Saturday, May 23, 2020

Time and Chance (37)

Last week we encountered the term “vanity” for the umpteenth time in the book of Ecclesiastes, and considered another entry in the Preacher’s list of realities he found frustrating, and which he could not hope to understand without direct revelation from God. In this case, he had observed that there is a species of wicked people who move freely in polite society and who, far from being punished for their crimes, are more often politely indulged ... and sometimes even celebrated.

He continues this thought in the next couple of verses, in the process adding yet another “vain thing” to his list of conundra.

Ecclesiastes 8:14 — The Injustice Problem
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.”
How do we explain injustice in this life? For the most part, God’s judgment or approval are not readily apparent to us during our time on earth. The Preacher’s observation is an accurate one, and he’s far from the first to make it: sometimes wicked people appear blessed, and sometimes righteous people appear to be cursed. There is no guarantee that godliness will bring you riches and an easy life, whereas a life of crime well might.

Job and Habakkuk

The book of Job is the story of a righteous man who suffered terribly, losing ten children and everything he owned for reasons he had no hope of understanding. It is one of the oldest stories in the Bible. The subject of (apparent) injustice was addressed very early on indeed.

But perhaps the most eloquent and illuminating treatment of the subject is found in the book of Habakkuk, where we read passages like this: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” It’s a fascinating exchange between an unhappy prophet and his God, in which the Lord at first appears to double down by saying something like “It’s actually even worse than you think,” but later makes it clear that righteous people live by faith, and not always by seeing evidence of God’s approval in the form of present-day reward. God is not about to explain the reasons for all his dealings with us in the here-and-now. We are not yet even capable of understanding them, as he made clear to Job.

Still, the Preacher had probably not read God’s answer to Job, and Habakkuk’s complaint had not been written. All he had were the evidence of his eyes to go on, and his eyes were telling him life isn’t fair.

Who Could Imagine Christ?

Those of us who look around the world today might say the same thing, but we have a great deal more revelation than the Preacher to help us to account for the things we observe.

For one, the Preacher could never have imagined Christ. Who could? That God would give his only spotless, perfect Son into the hands of wicked men in order that he might die on a cross for the sin of the world is an injustice of such magnitude that nothing Solomon had ever seen could begin to compare to it. And yet, as Isaiah puts it, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” From our earthly perspective, everything about this is backwards, and yet it is only through the work of Christ that eternal reward for the believer is even possible; it is only through Christ that ultimate justice can and will be dispensed.

However, as we have pointed out, the Preacher could not see this when he wrote, and we have to allow him his observation that he cannot see the point of it all. For a man drawing his conclusions about life only from the evidence of his eyes, this is the very best he can do.

Ecclesiastes 8:15 — Joy as a Remedy
“And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”
We used to sing, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” Even back in Sunday School, we knew Christian joy was not just a bubblier version of the excitement you feel when your favorite team wins the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl. It was something else, which our teachers tried (with limited success) to explain to us with little formulas like “Jesus, Others and You”. At least we knew joy was more than happiness, and as we have grown older, we have learned to define Christian joy by way of the New Testament epistles.

Ode to Joy

The Greek word chara is not a specifically Christian term; it is found in Aeschylus and Sophocles, where it simply refers to gladness and celebration. However, when used by the apostles, as in the fruit of the Spirit’s “love, joy, peace” of Galatians 5:22, it refers to a quality of experience which is God-given rather than merely natural, “[f]or the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Those last few words are key to understanding the difference between Christian joy and ordinary enthusiasm or delight. Our joy is not prompted by the things we have or the experiences we are blessed with, but by the things which delight the heart of God, because God himself has taken up residence in our hearts.

Could the Preacher have experienced this sort of joy? Not in any lasting way. So we should not attempt to back-read our own Christian experience into this passage. When Solomon commends joy, he is saying something much more prosaic. He is talking about everything the kingdom of heaven is not about: eating and drinking and having a good time. The Hebrew is simchah, which means a celebration. Laban chastised Jacob for making his exit from Laban’s employ stealthily. He says, “... I might have sent you away with mirth [simchah] and songs, with tambourine and lyre.” That’s the sort of thing Solomon is commending.

Don’t Study on It

Once again, I don’t think the Preacher has changed subjects on us. All this is related. His recommendation of celebration is his way of dealing with apparent injustice. His remedy: don’t study on them, as they say in the American south. Occupy your heart with the good things in life.

This is not terrible advice, though it falls far short of a Christian’s enjoyment of Christ and his spiritual blessings in the middle of trials and tribulations. It probably will not inspire you to sing in jail like Paul and Silas, but it is certainly not un-Christian to accentuate the positive where possible, or to rejoice with those who rejoice. And we cannot help but notice that even the unsaved around us do better when they turn off CNN and concentrate on their families, friends and other more pleasant occupations.

This is the best we can do “under the sun”. Thankfully, that is not where the Christian lives.

This is one of those situations where a reader who uses the Old Testament like a medicine cabinet, popping individual verses like vitamins, is going to find himself in a bit of a pickle. A verse out of its context may tell you the exact opposite of the truth, and that is what this one does when we forget it comes from Ecclesiastes and a man looking at the world in the absence of divine revelation and long prior to Christ. If we think that regenerate human beings have “nothing better” to do in this world than eat, drink and have a good time, we are quite wrong. A life of service to Christ, however taxing and difficult, is far better and more rewarding in the long run.

But Solomon is speaking “under the sun”. He cannot tell us what he does not know and hasn’t experienced. In the light of further revelation, the Christian must take his advice here with a sizable grain of salt.

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