The Bible in a Year – 22 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

22 August. Ecclesiastes chapters 1-4

If the book of Lamentations (the readings for the last two days) was the story of unalleviated suffering in Jerusalem at a time of disaster, Ecclesiastes is a story – or rather a reflection – on unalleviated boredom in Jerusalem in a time of peace. Traditionally identified with Solomon (like much of the other wisdom literature), it was clearly written later by someone else who either had received Solomon’s words passed down orally, or wrote what he thought Solomon might have taught.

The text is written so negatively – everything is vain, nothing brings satisfaction, everyone’s achievements will be forgotten – that it is hard to find anything positive in it.  Even when the writer sets up what seems like a way of achieving satisfaction (becoming wise in human terms in chapter 1, riches and pleasure in chapter 2, living the simple life of working and eating as any ‘ordinary’ person would in chapter 3), he then goes on to regret it as ‘vanity’.  For whatever you or I achieve in this life will be forgotten by future generations as we forget nearly all of those who went before us, and humans, like animals, will all die and be recycled by nature as the wind and water go round in their natural cycles.

Vanity, of course, is not the same as sin or error. The ‘preacher’ Ecclesiastes does not suggest that it is wrong to work hard, or to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life such as food and drink, indeed it is God’s will that we should do so (3:13). Nor is it wrong to possess wealth, or to have friends. Indeed friendship is one of the few things that are noted as being of lasting value in these chapters (4:9-10).  The most positive statement is reserved for those who “please God” (by keeping his commandments and loving their neighbours) and thereby receive “wisdom, knowledge and joy” (2:26) – yet even those God-given gifts are ultimately futile for they are earthly virtues that only last as long as we live.

What, then, can we do?  The answer must be to regard this life as but a preparation for the next, and live according to your station in life.  If you have riches, spend them wisely; if you are poor, be content with what you have; if you are intelligent, use it to enhance your appreciation of the world; if you have friends, enjoy their company.

All this sounds to us very pre-modern. Advice that might be useful to barons and serfs, monks and troubadors in a feudal society, but is it really applicable to the 21st century world of commerce, Wikipedia and social media?  It is, because these things are but new versions of the old.  What Ecclesiastes wrote is still true: that what happens now happened before, and will happen again.   So enjoy life as much as you can, please God by the way you do it, but don’t think too deeply about the future, for that is in God’s hands.

The Bible in a Year – 2 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

2 August. Proverbs chapters 22-23.

The first part of chapter 22 finishes the “one-liner” sayings of Solomon that we have looked at over the last few days.  The remainder of today’s reading is headed “Sayings of the wise” and the main thrust of this section of the book is about living in moderation, and avoiding excess. There are particular warnings for those who move in the circles of the rich and powerful (23:1-5/20-21) and of the dangers of drunkenness (23:29-35). The wise person should live a frugal lifestyle, not seek power and wealth, and avoid addictions.

There are also warnings for those who, by contrast, associate with the poor (22:22-23). Poor people are not to be taken advantage of, as they have God’s favour. But they are not idealised here: among the poor are those who are given to anger and fail to repay loans (22:24-27), and those who offer hospitality only out of convention and not genuine friendship (23:6-7).  The wise person has to distance themselves from such “foolish” behaviour (in the Biblical sense of the word).

What can Christians today learn from this? There has been much talk in the Church in recent decades of God’s bias to the poor”, and much condemnation of corporate greed and personal riches. But if we take these proverbs seriously, we need to be aware of the sins that so often go with poverty as well as those which are fuelled by wealth.

Jesus was known for associating with anyone: rulers and rich people, farmers and fishermen, beggars and prostitutes.  He enjoyed the hospitality he was offered, but as far as we know did not get drunk.  He lived as a single man, probably with single women among his disciples, but as far as we know remained celibate. He had no money to lend, but gave sacrificially of his time and healing powers. He sent his disciples out with the good news of the coming Kingdom, reliant on the hospitality of others, but told them to shake the dust off their feet when it was not forthcoming.

So the lesson seems to be, for your own benefit seek out the company of people who live decently.  They might be rich or poor, that does not matter, as long as they are not seeking to take advantage of you and do not threaten your safety or moral welfare.

But when it comes to the mission of that Church, like that of Jesus, then risks do have to be taken in order to take the Gospel to everyone.  No wonder Jesus told his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”, In other words, watch out for the dangers posed by people at all levels of society, but give them the benefit of the doubt in the name of Christ.