Saturday, November 23, 2019

Time and Chance (11)

In interpreting any given statement in Ecclesiastes, we are wise to look carefully at the Preacher’s current train of thought. Unlike the book of Proverbs, for the most part Ecclesiastes is not a collection of unrelated bits of wisdom. It is primarily an orderly series of arguments and observations.

Even where the direction of the writer’s thought flow does not immediately jump out at us and we are tempted to think he may have drifted off topic, he inevitably loops back to his theme. It is more than likely, then, that the meaning of any obscure thing the Preacher says may be at very least tangentially connected to his larger subject, as opposed to coming at us right out of the blue.

Knowing this is fairly helpful when we consider our next two verses.

Ecclesiastes 3:14  Whatever God Does

Two Words: Whatever and Forever
“I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.”
Understanding this first sentence requires us to ask what is meant by the words “whatever” and “forever”. Misunderstanding either would give us a pretty broad scope for possible error.

A quick word about the word “forever”: in Hebrew, `owlam doesn’t always mean “eternally”, as discussed at some length here and at much greater length here. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t; context determines which. In this case, we are probably best to read it as “perpetually, as long as God wills it so.”

Likewise, when we read “whatever God does endures forever,” we should probably not imagine that the “whatever” relates to every single thing God has ever instituted throughout his government of the universe, or even the earth. That would be manifestly untrue.

The system of animal sacrifices God gave Israel governed for a specific period of time, after which killing and incinerating an animal became not just pointless and redundant but quite inappropriate. The Law also had its day, and Grace has its time in the here and now. We are unwise to confuse the two eras. Likewise, Israel is not the Church, and the things God expects from us are in some ways similar to his expectations of Israel, and in some ways very different indeed. Again, “Love never ends,” says the apostle, but tongues and prophecies will. Even the heavens, the earth and the seas have their day.

Not everything God does endures forever. Some things are not intended to.

Don’t Ignore the Operating Principles

So what does he mean here? Let’s not imagine the Preacher is making a grand, general pronouncement about reality. He is speaking about human society in a fallen world. That is the scope of his statement: the order God has established for mankind since sin entered the picture. In that context, he appears to me to be saying something like this: Within any particular administration of human affairs, certain operating principles govern. They govern until God decides they stop, and not before. All human efforts to modify those governing principles to suit our own preferences are doomed to miserable failure.

You can probably think of at least half a dozen of these operating principles just off the top of your head. Here are a few:
And everything God does endures for exactly as long as he intends.

Nothing Added, Nothing Taken Away

Human society is not improved by the attempts of clever men try to modify these and other governing principles God has ordained.

Declaring ourselves our own objects of worship makes us miserable and confused. Somehow, we know we’re not really up to the job. Work gives shape and order to our routine. Try to build a society in which everyone gets a regular cheque for doing nothing but playing videogames, and see how well that works out. Devalue the importance of child-bearing, and your whole society starts to crumble. The future belongs to those who show up for it. Henpecked husbands are unhappy, and henpecking wives are even unhappier. Nations are the worst thing since ... oh, the alternative, which is even more oppressive and tends to even greater bloodshed. And societies in which murderers do not receive the appropriate penalty for their crimes do not become any less unjust, they merely become unjust in different ways.

These are just a few of the governing principles by which human societies operate properly, in this age at least. We ignore them or tweak them at our own peril. When we are no longer fallen, perhaps some will no longer apply.

Seeing and Fearing

Finally, the Preacher comments on the purpose of these organizing principles: “God has done it, so that people fear before him.” By “fear”, the Preacher does not mean cowering terror, but rather a healthy respect for the Intelligence that designed the system. We might say the world works the way it does in order to curb human arrogance, and to make us conscious of our own limitations.

It is true that these principles have at various times been written down, articulated verbally, and/or deduced by those who have done the opposite and failed miserably, or else have watched others do the same. The issue is not so much how men have become aware that these principles work as it is that they exist in the first place. Elephants existed before a man ever saw an elephant or gave it a name. Once understood, these principles can either be respected or ignored, and those who choose to violate them make of themselves cautionary tales for the rest of us.

Ecclesiastes 3:15  Over and Over and Over

Days of Future Past

As one might expect, human beings subject to a consistent set of governing principles produce predictable results across time:
“That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”
Here again, in interpreting such an apparently huge statement, we must bring ourselves back to the Preacher’s current train of thought. When he says, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been,” I do not believe the Preacher is engaging in quasi-scientific pontification about the nature of time. Rather, he is speaking about the normal patterns of human society: we are born, we work and we die, with a bunch of eating, sleeping and a little bit of play thrown in occasionally. The general routine remains substantially the same. More importantly, so does human nature.

Our circumstances change. The food we are eating, what we are wearing, and the type of work we are doing all change. Social mores change. Technology definitely changes. But for thousands of years, with very minor variations, people have done mostly the same things over and over again simply because we are people. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” “That which is, already has been.”

Going forward, we will do more of the same, so much so that the sort of things we will do can be credibly predicted right now, because we have done them so many times before. That includes the mistakes we will make and the foolish ideas we will believe. “That which is to be, already has been.”

The Obscure Part

And now we come to the obscure part. This last clause, “and God seeks what has been driven away” (ESV) is translated many different ways. Here are some of the more popular:

NIV: God will call the past to account.
NASB: God seeks what has passed by.
KJV: God requireth that which is past.
NKJV: God requires an account of what is past.

and also a few of the more far-out guesses:

Christian Standard Bible: God seeks justice for the persecuted.
New Living Translation: God makes the same things happen over and over again.
Douay-Rheims: God restoreth that which is past.

One might reasonably be forgiven for concluding that we simply don’t know for sure what this means. But let’s take the most educated possible guess. Why not? It was intended to teach us something.

A Best Guess

The Hebrew from which all these different English ideas are inferred is only three words long: 'elohiym baqash radaph. The first of these is simply “God”. The second means variously to seek, demand, request or require, depending on context. The final word means to chase or pursue.

Bear in mind that what the Preacher is trying to say here does not come from out of nowhere. In fact, given where it is positioned, we would not be out of line to expect that it is probably intended to sum up not just the content of the last two verses, but perhaps everything he has been discussing since the beginning of this chapter. Therefore we are not looking for the most esoteric possible interpretation of this three-word phrase. We are looking for the most obvious.

The Preacher has asserted that human societies operate according to governing principles God has ordained, and that these principles cannot be altered. I take this final statement to mean something like this: that God insists these principles be followed. He requires pursuit. His expectation is that men will not only allow themselves to be guided by rules designed for their good, but that we will actively pursue them and seek them out.

If we do not, it is our loss, and a bigger loss than we know.

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