ECCLESIASTES (No. 6) Chapters 5 and 12
We love a resolution in our stories. We love a story where the hero comes up against an unnumbered foe, where battle is enjoined and then the darkest moment comes and we feel that all is about to be lost, and then there is a turning. Hope appears and finally a victory or a resolution. Or a love story where boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl follows suit and then there is some great crisis and it looks like they will be torn apart, but at the last possible moment, somehow, they are drawn back together.
One way I read Ecclesiastes is that life doesn’t always end in resolution, that sometimes life doesn’t seem to add up. We are left with an illness or we remain in a state of having been ripped off, and death comes to us all. Death is a theme of Ecclesiastes and today as we finish Ecclesiastes I want to talk about death. If we count death as the end of all things, as our philosophical materialist friends do, then life certainly isn’t fair. And that is the view that Solomon takes through much of this book - life under the sun is momentary and apparently unfair. But there are moments where Solomon goes beyond that and, more importantly, moments when this text points beyond itself. The last few verses are probably added by an editor to help place Ecclesiastes message within the symphony that is the bible. I want to suggest that within the bible this book serves as a critique of a philosophical approach to life that discounts the supernatural. If there is no more than this material world, then Solomon points out the moral imbalance of our world. But, but, but . . . the bible has more to say.
Solomon started his reign as a king who was close to God, but as we read Kings it appears that, through his self indulgence, Solomon loses God. It’s as if he has the spiritual gift of wisdom but he loses connection with the giver of the gift. We still see that today - people who can speak in tongues but have lost God, the same as people who have a gift of mercy but have lost God. Paradoxically, Solomon describes a reverence for God that he seems himself to have lost. When you go to the house of God, go to listen not just to speak. When you come to church, come to listen to what God might be saying to you not just to tell him your needs or what you think he wants to hear.
When he says ‘the sacrifice of fools’ (5:1) he’s agreeing with his father’s psalm (Psalm 51:-16-17) “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” It’s not about the sacrifices. When we study Leviticus we learn that God doesn’t desire sacrifice because he likes the blood of bulls. No, he gave this way of worship as a gift so that people could express their worship. Leviticus 17:11
Don’t be quick to make a vow to God; you can’t easily get out of such vows. Do you know what I reckon this is about? I don’t think God asks us to make vows; but we offer vows in an attempt to manipulate God. How often do desperate people promise God, ‘If only you . . . then I will . . .’ ‘If you get me out of this hole God, I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life’. (Who’s ever tried a vow like that??)
Even Solomon had figured out that God doesn’t work like that; he is a God of grace and covenant. When he promises, it’s not a deal we can manipulate like bargaining. He says ‘I will love you with an everlasting love but I give you freedom, if you reject my laws you will break yourself against them.’ He doesn’t say ‘if you sacrifice twice as many bulls then don’t worry about the rule about adultery’. When you come to worship, don’t try to bargain.
Have I told you this story? When I turned 21, my brother gave me some money and I collected some money of my own and I went looking for a leather jacket. I found one I loved but it was ridiculously expensive. That month I double tithed thinking ‘well that surely is enough, now I can buy my jacket’. But it never sat right with me. From the moment I bought that jacket I knew that God was not pleased. And, with hindsight, I believe God had diagnosed within me a dangerous attempt to buy him off. God asked me to give that jacket away. It was extraordinarily difficult but I did it, and it taught me that God doesn’t want me just to tithe, he wants to be Lord of my life and direct every dollar I spend. He wants it all. Stand in awe of God.
That Segway's really nicely into the next point I want to make, for while Solomon says ‘when you go to the house of God’, Jesus would say, ‘when(ever) you pray’; and the New Testament encourages us to pray without ceasing. So I say to you, in Jesus name, spend more time listening to God, don’t babble the prayers of fools. (Matthew 5)I really want to encourage you to believe in a supernatural God. God is not the combination of our best intentions. God is a supernatural being who created everything in the universe. God is high and lifted up. Faith is not a personal support system, like a relaxation technique, the God we are talking about really did make the stars. And he teaches us to pray. And when we pray it changes things.
But you know what? He wants us to listen first. So that when we pray, we can pray for the things he wants to do.
I know it sounds circular. We ask God what he wants us to ask him to do? Why doesn’t he just do it? He’s chosen not to be the Nike God, who ‘just does it’. He so much desires our friendship that he cannot or will not do somethings if we don’t pray. It’s like he has given our prayers spiritual weight, and they alter the scales of the universe. “The prayer of a righteous person avails much” (James 5:16). If you believe that, you’ll pray differently. And I’m about to invite you to pray every day for the Missions Team while they are away.
It’s the single biggest difference I notice between the First World and the Third World. In the Third World they pray as if their lives depended on it, we’d rather write a cheque. Don’t get me wrong, giving is important. But prayer changes things. It doesn’t change God, it changes the world. The second thing I notice about the Third World is they ask for things that heal creation – like food for the hungry and healing for the sick. We often just don’t ask for the right stuff.
In Solomon’s “under the sun” world, he says enjoy life while you are young. And there is some natural wisdom in that. Karen and I are trying to have the coolest holidays we can now (Waikaremoana this summer) not wait till we’re retired. We all age. Chapter 12 is a beautiful allegory of aging. God understands aging. He gets it guys! It’s not a surprise to him that you’re aging. But it’s a lovely sympathetic description of aging using metaphor. Let’s look at this verse by verse.
“before the sun and the lightand the moon and the stars grow dark.”Not only our seeing starts to decay, but our upper faculties start to slow down, understanding and memory slows“and the clouds return after the rain” from one blow to the next, you just recover from an illness and the next thing comes.
“when the keepers of the house tremble” our arms start to shake.
“and the strong men stoop” our legs start to fade.
“when the grinders cease because they are few” our teeth aren’t as good anymore and we are losing them. See your dentist!
“and those looking through the windows grow dim” our eyes grow dim, perhaps with cataracts.
“when the doors to the street are closed” perhaps our sense of smell is reducing.
“and the sound of grinding fades” Better translated the noise of the mill – our voice fades.
”when people rise up at the sound of birds” you can’t sleep so long.
“but all their songs grow faint” and you can’t hear so well.
“when people are afraid of heights” it becomes more literal now, my mum fell off the curb and really hurt herself.
“and of dangers in the streets” cautious of even going out.
“when the almond tree blossoms” your hair goes white.
“and the grasshopper drags itself along” your energy is sapped.
“and desire no longer is stirred” in Hebrew, the caper berry is opened, possibly an aphrodisiac loses it effect.
“Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets” death is coming. Eternal home is probably just the grave in Solomon’s wisdom.
“Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well”,
These are four metaphors of death.
7 “and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
Then our bodies return to the earth and our breath to God. There is no developed understanding of an afterlife in Solomon’s wisdom. So he is sympathetic but all he can say is, enjoy life before you get old.
In the New Testament we find a very different pattern of aging, the old are seen as blessed because they have seen Jesus. Simeon in Luke 2 sings. “Dismiss your servant now Lord with peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation”. Sometimes in church we talk about our senior years as a time to pray, as if that’s all you can do when you’re old, so let’s give you that job. The truth is so different. Sister Catherine showed us how God prolongs our years so that we can pray. Life is a journey into prayer, none of the things that Solomon lists can stop a person praying and your prayers have weight with God.
Let’s be theologically correct. They have weight with God through Jesus, because what are we told Jesus is now doing? He is interceding at the right hand of God, he’s praying, he’s talking to the Father about us, and just maybe he’s praying our prayers. Maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around. Just maybe we are blessed to be sharing in his prayers. When we pray the same prayers as Jesus, that’s life. I’m convinced that our prayers have weight. They count. They matter. And for most of us young people, we don’t have as much time to pray. St Ignatius recognised this and talked about a parent with a young family not being expected to pray as much. But one of our goals in life must surely be to learn to pray so that as we age we can pray the words of Jesus.
Fear God. Follow his commands. Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8 are the same word essentially. This is known as an ‘inclusio’. In biblical Hebrew (a language without paragraphs and chapters) it marks the end of a section and then there is a conclusion. Perhaps this is an epilogue by Solomon. Probably not, this is probably an editor, and there is nothing wrong with seeing a little bit of editing in the bible. By that I mean gathering. Someone edited the Psalms and put them together. Someone edited Proverbs together. Now we listen to the last few words of the editor (“set in order”might be translated edited.) The teacher gathered some great sayings here. Listen to them. The teacher thought about them and structured his language. They are meant to be a bit sharp. I think what he says next is ‘don’t try to blunt them’. “Be warned of any addition” isn’t the editor adding something? No, I think he is saying to later generations and to our generation – don't try to make these fit too quickly. They are like nails used by a shepherd to direct his folk. He finishes with “Fear God and keep his commandments”. The end of wisdom under the sun is fear God and follow his commands. That is a thoroughly monotheistic ethic. But we know God as trinity.
In the NT we come to know God as loving father, the end of fear. This idea of God as a loving father (Abba father) an untranslated word in the gospels where Jesus is taking about his relationship to God. It is totally unique to a Christian worldview. A God who gives of himself for
his people. There’s a thesis out there – that basically all religions are the same, pointing towards the somewhat unknowable God. It is a deeply flawed thesis. Yes, many religions have many things in common at a surface level, but at a deep level they have a radically different view of the nature of reality and of the nature of God. There is no other religion where God’s son dies for us and for our salvation. We’re going to talk more about that in our next series. Three Foundations for Faith.
Love God and receive his Holy Spirit. If you would like to know more about that speak to me after the Service.
To conclude the series let me summarise Solomon ‘wisdom without transcendence’. Solomon gives good human wisdom. God speaks through these words, but as Eugene Petersen said, he’s more like a bath than a meal. He shows the futility of materialist ethics, and the rest of the bible invites us to believe in a God who is not under the sun but who comes to us through the Sun. You see the death and resurrection of Jesus transforms what is wise – for the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of men. Through Jesus, God offers us an eternal life that turns aging into a preparation, not a predicament. Age with joy my friends, knowing that Jesus is preparing a place for you in his Father’s house. Amen.