‘A man poor but wise ... saved the city by his wisdom.
But nobody remembered that poor man.’ Ecclesiastes 9:15
‘I was demonised and vilified’, ‘life isn’t fair’, ‘sometimes you step off the pavement and get hit by a bus’. The words are those of Tony Hayward, Chief Executive Officer of British Petroleum, soon to step aside from his £1m per annum job in the wake of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. When I heard that phrase, ‘life’s not fair’, one question flashed immediately into my mind. Has Mr. Hayward only just discovered that life isn’t fair? Some of us discovered that a long time ago, and have tried to instil the lesson into our children. And there was another reaction to Mr. Hayward’s petulant comments. Learning that he was to move aside with contractual benefits in the region of $ 17 US dollars, or £11 million, one e-mailer remarked, ‘Hey, I’d like to be hit by a bus that produced no physical injuries and gave me $17 million. That’s my kind of bus!’
But what shall we say to the man who looks at life with a cool mind and detached eye, and says, ‘You know, life’s not fair?’ The author of Ecclesiastes shared that sentiment. The author purports to be King Solomon, the monarch renowned for his wisdom. He has tried all sorts of activities in the quest for happiness and satisfaction. But the hunt proved fruitless. He dismisses it all as ‘vanity’. The translators have rung the changes on his verdict, ‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanity’. ‘Meaningless, a chasing after the wind’, or as Petersen puts it, ‘spitting into the wind’.
He reminds his readers of an event they may have been familiar with. A lopsided battle takes place. On one side there was a small city with few inhabitants; on the other a great king and his army, which builds huge earthworks against the city. In the city a poor but wise man had a plan for its deliverance. It says, in verse 13, that he saved the city, but some modern translations suggest it should read, ‘when he might have delivered the city’. There are two alternatives, therefore. Either, the man who could have saved the city was overlooked, as verse 16 seems to suggest, ‘But the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are no longer heeded’. Or he saved the city, but was promptly forgotten.
When the danger was over, perspectives changed. You may recall the bargain struck by the burgers in Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Faced with the plague of rats, the good men promised the piper 1,000 guilders, if he would rid them of the vermin. But when the job was done, and the piper came to collect his earnings, it was a different tune.
‘But as for the guilders, what we spoke of them, as you very well know, was in joke. Besides, our losses have made us thrifty, a thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!’
The piper could have identified with the ‘life’s not fair’ mentality.
the book of Genesis, Joseph knew a
similar experience. In prison in
As the scholar Derek Kidner observed, ‘We should learn not to count on anything as fleeting as public gratitude’. That wise man who saved the city could say with Tony Hayward, ‘Life’s not fair’. How do we respond to that attitude?
First, it poses a problem
Logically, the apparent unfairness of life is a problem for the Christian, but for no one else. It is not a problem for atheists like Richard Dawkins. They take the view that there is only one reality - the physical, material universe around us. Their belief has been summarized as ‘stuff is all there is’, and any unpleasant aspects of life are explained by the current state of evolution within the universe, and things therefore could not be any different, so why complain?
Nor does the unfairness of life affect religions like Buddhism or Hinduism. They claim that we are all part of the one great Being and that all distinctions are illusory. The idea that there is a difference between good and evil is an illusion - something we will have to overcome on our path to enlightenment.
But for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition there really is a problem if life isn’t fair. Christians believe both that God is loving and that God is all-powerful and the existence of evil and misfortune disproves one or the other. Someone put it like this - either God is all-powerful and could prevent all evil and suffering, but since he fails to do so, he cannot be loving; or, if He is loving, and longs to prevent such things, his failure to do so proves that he is not all-powerful. That’s the Christian’s problem.
In the Old Testament, the Book of Job was a Jewish attempt to wrestle with that very issue.
for the Christian the problem is at its most acute when we look at the Cross of
[* See “The Theophanies of the Old Testament” at end.]
Second, it preserves the truth
The truth is that we live in a fallen world. There is moral evil in the world - pride, envy, lust, greed. And there is natural evil - the awesome force of earthquake and flood and tornado; and the cruelty in the animal creation where one species is a predator on another, nature red in tooth and claw.
The Bible asserts that these things point to the reality that this is a fallen world. The story in Genesis 3 has weird features - a speaking serpent, for instance - but it contains precious insights. This world is not as God meant it to be. Something alien has entered in to mar and destroy. Shame and guilt will haunt us, work will be laborious, and the land will produce thorns and thistles. The apostle Paul spoke of the creation ‘groaning’. Life isn’t as it was meant to be.
The evidence is all around us, in distorted values. Someone said that the world to him looked like a shop window into which a criminal had broken during the night, and rearranged all the price tags, so that the trivial things were highly priced and the truly valuable things were marked at a pittance. A great scholar wrote, ‘What counts in the worlds judgement is wealth and self-advertisement’. ‘Genuine, unostentatious merit goes unrecognised, unrewarded.’ That’s our topsy-turvy world.
Now to say that we are fallen people is not an insult, but a compliment. It is to say that we were meant for something higher. Do away with the Bible’s truth about the fall, and we are literally hopeless. We are saying that in this harsh, lopsided world things are the best they can be, and we’d better get used to it. It’s the Bible’s message that is full of hope. It tells us that we need to be redeemed, but also that since we are made in the image of God, we can be redeemed.
Third, it presents a challenge
We are quick to accuse God for allowing wicked things to happen; but might not God challenge us about the part we play in contributing to an unfair world.
Might He not ask, ‘There are thousands of children dying every, minute from preventable diseases which you have the means, but obviously not the will, to stop. Is that fair?’
Might He not ask, ‘There are millions dying a slow death from starvation while in your western society more and more of you are becoming obese, through gluttony? Is that fair?’
Might He not ask, ‘There are millions who have less to live on each day than you spend when you go out for a cup of coffee. And there are others who have more individual wealth than some entire countries. Is that fair?’
Might He not ask, ‘And think how you pollute my world, with oil spills and C02 emissions, and spend vast sums on yourselves and your homes ... with weddings that cost £3. 2 million dollars ... while millions are homeless refugees. Is that fair?’
Yes, it is difficult for one person, or even one group, to make much of an impact in addressing the world’s inequalities. But the old Chinese proverb is right, ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.
Fourth, it points to the future
Oswald Chambers commenting on the little story in Ecclesiastes said, ‘Solomon’s counsel is to take into account the fact that you cannot expect to be recognised’. And Chambers went on to place the problem in its proper context, ‘Remember that your lasting relationship is with God, otherwise you will find heartbreak and disappointment and become cynical’.
And it is the context of eternity that puts our problem into focus. The book of Revelation speaks of the day when God shall judge the earth. And while we may shudder at the thought, it is intrinsically good news, because it assures us that we live in a moral universe, and that evil and wickedness will not finally win. As Chris Wright has written, ‘On the judgment day of God all wrongs will be exposed. There will no longer be any hiding place. ... The day of judgment will reveal everything, assess everything, and deal with everything. All unrepented, persistent wickedness will be met with the verdict of God’s perfect justice. ... God will put all things right’.
for the righteous on that day there will be the joys of the new Jerusalem, with
no more death or mourning, or crying or pain; no more sin; no more shame or
deceit; no more strife.* The curse of
[* On the contrary, ‘on that day’ at the conclusion of the millennium, Satan will be released for a short time upon this restored earth and its rebellious inhabitants will be destroyed. Only afterwards, in ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev. 21: 1), will there be no more crying, pain; sin, shame, deceit or strife.]
C.S. Lewis wrote a book entitled, The Great Divorce, based on the great gulf that separates heaven and hell. He imagines a bus trip which the ghosts, the inhabitants of hell, make to the solid people, the citizens of heaven. There a ghost meets a solid person, someone whom he recognised as having been a murderer while on earth. He is outraged that he should be living in a pigsty in hell, while the former murderer lives in luxury in heaven. The murderer informs him that he had repented of his sin, that he had been forgiven, and that he had been reconciled to the man he had murdered. The ghost feels a sense of unfairness. ‘I want my rights, I want my rights’, he shouts. But the solid person interrupts, ‘You won’t get your rights’, he said, ‘you’ll get something far better.’
Life’s not fair, Mr. Hayward. And heaven isn’t fair either. It’s much better than we deserve!
THE THEOPHANIES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT*
By ALEX SOUTTERER
* It will be helpful to explain for the sake of younger students not acquainted with the subject, that “Theophany” is the term used to describe the manifestation of the presence of God in the early history of Old Testament times. There are at least seven definite instances of the appearances in the books of Exodus, Joshua, and Judges; but there are also other appearances of “the Angel of Jehovah” or “Angel of His Presence” mentioned in connection with the Exodus, e.g., (23: 20ff.) These Theophanies were not mere spectacular “happenings”, but always had a divine, definite, purpose of particular import in them. The clear distinction must be kept, therefore between the usual meaning of angel used generally to describe spirit-beings of heavenly character, and the particular Angel of the Theophanies.
The story of Hagar’s flight (her name, significantly enough, means ‘Flight’, or ‘Wandering’) is exquisitely told in the minimum of words in Genesis 16. What gives this passage of Scripture so great importance is the portraiture it contains of the Angel of Jehovah. This is the first manifestation of God in angelic or human form, and therefore the first of the Theophanies of Scripture. So that, despite the smallness of Hagar’s moral stature, the record enshrined in these verses is of compelling significance. Eight verses (Gen. 16: 7-14), describe what happened at Beer-lahai-roi in the following chiasmus:
A. The Spring (Divine provision) v. 7.
B. God calls Hagar by name (the Grace of God displayed) v. 8.
C. Hagar’s transformed line of conduct, (“return”); (“submit”) v. 9.
D. Racial increase (“I will multiply thy seed”) v. 10.
D. Racial ‘head’ (“call his name Ishmael”) v. 11.
C. Ishmael’s perverse character. (“wild ass of a man”) v. 12.
B. Hagar calls God by a new Name (the human response to Grace) v. 13.
A. The Well (appropriation of God’s provision) v. 14.
The Ishmaelite race followed in the steps of Ishmael its head.
He was a son of the desert, “a wild ass among men” (R.V.), who dwelt “to the east of his brethren” (v. 12, R.V. marg.). The Bedouin of the desert may well he regarded as Ishmael’s descendants. “His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” well fits the wild ways of the Bedouin of all ages. The term Ishmaelite has also a broader signification in Gen. 37: 28 where it is identified with the Midianites.
seems strange that Ishmael, so untamed and untameable, so restless and
resisting, should have sprung from the loins of Abraham. His twelve
princely sons and their posterity were as fleshly and wild as their
father. The Ishmaelite line continued
through the centuries to move in estrangement and alienation from God. In Saul’s day two or three of their tribes
were driven from the region they occupied east of
This darksome background throws into greater relief the record of two or three individuals belonging to Ishmael’s nomad race who were raised to royal favour in David’s reign. First, the Chronicler (1 Chron. 27) in setting down the names of the officers in charge of the king’s substance, mentions Obil the Ishmaelite who was, appropriately, over the camels. Who could surpass those sons of the desert in their knowledge of this desert beast of burden? Then, at the end of the intriguing list of twelve names is that of Jaziz who looked after David’s sheep. Last but not least! Can we not hear David saying something like this? “Now Jaziz I am putting you in charge of my flocks. Feed them. Shepherd them. Take the oversight thereof not by constraint but willingly, not merely for your monthly wage but of a ready mind. Though now a king I am still a shepherd - your chief shepherd”. Then, turning back to 1 Chron. 2: 17 we find evidence of another Ishmaelite: occupying such a place of privilege that he married Abigail, David’s sister. His son Amasa became entrapped in the rebellion of Absalom but he was made commander of David’s army notwithstanding. But Joab saw to it that this honour was short-lived.
1 All this may seem to be an unnecessary digression from the theme in hand. But in reality the history of the race and this happening that heralded its beginnings are in closest harmony. Grace overtook those desert wanderers and gave them to taste of God’s bounty, just as grace overtook Hagar and beckoned her back to that chosen family who dwelt in a chosen land.
Writ large over the record of this divine phenomenon
is the kindness of God. Phenomenon it undoubtedly was. For the first time in human history One of the Godhead was manifested on earth
in angelic form. And to whom? To a
low-born Egyptian woman; a slave; a wanderer; to one whose insolence to and contempt
for Sarah her mistress compelled the latter, abruptly to alter her attitude towards her.
The pull of
Further, divine instruction followed in the wake of this divine visitation. Hagar was doing wrong in returning to Egypt. Her propensity to wander had gained control. But the Lord went after her, and turned her face towards the only place that held for her, peace and protection. Abraham was, after all, responsible for the bringing up of the child yet to be born. If Khammurabi’s code of laws made it a legal custom for Hagar to become Abraham’s concubine (though God’s approval did not rest upon it) a higher code of laws - God’s own - demanded that the father of the child should rear and nurture him. Hence this correction from the hand of God and the resultant return of Hagar to dwell under Abraham’s roof until the time was ripe for her final departure.
Furthermore, the naming of the well shows to what
extent this desert experience had been to Hagar a revelation from God. A revelation of God’s love and care. An unveiling of His
thoughts and counsels concerning her.
All this filled her with wonder, and her wonderment is expressed in the
name, Beer-lahai-roi – “The
well of the living One Who seeth”, or, “Who
reveals Himself”. (Hagar led the
way in the naming of wells; Abraham named one afterwards; Isaac named three;
see 21:31; 26: 20, 21, 22). It was
indeed amazing grace for God thus to reveal Himself to Hagar, and she knew
it. She had been brought up in a land
whose gods hid themselves in impenetrable darkness -
so the Egyptians believed. She had
doubtless learned in
1 A perusal of this inspired narrative brings home to heart and mind the immutability and depth of the divine purposes. Had we written the story we should have wanted to write about a more happy sequel. In this unique fashion God comes down to earth to speak to an erring creature. He has not appeared in this fashion before. Are the results spectacular, or even from the human viewpoint, wholly satisfactory? Scarcely! Hagar obeyed; but how she ended her days we cannot say. Her progeny lived far from God and Islamic power in our own day is a grim reminder of it. Yet, knowing the end from the beginning, God appeared to Hagar and gave her to taste of His great goodness. His purposes stood fast despite the waywardness, of the creature. When God gives His servants a commission, human standards of success cannot serve as a criterion of its fulfilment or its faithful discharge. The sent one must needs use big time and talent as one who serves God and not man, and leave, the results with his Master. When the prophet said, “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought”, he did not abandon himself to utter despair, for he went on to say, “Yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God?” Our Lord’s service on earth was utterly free from failure - yet there were many defections among His followers, and, even the twelve failed Him at the crucial hour. There was, in many cases, a total lack of response to His overtures of love, and His own nation cast Him out. Yet how perfectly He served. How gloriously He fulfilled, to the last jot and tittle, the will of God enshrined in the volume of the Book.
So that the story of Hagar’s flight and Hagar’s return, highlights this basic principle that divine service can only be rendered for God’s highest glory if the servant’s gaze is fixed, not on seeing results, but on his unseen Master. We follow Him Who was at once the Author and the Herald of the message given to Hagar, and we must needs fulfil our commission after His pattern, whether the results seem short-lived or of long duration.