Beyond the Fragrance: The Enduring Legacy of a Good Name

Perfume BottleSolomon wrote, “A good name is better than a good perfume, and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth” (Eccl 7:1). This seems antithetical to our worldly culture. That’s fine. God’s Word always challenges our secular viewpoint. A good name speaks of a good character, and a good character is more desirable than a good perfume. But why does Solomon say a good name is better than a good perfume? I’m glad you asked. In the ancient world, perfume was used at funerals to mask a body’s decay, and it was used on all, both the good and the evil. But whereas the pleasant aroma of good perfume is temporary, a good name will endure. It will endure to the end of one’s life and beyond. For this reason Solomon says, “the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.” But what is Solomon talking about? Why is the day of one’s death better than the day of one’s birth? I’m glad you asked. A birth marks a beginning of life, one with numerous possibilities, either for wisdom or folly, righteousness or wickedness, goodness or evil. Though there are forces at work (within and without) to push and pull us one way or another, our life is what we make it. And our value system and the daily choices we make, whether biblical or worldly, will direct us onto the path of righteousness or wickedness, and every moment is a choice to continue along that path or turn from it. For the righteous, as long as we are alive and walking with the Lord, there’s the possibility our good name may become ruined if we turn from that path. But if we maintain our goodness and integrity to the end of our life, our good reputation will be sealed forever. And among the righteous, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, and favor is better than silver and gold” (Prov 22:1), and “The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot” (Prov 10:7). The death of the righteous is like the setting of the sun on a beautiful day, with bright rays shining through the clouds and lighting the sky on fire for all to enjoy and revel in its glory.

Ironically, Solomon failed to abide by the wisdom he gave to others. For Solomon, who started out well in life, eventually turned away from the Lord and chose a path of idolatry and wickedness. At the end of his life, Scripture reveals that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not follow the LORD fully, as David his father had done” (1 Ki 11:6). Though good perfume was used on Solomon’s body at the time of his death, his good name was tarnished by his evil actions.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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The Road Ahead: Developing a Plan for Success After Prison

This article is written primarily to the one who has recently been released from jail or prison. The intention of the article is to provide some helpful advice to be successful. I write to let you know that success is possible after a life in prison, as long as one measures success by the right metric. For the Christian, that metric is God and His Word, and success is measured primarily by it. People and societies have their own metrics for success, and Christians must be careful to abide by society’s norms, as long as they don’t conflict with God’s. This requires wisdom and discernment.[1]

As a fully pardoned ex-convict, my journey to success has been bumpy and blessed at the same time.[2] I received my gubernatorial pardon on February 10th, 2005, fifteen years after the time of my release in 1990. However, for those years I carried the felony conviction, life was very challenging. I often identified with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as I felt unfairly discriminated against by many who worked against me. However, rather than complain or accept defeat, I worked to improve myself as best I could with what was available to me. I chose to be better rather than bitter.

Transitioning from a period of incarceration to life in a free society can be challenging. In prison, though life is difficult, it is also very structured. Inmates do not have to worry about employment, a bed to sleep on, clothes to wear, food to eat, or whether they can pay for their utilities (just to name a few things). After their release, they are under pressure to learn to adjust to the free world where they have to make it on their own, often with limited support and guidance. A productive life after prison is possible, but only for those who have determination, the right mindset, and the wisdom to succeed. My own journey of success after prison was largely up and down (as life can be). The following points reflect my own mental attitude and choices along the way, and I offer them here to any who may benefit from some or all of them.

  1. Daily Bible StudyStudy God’s Word: Learning God’s Word allows you to operate from a biblical worldview and to frame your life from the divine perspective. You are to “study to show yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). And “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, so that by it you may grow in respect to your salvation” (1 Pet 2:2). Your walk of faith is critical, and you will often face obstacles from a world that cares little about you; a world that also has satanic forces that are set against you. But God is with you and for you (Rom 8:31-39), to give wisdom, grace, and strength to advance in this world, and you must live moment by moment staying close to God and relying on Him for everything. Realize that adversity is inevitable, but stress is optional, as you can take up the shield of faith and protect yourself from the fiery darts of the enemy (Eph 6:16).
  2. Live God’s Word: As you study God’s Word, you must make the conscious choice, moment by moment, to apply it to your life as opportunity presents itself. Ezra was a godly person who did this, as “Ezra had firmly resolved to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24). Hearing and doing. That’s the order. You cannot live what you do not know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living God’s will. But it is possible to learn it and not live it (Heb 4:1-2), which is why James wrote, “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (Jam 1:22).
  3. Praying HandsBe Devoted to Prayer: Paul said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col 4:2), and “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17). Prayer is essential to spiritual success as you need to have upward communication with God to express yourself to Him. Prayer is the means by which you make requests to God, believing He has certain answers ready for you, and that you just need to ask (Jam 4:2). Life can be stressful, and developing the habit of prayer allows you to alleviate the pressures by “casting your cares upon the Lord, because He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).
  4. Be Thankful: Scripture states, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Th 5:18). This is done by faith and not feelings. Though you cannot always control our circumstances, you must not allow yourselves to be controlled by them.
  5. Serve Others in Love: Paul wrote, “you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13), and “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). As Christians, we are told, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). It helps us greatly if we approach life and people with a serving and giving mentality.
  6. Seek Employment that is Available: As quickly as you can, find employment, as this will provide the financial resources you need to start advancing. However, realize there are many employers who will not hire felons (the reasons are many). Be polite and persistent in your pursuit, as you will eventually find something. And be willing to do menial labor for a while until something better comes along. I was a waiter for nine years, a welder for three years, and even drove a trash truck for a while. God always opened doors of employment for me, even though it was not always what I wanted. Remember, honest work done in an honest way is an honorable thing. And ultimately, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:24), so do your work well.
  7. Deal With Failures: It’s inevitable that you will make some bad choices after your release. You must own them, confess them to God (1 John 1:9), accept responsibility, extend grace to yourself and get back on the path of righteousness. With a few exceptions, relapse does not lead to collapse. You must get up, look to God (Col 3:1-2), dust yourself off, and keep advancing to the spiritual and moral high ground God wants you to attain.
  8. Embrace Difficulties: Learning to embrace your trials by faith is important. James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). God knows the struggles you will face after prison and will use them to refine and develop you into a better person, if You’ll let Him. Remember, God is more concerned about your Christian character than your creaturely comforts, and the trials you face are all under His control, being used by Him to burn away the dross of weak character and to refine the golden qualities He wants to see in you.
  9. Seek Spiritual and Social Support: As Christians, we are “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb 10:25). Finding and maintaining a good support group is very important. This should first be a solid Bible church that teaches God’s Word accurately and can help you continue your spiritual advance. But having good social support helps as well, whether from family, friends, or groups that can assist you in your journey. God has a way of placing unexpected people in your path to help you, so you should not be surprised when He sends the right person your way at the right time.
  10. Develop a Plan: As much as possible, you should have a realistic plan on what you want to accomplish after your release and what path you might journey to get there. This may include education, job training, building a support system, and connecting with family and friends who can help.
  11. Be Flexible: Though you may have a plan, life often does not turn out the way you think or want, and making constant adjustments—whether large or small—allows you to be able to improvise, adapt, and succeed.
  12. Be Professional: There are many people who will evaluate you based on your appearance and interaction with them. Being professional in dress, speech, and conduct will work to your advantage.
  13. Seek Material Support: Find out what resources are available to assist with shelter, food, clothing, employment, etc. This might include family, friends, church, or other groups that can assist. Often, there is financial assistance available to help with education and job training.
  14. Be a Minimalist: Paul wrote, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim 6:8). It’s fine if God blesses you with more than these things, but always learn to be content with the basics (Phil 4:11-13), as this will help to keep frustration levels at bay.
  15. Keep Quiet About Your Past: Though some people are safe, friendly, and helpful, the world at large is not. There are many people who think, “Once a convict, always a convict.” It’s okay to share your past, but be careful who you talk to, as it may work against you. Be discerning. Not everyone is your friend.
  16. Avoid Old Habits and Bad Influences: One of the biggest challenges of reentry is avoiding old habits and negative influences. Stay away from people and situations that may lead to trouble. Paul said, “Bad associations corrupt good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). And Solomon wrote, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Choose your friends carefully!
  17. ServeLet Your Past Help Others: Learn to let your past help others who face similar struggles. For over fifteen years I’ve had the privilege of teaching God’s Word in jails and prisons. For me to go back into that environment has been a blessing for me and the inmates that come to Bible class. Many have come to faith in Christ, and others have been helped in their walk with the Lord. My past experience of being in jail half a dozen times (mainly for petty drug offenses) and then going to prison allowed me to speak to others and offer helpful guidance. I’ve published two books that are specifically written for inmates, shared the gospel many times, and explained how to live spiritually while incarcerated. In this way, my past experience has been a help to others.
  18. Manage Your Self-Care: Solomon wrote, “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:6). Get good sleep, stay hydrated, eat well, get exercise, and make time to rest and play. You’re no good to yourself or others if don’t care for yourself in practical ways. Remember, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), and you should take care of that temple as best you can. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “It is a serious thing to remove the element of relaxation and play from any life. We cannot be normal physically, mentally or spiritually if we neglect the vital factor in human life. God has provided that our joy shall be full.”[3]

These few points will help you maintain your Christian walk and live successfully in this world after your release from prison.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Daniel is a good example of someone who lived a godly life in a pagan culture and was successful in God’s sight, though he sometimes was at odds with people and the culture around him.

[2] I was incarcerated at High Desert State Prison for sales of narcotics (marijuana), and after my release in 1990, God took me on a journey of trials and blessings, frustrations and joys, disciplines and comfort to bring to me to where I am. Today, I feel greatly blessed that God has granted me a small place of service in His plan for humanity.

[3] Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1967), 60-61.

Biblical Wisdom

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: to know wisdom and instruction, to discern the sayings of understanding, to receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice and equity; to give prudence to the naive, to the youth knowledge and discretion, a wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:1-7)

       According to verses 2-6 we see a five-fold purpose for Proverbs: 1) “to know wisdom and instruction,” 2) “to discern the sayings of understanding,” 3) “to receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice and equity,” 4) “to give prudence to the naïve,” and 5) “to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.”

     The Hebrew word hokmah (translated “wisdom” in verse 2) appears forty-five times in the book of Proverbs and is the common theme of the book.  In a general sense, wisdom is the knowledge necessary to perform a task successfully.  Overall, the book of Proverbs is a compilation of wise sayings which provide the necessary instruction for making good choices in life.  The book of Proverbs belongs to that group of biblical literature classified as wisdom writings; and the didactic nature of Proverbs made it useful for parents who wanted to instruct their children, as well as teachers who wanted to instruct their students.  A proverb is a concise and pithy statement that summarizes an experience or compares two things; thus capturing a principle that benefits one throughout his life.  Often it is teaching by analogy. 

       In verse 7 Solomon tells his readers that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; [whereas] fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  In this antithetical parallelism, Solomon contrasts the healthy humble minded person who fears the LORD with the arrogant person who shuns Him. The attitude of the heart determines how a person responds to God’s revelation. The person who fears God respects His authority and responds properly to His word. The fool is the one who is devoid of God’s word, or rejects it after hearing it.

       The Bible contrasts divine wisdom which comes from God, and worldly wisdom which ultimately comes from Satan (James 3:15-17).  Divine wisdom is the knowledge necessary to perform a task in conformity to His standards and values.  Examples of divine wisdom include:

  1. Artistic wisdom: The ability to create works of art (e.g. the artisans who created the garments for Levitical priests as well as the articles of worship in the Jewish Temple, Ex. 28:3; 31:2-5; 1 Ki. 7:14).
  2. Academic wisdom: The ability to learn about God’s world (e.g. zoology, biology, botany, etc.) and write books (e.g. Solomon’s proverbs and songs, 1 Ki. 4:29-34).
  3. Judicial wisdom: The ability to decide legal matters for God’s people (e.g. Judges, Solomon, etc. 1 Ki. 16:28).
  4. Military wisdom: The ability to defeat God’s enemies (e.g. Joshua, David; Prov. 20:18; 21:22; 24:6).
  5. Governing wisdom: The ability to leads God’s people into His will (e.g. Joseph, Moses, Nehemiah, Church Elders, etc.).
  6. Serving wisdom: The ability to meet the needs of others (e.g. Deacons, Acts 6:3).
  7. Teaching wisdom: The ability to communicate clearly God’s Word to others (e.g. Moses, Paul, etc., Col. 1:9).
  8. Spiritual wisdom: The ability to live God’s will in accordance with His Word.

       Worldly wisdom is the knowledge required to live in Satan’s fallen world, has the appearance of real wisdom, but is actually deceptive and seeks to ensnare people in Satan’s schemes (Ex. 7:11; Col. 2:23; Jas. 3:14-15).  Those who are called wise in a worldly sense are actually fools by God’s estimation.  The majority of people in this world operate according to worldly wisdom and live their lives outside of God’s will.

       Examples of worldly wise men include the magicians of Pharaoh’s court who were demonically enabled to replicate some of the miracles performed by Moses (Ex. 7:11), and Nebuchadnezzar’s counselors who claimed to be able to interpret dreams and have spiritual insight into his future (Dan. 2:12-18).  The apostle Paul spoke out against worldly judgments which have “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:23); and James admonished his readers to be on guard against “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” which is a wisdom that “does not come down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (Jam. 3:14-15).  In the end, worldly wisdom is always Satan-serving; whereas divine wisdom is always God-serving. 

       We do well to know that it is possible to lose wisdom and become a fool.  We know that even Lucifer was once wise, for the prophet Ezekiel tells us that he had “the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezek. 28:12).  Ezekiel goes on to say that Lucifer’s “heart was lifted up” because of his beauty and his wisdom became corrupted by reason of his splendor (Ezek. 28:17).  From within himself Satan’s wisdom was turned to foolishness.  Through Isaiah the prophet, God gives us a glimpse into Satan’s mind, and tells us what he was thinking in his heart.  At the time of his foolishness Satan declared:

“I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isa. 14:13-14)

       Lucifer’s pride caused his fall.  He created his kingdom of darkness when he sinned, and through temptation he brought down to death the first humans when he convinced them to turn from God and follow his advice (Gen. 3:1-8).  Now all men are born into this world of darkness, into Satan’s kingdom, born in Adam, born in sin.  The minds of all men are darkened by the sin nature and have a propensity toward foolishness.  Even after regeneration, men’s minds are not suddenly wise, but still dark from all the world’s philosophies.  Two things must happen before a saved person can have God’s wisdom: 1) he must learn to fear the Lord, and 2) he must discipline his mind to seek truth.  The fear of the Lord and seeking truth go together like two sides of a coin.

       The fear of the Lord is to acknowledge Him as Lord and His right to rule over our lives and to respond with obedience.  Solomon declares that we are to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Eccl. 12:13).  The fear of the Lord is that healthy reverence the believer has for God, knowing that He is the Sovereign Lord of the universe, and that as His creature we do well to submit to Him. 

       To seek truth means we apply our minds to know God’s word, and once we know it, to apply His truth to every area of our lives.  Jesus declared “the man who hears my words and does them shall be compared to a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Matt. 7:24).  Here, Jesus tells us the wise man is the one who hears His words and does them.  There is order here, for one cannot live what he does not know, and knowledge of God’s word must precede application to life. 

       Jesus, as our role-model, spent His entire life learning and living by His Father’s teaching.  Luke tells us that Jesus, as a child, “continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom” (Luke 2:40).  Messiah, speaking in Isaiah 50:4 states, “He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.”  Jesus woke each morning to give His ear to the Father’s instruction.  Mark tells us in his Gospel, “In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there” (Mark 1:35).  It is healthy to fear the Lord and seek His instruction for every area of our life.

     God’s greatest expression of wisdom is the cross of Christ.  To those who hold to worldly wisdom, “the word of the cross is foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18).  To those who are saved, the cross of Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).  Divine wisdom always leads one to God through the cross of Christ.  Any so-called wisdom that does not lead one ultimately to the cross of Christ is pseudo-wisdom.  God has rejected the world’s wisdom, and the world has rejected His. 

       One knows he has found wisdom when he has found the Lord; for true wisdom exists only in relation to Him.  One knows he is growing in wisdom when he fears the Lord, respecting His authority and doing the things that are pleasing in His sight.  The believer is benefited  and God is honored, when His word is understood and obeyed on a regular basis. 

       The wise believer knows his place in God’s creation; that he is the creature, and God is the Creator, and there is submission one to the Other.  The fool is the one who blurs the creator/creature distinction, and sets his will against the will of God.  The fool is devoid of God’s wisdom, and his words and actions reveal his darkened heart.  On the other hand, the wise man learns God’s word that he may live His will, and this too is revealed through his words and actions. 

       Lastly, the wise believer seeks to incorporate God’s word into every area of his life, and does not compartmentalize, leaving some areas to self.  Wisdom gives order and purpose to life, and affords one the knowledge necessary to make good choices.  The wise believer is able to understand the world around him, and knows why things are the way they are, and why people behave the way they do.   Wisdom gives one hope for the future, because Christ is coming back, and He will reign in righteousness and truth (Rev. 20:1-6). 

Below are forty Scriptural truths regarding biblical wisdom:

  1. The Lord possesses and operates by His wisdom (Ps. 104:24; Prov. 3:19; Jer. 10:12).
  2. Wisdom comes from the Lord (1 Kings 3:12; Prov. 2:6; Dan. 2:21; Jas. 1:5).
  3. God’s wisdom is found in Scripture (Ps. 19:7; 119:98; Jer. 8:9; 2 Tim. 3:15).
  4. Jesus, while in hypostatic union, had to learn wisdom day by day (Lu. 2:40, 52; Isa. 50:4).
  5. Wisdom is better than riches (Prov. 8:11; 16:16).
  6. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10).
  7. Wisdom resides first in what we think, then in what we say and do (Ps. 51:6; Col. 4:5).
  8. The humble receive wisdom (Prov. 11:2).
  9. Wisdom can be communicated by speech or writing (1 Ki. 11:41; Prov. 15:7; 1 Cor. 2:6-8, 13).
  10. The one who loves his soul seeks wisdom (Prov. 19:8; 24:14).
  11. Wisdom is pleasant to the soul (Prov. 2:10).
  12. Wisdom is better than strength (Eccl. 9:14-16).
  13. A wise man accepts reproof and instruction (Prov. 9:8-9; 10:8).
  14. The wise man has persuasive speech (Prov. 16:23).
  15. The wise man boasts of the Lord (Jer. 9:23-24).
  16. The wise man accepts Jesus as his savior (1 Cor. 1:18-31).
  17. Christ is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24).
  18. The wise man walks in righteousness (Hos. 14:9).
  19. The wise man hears and acts on the words of Christ (Matt. 7:24).
  20. The wise man engages in good deeds done in gentleness (Jas. 3:13).
  21. The wise man controls his temper (Prov. 29:11).
  22. The wise person avoids intoxication (Prov. 20:1).
  23. Military victory comes by wise guidance (Prov. 20:18; 21:22; 24:6).
  24. Wise men hang-out together (Prov. 13:20; 15:31).
  25. The wise decide judicial matters (Ezra 7:25; 1 Cor. 6:1-7).
  26. The woman of excellence speaks wisdom (Prov. 31:26).
  27. The wise parent disciplines his child (Prov. 29:15).
  28. A wise child is better than a foolish ruler (Eccl. 4:13).
  29. The wise child accepts his parents discipline (Prov. 13:1).
  30. A wise son makes his father and mother happy (Prov. 23:15, 24; 27:11; 29:3).
  31. Wisdom helps a man understand his culture (Eccl. 1:13).
  32. Wisdom helps the believer discern the future (Deut. 32:29).
  33. One does not have to be old to be wise (Dan. 1:4; Matt. 11:25).
  34. Wisdom leads one away from evil (Prov. 3:7; 14:16).
  35. The wise man learns from nature and others (Prov. 6:5; 24:30-34).
  36. An accepted bribe blinds the eyes of the wise (Deut. 16:19).
  37. The wisdom of the world is foolishness (1 Cor. 3:19).
  38. The fool is the one who rejects and despises wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 23:9).
  39. The rod of suffering belongs to the one who lacks wisdom (Prov. 10:13; 14:3).
  40. There is a worldly/demonic wisdom (Ex. 7:11; Col. 2:23; Jas. 3:14-15).

Dr. Steven R. Cook