Day 197

Soften Your Heart and Harden Your Feet

Wisdom Proverbs 17:5-14
New Testament Romans 2:17-3:8
Old Testament Amos 1:1-2:16

Introduction

A twenty-one-year-old music college student took the cheapest ship she could find, calling at the greatest number of countries, and prayed to know where to disembark. She arrived in Hong Kong in 1966 and came to a place called the Walled City. It was a small, densely populated, lawless area controlled neither by China nor Hong Kong. It was a high-rise slum for drug addicts, gangs and sex-workers. She wrote:

I loved this dark place. I hated what was happening in it but I wanted to be nowhere else. It was almost as if I could already see another city in its place and that city was ablaze with light. It was my dream. There was no more crying, no more death or pain. The sick were healed, addicts set free, the hungry filled. There were families for orphans, homes for the homeless, and new dignity for those who had lived in shame. I had no idea of how to bring this about but with ‘visionary zeal’ imagined introducing the Walled City people to the one who could change it all: Jesus.

Jackie Pullinger has spent over half a century working with heroin addicts, gang members and sex-workers. I remember so well a talk she gave some years ago. She began by saying, ‘God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.’

Jackie is a glowing example of this; going without sleep, food and comfort to serve others. God wants us to have soft hearts – hearts of love and compassion. But if we are to make any difference to the world, this will lead to hard feet as we travel along tough paths and face challenges.

Wisdom

Proverbs 17:5-14

5 Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
   whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.

6 Children’s children are a crown to the aged,
   and parents are the pride of their children.

7 Eloquent lips are unsuited to a godless fool—
   how much worse lying lips to a ruler!

8 A bribe is seen as a charm by the one who gives it;
   they think success will come at every turn.

9 Whoever would foster love covers over an offense,
   but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

10 A rebuke impresses a discerning person
   more than a hundred lashes a fool.

11 Evildoers foster rebellion against God;
   the messenger of death will be sent against them.

12 Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs
   than a fool bent on folly.

13 Evil will never leave the house
   of one who pays back evil for good.

14 Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
   so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.

Commentary

Soften your heart towards others

If you have a heart softened by God, you will inevitably demonstrate love towards others. Our aim should be to live a life that ‘promotes love’ (v.9a).

1. Love the poor

Your attitude to the poor reflects your attitude to God: ‘Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker’ (v.5a). As God’s people we are called to friendship with and service of the poor.

2. Love your family

God’s ideal is for you to enjoy close and loving relationships between parents, grandparents and children: ‘Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children’ (v.6).

3. Love your friends

Love between close friends is extremely valuable. Guard your friendships. Do not quickly take offence or bear a grudge: ‘Overlook an offense and bond a friendship; fasten on to a slight and – good-bye, friend!’ (v.9, MSG).

4. Love your critics

Jesus told us, ‘Love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44). A soft heart is willing to take criticism, whether it comes from a friend or even from an ‘enemy’. ‘A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool’ (Proverbs 17:10).

Do your utmost to avoid arguments: ‘Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out’ (v.14).

Prayer

Lord, help me to love like this. Help me to guard my relationships in my family, with my friends, and with my critics. Help me to love the poor and make a real difference in their lives.

New Testament

Romans 2:17-3:8

The Jews and the Law

17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

God’s Faithfulness

3 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

3 What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

  “So that you may be proved right when you speak
   and prevail when you judge.”

5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6 Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7 Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” 8 Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

Commentary

Soften your heart towards God

It does not matter what is happening on the outside if we do not have a ‘soft heart’. Here, Paul looks at the importance of the heart. He explains that it was intended that the Jews, God’s chosen people, should walk in a relationship with God. So they were given the law. They knew God’s will (2:17–18). They were meant to be ‘a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants’ (vv.19–20).

Physical circumcision was the outward and visible sign intended to reflect the inward and invisible attitude of the heart. Paul argues that sadly they (like us all) have failed to keep God’s law (vv.21–27).

Paul then focuses on what really matters: ‘You become a Jew by who you are. It’s the mark of God on your heart, not of a knife on your skin that makes a Jew. And recognition comes from God, not legalistic critics’ (v.29, MSG).

What matters to God is the heart. Every person who has the Holy Spirit living in their heart receives the same inheritance as the Jews did in the Old Testament. This includes every true Christian.

Does this mean that there is no value to what the Jews had been given? No. He points out that there are great advantages to being Jewish. For example, ‘they have been entrusted with the very words of God’ (3:2). What an amazing privilege! However, you now not only have the words of God in the Scriptures they had, you also have the words of Jesus and the whole of the rest of the New Testament. You have an even greater advantage.

Later on in Romans, he will expound this at greater length (Romans 9–11). Meanwhile, he digresses to deal with an argument his opponents have levelled against him (3:3–8). He stresses again God’s faithfulness. Even when we are faithless, God remains faithful to us. It would be absurd to take advantage of this by doing evil. Rather God’s faithfulness encourages us to be faithful to him.

Prayer

Lord, fill my heart today with your Spirit, with love and compassion for every person I meet. Thank you that you have entrusted us with the very words of God. Help me to be faithful to you today.

Old Testament

Amos 1:1-2:16

1 The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa —the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.

2 He said:

“The Lord roars from Zion
   and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
   and the top of Carmel withers.”

Judgment on Israel’s Neighbors

3 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Damascus,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because she threshed Gilead
   with sledges having iron teeth,
4 I will send fire on the house of Hazael
   that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad.
5 I will break down the gate of Damascus;
   I will destroy the king who is in the Valley of Aven
and the one who holds the scepter in Beth Eden.
   The people of Aram will go into exile to Kir, ”
    says the Lord.

6 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Gaza,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because she took captive whole communities
   and sold them to Edom,
7 I will send fire on the walls of Gaza
   that will consume her fortresses.
8 I will destroy the king of Ashdod
   and the one who holds the scepter in Ashkelon.
I will turn my hand against Ekron,
   till the last of the Philistines are dead,”
    says the Sovereign Lord.

9 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Tyre,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom,
   disregarding a treaty of brotherhood,
10 I will send fire on the walls of Tyre
   that will consume her fortresses. ”

11 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Edom,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because he pursued his brother with a sword
   and slaughtered the women of the land,
because his anger raged continually
   and his fury flamed unchecked,
12 I will send fire on Teman
   that will consume the fortresses of Bozrah. ”

13 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Ammon,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead
   in order to extend his borders,
14 I will set fire to the walls of Rabbah
   that will consume her fortresses
amid war cries on the day of battle,
   amid violent winds on a stormy day.
15 Her king will go into exile,
   he and his officials together, ”
    says the Lord.

2 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Moab,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because he burned to ashes
   the bones of Edom’s king,
2 I will send fire on Moab
   that will consume the fortresses of Kerioth.
Moab will go down in great tumult
   amid war cries and the blast of the trumpet.
3 I will destroy her ruler
   and kill all her officials with him,”
    says the Lord.

4 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Judah,
   even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
   and have not kept his decrees,
  because they have been led astray by false gods,
   the gods their ancestors followed,
5 I will send fire on Judah
   that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem. ”

Judgment on Israel

6 This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Israel,
   even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
   and the needy for a pair of sandals.
7 They trample on the heads of the poor
   as on the dust of the ground
   and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
   and so profane my holy name.
8 They lie down beside every altar
   on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
   they drink wine taken as fines.

9 “Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them,
   though they were tall as the cedars
   and strong as the oaks.
  I destroyed their fruit above
   and their roots below.
10 I brought you up out of Egypt
   and led you forty years in the wilderness
   to give you the land of the Amorites.

11 “I also raised up prophets from among your children
   and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
   declares the Lord.
12 “But you made the Nazirites drink wine
   and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

13 “Now then, I will crush you
   as a cart crushes when loaded with grain.
14 The swift will not escape,
   the strong will not muster their strength,
   and the warrior will not save his life.
15 The archer will not stand his ground,
   the fleet-footed soldier will not get away,
   and the horseman will not save his life.
16 Even the bravest warriors
   will flee naked on that day,”
    declares the Lord.

Commentary

Harden your feet to help the poor and needy

A soft heart must lead to hard feet, with God’s people prepared to act on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, to fight against injustice and stand up for the oppressed.

This was a time (760–750 BC) of great prosperity for Israel and Judah. But material prosperity is not always a sign of God’s blessing. At this time, it had resulted in complacency, corruption, immorality and terrible injustice.

Amos was a prophet. But he was not a priest or an ordained minister. He stayed in his workplace – a sheep breeder, who was unimpressed by prosperity, power and position. He was a defender of the downtrodden poor and an accuser of the privileged rich who were using God’s name to legitimise injustice and oppression.

Like the apostle Paul, Amos proclaims God’s judgment against both non-religious and religious.

He starts with the non-religious who ‘sin apart from the law’. Israel’s neighbours had committed terrible sins. They are condemned for their excessive cruelty and horrible torture (1:3), for slavery and slave trading (v.6), for ‘stifling all compassion’ (v.11), for ripping open pregnant women (v.13) and for desecrating the dead (2:1). Amos speaks of God’s wrath at such terrible sins (1:3,6,9,11,13).

Amos and Paul (Romans 1:18–20) both argue for a ‘natural law’. Even if they did not have the written law of God, there is a ‘natural law’ – ‘written on their hearts’ (2:15). They know that certain things are wrong. This was effectively the basis upon which the Nazi leaders were condemned at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War.

Amos, like Paul (2:12), goes on to say that God’s people who have the written law will be judged by an even stricter standard. Amos turns from judgment of the Gentiles to judgment of Judah and Israel because ‘they rejected God’s revelation, refused to keep my commands’ (Amos 2:4, MSG).

Although God had acted on their behalf – ‘I was always on your side’ (v.9, MSG) – they failed to keep his laws. In particular, the issue that matters to God is their attitude to the poor and needy. Their hearts had become hard. ‘People for them are only things – ways of making money. They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes. They’d sell their own grandmother! They grind the penniless into the dirt, shove the luckless into the ditch’ (vv.6c–7b, MSG). They are also guilty of slavery and sexual sin (v.7c).

While all this is going on, ‘stuff they’ve extorted from the poor is piled up at the shrine of their god, while they sit around drinking wine they’ve conned from their victims’ (v.8, MSG).

The sins of God’s people are not as horrific as those of the non-religious. Yet the judgment against them is as severe (vv.13,16) because God has blessed them so richly (vv.10–11). We are not to congratulate ourselves that our sins are less than others. Our sins may be less obvious, but they may be as great in God’s sight. Thank God for the forgiveness and grace that we receive through Jesus.

Prayer

Lord, give us soft hearts of compassion and love for the issues of extreme poverty and injustice in our world – and hard feet and courage to go out and do something about it.

Pippa adds

Proverbs 17:6

‘Parents are the pride of their children.’ We can but hope!

Proverbs 17:14

‘Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.’

It is a temptation when quarrelling to want to have the last word. Disagreements can escalate so easily. This proverb says: drop the matter, let it go, and move on.

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References

Jackie Pullinger, Crack in the Wall (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993) pp.15–16

Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.

Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

The Bible with Nicky and Pippa Gumbel

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