Saturday, April 25, 2020

Time and Chance (33)

Once upon a time, one of the richest, most powerful and wisest men in all of human history set himself the task of discovering the meaning of life. He found himself frustrated. He also recorded his search step by step for us in the book of Ecclesiastes. He added one observation to another seeking to uncover what he calls “the scheme of things”.

In doing so, oddly enough, he found himself repeatedly looking not just at the created world, or at society, but at individual men and women. In their own existential thrashing about, the more alert unbelievers today do exactly the same thing: they look around at others in hope of finding lives well-lived and lifestyles worth emulating — people of integrity and consistency — and, informing those qualities, perhaps some coherent explanation of our place in the universe that will satisfy their thirst for meaning and purpose.

After all, you are not terribly likely to discover a coherent worldview in a brothel or under a barroom table, are you?

Bells and Pomegranates

Wise behavior and a heart full of truth go together better than peanut butter and jelly. The hems of Israel’s priestly garments were adorned with alternating bells and pomegranates. An understanding of ultimate meaning worth sharing with the world goes hand in hand with fruit, or worthy actions.

Mathematical truth can be worked out in your head or on paper. Other kinds of truth have to be embodied and lived out in order to be truly understood. The Father sent his Son into the world for precisely this reason. And almost everyone who has come to Christ has done so not because they discovered a few compelling lines of text in a book, but because they saw Christ’s character accurately expressed in the life of someone they knew.

But the Preacher lived before all that. He saw God’s plans and purposes only dimly. He reasoned that there was a design to human existence, but he had insufficient data to work out the pattern.

Ecclesiastes 7:25-29 — Schemes and Schemers
“I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.

Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things — which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”
The Scheme of Things

There are three references to schemes in these five verses: two to the pattern God has designed, and the last to man’s many and often futile attempts to work out what might be the most satisfying and desirable way to live. The Hebrew cheshbown [חֶשְׁבּוֹן] means something put in order by an intelligence; something built or arranged, as opposed to occurring naturally or randomly. It is the basic principle behind Intelligent Design: where you see organization, pattern and functionality, it is evidence that somebody at some point did some contriving and calculating.

The schemes of God and man are contrasted nicely here with a play on words in Hebrew: there is a “scheme” to this world, says the Preacher, and his intellect, he believes, should enable him to find it. Meanwhile, man, he says, has “sought out many schemes” [chishshabown, from the same root word as cheshbown]. It’s the same word used to describe King Uzziah’s engines of war designed to fire arrows and stones from the parapets of Jerusalem. Of course, to the extent man’s designs and calculations are not based on God’s, they will of necessity be incoherent. This is the problem with much of modern science. Man started out upright, and by pursuing his own devices has become increasingly bent and perverse. The intellectual gymnastics of the neo-Darwinians are a fine example of the consequences of “seeking out many schemes”.

So then, in order to understand meaning, the Preacher looked at other people. This is expressed both positively and negatively: positively, in that he looked for design and pattern and evidence of an organizing principle; negatively, in that he sought to “know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness”. The Preacher wanted to understand why certain behaviors consistently work out well, and why others reliably don’t. The entire book of Ecclesiastes reflects his observations with respect to the success rate of both of these ways of living.

An Unsatisfying Conclusion

In the end, his search for order and meaning was not terribly satisfactory. He looked at the lives of both men and women for evidence that they possessed understanding worth having, and he concluded this: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” If that seems a little hard on women, or even a little misogynistic, we should probably bear a couple of things in mind:
  1. The Preacher was not simply looking for that which was merely pleasant and agreeable, but for logic, purpose and truth lived out. There have been women who were great abstract thinkers, but not nearly so many as men. Women tend to be practical where men excel in theorizing. The greater truths of human existence have been, for the most part, worked through and expressed to the world by males. The reasons for this may be debated, but it remains the reality: you cannot live out a truth you don’t possess. It is also quite possible that once truths have been discovered, they have been better lived out by women. It was women who stood at the foot of the cross, and women who discovered Christ’s tomb was empty. They had evidently registered something the Lord’s male disciples had not.
  2. The Preacher is telling us what his own experience taught him about women, not what is true universally beyond all dispute. The data pool from which Solomon drew his conclusions was small and more than a little poisonous. The man had something in the area of 1,000 wives or concubines, and I have no doubt that on some level he well understood a certain sort of woman, but it was the sort of woman who is willing to live her life as one among a thousand in a king’s harem, with all the security, luxury, and relationship-negatives that entails. That speaks to character flaws, desires and aspirations which Solomon might not have found so readily among monogamous, devout Israelite wives and mothers, of whom he surely knew very little. Even Solomon’s famous Proverbs 31 woman is an oracle taught by King Lemuel’s mother: knowledge the Preacher could only acquire second- or third-hand.
Snares, Nets and Fetters

That said, Solomon’s personal experience probably gave him great insight into the sort of woman he describes here with great sadness: the woman “whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters”. The word translated “snares” also means a stronghold or a dungeon, and the word translated “nets” also has the metaphorical sense of a thing accursed or devoted to destruction. It’s powerful language, and the English translation doesn’t quite capture it. The jail motif continues with the image of the woman’s hands, which are “fetters”. This is the sort of woman who, rather than complementing her partner or serving as an appropriate help to him, entraps and uses him for her own purposes. Many a man who has strayed outside his marriage has discovered this sort of woman, usually too late. The Preacher says, “He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.” It is quite likely he had more than a few such schemers under his own roof.

Solomon’s later years could be summed up as a man snared in precisely the way he so eloquently describes. The book of Kings tells us Solomon “clung to” many foreign women in his household (literally, he “glued himself” to them — nobody can trap a man who doesn’t want to be trapped), and that they turned away his heart from the God of his youth, and he built his wives high places on which both he and they could worship the abominations of the Ammonites, Sidonians and Moabites.

And as we have already seen, professed truth that is not lived out does not inspire imitation. There is a reason the better later kings of Judah were said to walk in the ways of their father David rather than those of their father Solomon.

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