Saturday, April 11, 2020

Time and Chance (31)

Anecdotal evidence is not conclusive in any court, but it’s still evidence. What you have observed in this life has a profound effect on what you believe. What you think you’ve observed may have an even greater influence on you.

So what is it that really matters? What sort of life would your neighbors call “good”? There are very few people out there who haven’t yet decided. Some of them are making very silly choices, but they are still making them. Having “seen everything” (in their estimation), they are now deciding what course of action makes the most sense for them. If you ask them nicely, they will often tell you why.

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 — Over the Top
“In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.”
Righteousness and wisdom are not exactly the same things. Neither are wickedness and foolishness. There are overlaps, of course, but righteousness is moral in character; wisdom may or may not be, at least in the sense used by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Foolishness is chaotic in character, or at very least inconsistent rather than logical. Wickedness is comparatively calculating.

Samuel vs. Ahithophel

Let me give you an example. Samuel was a righteous, wise man. Though not perfect, of course, the combination translated into a personal walk that pleased God and provided sound advice and moral leadership. David’s counselor Ahithophel the Gilonite, on the other hand, was the wisest man of his day, but his wisdom was only “as if one consulted the word of God”. You see the difference: Samuel had the word of God, and Ahithophel had a very good facsimile. When the rubber met the road, Ahithophel lacked the personal integrity to do the right thing no matter what the cost. Samuel grieved at having to do it, but he did it all the same.

Ahithophel was exceedingly intelligent, perceptive and crafty. He had been able to counsel the soundest course of political action for years, and David had come to rely on him because his strategies and tactics always worked out. Even what Ahithophel did when he betrayed David and aligned himself with Absalom in his rebellion was intelligent. He backed the strong horse. He made the best possible decision for himself and for his family. The problem is that what he did was pragmatic and shrewd, but not the least bit moral. He was disloyal, and he left God out of the equation, which led to his downfall. So it is possible to be wise but not righteous, like Ahithophel, or to be both, like Samuel.

There is a similar distinction in meaning between wickedness and foolishness. Sometimes they amount to the same thing, but a man can act foolishly for reasons other than rebellion against God. A lack of faith is foolish, double-minded and wavering, maybe even cowardly, but it is not determinately evil. The Lord Jesus called his disciples fools, but did not refer to them as wicked men. Likewise, when Asa relied on the king of Syria rather than the Lord, God rebuked him, saying, “You have done foolishly.” Here the Lord uses the same Hebrew word for “fool” as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Asa was not a wicked man, but he had made a foolish mistake. He had deviated from an otherwise-right pattern.

Be Not Overly Righteous

These are difficult verses. “Be not overly righteous,” says the Preacher. Yeah, that’s in the Bible. But it’s an understandable statement in context. Remember, the Preacher is looking at the world in the absence of revelation, based only on what he can take in with his senses and work out with his intellect. From that angle, why be overly committed to the truth? There’s a terrible cost that comes with it. Hebrews lays that out for us in chapter 11: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated ...” That’s the fate of the overly-righteous, and it ain’t always a pleasant one. Overly-righteous men literally destroy themselves in the process of doing the right thing. They become the cause of their own undoing — in this life — at least by taking an unflinching stand and living with the consequences. There is one of these fire-breathers for every 7,000 quiet, moderately righteous people who have learned to keep their heads down. It’s a great role in life ... if you don’t mind the occasional decapitation.

How can the Preacher, from his position “under the sun”, possibly estimate the eternal reward of Elijah or John the Baptist? So let’s cut the poor man a bit of slack.

“Do not make yourself too wise,” he continues. But why not? Wisdom is a useful thing, so surely more wisdom is even better, right? Well, yes, perhaps, depending on your metric. But as the Preacher has already pointed out, “in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Back to wise Ahithophel, once again, who gave the shrewdest possible strategic advice and was ignored, and so went out and put his affairs in order, then took his own life. Ahithophel’s wisdom would have been most useful to Absalom had he been willing to hear it. It certainly didn’t help Ahithophel. Rhetoric won the day, as it usually does.

Be Not Overly Wicked

“Be not overly wicked” is a little easier to get our heads around. Wicked people die before their time when their schemes catch up to them, or when God steps in to render judgment. Ahab’s death is one of those “perfect storms” in the sense that it’s both: God allows a lying spirit to entice Ahab, and despite having the whole heavenly scenario laid out for him honestly by Micaiah, Ahab deliberately chooses to reject the word of the prophet, and goes off to die in battle. That’s both wicked and foolish, but there you go. Don’t call judgment down upon your own head. Even if there’s a way out, you won’t see it.

Foolish people are a different story, but they still die young. They drink too much. They smoke too much. If pot is legalized, they’ll have some of that too. If there were a way to catch cancer, they’d find two or three more ways we haven’t thought of yet. Generally speaking, they are not under the judgment of God so much as they inherit the inevitable consequences of a lifetime of bad choices. It’s not God but things like physics that catches up to them. They nod off while smoking in bed and burn the house down. They provoke the wrong guy in a bar, or pass out on the wrong street corner in a blizzard and don’t wake up in the morning. They step off the wrong curb in front of the wrong car.

This and That

What do all these things — over-righteousness, excessive intellectual prowess, abundant wickedness or foolish excess — have in common? Well, there is this: they will all make your life shorter than it needs to be. Depending on your situation, that may be just fine by you. Excess at one end of the moral spectrum leads to a brief earthly experience and an abundance of eternal reward. At the other end, it makes all your bad decisions final for eternity.

Either way, your life on earth will be shorter. Living life at the extremes guarantees that one way or another.

Unable to see any way that could be a good thing, the Preacher counsels moderation. Your mileage may vary. Mine certainly does.

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