"Understanding the times" is one of those phrases from the Bible which is frequently quoted (especially in prophetic speculation circles), but seldom analyzed. It comes from 1 Chronicles, chapter 12. This gift of understanding is attributed to the 'sons of Issachar' -- that is, a group of elders from the tribe of Issachar. Issachar was one of the 12 tribes of Israel, descended from Jacob's 12 sons. What we learn in the book of Chronicles is that this tribe had insight which the other tribes lacked. This insight helped the nation to make the right decision at a critical time in Israel's history: it helped the nation unify behind David and declare him to be the king who would succeed Saul. This was by no means a forgone conclusion, humanly speaking. God had chosen David to be the king, but under the polity of Israel, the people must also choose the king and install him. Samuel Rutherford, the great Scottish theologian, noted this in Lex Rex (Latin for 'The Law is King') and it became part of the basis for America's adoption of self-rule.
I first read that phrase 'understanding the times' when I saw it 20 years ago as the title of an excellent book about world views from David Noebel, founder of Summit Ministries. But how did Issachar manage to acquire this special knowledge? Why was it Issachar, especially, that had this gift? One might expect it to be Levites who served God in the temple. But it wasn't Levi; it was Issachar. I reasoned that maybe if we could learn how Issachar developed this capacity for understanding then we could be imitators who could undergo the same sort of spiritual and leadership development and thereby be given the same gift of understanding. The Christian church in the 21st century seemed to me to be desperately in need of such a gift, and I set out to learn what it was about Issachar that led them to it. In the 20 years that I've spent struggling with this question, I believe that the need for understanding of the times has only grown more desperate.
Here's what two decades of study has taught me.
Let's start with the verses:
"And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment. Of Zebulun, such as went forth to battle, expert in war, with all instruments of war, fifty thousand, which could keep rank: they were not of double heart." 1 Chronicles 12:32-33
So in 1 Chronicles 12, Israel was having its election. It was choosing between two dynasties, the Davidic and the Saulide. (Of course, we Americans have no experience with political dynasties, right?) The tribe of Issachar knew which way to go and helped lead the other tribes to shift towards the next era, the era of David and his successors.
According to numerous Jewish sources, Issachar was the tribe which focused on the study of the Torah. Issachar was teamed with Zebulun which was the commercial tribe. Zebulun sailed the seas and traded (which Moses prophesied over them in Dt. 33) while Issachar dwelt in Zebulun's tents (also predicted by Moses).
There are two key prophecies made over Issachar and Zebulon. The first was given to the patriarchs themselves from their direct father, Jacob; the second was much later when both were mature tribes and Moses was giving his own final blessing over them.
Jacob's blessings over Zebulun and over Issachar
“Zebulun will live by the seashore
and become a haven for ships;
his border will extend toward Sidon.
14 “Issachar is a rawboned[f] donkey
lying down among the sheep pens.[g]
15 When he sees how good is his resting place
and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
and submit to forced labor.""
Moses' blessings over Zebulun/Issachar
"18 About Zebulun he said:
“Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out,
and you, Issachar, in your tents.
19 They will summon peoples to the mountain
and there offer the sacrifices of the righteous;
they will feast on the abundance of the seas,
on the treasures hidden in the sand.”"
Although prophetic utterances are to some degree difficult to understand (especially for we modern commentators who do not naturally think in the same ways as ancient people) nevertheless we clearly see a close partnering between these two tribes. They are children of the same mother and adjacent in birth order. In addition they were in the same cluster together in the encampments around the tabernacle and once the tribes settled in Israel their territories were next to one another. We also clearly see evidence of a commercial aspect to Zebulun's special calling in the division of labor between the tribes. According to Josephus, Zebulun bordered the sea, and although some scholars differ, even those scholars place Issachar next to sea-side territories. Either way, both scripture and Rabbinical and other historical sources identify them as sea-going traders. Jacob's prophecy above seems to imply that as well, and Moses' later prophecy is certainly consistent with that.
Issachar's prophecies are somewhat less clear. He will engage in some sort of labor, according to Jacob's final blessing, and according to Moses, he will do that in close partnership with Zebulun. The ancient sources are nearly unanimous in concluding that Issachar's special labor was Torah study. They were, according to Rashi and Josephus, a scholarly tribe.
"Zebulun and Issachar entered into a partnership: Zebulun dwelt at the harbour of ships and went out in ships to trade; he made profit and used to provide food for Issachar who sat at home and occupied themselves with the Torah. Consequently he mentioned Zebulun before Issachar (although the latter was the elder) because Issachar’s knowledge of Torah was due to Zebulun."
This quote is one of several from the great Rabbi. They can be found here.
Zebulun's commercial activity made Issachar's scholarship possible. The consistent pairing of Issachar and Zebulun in scripture is important. They marched on either side of Judah before the Ark of the Covenant. Their territories were adjacent when they settled in Israel. Zebulun according to some sources reached to the sea, other sources say they reached as far as Sidon, which reached to the sea. In either case they were sea-going merchants. This is important: there was a close partnership between scripture scholarship and business.
My friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin tells me that even to this day, a businessman who sponsors a Torah student is called a Zevulun, in recognition of the historical record.
But I don't think the original arrangement was a donor-beneficiary one. Throughout history we see that when there is a scholarly tribe or class in a society, they're never only scholars. As literate people, ancient scholars had other important functions: they kept records, births, marriages, business arrangements such as debts, collections, assets. That's why the same English word 'clerical' refers to ordained religious leaders and also to bookkeepers. A cleric is a minister; a clerk files papers.
What I see is that out of all the tribes of Israel, the one which devoted itself to the study of the scriptures, but which also almost certainly kept the financial books and commercial records of the commercial tribe with whom they were partnered was the one which alone 'knew understanding to the times' (literal translation of the passage).
Understanding springs out of that zone of the overlap between knowledge of the Scriptures and knowledge of the business affairs of the world. Scholars insulated from the marketplace become ivory tower hermits (or far from the front lines revolutionaries). People immersed in the marketplace without reference to the permanent truths of the writings, can never get a view of the big picture.
But bring those two together, and you have an understanding of the times and knowledge of what to do.
According to the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, the region of Zebulon is partly in what would later be called Galilee:
"Wars of the Jews 2:503 so Cestius took part of his forces and marched hastily to Zebulun, a strong city of Galilee, which was called the City of Men, and divides the country of Ptolemais from our nation;"
(Wars 2:503 JOE)
Jesus was a man (but not only a man) who 'does all things well'. He lived in Nazareth, which was a suburb of Sephoris, the financial capital of northern Palestine. His parables show a shockingly sophisticated level of knowledge about the state of the art finance in his day. He was a Rabbi, but he was around business as a builder. The people of Nazareth were within walking distance of Sephoris -- which, during Jesus' life there, was undergoing a massive rebuilding project due to the fact that the city had been destroyed by the Romans after a brief unsuccessful Jewish revolt. So he grew up in an environment immersed in business activity. Although he was of the tribe of Judah, He had in Himself the best of all the tribes, and so was a true Issacharian in being a study of the Scriptures and a thinker who more than any other had an understanding of the times.
After 20 years of reflection on this question, I have concluded that the zone of understanding the times is the zone in which Scripture study and engagement with commerce overlap. It is not isolated scholarship with its tendency to obscurity and otherworldliness alone; nor is it a constant immersion in the flux of second-to-second market data. But rather the permanent theological framework of the Bible interpreting the data of business traders (who get to see so much of the world and to meet so many people and who must pay so much attention to risk factors) together which call us 'men who understand the times and know what Israel ought to do'.