Saturday, June 13, 2020

Time and Chance (40)

The writer to the Hebrews notes that one of the Lord’s objectives in his incarnation was to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery”.

That slave metaphor is not particularly flattering. And yet we can see a slave’s mentality at work in Ecclesiastes. Solomon, the Preacher, has lived his life making decisions for everyone else around him. He has been the greatest king of his generation; autonomous, powerful, captain of his own destiny. As he considers his own looming demise, he cannot stop obsessing about the various ways in which his own agency is being gradually stripped from him as he ages. This, he says, is “vanity” and “a great evil”. Death is the great leveler of humanity, and the Preacher does not look forward to being leveled.

That preoccupation is a form of slavery, one from which only Christ can free us.

Ecclesiastes 9:3 — Evil, Madness and Death
“Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.”
It seems a fairly brutal description of human existence to distill it down to evil, madness and death. After all, there is lots more to the experience of being human than these three things.

And yet there is a sense in which the Preacher has a fair point. He is speaking of a fallen world whose first major story after the banishment from the Garden is the murder of Abel, which took place not in the grimy streets of the inner city but in the most pastoral of settings. “Systemic injustice” didn’t cause Cain to plot the death of his own brother; it was the condition of his wicked heart. This may be exactly the sort of thing the Preacher has in mind.

Then, by chapter 6 of Genesis, our narrator tells us the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, and humanity is saved, but as soon as the danger of judgment is over, the “preacher of righteousness” becomes disgracefully drunk and lies around naked. Madness, or just human nature? Then the builders of Babel reject the directive to fill the earth and do precisely the opposite, resulting in the judgment of God. What is willful disobedience to the commands of God but a form of madness? It’s not like spitting in the face of infinite power can ever end well.

We could also consider the history of Israel, God’s own chosen people, in which Solomon’s glorious reign serves as a 40-year respite to 400 years of tribal feuding, disobedience and idolatry in which “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”, and is immediately followed by another 330 years of ever-worsening national division and debasement.

Or we could look at world history, about which the Preacher surely knew a great deal, in which empires serve as oases of human civilization brought about, maintained and ultimately destroyed by blood and violence.

Or we could just watch the news, where the quest for “justice” and “equity” is used as justification for bludgeoning middle-aged women with 2×4s or taking tire irons to the driver’s-side windows of trapped victims of highway “protests”.

The human capacity to turn meaninglessly feral at the drop of a hat knows no bounds. If you want to insist that the hearts of the children of man are full of evil and madness, I will not argue with you.

Ecclesiastes 9:4 — Dogs and Lions
“But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”
Here it is helpful to remember that the Preacher is not talking about a trained husky, a well-groomed German shepherd or a show dog, but a mangy, disease-ridden, scavenging cur, fit only to be driven off by the slingshots of small boys. It is not the modern Western picture of dog-hood that is in view, but the ancient Eastern one. The word “dog” was no compliment, as Goliath pointed out to David. Meanwhile the lion had served as the symbol of regal power for generations.

And yet a live dog still trumps a dead lion, and man at his worst may still aspire to an improvement of his status so long as he lives. Once your history is a closed book, any hope of bettering one’s record is gone forever.

There is something to be said for the point the Preacher is making, even for the Christian. Our window of opportunity here on earth is finite. The apostle Paul urges believers to make the best use of their time, because when it’s gone, it’s gone, and there are no do-overs.

Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 — Loss and Reward
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.”
Three brief thoughts here:

One, the “dead know nothing” is another of these statements made in understandable ignorance of the reality. The Preacher is conjecturing based on the evidence of his eyes, not making a profound theological statement that might be set in opposition to later revelation given to the apostles.

Two, the Preacher’s notion of “reward” is limited to a good name with one’s peers: “They have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” With no clear conception of resurrection or eternal reward, the only comfort to be had at the approaching footsteps of death was to be commemorated by one’s family and friends, to “live on in the hearts of others”. This is still the case today with unbelievers, and we can sometimes taste their desperation when they write about it, even if they have difficulty dealing honestly with the issue.

Three, the natural affections and powerful emotions that drive human beings and prompt things like Cain’s murder of Abel or Herod’s “marriage” to his brother’s wife — their “love and their hate and their envy” — are finite things. Their urgency is only temporal. We cannot take our grudges or lusts into eternity with us. Apart from Christ, I suspect even our ordinate affections rarely survive death; when they do, there is no means by which they may be expressed. It is only in our relationship to the Resurrected Man that we can think in terms of preserving anything which has value to us here on earth.

In the Song of Songs, Solomon avers that “love is as strong as death”. Here he concedes it is not. Outside of Christ, the more pessimistic view is the correct one.

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