November 18, 2014.
As I read through the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, there is a concept that keeps coming up that is a bit concerning me when I read it. This concept is not one that we usually talk about, nor is it one that would probably be acceptable to teach in larger pulpits that tend to shy away from any teaching that might sound a bit harsh. Yet these are the words of God, and I believe that they need not be taken in a way that is discouraging, but rather a warning in encouragement. Solomon is one of my favorite biblical writers as Ecclesiastes is near to my heart. It was one of the first books that I read for the sheer enjoyment of it. Being given direct wisdom from God (and probably suffering because of it, for with much knowledge comes much sorrow as he says in the opening chapter), I would think it wise that we heed his words and apply them to our lives, even when the concepts he lays out are rather difficult for us to swallow.
I say that this concept is difficult to swallow for us because we are a product of our culture. Our culture is quickly turning into one where political correctness reigns and anything that might offend someone should be censored. No, I’m not going to rant about how this is just an awful thing because I typically encourage politeness and I don’t think we should make unnecessiary offensive comments just because we should be able to. But what I believe we should always do is speak the truth in love, regardless of how society tells us to sensor it. This is what Peter and James did amongst the people when the Jewish leaders strictly charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore (ref. Acts 4). Yet they continued on counting it better to obey God than man.
So what does this have to do with today’s topic? Not much really, other than to set up the premise that this is not meant to discourage or condemn anyone, but rather an encouragement to look at the words of a wise man and subsequently draw ourselves closer to the Almighty. That being said, let us begin.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.”
As you probably already know, much of the book of proverbs is simple statements that are usually self-contained in just a verse or two, yet have profound meaning and implications. Often, I find it hard to write about such short statements, as they are summed up quite well in their simplicity and I can do little, if anything, to expound on them (but that, of course, doesn’t stop me from trying). At first, this passage seems pretty straight forward. Of course the Lord would not accept the sacrifice of the wicked. Why would that make sense? Yet, I think there is something subtle about this verse that we often miss. I think the question we should be asking here is, “Wait, why would the wicked sacrifice to the Lord in the first place?”
This is often our first mistake when we read any verse that contains the words “wicked,” “demonic” or “evil” to describe something or someone. We automatically think, “Oh, yeah, someone who is wicked, that means totally against God or doing very evil things.” We automatically assume that it is someone far removed from ourselves or religion in general. But I don’t think this is the way that these words are always used in the bible. Take this passage form James for example:
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
What does James call unspiritual and demonic? Jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting and false truth. Now, we would agree that these things are bad, but would we call them demonic? That seems a bit harsh to say about someone boasting, right? Or about a little bit of jealousy or selfishness? I think we often forget that any transgression is considered wicked. Just a chapter before, James tells us this:
“But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”
We don’t get to pick and choose the things that we consider “good” or “bad.” More specifically, we don’t get to choose the things that are “Okay,” “Not that bad” and “Very bad.” Transgression is transgression. But what does that have to do with the opening passage? We asked the question, “why would the wicked sacrifice something to God in the first place.” I think the answer lies in our misunderstanding in the term wicked. The “wicked” could be applicable to anyone who wasn’t living their lives in accordance to God’s word. It does not necessitate a “very bad” person, such as an adulterer or a murderer who is coming to offer sacrifice. It only denotes someone who is in transgression. They might not even know it, or if they do, they aren’t doing anything to change it. The second passage that we will discuss makes this even more clear.
“If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,
even his prayer is an abomination.”
Here there are no words like “wicked” or “evil” to get caught up in, for Solomon describes exactly who he is talking about: one who turns away from the law. In other words, exactly what we were talking about a minute ago. Turning away from the law would necessitate a transgression of the law. These are strong words written by the wise man, but the tone of the words should not make us think of them as less than truth. I think we should take this as a stern warning, for the prayer of one who as turned away from following God is said to be an abomination. Would it be any different today? Sure, we are no longer under the law of Moses, but we do follow the example of Christ. We are supposed to walk in the will of the Spirit. Paul even references himself of being under the law of Christ. If we were to turn away from this law, would it not be the same for us today?
Now you might say, “well sure, but I would never turn away from the law and then try to pray to God. That wouldn’t make much sense.” At first, this is how it seems. But that brings us back to our other question. I believe that there is a way to think that you are offering a good sacrifice to the Lord, or a prayer in good conscious, but there is something in your life that you haven’t worked out yet, and thus you actually may be doing more harm than good. I don’t believe there is any scripture that backs up the idea that as long as we are worshipping and praising God, then we can do whatever we want. I don’t think we can continue to live in sin and still worship God in an acceptable manner. Yes, we are going to sin, and probably sin a lot. But there is a difference between sinning and living in sin, as I have written about many times before. The reason I believe we may be doing more harm then good is because of the third passage in the wisdom literature that we are going to discuss.
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.”
To sacrifice to God, to worship God, is a pretty big deal. I don’t know if you see it this way, but in the Old Testament, they definitely did. Perhaps it is our culture of emotional Christianity (though there was a lot of emotion in the Old Testament, I just think it was under a much different intent) that has almost downplayed the reverence and awe that should be given to God, especially when we draw near to worship Him. Yes, emotion is a good thing, but not necessarily the kind that we see today. Not the kind that just covers all harsh and bad things and says everything will just be alright. Just worship God, and it will be okay. Well, not according to the wisdom literature.
And the scary thing is, Solomon said they did it without even knowing that they were doing evil. There was a way that you could be ignorant to the evil you were doing. These people were bringing sacrifices for the wrong reasons, or with the wrong heart. Their sacrifice was an abomination, but they did not know. Could the same be true for us today?
Solomon said that sacrifice when your life wasn’t right was an abomination. Jesus said something along the same lines during the sermon on the mount.
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus echoed this idea of making something in your life right first before coming to bring your gift before God. This is an important concept, because it doesn’t allow us to just sweep things under the rug by coming to worship God. If you think about it, that’s hypocritical in nature. In one area of our lives we are living against the will of God, but then we come before the Almighty to offer worship and praise as though we were living in His will. Hypocrisy was never favored by Jesus. This is what he pronounced the seven woes to the Pharisees for- their hypocrisy. They would teach and bind things on the people that they themselves wouldn’t even live by. This did not sit well with Jesus.
Yet we do the same thing when we try to cover up sin by worship or praise. These things ought not to be so, though it is often difficult to avoid. We don’t like changing. We don’t like admitting that we mess up. But the fact of the matter is, we all mess up. Even the most devote Christians you can think of struggle with sin. If you meet someone who tells you they don’t ever struggle, then either they have found a great secret that I would love for them to teach me, or they are lying. That’s my opinion at least, though I could be wrong. All I know for sure is that I struggle, and the Christians I have talked to have told me they struggle too. The problem comes in when we stop struggling against sin and give up, or pretend like we don’t have any sin. I believe that it is at this point that worship and prayer becomes vain.
I hope that we all can read the wisdom literature and heed the warnings that are laid out in them. Many of these warnings come from a wise man who has been there. He had struggled with these things. He had searched diligently for the meaning of life. He had been given wisdom straight from the Almighty Himself. I think that it is wonderful that we have his words of wisdom recorded for us to read and learn from, even when they make us a bit uncomfortable. All glory be to the One who reigns above.
Suggested Daily Reading: Proverbs 15, 28, Ecclesiastes 5, Matthew 5.
Grace and peace.