Saturday, February 01, 2014

Ecclesiastes and the New Testament

But what about the point that we mentioned, and said nothing about, the charge that this part of the Old Testament has no discernible influence on writers who appear in the New Testament?  Actually this may not be the strict truth: Paul’s statement that we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we’ll take nothing out (I Tim.6.7) could be an echo or an explicit use of a verse such as 'All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return'. (3.20) But Job 1.21 is another possibility, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return'. Maybe you can find others.

However, this question raises a  prior question, which is, How are we to decide on the presence of absence of the influence of one book upon another? How do we detect such influence if it’s there? One line is to look for literary correspondence, in words and phrases, and in idiom. It is in this sense that Bible-students tell us that Eccelesiastes has no influence.  

But there is another way in which influence shows itself besides the verbatim quote, which I commend in this case. The ideas in one writing may be found in another, later writing even without direct quotations. They may be expressed in different words. And the idiom in which these ideas may be expressed may be different.

So consider these parts of the New Testament.

‘And if Christ has not been raised, you faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied’. (I Cor. 15.16)
‘What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’.  Do not be deceived ‘Bad company ruins good manners’. (34)

What is Paul teaching us here? He is reminding us that there is another horizon, not the horizon merely of today, or of my life, or of your life, but the horizon of the day of resurrection. Without such a horizon professing the faith is a vanity. For if there is no resurrection, we are still in our sins, and this life with its limited horizons, is all that there is.  If the dead are not raised then the Epicurean attitude of sensuality and other forms of selfish pleasure is the correct one. Let us live for today because today, or more todays until the last one, is all that there is. Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. (Paul was quoting from the pagan writer Menander, the Greek dramatist.) What Paul is teaching is that if we have no hope of endurance after death, then as professing Christians, we are wasting our time. His preaching was vain, and the faith of Christians is vain. ‘Vain’ is certainly a precise point of contact with the Preacher. We might as well live in a way that the Preacher condemns as a vanity.


It’s often said that the Old Testament does not teach that a human being will outlast the death of his body.  Apparently, it doesn’t even hint at it.  But this is to neglect the book of Ecclesiastes, among other parts of the Old Testament. What does the Preacher tell us?

Amongst the many passages that set put the vanity of all things when looked at from the vantage point of this earthly exists, ‘under the Sun’ as the writer puts it, are these:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has set eternity into man’s heart….’ (3.11)

‘Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?’ (3.21)

These are suggestive passages, at the best, I grant. 

But what they suggest is in the same direction. Man’s heart is not like that of the beast. The Lord has set eternity in the human heart, whatever precisely that means. And his spirit which outlasts his body goes upward,  returning to his Maker, unlike the spirits of the beast which dissolve in the earth.

And then there is a series of verses having to do with the fear of God

‘Yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him’ (8.12)

‘Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days if your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment'. (12.7)
‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ (12.13-4)

We are enjoined to fear God as the chief thing, to watch our words and actions because God will bring them into judgment. But why does all this matter, if we perish like the beasts? We are to fear God because we have another horizon than the end of our lives here on earth. Because there is a judgment to come.  No conception of an afterlife?


Or consider these teachings of Jesus; the first from the Sermon on the Mount -

Therefore do not anxious be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The second, even more better known, but not perhaps properly understood for all its familiarity. In the Lord’s Prayer we have these words -

Give us day by day our daily bread

Jesus is teaching that we necessarily live one day at a time. We cannot now live tomorrow much less can we now live in next year. He grants us lives that are not like a lease on a house or apartment, for so many months or years. We are given one day, and then the next, and then the next, and so on. And so Jesus teaches his disciples  that they should ask for food sufficient for a day at a time.


I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content, I know how to be abased and how to abound…..

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment…


But maybe it is the book of James, the half-brother of our Lord, that comes nearest to Ecclesiastes in its tone and teaching -

Come now, you who say ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this and that’.  As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.’ (4. 13-16)

James is not condemning travel, or enterprise, or the making of money. Obviously not. All are legitimate. But what he is saying is that today does not guarantee tomorrow. The same teaching as in Jesus's teaching of the man who planned to build better and greater barns to store food in order to fund his retirement. The same theme as we find in extenso in Ecclesiastes.

What are all these passages teaching us? What is their connecting theme? We are to live one day at a time, present-ly. Besides this, we must

Leave God to order all thy ways,
And hope in Him whate'er betide,
Thou'lt find Him in the evil days
Thy all-sufficient strength and guide;
Who trusts in God's unchanging love,
Builds on the rock that nought can move.

So as a part of living our lives as Christians, Scripture in both the  Old and New Testaments bids us develop the discipline of oscillation, of not focusing on today at the expense of eternity, and in particular of not focusing on a future which we ourselves project, when we shall settle and relax in this ‘present evil  world’. Instead, in our thinking we should learn – as Paul had to learn it, he tells us - to oscillate between the present (which may be a present of being abased, or it may be one of abounding), and the eternal future to which in Christ we are destined. Of course we must plan for the future here, as far as we are able, but such planning is always conditional on what the Lord has in mind for us. But we should focus on what is guaranteed, first, the immediate present, and then  eternity to come. Other than having these two certainties, we do not know what tomorrow – any tomorrow - will bring.

So how do we define success in life?


Finally, in all this, the matter of various horizons, the uncertainty of the future, the view of the life of the godly as beset with uncertainty and how we are to regard it and handle it, has importance for the topic of guidance. How does the Lord guide his people? Assuring us a Christian life with a beginning, a middle and an end,  with the end being the tying up of all loose ends? It is an interesting fact that the apostles, in giving much doctrinal and practical guidance, never once  (as far as I can see) gave guidance with respect to Christians’ futures. They are never asked, and never offer such guidance, as to what the will of God is for their lives and how they are to discern this.  This is disappointing for any one hoping, through prayer or Bible study or some other discipline,  to be handed a torch which has the magical power of shining a golden light illuminating the path leading from the present to an assured tomorrow, or to the next year, or the next decade of our lives.

We are to live in the present, but not for the present. This is earth is not our home, and we must never present the Gospel as if it is the key to earthly success, or the icing upon a consumer life-style. We look for a city which has foundations, whose maker and builder is God.