Ecclesiastes overview

I thought I would enjoy this, and I did. Also, I read it mostly in a week when I was on holidays so, for better or worse, the reduced time pressure allowed more rumination than usual.

It’s the antidote to proverbs: for when you are good and diligent, and you get nowhere. For when the lazy cheaters are rewarded while your life sucks.

The book piles up examples of life not making sense, promising a lot but not delivering, and God and eternity being obscure.

By about half way through it has plumbed the depths of despair. But the unsparing honesty of the venting allows a happy ending of sorts.

You may as well enjoy the good bits of life while you can, and wisdom, once you have identified its limits, does have a role in giving us the context of god and eternity. Enriching our enjoyment of being God’s creation, within his creation, and helping us accept aging and death.

One of the bloggers I follow said she regarded the whole book as an instruction to relax, I loved that.

This book has kept me sane when God and life seem not to make sense for many years. I love that God put it in the Bible. Jesus came to earth to show us God understands and loves us on a deep level. This book reaches forward in trust to that empathy. “Remember your Creator” the teacher says in the end. I will, aware that my creator remembered me.

1 Life is a circle, no progress. I consider the pros and cons of reading this book now
2 Pleasure, achievement, success. Eternity makes all of them insubstantial. I consider authorship, structure, and the meaning of “meaningless”
3 A time for everything under heaven, how having eternity in our hearts is a mixed blessing. Great chapter!

Observations

4 Justice, work, relationships, fame. Observations of the limits of all leave the teacher deeply unsatisfied.
5 Don’t promise, don’t question, don’t dream. The often unsatisfying nature of religious and intellectual pursuits. Better to be a simple worker, flopping exhausted to bed at the end of the day
6 Wealth and fate – when wealth leaves you wishing you hadn’t been born, and how even when fate delivers good things, the randomness of it feels vulnerable

Reflections

7 We’re all going to die, happiness is inane, sex is a trap, why frustration is good for you and other happy thoughts.
8 Railing against the randomness of life, wisdom can help in good times and bad
9 Quite a focussed conclusion to the problem that wisdom doesn’t always work as nearty as it could: death is the great leveller, it’s still better to be wise.
10 Since it’s better to be wise, a series of proverbs. A retreat from some of the negativity we’ve been through.

Conclusions

11 Concludes the list of proverbs with some thematically appropriate ones about coming to terms with randomness and starts a poem about wisely enjoying life when you can
12 Finishes the poem about youth lived wisely but enjoyably by vividly, but with calm resignation, describing old age and death. His ending refrain is “remember your creator”. Then the narrator wraps it up.

I wrote this song a few years back with my daughter based on Ecc. 3:11… what a pleasure to collaborate!

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Ecclesiastes 11

I was grumpy yesterday about the abrupt change in tone from philosophical to practical but it works better read together with this chapter, which continues but deepens this direction of thinking.

A certain calm has come over the writer, having been in a spiral that descended in restless logic down to the despair of chapters 8 and 9, he now comes to terms with what can be known and what can’t.

He talks about trying lots of different ideas because you don’t know what will succeed.

He uses metaphors of randomness such as the unpredictable patterns of rain and wind, of a hedging against uncertainty by investing in many different things in life and trees falling random times and directions.

He reminds us of how deeply we don’t know the way of God by saying we don’t even know how we are made in the womb. Mysteries of even our origin are veiled from us. Science has come a long way since that was written, but we are still yet to create new life forms in a womb of our making.

Jesus linked wind and birth images to the experience of god’s presence:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit John 3:8

To me the point is that only the now intersects with eternity. The past is fixed, the future is unknown. In the present moment we have choices and opportunities to affect things which will last. In the present, we have a sense of interacting with destiny, like an eternal being.

He returns to the “under the sun” language but with, I thought, a relatively carefree and optimistic twist:

“Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.

To me this is using a single day, even a single moment, walking out doors and seeing the sun, as a metaphor for life. Life is the now, our time in the sun, the interaction with eternity we know and experience. Use it well.

N T Wright, theologian and for a long while bishop of Durham cathedral had an example that comes to mind of stone masons working on Jigsaw pieces of the cathedral. A plant-inspired column top here, or a curved arch section there, but not necessarily having the master plan or visualising how they would sit in the finished cathedral. So, he says, it is with the eternal work we do on earth, that is stored up as treasure in heaven.

The teacher here can come to terms with questions about why and how we came to be, and the insubstantial darkness over god’s future, by clinging to the revealed wisdom of how to live happily and in accordance with god’s wishes while the sun is bright.

He’s gone from finding God’s wisdom annoyingly limited and incomplete to finding it the best we can get, and valuable for what it is.

Starting back at work after a weeks break, feeling quite negative and unprepared to cope with life, worth repeating to myself as I step out this morning into the sun….

Ecclesiastes 5

Don’t promise, don’t question, don’t dream.

The teacher can’t help but toss out wonderfully memorable, profound observations about most aspects of life as he dismisses them. But dismiss them he does.

Despite being clearly a person of learning and refinement, the structure of his book sometimes reminds me of an angry old alcoholic ranting to nobody at a train station: “And another thing: politicians. Liars the lot of them. And kids today: no respect…”

It’s a whinge list. Erudite, nuanced, but a whinge list.

In chapter 5, first up: extravagant promises, vows to God, that you don’t keep.

I think I get the scenario. Their religion involved pilgrimages to the temple to offer sacrifices atoning for sin. In a moment of religious ecstasy, and/or showing off/fake public piety, you make a big promise to God that you later regret. Easy target – loud, hypocritical religion.

But he also throws dreams in there… “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God”.

Don’t dare to dream?

Then he says not to be surprised by oppression, because it’s not isolated injustice, it’s systemic injustice, going all the way up to the mindless, bottomless, greed of the king. It’s too big to fight. There’s nothing you can do but observe it, presumably. It would be sort of socialist if it weren’t so defeatist. Perceptive observation, dismissed.

The rest of the chapter is about the dissatisfaction of labouring and scheming for fleeting wealth, which death mocks; compared to the dreamless heavy slumber of a working class labourer.

It ends with a perceptive, yet cynical little sermon: wanting more won’t make you happy, learn contentment with what you have be it a little or a lot, and exhaust yourself during the day with honest work so you don’t question or dream, and life will be as good as it can get.

I think it’s time to grapple with the phrase “under the sun”.

It appears many times in the book: a condition, the context, of most of the observations. In the book the refrain is like “and another thing” of the old drunkard’s rant. “And I saw this meaningless thing under the sun”.

Quick Google scan, the consensus is that it’s somewhere between the literal “on earth” and the metaphysical “without God”.

I visualise it like those science pictures that show bands around the earth of atmosphere and stratosphere. The band closest to the earth is “under the sun”, the realm of time and the realm of the physical, flesh: that which can be perceived through the senses. Even in this realm we will experience something of God and eternity… enough to drive us mad, as it said. But not much.

Above that is heaven, which is referred to when discussing eternity in chapter 3 (“a time for every purpose under heaven”). The realm of God, relatively unknown and eternal. The supernatural, things that last, the kingdom of God.

Jesus said to pray every day for ways to reduce the discrepancy between the eternal order and the world as we know it: “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”.

St Paul picked up ideas from parts of Greek philosophy about spirit and flesh and was inspired to put up with temporary difficulties because he saw the long term eternal nature of Christ: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.

In many respects, despite Easter, we are still in the world of Ecclesiastes, under the sun. Imperfect people acutely aware that the world falls short of what if could be. Still seeing God through a glass, darkly.

All three reactions are probably still part of a normal believer’s life at different times, coping strategies for chronic personality traits or current temptations:

– Ecclesiastes: observe the madness around you, but don’t let it drive you too crazy. Enjoy the things that are good, do a good days work and sleep sound.

– Jesus: do what you can, with God’s help, to make things better. Start building heaven on earth: tell the good news, fight for justice, model love.

– Paul: try to disregard the flesh, suffering will pass. Tune out to the world, tune into eternity.

Ecclesiastes 3

Oh chapter 3! Each bit feels like arriving at a moment of significant personal truth, but then at the end I also think “what was that?”

Puts you through the wringer and remains enigmatic. It’s quite an experience.

First there is the time for every purpose under heaven. Can’t help but hit play on the Pete Seeger/Byrds song, ‘turn turn turn’ in your mind’s iPod (unless you’ve absolutely never heard it).

I aways thought it was a cheat the way they added “I swear it’s not too late” after “a time for peace”. I thought “it’s not just about peace”.

But now I like that it ties it to a moment, civil rights and the peace movement of the 1960s. This passage is all about being tied to moments.

It’s such an evocative piece of writing.

It’s clearly about time, but also dancing on one spot, not making progress, because the series of opposites balance or cancel each other. A time to gather stones, a time to cast away stones. One day the stones matter, another day, they don’t.

You get its pattern straight away, and that rhythm creates a space in which your mind can wander and personalise the examples.

So it’s different every time you read it. Today I might think a about notre dame cathedral burning down, or how my son is slipping through my fingers and I can’t seem to connect with him, or regret not being more successful in the worlds terms, and mildly resent it.

Read it again tomorrow and your mind will go a bunch of different places.

Today it also reminded me of my mother’s use of the word “philosophical”. As in “I don’t like it, but I’m trying to be philosophical about it”

She wasn’t unique in using it to mean “coming to terms with a less than desirable outcome”. But it was while talking to her that I first wondered “how did the word for all the world’s collected efforts to understand the meaning of life become a word for shrugging your shoulders when things are out of your control?”

And at the same time, that memory gives me a warm sense of maternal comfort from beyond the grave.

Which is typical of the honest and emotional – cathartic I suppose – places this passage always takes me. While also supporting the general argument that life goes in ultimately meaningless circles.

Whew. Then comes the amazing bit!

How we are tortured by eternity. Because we can imagine it, conceive it – God put it there right in our hearts. But we live animal lives that just end one day. We are tied to time. And not.

That’s why “meaningless” is not a good enough translation for the frustration and restlessness the writer feels. If life were genuinely meaningless, it would be easier. He almost envies animals when he asks rhetorically if we aren’t the same? But the original word, Hevel, has the sense of life seeming like it’s going to mean something, but the meaning lying just beyond our grasp. Wisps of smoke.

I love that verse, it describes the human condition so perfectly. It explains almost everything. You can’t write off the Bible if it contains that verse, without telling yourself a lie.

Then the rest of the chapter talks about enjoying what you do have, and living a good life, calling out injustice because what little we know of eternity is the glimpses we have revealed to us of God’s unchanging character. He is just. He will will bring judgement for those wronged.

The writer seems to arrive at “We can’t know for certain what will happen when we die, but we do know what is good”.

And I have to get breakfast. Or should I say “a time for blogging, a time for tea”.

And to pray? Does God get a look in?

Too much! Use of time, relationships, mourning and dancing – connecting to eternity.

Psalm 90

Book 4 of psalms starts with a song by Moses. A commentator said there was some argument as to whether it was THE Moses, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. It’s exactly the emotions the wilderness leader would be feeling after a life on the trek from Egypt.

He’s so tired, and aware of the mortality of man compared to God. He’s seen so many Israelites perish before reaching the promised land, and he too will. He sees God’s mountains on the horizon.

He refers to metaphors of our lives’ ephemeral nature: dust, and new morning grass that withers by afternoon.

Letting go of the literal promised land, he’s learned that the Lord is his dwelling place.

It all leads to his request that God will teach him to number his days, making his heart wise.

Being aware of deity, of eternity is the key difference between his life and that of grass. Seeing our life span as a scene from a continuum, a snapshot freeze frame from God’s eternity, gives each day a value and a context.

He finishes by praying that God’s deeds among them, the work they have done in his name, will live on.

And it did. The exodus linked to the Easter story and remains one of the Bible’s most potent examples of God’s salvation.

Last week we were on the sidelines of a decision to end the days of a much loved dog.

Dogs don’t number their days. He got up every day and did doggy things. As the end came, he was not aware of his relatively great age or his cancer. You could see it increasingly interrupt and restrict his ability to do his doggy things till they became just a tiny part of his day, that he limped through.

He was a splendid part of God’s works in his way, but he was not aware of a long life compared to a short, of an eternity or a legacy after his death. He fully lived his doggy days, and the grief his family felt was a human experience that crossed over with his. They connected, and both conceptions of the meaning of life and love were still only a shadow of God’s understanding.

As less and less is unpredictable in my days for a season, as they seem to speed by, may I number them, and gain some wisdom in my heart.

Proverbs 27

Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

There is a vibe of things you can trust, tough love vs the things that deceive, or are insubstantial.

It starts with things said, including self praise (better to let others praise). It moves to things unsaid… (better to know, to have things out).

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

There are a few verses about the value of good friends, and how the true nature of people is revealed over time:

As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.

It’s an egalitarian chapter, advice for the prols and Kings alike.

It is plugging into the things that are of eternal value.

It reminds me of 1 Cor 13, how after the things of this world have passed away, all that will remain is love. Or Jesus talking about storing up treasure in heaven that won’t decay.

One of my favourite hymn couplets is:

“Solid joys and lasting pleasures, none but Zions children know”.

It was a stressful weekend, all of the children were quite miserable in turns. We ended up going out a bit, a friend had spare theatre tickets, others invited us to eat out. But every time we got home there was acrimony and sadness.

The contrast between the wise cautious sensible calm in the book and the news of life is poignant and extreme.

Give me wisdom!

Proverbs 25

This collection of proverbs profiles the Christian character I recognise well from childhood. I drank it in.

Unpretentious. Not brash or self promoting. Under promising and over delivering.

I’m still there pretty much, bit I have vacilated a few times during my life. I felt cheated at times because even among Christians there seems to be a recognition that being like this often doesn’t actually work.

Take:

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.

So you wait watching nincompoops succeed through sycophancy and lies, while you, an unsung hero of substance wait for the king to say “come up here”. Others seeing your ability actively undermine you, it’s the only option they have.

To live by this proverb is to let go of the idea that the king might ever say “come up here”.

St Paul had a better take on wisdom in that extended passage where he talks about becoming fools in the world’s eyes.

And that message is here too. Because nothing is connected, you have to draw it out of the themes that repeat.

The strands lie alongside each other: a dose of quite cynical pragmatism, then an idealistic call to do what is right regardless of the consequences.

A promise of earthly prosperity followed by a gods eye perspective of eternal justice, where earthy wealth is of no substance, like dust blowing away in the wind.

These lie alongside each other in the faith based organisation I work for, it’s a daily tension. And in my family, and in my church.

Wisdom means many things in the book of proverbs. Maybe Solomon didn’t ask for quite the right thing.

Psalm 89

Truth is so counter cyclical. Indeed, it has no cycle, it just sits there being true.

Life has ups and downs that make the truth sometimes appear ridiculous. Utterly implausible.

Then it will appear to have extraordinary prescience, like prophesy. But the truth never changed, just the circumstances of our time-bound existence did.

This psalm starts on a high, beautifully extolling God’s extraordinary power, greatness and goodness.

It’s by Ethan, one of King David’s best musicians. A tough gig, as David himself was no slouch in that department. He’s probably the Ethan mentioned as David dances the ark into Jerusalem, a day certainly capable of inspiring this eloquence.

The psalm then talks about David’s special place in the plans of God. His throne will last forever, like the moon. God has uniquely blessed him, anointed him, made promises to him and given him extraordinary success that displays God’s might and favour.

Oh and by the way, the last third of the psalm reports, everything has completely gone to shit.

David’s sons have rebelled and blown it, foreign powers are picking us off, David may still technically be king, but he’s is somewhere on the run. Strongholds are in ruins, the crown has been put to shame, trodden in the dirt.

‘How long’, he pleads, like Psalm 40. What does it all mean, why do I have to give my precious years on earth to this futility!

Then slapped onto the end of the psalm with little ado, ‘praise be to God!’. It’s a praise psalm? What is this?

The tragectory is similar to the last, painfully sad Psalm, 88. A bit of light, descending to bleakness.

It’s not your usual narrative arc. You wouldn’t even call them tragedies, because In both there is a strong sense of faith. Here, the misery is wrapped both ends in praise.

They aren’t tragedies because regardless of how bad things seems here in this space and time, the truth of God’s power, his might, his all encompassing love, will stand forever. The truth seemed ridiculous when the psalm was written, but it wasn’t.

And don’t we know it now that Jesus is on the throne of David.

And the western church is on the nose. Sigh.

Amen!

That endeth book 3 of Psalms, a collection with lots of judgement and not many unalloyed joy psalms. I’ve really valued thinking about judgement, time and eternity. Our last with God, the bigness and intimacy of God.

I’m thinking Proverbs next. Will I ever emerge from the old testament! But I really want to finish the wisdom books. And I’m getting to some of the best… Song of songs and Ecclesiastes, what gems!

I’m also thinking in life, read the new testament twice or even three times as often as you read the old testament, because with O.T. being 2x or so longer than new, it’ll mean your life is equally devoted to each. The maths could be more precise, but the principle is strong, I think.

Job 24

Oh no, bad night’s sleep, very difficult chapter. Eyes keep closing.

Job seems to argue that justice should be seen to be done as well as be done.

This is possibly a way of reconciling his belief in God and the arguments of his friends.

He’s sort of saying it all comes down to timing. If God could relieve the suffering of the vulnerable during their lives, and bring about the downfall of the wicked exploiters by means other than the termination of their years on earth, then he would accept the words of his friends.

The argument has been heading this direction for a few chapters. It’s like they are reaching a consensus on God’s cosmic and eternal justice. Job’s refusal to deny God includes an underlying belief in his justice.

But he doesn’t understand why he can’t be seen to be just. Try as they might, the others can’t spin the experience of life here on earth as reflecting God’s justice, particularly to one who has lost everything to a series of misfortunes as job has.

Between Christians today, the struggle continues between those who put their hope in heaven after we die, and those who emphasise ‘thy will be done on earth’.

Christianity almost has too many ideas. It almost works as a gospel of earthly ethics, with no supernatural, afterlife element needed. And it almost works completely as a system of eternal reward, with the corporeal virtually disposable except as an opportunity to hear and accept the word about God’s eternal plan.

The most unsettling teaching I’ve heard in recent years was from N T Wright, partly because as an Anglican Bishop respected by serious types in my circles, I was conditioned to exist he was ‘safe’and mainstream and not likely to be a whacky heretic.

But he teaches we wont go to heaven, heaven will be a fixed up version of where we are now, earth. Literally, I think. For example, his book on the environment is called ‘God is coming, plant a tree! That idea has never crossed my mind. We’re staying here? This is it?

Whether metaphorical or not, thinking of it that way gives a whole extra impetus to that line I’ve said all my life ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

Eternity is inherently a present tense and past as well as a future concept. But so often we talk about it as something confined to the future.

However, as they say, ‘we should start as we mean to carry on.’ Slavery can console itself with visions of bands of angels coming to carry them home, but also should be abolished. Both.

So in my job interview yesterday when I said I got it, this Salvos idea of holistic mission, practical and spiritual Christianity, it wasn’t just so they’d give me a job!

Perhaps it’s time for all of Job’s friends to stop talking. I mean come on guys 24 chapters, what is this, a theological college?

Job 19

The skin of my teeth.

I was with my brother at a rousing performance of Macbeth yesterday that emphasised its qualities as popular entertainment.

The are similarities with Job. Their literary quality and the number of phrases and ideas coined so perfectly that they have stayed in common usage. This chapter, where job rebukes Bildad and friends for adding to his sufferings, and urges them to examine their own lives, is the source of the phrase ‘by the skin of my teeth’.

It comes during a very Shakespearean (or was Shakespeare Jobsian?) extended metaphor about skin and flesh. God has made him skin and bones, he’s survived by the skin of his teeth, now his friends are attacking his flesh as God has, but he has the consolation that he will see God in the flesh.

My brother and I discussed the book of job, as brothers will, and he mentioned the amazing ‘I know that my redeemer lives’ verse. Talk about a spoiler alert… It’s in today’s chapter, flowing directly after the passage I’ve just described.

And it still made my hair stand up. This startling messianic revelation. ‘I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Why suffering? Suffering is the amazing mysterious ingredient by which God brings love with justice to the world. It has thrown Job into hope in the living God in ways his friends could not understand. God’s suffering in Christ absorbs all suffering. Job knows his will pass and his flesh will see God his redeemer.

How is that here, in this book? Its all so much to process. Prayers of praise and thanks, I think.