Wednesday, 17 September 2014

(261) September 18: Ecclesiastes 4-6 & 2 Corinthians 10

Ask God to open your mind, heart and will to understand, delight in and obey what you read.

To discover:­
As you read consider how the teacher suggests we can make the most of our often hard existence.

To ponder:
Here the teacher acknowledges the hardships of the world whilst offering insight as to how life should be lived in the light of them: As throughout the book, he talks in generalizations. So oppressors have power whilst the oppressed are not comforted. And amongst the oppressed, it often seems those who die are happier than those who remain alive, and those who are never born are better off still, because they do not see and so experience the evils of the world (4v1-3). Moreover, work itself is tainted, with achievement springing from envy and so the desire to gain or succeed more than one’s neighbour.
            Here, the teacher concludes that although the fool ruins himself through laziness, it is better to have less than toil endlessly for what will eventually be lost – the chasing after the wind (4v4-6). He adds the case study of a man with no family to pass his property to, who nevertheless toiled endlessly, never being content with his wealth, whilst asking himself why he was depriving himself of enjoyment in doing so (4v7-8). One help against such lonely toil is then commended - teamwork: So working with another gives greater return to one’s work, no down reducing the sense of toil. And if one falls, perhaps through ill-health when doing manual work, the other can help him up. Two can keep one-another warm and protect each other from harm – possibly, looking to work that requires nights in open country. A team of three is even better, enabling whatever activity to continue, just as a cord of three strands can’t be broken. We might consider the agony of Christ’s loneliness in Gethsemane, as he longed for disciples to pray with him. In all forms of work, fellowship significantly lightens its burden.
            Like the proverbs, the teacher then commends wisdom, noting that by it, even a poor, young (and so inexperienced) man who has been in prison, can rise to usurp an old and foolish king, gaining the allegiance of everyone in the nation. So God’s wisdom really can bring success. Nevertheless, it is not a guarantee, as the teacher also notes how quickly the next generation can then become displeased with the new king, making his rise through wisdom a pointless chasing after wind (4v13-16). The point is surely that the fickleness of human beings can reject even good leadership or success, and so undermine what is good.
            In the heart of the wider section stressing the hardships and uncertainties of life, 5v1-7 stresses the one priority: fearing God. So we are urged to “guard our steps” (be pure) when going to worship (then, at the temple), being ready to listen to God’s word rather than engage in worship (offer sacrifice) without admitting our sin, and being slow to make vows in commitment, knowing we must fulfil any we make or else be subject to judgement. Not only does fearing God in Christ mean we can call on him as we face the difficulties of life, but it secures the joys of the life to come.
            What follows is a denunciation of materialism. It has much to say to our own culture: So we are told not to be surprised at oppression and injustice with respect to the poor, because officials right up to the top of any government (the king) benefit from it. We’re also told of how those who love money are never satisfied, even though this is pointless. An increase in goods leads to an increase in consumption that doesn’t benefit the consumer, except that he has more things to look at. Instead, it leads to sleeplessness as he worries over how he can keep or maintain what he has; whereas the labourer that has less sleeps easily in having less to worry about (5v8-12). Wealth horded to the point where it harms its owner (through such stress) or lost through misfortune so it can’t be handed to one’s child is described as a grievous evil, in context, because of the futility involved: We die with nothing just as we were born. We therefore gain nothing from toiling after more in any ultimate sense, instead experiencing a life of misery (darkness), marked by frustration, affliction and anger, brought on by our materialistic striving, with the worry and ultimate loss it inevitably results in (5v13-17). So, once more, this section ends with the conclusion that it is good to eat, drink and find satisfaction in work without such striving, as this is man’s lot in this life. Moreover, if God does give wealth and possessions as we do this, we should enjoy them without the consumerist desire for more, seeing them as a gift from him that tempers the sense of futility we might feel as we reflect on life (5v18-20). Obviously in Christ, we have the added purpose of serving his eternal purposes. But Ecclesiastes was written without this in mind.
            The teacher returns to consider those God gives wealth, possessions and honour to, but who are unable to enjoy them with this wise perspective. Because of the previous chapter, we must presume this is because they worry over them, always striving for more, only to find others enjoy them when they die. So no matter how blessed someone may seem with many children and long life, if he is unable to enjoy what he has and dies without love or respect from others (so not receiving the mourning of a proper burial), then it would have been better for him to be stillborn, as he receives the same fate, but the stillborn child would have known more rest (6v1-6). This is truly sobering, stressing the importance of living a life of satisfaction, love and righteousness.
            6v7-12 seem included to summarise what has been learnt to this point: Men expend their effort to satisfy what is actually an insatiable appetite. In all facing death it seems the wise have no advantage over the fool. In being subject to injustice and opposition, it seems the poor gain nothing by knowing how to conduct themselves. In the light of all this apparent pointlessness, it is therefore better to focus on what one’ sees and so has, than have a roving appetite for more. Moreover, the nature of existence and of man himself have been fixed by God, and no man can contend with him.  So this is how life under the sun will always be (until the new creation). And in bringing this home, the teachers’ words have only added to its sense of meaninglessness. Of course he has taught what is “good” for man to do in the light of it. But he ends noting that generally people don’t have this perspective. So they live without any softening of their sense of meaninglessness in the face of their own mortality.

Praying it home:       
Praise God for offering wisdom and simple things to enjoy, to soften the hardships of life. Pray that you would be able to adopt his perspective on consumerism.

Thinking further:                             
None today.

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