Friday, November 23, 2007

Have We Settled on Our Lees?

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Not too long ago, in doing some tidying up around the house, I came across a bottle of red wine that we had opened for a dinner party who knows when. Being moderate in such things, we had not finished the entire bottle, and I had re-corked it and put it aside, intending to finish it fairly soon. But "fairly soon" had never come. While pouring the soured wine down the drain, I noticed that an unexpectedly large amount of sediment had collected in it, coating the entire bottom of the bottle. Seeing it, I was glad I had decided not to sample it before emptying the bottle.

Now for something altogether different—though the two subjects will merge in due course.

Sometimes a modern translation of the Bible really helps to clarify a scripture or passage. The archaic King James English—the "thees" and "thous"—trips up some people, while others misunderstand how certain words were used back then. For instance, we use the word "tongue" in the sense of the physical organ in the mouth that helps us to form speech as well as to taste food, but back in the time of Shakespeare, it was the primary word for what we call "language." Such a simple error has spawned a major Protestant denomination—Pentecostalism, which elevates speaking in tongues far beyond God's intent (see I Corinthians 12:4-10, 28-31)—and has led thousands of people astray.

However, at other times, modern translations err in trying too hard to make the text understandable. Occasionally, the translators interpret a phrase rather than translate it literally, as occurs in Zephaniah 1:12: "And it shall come to pass at that time that I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and punish the men who are settled in complacency, who say in their heart, 'The LORD will not do good, nor will He do evil.'" What does this verse literally say? ". . . I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees. . . ." What does it mean to be "settled on one's lees"? Is it relevant to us? Could we be guilty of it?

Understanding this figure of speech requires an overview of Zephaniah. Some have called him "the prophet of the Day of the Lord," which is the subject and main theme of his entire book. First, he describes that time in detail, showing that it will affect everybody and everything—nothing will escape it completely. In chapter 2, he calls on us to repent "before the LORD'S fierce anger comes upon you" (verse 2), then describes God's judgment on surrounding nations. Chapter 3 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its atrocious sins, but God promises in verses 8-13 that a remnant of faithful people will see the coming of Christ and the Millennium.

Zephaniah, then, is a book about our near future. God includes it in His Word to provide a wake up call to His people who have fallen asleep. He wants to save us however He can, and if He has to scare us to death to do it, He will! He prefers that we remain awake, watchful, and diligent, but if we start to drowse, He will throw cold water in our faces! Zephaniah is mainly composed of denunciations and threats—God is not being gentle! One commentator, George Adam Smith, writes of Zephaniah, "No hotter book lies in all the Old Testament!" It is like the kick of a booted drill sergeant at dawn!

Yet, even in Zephaniah's name a sense of hope remains: It means "The LORD has hidden." In Zephaniah 2:3, God promises that He will make a way of escape for the godly remnant: "Seek the LORD all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD'S anger." In Zephaniah 2:1, He calls for His people to "gather together, O undesirable nation," and in Zephaniah 3:8, to "wait for Me . . . until the day I rise up for plunder." In other words, He advises us to fellowship with other faithful people and wait patiently for God to do His work.

Now that we have some background, what does "settled on their lees" mean? As one may have guessed, it is an expression derived from winemaking. Lees are what we call "dregs," particles of solid matter that fall to the bottom of the vat or jar or bottle during fermentation. Back in ancient Israel, they liked to leave their wine on the lees to make it stronger, but there was a time limit to how long they could leave it there. Good wine left on its lees becomes stronger and more flavorful, but if left too long, it can become thick and syrupy—to put it bluntly, it will be ruined. So, a diligent winemaker would periodically pour the wine from one vat to another, straining off the lees.

The illustration shows that a person settled on his lees was at least slothful, maybe even complacent, indifferent, and apathetic. Bad wine left on the lees becomes harsh and bitter. We can certainly understand the metaphor here. What happens to a person who lives with his sins? Does he not become worse? Sin's addictive quality causes him to plunge deeper and need more or worse sin to satisfy him. For example, a person who broods in smoldering anger over some supposed offense eventually becomes bitter and hateful.

Notice that those who are settled on their lees say, "The LORD will not do good, nor will He do evil" (Zephaniah 1:12). They believe in God's existence, but they limit His ability to participate in their lives. They think He is powerless to do anything, good or evil. This is similar to the thought expressed by the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:17: "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing." Neither one needs God, they think. This attitude produces slothfulness, complacency, indifference, spiritual carelessness, and destruction, as Zephaniah 1:13 shows.

When stretched too far, any metaphor breaks down, but generally, the lees symbolize a way of life. For a righteous person, his godly way of life will make him stronger, but he must take care not to become complacent even in this because he could turn thick and apathetic. The solution, then, is to drain off the wine, as it were, into a new vessel periodically. Biblically, this is called "putting on the new man." We must be evaluating ourselves often, replacing worldly values with godly ones (see Colossians 3:1-17). To use a modern expression, we cannot be "resting on our oars" spiritually; we should never become satisfied with our spiritual progress.

What do we have to show for our spiritual lives right now? Or, have we settled on our lees? The Master Winemaker is waiting to pour us into heavenly vessels of honor and glory, so let us not disappoint Him by producing an inferior vintage.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Divided We Fall

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After the 2000 U.S. presidential election—in which George Bush eked out a narrow victory over Al Gore after the Florida chad fiasco—it became oh-so-apparent that this nation was seriously divided. The commonly used illustration of this divide was the Red State-Blue State map, on which the electoral votes for each candidate by state were colored red for Bush and blue for Gore. From this was extrapolated the relative political and social bent of any region of the country: Red signified a conservative, religious, and traditional view, while blue represented a liberal, secular, and progressive outlook.

Soon, demographers began playing with the numbers, dividing the nation into red or blue counties and even into red or blue voting districts. The national map that the county-by-county tabulation produced appeared more purple than red or blue on the coastlines and along the Mississippi River, while "flyover country," the Plains and Mountain states remained predominantly red.

The district-by-district map showed even more purple. These maps inspired the coining of a new term, the "purple state." Politically, a purple state is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, of which Pennsylvania, for instance, is a prime example. Democratic political adviser James Carville wryly described Pennsylvania as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between." Without its two major, left-leaning cities, Pennsylvania would be a red state, since its heartland is composed of mostly rural, religious folk, many of which still hold the solid, traditional values of the Pennsylvania Dutch and other conservative ethnic groups.

The mainstream media has trumpeted the country's divisions, drawing attention to the differences to the point of exaggeration. Pundits on both sides have played into the stereotypes, often using sweeping generalizations to characterize those on the other side (and sometimes those on their own side). In the last few years, however, several scholarly articles have been published, decrying the red state-blue state "hysteria" and criticizing the media and politicians for ignoring the majority of Americans—some say as much as sixty percent of the population—who consider themselves moderates, the bulk of the so-called "silent majority" whose voices cannot be heard above the din of the extremists. These overlooked centrists evidently comprise Purple America.

Purple Americans are the swing-voters in elections. Too frequently, they hold "nuanced" (read "compromise") positions on the major issues, many of which are either impossible or mere semantics. For instance, they may support homosexual civil unions but oppose homosexual "marriage." On immigration, they may support "undocumented workers" but oppose "illegal aliens." On the Iraq War, they may support the troops but oppose the mission. On taxes, they may support soaking the rich and corporations but oppose tax hikes. On entitlements, they may support reform but oppose decreases in payouts and services. Whom they vote for in any election depends on which candidate covers their hot-button topic. In other words, many of them are rather lackadaisical about most matters, but a candidate's agreement with them on their pet issue will swing their votes his or her way.

Thus, what emerges from these demographics is a severely divided country, whether the scholars wish to admit it or not. The staunch conservatives and tie-dyed-in-the-wool liberals on either end of the spectrum are buffered by a large mass of indifferent, tuned-out citizens who can be led about by a demagogue from either extreme by pandering to their self-interests. These middle-of-the-roaders are like the "cows of Bashan" of Amos 4:1, people who are sated on the fruits of their prosperity yet indifferent to the vital problems afflicting the nation.

In His prediction of their doom in verse 2, God hints at their gullibility in being swayed by others: "Behold, the days shall come upon you when He will take you away with fishhooks," describing the Assyrian practice of inserting hooks in their captives noses by which to lead them away. Just as they weakly followed their Israelite leaders to their nation's downfall, so will they likewise follow their conquerors into slavery.

The divide between Right and Left in America is the battleground between two irreconcilable ways of thinking. In the end, one or the other must prevail; there is no chance of them co-existing for long. The difference can be distilled down to those who believe in truth and those who believe in relativism. The former hold that truth is objective, that it exists in its own right, and people can aspire to understand and follow it. The latter consider truth to be subjective, that it is what each person decides to believe, and people are free to forge their own paths toward enlightenment. Ultimately, the difference comes down to those who believe in Deity and those who do or will not.

It is not apparent how long the current hostile truce between these two factions will hold. Perhaps the upcoming presidential election will provide insight into the speed and direction of the national ethic. Yet, optimistic and hopeful as we might be, it is difficult to foresee national revival. The social indicators—things like abortion, illegitimacy, marriage, crime, church attendance, etc.—are not improving as a whole, and as each year goes by, behaviors that were once thought beyond the pale are accepted into the mainstream. These are not signs of a society on the upswing. The oft-remarked parallels with the declines of the great empires are legion.

Where does one turn in times like these? King David supplies the answer in Psalm 11:3-7:

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men. The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.

The answer to our divided nation, then, is simple: Each individual must turn to God and work to be found among the righteous and upright whom He loves. Will we?