Saturday, October 05, 2019

Time and Chance (4)

Up to this point in our study of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher has been primarily concerned with making general comments about the natural world from observation — the sun, the wind, the water cycle, biology and humanity as a species.

He has established several things: (1) that all aspects of both the natural world and of human existence are cyclical and endlessly repetitive; (2) that each phase of any given cycle is relatively brief and inconsequential; and (3) that understanding the meaning of it all is not an easy thing.

Now he narrows his focus and begins to consider human society and the various ways one’s life may play out within it.

An Unhappy Business

Next, we find that God has given the children of man an “unhappy business” to be busy with.
“I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
Much of the time, life is not fun.

This is the first of 41 references to God in Ecclesiastes. This fact needs a little consideration, since I have been arguing that the Preacher builds his thesis on the basis of his observations of the natural world and human society, not on the foundation of divine revelation.

The Preacher and ‘God’

The Preacher’s approach to the subject of God is unusual for a writer of scripture. If you scan through his references to deity, you’ll quickly notice there is not a single instance of “Thus saith the Lord” or equivalent language to be found among them. Our narrator’s naturalistic worldview does indeed include a divine personage, but his is a God whose intentions toward man are inferred from the available evidence, not explicitly declared. His is a God who treats the righteous well and the wicked as they deserve, making their efforts ultimately futile, or so the Preacher concludes. His is a God whose larger purposes are inscrutable from our position on earth unless we receive unusual assistance in interpreting his actions.

The Preacher is not making a direct claim to be speaking on God’s behalf, but he has no difficulty attributing specific actions to God or predicting how God is likely to deal with certain kinds of human behavior on the basis of his observation and experience.

Solomon and Divine Revelation

It is evident that approaching his subject this way — as any ordinary man might be obliged to — is no accident. It is a deliberate authorial choice.

In reality, Solomon himself had multiple personal interactions with God. He was no stranger to divine revelation, though he never mentions these experiences of God in Ecclesiastes. The book of 1 Kings tells us Solomon “loved the Lord and walked in the statutes of David.” One day early in his reign, after the king had offered a thousand burnt offerings at the high place in Gibeon, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and offered him a gift of his choosing. Solomon opted for the gift of understanding and the ability to discern between good and evil, a selection that pleased God. This was the first of three recorded experiences of direct revelation in Solomon’s lifetime.

The second occurred after Solomon finished building his temple. The text says the Lord “appeared to Solomon as he had appeared to him at Gibeon”, which suggests that perhaps this too was a dream (the 2 Chronicles version adds “in the night”). The Lord confirmed that he had heard Solomon’s prayer, had consecrated the house Solomon had built for him, and would establish his royal throne and that of his sons after him provided the kings of Israel continued to walk in his ways. The message concluded with number of stern warnings about the consequences of turning aside from obedience to God.

Third Time is Not the Charm

There is a third personal revelation described in 1 Kings 11. This time God condemned the king for going after other gods, and told him he would certainly tear the kingdom away from him as he had promised during his second appearance. It is not stated whether this message was given directly or through a prophet, and, if directly, whether it was in a dream or by other means.

It is difficult to imagine exactly what these experiences were like for Solomon. We have probably all awakened with very strong, detailed impressions of what just occurred in our dreams only to find within a few minutes that our recollections are no longer quite so distinct. After a while we may start to wonder if we made it all up. All the same, a direct encounter with God is a direct encounter with God. These things are rare even in scripture. Solomon was the beneficiary of a tremendous privilege, and it’s unlikely he had completely forgotten these events.

Times and Dates

We also do not know with 100% certainty the stage of life at which the king wrote Ecclesiastes. As with all these date-related issues, there are different schools of thought, but given the author’s claims to extensive observation and life experience and the account of his great works in 2:4-9, it seems likely the king was nearer the end of his reign than its beginning, either between his second and third visions of God, or perhaps even after the third.

Still, these unusual personal experiences of God form no part of the Preacher’s considerations in Ecclesiastes. Here, he insists on viewing deity as any ordinary man or woman in history must do. He declines to make use of the special insights he may have gained from his own supernatural encounters in any overt way.

All Earth was Under Something ...

So then, the Preacher applies his heart to “seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” The phrases “under the sun” (28x) and “under heaven” (3x) occur repeatedly throughout the book, reinforcing the naturalistic perspective the author has chosen to adopt.

Both his methodology (“search out by wisdom”) and the scope of the investigation (“under the sun”) are available to any thinking person. Solomon’s wisdom and discernment were great, as God promised, but it was at the uppermost end of human capacity. He was a man, not a godling. God provided him with great investigative and analytical skills, but there is no indication the king was granted special divine insights of the sort written by the Old Testament prophets. He could make prudent and educated guesses about the human heart, but he was not prescient. He used his cleverness to make the truth reveal itself; he did not attempt to divine it.

The Preacher and Romans 1

If this business of God making himself known to men apart from his written word is sounding a bit familiar to readers of the New Testament, perhaps you too are thinking about Paul’s argument in Romans 1. If you recall, the apostle makes a claim there that:
“[T]he wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
The effect of a careful reading of Ecclesiastes is to reinforce Paul’s argument. While the Preacher speaks as an ordinary man observing the world, he offers no shortage of sensible opinions about God’s dealings with man. For example:
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”
The belief that food and joy come from God is not a uniquely Christian one, nor does it require a basis in the Law of Moses to understand. Paul is quoting not scripture but Epimenides of Crete as an authority when he says to the pagans in Athens, “In [God] we live and move and have our being.”

In Him All Things Hold Together

The idea that in addition to being our creator, God’s involvement is a necessary prerequisite for our ongoing existence and, indeed, every breath we take, is spelled out in more detail in Hebrews where we are told that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power” and in Paul’s letter to the Colossians where he says, “in him all things hold together.” But though these are certainly Christian truths, we Christians were not the first to deduce them.

Such things may be reasonably believed apart from revelation on the basis of analysis of “the things that have been made”. They are not mere superstitions. They are the human mind operating normally, as it has done in many believers and unbelievers alike throughout history. It is only the ungrateful, futile thinker who rejects the obvious.

Without going into too much detail about them in these introductory chapters, it is fair to say that all the Preacher’s statements about God are of this sort: things that a reasonable person might be expected to intuit naturally, and which have been believed in the world for millennia wherever nature and human civilization are analyzed by those who do not come to their subject of study with their heads full of preconceived notions.

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