Life Under the Sun

The book of Ecclesiastes can seem like the black sheep in the family of Biblical books. Don Carson gives an excellent brief intro to this book in his devotional For the Love of God (Apr 14):

THE AUTHOR OF ECCLESIASTES IS (in transliterated Hebrew) Qoheleth, pro- nounced Ko-hellet or Ko-helleth. The word is connected with the idea of assem- bling, and “Qoheleth” probably means something like “leader of the assembly” or even “one who addresses the assembly.” Probably the assembly was religious (we would say “ecclesiastical”), yet Qoheleth is also an academic, collecting and formulating sayings (12:9-12). As a result, some Bibles render the expression “the Preacher”; the NIV supports “the Teacher.” One commentator suggests “the Professor.”

Qoheleth refers to himself as “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12). But which king? He claims, “I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me” (1:16), which seems to rule out everyone but Solomon. On the other hand, it would be very strange for Solomon to write such words, since there was only one Davidic king over Jerusalem before him. So while some commentators think Qoheleth is Solomon, others point out that Solomon is not named and suggest this may be a religious leader who, as part of the dra- matic argument he sets forth, stylizes himself as a super-Solomon: the wisest con- ceivable man, on a search for self-fulfillment, would still return destitute, crying out that everything is meaningless (1:2).

Just as many parts of Job cannot be insightfully or wisely read without grasp- ing the flow of the book as a whole, so also with Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth sets him- self to explore the significance of everything “from below,” looked at from the vantage point of fallen humanity. In short, his stance is “under the sun” (1:9) or “under heaven” (1:13). He is a defender neither of naturalism nor of atheism, but he ruthlessly explores what can be said of various ostensibly “good” things when looked at one by one, “under the sun.” His theme is set out in the introduction (Eccl. 1:1-11). “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaning- less! Everything is meaningless!’” (1:2). This gets at the heart of the expression traditionally rendered “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity” (KJV). The word sug- gests a wisp of air, the merest vapor, utterly without significance. In this book the Teacher probes domain after domain of life, domains that so many people value and cherish and even worship, and concludes, from his stance “under the sun,” that everything is meaningless. By the end of the book, after scraping away the detritus of life, he hits bedrock—God himself. And here and there along the way he allows us glimpses of a divine perspective that transcends meaninglessness. But he takes his time getting there, for we must feel the depressing weight of all quest- ing visions that do not begin with God.

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Self-emptying love of Christ

A moving insight into the parable of the prodigal son from Stott’s Cross of Christ (218-19):

….in his book The Cross and the Prodigal Dr. Bailey, who has for many years taught New Testament at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, takes a fresh look at Luke 15 “through the eyes of Middle Eastern peasants.” He explains that the whole village would know that the returning prodigal was in disgrace, and that punishment of some kind was inevitable, if only to preserve the father’s honor. But the father bears the suffering instead of inflicting it. Although “a man of his age and position always walks in a slow, dignified fashion,” and although “he has not run anywhere for any purpose for 40 years,” he yet “races” down the road like a teenager to welcome his home-coming son. Thus risking the ridicule of the street urchins, “he takes upon himself the shame and humiliation due to the prodigal.” “In this parable,” Dr. Bailey continues, “we have a father who leaves the comfort and security of his home and exposes himself in a humiliating fashion in the village street. The coming down and going out to his boy hints at the incarnation. The humiliating spectacle in the village street hints at the meaning of the cross.” Thus “the cross and the incarnation are implicitly yet dramatically present in the story,” for “the suffering of the cross was not primarily the physical torture but rather the agony of rejected love.” What was essential for the prodigal’s reconciliation was a “physical demonstration of self-emptying love in suffering.… Is not this the story of the way of God with man on Golgotha?”

Gems from Bonhoeffer

Community

Bonhoeffer describes something very profound when he speaks of two kinds of communities – human and spiritual. Two different kinds of love that are operational in each – human and divine/spiritual. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal but a reality created by God in which we participate. True Christian community is Spirit-wrought and grounded in Christ, where the Word of God alone rules. It is a community where human love is not the ultimate; truth governs and guides it. The Spirit governs instead of psychological techniques and methods (32). Spiritual love is for Christ’s sake, while human love for man’s (34). Spiritual loves serves Christ alone, and has no immediate access to other persons (35). Feelings and actions alone are sufficient according to human love, while Spiritual loves is motivated by love for Christ and taught to love by Christ. Spiritual love serves and does not desire. Spiritual love is from above. Understanding the differences can make or break Christian community (37).

Intercession for others

Spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ (38). We love little when we fail to pray. As part of living in a divine community, it is not uncommon for personal tension, estrangement and other breaches to arise. Bonhoeffer prescribes the “purifying bath” of intercessory prayer to entered into every day. This prayer involves bringing the person before God and asking him to deal according to his severity and goodness. It is to apply the Gospel in a similar manner that we apply it to our own souls – seeing that person as a poor sinner before the Cross of Christ.

Reading the Psalms

The Psalms is the prayer book of Christ (46). The man Christ who had experienced the full range of human emotions prayed the Psalms. We can handle the imprecatory Psalms only by seeing them as prayers of Christ. We pray the Psalms as Christ’s prayers; this adds a new level of depth to prayer. Bonhoeffer refers to them as the “vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church”. What does this mean practically for the Church? Because we are united to Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, as we pray these prayers in Him we grow into the full meaning of the Psalms gradually. The Psalms also belong to the whole community and cannot be purely individual, for one individual alone cannot comprehend its breadth.

Humility

“Never think that thou hast made any progress till thou look upon thyself as inferior to all” (Thomas a Kempis). Unless a man learns to see himself as the chief of sinners, and his sinfulness larger than that of those around him, he does not really see his sinfulness. This is possible because we have an unique intimate acquaintance with our sinfulness. To serve others well we must sink down to such depths of humility in seeing oneself worse than others with regard to sin. Then there is hope for humble and non-hypocritical service.

The Single-minded Devotion of Tyndale

Upon reading a chapter on the life and theology of William Tyndale from Theology of the ReformersI was reminded convincingly that the only life worth living is a life devoted solely to the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33). Soren Kierkegaard wrote “purity of heart is to will one thing”, and Tyndale willed one thing – to translate scripture into English. He had no family or home, and lived as a sojourner throughout his life. He survived on the generosity of a few friends. Gifted linguistically and having mastered seven languages. he had a burning desire to translate Scripture. His life was “lived as a project”.

When the life of Tyndale is compared to that of Erasmus, another scholar of his time who had a similar desire to see common-folk have access to the Bible, one can observe a stark difference. The difference lay in Tyndale’s “magnificient obsession and compelling passion of his life.” While Erasmus saw it as a “master’s cheerful wish”, for Tyndale it was the “disciple’s militant statement of purpose.” Driven by this purpose, his life was marked with defamation, shipwreck, betrayal, imprisonment and martyrdom.

His single-mindedness stemmed from his view of Scripture. He knew that changing the world meant having people encounter the living God of Scripture. The Bible is living, active, and able to regenerate hearts. The Holy Spirit doesn’t merely produce “feeling faith” but a faith that is “a lively thing, mighty in working, valiant and strong, ever doing, ever fruitful.” He spoke of Scripture as medicine:

It is not enough therefore to read and talk of it only, but we must also desire God day and night instantly to open our eyes, and to make us understand and feel wherefore the Scripture was given, that we may apply the medicine of Scripture, every man to his own sores, unless that we intend to be idle disputers, and brawlers about vain words, ever gnawing upon the bitter bark without and never attaining unto the sweet pith within and persecuting one another for defending of lewd imaginations and fantasies of our own invention.

His high view of Scripture was accompanied by a healthy understanding of the functioning of God’s law in the life of Christian. He saw the lifelong love of God’s law flowing from the “ever working” gift of faith, terminating in service to one’s neighbour. More importantly, he lived out his view, as can be seen from a glimpse of a week in the Tyndale’s shoes:

On Sundays he could be found in one of the largest rooms in the house reading a portion of the Scripture, no doubt from his own translation. These readings would have included expositions of the text and pastoral applications as well. He repeated this exercise after dinner, “so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently” that he brought heavenly comfort to his listeners. On Mondays he would visit the English refugees who had come to Antwerp. On Saturdays he would walk around the city, looking into “every corner and hole” for those especially destitute — the elderly, women, children, the outcast. He gave liberally from the means he had to help those in need. He maintained a study in Merchants House and on all other days gave himself “wholly to his book.”

He was faithful to God until the very end, being single-mindedly committed to the one great passion of his life. The passion for which he was martyred on May 21, 1935.

In the word’s of T.S.Eliot:

A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.

May God give each Christian this kind of single-mindedness in life!

Pursuing a Balanced Life before God

God has appointed duties for every man. He has given each man a calling in life. John Calvin believed that diligent pursuit of this calling is foundational for living a balanced life before God.

“It is enough if we know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. And if there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path in his duties. Perhaps, sometimes, he could contrive something laudable in appearance; but whatever it may be in the eyes of men, it will be rejected before God’s throne. Besides, there will be no harmony among the several parts of his life. Accordingly, your life will then be best ordered when it is directed to this goal. For no one, impelled by his own rashness, will attempt more than his calling will permit, because he will know that it is not lawful to exceed its bounds. A man of obscure station will lead a private life ungrudigingly so as not to leave the rank in which he has been placed by God. Again, it will be no slight relief from cares, labors, troubles, and other burdens for a man to know that God is his guide in all these things. The magistrate will discharge his functions more willingly; the head of the household will confine himself to his duty; each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God. From this will arise also a singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” – Institutes 3.10.6

Keeping The Heart in the Season of Suffering

Having lost three wives during the course of his life, John Flavel (1628-91) was well-acquainted with sorrow’s iron rod. He wrote a popular book called Keeping The Heart, in which he describes what it means to keep one’s heart in different seasons of life. It is worth hearing what this man has to say about the season of adversity:
 
  • Afflictions never happen by accident but by the good counsel of God. God aims the sanctification of his children through it, and hence you ought to receive it with joy. It pulls down pride and carnal security, while ensuring eternal and glorious ends that God has in mind. “It is good that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps 119:71)
  • His steadfast love towards his people is unchanging; it is something that he will never take away. Every temporary blessing, he may chose to remove. But in the midst of all lose, the truth that he will never forsake those whom he loves with an everlasting love will sustain you.
  • Afflictions proceed from the Father’s hand whose heart is filled with love towards his children. There is no room then for doubt God’s goodness when walking through the most perplexing trials.
  • Your lowly condition does not change God’s love, grace and tenderness towards you. It is of no difference to God whether you be in high or low position in life. Summer-friends may desert, but the Lord will not.
  • God may bring about affliction to save your soul from the idol that may otherwise eternally ruin you.
  • Affliction might be the very answer to your prayers regarding a specific matter. He might be using it to put to death your lusts and make you find you the rest that only enjoying Christ can bring.
  • His marvelous work of providence is working all things in perfect harmony. Were we to know beforehand the whole purpose and design behind afflictions, and how they bring about the completion of one’s salvation, then the most dejected heart would rejoice. Though we be in the dark regarding his designs, we can nevertheless trust him and have peace knowing his good will towards us.
  • Lie patiently when God afflicts. Discontented fretting will only result in God increasing the degree of affliction to quiet the rebellious child.
  • If nothing else consoles, compare your current condition with those in hell. Would they not give anything to exchange their place with yours? God in his mercy has granted pardon to you, a sinner deserving hell. If he has saved you from this, the worst momentary afflictions are light in comparison.

Summary of Owen’s work on Indwelling Sin

This is a short chapter-by-chapter summary of John Owen’s The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin.

Why should we bother understanding the nature of sin that dwells within us? It creates a humble and contrite frame of mind that will enable the believer to walk appropriately with God and other men. With God, he will gain a due sense of reverence and thankfulness for the great mercy shown in the Gospel. With men, he will be ready to forgive and overlook their sins. “The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solid believing and obedient person” (Pg 282-3).

 

Chapter 1
There are two contrary principles at work within believers – the law of sin and the law of the Spirit of life. Unbelievers are wholly under the law of sin, for they do not have an overall inclination for doing good that the believer has. The law of sin is a principle/tendency in a person inclining/pressing/causing him to act according to its nature. The believer is wise to be acquainted with the law of sin, its nature and actings, so that he may fight well. The aim of this acquaintance is that he might walk with God and glorify him in this world.

 

Chapter 2
The law of sin is like any other, it promises rewards upon obedience and punishments upon disobedience. The pleasures of sin are its rewards; the the afflictions, suffering, difficult duties involved in avoiding sin are its punishments. It is an internal law that is at work in all men, and hence it applies itself with ease on the will and affections of men. It is always present, even during the best actions of saints. Few men know its presence and the associated dangers, as a result they  do not seek grace, help of the Spirit, self-abasement, humiliation, intenseness in prayer and so on.

 

Chapter 3
The heart of man is the seat of the law of sin. The more we feed a sin the stronger it becomes. The heart is too deep to be known, and its God alone who knows it (Jer 17:9-10). Not only is it unsearchable, but it is deceitful above all things. It is full of contradictions, false promises, and fair appearances. The fight against indwelling sin is an ongoing on till death, but the one who dies fighting is a conqueror. We are to be watchful in all seasons. We must commit the whole matter to him who can search our hearts and can prevent its treacheries and deceits.

 

Chapter 4
In the law of sin, we carry about enmity against the God who is love (1 Jn 4:8) all our days. One may be reconciled to an enemy, but enmity (Rom 8:7) must be completely destroyed. Enmity will never have enough “all the fuel in the world, all the fabric of the creation that is combustible, being cast into the fire, will not at all satisfy it, but increase it, so it is with satisfaction given to sin by sinning”. This enmity is against God himself, and it opposes every work of grace in the believer’s soul (Gal 5:17; 1 Pet 2:11). Every sin is an expression of this enmity within against God. It is being weary of God (Is 43:22) and asking of him to depart from us (Jb 21:14; 22:17).

 

Chapter 5
Sin creates an aversion and opposition towards the things of God. When we engage in private or public worship, sin makes us loath these things. Apostasy many times begins with a putting off of private duties because of such aversion towards spiritual things. We counter such aversion by 1) being diligent to maintain holy frame in all duties, 2) fight aversions at their very outset. Don’t give up because of the constancy of this aversion, but wait on the Lord and persevere. Use the knowledge of this aversion against a merciful God to humble yourself. Weakening of these aversions can only come about through experiencing the beauty and excellency of spiritual things.

 

Chapter 6
Sin opposes God and the work of his grace in believers by its lustings (Gal 5:17), fightings (Rom 7:23), captivity, and “madness” upon success (Eccl 9:3). It lusts appear by its sudden surprises even when the soul is engaged in good things. Although the heart is ruled by grace in the believer, there is a general inclination towards sinning because of sin’s lusts. It fights against Christian strivings to good and against duties.

 

Chapter 7
There is a law that seeks to make me captive to the law of sin (Rom 7:23). Captivity is the height of this opposition. Sometimes this can be from devil himself, if it is something that arises not from our usual dispositions, personality and constitution. This captivity happens through degrees of success. This law that leads to captivity is what makes Paul cry with weariness ‘Wretched man that I am!’.  The law of sin heads towards madness and rages when left unchecked. “Die rather than yield one step unto it” At times, the rule of the law of grace is cast off temporarily, when the soul finds itself under reign of sin (Rom 6:12). God’s restraining grace is what keeps the soul from apostasy when his renewing grace is put off; considerations of hell, judgment, and death rather than the love of Christ (2 Cor 5:14) keeps the soul.

 

Chapter 8
Sin is deceitful, and the utmost effect of its deceitfulness is hardness of heart (Heb 3:13). Satan uses deceit in keeping the whole world under his sway (Rev 12:9); no man would choose to be under his yoke, a yoke that leads to eternal and temporary ruin, if he were not deceived. This deceitfulness is present in our minds, the very thing that’s office is to guide, lead and choose (Mt 6:23). Sin acts in this order: 1) draws away, 2) entices, 3) conception of sin, 4) accomplishment of sin, 5) completion (Jam 1:14-15). Sin even abuses the gospel and seeks to convince the heart to carry on with it due to the forgiveness available. If a person does not maintain a constant sensibility to sin, the law of sin will slowly wear out convictions regarding sin and make him take it lightly. One must also set his eyes on things above and maintain a “holy consideration of God and his grace”.

 

Chapter 9
Christian duties that oppose the being and life of indwelling sin – meditation and prayer. We aim for conformity to the mind and will of God through this. Watchfulness through prayer against sin, and spotting deceitful reasons for ignoring these duties are important. Being steadfast in duties will result in unmovableness and fruitful obedience. Three parts of this steadfastness of the mind: “1. full purpose of cleaving to God in all things; 2. a daily renovation and quickening of the heart unto a discharge of this purpose; 3. resolutions against all dalliances or parleys about negligences in that discharge”

 

Chapter 10
Duties must be done in a proper manner. It is not enough to blindly do them anymore than piling wood to build a house. They must be done in faith; in a conscious recognition of strength from Christ (Jn 15:5; Gal 2:20). All things must be done with a single eye to the glory of God and not just a general vague idea of doing it for his glory. One must not be content in merely having performed duties, but aim at pleasing God. When duties are done with great aversion they are not done to God (Am 5:25). With regards to sin, consider the sovereign Lord whose commands you defy, consider the dread of falling into his hands, consider his love and kindness, his special tokens of mercy and love, the blood and mediation of Christ, the inhabitation of the Spirit. Sin causes spiritual sloth, negligence, fear of difficulties involved in duties.

 

Chapter 11
What? Sin draws and entices a man through persistent imaginations and vain thoughts. The lusts of the world (1 Jn 2:16) bring secret delight to him. When the person gives weak excuses and quick relief from the gospel to justify his sin, he is in a state of being enticed and drawn away. How? By hiding the dangers that accompany sin, its momentary pleasures are used to appeal to the corrupt mind. Keeping one’s heart with all diligence (Pro 4:23) is then the most important task. One may keep his reputation, his family, his estate, but if he fails to keep his heart, what does it profit him? He must fix his affections on things above; he must consider the world and its pleasures crucified to him and him to the world (Gal 6:14). Nothing less than the sight of God in all his beauty and glory, and the loveliness of Jesus Christ, will prevent him from being enticed by sin.

 

Chapter 12 
Sin has been conceived once it obtains the consent of the will. Corrupt reasonings and affections plead the will for consent. It is the will where a man has chosen to obey or not; the remaining physical action done to carry out the sin is merely consequential. The fight is lost or won in the heart; in the will. Though the believer’s will may consent to sin, it does so reluctantly (Rom 7). The believer does not whole-heartedly consent to sin. However, repeated allowance of sin will gradually reduce the reluctance and  bring the believer to a dangerous position.

 

Chapter 13
God prevents a man from sinning either through works of providence or grace. By providence, Owen means external circumstances and restraints that will hinder the sin. By grace, he refers to God working internally on the will of the person. God might using restraining grace or renewing grace. The latter applicable specifically for saints, while the former may apply to unbelievers as well. The believer ought to pray that God providentially and graciously prevents him from entering into any sin that will displease God.

 

Chapter 14
Even men who have experienced God’s grace in plenty may fall under the power of indwelling sin. Thus we see the likes of David, Noah, Lot and Hezekiah sin after enjoying so many spiritual advantages they had. It is no exception in the life of the ordinary believer. Indwelling sin is an ever present tumor which may rise with sudden unexpected tides during seasons of spiritual refreshments and knock the believer down. But Christians are supplied with all they need in Christ to overcome and be watchful against sin.

 

Chapter 15
How does indwelling sin have it ways? It works through sloth and negligence. It works by encouraging sloppiness in means of grace which would have otherwise brought about genuine affections towards God.  It draws from bad examples of professing believers, and weakens the initial zeal a new born believer might have had. It works through a secret sin that causes spiritual decay,  and hence weakening spiritual strength, confidence in God in faith and prayer, making the knees feeble, and hands hanging down in dealing with God. One secret sin can become cancerous to the soul. It strikes at the central life-sustaining duty of communion with God. Mere knowledge of truths without an experiential knowledge accompanying it is another effective tool in the hands of indwelling sin.

 

Chapter 16
Indwelling sin makes unbelievers do that which is totally contrary to nature. For instance, it is natural even with wild beasts to take care of their own, but sin causes a man to murder his own offspring or parent. It is indwelling sin that opposes all the reasonableness and gracious work of God in the invitation to receive the Gospel. It makes men run headlong towards their own destruction, while God’s gracious invitation to live stands.

 

Chapter 17
It so powerful that it withstands the law. The law alone cannot save. It may seem to have been curbed for a short season under the working of the law, but it remains and thrives once again in due time. The spring of sin is not dried up; it is merely hidden for the moment and will break out for certain. Taking vows and strict life measures and resolutions will not disarm sin or its power. A new nature is needed which God creates in a man who comes to Christ. The Spirit of Christ alone then enables a believer to habitually weaken the power of indwelling sin through the work of mortification. Having studied the Nature of Indwelling Sin, the reader will do well to study what it means to mortify it through Owen’s work on Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.