Monthly Archives: April 2016

Ecclesiastes 2

Solomon decides to put this life to the test. He goes all out, as only a king in that day could, to find satisfaction in accomplishment. He says, “I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” Here was his goal:

I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.

This wasn’t hedonism, although that was part of it, but he uses his wealth to build and acquire, and build and acquire some more, “great projects” as he says. There is some ambivalence in his assessment:

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.

There is delight in accomplishment and pleasure. It is its own reward, but ultimately it comes up empty. Pascal nails it when speaking of the human desire for diversion:

That is why gambling and female society (that’s one way to put it), war and high position, are all so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness, or that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from money to be won at the tables or the hare that is hunted. No one would accept such a present. What people want is not a soft and easy life, which leaves us with time on our hands to brood over our unhappy lot, or to worry about the dangers of war, or the burdens of high office. In busyness we have a narcotic to keep us from brooding and to take our minds off these things. That is why we prefer the hunt to the kill (page 96).

As soon as we get “the kill,” we almost immediately know it is “meaningless.” There is no ultimate satisfaction, what he calls “happiness.” So we almost immediately after “the kills” set up another hunt lest we see our true fate.

Next Solomon decides that if all this activity and acquiring gets us only wind, what about the life of the mind, acquiring knowledge and wisdom, seeking to live the virtuous life (not like the way of the fool). All of it, “meaningless.” Of course in using the term meaningless, Solomon doesn’t mean meaning-less, that these things have no meaning whatsoever. He says that “nothing is gained under the sun,” but clearly there is some value in all these things he is doing, or that we do. But that is not the issue. What is, is the ultimate fate of every human:

Like the fool, the wise too must die!

This is our dilemma, the ultimate question mark on human existence: death! This weighs so heavily on Solomon that he says:

17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.

He even moans that his “heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.” That all his days are “pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.” All of it, meaningless! Yet he gives some perspective too:

24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God,25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

Yet even this is meaningless and a chasing after the wind. The most important issue in life is our mortality. Death relativizes everything. That is, relative to death, everything is absolutely meaningless. Only God in Christ, who conquered death, cab imbue everything with meaning because the question death raises over our existence has been answered. It’s called the resurrection.

 

 

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Ecclesiastes 1

You have to love how Ecclesiastes opens, and this in a book, the Bible, that is ostensibly the word of God:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

This would make Woody Allen proud. Does he really mean it? Keep in mind this is Solomon, David’s son, supposedly the wisest man who ever lived. If there is no objective meaning to existence, everything we do is ultimately futile. We can try to make our own meaning, but as he implies throughout the first 11 verses, that is hopeless. You get the feeling as you read these verses that Solomon is burdened and tired of it all. A saying we find here has become famous down through the corridors of time, although few today would know where it comes from: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (v. 9) This is a recipe for boredom. How about this for futility:

What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

The image of someone chasing wind is perfect. There is nothing there, we can’t even see it, only feel it, and yet we keep chasing it as if we’ll find meaning there, something solid and stable. At the end of the day, there is only more wind and more chasing and more nothing. Think of those who have put their hope in this world, and you couldn’t find a better metaphor. By nature we are poor, benighted souls, stumbling around in the darkness trying to find something to hold on to, something to give us and our lives significance, but the emptiness in our souls won’t go away. Ultimately without God through Jesus Christ, all is “meaningless”! Solomon seems to blame it on God:

13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!

It does feel like a burden, but it is the heavy burden of sin! Our alienation from God is what eats away at our souls, and God’s righteous judgment against our sin and guilt. We feel his wrath in our bones, and our mortality speaks loudly of that guilt, and the penalty, the wages of our sin. Pascal comes to mind as I read the end of this chapter. Solomon says he has devoted his life to gaining wisdom and knowledge, and that is a burden too! All of it is a chasing after the wind. But wisdom and knowledge can often be worse in some ways:

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.

Pascal says, when we contemplate our dire situation, death staring us down from the moment we’re born, we’d rather not think about it and seek distraction. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. Oh, not for long.

 

 

 

Proverbs 31

It is fascinating that this book of wisdom would end with a paean to a “wife of noble character.” It seems odd in one sense, given the ancient world was such a male dominated place. But in another it doesn’t because throughout Proverbs we see father and mother together equally honored. Both are to be obeyed by their children. Dishonor to either invites destruction. So mom gets an ultimate shout out here in God’s revelation for all time. I suspect the author has a specific woman in mind, maybe his own wife because there are very specific things she does that not every wife would do. “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

One thing that stands out is that this wife is a hard worker, competent at what she does. She takes care of her family, and they trust her. She is strong. No withering wallflower this model of biblical womanhood. Her children and husband respect and praise her, and even “at the city gate” she earns praise. This biblical notion of women and marriage is most definitely a partnership of equals, but with differing roles, neither of which imply inferiority or superiority. This has to absolutely be unique in the ancient world. The next to the last verse puts the lie to everything this world tries to sell us:

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

You have to feel sorry for women in our culture who have traded in their charm and beauty, as they get older and what the world values is gone. I’m not sure how they do it without the Lord. I’ve hit the trifecta. My wife is charming, beautiful, and above all fears the Lord. Not to mention that she has all the other traits mentioned in this chapter. Indeed, she is to be praised, and I need to praise her more.

 

Proverbs 30

The next to the last chapter. Can’t say I’m not glad because Proverbs is difficult to write through. You could almost write something on every verse! But I have to pick and choose. What to pick and choose from chapter 30? Not easy. Here we see a prophecy cloaked in a question:

Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
    Who has gathered up the wind  in the hollow of his hands?
Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak?
    Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and the name of his son?
    Tell me if you know!

We know! The Triune God! The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I wonder why the writer would think that God would have a son centuries before it was revealed that he did. That’s why Scripture is God’s word and not just man’s. Which nicely introduces the next two verses:

“Every word of God is flawless;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

What a fascinating contrast in verse 5. You would think that the flawless nature of God and his word would intimidate the utterly flawed nature of his creatures, but the writer portrays him as a protector, one in whom we can find refuge. In other words, God is trustworthy. His words, as Jesus said, are what we are to live by. I fear for that portion of the human race who will one day face God’s rebuke. But those who are his long for his word, long to peer into his revelation of himself in creation, Scripture and Christ.

There are also a couple verses that hinge on the fifth commandment:

11 “There are those who curse their fathers
    and do not bless their mothers;
12 those who are pure in their own eyes
    and yet are not cleansed of their filth;
13 those whose eyes are ever so haughty,
    whose glances are so disdainful;
14 those whose teeth are swords
    and whose jaws are set with knives
to devour the poor from the earth
    and the needy from among mankind.

And

17 “The eye that mocks a father,
    that scorns an aged mother,
will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley,
    will be eaten by the vultures.

Wow, this is serious business! God wasn’t kidding when he said in the Law, “Honor your father and mother so it will go well with you in the land.” If you don’t, you will pay the price. Notice what it says about the character of the person who dishonors his parents. Given what I believe about the power of parents to raise children successfully to be God-fearing adults, chances are if a kid turns out this way much of it is the parents fault. And it doesn’t matter. The judgment is the same; they will be consumed as carrion. I love that the Bible and the Hebrews were so unique in the ancient world in this way. Maybe Asian cultures that make respect for others a big part of their religions, but I don’t know enough about that. I’m pretty sure, though, in the ancient nearest and the Greek and Roman empires, mothers were not on equal footing with fathers because women were not on equal footing with men. But as God made man in his image, male and female he created them, women deserve every bit of the respect due men.

Proverbs 29

There are quite a few references in this chapter to the king and the city, to the implications of wisdom for the wider social environment.

When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice;
    when the wicked rule, the people groan.

By justice a king gives a country stability,
    but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.

Mockers stir up a city,
    but the wise turn away anger.

12 If a ruler listens to lies,
    all his officials become wicked.

14 If a king judges the poor with fairness,
    his throne will be established forever.

18 Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;
    but blessed is he who keeps the law.

26 Many seek an audience with a ruler,
    but it is from the Lord that one gets justice.

We live in a fundamentally moral universe, where right and wrong exist regardless of our perceptions or desires or what we think. The materialist/atheist has no explanation how chance and atoms coming together somehow gets to right and wrong. Yet the only way we know of the concept of a crooked line is if there exists such a thing as a straight line. In other words, straightness is an objective fact of existence. God is the ground of all moral straightness, and it applies to all of life. To me this is one of the most powerful arguments for God’s existence. You just can’t get ought from is, get morality from matter. We ought to carefully pay attention to it if we want to run our lives, or our cities, well.

25 Fear of man will prove to be a snare,
    but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.

What a powerful contrast. If we trust the Lord, we will not fear man. I’m not sure what being “kept safe” is exactly, but it surely doesn’t mean everything will always go the way we want it. It does mean, though, that God’s good intentions toward us have been established eternally, that he is working all things together for our good and his glory, a la Romans 8:28. Reading this verse in light of the NT fulfillment of the promises of God’s covenant is even more powerful than when this was written in the 10th Century BC. There is literally nothing that man can do to us in light of eternity. But even in this life God will care for us and bless us and lead and guide us for his ultimate purposes. In Proverbs 3 we are exhorted to trust God and lean not on our own understanding, and he will make our paths straight. Paul tells us in Philippians 6 to in effect trust God, and “the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” It is good to trust the Lord.

Proverbs 28

Quite a few verses in this chapter on poverty and wealth. It is worth noting that the Bible never makes the material condition itself the point. It doesn’t declare the poor virtuous just because they are poor, nor the wealthy bad just because of their wealth. It always goes back to character, what one does or does not do with what one has. The tendency of the rich trust their wealth or treat the poor with disdain is what is evil. And throughout Proverbs, poverty is often the result of sin, like sloth or laziness or being a sluggard. The character of the person is everything. Which makes verse 26 so profound:

26 He who who trust in himself is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe.

Life is one huge human dichotomy. On one side you have those who trust in themselves, on the other, those who trust God, i.e. walk in wisdom. If we go back to Proverbs one, we read that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 3:5,6 expands this:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Either we trust God, or we don’t. What exactly is trust anyway? The word is so common we often just take for granted that we know what it means. Here is a definition:

firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
synonyms: confidence, belief, faith, certainty, assurance, conviction, credence;
reliance
We learn here and throughout Scripture, that we can rely on ourselves, our own insights, perceptions, talents, wealth, definition of things, etc.,  or we can trust in God. When the writer says, “walks in wisdom,” that means walks in the fear of the Lord, walks in the understanding that God is God, that he really is all powerful, yes, but also the God of the Covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses, Joshua and David, and ultimately to Jesus Christ, the second person of the eternal Trinity. In other words, that God loves us and wants our best, period. The shalom Christ purchased on the cross is the only shalom that matters, and that is peace with God. Paul’s conclusion after eight chapters explicating God’s redemptive work in history is that we can know “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Notice it is not in some things, but all. That’s a lot of things!

This is why we know on this side of the cross what walking in wisdom keeping us safe really means. It obviously has temporal significance, but more importantly it has eternal significance. When we get obsessed with the temporal, we are not walking in wisdom, in trust. At that very moment of worry or consternation or fear or disappointment, whatever negative self-centered word one can thing of, we are fools. We are trusting in ourselves, on our own understanding, as if our perspective really did determine reality, as if God really hasn’t promised that all thing work together for our good, that he will keep us safe, and that ultimately the eternal perspective trumps the temporal. What we have in fact done is turn the latter into the former, treating things or circumstances in this life as if in the finite context of our own brains that is all that really matters. They of course matter, but only forever.

It’s also very important to say what trusting in God is not: it is not waiting on God to give us a “sign” before we act. Should I do this or that, God? Oh, look at the sign in the clouds. Then I’ll do that! Trusting is using all that God has given us at his disposal, including our own brains, and walking in confidence that, as Psalm 48 tells us in the context of God securing for us our salvation:

14 For this God is our God for ever and ever;
    he will be our guide even to the end.

Amen!

Proverbs 27

Lots to choose from in this chapter. Let’s start with the first one:

Do not boast about tomorrow,
    for you do not know what a day may bring forth.

Humility is the godly disposition in all things. Trust in our sovereign God and Father, who we are told by Jesus wants to give us good things, is the only way to live a flourishing life. In comparison to evil fathers, and that would be every human father, Jesus says, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Why then do we always tend to catastrophize? Why do we fear and worry? Why do we live in tomorrow when tomorrow doesn’t even exist? While we are commanded not to boast, the bigger problem is our lack of faith in God’s goodness and love for us, as if he’d leave us out to dry, let us suffer the consequences of our own benighted stupidity. He uses even that for our good!

17 As iron sharpens iron,
    so one man sharpens another.

When I first became familiar with this verse many years ago, I thought of it solely in terms of one person helping or teaching another. In other words the sharpening was intentional, and no doubt that is the case. But our sovereign God uses every interaction we have with any human being to sharpen us. That could be our children, our spouse, our employees or employer or co-worker, our teachers or students, the guy in the car in front of us, an acquaintance or friend. This is because we are constantly challenged in every encounter to obey the two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourself. Any relationship can cause friction, and when friction exists there is possibility of growth. I’d say we learn and grow more from these encounters, if our goal is to love, than the intentional kind, but both are equally true. Witness the latter since I’ve become an MP3 junkie. Lots of sharpening.

20 Death and Destruction are never satisfied,
    and neither are the eyes of man.

I used to think this was primarily about male lust, which it can obviously be, but all human eyes, i.e. seeing, is beyond satisfaction. When we see a beautiful sunset or flower or bird or person, the looking never fulfills us. There is never a closure, like I’ve finally seen everything, seen into the true nature of things. I believe this is because we live in a fallen world and as people who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As Paul says, “we see through a glass darkly.” The seeing and its object is always pointing beyond itself. We know from Scripture that the universe is God’s creation and thus a revelation of himself. We are never satisfied by what we see because it is pointing us beyond itself to our Creator God. There will come a point when we will see fully and be satisfied, as John says, “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Of course this can all be said about any of the human senses, and the comparison to death and destruction doesn’t invite positive implications. All our desires are corrupted and can be perverted or over indulged, but part of the reason we are never satisfied is that we can always be delighted. There is always another incredible sunset, or song, or meal or swim in the ocean, etc. God’s goodness is revealed in it all, his mercy and grace and love. A heart of praise and gratitude is the only proper response.