Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Time to Laugh: Ecclesiastes and Joy

"Well, I think Ecclesiastes is just human wisdom, the best people can find 'under the sun.' It's just man's ideas, not God's, you know, what with its hedonism and all, telling us to 'eat, drink and be merry.' It is a wisdom beneath Christian dignity."

The above is what many sadly think of the amazing biblical book titled Ecclesiastes. Notes in the old Scofield Bible promote this misguided view. C.I. Scofield's understanding of the phrase "under the sun" is way off base. It's simply a phrase for location, i.e., "under the sun" means "on the earth." The phrase carries no moral or theological overtones.

We looked at the "meaningless" theme in the last post and concluded that Qoheleth was not being pessimistic, but realistic. In this post we tackle the "enjoyment" or the "eat, drink, and be merry" theme.

Consider these repetitive calls to enjoyment of life:

A person an do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work (2:24).

That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God (3:13).

Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot (5:18).

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad (8:15).

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days (9:7-9).

However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. ...Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth (11:8-9).

Unquestionably Qoheleth commends eating and drinking and finding joy in life. Yet, the question is: Does Ecclesiastes promote a hedonistic life? The answer is a resounding "No!"

Qoheleth probes the limits and bankruptcy of hedonism as he describes his "experiment" with unbridled pleasure in 2:1-11. Read the verses. Notice Qoheleth's summary comments: "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure" and "Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun." His foray into hedonism was meaningless. So whatever the repetitive "enjoyment" theme is, it is not a call to hedonism. Hedonism is seeking pleasure as the highest or ultimate goal in life.

The enjoyment theme is a gift from God to help us on our journey in this meaningless existence. If you are tripping over the word "meaningless," please read the previous post. Qoheleth, the wisdom writer, commends finding deep joy in daily pleasures---eating and drinking at our meals, enjoying the pleasures of marriage (if we are married) or companionship with others if we're not. God made us to experience joy, and joy is a worthy experience, a wise experience in our otherwise wearying life.

Behind the wisdom writer's call to joy is a deep-seated belief in a theology of celebration. The God of Israel called his people to joy. God's people were to eat and drink and rejoice in his presence (when they brought tithes to the LORD). Even told to buy "fermented" or "strong drink." What?! Nehemiah told the people not to weep and mourn, but to eat and drink, "for the joy of the LORD is our strength". Jesus told stories of a joyful, party-throwing shepherd who found his lost sheep, and a celebrating woman who found her lost coin, and a village chief who as a father calls for a city-wide feast when his lost son came home. And there was "music and dancing" (Luke 15)!

We sorely need a theology of joy and celebration, especially because some in west Michigan define Christian holiness by what Christians can't do. Horse face holy ones presuming to speak for God wring every drop of joy out of anything and everything. For many, there is a religious knee-jerk response of guilt to every experience of joy. "There will be no joy without guilt in this this church!" Years ago I got a call from a local Bible school telling me that their students could no longer attend our church because we held a square dance during the Fall season. Drabness and dullness are next to holiness. I don't know where these ideas crept into the faith, but they certainly did not come from the Bible or from Jesus.

I think Christian kill-joys perpetuate the ancient heresy of gnosticism. Gnosticism promoted the idea that the flesh is bad and the spirit is good. So anything that is bodily or "fleshly" enjoyable---eating good food and drinking good wine and celebrating good sex---has to be frowned upon; it's "carnal." Only prayer and Bible reading and being quiet are holy, and certainly abstaining from sex except to procreate is very holy . Yet, it was heretics who forbade those things according to the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1-4.

Once again we discover Qoheleth to be very astute, giving us rock-solid wisdom. "The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd" (12:11). Our party-loving, joy-bringing Shepherd.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Ecclesiastes' Reality Check

There used to be an indelicate bumper sticker that read "Sh*t Happens." (I'm not trying to be provocative with this. Just reporting what I've seen.)

I think that Qoheleth, the wisdom writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes says it more delicately and robustly, " 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.' "

A group of friends and I recently looked up every reference to "meaningless" in Ecclesiastes. What an apparent negative drumbeat about life---knowledge is meaningless, as is pleasure, success, money, fame, royalty, building an inheritance, work, youth and vigor, death and more!

Yet, the pertinent question is this: Is Qoheleth being negative with his repetitive "meaningless" refrain?

Qoheleth is writing in the tradition of Jewish wisdom. These are some "givens" in his outlook:

1. God is the creator of humanity and of all things (7:27; 11:5; 12:1; 12:7 = Gen 2:7).

2. Human beings experienced a "Fall"--a cracking of the Eikon according to Scot McKnight (7:27; 9:3; rebellion makes humans like "beasts" 3:18).

3. All existence was subjected to meaninglessness as the Book of Ecclesiastes reports. The Hebrew word is hebel (pronounced hev-el) and it means "breath, vapor, insubstantiality, useless." Paul picks up on this reality and writes that God will redeem it (Romans 8:20-21 where the term "frustration" is from the Greek word for hebel).

4. Life does not unfold in a tidy "cause-effect" manner. This truth is what strains the mind and sears the heart of the wisdom writer. Ponder this: "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked people who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless." Why is this so troubling? Recall Deuteronomy 28--the blessings and the cursings formula? That's why!

Qoheleth is not being negative--a party pooper, a nay-sayer. He's being realistic. We live life in a world created by God and that world has suffered a severe blow because of sin. Qoheleth wants us to wake up and smell the coffee, to hear the screams of the oppressed, to ponder the debauchery of the rich, to smell the nauseating odors of death, to grapple with unexplainable injustice, to monitor our own hearts and honestly admit the evil that is there.

We humans know that things are "not the way they ought to be." We all long for something more, something deeper, more fulfilling. We commiserate, "There's just got to be more to life than this." Even the restless longing is an evidence that we've been touched by God. "[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end" (3:12). We want to know what will happen next and we can't know it (8:7). Here is the smartest thing in the book about meaninglessness: "No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if a wise person claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it."

Sometimes there is more behind a bumper sticker than meets the eye.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ecclesiastes and Establishment Evangelicalism

One of the most misunderstood and often maligned books of the Old Testament is the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. Many readers either dislike it or love it.

Those who resist it usually react to the alleged dismal refrain "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Who needs a Bible book to tell us something like that? Just watch old Seinfeld TV episodes or listen to USAmerican political rhetoric. Why waste revelatory energy on a downer?

Those who like it are drawn to the "eat, drink your wine, enjoy your wife" refrain. We know "stuff happens," so make the most of the good times.

Did the author Qoheleth have a purpose in writing and/or compiling this fascinating book? I think so.

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. --
Ecclesiastes 12:9-11

A few observations: 1) the Teacher (Qoheleth) is wise. He is not a cynic nor a skeptic. He is a skilled thinker in his biblical tradition. 2) Qoheleth reflected deeply and explored widely and wrote precisely. Ecclesiastes is not spontaneous graffiti. 3) Qoheleth was a word-smith and wrote dependable wisdom.

Using two metaphors (word pictures) in 12:11, Qoheleth (the Teacher) offers his two-fold purpose in writing. The first aspect of his (her?) purpose is to stimulate action. Wise words are like "goads." A goad was a long, pointed stick used by shepherds to provoke movement in animals. Wisdom is a pointy, if not sometime painful stimulant that expects a prompt reaction. "Move!" We could use the cliche' that one of wisdom's aims is "to afflict the comfortable." The second metaphor--"firmly embedded nails"--gives us the second aspect of wisdom's purpose: to create stability. The nails are tent-pegs used to secure the tents so that the desert winds do not blow them down. When the winds are strong, we want the nails to be firmly embedded and to hold fast.

Do you see the creative tension in these wisdom energies? To stimulate and to stabilize. To provoke movement and to prevent movement. Overall, these twin aspects of wisdom's purpose provoke us TO THINK!

I am sick of establishment evangelicalism's strident expectation that we believers simply accept evangelicalism's prevailing views. Don't think! Don't question! Don't dare get into a conversation about establishment doctrines and dare to emend, expand or perhaps, God forbid!, jettison some of them.

We need wise goads these days to get a lot of lazy, just-tell-me-what-to-believe-Christians off their mental butts and to start thinking, questioning, searching the Scriptures with fresh eyes and ears and to begin creating a robust gospel and theology big enough for the devastating global mess our planet is in.

You have heard it said unto you: "If it ain't broke don't fix it." But I say unto you, "The USAmerican evangelical gospel is broke, broke to pieces." The evidence: the sad cultural bondage of the church.

If you're interested in pursuing a robust gospel, I invite you to read and discuss with friends Scot McKnight's book Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us.