Saturday, August 29, 2020

Time and Chance (51)

Ah, vanity. That expression again.

As I have mentioned on more than one occasion during our study of Ecclesiastes, the list of things its writer characterizes as “vanity” in his thesis is lengthy. Over thirty different features of human existence are so described, a partial list of which you can find here, from hedonism to workaholism to discontentment and entropy.

Defining Vanity

As we sought to establish early in this series, calling something “vain” does not mean that it is pointless or self-defeating. Still less is the Preacher arguing that the creator God has messed up in some way. Rather, he is saying that understanding events, circumstances and patterns of human behavior he describes as “vain” is no easy task. Their meaning is evanescent; near-impossible to pin down. If the Preacher is frustrated, he is frustrated with the limits of his own understanding, which, because of his chosen methodology, are delineated by what may be observed and understood of the natural world through the senses and the rationalizing human mind, rather than what may be known by way of divine revelation. That understood, throughout Ecclesiastes the existence of a Creator, and a meaning and purpose for mankind, are taken as givens; no attempt is made to prove these things.

(Apologies for the repetition, but a blog post series is not a book, and you never know when a new reader is going to drop in midway through with no idea what we mean by this or that expression.)

Here at the end of Ecclesiastes 11 the Preacher is now going to describe two more things as vanity: youth and old age. Why do we have to learn before we can live, and why do we decline in body and mind so as to lose the knowledge we have gained throughout our lives?

Don’t expect these answers to be found within the book itself. Solomon’s treatise is an inchoate plea for the light of heaven to shine on the universal “givens” of human existence and illuminate their meaning for us. Ecclesiastes formulates questions the answers to which the rest of the Old Testament provides many clues, and to which our New Testament provides the final divine response.

Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 — The Vanity of Darkness
“Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.”
Here I believe the incomprehensible “days of darkness” to which Solomon refers are not the grave, but rather the declining years of our natural lives. Chapter 12 makes this evident both vividly and poetically, and I won’t spoil it by previewing it for you a week or two early. Youth is being contrasted not with the sleep of death, but with “the evil days” and “the years of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’.” This is the darkness that is in view: rheumy eyes, deaf ears, tasteless meals, increasing infirmity and uselessness, Alzheimer’s, dementia, lame legs, aching joints and a loss of joy in the things in which one used to take great pleasure.

Bleh. Sorry to bring it up, but we’re all going there. There’s a lot of darkness in these final passages of Ecclesiastes. Even a statement like “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun,” implies that for some people the light of the sun is an unexperienced privilege, and that one day you and I may not continue to enjoy it either.

Answers in Genesis

The reasons we decline in our later years are impossible to explain without Genesis 3, and the Preacher has knowingly left this chapter out of consideration, though he had surely either read it or knew anecdotally of mankind’s expulsion from Eden. But the Christian knows that “in the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die”. What might have happened to the human race had we not invited the wages of sin into the world and into our very own bodies is lost knowledge. It’s the road not taken.

Those of us who have carefully observed human nature and history find it credible to view death as one of many mercies showered on a fallen race by a loving God who grants to all men years of opportunity to repent, but will not test us beyond our limits, nor allow the especially-depraved members of the species the opportunity to endlessly exploit and torment the rest of us.

The Good Life

In the meantime, says the Preacher, we each have our allotted lifespan. When the salad days are upon us, let us rejoice. When the darkness comes, let us bear up, knowing that (by the grace of God) this period of our lives is not infinite. A healthy view of life enjoys the light of youth while remaining cognizant of the coming darkness, perhaps with resignation, but not dread.

This is sound advice even in the Christian era. It is embarrassing to see seventy-year-olds carrying on as if they are going to live forever, and it is equally sad to view the teen suicide statistics. Both perspectives are skewed: the Boomer who shops in the Nordstrom teen section is in serious denial of a reality which is screamingly evident to everyone around her; meanwhile, the suicidal teen cannot see past the current moment of angst to the place where numerous possibilities may still present themselves in the years ahead.

Ecclesiastes 11:9 — Choice and Judgment
“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.”
It is not obvious from the text what sort of judgment the Preacher has in view. The nation of Israel in Old Testament times had considerable experience with the judgment of God in this life and minimal understanding of judgment in the hereafter, so it is likely the former sort of judgment to which he is referring: the way nature is designed to respond to man’s self-abuse.

Nature has been divinely ordered in such a way so as to visit predictable consequences on those who presume to enjoy the pleasures of youth too enthusiastically. Its inbuilt mechanisms serve to thin the ranks of the chronically dissolute. You can only eat like a teenager for so long, or else the adult version of you will look like nine miles of bad road. A man’s liver can only take so much alcohol, and recreational drug use often ends badly. Various sexually-transmitted diseases afflict those who practice sexual incontinence as well as their offspring (mid-20th century, one-third of U.S. reproductive mortality was due to STDs). The cigarette smoker had best do his grave-shopping early; he is shaving up to ten years off his life. To consider such consequences “judgments” of a sort is not unreasonable. They are eminently predictable and largely avoidable.

So then, there is great pleasure to be taken in youth, but a healthy awareness of the dangers of abusing pleasure is well worth acquiring. Naturally, it is also true that God will bring every deed into final judgment, though this is not a subject explored in depth in Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 11:10 — The Vanity of Light
“Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain [evil] from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.”
The New Living Translation is particularly insightful in rendering the first part of the verse this way: “So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy.” I believe this gets the emphasis almost exactly right.

It is vitally important to keep before us always the fact that the potential of youth is just that: potential. It is not guaranteed to us. All the opportunity offered by young and growing life may be utterly wasted if we do not learn to exercise self-control where our bodies are concerned.

Never has this been demonstrated to be truer than in the ranks of Gen Z (born 1996 through 2014). Anxiety, depression, gender confusion, failure to launch and suicide are all on the uptick. My sister was recently in the home of a couple who had raised their children essentially without boundaries. The results, now in their teens, are deeply discouraging.

Even when they have no personal knowledge of Christ, young people raised with behavioral defaults derived from the Ten Commandments and recommended in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament tend to do better in life than children governed only by their personal desires. They live longer, make fewer catastrophic mistakes, and definitely make better life partners.

But “youth and the dawn of life” are vanity when misappropriated and spent on self. The lack of purpose experienced by so many young men and women raised without biblical boundaries is ample testimony that the more a society insists on banishing all evidence of a Creator from education, the more God’s creatures will flounder.

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