Saturday, May 30, 2020

Time and Chance (38)

Revelation is a glorious thing.

The phrase “through a glass darkly” is often used to describe our current condition: we do not know everything we wish we knew about God’s purposes for us. We would like to know more; of course we would.

But when we apply that biblical phrase to ourselves, I believe we are erroneously putting ourselves back twenty centuries in time and assuming ourselves to be in the same condition as the Christians to whom Paul wrote in the mid-first century AD with respect to the knowledge of God and his purposes.

And yet we are not in their situation. Not at all. We are much, much better off than they were.

Partial and Complete

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthian church, prophecies had not passed away. Today they have. We don’t need them anymore. When Paul wrote, tongues had not ceased. Today, biblical tongues have definitely ceased. We don’t need them either; their testimony to an unrepentant Israel did its job in its day. When Paul wrote, God-given revelation was partial. It was in the minds and hearts of the apostles and their associates, and later on their pens ... in some cases, perhaps thirty or forty years later. The few books of our New Testaments which had been penned when Paul wrote about seeing through a glass darkly (probably four, tops, none of them gospels) were manuscripts circulating throughout the churches, still in the process of being feverishly copied and distributed. Some believers had read them, some had not. The knowledge of these early Christians was partial, revelation to them incomplete, and their big-picture grasp on God’s long-term intentions for them still somewhat cloudy.

Today we have it all. We are demonstrably not in the condition of those early saints. We see, if still imperfectly, much more clearly than they did. There remains a great deal to be known — even more to be fully understood and applied — but we are in much better shape than the early churches. We have been given the message of salvation in many different ways, had its mechanism and its hope explained to us from multiple angles, and every facet of our blessings in Christ laid out for us in all their glory. We have had our future told, our past accounted for, and our present condition declared.

This being the case, how much more have we got than the Preacher had when he wrote Ecclesiastes, more than a thousand years before Paul talked about seeing through glasses darkly? Even those first century Christians who saw “in a mirror dimly” were orders of magnitude better informed than Solomon on his best day.

No Eye Has Seen

Paul makes this argument earlier in the same letter when he paraphrases Isaiah:
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him —”
then adds this:
“... these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
Here the apostle is making the point that even limited mid-first century Christian knowledge was vastly superior to the knowledge of Isaiah’s day ... or Solomon’s. The eyes, ears and mind of men — the senses and intelligence with which God has equipped us — are quite inadequate to understand what God has prepared for those who love him. They always were. We need God’s indwelling Spirit for that, and the words he would later produce in the hearts of the first century writers of scripture.

The Preacher could not hope to know what Paul knew, let alone what we know today (Paul almost surely never read Revelation, for example, or other later books of the NT; he died too early). Here, back in chapter 8 of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher continues to complain about the limits of his own understanding.

Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 — Stumped
“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”
The Preacher sees the world as a great, complex machine set in place by divine fiat, in which the wise man labors away trying to find out what is going on and why, but never does.

This is not quite accurate. In fact, God was revealing things all the time, even back then; just never in big enough and satisfying enough packages for the writer of Ecclesiastes. The last major revelation of divine truth was found in the Law. There had been prophets since, and recorders of Israel’s history from the divine perspective, and even psalmists like Solomon’s father David. All said something about God and his purposes. Some hinted at the Christ, and what he would be like. But it was never enough for the Preacher. He knew just enough to know that he didn’t know much of anything yet.

Words for Work

There are three different words for “work” in these two verses:

First, there is the “work” God has done and is still doing “under the sun”, the order he has established in a fallen world and the direction in which he is moving human history. The Hebrew is ma`aseh, meaning “labor”. God brought this earth and all its future potential into being in six days, then he rested. When man fell, he began laboring again. He established a Sabbath for men, but there could be no real Sabbath for God. The Lord Jesus mentions the Father’s labors in the gospel of John: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” The heart of God could find no rest until his Son made atonement for the sin of the world. From the time our race fell, God has been laboring away to make right that which was ruined in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the Preacher saw a hint of that.

Second, there is the “business” that is done on the earth. These are man’s labors, not God’s. The Hebrew in this case is `inyan, a word found only in Ecclesiastes. It refers not just to labor, but hard labor. It is almost always associated with a negative adjective. The KJV has “sore travail”, “travail grief” and “evil travail”. The Preacher puts it well in chapter 2 when he says, “For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation [`inyan]. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” This is the “business” with which man is busy. Our appetites are endless, our situation made precarious by the economy, unemployment, sudden misfortune, war, plague and famine. There is plenty to keep us up at night. As he puts it here, “neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep”. I don’t think he means that men never sleep, but that our sleep is never the unagitated repose of the Garden. It is never without the looming pressure of another day of work on the horizon and another unexpected problem to solve.

Third, there is man’s “toil” in seeking truth. That’s not something everyone does. Here the word is `amal, and the “toil” is mental and spiritual rather than physical. Solomon uses the word several times in Ecclesiastes to describe his own labors. These were probably not physical efforts. As king, Solomon directed his servants to do his bidding, whether his project of the day was horticulture or architecture or anything else. It is quite unlikely he was hands-on, but his efforts were no less laborious for it. The servant under Solomon’s direction laid brick or cut cedar, but he went home and thought about other things. For Solomon, the toil associated with seeing through great projects from beginning to end was ongoing. In Ecclesiastes, when he sets his mind to trying to find out what God has done, his labors are of the same sort.

Ongoing Labors

Of these three sorts of work, two concern us: physical labor and truth-seeking.

Physical labor will be part of human experience until the Lord Jesus returns for us. That is not to say we will never have anything to do during the Millennium or in the New Jerusalem, but these efforts will not be “evil”, “sore” or “travails”. They will simply be the joyous, unencumbered use of the bodies God has given us for his glory. The resurrected Christ made breakfast for his disciples. Such are the “labors” of the kingdom: they are joyous acts of love promoting fellowship, not the back-breaking toil associated with the Fall.

Truth-seeking? Well, that’s another matter. Will we ever know everything God knows? Surely not. A perfected human being may be God-like and godly, but never God. Still, the sort of mental and spiritual effort required to put in order the words of God so that we can live them out will never be onerous. Even now, it is often satisfying and joyous in a way the Preacher’s mental exercises could never be, because the Spirit of God lives in our hearts, rejoicing with the truth. What will it be in eternity when every new redeemed companion showcases the glories of Christ in some fascinating and previously-undiscovered way?

Could the Preacher possibly anticipate this? Of course not. His disappointment and confusion are perfectly understandable.

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