Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Week 1 & 2: Vanity and Futility

“We're all travelers in this world. From the sweet grass to the packing house. Birth 'til death. We travel between the eternities”
Broken Trails, Robert Duvall

Week 1
A brief overview of the themes: despair, futility, pessimism, nihilism,

Hedging your bets is what I see in Greek life, as when Paul observed, they make large artistic marble sacraments to their 'the unknown God.' That is what I used to think Ecclesiastes was about.

But, upon further life experience, there are only two options about the purpose of life, and God, within Ecclesiastes.

My generation is, to quote my mentor Dennis Prager, is “The age of Stupidity.” And I have been affected by it in a serious way. But all other generations have theirs and are affected by similar foolish outlooks.

One is the example is of Hemingway's life and death and it's decidedly macabre finish in which he took. He secretly rose from his bed after his wife had gone to sleep and in the kitchen and with his favorite hunting rifle, there, he set it up to shoot himself. And he indeed did shoot himself. For he was consistent through out his career and adult life, where he took a pessimistic view of life in general. And the nature of his response to this view, was one of our first array of themes. Where he said and wrote that we must get an edge over life because death will creep in sooner or later. He said we should choose the time and place and the method of our death where ever we can see it fit in to this over all view of futility. He preached the doctrine of self-aware suicide throughout his whole life. He said we must take and use your life on one’s own terms and basis. His themes in his books were about the great struggles of life; of deprivation, or violence, or attaining and using power, or evil and of warfare and danger. He wrote about the modern existential hero who is deviant and will take a stand against a Sovereign’s notion of life. And with this view a cosmos that seems to be meaningless and of no great and timeless significance. "The Sun also rises" is his book title which is an exact quote from a book of the OT. Written in Ecclesiastes in the first chapter.

In verse 1:1 we read: …..In the opening here of this book; the words in this passage are words that drip with despair.

What we have in Ecc (Ecclesiastes) is one of the most difficult narratives of literature in the Bible to handle well. Some have thought it shouldn’t be in the canon of scripture because so much of the message is filled rightly with despair and pessimism of how life is lived. These 3,000 year old ancient writings had their own version of wisdom literature and how to understand it. A type that the Bible would use was called ‘literary pessimism.’ This type of literature was not that uncommon then. For this is the way the ancients used to seek out a way of dealing with human suffering, grief, death, mourning and of pain. Other cultures around Mesopotamia had there own versions of wisdom literature too. It was a universal attempt to try to answer that age old question of 'what's it all about'.

How can you find Godly meaning in an existence that is so filled with pain and disappointment, denial of good and flagrant treasonous living?

What was so, on the surface, apparent to me earlier in my life, is that the first chapter was written in an almost quixotic sense of perspective. You can do nothing to solve the riddles and calamities in life. Because it suggests an atmosphere of hopelessness and futile aspirations. My question to myself was is this so or is there something else I must imbibe from this statement.

But, as a result of much weariness and experience, I believe it to be so and can find firm evidence for it, that God himself inspired this book that reaches us today, was not for that understanding I started with. No. For in an expression that is 500 years old, "the HS (Holy Spirit) is not a skeptic" and is not succumbing to this outcome written for our benefit in Ecclesiastes. And for that matter, the HS is not a pessimist and doesn't deliver and surrender to despair, like I do.

So why does the HS inspire a book that starts out in the beginning chapter with "vanity" doubled?

So, to tell you in just the briefest language, it was a self conscious literary device used here in the OT as a type of apologetic device. The work of the apologist is usually reserved for technical philosophers and theologians that will formulate intellectual arguments for the truth claims of Christianity and God Himself. So ‘apologia’ is rendered in Greek for ‘a reply.‘ To answer objections that are raised by competing and contradictory worldviews.

This book sets out to take the theories and views that people take of life from an earth bound perspective and put those ideas on a collision course with the God of A-I-J, i.e. Israel. Which seeks to understand human existence always in “Coram Deo.” Always before the face of God. Always under the Sovereignty of God. Always to be lived to the glory of God. So what we see here is an exposition of these competing worldviews. There are key words that you want to look for in Ecclesiastes and these two phrases are:

  1. Under the sun
  2. Under heaven

It’s focus is on the tension between the "under the Sun" and it’s human focus and the opposite perspective and side; "under Heaven," a privileged position of ultimate truth.

Let’s go back to 1:1 and unravel what vanity is trying to describe.

The first meaning of vanity is: My Grandmother had a little table and mirror, a piece of furniture, with a chair and she called this piece of furniture a Vanity. Well, the abstract meaning of the furniture comes from the notion of one being vain and preoccupied with themselves and how the appear and look. The puffed up pride we call vanity. That is about as much as people understand vanity.

The second and the weightier and relevant meaning that the Bible wants to convey is as a synonym for the word futility. That which is vain is that which is useless, that which brings no advantage or brings no blessing and brings no profit. It is empty of any value, empty of any significance--in a word futile.

I hate the word futile. Because the thing that I fear more that anything else is the possibility our life being futile. Could life be full of futility even for the God-fearers? It is one thing to work ourselves to the bone, to sweat and to labor. To go thru all sorts of anxiety and all manner of effort. We do this, because, we are motivated by the hope or expectation of producing something that is valuable and something that is useful.
How would you feel about your labor if you came to the conclusion that in the final analysis your labor is futile. All useless. An example is that you are using your computer and writing important information and after an hour it all vanished from your file. Lost. Unrecoverable. My reaction is to so despise the notion of lost labor that you work for hours trying to recover the document rather than cutting your loses and starting all over. But the way I did it, the whole episode was a pure attempt in futility. This is the idea of vanity. It is one thing to go through pain for a ‘purpose’ it is another to go thru pain for no reason at all.

So here we have a book that is concerned with reality and starts out and states that life is vanity. But not just one vanity but, bang, vanity of vanity.

What does that phrase communicate?

It is not talking about the futility of doing work in a futile manner, rather, it is using a literary device that communicates ‘radical emphasis.’ For example, we say a man is “a man amongst men.” we say the Bible is not just a book but “ the book of Books.” Jesus isn’t a king but the “King of Kings.” So this literary structure takes the simple word “Vanity” and elevates it to the ultimate degree.

So reading here, all-all! Is vanity. This is the creed of nihilism. Everything is futile. Meaningless. In verse 3 you see the regard from the perspective of “under the sun.” Here is the framework for why it is for nothing. Also ‘generation to generation’, ‘sun up and down’, wind to the east and then north thru the circuit again’, rivers run and then run again. Even in verse 9 it says from ancient times which is from Solomon’s backward glance from his time period. Our looking back is 2,900 years.

This is the view and was one of the competing philosophies of that age in contrast to the Jewish view of history that it has a definite beginning. And is moving in a definite purpose. With a definite point of consummation. This view is on a collision course with other skeptical views of the ancient world which taught a cyclical view of history. Which was borrowed in the 19th century when Fredrick Nietzsche wrote “The Myth of Continual Recurrence.” Which he borrowed from the Greeks. Which says all of history is a circle or cycle. No beginning or end or significant meaning along the road. In contrast to a linear meaning which the Jew understood. Greeks took the pessimistic view of nothing is new. Aimlessly going nowhere.

I love Ecclesiastes because it puts all the marbles on the table or all the chips on the floor (to mix metaphors.) It brings us to a stark reality of the conflicting and ultimately competing worldviews that are offered. From no meaning to eternal purpose. There is nothing in between ultimately. Either we have value or we don’t. If all we know is from the vantage of ‘under the Sun’ then all we really can know is that the Sun rises and it sets but it is not new and it is all vanity.

What I got wrong is that this is not just a patchwork quilt of ideas to stop us from full despair. Partial uselessness, fine. This was not the only message of this book. But it is an exposition to the alternatives of biblical revelation. Next week we go on to others.

Week 2

Please read again Ecclesiastes 2 plus contemplate on the whole rest of the book. Find the places in almost every chapter where Solomon refers to "under the sun" which he uses as a point or demarcation for the reader to focus their lens of understanding on.

Terms to look up: figurative language, literary genre, personification, encomium, proposition, humanism, idealism, Epicureanism, hedonistic, materialist, empiricist.

The contents of Ecclesiastes is a book which focuses upon the limits of life to teach wisdom. The point of view, here, is that of Solomon and his name, “Qoheleth” whose wealth, wisdom, and glory placed him at the upper limit of human success. From his royal pinnacle Qoheleth surveyed life and judged it to be vanity because of the inescapable limits God and sin place on even the most successful human being. Thus the book cannot be dismissed as the disillusioned pessimism of one whom life had cheated.

Human limits are various:

  • humans cannot make straight what is crooked (Ecclesiastes 1:15);
  • what is lacking cannot be numbered (Ecclesiastes 7:13);
  • nor can humans remove injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16) and oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1-2; Ecclesiastes 5:8) from the earth.
  • Sometimes good folk receive evil while the wicked prosper (Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14; compare Psalms 73:1).

Thus, humans are unable to achieve their dreams and ambitions because of sin and because of their limited knowledge, power, and goodness. In his focus on limits Qoheleth, like Job, attacked those who selectively misuse traditional wisdom to promote a false gospel of unlimited success for the “righteous.” Even if humans do seem to succeed, like Qoheleth himself, had even this is vanity, because their knowledge is limited and imperfect: “no man (adham) can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Moreover, even the best, richest, and wisest life is ended by death. Thus even the greatest goods and achievements, indeed, “everything under the sun” must be labeled as “vanity.”

The Hebrew word translated as “vanity” is hevel whose literal meaning is “breath” or breeze. The author used this word metaphorically, often with the added phrase “striving after wind,” to express the transience, weakness, and nothingness of human life. All things pass away. His view of life was much like that of the godly psalmist who prayed,

  • “Lord, make me to know mine end that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity (hebel)!” (Psalms 39:4-6; compare Job 7:16; Psalms 62:9; Psalms 78:33; Psalms 144:4).
  • Elsewhere, the Bible conveys this view of human limits by the imagery of grass, which grows and withers while the Word of God alone endures forever (Psalms 90:5-6; Isaiah 40:6-8; James 1:10-11; 1 Peter 1:24). In this light, it is quite mistaken to translate hevel as “meaningless” as does the NIV throughout Ecclesiastes.

Since life is vanity, what then is good?

Qoheleth's answer has two points which are repeated several times in the book (though many commentators overlook this aspect of the book's teaching).

The first point is summarized by the editor at the end of the book:

  • “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
  • God's sovereign actions are beyond human ability to change (Ecclesiastes 7:13);
  • God has done this “that men should fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
  • It is God who has set the limits on human life and knowledge (Ecclesiastes 7:14).

Thus Qoheleth's world is “vain,” but only in the sense noted above. It is not a world without God.

from God comes,

  • “who can eat and who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:25 NAS).
  • Even if a person experiences injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14),
  • God is still a just Judge (Ecclesiastes 3:17-18)
  • who acts in His own time (Ecclesiastes 8:6; Ecclesiastes 11:9).
  • For Qoheleth, worship of God and vows made to Him are matters of utmost seriousness (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2,Ecclesiastes 5:4).
  • Since God judges sin (Ecclesiastes 5:6), people should avoid foolish talk and “fear God” (Ecclesiastes 5:7).
  • “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days, like a shadow, because he does not fear God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13 NAS; compare Ecclesiastes 7:18).

Qoheleth's second point is:

humans do not have sovereign control over life, being limited by vanity (habel) in all its forms, especially death.

  • Because of this, they should enjoy life and its ordinary pleasures of work and play, food and drink, love and family, all as gifts from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

If there is resignation in Qoheleth, it is that of one who has left the riddles and painful mysteries of life in God's hands, while accepting its limited joys with sober thanks.

Rom 1:18 and ‘Alethia’ and what is true in any matter under consideration. Evident-faneros-manifest

Correction: Rom 1:25 should be 1:21. 1:29 wickedness, unrightness and also evil. What of 1:30 and inventors of…evil? What gives are they the same?

Week 2:
Questions to answer---Discussion topics--movies for Tuesday---Extra reading if interested

The Nag Hammadi and gnostic codices: what are they, when and where were they discovered, and are they important today? Were the books of Solomon found there? Just spend ten to 15 minutes or so at to find the answer. It’s in Volume 3, Section B in parts 24-28.
Is this book Qoleheth getting under your skin and heart yet?
What does the word 'ecclesia-church-assembly' mean Old Testament to New? How is Paul meaning ecclesia as it concerns who he was writing to? Relate how we should understand this in our time period?
So, then, what is the New Testament understanding of ekklesia?
If this word isn't equivalent to "church," what other English word or words might better render the sense of ekklesia?
Does this have some residual wisdom on how we should understand Ecclesiastes?
How would the Greek or Roman citizen of the first century understood this word? In other words, is it alright for the meanings of words in scripture to change and morph over the centuries? We just pick up the new meaning and move along.
What do you think---does Ecclesiastes impart wisdom on how we are to live well in order to die well?
Does this book stimulate your thinking on the truths about the fragility of human life, what we should do with the life we have left, and what it takes to get to heaven?
Does this book inspire talk about the existence of God, and how to best number our days?

Here are a few more movie tie-ins as I think they relate to Ecclesiastes and wisdom, with my short summaries. I'm assuming we all like a good movie (and they are hard to find) now and then. Come next time with a thought thru opinion on these or one of your own.

Citizen Kane: Talk about the idea of money accumulation and buying things to a limitless degree. Discuss pride, hypocrisy, marriage, and what the movie says about 'to love and be loved.'
Cinderella Man: Am I willing to do right even when times are hard? discuss parental sacrifice and discipline. Bring up the ideals of prayer, humility and counting the cost even when the cost is unknown in the present circumstance.
Amazing Grace: How does having principle make decision making easier? Talk about acting on principle, a well chosen spouse, and the connection between working and a calling. I think inside the movie there is the idea and need for restitution and heroism. Tell me if you see that also.
It's a Wonderful Life: Cogitate on the contrasts between values and influence. What it means to live a rich life.
The Pursuit of Happyness: How do we find strength in the face of short or long lasting adversity. The role in bitterness as a robber of applicable wisdom, how do we overcome, and the power of the tongue.

Extra Reading:
From Mark D. Roberts blog: I performed a wedding today for a young woman from my church and her new husband. In the wedding they literally tied the knot, taking a couple of minutes to weave together three strands of rope, and then tie the strands together with several knots. The three piece of rope were meant to represent the joining of their two lives together, with the third piece standing for Christ's presence in their marriage. All of this was connected to the text of Ecclesiastes 4:12, which reads, "A threefold cord is not quickly broken." Now this couple has a memento of their wedding, something that reminds them, not only of the wedding itself, but also of the centrality of Christ in their married life.
As I was preparing to do the wedding homily, I began to wonder where the expression "tie the knot" comes from. So I googled on "tie the knot," and came up with 1,180,000 hits. After poking around a bit I discovered that there are a several theories about the origin of "tie the knot" as a way of talking about getting married.
One suggestion is that "tie the knot" derives from the time when married couples would need a new bed. Before mattress and box spring sets, beds were made from wooden frames with ropes strung across the frames, upon which were placed straw mattresses. Newlywed couples thus had to "tie the knot" of their marriage bed.
Another suggestion points to the ancient Celtic wedding ritual in which the hands of the bride and groom were ceremonially tied together to signify their marriage.

Could we hammer home, along with the discussion last week, what the various differences in "vanity" should be understood as. They are of two different word groups in Hebrew.

What is the meaning of the word vanity

Should we read vanity anywhere in the Old Testament and New that it is useless, futile and transient?
What does Paul mean when he writes in Romans 1:25 about vanity?
What does Exodus 20:7 mean when it is translated vanity? Is it the same as Ecclesiastes 1:2?
Job, David, Solomon, Jeremiah , Habakkuk and Malachi all wondered why the way of the wicked prospered. Do they have a genuine and clear answer for this fact?

  • vanity (shav')
job 7:3
jonah 2:8
exodus 20:7
Roman 1:25
psalm 119:37

  • Vanity (habel)
Psalms 39:11
Psalms 62:9
Ecclesiastes 1:2
Ecclesiastes 2:1
Ecclesiastes 4:16
Ecclesiastes 11:10
Ephesians 4:17
jeremiah 2:5

Ex 20:7, "You shall not take (carry, bear, lift) the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. "
This is not the same word as in Ecclesiastes.

Here, it is 'shav' and means: falsely, worthless, deceitfully, lying. 53x

#Fw:( shâv'’ covers a range of meaning from falsehood to wickedness and the English translation "do not take the Lord's name in vain" is a bit limp and could better be rendered "do not treat God's name falsely or wickedly", thereby making it worthless, e.g., by making a false oath in his name, or attributing evil to him, either of which destroy God's reputation.
Fortunately, the poetic works offer us some parallelisms of usage. We find #Fw:( shâv'’ occurring in poetic parallelism with:

(Fw:a ’âven wickedness, vain effort (Strong's #205) Job 11:11, Psalm 41:6

Isaiah echoes some of the same parallelisms as above when he writes:
"No one calls for justice, Nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; They conceive evil and bring forth iniquity." (Isaiah 59:4, NKJV)

Could we hammer home also the word rasha. wicked-worthless-evil-guilty…

Ecclesiastes 7:15

I have seen everything in my days of vanity:

There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness,
And there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his wickedness.

Ecclesiastes 3:17

I said in my heart,

"God shall judge the righteous and the wicked,
For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work."

râshâ‘ (Strong's #7563) "wicked" or criminal or guilty, often in opposition to God. This word occurs 263 times most frequently in the Psalms (82x), Proverbs (78x), Ezekiel (28x) and Job (26x). It is used in parallel with almost every Hebrew word for sin, evil, and iniquity. It describes the person more as an adjective whilst the noun r#) resha‘ (Strong's #7562) describes the wicked or criminal act itself, "wickedness proceeds from the wicked" (1 Samuel 24:13).

Its use is most clearly seen in its being opposed to righteousness. The contrast with righteous/righteousness is most common in the book of Proverbs where over half of the 80 occasions in which the words are used together in contrasting parallelism occur. The first time we find the word in the Bible is in Genesis 18:23 in Abraham's dialogue with God over the innocent in Sodom, "...would You also destroy the righteous cDyq tsaddîyq, Strong's #6662) with the wicked?" (cf. v25).

In the legal context we find in Numbers 35:31, "you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death" it seems best to translate as "guilty" but it could equally be "wicked to the death" or "rotten to the core", as the preposition translated "of" is actually "to the" in Hebrew.

In the beautiful word picture of Psalm 1:4-6 the wicked (used 4 times in its 6 verses) are compared to the chaff that is driven away by the wind, they are those that are unable to stand with the righteous.

Job (12:6, 21:7), David (Psalm 73:3), Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:15), Jeremiah (12:1), Habakkuk (1:4,13) and Malachi (3:15) all wondered why the way of the wicked prospered. In God's time (Ecclesiastes 3:17), though, the whirlwind will come upon the wicked (Jeremiah 23:19, 30:23) and in their death they will find banishment (Proverbs 14:32) whilst the righteous will find the rest that the raging soul of the wicked will never find.

"There is no peace, Says my God, for the wicked" (Isaiah 57:21)

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