Saturday, April 18, 2020

Time and Chance (32)

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

I have a feeling that’s an old Clint Eastwood line from somewhere. At any rate, the next six verses of Ecclesiastes are all about human limitations in a fallen world. Verses 19 and 20 have to do with mankind’s moral limitations, verses 21-22 with our interpersonal limitations, and verses 23-34 with our philosophical limitations.

Basically, we are sinners who don’t get along. Moreover, outside of God’s word, we are incapable of coming up with any reasonable explanation why that might be. We don’t act right, we don’t socialize right, and we don’t think right. That’s a fairly hefty indictment.

Ecclesiastes 7:19-20 — Wisdom and Righteousness
“Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”
I’m not entirely sure the Preacher intended these two verses to be paired, but if they are, they continue the themes of wisdom and righteousness considered in v15-18. As is often the case in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher says something positive, then follows it with a statement that one might consider quite discouraging. In this case, his first point is that wisdom makes the wise man stronger than ten city rulers. That said, though unusual shrewdness trumps both main force and political power, even the wisest man falls short of perfection. The picture is one of intellectual prowess and moral deficiency. As I pointed out last week, it is possible to be wise without also being righteous and vice versa. It is also possible to be characteristically righteous without making the right moral choice in any given situation, which was often the case with the better kings of Israel, Solomon’s father David among them.

Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 — A Curse Overlooked
Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.”
Years ago I had an immensely frustrating discussion with an old friend. Today I couldn’t even tell you what our disagreement was about, except that all the things about him that used to crop up and irritate me from time to time seemed to present themselves back-to-back in a single conversation. I went away from our encounter steaming, unlocked our apartment door, and started venting to my wife about it before I had even stopped to check whether she was at home. “That guy,” I fumed ... “that guy ...” Sitting beside my wife in the living room was ... you guessed it ... my friend’s girlfriend over for a visit. You can imagine my embarrassment.

People often say things about you that they don’t mean, or at least that they won’t mean an hour from now when they have calmed down and considered all aspects of your relationship. I have found this a useful principle to remember whenever I overhear something said about me in anger. Sure, it may be true, in which case I am wise to learn something from it. On the other hand, taking the measure of a person’s character and their value in your life is not merely a matter of totaling up the bad things they may have said about you, but observing how they treated you over time. If, generally speaking, their input into your life has been positive, then it is far better to overlook a rare, emotional outburst than to make a big deal of it and damage the relationship.

There are plenty of good reasons we should learn to control how we respond to provocation, but the Preacher’s is perhaps the best of all possible reasons: we all do it. “Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.” That last line is a powerful one because it rings so very true: it is all too easy to become worked up about the speck in my brother’s eye without noticing I have a plank in my own.

Ecclesiastes 7:23-24 — Philosophers with No Answers
“All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?”
The first sentence is fairly self-explanatory, though it is an open question as to what the expression “All this” refers back to. It may be anything from the contents of the chapter to the contents of the entire book of Ecclesiastes. I think it far likelier, though, that the difficulty the Preacher is having is not with minor details of optimal human conduct, about which he seems pretty certain — things such as the value of a good name, the ease with which bribery corrupts institutions or the fact that thinking seriously about the world is better than thinking foolishly — but rather with the larger existential questions of meaning, purpose and ultimate value.

Most of us have experienced the challenge of seeking to apply such wisdom as we have to a particular problem and coming up short. When the problem is a major philosophical one like the meaning of life, the process of working out a solution may take entire lifetimes or generations. Some of the human race’s more significant philosophical questions have not yet been satisfactorily resolved despite the greatest minds in history having tackled them. The truth of the matter is that we lack sufficient data to come to conclusions about the meaning of our existence without direct input from God.

The expression “that which has been” is the ESV translation team’s best shot at explaining the verse, but it is by no means the final word on its meaning. Verse 24 actually consists of grand total of three Hebrew words, which respectively translate as “remote”, “mysterious” and “find” (or “detect”), all of which can only reasonably refer back to the previous verse. Making a meaningful English sentence out of this appears to have been for some translators an exercise in creativity. I suspect the best renderings are the most succinct, among them the CEV’s “The truth [presumably about ultimate meaning] is beyond us. It’s far too deep.”

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