Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 2

OT: Ecclesiastes 1:1-3:22

Ah, Ecclesiastes. Such a polarizing book, at least in my own family. My dad loves it; it is his favorite. My brother hated it; he wanted to cut it out of his Bible. Personally, I really like it. I strongly, strongly feel that without God, all things are meaningless. Solomon (or whoever wrote it) sums it up quite well.

If the last sentence didn't tip you off, I'm not going to look up background info today (no time). However, my own reading showed me that the author is know as "the Teacher," and that he "was king over Israel in Jerusalem" (1:12). Also, this king was particularly interested in the pursuit of wisdom. Sounds like Solomon to me.

In terms of literary structure, the book seems loosely organized in a cyclical style, which mirrors the actual content of the writing. The Teacher describes life as an endless cycle, marked by toil and meaninglessness, in which nothing new ever happens. Similarly, he himself cycles back throughout his letter to repeatedly declare that life is a meaningless burden; that there is nothing new; and that nothing people do can bring them meaning. The high points of these cycles consist in the Teacher's sporadic, positive assertions that there is at least some meaning to be found in life. Mostly, however, his words are depressing. The opening lines, in fact, succinctly sum up the thesis of the Teacher, who has been trying diligently to figure out the meaning of life:

"'Meaningless! Meaningless!'
says the Teacher.
'Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless!" (1:2).

He goes on to support this thesis, using as evidence the results he has drawn from his own experiences. Throughout his life, he has searched for meaning in wisdom itself, in pleasure, in projects, and in wealth. All of his pursuits fell short for different reasons. Wisdom did not fulfill him b/c "with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief" (1:18). Pleasure did not satisfy because it was foolish and didn't accomplish anything (2:2). However, when Solomon did accomplish things, whether in the form of great projects (2:4-6) or the amassing of wealth (8-9), these accomplishments fell short as well. Though he enjoyed the work while he was doing it, he understood that ultimately, it was all meaningless b/c it would all be left behind. After all, "a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it" (2:21). To sum up, the Teacher declares, "What a heavy burden God has laid on men!" (1:13b; see also 3:10).

Chapter 3 brings us to the most famous cyclical passage in the book, in which the Teacher describes how there is a "time for everything." In the list that follows, the Teacher juxtaposes pairs of activities that together form a cycle. They could also be seen as canceling each other out, which adds to the theme of meaninglessness.

Perhaps the single most depressing passage, not only of today, but of our entire Bible reading so far this year, is found 3:19-21, in which the Teacher thinks,

"Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down to the earth?"

I think it is worth pointing out here that there definitely does not seem to be a concrete teaching on heaven or the afterlife in the OT; like the Teacher, David also seems confused about what, if anything, happens after we die. And the belief in the afterlife is an essential bastion of hope and meaning in the Christian religion, as I'm sure most Christians would concur. John Adams, for example, would agree with both the sentiments of the Teacher, as well as of Paul in 1 Cor. 15:19, which is evidenced by his statement, "If it would be revealed or demonstrated that there is no future state, my advice to every man, woman, and child would be, as our existence would be in our own power, to take opium." And if the Teacher had had opium, I get the feeling from his writings that he would have given it a try:).

The Teacher, does, however, make some positive assertions as to the meaning of life. In 2:24-26, he surmises, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God." Another positive passage is found in 3: 11-14:

"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. 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 men will revere him."

I love the image of eternity being set in the hearts of men. I feel eternity in my heart, and it is the cause of my deepest longings. I believe that God set eternity in our hearts so that "men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).

But because this is a cyclical writing, these positive affirmations from the Teacher often circle back to a position of ultimate hopelessness. He cycles round and round in his thinking, and in today's reading, he ultimately ends on a somewhat positive note. After his second affirmation of meaning, the Teacher gave us that particularly depressing thought in 3:18-21, only to revert yet again to another (semi) positive position: "So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" (22).

NT: 2 Cor. 6:1-13

Paul continues to defend himself, or so it seems to me. I am really going to have to look this up in my Writings of the New Testament to see what the deal is. Today, he claims that he puts "no stumbling block in anyone's path," and that he and his companions "commend ourselves in every way" (3,4). Well. He goes on to list all the ways that they "commend themselves" in verses 4-10. He then claims that they have been open with the Corinthians and that the Corinthians should be open with them. And who is the "we"? Seriously, I need to look this up before tomorrow.

I do like Paul's use of paradox in verses 8-10, where he describes himself and his companions as "genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything." I especially love that last paradox, and the idea that we, too, as Christians, can have nothing and yet possess everything.

Psalm 46:1-11

I mentioned last time that this is one of my favorite psalms--maybe my favorite, at least in terms of practical impact. It is the one I always turn to in times of crisis.

Proverbs 22:15

Regardless of one's view of corporal punishment, I do believe in the idea that "folly is bound up in the heart of the child," and that it takes discipline to instill wisdom and knowledge and self-control and all those good things.

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