“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” begins one of the most famous passages in scripture. For many, Psalm 23 is their favorite part of the Bible. The whole thing is absolutely beautiful, but today I just want to focus on a phrase at the end.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Ps. 23:6, KJV)
The Hebrew word translated “mercy” here is often translated “loving kindness” in more modern versions of the Bible. And this isn’t the only place where God’s loving, kind mercies are linked with His inherent goodness.
Goodness and loving kindness are an essential part of God’s nature and character. Yahweh (to use His proper name) “is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 105:5, WEB). This isn’t something that’s ever going to change. We can count on Yahweh — both the Father and the Son — being good, lovingly kind, and faithful forever and ever. And when we walk with them, we’ll get to experience Their goodness and kindness directly. Read more →
How do you use your hands to praise God? Maybe you lift your hands in worship, or use them to minister to God’s people. Or maybe you haven’t really thought about there being a connection between hands and praise, so this seems like an odd question.
Idioms involving hands abound in the Hebrew language. Being in someone’s hands is to be in their power. Putting one’s hand to something means you’re working on it. Raising your hand against someone is rebellion. Open hands express giving, and closed hands withholding, something.
Hands were lifted when making an oath to God, as Abraham did (Gen. 14:22-23). God lifts His hand when He delivers His people (Ps. 10:12). Priests stretch their hands out when they bless the people and people lift their hands when they bless God (Lev. 9:22; Neh. 8:6). Hands, and specifically lifted hands, can mean different things depending on the context.
We can think of yadah as a type of praise we “throw” to God with lifted hands as we declare how wonderful He is and confess that we follow Him. Today, we’re going to look at the ways we petition, pray to, and praise God with our hands. Read more →
There really isn’t a word for “thank” in the Old Testament. When worlds like “thanks” or “thanksgiving” appear in English versions of Hebrew scripture, they’re translated from words with the primary meaning of praise and/or confession. It’s a different thing than what we mean when we say “thank you” in English.
Much like we saw last week in the New Testament connection between thanksgiving and grace, the concept of thanks in the Old Testament is inextricably linked to confession, praise, and sacrifice. There’s something more/different going on in these words than we might think just reading it in translation.
Confession, Praise, Sacrifice
The Hebrew word yadah (H3034) is a root with the primary meaning of “to acknowledge or confess.” It is used in three main ways: to confess individual or national sins, to proclaim or declare God’s attributes and works, and to convey man’s praise of men. Its derivative todah (H 8426) has a similar meaning and it is also used of the sacrifices connected to praise and thanksgiving.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving (todah), his courts with praise. Give thanks (yadah) to him; bless his name. (Ps. 100:4, LEB)
Yadah and todah in relation to God are about confessing or acknowledging something that is true. We can confess that we are sinful before God, as all are (Rom. 3:23). We can also confess that God is worthy of all praise, exhalation, and thanks (2 Sam. 22:50). In fact, yadah “is one of the key words for ‘praise'” in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s rendered thanks only because “praise leads regularly to thanksgiving” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 847). Read more →
It’s always puzzled me why so many people think of Ecclesiastes as depressing. For me as a teenager, it provided a map for navigating my way out of depression. Of course, I’m not saying it’s a magic cure for mental illness, but if you’re struggling with questions about the meaning of life or frustrated with how pointless it all seems, this book can provide a great deal of hope.
The book of Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a deep thinker who works through an existential crisis. This sort of crisis happens when an individual starts to question whether their life (or life in general) has any purpose, meaning, or value. Solomon wrestled with these questions and records his thoughts for us to learn, as he did, that true meaning and purpose can only be found in God.
Ecclesiastes is one of those books that it’s not a good idea to read isolated pieces from. That’s one way you end up thinking there are few spiritual lessons in this book or misinterpreting its message. The whole thing is interconnected, with layers of thoughts building on each other as Solomon goes back and forth asking questions and contemplating possible answers. It’s vital that we look at this piece of writing as a whole before we start to dive deep into individual passages.
Cycles of Futility …
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2 ,WEB). Thus the book of Ecclesiastes opens, and Solomon will repeat this phrase throughout and in the conclusion (Ecc. 12:8). He presents everything in life as vanity, or hebel (H1892) — a vapor/breath; a transitory or unsatisfactory thing. That might seem like a depressing outlook, but can you really look at the world and say he’s wrong? Do things of this life last? Do they make sense? Is this world satisfying? Not on its own. Read more →
Ecclesiastes records the reflections of a deep thinker who works through an existential crisis and concludes meaning can only be found in God. While many people find this book depressing, I think taken as a whole it offers a remarkably hopeful perspective that can actually help us work through the sort of questions that were weighing on the author (most likely Solomon’s) mind.
When I recently went back to studying Ecclesiastes, I had this grand vision that I would write a post about the entire book (similar to “Crash Course in Romans”) in less than a week and post it today. I’m currently laughing at myself for thinking that was an attainable goal. Instead, we’re just going to talk about a handful of verses in the middle of the book that have captured my attention, and save the Crash Course in Ecclesiastes for next week.
The Vanity of Everything
Like Romans, Ecclesiastes is hard to understand if you take bits and pieces out of context, so before we get to the verses that I want to focus on today we need to take a quick look at what came before.
Solomon had shown the vanity of pleasure, gaiety, and fine works, of honour, power, and royal dignity … [and] there is as much vanity in great riches (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ecc. 5:9-17)
He has also been questioning the meaning of life. If all the things that people pursue on earth are meaningless, then what is there for us? Several times he argues that there is “nothing better” for men than to rejoice in this physical life (Ecc. 2:24; 3:13, 22; 5:18). But that’s still not a satisfactory answer for him. He wants more, something to explain why we should keep trying and what’s the purpose in living.
For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he spends like a shadow? For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun? (Ecc. 6:12, WEB)
A Different Perspective on Death
Up until this point, there has been a, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we will die” theme running through Ecclesiastes (Is. 22:12-13). It seems that in Solomon’s mind at this time, death was the point at which hope falls apart. Sure you can enjoy this life, but it’s all emptiness because you still end up dead with no guarantee that you have anything to show for it. Now, though, Solomon suggests that we can use death to give us perspective on life.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the face the heart is made good. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecc. 7:2-4, WEB)
We must not forget that there is “a time to be born, and a time to die … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:2, 4, WEB). There’s nothing wrong with feasting and laughter in its proper time, but staying there makes your heart foolish. Wise men keep their ends in mind. Death reminds us that we only have so much time to decide how we’re going to live our lives and what we’ll be remembered for.
The End Is Better
We just talked about verses 2-4 in chapter 7. Now let’s go back to verse 1:
A good name is better than fine perfume; and the day of death better than the day of one’s birth. (Ecc. 7:1, WEB)
There is much value in a good life well-lived. Solomon has already concluded that “wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness” (Ecc. 2:13, WEB). Here he reinforces that a good name — that is “a name for wisdom and goodness with those that are wise and good”(MHC on Ecc. 7:1-6) — is worth more than all the pleasures, wealth, etc. that he’d found so empty.
if we have lived so as to merit a good name, the day of our death, which will put a period to our cares, and toils, and sorrows, and remove us to rest, and joy, and eternal satisfaction, is better than the day of our birth, which ushered us into a world of so much sin and trouble, vanity and vexation. We were born to uncertainty, but a good man does not die at uncertainty. (MHC on Ecc. 7:1-6).
Death is not the end of the story, and for a man who considers his death and prepares for it (as Solomon goes on to say in the next verses, which we’ve already talked about) he has the opportunity to die with “a good name.” The word for “name” here is shem (H8034), and in the Hebrew concept it’s always connected with your reputation and character.
The idea that the day of our death is better than the day of birth can be a hard one for people to come to grips with, even given the context we just talked about. We still grieve at death even though we know (as Solomon also concludes by the end of this book) that “the spirit returns to God who gave it” and that He will raise believers up in the last day (Ecc. 12:7; John 6:40). But maybe another verse in this section of Ecclesiastes can provide further explanation.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning. (Ecc. 7:5, WEB)
The Hebrew word for “end” is achariyth (H319). To understand achariyth, we have to understand that the Hebrew concept of time is like “the view a man has when he is rowing a boat. He sees where he has been and backs into the future” (H.W. Wolffquoted in TWOT entry 68e). That’s why this word translated “end” can also mean last/latter days, after part, future, or reward. The end of a thing is better than the beginning because you will have arrived at the future goal and can now look back on where you’ve been with a better perspective.
If you’d rather not think about death then the idea that the end is better than the beginning can be a depressing one because it forces you to confront something uncomfortable. But ignoring the idea of our lives ending is foolish. Everyone is going to die whether we think about it or not, so why not use the fact that our lives will end as motivation to make the life we have a good one?
A couple weeks ago, a speaker in one of my church groups asked, “Are you using major disruptions in your life to grow or to shrink?”
This question really hit me. As my regular readers know, I’ve had some major disruptions in my life over the past year. They’ve been prompting lots of personal growth, but they also come with the temptation to hide from that growth. There are days when the last thing I want to do is keep going. I want to curl up small in a nest of fluffy blankets and let the whole world go by without noticing me.
One of the main reasons God lets us go through trials is to give us opportunities for growth. In scripture, this is often refereed to as a testing or refining process designed to make us more like God. He doesn’t expect us to fully become like Him in this life. But He does want us to keep growing toward that goal, not shrinking away.
When I say we shouldn’t be “shrinking” I don’t mean that we have to be big, excessively confident, loud, or something of that sort. God can use people like that, sure, but He also uses the quiet, small, “little people.” He works equally well with meek Moses and brash Peter.
God likes working with people who can recognize they’re not complete yet. Everyone must be brought to a point of humility — a place where we know how much we need God — before we can start growing. Read more →