Sunday, September 5, 2010

September 5

OT: Ecclesiastes 10:1-12:14

I'm just gonna be honest and say that I barely understood a word of this today. Here is a sampling of some of the proverbs that confused me:

10:2--"The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left."

10:8--"Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;
whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake."

10:10--"If the ax is dull
and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed
but skill will bring success."

10:15--"A fool's work wearies him;
he does not know the way to town."

And so on.

Also, what is with the exaltation of riches? In 10:5-7, the Teacher contrasts fools with rich people. Are those really opposites? Similarly, in 10:16-17, he mourns nations whose kings came from poverty and blesses those who were born into wealth. And then in verse 19, did he just say that "money is the answer to everything"? I think he did!

Needless to say, I am absolutely baffled at how to read this collection of the "words of the wise" (12:11).

And while I'm at it, here is yet another confusing passage:

"Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless" (11:9-10).

I feel incredibly dense, but if God is going to bring us to judgment for following the ways of our heart and whatever our eyes see, then shouldn't we not do that? And if He is going to bring us to judgment, then why should we banish anxiety from our heart? Shouldn't we be worried about God's judgment? Is he just being incredibly fatalistic here, or what?

Anyhow, the book wraps up today by assuring us that these are all very wise sayings and that no one should add to them (12:9-12). And then at the end, quite abruptly, the book concludes,

"Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil" (13-14).

Now, that makes sense to me, though it seems like a distinct change in tone from the material before it. But whatever--we are done with Ecclesiastes, and I think I'm just going to take with me the idea that life is meaningless without God and that we were put here to follow His commands and to find joy in our life, come what may.

NT: 2 Cor. 8:1-15

In a Lord's Supper talk a few weeks ago, the speaker quoted a woman from our congregation who said, "Give until it hurts, and then give until it stops hurting." I loved that idea. I am very, let's just say, money-minded, and I am extremely aware of my family's financial state. And yet, I was always taught by my parents to be generous, which is also what I have read throughout the Scriptures. And sometimes, to follow those instructions, I have to give until it hurts. And I have found that when you keep giving through the "pain," you do get to a point where it no longer hurts to stretch yourself financially. That seems to be what happened with the Macedonian churches. Even though they were strapped, they gave generously. Specifically, Paul says, "Out of the most severe trail, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity" (2). In the next verse, he testifies "that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability." I find their example to be both inspiring and challenging. I have this vision of fiscal responsibility. And sometimes my vision of fiscal responsibility contrasts with what I feel called to give. In those times, I know that I need to follow the Macedonian example, to not rely on myself, but on God's promises. In the times where giving seems necessary and yet irresponsible, I just have to remember that "without faith, it is impossible to please God." I have to try to always act on faith and follow God's commands, even though my practical side wants to save the money for my family's future.

Psalm 49:1-20

In light of the NT passage, I found it interesting that today's psalm describes the wicked as people "who trust in their wealth" (6a). I know that I have been tempted to believe, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes apparently did, that "money is the answer to everything." And yet, of course, money isn't the answer to everything. God is the answer. It is He whom I am to trust, not money. Again, that sounds incredibly obvious, but I can often be a foolish person who forgets such simple truths.

Prov. 22:20-21

Seems to be affirming the value of the proverbs as a whole.


  1. One of the things I find odd about our last two books of the OT is that the vast bulk of the scriptural text is "bad advice." The majority of the text in Job is the opinion of Job's friends, and most of Ecclesiastes is Solomon's failed experiment in figuring out life. And in both cases, the end of the book is pretty much a great big, "never mind!" God comes out at the end of Job and verifies that the last 20 chapters or so are worthless, and today we see Solomon do the same. Yet we happily quote from those passages as if they were the sermon on the mount, when it suits our purposes. That's one reason why reading ALL of a book of the Bible is essential, and why reading all of the Bible like we're doing is extremely helpful. Context is key!

  2. True. I have heard the critique before that Christians sometimes tend to view the Bible as a flat, undifferentiated text, and so they take quotes from wherever they want, mistakenly treating every part the same. What is sad to me, I guess, is that there is a lot of Ecclesiastes that I like, and that I WOULD like to quote. Like that bit about about "two are better than one." Or even the idea that it is good to be content with your lot in life. And yet, like you said, it seems like the vast majority of this book is "bad advice."

    I guess that it is just hard for me to discern how I am to weigh each individual verse of Ecclesiastes...

  3. I think I'm just going to take with me the idea that life is meaningless without God and that we were put here to follow His commands and to find joy in our life, come what may.

    This seems to me like willfully missing the point of Ecclesiastes. The author does not say that life is meaningless without God. The author says that life is meaningless. Period. End of story. But find what joy you can, for humans still have the capacity to feel joy even without an ultimate meaning.

  4. Kim, you use to respond when I brought up difficult points. May I ask why you have stopped? It takes time to dig deep into issues, so I understand if you're just too busy, but I do miss the back and forth.

  5. Sorry, Erika. I have gotten quite busy of late, which is why I haven't even had time to properly research the books we've been reading, which kind of frustrates me b/c I'm not getting the most out of them. So I haven't has as much time to devote to the daily readings and discussions.

    I guess with Ecclesiastes, we Christians see the Bible as a coherent whole, which means that the messages from the different books ultimately don't contradict each other. That makes Ecclesiastes a tricky book, since, like Coach Sal said, the ending seems to be a big, "Never mind!" to the whole book. It also makes the Teacher's words problematic throughout the book. Like I told Coach Sal, I'm not sure how to read it. What truth is in there, and what words are the result of the author's own skewed perspective and frustration? I don't know. And I guess I honestly don't feel qualified to defend any position to you right now, since I myself am unsure of what to take from Ecclesiastes. Let me think about it some more...

    And for the record, I have enjoyed our back and forth as well. I enjoy "argument" to the degree that it encourages mutual thought, and our discussions always make me think.

  6. Okay, Erika. I was perfectly content breezing by Ecclesiastes with "I don't get it," but your comment called me out on that. I wrote one of my Bible professors from college to see what he had to say about Ecclesiastes, and his thoughts helped me. I'll share some of his comments from the conversation:

    "Now you see why the rabbis at Jamnia wondered whether this book should be a part of the Jewish canon.

    This is a tough issue because Christians tend to read it two ways. First, as you seem to do, some view most of the book as a picture of life without God, and then the end commends fearing the Lord and keeping the commandments as the way to meaningful life. By the way, I wouldn't hang that too strongly on Solomon's life. "Son of David" need only be a descedant and may in fact be a character rather than a historical person.

    A second way of reading it is that this is a response to the fairly cut and dry wisdom of proverbs. Qoheleth recognizes that life is messy, mysterious, and always has the same outcome: death. A number of passages suggests he is not talking about a godless life (e.g., 2:24; 3:14; 5:19). So this book calls us to accept our human limitations (our lot or reward) and truly enjoy it as best we can, as a gift of God. There are some things we can affect and change, but much we cannot. We live our lives within these boundaries and trust God with what is beyond us. We do so by fearing him and keeping his commands (or fearing him as evidenced in keeping his commands). I like this reading because it pushes back against our success-oriented, purpose-driven world and says that some (many? most?) things are simply out of our control. So do we make ourselves miserable fighting it, or do we accept our human limitations and trust/fear God, as evidenced in keeping his commands?

    You were right, I think, to contextualize the message in the larger canon as well. Your friend may see this as special pleadng, but it has been the practice of the church for centuries, and we define and understand our faith in light of the full canonical witness, even with its diverse voices."

  7. When I asked him how we were supposed to relate to the individual verses (like "money is the answer for everything"), this was his response:

    "I think you have to keep the big picture in view as you quote individual verses. So no, in context, money isn't everything because you die and someone else inherits it. Yet it does have a function in a life lived within the boundaries on humanity. The recommendation of eating, drinking, and enjoying can justify a hedonistic, self-absorbed lifestyle taken on its own. But within the context of the larger book, it invites us to enjoy life within the boundaries upon as, as opposed to consistently trying to exceed those boundaries (and thus never really taking the opportunity to enjoy what God has put before us). But in the case of Eccl., I would suggest looking at the message of the whole and showing how the parts play into that larger message.

    Is the narrator (or author) inspired? I believe he is, again as a counter-voice or mediating voice to the seemingly black-and-white picture of Proverbs. This doesn't mean every verse is a word to be applied (much like the bad advice of Job's friends), and as in Job, a contextual reading helps sort out what can be applied.

    By the way, I would caution against any approach that can lift out individual verses out of any biblical book as "true" or "applicable" or"inspired" without regard to the larger context of the whole work."

  8. Lastly, I asked him if he thought that the theme of the books was, indeed, that life was meaningless. And if so, I questioned how that theme jived with the rest of the Bible. I mentioned that Paul, for example, seemed to think his life was pretty meaningful, and he seemed to think the same of the lives of the people to whom he wrote. Here's what my professor answered:

    "In one sense yes, at least if one finds no joy or purpose in his or her "lot" and does not fear God and keep his commandments. Even then, perhaps he does see life as meaningless, at least within his limited, human perspective. He cannot form an overall, coherent meaning to all the experiences of life (his own and those he observes), because he is limited. So read it as his struggle to understand life and then hitting the wall of divine mystery or human limitation. Within that framework, he offers the best he can, and it is true within that limited perspective. In light of further revelation through Christ, we might have a broader (but still not complete) picture of some of the things he considered unfathomable.

    Still, this book becomes a healthy check on those who think they have their lives all planned out and are convinced they know what God is doing. It seems to me that James 4 points in somewhat the same direction."

    I share all that b/c, like I said earlier, I don't have too many coherent thoughts on my own, and what he said made sense to me. So anyway, thanks for the inspiration to dig deeper:).

  9. Thanks for the expanded thoughts! It certainly gives me something to chew on. Hopes your business subsides to a more manageable level!