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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.

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