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Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Meaning of Life in Three Rounds

On paper, the apostle Paul vs. Solomon, king of Israel doesn’t add up to much of a fight.

If you get them both in their primes, Solomon has world class trainers and equipment and the most lavish possible facilities in which to prepare, along with all the wisdom in the world with which to strategize.

Paul, on the other hand, is almost guaranteed to be convalescing after any or all of a recent stoning, beating or flailing, as well as taking his regular buffeting from a messenger of Satan. There’s also an off chance he has not eaten recently or that he’ll miss a scheduled bout because he’s serving a jail sentence or pulling a Robinson Crusoe somewhere in the Mediterranean.

In short, on the physical plane Paul is a pushover (though he does have a disturbing tendency to beat a ten count when his opponents are sure he’s done and dusted).

On the spiritual plane, though, Solomon is fighting with both hands tied behind his back.

Theological Hands Behind His Back

Ecclesiastes 1 and Romans 1 explore common themes from radically different worldviews. Both begin with an unflinching critique of the state of man, and what they discover about him is not pretty. Solomon’s analysis is especially short on hope because the perspective he adopts in Ecclesiastes is that of man in his natural state: able to assess the condition of the world in which he finds himself and to draw logical conclusions about it, but in the absence of any specific revelation from God.

Oh, God is certainly present in Ecclesiastes. The worldview Solomon adopts for the purpose of the book’s extended argument is extremely God-conscious, but only in the most generic way. God is “creator”, he has a “house”, he gives to man and he is worthy of respect because of the power he evidently commands, but he is more of a force than a person. There is little or no reference to the Law of Moses in Ecclesiastes, which is a marvelous oddity considering that Solomon was the king who presided over the building of God’s temple in Jerusalem.

Also interestingly and entirely absent in Ecclesiastes is the covenant name for God, the name by which he relates to Israel, usually transliterated as Jehovah or Yahweh. Instead, “God” in Solomon’s worldview is always and only elohim, a name frequently used of the one true creator God, to be sure, but a much more generic and less relational name. (The distinction between the two is observable in Joshua’s words: “You are not able to serve the Lord [YHWH] for he is a holy God [elohim]”).

It is as if Solomon has adopted a worldview for the purpose of authoring Ecclesiastes that intentionally bypasses the first 20 books of the Bible. It is a book that could therefore be meaningful to seekers of God from any nation, not merely to Israelites, but it deliberately eschews argument from any direct communication to man by God, even though Solomon was as well aware as anyone on the planet that much of this had already been received.

Thus Ecclesiastes is a book written for a man without revelation from another of his own kind. Talk about having your hands tied behind your back.

Round 1: Victimhood vs. Sin

From this limited, earthly perspective, Solomon sees man as a victim. He declares:
“It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”
In Solomon’s adopted worldview it is God that has given this “unhappy business” to man. We are victims of a greater power. Men may be good or bad, as later chapters of Ecclesiastes will establish, but their lives are an affliction and the end of them is the same whether you choose good or evil as your path. Moreover, to strive against the status quo is futile: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

Someone should tell those poor utopians on the political Left.

In Chapter 3 it gets worse. He tells us God has “put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”. Man without revelation knows something is missing, but he doesn’t know what it is and is powerless to find out.

Victims, all of us.

Paul, on the other hand, sees sinners where Solomon sees victims. Direct revelation of the character of God brings a knowledge of sin far more acute and specific than the fog of malaise generated by agnostic unknowing:
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
Solomon sees powerless victims unreasonably and inexplicably afflicted. Paul sees vicious predators, utterly deserving of their fate.

Winner of Round 1: Paul, with a standing 8-count

Round 2: Uniformitarianism vs. Historical Narrative

Having determined not to take into account anything he might know by revelation, Solomon can only point out what he sees with his eyes; what any unbeliever would observe about the regular operation of the world:
“A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.”
In other words, all goes on as it always has. The streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full. What has been is what will be. There is nothing new under the sun.

On one level, of course, Solomon knows this is only an appearance. He says later in Ecclesiastes, “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked”. Of course there will be an end in some future day. But he admits that from the perspective of a man without revelation, such an expectation is nothing more than a fond wish. The evidence of his eyes and of history is very much to the contrary.

Paul, however, sees a very distinct narrative thread tying together all of human history. He’s got good news, and good news that was “promised beforehand through [the] prophets in the holy Scriptures”. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Go back to Solomon, back to Abraham, back to the garden of Eden, and the promise is there. Because God is telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, just as he always intended.

History is neither random nor uniform. The good news to which Paul refers was a promise “concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David [Solomon’s own father] according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord”. God has not just interjected himself into human history so that his long-awaited promise is now fulfilled, but the fulfillment of the promise demonstrates conclusively that he has been guiding history from beginning to end.

Solomon sits right in the middle of this very calculated tableau, able to look back to the revelation of God’s plan to Abraham and Moses, and forward to the personal revelation of God in his son, but unable to enjoy or participate in any of it as long as he clings to a perspective that does not acknowledge revelation. He is like a man with his face pressed right up to a page of text, crying, “Letters, and more letters; nothing but meaningless letters!” An accurate description, for sure, but not overly helpful.

Paul stands on the other side of fulfilled promise, well into the story, staring backward and forward at the grandeur of God’s plan.

Winner of Round 2: Paul, by knockdown

Round 3: Pointlessness vs. Purpose

In the absence of revelation, there is no point. Everything is meaningless, vain and futile:
“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
“What does man gain?” Solomon asks.

Good question, and Paul gives us the answer. He speaks first of his own purpose:
“… called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God …”
and then of his own specific mission:
“… through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”
But he goes on to explain that having an individual purpose in life applies to believers generally, not just to apostles:
“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints …”
Guess how many times Solomon references the love of God in Ecclesiastes? That’s right: none at all. The glory and power of God may be understood from creation, but in the absence of revelation, the love of God is a little harder to intuit from the condition of our world. But Paul tells us God’s love for us is the starting point from which all real usefulness and value proceeds. We are called to be set apart for the service of and fellowship with the creator of everything that is.

That’s about as far from meaningless as it is possible to be.

Winner of Round 3: Paul, by knockout

The Takeaway

Man is not merely a victim; he is a sinner. History isn’t just a cycle of endlessly repeated errors; it is a story with an end to come. And life is not an exercise in futility; it is the gift of a loving God who wants to know us and share his kingdom with us through the work of his Son.

The first chapters of Ecclesiastes and Romans both paint a bleak and painfully accurate portrait of the human condition. The words of both writers ring true to anyone with even a passing familiarity with history or the ability to turn on CNN.

But I’d rather be Paul than Solomon any day.

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