Christian readers need to continually remind themselves: the Old Testament believers had no developed doctrine of the afterlife. Whereas, in much of Christianity the idea of the afterlife — of rewards and punishments in the world to come — dominates the thinking of believers. This has become such a commonplace idea in Christianity, we must consciously remind ourselves that it is missing (for the most part) from the thinking of the Old Testament writers.
It’s not just Christians who may be surprised — or even shocked — by the absence of this theme. There are some observers who have theorized that religion exists as a way of addressing the fear of death. If that were the case, it would be impossible to account for the Jewish religion in Old Testament times (or: the religion of the ancient Greeks at the time of Homer, either. Just read The Iliad sometime.).
Because the believers of Old Testament times had no developed doctrine of the afterlife, they tended to see the issues of right & wrong / rewards & punishments as playing themselves out in this life. You can see this clearly in the book of Proverbs, for example: do right and things will go well for you, do wrong and you will suffer.
Yes, this is easily seen in the Proverbs and what we call the Wisdom literature — though books like Job and Ecclesiastes remind us that these things don’t always work out so neatly. But, we need to also remember that this conviction lay behind the angry passion for justice of the Old Testament prophets. They could see the injustices of the day — they could see how the poor were being treated — they felt anger — and they felt, that surely the consequences for such wrongs would fall upon the nation. It had to play itself out — not in a world to come — but in this world.
The psalmist speaks of the life of faith as a life of blessing — in the here and now.
נַפְשׁוֹ בְּטוֹב תָּלִין וְזַרְעוֹ יִירַשׁ אָרֶץ
“They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.”
Some of us have gained an aversion to passages like this. We don’t want to ally ourselves with a Prosperity Gospel — promising health and wealth and success and position and fame all in the name of Christ. We sense that this is Christian materialism. We realize that Jesus Christ and his earliest followers knew no such life of success and fortune. They gave all to possess Christ. Thus, the apostle Paul writes: “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11 NIV.)
And, yet — as a generality — there is a lot of truth to Psalm 25:13.
It is generally true — though not universally true — that following God’s ways brings blessing and prosperity in this life. It is better to work hard. It is better to be a person of integrity. It is better to have high values. It is better for people to care not only for themselves, but for others — to be people of compassion. It benefits ourselves, it benefits others, it benefits those for whom we work — no, not always — but, generally speaking.
The Gospel of Christ has a special appeal to the poor and the needy. And, it recommends a way of life that leads to increased prosperity.
It may seem odd, but this is one of the reasons that John Wesley feared for the future of the original Methodist renewal movement. In 1786 Wesley wrote the following interesting reflection in a brief tract called “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:
It nearly concerns us to understand how the case stands with us at present. I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.
How, then, is it possible that Methodism, that is, the religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay-tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence they proportionably increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.
Is there no way to prevent this? this continual declension of pure religion? We ought not to forbid people to be diligent and frugal: We must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich! What way, then, (I ask again,) can we take, that our money may not sin; us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who “gain all they can,” and “save all they can,” will likewise “give all they can;” then, the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.
This, of course, is the very opposite of what is called a “Prosperity Gospel” — in which financial benefit is the desired result — but, it is, nonetheless, a recognition that the Gospel often brings financial success in its wake. This may be a blessing or it may be a trial.
סוֹד יְהוָה לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם
“The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.”
But, here we come to the essence of the prosperity of the life of faith: the friendship of God. To walk with God is the basic promise of the covenant.
Many years ago I was driving home alone from a weekend prayer retreat. I had to pull off to the side of the road. Suddenly I was overcome with emotion. The speaker that weekend had spoken on the topic: “Does God Have Adult Friends?” I had never pondered this question before. The speaker had based his reflections on Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. “ (John 15:13-15 NRSV.) And, now, suddenly, in the car alone, the implications of his words came home to me. Somewhere out of the recesses of my mind I dimly recalled the words to a song that went:
“My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.”
I don’t know where I ever heard that old song. I only dimly recalled the lyrics. But, suddenly the relationship into which I was invited came home to me. It meant even more when I found out that the alternate lyrics say: “We walk and talk and jest as good friends do.” I was actually being invited into relationship with God — a relationship in which nothing needed to be hidden — a relationship of openness and trust. I was invited to come in all my humanness and uncertainty and limitation. I sensed that invitation with such power in that moment, that my eyes filled with tears. I had to pull off to the side of the road. I couldn’t drive any more.
It says in the book of Genesis that originally Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening. Their rebellion brought guilt and separation — but afterward God sought to restore the relationship with the human race. Yes, there is a lot of restoring to be done. It gets complicated. But, the promise is the same: to walk with God in peace and harmony.
The psalmist says: “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him….” Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Obedience and relationship are intimately connected. The service of God is heart service — not simply the service of constraint. Devotion to God produces faithful service. As we trust God — trusting that God’s character is just and compassionate — we more naturally do God’s will. It is a service of the heart — not a service of fear. As we walk with God, God makes his covenant known to us.
In the book of Genesis we read: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless [תָּמִים (tāmiym) = “without defect, blameless, perfect”]”. (Genesis 17:1 NRSV.) This is the invitation — at every stage of life: a perfect walk with God.
This is true prosperity: to live in the friendship of God.
ינַי תָּמִיד אֶל־יְהוָה כִּי הוּא־יוֹצִיא מֵרֶשֶׁת רַגְלָי
“My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.”
There will be traps. There will be sorrows, discouragements and setbacks. We will be misunderstood. We will gain enemies — even though we never wanted any. Life is not easy — and it does not become easy for those who follow Christ. It is not easy for anyone. But, in the midst of life’s traps, we trust in a God who can bring us through. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4 NRSV.) There will be traps — your feet will get stuck in the net — but God lifts us out.
This “abiding in property” of which Psalm 25 speaks is not a life without trials and difficulties and discouragements. It is a life with God — who brings us through and gives it meaning.
I remember for years singing an old Gospel song that has this lyric:
“Though sometimes He leads through waters deep,
Trials fall across the way,
Though sometimes the path seems rough and steep,
See His footprints all the way.”
I realize my prosperity may not be someone else’s idea of success. No, the Gospel of Christ does not necessarily offer us a life of wealth, and fame. But, God does shower blessings on those who are faithful — and in both this life and in the world to come.
we trust totally in You as we trust in no other.
You are the creator of all things,
and our life depends on You moment by moment.
You give us breath
and we respond with songs of praise and hymns of adoration.
You give us truth,
and we teach others Your word and try to model Your ways.
You give us eternal life,
and we share the gospel of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, with all who will listen. You fill us with Your Holy Spirit,
and we love others as You have loved us.
You call us Your friends,
and we seek to be friends with the friendless.
In all things we completely depend upon You
and do not rest secure in our own strength or wisdom.
Draw us closer to You and enable us to live more faithfully as followers of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
(Prayer found here: A Psalm and A Prayer: Psalm 25a.)