Saturday, April 04, 2020

Time and Chance (30)

Much of what we read in our Bibles is not what we might call “inspired”: the choice of English words made by translators; the marginal commentary; beginnings and ends of verses; chapter and passage headings ... all these things were simply not subjected to the same level of divine control which the writers of scripture claim for the Greek and Hebrew text itself.

This being the case, once in a blue moon something done by a translator or publishing house works against our ability to discern the meaning of a text. One of my brothers is fond of pointing out how many times a chapter division in our English Bibles has obscured his understanding of a passage which should rightly flow right on without pause, and did so in its original form. Sometimes the answer to a question posed at the end of chapter 3 (where you probably stopped your daily reading) is to be found three verses into chapter 4 (where you have probably forgotten what it is answering by the time you read it tomorrow).

These are not big problems if you read regularly, pay attention to context, and love the word of God. You might miss something the first time out, but you will certainly pick it up eventually.

But sometimes formatting is a problem too. My ESV formats Ecclesiastes 7:13 as a proverb, the last in a series of eleven, and formats verse 14 as the first sentence in a new text paragraph. In fact, I suspect verse 13 is the first sentence of the new paragraph, and that verse 14 amplifies and explains it.

Verse 13 may be a little difficult if we insist on reading it alone. So let’s run the two verses together and see what happens ...

Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 — Prosperity and Adversity

Things God Made
“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.”
What does it mean that God makes things “straight” or “crooked”? That almost sounds a little bit like an accusation. One might think the Preacher means to say that God is to blame for the evils and temptations we encounter in this world. On its own, the verse might be taken to mean that God arbitrarily and deliberately makes things difficult for men and women. And maybe there is a very limited, extended sense in which we can say such things are true: after all, as the ultimate power in the universe, nothing bad can occur within creation unless God provides both the opportunity and the energy for evil to operate. In allowing men to choose their own paths, he opens up the possibility they will choose the wrong one and that you or I may be hurt as a result of those choices. In providing strength for each day and wisdom to the wise, he opens up the possibility that the strong man may injure his weaker neighbor, or that the intelligent man may use his wits to gain an unfair advantage. In causing creation to “fall” along with mankind, he allowed for situations in which nature itself appears to be trying to exterminate its God-given stewards.

But reasonable people do not blame God for days of adversity. If we are honest, the root cause of “straightness” or “crookedness” often lies much closer to home, usually where you and I can see it plainly. It may lie in our own hands, or in those of people we normally love and admire. Fobbing blame off on the Source of Everything is just a way of overlooking our own complicity in the crookedness of the world and our own regular and willing self-identification with Adam in his rebellion.

Good and Evil

The two terms translated “prosperity” and “adversity” in verse 14 are simply the very ordinary Hebrew words for good and evil; exactly the same two words God used in the Garden of Eden to describe the knowledge that was to be obtained from the forbidden tree. The meanings of both words are very broad indeed: towb [“good”] is used 559 times and ra` [“evil”] 663 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. The word for “prosperity” can mean everything from “morally good” to “agreeable” to “tasty” or “attractive”. The word for “adversity” can mean everything from “unfavorable” to “untrue” to “starving” as well as referring to bad moral choices.

I do not think either word is being used here in a moral sense, so it seems to me the ESV translators did a cracking job. I believe when the Preacher refers to things that God makes “straight” or “crooked”, he is speaking about good times and bad: God’s sovereign hand in world affairs, and the effect that has on men and women at ground level. Nobody minds when God showers us with blessings, and Christians are usually quick to gratefully attribute favorable occurrences to God’s love and generosity.

Man May Not Find Out Anything

The “day of adversity” is not always viewed so optimistically, as we are currently able to observe all around us. People who thought they had their retirements all sewn up are watching their savings get eaten away in a falling stock market. People who presumed their current state of health and security would continue indefinitely are shocked to discover how quickly things can change in ways none of us has the slightest hope of controlling. People who thought that a dozen rolls of Cottonelle they threw thoughtlessly into their shopping cart in the first week of March would do them just fine are now starting to think creatively about their rather limited options. (But enough about me ... First World problems, I know.)

I keep hearing a global flu pandemic referred to as an “act of God”. That is certainly one possibility. But the source of any particular “day of adversity” or “crooked” event is really quite irrelevant. No matter whether it turns out the COVID-19 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or else made its debut in a wet market under unsanitary conditions deemed acceptable in Chinese culture, making God personally responsible for our new and highly contagious flu variant seems a little like shifting blame. Still, from the Preacher’s perspective, the “day of adversity” is something God makes, and we must acknowledge that even when God does not initiate any particular cataclysm, it is always within his power to put a stop to it, mitigate its effects, or do with it anything he pleases.

The truth of the matter is that we will probably never know the whole truth about this flu outbreak or much of anything else that goes on in our world. We will eventually be presented with some official narrative by a scaremongering media, and it will consist largely of lies and obfuscations. In such an environment, waxing dogmatic about the root causes of any great global ill is an exercise in futility. It is truly a vain pursuit.

A Problem of Perspective

This is the fundamental problem with a merely earthly perspective, as Solomon has adopted in writing Ecclesiastes. When he says, “man may not find out anything that will be after him”, that is not quite true for the Christian. We have the whole story of human history laid out for us in a way the Preacher did not. We know it ends in the New Jerusalem, where God is all in all and no harm can ever again come to those he loves. We also know a great deal of detail about what God plans to do between now and then which nobody in Solomon’s shoes could ever have imagined. But we know it by revelation, not because we have been able to intuit it from observation. Nobody could infer the city foursquare, the river of life and the Lord God who will be the light of those who dwell there eternally from the things which have been made. It simply isn’t possible.

As I have said many times during this series, I view Ecclesiastes as the Bible’s primary evidence for the necessity of divine revelation. It is passages like this one which make that need so achingly clear, and provoke me to give thanks for a God who has voluntarily and graciously made his plans, purposes and nature known to those of us who live at the far end of history.

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