Saturday, December 21, 2019

Time and Chance (15)

The expression “keeping up with the Joneses” may have originated with the 1913 comic strip of the same name, but more likely was coined in reference to a family of mid-19th century New York bankers known for their conspicuous consumption.

Either way, it means envy. If my neighbors have one, then I must have one too ... and preferably a bigger, better and glossier model. And to keep consuming, I need more money.

Solomon had this figured out long before there were any Joneses to keep up with.

Ecclesiastes 4:4  Envying the Neighbors

Back to chapter 4 in our study of Ecclesiastes:
“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
If we were to read only the ESV translation of this particular statement without any modification from other Bible versions and translation tools, we might be tempted to start shouting at the Preacher that he’s got it all wrong. It is manifestly untrue that every single bit of skill and effort in labor is motivated by envy. It just isn’t so. All kinds of things motivate people to work hard: need, duty, fear, respect for authority, a desire to please ... you name it.

Even if we take the statement in its original context, referring to the various labors observed and undertaken by Solomon 3,000 years ago, well before the Christian era — when we have ample testimony from the New Testament writers that work may be motivated by love, faith, or hope — the claim, as written, is simply false. Evidently then, we are understanding it wrongly. We need to examine what the Preacher is really saying a little more carefully.

Every Field of Human Endeavor

One possible explanation is that the Preacher is using the word “all” in the sense of “all kinds” or “all types”. This is perfectly legitimate. We do it all the time. So he may be saying something like this: “I saw that every single field of human endeavor has been tainted by envy,” or “The primary motivation for many of the great advancements of history has been competition.”

Certainly this is true in science, where the search for truth has been all but abandoned in favor of competing for grant money, prestige and who can be the most politically correct. It’s true in the corporate world, where the mad scramble up the ladder leaves plenty of casualties behind, and businesses swipe and repackage one another’s latest offerings with virtual impunity. It’s true in entertainment and politics, where the establishment anoints the latest stars and then crushes them underfoot when a newer and flashier model comes along.

Thus, these would be true statements and useful observations. But they are not the only possibilities.

People Admire Skill

The Hebrew word translated “envy” is qin'ah, which has a broad semantic range. It is also translated “jealousy”, “zeal” and “ardor”. In other words, using “envy” here is one translation team’s best guess from context, which may or may not be correct. So then the Preacher may be saying something like, “I considered that men tend to intensely admire those who work hard and skillfully.” Such a reading is not far from the way the KJV translates this verse. This too would be a true statement, whether we are talking about Wayne Gretzky or Tom Brady, whose work habits, self-discipline and excellence in their fields are legendary, or any skilled and diligent engineer, artisan, craftsman or musician.

It is also true that this sort of admiration (or even fandom) is illogical, or at very least unreasoning. The Gretzkys and Bradys of this world were born with unique skill sets, particularly the ability to assess dynamic situations at an uncanny speed and respond intelligently in a way that 99.9% of human beings cannot possibly. Truly brilliant artisans, craftsmen and musicians often gravitate to their fields because they possess rare natural aptitude in these areas. They can certainly be credited for their hard work in honing their skills, but to praise them for their genetics is absurd. Vanity indeed!

Success and Failure

There are other possibilities, and other translation teams have explored them. I especially like this rendering:
“Then I considered all the skillful work that is done: Surely it is nothing more than competition between one person and another.” (NET Bible)
This last statement gets at something I have observed on the job. It is not necessarily an evil thing: it simply is. Nobody is looking to get fired. One of our primary motivations in working hard and skillfully is to avoid just that. It is not that we are consciously wishing ill on the man or woman sitting beside us come the next round of layoffs. It is not that we want to succeed or survive at their expense. It is simply that each of us has his own responsibilities to take care of, and we have to prioritize those by doing the very best we can. Obviously forcing people to compete like this is not morally optimal. We would hope for a situation in which every person could do his best and everyone prosper without provoking comparisons that flatter some and diminish others. We would prefer that underperformers, especially the ones we like, be retrained to do something they are better at. But that is not the way the business world currently operates.

So what is the Preacher saying here? Let’s just concede we can’t be 100% sure. But all these possibilities reflect reality to some extent, and all bear thinking about.

Ecclesiastes 4:5  If a Man Shall Not Work ...
“The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.”
“If anyone is not willing to work,” wrote the apostle Paul, “let him not eat.” This was his rule for believers, and it’s an appropriate one. Why should productive people be obliged to provide for individuals who are perfectly capable of caring for themselves, but too lazy to do so? There are better things to do with our time and energy, and enabling idleness does not help the idler become a better person. It simply entrenches him in his sin.

However, I don’t think that’s quite what the Preacher is saying here. He’s not making a rule. He’s making an observation. Even nature shows us that laziness produces want. The person who will not work is not going to have the things others have. Even if he is the object of frequent acts of charity, that will only get him through the day. It will not put a roof over his head, provide for him in his old age, or make him a useful, contributing member of society. The fool who folds his hands is actively destroying his own being and future enjoyment of his life.

Ecclesiastes 4:6  Two Hands Full of Toil
“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”
The third statement in this series seems to be some kind of compromise position. In the first instance, we have the person with questionable motives competing pointlessly for his entire life. That is frustrating and without obvious meaning. In the second case, we have the person who will not get off the sidewalk to undertake even the most basic responsibilities. That is self-destructive. It is better, says the Preacher, to have a handful of quietness. To enjoy periods of rest from one’s labor. To work hard, certainly, but not endlessly, and not without purpose; and then to take our rest from time to time and enjoy the fruit of our labors.

This is a middle road, and one that makes the most sense as an approach to working and living. Don’t be a workaholic, but don’t be a slouch.

The institution of the Sabbath seems to have been something along these lines. Life cannot and should not be endless labor. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

I recognize I am leaving worship and communion with God out of the mix. Solomon does not get into either subject, but we know the human experience is incomplete outside of a properly ordered relationship with our Creator in which he has his regular, rightful place. Perhaps the Sabbath rest became so associated with worship because hard-working men and women have little time for reflection.

But all men need time for both rest and reflection. A world which is nothing but competition and envy cannot sustain itself, and wouldn’t be worth living in anyway. A world which is nothing but idleness will soon self-destruct. In between these two extremes there is a balance to be sought and found.


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