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JeremiahLast week, I made the point that Christian leadership is never timeless. Instead, it is a timely application of God-given wisdom regarding specific decisions that must be made in particular moments in time.

We looked briefly at four spheres in which Christian leaders should know “the time:” biblically, personally, organizationally, and culturally. Today, I want to focus on several examples from Scripture of knowing “what time it is” biblically.

Inhabiting the World of the Bible

What does it mean to know ”what time it is” biblically? It means the Christian leader will stand apart from worldly conceptions of leadership by the way he or she inhabits the world of the Bible. A proper understanding of where we are in the grand sweep of history, according to Scripture, impacts our ethical decisions.

Since Christians are called to live within the framework of a biblical worldview that takes us from creation to new creation, Christian leaders must influence others from within this grand narrative.

Today, I want to focus on several Old Testament examples of leaders who “understood the times” in which they lived and knew “what time it was” biblically.

1. The Sons of Issachar Who “Understood the Times”

The first example is the most obscure. In a list of names from 1 Chronicles, we find a reference to the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times and therefore knew what Israel should do (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Bible interpreters should not read too much into the brief, seemingly unrelated remarks found in the author’s genealogies and record-keeping. Still, it is intriguing that the author considered it necessary to describe these men as having a keen understanding of the times in which they lived and, as a result, knowing what actions Israel should take.

What were the times they understood? From a political standpoint, they knew the future was with David, the shepherd-boy-turned-warrior who had already been anointed king of Israel but who had yet to ascend his throne. Because they understood the times, they “cast their lot with David rather than Saul” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

They were, in a sense, in a time between the times. The rightful king had been anointed and but not visibly enthroned.

It is not difficult to discern a parallel in the New Testament conception of living in the already / not yet nature of God’s kingdom. We also live in a time between the times: like David, Jesus has already been marked out as the Messiah of Israel and the true Lord of the world, and yet his reign is not at this time public and visible for all to see.

Note the connection between “understanding the times” and “knowing what Israel should do.” In other words, a proper understanding of the time in which they lived was essential for the men of Issachar to obtain the wisdom needed to know what Israel should do. Their leadership was contextual. God not only gave them the Torah to obey; he also expected them to discern the proper application of the Torah in the context in which they found themselves. They plotted their reality on the timeline of biblical history, and therefore had the wisdom to make decisions as leaders, to let others know what the right course of action was.

2. The Wisdom Literature

Another plot point in the Old Testament comes from a section of Scripture we tend to see as “timeless” – the wisdom literature: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

It is true that many of the sayings in these books are proverbial, general truths that transcend their original context. But we should not relegate the wisdom literature to the category of timeless maxims or quaint moralism.

The purpose of the wisdom literature is formative. The proverbs, for example, are time-transcending and yet are given to shape Israel into the kind of people who will make good and wise decisions in particular times and places. The genre may be timeless, but the expected application is always timely.

We see this purpose for the wisdom literature most clearly in the way the New Testament authors sought wisdom in applying biblical truth to contemporary settings. In the stories of Jesus and other New Testament examples, we catch of glimpse of how first-century Jews and the early Christians saw the wisdom literature as divine instruction in need of contextual application. Through wisdom, God formed the Israelites into a people who could understand their setting and then obey him within their context.

3. Jeremiah’s Instruction to the Exiles

Another important plot point in the Old Testament comes during the time of exile. Of particular relevance is the prophet Jeremiah’s response to the reality of God’s people being taken from their homeland (Jeremiah 27-29). In his letter, he encourages God’s people to interpret their circumstances within the sovereign plan of God and his unfailing purposes for Israel.

Notice how Jeremiah’s leadership (expressed in commands) is tied to his prior statements about God’s overarching plan and Israel’s greater story. Derek Kidner summarizes this remarkable letter:

“Notice the starting point, that God has sent these exiles to Babylon. At the very least, then, they should accept the situation; but God has little use for grudging attitudes. What emerges in the call to them in verses 5-7 is gloriously positive: a liberation from the paralyzing sullenness of inertia and self-pity, into doing, for a start, what comes to hand and makes for growth, but above all what makes for peace.”

This section of Scripture is important for seeing how leadership involves “understanding the times” since the apostle Peter later drew upon this theme of “exiles” and “sojourners” as he exhorted the early Christians to live in holiness, with honor, and in full submission during times of persecution (1 Peter 2).

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9 thoughts on “3 Old Testament Examples of Knowing “What Time It Is””

  1. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi Trevin,

    Really? Peter’s mention of exiles and strangers, mentioned but twice in but 1 of the 27 books of the NT, brings in Jeremiah’s theology of exile? Yet we’ve never been kicked out of a land for disobedience to God like the ancient Israelites, who had it happen to them by promise from God.

    No, the people Peter wrote to stayed where they were at (1 Peter 1:1) – they were never sent into exile as a punishment!

    Thus we are better called ‘strangers’ in those texts, not ‘exiles,’ lest men who claim to know the times lead susceptible Christians astray with an invented exilic theology for the current age of the churches.

    The greek word the ESV uses in the NT for exile is diaspora (scattering), But it should be aichmalosia (captivity) as in the LXX. For that reason, most modern translations do not translate diaspora as “exiles.”

    The times are the churches, not the exile (Rev. 22:16), and wise are the church leaders who read Christ’s words.

  2. brian says:

    I come from a faith tradition that follows a liturgical calendar. It just so happens that this past Sunday kicked off the new liturgical year. The liturgical calendar gives meaning to the difference in time as “chronos” and time as “kairos.” Most of us understand that chronos is the keeping of time, such as say, 2 1/2 hours. Karios is a different understanding of time. If you invite me to a Christmas party, afterwards I don’t say I had a delightful 2 hours and 46 minutes (chronos), but rather I say, “I had a good time.” (kairos) And so, your post reminds me that we reside in the world that keeps time in terms of chronos, but we can look to the times (kairos) in terms of what is lasting and what is eternal. Indeed, one should always ask, “What is lasting?” The Church guides and reminds that we understand the times in which we live.

  3. Curt Day says:

    We should include the other prophets with Jeremiah for understanding the times. At the same time, we should note that, though helpful and necessary, the prophetic instructions regarding the exile are inadequate for informing us of our times. Believing otherwise is error in 2K theology. The reason why the exile instructions are inadequate is because, as Tim Keller has pointed out, we are to grow through evangelism whereas the Israelites in exile were to grow only through having children.

    In understanding the times, we should also be a student of our times and notice the differences that exist between today and Biblical times. For example, understanding how a Christian citizen’s responsibilities in a democracy during a time when the Gospel has already been shared throughout the world is different from a Christian citizen’s responsibilities during the times of the Apostles is essential to understanding the times.

    One other point, I think we Christians put too much emphasis on being leaders and leadership.

  4. Ted Bigelow says:

    Curt, shouldn’t we use the prophets for understanding the times they lived in under the old covenant, and the words of Jesus and the apostles for the times under the new?

  5. Curt Day says:

    But how can what the prophets said back not apply today? After all, doesn’t what Trevin just wrote about Jeremiah tell us that? Certainly, the US is not Israel, but didn’t the OT prophets also preach to other nations besides Israel and Judah?

    How we should apply what the prophets wrote is definitely debatable. But that what they wrote does speak to us today should, IMO, not be debatable. Should we say that the 10 commandments have nothing to say to us today because it is a part of the old covenant?

  6. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi Curt, good points and questions, all.

    The moral law continues in force, as taught by our Lord and reinforced by the apostles. but the terms and conditions of the Old covenant does not. Exile is a part of the latter, not the former.

    1. Curt Day says:

      So when the prophets warned the people about practicing idolatry and injustice, they were preaching the moral code. So what they talked about does apply today and even, to some extent, so does exile according to I Peter.

      1. Ted Bigelow says:

        Curt, exile was a national punishment for transgressing the Old Covenant (Deut. 28:32-37, 2 Chron. 36:15-21).

        Saying Christian are exiles is taking Christians back to the Old covenant curses, which Jesus fulfilled, and abolished. To say any Christian is in biblical exile would require that he is being punished for breaking the Mosaic Law found in its civil, moral, and ceremonial laws. As I said above, most modern translations render Peter’s greek word, which is diaspora, as stranger. It has no elements of punishment involved.

        Don’t follow trevin here. We Christians are not under the curses of that Mosaic Covenant:

        “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
        (Jer 31:31-33, cf. Heb. 8:8-13)

        Knowing the times starts with knowing you live in the time of the age of the churches, and are not to return to the Old Covenant blessings or curses.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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