Psalm 93

God in charge. A brief 3 sentence portrait of God’s power.

This is the majestic creator, who was before the world, who made the world: nothing’s happening to it unless he unmakes it.

I always think that certainty encourages environmentalism, out of honour for God’s creation. It does take some of the gamble out of climate change but not the imperative. The motive is love and rightness rather than peril.

His voice rises above the chaos.  I’ve been reading the bible long enough to know that to old testament writers the sea is a metaphor for all the powerful things that aren’t God – they aren’t a seafaring nation, I doubt they even surfed.

Above the roar of other powers and threats, the voice of God. It’s not an image of calm, its a picture of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed, but having comfort and trust in something higher, bigger, louder.

God’s law and holiness, his truth, his rules, will outplay, outlast and outwit everything else.

BAM, a powerful vision.

But I feel the chaos.  I have lived through many difficult circumstances, and things are quite settled now, but anxiety and glumness have a habit of moving into wherever you are and keeping a sense of control just out of reach.  Just beyond your energy levels. Why won’t they be left behind?

Daisy wanted her driving licence but went backwards this week, she had her Learners, went for her Provisionals, but didn’t pass and now her Learners have expired. She had to do the L’s test again and failed. So, backwards.

She took it terribly, crying on the phone, and in public, which is understandable, but I think she scared herself a little at the strength of her pain. It connected to a larger pain of uncertainty, and the frustration of a bunch of other things constraining her.

All the kids are miserable, its a struggle to get Rennie to school many days. He seems like a sheep without a shepherd, but I find it so hard to shepherd him myself.

I’m struggling with energy levels at work, though I think I’m keeping up, not sure. I have a sense of there always being more opportunities than I can take advantage of, but being unfit to scope them. I’m in such a blessed spot!

Deary me, this powerful image of God, and all I have is sadness. But the psalmist didn’t write it because of the peaceful valley, he wrote it because of the sea, its for me. And the competing sounds are deafening:

the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the Lord on high is mighty.

Maybe its just me but I have a sense of straining to hear Jesus – the din of the chaos is immediate, no minor feat ignoring it.

Proverbs overview

There is a moment in chapter 26: verses 4 and 5, that is quite helpful I think:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

I think the editor of the book did us a favour by arranging 2 proverbs with blatantly contradictory advice right next to each other. Throughout the book the specific advice is situational and often just observing the dilemmas of being human.  At one point I called it a list of “for instance”s.  Not to say a lot of it isn’t brilliant!  Though some hasn’t dated well.

The deeper advice is to want to be wise: to be considered, reflective, careful. More than the outcome really, wisdom is caring enough to step back and process – a kind of mindfulness.

Pausing to take time, to commit to decision-making rather than just reaction, opens you up to correction. Wise people do sometimes decide wrong, but desiring wisdom increases the chance you’ll learn and adjust next time, and the time after that.

And it opens you up to other factors than your own short-term perspective – the impacts of your actions on other people. Repercussions.

Or putting it another way, humility and compassion. Assuming you actually want good for others.

As a work of faith, it suggests again and again that a person who desires wisdom will ultimately open up to the character of God, the source of wisdom.

By leading you to the idea that good and right are of God, the book treats foolishness – thoughtlessness, in-curiousness ;  and evil – acting in a considered way, but with selfish and malicious intent; virtually interchangeably.

The earthly outcome is sometimes vastly different – and the book doesn’t hide that. Evil may well make you wealthy, powerful and successful, while foolishness can be a path to personal failure.  But because evil will ultimately pass away, it will be revealed as foolishness.

The humbly wise confront evil. We can be a presence of God in the world. The advice kept moving towards the “as above, so below” logic of the Lord’s prayer.

I was moved by the readings on the days after the white supremacist massacre of muslim worshippers in New Zealand, the honesty about the evil that we do, and the hope of God’s mercy. Though much of the advice is literally directed to rulers and kings, I don’t think any christian could read this and not feel that God wants them to be involved in justice and advocacy at some level.

I made no secret that I found it very difficult to read on a chapter per day schedule – about the hardest book so far, strangely.  But it did get under my skin, because it’s so relentlessly practical. You can’t help but think about the micro opportunities each day to make judgments, but also keeping in balance the meta.

It came as my personal situation stabilised, and I am setting the parameters by which I will live for some time, ie: my relationships, my income expectations, my use of time: all became more settled as I read it, so it is timely to be thoughtful about the patterns my life follows. It is a time for Godly mantras and rules of thumb, and proverbs can supply.

Intro – why be wise

1 One of the bible’s most targeted books. Timeless wisdom for all, but explicitly for young men. Don’t know if that’s because they matter most or are most foolish.
2 Wisdom will protect you from evil men and seductive women, and let you know the very mind of God
3 Its advice to a son. I think about them, and my daughter too
4 As father telling his child that wisdom is important, I contemplate my lack of confidence and my hope for the kids program materials I’m privileged to write at work
5 The ultimate emptiness of a life devoted to lust
6 Indebtedness, laziness, lust and more… gently persuading, cajoling you to align with the mind of God, I delight at God’s patience
7 A vivid warning tale of seduction. It recognises the power of lust to attract, but also distract and corrupt
8 Praise for wisdom.  Its ancient, of God, true and precious
9 Wisdom and foolishness as two houses… you can open or harden your heart depending on which you head towards. I take stock: job permanent, but new uncertainties abound

Wise sayings

10 The collection of relatively random two line sayings starts. Sayings of diligence and blessing side by side: live by common sense, live by faith
11 Preserving yourself through the pitfalls of life, personal and communal
12 Interpersonal ethics in principles, actions and words. At first its entirely practical, then the last verses reach toward heaven and the immortal soul
13 Don’t go for the easy win, take it slow, bit by bit, and you’ll get the rewards in the long run
14 Evil a weak minds are equally condemned… the advice becomes more spiritual as the chapter progresses
15 Proverbs mainly about humility, I wonder whether being wise equals being no fun
16 Proverbs about thought and actions, destiny and choices, and a portrait of a king more ideal than seems earthly possible
17 Finding a book of 30 random a day sayings hard to read – the material doesn’t suit my habits. Looking for underlying revelation, I see sensitivity to the spirit, a soft heart
18 The assault of foolish words and lies and running to the fortress of truth. Wisdom can  be a quiet witness to the truth of God’s plan for humanity.
19 I think about the importance of balance, and rebel against too much balance. The passage talks about not blaming God when you are your own worst enemy
20 The place for pragmatism and for reflection. Our world is political, reflect deeply about the moments you are going to stand against that: God’s direction vs life lessons
21 A few whinges about proverbs… some are so sexist, some are contradictory or of dubious morality (the one talking about bribes being a good idea here)

Collection: the 30 “sayings of the wise” 

22 Half this chapter is like the previous 10, then its starts a collection. It also corrects some of the wrongs I whinged about in ch21. The sayings of the wise are quite elite
23 Great chapter about other things we make gods – quite funny on the subject of wine
24 The last 10 sayings and some more besides. About consistent godly character through all that life throws at you. It lent, I work at self discipline

Further sayings… 

25 The pragmatic and the idealistic lie alongside each other in proverbs, leaving you to draw out the themes. Here there is a lot about humility, at other times, confidence
26 Some neat twists on fools and lazy people turns the tables on you, revealing the deeper theme of humility. Then it talks about lies, teasing out the impact. Great chapter
27 The tough things that last and the appealing things that are ephemeral and misleading
28 Rulers being advised to show compassion to those less lucky. I pray for it for my small patch
29 Reeling from a terrorist mass murder, proverbs about hatred and trusting in the Lord for safety are timely comfort 

Collection: Sayings of Agur

30 A more passionate, ecstatic chapter than the others – about the size of God, and having the whole world in his hands, Our response is contented calm, and to delight in nature

Collection: Sayings of Lemuel + the wife of noble character

31 Warnings for kings and rulers, not to be indulgent with drink and to be compassionate, then the benefit of finding a wife who is a life partner, not a decoration

Proverbs 31

Another named author, King Lemuel takes over for the last chapter. Or possibly half of it, not sure.

There’s speculation Lemuel is another name for Solomon, which would make the opening warning from his mother, Bathsheba, not to waste his energy on women just too rich in irony, given the trajectories of both their lives.

The advice on drinking which follows is really wise. I’ve been challenged about it since working for the Salvos, which are an unfashionably temperate organisation.

The gist of the passage is that drunkenness is inconsistent with a king’s responsibility.

There’s also lots of good reasons why Salvos too would want a strong hedge around alcohol, given the work they do particularly with addicted people. In an era where church hypocrisy is being constantly exposed, it’s a sign of commitment, sincerity and being set apart.

It’s a barrier to how deeply in the movement I can participate, but I’ve been very welcomed. I feel there is room for me.

The passage is honest about what excessive drink is good for… It neither glamourises or judges it:

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.

Finally, this section emphasises the obligation of those in power to have compassion and ensure justice for the vulnerable.

It’s a Monday morning, and I’ll have many opportunities this week to be part of just that in my work and church life, it’s just great!

The second half of the chapter is a famous description of the wife of noble character. These days it instantly brings to mind my mother, at whose funeral verses from this passage were read.

She was in some senses more than this description – it doesn’t refer specifically to the value of a wicked sense of humour, kindness or emotional supportiveness, all of which she had in spades.  I don’t think its intended as an exhaustive recipe for a perfect woman. And as for:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Yes yes!

Reaching the end of Proverbs, I’m thinking so much of it is a “for instance”… specific reactions to a specific sets of circumstances, from which we are to learn models of how to respond, rather than literal lessons.  If Kelly, my wife, ever literally acted like the wife of noble character I would become confused and demand my real wife back. The thrust of this advice is to to look beyond the shallow to the things of deeper value. To be looking for a true life partner, not a decoration.

Yeah, its sort of sexist that the whole book appears to be directed specifically at young men, even though its theme – how stop being a fool – is a bit redeeming on that score. And as an older man, I’ve thought helpfully about how to live well, and contemplated how difficult and ongoing is aligning our thoughts and actions to the love of God.

Proverbs 30

An  odd chapter.

Its from a different author, Agur of whom nothing is really known. The tone is instantly wilder and blunter, the consequences of foolishness more extreme than in previous chapters.

It explicitly claims to be God-inspired ecstatic utterance, and it says lots of great stuff, but much I barely comprehend as well… and its only 30 verses or so… such an exhausting book this one!

He is a good example of humility, his wisdom is not his own, it comes from God and from God’s creation. He realises how great and unknown is God – some powerful poetic images reminiscent of Job: the Lord’s hands gathering the wind and wrapping the waters in his cloak. How can we compare? He includes an intriguing reference here to God knowing the name of his son – impossible now for Christians not to think of Jesus.

He treasures God’s words, and he asks for contentment: neither to be poor nor rich. Both lead us into temptation. He wants just his daily bread, which for me illuminates the lords prayer as a petition for moderation and contentment as well as for basic needs to be met. Give us enough, not less, not more.

We’re working through issues of contentment as a family at the moment. Its a wonderful thing to pray for.

He then speaks of groups of people which displease or ignore God – in other translations they are called generations: a generation who invent their own standards of goodness and righteousness without reference to God or inherited wisdom; a generation who are violent and attacking.

I found it oddly encouraging to hear of generations so long ago going to the dogs.  We tend to think the latest generation is the one that is going to hell in a handbasket, but it has always been thus.

Sure, it not great to see wide scale foolishness, evil or ignorance. But it doesn’t mean God has lost control.  Its a generation, it will pass.

It concludes with a bunch of lists of observations from nature – generally 3 or 4.  Its a poetic device similar to our “et cetera”  or “for example”. A list with some specifics that is not exhaustive.

Its encouraging you to look to the world to learn of what is good and what is wrong. Honestly, this was the bit where I really started to loose comprehension.

He lists things that are:

  • never satisfied – including the grave and childlessness;
  • too amazing for him – including young love’s passionate eroticism, which he finds far more amazing than casual uncommitted sex
  • things that make the world unbearable – basically women, servants or employees that rise in the ranks… I really didn’t get that one, he’s finding social mobility or equality offensive?
  • things that are small yet wise, humble things in nature with impressive achievements, like ants. This kind of undermined the previous point, but was well made.
  • things that have stately bearing – such as a lion, or a greyhound. OK. As a proud Italian Greyhound owner, I can only agree!

Lastly a general warning about evil and stirring up trouble.

So a mixture of stuff that I found helpful and stuff that is hard to access for me now – culturally remote.

I got feelings of God’s size and power, and the sense that despite the randomness and evil we often see around us, God is in control.

I need it. A drumbeat of sadness still underlies the shock of the massacre in New Zealand at the hands of an Australian gunman.

Such a peaceful, tolerant society!  Chosen because they had the effrontery to make diversity work, to punish them for having compassion and love.

He’s failed, but at an insane price.

I sat in church this morning and thought about how easy it would be for someone to walk in and slaughter us if they wanted to try and break a society that would allow us to flourish.

 

 

 

Proverbs 29

Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe

Its a simple promise, but the only solid one we have. Reeling today after the killing and wounding of almost 100 muslim worshippers in New Zealand by a white extremist. Live streamed on social media.

The bloodthirsty hate a person of integrity
    and seek to kill the upright.

Waleed Ali, Australia’s most public muslim said on his news show that he had been at prayers in his mosque at the same time as the massacre, and conveyed what a vulnerable disconnected place you are in, lost in meditation about God. They were lambs to the slaughter. He said that he will be there next Friday too, like clockwork.

So its hard in this light not to read these wisdoms as a list of disaster, of corruption.

An angry person stirs up conflict,
    and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.

Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;
    but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.

The corruption of so many of our institutions has come to light of late, the church and paedophilia, the scale of the bank’s greedy self serving, the growth of hard line, polarised politics, …Michael Jackson (I mean we sort of always knew about him, but how were we so tolerant, so willfully blind?  How foolish are we?)

By justice a king gives a country stability,
    but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.

If a ruler listens to lies,
    all his officials become wicked.

An Australian senator released a press statement blaming immigration for violence against muslims hours after the massacre.  Or you could choose not to kill them?

Deep and heartfelt, praying for wisdom – the fear of the Lord, departing from evil. Comfort for those who mourn.

 

Proverbs 28

We’re back to a lot of advice for Kings and rulers and some more explicitly spiritual proverbs.

I love this metaphor, and the value it gives the poor:

A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.

I have to write an article at work for an internal publication about the Salvation Army’s attitude to the upcoming federal election, … Maybe I could give this one a Guernsey.

So there, the wisdom for rulers isn’t wasted in a democracy devoted to free speech. The citizens can throw them back at them!

There is a lot about the poor, the general theme being not to underestimate them, that exploiting them is to risk losing your own wealth and status.

If it was Solomon writing, he was foretelling the issue that led to the dividing and fatal weakening of the kingdom after his death.

The godly characteristics being taught here include: right living, seeking the Lord, confessing and renouncing sin, humility and integrity.

It’s interesting that there is reference to a goodness at work in society.

I suppose St Paul referred to it when he said to respect authorities because God gives that order to us to prevent chaos.

If you belive in original sin, you would expect society to be evil. But this sort of thing comes back a few times:

When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding;
but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive.

There is a rump of goodness that can only be temporarily subdued. Society won’t permanently career towards evil.

The universe is on the side of truth and love, so tyrants are ill informed and on the wrong side of history:

The rich are wise in their own eyes;
one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.

Evildoers do not understand what is right,
but those who seek the Lord understand it fully.

And of course we are all rulers of our own little patch, no matter how small.

But also, lots of interesting fodder for my article!

Proverbs 27

Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

There is a vibe of things you can trust, tough love vs the things that deceive, or are insubstantial.

It starts with things said, including self praise (better to let others praise). It moves to things unsaid… (better to know, to have things out).

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

There are a few verses about the value of good friends, and how the true nature of people is revealed over time:

As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.

It’s an egalitarian chapter, advice for the prols and Kings alike.

It is plugging into the things that are of eternal value.

It reminds me of 1 Cor 13, how after the things of this world have passed away, all that will remain is love. Or Jesus talking about storing up treasure in heaven that won’t decay.

One of my favourite hymn couplets is:

“Solid joys and lasting pleasures, none but Zions children know”.

It was a stressful weekend, all of the children were quite miserable in turns. We ended up going out a bit, a friend had spare theatre tickets, others invited us to eat out. But every time we got home there was acrimony and sadness.

The contrast between the wise cautious sensible calm in the book and the news of life is poignant and extreme.

Give me wisdom!

Proverbs 26

This chapter is more organised than others, it even includes a few unexpected twists in the way it is constructed.

You get 11 lines about fools… About how spectacularly useless they are, and deserving of contempt, then this:

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for them.

It’s so easy to see the faults in others.

Similar with laziness, having attacked for a few verses it says essentially their worst trait is having no conception of how lazy they are… Oops, maybe it’s me?

The meta theme is humility. Like other chapters that barely mention God, there are underlying themes drawing out deeper spiritual truths from conventional wisdom.

The structure of many of these is particularly memorable, funny even. They read like lines from Rowan Atkinson’s comedy creation Black Adder:

Sending a message by the hands of a fool
is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison

The last bunch of verses is about lies, and the meta point is about our evil hearts.

Don’t kid yourself you are doing a favour to the person you are lying to, you show you hate them by your deception. Trying to hide your evil nature is futile. It’s only dealt with by exposure, by humility, as above. Lies block grace.

I was aware of lying, in a very small way, at work yesterday. I made a job sound more complete than it was because I was a bit embarrassed about how little progress I’d made

But the breach of trust I risked was a crazy high cost to preserve a tiny bit of pride.

Trust is so much more valuable than the illusion of perfection.

Proverbs 25

This collection of proverbs profiles the Christian character I recognise well from childhood. I drank it in.

Unpretentious. Not brash or self promoting. Under promising and over delivering.

I’m still there pretty much, bit I have vacilated a few times during my life. I felt cheated at times because even among Christians there seems to be a recognition that being like this often doesn’t actually work.

Take:

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.

So you wait watching nincompoops succeed through sycophancy and lies, while you, an unsung hero of substance wait for the king to say “come up here”. Others seeing your ability actively undermine you, it’s the only option they have.

To live by this proverb is to let go of the idea that the king might ever say “come up here”.

St Paul had a better take on wisdom in that extended passage where he talks about becoming fools in the world’s eyes.

And that message is here too. Because nothing is connected, you have to draw it out of the themes that repeat.

The strands lie alongside each other: a dose of quite cynical pragmatism, then an idealistic call to do what is right regardless of the consequences.

A promise of earthly prosperity followed by a gods eye perspective of eternal justice, where earthy wealth is of no substance, like dust blowing away in the wind.

These lie alongside each other in the faith based organisation I work for, it’s a daily tension. And in my family, and in my church.

Wisdom means many things in the book of proverbs. Maybe Solomon didn’t ask for quite the right thing.

Proverbs 24

A whole bunch of random wisdom. 10 numbered, and then a bunch of unnumbered “further sayings”. We’re talking pre Dewey decimal system organisation here.

The general theme is sticking to a sober sensible Christian life through thick and thin. When good people fail, when bad people fail, when evil seems to triumph, when you’re winning and when you’re losing, when things are calm or disrupted. Whatever.

Consistency. Calm. Letting God guide your steps, aware of the eternal picture.

The last few sayings cover honesty, fairness, justice and diligence. It warns against the slow decline that comes from lazy habits.

The underlying spiritual principle is the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, self control. Like yesterday, not much mention of God but everything points to his indwelling.

I’m working really hard to emerge from a feeling of inability to cope, to be self disciplined and regular in my habits. We’re starting lent today, is as good a prompt as any to think about self discipline.

I might cut down on lollies and alcohol.

I had a thing last year where I could only eat lollies offered to me when I’m out, I’m thinking to do the same for both lollies and alcohol. It’s a good way to cut down very privately, without making a public fuss about it.

Also it’s a step towards establishing a sustainable habit rather than a fast.

Very proverbs! Wisdom is personal. It’s about ethics.