Friday, September 9, 2016

Examining the book Ecclesiastes, part 2

We looked at the first two chapters last week. The next three chapters look at earthly happiness, its difficulties and means of advancement. Read 3: 1-8:
1 There is a time for everything,
   and a season for every activity under the heavens:
   and a season for every activity under the heavens:
 2 a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
   a time to tear down and a time to build,
 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
   a time to mourn and a time to dance,
 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
   a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
 6 a time to search and a time to give up,
   a time to keep and a time to throw away,
 7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
   a time to be silent and a time to speak,
 8 a time to love and a time to hate,
   a time for war and a time for peace.
Pete Seeger adapted these verses into the lyrics for the song Turn, Turn, Turn, sung by The Byrds. The general impression doesn’t seem so meaningless. Keep reading:

 9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
So Solomon argues that there is nothing better than to be happy and to do good. It seems easy to find happiness: eat, drink, find satisfaction in work. Then Solomon gets solemn again and by the time you get to the end of the chapter, where he reiterates the happiness formula, he has measured once more the futility:
19 Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
 22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
You can’t change things, so “don’t worry, be happy”. I guess Solomon was the first to figure that out. In the next few chapters he looks at all the impediments to happiness: oppression, envy, riches, and evil.
True (and practical) wisdom is explored in chapters 6 through 8:15. Read and ponder a few of the verses from chapter 7:
1 A good name is better than fine perfume,
   and the day of death better than the day of birth.
5 It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
   than to listen to the song of fools.
 7 Extortion turns a wise person into a fool,
   and a bribe corrupts the heart.
14 When times are good, be happy;
   but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
   as well as the other.
From 8:16 to 10:20 we find the relation of true wisdom to man’s life. Consider first 8:16, 17:
 16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
We are humans with finite minds. Of course we can’t comprehend it all. Solomon continues in 9:11:
 11 I have seen something else under the sun:
   The race is not to the swift
   or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
   or wealth to the brilliant
   or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Time and chance – that’s an interesting translation. The original Hebrew has “the time of mischance comes to us all” meaning that we all die. “Mischance” was a euphemism for death. Yet wise old Solomon wasn’t completely sold on hopelessness. His conclusion finishes out the book. Read 12: 13, 14:
13 Now all has been heard;
   here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
   for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
   including every hidden thing,
   whether it is good or evil.
Whew! That will sober you up. Ecclesiastes is often called the most pessimistic book in the Bible. Why did God allow such a biting discourse on meaninglessness, futility and pessimism? Hmm, could it be so it would stand as a contrasting view to the hopeful optimism of, the New Testament gospel of John?

Ecclesiastes is the original source for phrases like “the sun also rises” and “there’s nothing new under the sun”. In fact, the word sun (shemesh) is found more in this book than any other. There are 32 verses in Ecclesiastes that contain one or more instances of this word. Every chapter in Ecclesiastes contains at least one and as many as five verses with the word “sun”. Interesting. I draw an amazing conclusion as to why in the book CROSSING THE SCRIPTURES.

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