Ecclesiastes 11 & 12

So much one could comment on in these chapters. They are the most poetic in the book.

As you do not know the path of the wind,
    or how the body is formedin a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
    the Maker of all things.

This is a theme throughout Ecclesiastes. We must never try to peer into the mind of God and assume we can know the reasons and wherefores for why things happen. And such speculation is not only unhelpful, it is presumptuous and leads to us judging God by our benighted standards. The limits of our knowledge call for humility, and trust.

However many years a man may live,
    let him enjoy them all.
But let him remember the days of darkness,
    for there will be many.
    Everything to come is meaningless.

9  Be happy young man, while you are young,
    and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
    and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
    God will bring you to judgment.
10 So then, banish anxiety from your heart
    and cast off the troubles of your body,
    for youth and vigor are meaningless.

Youth, the most celebrated thing in modern culture, next to sex that is, is also meaningless. The young and arrogant think they are invincible, but what is to come, i.e. age and death, makes such arrogance laughable. In the first part of chapter 12 Solomon enjoins the young to “remember your Creator,” before it’s all gone in a mist. I love how he conveys through such beautiful poetry how time and decrepitude happen to all:

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
    and the moon and the stars grow dark,
    and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
    and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
    and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
    and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
    but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
    and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
    and the grasshopper drags itself along
    and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
    and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Just beautiful. Of course he declares it all meaningless. What are we to conclude from all this mess? Fear God and keep his commands because “this is the whole duty of man,” and every deed will be brought into judgment. Nothing else matters because all is vanity because all is fleeting. We are a mist that bustles to and fro, and for what? In the end that comes so quickly, we are laid in a box six feet underground. If it’s not all about God, it’s all about nothing.

Ecclesiastes 10

I find it a bit less than ironic that God is a conservative:

The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
    but the heart of the fool to the left.

I have to see God’s providence in the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution taking up the seats on the left in the National Assembly, while the defenders of religion and the regime sat on the right. Ever since, radicals, revolutionaries, socialists/communists, liberals/progressives have been referred to as the left on the political/cultural spectrum, and conservatives on the right. Something about the nature of reality is just . . . right.

This is another chapter that is Proverbs like. I could comment on every verse, but I’ll pick a few.

10 If the ax is dull
    and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed,
    but skill will bring success.

Sharpen the ax is a common saying that refers to someone working on their skills so whatever they are trying to accomplish comes easier. Yet another saying that comes from the Bible, and this book. It isn’t practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice. How about this:

19 A feast is made for laughter,
    wine makes life merry,
    and money is the answer for everything.

This is so not true, but how those of us having limited amounts think it is. No doubt it certainly makes things easier, but it is no panacea. And the final verses speak to the wisdom of thinking right thoughts, and not assuming just because we haven’t said them out loud that they will not have consequences:

20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts,
    or curse the rich in your bedroom,
because a bird in the sky may carry your words,
    and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

Something to keep in mind as we walk through life as fallen creatures in a fallen world.

 

Ecclesiastes 9

More Solomon the cynic. First he says this:

Enjoy life with your wife,whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Enjoy it if you can, but it still doesn’t mean anything because you’ll end up dead like everyone else. He looks out on life and injustice everywhere, which if you think about it for a minute just isn’t true. He says:

11 I have seen something else under the sun:

The race is not to the swift
    or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
    or wealth to the brilliant
    or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

Surely time and chance happen to everyone, but more often than not the swift win the race, the strong win the battle, the wise and brilliant are better at making money, and the learned very often get favor for it. I would chalk this up to hyperbole. But it is true that these things are not always the case, that sometimes the exact opposite happens from what we think ought to happen based on what we’ve tried to do. And there is no doubt that many people feel that life is just “time and chance.” From all appearances it can often seem that way.

And yet he ends the chapter with, “wisdom is better than folly.” Why, if all is “time and chance”? Well, speaking pragmatically:

17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
    than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
    but one sinner destroys much good.

So even if it is all meaningless, and even if injustice abounds, it makes sense to live wisely rather than foolishly because practically it is just better.

Ecclesiastes 8

In the first part of the chapter Solomon takes his musing to the bigger picture, a societal level. He writes of kings, and how best to order society. Obedience to the king is a religious issue, something done in reference to God more than the actual king. Wisdom and the fear of God works on this level too, although it is all meaningless. But justice, of a lack of it, has consequences:

11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.

I read something recently in Hillsdale’s Imprimis that came about because Mayor Rudy Gulianai started doing something called “broken windows policing.” The basic idea is that the police crack down on petty crime, and crime where it was most likely to happen, and once the “windows” were fixed, crime would come down. That’s exactly what happened, dramatically:

In New York City in 1990 . . . there were 2,245 homicides. In 2014 there were 333—a decrease of 85 percent.

I knew about this, but seeing that contrast in a sentence is astounding. I was in NYC in January, and for the most part felt safe. Solomon was absolutely right.

Solomon also muses about injustice, when the wicked get what the righteous deserve, and the righteous get what the wicked deserve. He declares it meaningless, of course. And it doesn’t make sense from our limited perspective. His conclusion:

16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.

I think this nails it. Life is simply too bizarre, and our perspective too limited to really get to the core of things. If we could comprehend it, in effect, we would be God himself.

The struggle that weighs on existence is just too massive and ubiquitous. I think of it as the “gravity of wrongness.” We all know something is wrong, that things should not be the way they are, and it makes no sense to us. It weighs on us. I’m not thinking of our mortality and that in fact we are daily rotting soon to be dust. I’m talking about the permanent ennui of the soul. Every human achievement no matter how great and exalted, no matter how recognized and applauded leaves that human right square in the sights of Solomon’s wisdom: it is meaningless! You can hear deep down in every person’s soul that “still small voice,” that’s it? That’s all there is? Now what? I gotta do it again to catch the fleeting buzz? And then what, again ad infinitum? And then . . . death? Are you kidding me? That’s what he means by comprehend, we simply cannot understand any of it. Thanks be to God he has broken through the darkness with the wondrous light of his glorious Son!

Ecclesiastes 7

This chapter has a Proverbs feel to it, but with with a large does of meaninglessness, of course. Take these first number of verses:

A good name is better than fine perfume,
    and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
    because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

Solomon, you’re such a downer. Why would mourning and sadness and frustration and death be better than feasting and pleasure? In a word, perspective. When we’re happy and delighted with what this world offers we are tempted to the buy into the eternality of the temporal. We are tempted to believe that these pleasures are in some way ultimately meaningful. We are tempted to make them more important then our relationship to God. When human mortality, and ours, slaps us in the face, the world’s enticements, and it’s limitations, don’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Only one moment ultimately counts for anything in our lives: the moment our heart stops beating, and what we did to prepare for it. Elsewhere as we’ve seen, Solomon encourages us to enjoy the blessings we find in our few measly days under the sun. That is a gift of God, but don’t be deluded that it all means anything outside of our relationship to our creator, and redeemer.

Some verses later Solomon gets all Aristotelian on us.

13 Consider what God has done:

Who can straighten
    what he has made crooked?
14 When times are good, be happy;
    but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
    as well as the other.
Therefore, a man cannot discover
    anything about his future.

15 In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:

a man righteous perishing in his righteousness,
    and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.
16 Do not be overrighteous,
    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one
    and not let go of the other.
    Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

The mean, the middle between two extremes, is foundational to Aristotle’s ethics, and this was written about 700 years before Aristotle. To him, ethics were determined in utilitarian terms, perceiving one way better than another. Solomon does the same thing, but his motivation, the fear of God, transcends all utilitarian motives because it means we trust the goodness and love of God for us.

I think avoiding extremes is built into the phrase, “a man cannot discover anything about his future.” Jesus could have been thinking about this chapter when he exhorted us not to worry about tomorrow because we have no idea what will happen tomorrow. This brings to mind Pascal’s assessment of human imagination:

Imagination is the dominant faculty in man. . . . It makes people believe in, or doubt, or even deny reason. It suspends control of the senses by making them feel.

This is quoted from, Blaise Pascal: The Mind on Fire, and it appears from the rest of the paragraph (page 55) that Pascal himself could have had this chapter in mind as well. He tells how a successful man will live in the confidence that the future will always be as the present based on how his imagination makes him feel. He cannot know things tomorrow will be just as good as today. In fact he can’t know anything, nothing, zero, zip, nada about tomorrow, but lives as if he did. The person who worries or has had misfortune does the same thing but in the opposite direction because of what he feels based on what he imagines. Yet Solomon points out the obvious: we can’t know anything about our future, yet our imagination deludes us into thinking we can. Then we live in our imagination as if it were reality.

Why are young children never worried or depressed? Because they live in the eternal present, which is the only thing a human being can know for certain, what is this very moment. To think we can know any other moment, is a lie, and one fueled by our imagination. If we really trust God, we will refuse to live in other moments and the feelings they engender. We will trust our heavenly Father and live in the joy of now and the promise of an eternal future with him, a future that makes everything in this life, good and bad, almost nothing in comparison.

Ecclesiastes 5 & 6

Solomon is something of a schizophrenic. Part of him is disgusted with the utterly apparent futility of life, the seeming injustice of it all. He even says it is better to be a stillborn child than to have a very long life and prosperity if you can’t enjoy it (6:3-6). Even if you do, even if you live 2000 years with prosperity and enjoy it, death still relativizes: “Do not all go to the same place?” In the first section of chapter 5 he concludes with an exhortation to, “stand in awe of God.” So he is no agnostic, secularist, even as he declares that it is all meaningless. It just that when he views things on earth outside of any eternal perspective, it all seems so absurd. Yet though wealth and riches never really satisfy, and are of course, meaningless, there is value in enjoying them:

18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. 20 He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.

Then he comments on one who gets wealth, possessions, and honor but God doesn’t allow him to enjoy them. It makes no sense. Solomon ends chapter 6 bordering on cynicism:

12 For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?

To enjoy, or not to enjoy, that is the question. Who knows why one does, and why another does not. It’s all absurd, and if this life is all there is, indeed it is.

 

Ecclesiastes 4

It so blows me away, and yet is oddly encouraging, that this book is in the Bible. We can put it under the category of no apologies for a fallen world. The “problem of evil” is not considered a problem. It is complained about, mourned over, it confuses, perplexes, frustrates, you name it. Scripture, and those writing it, evince every negative emotion you can think of in the face of sin’s ravages upon creation. Think about it, you don’t even get three chapters into God’s word to man before we see why this came about, before one brother kills another in cold blood. Here’s the deal. God’s revelation to us is not given to explain the unexplainable (to us), but to tell us how it must be, will be and was dealt with. The history of redemption shows us, graphically, the wages of sin, that they will be paid, were paid, and our ultimate victory over death. God’s kingdom lost, God’s kingdom restored, God’s kingdom triumphant. This is the drama of human existence.

The reason for the above paragraph is the first part of this chapter:

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.
But better than both
    is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.

I’m sure some Christians write this off because it’s in a strange book like Ecclesiastes, but it’s not exactly unique to this book. The Psalms are replete with references to what appears to us as the futility of life. And much of the OT appears the same way. The rest of the chapter describes other meaningless activities when man tries to make a go of it to stave off the apparent futility of it all. Of course Solomon declares it all meaningless. There is no doubt that life affords us moments of grace and beauty, kindnesses and mercy, love and joy, even fleeting moments of fulfillment, and we should appreciate and thank God for those. But at the end of the day, we are left with a gnawing sense that something just ain’t right, and never will be on this earth.

Without God’s revelation life will always be found wanting. All human beings start with one of two presuppositions, and there are only two. Either we interpret reality without God’s revelation to us, or we interpret it with his ultimate and perfect perspective. The former leads to the ultimate judgment of the senselessness of it all, death, while the latter to the ultimate victory over death. We either look to this earth as our home, and earth thrown on our face as our final destiny, or eternity and God’s kingdom, as conquerors over death to live forever with our God and Savior in a resurrected body in a new heavens and a new earth. Whatever one is our focus, whatever one we truly buy into will determine how we handle this confusing mess we call life.

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