Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Royal Observatory (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:11)

Having spent the winter months in The Song of Songs and Proverbs I figured that the coming of Spring was a good time to embark on the third volume of God's wisdom books - Ecclesiastes. Chirpy eh!

The great king carries out a vast experiment. He is the Dean of the University of Life. He has near infinite resources at his disposal. This is how the son of David considers the world. Welcome to the royal observatory. His study considers four areas. He looks at Geography and History, at Wisdom and Pleasure. The verdict in each case is very similar. He writes up his report in the language of wisdom literature, words to ponder, parallelisms to chew upon.
  • Geography tells him that the world is desperately cyclical. Things go no-where. The sun rises and sets, again and again. Like the sea, even eyes and ears never get filled up. Repetitive. Monotonous. Some of us hear it as refreshing honesty, some of us don't want to admit that the world is like that.
  • History is much the same. Things don't go anywhere. We love to believe in innovation and progress but what is new really? Even 3000 years ago, innovation wasn't innovative. We love to believe we're the best to have lived but we're no more than the latest. Some will hate this, but heard humbly this is liberating stuff.
  • Even the pusuit of wisdom seems futile. Increased knowledge increases sorrow. The more we know the more we see we can't fix things, we may know some things but we see more problems. Ignorance can be bliss and "Education, Education, Education" didn't fix the world...
  • And as for pleasure, the son of David, limits himself in nothing. Everything is on offer in this hedonist heaven, and whilst there is some joy, like all the rest this pursuit is ultimately disappointing too. The man who had it all has tested the limits of life. He says: it's wind-chasing like everything else.
Ecclesiastes isn't just some great thought experiment. It's an application of the heart to life. He gives his everything to the chase. What does his heart find?

Some of us will hear this and argue with the Preacher, Qoheleth, Solomon, we say - it can't be like this. We wont agree with him. Others hear it and say - yes, this Scripture explains my frustration and my boredom. I ask - how come things are like this? Why do we desire progress if there is none? Why do we thirst if there is no satisfaction? Does not the presence of the desire tell us there should be more?

And what of Solomon? Some say of him - these are the ravings of an atheist because if you believe in Jesus you'd never say this stuff. That's convenient but I'm far from convinced.

Solomon's verdict on things is "Vanity" (ESV) or "Meaninglessness" (NIV) or "Smoke" (The Message). It's the Hebrew word "hebel". This is the name of Adam & Eve's son - Abel. Not the serpent seed Cain, but the other son. The one who was a true worshipper. The one who could have been the promised seed until his brother struck him down. Solomon looks back and says - Hebel, it didn't have to be like this, yet it is. Solomon cries out in anguish for the coming of the promised seed, for freedom from the frustration that seems hard-wired into this world.

Reading Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:11 I feel the breeze of the gospel in my heart, the warm breeze that makes me long for the life of summer. It's a call to honesty and humilty about how life is for everyone on earth. And it's a call to join the cry of the son of David, the greatest king history had seen, who knew himself not to be the promised seed. Not Abel. Not Seth. Not anyone else in the line through to Solomon, but great David's greater son.

He looked forward to the coming of The Promised Seed, and we're drawn back to his coming as we live now in the frustration. And we look further ahead to the day when the world will finally find its liberation crying from the heart "Come Lord Jesus" - joining the groans of God's world for that day.

7 comments:

  1. I think Paul has Ecclesiastes in mind when he says of the impact of the resurrection on these matters:

    1Cor. 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

    The answer to Solomon's struggle is found 'in the Lord.' Not that we don't still groan along with him as we live life under the sun, but we know our groans to be a joining with creation and the Spirit for the coming day of liberation from such bondage to frustration and destruction. This means that Solomon's perspective on work etc. is transformed - it is worth working hard, being wise, because the cycle of history is going somewhere and that somewhere is not simply death but resurrection.

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  2. Yeah - I'm really looking forward to the rest of the book, but so much of it is the kind of thing that if you just cited a verse people would barely believe it was in the Bible!

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  3. Which I think makes it great for preaching. Solomon wasn't a postmodernist, but many of his insights chip away at the arrogance of enlightenment rationalism and humanism. I think in some ways he's looking at the whole human project as set out in Genesis 1:28 etc. but now seeing the way the fall (bringing with it the curse of death) has mucked it all up, frustrated it. People can really relate to lots of that.

    Looking fwd to all your posts on it.

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  4. The next one will probably be on April 21st, I'm working through it in Relay supervisions, and it's Relay Holidays & NWA over the next few weeks. After that it'll be weekly.

    It's such a refreshing book, and surely stands as a reflection upon life in light of Genesis 1-4.

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  5. We did Ecclesiastes in home groups recently. It was completely new territory for almost everyone. After 2 weeks saying "I don't understand" the sound of pennies dropping was immense. By the end almost everyone in the church said it had become a favourite book because "I just get this guy, and he understands me."

    Here is a question I was left with: why do British evangelicals not deal much more with wisdom literature? Because we don't understand it? Because it doesn't break down into nice propositional argument? Or because we don't think that's how to do wisdom?

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  6. That's an interesting observation Marcus. It's not very soundbity or propositional is it - needs some deep thinking to make sense of it - but we so desperately need it. And if Jesus is the wisdom of God, we're presumably missing some major knowing of Jesus if we disregard wisdom literature... and risk being fools.

    Slightly tangentally, I was chatting with someone the other day - any thoughts on whether we might view the Sermon on the Mount as wisdom literature, given the way it ends?

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  7. btw, I'd love commentary recommendations if anyone has any. I've dipped into this and that along the way but could use something more...

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