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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.

Never-ending Studies

Martin had the office across the hall from me during my one year as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas. He was practically an institution at the school. The most long-standing graduate students in the department reported that Martin had been an old-timer when they began their studies. Supposedly, he had been there, finished with course work and working toward completing his dissertation, for so long that his foreign-language qualifications expired and he had to retake them.

What is the point out going to school endlessly, paying your fees and supposedly making progress on the degree for year after endless year? It took me five years to complete my doctorate, which seemed like too long to me. Martin must have had about 15 years in when I last saw him.

It strikes me that many churches have people who are a lot like Martin. These people go to Bible study classes every week. They sit and nod appreciatively as a teacher shares whatever nuggets of wisdom are available. Then they go home and await the next week’s class.

Is there something wrong, you might ask, with going to Sunday School? Isn’t that what good Christians are supposed to do? I’d like to argue the answer to both questions might very well be “yes.” Yes, there might very well be something wrong with going to Sunday School. And yes, that just might be what Christians should do. Confused? Let me try to unconfuse.

Imagine if you will the Apostle Thaddeus. We always think about Peter and James and John, but nobody says anything about Thaddeus, so lets consider him. He probably sat with Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. He listened attentively and perhaps even asked questions. Maybe he asked Jesus who sinned, the man born blind or his parents, in John 9:2. In short, we can picture Thaddeus going to his version of “Sunday school.”

But then, in Luke 9, when Jesus sent the twelve out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick,” what if Thaddeus had said, “You know, I think I’d rather stay here and just keep learning from you”? In short, what if Thaddeus had just decided to keep going to Sunday school rather than serving?

Christians should continue, from the day of salvation until the day they die, learning more about God’s Word. It’s important, but if that’s all we do, then what good are we? What is the point of being a Martin, learning and learning and learning but never actually putting all of that learning to use.

I mention this today, because I know of many people who should be going out of their comfortable and comforting classes in order to serve God. Are you not quite ready? Guess what? Neither was Thaddeus or the other disciples. Jesus didn’t send them out because they were ready. He sent them out to help get them ready.

For all I know, Martin is still lurking around the bottom floor of Wescoe Hall at KU. For all I know, he never finished that degree of his. We don’t need a waste of potential like that in the church.