Numbers 21, Isaiah 10:5-34, Psalm 126

Read Numbers 21, Isaiah 10:5-34, and Psalm 126.

This devotional is about Psalm 126.

As with many Psalms, we don’t know who the songwriter was or what the circumstances around its writing were. Because verse 1 says, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion” we know that some kind of calamity had come to Jerusalem and that this Psalm was written after that calamity was reversed. And whatever it was must have been major because even the nations were saying, “The Lord has done great things for them” (v. 2c-d). The Psalmist agreed (v. 3) and God’s kindness to them seemed too good to be true (v. 1b) and caused them to rejoice (v. 2a, 3b).

Still, there must have been more restoration needed because the second half of the Psalm calls for God to “restore our fortunes” (v. 4a) even though verse 1 said that the Lord had “restored the fortunes of Zion.” Verse 5 continues by saying, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” That indicates that there was still work to be done.

Perhaps literal sowing was meant; maybe the farms around the areas had been left uncultivated and much more work than usual would need to be done to make the land productive again. The promise of this Psalm is that sowing may be done in sorrow (v. 4a, 5a) but harvest time will bring joy and songs (v. 5b, 6c-d). Nobody likes to rebuild something that has been wiped out be it your farm, your personal finances, your career, your relationship with your family, or whatever. Starting over brings sorrow because it reminds you of how much you lost and where you would be if calamity hadn’t struck. But if you allow sorrow to overtake you and you don’t sow, you will never know the joy of reaping.

The point of the Psalm is that you should do the hard work you don’t want to do so that you can reap the benefits that only hard work can bring. This is a good definition of self-discipline which I heard someone else define as “Doing what you don’t want to do so that you can have something (or be someone) that you want.”

But note that the Psalm puts this call to hard work and self-discipline in the context of faith in God. The Psalmist has already seen God do great things (vv. 1, 3). Now, by faith, he was calling on God to keep restoring their fortunes (v. 4) while they sowed in tears. God the creator made the world so that sowing predictably and normally brings reaping. Those who work hard get rewarded. Calamities happen–crop failures, drought, war, etc.–but those are rare events. Usually the person who believes that hard work will be rewarded gets the rewards of hard work. That’s because God the creator made the world to respond to the faithful efforts of humanity.

Are you trying to rebuild something that fell apart–your marriage, your career, your retirement, or something else? Does the sorrow of loss tempt you not to try anymore? This Psalm calls you to have faith in God and put in the work even when you don’t feel like it. Even if you’re crying while you do the work, the work will matter. The ground doesn’t care if you sow in tears or in joy. It doesn’t respond any better or worse based on your mood; it responds to faithful effort. So let this song encourage you to keep doing the work despite how you feel and to pray over your efforts by saying, “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.”

Leviticus 27, Ecclesiastes 10, Psalm 113

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 10:8-10.

Many of these later chapters in Ecclesiastes contain proverbs. Some are similar to those we find in the book of Proverbs; others are unique. Here in Ecclesiastes 10:8-10, we find a few proverbs related to work. Verses 8-9 tell us that virtually every job has some kind of risk or hazard to it. Whatever you do that brings income and blessing to you and your household can also harm you if you’re not careful.

I believe that is the point of these proverbs. Solomon’s point was not just to observe that occupations have dangers to them. It was to warn every worker to be careful. If you spend a lot of time around pits that you’ve dug, or stones that you’ve quarried, or logs that you’ve split, you can become indifferent to the dangers they pose to your life and health. When you stop respecting the power of these things, you can get lazy with your safety habits and possibly injure yourself. A wise person never cuts corners on safety in his work; instead, he respects the inherent power of the things he works with and is careful to do his work safely.

Verse 10 pivoted to another aspect of work. That verse reminds us that you have to work much harder with inadequate tools than you do with proper tools. The person who says, “I don’t have time to sharpen this ax; there are too many trees to cut down!” is a person who doesn’t appreciate the power of well-prepared tools. Instead, according to the third line of verse 10, “more strength is needed.” That is, if you don’t understand the power of the right tool, YOU’LL be the one applying the power with your arms. The final line in verse 10 says, “but skill will bring success,” and this line suggests that this verse is about more than just sharpening your ax. A sharpened ax is literally more effective; it is also a metaphor for a more skillful way to work.

There is no virtue in using a handsaw when a circular saw is available. There is no virtue in churning your own butter (unless you like doing that for some weird reason, or think it tastes better) when you can buy a stick or a tub inexpensively. There’s also no virtue in learning by making mistakes when you could learn from others. A wise person is one who is trying to learn how to be more effective in less time at whatever he is attempting to do. God created you with the ability to learn and with the ability to think about your work creatively and innovatively so that you can be more effective and efficient at what you do.

The Bible is a book about God, not about time management, business best practices, or personal success. But it contains helpful information about these subjects because God cares about you and wants you to be effective and productive in addition to being honest and ethical.

Are there any areas of your work, or life in general, where you’ve been careless with safety precautions or where you’ve been working with a dull ax? Maybe it is time to stop working harder and start working smarter, just as God created you to do.

Leviticus 23, Ecclesiastes 6, Psalm 109

Today we’re scheduled to read Leviticus 23, Ecclesiastes 6, and Psalm 109.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 6.

This lifetime on earth offers us some incredible experiences. If life goes well, a person will be born into a loving family, have everything he or she needs to live, get an education, find a mate who will open a new dimension of love, have children who will open yet another dimension of love, possibly find a fulfilling career or, at the very least, one that will provide for a stable family life.

In addition to these blessings, many people will find friends to share experiences with, will enjoy watching many beautiful sunrises and sunsets, will hear music that enthralls them, will know what it feels like to win a tough game against a really good opponent, will taste food that they will never forget, and travel to places which will always be special in their memories.

That’s if all goes well….

However, it doesn’t always work that way, does it? Some people are born blind and will never see that beautiful sunset. Some are born to broken homes or have parents who will abuse them. Some grow up in excruciating poverty. Some will never learn to read. Some will never know what it feels like to be in love. Some will die in a tragic accident or through some kind of physical illness and will never live to see their kids grow up. Some people will experience a heartbreaking combination of these events; they will wonder why life has been so cruel to them.

Then there are others who experience success in life but can never enjoy the rewards of that success. That seems to be who Solomon has in mind here in Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. They succeed at life (“they lack nothing their hearts desire”) but die young before they can enjoy their success or they miss out in some other way. In the words of verse 2c: “….God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead.” In verses 3-6 Solomon says that someone who never made it out of the womb alive is better than the person who attained what they want in life but never could enjoy the results. This is just one of Solomon’s many laments in this book—a still frame in an unhappy video about the problems of life. These problems are caused by the curse that comes from sin. Whether a person suffers from poverty, or lives life alone and unloved, or has a broken body, or dies young, or is wealthy but unhealthy, nobody gets everything out of life that life could potentially offer to us all. The problem is not that God creates a cruel world that promises us pleasure but sticks us with pain instead. The problem is that the beautiful world that God created has been broken by sin. Because humanity defied God’s instruction, we all find heartache and sorrow and pain and lack of fulfillment in this life to some degree or others. Some of us feel it so intensely that the only word that can describe life is “unfair.”

This reality is immune to pious platitudes, quick fixes, or positive thinking. Even when someone’s life goes spectacularly well, there are always regrets, disappointments, grief, and sorrow. Ecclesiastes is a long meditation on the frustrating enigmas of life. Instead of telling us that “it’ll be OK eventually,” he will later tell us just to fear God, obey his word, and enjoy what we can. It’s good advice and we’d all do well to obey it. But we can’t even do that; the capacity to just “fear God and obey his word” was lost by humanity on the same day we lost paradise.

This is why Christ gives us such hope. Although he has not chosen, yet, to fix this broken and painful reality, he has shown us his love and promised us a better life—eternal life, if we trust him and follow him no matter what. If you’re discouraged today by circumstances around you, remember that your frustration is the symptom of a world that is suffering under sin and its consequences. Instead of bemoaning what is lost, look to Christ in faith. In him is the promise of life in his kingdom that will be perfection itself and will never end.

Leviticus 22, Ecclesiastes 5, Psalm 108

Today we’re reading Leviticus 22, Ecclesiastes 5, and Psalm 108.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 5.

Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has been reporting on his experiments in lavish living. He has taken the wealth God gave him and the wisdom God gave him and invested these things in searching what the best way to live might be. Everything he tried, however, turned out to be a frustrating enigma. It satisfied for a brief time, then offered ever-diminishing returns, then emptiness.

Many people who have achieved wealth and/or success in this life have proved this to be true. Some of the most miserable people you may ever meet are the people who got everything they wanted in life. That is, if everything they wanted was something in this life, for this life. Solomon’s oft-repeated phrase, “under the sun” (for example, v. 13) indicates the human-only realm. It is a phrase that indicates “apart from God.” Apart from God, wisdom is a frustrating enigma (1:12-18, 2:12-16) pleasure is a frustrating enigma (2:1-11), work is a frustrating enigma (2:17-3:22), life itself is a frustrating enigma (4:1-3), success is a frustrating enigma (4:4-8), career success is a frustrating enigma (4:13-,16), and wealth is a frustrating enigma (5:8-17).

So did Solomon find anything worth pursuing? Yes, but… two things must be said:

  • First, he found human relationships to be something worthwhile (vv. 9-12) but more as an advantage (“a good return” – v. 9, “one can help the other up” – v. 10, etc. Still, this was one positive thing he observed.
  • Second, he “saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work” (3:22). But this truth is tied to another which is, “…to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil… is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (vv. 24b-26). Did you catch that? The simple things in life are satisfying only if you are a person who pleases God.

This chapter, Ecclesiastes 5, developed that thought even more. Life can be rich and fulfilling if you walk with God. So Solomon advised his readers to fear God in their worship (vv. 1-7) and be satisfied with whatever God gives them (vv. 18-20, esp. v. 19: “to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.”). Why would one person find pleasure and wealth to be a frustrating enigma while the guy in verses 18-20 can “eat… drink and find satisfaction”? Because the person in verses 18-20 walks with God. He may have “wealth and possessions” (v. 19b) but he sees them for what they are–a gift from God (v. 19a). Because his walk with God is most important, “God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (v. 20).

The book of Job taught us that suffering and trials are part of life, so don’t think that walking with God means that everything will always go smoothly and that your life will be a straight line upward. But when you survey a person’s entire life, Solomon’s conclusion was that a person who walks with God will find the simple things in life satisfying because he finds his joy in God.

How about it? Do you find life to be frustratingly enigmatic? If so, it might be that your walk with God includes a season of suffering for now but it might also be that you’re looking to life “under the sun” for satisfaction instead of looking for life “in the Son” by walking with him daily. If Solomon of all people couldn’t find satisfaction under the sun with all the resources he had at his disposal, we would do well to take his advice and focus on our walk with God. He is the source of true satisfaction.

Exodus 30, Proverbs 6, Psalm 78

Today’s readings are Exodus 30, Proverbs 6, and Psalm 78.

This devotional is about Proverbs 6:6-11.

Ants are disgusting creatures who have no business being in my house.

That said, they are remarkable workers. There are some time-lapse videos on the Internet that show how hard they work to break down large food items for their colony. Some of the items, like a grapefruit, are huge compared to the size of one ant. Working together diligently, however, they can pick the whole thing apart in a few hours.

Here in Proverbs 6:6-11, Solomon encouraged the “sluggard” to think about the hard work of ants. A sluggard is foolish because he his lazy. The first thing Solomon encouraged the sluggard to notice about ants is that they don’t need a boss. Verse 7 says that it “has no commander, no overseer or ruler.” This sounds like a dream life to many people; a life with no boss, no authority. If a lazy person had no one in authority over him, he would do nothing productive all day, day after day (vv. 9-10). An ant, however, “stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” Each one works hard to provide for the colony even without a supervisor.

The point here is that the sluggard needs to learn how to be productive without external supervision or discipline. Many people will do nothing unless they are told to do it but a wise man will learn to work diligently without supervision to be profitable and prepared for the future. The foolish lazy man, by contrast, is warned that “poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”

Many people are hardworking in most areas of life or lazy in most areas of life. Many of us, however, work hard in some areas while neglecting to work hard in other areas. We may be productive employees, even without much supervision, but we’re lazy about managing the money we make. Or perhaps we’re diligent about physical fitness but not about our spiritual lives. What area in your life should you apply wisdom to be more ant-like?

We would also be wise to teach our kids to be self-starters and diligent without supervision. These are essential skills for success in our world and very rare. Encourage your kids to work on that term paper for a little while every night instead of trying to do it all in one weekend or–worse–one caffeine-fueled all-nighter. It will serve them well all the days of their lives.

You might enjoy watching this brief video about ants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dgtepw39NX4

Exodus 25, Proverbs 1, Psalm 73

Today we’re reading Exodus 25, Proverbs 1, and Psalm 73.

This devotional is about Proverbs 1.

We live in the information age. Knowledge abounds and most people carry a device in their pocket or purse that can access it. Although knowledge is readily available, wisdom is rare. People in our society know more than ever but seem to have fewer and fewer basic life skills.

The word “wisdom,” biblically speaking, at least, refers to skill. It is the skill of living a successful life according to God’s definition of success. Although I said that wisdom is rare in our society, Proverbs 1:20-21 claims that wisdom is ubiquitous—nearly as common as oxygen. To demonstrate this, Solomon imagined wisdom as if it were a woman and wrote, “Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech:”

If wisdom is everywhere then why is it so rare? The speech of “woman wisdom” in verse 23 tells us why: “Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you….” Wisdom is rare because only the humble receive it. It takes humility to admit that you lack skills with God, with money, with other people, with the opposite sex, with career choices, with your own bad habit like laziness, etc. Most of us are too proud in one or more of the areas where we need wisdom which is why we continue to make foolish decisions.

As we read the book of Proverbs over the next 30 days, note how often the idea that your own ideas or understanding will lead you astray. That’s how our pride manifests itself. We try to figure everything out on our own, so we don’t ask God for wisdom, turn to his Word for wisdom, or seek the counsel of wise people. If we would only change our minds (v. 23: “repent”) and admit that we’re on the edge of big trouble most of the time, wisdom would be right there waiting to give us a great big kiss.

Sometimes we succeed or avoid danger / failure despite our lack of wisdom but very often our foolishness gets the better of us. But living in folly and making decisions without wisdom catches up with us most of the time. The reason is that there are built-in effects to the decisions we make. When we make wise decisions, good things happen; when we make foolish decisions, we suffer for it. Verses 25-27 promise that disaster and calamity will come to those who refuse wisdom’s rebuke. Verse 30-31 tell us that this disaster and calamity is embedded in folly; it is the direct consequences of unwise choices: “Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them….”

Wisdom is a moral thing. That’s why it starts with fearing the Lord (v. 7). God’s commands are wisdom. When we sin, we choose folly and put ourselves directly in the path of a category 5 hurricane of disaster. But our sin nature fools us into believing that we know better than God and his Word; consequently, we humans make the same foolish decisions over and over, generation after generation, never learning from foolish disasters created by those older than us. We need God’s grace to overcome our foolishness so that we can be wise. This is what we have in Christ.

Is there anything in your life right now that you need to repent of? Any sins you’ve committed or have committed that you need to change your mind about? Wisdom is begging you to do it before calamity comes. Turn toward her open arms! God’s promise to you through her is, “whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm” (v. 33).