Hello! My name is Colin Sedgwick, and for 40 years I have been a Baptist minister. I have also done a fair bit of writing for various papers and periodicals, both Christian and secular. My wife is a teacher and I have two large sons. I hope you might find something interesting in my blog – I aim to provide regular Bible-based thoughts with a short prayer at the end. Perhaps you can use them to “top up” your own Bible-study and sermon-listening.
When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? Psalm 11:3
What is the mood of that question? Despair? Hopelessness? Cynicism?
Certainly, it’s what is known as a “rhetorical” question, one that doesn’t expect an answer, but is just a way of getting things off your chest. You can almost see the writer shrugging his shoulders as he asks it.
It would seem that wickedness is prevailing and goodness is under threat. To make matters worse, he has friends who give him demoralizing advice: “Flee like a bird to your mountain” (verse 1). Things are out of control! There’s nothing we can do! So run away! And he pleads with them, “How can you say that to me…?’” (verse 1). What sort of friends are you!
Well, the question of verse 3 may indeed be a rhetorical question. But if we think about it with a cool mind, perhaps it’s no bad thing to seek an answer: yes, when the foundations are being destroyed, what indeed can the righteous do? For this isn’t a question which belongs only to the world of the Old Testament, but one which can rear its head in any and every generation.
You may feel it at the moment. I certainly do.
On the news recently we saw buses burning and people throwing stones and petrol-bombs in Belfast. The army in Myanmar have been shooting people in cold blood in their cities. Horrible stories keep emerging about what seem to be brain-washing centres in China, determined to “re-educate” Muslims (and others) to be good, obedient communists.
Or it may be more personal matters. I’m sure we all know people, if not ourselves, who are wrestling with major health problems, or marriage crises, or financial worries that keep them awake at night. The coronavirus statistics are still heading upwards in many countries, even if not here in Britain: hospitals are having to turn people away, and bodies left unburied.
And are we heading for a mental health crisis?
We see respect for the Bible and the church at, it seems, an all-time low. Time-honoured moral principles to do with sex and relationships have been swept aside. The idea of objective truth – not just “your truth” or “my truth”, but actual truth – has gone by the board under a welter of “fake news”, and arguments are dominated by the person who shouts loudest.
A shaking of the foundations indeed.
Can Psalm 11 help us find a place to stand at such a time? Yes, it can.
For one thing, the writer declares his faith: “In the Lord I take refuge” (verse 1). His faith in God may have wobbled a bit, but it’s still there; oh yes, it’s still there: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne” (verse 4).
It reminds me of that time when “some Pharisees” urged Jesus to run away to escape Herod’s death squad (Luke 13:31). They meant well, perhaps (Pharisees weren’t all bad!). But Jesus will have none of it, any more than the psalmist here: he tells those Pharisees to tell “that fox” exactly what he can do… For himself, he is going to “press on”.
In language which may seem rather startling to us, the psalmist declares that God “hates with a passion” those who are opposed to him. Indeed, he will “rain fiery coals and burning sulphur” upon them (verses 5-6). Wickedness may indeed seem to be prevailing at the present time – but it’s only for a time. God is a God of justice, and his justice will prevail.
The psalm ends with a calm, simple statement of conviction: “The Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face” (verse 7).
Trusting God in the teeth of doubt and trouble is a skill we need to learn as Christians; the psalmist makes that plain.
But trust – faith – has to be coupled with action, of course.
That question – “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” – can be answered very plainly: “They can roll up their sleeves and fill their lives with good things, that’s what!” Like Jesus, they can “press on”.
Listen to Paul talking to the Christians of Thessalonica, who were showing themselves to be a bit flaky:
Live in peace with each other… warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.Rejoice always,pray continually,give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-22).
None of that defeatist nonsense there about fleeing like a bird to your mountain!
The great evangelist and founder of Methodism, John Wesley, put the same thought even more briefly: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.
I trust we can all say a big Amen to that – whether the foundations are being shaken or not!
Lord God, give me the grace of your Holy Spirit to fill my days with Christlike deeds and words in both good times and bad. Amen.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:57-62
Every minister is familiar with the person whose enthusiasm outweighs their realism. At first you just can’t hold them back, but very quickly it all fizzles out into nothing, like a spectacular firework.
To be fair, we can’t be sure that’s what happened to the three people Luke describes in this passage, but it’s hard not to wonder…
The first one approaches Jesus and simply declares “I will follow you wherever you go”.
Wonderful! But Jesus feels a need to bring him down to earth with a bump: “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. As if to say, Are you ready for a vagabond life? For homelessness? Are you prepared to give up any prospect of the kind of settled, reasonably comfortable life which most people take for granted as normal?
The second man doesn’t in fact offer to follow Jesus at all: no, in his case it’s Jesus himself who takes the initiative: “He said to another man, ‘Follow me’”.
The man’s reply suggests that he would be ready to do so, but he adds the request “First let me go and bury my father”. Seems reasonable enough? Yet Jesus gives a reply so demanding as to border on the outrageous: “Let the dead bury their own dead…”
Did Jesus see something in this man that he sensed wasn’t quite true? He certainly set him a severe test.
The third man also makes what seems a reasonable request: “Let me go back and say goodbye to my family”. (Isn’t that exactly what Levi seems to have done when he threw a big party to celebrate his call (Luke 5:27-29)?)
It’s not entirely easy to know what Jesus means by his reply: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God”.
Does he mean, “OK, that’s fine – but make no mistake, once you’ve said your farewells, there must be no hankering after the old life!”? Or does he mean, “No! This mission is too urgent even for that!”
We can only speculate. And we can only guess what decision these three men did in fact make: Luke doesn’t tell us.
But what we do know is the point Jesus was making in his harsh-seeming words to them: Following me is a serious business. I have no use for the half-hearted. With me it’s all or nothing at all. And that is a message for everyone – including you or me – who decides to become a follower of Jesus.
Are we up for that?
Imagine a different, alternative future for Jesus’ apostles…
It’s forty years on, and Peter, James and John are now old men. They’re together one afternoon enjoying a drink and gazing out at the Sea of Galilee where they have spent their lives.
Peter says: “Do you remember that day all those years ago when we were right here, ready to get into the boat, and Jesus came along and asked us to follow him?” “Yes!” says James, “I remember it well. We agreed, didn’t we, that if ever anybody was worth following, it was him. But of course it was out of the question. We had a living to earn! bread to put on the table!” “True”, says John, and then pauses… “But I must admit there are times I wish we had decided to go with him. Oh, I know we haven’t had a bad life here in Galilee; but it’s hard not to wonder what might have been…”
How many of us, when we reach the end of our days, will wonder what might have been? – perhaps with deep regret.
Well, we can’t rewrite our history. But we can, and do, write our own future – precisely by the dozens of decisions, some big and some small, which we make day by day. And the thing it’s so easy to overlook is this: even though it can be hard, and demand big sacrifices, the way of Christ is the best way, the way of fulfilment, indeed, of ultimate joy.
Let me put it in truly no-nonsense terms: for all the pain of taking up our cross to follow Jesus, it’s in our own best interests to do so.
Why not read again about those three would-be disciples? Why not use their stories to prompt reflection on your own still-unfinished story?
And just in case it seems simply too demanding, why not reflect also on another crazy-seeming thing Jesus said: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)?
Lord Jesus, you call us to take up our cross to follow you. But you tell us too that your yoke is easy, and your burden light. Help me daily, by my obedience, accept the challenge of the first and to prove the truth of the second. Amen.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him… Luke 24:30-31
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig-leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Genesis 3:7
Do you ever fail to see the obvious? Do you ever look straight past something that’s right in front of your nose?
I’m afraid I do. I read in a paper once about the death of someone I knew just slightly. The article included a small photo. A week or so later somebody said to me “Had you heard that Dave has died?” And I replied, shocked, “No! Really?” Yet it was Dave whose photo I had seen.
Somehow I had completely failed to see the connection. I had no reason to expect to see Dave’s photo in the paper, so when in fact I did, well, all I saw was a total stranger. Once it was pointed out to me, of course, I thought, “How could I be so stupid! How could I be so blind!”
Go back two thousand years…
It’s the afternoon of Easter Sunday. Two people are walking sadly from Jerusalem to Emmaus, roughly seven miles away. Luke says one of them is called Cleopas, and according to tradition the other is his wife Mary. (John 19:25 mentions a “Mary of Clopas” standing with the other women at the foot of the cross: Clopas could be an alternative spelling of Cleopas, so Mary could well be his wife.)
These two, whoever they are, are completely confused by the events of the last few hours. They are disciples of Jesus, and have seen him crucified on the Friday. They have sat through that wretched, utterly miserable Saturday (what a horrible, dreary day that must have been!). Now they are heading to Emmaus where, presumably, they live.
But before setting off they have been puzzled by rumours: Jesus, it is said, is alive again! For some reason they don’t have time to check the facts. They just mull it over together as they walk. We can only imagine their conversation…
And then they are joined by a stranger. It is Jesus himself – but they don’t recognise him. Perhaps it’s getting dark (no street lights, remember). Perhaps his face is partly cloaked. Perhaps their minds are so numbed that they simply can’t process what’s right before their eyes; they are in a state of what today might be called “denial”.
He listens as they pour out their story, and their confusion. Then he explains to them “what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself”.
They still don’t “get it”. But they persuade him to share a meal with them. And then… something happens. He takes it on himself to divide the loaf – and suddenly they understand. “They knew him in the breaking of the bread”.
The scales fall from their eyes. They see.
It’s rather like Mary Magdalene that same morning. She finds the tomb open and empty. She assumes the body has been stolen. She becomes aware of a man standing near her. He asks why she is so upset. She thinks he is the gardener, and asks him where the body is. He speaks – just a single word; her name: “Mary”.
And in that split second she too “sees”: “Teacher!” she cries out. She knew him in the speaking of her name.
It’s the greatest moment of your life when your eyes are opened and you see Jesus yourself for who he really is: the crucified and risen Son of God. Nothing can ever be the same again.
Has that yet happened to you?
That moment of revelation is both a gift – something that happens to you – and a command – something you are told to do: to believe, to put your faith in him. I don’t fully understand how to marry those two things together: if something is a gift, how can it also be something required? But experience shows that it is so.
We mustn’t use the fact that our eyes haven’t yet been opened as an excuse, a cop-out. (In verses 25-26 Jesus chastises them for their failure to see.) God calls us to see. And if he calls us to see, then we needn’t doubt that he will make it happen.
Can you think of another couple in the Bible of whom it is said that “their eyes were opened”? Sadly, in this case it was their downfall, not their blessing: “they knew that they were naked”, and so they took steps to cover their shame. Futile steps, of course. Yes, Adam and Eve right at the beginning (Genesis 3:7).
The first creation went wrong. But now, on Easter Day, God is giving birth to a new creation, a creation in which we are all invited to have a part. Jesus is the new Adam, the second Adam, the victorious Adam. (See how Paul opens this up in 1 Corinthians 15:45.)
Are you yet part of this wonderful new creation? Have your eyes yet been opened? Simply pray with an open and humble heart…
Lord Jesus Christ, please open my eyes. Please help me to see. Amen.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:20-25
A man in the prime of life dies in torture nailed to a cross.
This was a common event in the days of the Roman empire; the Roman soldiers were expert killers, and they showed no sentiment or pity, so you stepped out of line at your peril. Anyone watching might well shake their head and think, “Oh well, he knew the risks; I’ll just try and make sure the same things doesn’t happen to me”.
But that particular Friday was different. The followers of Jesus saw a profound and world-changing significance in what happened to their teacher. Peter, their leader, wrote about it many years later, inviting his readers to view Jesus from various different angles; and this is what we find in the tightly-packed little passage,1 Peter 2:20-25.
First, says Peter, see Jesus as your example.
At this point in his letter he is giving advice to slaves (many of the first Christians were slaves) about how to conduct themselves. And, amazingly, it’s to Jesus that he points as an example.
Today we feel uncomfortable reading about slaves, and rightly so. But slavery was part of the very texture of life in New Testament days, and Peter felt – especially given that its abolition was still a distant dream – that even when burning with inner rage at the cruelty involved, the best thing to do was… to look at Jesus. No retaliation, no hatred, no returning sin for sin.
No wonder that hard-bitten centurion watched Jesus die and exclaimed “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
Second, see Jesus as your sinless leader.
Quoting from Isaiah 53:9 Peter writes, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. In the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as the ideal, model human being, and he tells his disciples to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”. We are likely to reply that perfection is not possible in this world, and that is true. But nothing less than that should be our aim!
Do we easily settle for second best?
Third, see Jesus as your example of trust.
Instead of hitting back – or even talking back – Jesus simply “entrusted himself to him who judges justly”. He believed that God would put all things right, and so he refused to take them into his own hands.
This doesn’t mean we today shouldn’t stand up for justice, especially on behalf of others, but we do so in the confidence that God our Father is more than able to right all wrongs. At the moment of his death Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
This is a prayer we would do well to echo every day – even when there is no risk of death. Oh to learn the skill of trusting implicitly in God, minute by minute and day by day!
Fourth, see Jesus as your sin-bearer.
Still drawing his thoughts from Isaiah 53, Peter tells us, “He bore our sins in his body on the tree”, surely one of the Bible’s greatest declarations.
Human sin, something we are all afflicted with, cannot just be left to fade away, for it won’t; it will only grow and deepen, becoming ever more poisonous. No, it has to be dealt with, and God has decided that the price that has to be paid is that of blood-sacrifice.
If you have ever tried to read your way through the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Numbers you may very well have got rather bogged down in all the detail. That’s understandable. But the overall point is clear: God laid down for the people of Israel an elaborate system of sacrifice to enable their sins to be cleansed.
And what happened on the cross was the ultimate climax of that system. When Jesus walked the path to Calvary he carried not just the cross but also the weight of human sin, and the blood he shed was all that was needed to pay the price.
We do, of course, have it in our power to turn down that offer of the price he paid; he doesn’t force his mercy and kindness upon us. But in this case we continue to carry our load of sin.
And so we need to put to ourselves the question: As I watch Jesus walk to Calvary, do I see him as my sin-bearer? Or am I just a bystander, one of the crowd? Good Friday is simply meaningless if we have never understood it in this light.
Fifth, see Jesus as your doctor, your shepherd and your guardian.
When we confess our sins and put our trust in Jesus we come to the great watershed in our lives – bigger than a first job, or marriage, or parenthood. Everything changes. Peter compares us to sick people made well… to lost sheep restored to their shepherd… to orphans once abandoned but now secure again.
Above all, to use Peter’s exact words, we find ourselves in a place where we “die to sins and live for righteousness”. Taking up our cross to follow Jesus means becoming all that God himself originally intended for us to be. And we grow daily in that new personhood – until one day we will see him face to face.
So… the key question for Good Friday: Are you yet embarked on that journey?
The price is paid,/ Come let us enter in/ To all that Jesus died/ To make our own./ For every sin/ More than enough he gave/ And bought our freedom / From each guilty stain… Lord Jesus, I live to thank you for the price you paid. Amen.
Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ… I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I want to know Christ… Philippians 3:8, 10
Pointing to his disciples, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”. Matthew 12:49-50
I enjoy reading biographies – people’s life stories.
At the moment I’m getting to know Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman”, athlete and missionary, famed for refusing to run in the Olympics because his race was rescheduled for a Sunday, which he didn’t feel able to do. (At the last moment he was entered for an alternative race on a different day – and won it by a mile.) A wonderful man, and a great challenge and stimulus to my sluggish faith.
Then, a few weeks ago, it was Joseph Stalin. A bit different, that: he was pretty much a killing-machine, generally regarded as one of the most evil people who ever existed, right up there (or should I say right down there?) with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung. Grim reading; but a sombre reminder of what human nature, including mine, is capable of.
And then Paul Robeson. The son of a slave in America, he was a professional sportsman, a star actor and a political activist, but known above all for his glorious singing voice (“Ol’ man river” and many others). So much to admire in his integrity and humility! But so much too to feel sad about as his life rather fell apart towards the end.
A good biography gives you a flavour of a person’s life – but only a flavour. I said I was “getting to know” Eric Liddell. But of course that isn’t really true. Both he and the others I have mentioned are now long dead, so of course I can never actually know them.
And there is a massive difference between knowing about someone or something, and actually knowing them.
Why am I saying this? Because Easter is almost with us, the time of year when Christians celebrate the death and rising again of Jesus. The glory of Christianity is that we not only know about him, but we do in fact know him, because while he truly died he also was truly raised to life; and is still alive today. The four Gospels of the New Testament were written not merely as biographies, though they serve as that, but as invitations to their readers to come and know this man.
So I am writing this blog to encourage you to do just that, if in fact you have never done so before.
The apostle Paul wrote a beautiful little letter to the Christians in the Roman garrison town of Philippi. It’s a letter that oozes affection and gratitude, for they have not only responded to the message he preached to them, but have also given him practical support
Though short, Philippians contains quite a lot of detail about Paul’s personal life and experiences, and chapter 3 verses 7-14 are a good example.
There was a time, he tells us, when he knew quite a lot about Christ – enough, at any rate, to see him as a threat to all that he held most dear as a devout Jew. He came to see Jesus, in fact, as such a threat that he decided that he and his influence needed to be stamped out. When Stephen, the first person to die for being a follower of Jesus, was stoned to death, Saul (as Paul was then known) was right there, not himself throwing stones, but looking after the coats of those who were (Acts 7:54-8:1).
But it wasn’t long before the stone-throwing – and worse – started again, and Paul was right at the heart of it (Acts 8:1-3)…
But something truly dramatic happened – Luke describes it for us in Acts 9. And one way to put it is that he came to know Jesus. In Philippians 3: 8 he talks about “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. No longer just knowing about him! But actually knowing him. And let’s not miss that little detail “my Lord”, not only “the Lord”, which indicates the intimacy of a personal relationship.
As Christians today we can’t of course “know” Jesus in the same way as those first believers did, especially those who met him risen from the dead on Easter day. We can’t see him with our earthly eyes or hear him with our earthly ears. We can’t reach out our hands and physically touch him, as Mary Magdalene did.
But we can, and do, know him! By reaching out to him in faith we become part of him, as he becomes part of us through the work of the Holy Spirit. And that is when our lives change out of all recognition; not perhaps as suddenly and dramatically as did that of Saul of Tarsus, but, long-term, with equally life-transforming effects.
Another week, and the dramatic events of Jesus dying and rising again will be in our minds. So never could a question be more timely: This Jesus, you know about him, of course. But can you say you truly know him? Can you, with Paul, call him “my Lord”?
Please hear this… he is alive, and waiting for you!
Lord Jesus, thank you that you rose from the dead and are alive for evermore. Please help me today to take that step of faith, so that I can come to know you personally and begin my adventure of discovering more about you, until that day when I see you face to face. Amen.
A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Take care of my sheep”. John 21:16
Last time I wrote about what I called “the sin of the blind eye”, based on Proverbs 24:11-12. This is the danger that we look away – hypocritically pretending “But we knew nothing about this” – rather than honestly face up to a need that presents itself to us; perhaps we are cowardly or lazy or just plain uncaring.
But today we need to put a completely different angle on this, and point out that there are also times when turning a blind eye is no sin at all but in fact the best thing we can do; for Proverbs also tells us that “it is to one’s glory to overlook an offence” (19:11).
“Glory”!… That’s a big Bible word, often used to describe the power and majesty of God himself, so it struck me as interesting that it should occur here. It seems that to “overlook an offence” (which is pretty much the same thing as turning a blind eye), can be not just a kind or generous thing to do, but a glorious thing, even a God-like thing.
Which raises the challenging question: How good am I at it?
I look back over my life and can only be thankful for those lovely people who could very justifiably have taken offence at something I had said or done, but… simply chose not to. In a very tiny way, had they not chosen to act like God himself?
Where this verse really hits home is if we turn it round: if it’s a glorious thing to overlook an offence, by the same token it’s a shameful thing to do the opposite, to “harbour a grudge”, as we sometimes put it.
I think of a friend who felt, perhaps with some justification, that he had been badly let down by someone. The issue wasn’t just a trivial thing, but something that had significantly affected his whole life. How understandable if he were to harbour a grudge!
But how destructive too. For to harbour a grudge is to brew an inner poison, to allow your whole personality to be twisted and eaten up by bitterness.
I knew a woman too who used to talk quite matter-of-factly about how she “hated her ex”. Judging by the things she used to say about him, you felt you couldn’t really blame her; but years of carrying this grudge had taken a very heavy toll on her.
Then one day she came to a decision… she decided to let it go. The decision wasn’t particularly emotional; it was simply an act of will, quite clinical in a way. She decided she would no longer allow this weight to crush her. And what a beautiful change it brought about in her!
I have to be careful telling stories like those, for personally I have never found myself in those kinds of situation. I have been extremely fortunate – or perhaps I should say blessed. So I’m in danger of making it all sound rather easy, which I’m sure it isn’t.
But there’s no getting away from it: our God is a God of mercy, kindness, grace and forgiveness – glorious qualities which are expressed above all in the sacrifice and death of Jesus. And we are called to be like him: nothing more, nothing less.
A concrete example of “overlooking an offence” comes to mind: what a hard time the risen Jesus could have given to Simon Peter after his denial (Mark 14:66-71)!…
“Sorry, Peter, but you’ve let me down badly! You swore that you would rather die with me than deny me – and then you caved in at the challenge of that servant-girl. And you did it three times! How can I ever be sure again that I can trust you…?”
But we know what in fact Jesus did (John 21:15-23). Back there in Galilee, after a memorable breakfast by the lake of freshly caught fish, he drew Peter aside from the other disciples. Not to give him a ticking off or to make him feel bad, but to match his three denials with three invitations to “take care of my sheep” or to “feed my sheep”. To give him a vital job. To show him he loved him and was prepared to trust him.
That’s a big, big example. But ordinary, everyday life throws up all sorts of lesser examples, and they pose the same challenge as Proverbs 19:11: Will I be petty or magnanimous? Will I be mean-minded or generous-spirited? Will I turn a blind eye to an offence? Or will I fix my eye on it and let it distort my whole vision?
The choice is mine; and yours.
Loving Father, thank you that in Jesus you have chosen to overlook my many offences. Help me to respond with patience, understanding, love and prayer when other people offend against me. Amen.
Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering towards slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done? Proverbs 24:11-12
How do you react to coincidences? Do you try to attach deep significance to them, or do you just notice them, shrug your shoulders, and carry on?
Personally, I belong in the second category. I’m certainly open to the possibility that a coincidence might contain some kind of message for me, but – well – it’s never happened yet, so I don’t get too excited.
But a coincidence that came my way just this morning was, let’s say, very striking if nothing else.
My regular Bible reading included the verses at the top, where the writer tells his readers, in effect, not to turn a blind eye to wickedness. Don’t say “But we knew nothing about this” – this massacre of innocent people. God knows your heart.
That struck me very forcibly, and I knew straight away that I wanted to write a post about it.
And then, as if by way of confirmation, about an hour later I was reading the morning paper and I came across this quote: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander”.
Those powerful words were written by Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust who devoted the bulk of his life (he died in 2016, aged 87) to fighting for the human rights of not only his fellow-Jews but all sorts of other victims.
The two quotes are an almost perfect match for one another – too coincidental to be accidental?
The coincidence didn’t end there. I immediately thought how a few weeks ago my wife and I had watched a television box-set called Band of Brothers. It’s about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in Europe in the Second World War. By the sixth or seventh episode I was beginning to find it a little same-ish, and happy to think we were getting towards the end.
But then came the part when the soldiers stumbled across a concentration camp – and I can only say that the horrors of the next few minutes made the whole series worthwhile. My wife and I have been to Auschwitz, and of course we have seen those grainy black and white photos. But the way that film portrayed the unspeakable vileness of what went on in places like that was simply overpowering. You could only shake your head in disbelief.
But there was still something else, and this was the clincher. The concentration camp was very close to a village – a village of solid, ordinary citizens going about their everyday business. But the claim of these people was exactly what Proverbs 24:12 says: “But we knew nothing about this”. What, not even from the stench of disease and death blowing in with every breeze?
How easy it is to condemn those people! They are caught up in a war, and it’s a war they are losing. They are in a situation which is beyond anything they could ever imagine. Their lives are in peril. Life is a waking nightmare.
And how can any of us avoid the question: What would I have done? Kept my head down and just hoped for it all to end? Convinced myself that, well, there’s really nothing I could do anyway?
Both the Book of Proverbs and Elie Wiesel were writing about extreme situations. But of course the “turn-a-blind-eye” reflex can kick in in what seem the most humdrum of circumstances – somebody being bullied at work, perhaps, or a child showing signs of neglect, or an injustice that seems to escape the system and which nobody seems to care about, or a charity doing good work but struggling to survive financially.
All of us will one day stand before God in judgment, including those of us whose sins have been dealt with by the cross of Jesus. Shouldn’t that thought alone be enough to make us look fairly and squarely in the face the responsibility which God lays upon us?
True, we mustn’t develop a guilt complex over this. There are so many good things being left undone and injustices being left unchallenged, and there’s a limit to what we can do. But the rock solid rule must surely be: If I can, then I must. Whatever the cost. Whatever the sacrifice.
Cain tried to wriggle out of responsibility for Abel’s death. “Leave me alone,” he says to God. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). God gives no direct answer to that question. But we know what the answer is, don’t we? Yes, deep down we know: a thousand times, Yes.
Lord God, give me the eyes to see and the love of Jesus to respond to evil wherever it rears its head. Amen.
Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Psalm 141:3
“Speaking without thinking is like shooting without aiming”. Nicely put, that, don’t you think?
I think the psalmist in Psalm 141 would agree. True, at the start of his psalm he is thinking especially of the use of the tongue in prayer and worship. And he then goes on to reflect on how words can be used for serious evil, for “wicked deeds” (verse 4).
But I’m sure he would agree that the need to have “a guard over our mouths” applies in all sorts of routine, everyday situations. I read an article once where some university professor had calculated how many words, on average, each of us might utter every day. I can’t remember now what the figure was – but it was pretty alarming.
James the brother of Jesus has a whole range of comparisons for the tongue (James 3:1-12). It’s like the tiny spark that sets off a forest fire; it’s like poison coursing through the body – that’s just two of them. (On the plus side Proverbs 15:3 tells us rather beautifully that “a gentle answer turns away wrath”. How we need that reminder these days when so many of us are on a hair-trigger, just waiting for an excuse to get angry or offended.)
All of which makes it plain that there is never a bad day to take to heart afresh the words of Psalm 141:3. Like today.
The sheer power of words is illustrated by an experience of my own. I still remember a teacher in my primary school days telling us: “Before you say anything, ask yourself three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” That was said by that woman when I was quite a small boy; but those words remain alive in my mind to this day. I think they sum up this whole topic pretty well…
Is it true?
Yes, that must come first, of course. If we as Christians are anything, we are people of the truth, for do we not follow the one who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)?
Sometimes it seems that lies are simply everywhere. In surveys people are quite happy to admit that they routinely lie if it suits their interests. Yet they also say they have little respect for politicians precisely because they don’t think politicians are honest. We instinctively doubt much of what we read in the papers; and as for what gets put on social media, well, no wonder we develop a thick coating of cynicism.
Christians or not, we are easily sucked into this mentality. “Bare-faced” lying? – perhaps not. But dishonesty can take many forms, and it’s possible to lie without even realising we’re doing it.
Is it kind?
Words, even true words, can be deeply wounding. Just as I have never forgotten the wise words spoken by that teacher, so I’m sure all of us can think of times we have been cut to the quick by someone’s hurtful remark: a criticism or putdown or jokey comment. Especially if the person on the receiving end is lacking in confidence and self-esteem, it’s no exaggeration to say that an unkind remark can scar them for life.
Can any of us plead not guilty to this?
Is it necessary?
I can think of many occasions in my life when somebody could very well have dredged up an incident that would have caused me embarrassment – but kindly chose not to do so. How grateful I have been!
And what about saying things about somebody in their absence – in a word, gossip? How necessary is that?
Gossip very often fails all three of my teacher’s tests: truth, kindness and necessity. It’s an easy resort for the trouble-maker, bringing a nasty pleasure to both the speaker and the listener: “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels, they go down to the inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8).
It’s even possible to gossip under the guise of prayer, pretending sanctimoniously to feel loving concern – “Lord, please help Jack at this very difficult time in his life” – so that everybody in the group is immediately thinking “Hmm, I wonder what Jack’s problem is?”
Any of us reading this who have a weakness with gossip would do well to remember the wise saying: “Never forget – the person who gossips to you today will very likely be gossiping about you tomorrow”.
I could multiply examples of bad uses of the tongue – but it’s up to each of us to think about the areas where we fall short. But to finish with a prayer I suggest a fresh translation of Psalm 141:3…
Loving Father, please help me to know when to keep my big mouth shut. Amen.
The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good. Proverbs 15:3
My Bible-reading routine is taking me at the moment through Proverbs. I always enjoy this, because while Proverbs is full of good things, the demands it makes on our understanding aren’t all that great: no heavy doctrine, no unpronounceable names, no references that defy comprehension (well, not many, anyway).
No, you can just read your way through, nodding sagely at the many flashes of wisdom (3:5-6, for example, or 15:1,17:14 or 18:8), or furrowing your brow at things that don’t seem very connected with most people’s lives (14:35), or shrugging your shoulders at what seems like a statement of the obvious (13:8), even wondering if perhaps something really needs to be challenged (17:12 – call me old-fashioned but, personally, I’m not too keen on the idea of running into an angry she-bear one day outside the Co-op).
And as for 16:31, well, it’s one of my favourite Bible verses (if you know me you’ll understand why), but I must confess I have serious doubts as to how true it is literally…
Very often we need to take a Proverbs saying simply as a springboard for further reflection. We could use 14:35, for example, to trigger a prayer for wise counsellors in high places (how we need them!), or 13:8 either (a) to prompt compassion for the poor or (b) to reflect that perhaps not being rich has its compensations after all.
The other day I found myself reflecting on 15:3: “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good”. (The Message puts it, “God doesn’t miss a thing – he’s alert to good and evil alike”.) And I found myself wondering “Now, is this good news or bad?”
Is it a warning, like those plaques people used to have on their wall: “Christ is the Lord of this home: the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation” (Big Brother is watching over you, so you’d better look out!). Or is it an encouragement: “Of course, you can’t see God; but never doubt that he is caring for you with deep, fatherly love”.
The answer, surely, is “Both”, depending whether we fall into the category of “the wicked” or “the good”.
I can almost hear a chorus of protest from those readers who are well taught in the Bible: “But none of us are good! We are all sinners in the sight of God!” And of course I fully agree.
But we know what the writer means. He is, broad-brush style, dividing the human race into two categories: those who seek to order their ways in step with God, and those who don’t. For category one, these words are an encouragement; for category two, a warning.
But of course human beings don’t all slot neatly into compartments. Nobody believes more strongly than me that “by grace I have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). But does that mean that I never need to take Proverbs15:3 as a warning? You must be joking!
No, even the finest, most Christ-centred, Spirit-filled Christian is far from perfect. Even as you read these words, is there, in some dark and ugly corner of your soul, a secret stirring that is known only to you? Is Proverbs 15:3 exactly what you need as a warning, even though your salvation is sure? – “My dear child, you have lapsed into sin, and you need to put it right…” For, of course, that dark secret “known only to you” is, in fact, known also to God.
Another advantage of reading Proverbs is that it reminds us what a wonderfully varied book the Bible is. I say “a book” because the Bible is ultimately a single book. But of course, as I’m sure we all know, it’s made up of a whole collection of books, dating from many hundreds of years.
And books – any books – need to be read and understood according to their types. A car maintenance manual and a spy thriller are both “books”; but you’d need to be pretty daft to read them in the same way, wouldn’t you? And the same is true of, say, Leviticus and Luke, or Isaiah and 2 Peter. Try and construct New Testament doctrine out of the Old Testament Song of Songs and you’ll soon be in a hopeless muddle.
Of course we can, and should, draw connections between the various parts of the Bible, for ultimately the Bible points to one great over-arching Truth: Christ crucified and risen from the dead. But the key to understanding Bible truth is to let each part speak in its own voice, not to impose on it a meaning it doesn’t contain.
So… just in case you don’t know it very well, welcome to the Book of Proverbs! If we read it rightly it will instruct us, inspire us, puzzle us, perhaps even annoy us.
But with the help of the Holy Spirit it will add another building-block to the ever-growing structure of our faith.
Father, thank you for the light you shine for us in the Book of Proverbs. When it instructs me, help me to learn. When it challenges me, help me to obey. When it puzzles me, help me to be patient. When it comforts me, help me to be thankful. Amen.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:14-16
Is there any verse in the Bible better known than John 3:16? – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.
But are there any verses in the Bible less well known than John 3:14-15? – that strange little passage about Moses “lifting up the snake in the wilderness”.
Yet here these two passages are, right next to one another on the lips of Jesus – in fact, not two passages at all, but all part of the same passage. How strange that Jesus should choose to illustrate the meaning of his life and death by referring back to this (to us) obscure Old Testament story about… a snake! It’s worthwhile to refresh our minds by looking at the relevant passage, Numbers 21:4-9…
They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
What on earth does John 3:16 have to do with that story? Answer: A lot!
First, both stories are about judgement and death.
In Numbers 21 the people of Israel are wandering in the desert after escaping from Egypt. And they are not happy. They grumble against Moses – and against God. So God decides to teach them a lesson by allowing a plague of venomous snakes to attack them. Many of them die.
In John 3 Jesus is teaching about a far more serious plague attacking the whole human race: the plague which the Bible calls “sin”, or human rebellion against God. It’s a plague that leads in the end not just to a painful physical death, but to eternal, spiritual death.
Second, both stories are about God’s provision of a remedy.
In Numbers 21 the people realise how wrong and stupid they have been and plead with Moses to pray for them. Which he does. And God’s answer is to tell him to make this bronze snake and hoist it up on a pole. Just looking up at the snake will bring about the healing of the sufferer. Such is the love and mercy of God!
In John 3 Jesus compares himself to the snake (how extraordinary is that!): in the same way “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (verse 14), which is obviously a reference to his coming crucifixion. Such, again, is the love and mercy of God.
Third, both stories are about faith.
In Numbers 21 the person suffering the snake-bite is not told to do anything in particular to help him or herself, but simply to look at the snake. The word “faith” isn’t mentioned; but obviously faith was needed to be willing to do that.
In John 3 Jesus says that anyone who simply looks to him in faith – “who “believes in me” – not attempting to do anything, “will not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16).
We might be tempted to ask, But how did these remedies “work”? Why would putting a bronze snake on a pole be any use? And why would Jesus being lifted up on a cross achieve anything?
No explanation is given in either passage (though elsewhere in the New Testament we find quite detailed explanations). All that matters is: Accept what you are told and take advantage of it! God knows what he is doing. Just believe!
Of course, no one is under an obligation to receive the remedy. Picture a man lying in his tent groaning with the pain of a snake bite. His neighbour comes running: “Great news! Moses has had this bronze snake made, and all you have to do is look at it and you will be healed!” And what does the man do? He turns up his nose: “Nonsense! How could that possibly work! My snake-bite will heal up in a day or two”. But how wrong can you be…
And likewise with Jesus. No-one has to accept his death on the cross as the remedy for their sin. But… “whoever does not believe stands condemned… because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (verse 18).
To refuse to believe in the God-given remedy for sin is, says Jesus, to “love darkness instead of light” (verse 19). We have that privilege if we so choose. But it makes no more sense than choosing to let a deadly snake-bite do its worst.
We each need to ask where we stand in this. Do we simply accept God’s provided remedy, or refuse it? Do we come out of the darkness and into the light, or choose to stay in the darkness?
Which is it to be?
Lord God, thank you that you have taught us that humble, simple faith in Jesus and his cross is all that is needed to receive forgiveness and eternal life. Please help me to cherish this good news – and to pass it on to others. Amen.