Ephemera

Everything is ephemeral – except the one eternal God

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Read: Ecclesiastes 1:2

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Reflect:

This is the motto of the Teacher, the echo and refrain throughout Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew word translated “meaningless” is hebel, which literally means vapour or breath (not to be confused with ruach, which means breath, wind or spirit). Hebel conveys the idea of transience, emptiness, futility, vanity; whatever is insubstantial or worthless.

In Isaiah 57:13 and Jeremiah 14:14-15 and 16:19 (and elsewhere in the prophets and wisdom writings) hebel is applied to the ephemeral nature of idols, especially as compared with the eternal might of the LORD God.

At first, it seems as if the Teacher’s motto is a statement of utter despair, frustration and pessimism. I’m left wondering if this Teacher, this wise elder, is nothing more than a grumpy old man.

However, this idea of everything in the world being transient or fleeting is consistent with  multiple passages of Scripture which testify to a contrast between the ephemeral nature of the life and wealth of people and the enduring nature and value of the word of God. Isaiah compares the faithlessness of people to fading flowers and the temporary life of people to withering grass, in contrast to the steadfast, enduring word of the LORD (Isaiah 40:6-8). James warns the fall of the rich is like the destruction of a blossom’s beauty under the scorching sun (James 1:10-11).

Further on in his letter, James uses the exact same vapour/mist analogy as Ecclesiastes’ Teacher when he says (4:14), “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” I think the message of Ecclesiastes and the motto of its Teacher may fit surprisingly well with the wise teaching of James, who also warned (4:4) that, “friendship with the world means enmity against God.”

What is meaningless? An ephemeral life lived with no regard for the eternal God.

crux:

Everything is ephemeral – except the one eternal God.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You are eternal, immortal, everlasting, enduring. You have existed forever and will exist forever more. You are the Alpha and Omega, the Living One. I offer praise to you.

In contrast, I am ephemeral. My life is fleeting, my desires futile, my efforts insubstantial, my achievements transient. I am a mist, a vapour. I humble myself before you.

Thank you for Peter’s assurance (1 Peter 1:18-19, 23) that you bought me with the imperishable blood of Christ, that I am born again of the imperishable seed of your Word. Thank you for Paul’s promise (1 Corinthians 15:42-44) that my body will be raised imperishable, in glory and power, a spiritual body. I treasure my hope of sharing eternity with you, my eternal God.

Amen.

Qohelet

Ecclesiastes presents the hard-won wisdom of an old king, a wise elder

Read: Ecclesiastes 1:1

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

Reflect:

This year, I decided to focus my Bible reading, reflection and response onto the genre of “Wisdom” throughout the Bible. In January, I began with the book of Proverbs, which includes wisdom statements attributed to Solomon, the wise king, as well as several other wise people. That was before I started posting my meditations here at crux.live. Since then, I have meditated on:

  • John’s gospel, the most poetic of the four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and wisdom;
  • Song of Songs, the second biblical book associated with wise King Solomon, a poetic and wise exploration of romance, weddings, sex and love;
  • The letters of 1, 2 and 3 John, which also focus on love, the wise love of God which sacrifices all for the other;
  • The book of Matthew, the most Jew-centric of the gospels, which includes long sections of Jesus’ wise teaching;
  • Deuteronomy, which recounts Moses’ wise sermons to God’s people before they enter the promised land; and
  • The letter of James, the New Testament epistle which most resembles the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in style and content.

Now, I’m turning to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, the third wisdom book associated with King Solomon, although he isn’t named directly. Ecclesiastes, like the book of proverbs, can seem disorganised or even haphazard in its structure, because it treats many topics in quick succession. However, the LORD God is a God of order, and his written word is consistently well-ordered. I believe that Ecclesiastes has a strongly defined, coherent structure, one that is extremely common in biblical texts: the chiasm, or ring structure. The chiasm is a pattern of repetition, where the second half reflects the first, and the centre echoes the beginning and end, as can be seen in this structural outline of Ecclesiastes, that I’ve lifted from an essay I wrote half a dozen years ago:

A 1:1 introductory prologue
B 1:2 motto
C 1:3-11 Song of cycles of nature and society
D 1:12-4:16 observations: wisdom, pleasure, oppression, toil, loneliness, succession: hebel
E 5:1-9 instructions: fear God – listen to God; fulfill vows
F 5:10 – 6:12 observations: wealth; common problem to lack contentment: hebel
G 7:1-22 instructions: keep the end in mind; God’s sovereignty; fear God, not man
H 7:23-8:1 central observations including frame narrator’s voice at 7:27
G’ 8:2-8 instructions: be cautious in relations with king and regarding the future
F’ 8:9-9:6 observations: injustice; common destiny to join the dead: hebel
E’ 9:7-10 instructions: be joyful for God has approved what you do; do what you find to do
D’ 9:11-11:8 observations and instructions: be prudent applying wisdom to overcome hebel
C’ 11:9-12:7 Song of youth and death
B’ 12:8 motto
A’ 12:9-14 epilogue and conclusion

During my theological training, I studied Ecclesiastes and wrote the above-mentioned essay about its structure and message and I’ve just dug it out and re-read it. (I’m pleased to be reminded my lecturer gave me a high distinction.) My own scholarship has convinced me to vary my reading from my standard, habitual pattern of a chapter a day. Instead, I’m going to read Ecclesiastes section by section. Some sections consist of several chapters, others of only a few verses, but the Teacher’s argument will be easier to follow if I follow his textual structure.

So, the first section consists merely of a single verse, Ecclesiastes 1:1. It is the introductory prologue for the book. It reminds me of the initial verses in each of the New Testament epistles, in that it establishes the author’s identity and qualifications (cf Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 2 John 1:1, Jude 1:1 and Revelation 1:4 etc). Except that this phrase doesn’t specifically name the author; rather it gives a pseudonym, which the NIV2011 translates “Teacher.” In the same way, the apostle John referred to himself indirectly as “The Elder” in his second and third letters.

The Hebrew word translated Teacher is Qohelet, a noun built from the Hebrew verb qhl, which means “to assemble, summon, gather.” Qohelet is understood as a title indicating a person who assembles the people in order to speak to them, like Moses preaching in Deuteronomy, or Ezra reading the Law in Nehemiah 8. It may also refer to a person who gathers wisdom, in the manner of the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (Proverbs 25:1). Historically, then, Qohelet has been seen as a veiled reference to Solomon, who both summoned the Israelite leaders to the dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:1) and gathered proverbs (Proverbs 1:11; 1 Kings 4:32).

It is possible, however, that a later writer is assuming the persona of Solomon, or even compiling, editing and presenting Solomonic wisdom, as the men of Hezekiah did. However, the central section of the Ecclesiastes chasm (7:23-8:1), which again mentions Qohelet, is, I think, evidence of a stronger connection to Solomon. Qohelet is mentioned only seven times in Ecclesiastes: 3 times in the initial verses, once in the central verse 7:29, and three more in the final verses. In that centre passage, there is specific mention of the lack of upright women in the author’s environs as well as a warning of the dangers of women who ensnare men. Both of these references, I think, point to Solomon’s authorship of this book at a time long after he had married his hundreds of pagan wives, well after he had warned his son away from unfaithful women in his earlier collection of proverbs.

Thus, the author of the book is Solomon, son of David, king in Jerusalem, writing with the wisdom God granted him early in his reign so he could administer justice (1 Kings 3) as well as the wisdom he gained through long and bitter experience, including his idolatrous period. Or, if not Solomon, then someone else who deliberately took on the mantle of Solomon in this writing. Perhaps another king in the line of David, maybe even Hezekiah, a righteous king who reigned in Judah during the fall of the northern kingdom  of Israel (1 Kings 18-20), whose men collected and compiled Solomon’s proverbs. Or maybe Ezra, a leader of God’s people during the return from exile, a time when intermarriage (the taking of foreign, pagan wives), was evidence of the unfaithfulness of Judah, and a stumbling block to many reestablishing their relationship with God. Whoever the author, they have the authority of Qohelet, the Gatherer of wisdom and Summoner of the people.

So, why should I listen to this Qohelet, this Teacher, Gatherer and Summoner?

Firstly, because God has sovereignly ordained that his wisdom be included in Holy Scripture, and I know (from 1 Timothy 3:15-17) that all Scripture is breathed out by God, the very words of God to me. All Scripture is able to make me wise for salvation through faith in my anointed King, Jesus. All Scripture is useful, fruitful and profitable, teaching me doctrine, telling me off, re-directing my ways, training me with skills and equipping me for my everyday ordinary life of glorifying God and loving my neighbour which God has set before me.

Secondly, because the wisdom of such an elder, a person who has lived long, seen much and learned bitter lessons along the way has much to offer me. I shall benefit from the wisdom of the Teacher’s 20/20 hindsight.

crux:

Ecclesiastes presents the hard-won wisdom of an old king, a wise elder.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Thank you for the wisdom you have shared with me so far this year through your word, the Bible. Thank you for teaching others like Solomon hard life lessons so I may learn the ‘easy way’, from their example and teaching.

Thank you for the wisdom you gave Solomon to administer justice in his realm. May I be just in my dealings with my ‘neighbours’.

Thank you for the efforts of so many of your people throughout the years to teach and record wisdom: for Moses, Solomon, the men of Hezekiah and Ezra; and for the saints of the ancient and medieval church such as Augustine and Calvin; for godly Bible teachers today such as Don Carson and John Piper, Kristie Anyabwile and Jen Wilkin; and also for my husband Jeff, the pastor and preacher of my own local church. Please bless Jeff as he prepares and preaches his sermons faithfully each week. Grant him a special measure of wisdom and clarity as he preaches through the book of Revelation.

Please help me to be wise as I meditate upon the book of Ecclesiastes. Equip me to give you glory in my everyday ordinary Christian life.

Amen.

Dream

Misery awaits those who ignore the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ

Read: James 5

You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5:8)

Reflect:

[This post is going to be a bit different from my usual meditation on the Bible. Bear with me, please!]

This morning, I woke from a terrible dream.

I dreamed that I was in a giant, colourful store with large glass windows all across the front, a store with everything necessary for life.

A woman was there, and when a man came furtively into the store, she pointed him out to me. “He comes here often,” she said. “Watch him.” She called out to the other people who worked in the store and they came to speak to the man, gathering at the front of the store.

But the man snuck off to another room, grabbed an immense painting, gilt-framed, a portrait of a family, and tried to take it. He would not listen to the others as they crowded around him, trying to speak. In the end he left the painting and slipped way out the door.

The woman spoke again to me: “If only he would listen! Everything in this store is available for free, if only people will receive it as a gift. Nothing here can be stolen, yet he always tries to steal, when he could have all this for free.”

She gestured around the store, and I saw that it was filled with food and clothes and all things that are needed for a good and pleasant life.

Next, I looked out the large glass windows that made up the front and side of the store. Outside, all was black and grey, stark and sombre. A black bitumen road lay in front of the store, coming right up to the window panes.

At first, I thought there was some sort of procession going past, but then I saw that no one was moving. Rather the road itself, beneath them, was moving, carrying them along as if it were a conveyor belt.

On the moving road, people stood and sat and even lay down, still and static as if in a tableau. No one made any attempt to leave or get off. Everyone was in shades of black and grey, there was no colour in them. It was as if I was watching a black and white movie panning from right to left, but there was no white, no lightness anywhere. Somehow I knew that some were Mormon, some Muslim, some of no recognised religion at all.

On the faces of the people were expressions of such misery and agony that I could barely look at them. I saw two men on the ground, lying as if dying or dead, but no one stooped to help them.

I turned to the right and my attention was caught by another man, outside the store but out of place because he was colourful and cheerful. He was green all over, and he looked like a living tree.

This man saw me looking at him, opened the door of the store and came over to me. He leaned over, looked me straight in the eyes and asked me, “Would you like me to explain what this means?”

All at once, I needed no explanation. I stared back aghast at this Man of Life and, through sobs, I spoke: “I will be so sad, so very sad, when my father dies. Then there will be no more hope for his escape.”

And then I woke, shuddering.

This morning Jeff preached on Revelation 8-10, including the seven trumpets of Revelation 8:6-9:21. The woe of which the trumpets warn is one and the same with my dream (Genesis 41:25).

crux:

Misery awaits those who ignore the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Read: James 5

Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:20)

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You are full of compassion and mercy. Please have compassion on my father and extend mercy to him. Please grant him repentance and faith.

You are the Judge, standing at the door. Please do not judge my father until you have first justified him and granted him your forgiveness and your righteousness.

Please help me to speak to my father today. May my words always give you glory.

Amen.

 

Exclusive

Love for God is mutually exclusive with lust for the world

Read: James 4

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think that Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the Spirit he has caused to dwell in us? (James 4:4-5)

Reflect:

According to James, love for the world equates to hatred towards God. Jesus said something similar (Matthew 6:24): “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

This idea of mutually exclusive loves is anathema to many people, but that doesn’t make it any less true. History shows us that it has been common for religious people to try to combine love for God with love for many other things, causing no end of misery and anguish – witness the Reformation. Missionaries have always struggled with finding the balance between culture and faith – working to prevent an ungodly pagan culture from infiltrating a new church, while also guarding against the missionary’s own ungodly personal culture corrupting their presentation of the gospel.

In today’s churches, Christians struggle with idolatry of money (some call it ‘the prosperity gospel’); idolatry of fertility and family (whether it is the ‘quiver-full movement’ or a snobbish exclusivity that shames single parents while also ignoring single virgins); idolatry of education (ascribing salvation-like effects to private schools or homeschooling curricula); idolatry of creation (where the temporal salvation of plants and animals is valued more highly than the eternal salvation of people); as well as idolatry of six-day creation (where one doctrine is elevated in importance far above other core Christian doctrines). The list could go on.

Of course, many things compete in my life for the love that must belong solely to God.  James says God is jealous for the Spirit that he imparted to me – jealous that my spirit might be at one with God’s Spirit, worshiping and giving glory to him, not to his creation. God wants my love for him to be pure and undefiled.

crux:

Love for God is mutually exclusive with lust for the world.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Make my love for you pure and undefiled.

May I not be distracted nor dissuaded from my faith and love for Jesus Christ. Keep me from idols and help me to resist the devil.

Enable me to seek and find my satisfaction and joy in you alone.

Amen.

Teachers

The imperfections of my teaching are covered by the perfection of Christ

Read: James 3

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:1-2)

Reflect:

I’m on a break from teaching with the school holidays, so now is a good time to meditate on this verse, before I head back into my two teaching roles: teaching men to read and women to read the Bible.

James has a warning for me (3:1): that, as a teacher, I “will be judged more strictly.” It is absolutely imperative that I teach rightly and righteously.

In my reading, writing and spelling classes, this means teaching consistently the patterns of the English language: phonemes, graphemes, blending and segmenting and word classes, syntax and punctuation. It also means teaching my students as my ‘neighbour’ with respect, humility and compassion.

In my Bible study small group, I must prepare diligently so I know the text (2 Corinthians, next term) thoroughly and have allowed God to speak to me through the text before I attempt to help my group members hear God’s voice through his word. It again means treating my small group members as my ‘neighbour’ with gentleness, kindness and understanding.

In all this, there is a reminder that although the standard is very high, God knows “we will all stumble in many ways” (3:2). I am not perfect, not faultless in what I say. There is only one who was perfect, the greatest Teacher, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, for Jesus died to grant his perfection to me and to all who believe in him. [This is the doctrine of imputation of righteousness.] Trusting and relying upon Christ’s perfection, therefore, I set out to teach.

crux:

The imperfections of my teaching are covered by the perfection of Christ.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

I know I’m not perfect, and I’m certainly not a perfect teacher. I slack off, or have down days – sometimes even weeks or months where I struggle to feel the passion for teaching words and teaching your Word that I’ve felt before.

Thank you that Jesus was a perfect example of teacher for me to model my own teaching upon. Thank you that he was not just a model; thank you that he justified me and made me righteous.

May your Spirit empower my teaching. Make me bold, enthusiastic and godly.

Amen.

Favouritism

Christians must show unbiased love rather than favouritism

Read: James 2

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:8-9)

Reflect:

James presents a contrast between love and favouritism. Favouritism, as James explains in verses 2-4, is essentially discrimination – when one person is treated better and another worse, based upon a judgement of their status in society as a representation of their inherent worth. Love, however, is shown when the other person is treated the way the self wants to be treated; for the benefit of the other, even as all people (even if their emotions are so twisted that they despise themselves) seek to serve themselves and meet their own desires and needs.

So this is a very high standard that James commands of Christians. Like Jesus, James tells us we must love the other, the different. Whether our ‘neighbour’ (any person we meet) is of a different cultural or socioeconomic background; or of a different gender or practicing a different mode of sexual expression; or lives in a different family structure; or holds to a different political persuasion: regardless of our differences, Christians are to love others.

Neither are Christians to show partiality or preference for those more similar, or those whose attributes are more highly esteemed. Again, this is hard.

But Christians know all people were created equally in the image of our God. And we know that all people suffer in some way the effects of sin, so the image of God is marred in them. We know that God desires all people everywhere to come to repentance and saving faith in Jesus Christ. So as Christians, we must love all with God’s love.

crux:

Christians must show unbiased love rather than favouritism.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

I know you want me to love others and not show preference. This is very hard to do. Please help me.

Please help me to treasure other people as your image-bearers. Help me to have mercy on others for the way your image is marred. Keep me from egotistically thinking that your image is somehow less marred in me or in those I think are more like me.

Please help me to show the image of your Son in my life, in my everyday ordinary.

Amen.

Birth

My desires birth my sin; the Father’s decision birthed my salvation

Read: James 1

Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:17-18)

Reflect:

Two births are described here: the birth of sin, from evil desire and our (Christian) birth through the gospel. The former leads only to death but the latter prefigures the new creation. Sin is birthed by human hearts, but Christians are born as the heavenly Father’s firstfruits.

What does it mean that sin springs from the evil desires of the human heart? It means I cannot blame anyone but myself for my mistakes and bad choices, just as I cannot blame anyone else for my rebellion and disgrace. It was my fault that I went my own way instead of staying on the narrow way of Christ. It is my fault that I am frequently lazy, selfish, short-tempered or fearful.

What does it mean that new birth is a good and perfect gift from the Father? It means that I do not deserve new birth, I did not do anything to earn it and I could not do anything to repay my heavenly Father for it. It is free, ‘no strings attached’. It’s an outpouring of the LORD’s goodness and generosity, his loving-kindness and compassion, his mercy and grace, his choice and creation. I can do nothing to lose this new birth for I did nothing to win it.

crux:

My desires birth my sin; the Father’s decision birthed my salvation.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Please receive my apology: I am truly sorry for my sin, my evil desires, my wicked rebellion against you who are my God.

Thank you for your choice to give me a new life as your saved, redeemed, adopted, renewed child.

I love you. You are good and generous, and I have benefited mightily from your grace.

Please allow me to share your grace with others.

Amen.