Saturday, February 15, 2020

Time and Chance (23)

Work is not in itself a product of the Fall. God made man to “have dominion”. Even ruling is not a passive undertaking; it requires doing something from time to time. God put Adam in the Garden of Eden not to be a man of leisure but “to work it and keep it”. Apparently it would not keep itself, even in an unfallen world. There is no suggestion this was in any way unpleasant, but it was man’s lot up until the Fall.

However, when Adam sinned, God declared, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” Work got a whole lot harder. The word “pain” appears for the first time in the respective curses. This was the new “lot” of mankind, and coming to grips with it required serious reflection.

Back in Ecclesiastes 5, the Preacher has given it some.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20  Accepting and Enjoying One’s Lot
“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil — this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”
These three sentences seem quite straightforward, and for the most part they are. But there are a few Hebrew words in this section whose translation tends to slightly modify the overall sense. One such pair is ra'ah towb, which the ESV translates as “find enjoyment”. The other is zakar, which it renders as “remember”. Both actions are a little more ... er ... active than maybe the ESV lets on.

Finding Enjoyment in Toil

“Find enjoyment” is a perfectly fine translation of ra'ah towb so long as we don’t think of it as a sort of ginned-up emotion about working. It is not about being “rah rah” about being stuck doing a bad job for a living. Literally, it is to “consider as good”. The sense is that daily toil is to be valued not just for the work product that results from it, from which man benefits materially, but also for the experience of working itself. In other words, it is good and fitting to value the process as well as the outcome.

This is easier said than done, depending on the job you are doing, but it fits in nicely with some things Paul says about work in the New Testament, like “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” or “always abounding in the work of the Lord,” or “be ready for every good work.” Though there is a Christian hope of reward at the end of our “workday”, in many cases we can no more see the immediate positive results of our earthly efforts (secular or spiritual) than the ancient Israelite could see the harvest in January.

A Sense of Purpose

The psalmist could write, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Reward is rarely immediate. But better to go out to work with a sense of purpose, acknowledging the value of the work process itself — whether its tendency to build character, or the pleasure it gives to God — than to go out unhappily. Perhaps this is the sort of attitude for which the Preacher is advocating: not so much teeth-gritting stoicism as a reasoned sense of the value of labor in the overall order of things.

Furthermore, many sorts of work involve being no more than a link in a production chain. This was as true of agrarian work as office or factory work today. Paul draws on that sort of experience when he writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Planting and watering may seem discouraging if you are never around to view the young saplings sprout, or to bring in the wheat harvest, but this is often the case in life. Thus it is necessary to see one’s role in an ongoing process as having value, even if one cannot quite see to the end of the production chain. Some crops take longer than others to mature.

Fruitless Speculation

There is not much worse than being obsessed with what might have been. We all make so many mistakes in the course of living our lives that, were we to spend all our time occupied with them, we could make ourselves quite miserable.

The second Hebrew word in this passage that could use a little explanation is zakar, translated “remember”. “He will not much remember the days of his life,” says the Preacher. This, he considers, is good. The word zakar is indeed used of human memory, but more frequently has to do with the official actions that remembering produces, such as the making of memorials. Most of its uses in the OT refer to acts of the will rather than chance recollections in the human mind. We might read this portion of verse 20 as “He will not choose to much re-examine the days of his life ...” When talking of the past, American southerners occasionally use the expression, “I don’t study on it.” That seems about right.

In other words, a man who values the process of working and living and taking what satisfaction he may from the present will not be given to fruitless speculations about what might have been, because he is at peace with what is. This sort of contentment is something we also find encouraged in the New Testament.

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