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.

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1 Chronicles 10

After nine chapters of genaeology, we get to historical narrative.

It’s the story of the death of king Saul, he killed himself when all was lost after his sons were killed in a battle with the Philistines.

No hint as is told in Samuel of what a beautiful soul Jonathon was.

The emphasis here is that his line ended, snuffed out in a single battle. It’s described as God’s punishment for not being faithful to the Lord particularly for looking for guidance from the spirit world.

Definately the headline version, given what a tortured soul he was, and the epic and unusual struggle between him and David.

David’s faithfulness in that story made it spiritual, made it about Saul and God, because David would not fight. He’s a big part of the reason there is no ambiguity about Saul’s sin.

Jeremiah 43

Last chapter was a cliff hanger. Has Judah learned nothing, will they ignore Jeremiah and make the mistake of going to Egypt?

Yes. They accuse Jetemiah of trying to trap them. Off to Egypt.

When you are God, Deus ex machina plot twists are too easy.

Once the poor ragtag remnant of the chosen people have willingly returned to Egypt, symbol of Israel’s slavery before Gods salvation, Jeremiah reveals it.

He hides stones in the entrance to the royal Egyptian palace and says that they will one day be part of the Babylonian Empire. Yes it’s a Jonah style escape, no escape at all.

Babylon will follow them, Egypt offers no protection, in fact they will be worse off as absconders.

I’m trying, very unsuccessfully, to write a song about weakness, about being weak enough to trust God. The Cross is an image of weakness.

Make me weak Lord! The thing is that trusting our own strength rather than God’s is cowardly. Weakness requires courage. The judeans simply werent brave enough to stay in Judah. They had God’s word but the strength of their own judgement overrode it.

Struggling with self discipline at the moment. As Keith green said, I wanna go back to Egypt.

Numbers 25

After the mountain top. 

We’ve had two chapters of praise for the blessedness, prosperity and might of the Israelites and the one true God by their enemies’ seer, full of God’s spirit. Now we return to the Israelites camp and the contrast could not be greater.

This is such a biblical theme. We had it after Sinai, and after Jesus’ transfiguration. 

They are weak messy and compromised by worshipping foreign Gods and breaking their strict moral code with the Moabite women.

This is a strange chapter where some of the story seems untold. A leader of the tribe of simeon brazenly brings a midianite woman to a gathering of the people. He and the woman are named, she’s the daughter of a Moabite leader, so it’s probably a political and religious alliance as well. 

They are both killed by spear in their tent by a priest, who earns eternal honour by the deed. At the same time there is reference to a plague, which takes 24000 people and is stopped by the killing. Not sure if it’s a disease born by the Moab people or judgement from God or both. 

In any event, it’s a tragic and dramatic contrast to how God sees them though the spirit in the previous chapter.

The Bible is a book full of mercy, but it is merciless in showing us how corrupt the human race can be. So much grace, so much need of it.

Numbers 12

Aaron and his wife Miriam try to consolidate their power to challenge Moses, claiming that God speaks though them too.

God gives Miriam a skin disease. Moses pleads for her and after 7 days she is healed and clean.

What’s with Aaron, Moses’ brother. He escapes punishment yet again, even though he led the calf challenge to God.  Does the high priest believe or not?  Maybe he is a good man who sometimes hears the politics of the situation louder than god’s voice. Maybe he’s identifying an unrest in the people, a swelling demand for more traditional strong leadership.

God’s tribute to Moses, given in the presence of Aaron and Miriam, is remarkable. He is more than a prophet, who are spoken to in dreams. Moses sees God’s form and hears his voice direct.

This chapter has the verse I remembered and quoted in the last chapter. He is a humble man, the most humble on the face of the earth.

Genesis 34

Jacob has not stayed with his family despite essau’s warm welcome, or gone where God told him to, bethel. He’s gone off by himself and the decision brings disaster. 

His daughter is raped. Dinah, the girl, and Jacob should have known this was a possiblity, she went wandering by herself in a foreign town with very different attitudes to sex.

The boy responsible is the favoured son of a wealthy man, and fancies he loves Dinah. Jacob doesn’t react negatively to the rape at all, which stokes the anger of her brothers. He negotiates to make it right in a way by allowing her to become the boys wife.

Jacob’s sons insist the foreign men be circumcised, but two of them revenge kill them all while they are weak and recovering. The rest plunder and pillage their stuff and take all the women and children. 
It’s an unbelievably evil episode, wrong in so many ways all related to Jacob’s poor choices and ignoring God. He seems to have no leadership of his family, they complain that their sister was treated like a prostitute, but they pervert and prostitute their religion using it as a cover for violence and greed.

Jacob’s response is to tell them how much danger they have put the whole family in by declaring war on the whole country. It’s way too late by then.  

God does not speak in this chapter, but his law is misused by violent greedy men.

The last time God spoke, he changed Jacob’s name to Israel. But significantly he is called Jacob again straight away here. He has disengaged from God. He is still struggling with God, as he was when he literally wrestled with God in human form in the last chapter.  He needs to get back to that place where he is asking for god’s blessing.

1 Samuel 16

Choosing king David.

The least is again chosen by God. 6 older sons are presented and rejected. David’s father didn’t even bother calling the youngest boy, left it in the fields trending the sheep.

When Samuel anoints him, god’s spirit comes to him and departs Saul. It never left David again.

Thank you for choosing me to recieve the spirit father.

David sings for Saul having been fetched for his musical skill because Saul has a troubled spirit.

Judges 15

Struggling with Samson still.

I think I get that Israel is like the French in world war two, they’ve been taken over and lost their identity and pride. Samson is like the resistance. He is a provocateur.

There is little detail about why the philistines are so bad. His vengeance seems cruel.

The story telling is great, is a very readable part of the Bible. But it has him burning all the philistines’ crops with tortured animals over a domestic dispute with his philistine wife. The philistines then burn the wife and her father, he then slaughters many of them.

His own countrymen deliver him bound to the philistines, for whom he is enemy #1. He breaks the ropes with super human strength, slaughter ensues using just the jaw bone of a donkey. He’s breaking the vow not to defile himself with dead things again, not to mention all the killing.

He judges/leads philistine governed Israel for years. Lots of violence, no liberation. He really is quite terrible. 

I’ll hold off commenting further until the next chapter, but suffice to say I’m struggling to see God in all of this. Where are you father? What are you thinking? I know you, I love you, this is not your plan for humanity.

Judges 7

In our weakness is he made strong 

Gideon is the topsy turvy hero the world needed to get god’s message that God is in charge, what it means to be blessed.

Facing battle God whittles his army down from 22000 to 300 to demonstrate that it is not going to be a victory of their own strength.

Gideons timidity is a given both by God and the narrator. God says”go down to the camp, or if you are too scared, take Purah your servant with you” …”so Gideon and Purah…”

Reconnaissance shows the foreign armies are highly scared of the Israelites. They outnumber them ridiculously, but they know there is something supernatural about the Israelites and god’s favouring of them.

Gideon’s force creates a loud noise and fear of attack in the middle of the night, the sleepy larger army panic, turn on themselves and run and Israel claims much land back from them, routing them all over the place.

It is a pattern that reflects god’s patience with our lives as we fail to seize our blessed inheritance from him again and again, and he forgives us over and over.

May I  value your grace father.

Judges 5

Wow, Deborah’s victory song is a wild celebration of people power… the people are the princes of Israel when they offer themselves willingly for God.  They are strengthened by his blessing as they rise like the sun – stronger the higher they get.

Jael gets her praise here too, from Deborah. Taking down the mighty commander of the oppressing army. She vividly imagines him falling down before Jael.

She illustrates the impact of his loss through the eyes of women: his mother, a chatelain, peering out from behind lattice, wondering why he is taking so long. Her attendants speculating that he is about men’s business, dividing the spoils of war, fine clothes, 2 women each.  Well, he found two women, but not the cowering victims they were imagining!

I love that it is celebrated as a woman’s victory integral to being God’s victory. It is not a cringing recognition of their symbolic weakness – God’s might is shown through using even weak women, Deborah is feeling strong in him. God is the empowerer.  He’s raised up the people, he’s raised up Deborah, he is the source of strength, and they are celebrating strength.

Got to write some music for this one some day, its a stunner. Praise God! “May all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.”

I am strong like the sun, rise up with me,
I can beat this world,
drive a tent peg through its head!

Higher and higher, stronger and stronger

Crack the dark, the days first beam
drive the shadows away
rise up like the sun,
kiss the world with love

Higher and higher, stronger and stronger