Last 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).