Saturday, September 05, 2020

Time and Chance (52)

Just this week, a friend of mine took his three-and-half-year-old grandson hiking through a local terraced cemetery. As they climbed, they stopped to read a gravestone together at every level. Recognizing the shape of the recurring word forms, the little boy soon began to repeat phrases like “In loving memory” and “beloved wife”.

When the two returned home to tell Grandma what they had been up to, her agitated response was, “I hope you didn’t tell him what the numbers mean.”

Yeah, those numbers …

Running the Numbers, or Running from Them

Far too many people — Christians included — would rather not think about those numbers. After all, they signify an end to all earthly plans, hopes, dreams and aspirations. They make rampant consumerism look idiotic. They make the accumulation of wealth and power which are not immediately used for the good of others utterly pointless. They render my book collection ridiculous; nobody will ever read 90% of these things when I finally pack it in. They empty the vision of creating heaven-on-earth of much of its meaning, because you and I will not be there to enjoy it even if we were to help bring it about. They tinge the sweetness of love and friendship with a bitter aftertaste: we know they will end someday, perhaps sooner than later. They make a mockery of the shallow ways we define ourselves to ourselves. After all, what is a doctor when he can no longer perform surgery, or a teacher when he can no longer stand at the front of a class and make his voice heard? Just another insignificant creature on the road to eternity.

This being the case, many people choose denial. They won’t sell the big, empty home in which they raised their children because to downsize to a bungalow — or, God forbid, an apartment — is to accede to a reality they do not care to face. They would rather fall than use a walker, because to admit you need one is to acknowledge your increasing helplessness. They won’t put their name on the waiting list for a bed in a care facility because they “don’t need it yet” … even when they do.

But the numbers don’t lie. They keep adding up, and, like it or not, one of them will eventually adorn your headstone. And little boys like Charles figure out what they mean all too soon, no matter how protective their well-intentioned grandmothers.

Back to the final chapter of our study in Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 — Going to His Eternal Home
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut — when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low — they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets — before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.”
This famous passage is equal parts beauty and horror. You might notice that in English, except for the very last line, it’s all one sentence; one long, awkward, rambling construction full of stops and starts, ellipses and semi-colons. Individually the images are highly evocative; together they are almost overwhelming. I absolutely hated it as a child, and I don’t like it much more today.

I’m not sure we were intended to like it. It’s the reality of my earthly demise presented to me unsparingly and unflinchingly. It’s the thing we try to deny, and needn’t bother.

The Indefinite Receptacle

The phrase “eternal home” in Hebrew is `owlam bayith. The KJV says “long” rather than “eternal”, which in this case seems a better choice. The word can mean either, and the Preacher is not making a theological statement here. He is not speaking of heaven, but the grave.

The word bayith is translated “home” by the ESV, but elsewhere in the Old Testament is translated “receptacle”, “prison” and even “dungeon”. I have a feeling one of these alternative meanings is more what Solomon has in mind than the cheery connotation of “eternal home”. He is speaking rather drearily of what may be observed with the senses and known with certainty, and all we can say with certainty “under the sun” is that dead people go into a receptacle in the ground for some indefinite period.

Beyond that we can say nothing more. Only the acceptance of the word of God by faith offers an alternative to this rather bleak ending to human existence.

The Evil Days

But in between the “days of your youth” and the “indefinite receptacle” are what the Preacher calls the “evil days” of age and decline when remembering one’s Creator, let alone responding to him appropriately, is much harder, even impossible. We need not belabor the imagery employed here. It does the job just fine, and many have gone to the effort of picking through it clause by clause to unpack the individual metaphors. Readers interested in exploring the various possible interpretations further (there are usually as many as four or five suggestions for each metaphor, but some are clearly more appropriate contextually than others) will find the scholarly treatment of Barry C. Davis here more useful than most.

This is my best attempt at distilling the various suggestions:
“the sun and the light and the moon
 and the stars are darkened”
loss of joy and excitement
“the clouds return after the rain” repetitive gloom
“the keepers of the house tremble” degeneration of muscular/
nervous system
“the strong men are bent” spinal curvature
“the grinders cease because they are few” loss of teeth
“those who look through the windows
 are dimmed”
loss of vision
“the doors on the street are shut” loss of hearing
“the sound of the grinding is low” isolation from the hum of daily life
“one rises up at the sound of a bird” inability to sleep
“all the daughters of song are
 brought low”
inability to carry a tune
“they are afraid also of what is high,
 and terrors are in the way”
“a full measure of existential angst”
 (James L. Crenshaw)
“the almond tree blossoms” white hair
“the grasshopper drags itself along” mobility problems
“desire fails” loss of various natural appetites
“the silver cord is snapped”
“the golden bowl is broken”
“the pitcher is shattered at the fountain”
“the wheel is broken at the cistern”
catastrophic failure of
various organs
The specific meanings we attribute to each individual clause are less important than the overall impression being created for the reader, which is overwhelmingly bleak and final. The picture is one of relentless decline to the point where body and spirit separate, and death has won.

Now, we know from the New Testament that death’s victory is brief, that the Lord Jesus has abolished it at the cross, bringing life and immortality to light, and that death itself has a date with the lake of fire. These revelations certainly take the edge off the bleakness of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes for the believer. Even the devout Hebrew reader, by faith apprehending other portions of scripture, had greater hope than what we find here. But both then and now, those restricted to the input of their senses and the workings of their rationalizing minds find little hope in these words, true though they may be. Vanity of vanities indeed.

The Point

But there is a real point to all this bleakness, and the warning is the same to believer and unbeliever alike: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.”

Some scholars actually argue that the word bara' should not be translated “Creator” but rather “well” or “cistern”, crass euphemisms for one’s wife. But Barry Davis’ analysis of the passage will convince you “Creator” is the best possible translation of the Hebrew. In Davis’ words, these attempts to read the line as a recommendation of the enjoyment of marital relations have “no textual support”. Moreover, bara' is used repeatedly in Genesis 1, each time translated “God created”. “Creator” it is.

The real point is those numbers Charles’ grandmother didn’t want him to understand. The Preacher says you need to understand them. The time to “remember” our Creator is now. I am no youth, but to the extent I still possess the energy and the ability to seek out, know and serve God, I still have opportunity to do something useful with my life. The “evil days” are not yet upon me, but all too soon my very limited window of opportunity will close forever. So remember.

What are you doing with your opportunity today? The clock is ticking …

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