Old Testament Readings: 1 Kings 10-11; 2 Chronicles 9; Ecclesiastes 1-12
1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9 recount King Solomon’s visit from the Queen of Sheba. Perhaps she comes to investigate the reports of Solomon’s growing influence, as well as to pursue a strategic alliance. Though she arrives with great pomp and visible wealth, her riches are meager compared to Solomon’s. Moreover, he meets her every inquiry with wise answers. The full effect of his power, prosperity, and wisdom astounds her: “there was no more spirit [literally, “breath”] in her” (1 Kings 10:5).
Clearly this episode typifies the many international alliances that build up Solomon’s rule. We read later this summary: “Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. The whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of them brought a present, objects of silver and gold, garments, weaponry, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year” (1 Kings 10:23-25).
Yet the favor of God slips from Solomon’s grasp. The next chapter explains how the king’s foreign wives, by whom he had secured strategic power, result in the nation’s downfall. “For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4). The Lord’s judgment is to tear away the kingdom from Solomon, but only after his death (1 Kings 11:12-13). The downward trajectory of Israel’s history will play out through the rest of the Old Testament.
Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom literature unlike any other writing in the OT. While it offers instruction for living, it contrasts with the typical tradition of wisdom in scripture. Indeed, in many places it seems to undercut any attempt to reduce faithful living to an easy formula or simple technique. Its observations typically focus on exceptions to the expected rule, or suggest the futility of a systematic approach to the complex creation in which we live.
The first verse ascribes the book to “the Teacher” [or “the Preacher”]—a vague translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth. Since this name relates to the Hebrew word “to gather,” early translators assumed that the writer was addressing an assembly of people. The Greek word for such an assembly, ecclesia, gave us the name we use for the book; that same word we translate as “church” (“people called out”) in the NT.
Two motifs help us approach the reading of Ecclesiastes. One is the concept of “vanity” [or “futility”] with which the book opens: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity! (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This word literally signifies a vapor or a breath—something ephemeral, insubstantial, and fleeting. The author uses this word 38 times in the book—sometimes to describe a particular approach to living, other times more generally, to apply to the entire human enterprise. What precisely is vain or futile? Is it the entire prospect of living, or that of making sense out of this complex world we live in? Or does the author lament the elusiveness of stable meaning in a world of change? As you read, pay attention to this word, and see what case the author makes for the world he observes.
The author’s observation--“finding” or “finding out”—is the second key motif. After the familiar litany of seasons “for every matter under heaven,” the author says that “God has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). This desire to comprehend the purpose of God motivates each observation that the author shares. Typical wisdom literature employs examples from experience to illustrate a doctrinal point or instruction; Ecclesiastes more often works in the opposite direction, describing a situation and puzzling about what it signifies about God’s purpose. Sometimes the teachings are positive and helpful; other times they seem to cloud or undercut a faithful perspective. But we may understand all of them from the perspective of the Teacher’s desire to “find out” and explain how this world works under God’s rule.
New Testament Readings: 1 Timothy 6; 2 Timothy 1-4
Our NT readings continue in the Pastoral Epistles—letters offering spiritual guidance for church leadership. Paul is writing to Timothy, his younger partner in mission, to strengthen his ministry with the church that they established in Ephesus.
1 Timothy 6 resumes the letter’s earlier warning against false teaching. Clearly the church has been disturbed by the instruction of those who have strayed from “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). These teachers have introduced divisions and unrest in the church, and Paul implies that they are motivated by greed, “imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). [Often Paul reminds his readers that he supported himself throughout his own ministry, instead of allowing the congregation to bear his living expenses (1 Thess. 3:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-12; 1 Corinthians 9:3-15; 2 Corinthians 11:7).]
Here he warns Timothy not to fall into the spiritual trap of financial greed: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Tim. 6:10). And Paul broadens this warning out to include any in the church—teachers or not--who would seek their fulfillment from wealth: “command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). Instead, they are to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future . . . the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
2 Timothy pursues much of the same concern that the first letter does. Paul commends the authentic teaching of the gospel: “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner” (2 Tim. 1:8). “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me. . . . Guard the good treasure entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:13-14). As a bulwark against error, Paul lifts up the scriptures: “the sacred writings . . . are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God [literally, “God-breathed”] and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:15-16). Such a standard for the church is already necessary, and Paul warns that “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
Paul is calling Timothy to model a godly way of life based on the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. The dangers of godlessness are many (cf. 2 Tim. 2:14-3:17), and Paul cites examples and names some names! In contrast, Paul calls Timothy to claim the power of faith in Christ (1:6-8; 2:1) to live out the godly example that the church needs to see. In doing so, he reminds Timothy of the victory of God through his own suffering, current imprisonment, and impending death (4:6-8, 16-18).
Psalms: 45, 125, 46
Psalm 45 is a royal psalm, likely for communal use in a service celebrating the king’s rule. The king’s attributes express God’s blessing and favor, and the psalm reinforces the important belief that God has established the line of David to rule forever—a promise that became more important to Israel as it suffered the decline and eventual defeat of its monarchs.
Psalm 125 enjoins believers to remain steadfast in their trust in God. The Lord is steadfast, like Mount Zion which the pilgrims are ascending; God’s protection surrounds the faithful, like the mountains encircling Jerusalem. The psalm assures the faithful that threat of wickedness—an internal danger for God’s people—is not greater than the power of God to protect and redeem his people.
Psalm 46 represents the genre of “psalm of Zion”: a psalm which lifts up the special significance of Jerusalem as a city to which God has pledged support and care. “God is our refuge and strength” (v.1), and God’s promised presence creates the security to which the faithful can repair: “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved” (v.5). We are safe within God’s care because “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (vv. 7, 11). This psalm is the basis of Martin Luther’s classic hymn of assurance, “A Mighty Refuge is Our God.”