Saturday, September 19, 2020

Time and Chance (54)

We have arrived in our study of Ecclesiastes at what the Preacher calls “the end of the matter”. The matter under consideration, if you have a long memory, was this: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” What is the point of man’s existence? Why are we here? This was the question he set out to answer.

Through twelve chapters, the Preacher has undertaken the task of examining the experience of being human from every possible angle in hope of gaining insight into its meaning and purpose, always using only what he could observe and infer from the input of his senses. What he discovered was that when you approach the big questions of life in that way, the experience is frustrating and the answers elusive.

Exploring the Human Condition

The human condition, the Preacher contends, appears to be a grand cycle of tedious labor, forgotten wisdom and repeated errors. Wealth, women, power and even wisdom do not satisfy, and whatever you accumulate in the process of living eventually slips from your control into the hands of those who cannot appreciate it or manage it, and will eventually fritter it away. The people who make the rules do not follow them. The oppressed are without comfort and the oppressors gain nothing meaningful from their exercise of power. When you accomplish great things, nobody remembers them, and when you exit this life, you leave everything behind. Living righteously will not necessarily prolong the experience, and living wickedly may not shorten it; there are no guarantees. Fate makes fools into princes and princes into paupers. What happens after death cannot be known with certainty, and the process of getting there is exquisitely horrible.

These are the broad strokes of the Preacher’s thesis, and we would not be wrong to characterize his outlook as very dark indeed, though not nihilistic. There remain moments in the human experience worth commending, and the Preacher does so: notwithstanding their limited usefulness, some activities really are better than others. Acting wisely, lovingly and generously is still preferable to chaotic selfishness. Eating, drinking, working and rest all have their attendant pleasures. It is better to be monogamous than profligate. It is better to be righteous than wicked.

God in Ecclesiastes

The existence of God is assumed throughout Ecclesiastes as given, even if his purposes for mankind are largely impenetrable and his dealings with man viewed from a distance. The Preacher uses 'elohiym, the generic Hebrew word for “God”, “god” or “gods”, a total of 40 times in the book, while the intimate covenant-name by which God made himself known to Israel — and, more importantly, to Solomon — is entirely absent. The Preacher is writing as a one of the “children of man”, not as an Israelite. Covenant, temple and Law have no place in Ecclesiastes. (The phrase “house of God” in 5:1 is also generic; Jacob used the expression to describe a field with a pillar in it.)

Like Paul in the first chapter of Romans, the Preacher never for a moment contemplates mankind apart from a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover. We might say with Paul that God’s invisible attributes have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made, so that men are without excuse. Or we might simply assume his existence and right to judge, as the book of Ecclesiastes does, without either argument or comment. In the Preacher’s worldview, these things simply are. No rational man would dispute them.

Pragmatic Conclusions

When the Preacher speaks of God, it is in relation to mankind generally. God has assigned men the unhappy business of living, has made certain features of life enjoyable, blesses men who please him and stacks the deck against men who don’t. The Preacher’s belief that God will judge men is in this context not a revealed truth, but an opinion inferred from observation (“I said in my heart”).

Despite all this, there is nothing specifically Christian, or even Judeo-Christian, about the Preacher’s conclusions as to how a man ought to conduct himself. There could not possibly be, since divine revelation has been deliberately excluded from consideration. The Preacher’s recommendations are more pragmatic than ethical. Certain modes of behavior work better than others over the course of a man’s life. They make his experience more tolerable.

And yet, we have arrived at the end of Solomon’s intellectual and philosophical journey, and here we find … God, after all.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 — The Point of Life Under the Sun
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
So then, what is the point of life? Why are we here? The Preacher’s conclusion is that we are here to do as God says. We do not exist for ourselves. How could we? Apart from God, the whole routine of earthly life is a pointless exercise that leads nowhere and serves no purpose. Apart from our ability to relate to God, and to choose whether to give him pleasure or become objects of his wrath, we are as significant as ants crawling around on an anthill. Our obligation is to him, and our lives only have meaning insofar as they relate to him.

God’s ‘Commandments’

This is not something that first came off the top of Mount Sinai, but a conclusion any rational man looking at the world could reach for himself. When Solomon speaks of God’s “commandments”, he is not specifically referring to Israel’s law (though of course the Law is included among God’s commandments), but rather to every instance of the revealed will of God from the very beginning, including the later instances of the prophetic word. Abraham is said to have kept “my commandments” (same word), despite the fact that Abraham predates the Law of Moses by 400+ years.

The Whole Duty?

A question: Is fearing God and obeying him really the “whole duty of man”? I would argue it is not … not by a long shot. It is love God seeks, not just reverential respect; even the Law teaches that.

But then the Preacher is not arguing that fearing and obeying God is the whole duty of the Christian or even the devout Israelite, is he? Rather, he is arguing that fearing and obeying God is the whole duty of man “under the sun”. It is the entire sum of man’s responsibilities toward God that we can be expected to infer from what is. Paul says God’s eternal power and divine nature are evident in creation; he does not insist God’s love — still less God’s desire that we love him in return — is equally obvious to all men. That is actually quite a mystery.

There is also the strong possibility that “the whole duty of man” is better translated “the duty of every man”. Ellicott points out that second phrase anticipates the teaching of Romans 3:29, that God is the God of Gentiles as well as Jews. That latter statement is certainly consistent with the way the Preacher approaches his subject: the Gentile reader is as capable as the Israelite of inferring from creation the things Solomon has discussed. If so, he is also equally accountable to God.

Ecclesiastes 12:14 — Every Deed into Judgment
“For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
As long as humanity has existed, men have believed in God, or in gods of one sort or another. Professor of Greek Culture Tim Whitmarsh argues there were atheists in Greece as far back as 570 BC, and even the Psalms point out that there are always men foolish enough to say in their hearts “no God”. Nevertheless, the vast majority of mankind acknowledges that the heavens rule, and if the heavens rule, then a judgment from heaven of one sort or another, either in this life or the next, follows logically from that. Not just Israelites but men from every ancient nation sacrificed to the gods in hope of securing their favor or dispelling their impending wrath.

The Great White Throne Previewed?

Thus it also follows that the Preacher’s final statement here need not be viewed as a revelation-based anticipation of a judgment similar to that of the great white throne. It is certainly possible that Solomon is pulling back the curtain at the last moment to go into prophetic territory, far beyond what may be inferred from nature and the senses. This is the view taken by Ellicott, who says, “This announcement of a tribunal, at which ‘every work,’ ‘every secret thing,’ shall be brought into judgment, cannot be reasonably understood of anything but a judgment after this life.”

Perhaps, but it seems to me an unlikely twist after twelve chapters of meditations relentlessly centered on the here-and-now. It can be argued that our sins “find us out” in this life in one way or another. Paul tells Timothy that “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” Later need not mean in eternity. Also, the word “every” may indeed mean “every last deed and secret”, as Ellicott reads it, but it may also refer to every type of deed; not just good, and not just evil. All varieties of deeds may receive their recompense in this life. The Preacher may be saying that no categories of human behavior are overlooked by God. He will have his say about each and every one.

Judaism and Resurrection

It is not even clear to what extent the people of Israel 3,000 years ago believed generally in life after death. Some surely did, as our Old Testaments hint at repeatedly, but many did not. Large numbers of devout religious Jews refused to acknowledge the resurrection of the dead into the first century and beyond.

That does not mean the Sadducees and their adherents would necessarily have disagreed with the Preacher’s final statement here. They would simply argue that God’s judgments on a man occur primarily within his own lifetime (as in Psalm 109), or that a man’s children may be affected by judgment on their father’s misdeeds (just as Solomon’s elder brother and his own children were), or that the loss of a man’s good name after his death constitutes a sort of judgment from God. Neither would they dispute the fact that God often rewards the righteous in this life, and their children because of them. Each of these statements has an element of truth in it.

All to say, the Christian may read more into this final verse than its writer intended. We are not wrong about resurrection and coming judgment, of course, but we do not need this verse to make our case.

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