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Now We Live In Q's World

Gregory E. Reynolds

Q is a term of endearment, my nickname for the so-called "Preacher" of Ecclesiastes, better known among academics as Qoheleth—hence Q. He is one of my favorites among biblical characters because his perspective on the world reflects so perfectly the perspective of the pilgrim believer, especially suitable for us New Covenant wanderers. He is a mysterious Solomonic figure who gathers and assembles wise words in an artful way in order to shepherd believers through life in a fallen world.

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. (12:9-11)

Q reminds us in some arresting ways that the presence of moral law—both revealed and natural—is no guarantee of justice or equity in the church (in his day the theocratic nation of Israel) or culture. Natural law is sufficient to guide civil life and leave sinners without excuse. But the phenomena of everyday life are a mixed bag: a fabric of common curse and common blessing. The world is seriously out of whack.[1] The Hebrew word הֶבֶל (hebel), normally translated "vanity," has a range of meaning in the book of Ecclesiastes, which goes beyond our common understanding of the word "vanity." Its thirty-eight uses in the book are nicely summed up by Meredith M. Kline: "not according to design." Thus, emptiness and futility are only part of what Q is saying about our fallen situation. Because of Adam's fall the entire context of human life is "out of whack"; we live in a wacky world, out of accord with God's original intention for it. "God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes" (7:29).[2] The creation is not presently the way it was designed to be. Injustice and inequity are everywhere. Wackiness is ubiquitous. Every time we see the wicked prosper this is confirmed. Each time a carefully crafted plan goes awry we learn this anew.

Q is not, however, an existential cynic—a kind of ancient version of Camus or Sartre. Nor is he, as most Christians believe, placing himself hypothetically in the position of the unbeliever for apologetic or evangelistic purposes. Rather he is a believer contemplating life in a fallen world, full of injustice and inequities, ultimately overshadowed by death; but also full of temporary blessings, the rewards of our everyday work. In the midst of it all, Q enjoins the reader to fear God, obey his commands, and enjoy his blessings.

Of course, it takes a series of sermons on Ecclesiastes to unpack the implications of this wackiness and the wisdom we need to navigate it.[3] But let me enumerate several thematic ramifications.

God's ways are mysterious. The ideal, glorious Mosaic kingdom depicted in the Mosaic covenant was far from the reality of life in the fallen world inhabited by Q, and, by implication, us. Significantly the covenant name of God—LORD—is not used in the book. Because the world portrayed by Q was the world "under the sun," under God's wrath and curse, but preserved by his goodness in order to achieve his redemptive purposes in history. The believer, however, rather than seek to deny or escape this reality is called by Q to live before God in the mixed situation of curse and blessing, not expecting anything close to perfection in this life, but truly able to enjoy the temporary blessings of God on the journey.

Depending on straight line equations can lead to folly, expecting temporal blessings each time we obey. Proverbs presents an ideal that is not always realized in the fallen situation—for example, "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (Prov. 10:4). Sometimes the diligent loses his wealth in the stock market or through theft. Such folly, not an honest look at the way the world really is, is what makes cynics out of people. For some of the most faithful and obedient believers have suffered immeasurably. But their suffering never made them cynical. Along with the famous motto "all is vanity," Q poses the thematic question, "What's the use?" "What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (1:3). "What gain has the worker from his toil?" (3:9) "What gain is there to him who toils for the wind?" (16b).

Q tacitly teaches that the holy ideal of human perfection revealed in the Mosaic Law represents a glory that only God can achieve in his own way and in his own good time. Meanwhile, the believer must account for the presence of injustice—or wackiness—in this world without allowing it to undermine his hope of glory. So, not only is the present evil age not the way it was created and intended to be, but also not the way God intends it to be ultimately—his ultimate intention. "He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end" (3:11).

At the center of the frustration experienced by every human being is inequity of all kinds. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. (8:14)

The young die. Criminals get off scot-free. The wise are ignored or persecuted.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)

The ultimate frustration of man's efforts is death. The earth is a veritable graveyard. "All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return" (3:20). "Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?" (6:6). "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart" (7:2).

Robert Frost caught the essence of the ephemeral nature of life in this world when he wrote,

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.[4]

Paul takes up the theme of "vanity" or "futility" in Romans 8. "For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-21). In the midst of the wackiness of life, God is truly in control. The wackiness is even used by him to teach us to trust him. "Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?" (7:13). "But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him" (9:1). "As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything" (11:5). "Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:9). He is not predictable in his ordering of history, but he may be implicitly trusted. He controls the wackiness in order to achieve his ultimate eschatological design in the last Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Is there any room in our perception of the world for uncertainty, grief, and mystery? If not, then we are not living in Q's world. Well, actually we are always living in Q's world, but sometimes we fail to see things in the wise way he sees them. We refuse to accept the givenness of our fallen situation, one in which God has placed us; and thus fail to look to him for guidance and hope.

The world is given to various forms of delusion, but whatever the form there is a dominant consensus that mankind is innately good, and that humanity can eventually rid the world of all inequities, injustice, and death itself, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The Christian is neither an optimist or a pessimist, but a biblical realist, facing the wackiness of life in faith.

Q's God can be trusted to ultimately rid the world of wackiness. Q's wisdom teaches us not to seek perfection in a wacky world but in the promised future of the children of God. "Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him" (8:12). "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:18-19). Meanwhile the world will see how we react to adversity. Our witness will be marred if we put on rose-colored glasses or if we become cynical or despairing. Q sums up the pilgrim attitude toward the blessings and cursings of life, "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (7:14).

Q's great thematic question, "What's the use of our efforts in this life?" is answered by Paul in light of the resurrection of Christ and its future implications for us. "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58). Q's truly is the pilgrim perspective: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:33).

Endnotes

[1]I owe many of my essential interpretive insights to Meredith M. Kline, who has done unique work on the book of Ecclesiastes. Everything in quotation marks without a reference should be attributed to his class notes, delivered in lectures on "Psalms and Wisdom Literature" taught in the spring of 2001 in the Granite State School of Theology and Missions, Manchester, N.H.

[2] Quotes within the book of Ecclesiastes will refer simply to chapter and verse.

[3] A series of nineteen sermons I preached on Ecclesiastes in 2006 is available at http://pilgrimcrossings.org.

[4] Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay."

Ordained Servant, February 2009.