Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sabbath School Insights No. 9, Qtr 1-07

Special Insights No. 9

First Quarter 2007 Adult Sabbath School Lessons


(Produced by the Editorial Board of the 1888 Message Study Committee)

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly


One verse in this week’s chapter piqued my curiosity: “I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God.” (vs. 2). What is the “oath of God”? Using my Bible program, I discovered that there are only eleven verses in which the two words “oath” and “God” appear, and only one of them as “oath of God” (Eccl. 8:2).


In the first two verses of the search we find man’s promises to man (see Gen. 50:25 and 1 Kings. 18:10). A third verse tells us that the children of Israel “entered into a curse and an oath” that they would “walk in God’s law” (Neh.10:29). In other words, they promised to obey God under the pain of a curse if they failed. This echoes back to Deut. 29:12-20 where Moses rehearsed the covenant of God before the children of Israel. The larger context here is the prophecy of Israel’s yet future failure to keep their promise and their resulting captivity in Babylon (29:25-30:3). Upon Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity, they repeated their promise to obey by entering into a “curse and an oath” that they would “walk in God’s law” (compare Ex. 19:8). Seventy years captivity had not taught them the futility of man’s promises to obey.


Four hundred years of Biblical silence follow the reestablishment of Israel as a political nation and the events recounted by Nehemiah. By the time the Messiah arrived on the scene the people of Israel had become quite adept at “law-keeping.” They determined to do all that was in their power to avoid the curse for disobedience, and as a result developed a complex system of legalism that effectively hedged them in from their pagan neighbors. Falling into the worship of pagan gods was no longer a serious concern for them. But there still was a grievous problem which led to the rejection of the Messiah and His faith-based message.


Before we explore this point further, another section of Scripture is worthy of our attention. Ezekiel presented a riddle or parable to Zedekiah and his courtiers in which God denounced them for failing to keep the covenant-oath made with Nebuchadnezzar (chapter 17).


As a part of his treaty policy with conquered nations, Nebuchadnezzar insisted that the subdued king sign what is known as a “suzerain contract.” Suzerain contracts were first implemented by the Hittites nearly a thousand years before Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. The contract was an effective means for keeping the conquered nation under control, and typically contained both “blessings” and “curses” to the vassal.


Under the suzerain contract, or covenant, the conquered king pledged himself to specified stipulations, which included (among other things) political allegiance to the conquering king (no alliances with other nations), agreement to pay taxes, and the promise to explicitly obey all laws and edicts handed down from the suzerain lord. If the vassal would adhere to the stipulations, then he and his people could live in relative peace. Thus the suzerain covenant was a two-way contract. The suzerain promised protection and peace to the vassal in return for the vassal’s submission to him and his gods. Each party pledged to the other in a mutual agreement that they would hold up their end of the bargain.


Zedekiah had made such a promise to Nebuchadnezzar, but he failed to abide by the first stipulation: full allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar. “He rebelled against him in sending his ambassadors into Egypt that they might give him horses and much people” (Eze. 17:12-15). Just as Solomon warned, if you make a promise to a king, it is “wisdom” to “keep the king’s commandment” that by doing so, you should “feel no evil thing.” The nation of Israel suffered the prophesied captivity because Jehoiakim and Zedekiah rebelled against both the Lord of heaven and earth, and against Nebuchadnezzar (see Prophets and Kings, pp. 422-447).


“Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, As I live, surely Mine oath that he [Zedekiah] hath despised, and My covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head” (Eze. 17:19). Please notice that in this verse God states that it is His oath and covenant that have been despised. This takes us back to our original question: what is the oath of God? There are two more significant Bible references to consider as we answer this question.


In Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost, he stated that “God had sworn with an oath” to David that the Messiah would be his direct descendent (Acts. 2:30). While it is David that Peter is here referring to, the promise of redemption and restoration through the Messiah was first given to Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:15), and restated to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; and chapter 15). This promise is the everlasting promise of God to redeem and restore His people; it is His everlasting covenant of salvation from sin and restoration in the new earth (The Glad Tidings, pp. 70-71).


Paul made the statement that is our last source found in Heb. 6:13-19. Referring to the covenant promise made to Abraham in Gen. 15, Paul stated that God swore His oath “by Himself” because there was no greater power by which to swear. Please note: in contrast to the suzerain agreement, God’s everlasting covenant is a one-sided promise from God to man; He asks man for no promises in return. God’s promise is eternal and immutable because “it is impossible for God to lie.” What amazing comfort is found in the “refuge” and “anchor” of God’s everlasting covenant! What more could any of us ask than that God has dedicated His life to save us from our sin? “It was the oath of God that ratified the covenant made to Abraham. That promise and that oath to Abraham become our ground of hope, our strong consolation” (op. cit., p. 72).


Blindness or neglect of history has caused this sinful world to be prolonged many more years than God intended (see Evangelism, p. 696). In 1888 through two young men, A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, God sent His “most precious message” of Christ and His righteousness. It is a message of faith in the Redeemer that will bring God’s people into conformity to His will (see Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91-92). But like the Pharisees of old, because of unbelief we chose not to heed the Messiah’s faith-based message.


At that Minneapolis conference, “had Christ been before them, they would have treated Him in a manner similar to that in which the Jews treated Christ.” “The course that had been pursued at Minneapolis was cruelty to the Spirit of God.” (The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, pp. 1477 and 360). As Zedekiah discovered, despising, distorting, and rejecting the covenant promise of God is high-handed rebellion and insubordination.


What is the remedy for this long delay? As Moses stated to the children of Israel as they stood on the verge of the promised land, God wants a “circumcision of the heart” that indicates a love-based commitment and total allegiance to our Creator and Redeemer (Deut. 30:6-7). God is still patiently waiting for this response from His people. He is not interested in our pious self-assured promises to obey (see The Desire of Ages, p. 300). Only a correct understanding of what it cost God to save us from sin will break the heart hardened in sin and rebellion against Him. If we would cease to resist, God would write His laws upon our hearts, transform our minds and characters to reflect His perfect law of love, and thus prepare us as His bride adorned for the wedding feast.


Solomon summed it all up in one short phrase: “Where the word of the King is, there is power!”

Ann Walper


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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sabbath School Insights No. 8, Qtr 1-07

Special Insights No. 8

First Quarter 2007 Adult Sabbath School Lessons


(Produced by the Editorial Board of the 1888 Message Study Committee)

God Made Man Upright? What Happened?



The book of Ecclesiastes describes the futility of striving for success in this world and by the world’s rules. It is sad that the man who wrote this book was the son of Israel’s king David who wrote some of the most sublime tributes to God in the Bible. If Solomon were living today, a good way to bring him hope would be to have him begin reading the Psalms.


Instead, Solomon’s book is an unrelenting tome of gloom and discouragement. What is the value in studying this book? It’s the story of someone who gained everything the world defines as success, who could honestly say it all meant nothing. For a poor man to say, “money isn’t everything” means little. For a rich man to say it—that carries weight.


Those who understand the Gospel, especially in light of the cleansing of the sanctuary, understand the true meaning of life far differently than Solomon describes. In essence, this mortal life is for humans to hear the Gospel, make their decision to believe God’s incredible Good News, and then to tell others about it. Anything that happens along the way is incidental. People who don’t understand this constantly say, what about my education, my career, my reputation, my marriage, my children, the travel, the people to meet, the happiness I want, the comforts, the invention, the book, the ... All those things aren’t bad, unless they interfere with the basics of hear, decide, and share.


Often, young people think that religion is for unhappy people. They don’t understand that the happiest people are the ones who never lose sight of the basics. Their happiness is in being God’s servants. Sometimes that entails very serious introspection, even being involved in things that aren’t fun because the details of God’s work with people can be messy. People often rationalize their not becoming involved in their church with the excuse that they don’t like controversy.


Solomon warns: “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Eccl. 7:4). In spite of what some young (and maybe older) people think, this doesn’t mean slumped-over, long-faced, sour people.


Isaiah tells us, “The Lord, the Lord Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! Let us eat and drink, you say, for tomorrow we die! The Lord Almighty has revealed this in my hearing: Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for, says the Lord” (Isa. 22:12-14).


The word “atoned” is a “red flag.” In this cosmic Day of Atonement,we understand the meaning of “afflicting our souls” as the process whereby we submit to the investigation of the Holy Spirit to reveal all known and unknown sin. This is serious business, not the work of pleasure-loving fools. Our confession and willingness to be made clean gives purpose to the lives of a group of serious-minded people who participate in the Bride-Church making herself ready.


Solomon said that a good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth (7:1). The imagery of precious ointment brings to mind the story of Mary Magdalene, when she used precious ointment to anoint Christ in anticipation of His death. In those days, ointment was used to attempt to preserve and forestall the stench of death’s decay. In this, Solomon was right. When we identify with Christ’s death by entering the ritual of baptism, that day is more precious than our day of birth, because it is also our “new” birthday. We can then be called by the Name above all names, which is the only “good” name there is.


The Christian’s life has meaning only in service for others, not for self. Is this too difficult for children to understand? It wasn’t for one young Man who was tempted in all points like as we are.


“Jesus was twelve when He first visited the national festival of His people known as the Passover ... [He] watched the white-robed priests lay a bleeding sacrificial victim upon the altar. Alert and reverently inquisitive, His young mind sought the meaning of the strange symbolism of this offering of an innocent lamb ... Is it possible, wondered Jesus, for the ‘blood of bulls and goats’ to take away sin? ... This is all a type, He reasoned. Someone innocent, sinless, holy, and undefiled, must die as a Lamb of God is lost human hearts will ever be reached! ... Through His youthful soul there surges the unresisted power of a mighty resolve. These poor souls, looking vainly to human efforts for salvation, must not be left mercilessly to what will prove at last only hopeless despair. He will sacrifice Himself. The Boy of twelve ‘saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice ...’


“When the love of God (agape) is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us, we choose the way of the cross as readily as the Son of God chose it in the heavenly council ages ago, and again as a Boy of twelve in the Jerusalem temple. In each instance, whether in the heart of the Son of God or in the heart of a believing sinner, the results lead to resurrection ... (In Search of the Cross by Robert J. Wieland, pp. 37-40).


“He who hates his life in this world will keep it for life eternal” (John 12:25). Solomon tried it all, so we can learn from his experience. A life of service to others directed by God is the only thing that isn’t “vanity.”

Arlene Hill


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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sabbath School Insights No. 7, Qtr 1-07

Special Insights No. 7

First Quarter 2007 Adult Sabbath School Lessons


(Produced by the Editorial Board of the 1888 Message Study Committee)

Striving After the Wind


Neither fortune, nor family, nor fullness of years bring us joy in and of themselves. Wealth, family, and longevity may bring joy, but there is something much better: the good news of the gospel. After Jesus was born, the angel preached the gospel to the lowly shepherds:

“There were ... shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ ... ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:8-14).

Apart from the gospel all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 6 reveals the experience of Solomon (with the rest of mankind) apart from believing the gospel. The vanity of life is spent chasing the wind.

1. Fortune Does Not Bring Joy (6:1–2).

a. Most wealthy people are unhappy with their possessions in life (6:2a).

b. All wealthy people leave their possessions to others in death (6:2b).

2. Family Does Not Bring Joy (6:3–5)

a. A stillborn child is better off than the unhappy father of 100 children (6:3).

3. Fullness of Years Does Not Bring Joy (6:6–12)

a. Even if a person could live to observe his or her 2000th birthday! (6:6)

In verses 3-6 we observe the futility and grievousness of wealth that is not enjoyed. It is worse than the tragedy of being stillborn. In hyperbolic terms of extreme blessings a rich man is described as with: (1) great wealth (“he lacks nothing his heart desires,” vs. 2), (2) multiplied descendants (a hundred children), and (3) a long life (although he lives many years he does not receive proper burial).

The stillborn (1) has no meaning, (2) it disappears into darkness, (3) it is forgotten, (4) it never saw the sun (“the light of day”), and (5) it never knows what life is like.  Solomon obviously exaggerated here in order to make his point: no matter how much you possess, if you don’t possess the power to enjoy it, you might just as well never have been born. Further, a wealthy person and a stillborn share the same fate; “all” (should be translated “both”) go to the same place—the grave (vs. 6). And yet the lot of a stillborn is better because it has more rest (freedom from anxiety and misery) than a person with wealth who is never satisfied. In the end both the stillborn and the old wealthy weary man lies undistinguished in the grave. There is a negative affirmation found in the rhetorical question of verse 6: “Do not all go to one place?” (i.e., to Sheol, or the grave). The answer is: Yes, they do. Contrast Isaiah’s use of a negative affirmation with a positive in connection with God’s power to save: “Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver?” (Isa. 50:2). Here, we have a combined affirmative and negative:—No; my hand is not shortened. I can redeem; and, I have power to deliver.

Ecclesiastes 6:9 is a proverbial saying, within which is a powerful simile: “This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.” What a picture! Is the wind graspable? Have you been chasing and attempting to clutch the wind? If you are grasping and missing the joy of fortune, family, and fullness of years listen for and heed the Mighty Rushing Wind of heaven. Let Him grasp you. Apart from the Spirit of Christ everything “is vanity and grasping for the wind” in a life of vanity. The ability to enjoy life with great finances, family, and fullness of years comes from within. Joy is a matter of character and not circumstances. “You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). The simile, “grasping” and/or “chasing after the wind,” is the last of nine occurrences in the Preacher’s sermon on reflections of the vanity of human life (cf. Eccl. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16). This phrase opened and now concludes the first half of Solomon’s sermon on the futility of human achievement apart from God.

A life of vanity “passes like a shadow” (6:12). A shadow has no substance and leaves nothing behind. It is simply a dark area or shape produced by an object that comes between rays of light and a surface. As the sun moves, the shadow increases, then decreases, and finally disappears into nothingness as the light recedes. The figure of a shadow as used in Ecclesiastes refers to a position of obscurity when the Sun of Righteousness is blocked out of a life because of vanity.

God in His mercy causes both the light of the literal sun and that of the “Sun of Righteousness” to shine upon evil men as well as upon the good (Matt. 5:45; John 1:9). One must head for the shadows to get out of both the light of the star around which our earth orbits and from the beams of the “Sun of Righteousness.” In Christ there are no shadows. And so “He reflects no shadows” (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 213).

A godly person, in the shadow of suffering, might be tempted to “contend with God” (6:10). But sufferings from oppressors are much better for a child of God than prosperity without clouds. Sinners, of course, are allowed to fill up their measure of guilt. Consequential retribution in part vindicates God’s ways even now. And the coming judgment shall make everything clear. If we choose a world of illusion apart from Christ, we begin to live on substitutes, and there can be no satisfaction in a world of these kinds of substitutes. There is only one Substitute—Jesus.

We may add another “thing” of vanity to the three discussed above, and that is a church family life lived in lovely Laodicea who vainly pretends to be “rich and increased with goods” and has “need of nothing” not aware that she is utterly “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind and naked” (Rev.3:17). This Laodicean experience is a life seemingly devoted to God’s message and cause, but in reality is devoted to the pursuit of happiness here and now. The “counsel” of “the true Witness” of Revelation 3:18 is concerned with our acceptance of the golden faith of Jesus, His wardrobe of righteousness, and the healing Spirit of God in the figure of the “eyesalve.” If we will devote our lives to believing God’s counsel and doing His will instead of our own, we shall find true happiness.

Chapter 6 (vs. 12) ends with two questions (which are not answered until the next chapter): “For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?” Nevertheless, there is a world above the sun where evil dwells not. And one day soon the Light from above the sun will penetrate planet earth and will enlighten it to such a degree that every shadow will be dissolved into nothingness and we will see Jesus only (Rev. 18:1).

“Whatever one is, he has been named already, for it is known that he is man;

And he cannot contend with Him who is mightier than he” (Eccl. 6:10).

Gerald L. Finneman


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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Sabbath School Insights No. 6, Qtr 1-07

Special Insights No. 6

First Quarter 2007 Adult Sabbath School Lessons


(Produced by the Editorial Board of the 1888 Message Study Committee)

Rich Man, Poor Man



When my father was on the battlefield as a medic during World War II, the shells were exploding all around. He had to go out under the hail of bullets and extract the wounded, risking his life. As a young man he carefully assessed the meaning of life and before God he made a vow that if the Lord should spare him, by God’s grace, when he returned home to America, he would consecrate his life to the gospel ministry. He was faithful to his vow before the Lord. He later received his degree from Union College and then served for thirty years as a minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.


King Solomon never had such a battlefield consecration of his life to the service of God. He never made a commitment to lifelong ministry, claiming God’s promise to sustain him. What Solomon did at the time of the dedication of the Temple was to offer “22,000 head of cattle and 120,000 sheep” (2 Chron. 7:5, GNB). Is the Lord pleased with so many animal sacrifices? Does ceremony over substance impress the Lord? When ritual and liturgy are cover for a self-serving life, does God detect the subterfuge?


By the time Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes he had become aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart when it comes to worshiping God. To stand on ceremony and pageantry publicly before God as a cover for economic oppression of the poor was adding sin to sin willfully—and for willful sin there was no provision for forgiveness (Num. 15:30, 31).


In Ecclesiastes 5 Solomon warns of making rash vows to God before counting the cost, and backing out of them when reality sets in of what it will take to make good on the promise. We read:


“When thou vowest a vow unto God,

Defer not long to perform it;

For he hath no delight in fools:

Pay then that which thou hast vowed.

It is better that thou shouldest not vow,

Than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:4, 5, Weiss).


The sin of covetousness is here addressed. It was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. King Saul also coveted the booty of war from the Amalekites that had been devoted to God. He held it back for himself. When caught, thinking to atone for his wrong, Saul took some of the animals for sacrifice, but the prophet undeceived him. “And Samuel said, hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).


The closest that Solomon came to calling himself a fool was with regard to this matter of making vows before God in Ecclesiastes 5:1. He must have remembered those ostentatious ceremonies at the Temple dedication. He characterized going up to the Temple with an offering to God as cover for practicing sin, calling it “the sacrifice of fools.”


“Observe thy feast days,

When thou shouldst go to the house of God;

And be thou more ready to obey

Than to offer the sacrifice of fools:

For they consider not that they do evil” (Eccl. 5:1, Weiss).


Observing the ceremonial law of attending the three mandatory feasts at the Temple annually (Ex. 23:17; Deut. 16:16), in order to bring an offering for willful sin under false cover of sacrifice, was “the sacrifice of fools.” To believe that one may willfully violate the law of God and then offer a sacrifice for its atonement without true repentance was to aggravate the crime and add iniquity to sin. This was “the sacrifice of fools.”


What is the proper relationship between vows and pledges, and God’s everlasting covenant? Is it ever appropriate to make vows to God? Evidently so.


The cornerstone truth of the 1888 message is God’s everlasting covenant. It is God’s promise in Christ to bless the sinful human race with a probationary lifetime of no condemnation for sin and the gift of eternal life given to everyone. God draws the sinner throughout his/her lifespan with the compelling love of Jesus’ cross, who paid the wages of sin,—eternal death,—and the convicted heart appropriates by faith the righteousness of Christ which is the forgiveness of sins and cleansing power to overcome sin, making the heart to rejoice and be glad in it. The sinner may choose to resist the gift of God’s agape in Jesus’ cross and thus judge himself unworthy of eternal life, but if the sinner does not resist he/she will be drawn all the way to the Father’s heart.


Within the one-sided promise of God’s everlasting covenant, which is received by the sinner’s affirmation of “Amen,”—“so be it,”—it is biblically appropriate for Christians to carefully count the cost and make a vow before the Lord. In thankfulness and praise for His wonderful goodness to the children of men, by faith in Christ’s righteousness, one may cheerfully give unto the Lord. Such a pledge will not be used as a cover for practicing sin and disobedience against the law of God. “Think before you speak, and don’t make any rash promises to God. He is in heaven and you are on earth” (Eccl. 5:2, GNB).

Paul E. Penno


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