Saturday, June 06, 2020

Time and Chance (39)

Boy, there is a lot about death in Ecclesiastes.

If you’re counting, the words “dead” and “die” occur six times apiece, “dust” and “death” three times, “one place” (guess where?) twice, and “Sheol”, “burial” and “stillborn” once each.

To top it all off, the infamous chapter 12 contains such an impressive stack of poetic aging-and-death metaphors that the first thing most Christians do upon finishing the book is scramble to the New Testament post-haste in search of something to wash the taste out of their mouths. I find the last nine verses of Romans 8 usually do nicely.

However, as I have probably repeated ad nauseum by now, the Preacher didn’t have the bright, lucid hope we Christians enjoy to lift his spirits when he wrote Ecclesiastes. He was a believing man attempting to analyze his world without the aid of revelation, so instead of “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”, we get a bunch of stuff about silver cords and golden bowls and the ceasing of the grinders.


Here in chapter 9, he returns to his favorite subject, this time without all the poetry.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-3 — The Universality of Death
“But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.”
We’re all going there, says the Preacher, clearly wishing he were not.

Love or Hate

Until the coming of Christ, God’s love for mankind as a whole was at times very much in doubt. It was understood that certain righteous men and women pleased him (“Noah found favor in the eyes of God”, “Have you considered my servant Job?”, “Oh man greatly loved, fear not”), and that Israel was his chosen people, enjoying his special favor, but the love of God for the world at large, and the explicit offer of salvation for all men, found its perfect expression only in Christ, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

A God of justice, certainly. A God of love? Maybe only for some favored few. In Solomon’s day it was impossible to tell. Certainly God’s hatred toward the wicked and sin generally was very clearly expressed even in Old Testament times: “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” It was understood that the wicked would be cut off. But what constituted wickedness in the eyes of God? How “righteous” did one have to be to merit his favor? Would God’s standard be the same as man’s? Would his approval and love only be expressed to a chosen few?

“Whether it is love or hate,” says the Preacher, “man does not know.” We needed Christ to make it clear.

The Same Event

When the Preacher says that the “same event happens to all”, and that it is “the same for all”, we should not imagine he is teaching some sort of universalism or, worse, annihilationism. The Preacher cannot see beyond the death event itself. He is not contemplating Heaven, Hell, the extinguishment of the human soul, or any such thing.

The Hebrew Sheol is not the precise equivalent of either Hades or Gehenna, the lake of fire. It refers to the world of the dead more generally, and to the grave in particular. Depending on the context, different aspects of death may be in view, but Sheol’s most prominent features are all expressed negatively: as the Preacher will put it shortly, “There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” The grave is characterized by inactivity, by disconnection from the physical world, by the ruination of the body, and by the way in which a common destiny unites man and beast.

What is absent from the Old Testament Hebrew concept is any sense of a final judgment or torment. That would come later. The sorrows of death to which the Preacher refers are all centered around its disconnection from this life and its wrongness in principle, a complaint which goes all the way back to the fall of man.

So when Solomon says, “the same event happens to all,” he means nothing more profound than that all die and are buried, and no longer have a place in the land of the living. We should not stretch its meaning beyond that.

Six Contrasts

The Preacher then says much the same thing six different ways, presumably to stress the universality of the death experience (or perhaps to get to the magic number six, which we are told is the number of man). Here are the six contrasts:

righteous / wicked
good / evil
clean / unclean
him who sacrifices / him who does not sacrifice
good / sinner
he who shuns an oath / he who swears

It is probably not useful to press these distinctions much beyond the obvious, but it is clear they include the covenant people of God and Gentiles alike, those who behave honorably and those who do not, those who are lawkeepers and those who are ignorant of the Law, and even those who rightly understand the spirit of the Law (“he who shuns an oath”). None may escape the clutches of death.

This is an Evil

An evil. Here the Preacher associates death with the judgment of God. He has been speaking of “vanity” throughout Ecclesiastes, but the apparently-indiscriminate association of the righteous and wicked in death is something that strikes him as “an evil”. This would seem to compound the problem.

Mind you, this is not the first time Solomon has used the term. Slightly less than half the things he calls “vanity” he also calls “evil”. If you’re keeping track, depending on how you count them, it’s actually the seventh time he has remarked on the evilness of a particular event that commonly takes place in our world. If the same event affects both the righteous and the wicked, the Preacher says it is more than incomprehensible and frustrating: it is evil.

Now, he is not wrong in saying that, in the sense that Abraham made much the same point to God. What he said was absolutely true, and the Lord even acknowledged his point. If indeed the righteous fare as the wicked in the hands of God, we might reasonably call that an evil thing.

Death ≠ Judgment

But the Preacher is wrong if he assumes the death of any particular individual is God’s judgment on him personally. That is manifestly not the case. As the writer of Psalm 116 puts it, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” That unnamed writer is thought to have been the Preacher’s own father, so it’s a phrase he may have heard around the house as a child. When God takes his loved ones home, there is no judgment involved. The fact that wicked men also die is God’s mercy on the rest of us.

Death came with Adam. Death comes to all. We may rail against it as indiscriminate, and fume about how in death the righteous “fare as the wicked”, but that is only because apart from revelation we would not have a clue what happens to us after we exit this world. The event itself is in one sense a judgment, sure, in that it was the result of original sin. But the judgment was not of your works or mine, but rather of Adam’s choice to stand with Eve over everything else.

In fact, we do not know that the righteous fare as the wicked as of the moment of death. We do not know that at all. The Lord Jesus corrects this misapprehension in the gospel of Luke. From the moment of death, the rich man does not fare as Lazarus. He is “in Hades, being in torment”, while Lazarus is at Abraham’s side, with a great chasm fixed between them which nobody can cross. Their fates could not be less alike. But of course the Preacher cannot see this while writing Ecclesiastes. It had yet to be explicitly revealed.

The Character of God and Resurrection

Now, there are certainly hints of immortality and reward sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, but these could only be arrived at by faith in the character of God as opposed to through specific, detailed information divinely granted to mankind.

For example, Abraham’s conviction that God will not judge the righteous with the wicked comes out of a strong sense of the injustice of the act, and he knows with certainty that God is not unjust. So he says, “Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Far from questioning God’s justice here, Abraham is strongly asserting it. He knows injustice is impossible for God, and he is sure that judging the righteous and the wicked together, treating them the same way, is impossible for God. And God proves him correct. But it’s God’s character on which he has taken his stand, not some specific Bible promise.

Likewise, Job can say:
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”
The first-time reader quite reasonably asks, “How, Job? How can you know?” Only by faith in the character of God.

Unproven But Firmly Believed

Like this chapter of Ecclesiastes, Psalm 49, which is attributed to the sons of Korah, is all about the universality of death. And yet the writer(s) make a clear distinction between the fate of the upright and the fate of the rich and proud:
“Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
That’s a remarkable statement for which the writer offers no hard evidence, and yet Christ himself would later vindicate the faith expressed in this prophetic word.

Finally, there is the Preacher’s father David, who writes prophetically about resurrection:
“Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”
Hindsight enables us to see clearly that David is speaking primarily of the resurrection of Christ, but surely in Christ he is also able to anticipate his own escape from the grave. The whole tone of the Psalm is joyous: it is not, “God will revive Messiah but leave me to rot.” Of course David didn’t understand all the details, but he trusted in the character of God. “You will not abandon my soul,” he says, completely confident the God in whom he has always put his trust would never do such a thing.

Did Solomon lack his father’s confidence in the character of God? Perhaps at times. Or maybe it is simply that the authorial perspective in Ecclesiastes is deliberately restricted to that which a man may observe with his senses, even if his whole being throbs with longing for the eternal.

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