In Psalm 24:1 it says that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and the rabbis of Jesus’ day and earlier decided that everything that we enjoy in life should cause us to bless God. In the Mishnah, the record of rabbinic thought from before Jesus’ time until about 200 AD, the first book is devoted entirely to blessings.
In the most ordinary things they found ways of praising God, and these blessings have God at their center. They contain no personal pronouns — focusing utterly on him, and not on the person praying. They are simply statements that praise God for his goodness.
A person was supposed to devote his first thoughts upon waking to praising God once again for each part of his body that was functioning. The very first thing that would have woken them up was probably a rooster’s crow. So in the first century they would have said, “Blessed is he who has given to the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night!”
When they opened their eyes they said, “Blessed is he who opens the eyes of the blind!” When they dressed they said, “Blessed is he who clothes the naked!” They also said this when they put on a new piece of clothing.
In their experience of nature they also blessed God. When the first flowers were seen on the trees in the spring, they said, “Blessed is he who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy!” After a long, cold winter, who isn’t happy to see these little signs of new life?
When they heard thunder or an earthquake that inspired fear, they also blessed God by saying, “Blessed is he whose strength and power fill the world!” Next time there is a windstorm, step outside and remind yourself of God’s amazing power.
When it rained, they said, “Blessed is he who is good, and gives good things!“I thought this was very odd at first, since rainy days are bad days to us. But in Israel where water is greatly needed, rain is source of joy. When you think about it, our abundant food here also is dependent on the rain that we always complain about.
I have since realized that every time I complain about the weather, it’s a way of convincing myself that yet another day has come when God wasn’t faithful and that he decided not to care about me. It’s a minor habit to change, but my outlook on life improved when I stopped finding something to grumble at God for every time I stepped outside.
Blessings for Life’s Seasons
They had blessings for the highs and lows in life as well. When they went through a long, difficult time and finally had relief, or celebrated some happy event for which they waited, they said, “Blessed is he who has allowed us to live, and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.” When a son returned home from war, or when a baby was born, or some other wonderful thing, they uttered this prayer to praise God for bringing them to that point in their lives.
Even in times of grief, when someone died or they heard tragic news, they blessed God. They said, “Blessed is he who is the true judge.” It was a reminder that God was still good, even when they heard about tragic events, and that he will ultimately bring justice even where justice can’t seem to be found.
Remembering God’s Kindness
It’s easy to start worrying that God is not in control, and not remember his continual faithfulness that sustains every minute of the day. In Psalm 103, David shares the secret for how to keep God’s loving care on your mind:
Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagles. (Psalm 103:1-5, RSV)
The prayer Jesus taught his disciples, The Lord’s Prayer, is most likely an abbreviated version of the Amidah (“Standing,” in Hebrew) or Eighteen Benedictions. I think it is important for Christians to be familiar with this central prayer of Jewish religious life.1
The prayer is very ancient, some of the changes to it being made 200 years before the time of Jesus. The prayer is also very beautiful, full of scriptural quotations and allusions. Every Jew was obligated to pray the Eighteen Benedictions daily. However, in times of emergency, one was permitted to pray a shortened form of the Eighteen, such as the Lord’s Prayer.
Rabbi Eliezer, a younger contemporary of Jesus, taught this abbreviation of the Eighteen:
May your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you [on earth] below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O LORD, who answers prayer.
Note the phrases “your will be done” and “in heaven above…[on earth] below” are both also found in the Lord’s Prayer. The Phrase “grant peace of mind” in the prayer Eliezer taught parallels the phrase “deliver us from evil” in the prayer Jesus taught.
The characterizations of God, which always follow “Blessed are you, O Lord”), can be used to summarize each benediction. If they are strung together, they comprise a nice description of God:
God is the shield of Abraham, the one who revives the dead, the holy God, the gracious giver of knowledge, the one who delights in repentance, the one who is merciful and always ready to forgive, the redeemer of Israel, the healer of Israel’s sick, the one who blesses the years, the one who gathers Israel’s dispersed, the King who loves righteousness and justice, the one who smashes enemies and humbles the arrogant, the support and stay of the righteous, the one who rebuilds Jerusalem, the one who causes salvation to flourish, the one who hears prayer, the one who restores the divine presence to Zion, the one whose Name is the Beneficent One and to whom it is fitting to give thanks, and the one who blesses Israel with peace.
(Note that the headings summarize each benediction or blessing are for reference only, and are not recited.)
1. THE GOD OF HISTORY:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows lovingkindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake. O king, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, O Lord, the shield of Abraham.
2. THE GOD OF NATURE:
You, O Lord, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. [From the end of Sukkot until the eve of Passover, insert: You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like you, O doer of mighty acts? Who resembles you, a king who puts to death and restores to life, and causes salvation to flourish? And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, O Lord, who revives the dead.
3. SANCTIFICATION OF GOD:
[Reader] We will sanctify your name in this world just as it is sanctified in the highest heavens, as it is written by your prophet: “And they call out to one another and say: [Cong.] ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.'” [Isa. 6:3] [Reader] Those facing them praise God saying: [Cong.] “Blessed be the Presence of the LORD in his place.” [Ezek. 3:12] [Reader] And in your Holy Words it is written, saying, [Cong.] “The LORD reigns forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah.” [Ps. 146:10] [Reader] Throughout all generations we will declare your greatness, and to all eternity we will proclaim your holiness. Your praise, O our God, shall never depart from our mouth, for you are a great and holy God and King. Blessed are you, O Lord, the holy God. You are holy, and your name is holy, and holy beings praise you daily. (Selah.) Blessed are you, O Lord, the holy God.
4. PRAYER FOR UNDERSTANDING:
You favor men with knowledge, and teach mortals understanding. O favor us with the knowledge, the understanding and the insight that come from you. Blessed are you, O Lord, the gracious giver of knowledge.
5. FOR REPENTANCE:
Bring us back, O our father, to your Instruction; draw us near, O our King, to your service; and cause us to return to you in perfect repentance. Blessed are you, O Lord, who delights in repentance.
6. FOR FORGIVENESS:
Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, O Lord, who is merciful and always ready to forgive.
7. FOR DELIVERANCE FROM AFFLICTION:
Look upon our affliction and plead our cause, and redeem us speedily for your name’s sake, for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the redeemer of Israel.
8. FOR HEALING:
Heal us, O Lord, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved, for you are our praise. O grant a perfect healing to all our ailments, for you, almighty King, are a faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the healer of the sick of his people Israel.
9. FOR DELIVERANCE FROM WANT:
Bless this year for us, O Lord our God, together with all the varieties of its produce, for our welfare. Bestow ([from the 15th of Nissan insert:] dew and rain for) a blessing upon the face of the earth. O satisfy us with your goodness, and bless our year like the best of years. Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses the years.
10. FOR GATHERING OF EXILES:
Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the ensign to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, O Lord, who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.
11. FOR THE RIGHTEOUS REIGN OF GOD:
Restore our judges as in former times, and our counselors as at the beginning; and remove from us sorrow and sighing. Reign over us, you alone, O Lord, with lovingkindness and compassion, and clear us in judgment. Blessed are you, O Lord, the King who loves righteousness and justice.
12. FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF APOSTATES AND THE ENEMIES OF GOD:
Let there be no hope for slanderers, and let all wickedness perish in an instant. May all your enemies quickly be cut down, and may you soon in our day uproot, crush, cast down and humble the dominion of arrogance. Blessed are you, O Lord, who smashes enemies and humbles the arrogant.
13. FOR THE RIGHTEOUS AND PROSELYTES:
May your compassion be stirred, O Lord our God, towards the righteous, the pious, the elders of your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, towards proselytes, and towards us also. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name. Set our lot with them forever so that we may never be put to shame, for we have put our trust in you. Blessed are you, O Lord, the support and stay of the righteous.
14. FOR THE REBUILDING OF JERUSALEM:
Return in mercy to Jerusalem your city, and dwell in it as you have promised. Rebuild it soon in our day as an eternal structure, and quickly set up in it the throne of David. Blessed are you, O Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.
15. FOR THE MESSIANIC KING:
Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, O Lord, who causes salvation to flourish.
16. FOR THE ANSWERING OF PRAYER:
Hear our voice, O Lord our God; spare us and have pity on us. Accept our prayer in mercy and with favor, for you are a God who hears prayers and supplications. O our King, do not turn us away from your presence empty-handed, for you hear the prayers of your people Israel with compassion. Blessed are you, O Lord, who hears prayer.
17. FOR RESTORATION OF TEMPLE SERVICE:
Be pleased, O Lord our God, with your people Israel and with their prayers. Restore the service to the inner sanctuary of your Temple, and receive in love and with favor both the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayers. May the worship of your people Israel always be acceptable to you. And let our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion. Blessed are you, O Lord, who restores his divine presence to Zion.
18. THANKSGIVING FOR GOD’S UNFAILING MERCIES:
We give thanks to you that you are the Lord our God and the God of our fathers forever and ever. Through every generation you have been the rock of our lives, the shield of our salvation. We will give you thanks and declare your praise for our lives that are committed into your hands, for our souls that are entrusted to you, for your miracles that are daily with us, and for your wonders and your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon. O beneficent one, your mercies never fail; O merciful one, your lovingkindnesses never cease. We have always put our hope in you. For all these acts may your name be blessed and exalted continually, O our King, forever and ever. Let every living thing give thanks to you and praise your name in truth, O God, our salvation and our help. (Selah.) Blessed are you, O Lord, whose Name is the Beneficent One, and to whom it is fitting to give thanks.
19. FOR PEACE:
Grant peace, welfare, blessing, grace, lovingkindness and mercy to us and to all Israel your people. Bless us, O our Father, one and all, with the light of your countenance; for by the light of your countenance you have given us, O Lord our God, a Torah of life, lovingkindness and salvation, blessing, mercy, life and peace. May it please you to bless your people Israel at all times and in every hour with your peace. Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses his people Israel with peace.
1 The prayer is known as the “Eighteen” because it originally consisted of eighteen benedictions. The twelfth benediction (against apostates) was added around 70 AD. For more on this topic, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, 2007).
…Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. (1 Tim. 6:11-12)
When we think of eternal life, we usually think of life after death and forget that eternal life starts in the present, not just after we die.1 This idea is often discussed in Judaism — what it means to live in eternity here in the present, while in this world. When Jesus uses the term “eternal life,” he also sometimes refers to the present world, and if we read his words thinking about only heaven, we miss his point. Not only does this Jewish idea clarify our reading, but it gives us wisdom about how to live in the world today.
In the Talmud, from the first few hundred years after Christ, there are several references to the rabbinic concept of hayei olam (Hi-YAY Oh-LAHM), meaning eternal life.2 Often it was contrasted with hayei sha’ah (Hi-YAY Sha-AH), which means fleeting life, or earthly life. Usually they didn’t speak of one as before death and the other after death. Rather, hayei olam was “lasting life,” and it referred to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance: living now as if you were living for eternity. In contrast, hayei sha’ah was to living a life that is only concerned about the short term material needs of today: working, making money, eating, etc.
The rabbis considered the study of Scripture one of the most important ways you could partake in eternity while on earth. A story is told about a rabbi who spent years in study of the Scriptures, and then walked past farmers tilling their land. He remarked, “they have abandoned lasting life (hayei olam) and involve themselves instead with fleeting life (hayei sha’ah).”3
The rabbis described a person who lives only for today as having “the soul of a cow.” Just as a cow stands all day long munching grass, only thinking about where the next mouthful will come from, this person focuses on daily cares and material things, not on eternal truths.
Jesus’ Words About Hayei Olam
Jesus mentions “eternal life” in the gospel of John, and he often appears to be thinking in terms of having a life in eternity here and now. For instance:
This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:2)
Using a definition of life after death, this line doesn’t quite make sense. We may try to read it as, “We will have eternal life after we die if we know God and Jesus Christ.” However, if we hear its intent to focus on the present life, we understand that Jesus is saying that knowing God intimately and living with Jesus Christ as Lord, here and now, is living as if you were already in eternity. This makes a lot of sense — what thing in our lives has more eternal significance than that?
Jesus makes one comment about eternal life that makes little sense without a knowledge of his Jewish context. He critiques the Jewish idea that the study of Scriptures was the ultimate way to live out one’s “eternal life”:
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. John 5:39-40
Jesus is speaking to some of his fellow Jews who did not see that the Scriptures ultimately pointed toward him. Eternal life is not had even in studying the Scriptures, but in finding in them that Jesus is our Lord, and we can know and serve him.
Paul’s Words About Life
Paul also spoke about hayei olam in Romans. He points out that just as Christ died and rose again into eternal life, if we partake in Christ’s death through baptism, we now have this eternal life as well. We have been brought from death into life, and this eternal life is very much in the present world:
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life… For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:4, 6-13)
To Paul, if we now are living in our “eternal life” we should not let sin reign over us, but live the way God designed us to live. Just as Jesus now has eternal life, we have it too, here and now, and extending after we die. Paul exhorts us to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Tim 6:11-12). We need to take hold of our eternal lives and live them well now, not just wait for them in the future.
How Do We Live in Response?
This question was essentially what the rich young ruler said to Jesus: how can I acquire eternal life? (Luke 18:18-22). Our traditional reading assumes he is asking about eternal life after he dies. While we can’t be sure, it is interesting to read that story with the idea of hayei olam in mind.
The man has read and obeyed the Scriptures, but Jesus sees that his wealth is what keeps him bound to hayei sha’ah, fleeting life, an empty life focused only on material gain. Jesus says that if he wants true life, he should give away the wealth that binds him, and follow after him as one of his disciples. Then he would have hayei olam, as in John 17:3, knowing Christ and the Father intimately in this life and for eternity. The ruler declines the offer, to Jesus’ sorrow. We should look at ourselves in the rich man too: are we so distracted by our material wealth that it keeps us living for what will not matter in eternity?
Jesus made another statement about wealth and eternity that can also give us direction for today. He says, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). We are not obligated to give all our money away, but our focus should be to use it to invest in eternal things — sharing the gospel, deepening our relationships, and helping others in need.
We have Jesus’ blessing to spend our money extravagantly on things that will show God’s love. We should also look at how we spend our time — on ourselves? Or on God and others? Do we fill our extra time with mindless entertainment like TV, movies and video games? Or do the things we do invest in people who will live forever, like nurturing friendships, showing hospitality, raising children, and loving others? As Paul says,
For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:8-10)
The Challenge of “Here and Now” Eternal Life
When we only think of eternal life as “going to heaven when you die,” and not a new life in this world, we can actually distort the gospel’s message. Sometimes the gospel is presented starting with the question, “Do you know what would happen if you died tonight?” And then the next statement is, “If you receive Christ, you can know where your eternity will be spent.”
If nothing else is added to this, the gospel becomes a hollow kind of “fire insurance” that has nothing to do with our lives, but is just concerned with what will happen after we die. It’s an easy thing to offer people, because their lives don’t need to change, and it is easier on us, too, because we can go on as shallow people of hayei sha’ah, living only for today.
In contrast, Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Following Christ is what gives our lives here eternal meaning and purpose. How can we forget to share that with people? The world is full of people who see no meaning in life here on earth. Perhaps we would have a stronger witness if we had obviously different lives, and we invited others to join us in investing our lives in eternity with Christ.
Learning more about the Bible and its Hebraic cultural setting is always helpful for understanding the text. Even more than that, some concepts can make an enormous difference in our relationship with God. In my own journey, one of the ideas that has changed me most is the Hebraic picture of God.
Because our Western cultural heritage has its roots in Greek philosophy, the Greek concept of God sometimes overshadows the biblical picture of God. The ancient Greeks’ dualistic worldview influenced their understanding of God, and still influences us today.
Dualism is the belief that physical reality is worthless and evil; goodness and perfection is found only in the spiritual world. The ancient Greeks believed that if the supreme god is perfect, this god must be beyond the heavens, uninvolved in the material world in any way. We inherit from them the idea that God is far away and uninterested in humanity, who may have created the universe but has no involvement in it now.
Sometimes we hear that idea from Christians, even though the Bible shows God was intimately involved in the life of Israel, walked on earth as Christ, and is still present now in the Holy Spirit. We also inherit from the Greeks the dualistic idea that our lives on earth are of no consequence, and we should only care about the life to come. In contrast, the Hebraic picture is that salvation is a redemption of our life here on earth that extends into eternity.1
In the second century AD, dualism gave rise to the heresy of Marcion. Marcion believed that Christians should reject the God of the Old Testament as an evil, violent, lesser God than Christ, who came to teach about the true supreme God. After all, the God of the Old Testament had created the corrupt material world, so must be evil too. Marcion wanted to remove the entire Old Testament from the canon, and much of the New Testament besides Luke and Paul. He considered the Old Testament to be inferior to the New, its Jewish God angry and unloving. Marcion focused only on teaching about Christ devoid of his Jewish context. Although the church denounced him as a heretic, the philosophy behind his ideas still influences our church culture today.
Our Loving Father?
Personally, I used to embrace much of Marcion’s thinking, but that has changed as I’ve learned more about the Bible’s message in its Hebraic setting, and how the Jews understand God. Years ago, I would have agreed intellectually that God the Father is wise, loving and merciful; but the way I read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, betrayed the fact that in my heart I didn’t believe it.
Didn’t God choose a nation of complainers, burden them with meaningless regulations, and punish them harshly for their sins? This really had a negative effect on my desire to learn about God or grow closer to him. I knew that Christians were supposed to dedicate their lives to serving God, but was pretty unexcited about that idea. If I did, God would probably call me to some job I hated or make me abandon people I loved. Wasn’t that the kind of harsh thing he did to the Jews? Even though I believed that Jesus was God too, that did not placate my negative feelings toward his Father, and my love and trust in this God was minimal.
In some churches I still get a sense that they share this lack of love for their heavenly Father that I used to have. I suspect it when a church prays only to Jesus, or sing songs praising Christ exclusively. Or when people talk longingly about seeing Jesus in Heaven, but never mention our loving Father, the one that Jesus came to bring glory (John 17:4). I also suspect it when every sermon comes from the New Testament and ignores nearly 80% of the scriptures, the only part Jesus studied.
In some circles there is even a tendency to accuse God the Father of evil, even though it would be unthinkable with Jesus. When reading the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac, some will say, “I think God is a child abuser!”2 But when Jesus initially turned down the Gentile woman who asked him to heal her child (Mark 7:26), it’s assumed that his motives are good even if we don’t understand them.
Isn’t this a strange kind of schizophrenia that allows us to speak lovingly of Jesus and angrily of his father, and yet worship them as one God? Knowing that Jesus is the very likeness of his Father should answer any doubt we have about the goodness of our Father in Heaven.
A Challenge from the Jews
The thing that really challenged me to rethink my picture of God was to read from the Jews themselves about how they related to God. I admit, I was curious how this people who had only known God’s “bad side” in the Old Testament would relate to him.
It came as an utter surprise to me to hear the love that Jews have for God the Father in the prayers they have used for centuries. Much of Jewish prayer is filled with an attitude of praise, blessing God for the most minute gifts that he has given.3 One traditional hymn from the 3rd to 5th century AD goes:
Every living soul shall bless your name, O God! All created things will give you glory and thanksgiving! Eternally you are God, and no one can stand before you. Who but you offers freedom and help, nourishes us and redeems us, sustains us and saves us, and at all times views with unfailing compassion our sorrows and distress? There is no one but you!4
I remember being amazed that the Jews who only knew the God that I didn’t like would describe him in such loving terms. Why did these people see God’s mercy and kindness where I didn’t?
I think it is because they come to the Hebrew Scriptures with an understanding that is less obscured by a foreign worldview. Westerners want theology laid out in a systematic way, with clear creeds and statements of truth. Instead, we find stories, rules, and long lists of names. It is foreign to us, so we preach and study mainly out of the New Testament, and only dabble with the rest of scripture.
For thousands of years, the Jews (including Jesus) have revered this text and memorized it, meditated on it and applied it to their daily lives. They have found some excellent answers for many of the hardest questions I’ve had, because they dwell in the Scriptures as natives.
The Command to Wear Tassels
A case in point is the commandment to wear tassels with a strand of blue thread (Numbers 15:37-39).5 I used to think this was a truly pointless regulation and I was glad to be free from silly, oppressive laws like this. When I opened the Jewish commentaries, I saw that they asked a far better question than I did — what good purpose did a loving God have in giving this law?
They pointed out that this was a very meaningful command because in ancient cultures, tassels were a sign of nobility and priesthood. It was like God was telling his people to wear a royal robe each day to show that they were his treasured possession, a nation of priests. What I had seen as legalistic foolishness, they saw as a great gift from God.
Jewish scholars had a good response for laws that do not have any clear function. They would ask, “Why did God give us this command to obey?” and answer, “To show our love and trust for God, whose purposes are beyond fathoming.” What a better attitude than my own!
God is Present and Sovereign
Another thing I learned from Judaism is a sense of God’s participation in this world, and sovereignty over everything. The Greeks believed that the supreme God was uninvolved in this world, and the Western view of God tends to view him this way too. We assume God is not interested in our computer problems, how our job is going, or whether we are overweight, but only in “spiritual” things. Or we assume that only after we die will we have any interaction with him.
Westerners also view him as a judge we will meet for the first time after we die, rather than a loving Father who seeks a relationship with us to heal our lives in this world. The difference in the Jewish attitude shows in their pattern of prayer, which continually praises God as the source of every good thing in life through short prayers throughout the day. It is difficult to not feel that God’s love surrounds us when we repeat dozens of these prayers each day.6
Another dualistic attitude in Christianity is the assumption that God only works through the miraculous, and that human advances are not under his control. For instance, some feel it is unspiritual to seek medical help, and that only prayer for healing is God’s will. In Judaism, however, a prayer is said before taking medicine which praises God for giving man wisdom to discover this blessing, and then asks him to work through it to heal them.
They see God’s presence in what we see as our own accomplishment. Rather than assuming human effort is an affront to God, they assume God is sovereign over what humans achieve too. Many with treatable mental illness have suffered too long because they felt they just needed to be more “spiritual.” How much better it is to assume that the Lord uses human beings to care for us!
The Lord our God, the Lord is One
Even though the Jewish people lack the critical knowledge of our Lord Jesus, through their scriptures they have found amazing wisdom about the goodness of our Heavenly Father. When I read the Bible from their viewpoint, I now find that the whole thing, from Genesis to Revelation, becomes good news of God’s love, not just the last part.
More importantly, my love and trust for this God has greatly increased as I have started to see him as the passionate, loving God that rescued his people from Egypt rather than the cold, distant, intellectual God of the Greeks. The more I study from this perspective, the more God the Father and his wonderful Son Jesus seem to be one and the same.
During Lent, Christians focus on the fact that we are made of dust. We are made out of mere dust, and someday, we will return again to dust. In science, and especially biology, we deal with the fact that we are dust all the time, or rather that we are big bags of biochemicals.
The question that this causes me to ask is, are we just dust? Consider the point of view of the scientific naturalist, who believes that the only things that are real are those we can measure in a chemical reaction. He would say that human beings are the random result of biochemical processes and natural selection. Our reason for being is simply to propagate our genes.
The idea that human beings are simply and totally the sum of some very complex chemical reactions is common among scientists. Some would sneer at the superstitious idea that human beings have a soul or some spiritual component.
Many naturalists would say that that idea comes from a primitive, unscientific world view, where processes you don’t understand must be due to ghosts or spirits or God. They would say that science will someday finally and completely describe the chemical reactions that make up human beings, and any idea of a soul will be left out.
Let’s consider the full implications of the world view that says all we are is biochemicals. One is that an idea of “meaning” in life must be an illusion. What we call “great ideas” (like the Constitution of the United States) and “great works of art” (like the Mona Lisa) are really just the result of bunch of neuropeptides being released by the synapses in the white matter compartment of one of these bags of biochemicals.
And what meaning does suffering have? What we call “pain” is really simply an adaptation that increases our possibilities for propagating our gene pool by causing us to avoid damaging stimuli. By having neurochemicals released that cause a response in our brains which we label “unpleasant,” we avoid the situation that produces them.
If this is what pain is, why should I spend my time and energy trying to prevent this release of neurochemicals in other human beings? Naturalists would answer that by helping others I increase my own chance for survival, which I really doubt is true. But why do I feel compelled to help others when I know it won’t benefit me? What do I care about the hunger of the people in Africa?
Another conclusion that we are forced to make is that “morality” is an illusion. I could take some of these biochemicals, mix them up and cause a reaction to occur, perhaps photosynthesis. After I got done watching it for a while, I could pour it down the drain and that would be the end of it. And my question is, what is the difference between stopping the biochemical reaction in this beaker and the biochemical reaction sitting over there? Why should I care any more for the person than I do about the beaker? Was the holocaust really a tragedy of monstrous proportions, or just the ending of a lot of biochemical reactions all at one time?
If science has finally shown that all we are is bags of biochemicals, then I think that we are forced to conclude that the human race has been laboring under a delusion that life has meaning and purpose for thousands of years.
I don’t understand why we don’t toss off all the superstitions we have of meaning and higher purpose in life if we have genuinely concluded that there really is none. Just as people stopped fearing that comets and eclipses were omens of evil when they knew what they really were, why don’t we live according to the ideas that naturalism forces us to conclude? That our efforts toward altruism at our own expense are ignorant and misguided.
Scientific naturalism leads to conclusions that I doubt that anyone is comfortable with if they really think about them. I think there are naturalists who realize that these are the conclusions that they must come to, but they still live their lives as if there was meaning and purpose to it all. Why is that?
I think that deep down in our heart of hearts, people all instinctively know that human suffering really is a tragedy, not just a biochemical response. We know that there must be a meaning and purpose for our existence, and that human lives are precious in a way that science cannot define.
I’d like to look at the Christian response to this idea, and bring in my text for the day. I discovered this text after singing in the Messiah, and there is something about it that really amazes me. Listen closely, and see if you can’t figure out who wrote the text, and who it’s about.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
I think its obvious to anyone who listens to it that the text is talking about the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the source of several songs in the Messiah, including my favorite, “Surely He Hath Borne our Griefs”.
The thing that really astounded me about the text is that it is not in the New Testament! Even though it is obviously talking about Jesus, this is actually Isaiah 53:3-11, which was written by Isaiah about 700 years before his birth.
I don’t know if it will have the same effect on you as it had on me, but to me it answered my question in two ways:
For one, it is remarkable that an ancient Hebrew writer could have such a remarkable and complete grasp on an event that would happen centuries into the future if he was not somehow inspired by a Being that did know the future.
The other insight is more theological. The Bible declares that human beings may be made of dust, but they are far more than that in the eyes of God. Human beings are precious in the eyes of God, so much so that God was willing to take on the form of one of these little beings to try to communicate with them and show them himself. Human suffering is tragic and the evil that humans do is real, so much so that God was willing to suffer with them to show he cares, and to die a humiliating death in order to bring them back to himself.
(Adapted from a talk given at Luther College, my alma mater, when I taught in the biology department there in 1995.)
In classical Greek thought, there was strong sense of dualism — that the material world is corrupt and worthless, and only the spiritual world was worthwhile. In contrast, the Bible was written from a Hebraic perspective that believed that God’s creation is good, and that human life on earth is meaningful. Our Greek background still makes Christians somewhat dualistic. We sing songs with lyrics like
This world is not my home, I’m just-a passing through, my treasures are laid up a-way beyond the blue, the angels beckon me from heaven’s distant shore, and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.
While it is good to look forward to heaven and Christ’s return, we tend to disparage the life we have here on earth as unimportant. We often think of our activity on earth simply as waiting—waiting for Christ to come again, or waiting to die and go to heaven. Re-examining the Bible’s Hebraic picture of salvation may give us a different perspective.
Salvation as a Relationship with God
Most Christians would define salvation as being allowed to enter heaven after death, which of course is focused on the afterlife. It is true that we will be saved from judgment, but the Bible also uses another picture of salvation that we rarely emphasize: salvation as a restored relationship with God, in this life. An unsaved person lives a life separated from God, because sin alienates him or her from God. As Paul says,
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:21-22)
Through the new covenant of forgiveness that Jesus established, we can come into a relationship with God. Christians often think of that only in terms of being pardoned from the judgment to come.
Each time we take communion, however, we are celebrating the fact that under this new covenant of forgiveness by Christ’s blood, we can “sit down to dinner” with God, something that wasn’t possible before. In biblical times, partaking of a meal together was only done if people had a close relationship with each other. If there was a conflict between two people, after it was resolved, the parties would eat a meal together to celebrate their reconciliation. We also see this picture in Revelation 3:20:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me.
The picture is that a person who is saved is restored to fellowship with God in this life, as well as the next. We also see this in Jesus’ parables. He describes an unsaved person as being like a sheep lost from the flock, or like a rebellious prodigal son who has left his family. Salvation comes when the shepherd finds the sheep and brings it home, or when the prodigal son is received back into the family.
This idea of salvation in this life allows us to understand some texts that otherwise don’t make sense. Paul says “by grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. Even more importantly, Paul says,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
If we think in terms of salvation as a future reward, this passage sounds like we should be in a perpetual state of worry. However, if we see salvation as something that we already have, he is talking about having awe and reverence for God who is helping us bring every part of our lives into relationship with him.
A related idea is that eternal life starts in this world. John seems to think of this when he says:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Many verses like these are ones we should read in terms of salvation in its present sense. Many others do speak of salvation in its future aspect as well. We should keep both in mind as we read the Bible.
What are the implications?
One thing is that our picture of God changes. If we only think of salvation as escaping hell, our idea of God is mainly that of an angry judge. In contrast, Jesus portrays God as a loving shepherd who searches for his sheep, or a loving father eager to see his son come home. This picture is of a God that actively wants to seek out his lost children, and bring them back into relationship with him. He loves us and wants us near him, he doesn’t just want to pardon us from our sins.
We are also forced to ask ourselves, if we are already living in eternity, in a relationship with God, does our life show it? If we think of ourselves as just waiting for a future promise, we can easily fall into wasting our life here.
Should a life in relationship with God be filled with mindless entertainment or materialism? Our priorities change when we don’t see our life as disposable. The world around us is filled with people who see no meaning in life. Perhaps the gospel would go forth more boldly if we took hold of our salvation and started living it here, rather than waiting for it in the future.
Did you know that the Old Testament has a “John 3:16” — a verse that everyone knows by heart that describes the incredible love of God?
On Mt. Sinai, Moses asks the Lord to show him his glory. So God passes his glorious presence before him and delivers this profound description of his nature:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Ex. 34:6)
This description of God, that he is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament, more than any other text. It’s found several times in the psalms (Ps. 86:15, 103:8, 145:8 and others) and was probably part of worship liturgies during Bible times.
Because these are God’s own revelation about himself, they are some of the most important words in all of the Bible about the nature of God. They begin with God saying his divine name, so holy that for thousands of years Jews, including Jesus, do not utter it out loud, even to this day. Then they describe God’s great mercy, patience and willingness to forgive even the worst sin.
Today Judaism refers to this passage in Exodus 34 as the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” counting thirteen ways God’s mercy is described, though some are not obvious as we read it. Jewish people still recite this every morning as part of their congregational prayers and every time they read from the Torah. On Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, and on other fast days, many prayers focus on this verse.
But What About the Next Verse?
You might be surprised that when Exodus 34:6 is quoted elsewhere in the Bible, usually the next line is not included even though it seems to be part of God’s self-revelation:
…Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Ex. 34:7)
Why is this? You probably find this line troubling, so you might be relieved that it is left off. But it this picking and choosing of quoted texts allowable? Yes, say rabbinic scholars, because of a pronouncement God made in Ezekiel 18, which says that innocent children are not punished for the sins of their fathers:
If a man is righteous and does what is just and right, … walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.
If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things… though he himself did none of these things, he shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:5-12, excerpted)
Because of Ezekiel 18, the rabbis interpret Exodus 34:7 about God’s punishment of later generations as only applicable as long as the children do not repent, but carry on in their father’s sin. While God does not let the unrepentant go unpunished, he is ultimately forgiving. Therefore, in Jewish prayers (as well as in the rest of the Bible), the focus is on the first verse about his mercy.
God’s Frustrating Graciousness
In the book of Jonah, you might be surprised that the Exodus 34 passage is used in anger toward God. God sent Jonah to Ninevah to warn them of God’s judgment, and Jonah ran the other way to Tarshish. Why? Jonah knew about the incredible cruelty of the Assyrians in war, who were well-known for the horrific things they did to their prisoners. He knew that of all peoples, they deserved punishment.
Finally, he did go to Ninevah to tell them to repent, and they did! When God saw how they turned from their evil ways, he did not bring the destruction he had threatened — and Jonah was outraged at God’s mercy. We read:
He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 3:10-4:3)
It is amazing to hear that Jonah is so furious with God for his forgiveness that he wishes he was dead. What a contrast between the emotions of sinful humanity and the grace of a holy, but compassionate God! While we usually look to the New Testament for stories of God’s mercy, we find one of the most powerful accounts of God’s grace in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah.
Christians sometimes think that the God of the Old Testament was an angry, unforgiving God, until he poured out his wrath on Jesus. Yet we see here that when God reveals himself in all his glory, he describes himself in terms of his grace, love and mercy.
His mercy winds its way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Because Jesus says he does nothing but what he sees his father in Heaven doing, we know that his life and death reflects his Father’s great desire: that we be forgiven and reconciled with him.
Both the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation are apocalyptic in nature, meaning they are filled with visions of end times. Christians spend a lot of time discussing the end times and have many viewpoints on how to read prophetic material.
One way to gain wisdom about prophecy is to look at it through the life and words of Jesus. How prophecy was fulfilled at his coming? What did he himself say about it?
Surprisingly, according to Jesus, God doesn’t necessarily fulfill prophecy as we think. Many of the prophecies that describe the coming of the Messiah also describe a time of judgment by God. For instance, in Luke 1:17, the angel tells Zechariah that his son John “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.”
The angel was quoting a prophecy from Malachi which says,
Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse. (Mal. 4:5-6)
The Malachi passage appears to describe the “great and terrible day of the Lord” as coming right at the time of Elijah. John the Baptist knew scripture well, and in his ministry we hear him preaching that judgment is right around the corner, in accordance with his scriptures.
These prophecies are also the reason why John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” John knew he was to be the “messenger” prophesied in Malachi 3, and he had expectations for the one coming after him:
See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap… So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3:1-2, 4-5)
John’s question for Jesus came from the fact that Jesus wasn’t fulfilling prophecy as he expected. It appears he was thinking that Jesus would be a mighty warrior who would destroy the wicked, including those who had imprisoned him.
Jesus replies by quoting other prophecies about the Messiah, that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22-23). John probably still believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but he was asking the question to show how perplexed he was at how Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
Jesus specifically avoids passages about vengeance, demonstrating that his ministry is one of healing and forgiveness. In one place, Jesus selectively quotes a passage to avoid words about judgment. In Luke 4, he says,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18 -19)
He is quoting from Isaiah 61, but stops in mid-sentence, because after “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” it goes on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus made a point of saying that he was the Messiah, and that his time on earth then was to bring forgiveness and a new relationship with God, but the judgment would come later. He was to suffer as in Isaiah 53, and only later come to judge and to reign.
Often, Christians say that Jesus’ people rejected him as Messiah because they just wanted a political leader, not a spiritual leader. It is more likely that many rejected him because he did not fit their reading of prophecy. They wanted vengeance and expected Jesus to come in judgment, as the Bible appeared to say.
Even Jesus’ disciples were waiting for him to announce when he would begin the war, and they would take their thrones to reign in power. They expected he would kill all his enemies, and then usher in a great messianic age where he would reign as Prince of Peace.
Instead, he fulfilled the prophecies about the “suffering one” in Isaiah 53, who by his own death would justify many and make atonement for their sins. He ushered in the Kingdom of God by his death, not by war. Only in his second coming will he come in judgment.
God surprised everyone, even the most faithful, in the coming of Jesus. It should humble us to realize that he does not use our logic to fulfill prophecy, and should make us very careful to say we have definitive knowledge about the future from Bible prophecy. Jesus said of his second coming, “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mark 13:32).
One thing Jesus does say about his second coming that we often hear is the need to repent and to be prepared. He will return when he is least expected. As Peter says, God is not tarrying: he is waiting patiently for as many to come to faith to avoid judgment as possible. As we read Revelation and other prophecies about the end, it should give us a special urgency to share the gospel and live lives that are a witness to Christ.
Isaiah is full of pictures of the Messiah and the coming kingdom of God. One of the first that we encounter is a vision for the messianic age is in Isaiah 2. It says,
Now it will come about that in the last days The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Is. 2:2-3)
Isaiah is full of rich words and images to express God’s promises. If we can see the thoughts behind the pictures, the beauty becomes all the more evident. Let’s read through this poem, getting a sense of the word-pictures and the ideas behind them:
The mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains.
The mountain of the house of the Lord is the temple mount of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built on Mt. Moriah, so when a person goes to Jerusalem, they always go up. If you go to visit, you will always remember the long climb that the buses make up the hill into Jerusalem. Even today in Hebrew, the Temple Mount is called Har HaBeit, which means “mountain of the house.” Throughout the Bible, the Temple is often referred to simply as “the house.”
Putting the Temple on the highest mountain in Israel was intentional. Shrines to worship gods were always established on hilltops, which were called “high places” in the Old Testament. God commanded the Israelites to destroy the idols on all of the high places, even though they never really did.
The picture in Isaiah 2 is of the mountain of the Temple being “raised up” over all of the high places where idols are worshiped, and the peoples around them realizing that the God of the Jews is the real God.
And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD…
The word “nations” in Hebrew here, goyim, has a stronger connotation than it does in English. It often refers to entire nations, including Israel. But it is also translated as Gentiles, specifically those that are not Jewish. It often carries an assumption of pagan-ness, that one is referring to the nations that surrounded Israel who worshiped idols and practiced immorality. Once again, Isaiah 2 paints a picture of the lost sinners of the world finding the God of Israel and wanting to worship Him.
That He may teach us concerning His ways, and we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
When foreigners who do not know God come to Jerusalem, they want him to teach them his ways, so his torah will go out from Jerusalem. It is important to note that the word for teach, yarah, is the verb form of torah, teaching or instruction. In response to their desire to have God teach them, they will have God’s teaching (torah), instruction for how to live.
The words walk, lekh, and way, derekh, are frequent metaphors used when speaking about having a covenant relationship with God. Lekh means walk, but as Hebrew words tend to be very broad, it often describes a general life direction. Derekh means road, path, or street, but often is a metaphor for a way of living. To “walk in God’s ways” is to live out a relationship with God. Many times God says to Israel,
Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul? (Deut. 10:12)
In the book of Acts, the first Christians refer to themselves as “the people of the Way.” They often spoke of their movement as “The Way,” using this imagery to describe living out the teaching that Jesus gave them. They are thinking of learning from Jesus how to live in relationship with God.
The Fulfillment of Isaiah 2
The picture in Isaiah is of a coming time when people from all the Gentile nations will seek the God of Israel, to know and worship the God of the Jews. They will want to know the Lord and have a relationship with him, which is what salvation is in this life. It will begin at Jerusalem and go out to the ends of the earth.
The fulfillment first began at Pentecost, when people in the Temple were filled with God’s Spirit, and the gospel began to be poured out on all the world beginning in Jerusalem. In Acts 10 the first Gentile, Cornelius, was filled with the spirit and all his family became believers. This was a shock to Peter and the rest of Jesus’ Jewish disciples but the prophets had envisioned it long ago.
Then Paul brought the gospel to the Gentiles. It is still being fulfilled today as the all the nations of the world are hearing about the God of the Jews, how he came to earth to make a covenant of forgiveness of sin with his own blood. He came to walk on earth with us, so that we can learn to walk with him.
Any student of language knows that each one frames the world in different ways. Often the same word is used for more than one thing that the culture considers equivalent, but distinguishes when differentiation seems important.
For instance, in Thai, the same word for cheese is used for butter, since they don’t eat much of either. In contrast, in Danish there are many different words to describe types of licorice, because it is a favorite in Denmark. Chiam Potok said that if you want to understand a culture, it is essential to understand the language, because that describes the very heart of the culture.
The heart of biblical culture is Hebrew. The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. Even though the New Testament was written entirely in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews who knew much of the Old Testament by memory. It is filled with quotes from the Old Testament, and its commentary is full of Hebraic thinking. It is tremendously enriching to get into their minds by seeing how they framed their world in language. Let’s look at one more in more detail: wisdom.
Hokmah, Wisdom in Hebrew
We as Westerners think of wisdom as to have cognitive ability, to be able to think great thoughts. We think of the wise philosopher as being the opposite of the manual laborer who pounds nails, or paints walls, or lays tile.
In Hebrew, however, the word hokmah is used to describe both. It speaks of people who are skilled laborers as those who have “wise hearts.” We read this term applied to the skilled laborers who built the tabernacle:
Every skilled woman (literally, with a wise heart) spun with her hands and brought what she had spun – blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen. (Ex. 35:25)
And the Bible says that the craftsman who designed the high priest’s robes were given the “spirit of wisdom”:
Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom (literally, the spirit of wisdom) in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. (Ex. 28:3)
The word hokmah describes the ability to function successfully in life, whether it is by having the right approach to a difficult situation, or the ability to weave cloth. It is practical and applicable to this world, not just otherworldly.
Judaism has historically held manual labor in high regard, rather than disdaining it as unspiritual. When a great rabbi entered a room, people were to stop what they were doing and honor him. However, carpenters and other craftsman did not need to stop, because their work was considered just as honorable. This is part of the Hebraic affirmation of day-to-day life in this world. We can learn a lot of wisdom from the Hebrew word for wisdom!
As Westerners, we tend to believe God is only involved in giving us the ability to do what we call “spiritual,” like Bible study or prayer. We imagine that God’s input into our lives ends when we leave church on Sunday, and the rest is “secular.” Here, we learn that biblically, it is considered “wisdom” to do our jobs well: to be able to use a photocopier, or program a computer, or run a lawn mower. A janitor can be using his spiritual gifts as much as a pastor.
We can see from the word hokmah, as well as the rest of Proverbs, that all of our day-to-day lives are of concern to the Lord. God cares about whether we are a good 2nd grade teacher, or systems analyst, or check-out clerk. God is practical and down-to-earth. He cares about our credit card debt, whether our house is a mess, how much we watch TV. His desire is that we have wisdom in all things in order to live the life he gave us to the very best.
Let’s not make the mistake of believing that “eternal” life comes later. We are already in it: this is just the first part. The “wisdom” God has given us is meant to be used skillfully in this kingdom, prudently and for his glory.