Monthly Archives: May 2016

Song of Songs

People who have never read the Bible have no idea what a strange book, or collection of books, it is. Ecclesiastes is strange because the greatest king of Israel, world renowned for his wealth and wisdom spends the whole book saying it’s all meaningless, a chasing after the wind. In Song of Songs, by contrast, part of a book, the Bible, most consider prudish and hung up about sex, you have a celebration of sex verging on pornographic. It also celebrates romance, something many would consider a modern notion. God is not anti-sex! He created it, and us to enjoy it, in the proper context.

The book as been read in one of two ways over the centuries, either literally Solomon and his bride, or allegorically, about Christ and his church. I don’t see why it can’t be read both ways, and from what I’ve read most do see it more as both/and rather than either/or. It really has to be given that Paul introduces us to the metaphor of Christ and his bride, the Church. In Ephesians 5 we read of what Paul calls a profound mystery:

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

It’s kind of astounding when you think about it. In Song of Songs we have a man and a woman obsessing over one another, infatuated, dripping with lust and desire, taking great delight in everything about the other. This, Paul is saying, is what Christ does for his Church, or his “called out ones” (ἐκκλησία). That would be us! We wretched sinners have become to him a bride, presented pure and clean, without stain or any blemish, completely holy and blameless. Profound mystery indeed, because it is incomprehensible. He loves us with as much passion as a lover and a beloved? The kind we see in this book? The only way we can buy into this is if we look to the cross, to Christ’s perfect obedience, and not at ourselves. We navel gaze, and we see filthy rags; we gaze upon him, we see perfect righteousness, on one in whom the Father is “well pleased.” And think about it. Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him.” That means us! His bride. Crazy.


Ecclesiastes and Redemptive History

After I finished reading Ecclesiastes something hit me as I was listening to the guys on White Horse Inn talk about Jesus’ ascension, and the Holy Spirit and God’s kingdom, etc. The Hebrews and then the Jews after the Babylonian captivity always see the promises of God’s kingdom in physical terms. The land was real land, the king was a real earthly king, the enemies put under his feet real armies defeated in battle. As they looked back at their history, Solomon was the guy, the apex of glory and dominion for the people of Israel. During the time of Jesus Jews longed to see Solomon’s reign restored, and most of those, maybe all, who followed Jesus thought he would restore the kingdom to Israel, be another Solomon. They were sorely disappointed, for three days.

But as I think about Ecclesiastes, here is the greatest king in all of Israel’s history in terms of splendor and material glory, and he declares over and over again, everything is meaningless! In fact he says so 33 times. And several of those times he adds that it’s all a “chasing after the wind” (9 times total). So if his reign and kingdom and Israel’s rule in the Promised Land is so great, why is Solomon such a cynic? Because he realizes that God’s ultimate promises can never be truly fulfilled in such a fallen and broken world. There has to be more. The book ends with judgment, but not real hope for anything beyond what we can expect from how we act on earth. Until Jesus was finally revealed as the conqueror of sin and death, you have to wonder why Jews wanted to restore something that was so “meaningless.” The idea of eternity and everlasting life was not well enough conceived until after the resurrection, when all the OT was then fully interpreted in light of Christ. It isn’t all so meaningless after all!

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.