Wednesday, May 30, 2018 0 comments

Thoughts about Ecclesiastes

One of the things the Book of Ecclesiastes is known for is a dismal outlook on life, exemplified by the saying that is repeated throughout of, “all is vanity and vexation of spirit” and “this also is vanity” and so on.

However, I recently realized that along with pointing out stuff that was vanity and vexation, I noticed it also points out what is good. The preacher of Ecclesiastes was anxious to discover the ideal, happy, profitable life, one best optimized for the most happiness. And running under all the observations about vanity and vexation are that fearing God and working hard is the optimal state.

Concerning work, the preacher of Ecclesiastes is not optimistic about the longevity of work results. He puzzles over how a wise king might be followed by an awful king who cares nothing and knows nothing about maintaining or adding to what was done before him. So the preacher falls back on realizing that each person must work and enjoy that work and not worry about what will happen once they leave life because the people who follow will have their own work to do.

This gives me the impression that the way work changes us is the most important result of work, when looked at from the eternal perspective. Work serves us temporarily by providing us with things like shelter, food, protection, education, comfort, but it serves us eternally by how it helps us develop good character. So, in terms of what Ecclesiastes teaches about work, it is very positive, and helps us keep from getting unhealthy notions about the temporal results.
Monday, May 28, 2018 0 comments

Thoughts About Exodus and Why the Pharoah Wouldn’t Let Israel Go

We usually think of the Pharaoh who held the Israelites in bondage in Egypt as a bad guy (not that I’m going to argue he’s good…)  It seems odd that he would be shown all these signs and plagues, and once each one is over, he refuses to let the children of Israel go, after saying he would. Why did he keep hardening his heart?

I think it might be useful to think about what factors might have contributed to his hard heart because they may show us factors that cause us to harden our hearts.

One factor that easily comes to mind is that the Pharaoh saw that once the Israelites were gone, a very profitable source of cheap labor would be gone too. It would be logical to his self-interest and the interest of his kingdom that he would try to prevent that. He would try to intimidate or jolly Moses along in hopes of not losing control of Israelite labor.  Lesson: Loss of material advantages can often prevent us from responding to the Lord’s call if we value the advantage over obedience.

A second factor that might not be so obvious is that God’s actions may have run contrary to Pharaoh’s notions of how a god acts. Pharaoh has his gods, Moses has his God. This conflict could be seen as a cosmic battle between Pharaoh’s gods and Moses’ God. What is Pharaoh going to think of a God that says, “Let my people go”?  He’s going to think Israel’s God is weak. (“A god that asks permission for his people to leave? Right. Make me!”)  However, in the whole story, we see a God that allows people their agency—even hostile rulers—and lets them make decisions to respond to His requests or commands…or not.  And with the plagues that steadily increase in severity, we see that God is long-suffering, willing to wait for people to make the right choice, but ultimately, He can’t be frustrated and He can’t be toyed with.

Another thing we notice about Pharaoh is that when the crisis of a plague is upon him, suddenly he sees the necessity of letting Israel go, or requesting Moses to stop the plague, but as soon as the plague has stopped, he reneges and doesn’t follow through. Once the pain is gone, all thoughts of changing or acting as promised stop. There’s a nice lesson from this—when we’re going through a crisis, it is easy to make all kinds of resolutions that we’re going to change once things get back to normal, but when conditions improve, it is really easy to say, “Oh, I don’t need to do that after all; I’m okay now.” This is the same way Pharaoh hardened his heart.

Let’s review the plagues and see in what ways Pharaoh tries to put Moses off.

1) Moses’ first request is polite, with no plague. Pharaoh, in response, gets tough and makes the Israelite tasks harder by depriving them of ready straw for making bricks while not diminishing their quota they have to provide. In effect, he rewards good with evil, so the Lord has to get tougher. Ever after, Pharaoh can’t do anything to punish the Israelites because of the crisis of plagues.   Lesson: Sometimes we might consider spiritual impressions to change to be some sort of internal rebellion in ourselves or lack of discipline against a comfortable or tolerable status quo, so we tighten the screws and double down on what we’re doing instead of listening.

2) Then there is the miracle of the rods turning to snakes, the water of the river turning to blood, and the frogs. But because Pharaoh’s magicians seem to be able to do the same, Pharaoh hardens his heart. He still things his gods are just as powerful as Israel’s god. We don’t hear anything about the river and waters being healed; we only hear of the request to send away the frogs. (But you can notice that Pharaoh doesn’t actually say he’ll let the Israelites go once the frogs are gone.)  Lesson: Sometimes we refuse to listen to spiritual impressions or signs we need to change or act because we think they are coincidences or something caused by others.

3) Then there is the plague of lice, which the magicians can’t duplicate, so they tell Pharaoh it is Israel’s God at work. Still, Pharaoh hardens his heart, and we don’t see him asking for that to be removed, so maybe he thought it was a small enough problem that everyone could just deal with it.

4) Next comes the plague of flies, and Pharaoh tries to dictate the terms by which the Israelites will act. Moses’ request from the beginning has been that the Israelites be allowed to go out into the wilderness to sacrifice to God (and then not be expected to return.) The Pharaoh says at this point, “Oh, sure you can sacrifice, but do it here in Egypt.” Moses says, “No, we can’t do that, since our sacrifice is abomination to the Egyptians; they will stone us.” (see Ex. 8:26) and he says the Israelites must go at least three days journey into the wilderness. Pharaoh says “That’s fine; just don’t go very far. And pray for me.” So Moses prays for the flies to go away, which they do, and again Pharaoh hardens his heart. 

Pharaoh’s problem here was that he thought that if the intent of letting the Israelites go was sacrifice, then they should be able to do that anywhere. So why not Egypt? He forgot that the Egyptians did not approve of sacrifice, so requiring that would create a hostile, unbelieving environment for what should be a sacred, believing rite.   Lesson: Sometimes we try to dictate the terms of our obedience to the Lord. We try to choose the time and place that is most convenient, when sometimes those very inconveniences we try to ignore are what contribute to the sacredness of the experience.

5) Then there is the plague on the Egyptian cattle, and the boils on man and beast, but Pharaoh’s heart is still hardened. And he doesn’t seem to ask for any reprieve from these. He must have felt that was another thing people could just handle. Lesson: Sometimes we think we can deal with a problem instead of fixing it as we’re prompted to, and it just causes pain for everybody.

6) Then there is the hail, which is mixed with fire. (This may be ball lightning, which still hasn’t been studied much.) It so happens that the Egyptians who believed Moses could save their cattle and servants by bringing them into the house, but apparently Pharaoh didn’t care enough. Still, he asks Moses to stop the hail. Here he tries confession. “I have sinned this time: the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.” (Ex. 9:27) He promises to let the Israelites go afterward, but when the Lord stops the hail, Pharaoh hardens his heart again. So his confession was fake. You can also see that because he says, “I have sinned this time” (emphasis added). He doesn’t admit that his previous refusals to let them go are also sins. Lesson: Confessing a sin doesn’t do any good unless there is a commitment to act differently and follow-through.

7) The next one is an interesting case. Moses tells Pharaoh that there will be a plague of locusts if the Israelites aren’t let go. Pharaoh responds by telling them that only the men can go (see Ex 10:8-11) and then kicks Moses out so he can’t protest. Pharaoh is trying to hold the Israelite families hostage to ensure the return of the men. Also, he is trying to stop the conversation there so that there is no time for Moses to protest and announce the plague. I notice his servants figuring it out; they know Egypt is in trouble, but Pharaoh doesn’t realize it or refuses to see it.  Lesson: Censoring the Lord’s messenger doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Also, sometimes it becomes obvious to others around us that we are ignoring the Lord and on the wrong track, while we flail around trying to avoid the inevitable.

Anyway, Moses is in a tricky spot here. Do they take what Pharaoh offers, or do they stick to their guns? The Lord tells Moses to stretch out his hand over Egypt and bring the locusts. And they come.  Lesson: Partial obedience doesn’t fool the Lord. He knows when full obedience is being held back.

After the locusts come, Pharaoh says, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you. Now therefore forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and entreat the LORD your God, that he may take away from me this death only.” (Ex. 10:16-17)

Interesting that now Pharaoh admits he sinned against the Lord and against Moses. He has to up his contrition rhetoric to try to get Moses to believe him. (We only see this is rhetoric in hindsight, though, in the moment it could have been sincere, so he has to be believed.) But there are things he says which make us question his sincerity, especially since he says, “Forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once.” Even though Pharaoh has seen the Lord remove FIVE plagues, he has this idea that he only has to repent once and then everything will be okay after that. (What? Does he think no more plagues are possible and he’s seen the worst?) He doesn’t realize the principle that believers know-- all of us keep transgressing in ways we hadn’t anticipated, so we continue to need repentance. Also there’s another principle that Pharaoh depended upon, but which we sometimes forget (to our torment)—the Lord continues pardon as often as we repent. If the Lord removed plagues at Pharaoh’s request (knowing how hard-hearted Pharaoh was), how much more merciful will He be our complete sincerity and humility? So much more.

The Lord removes the locusts. But then Pharaoh hardens his heart again.

8) The next plague, Moses brings without going to Pharaoh. It is three days of darkness. This time Pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, but they must leave their cattle in Egypt. He’s still trying to keep hostages, still only trying to get by with 2/3rds obedience.  But since the effect of leaving the cattle means the Israelites would have to go back to Egypt to keep them or stay in the wilderness impoverished, Pharaoh’s agreement is actually not obedience at all, just a complete sham. Lesson: Hypocrisy doesn’t cut it with the Lord either.

Moses holds the line—everyone and everything they own is going with them. Pharaoh does not agree to that and says the next time Moses sees him, Moses will die.

So it has come to threats. Pharaoh seems to think that Moses is the problem and if Moses is gotten rid of, then everything will be okay. The problem is, this has just raised the stakes. Those who dig a pit for others will fall into said pit themselves. So, the Egyptians get the plague of the death of the firstborn.  Lesson:  Getting rid of the leader who transmits the commands of the Lord does not let you off the hook of following those commands.

Let’s sum up what we’ve learned, in a more organized fashion.

Sometimes we have troubles accepting messages from God because:
·      It forces us to sacrifice material advantages
·      It runs counter to our notions of what we think God would tell us.
·      We think it is just self-generated or foolish dissatisfaction.
·      We think it is coincidence or easily duplicated by others.
·      Or we think we can deal with the pain instead of changing.

Once it becomes clear the message really is from God, we still might drag our feet in the following ways:
·      The end of a crisis causes our urgency to fade and our motivation to drop.
·      We might confess our sins of disobedience, but still not change.
·      We might think we can get away with a show of obedience while not actually obeying.
·      We might think we can dictate the terms of the obedience, choosing what’s most convenient.
·      Or we might think that partial obedience is acceptable.
·      We might shorten, edit, re-interpret away the message.
·      Or (the unthinkable) threaten the messenger.

I bet these types of reasons look pretty familiar. But if we recognize ourselves here, recognizing there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it.

What I keep coming back to in this story is how long-suffering and merciful the Lord was with Pharaoh and how that means we can absolutely count on the mercy of the Lord if we repent sincerely and obey completely.

Saturday, May 26, 2018 2 comments

Disturbances to get gain

Now, it was for the sole purpose to get gain, because they received their wages according to their employ, therefore, they did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ, that they might get money according to the suits which were brought before them; therefore they did stir up the people against Alma and Amulek. (Alma 11:20)

This verse talks about the dangers of law-craft becoming a means of stirring people up to disturbances, in order for the lawyers to get gain, but I think it can apply in other ways too. Anyone who stands to profit from an increase in disturbance may become suspect.

For instance, what good is a big army in peacetime? Preparation is important, but how much is too much? Nibley (who worked in Army intelligence) later wrote of his concern when he saw army leaders being sad when WWII was over because they would be out of a job…until they discovered the idea of little brushfires wars around the world.   Likewise, those who sell weapons have an interest in conflict becoming armed and dangerous.

Disturbance is news, so those who report the news have a sort of motivation not only to find the conflict to report it, but also to continue talking about it and hashing it over as much as possible, all while publicly tsk-tsking over what goes on. The 24-hour news cycle was a model created in the 80s that also created a constant demand for material to report. The news cycle means not only reporting events, but also reporting reaction to those events from all kinds of stakeholders in the story and even those who are not involved. Competition between news providers means they must deliver the latest news in the most compelling manner to stay ahead. They get dollars for capturing eyeballs to sell to advertisers.

Social media enables those who gather a large following to make money from online advertising.
Sharing on social media may start with sharing valuable perspective that may otherwise go unheard, but there is a darker side. When emphasis on conflict becomes a primary means of capturing and holding attention--as followers are gripped with curiosity and want to see what happens next—when a social media person’s involvement is devoted mostly to taking sides in controversies—and followers are encouraged to take action to attack and shame those they consider enemies, then social media advocacy is stirring up disturbance.

I think it behooves us to keep these things in mind and be careful not to let ourselves get stirred up to anger. Part of charity is to not be easily provoked. We need people with those qualities even more now.

Thursday, May 10, 2018 0 comments

Isaiah testifies of Christ’s resurrection and others’ too

He will swallow up death in victory;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces;
and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth:
for the Lord hath spoken it.
(Isaiah 25:8)

I love that image of death being swallowed up in victory. The only way that could be done was for Christ to lay down His life and take it up again.

However, that isn’t the end of what this verse says about resurrection. The second line about the Lord wiping tears from all faces, which we generally take to mean the ending of all kinds of sorrow, is meant to refer to the grief at someone’s death. The only way that can be wiped away is for all the dead to arise.

The third line about the rebuke of the Lord’s people being taken away from off all the earth is also about resurrection. Think about the biggest way that the Lord’s people have been rebuked by the world. It’s by martyrdom, isn’t it? Killing the Saints and prophets has been the world’s way of saying, “Shut up forever, and leave us alone.” So when that rebuke is taken away, it means the Lord resurrects the righteous, and they can’t be gotten rid of any longer.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2 comments

The State of the Soul When Dying

As Ammon is trying to convince Lamoni’s father not to kill Lamoni, he says something about what would happen to Lamoni’s father if he were to die at that time, versus Lamoni’s state. I found it both interesting and indicative of an important principle.

But Ammon stood forth and said unto him: Behold, thou shalt not slay thy son; nevertheless, it were better that he should fall than thee, for behold, he has repented of his sins; but if thou shouldst fall at this time, in thine anger, thy soul could not be saved. (Alma 20:17)

So dying in anger would leave a soul in a sin without time to repent, and even though that probably wasn’t the only sin Lamoni’s father was burdened with, the point is that Ammon didn’t want to send Lamoni’s father out of mortality unprepared to meet God.

The deeper principle here is one that is universally applicable. We all have sinned, and we deserve to die, but God prolongs our life so that we have time to repent. We don’t know when our time will run out and our life will be over. Freak accidents happen. People go unexpectedly ballistic and kill people. Disease hits, etcetera, and if it is suddenly our turn to go, can we see we have repented and have a clear conscience?

Sunday, May 6, 2018 0 comments

Consequences of Squelching Prophets

10 Then Amaziah the priest of Beth-el sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to bear all his words.
11 For thus Amos saith, Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of their own land.
12 Also Amaziah said unto Amos, O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there:
13 But prophesy not again any more at Beth-el: for it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court.
14 Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit:
15 And the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.
16 Now therefore hear thou the word of the Lord: Thou sayest, Prophesy not against Israel, and drop not thy word against the house of Isaac.
17 Therefore thus saith the Lord; Thy wife shall be an harlot in the city, and thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword, and thy land shall be divided by line; and thou shalt die in a polluted land: and Israel shall surely go into captivity forth of his land. (Amos 7:10-17)

In these verses, Amos is complained of to the king of Israel on the grounds that he is conspiring against the king just because he has said the Lord would raise a sword against the house of Jeroboam.

Who is the complainer? None other than Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. It is not clear whether Amaziah is an idolatrous priest or a priest of Jehovah, but either way, it is ironic that a priest thinks the land can’t bear all Amos’s words. Amaziah also tells Amos to go elsewhere—to Judah, for instance—and prophesy there, but not in the king’s particular place of worship. Amaziah says

Amos responds to Amaziah’s opposition with a prophecy just for Amaziah: that his wife would be a harlot, his children would fall by the sword, his land would be divided among others, he would die in a polluted land, and Israel would go into captivity.

Because Amaziah can’t bear Amos’s words and thinks the land can’t bear them either, Amaziah is not going to tell the truth that needs to be told. That means even if his family begins to sin, he won’t try to stop them, and his family will do worse and worse things.

If Amaziah thinks the land can’t bear the truth, then he’s not going to teach it, and people won’t get a chance to hear the principles that could correct their errors and learn about the Messiah who can save them from their sins. If he doesn’t call for justice and righteousness, then eventually the injustice and wickedness will affect him, and his land will be taken away and divided among others. The people will get worse and worse and go down to destruction.

Even today there are people who, though they call themselves spiritual, can’t understand the scriptures.

Hosea wrote, “I have written to him the great things of my law, but they were counted as a strange thing.” (Hosea 8:12) Some of the things that are most often counted strange from the Law of Moses are the strict prohibitions and penalties against sexual sin or death penalties for sins that are considered trivial today—Sabbath-breaking, dishonoring parents, speaking evil of the leaders of the people, blasphemy.

It’s common to think about the consequences and shudder at the idea of what it would be like if those who were currently in violation were to have the penalties enforced, but who thinks about why such strictness was necessary or whether there was an instructive purpose to it? Whoever considers trying to fit themselves to the principle rather than rejecting it just because the penalties seem fearsome?

It is wonderful to know that commandments are for our blessing, not to ruin our fun. They show us a higher way to live, a way to find an optimum level of happiness that doesn’t injure ourselves or others with excess. They guide us so we can come to find greater long-term happiness, even if the short-term sacrifices look hard. They help us avoid carnal pleasures that would result in long-term suffering and regret.