Understanding the Times

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And of the children of Issachar, men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Understanding the times and knowing the right thing to do and when to do it are always excellent characteristics to maintain.

Even though the Chronicler overall glosses over the uneasy transition of power from Saul to David as seen in 2 Samuel 1:1-5:5 (1 Chronicles 10:1-11:3), vestiges of the days before David’s reign (and even life!) were secured are present in the Chronicler’s listing of those who came to support David (1 Chronicles 11:10-12:40). Some of these supporters came to David even while he had fled from Saul into the wilderness. The Chronicler tells their story to make it clear that at least some from each tribe of Israel saw that David was favored by YHWH and would become their next king. Those of Issachar are singled out for special commendation: the Chronicler said they had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). These two hundred and their family members under their commandment recognized that God was with David and his house, and not with the house of Saul, and proved loyal before it was obvious to everyone.

As we read the text today we can understand the commendation and praise the men of Issachar for their foresight. Yet we do well to recognize that we have the benefit of hindsight. At the time Ishbaal son of Saul was crowned king in place of his father, maintaining what was understood as proper dynastic succession (2 Samuel 2:8-10). For the men of Issachar to support the upstart David meant that they bucked tradition to a large extent. The behavior was risky; what if Ishbaal and his hero Abner prevailed over David and the sons of Zeruiah? What would the rest of the tribe of Issachar think? And yet these men took stock of the situation, saw that YHWH had been with David and continued to make David prosper, and perhaps saw that Ishbaal was weakening while David grew stronger. They understood the times. They knew what to do.

We can see this principle at work in other times in the history of God’s people. Those who would have listened to Jeremiah the prophet understood the times and would have known what Israel was to do; the majority thought it better to revolt against Nebuchadnezzar and paid the penalty. When Haman plotted to kill the Jews, Mordecai understood the times and knew what Israel, and his niece Esther, ought to do. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned adherence to the Law of Moses and defiled the Temple, the Maccabeans understood the times and knew what to do. The twelve Apostles and the Jewish people who obeyed the Gospel in the first century understood the times and knew what Israel ought to do. These decisions were not popular among everyone; they came at great personal risk; failure would have been disastrous. Yet in faith all these did what they were supposed to do.

We can think of so many times, and on so many issues, where many people of God understood the times, stood up, and boldly proclaimed what the people of God ought to do. Meanwhile, we also see many of their contemporaries who were more than content to follow after “Ishbaal,” to maintain convention or to hold on to some tradition or ideal past its expiration. In the twenty-first century we need men and women who have understanding of the times, who know what the people of God ought to do, to rise up and do so. When our descendants read of our exploits, will they see in us an understanding of God’s purposes for our lives and that we sought to manifest it despite opposition and risk? Will we prove willing to make difficult stands, to choose to follow the ways of God even when others mock them, deride them, and seek to shame those who stand up for them? Let us stand firm for the Gospel of Christ, manifest its message in our lives, and proclaim it to others!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sight and Blindness

And Jesus said, “For judgment came I into this world, that they that see not may see; and that they that see may become blind.”
Those of the Pharisees who were with him heard these things, and said unto him, “Are we also blind?”
Jesus said unto them, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, ‘We see’: your sin remaineth” (John 9:39-41).

All five senses are important, yet we attach great significance to sight. We live in a world full of images, signs, books, and all sorts of material which need to be seen to be understood and/or appreciated. Sure, it is possible to survive without vision, but it is a hard road indeed.

Humans naturally connect vision and sight to “insight” or understanding. How many times, upon figuring out some problem, challenge, or difficulty, have we exclaimed, “I see it now!”? How many times, after having explained something to someone, have we asked them whether they can “see” it? We don’t exclaim that we’ve heard it, or tasted it, touched it, or smelled it; we “see” it.

This tendency to explain understanding in terms of vision is not new to us; we see it presented in the Scriptures as well. Jesus fully exploits this tendency in an exquisite double entendre at the conclusion of John 9.

John 9:39-41 is based on the interactions among Jesus, a physically blind man, and the Pharisees throughout John 9:1-38. Jesus comes upon this man born physically blind and heals him of his blindness (John 9:1-7). This event is made known to the Pharisees, and they bring in the formerly blind man for questioning (John 9:8-15). The Pharisees insist that such a thing could not be of God because it was done upon the Sabbath; others find it hard to deny the obvious evidence before them (John 9:16). The Pharisees question this man’s parents and then the man again: they demand that he give God the glory, since they “knew” that the Man who did this was a “sinner” (John 9:17-27). The Pharisees are “disciples of Moses,” and they know that God spoke to Moses, but they do not know where “this Man,” that is Jesus, is from (John 9:28-29). The formerly blind man stands boldly in faith, logically refuting the Pharisees’ argument: if He was really a sinner, God would not hear Him, and yet until that time there had been no example of anyone’s eyes ever being opened as his eyes were (John 9:30-32). He quite rightly concludes that Jesus could do nothing if He were not of God (John 9:33). The Pharisees were offended at this boldness, declaring that such a man was “altogether born in sins,” and yet dared to try to teach them, and therefore cast him out of the synagogue, in effect banning him from the Jewish community (John 9:34). Jesus then found the man born blind and asked him if he believed in the Son of God (John 9:36); after asking who He is and being informed that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, he declared his belief in Jesus and prostrated before Him (John 9:36-37).

The conclusion of the matter is found in John 9:39-41. The whole situation has provided evidence for His claim: He came for judgment, allowing the blind to see and blinding those who see. It is not as if the statement is to be taken literally; as far as we can tell, Jesus never caused anyone who could physically see to become physically blind (although Paul does in Acts 13:4-12). Yes, Jesus heals this blind man’s eyes, and he now can physically see. Jesus’ emphasis, however, is not on his physical vision but his spiritual insight: he now believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He now “sees” in a way he did not “see” while blind. He, once a blind man in the midst of those who could see, now finds himself as one who sees in the midst of blind men.

Jesus does not blind those who “see” physically, nor does He even really intend to do so spiritually. The problem is not with Him; the problem is in those who claim to “see,” evidently the Pharisees from John 9:41. Jesus’ statement there is stark: if they admitted their blindness, they would be without sin, but since they say they see, their sin remains. This again has less to do with physical sight and more to do with internal insight: the Pharisees are convinced they know Moses, they know what Moses taught, they know what Sabbath observance looks like, and they certainly know what Sabbath violations look like. They are blinded by their complete conviction of their vision! They find themselves declaring that the work of God really did not come from God because it did not happen in the way they would have expected it to according to their understanding of the Law.

Let us not be deceived into thinking that the Pharisees’ views come from some kind of humble conservatism: it is based in their claim of being Moses’ disciples and separated from the “sinners.” They refuse to listen to anything which goes against their understanding; if it contradicts their tradition or the way they’ve always been taught, it clearly must be wrong. They find themselves denying the obvious to attempt to maintain their control through tradition and dogma. Jesus is right: they are blind. They refuse to see; they do not want to see; they do not want to be in the awkward place of having to admit that they do not understand what they think they understand and are wrong.

People have not changed much in two thousand years. Plenty of blind men have great insight; plenty of people who physically see are blind to their condition. Most people are aware that they have deficiencies and readily admit to many of them, yet how many recognize that even in their strengths they have weaknesses, or they do not fully understand even that in which they have the most confidence?

We should not walk away from this text without coming to terms with its most powerful message: the “sinner” was physically blind but was willing to gain the insight regarding who Jesus was and what that meant, while the religious authorities, the “righteous ones,” were blinded by their own dogma. They did not challenge Jesus on the basis of some questionable aspect of the Law but on a matter on which they assumed their opinions and interpretations were exactly in line with God’s intentions beyond a shadow of a doubt. They proved unwilling to subject their confidence to any form of critical insight based on the evidence Jesus provided them; thus they were declared blind. Notice the way Jesus puts it: “but now ye say, ‘We see’: your sin remaineth” (John 9:41).

There is much we can learn about God based on His revelation in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We should diligently apply ourselves to that end. Yet, in doing so, we must never become like the Pharisees and assume that once we have come to some level of understanding that we now fully “see.” At this time we see as in a mirror dimly (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); the ways of God are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we learn in wisdom, the more we learn, the more we recognize we really do not know! For every question that can be answered we can discover many more unanswered and unanswerable questions; the greater depths of knowledge which we plumb shows us how incomprehensibly deep that ocean really is. Therefore, even in that which we are to believe with complete conviction as true, there remains depth which we cannot plumb. We never have and never will be able to have perfect understanding; there is always more to learn, and always better ways to see.

On the other hand, we should not be like a blind man leading the blind into a pit (cf. Matthew 15:14)! We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). But our knowledge must be in faith, and whatever is lacking in our knowledge must be filled by faith. The blind man, above all else, learned to trust Jesus; that is what he learned to see. Let us find true spiritual insight in Jesus, never trusting in our own understanding but in what He has revealed, always examining His truth, and in humility recognizing our blindness and limitations in the flesh, and glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry