ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: March 2007

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Conclusion of the Matter

I have just returned from four days in Christchurch, the city of my birth, showing our girls the trees I climbed, the places I buried 'treasure', and the streams I waded in. I showed them the house I lived in, the church where I first heard of God, and the classroom where I began my schooling in 1969. A lot changes in half a lifetime. The fields where I once built forts are now covered in houses. The good climbing trees are gone, and the prize exhibits in the Christchurch Museum have long since been moved to a dusty back room.

Until this week I hadn't noticed the words chiseled in stone above the museum entrance;
"These are parts of HIS ways, but how little a portion is heard of HIM".
How could I have, in my youth, overlooked this tribute to the Creator of my treasured exhibits? I now know that the chiseled stone tribute is a quote from the end of Job 26, where Job is recounting the unfathomable creative power emanating from God's spoken word. Had I traveled 10,000 miles to show our girls the creations of my youth, or their Creator? (v1)

We visited Ruru Lawn Cemetery, Block 24, Plot 12. We uncovered the marble marker as best we could, rebuked the encroaching grass, and scraped off the lichen that was drawing life from the very marker that declared the absence of Daisy Elizabeth Hunt's life -- laid to rest, Tuesday 27 November 1973, having died at the age of 85 in my mother's arms. What was her conclusion of the whole matter? Her final words? "Pat, I've been waiting for you ... waiting for you to come and just hold me." The silver cord was severed (v6), and her breath returned to God who gave it (v7; Gen 2:7). Meaningless? (v8)

What were King David's last words to his son, King in Jerusalem? As 1 Kings 2 records, King David's last words to his son were "make sure that Joab and Shimei meet with a bloody death. I promised not to kill Shimei, but that promise doesn't bind you." In the light of that dubious precedent, Solomon's 'conclusion of the matter' appears downright noble.

But is it? Is your message to the next generation,
"Fulfill your duty to keep God's commandments, (v13)
because there is going to be a judgment." (v14)

Or, do you have another conclusion to the 'whole matter' of humanity's apparent hopelessness?

In concluding our study of Ecclesiastes, please share your message to the next generation.

© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ecclesiastes 11 - Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters

We read Jesus' Manifesto on the Mount -- the principles upon which He runs the kingdom (Matt 6-8) -- and realize that what God has in mind appears to be an ever-upward spiral of everyone giving of themselves to others, emanating from a deep trust in the bountiful provision of our heavenly Father. Will the Kingdom of Heaven work? Does it work?

We may be inclined to think that Jesus' Manifesto will work in heaven, but it won't work here, where there are some Class-A takers. Consider, for example, the person who snatched Angela's bag on Friday. But then we remember that Jesus constantly stated that "The Kingdom of Heaven is ...". Now. Not later. Jesus appears to invite us to demonstrate with Him that His way of living not only works, but also results in happiness.

What has this to do with Ecclesiastes 11, our study for this week? I'm inclined to read verses 1 through 6 as an exhortation to take risks in life and business. However, most commentators apply this passage to the Christian business of liberality. This seems odd, since the prior ten chapters encouraged us to employ our resources in making our miserable lives as comfortable as can be expected. So, you can decide whether or not the generally accepted interpretation of Eccl 11:1-6 is yet another well-known quote interpreted out of context. But lets follow the crowd for a change.

"No good deed goes unpunished" is a favorite saying of Angela's and mine, as the business of "good deeds" is fraught with difficulty. Cast your bread upon the sea of humanity (Rev 17:15) and you are barely likely to get a thank-you, let alone anything vaguely resembling recompense.

We are exhorted to "give, ... because we do not know what evil is ahead" (v 2). Interestingly, that is exactly the reason I use for not giving. I don't know what hard times are ahead for my family, when I may need resources that might appear surplus to current need. Perhaps I should be beneficent now so that "when the evil days come" I will have the comfort of having done good while I was able?

I am particularly cautious in my few endeavors to "cast my bread" upon needy humanity because I am concerned that my giving may be directed at charlatans. Perhaps if I wait for a riskless opportunity to give I will never sow, and therefore never reap (v4)? Perhaps I just need to recognize that some of my attempts to give will be redemptive in the lives of recipients, and other attempts will be crucified by others as naive at best. A shared experience with God?

It seems that God needs brave volunteers to go first in demonstrating that His manifesto works -- that giving can be a way of life that results in ever-increasing joy for all involved. I still recall as a child watching my father siphon -- what magic. Starting with a small flow would move hundreds of gallons. Perhaps it doesn't matter much after all whether Eccl 11:1-6 is about risk-taking or giving, because the most exciting risk we can take as Christians is to start the flow that will change the world.

Happy casting, giving and sowing this week.

© Alister L. Hunt, PhD

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Innocent Man

It is truly a defining mark of the Biblical canon that it expresses every dimension of the human experience -- including that of hopelessness and helplessness. At every point in our lives, there is something in the record of humanity's searching after God that resonates with our hearts and ultimately draws all [men] unto Him.

John Grisham's recent non-fiction book, 'The Innocent Man' has an excerpt that reads like a modern excerpt from the book of Ecclesiastes. Here's what Ronald Keith Williamson had to say after experiencing dashed career hopes, alcoholism, wrongful conviction for murder, and exoneration while on death row.

"I hope I go to neither heaven or hell. I wish at the time of my death that I could go to sleep and never wake up and never have a bad dream. Eternal rest, like you've seen on some tombstones, that's what I hope for. Because I don't want to go through the Judgment. I don't want anybody judging me again. I asked myself what was the reason for my birth when I was on death row, if I was going to have to go through all that, What was even the reason for my birth? I almost cursed my mother and dad -- it was so bad -- for putting me on this earth. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't be born."

It seems that just as The Word was "in all points tempted like as we are" (Heb 4:15), The Word of God also internalizes every human experience. If God entrusted me with editing the Bible, I'd be inclined to produce something like "Chicken Soup for the Soul", full of heart-warming stories of people who pulled it all together despite the odds, and lived happily ever after.

In doing so, I would no doubt disenfranchise the very people that God wishes to reach.

The Word of God would be incomplete without Ecclesiastes.
© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ecclesiastes 10

Don't bother with this week's study of Ecclesiastes 10 -- there's nothing there.

He exhorts us to
'vote Republican',
avoid dangerous vocations,
sharpen our tools, and
respect social ordering based on riches and nobility of birth.

The last point (above) is convenient, as the writer seems to have nobility and riches. He introduces himself as "Son of David, King in Jerusalem" in Eccl. 1:1. And 1 Kings 10:23 says that "King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth". What's he going to say? Something like "man looks on the outward appearance, but we should look on their heart"? I guess that if God operated on the principle of nobility and birth order, Solomon would have been introducing himself as "Son of Eliab, King in Jerusalem" (1 Sam 16:6,7).

So not only not much there, but what is there is self-serving.

Now, you might want to check and see if I'm wrong -- it happens. Let me know your thoughts.

© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D

Monday, March 5, 2007

Ecclesiastes 9 and Causality

There are planned careers, and then there are ones like mine. My life could indeed be a case study of "time and chance" (v11) as the guiding principles of human life. I wonder, though, whether this fatalistic interpretation recognizes two other observations:
(a) God created me as a cognitive being with the freedom of choice; and
(b) There may be more of God's design in my life than I can currently see.

This week we study Solomon's observations on causality. The great difficulty with which Solomon contends in his search for God and meaning in his life was the little difference that is made between those that are good and bad in the distribution of comforts and burdens, and in life outcomes. This has perplexed the honest minds of many wise and contemplative people -- Job (Job 24), Jeremiah (Jer 12), Habakkuk (Hab 1), and Asaph (Psalm 73). Interestingly, each of these men begin their analysis from a position of of God's righteousness, holiness, and goodness. They are battling with the tension between their own experience of their Heavenly Father's goodness, and the empirical evidence that they often appear to receive stones for bread, serpents for fish, and scorpions for eggs (Luke 11:11,12).

Interestingly, Ecclesiastes recognizes no power in this world other than God. Perhaps we should add a third observation to the above two:
(c) Satan appears to be the prince of the planet on which we reside (Job 1:6).

It is amazing that God's inspired revelation of Himself devotes as many lines as it does to this question of God's goodness. If I was to guide others in writing a definitive text that revealed my character, I would strongly suggest that it omit discourses on how the empirical evidence appears to be at odds with the proposition that Alister Hunt is "a good bloke". God appears not to have placed Himself above questioning regarding the justice and goodness inherent in the observed causality between human action and outcome.

Is Solomon willing to experiment with a relationship with God? Or, is he going to conclude that life is meaningless, that there is little point to this life beyond throwing ourselves into our work and enjoying what little pleasures this life might afford. Is he going to conclude that there is nothing beyond this life? Read on through Ecclesiastes.

What are we going to conclude?

Take time this week to (re)read 1 Kings 9:3-9. It is useful context to Solomon's discourse on causality.

Also, you will enjoy Matthew Henry's commentary on Ecclesiastes 9 this week -- this note draws on Henry's comments.

In the week to come, may we enjoy our relationships, our work, our food, and our clothes. But more importantly, I pray that we will grapple with the issue with which Solomon contends -- and be willing to consider conclusions other than that of Ecclesiastes 9.

© Alister L. Hunt Ph.D