Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"SOLOMON INSISTS ON THE TOGETHERNESS OF THE SAINTS"
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
"A threefold cord is not quickly broken." This particular verse of Solomon’s wisdom is periodically used in our midst to underline the cooperation required between church, home and school. Those three, we understand, form the strands of a strong tri-cord, and it’s the combination of the three –church, home and school- that assists parents so much in the wonderful task of raising the next generation of God’s covenant people. The church can’t do it alone, the home can’t do it alone, the school can’t do it alone; even home and church without school, or school and church without home, have a hard time of it. But the three woven together, the three intertwined make a powerful team for the advantage of the next generation. Church, home and school working together: "a threefold cord is not quickly broken."
There is no doubt, brothers and sisters, that the link between church, home, and school is essential, and effective. The question is, though, whether Solomon had that triad in mind when he wrote the words of our text. From the context it’s clear: he wasn’t thinking specifically of some alliance or cooperation between the temple of his day, the homes of Israel, and the education of God’s covenant children in his kingdom. And yet: that we use this text to emphasize the link between church, home and school is not so far off the mark after all…. For with our text Solomon stresses the value of the communion of saints. And the tri-cord ‘church, home and school’ is a delightful fruit of a living communion of saints.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
SOLOMON INSISTS ON THE TOGETHERNESS OF THE SAINTS.
1. The communion of saints is essential.
Solomon –Qohelth (ie, Assembler)- had gathered the people together in order to share some of the great wisdom God had given to him. The people he gathered together lived in a time as prosperous and comfortable as ours.
Silver and gold were more abundant in Jerusalem than stones on the street (2 Chron 1:15).
The days of Solomon were characterized by peace, with the surrounding nations paying tribute to Solomon and serving him (recall the Queen of Sheba and her words).
This most gifted of kings administered justice is a most wise manner, so that the people of his day knew what fair treatment was (recall the episode of the two women with their two children, one dead and the other alive).
The construction and opening of the temple in Jerusalem ensured that the gospel of reconciliation with holy God was proclaimed through the towns and villages of the nation.
Here was a time of peace and prosperity, a good time to be alive. In the words of the Holy Spirit in 1 Kings 4: "Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing" (vs 20). More: "Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree…" (vs 25). One is tempted to say: here was Paradise Restored!
Yet we know well that financial abundance, even peace and fairness in society, do not by definition produce contentment and happiness for all. I need but draw your attention to all the lonely people in our society. Somehow there seems to be a correlation between prosperity and loneliness; the more money and opportunity people have, the less they seem to need each other – and end up lonely. Rich, and alone…. It is no surprise that loneliness is mentioned as one of the growing problems of our affluent society.
Lonely in an affluent society. That’s the situation Solomon speaks of in the passage we read together from Ecclesiastes 4. Vs 8: Solomon saw "one alone, without companion" – he had neither son nor brother, and –suggest the commentaries- no wife. Alone. But he keeps on working, "there’s no end to all his labors," and so he keeps on raking in the cash. But his eye is never satisfied with the riches he has. He doesn’t stop to enjoy his wealth, doesn’t stop to eat and drink and enjoy the life God gives. "This also," says Solomon, "is vanity and a grave misfortune."
Why does such a person not stop to enjoy his life, his riches? We can understand it: it is not easy to be alone. As long as one is working, one is busy and therefore distracted; your aloneness doesn’t stare you in the face. But why spread an elaborate feast over the table – to sit there by yourself? Why take a holiday to a resort – to sit at the beach by yourself? It’s so difficult…. So you keep on going, keep on working…. Rich, but alone.
Alone. It is not the way the Lord God ordained things to be. On the sixth day of creation the Lord first made Adam (Gen 2:7). The Lord put him in the Garden He’d prepared for Adam, and gave him the mandate to tend it and keep it (vs 15). Then we read this: "And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him’" (vs 18). So the Lord formed a woman, and gave her to the man. You see: aloneness is not God’s ordinance. His ordinance is togetherness, companionship.
But see now, congregation, what happened with the fall into sin. Together Adam and Eve fled from the footsteps of God. But as soon as the Lord called Adam to account, he pointed his finger squarely at Eve. "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree…" (3:12). So much for communion, for happy togetherness; here was confrontation, two opposed to each other. Married, together, but isolated.
You see the same bitter fruit of the fall in the family God gave to Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel grew up together, two boys who knew each other well, did together the boyish things boys will do together. But when push came to shove they were islands, two individuals who lacked a true bond together. "Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him" (4:8). Brothers in the same house they were, but isolated, alone….
I can tell you of Sarah and Hagar, two women sharing one tent. But such was the tension between them that Hagar had to go. I can tell you of Jacob and Esau, two brothers growing up in the same house. But deception and distrust spoiled the togetherness, so that Jacob had to flee for his life. I can tell you of Joseph and his brothers, all living together in one big family. But their togetherness was so twisted that the brothers could sell their brother into slavery…. It’s something we know so well: marriage does not automatically mean happy togetherness, communion. Living in a household does not automatically exclude loneliness. Being in a classroom of fellow students does not automatically give a sense of belonging. On this side of the fall into sin there is so much loneliness, so many broken relations, so much tension where there should be communion, happiness….
It’s a simple fact of life: we need the other! "It is not good," God had said, "that man should be alone." That is true not just with respect to marriage, but true across the entire spectrum of life. Listen to Solomon in vs 9: "Two are better than one." Then Solomon proceeds to give some illustrations from real life of how two is better than one. He mentions three scenarios.
"If they fall, one will lift up his companion." It’s the same advice authorities give us today: never go out to sea all alone, never go for a trek in the bush all alone. If you somehow get into trouble, you need a companion to help you. We all understand that.
Second example: two are better than one because "if two lie together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone?" The nights in the Middle East could get quite cold. You sleep by yourself, in your clothes, and your coat forms your blanket. That can be comfortable enough when it’s not too cold. But on a clear autumn night? You do well to find a companion to share some warmth – and lay together under two coats. We understand that.
A third example. It’s not so difficult to beat up one person alone. But two together are not so easily intimidated. That’s why we don’t often walk the streets at night alone, or take a vacation on one’s own. We understand that too.
And if two is better than one, it’s clear that three is better still. "A threefold cord is not quickly broken."
What Solomon seeks to achieve with these examples? We realize that this is not simply advice for those who love bush walking. Solomon lays a finger on something that’s true for all of life: "it is not good that man should be alone." Always one needs companionship. Always one needs others. And that’s true not just in the sense of needing other people for outward support; it’s true especially in the sense that we need to be able to share our hearts. One can live in a busy family and receive plenty of help for physical needs, and yet be so alone when it comes to burdens of the heart…. That secret burden, the isolation of the heart, is so difficult, so heavy. In a crowd, and yet alone…. How bitter the effects of the fall into sin!
See, then, beloved, the answer of God to the brokenness and aloneness we imposed on ourselves through our fall into sin! What does marriage restored through Christ’s Holy Spirit look like? I refer to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5. Husbands are to "love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church" (vs 25). How did Christ love the church? Says Paul: He "gave Himself for her" (vs 25). How did He give Himself? He emptied Himself, emptied Himself totally. Philippians 2: He was with God in glory from eternity, but did not consider that this glory was something to hold on to, something to insist upon. Rather, He gave it all away, emptied Himself, for the benefit of His people. That’s the comparison Paul has in mind when he addresses husbands. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her." That self-denial, that self-emptying is the model for all marriage, for husband and for wife. Such self-denial guarantees that the aloneness that there otherwise will be in sinful marriages will not be there. And from where does such self-emptying come? This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes His home in sinful hearts, changes sinful hearts, causes sinful hearts to produce the fruits of the Spirit: love for the other, joy with the other, peace with the other, patience towards the other, kindness towards the other, etc. You see: a three-fold cord is not quickly broken. And in Christian marriage there are at bottom not two parties but three: the bride, the groom and God! Where God is the bond that ties husband to wife and wife to husband, there is no place for aloneness. When in such a marriage one falls, in whatever sense of the word, the other is there to help him back on his feet.
But one needn’t think only of marriage. The people of Israel congregated around Mt Sinai numbered some 2 million people. Given the brokenness of life, that huge number did not guarantee closeness, togetherness, communion; there could be alienation between God’s covenant children, distance, tension. Marriages could be broken. Brothers could live in hostility. God’s empathic instruction was this: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not taken vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord" (Lev 19:17f). Point: the actions of one could so disgust the other that he keeps his distance, refuses to talk or treat the other as a brother. The Lord emphatically forbids that. Instead of any grudge, there was to be love, only love. Why love? Because that’s what the Lord had shown Israel in taking them out of Egypt. As He showed love to an unworthy and undeserving and sinful nation, so the people were to show love to an unworthy and undeserving and sinful brother. So there was to be no isolation in the midst of Israel!
The apostle Paul fleshes this point out at length in his letter to the Philippians. We’re so very familiar with the second part of the passage we read together, the passage about the Lord Jesus Christ leaving the glory of heaven to make Himself of no reputation and take the form of a bondservant (vss 6ff). But have you noticed, congregation, the context in which these words are spoken? The apostle addresses a congregation where the communion of saints was warped. In chap 1:27 Paul has to admonish the Philippians to strive together with one mind for the faith of the gospel. Obviously, he wouldn’t have had to give this instruction if there was full unity in their midst. Again, in 2:2 Paul tells the Philippians to be "like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind." The implication is that the needed unity, the needed communion, was lacking. Paul tells the believers of the congregation of Philippi in 2:3 to "let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit," and instead "in lowliness of mind" to "let each esteem others better than himself" precisely because this attitude of self-denial was not present in this congregation. Hence the instruction of vs 4: "let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." In that context Paul draws out the example of Christ. Vs 5: "let this mind," ie, this looking out for the interests of others, "let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." And how was it in Christ Jesus? Like this: though He was in the form of God, He did not insist on His God-ness, but was content to empty Himself and make Himself a servant, a slave – even to the point of death. That is the example the saints of Philippi were to follow. Self-emptying, so that the other might be advantaged.
We understand: in a congregation where the members consider the self more important than the other, you can have very lonely people. In such a place you can have members who are victimized, isolated, ignored. Then the faith may be rich, but in the midst of the riches you have loneliness. Rich, but alone. But this kind of an attitude is not to exist in the congregation of Jesus Christ. In a congregation for whom the Lord has laid down His life, the renewing work of the Holy Spirit must be evident. Then there’s a bond of love between the brothers and sisters, a bond of love that seeks out the other in denial of self. There’s a recognition that the Holy Spirit has done His work of renewal, and so created a bond between the members of one body. Persons are no longer individuals, islands to themselves, but are linked to each other through the work of the Holy Spirit. Such persons are not islands, alone, nor are they two islands that happen to lie close together, but there are three involved: the two and the Holy Spirit who dwells in the hearts of both. And: "a threefold cord is not quickly broken."
Nor should we speak of two persons and no more. For the bond the Holy Spirit works between any two in the one congregation, He works between all in the congregation. By His labor there is a bond of love between one and all; all are united together in true brotherly love as members of one body. Over against the individualism and selfishness that resulted from the fall into sin, the Lord has placed the communion of saints. When the Lord says that "two are better than one" and that "a threefold cord is not quickly broken," the reference is ultimately to that gift of the Spirit we know as the communion of saints.
This is what Solomon wanted to encourage amongst the people of his land. Prosperity can lead to individualism, and individualism can lead to isolation, to brothers and sisters being islands to themselves, unconnected to each other, unconcerned for each other – loneliness. As a wise teacher, Solomon counsels correction of that problem. One alone is vanity and a grave misfortune, two are better than one, but a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Communion of saints. We need each other. More, by the renewing work of the Holy Spirit we belong to each other. So we need to be able to talk with each other. No, not necessarily with equal openness to everybody. But isolation, loneliness, there may not be.
And one of the bigger challenges and struggles God gives involves His covenant children. "In pain you shall bring forth children," God said to Eve after the fall, and the reference was not just to the moments of labor at birth, but equally to the challenges and pain of raising these children to God-fearing adults. That task requires the assistance of the communion of saints in so many ways. In our modern society, children need education, need to be taught how to live for God in this modern world. To supply that education, and cause it to be supplied, is first of all the responsibility of the parents. But "two is better than one," and so I’m not allowed to stand over against my brother in his task in God’s kingdom, but I’m to help him – in denial of myself! And I do so because of the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in my heart; I love my brother –be he the parent or the child- and so give of my means (and not just in a financial sense) to support the education of the child the Lord has placed in another family. The renewing work of the Holy Spirit moves me to want to look not only after my own interests but also after the interests of the other – even as the Lord my Savior did. So I help, for "a threefold cord is not quickly broken." This text appropriate when we speak of the link between home, church and school? It most certainly is – even though the link between home, church and school is a modern application of the principle the Holy Spirit lays before us through the words of Solomon.
So, brothers and sisters, in all of life (and hence also on the point of supporting reformed education), let there be no selfishness, no individualism. God has made us one body together, and so it is for us to display the renewing work of the Holy Spirit by looking cheerfully after the interests of the other – as our Lord emptied Himself to look after our interests.
It all sounds so ideal: where the Spirit works renewal, there is a bond of love, the communion of saints. Yet we all know from bitter reality that even Christian marriages have their moments of isolation and loneliness, Christian families have their moments of distance and tension, even those who sit together at one Lord’ Supper table experience the coldness, lack of understanding, conflict. It’s our second point:
2. The communion of saints is not perfect.
Solomon says that "a threefold cord is not quickly broken." The word ‘quickly’ is telling. There’s a promise here: in the communion of saints one does experience something of the love and the care there was in Paradise, something of the self-emptying that Jesus displayed. A threefold cord is strong, can handle pressure. But, Solomon says, it can be broken – be it not quickly. That threefold cord is not perfect, not fail proof….
Here two things need to be said. The first is the norm of God’s word. It’s this (as Paul says it to the Philippians): each is to look out not only for one’s own interests, but also for the interests of others. We are not to stand over against each other pointing a finger; we are instead to stand beside the other in humility and seek to help, to understand, the other. There may be no aloneness in the congregation of the Lord. Here the deacons have a task; they are to see to it that congregation is so interested in each other that "no one in the congregation of Christ [lives] uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, or poverty" (Form, pg 631).
But beside the norm, congregation, there’s a second thing we need to realize well. It’s this: we live on this side of the fall into sin. Despite the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, we do not yet live in a Paradise Restored. By all means, let us reach for the norm of God’s word, let us reach for perfection in the communion of saints, let us do our utmost to ensure that no one is "uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, or poverty", that no one is alone, isolated. But in our pursuit of this goal we need to factor in a goodly measure of realism, of sobriety. Paul tells the Philippians to look after the interests of others precisely because they had not yet reached the goal of perfection – and we haven’t either. As Paul says to the Romans: I can will what is right, but I cannot do it (Romans 7). In the words of Lord’s Day 44: even the holiest have only a small beginning of the obedience God requires. That is no reason to reduce effort. That is no cause to lower the bar. But it does make us patient with each other. A threefold cord, the communion of saints, is necessary, and not quickly broken – due to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. But His work is not complete yet, we have not yet reached Paradise Restored. And so we need to acquiesce to continued brokenness, acquiesce to being unable to be all things for all people.
Is this not, congregation, something we all understand so well? A marriage is broken through the death of a loved one. Who can really fill the void? The Lord in wisdom denies one a marriage, or gives an unbelieving spouse. Try though we might to fill the void, who is able? Characters clash between parents and children, and though both go on their knees before the Lord, the harmony we desire remains out of reach. Who can fix that? Brothers who have loved each other for years and sat at the table of the Lord together can become alienated – and misunderstandings and stubbornness and weakness hinder a restoration of the relation no matter how much one tries. The first missionaries of the church, Paul and Barnabas, came to a disagreement that resulted in a parting of ways (Acts 15:36ff). No, such a situation is not according to the norm of God’s word, but in the brokenness of this life not everything can be set straight. A threefold cord is not quickly broken – but sometimes it does break nevertheless. And we have to accept that – even as we continue to do our utmost to pursue the norm of God’s word.
What that persistent brokenness teaches us? It teaches us how very much we need the Lord! The Savior gave up all He had in order to reconcile us to God, and He was not crushed by the unrelenting brokenness that characterizes this life! He gave up His glory with the Father, was isolated from God and man alike, totally alone on the cross of Calvary. But the weight of His isolation did not crush Him, He instead labored on all by Himself. The fruit of His labor is this: we need never be alone again! He restored us to the Father, made us members of His body, members of one another! Today we have that wealth in part, and we delight in it even though so much brokenness remains. And tomorrow, tomorrow when the Lord returns, we shall delight in perfect togetherness as no eye has seen or ear heard! Then there shall be no tears, no pain, no sorrow due to isolation or misunderstanding or loneliness. Then, then, we’ll be perfectly together, in perfect self-emptying for the greater glory of our God and Savior, and the edification of the brethren of all ages.
The abiding brokenness of today makes us long for that day the more