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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why Ecclesiastes?

So, let me start by telling you something I'm learning about blogging after doing this for about nine months.  A series of posts is great because it allows me to explore an idea at length without writing an entire book.  But it's bad because once I start the series I feel obligated to make every post on that topic until the series is over.  That means that if I have a short, easy blog post—maybe a link to something else—I don't put it up there because I have to stay in the series.  But I don't have time to do the next one, so I put it off.  So if you look through my history you find that when I have some sort of series the time elapsed between posts gets way too long.  Consider this an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for why I haven't posted in about ten days.

So, we were talking about Ecclesiastes and what the heck it's doing in the Bible.

Last time I talked about how ancient Hebrew wisdom is "earthy," meaning that it is not speculative, abstract stuff but is all about living life well in this world as if this is all there is.  And what I began to come to at the end of that post is that Ecclesiastes pushes Hebrew wisdom to its limit by being so radically focused on this life and this world as the be-all/end-all that it reveals that unless there is something more, the whole wisdom project collapses.

This is the contradiction that runs pretty much throughout the whole book.  From 1:2 to 4:3 the tenor of the book is relentlessly negative.  The Preacher's (as I said in the last post, Solomon) theme is that all human activity is pointless—it doesn't do any good either for the one who does it or for the world as a whole.  There is no significance.  And what paltry significance there might be is made irrelevant by the fact that the person who does it dies and can't enjoy it anyway.

Some would argue that I am missing some bright spots in this section of the book.  One is 2:24-26, which includes, "There is nothing better for people than to eat and to drink, and to find enjoyment in their work. . . . For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy."  But in context (see from 1:12 on, especially 2:18-23), I think the Preacher is saying that the gift of God to those he loves is to enable them to forget the reality that they're going to die and it's all for nothing.  The gift of God is that you can be so focused on the pleasure of the moment that you are anesthetized from the constant, looming recognition of your mortality.  Is that a good thing?  I suppose so.  Would I call this observation positive?  No, I would not, any more than the aphorism "Ignorance is bliss."

Another "bright spot" a person might point out is that popular wedding/funeral/trying-to-sound-deep-by-quoting-a-Bible-you-don't-read/Byrds passage 3:1-8 ("A time to this and a time to that").  I don't know why this passage comforts people out of context.  But it is totally uncomforting in context.  In what follows (vv. 9-15) the Preacher says, "What benefit can a worker gain from its toil?"  People have to work, and they do, and what they do fits into the time that God has ordained for their action.  But God has also ordained for the exact opposite to take place ("A time to be born, a time to die"), so it all ends up coming back to even anyway.  No matter how far away you push it or in what direction, in the inscrutable providence of God it eventually rolls right back.

But then from 4:4 to 11:6 we see something different.  Despite how the Preacher has insisted that everything is pointless, including wisdom itself (1:16-18; 2:12-17), he dispenses wisdom.  Despite that it doesn't matter what you do, because you're just going to die anyway, the Preacher gives advice so that you can do what you do better.  It's like he can't help himself—he's compulsive.  So most of the book is spent in this awkward alternation between despair and advice, such as 6:10-7:14, wherein the Preacher says, "No one knows what is best for a person during his life," and then proceeds to give a range of counsel about how one course of action is better than another.

The basic inconsistency between the "life is pointless" theme and the wisdom for living well is, I think, the reason we have the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes points out the fundamental problem for any philosophy that denies or ignores the possibility of meaningful eternal life.  If there is no meaningful eternal life, then all activity is pointless.  On the other hand, there is this deep need in each person not only to be active but to be active well in such a way as to prolong the ability to act (i.e., life as an individual person) for as long as possible.  The pointlessness of action and the need to act are ultimately irreconcilable, as is the enigmatic Book of Ecclesiastes.

As Christians we need to know this, because we need to have a clear sense of just how precious the promise of eternal life in Christ is.  The alternative to our hope is Ecclesiastes.  And in fact, everyone who is not in Christ would say the same thing the Preacher does if they were smart, undeluded, and self-aware enough.  Our challenge to the atheistic do-gooder is, "Enjoy saving the world, but guess what?  You're going to die and not experience any of it, and any progress you've made has just been matched by regress somewhere else."  Our challenge to the atheistic nihilist is, "If life is so pointless, why do you look both ways before crossing the street?  For that matter, why do you cross the street?"

The Old Covenant didn't talk much about these things, but the Preacher pushed it there.  What a great setup for the New Covenant.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ecclesiastes and Earthy Hebrew Wisdom

Back in May I mentioned in a post that I was reading through Ecclesiastes and that I might blog about what the heck this book is doing in the Bible.  So I figure I'll devote a post or three to that subject.

Before looking at Ecclesiastes itself I think it's worthwhile to consider Hebrew wisdom as a whole.  When we talk about the "wisdom literature" in the Bible, we're referring to Proverbs as sort of the standard for the whole genre (fancy word meaning "type of writing" for you non-English majors—like novel, newspaper article, limerick, etc.).  We're also including Job and Ecclesiastes.  Song of Songs is also grouped with wisdom literature I think particularly because of its instructive conclusion in 8:6-7, but as love poetry (and entertainment) the Song is really its own animal.  We also include in wisdom literature a few of the Psalms (like famously the first one) and bits and pieces of the writings of the prophets (e.g., Jer. 17:5-11).

Now the thing about Hebrew wisdom literature is that it is intensively focused on how to be successful in this life, from the day of your birth to the day of your death.  It doesn't really care about theology per se or ethics in the abstract.  It isn't about where you go after you die.  It's about living well in the here and now.  In wisdom literature the best possible outcome is (in no particular order) wealth, a full stomach, physical health, a loving family, a long and pleasant life, heirs that you can pass your wealth on to when you die, and the esteem of your acquaintances and the wider society.  All this is considered 100% the blessing of God by his love and faithfulness and grace (Heb. hesed).  You won't receive this blessing, at least not long-term, without being wise and living wisely, and the foundation of all wisdom is fearing Yahweh (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33), which means that you take his instruction more seriously and follow it more loyally than your own desires or other people's bright ideas.

By contrast, in Hebrew wisdom literature the worst thing that can happen to you is poverty, hunger, an untimely (especially violent) death, public shame, exhausting toil for nothing, and irritating dependents.  This is the destiny of the fool (Heb. k'sil, pronounced "kuh-SEEL").  The word k'sil is related to a Hebrew verb that means "to be confident."  Although the verb can refer to confidence as either a good thing or a bad thing, the noun k'sil refers to a person whose confidence is misplaced, namely in his stupid self.  The key to the wise person's wisdom is that he is rigorously skeptical of it, and he unfailingly takes God's direction even when it conflicts with what he thinks is best.  But the fool's folly is that he thinks he knows what he is doing and confidently lives his life as he sees fit, ignoring God's direction, especially when it doesn't suit what he wants to believe.  So the fool is prone to associate with other bad people and engage in armed robbery, adultery, and laziness, which result in disaster.  Wisdom literature calls this kind of foolish life wickedness; it is the opposite of the fear of the Lord and righteousness.

In Hebrew wisdom literature all knowledge is seen as one just as God himself is one and his creation is one.  So knowledge of the natural world and literacy go hand in hand with practical life-management and fearing God.  It seems to have been inconceivable to the wisdom authors for someone to be well-schooled in science for example but defiant towards God—how could someone know so much about some of the laws of God's creation and be so ignorant of the rest?

This is where Ecclesiastes is so interesting.  The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is the bad boy of the biblical authors, because he pushes Hebrew wisdom to its limits and beyond.

The Preacher was "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1) and if we take this ascription with any seriousness it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is Solomon, the only Davidic king that we know of who wrote proverbs (1 Kings 4:32; cf. Eccl. 12:9-10) and was wiser than all in Jerusalem before him (1 Kings 3:12; cf. Eccl. 1:16) and the last to reign over Israel, not just Judah, from Jerusalem (Eccl. 1:12).  (Most scholars for a variety of reasons argue that it is written by someone who is pretending to be Solomon but isn't actually him; I disagree, but let's not get into that.)  In Solomon we have someone who doesn't fit the mold of ancient Hebrew wisdom.  This is a person who knew more about more of God's works than anyone who had lived.  But he still managed to engage in the ultimate folly: idolatry, worshiping false gods alongside or in place of the true one, the exact opposite of the fear of Yahweh.  Ecclesiastes seems to have been written by an old man who has already seen it all, which would mean that Solomon wrote it after his apostasy and its personal consequences for him but with his incisive intellect still firmly intact.  So Ecclesiastes is written by the one and only Wise Fool, the man who knew so much but forgot that without the fear of Yahweh wisdom becomes folly.  He writes this book having returned to the fear of God, but he has been profoundly changed by his experience from the clear-cut optimism of Proverbs to the self-contradictory pessimism of Ecclesiastes.  My point is that the life of the author alone bursts the Hebrew expectations of wisdom (including his own expectations in his younger days).

Solomon also pushes the envelope of Hebrew wisdom by taking its earthiness to its logical conclusion.  Hebrew wisdom was concerned about this life in this world.  Within its field of examination, this life is all there is.  Well, what if this life is really all there is?  What if death is really the end?  Then how much good will wisdom do?  Solomon, who has and knows more wisdom than anyone else, gives it a mixed review.  He is like a brilliant and learned student of classical literature who is distressed that none of his learning will help him get his car running.  No matter how deep he digs in study in the one area, it doesn't help in the other.  In the same way, Solomon's unparalleled exploration of wisdom from a Hebrew perspective exposes its biggest limitation—a realm of study entirely devoted to this life is totally unhelpful in dealing with the inevitability of death.  So if wisdom as Solomon understood it is the whole enchilada, the sum total of knowledge, then it's not all it's cracked up to be.

But ancient Hebrew wisdom had a way of skirting this unpleasant reality by assuming that people are inherently connected.  So one of the benefits of wisdom and righteousness in the fear of God is that you can pass on wealth to your children, whereas the wicked fool's wealth will be directed by God into the hands of the righteous and his children will have nothing (see also Ps. 109:8-15).  That way you and your name will live on in your children and your property once you're gone—having a permanent place in the family lineage is your immortality.  This is probably what Solomon believed earlier in his life.  But later on, through his solitary experience as the Wise Fool, not to mention sitting for 40 years at the apex of society with no peers as king over the Israelite Empire at its greatest extent, Solomon exposes the limitation of this dodge.  In Ecclesiastes Solomon doesn't care if his name and property live on in his son.  Whoever gets his inheritance, even his own flesh and blood, is a stranger who didn't earn it and doesn't deserve it, and what benefit will it be to Solomon that his son has inherited his property when Solomon is dead?  None!  In Ecclesiastes Solomon challenges whether viewing human life solely as a member of a tribe (i.e., the tribe has inherent meaning but the individual does not apart from the tribe) does justice to what it means to be human.  How does passing on wealth to children and being buried next to one's ancestors help a person when he faces death alone, as all of us ultimately do?

Ecclesiastes is a weird book that seems to turn wisdom itself on its ear.  But it does so by exploring wisdom as the Israelites understood it further than anyone else had gone before.  It reveals that we can only have hope if there is more to wisdom than the wisdom Solomon knew—if there can be genuine knowledge of an existence beyond this one and if there is a way that a naked individual can face death without despair and pass through it.  I think this goes a long way toward making sense of what Ecclesiastes is doing in the Bible, which I'll look at further next time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Immigration and the Bible (7)

I'd like to wrap up my series on immigration and the Bible with a few suggestions of how we might apply what the Bible says on the subject to U.S. immigration policy.  But I want to be clear that these aren't detailed and practical enough to be policy proposals per se.  There are other extremely important influences on immigration policy—most notably trade policy—that I'm not looking at here.  But think of these as some general policy principles and objectives that I hope are biblically influenced.

1. Our overall national perspective toward those who desire to relocate to the United States should be one of friendship.  They are the good guys, not the bad guys.  Anyone who wants to live in America we view as an American, just as the Israelites were to love the immigrant as themselves.

2. If we view those who want to immigrate to America as Americans then in the ideal world we would have no immigration quotas.  In the real world, we must have some limitations because we can only employ so many people to investigate immigrants to make sure they are not people like criminals, smugglers, or terrorists who will endanger American citizens.  But we view the ideal of wide-open doors as something to strive for.  Loving one's neighbor is incompatible with "stay the heck away from me."

3. To the extent that we must have quotas, we do not fashion them according to which immigrants will be most useful to us.  If we make them with any bias it is a bias toward those who have the most improved opportunity to succeed in America versus in their homeland.  We view immigrants as people to be loved, not used, but we find that the people that we treat this way become extremely useful, and their children and grandchildren too.  We adopt the "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" concept that produced millions of hardworking, successful, loyal Americans of southern European, eastern European, Scandinavian, and East Asian descent.

4. Because we treat those who want to live here as if they are Americans, we expect them to be Americans, just as Israel expected immigrants to live and worship as Israelites.  We revive the melting pot concept.  We maintain a required timeline for residents to become citizens.  We make English the sole national language but allow the states and territories to maintain other official languages alongside English for internal use.  (This is partly because of federalism and partly because Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and others can't help it that the U.S. conquered them.)  Because our national posture toward immigrants is warm and welcoming, we find that they assimilate far more easily and eagerly than if we maintain a hostile posture toward them.

5. We view a culture of lawlessness to be far more threatening to our national life than the mere presence of foreigners.  In the practical nuts and bolts of our new immigration policy, we don't make rules that we don't or can't enforce.  The rules we can enforce we enforce rigorously.  We provide some sort of earned amnesty for those we have broken our laws when we weren't careful to enforce them, because it is better to shift masses from a shadowy, sublegal realm into a lawful status than to pretend that we have the resources, capacity, and will to identify, prosecute, and sentence even a large fraction of the offenders we have allowed to accumulate within our borders.

I'm not going to pretend that it is easy to figure out how exactly to apply biblical truth to public policy in a secular state in a completely different cultural situation.  Consider these some ideas.  But what is more important for us as Christians is our own personal attitudes and actions.  The Lord wants to see us treat immigrants as he would treat them knowing that we too are aliens and strangers in a land not our own.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Immigration and the Bible (6)

Hey, long time, no blog, eh?  I've been busy.  But it's time to bring this series to a close.  But that's for the next post, in which I suggest some ways that we might apply to our situation the Scriptures we've been looking at.

Today I want to look briefly at one other essential element to our immigration situation as the Bible sees it.  It isn't as long because unlike previous posts it isn't really about immigration.  It's about getting along with government in general.

When Judah was eliminated as a sovereign nation (rather, as a client-state of Babylon) and its people deported, this was the first time since the exodus that the people of God had to live in a godly way toward a state that wasn't its own and did not respect the true God even in theory.  Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah each depict this challenge one way or another.  What they all show is a manner of living that respects the ungodly government greatly, with total fidelity to its authority and laws, except when the government would compel Jews to disobey God directly.  Even when the Jews were threatened in some ways, the Jews would endeavor to get out of the jam through authorized, governmental means as far as they could.

The theological basis for this practical approach is described in Daniel's visions.  Two principles stand out.  First, no matter how wicked and unjust a government is, it is not to be defied except in obedience to God, because God is the one who put it there—"The Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes" (Dan. 4:32).  Therefore, to rebel against the state is to rebel against God.  Second, every government is transitory, because God's kingdom will put an end to them all.  So submission now, no matter how painful, is possible because it is temporary.  Life goes on for those who will inherit the kingdom of God (Dan. 7:27).

The Jewish diaspora mindset was carried on in exactly the same fashion by the early Christians.  Hopefully I don't need to demonstrate that the believers in Christ had hope that they were inheriting a permanent kingdom with Christ.  But the Christians also obeyed the idolatrous Roman government because they believed that God had established it.  The two most substantial passages that discuss this are Romans 13:1-7 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . [f]or there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God") and 1 Peter 2:13-17 ("Be subject to every human institution for the Lord's sake"), but we can also see Jesus' comments about giving to Caesar what is Caesar's in this light.  Because the government is established by God, it is to be regarded as his messenger whether it does its job of doing justice or not.  So obeying the state is obeying God and disobeying the state is disobeying God unless the will of the state and the will of God directly conflict.

Indeed, the Bible frequently describes sin as "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4 is one of many examples).  There is a parallel between a life that neglects God's law and one that neglects the law of the state.  Dismissively blowing off one authority easily leads into blowing off another.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.  It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, godly, and upright lives in this present age, as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good (Tit. 2:11-14).
It is because of God's severe concern about lawlessness that I am very concerned about disciples of Jesus Christ who are living in this country (or in any country) as illegal immigrants.  Of course the law applies to all people, Christian or not, but to a certain extent I expect unbelievers to break the law if it suits them because without Christ they are by nature lawless already.  But we Christians are called by God to obey him and to obey the authorities he has established, even if the laws they pass are unjust.  It is deeply disturbing that some would ignore this.  Surely God requires our civil disobedience if to comply is to disobey God.  But I fail to see how living in America illegally is that kind of situation.

In this blog series I, a native-born American, have strongly urged the native-born Americans who read me toward a position of compassion toward and solidarity with immigrants.  I sincerely hope that likewise immigrant pastors have strongly urged illegal congregants they may have to return to their home countries in compliance with the law.  I am somewhat concerned about the impact of illegal immigration on America, but I am very concerned about the impact of illegal immigration by Christians on their spiritual health and on the godly witness of the Church to the world.