ECCLESIASTES 7. 1-12
We’ve been looking at Ecclesiastes for four weeks, and now we come to a large section of wise(?) words in the middle of the book. Some of these sound negative, some of them sound reasonable, some of them sound confusing.
Here’s what I think God is saying to us through Solomon, and what Solomon is unwittingly doing - he is deconstructing Karma. That’s the way I want to describe it to our generation. I believe that if you grasp this idea it will help you in your personal life and settle you in your faith life. Now Solomon hardly mentions God, so this is a difficult book for discipleship, but what he does is unravel a counterfeit theology of simple cause and effect.
Chapter 9:11“I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant
or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
I’m using Karma not so much by a strict Hindu definition but in the way that ordinary Kiwi’s frequently use it and define it today. I want to talk about Kiwi Folk Religion today. One key component of Kiwi Folk Religion is that people get what they deserve - if you’re a bad beggar, you’ll get what’s coming to you; and if you are good to people it will come back to you. Karma, reciprocity, utu, whichever title you wish to give it. Ecclesiastes 10:8 “Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.”
I want to say that that view is a one dimensional view of life. There is certainly some truth in it. From a biblical point of view we would talk about law and covenant. The Sensible Sentencing Trust represent this view in life, and there is some validity in it. BUT. . .
Surely Solomon prospered in the early years of his kingdom by this simple cause and result thinking.
BUT Ecclesiastes and Job (wisdom books) are voices in the bible that say, “it doesn’t always work out like that.” The race sometimes goes to the person who comes second. Think about how sometimes it’s the person who comes second who prospers more. Think about how sometimes people who are young and innocent suffer for no good reason. Vs 7:15 “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.”
Solomon deconstructs this simplistic view of Karma. When the Mission Team goes to the Philippines and sees innocent children suffering they need a theology that is stronger than simple ‘Karma’. In a Hindu worldview Karma is a negative consequence, “If human beingsbehave unethically, they cannot avoid the consequences of their actions” (World Faiths, Paul Smith, 2001, Hodder education: p111). This is often interpreted to mean that if someone is suffering they deserve it because of something they did in a former life. There must be a reason for suffering. Solomon's strength is that he does not buy into that lie. When you see a good person ill we mustn’t assume that the sickness is a result of some sin in their past (whether they know about it or not). The book of Job is a long reflection on this question. Think about the child victims of aids - sometimes people suffer because of the sin of another, and sometime there is no simple connection.
From a Christian point of view Kiwi Karma is not guaranteed to work ‘either way’; some bad beggars get away with it; and some people suffering calamity didn’t deserve it. I did once visit someone in prison who had molested children in an ongoing and extremely damaging way, and he was falling apart in prison. A little bit of me thought, “Wow, if that’s God’s judgement he can do it well”. We all want a bit of Karma at times, usually the negative stuff to others and the positive to ourselves. But Ecclesiastes great strength is that Solomon destructs this view and says it just doesn’t fully describe reality. From a Christian point of view, Law is not a sufficient description of God’s way in the world.
I think Solomon gives us a two dimensional view. Yes, there is some Karma in life, and wisdom is better than foolishness but it’s like there is this other weft to the weave of life. There are unexpectedly bad things that happen to people; undeservedly bad things, and undeservedly good things. In vs 9:11 he says “time and chance happen to all”. As kiwis we might use the word serendipity, or mix that with misfortune – undeservedly good and bad things happen to us. What’s so helpful about Solomon’s discovery, even though he is a bit cynical and barbed about it, is that it can free us from judgement in misfortune. It’s bad enough to be going through a rough time without having to think all the time, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’. When we were looking at this passage on Tuesday, Cate asked the question, “If you’re feeling really depressed, do some of these verses actually validate you and in a funny way help?”
7:14 “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.”
In a Christian worldview we would call that first dimension law - if you leave the oil column heater on high all day you will be warmer but you will have a high power bill. In a Christian worldview, that second dimension is called grace - sometimes unexpectedly good things happen to you (and the converse, unexpectedly bad). Grace is predominant in life. We count misfortune but actually there is far more grace in everyone’s life, and a little misfortune. There are an extraordinary number of undeservedly good things that happen to us. Contra Solomon, we are born, we are given life, it is a gift that we can never earn or deserve. We are given a habitat, we are given gifts and skills and abilities far beyond what we can ever master. There is truth in the verse that “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.” But that’s not an exhaustive explanation of life.
Ravi Zacharias recalls a visit he made to a place known for making the best wedding saris in the world: ‘With such intricacy of detail, I expected to see some elaborate system of machines that would boggle the mind in production. But this image could not have been further from the real scene. Each sari was made individually by a father and son team. The father sat above the son on a platform, surrounded by several spools of thread that he would gather into his fingers. The son had only one task. At a nod from his father, he would move the shuttle from one side to the other and back again. This would then be repeated for hundreds of hours, until a magnificent pattern began to emerge.
‘The son certainly had the easier task. He was only to move at the father’s nod. But making use of these efforts, the father was working to an intricate end. All along, he had the design in his mind and was bringing the right threads together.’
Ravi Zacharias ends the story by saying, ‘God alone can weave a pattern from the disparate threads of our lives – whether suffering, success, joy, or heartache – and fashion a magnificent design. Perhaps today, if you will stop and reflect on it, you will see that the Father is seeking to weave a beautiful tapestry in your life.’
To me this is the third dimension. I believe as a Christian that above the warp and weft of our lives there is a master designer at work. That in the weft of law and discipline he is creating and within the warp of grace and apparent misfortune he is also weaving - life is not about achieving happiness alone. It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. 2 Corinthians 1:5 “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”
I’m all for a bit of fun, a bit of a laugh, but you know what, a life that is ‘all a bit of a laugh’ is a wasted life. I like Zavi’s picture of God weaving something far stronger and deeper and more beautiful into and through our lives. That’s awesome. A beautiful life, a powerful life, a good life, a gracious life.
I feel Chapters 7 through 11 are a bit of conversation – very much like Job. On one hand we are encouraged to enjoy today (9:7) “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.” But on the other hand pursue wisdom (9:17) “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.” Then he goes back to ‘but enjoy life while you can’. Vs 11:8 “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.” Now remember meaningless is not a good translation – everything is Hebel – breath – momentary. Solomon has grasped this great truth, that life is not one dimensional, that if you are a good boy and do everything right you will not be guaranteed to live a good life, have plenty, and be able to enjoy your older years. Not for everyone. Some people will still be working hard at 80. I see lots of good people whose kids have gone off the rails – and it’s not their fault.
Solomon does us a great service when he deconstructs Kiwi Kultural Karma. Those who suffer mental illness do not deserve it.
I want to end with Jesus. He is that master craftsman, and he is asking you to sit below the loom of your life and move the shuttle when he calls. Salvation is to obey his guidance, forensically, emotionally and practically. I think a lot of people don’t believe that God has time or interest in our lives. That’s a lie. God is interested in everyone’s life. God wants to weave a beautiful sari out of your life, and he will use all the tools at his disposal. I’m not saying he necessarily creates all misfortune – a lot of it is the sins of others – but he can use it all. C S Lewis says in the problem of pain “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Abuse is an awful thing, but I have seen some abused people rise out of their abuse and become people of such incredible dignity and power. Others to whom much is given, much will be expected. And others take the tiny thing that they have and change one other person’s life. I have seen the poorest people with the most generous hearts.
Will you reject a naïve theology of Karma? Will you embrace suffering and opportunity alike? But, most of all, will you move the shuttle when the master says ‘now’?