Saturday, July 18, 2020

Time and Chance (45)

Governing is tough.

Even in traditional monarchies, governance has always required a team, the rough equivalent of a cabinet or executive; the right people in the right combination. A king needed experienced, mature, educated men to serve as his administrators and advisors; men able to make policy and to accurately estimate the short- and long-term consequences of implementing it.

Finding the right people to put in secondary positions of authority is a critical matter. It has tremendous consequences for a nation. Kingdoms have been lost because a ruler listened to the advice of the wrong man or men, or refused to listen to the advice of the right man.

Generally speaking, slaves don’t make strong candidates for such positions, as the writer of Ecclesiastes is about to tell us.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-7 — Slaves on Horses
“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.”
On the face of it, this sounds a bit like the plot of a famous novel, the name of which currently escapes me. But there is also C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, which uses something like this scenario as a plot device: the prince who goes about in rags as a disguise, and the doppelganger slave who agrees to pose as the prince, and so enjoys the luxuries of royalty. But in Lewis’ story the irony is that the slave boy actually is a prince of the realm, and the prince is in rags voluntarily in order to pursue his own agenda, so any close comparison of the two scenarios fails rather miserably. We’d better go back to what the Preacher has actually said.

Class-Based Prejudice?

It would be unfair to accuse the author of Ecclesiastes of inadvertently displaying in these verses his unconscious class-based prejudices, though perhaps it initially sounds that way to the modern ear. Nor is he merely telling us princes are preferable to slaves and should be treated accordingly. That would not only be a comparatively trivial observation, but it would also fly in the face of the repeated themes we find in scripture about the blessedness of poverty with an awareness of God, the importance of justice for the underprivileged in society, and the bleakness of a life of riches without God. In short, this is definitely not the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and yet it is not necessarily the case that the Preacher’s view of things stands in contrast to the teachings of Christ with respect to the rich and poor. There are good reasons for the Preacher to say what he says about both.

The Preacher says this “evil”, this “error”, this very bad thing, proceeds “from the ruler”. It is one of these very human judgments made “under the sun”, without the discernment of the Spirit of God or even the basic calculus of intelligent men. Let me suggest it is highly unlikely that the ruler in question has literally appointed former slaves to ride through town on the royal steed to the applause of the masses. Nor is it at all likely he has stripped the marks of honor from his sons and advisors and sent them on their way on foot. This sort of inversion could happen, certainly, given the right set of exceptional circumstances, but it would hardly be so common or pervasive a problem as to constitute an “evil” or “error”; a major earthly injustice in need of remedy.

Promoting the Wrong Man

No, it is far more likely the Preacher is observing that rulers often exercise poor judgment in making appointments. They grant authority and honor to men with the stereotypical character of slaves: foolish, base sorts who possess no genius for governance, no understanding of the meaning of their education, no self-discipline, no proven ability to generate wealth, no particular love for their fellow men, and no big-picture understanding of the obligations of royalty; men fit only for the most menial tasks because they cannot think beyond short-term gratification and self-preservation.

Bear in mind that in Solomon’s day men became enslaved for one of several reasons, none of which flattered the slaves. Perhaps they had been taken as the spoils of war because their city-state lost a battle against a greater power, meaning they were losers from an ‘inferior’ race or tribe, and perhaps even potential traitors to the realm if granted an opportunity. Alternatively, they were nationals who had mismanaged their own resources, got into debt, and had to be sold into slavery for a period of time to pay back what they owed, meaning they were either incompetent, or else in the grip of some vice like gambling or alcoholism. Or perhaps some great unforeseen misfortune had come upon them, much like Job, impoverishing them and forcing them to serve another, which, from the “under the sun” perspective, might well appear to be God’s richly-deserved judgment on the sinner.

There are notable biblical exceptions to this slave stereotype — Joseph, Daniel and Mordecai, for example — but the general principle that slaves were not exactly cut out for a better lot than life had assigned them was not merely some ignorant prejudice of the rich. It had a basis in observable reality.

Overlooking the Right Man

Likewise, the Preacher continues, rulers often overlook those who possess the character and qualifications of princes, promoting others instead of those who are most deserving.

Sometimes a man of princely character may be visually unimpressive: too short, unattractive, or with an odd manner of speech. I know one or two of these gentlemen, and they tend to be overlooked for positions of honor today too, even by Christians and other good men. Righteous Samuel was fooled into thinking David’s older brother Eliab was God’s chosen ruler of Israel. He was concentrating on physical presentation. He did not look at the shepherd in the field until he was all out of other options.

Sometimes a man of princely character holds the wrong political opinions for the current administration, or comes from the wrong family, or possesses sufficient intellect to be perceived as a threat. There may be many reasons qualified men are overlooked for positions of honor and spend their careers “walking on the ground like slaves”, but the Preacher calls such things evils and errors. They are the sort of mistake which may lead to disaster for nations, and they are not a credit to the rulers who make them.

That “Evil” One Percent

Bear in mind that, once again, it is not necessarily a mark of class-based prejudice for the Preacher to aver that seeing the rich sitting in a low place is an “evil” and an “error”. Sure, there are always men and women who have become wealthy through no virtue of their own. In our day riches are no indicator of anything in particular, except perhaps that our current political environment paints targets on the foreheads of those who possess them. And, admittedly, there are indeed rich people who have made their wealth through evil and exploitation. But that is neither always the case today, nor was it in Solomon’s day.

To those under the Law of Moses, riches were not generally perceived as the product of chance, inheritance or opportunity, but were understood to be hard evidence of God’s approval. This was true even 1,000 years after Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. When Jesus told his disciples it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, Matthew records those Jewish observers of the Law were “greatly astonished, saying ‘Who then can be saved?’ ” After all, the Law promised faithful Israelites blessing when they were obedient, and those blessings were very practical and physical ones, as opposed to the spiritual blessings of the Christian.

Approval You Could Measure

Obedience to God could be counted on to produce measurable results. The blessed man would “lend, and not borrow”. He would be blessed in the fruit of the ground and the fruit of his cattle, with great herds and large flocks.

To drive the point home, Old Testament history was full of men who were both God-fearing and rich: Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and even the writer of Ecclesiastes himself, who was extravagantly wealthy and knew full well it was because he had been graciously blessed by God.

So then, it was thought inappropriate to seat a rich man in a low place because God himself had made him what he was. To be rich was by definition to be a man of good character, whether or not this was actually the case. (Scripture does record the occasional exception to this principle.)

Thus the Preacher’s comments about fools, slaves, princes and rich people are not simply unthinking snobbery. They are the normal, if imperfect, way that the man “under the sun” would perceive the exaltation of a slave or the humiliation of a wealthy man: as glaringly unjust.

Asking for Trouble

A ruler who appointed a man with the character of a slave to a position of authority and honor would be asking for trouble. He would have promoted a man ill-equipped to rule and as likely as not to stab him in the back. Moreover, a slave (especially a captive from a foreign nation) would be at a tremendous political disadvantage, unable to deal with the rivalries and jealousies that would inevitably face him in his new position (remember how the satraps and other officials in the administration of King Darius were determined to sabotage Daniel when he was promoted).

The book of Ecclesiastes has nothing whatsoever to say about the governance of the local church, but honoring rather than overlooking those who deserve it (“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor”) and giving responsibility only to the right people (“Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands”) are two principles to which churches have always done well to pay serious attention. Responsibility ought to go only to those who have the character to properly discharge it, and the honor that an elder receives ought to be appropriate to the way in which he serves. As in all fields of endeavor, some folks do their jobs more faithfully and more competently than others.

It is almost always character that makes the difference.

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