Saturday, November 16, 2019

Time and Chance (10)

What does it mean that God has “put eternity into man’s heart”? The statement is baffling and comprehensible in near-equal parts.

It is impossible to imagine mere human beings are capable of any substantive grasp of the transcendent or even the nature of our own being. That’s the baffling part. We are not fully equipped to understand ourselves, let alone anything more significant. We are more animals than angels: tiny, exceedingly finite beings concerned primarily with matters of comparative trivia.

The comprehensible part is that on some undefined level we all understand that the Preacher’s statement is true. We know it because we feel it.

When C.S. Lewis uses phrases like “maddened by beauty” or “numinous awe”, or when he speaks of his search for Joy, capital ‘J’, I instantly grasp the sort of experience he is referring to. He is talking about briefly, accidentally and electrically touching something beyond ourselves, beyond the experience of the body, and even beyond logic; something which draws out the inchoate desires of the human heart. This sense of being overwhelmed by the conviction that there exists something grander and greater than ourselves grips almost everyone at one point or another, far less frequently than some of us might like, and far too often for others.

The Eternity Conundrum

Eternity is only one aspect of this sense of the ‘numinous’, but this is the aspect with which the Preacher is concerned in Ecclesiastes. He says God has put eternity into the human heart. This too we understand in a measure. Human beings universally possess a loathing of death and a longing for cosmic relevance to which we can make no logical or legal claim. We yearn to be permanent rather than ephemeral. If you have not felt this, I cannot properly explain it to you. If you have, nothing I say could explain it away. At bare minimum, we crave more time than we have been allotted in this life.

The Bible addresses this issue repeatedly. The possibility of human beings living forever is first raised in Genesis 3 and consummated in the final chapter of Revelation. The gospel pivots on it. “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” “Whoever does the will of God abides forever.” “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Christianity without resurrection is a hopeless farce.

Perhaps God placed eternity in the human heart in order that his Son would have something to which to appeal. Or perhaps it is simply an inextricable component of our original design.

In the Image of God

The book of Genesis tells us we are created “in the image of God”. Whatever that implies in its totality, one small part of it is that some significant quality distinguishes the human mind and heart from the sentience apparatus of all other earthly creations. My cat may one day feel death coming when it seizes her, but that will be a biological response, not a spiritual one. She does not contemplate the terminus of her existence today, nor can she conceive of the potent sense of ultimate wrongness which entropy engenders. Her master can and does, though he is far from fully comprehending it.

But if eternity will not fit into the human heart, then just possibly the most infinitesimal hint of eternity may. The taste for it is in all of us. It makes us who and what we are.

However, we will have to look elsewhere for any more serious and comprehensive discussion of eternity in the human heart. For the purposes of this post, we are mostly concerned with the part this ubiquitous sense of some greater destiny or potential beyond this life plays in Solomon’s larger argument about the value of toil.

What Good Does Work Accomplish for the Worker?

Question and Answer

Here, midway through chapter 3 of his musings, the Preacher poses yet another question, offers two possible explanations, then formulates his conclusion. The initial question is both simple and familiar:
What gain has the worker from his toil?”
This is a question the Preacher already asked rhetorically at the beginning of chapter 1. He touched on it again at the end of chapter 2, exploring the frustrations and futility of toil when pursued as an end in itself, and will touch on it again throughout the book. But he also suggests there are benefits to toil, and that it is not impossible to find enjoyment in the daily grind.

Note that Solomon’s question is not about how obliging human beings to labor for their food serves God’s purposes or contributes to the welfare of others. Both are undoubtedly true. “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread,” God told Adam. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” Paul told Timothy. Christian or unsaved, work is our lot, like it or not.

No, the question here is what benefits work provides to the worker. There are a couple of possibilities to consider:

Response #1: Work is Appropriate to the Human Condition

There is a time for almost everything, the Preacher has previously argued. Here I think he is probably arguing that there is a time for hard labor too:
“I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
The Hebrew adjective in that last clause is yapheh, which is sometimes translated “beautiful” (like Abraham’s wife Sarah, who was said to be physically attractive), but more often refers in a general sense to anything that is appropriate to its role. Joseph and Absalom were men, but they were as yapheh as Sarah. An ox can be yapheh if it is well fed and healthy. Zion’s location is yapheh. Eating and drinking is yapheh. A green olive tree can be yapheh. You get the picture. To be yapheh is to be a suitable specimen of its type, one that might be held up as characteristic of its kind and not deficient in any way.

Even hard labor is beautifully appropriate in its time. It produces useful results. It builds muscle. It makes the physique hum. It overcomes indolence and apathy. It provides a sense of accomplishment that may otherwise be lacking. It addresses immediate, practical needs, and makes sleep sweet and deep in the process. If it cannot address questions of ultimate meaning, well, that is not its purpose.

Frankly, work suits us. The worst six months of my life to date were when I was unemployed. A man without something constructive to do with his hands is not a happy man. Anecdotal, I know, but try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

Response #2: Work is a Useful Distraction

And so we come back to the matter of eternity in the human heart.

Bear in mind that we Christian readers are at a tremendous advantage and a tremendous disadvantage in trying to understand these passages. The advantage is that we have in our New Testament a boatload of explicit knowledge about the plans and purposes of God and our own constitution, condition and ultimate destiny which the Preacher didn’t and couldn’t possibly possess. The disadvantage is that we cannot possibly approach the text of a book like Ecclesiastes as an Israelite living 3,000 years ago would have approached it. It is no longer possible for us to wear his shoes. We cannot easily hear what it actually said to him because there are too many other things between our ears, even if we don’t make use of them all the way we should.

Again we must remind ourselves that as in almost every verse of Ecclesiastes, we are talking here about the natural man, not the Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit or even the Old Testament prophet. We are talking about what a man may know with certainty apart from divine revelation:
“Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
The eternity conundrum is this: that human beings feel ourselves creatures of eternity but do not yet live in it. The sense of the transcendent drives us, but we do not know where we are going. We are not yet equipped to see reality as God sees it. We cannot know the end from the beginning, and as a result are continually frustrated by our short-sightedness. We see randomness where God sees purpose. We see endings where God sees beginnings.

The only solution is revelation, and God has given it to us in Christ. Praise the Lord for that. For the natural man, however, hard labor provides a temporary solution to the problem of eternity in the heart, a distraction from the lack he feels so intensely. This is both a good and a bad thing. To the extent that the distractions of labor enable the worldling to keep going until he encounters the message of the gospel, we are grateful for them. To the extent that we can look around the unsaved world and find it is not characterized exclusively by nihilism, despair and self-annihilation, we recognize God’s grace in providing a means of muting the screeching cognitive dissonance in the minds of those who have not yet heard the truth. Societies continue to function. Generations come and go. This certainly beats the alternative.

On the other hand, if you keep busy enough just surviving that you never stop to think about what comes next, you may manage to exclude from your life everything for which you were actually made. That would indeed be tragic.

Conclusion

Finally, the Preacher answers his own question, at least temporarily:
“I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man.”
Once again, the emphasis for the natural man is that the process is the payoff. Work is not an end in itself, it is only a means to a greater end. It provides us with the raw materials to do good and the ability to enjoy doing it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean every man will choose what is best for him. Quite frequently we are too foolish to correctly evaluate that. What it does mean is that God has provided man with conditions under which he may thrive, assuming he receives them joyfully as the gift they are, rather than arrogantly insisting they belong to him as some sort of inalienable right.

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