ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: February 2007

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ecclesiastes 5 Revisited

My pastor sent me an interesting rewrite of Ecclesiastes 5 (see below). I recall thinking when I read Eccl 5:1-7 previously that it was a bit of a dark picture of God. My lay paraphrase of the passage was something like the following:
"Be really careful around God because He gets angry with people and destroys what they have worked for, just on a whim. So, tread carefully and speak carefully around God and His house."

But, perhaps I got it wrong? The paraphrase below takes a more positive tack, and in the process challenges us to rethink our behavior in God's house.


Watch your step when you go to church. This is not some habit or ritual that you go through, unmindful of the fact that you are in God’s presence. Don’t be so foolish as to think that God is merely taking attendance and has no interest in your attitude; you don’t get points for just showing up. True worship consists of listening to God, not just going through the motions.

Don’t be too quick to speak, either. Keep in mind, you’re in the presence of the Master of the Universe; you’re at church for worship! All too often going to church serves as nothing more than an opportunity to catch up on the latest gossip or to criticize and complain. The effect of this is that you go to God’s house, and in his very presence, you honor Satan rather than him!

Think I’m overstating my case? Listen to yourself and what you talk about at church. When your mind wanders because of other preoccupations, it will come out in your speech and you will have a clear indication of where your focus is. All too often, it’s not on worship.

Remember that when you gave your heart to Christ, you made an all-encompassing commitment. This commitment includes your behavior at church. Don’t be so foolish as to say you are a Christian and then to come into the very presence of God in his house and act as though your behavior doesn’t matter. Keep your word to God by watching your words at church. You’d be better off never having committed to Christ in the first place than to have taken his name in vain.

Keep in mind that there is a direct association between what is in your heart and what comes out of your mouth. When your heart is wrong, your speech is too, and when you are careless in your speech, your entire being is at risk of eternal loss. And whatever you do, don’t add insult to injury - don’t dare excuse your sinful behavior by saying that it was no big deal, that surely God wouldn’t make you accountable for such a trivial mistake as that. When you do, you’ve not only scorned God but everything he stands for besides.

The fact is that your wandering mind and undisciplined speech leave you in a very precarious position before God - much better to give him the honor and respect he is due when you come into his house, and to show it through your attitude and demeanor.

© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Divine Right of Kings

The Hunt family has a recent fascination with the life of King James I, patron of the so-called "Authorized Version" of the Bible. What a surreal life he lived "under the sun". No wonder he was known as "the wisest fool in Christendom".

King James' book, 'The True Law of Free Monarchies' lays out the doctrine known as the "divine right of kings" -- a doctrine of political absolutism. It states that a monarch owes his rule to the will of God, not to the will of his subjects, parliament, the aristocracy or any other competing authority. This doctrine continued with the claim that any attempt to depose a monarch or to restrict his powers ran contrary to the will of God. James wrote his treatise to rebut the puritan ideas of the day that would ultimately give rise to the American Revolution.

Interestingly, the 'divine right of kings' doctrine is closely linked to the concept of 'apostolic succession' that underpins much of the Christian church's claim to authority over its subjects. In short, it is the belief that Bishops, etc. 'reign' in the unbroken lineage of Peter and the other Apostles. The crossover between political and religious 'absolutism' is seen to this day in the 'ordination' of royalty in the United Kingdom, and in genealogical attempts to link modern monarchs (modern monarchs?) to King David, appointed by God.

So, what has the 'divine right of kings' got to do with Ecclesiastes 8, our study for this week? Here's why. The way we view political or ecclesiastical powers says a lot about how we view God. And vice versa, presumably. King James instructed the interpreters of the 'authorized version' to replace Tyndale's references to 'congregations' and 'elders' with the ecclesiatical terms of 'churches' and 'priests', and his view of political and ecclesiastical authority has colored Christianity for nearly four centuries.

Lets do the following; read chapter 8's description of royal authority and ask ourselves what that says about God. That is, what does the Son of David (Eccl. 1:1) tell us about THE Son of David (Matt 1:1)?

v2 Obey GOD's command.

v3 Do not stand up for a bad cause, because GOD will do whatever he pleases

v4 Since GOD's word is supreme, who can say to GOD, "What are you doing?"

v5 Whoever obeys GOD's command will come to no harm

v9 There is a time when GOD lords it over others to His own hurt

v11 When GOD does not quickly carry out a sentence for a crime, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.

In sum, what does the Son of David's treatise on the 'divine right of kings' tell you about God? If political authorities are God's representatives on earth (Rom 13:1,2), then what does this tell us about God. Is the picture of God reflected in verses 2 through 11 consistent with your own personal experience of God? Does God rule by 'divine fiat', or is the all-powerful God of the universe subject to the will of His 'subjects'? Does God "do whatever He pleases" (v3)?

Happy studying, whether in the land of revolutionaries or loyalists. : )

Study guide attached.
© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Questions on Ecclesiastes 7

Here are five questions on Ecclesiastes 7 for your consideration.

We have addressed the first three this week. But I am interested in your thoughts regarding questions 4 and 5 below. Let me know your thoughts...

Blessed study of Ecclesiastes 7.

1. The King’s son says that:
“the day of death is better than the day of birth” (v1)
“ the end of a matter is better than its beginning” (v8)

The world thinks of life, then death.
In what ways do Christians think of death, then life?

2. The King’s son says that:
“It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting” (v2)

Was Jesus known for attending funerals or parties?

Why would Jesus say “Blessed are those that mourn”?

3. The King’s son says:
“Do not say “Why were the old ways better than these?
“For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

Are things getting better or worse? Physically? Socially? Morally?

Are “the old ways better than these?”

4. The King’s son says:
“Consider what God has done:
“Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” (v13)

What was crooked in Solomon’s life?

Who made Solomon’s way crooked? God? Or, Solomon?

5. The King’s son says to avoid the extremes of being overrighteous or overwicked (v16, 17). He also suggests that “grasp the one and not let go of the other.” (v18)

First Kings 11 indicates that Solomon
(a) followed the Lord, and
(b) facilitated the idolatrous worship of his many foreign wives.
For example, 1 Kings 11:6 says that Solomon “did not follow the Lord completely”, suggesting a partial allegiance to God.

In Ecclesiastes 5:16-18, is Solomon presenting wisdom?

Or, is he justifying his folly?

© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D

Were the old days better?

The King’s son says:
“Do not say “Why were the old days better than these?
“For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

Are things getting better or worse? Physically? Socially? Morally?

Are “the old days better than these?”

Some years ago I realized that the question of whether things are getting better or worse is central to a person's world view. Christians believe that the world is going from better to worse, and they are excited about it. You could call this Optimistic Pessimism.

There are at least three ways in which optimistic pessimism is foundational to Christianity.

1. It powerfully points to the existence of God
2. It fulfils prophecy pointing toward the second coming of Jesus
3. It demonstrates the totality of sin and salvation

First, it powerfully points to the existence of a life-sustaining God. You see, not everything around us runs down. Living organisms grow from less complex to more complex. There is a life force in the universe that allows living organisms temporary exemption to the rule of decay. A seed planted in the ground is a catalyst for the combining of nutrients, air and water to develop an intricate organism. Doesn’t that contradict the second law of thermodynamics? No, the seed is receiving energy from the sun in the form of light. This raises the question of the ultimate source of this energy.

We could shine sunshine on a stone forever and it would never grow into a tree. It is the fact that a seed is living matter that allows it to grow. What is this mysterious life force that results in the creation of order from disorder? Evolution? No, evolution is inconsistent with the second law of thermodynamics. It assumes that inanimate objects sponetaneously gain the spark of life. What is this life force? I believe that it is tangible evidence of God’s power in the universe. This concept of life as a force that provides temporary reprieve from the incessant march to greater levels of disorder has led atheist scientists to seek God.

Here are some Bible passages that equate Christ with life.

Acts 17:28 (Paul reasoning with the Greek philosophers at Mars Hill)
“For in him we live, and move, and have our being.”

John 1:3,4 (Amazing passage, indicating that Jesus Christ is the creator and life sustainer of this world. He is the light, the external source of power and catalyst for Growth)
“All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.”

The whole book of John is full of references to Christ as life, light or water. For example, Chapter 4, and the story of the Woman of Samaria.

John again. John 8:12
“I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

Now I suppose that biblical scholars would tell us that Jesus is talking about giving us spiritual life, eternal life. And of course that is correct. But these texts and many others like them are telling us something so much more amazing. Jesus Christ is also the life-sustaining force of this universe! He is as essential to life as light is.

So, the first way in which entropy, increasing disorder, is important to Christian belief is that it provides evidence of God’s life-giving power. Without the external power of Christ and his life-force, nothing would stem the increase in entropy.

Lets look at the second way in which entropy is important, ... it fulfils prophecy pointing toward the second coming of Jesus. Matthew chapter 24 is well known to us. Jesus foretells social and physical decay as signs of the end. Then in verse 32 he tells the parable of the fig tree.

“Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So, likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.”

So, signs that things are getting worse not better are signs that the coming of the Son of Man is growing closer. Earlier in the same chapter Jesus had foretold increasing warfare, but had urged his disciples not to be troubled by this, but to simply note it as further evidence that their deliverance is drawing closer. That is why we as Christians can say “things are getting worse. Praise the Lord.” They are signs of the second coming of our Redeemer just as much as buds on a tree herald the coming of summer. Can you say with me, “things are getting worse. Praise the Lord”?

So the concept of entropy is important to Christian belief firstly because it illustrates the life power of God, and secondly because it points to the second coming of Christ.

The third way that the concept of increasing entropy is important to Christian belief is that it demonstrates the true nature of sin and salvation. You see, sin did not just make things worse. The bad news is far worse than that. And salvation does not just make things better. The good news is far better than that. You see, when Adam and Eve sinned, this world did not just get worse; continual decay set in. The second law of thermodynamics kicked in, and this world started to spin down like a child’s spinning top. ... We start to understand the enormity of sin and its consequences. We also begin to understand what God said when he created Eden. Genesis chapter 2. Genesis chapter 2, verse 16,17.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shall not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die

Chapter 3 of Genesis records the terrible effects of Adam and Eve’s sin. Did they die? No, not immediately. The effects of their sin extended to the whole world, since the entire world began to decay, to die. A Christian author by the name of Ellen White writes dramatically of the temptation and fall of man in a book called Patriarchs and Prophets.

“In order to possess an endless existence, man must continue to partake of the tree of life. Deprived of this, his life would gradually diminish until life should become extinct. ...“In humility and unutterable sadness they bade farewell to their beautiful home and went forth to dwell upon the earth, where rested the curse of sin. The atmosphere, once so mild and uniform in temperature, was now subject to marked changes ...“As they witnessed in drooping flower and falling leaf the first signs of decay, Adam and his companion mourned more deeply than men now mourn over their dead. The death of the frail, delicate flowers was indeed a cause of sorrow; but when the goodly trees cast off their leaves, the scene brought vividly to mind the stern fact that death is the portion of every living thing.” Pg 60-62

Sin had consequences far beyond weeds, thorns and human death. The whole world began to die, and it continues its decay even today. Understanding this enables us to understand the enormity of sin.

However, lets not linger here, because moving on from an understanding of the enormity of sin leads us to understand the totality of salvation. For we're not only afforded eternal life. That would be sufficient cause to praise God. ... But God tells us that he will remove all the effects of sin and return this world to its Edenic state. God will remove all the effects of sin including the continual decay of the world. But that’s not all. God will not only halt the process of things getting worse. He will not only return them to their original state, but things will then continue to get better. You see, God set up Eden to continually improve.

In Great Controversy, another book by the same author,
“[In the holy city] immortal minds will contemplate with never-failing delight the wonders of creative power, the mysteries of redeeming power. ... Every faculty will be developed, every capacity increased. The acquirement of knowledge will not weary the mind or exhaust the energies. There the grandest enterprise may be carried forward, the loftiest aspirations reached, the highest ambitions realised; and still there will arise new heights to surmount, new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call forth the powers of the mind and soul and body.”

Amazing. Things will go from great to fantastic just as surely as they currently go from bad to worse. Our pessimism for this world is like the budding of a fig tree heralding optimism for the next world. God's life-sustaining power will once again quicken this old world.

God's gift of eternal life is amazing. More amazing is his plan to restore us to the original dominion of Adam, to restore us to our intended role as rulers of the earth. But it is beyond my comprehension that Adam's dominion was not static. And neither will our dominion be. We are not to have eternal life in a static perfect state, but are to have eternal life in which that perfect state continually improves.

Yes, the question of whether things are getting better or worse has important implications.
* That this world is decaying socially and physically contrasts with the order created within living organisms and demonstrates God’s hand as the source of energy and life force.
* That this world is decaying socially and physically fulfils prophecy pointing to the imminent second coming of Christ.
* That this world is decaying socially and physically indicates the enormity of sin and the totality of salvation.

I’m glad I'm a pessimist when it comes to the future of this earth. Because it is my source of hope for the future. Christians are optimistic pessimists. The world thinks of life then death. Christians think of death then life. This world is getting worse to get better. Things are getting worse, and I for one am happy about it because it tells me that the New Jerusalem is even closer.
© Alister L Hunt PhD

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Blessed are those that mourn

Ecclesiastes 7:2 says that it is better to go to a house of mourning than it is to go to a house of feasting. I wonder why? It brings to mind Jesus words, "Blessed are those that mourn" (Matt 5:4), or the voice from heaven recorded in Revelation 14, "Write: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on."

This week Angela and I traveled down country to attend Ian's funeral -- a remembrance of a Godly man who passed away after a long illness. Inspiring, and interesting, as Ian was buried on his Maori ancestral burial ground, with traditional welcome (for us) and farewell (for him). After all had had their say, the family filled in the hole as we reminisced with friends in the calm warmth of afternoon sun and the drone of distant bagpipes. I don't recall a more blessed five hours in recent memory.

Ian knew he was going to die soon, and had penned a "conclusion of the matter" that I have included at the end of this email. Ian's funeral reminded me that death is the destiny of every man; and that I should take this to heart in the way I live now (v2).

Verse 8 reinforces the message with a statement that the end of a matter is better than the beginning. Why? Surely a baby shower elicits more rejoicing than does a funeral, as one obvious counter-example.

Some years ago I heard John Stott speak at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Stott is arguably one of the world's foremost theologians, albeit as an 86-year old Anglican clergyman. That is, at the end of his life, he is noted as one of the world's finest students of God. His talk was entitled:
"Death, then Life".
While the world thinks of
"Life, then Death",
Christianity is founded on the concepts of Death, then Life.

* Jesus' death, then resurrection.

* Our baptism, as a symbol of death to self, followed by life in Christ

* Our physical death, then resurrection.

* The pervasive NT symbolism of a seed's burial to bring new life

He then went on to outline several other aspects of the Christian life characterized by Death, then Life. I forget them all, but the one that sticks in my mind is that of mission. A Christian missionary dies to their own culture to immerse themselves in a new culture to live in and amongst and for a culture other than their own.

Do you agree with John Stott that Christianity is about Death, then Life? Do you agree with the Teacher, the King in Jerusalem, that the end of a matter is better than its beginning?

Can I suggest a personal application of this principle? In what ways can you die to your Christian "culture" to be effective in bringing life to those who currently do not know God? What "matters" need to be brought to an end in our own life? In our own study groups? In our own churches? -- for the sake of life.

More later.
(C) Alister L Hunt PhD

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Striving After the Wind

In late 1994 and 1995 I attended Alcoholics Anonymous and learned the phrase "It's not m' fault", a catch-cry of alcoholics. Getting people to take personal responsibility for their life is central to AA's mission. And, while I have never taken a drink of alcohol, I recognized that "It's not m' fault" is my catch-cry also. I am more than willing to pray, "Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are", rather than casting my life before God and saying "God, have mercy on me, a sinner". When I experience sorrow and sadness, I am quick to see myself as a victim of circumstances beyond my control, and slow to take responsibility for my lot as the consequences of my own folly. I am slow in saying to God, "I am powerless over sin" and give my life over to God to sort out.

Of course, to say "It's your fault" to a friend in distress is to relive the mistake of Job's friends. A call to take personal responsibility for the human mess that we all experience is a message for each one of us personally, to be shared only through our personal testimony to others in similar circumstances. That is the power of AA, and the power of viewing church as "Sinners Anonymous".

Why am I mentioning "personal responsibility" in our discussion of Ecclesiastes?

It occurs to me that the book of Ecclesiastes is a fascinating and God-ordained case study on the consequences of living life by the mantra, "It's not m' fault". With this lens, lets take an introductory look at Chapter 6, our study for this week.

Poor Solomon. Suffering under the burden God has placed on him -- wealth, and a complete inability to enjoy it. (v2)

Poor Solomon. 1,000 wives, untold children, and the prospect of no-one to mourn his passing and celebrate his life with a befitting funeral ceremony. (v3)

Poor Solomon. Longevity from God, and yet life is a cruel joke because "all go to the same place". (v6)

Poor Solomon. The finest food that God created, and yet his appetite is never satisfied. (v7)

Poor Solomon. Wisdom granted from God (1 Kings 3), but it was no advantage to him. (v8)

Poor Solomon. A statesman without advantage. (v8)

Poor Solomon. He is no match for God. (v10)

Poor Solomon. God hasn't confided what the future will hold, ... even though God had appeared to him twice previously, and the third time God appears, He plainly foretells the future (1 Kings 11:11-13). What's more, God clearly tells Solomon whose fault this is -- Solomon's, and Solomon's alone.

So, if it is a "grievous evil" to have had so much, only to lose it and pass it over to someone else, is it a "grievous evil" that:
(a) God has capriciously burdened us with? "It's not my fault" , or
(b) we need to take responsibility for? "It's not God's fault".

Our choice. Solomon's father was a founding member of "Sinners Anonymous", and his Psalm 51 is its 'Blue Book' to this day. Our recovery within "Sinners Anonymous" depends on choosing to follow David rather than his son.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Rich Man, Poor Man

You are no doubt well into your study of Ecclesiastes 5 this week. My email was a little delayed by a small error this week. I was filling up our steam boiler slowly, just as Jim Boyd had instructed, so I wouldn't crack the hot boiler with liquid ice. I busied myself while I waited, running this way and that, and I forgot about the boiler merrily filling itself. And the pipe system in the basement. And the radiators on the first floor. And the vertical pipes up to the second floor. And the radiators on the second floor.

When the system was nicely full with mains-pressure water, the weakest links in the system provided a most beautiful multi-room fountain display, perhaps rivaling Solomon's water works mentioned in chapter 2. Maybe not.

So that was my study of madness and folly (1:17) this week. With much water comes much sorrow.

This week's study continues on through the proverbs, with one unique diversion. The 'son of David' has quite a lot to say about vows and oaths. Interesting. I can't say I understand why 'declaring something' and 'declaring something in an oath to God' makes any difference. Either we mean what we say, or we don't.

This time last year I had dinner in London with a witness who was to testify in court the next day. He ran through his planned testimony with the lawyers, and then testified totally differently under oath the next day. What made the difference? The oath?

I think about the marriage vow. Would I treat my vow to Angela any differently if it had been solemnly declared to her alone, instead of before an ordained minister and onlooking family and friends? I think of Robin and Patti Graham in their fascinating first book, Dove.
"... as I put [her ring] on again I said, "Patti, I don't know the words of the marriage ceremony. I just know that I want to spend the rest of my life with you. There now; from this day we are man and wife.
It was as simple as that."

It is seldom as simple as that. Societies the world around have developed elaborate religious/administrative systems for solemnizing statements by one human to another. Why?

Study guide attached, albeit belatedly. Just wring the water out of it before you start reading.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Science of Human Happiness

Economics can be viewed as the science of human happiness. If you understand what people believe makes them more happy, less happy, unhappy, you can predict human behavior, which is a most useful thing in business, investing, and managing a national economy.

It occurs to me that Christianity is also the science or art of human happiness. If God and Satan are presenting two ways to live -- giving or taking -- then may the best system win. And, it seems to me that the best system should be the one that makes people happiest. Choosing anything else is an irrational act. Christians seldom see themselves as being in the business of showing people how to be happy. Upright perhaps, but not happy. Real happiness, it is presumed, requires some decidedly un-Christian dabbling in getting, and getting now.

So I was quite intrigued this week to read in the Economist magazine's most recent Christmas edition a discussion of human happiness that reads almost like it is lifted from Ecclesiastes.

Have a read of the following excerpt, and let me know what you think.
Capitalism can make a society rich and keep it free. Don't ask it to make you happy as well

HAVING grown at an annual rate of 3.2% per head since 2000, the world economy is over half way towards notching up its best decade ever. If it keeps going at this clip, it will beat both the supposedly idyllic 1950s and the 1960s. Market capitalism, the engine that runs most of the world economy, seems to be doing its job well. But is it?

Some of the results [of happiness surveys] are unsurprising: the rich report being happier than do the poor. But a paradox emerges that requires explanation: affluent countries have not got much happier as they have grown richer. From America to Japan, figures for well-being have barely budged.

The science of happiness offers two explanations for the paradox. Capitalism, it notes, is adept at turning luxuries into necessities--bringing to the masses what the elites have always enjoyed. But the flip side of this genius is that people come to take for granted things they once coveted from afar. Frills they never thought they could have become essentials that they cannot do without. People are stuck on a treadmill: as they achieve a better standard of living, they become inured to its pleasures.

Capitalism's ability to take things downmarket also has its limits. Many of the things people most prize--such as the top jobs, the best education, or an exclusive home address--are luxuries by necessity. An elite schooling, for example, ceases to be so if it is provided to everyone. These "positional goods", as they are called, are in fixed supply: you can enjoy them only if others do not. The amount of money and effort required to grab them depends on how much your rivals are putting in.

In 1930 John Maynard Keynes imagined that richer societies would become more leisured ones, liberated from toil to enjoy the finer things in life. Yet most people still put in a decent shift. They work hard to afford things they think will make them happy, only to discover the fruits of their labour sour quickly. They also aspire to a higher place in society's pecking order, but in so doing force others in the rat race to run faster to keep up. So everyone loses.

Yet it is not self-evident that less work would mean more happiness. In America, when the working week has shortened, the gap has been filled by assiduous TV-watching. As for well-being, other studies show that elderly people who stop working tend to die sooner than their peers who labour on. Indeed, another side of happiness economics busies itself studying the non-monetary rewards from work: most people enjoy parts of their work, and some people love it.

As for capitalism's wasteful materialism, even Adam Smith had a problem with it. "How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility?" he complained. It is hard to claim that pyramid-shaped tea-bags (developed at great expense over four years) have added much to the sum of human happiness. Yet if capitalism sometimes persuades people to buy stuff they only imagine they want, it also appeals to tastes and aptitudes they never knew they had. In the arts, this is called "originality" and is venerated. In commerce it is called "novelty" and too often dismissed. But without the urge for material improvement, people would still be wearing woollen underwear and holidaying in Bognor rather than Bhutan. Would that be so great?

The joys of niche capitalism
If growth of this kind does not make people happy, stagnation will hardly do the trick. Ossified societies guard positional goods more, not less, jealously. A flourishing economy, on the other hand, creates what biologists call "a tangled bank" of niches, with no clear hierarchy between them. Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University, points out that America has more than 3,000 halls of fame, honouring everyone from rock stars and sportsmen to dog mushers, pickle-packers and accountants. In such a society, everyone can hope to come top of his particular monkey troop, even as the people he looks down on count themselves top of a subtly different troop.

To find the market system wanting because it does not bring joy as well as growth is to place too heavy a burden onit. Capitalism can make you well off. And it also leaves you free to be as unhappy as you choose. To ask any more of it would be asking too much.