The Death Spiral or the Life Spiral?
Last week, the word “time” dominated the Preacher’s thought. We learned that though at first it seemed like the Preacher was on the right track from our Christian point of view, this was not the case for Him. God had his time to do everything for His own purpose, but that knowledge did not make it down to us. The Preacher for all his observation and wisdom did not have a clue what God was up to which sounds like he was accusing God of keeping the human race in the dark. But is that true. Has God indeed kept us in the dark? We will see the answer to this when we look at this week’s text. It is not that the Preacher will find it, nevertheless it will be demonstrated that the Preacher is dead wrong.
In this passage, the Preacher saw the way things were done under the sun. Instead of justice and fairness, there was wickedness and iniquity. Note that the Preacher is simply an observer. He doesn’t life a finger to rectify the situation. This would be especially troubling if the Preacher was the king. Even assuming that Solomon wrote the book, it is possible that he used the Preacher as a literary fiction. It might have been partially autobiographical, but it seems to me that he uses the persona of the Preacher for any person who sees things with only the eyes of worldly wisdom. Whatever views the person under the sun has of God is bound to be distorted if not outright wrong.
Greed, wickedness, and selfishness if left unchecked leads to ruin of any society. The rich get richer and oppress the poor. Unlike the enemy that comes without and plunders the treasure of the vanquished, the wicked society is cannibalistic and plunders its own treasure and consumes it. The Preacher saw that nothing was being done about it. In fact, we see in this book that the Preacher contributed to this problem of inequality.
The Preacher seems to grasp the common idea that only God can end human oppression. He is right in this assessment. He believes that God will bring the wicked into judgment. If we follow Paul’s argument in Romans 1, God has put this knowledge into the hearts of all people. People of course try to suppress this truth as well as all the truths of God, but once in a while it comes out. God will bring all things into judgment at His appointed time.
Now the Preacher makes a U-turn. God also puts into the hearts of all that they are sinners. The Preacher also knows that he is unjust. The prospects of judgment terrify him. So in verse eighteen, the attempt to suppress this truth begins. Just like in Romans, it starts by turning away from a comparison of God and man created in His image to what humans share in common with the beasts. Paul tells us that this turning leads to a downward spiral which ends in death. The worship of the true God is suppressed and other gods replace Him. First humanoid gods, then beasts, then snakes and creeping things. People would rather worship creation rather than the creator. In this spiral, human morality breaks down and men begin to act like animals. The Preacher says that part of the judgment is to show humans that they are animals. Paul is more precise when He says that the judgment of God was to give them up to their useless gods and animalistic passions.
The next level of suppression occurs in verse nineteen. The big thing that all animals including humans have in common is death. When one believes on the truth, one sees that God has separated humans from the herd. Only man is created in God’s image. Man was not created to die. Death was the curse of disobedience to God when Adam and Eve turned their gaze from the Everlasting God to the creature, the serpent. So the Preacher is headed in the wrong direction here, which means that we can expect that his thinking will become increasingly more unorthodox.
It does not take long to see the next descent into the abyss. The preacher continues down this trail in that he notes that “both go to the same place” and are rendered into dust. Therefore man is not better off than the animals. The next thing he comes to is that from a view like his, there is no hope of an afterlife. It may be, but who knows? The natural conclusion of this way of thinking is since God does not seem overly concerned about bringing people to justice in this life for their wickedness or at best in an arbitrary manner, and the afterlife is questionable at best, then there is no judgment of God at all. This is the common suppression of the truth which is just as true today as it was then.
If there is to be justice at all then, the next logical step is that man has to take care of manners of justice. But what had the king done about it? Nothing! Men make attempts at fairness and justice for a while, but it is in an endless cycle of degeneration into chaos and ruin. The human race seems to come to its senses for a little while and tries to buttress up the shaky foundations of civilization. Empires rise and empires fall. The Preacher who noted the endless cycles of nature would certainly have understood or should have understood to put it in the works of Shakespeare: “The problem, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in us, for we are underlings. The seeing of life as a wandering in the wilderness of endless circles is the judgment of God on our sin and rebellion. We simply cannot turn away from God and find any meaning at all.
The Preacher returns to his drone that because the justice of God and rewards for righteousness seems very remote, and the hops that man can solve these problems in a meaningful and permanent way even more remote, one should come to peace with the fact that life is unfair and make the best of it. Life is short and uncertain, so one should enjoy their assigned tasks in life. From the standpoint of the king who is on top of the mountain made of the backs of his subjects it would seem a better philosophy than being the beast of burden who has to bear the king’s weight. Is this really the answer?
The hollowness of this philosophy is revealed in the next step down into the Slough of Despond. In 4:1, the Preacher looks down from his lofty perch to see the people burdened with oppression to the point of tears. The common herd could take no comfort in this, so the Preacher now comes to the bottom of the pit, death. Death is where all of this thinking leads to. It was better to be dead than to live life on these terms. Those who had died were far better off than those alive. This would be what seemed true to the Preacher who had little confidence in the afterlife and little fear of the judgment of God. Better yet would never had had to be born.
Sin is suicidal. It may be sudden or the torturous death of a thousand cuts. It kills those whose bodies are still alive. Its poison affects the worldview of all those whose thinking is limited to an under the sun perspective apart from God. The trouble is, of course, that the Preacher is wrong. He has suppressed the idea that God will bring everything into judgment for the moment. It will rear its ugly head again and again. He is also wrong about the afterlife. At one point he admits that God put eternity into us but quickly suppressed this thought as well. The bible says that it is appointed for man to die, but judgment follows. This rearing up of the truth of God seems torture to the unbeliever, but it is an act of the grace of God to bring the sinner from starving on pig slop as a captive in a foreign land back to reconsider God.
When the common and suppressed memory is brought to their mind again, there is something else God had put in every human heart, that God is forgiving and gracious. So when we encounter people in the world, we need to come armed with this knowledge that deep down in their hearts they know the truths that God has placed there. He is creator. He created us for better things than death. We have purpose because God has given us purpose. God punishes sin in this life by giving us over to out passions and for eternity at the final judgment. But He is also the God who came seeking the fallen Adam and Eve and the one who came down from Heaven in human flesh to seek and save the lost.
These last two statements we know because of special and redemptive revelation contained in the Scripture. The truths before that are known as natural revelation or knowledge that God imparts in every human soul. The knowledge that unbelievers have of the bible in this country is at an all-time low. The devil especially wants to see special revelation suppressed. Unfortunately, bible knowledge among believers is at an all-time low as well. If we refuse to study the Bible and know its teachings and doctrines, we will be ineffective in reaching others for Christ. We might also find that we are more molded by under the sun thinking which will cause us to spiral downward in our Christian life and testimony. I urge you if you are a believer to take the eye salve of God’s word to correct your spiritual nearsightedness.
It has always bothered me to see people who feel “called” to the ministry thrown immediately into the pulpit. I have heard some absolutely awful first sermons which ought to be practiced and preached to elders and mentors in the church before other being sent out to the congregation in general. Jesus took three years working with the disciples, letting them go out on a couple of preaching tours and being careful to offer feedback and correct false conclusions. Paul himself a great scholar of the Old Testament and schooled in Greek thinking as well took years on the backside of the desert being taught and prepared by God. In the same way, we need to properly train those who go out and witness. They need to know that they believe, but they also need to know Who they believe in and what Jesus taught. We need witnesses who are grounded in the faith. And this takes time and patience. This is why I preach the way I do from the Scripture, that you may know the truth and that you might be effective in sharing it.
After we have been prepared, then we will be ready to share our faith. We can appeal to the natural revelation we know God has put in the heart of all people as a starting point. We can use Ecclesiastes as we do of all of God’s word to show where their under the sun knowledge will take them. We need to bring the suppressed knowledge of God to the surface. They need to know more than they are imperfect and broken. They are sinners. They need to know this bringing the hidden knowledge to God to the surface is meant that they would turn to God and accept God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. This is when you can supplement what they know with the truth of Scriptures. If one will believe, their life will spiral up to God and life instead of spiraling down to death. When man comes to the end of one’s self, then He can come to God’s new beginning.