Do You Smell That?
We have two Dachshunds. They are the best little pups ever! But occasionally you step in something and while you may not notice it outside, everyone else notices when you go inside! I would like to suggest that something like that happens with the two toils we have yet to consider from Ecclesiastes – altruism (working for others) and religion. Just like having my dogs around, there are lots of things Christians like about altruism and religion. But we do not notice the crappy things until someone points them out.
Lets us recap where we have been. Solomon tells us all of life is vanity. But before he tells us about the vanity of life, about how pointless it is, he tells us about five toils – or five ways of interpreting life – to try and make sense of it. In the preceding post, we looked at power, pleasure, and wisdom as ways of interpreting life. We will now move on to the final ways Solomon talks about interpreting life.
They are cute! They are fun! They run in the yard, they play, they cuddle. But the occasional mess you step in leads you to think about other things. The feeding. The bathing. The fleas. The trips to the vet. While it is easy to say that they are dogs so the feelings of meaningless are understandable, what about when we ask those same questions of people?
We feed them. We clothe them. We try to help them have a better future. But Solomon comes to a very unpopular conclusion. If wisdom, power, and pleasure are pointless for me, how is me giving them to someone else any less pointless? Multiply any number by zero and you still get zero! How can I show others the meaning of life if I do not know it myself? What good does helping others do if it does not help them? If I am a fool for following these things, are others any less than a fool for accepting these things?
Solomon concludes, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (Ecc. 2:18-19)
The final toil Solomon considers is religion. If we do not like the hard conclusions Solomon draws about helping people Christians like the conclusions he draws about religion even less.
Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. And in a sense, it is his undoing (and our hope for moving on past the pointlessness and vanity of the toils). Solomon looks around and sees everything under the sun. And by that calculation, God is little more than an ephemeral idea, an unknown First Cause, a Something who stands behind everything. But that word is the problem.
The universe does not seem to care about anything. Bunny rabbits are cute. But coyotes kill bunny rabbits. Babies are a joy and a wonder. So full of life and promise. Until that baby is diagnosed with cancer. Bad things happen to good people. But that is just the beginning. Good things happen to bad people. That is the same conclusion that Solomon came to as well. “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.” (Ecc. 7:14)
But Solomon is not done. He takes it a step further. “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?”
Why be good? Why be bad? Just keep your head down. Do your part. Do not live a life that sets you apart (we assassinate our heroes just as often as we kill our villains). The universe does not care about you, so you should not care about anything either. Give lip-service to God, but do not pay him much attention other than that.
That is why I started with the idea of something on your shoes. Formally, Christians reject both of those conclusions. That helping people is pointless. That we do not believe in a religion that tells us to keep our head down.
But the reality? We smell what helping others costs people. We smell what believing in God costs people. And so we just do not get a dog. We just do not help others. And we do religion...but only so far as is socially acceptable.
So how do we move forward? I mentioned that Solomon’s undoing was the very way forward. Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” a lot.
There is one thing under the sun that he has not considered. That is a revelation. Revelation shows us a God of love (in contrast to the God of experience). Revelation shows us a God who is concerned about the needs of the people around us.
But most of all, revelation tells us of a God who is not just a force in the world, but who is a person who loves, cries, and hurts. But Solomon is not quite ready for that conclusion. He is not done with the pointless vanity of this life. He is not ready for revelatory love until he loves himself.