The Corner Cutter

Ecclesiastes 7:7-8

Simón Bolívar, also known as El Liberator, is the George Washington of not just one country but several, beginning in his native Venezuela. In fact, the official name of that country is the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Nearby, the nation of Bolivia is named for the leader. The currencies of both countries are derived from his name as well.

Go to Venezuela today. Or better yet, don’t go. It’s a dreadful place where the common people struggle to have food to eat or money to buy it with. Poverty has been rife in Venezuela for decades but today it is made worse by an economy that just keeps spiraling downward despite immense oil wealth.

I mention this because I would trace some of Venezuela’s problems to what I saw when I visited the place. Government officials at various levels were corrupt, looking for bribes on matters great and small. And if that happened with police and customs officers, we have to know that it happened among the powerful in and out of government as well.

Consider the next sayings of Koheleth:

Surely, the practice of extortion turns a wise person into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the mind.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning;
a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit.

Ecclesiastes 7:7-8

Rush to Folly

When I first read these verses, I was annoyed. They seem utterly unrelated and thus would need to be treated separately. But reflecting on the matter briefly, I realized that there is a connection between them.

What sort of person becomes corrupt or practices extortion? Certainly a proud and impatient spirit will lead in that direction. Those officials in Venezuela did not start life less virtuous than me. As much as I might want to dismiss them as just the sort of people that South America produces, I know that this isn’t at all fair.

Or maybe it is fair. Maybe the sort of people that South America produces is the sort of people that North America produces. We start out life with the potential to be honest and humble, but then, to a greater or smaller degree, things go badly.

I could proudly look at myself, a college teacher, and crow that I’ve never asked for or accepted a bribe for good grades. I did have a guy offer me $100 for a better grade one time, but I quickly laughed that off, assuring him that he was joking. Here I am: pure as the driven snow.

But these proverbs don’t indicate that extortion and bribery are the only paths to folly and corruption. I would suggest that any time we manifest our impatient or proud spirit, we are apt to cut corners and engage in behavior that is every bit as dishonest as those Venezuelanos.

Getting in Tune

I don’t know much about Simón Bolívar, but I do know about Washington. What impresses me about the man is that he did not cut corners. Through difficult years, he stayed the course, while Benedict Arnold stuck his finger into the wind and acted corruptly for his own benefit. Honestly, many of the problems of our nation today can be traced back to people cutting corners for selfish reasons.

Jesus stayed the course even better than Washington. One of Satan’s temptations was essentially a corner-cutting exercise, a move that would bypass the cross and jump to the end of the matter from the beginning. But Jesus knew this to be the wrong thing to do.

When we rush to cut corners, when we behave corruptly, we debase ourselves and reflect badly on our God.

A Hard Tune to Hear

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

Let me play a song for you. Here are some of the lyrics:

We have to conceive it on the inside before we’re ever going to receive it on the outside. . . . You must conceive it in your heart before you can receive it. In other words, you must make increase in your own thinking, then God will bring those things to pass.

Okay, it’s hard to imagine those words to a tune, but they are a sort of song, mentioned in today’s text.

It is better to listen to rebuke from a wise person
than to listen to the song of fools,
for like the crackling of burning thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of the fool.
This too is futile.

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

Prosperity Foolishness

If you didn’t recognize the words of the “song of fools” above, they came from a book by Joel Osteen, a man who guides his church to pledge their allegiance to the Bible just before he preaches a message that directly contradicts the plain meaning of the Word.

Without belaboring the foolishness of the Osteen passage above, let’s just consider which of these biblical figures conceived in their heart what they later received: Abraham or Moses? Gideon or Samson? Peter or Paul? I could go on, but you get the picture. When we’re limited to receiving only what we can conceive, then we’ll never see the best from “him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

What if Simon Peter had read a copy of Joel’s book before Jesus came strolling down the shores of Galilee? He might have envisioned himself as the greatest fisherman on the lake. He might have conceived piles of fish and a fleet of boats. He might have imagined scores of employees. And we would have never heard of him.

The Wise Rebuke

Do we think that Simon Peter ever sat there in a quiet moment in the boat and dreamed of helping to feed 5,000 people? Did he envision healing his mother-in-law? Did he conceive in his mind the Transfiguration or the vision on the rooftop or bringing the gospel–what gospel?–to Gentiles? These were all things that were “beyond all that we ask or think.”

But in the course of experiencing all those things, Simon had to hear some unwanted words:

  • Truly I tell you, a rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times.–John 13:38
  • So, couldn’t you stay awake with me one hour?–Matthew 26:40
  • Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.–Matthew 16:23

If Simon had not opened himself to the things that were beyond all he could ask or think, if he had not gone beyond the song of fools, then he would have remained forever Simon and never Peter. The rebuke of the wise made him a rock on which Christ could establish his church.

Getting in Tune

And so the question that I need to ask myself today and that you should ask yourself is, what words to you heed most readily? Do you welcome the rebuke of the wise, or do you sing along to the song of fools.

The song of fools is much more pleasing to the ear. It will tell you that you should have all those possessions and liberties that you really want. It’ll assure you that you’re just great the way you are.

The rebuke of the wise hurts. It tells us that we aren’t “all that.” It points out our vanities and selfishness. It grates on the ear in a way that the smooth sound of the fool’s song doesn’t.

But only those rebukes will help us to grow to be more like Jesus. I surely don’t have to tell you what the song of the fool will help you grow toward.

The Winning Team

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

In 2008, I watched as my beloved KU Jayhawks basketball team won their fifth national championship. Mario Chalmers sank a clutch three-point shot at the end of regulation against the heavily favored Memphis Tigers. Then in overtime, the Jayhawks put their foot on the accelerator and won the game 75-68.

Not surprisingly, I was elated when I watched Chalmers’ shot pass through the net, delighted that it didn’t rattle around and out like Kirk Heinrich’s similar opportunity five years earlier. But then, as the Tigers fell apart and the outcome became clear during the overtime, I had strange thoughts pass my mind. A couple of these valuable players were seniors and others, the heart of the team, would almost certainly jump to the NBA.

Before the victory was in the bag, I found myself getting down about the next season. That’s where my mind goes as I consider the proverbs in today’s slice of Ecclesiastes:

Grief is better than laughter,
for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.
The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

Eeyore Has It Right

Perhaps nothing illustrates the truth of these verses better than sports. Just a few years ago, in 2015, all of Kansas City went berserk when the Royals won the World Series. Today, a scant four years later, that victory seems like a fantasy story as the current crew is steaming toward another 100-loss season.

How many times have we seen crowd shots at sporting events with screaming teen boys holding up an index finger: “We’re number one. Woo!” Never mind that their currently winning team is a perennial loser, mired in a lackluster conference, and almost guaranteed to lose the next contest. These fools are having a great time ignoring reality and hanging out in the house of pleasure.

Of course this transcends sports. Every birth is a necessary prelude to a death. Every rise to dominance comes before a decline and defeat. The zenith of every career suggests the inevitable end of the same. Even someone who triumphantly assumes the office of U.S. President has to know that in eight years the keys to the White House will be handed to someone else.

Aside from the pyramids, pretty much nothing that is built lasts. For us to exult in the well-built career, the well-weeded garden, or the well-coiffed hair as if any of them might last forever is foolish.

Getting in Tune

If all of what I’ve said here is correct, if every good thing under the sun is truly going to decline and decay, then what is the sensible follower of Jesus to do? Let me be clear that while I suggested above that Eeyore has it right, I do not advocate his attitude.

When I pin my hopes to my favorite sports teams, I’m doomed to disappointment far too often. When I depend on a house or a job or another person or anything else under the sun, I am guaranteeing that my happiness, if it comes at all, will be temporary.

That doesn’t mean that I need to go around moping and failing to enjoy the moment. If the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl next year, I’ll celebrate like a madman, but I’ll keep in mind that it is only for the one year and means very little. I’ll know that in the midst of all that “yes” is the seed and root of a great deal of “no.”

We need to set our sights on the team whose winning streak will never end, whose players will never decline or depart, whose player-coach is always the MVP. Anything else is just a moment.

You Smell Good

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

Here comes the bride. If she’s the typical, wedding-obsessed woman, she’ll have spent eons choosing the perfect dress. An army of family and attendants will have labored over her hair and makeup for hours. After all, it is her wedding day and she has to look perfect. Never mind that the guy waiting at the end of the aisle could see her in an off-the-rack sundress with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and go weak in the knees. She still wants to look great.

Everybody looks good–or at least as good as they can–on their wedding day. They want to project an image, an aura that says, “I’m fabulous.” In fact, although I haven’t done any research, I’d guess that nearly everyone smells good on their wedding day. The reason isn’t hard to understand.

A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
since that is the end of all mankind,
and the living should take it to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

Real Reputation

The purpose behind all that fixing-up for the wedding kind of baffles me. From the bride’s side, it essentially says to the groom, “You’ve never seen me look better than this, and you’ll never see me this good again.” Am I being cynical?

We all know that the typical wedding attempts to project an image that isn’t particularly attached to reality. If you doubt me on that, then how many times does the bride obsess that much over a million details? The wedding, including the participants’ appearance, seems to say, “This how I want you to think that I am, but we all know that I’m not.” Frequently, I find, something will undercut that whole attempt at name-projecting. There’s the bride, hair, makeup, and dress perfect, but she’s chewing gum.

Just like perfume can make people seem more attractive than they really are, all that wedding fussing and fretting can put on a fairly convincing veneer. Such an image, however, just can’t last. For some people the wedding image they attempt to project doesn’t even survive the reception.

I have nothing against weddings, but I’m much more impressed with marriages. Weddings are perfume, but marriages, which have survived the ups and downs, are the proof, the good name. The day of our death is the day that we can no longer mess up our marriage.

Getting in Tune

What does all of this have to do with your life and with Ecclesiastes? Hopefully you can connect the dots that I’ve laid down. We all spend time in our lives applying perfume, doing things that are intended to make us look, sound, and smell good to those who are around. Just yesterday, I spent a good part of the afternoon mowing my grass, which can be a major “perfume” action.

These aren’t bad things. We shouldn’t go about our lives stinking, after all. But if we attend to these surface matters and ignore the things that create an enduring reputation, a good name, then people will think that we stink, no matter how good we smell.

As believers in Christ, inhabited by the Holy Spirit and created in the image of God, that stink doesn’t just reflect on us.

Just Shut Up!

Ecclesiastes 6:10-12

It’s Saturday, which means that tomorrow is Sunday. And Sunday means that I’ll find myself sitting from 9:30 to about 11:00 in a church service. And sitting in a church service means that there will be a sermon. Allow me to summarize the sermon I’m likely to hear tomorrow morning.

Blab, blab, blab.

Whatever else Solomon knew in this book, in today’s passage, roughly halfway through the text, he finally comes up with something that I can really latch onto.

Whatever exists was given its name long ago, and it is known what mankind is. But he is not able to contend with the one stronger than he. For when there are many words, they increase futility. What is the advantage for mankind? For who knows what is good for anyone in life, in the few days of his futile life that he spends like a shadow? Who can tell anyone what will happen after him under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 6:10-12

Bird is the Word

“Many words increase futility.” It’s all just talk. Or, as I suggested above, “Blab, blab, blab.” Tomorrow’s sermon will have it’s share of blab. “Turn in your Bibles to the book of blab. Remember that God wants you to blab. Jesus blab, blab, blab. The church blab, blab, blab.” Sometimes it seems that a sermon is about as coherent as the song “Surfin’ Bird” and not nearly as memorable.

Why would our writer, someone who deals in words, offer this critique of the value of words? In 30-plus years of teaching writing, I have had only a few students notice that when I trumpet the value of writing, I’m plugging my own livelihood. But I assure you that they’d notice right away if I stood up in class and said, “This is completely useless stuff, but we’re going to do it anyway.” There’s irony to the idea of somebody saying “Many words increase futility, and, by the way, I have six more chapters of words to share with you.”

All words, however, are not created equal. We’re reminded in Genesis 1 that God spoke creation into existence. John’s gospel leads off with the proclamation that “In the beginning was the Word,” who we learn is Jesus. That Word is powerful. That Word is essential, but human words are plentiful and generally a path to confusion or division.

Getting in Tune

So what’s a person with a tongue to do? Do we spew out words like a firehose, hoping that some of the drops will help to put out the fire, or do we keep silence while the inferno rages around us?

Just a couple of weeks ago, we read Ecclesiastes 5:2:

Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few

Psalm 46:10 warns us to “Be still and know that I am God.” I’d read that as saying that to hear what God says, we need to shut our own mouths and listen.

Tomorrow’s sermon will have its share of blab, but hopefully, if the preacher was well chosen and well prepared, it will contain some nuggets of God’s message.

I can’t hope to hear those if I’m too busy, either with my mouth or in my mind, blabbing myself.

The Green Grass Grows

Ecclesiastes 6:6-9

I can’t write too much today. There’s a lot to do. I have to mow the grass, especially after that big soaking rain we had a few days ago. Before I do that, I need to air up that leaky tire on the mower. I really should repair the tire, but that would involve getting a jack and a lug wrench and all my tire repair supplies. Frankly, as slow as the leak is, it’s easier just to switch on the air compressor and top off the tire.

To properly groom the yard, I need to use my rider, a push mower, and a weed-eater. The problem I had last week was that the weed-eater wouldn’t run reliably. It started, ran for a few seconds, and then died. I’m guessing I have some sort of fuel problem, but I’m an English teacher rather than a small-engine mechanic.

The sad irony of all these tasks is that they don’t have any sort of permanence. The grass will need to be mowed again next week and every week until probably October, and my equipment can be counted on to require maintenance or replacement. It’s endless, which is what Solomon pointed to:

And if a person lives a thousand years twice, but does not experience happiness, do not both go to the same place?
All of a person’s labor is for his stomach,
yet the appetite is never satisfied.
What advantage then does the wise person have over the fool? What advantage is there for the poor person who knows how to conduct himself before others? Better what the eyes see than wandering desire. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 6:6-9

It’s Just Gonna Grow Again

Why do we work? According to Ecclesiastes, all of our “labor is for the stomach.” Obviously I don’t literally eat all of my labor’s products, but basically I work in order to consume in various ways. And when I give away some of my income, I’m providing for someone else’s stomach.

I eat and eat or consume and consume, and is the appetite ever killed off? Not at all. Wisdom might mean that I can more efficiently or effectively labor and therefore have more to consume. That’s the economic idea behind getting a good education. You go to school so that you can get a better job and then consume more. But whether someone has a little or a lot, they almost universally want more. The appetite is never satisfied.

Getting in Tune

So does all of this mean that we should stop mowing the grass and drop out of school? Should we cease to work and shun wisdom? I don’t think that’s the message to take from this passage. But if we think that we’re going to achieve some sort of permanent bliss by working hard and acquiring knowledge, we’re deceiving ourselves.

Wealth and wisdom are virtues, but they are not ends in themselves. If my work and my learning do not lead me to happiness, then I might as well be poor and stupid. In fact, I might be better off poor and stupid, since I won’t have as much to lose or as much awareness of my unhappiness.

Of course then we get into the nature of happiness, but that’s a matter for another day.

Sometimes Wish I’d Never Been Born at All

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Ages ago, when I worked summers at Mt. Washington Cemetery, my brother, the supervisor, came in his Jeep and summoned me to join him. “Where are we going?” I asked as I walked away from Eddy and the work we were doing.

“Just get in the Jeep,” he said before heading to a different part of the property. En route I noticed a box in the back of the Jeep. When we arrived, we found a small party assembled near a new-dug grave. That’s when I realized that the box contained Michael, a two-year-old incomprehensibly stabbed to death by his mother because “the devil was going to get him.”

Dennis and I carried the box to that grave. Michael’s mother stood there, handcuffed to a detective. His father and the remainder of the family clustered across the grave, weeping.

Looking back on that as a father and a husband, I cannot imagine the grief that father must have experienced. He must have felt, like the character in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that he’d “sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” That’s perhaps the sort of despair we encounter in today’s text:

A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For he comes in futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness. Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Careful Reading

That day in the cemetery affected me. In fact, it continues to affect me. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Michael’s grave, reflecting. Surely the boy’s father, probably around 60 now, also thinks about what might have been, perhaps every day. But I hope he has managed to get on with a life despite that grim memory. I hope he’s able to be satisfied by good things.

As we read those verses attentively, we’ll see that Solomon is not telling us that having lots of kids and living a long life are prescriptions for despair. Instead, he inserts an “if.” “If he is not satisfied by good things,” the passage says. In other words, merely having a quiver full of sons and a long life will not solve the problems of life under the sun without that “if.”

The longer we live, the more opportunities we have for bad things to afflict us. The more children one has, the greater chance there is that one of them will go completely off the rails and create a full measure of heartache. That’s why we need to be able to take joy in the good things. Only by focusing on the good things can Michael’s father get past the horrible tragedy of losing wife and son in one awful moment.

Getting in Tune

Freddy Mercury closed his song with “Nothing really matters to me,” which is clearly not even something that he could take seriously. The problem with this world is that many things do matter. If we’re going to live in this world, if we’re going to complicate our lives with family, then we are going to have pain and tragedy. Probably our tragedy will not rise to the level of the murder of a two-year-old, but we will have something that, at the time, seems that great.

Our only hope, under the sun, is that we take joy in the good things. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant in John 10:10 when He indicated that He had come to give us life and to give it abundantly. By focusing ourselves on Jesus as the ultimate good thing, we can get through the worst days of our lives.

Biggest Loser?

A couple of days ago, I shared some observations on the idea of the church losing members in a time of transition. After noting that a co-worker and brother had worried about “stopping the bleeding,” I shared my ideas with him. He then shared his ideas with me.

Let me just start by saying that it is good and healthy when members of the body can share their different takes, even in a somewhat passionate manner, and still remain friends. I’m pleased to say that we’re doing that.

I’m also pleased to admit that his response pointed out a significant flaw in what I said–or at least a limitation. After mulling the thing through the afternoon, I’d like to share this.

Who’s Your Gardener?

First of all, it is biblical and understandable that, in a time of significant change, there will be pruning of the church. But actually there will be pruning during other periods as well. Jesus made that clear in John 15.

But here’s the key thing. In that discourse in John, Jesus never hands us a saw and clippers, sending us to start chopping on things. Whatever pruning that gets done should be done by God.

It’s our job to treat everyone the same, showing them the same value that Jesus showed them by offering himself for them. I think the attitude we’re to effect is reflected in what Paul says to the Corinthians, culminating with this verse:

To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.

1 Corinthians 9:22

Here’s what it boils down to. There will be pruning. There is a gardener. I’m not the gardener.

We’re Not Managers

When I talked about the church needing to lose the fat and keep the muscle, I was piggybacking on Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body. That’s sound, but it is, like all metaphors, limited. Some idiot, who might have been me, suggested something worthy of the most draconian Fortune 500 CEO:

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

Really? What pathetic excuse for a servant of God would say that? Sure, if all we care about is the short-term profitability of the organization, then that might make sense, but we’re concerned with more. In fact, that statement was callous and wrong for several reasons:

  • Church members are not static. I know a woman who two years ago was a disaster and today is putting most of us to shame. Who’s to say what other “fat cells” will morph into something powerful?
  • Fat and muscle, while easy to distinguish in the human body are not nearly so easy to distinguish in the church body. God can make that call, but it’s not for me to do it.
  • Finally, this attitude is just mean-spirited. Many people who leave the church will not go to another. Shouldn’t I care about them? Shouldn’t I grieve over them?

The Bottom Line

So to my brother, concerned with the “bleeding,” I thank you for making me look at my own words from a few steps back and realize that while I will stick with most of what that said–especially the personal responsibility we all have to become more spiritually fit and less fat as individuals–I never want to be guilty of taking lightly even one person who leaves us. I think Jesus shared his feelings on those matters pretty clearly:

And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:5-6
Wink TV

Words around the Collar

Ecclesiastes 6:1-2

How many times has this happened to you? You start reading the Bible, doing your best to understand the ideas that God has laid onto the pages for just such a time as this, but then you’re hit with a ring around the Bible!

You try your best to get past it, but again it confronts you again: a ring around the Bible. You’ve tried skimming, you’ve tried squinting, but over and over it’s ring around the Bible!

Solomon knew all about it. He knew about ring around the Bible, because he helped to create it.

Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity: God gives a person riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-2

What a Sickening Tragedy

Sometimes we read a passage in the Bible and we have that strange deja vu feeling. “I’ve read this before.” In the case of the verses for today, it was just a few days ago, back in Ecclesiastes 5. Koheleth tells us about the “sickening tragedy” that can come with wealth, and then he just keeps telling us about it. We turn the page, hoping to get to a new topic, some other whole field of futility, but we still find ourselves faced with ring around the Bible.

I have to admit that I have nothing new to say about this passage, so I want to look at the closing words for a moment. In the CSB, we read of a “sickening tragedy.” That’s a strange phrase, so I decided to look the words up in other versions to see just how else it has been translated. Here’s what I got:

  • a sickening tragedy–CSB, HCSB, NLT
  • a grievous evil–NIV, ESV, ISV, and others
  • a grave misfortune–NET
  • a great misery–Douay-Rheims
  • a severe affliction–NASB and others
  • an evil disease–KJV, JPS, and one other
  • terribly unfair–CEV

These translations all come from a couple of Hebrew words that essentially mean “evil” and “illness.” But you can see that they differ in a couple of ways. First, the literal level of it is interpreted in two ways:

  • A sickening tragedy=it’s a bad thing that makes you sick.
  • A severe affliction=it’s an illness that is really bad.

Those are very different things, like seeing something disgusting vs. having the flu. But then there’s the second level, which goes on to interpret the words beyond this idea of bad and illness. Probably the greatest liberty is “terribly unfair,” which is about the same as the Good News Translation’s “and it just isn’t right.” I’d have to argue that these versions take too much liberty with the original as there’s no clear indication of injustice in the Hebrew. Interestingly, both of these versions are publications of the American Bible Society. Take that for what it’s worth. Still, even these version do not significantly change the meaning of the text.

Getting in Tune

Am I getting lost in the weeds here? It’s possible. I’m not sure whether the situation described in these verses is a bad thing that makes you sick or a sickness that is really bad, and maybe I don’t need to care. Maybe it’s enough to boil all of these things–misery, evil, misfortune, and so forth–down to something significantly bad.

As Christians we’ve been given an immense treasure in the pages of the Bible. Unlike the rich man lamented in today’s verses, most Christians opt not to make use of this treasure because they simply let it languish on the shelf. Like the pesky stains from those old Wisk advertisements, our sin-stained selves are not likely to move toward being sanctified until we use God’s Word as it was intended. Otherwise, we’re left with ring around the Bible.

That, friend, is a sickening tragedy, especially if it applies to you.

I Scream for Ice Cream

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

My soon-to-be-80-year-old father-in-law–and, wow, wasn’t that a lot of hyphens?!–enjoys him some ice cream. He’ll eat it, a quart at a time, twice a day. His wife does the same, although at a slower pace. These people have actually considered keeping a separate freezer just for ice cream.

Never mind that this man is diabetic or that this woman is frustrated with her weight and the health problems that attend it. They just keep eating the ice cream. And why not? Isn’t that what Solomon was talking about in today’s passage?

Here is what I have seen to be good: It is appropriate to eat, drink, and experience good in all the labor one does under the sun during the few days of his life God has given him, because that is his reward. Furthermore, everyone to whom God has given riches and wealth, he has also allowed him to enjoy them, take his reward, and rejoice in his labor. This is a gift of God, for he does not often consider the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with the joy of his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

Eat, Drink, and Enjoy!

These family members of mine follow the directions that Ecclesiastes seems to lay out so clearly. They eat ice cream. That’s not all they eat, but they definitely put the ice cream away. They drink. They’re not consumers of alcohol, so they pour large amounts of coffee into themselves. They enjoy–or “experience good”–by watching endless reruns of Gunsmoke and The Andy Griffith Show for him or bizarre reality shows, including something titled Dr. Pimple Popper, for her. That’s living large!

Clearly, my in-laws are in the midst of a season of “living biblically,” right? And this entire ending to chapter five provides a much-needed corrective to the parable of the rich fool. The farmer in that parable was called a fool by Jesus for kicking back to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself” (Luke 12:19). Where’s the difference? Have we discovered yet another of the contradictions that prove the ultimate untrustworthy nature of the Bible? Let’s not jump to that conclusion too quickly.

Both my in-laws and my initial reading of the Ecclesiastes passage missed a critical prepositional phrase. Solomon’s audience is encouraged to eat, drink, and enjoy in the labor one does under the sun. We’re not called to simply retire to our recliners and do nothing but entertain ourselves with ice cream and pimple popping. We’re called to labor.

Some would argue that, having put in a good many years of such labor under the sun, they have earned their rest. Rest is certainly a biblical idea. We’re supposed to get a day of rest at the end of every six days of labor. But we are enjoined to rest from our labors permanently only when we also rest from the ice cream–that is, when we’re dead.

Getting in Tune

I say all of this not to criticize my in-laws. They are responsible for their own doings. I’m saying this to criticize myself. You see, I have my own version of ice cream. Right now it’s a Five Guy’s cheeseburger, but in a while it’ll be something else. I have my own coffee, Diet Dr. Pepper, and my own Dr. Pimple Popper, which lately has been Stranger Things. Is there really any difference?

Some people have an inability to stop working. Their motor runs incessantly and they need to be reminded to take a break now and again. But most of us are oriented the other way. We tend to find rest our natural state. We need to be reminded to get ourselves off the couch or away from the computer and back to productive efforts.

Our food, drink, and entertainment should be sweet, but they’re only really sweet when they come after a good season of work. Otherwise, those things are simply a desperate attempt to escape the reality that death is lurking somewhere down the road.