Sunday, August 19, 2012

A wise and understanding heart (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 19, 2012)

Both the Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading hold up wisdom for us as an ideal.

Solomon modestly prays for wisdom rather than power and wealth, but the Lord is so impressed that he gives Solomon not only the wisdom that he requested but wealth and power, too.

In Ephesians Paul exhorts the Christians in Ephesus to  “live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything.”

Paul singles out two characteristics of wisdom. First, he tells us that it is wise to “make the most of time because the days are evil.” This is one of the most characteristic features of Paul’s letters. Paul believed that we are in the last days, that the return of Jesus was just around the corner.

But it seems that Paul was wrong. Two thousand years have gone by and yet Jesus has not returned. So what are we to make of this idea? I believe that Paul may not have been as wrong as we think. Consider two things:

First, we are finite. No matter how long medical science extends our lives, we will not live forever. We have a “sell by” date; our shelf life is limited. Jesus may not return tomorrow, but at any minute the trumpet may sound for us and, ready or not,  we may go off to meet Jesus. So in that sense, Paul was right and his advice is sound: Get ready; be prepared; exercise wisdom and make the most of the time that God gives you.

But Paul goes on to say that we are to be “filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.”

On the face of it this seems to be contrary to wisdom. To be filled with the Spirit is to be ecstatic. It is to be irrational. It is to behave like a Pentecostal! It is to speak in tongues, to sing at the top of our lungs, to dance before the Lord like David danced before the ark.

Life in the Spirit and wisdom are not opposed. Indeed, I believe that they are two characteristics of human nature. We are not whole human beings unless we have both, unless we know when to restrain ourselves and when to let go.

The great theologian Oscar Wilde once said that a fundamentalist is a person who is afraid that somebody, somewhere is having a good time. But that is not Christianity. The Christian faith tells us that a whole human being knows both joy and wisdom, freedom and restraint.

Another characteristic of wisdom according to Paul is that we are to “understand the will of the Lord.” And here I think Paul’s definition of wisdom connects with the story of Solomon. Solomon is presented to us as someone who understood the will of God.

One of the most interesting similarities between David and Solomon is that in both cases there is a significant disconnect between the way they are portrayed and the way they actually behave.

We are told that David was “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet David commits a dreadful crime: he has an affair with Bathsheba and arranges for the death of her husband.

We are told that Solomon is wise, that he asked God for wisdom and that God is so impressed that Solomon did not ask for wealth or power that he not only gives Solomon wisdom but throws in wealth and power, too.

And yet if we read the rest of Solomon’s story, we discover that Solomon behaves like anything but a wise ruler.

Here, though, we come up against a problem. Solomon, we are told, was a paragon of wisdom. And yet one of the first things we are told about Solomon is that he “made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh”, the ruler of Egypt, and brought Pharaoh’s daughter to his palace as his wife. As was common in the ancient (and even not so ancient world) marriage was an instrument of diplomacy and foreign policy. To cement ties with another ruler, a king would marry one of his daughters. Eventually we are told that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Even allowing for some exaggeration, this makes us question Solomon’s wisdom!!

But Solomon’s biggest mistake as a king was the fact that he levied huge taxes on his people and used forced labor both to build his own palace and the temple in Jerusalem.  These policies eventually caused the civil war that took place under Solomon’s son Rehoboam and the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms.

In this presidential election year it might be a good idea to ponder what a wise ruler would look like.

We are told that Solmon’s wisdom was astounding, and yet his internal policy of heavy taxation and forced labor and his external policy of making alliances with foreign rulers through marriage were unwise. Where are we to look for a wise ruler?

Consider Psalm 72. Psalm 72 is said to be a Psalm of Solomon.

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!  May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice!  Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!  May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!  In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!  May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!  For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.  May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!

Psalm 72 tells us that a wise ruler will defend the cause of the poor and deliver the needy, that righteousness will flourish and peace will abound, that he will have pity on the weak and save the life of the needy. But it also says that his kingdom will be economically successful, that there will be abundant grain in the land.

When I was teaching OT at Samford, I once read this psalm to my students, and said, “What does this psalm make you think of?” And one of my students said, “Well, it sounds a lot like the Democrats!”

America is not a monarchy. We had our chance back in 1776 and chose another path and I suppose there is no going back so we will just have to carry on.

In 1870, Alabama's second bishop, Richard Hooker Wilmer, visited England. His hostess, knowing that Wilmer was very proud of the fact that he was a Virginian, asked him what he thought of his fellow Virginian, George Washington. "Well, I suppose that Washington did as well as could be expected under the circumstances." His hostess was shocked and asked him why he had such a low opinion of Washington. "Madame, were it not for Washington, today we would be the subjects of a gracious Christian queen instead of a drunken Tennessee tailor!"

America is a democracy, not a monarchy. This year we are charged with choosing a wise ruler, and I pray that we will not only choose a wise president but that we will be a wise people. IN a democracy, it is not only the responsibility of the ruler to rule wisely; it is also a responsibility of the people to choose wisely and to be wise citizens.

So not only in election years but in every year, may we heed the words of Psalm 72:

May WE defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!  In OUR days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound. Amen.