The Importance of Vocation – page 10


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From the Summer 2018 issue of Knowing & Doing:

The Importance of Vocation

by Mark R. Talbot, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College

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  Yet we can’t follow our Maker’s directives if we don’t know them. The world and our lives have meaning – everything has a direction and a direction that can be understood, a direction that was implanted in it by God at creation. Yet we cannot discover its meaning on our own, in spite of all of our scientific and technological prowess.
  Job 28 detailed the remarkable feats of mining that the ancients achieved. They found gold, silver, copper, iron, and precious stones by digging into places no animal had ever seen, wresting what they prized from the flinty rock. Yet where is wisdom to be found? Job asked, “And where is the place of understanding?” It “is not found in the land of the living,” he answered. “It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air.” Only “God understands the way to it,” only “he knows its place.” For only He “gave to the wind its weight and apportioned the waters by measure.” He alone “made a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of the thunder.” He alone fully knows the meaning He has implanted in creation. Only the Creator knows what we must learn if we are to act as creation’s kings and queens who are carrying out His intentions for the rest of the creation.
  But no one “knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him” and “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). So God must tell us what He intends for creation. We can fulfill our divine vocation only by hearing the words of the God whose form we do not see. These are the words of Scripture. Scripture is God’s primary way of communicating with fallen human beings. He inspired his prophets and apostles to speak what He was speaking through them (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21; 2 Tim. 3:16). To know the words of Scripture – to have them resound through every aspect of our lives, to have them shape all that we are and do – is biblical wisdom and understanding. We are to seek this, Scripture declares, above all else: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Prov. 4:7 NIV).
  And so we arrive at the point I most want you to take home today: In order to fulfill our God-given vocation, we must – we all must – become better students of God’s word and of all of His word, hearing and obeying His voice as it resounds through them day after day.36, 37

[Adapted from upcoming title, When the Stars Disappear: Understanding and Coping with our Suffering by Mark Talbot. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,]


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1  Jerram Barrs, “Work: A Holy Calling,” Knowing and Doing, Fall 2008.
2  My emphases.
3  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. “vocation,” accessed February 28, 2018,
4  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. “calling,” accessed February 28, 2018,
5  This is a way of understanding the Italian statement, “Traduttore, traditore,” which means every translation is a betrayal. It falls out of God’s confusion of languages in Genesis 11.
6  The nuance involves the Hebrew word radah. It is the word for rule here. It’s in the third per-son plural imperfect, which when it is “preceded by simple waw as here expresses purpose (GKC, 109f; Lambdin, 119)” (Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 1, Genesis 1-15 [Waco, TX: Word, 1987], 4, note on v. 26b).The 1984 NIV doesn’t capture this nuance. Capturing Scripture’s nuances is a work that should progress over time.
7  Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 128. The remaining quotations in this paragraph are all from Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1984), 120; my emphasis.
8  Claus Westermann, Creation (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 81. The quotation in the next sentence is found on page 82. My paragraph’s remaining quotations are from Westermann’s Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 222, 220; my emphasis. I am indebted to Westermann throughout this section.
9  In commenting on Job 28, Wolff points out that vv. 1-10 describe our “domination of the world … with … much artistry” and asks why. His answer:

To make it all the clearer that for all his searchings and investigations man cannot dis-cover wisdom itself, ‘the meaning implanted in creation’. ‘Only God understands the way to it’ (v. 23). Thus belief in creation secures the factual nature of man’s worldly rule, which … leads clearly to the fear of God (Job 28.28). Psalm 8 celebrates man’s destiny to rule over extra-human creation in a quite different way. It leads to the final, decisive and all-embracing recognition by emphasizing that the crowning of man to be steward over the world is (in view of his minuteness in relation to the universe and his pitiable need of providing care) anything but a matter of course, and certainly does not have its ground in man himself (vv. 3f.). (227; my emphases)

10  As Wolff notes:

Immediately after man’s creation and the planting of the paradisal garden, Yahweh leads him into that garden, so that he may cultivate it and protect it. When at this point the [text] mentions both the serving of the earth through labour … and the protective watching over it … , [it is indicating] the two aspects of all man’s activity in his various callings. The context of the passage brings out the divine working and giving as the premise of all human activity; when the gifts of creation are made over to man, the care and protection of these gifts is also given him as the task of his life – a task that he and the soon-to-be created woman would find very rewarding (Wolff, 128-29).

11 Although the work of creation is finished, God has continued working for His people (see, e.g., Exod. 14:13-14; 34:10; Deut. 11:7; Josh. 24.31), and we, like our Lord, are to work as God works (see John 4:34; 5:17, 36; 17:4).
12 Wolff writes: “Since man is called to work, he should take up his Creator’s offer” (131). Commenting on Proverbs 6:6-11, he says, “The reasonable man should go promptly to work, without anyone to goad him on, and should not let himself be put to shame by an animal (cf. Jer. 8.7 [NLT])” (131). The lazy man allows himself “to be driven by the pleasure of the moment, … [and thus] misses the proper hour and the opportunities that are granted to him” (131).
13  Lewis writes:

the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain level of intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process ‘warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings’ which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable. (The Problem of Pain [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001], 23; my emphasis)

Something similar is true with intellectual work. Mental weariness at the end of a decent day’s thinking can be pleasurable.
14 Victor P. Hamilton notes that “if man had not sinned he still would be working. Eden certainly is not a paradise in which man passes his time in idyllic and uninterrupted bliss with absolutely no demands on his daily schedule” (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], 171; my emphasis).
15 The Good News proclaims that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19 NIV). The final goal of God’s work in Christ is the restoration of all things to a state like (but indeed even better than) their original state (see, e.g., Rom. 8:18-24; Acts 3:21). Scripture puts bookends around the story of sin and redemption by means of the first two chapters of Genesis when everything was “very good” (Gen. 1:31) and the last two chapters of Revelation when God will come to dwell with his people, wiping every tear from their eyes, “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Understanding our first parents’ initial state is essential to understanding what the Good News claims about our final state.
16 “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in chaos.” I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right’” (Isa. 45:18-19 RSV). At 1:21, Wenham comments that the phrase “across the firmament” referring to the flight of birds, “is one of the indications in the narrative that it is written from the perspective of a human observer” because “[f]rom the ground, birds appear to fly against the background of the sky” (24).
17 Paul Beauchamp, Création et séparation : étude exégétique du premier chapître de la Genèse (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, Cerf, Delachaux & Niestlé, Desclée de Brouwer, 1969), 45. Quoted in Blocher, 75.
18  Wenham says Genesis 1

discloses man’s true nature. He is the apex of the created order: the whole narrative moves toward the creation of man. Everything is made for man’s benefit.... While man shares with plants and animals the ability to reproduce himself, he alone is made in the divine image and is instructed to subdue the earth. The image of God means that in some sense men and women resemble God and the angels, though where the resemblance lies is left undefined in this chapter. The divine image does enable man to be addressed directly by his creator and makes him in a real sense God’s representative on earth, who should rule over the other creatures as a benevolent king” (38, my emphasis).

19 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 47.
20 Here being is the present participle of the verb to be and not a noun, thus emphasizing that we exist only as images. Blocher is making the same point in the quotation that follows in my text.
21 Blocher, 82. I have emphasized the last 18 words.
22 James L. Mays, “What Is A Human Being? Reflections on Psalm 8,” Theology Today 50 (1993-94), 513. The final quotation in this paragraph also comes from page 519 of this superb exposition of Psalm 8.
23  The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to have done this:

I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (3:18-21 NIV)

Kidner comments:

But does something within us survive death? From its chosen standpoint, Ecclesiastes can only reply, Who knows? Breath, or spirit, in these verses is the life God gives to animals and men alike, whose withdrawal means their death …. Clearly we have at least that much in common with the beasts; but whether ‘spirit’ implies anything eternal for us, no-one can decide by observation. (Derek Kidner, A Time To Mourn, and A Time To Dance: Ecclesiastes & the way of the world [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976], 43. I have emphasized the final claim.)

Humankind can only know what we are and what we are destined for by revelation.
24 Beauchamp writes that we are “the unique one above the many,” as quoted by Blocher, 92.
25 Wenham comments on Genesis 1:28 that

Because man is created in God’s image, he is king over nature. He rules the world on God’s behalf. This is of course no license for the unbridled exploitation and subjugation of nature. Ancient oriental kings were expected to be devoted to the welfare of their subjects, especially the poorest and weakest members of society (Ps 72:12-14).... Similarly, mankind is here commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king, acting as God’s representative over them and therefore treating them in the same way as God who created them. Thus animals, though subject to man, are viewed as his companions in 2:18-20. Noah, portrayed as uniquely righteous in 6:9, is also the arch-conservationist who built an ark to preserve all kinds of life from being destroyed in the flood (6:20; 7:3). (33, my emphasis)

26  Wenham, 32.
27  See Hamilton:

what does imago Dei mean? Does it refer to posture, to imagination/creativity, or, as is so often assumed, to the ability to reason? This latter one is the one that has dominated Wes-tern Christianity. Its weakness is that in focusing exclusively on intellectual capacities of humanity, it correspondingly devalues other aspects of human existence, such as emotion. A fourth suggestion is to understand imago Dei relationally. Gen 1 and 2 seem to support this. To bear the image of God is to be capable of living in proper relationship with God, with others, with the rest of creation, and with oneself. The tarnishing of that image is occasioned by the soiling of those relationships. (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997], Vol. 4, 671, Victor P. Hamilton, “Genesis: Theology”; my emphasis)

28  Kidner, 51. The remaining quotations in this paragraph are from the same page.
29  “In the ancient East the setting up of the king’s statue was the equivalent to the proclamation of his domination over the sphere in which the statue was erected (cf. Dan. 3.1, 5f.). When in the thirteenth century BC the Pharaoh Ramesses II had his image hewn out of rock at the mouth of the nahr el-kelb, on the Mediterranean north of Beirut, the image meant that he was the ruler of this area. Accordingly man is set in the midst of creation as God’s statue. He is evidence that God is the Lord of creation” (Wolff, 160; my emphasis).
30  See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 24:

If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe — no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or a staircase or a fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves.

Part of the great good news of Christianity is that we aren’t left needing simply to root around inside ourselves to discover if the world had a Creator, for God has acted in history, at Sinai, and in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of His Son, and told us what He requires of us, with his Holy Spirit witnessing to its truth. And part of our responsibility as His images is for us to witness to His presence and power and authority by acknowledging our appointment as His earthly vicegerents.
31  “[T]he Scriptures do not teach the disappearance of the creational privilege. All the indisputable references to the declaration of Genesis 1:26f. appear to suppose the permanence of the-being-as-image-of-God (Gn. 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9)” (Blocher, 94).
32  Blocher, 77.
33  See footnote 25.
34  Wenham, 39.
35  Blocher, 90; my emphasis.
36  Wolff writes:

Taken by itself the phrase [‘the image of God’] points first and fundamentally to a correspondence between [humanity] and God.… But how are we to understand this relation of correspondence between God and [humanity] more precisely?…According to [God’s statement at Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”], [humanity] proceeds from God’s address. We must not view this in the purely formal sense, especially since the address in which God blesses [humanity] in 1.28 is similar to the words spoken to the fish and the birds in 1.22. What is unique is the continuation of the words addressed to [the human beings]. This confers on [them] the office that distinguishes [them].… [W]hen the Creator gave created beings over to [humanity], he also gave [them] responsible tasks (2.15-17) and powers of decision (2:18-23).… The different features of the [Genesis 2:5-25] narrative make the implications of Gen. 1.26-28 graphically evident. According to this the relation of correspondence to which the phrase ‘the image of God’ points is to be seen first of all in that [humanity], in hearing and then also in obeying and in answering, corresponds to the word of God’s address. (159-160, my emphasis of all but the first use of address)

As Wolff put it earlier, “the Creator of all things … enters into dialogue with man and with his wife as with none other of his creatures” (94-95). This dialogue comes to us primarily through God’s speech acts in Scripture. Hearing and reading it puts us in dialogue with God.
37  I am grateful to the Christian Scholars’ Fund,, for their support of my research and writing.


Mark Talbot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College, where he has taught since 1992. He earned his PhD in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. His areas of academic expertise include philosophical theology, philosophical psychology, and the epistemologies of the early modern philosophers and the works of David Hume, Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards. Dr. Talbot has published many book reviews, magazine articles and chapters in collaborative volumes, including Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Mark and his wife, Cindy, have one daughter and three grandchildren.


Recommended Reading:
Stephen J. Nichols, What is Vocation? (P & R Publishing, 2010)

For some people, work is tedious and boring — something to endure until the weekend arrives. For others, work is everything; it consumes them and their time. The former find no meaning of satisfaction in their jobs, the latter find too much — both lack an eternal perspective, a biblical framework through which they can evaluate what they spend most of their lives doing.

This booklet (32 pages) offers that framework. Work, as ordained by God, has meaning and purpose. And by understanding your own vocation, you too can say with the psalmist, “Yes, establish the work of our hands!”

Gene Edward Veith Jr., God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Crossway, Redesign edition, 2011)

Work can be a daily grind — a hard, monotonous set of thankless tasks. In the midst of the ongoing toil, many are plagued by a lack of purpose, confused as to what to do and who to become. And while some of our vocations may seem more overtly meaningful than others’, the truth is that most of us work because we have to. It is a means to an end — survival. Given the enormous amount of time each of us spends working, we would do well to understand our callings and how God works through them.

Here culture expert Gene Veith gives us more than a simple understanding of work — more than a catchy slogan to “do all things for the glory of God.” He outlines a spiritual framework for answering questions such as:
What does it mean to be a Christian businessperson or a Christian artist or a Christian lawyer, scientist, construction worker or whatever?

How can I know what I am supposed to do with my life?

What does it mean to raise a Christian family? And what if I don’t have kids?

Unpacking the Bible’s teaching on work, Veith helps us to see the meaning in our vocations, the force behind our ethics, and the transformative presence of God in our everyday, ordinary lives.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  Knowing & Doing is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.



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