective when he remembers God’s holiness. God had not been overcome; this man’s plight was not beyond the perfect awareness and control of God. Regardless of how circumstances appeared, therefore, the writer was reminded that all of God’s actions are pure. He cannot be charged with unfairness.

Second, God’s past manner demonstrated that He is a God Who routinely works wonders (v. 14). If anything is going to give you comfort during a trial, it’s the knowledge that God is a God who works wonders. As he thought about past situations, this writer remembered that it is not an unusual thing for God to deliver His people from the most threatening of circumstances. He recalled times when the nation, or perhaps he personally, had been involved in a difficult situation. How did God respond on those occasions?

Third, God’s past ways reminded this writer that God is a God of salvation (v. 15). Imagine that you are surrounded by vicious enemies and imagine that, as far as anyone can tell, this is the end for you. And then you remember that the LORD is the God of salvation. Redemption characterizes all that God does. The restoration of His fallen creation is the aim of God’s activity in the lives of human beings. Even when God’s people suffer, there is redeeming value to it.

This man is fortified with this truth. He learned from the history of the nation and his personal experiences that God brings about trying circumstances in order to refine His people and produce greater glory for Himself in their lives. Whatever the writer was now facing could be viewed in the light of God’s master plan of restoration.

Having a proper opinion of God will always lead to thanksgiving. Those who desire to be characterized by thankfulness must spend time cultivating this proper opinion. In addition to His written word, nothing better educates us about the nature of God than His actions. Remembering them, meditating on them, and drawing lessons about God from them—this is the formula that produces a reverence for God and reverence is inevitably followed by thanksgiving.

Here, then, are three steps that will create an atmosphere of thanksgiving for you and your family. Remember what God has done in past days. Remind yourself of what God has done for you. When you call God’s past acts to mind, take the time to meditate on them. Talk about God’s care with others and help them extract lessons from those experiences.

When this pattern is followed, trials become our instructors and we come away from that testing more confident in God, with a greater understanding of His nature and with a more stable hope regarding the days ahead. And that, as this Psalm teaches us, will nurture a thankful spirit in our hearts throughout the year.

Understanding Our Trials

James 1:2-18 (part 2)

Introduction

I noted in the last sermon that this letter is addressed to Jewish believers who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and who were, in some cases, facing severe trials. James is writing to Jews who had believed in Jesus as their Messiah. It appears that these people were formerly associated with the Church in Jerusalem but were forced to flee when persecution broke out following the death of Stephen.

REVIEW

The first section of this epistle has to do with gaining a Biblical perspective on our trials. We covered only the first point made by James, which is concerned with gaining a proper (or Biblical) understanding of our trials. I want to take a couple of minutes to review his teaching, which is found in vv. 2-4:

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Most of us understand from experience that trials interrupt the normal routine of life and can shatter our confidence and disturb our comfort. Trials cause anxiety, sleeplessness, distraction, and even prevent us from being productive. Knowing, as we do, how trials can affect us, we wondered how James could say what he does in v. 2. How could he expect these believers to maintain a joyful countenance when they were being persecuted and when they were seeing friends and loved ones abused, and when they knew that returning home was an impossibility?

The answer comes in the next verse: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (v. 3) It is knowledge or understanding of the nature of trials that permits the believer to face them and remain joyful. Perspective is the key, as it is in so many areas of our Christian experience. James tells his readers to be joyful and he tells them how they can be joyful: “know that your trial—the testing of your faith—has a design and the design is your endurance or perseverance in the faith.”

Knowing that trials actually purify faith, James adds: “Let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (v. 4) Trials come to us periodically to advance our maturity with the goal of a whole and fully developed faith at some point in the future. Trials, therefore, are beneficial. As God’s people, we should interpret our hardships as grounded in His love and purposes for us.

END OF REVIEW

  1. The Purpose of Our Trials (vv. 5-11)

5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

This second point is taught in vv. 5-8 with an illustration following in vv. 9-11. The key to understanding these verses is remembering the context. James is talking about trials and is addressing Christians presently facing displacement and persecution. Following this passage, the same general topic continues as he explains the difference between trials and temptations.

Verses 5-11, therefore, must be interpreted as having to do with this prevailing theme. When James writes “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God…,” he still is thinking in reference to the trials being experienced by these believers. Most interpret vv. 5 ff. apart from the context. But, if taken in context, the “wisdom” promised must have something to do with the trials we endure. It seems clear, then, that v. 5 is written as instruction regarding the particular trials that believers experience.

This passage, nevertheless, has frequently been wrongly interpreted and applied. We have to discern how these verses fit into the overall context of the topic of trials, which is being explained by James. He is saying that if you do not understand why a trial has come upon you, you should pray and ask God for the wisdom to respond honorably and perhaps even discern the purpose. God will give wisdom to the believer who is being tested so that he might better understand particular trials and, therefore, benefit from them more quickly and endure them more gladly.

I look at v. 5 as a marvelous promise from God. James instructs his readers to pray to God and ask for understanding of their trials so that they will be able to see the goal that is being accomplished by their suffering. And this exhortation is accompanied by the promise: “let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

God does not desire to hide from you His purpose in testing you. The purpose of a trial, remember, is the refinement of your faith. How can you be strengthened and caused to grow if you don’t even understand what God is doing or why He is doing it, at least in a general fashion?

Having discernment regarding our trials is a tremendously comforting gift from God. Having discernment helps us fight against despair and it helps us maintain hope since we know God is working in us and there will be an end to the hardship. When we can see the end for which a trial has come, when we can understand what it is about our faith that needs refinement, then we can be thankful for trials, as James taught in the previous section.

Nevertheless, as I said before, I’m convinced that very few Christians avail themselves of this promise in God’s Word. We pray, but we pray incompletely; we pray for God to sustain us, which is proper, of course, but we sometimes don’t go beyond that and seek understanding. We tell ourselves that we must accept whatever comes and in this way, which is certainly true, but we have given a promise and should not hesitate to take advantage of God’s willingness to grant us insight.

We must remember, especially during our trials, that God is a Being with purposes. And He has revealed Himself to be a God of compassion and a God whose nature makes it impossible for Him to treat us in an unrighteous manner. We must keep in mind these facts about God’s nature when we are confronted by trials that He has appointed for us. We should readily seek to understand why He has appointed our times of testing.

Notice the important qualifier added by James: “But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (v. 6) It does you no good, in other words, to ask God for wisdom regarding your trials if you don’t really believe He will give you that wisdom.

James says that you must ask “in faith,” that is, in the belief that God will do what is promised in v. 5. If you do not ask “in faith,” James warns, you are going to be tossed about like the surf of the sea. He means that you will be unsettled by your circumstances far more than is necessary. You will experience about and that will increase your anxiety and all of this is traceable to a lack of wisdom regarding how God leads us as His children.

James describes such a man. He should expect nothing from the Lord because he is “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (vv. 7, 8) The word translated “double-minded” means just that—“having two minds.” And the term rendered “unstable” means “restless” or “fickle.” Without faith in God’s willingness to give wisdom, as James describes in v. 5, the man who is passing through a trial is going to be most uneasy. His double-mindedness only ends up adding to the severity of his trial, which only makes matters worse for him and those around him.

Now I must pause for a moment and admit that I do not believe nor expect you to believe that our testings in this life are always easy and that all we have to do is praying everything will be just fine. And as I speak about how to respond to the trials that God ordains for us, I do not mean to discount the harsh aspects of what we must face. And this is not what James is teaching.

He is teaching that there is a measure of discernment that God can provide for His people when they suffer. He is not teaching that there’s a formula for you to implement that will illuminate all of the unpleasant elements of the severe trial to which I referred previously. What James promises is that there is spiritual strength and insight provided by God who ordained the trial. This does not mean that our trials will be free of anxiety and it does not mean that we will simply “breeze through” any situation we happen to face in this life.

It does mean that God is able and willing to shepherd you through whatever it is He has determined is for your good and His glory so that, during those dark times, we may know for certain that God is with us and that He is working out His perfect will for us and that He has not and will not abandon us, but will bring glory to Himself through our misery. And that is knowledge that can cause us to have a measure of peace in our hearts that would otherwise not be possible without this promise from God and His willingness to keep His word.

I am sure you will remember something that the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians as his letter was coming to a close. They, too, had experienced a measure of testing as they embraced the gospel and began to organize themselves and, in particular, provide ongoing support for Paul. As a matter of fact, Paul wrote these words while imprisoned for his labors on behalf of Christ and the gospel.

While he is in the middle of a severe trial himself, the apostle urges the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always, which is an admonition that carries much significance since it was written by this servant during one of his extended trials. After encouraging joy at all times, Paul adds:

4:6 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Is this statement really different from what James writes? What is Paul’s counsel when it comes to being able to rejoice in all things? His counsel is prayer, his counsel is to seek God’s help and reveal your heart to Him. And then there is that wonderful promise, which is so similar to what James says: “and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

If God supplies that which “surpasses all comprehension,” that means that we cannot attain it without His help. We cannot rejoice in the Lord always unless we are seeking God’s grace to persevere. We cannot count it all joy, regardless of what we face in life, as James exhorts, unless we turn to God and, again, seek his grace so that we had a measure of understanding. And that understanding, that discernment, as Paul declares and as James promises, keeps us grounded and hopeful.

As I stated, what follows in vv. 9-11 is an illustration of what James has just written.

9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

James picks two extremes in the social order to illustrate the manner in which trials should be viewed and the positive results that trials accomplish. First, James speaks of “the brother of humble circumstances.” (v. 9) The word used to describe this first subject (tapeinos) literally means “not rising far above the ground.” Used figuratively, it refers to a lowly condition, a position of humility or, in some cases, a circumstance involving intense grief. Obviously, James has in mind a believer who is not wealthy, a man who, in fact, lacks most of the comforts of life. He is not necessarily destitute, but he is not far from that state.

How does that brother respond to the trials of life? How does he react to the fact that God has ordained such trying circumstances? Remembering James’ earlier command, “Consider it all joy, my brethren,” we have to conclude that James expects a man in such needy circumstances to react in the same manner as any other believer. Here, James says that this man is to “glory in his high position.” Note that language: he is to glory in his high position. How can this be?

The word “glory” here means “to boast” or “to rejoice.” How can the poor brother “boast” in his poverty? How can the poor man “rejoice” in his low estate? How can he give thanks, which is implied by the words of James, for such a life when he is tested daily by his situation? And how can such a circumstance be called a “high position,” indicating that it is a place or condition of honor? The answer is found in the previous section. He is to rejoice and find cause for giving thanks, not in spite of his suffering, but because of his suffering.

This brother knows that his testing is designed by God for his good; he knows that his trials are going to produce in him a complete faith, one that cannot be shaken by adversity. This is a great advantage to the brother of humble circumstances. He is daily being taught that having or not having is not the primary concern that should occupy his thoughts; he is daily reminded that what matters is knowing God and serving Him with all of his heart and strength. The brother of humble circumstances truly is blessed because his life is a continuing testimony to the sufficiency of God, to the willingness of God to supply his needs, and to the fact that God takes care of His own.

Being needy is a blessing, James teaches, a blessing, not a curse. It is a place of honor because the needy man must learn to rely upon his heavenly Father. The needy man cannot rely on his riches, for he has none; the needy man cannot be led away from devotion to God because he is so dependent upon God.

Notice what James says, by way of contrast, concerning the rich man. If the poor brother is to boast in his high position, then the rich man is to “glory” in his humiliation. (v. 10) Here, James offers a perspective on the trials that the rich man encounters. The rich man needs to learn the lessons that the poor man knows because trials are his life. The rich man faces all the temptations that the poor man does not face. The rich man may very well come to count on his possessions or on his ability to provide abundantly for himself. Therefore, his trials are designed to humble him, while the needy man’s trials are designed to exalt him.

The rich man must remember, James writes, that “like flowering grass he will pass away.” The grass that is one day beautiful to behold, is the next destroyed by the hot sun and scorching wind. The rich man must keep in mind that his many things will not endure any longer than he endures in this life—“so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.” Therefore, the rich man’s boast or source of glory must be in something other than his wealth. James says he should boast in the humility that he learns from being tried by the Lord. The rich man who encounters trials has much to lose, while the poor man has nothing to lose.

By citing these two examples, James illustrates how wisdom is to be found in the midst of trials. The brother of humble circumstances prays and discerns that he is, in fact, being exalted by his trials. The brother of considerable means prays and discerns that he is, in fact, being humbled by his trials. In both cases, what is caused by the trials is exactly what each man would need. The poor brother needs to be lifted up so that he does not despair; the rich brother needs to be abased so that he is not overcome by pride and a sense of self-sufficiency.

James shows how trials come to all and are needed by all. It is not just the poor man who needs to learn to trust God more and it is not just the rich man who needs to learn to trust himself less. All Christians need to learn the lessons that trials teach and James shows how there is wisdom in every trial when he cites these two extreme cases. His message is that no matter who you are, your faith needs refinement and no matter what your lot in life, you need to endure testing. No one is an exception because trials refine the heart of man before God.

We have this marvelous promise from God. He tells us to “ask in faith” for wisdom when we are undergoing a trial; He promises to give us wisdom and discernment so that we might develop at least a measure of discernment regarding our trials. We need to understand that this brings great stability to our lives.

A number of years ago, I was in the middle of some trying situation. I don’t even remember exactly what the issue was, but I do remember that I was totally absorbed in it and the trial was causing me a great amount of anguish. It was at that time that I came upon this passage in James and read it in a manner that I had never done before. I saw v. 5 and for the first time in my life, the verse made sense in context. Therefore, I did exactly what James advises and I began to pray for discernment. I asked God to give me an understanding regarding my situation. I wanted to know what outcome was intended by my trial.

One night, while I was sleeping, I woke up suddenly with a clear illustration of my trial in my head. At that very moment—and, as I recall, it was in the middle of the night—the purpose of my present trial became crystal clear. I remember thinking, “Now I understand exactly what is going on and why.” What happened was not a direct revelation of any kind, it was only God answering my prayer and allowing my mind to discern His purposes and the knowledge happened to come to my consciousness at that particular moment—no doubt because, even while I slept, my soul was greatly troubled.

I can tell you that I was so relieved, not because the trial was over, but because I understood why it was happening and I understood what was being accomplished by it. That was a definite turning point in my understanding of how to react to trials. I now pray not just for the grace to endure, but for an understanding or discernment of why the Lord has ordained the circumstance.

Matters do not always become as clear as they did in my quick illustration, but I have found that God does provide comfort, guidance, and, as it pleases Him, some discernment regarding what is transpiring. And this helps me keep in mind that what has come upon me has been appointed by God; and then all of the wonderful things that I know about God’s nature and His magnificent benevolence toward us comes into play.

When you are tested, when your faith is being refined, pray and ask God for wisdom so that you might understand what is being accomplished and pray for the grace to endure. Imagine how much better that is than sitting around wondering and fretting, which only adds to your anxiety.

Trials come to all of God’s people from God. In the illustration which James uses in vv. 9-11, we learn that trials are the great “leveler” of all men. No one escapes trials because no believer is beyond the need of refinement. When you are enduring a trial, you want to ask “Why me?” or “Why now?” Instead, James teaches that we should “consider it all joy” because our trial is for our benefit and we are not alone. Trials convince us of God’s love and His good intentions for us. Trials train us to depend on Him, regardless of our position in life.

Let’s pray.

Understanding Our Trials

James 1:2-18 (part 1)

 

Introduction

When it comes to our salvation, the means by which a person comes to have sins forgiven and inherit eternal life is identical in all ages and for all believers. The living out of that experience, however, can vary widely from person to person, place to place, and even generation to generation. I am referring to that which is not necessarily standard for all Christians and that is the path that God has ordained for His people.

 

We are all born again in the same manner, yet as our lives progress, we have experiences that God has ordained particularly for us. I’m thinking of the trials that every believer must face in life. We all come to the gospel in the same way, as I mentioned, but we do not all have the same record when it comes to our ongoing sanctification.

 

James is not so much concerned about how a person is born again as he is with how they live the life that God provides in Christ. Among the many edifying topics in this book is that of trials, by which I mean the episodes that our Heavenly Father appoints for us for our own particular good as one of His children and for His ultimate glory as we persevere by grace. This is the first major topic addressed by James as this letter begins.

 

This letter is addressed to Jewish believers who, due to persecution, were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and who were, in some cases, facing severe trials. James’ use of the phrase “to the twelve tribes” indicates his audience. He is writing to Jews who had believed in Jesus as their Messiah.

 

In vv. 2-18 of the first chapter, James talks about trials. He explains the design of our trials and writes about the purpose behind them. James also distinguishes between trials that God ordains for us and the temptations to sin that arise from within us.

 

  1. The Design of Our Trials (vv. 2-4)

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

 

How many times have you heard someone question God, even God’s existence, when passing through some difficult circumstance? People who know very little of Scripture often jump to the conclusion that they are being treated unfairly and that must be evidence that there is no benevolent God. For reasons that are grounded in our twisted and sin-corrupted fallen natures, we assume, when we are ignorant of the Bible, that, if there is a God, He would not allow such things to happen to “good” people.

 

It is true that the majority of these kinds of reactions come from people who know nothing about the gospel and, therefore, nothing about the nature of God, His purposes, or His ways. But then there is another category of people who sometimes face extremely challenging circumstances. I am referring to those who are born again, who love God and are attempting to live in an honorable fashion. How should those who are assured that they are God’s children react when they face persecution or hardship?

 

This is not a sermon on God’s sovereign rule over His creation, but we need to be reminded once in a while just what sovereignty means. If God is sovereign over all things, then He is, of course, sovereign over the little things. James is not speaking of how God raises up or puts down world leaders and entire nations; James is concerned with something much smaller in scope—and that is the course of your life.

 

Let me provide you with a simple formula: According to the teaching of Scripture, God oversees everything, including the events of our daily lives. And if God oversees all things, then all things must be serving His perfect purposes. And if all things are serving His perfect purposes, then trials must also be interpreted in that light.

 

Many Christians, nevertheless, when preparing to write about the trials of this life, would not begin by saying: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials”! By definition, trials are not pleasant experiences. Trials are times when we are pressed, times when we are strained and forced to endure extraordinary circumstances, times when we have no direct control, times when the thought of facing the next few hours or days frightens us.

 

Trials can cause us to fear, doubt, cry, worry, and lose sleep. Trials interrupt the normal routine of life and disrupt families; trials can shatter our confidence and disturb our comfort. Trials hurt; they can be emotionally costly. They can cause everything else in life to come to a grinding halt. Yet this man declares: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials!

 

James, of course, was well acquainted with trials. As a leader in the early Church, he faced much opposition and was eventually executed, perhaps by stoning, according to various sources. Therefore, whatever we conclude about James, we cannot assume he was out of touch with reality. We must conclude, I believe, that James had a different perspective on trials, not a denial of the reality of trials and difficulties, but a viewpoint informed by a source other than his own heart.

 

Remember that James is writing to people who are presently dispersed in strange places, presently suffering far from their homes. How do you tell them to rejoice even though you know they are in miserable, dangerous, and frightening circumstances? Was it realistic for James to expect these particular Christians to maintain a joyful countenance when they were being persecuted and when they were seeing friends and loved ones abused, and when they knew that returning home was an impossibility?

 

What is joyful about that? What, in that description, is cause for gladness? How can such counsel be given to people whose entire existence has been turned upside down and the cause is directly traceable to their relationship with Jesus Christ? When I think of some contemporary Christian leaders who preach a gospel of prosperity and freedom from worry, I must assume that they have either never read what the Bible says about the course of life to be expected by a Christian or they simply choose to teach something else in order to gain some personal advantage.

 

You cannot stand before people and declare to them that God only wants them to be content and happy and free from burdens and still maintain that you are a preacher of the Word. This kind of heretical instruction brings untold misery into the lives of people who, after trying diligently to follow the preacher’s instructions regarding how to gain happiness in this life, still face trials and still get sick and still lose people they love and still suffer in various ways. They are left to conclude that they simply do not have a faith that is strong enough to believe in what God really wants for them.

 

James had an understanding of the nature of trials. He knew the purpose of trials, for example. Notice what follows that first exhortation: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (v. 3) Here is one of the keys to understanding our trials. When we know the design of our trials, we can also begin to comprehend why James speaks as he does.

 

The word translated “endurance” (hupomone) refers to a basic attitude or frame of mind, one which could be described as “patience” or “steadfastness.” In this case, James means having patience through or during a trial; the translation “endurance,” therefore, is good. Remember that James is writing to people in seriously threatening situations; yet, he tells them to be joyful and he tells them how they can be joyful: “know that your trial—the testing of your faith—has a design and the design is your endurance or perseverance in the faith.”

 

Let’s think about what James has just said for a moment. When you find yourself in the midst of some trial and it is causing you anxiety or some uneasiness, knowing that the circumstances have been designed to bring about your growth in holiness does establish a perspective for you from which to analyze, not only what you are experiencing, but also your reaction to it.

 

And, if I may, I want to emphasize that this issue of our reaction to trials is of paramount importance. If God sends trials to further our maturity in Christ, then that truth makes our attitude and our conduct during trials most significant. The perspective James gives is essential to our reaction to trials. What James provides helps us have peace of mind during our testing.

 

James teaches us that trials are not designed to destroy us, but to strengthen us. Trials are not given by God to see if He can make us fall, but are sent by God to train us to stand strong. The trials God appoints for us are training so that we become more like our Savior and leave more and more behind of our old self. Knowing that trials actually purify faith, James adds: “Let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (v. 4) Trials will, in time, James assures us, make us “perfect and complete” so that we are “lacking in nothing.”

 

The idea behind those two words, “perfect and complete,” is that of a process coming to an end after it has accomplished what it was designed to accomplish. Trials come to us periodically to advance our maturity with the goal of a whole and fully developed faith at some point in the future. Considered in this light, trials are more than helpful, they are necessary. It is only through trials that this maturing process can take place.

 

The most severe trials that I have faced as a Christian have consistently left me with a greater apprehension of the faith, a greater understanding of and appreciation for God, and an improved ability to live before Him honorably. Think of one of those severe times of testing you’ve endured. Would you not say that, in the end, it was a positive influence in your faith? Would you not say that, as a result of that trial, you are more mature in Christ and better able to discern God’s leading? Some of you, I know, can look back and now realize that the tears and the anxiety and the uncertainty that you experienced in a trial actually served to produce growth in you that otherwise may never have occurred.

 

If we put together all the information that James supplies, then we can return to that first statement and understand how and why he says: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” The testing of our faith is necessary, beneficial, and completely desirable—if we truly want to advance in Christ. We are imperfect people living in this world. If we are to grow, then we must face that which causes maturity and, knowing the outcome, we can experience a sense of security and purpose even as we pass through a challenging episode.

 

I’ll close by pointing out that James refers to “various trials,” by which he means whatever kind of trial we happen to face. They can be met with joy if we keep in mind what James has declared. And, to be clear, the “joy” spoken of in this passage is not a superficial happiness that we try to manufacture from our own resources, but is a holy contentment, a divine peace that accompanies us through the valley. And that joy is grounded in the gospel and God’s intention to shape you into the image of His dear Son, the one who gave himself for us on the cross. Trials, as explained by James, therefore, are natural components of the gospel experience.

 

END OF PART 1

 

Thoughts for All Saints

Commentary by Jim Bordwine, ThD

Volume 3 Number 1

February 13, 2014

Conjunction Malfunction

 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;

male and female He created them.

(Genesis 1:27)

Is it possible that we have misinterpreted one of the most significant Biblical declarations concerning the nature of humanity? I’m referring to the verse quoted above, Genesis 1:27, in which we are told that God created human beings “male and female.” Traditionally, we have interpreted this short phrase in which the conjunction “and” connects the words “male” and “female” as teaching that God created two genders of human beings. Some human beings are male and other human beings are female. We have assumed that Moses meant that God created a male gender and a female gender, separate and distinct from one another.

This assumption, however, is certainly no longer the norm in our culture. A different idea has become prevalent, namely, that an individual human being may consider themselves male or female or some combination of both, if they choose. Therefore, what Moses was really saying is that God created human beings with no distinct male or female gender identity, but so designed human beings that we are capable of being either male or female, or a combination of both, depending on how we feel about ourselves.

This is absolute foolishness, of course, to anyone who believes the Scriptures. In fact, it should be a ridiculous notion to anyone, Bible believer or not, who takes seriously the history of our race. In our contemporary culture, however, those who see themselves as “progressive” and, therefore, unrestrained by traditional definitions and social morays, are celebrating the enlightenment that is finally becoming mainstream. This step forward in our collective self-awareness has now been acknowledged and incorporated into the operations of the world’s most popular social media platform known as Facebook.

Today Facebook announced “a custom gender option,” which will allow users to select the pronoun by which they would like to be referred to publicly. Those who wish to be identified as males may choose “he/his”; those who wish to be identified as females may choose “she/her”; and those who wish to maintain neutrality may choose “they/their.” Moreover, users may select from a number of options to identify their sexuality, including: “androgynous,” “transgender,” and “gender fluid.” Ironically, in what is supposed to be, I assume, a liberating opportunity for self-expression and an historic step forward for social consciousness, Facebook will also allow users to control who sees these custom gender specifications.

As one who believes the Bible is the very Word of God and is, therefore, always binding and relevant, regardless of the passage of time, I see these kinds of developments in our society as nothing less than brazen expressions of rebellion against God and His authority. We cannot expect to prosper or even remain stable as a nation as such trends toward autonomy continue.

Psalm 148

A Meditation for the Lord’s Day

In the Book of Psalms, there is a category of Psalms known as the “Hallelujah Psalms.” This term comes from the use of the Hebrew word halel in each of these . This word means “praise, glory, most, celebrate, and shine.” In its various grammatical constructions, this word is rendered “to be praised, to be made praiseworthy, to be commended.”

The most well-known of these Hallelujah Psalms is the collection that ends the book of Psalms, that is, 146 through 150. Each of these five Psalms begins and ends with “Praise the LORD.” Writers have referred to this collection of Psalms as the “Hallalujah Chorus” to this book of praises, that is, the whole book of Psalms.

Let’s consider Psa. 148:

1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! 2 Praise Him, all His angels; Praise Him, all His hosts! 3 Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light! 4 Praise Him, highest heavens, And the waters that are above the heavens! 5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For He commanded and they were created. 6 He has also established them forever and ever; He has made a decree which will not pass away. 7 Praise the LORD from the earth, Sea monsters and all deeps; 8 Fire and hail, snow and clouds; Stormy wind, fulfilling His word; 9 Mountains and all hills; Fruit trees and all cedars; 10 Beasts and all cattle; Creeping things and winged fowl; 11 Kings of the earth and all peoples; Princes and all judges of the earth; 12 Both young men and virgins; Old men and children. 13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven. 14 And He has lifted up a horn for His people, Praise for all His godly ones; Even for the sons of Israel, a people near to Him. Praise the LORD!

The writer calls for praise for the LORD from the heavens and the heights, from His angels, from the sun and moon, and all stars of light. He commanded, and they were created. Further, God has established them forever by a decree that will not pass away. God’s making and sustaining of creation are to be the basis of praise from the very things made and sustained.

In verses 7-10, the writer provides another list of sources from which God should be praised. Praise should come from the earth, sea monsters, from fire and hail, snow and clouds, wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, from all beasts, creeping things and winged foul. Once again, all of creation is exhorted to praise its Creator in light of His power to make them and maintain them.

The writer concludes this Psalm of praise with reference to man. In verse 11, he calls upon the kings of the earth and all people to praise the LORD. Princes and all judges are included. With these references, the writer indicates that even those with great authority among men are obligated to recognize a greater authority, which is the LORD.

Mentioned next are young men and virgins, old men and children. At no stage of life, does the obligation to praise God cease. From the beginning of life to its end, we are to praise the LORD for His greatness. Children are to be instructed in the praise of God, both by word and deed. They learn about this universal beauty through the teaching and example of adults.

Young man and virgins, who have entered the most active part of life where the tendency is to think primarily of self and plans for the future, are reminded that before all else they have a responsibility to praise the LORD. All listed are exhorted to praise the name of the LORD because His name alone is exalted and, as has been stated previously, His glory is above earth and heaven. And He is to be praised, as well, for His rescue of His people.

As noted, this Psalm ends with that wonderful declaration “Praise the LORD.” Let us, therefore, enter His presence with gladness and humble thanksgiving so that we might join the ranks of those who have gathered to Praise the LORD.