Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fallen Frangipani, Really Wise Living (Ecclesiastes 6:10-7:29)

Fallen Frangipani
Fallen Frangipani. iPhone + SwankoLab

After the wake, we sat at Lavender Food Centre, ate and drank and spoke about alternate realities - what could have been; what if... But such talk was foolish, as foolish as believing that the right ingestion of antioxidants will prevent cancerous growths or that intellectual stimulation and a healthy social life will stave off Alzhimer's or that a certain style of parenting will produce a certain type of child or that following baking instructions to the letter will produce the desired confection; as arrogantly foolish as believing that science, mathematics, philosophy, psychology or one's pet subject will with a little more research, allow humans to find out everything about the world and so control their destinies.
Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12)
What has happened has been determined by God (naming something means having authority over it - cf Genesis 2:19-20). God is sovereign all things and has ordained the present to be exactly as it is. We may disagree with how he has ordered it, but who are we to dispute with God who is more powerful than us - do we even know how to live well in the short time that we are given on earth? Do we know what will happen in the future? No? Well, then how silly to presume to tell God how to run his world.

It's all about perspective
Panasonic 3D ad, Vivocity. iPhone + SwankoLab.
A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
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.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
this also is vanity.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?"
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
an advantage to those who see the sun. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-11)
Still, it is advantageous to be wise during our fleeting lives: it is better to live knowing that death is certain, knowing the dangers of this world, having control over one's emotions, not looking back to the past with foolish nostalgia etc. Wisdom is useful while we still draw breath, for there is a certain order to the world.
For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. (Ecclesiastes 7:12)
Many will have us think that wisdom is better than crassness of money. In fairy tales, it is always the wise (but poor) lad who kills the dragons, solves the mysteries and wins the politically-incorrect prize over the filthy rich (but always foolish and morally degenerate and usually physically corpulent) man. But in reality, the protection of knowing how the world works and knowing what is right to do is equal to the protection afforded by money - useful but only up to a certain point.
Consider the work of God:
who can make straight what he has made crooked?

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. (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14)
Man will never be able to understand all things so that he knows how to navigate his way through life, because there is ultimately no set order to things, no universally certain cause-and-effect. God has made this so that man's search will be frustrated.
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18)
And so we observe that wisdom does not always produce the desired outcome. Things don't always go well for the righteous nor badly for the foolish. The practical conclusion then is not to trust either our wisdom or foolishness to see us through but rather to fear God who controls both good and bad outcomes.
Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others. (Ecclesiastes 7:20-21)
And while wisdom is useful, its usefulness is also limited by the inability of even the wise to live rightly.
All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things — which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29)
The Qoholet searches long and hard can't find ultimate wisdom, but perhaps the very search for ultimate wisdom is foolishness that lands the intrepid searcher in the fatal embrace of Madame Folly (there is the suggestion that since Ecclesiastes is part of Hebrew wisdom literature, the two metaphors of that genre - Madam Folly and Lady Wisdom make their appearance here as well). For although God has made mankind wise (apparently "upright" is synonymous with "wise" in the Hebrew), he has sought to understand the scheme of things apart from God and so become a fool.

Ultimate wisdom, then, is found in God who is sovereign over all things - he alone orders the present and ordains the future. Therefore we should please him and obey him for only he can tell us how we should live our lives.

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