Ecclesiastes 12

It is, for the most part, a really humble and beautiful poem about getting old. The chapter divisions are rather clumsy here… The poem started half way though chapter 11 with the verse about the light of the sun being sweet, which I quoted yesterday.

There is a delicacy in his description of being old, and his advice to young people.

The advice is to balance the sensual joy of being in your prime with a sense of God – of being created (coming from God) and eternity (going to God).

You can be young in an arrogant and ignorant way, thinking that you have solved the trick of being beautiful and strong, and you are the first person who ever discovered the exciting things the world has to offer.

But he says it’s better to be young in context. To know it is your prime, to enjoy it while remembering your creator, and realising that you have an identity that is larger than the beguiling pleasures of youth.  What we call ‘grounded’ is an aspect of that, I suppose.

The teacher makes aging and death very vivid with metaphors which are a first person narrative of everything failing and then breaking down all together.

But I don’t find it depressing. I was moved by a beauty in this passage I can’t quite describe. It has an elegiac acceptance. It recalls that sense of accepting the seasons of life and time from chapter 3.

He uses objective images to describe the subjective affects of aging on different parts of your body:

when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;

Ie: when your hands shake, you stoop, your teeth fall out and your eyesight fails. I guess the unusual point of view is a way of emphasising that it happens to everyone.

Here’s his metaphors for dying:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Everything on earth, the good times, the bad times, is still insubstantial smoke (“meaningless”). But we’ve gone on a journey from holding eternity and the seeming contradiction of the ephemeral world at odds and being filled with despair, to them enhancing and informing each other.

Youth is still smoke, age and death are still smoke, but knowing it is doesn’t stop its vibrancy being beautiful, or doesn’t mean its sadness makes a mockery of being alive. If it doesn’t define us, we can appreciate it.

Thinking back on my youth, the memories are predominantly happy, but they are also random – sort of messy. I regret a certain lack of boldness to make the most of my opportunities, but I still have that, so its just me.

Indeed I feel a strong sense of consistency. I feel at my core I’ve always been the same person. My mum used to call me a dreamer, and I think that’s probably right. I live a lot in my own head.  I’m hoping that will make for a relatively satisfactory dotage. My wife says I find my own thoughts the most entertaining thing in the world… That’s kind of true too!  The playlist of my own thoughts will no doubt get a lot shorter, but it will probably still be my favourite music!

I liked studying post modern theory at uni because I related to the idea that almost nothing is absolute. Beyond cores of belief in God and eternity, I do see so much as insubstantial, up for grabs.

I’m sort of more ‘woke’ these days, I think my religion was more cultural when I was young.  It still expresses itself in habit and the comfort of personal relationship with God, but I feel my responsibility in the world, to be God’s presence, for justice, love and truth, more than I used to.

I don’t want the book to end, its a lovely place to be.  Perhaps that’s why the narrator – who returns in the dying verses – warns against writing many books and studying too much.

“Now get on with it!”  he seems to say. You can’t spend your whole life in reflection. Fear God and keep his commandments: “Next!”

 

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Ecclesiastes 7

This is a bit of a shocking chapter at first.

Chapter 6 ends with a bleak summary of a series of observations of meaningless things, and now this is a series of thoughts, presented as proverbial wisdom. It talks appreciatively about death and has almost a suicidal vibe at times: “death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart“.

It’s feels like we’re descending deeper and deeper into darkness, and the book is getting somewhat claustrophobic. Can we get some light soon?

But strangely at the same time, it’s also quite soothing

The overarching theme, if I understand it right, is that God plans for the hard stuff to happen to us as well as the good stuff, and to not stress, but value the difficult things because they are part of God’s world and help us grow.

It’s an old man, probably old Solomon, realising that the sad times, the deaths, the frustrating times and time in mourning were when he learned more about what is really important than the sillier times.

He memorably compares the laughing of foolish people to the crackling of burning thorns, which were used as tinder in those days. It’s a sense of them being loud, bright and hot but short lived, ephemeral. Sadness touches eternity, hard life lessons that last.

It harks back to the calm of chapter three: there is a time for everything. But it’s more provocatively put, eg: ‘Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.

Perhaps he’s also regretting his vast harem of wives and concubines. I’m probably being charitable. It comes across like he’s blaming women for being a corrupting influence, but the fault really is his. His female arrangements were excessive even by the potentate standards of the day; it was his obsession and his system, much more than his women. As if lesser princesses had many options in those days other than to be political pawns?

He’s puts both his youthful zeal and creeping nostalgia into perspective.

On one hand he embraces that softening that age brings, where things don’t seem as absolute as they did when you were younger. Don’t be foolish, but don’t kill yourself with ‘over-righteousness’ either:

It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

Related to that is letting go hurts, a lovely verse… If you overhear disrespectful things about yourself, ignore them. You know you often think or say similar when you think no one will hear you. Great tip for parenting teens.

One the other hand, resist thinking everything was better in the good old days.

Sadness, mortality, abandoning plans, things ending. All these things make you step back from the giddy noise and stimulation of plans and the daily roundabout.

They hurt, but they give you pause. They can be a path back to the essential things, the eternal things. They clarify life.

As he says in conclusion:

God created mankind upright,
but they have gone in search of many schemes

It’s about letting go the schemes, and simply accepting the messy, hard bits.

Jesus didn’t want the hard things either, he prayed for them to go away. But they came, they are part of life anyway.

Psalm 80

Sometimes the answer is ‘no’.

Its a psalm/prayer about the fall of the Northern Kingdom, which never was restored. When it fell, the few faithful jewish people immigrated and became absorbed into the Southern Kingdom.  Most lost their identity as a chosen people of God.

God is called Israel’s ‘shepherd’, the only other time in Psalms apart from 23.

Israel is compared to a vine planted from Egypt, It has been glorious, but now the vineyard is unprotected and has been overrun by strangers and its grapes stolen.

Its a plea for God to shine his face on them. For his anger to stop. For him to be the shepherd, to tend his vineyard again. To restore them.

The King of the Northern Kingdom, is compared to a branch of God’s vine, a Son of Man, God’s right hand.

But we know that only the prophets carried on God’s word in that time, none of the Kings were faithful.

The answer was ‘no’ until Jesus came, of Galilee in the former Northern Kingdom.

A melancholy return to work today. The daughter of one of the workers, who as a baby got a brain cancer diagnosis a year ago has died.  It was inevitable, but its also an unimaginably sad occurrence.  The memorial is Friday.

And the head of my department is not out of his medical issues, he’s been ordered two months off. Before Christmas, he was described as having a blood clot in his lung, now they have found multiple blood clots apparently.  I don’t really understand, but it doesn’t sound good.

I’m the sole survivor of a branch that has ceased to be, with no news of employment prospects. My supervisor is the wife of the guy who is so unwell.  She has 3 kids, her own job and worries, and is 1000 km south in Victoria. She has a lot to deal with.

I have stuff to go on with, deadlines in fact. But its not exactly an optimistic new year welcome.

Feeling adrift and somewhat forgotten, I’m braced for the answer to be ‘no’ to continuing to work here after my contract extension to Feb expires, and braced for the answer to be slow.

That’s how it goes sometimes.

Jeremiah 41

A chapter that gives a documentary view of how lawless Judah was after the conquest. The Judean governor set up by Babylon gets murdered by a distant relative of David’s line.

Any doubts about his nastiness is removed when he also murders a bunch of innocent pilgrims who want to pay respects to the site of the ruined temple.

He’s despatched by someone else, who then has go hide in Egypt because there will be reprisals when the Babylonians find out.

They could have lived in peace, but they can’t manage it. Everything that Jeremiah said came true, yet still they fight destiny and the better instincts of divine grace.

A stark inability to learn.

 

Zechariah 2

A season when things happen. The old testament has this sense of a plan that seems random from the outside. From the moment Abraham happens to walk one way and not another and sees a burning bush, the story of God’s intervention with the world just happens to god’s agenda, in his time.

This chapter has a sense of things all coming in a rush, and many of the plans of God on show.

A man is despatched to measure the size of the literal Jerusalem, but an angel rushes to tell of a cosmic Jerusalem that has walls of God’s fire and contains people of all nations.

It tells of the Messiah, of God sending god to live among us.

There is retribution coming for the nations who plundered Jerusalem, and justice for his people. But also salvation for all. It is a mighty vision of God’s power, and the season for it is now. “Be still”, it concludes, for god has roused himself from his holy dwelling.

A good response to the power of God.

Daniel 8

What does an average Joe like me draw from such passages?

It is a vision of the near and distant future. In the near future the power of the Italian enmore will give way to the Greek empire, that meaning of the vision of a goat and ran in conflict is given very clearly.

But there is a longer vision, 2300 nights, where worse powers will reign and atrocities will occur. The meaning of that is sealed up and hidden. Naturally this has not stopped various commentators going crazy adding up dates and so forth.

But the message I think is that god stays in control even though his plans may seem to take a very long time. He is in control during our lifetime and after it.

We know from a young age that life pre exists us and carries on after people die. But equally everything we know is defined by the span of years of our existence.

Overriding our concern about climate change, the direction of society, the rise of extreme Islam should be the sense of the fathers control.