Saturday, July 11, 2020

Time and Chance (44)

Unless we have studied ancient languages, identifying formal Hebrew proverbs in the text of Ecclesiastes is a bit beyond most of us. To make it easier, my edition of the ESV has displayed roughly a quarter of the 221 English verses in the book with hanging indents instead of regular paragraphing, so that the reader can distinguish poetry, proverbs or quotations from the Preacher’s ongoing narrative.

The highly subjective nature of this style treatment becomes evident when we examine the same verses in other translations.

The NKJV gives 146 verses this alternative formatting, compared to 134 in the NIV, 55 in the ESV and 31 in the NASB. I prefer the minimalist approach, but dislike the NASB’s inconsistency. For example, it is difficult to understand why a list of 2- and 4-line proverbial sayings in chapter 7 merits the alternative style treatment, while in chapter 10 exactly the same type of content is styled as regular narrative.

Styling the Text

Why does it matter how the text is styled? Is it that big a deal? Well, yes and no. These days you can always just listen to the audio version and you won’t see style at all, or you can read Ecclesiastes in the KJV, where every verse is its own blocked paragraph and no style decisions at all have been made for the reader. And even in the modern, typographically-stylized versions, at least the content is all still there to be read. That’s the good part.

That said, arbitrary style tricks can still obscure the writer’s intended meaning if we do not read repeatedly and attentively. For example, in my humble estimation, a few of these pithy couplets in Ecclesiastes — perfectly memorable in their own right — are really part of longer discourses. In other cases they were intended to summarize one of the Preacher’s extended series of observations. When we separate what we think are proverbs from the substance of the argument to which they relate by styling them differently, we encourage ourselves to disconnect them from their context and we may miss the Preacher’s thought flow.

Moreover, even within a section of nothing but proverbs, twenty stylized verses may be read as twenty discrete units of meaning, when in several instances they were more likely intended to be read together.

The next three or four verses well illustrate both issues. They are definitely traditional proverbs, and many of the modern translations style them accordingly. But they are also thematically tied to the last few (narrative) verses in chapter 9, as well as related to each other.

At least I think they are.

Ecclesiastes 10:1 — It Doesn’t Take Much ...
“Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”
A little leaven leavens the whole lump. The little foxes spoil the vineyards. The tongue is a little member, but it boasts great things. In our last chapter of Ecclesiastes, we found that “one sinner destroys much good”. It doesn’t take much to ruin a great deal. In this particular analogy, a large quantity of something very precious is destroyed by a few small insects. It is no longer useful for its intended purpose. You have to toss it out and start again.

I’ve known more than a few church leaders over the years. Their dispositions vary. Some skew liberal on almost every decision they make. Some are inclined to think over each matter carefully, consider the various relevant factors, and go one way on this issue and another on the next. Some ... well, we wouldn’t want to call them crusty and hidebound, but the folks who have to deal with them regularly just might. They won’t budge on anything, ever. Not all of them are nasty about it; that is simply how they measure faithfulness, and it may be because at some level they have registered this biblical principle: that it doesn’t take very much to wreck years of hard work. One slip can wipe out a lifetime of good testimony. One doctrinal misstep becomes impossible to retreat from, even when we know we are going the wrong way. One pointless, trivial argument can wreck the unity of a congregation.

A little foolishness can have major consequences. That doesn’t mean individuals or churches should never try anything new. It does mean we need to look a whole lot more carefully before we leap.

Ecclesiastes 10:2 — A Vast Difference
“A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right,
but a fool’s heart to the left.”
People joke about this verse regularly: “See? Conservatives are wise and liberals are foolish ... your Bible says so. Yuk yuk yuk.”

Eh ... not so much.

I hardly need to waste your time pointing out that the modern political ideological categories of right- and left-wing held no significance whatsoever for Israelites 3,000 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. There is some minor significance in Old Testament scripture to the designations right and left, it’s just not overly political. When an Israelite father laid his hands on his children, the right hand was the hand of greater blessing, just as to be seated at the right hand of a powerful man was to be given a position of honor. In the story of Ehud, left-handedness denotes sneakiness. So there is a minor sense in which right might occasionally be seen as preferable to left in ancient Hebrew thinking.

However, the vast majority of the time in the Old Testament, right and left are simply used to refer to mutual alternatives, neither being strongly preferred. Abraham said to Lot, “If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” This is how Solomon tends to use the two alternatives. He writes, “Do not swerve to the right or to the left.” Neither side is notably better or worse; the real problem is deviating from the straight line. Or when we read in the Song of Songs that “his left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me”, we are probably correct to assume the speaker has no particular objection to what either hand is doing.

In this case, I believe, all the Preacher is telling us is that foolish hearts and wise hearts cannot find any common ground. They will always disagree. They will always choose different paths. Foolish conduct takes a man in one direction, wise conduct in another. Go far enough down these roads, and you will end up miles apart.

Ecclesiastes 10:3 — Belaboring the Obvious
“Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
and he says to everyone that he is a fool.”
Where our first proverb in this series emphasizes the extent of the relative impact of folly vs. wisdom, and the second proverb emphasizes the magnitude of the distance between the two mindsets, this third proverb about foolishness emphasizes its pervasiveness. Being a fool is a full-time job. A fool’s foolery infects everything he does at the most basic level. Even the way the fool walks advertises his shortcomings.

The Preacher doesn’t give us details, but we can certainly fill in the gaps from experience. Maybe the fool meanders to no purpose, steps in front of passing cars, or hums a mindless, annoying little tune that drives his traveling companions crazy. Maybe he gets lost, can’t read a map, or goes places he shouldn’t. Almost surely he is intoxicated before noon; you can certainly tell that by someone’s walk. But whatever it is that he is doing, it makes him stand out from the crowd. It is evident to all that there is something not quite right about this guy.

When we want to test a man’s character, we are wise not to put him in a position to do too much damage in the event he turns out to be incompetent. Jesus taught that a person who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. Competence and wisdom, like honesty, are evident in the small things an individual does, not just the more visible and consequential ones.

Ecclesiastes 10:4 — Keep Calm and Carry On
“If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.”
One obvious difference between wisdom and foolishness, between the mature and the immature man, and between the experienced hand and the novice, is this: that the savvy veteran does not rattle easily. The fool, the novice and the child tend to run around like chickens with their heads cut off when something bad happens. They turn to you in a panic and cry, “What do I do now?” Or they burst into tears and run away.

One feature of a trustworthy employee, servant or functionary is that he is dignified and composed. He doesn’t get shaken up when things don’t work out as they should, or when people turn on him. This is also the case in a family setting. Any wife or child appreciates a father or husband who is able to keep his composure and deal with pressure by way of a calm, measured, logical response. Any man respects a woman who keeps her head when everyone around her is losing theirs.

In our highly-politicized environment, accusations of workplace misconduct are being leveled against Christians and unbelievers alike with increasing frequency. I have seen a number of these, and they are not all on the same level. Some are from employees attempting to identify as part of a victimized class in hope of shielding themselves from anticipated layoffs. Others appear to arise from jealousy, paranoia, a desire to climb over the accused, or sheer natural belligerence. Some are a product of external accusations from social media “enemies”. A few appear to be legitimate grievances from fellow employees who mean well but have no idea what they are unleashing when they take a complaint to a modern Human Resources department.

Though they are very natural responses, blustering, counter-accusations, or panicky ex post facto butt-covering don’t make for much of a testimony to the world. Workplace experts are now telling us they don’t help your case either. Calmness and composure are the best possible response to false accusations, and they won’t hurt you even if the accusation turns out to be true. Many of these situations will go away on their own, only provided you don’t overreact to them.

The other thing all experts will tell you is never, ever quit under such circumstances. Do not “leave your place”. Let the powers that be escort you out, but if you are in the right, do not let anyone intimidate, threaten or scold you into tendering your resignation.

I believe they have the right idea. It may be 3,000-year-old advice, but human nature hasn’t changed much.

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