Saturday, May 16, 2020

Time and Chance (36)

As mentioned in earlier studies in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher uses the term “vanity” repeatedly. This is usually read as an expression of disgust, as if Solomon is saying, “Pointless, pointless ... it’s all futile and pointless,” as if the order God has set in place since the fall of man — and it is very much evident he believes God is behind it all — is not worth further investigation.

And yet, on he goes investigating anyway. Can’t be all that pointless, can it?

In fact, the word hebel is regularly translated “breath” or “vapor”. I believe these repeated statements are not intended to question God’s way of dealing with fallen man, or as mere invective (though there is no doubt a certain amount of frustration being vented), but to express the conviction that the meaning of certain events regularly observed in this fallen world is ephemeral, chimerical and exceedingly difficult to pin down. Without direct revelation from God, we cannot hope to pierce the veil of apparent randomness and ascertain the divine purpose.

Yet Another “Vain Thing”

Solomon’s list of things he has difficulty understanding is lengthy and to date includes the following:
  • What man gains by working endlessly all his life (1:2);
  • Why people occupy themselves with the things they do (1:14);
  • Hedonism (2:1);
  • The emptiness of great earthly accomplishments (2:11);
  • The universality of death (2:15);
  • That wise fathers often have foolish and undeserving heirs (2:19);
  • Workaholism (2:23);
  • Gathering and collecting simply for the sake of it (2:26);
  • Entropy (3:19);
  • Competition caused by envy (4:4);
  • That we can’t take it with us (4:7-8);
  • That good leadership is rarely appreciated (4:16);
  • That money does not satisfy (5:10);
  • That men are never content with what they have (6:9);
  • That it is impossible to dispute the condition of the world (6:11); and
  • Why it is we have to put up with foolish people (7:6).
So then, here comes yet another “vain thing”.

Ecclesiastes 8:10 — In and Out
“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity.”
There are different kinds of wicked people. Pirates traditionally sailed the seas, brigands traditionally lived in caves and hideouts, and bikers travel the highways in packs. To wander about in polite society or maintain a fixed address is a risk for that sort of wicked person. They might find themselves locked up, so they stay out of sight.

Then there are the socially-acceptable wicked: adulterers, homosexuals, usurers, pornographers, libertines, corrupt politicians, financial profiteers and just about anyone with money, power and evil inclinations. More than a few of these people have green lawns and nice cars. They go in an out among us, some of them not merely tolerated but even respected. Many do more damage to society than career criminals. In the Preacher’s day, the socially-acceptable wicked could even be found in the precincts of the temple.

Where my ESV has “praised”, yours may have “forgotten”. Those are two very different words. It’s because there are two different Hebrew text traditions out there; one goes one way, one the other. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. The point is that either way, nobody appears to be appalled by the deeds of the socially-acceptable wicked. They are respectfully buried, just like righteous men. Nobody remarks on them unfavorably. Nobody learns from their example. They live and die and are treated well in death rather than being the subject of cautionary tales.

Perhaps some people even enthuse about them. That IS hard to explain ...

Ecclesiastes 8:11 — You Get More of What You Encourage
“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
It’s helpful to see this familiar verse in its original context. It actually continues the thought begun in verse 10: Indulge socially-acceptable evil and you will get more of it.

I am old enough to remember a time in Canadian history when the question of capital punishment was still open to debate, and the word “deterrent” was floated occasionally by those on the “pro” side of the question. The “anti” crowd flatly denied that the prospect of execution deters anyone, arguing that most murders are committed in hot blood and would happen regardless of any disincentives society might put in place.

But if the Preacher is not precisely saying that deterrence is real, he is saying something awfully similar: If you don’t punish criminals, other people will copy them. Perhaps taking the life of a murderer will not stop another man who is bound and determined to act out his fantasies of greed, lust or revenge; we cannot say with certainty in any given case. That is not the point. The point is this: If a society does not establish serious penalties for serious crimes and execute them consistently, people who would not ordinarily have taken the risks associated with criminality will begin to reconsider their options.

There is a tendency among liberals to believe men and women are innately good. That is neither the view found in the book of Ecclesiastes, nor the teaching of scripture generally. Much of what appears to us to be good behavior is not a product of lofty personal values, but rather a consequence of limits on imagination or opportunity. This is evident in major cities every time there is civil unrest. Looters come out in droves, most of whom are not hardened criminals or political ideologues, but simply ordinary citizens attracted by the prospect of free stuff.

Whatever they might name it, prudent social planners recognize the problem of the sin nature in man and account for it in their policies.

Ecclesiastes 8:12-13 — What the Ending Looks Like
“Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.”
Once again, the Preacher is not acting as a prophet or oracle. He is simply giving us his opinions and observations as a natural man. He cannot tell us exactly how it will happen, but because he believes in the existence of a God who defines right and wrong, and who rewards and punishes, he is nevertheless convinced that it is still better to be righteous than wicked, even if it is sometimes convenient to have the weapons of wickedness at one’s disposal. Despite all appearances that the sinner is getting away with his sin, the Preacher is convinced this is not the case: fearing God is still preferable in the long run.

The Preacher can’t prove it to us, but he is absolutely convinced of it.

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