Category Archives: Bible Study

The Wisdom of Israel


I have devoted the better part of the past ten years looking at the story dimension of the Bible—the largest portion of Scripture. In my recent book, Turning Points, I state that the Story is the thread connecting Genesis to Revelation and every book in between; that the Story “…provides the context for the individual doctrines by which we do business.” I would like to elaborate on how the non-narrative parts of the Bible relate to or depend on the narrative portions by looking at the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs is classified as wisdom literature. It was a book that guided the nation of Israel into the light where practical living is concerned. The book begins by telling the reader its purpose:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying,’the words of the wise and their riddles (Proverbs 1:1-6, ESV).

Perhaps the theme of the book is stated in the next line:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:7).

The first nine chapters contain a number of lectures in the form of a father teaching his son. (See 1:8, 10; 2:1; 3:1, 11; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7; 6:1, 20; 7:1, 24; 8:32). Chapter 10 begins, “The proverbs of Solomon.” Beginning with chapter 10 we find the short pithy statements the book is known for.

How does this non-narrative book of wisdom relate to the narrative portions of the Bible? Read Deuteronomy 4:1-8, and you will find the answer.

Moses says to Israel,

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you (4:1).

He emphasizes the importance of listening and doing the statutes and rules taught in the next few lines.

Then, Moses says,

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whoever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut. 4:6-8).

Of course, Moses is telling the children of Israel how their faithful response to the Law will affect the Gentiles, but Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon will also turn Jerusalem into a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hid.

God’s overall plan was to make right the things that went wrong in the beginning (Genesis 3). He eventually chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob and his twelve sons to remedy man’s deplorable situation. Israel, as a nation, would be a nation of priests to the nations around them (Exodus 19:5, 6). The way they lived, and what they taught, would attract the nations to the true and living God. It would lead the nations around Israel to say “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

Did they succeed? Yes and No. In the early part of 1 Kings, there is the splendid example of Solomon. The Queen of Sheba heard about his wisdom and the splendor of his kingdom, and concluded that these “rumors” were exaggerations. She took a trip to Jerusalem to see for herself and left concluding that the half had not yet been told. On the other hand, the nations of Israel and her kings became a part of the problem by becoming more like the nations around them. They failed to live according to the light given to them. They were not the light of the world or a city set on a hill in the way God intended. The potential was there, but Israel became part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Do you see any parallel between the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the church today? Does the way we live attract the people around us to seek God through His Son? If there is a parallel, are we failing or succeeding?

The Twelve Spies

grapesThere is a fascinating account told in the book of Numbers about 12 spies sent into the Promised Land to see how fruitful the land was; how strong its people were; and whether they dwelt in tents or strongholds. Twelve spies were sent, one from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (Numbers 13:1-16).

They spied out the land for 40 days. Here was their report: “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And The Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” The report started out on a positive note, but the tune changes with the word “However.” A string of reasons are given for not entering the land.

But, Caleb quiets the people and says, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”

But the other spies said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” Later, they characterize the land as one “…that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Nu. 13:32, 33).

Moses characterizes the report of the 10 spies as “a bad report” (13:32). What was it about their report that was bad? It is not as if they lied about the land or its inhabitants. Caleb could have just as easily said that the other men had misrepresented what they saw in the land. It would have also been counterproductive to return with grapes as evidence of this land of milk and honey.  If we can figure out why their report was “bad,” we will have discovered the purpose and value of the story.

If we do not see the story in light of the larger story of the Bible, I may almost say, there is no way to figure out why the report of the 10 spies is judged as “bad.” I say “almost” because the answer is hinted at in verse one. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.”

In the broader story of Israel, which begins with God’s call of Abraham (Genesis 12), the Lord promised to give Abraham land. The land consisted of everything between the great river, the Euphrates River, and the River of Egypt. Abraham left his father’s home and settled in the Promised Land. But, you will remember, there was a famine that ultimately brought the descendants of Abraham to Egypt. They remained in Egypt for over 400 years. After the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, they received the Law on Mt. Sinai. It is after the giving of the Law that Moses sent the twelve spies into the land, the Promised Land. This is the Land the Lord promised to Abraham, and at the beginning of Numbers 13, is giving to the people of Israel once again.

Here is the point: if God is giving you land, there is nothing to be afraid of when you enter that land. Even if its inhabitants are so big they make you feel like grasshoppers, there is nothing to fear. Herein, is the reason the report the majority of the spies gave is “bad.” They were discouraging Israel from taking possession of land God promised to give them—in fact, had already given them through their great great grandfather Abraham.

The report so discouraged Israel that the entire congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. They grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and said, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (See Numbers 14:1-4).


The spies were in the land for 40 days. The Lord determined that Israel would wander in the wilderness one year for each day they were spying out the land. So, for 40 years, Israel wandered in the wilderness. Of all the adults, 20 years and older, all but two died in the wilderness. Put another way, only two adults, 20 years and older, entered the Promised Land. Do you know who they were? Joshua and Caleb, two of the 12 spies of our story, but two spies who did not stand with the 10 who gave the bad report.

The writer of Hebrews looks back at this period of Israel’s history and writes, “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb 3:16-18).

The report of the 10 spies was “bad” not because it lacked facts, but because it lacked faith. Caleb’s exhortation was energized by faith.

What is the Time?

Someone once compared the way people read the Bible with three kinds of home plate umpires. One kind of umpire calls them the way he sees them. Another sees them the way he calls them. And a third kind calls them the way they are. Some people interpret the Bible the way they see it. Another Bible reader reads it the way they call it. And a third kind interprets it the way it is. I have met Bible readers from all three camps. I have probably spent some time in each camp myself, truth be told.

The first two ways of reading the Bible are highly subjective. The first way begins and ends with me. Everything, including reading the Bible, is interpreted through my own set of lenses. The second way of reading the Bible begins and ends with the self also. The problem with this kind of reader is that reading the Bible is always done through their own preconceived interpretive lenses. Reading the Bible changes nothing for this kind of reader. They are not transformed by the word, the word is transformed by them.

The difference between the first two ways of reading the Bible and the third is this: while all three may begin with where we are at the time we begin reading the Bible, the third way leads us out of our prejudices and preconceived notions to see life the way it really is. (Another challenge we face is believing we are reading the Bible the way it is written while all along calling it the way we see it or seeing it the way we call it.)
I hope you are persuaded that the third way of reading the Bible is the way to be sought. The writers of Scripture, moved by the Spirit of God, wrote with intention, and our role as readers is to discover what that intention was and is for today.

I recently picked up a book written by Graham Greene titled, “The Tenth Man.” The setting is wartime occupied France. Ten men have been taken hostage by the Germans and placed in a Gestapo prison. The first chapter centers on scarcity of clocks and watches owned by the prisoners. All but one of these time pieces have been confiscated. One of the prisoners, a lawyer, asks the owner of the only watch, “What is the time?” The mayor answers, “Twenty-five minutes past five.” The lawyer says, “I had imagined it was later.” The mayor responds sharply, “That is my time.” Graham Greene writes, “It was indeed his time: from now on he couldn’t recognize even the faintest possibility of error—his time could not be wrong because he had invented it.”

Having read the Bible for the past 35 years, I have discovered that understanding the Bible is a lifetime pursuit. It is not something I have been able to do without great effort. We should all begin by reading the Bible immediately, and should continue doing so routinely throughout our life. Along the way various prejudices, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations, etc. will be exposed. The very reason they can be exposed is because the truth it reveals is objective.

The DaVinci Code: Just a Novel?

Some have unknowingly brushed aside the ramifications of “The DaVinci Code” by saying things like, “Even Dan Brown admits it is just a work of fiction!” But that is where they are wrong. Dan Brown does not admit that his book is “just a work of fiction.”

In an interview conducted on the Today Show, Matt Lauer asked Mr. Brown the question, “How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred? I know you did a lot of research for the book.” To which Mr. Brown replied, “Absolutely all of it. Obviously, there are–Robert Langdon is fictional, but all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies, all of that is historical fact.”

If it were strictly a work of fiction, it could be used hypothetically to help believers consider what such an alternative approach to history would imply concerning their very lives (see 1 Cor. 15:12-19). After summarizing the book, we could entertain questions like, “If such were true, what would this make of the story told in the New Testament?” and “What difference does it make?”

T. S. Eiot observed, concerning works of fiction, that people have a tendency to let their guard down precisely because what they are reading is considered “fiction.”

N.T. Wright is recognized as one of the leading scholars of the New Testament in the world today. In an address he delivered at Seattle Pacific University concerning the The Da Vinci Code, he begins by arguing,

“The task of engaging the culture with the Christian gospel and so working to transform the world always includes three elements. First, we must speak truthfully about Jesus of Nazareth, and explain how it is what we discover who God is by looking at him. Second, we must do so in full engagement with the world of our own day, understanding its ebbs and flows, its fashions and follies, the places where it has got things gloriously right and the places where it has got things gloriously wrong. Third, we must be prepared to refute — that is, to give a reasoned rebuttal of, not simply to say we disagree with — popular misconceptions which leave people with muddled and misguided ideas about Jesus and the nature of Christian faith. And the point about The Da Vinci Code is that it raises all these issues simultaneously.”

Another recognized scholar of New Testament studies writes, “While many traditional Christians might be tempted to scoff at and discmiss such books as either mere fiction or the opinions of a few fringe scholars, this would be a serious mistake. We are facing a serious revolution regarding some of the long-held truths about Jesus, early Christianity and the Bible” (Ben Witherington, “The Gospel Code,” p.11).

More on this later.

Praising God

The following four statements have something in common.

“Of a truth your God is the God of gods, and the Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou hast been able to reveal this secret. Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and have yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.”

“Therefore I make a decree, that every people, nation, and language, which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill; because there is no other god that is able to deliver after this sort.”

“I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored him that liveth for ever; for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? … Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven; for all his works are truth, and his ways justice; and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.”

“I make a decree, that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, And his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed; and his dominion shall be even unto the end. He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered from the power of the lions.”

These statements were made by pagan kings about YHWH. All are found in the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, made the first three (2:47; 3:28, 29; 4:34-37). Darius, king of the Medes, made the last one (6:26, 27). See also chapter 1:20 and 5:11, 12.

The first six chapters of Daniel are hero stories. They all end with pagan kings praising the God of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The lesson these pagan kings learned was one Israel desparately need to learn themselves.

“Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Wisdom and Folly

The interplay between the images of wisdom and folly are fascinating in Scripture. One’s self-assessment, we learn, is not always accurate. For example, Paul writes of the Gentiles, “Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:22, 23).

In the 1 Corinthian letter, Paul writes, “for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25). And, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1:27). Of course, the ones Paul sometimes refers to as “wise” are so only in their own conceits. They think more highly of themselves than they ought to think (Rom. 12:3).

The point of 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 is that the world through its wisdom could have never conceived what God had in mind where the scheme of redemption is concerned. His plan to save man is described as the wisdom of God, “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age” (2:6). God’s plan fits into the category of things “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagine, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (2:9).

Solomon warns his son, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5). He tells him that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and it is the fool who despises wisdom and instruction (1:7). “Get wisdom” he tells his son, for it is the principle thing (4:7).

It is no wonder why the value of wisdom is extolled as worth more than silver, gold or precious jewels or anything to which you can compare it. This world is filled with booby traps for the high minded, those wise in their own conceits. George MacDonald, writes, “…indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!” (Lillith, p. 38).

Where does your story begin?

When Jesus met with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4), she said, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (4:20).

Jesus said, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father. Ye worship that which ye know not: we worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews.”

Think with me for a moment of other significant places of the past and present. For the ancient Greeks, Delphi was as important a place as can be imagined. Since the eighth century BC, the Greeks believed that the god Apollo spoke through the priestess, the Pythia, at the shrine in Delphi, the spiritual heart of Hellenistic civilization. Situated on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus, with the Gulf of Corinth below, the shrine was believed to be at the center of the world. Inscribed on the portals of the Delphic shrine were two expressions of wisdom aspired to by the ancient Greeks: “Know thyself” and “Nothing to excess.” Consultants would journey to the oracle to seek counsel, relying upon Apollo’s superior insight. Individuals sought advice on personal matters, such as marriage or vocation. Even cities beseeched the oracle prior to important ventures, such as waging a war or adopting a constitution (p. 56, “Socrates against Athens,” Colaiaco).

For many philosophers, Athens is the starting place. Some have argued that at no other time was the soil as ripe as it was to produce thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Consider the impact the mere mention of Mecca has on the Islamic world. It is the place where Muhammad was born. It is a place toward which Muslim’s bow and pray every day. It is the place countless thousands travel every year as they make their holy pilgrimage to the religious capital of their faith. It is the holiest of Muslim cities. And because it is holy only Muslims are allowed to enter.

For the Christian, Jerusalem is the setting for the beginning of our story. The Old Testament prophets foretold it would begin in Jerusalem (Isa. 2; Joel 2; Micah 2; Dan. 2), and Luke validates the claims of the prophets with the history recorded in Acts 2.

Where does your story begin? The beginning point you choose, whether it be Delphi, Athens, Mecca, Salt Lake City or Jerusalem will determine how your story ends.