Wealth and Indifference

And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps; and I will punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, “The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.” And their wealth shall become a spoil, and their houses a desolation: yea, they shall build houses, but shall not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but shall not drink the wine thereof (Zephaniah 1:12-13).

In many places, especially in the teachings of Jesus, it seems that God has it out for rich people. Jesus declared that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Matthew 19:23-24). And yet all wealth ultimately derives from God and His abundant blessing and provision for the earth. So what is the problem with wealth?

Over six hundred years earlier the prophet Zephaniah was charged to warn the Kingdom of Judah about the upcoming day of the LORD despite the present material prosperity of the nation in the days of King Josiah (Zephaniah 1:1). His first messages of chastisement are for the usual suspects: those committing idolatry and those rulers who have conformed to the nations (Zephaniah 1:2-11). But then Zephaniah has a message of condemnation for those men who are “settled on their lees,” saying in their heart, “the LORD will not do good or evil” (Zephaniah 1:12). What does this mean?

The image of “sitting on their lees” is also used by Jeremiah to describe Moab in Jeremiah 48:11. The “lees” are collections of dead or residual yeast at the bottom of a container of wine after the fermentation process. The old wine which would sit on the lees would maintain their flavor and smell and would not be altered no matter the environment. Men who are “sitting on the lees” are therefore complacent, indifferent to their situation, especially their spiritual situation. This is exemplified by the thoughts in their heart: God will not do good or evil. In their perspective, it is as if God is an absentee landlord, gone, inactive in His creation. Whether they do good or evil, work hard or play, seek righteousness or revel in evil, is irrelevant; God will not do anything about it either way.

How does a person get to this position? How could someone come to the point of conviction of God’s indifference to what goes on in His creation, to think, feel, and act as if God were not there? One gets to such a position only when one has come to the conviction that he or she is no longer in need of God. They have everything they need: they have houses and vineyards and things are well!

This is the picture we can see in Zephaniah 1:13: yes, God is saying that they will lose their wealth, houses, and vineyards, but for the time being they do have them and are enjoying them. The days of Josiah were good days for Judah: the Assyrian menace was in disarray, and while Babylon was a rising power, its influence had not yet been strongly felt in Israel. Josiah was able to reconquer much of the lands of northern Israel, and Judah was quite prosperous.

Yet it would not last. Within twenty-five years of Josiah’s death, Jerusalem would be a ruin. It all happened just as Zephaniah said it would. Destruction, pain, misery, and suffering came upon all the men and women of Judah. Many things might have been said in those days, but “God will not do good or evil” was not one of them!

We can therefore see one of the major dangers of wealth: those who have material prosperity easily fall into the trap, however consciously or subconsciously, of putting their trust in that prosperity. They are aware that things might get difficult, but they believe that their prosperity will allow them to ride through those difficult times. Such an attitude breeds complacency: I have all I need, therefore, I do not need God. Plenty of people do good things and suffer for it; plenty of people do evil and get material prosperity. God seemingly does nothing; God, therefore, will not do good or evil. We can just carry on as we wish.

Such explains so much of modern Western attitudes toward God. Western societies have developed a prosperous civilization, abundant in wealth and material goods. Most people put their trust in that civilization, however consciously or subconsciously, and have the expectation that no matter how bad it gets, that civilization and its prosperity will get them through it. Little wonder, then, how so many people today are indifferent to God and what He has established. Some are more obvious about it than others. Some claim to be atheists; they at least admit it. Far too many others profess some belief in God but really say in their hearts that God will not do good or evil. They are sitting on their lees, doing whatever they are going to do no matter what God may say about it. How many imagine God as the God of the Deists, the Creator who packed up and left after He was finished creating and left everything to run on its own?

Perhaps one day we also will experience a “day of the LORD” akin to the day which saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and no one will be able to say such things anymore. Perhaps the danger will only become clear when it is too late as we all stand before the judgment seat of God (cf. Romans 2:5-11). But that day will come, because even if we might think that God will not do good or evil, God will do what He is going to do. We can believe that God is indifferent, but God remains living and active, sustaining the creation, as critical and active today as He was in the first century and before (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:16-17, Hebrews 1:1-3). We can see God’s hand in His creation if we want to; if we do not, we will always be able to find reasons to deny it. Let us heed the warning of the prophet; let us not be as those sitting on their lees, trusting in their wealth, indifferent toward God, and heading for destruction. Let us praise and honor God our Creator, the Giver of all blessings, and find salvation in Jesus His Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Being Abased

I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want (Philippians 4:12).

Apocalyptic scenarios seem to fascinate us. There is never a lack of television shows that describe, often in gruesome detail, the various ways in which our lives may end as we know them. Most of us must confess that we have watched one or more of these shows at times. It is one thing to think about such situations in the abstract while we maintain our comfortable existence. But what if one or more such scenario actually came to pass?

Unfortunately, many have recently been faced with an apocalyptic scenario in life– their homes ravaged by earthquake, tornado, flood, or fire, and in a moment, everything is gone. If the disaster itself was not bad enough, then there is the aftermath– days, perhaps weeks, dependent on outside organizations for food, shelter, and other necessities of life in the worst cases. Sadly, such people learned what it meant to be abased on account of the disaster, if they had not already learned that lesson before because of other circumstances.

Living in bounty is relatively easy; most of us, most of the time, are filled and abound. In fact, not a few of us are probably too filled and abound a bit too much! But what would happen to us if we ourselves experienced immediate humiliation?

Imagine, for example, that the power goes out. It goes out where you live, where all of your friends and family live– in fact, the power has gone out across the nation. And the power does not come back on for years. What then? Pretty much everything we have grown to depend upon is based on electricity and computerized systems. Where would we find the basic necessities of existence? How would we cope if all of our comforts and luxuries vanished in a moment?

How do you think people would respond to such a disaster? How many people would blame God, wondering how He could allow such a terrible thing to happen to us? While such is a natural and understandable response to the calamity, let us think soberly for a moment. Where did God ever promise us a nice, comfortable existence featuring all the benefits of the modern world with its electricity and technology? Everyone in the Bible lived without them. Nevertheless, how many today, in such a situation, would still find fault?

If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that being abased in such a way would be a bitter pill to swallow. While it would most likely be the end of our lives as we knew them, would it be the end of the world? Would it still not be true that God has given us the gifts of this creation, our lives, and all the spiritual blessings He provides in Christ (John 1:1-3, Ephesians 1:3)? God would remain good, even in such difficult circumstances for us. Such a calamity might force us to relearn what it means to depend on one another and cooperate with one another so that we can survive!

If you are still reading this, it means that the electricity is still on, our technologically advanced lives continue, and we still live in relative comfort. Odds are still strong that the electricity will stay on until the Lord returns. And I hope that we do not miss the point because of the example– there are innumerable ways that we may find ourselves abased in this life, and we have only mentioned a few calamitous ones. Yet we do so in order to force us to think about how we would respond and react to being abased. Can we still maintain our faith and hope in God even if we find ourselves humbled and in want? Can we still bless and glorify His name even if we find ourselves in distressing circumstances? May we all grow in faith so as to praise and glorify God no matter what circumstances may be in which we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

And seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:1-3).

Jesus’ ministry had begun, and His renown had spread far and wide. Matthew had been speaking in generalities about Jesus’ preaching the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and how He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 4:23-24). Multitudes began to follow Him (Matthew 4:25), and Jesus felt it was time to systematically proclaim His message to them. He climbs up a mountain, most likely to provide for better acoustics, and begins teaching His disciples and the multitudes as well (Matthew 5:1-2). So begins what we popularly call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

The “Sermon on the Mount” begin with what are popularly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, since verses 3 through 11 begin with the Greek word makarios, meaning “blessed” or “happy.”

Yet this is not your average list of blessings. This is how Jesus begins this particular example of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that good news was quite different than anything the Jews had heard before.

The first group of people who are “blessed,” or happy or fortunate, are the “poor in spirit.” Jesus says that they are fortunate because the Kingdom of Heaven is “theirs” (Matthew 5:3).

There is some disagreement about Jesus’ emphasis in Matthew 5:3, whether poor in spirit is a categorical way of speaking about the poor in general or whether the emphasis is on the poverty in spirit and not poverty in general.

If the emphasis is on the poor in spirit, Jesus is addressing the value of humility and the realization that, on their own, people do not have a lot of spiritual strength on which to draw. Jesus will frequently paint a dire picture of man’s natural condition: full of daily anxieties (Matthew 6:25-34), without proper spiritual direction (Matthew 9:36), heavily burdened (Matthew 11:28-30), and in great debt (Matthew 18:23-35). While that is distressing enough, the difficulties are compounded when people deceive themselves into thinking that despite such challenges they are really spiritually healthy and strong, like the Pharisees and other religious authorities (cf. Matthew 9:10-13). They will not be blessed, but those who understand their true sinful condition– that they are sick– are more likely to turn to the Physician and be made well (Matthew 9:10-13). Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who understand that they are poor in spirit and are in need of healing and strength from God in Christ, and until people come to that realization, there is not much that Jesus can do for them (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 4:15)!

While all of that is true, Jesus may use the phrase poor in spirit to refer to the “pious poor,” those who remain devoted to God despite not having many material blessings. In what is called the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:20-49, a message very similar to the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus there says that “the poor” are blessed without adding “in spirit” (Luke 6:20). We can find many examples in both testaments of such people– the widow of Mark 12:41-44, and the Psalms are often written with the poor in mind (cf. Psalm 34:6, 40:17, 69:29).

In the first century, this would be a startling statement indeed! For generations, conventional wisdom associated blessedness with wealth and prosperity. This was a message reinforced in the Proverbs– wealth came to those who worked hard and lived righteously, while poverty was an indication of idleness or wickedness or both (e.g. Proverbs 10:4, 15). Granted, the author of Proverbs says that the rich should not despise the poor but should take care of them (e.g. Proverb 14:21, 31), but the prophets indicate that oppression of the poor was commonplace in Israel (Isaiah 3:14, 10:1-2, Jeremiah 2:34, Ezekiel 22:29, etc.).

Conventional wisdom reduced everything into a deceptively simple paradigm: if you were rich and prosperous, you were blessed, and since God is the Giver of all good things, you are blessed before God. If you are poor, you are clearly deficient in blessings, and since God is not providing those blessings to you, it must be on account of your sin. It might be that some people are poor by no fault of their own, but even then, they are to be objects of pity; no one would ever consider people in such a condition fortunate or blessed. Jesus turns this conventional wisdom upside down.

According to the Gospel of the Kingdom, the poor are the ones who are blessed, while the rich are the ones who ought to mourn (Luke 6:24, James 5:1-6). While this reversal seems bizarre to people in the world, now as then, it makes perfect sense in terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom, where what is humble is exalted, and what has been exalted is humbled (cf. Matthew 23:12, etc.).

But how can poverty really be a fortunate state? Most of the time, those who are poor would desperately love to escape from poverty! What could be so romantic about poverty?

It is not as if Jesus is glorifying poverty in and of itself; after all, one can be poor, embittered against God and man, and be exceedingly sinful. The poor do not get an automatic pass into the resurrection of the just.

Yet poverty is a great teacher– it strips man of many of his delusions. When one is poor and dependent on the goodwill of others for continued existence, one cannot be deceived into thinking oneself truly independent, truly without any kind of accountability, or self-sufficient in any way. It is very hard to maintain pride in the face of poverty; it is a very humiliating experience to have to beg or to constantly be reminded of how one is deprived of the world’s goods (cf. James 1:9). Poverty easily strips man of his pretension and pride– and that is the first step toward realizing how one is really dependent on God His Creator and why he must serve Him!

Such is why Jesus can say that the poor in spirit are blessed, for the Kingdom belongs to them– they are of the right disposition to hear, accept, and obey the Gospel of the Kingdom. They will comprise the bulk of the first century church (cf. James 2:1-9)!

We do well to remember this lesson. Most of us enjoy relative prosperity. Many of us are not rich according to American standards, but according to the standard of the entire world, and especially according to the standard of the first century, we are all quite wealthy!

We must not allow our relative wealth, prosperity, and ease keep us from the Kingdom of God. We must not, as so many do, believe that we are fine and spiritually healthy because things are going well for us. We must understand that we are pathetically weak on our own and utterly dependent on the mercy of God not only for our survival but also for our prosperity. We must humble ourselves before God so that He will exalt us at the proper time, lest we exalt ourselves now and be humbled by Him (cf. 1 Peter 5:5-6)!

Fortunate are those who learn humility and who remain dependent on God. Let us pursue such blessedness and serve the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry