Saturday, February 22, 2020

Time and Chance (24)

King Saul had a burial.

When he fell in battle with the Philistines, his enemies decapitated him and fastened his body to the wall of the city of Beth-Shan, publicly degrading him in death. And yet, as willful, proud and chaotic as Saul’s reign over Israel had been, the courageous men of Jabesh-Gilead came, probably at no small risk to themselves, took his body, burned it, buried the bones and fasted seven days in memory of him.

As in most other nations, an ancient Israelite burial was not merely a matter of being dumped into a hole in the ground and covered by dirt. There were people who cared enough about Saul to make it evident to the entire nation — not to mention its enemies — that their king’s life, position and person were worthy of their loyalty and appreciation. So Saul received a proper interment with the customary ritual observances.

Queen Jezebel didn’t. She fell to her death, hurled from an upper window by her own servants. Her blood spattered the wall of Jezreel and its horses trampled her body. Jehu, who had blithely ordered her defenestration, was so completely unfazed by the sight of her corpse that he promptly sat down to have lunch and a celebratory drink or two. Belatedly it occurred to him that notwithstanding Jezebel’s infamy, the daughter of a Sidonian king should probably be dealt with in a slightly more respectful manner, so he sent his servants to see to her removal. By that time the dogs of Jezreel had all-but-entirely consumed Jezebel’s carcass.

No burial, and from the sound of it, nobody was terribly bothered.

Five Different Endings

How we end life matters. Every story needs an appropriate conclusion. For this reason, Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson has five different endings, most of them inserted by the editors of subsequent editions in the style of Wyss. Nobody was quite satisfied with his original last chapter, and the success of the book was such that it created a demand for a more pleasing denouement.

Likewise, a proper burial with all the appropriate rituals of our culture is universally understood to be the mark of a life well-lived. It is a proper, dignified conclusion. It signals the respect of family and community. With a few rare exceptions, as in time of war, leaving the dead to predators and the elements is considered shameful. It is an indignity. Even the Lord Jesus, crucified between two thieves, was with the rich in his death. God rewrote that ending ... in more ways than one.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-6 — Father of a Hundred vs. Stillborn Child

A Grievous Evil

Back in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher continues to preach:
“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good — do not all go to the one place?”
Amnon is a classic illustration of the sad truth that satisfaction and earthly success are quite unrelated. All the riches, respect and property in the world pale into insignificance when one cannot enjoy them. As crown prince, Amnon had all the wealth, honor and power you might like without any of the annoying duties of actually running the show, and yet he could not appreciate any of it because he was so madly infatuated with his sister that everything else had become meaningless to him. What sense does it make that the man with the most congenial existence in all David’s kingdom is described as “haggard morning after morning”? And yet this was Amnon’s experience. As his younger brother, Solomon could hardly miss this lesson. “A grievous evil,” he says.

But a fixation on an unattainable object is not the only reason earthly success may not satisfy. With wealth and power come significant responsibilities. These are not to everyone’s taste. Even long life and a big family may or may not be satisfying. The Preacher gives as an example a man who fathers a hundred children. David probably didn’t reach 100, but scripture indicates he had at least 19 sons. He may have greatly loved them, but one after another they broke his heart. His family was riddled with rape, murder and two attempted coups. There is little comfort to be had from a family one rarely or never sees, or whose members continually disappoint. In addition, disability, ill health, deficient character, a flawed worldview, lack of spiritual insight, competition, war and other adverse circumstances all may diminish the joy that should rightly accompany reaching the pinnacle of worldly success.

Unrealized Expectations and Rest

Unrealized expectations are tough to live with. As Solomon says elsewhere, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” The Preacher’s point of comparison is a stillborn child. Someone who has never lived in this world at all is better off than someone who has all the success this world can offer but cannot enjoy it. I have read poems about unborn children and their dreams. These are nice enough in that they remind us of the preciousness of human life, but are entirely speculative in their fancies. To the best of our knowledge, an infant in the womb has no aspirations which may be dashed, and no expectations which may later disappoint. He simply hasn’t enough real-world experience to grieve over lost potential. Adults do.

The issue here is something the Preacher calls “rest”. An absence of disturbance. The Hebrew is nachath, used often of death. So far as man is able to observe, the stillborn child sees and knows nothing outside the womb, and therefore cannot find himself disturbed by the conditions in a fallen world he will never enter. It is not the rest of contentment but the rest of near-complete ignorance. This is sharply in contrast with the Sabbath rest of God into which the faithful Israelite was invited, and into which the Christian enters spiritually even in the here-and-now. God’s “rest” is characterized by fullness, not absence.

One Place

The Preacher’s final question is this: “Do not all go to the one place?” As always, we must keep in mind that Solomon’s entire thesis in Ecclesiastes requires the world be viewed in the absence of divine revelation. He is not teaching universalism or denying the reality of eternal punishment and reward. These are not issues he is even considering. The “one place” he has in mind is Sheol — the Hebrew grave. So his point is this: Since all will die anyway, if it is a choice between a life which does not happen at all and a life in which happiness is held out as a possibility, then brutally withdrawn in every instance, the state of the stillborn baby is to be preferred to that of the man whose life is utterly joyless.

Thankfully, that is a comparatively rare situation, and it is never the situation for a Christian.

Note: At least two commentators take the position that Solomon is saying he finds his own life not worth living and would prefer never to have been born. I do not believe this is the case at all. A careful reading of the passage seems to indicate he is referring to a situation he has observed, not one he has experienced firsthand. Among other unlikely statements, Solomon speaks of the man having “no burial”, something he surely did not anticipate in his own case.

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