Beginning with the End in Mind (Ecclesiastes 7:1–6)


Before you watch or ready today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 7:1–6.

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The wisdom of ancient Israel—like all common sense—is full of paradoxes. Think, for example, of two well-known English proverbs: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “Out of sight, out of mind.” Well, which is it? Are your fonder for or forgetful of an absent loved one?

In our study of Ecclesiastes, we have seen that the Preacher’s main theme is the vanity of human existence. Things go “Poof!” Everything under the sun is here today and gone tomorrow. Nevertheless, the Preacher counsels us to find joy in our transient labors and lives: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). Indeed, such pleasures are “God’s gift to man” (3:13).

And yet, in Ecclesiastes 7:1–6, the Preacher seems to be saying something nearly opposite to his counsel of joy. “It is better,” he writes, “to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting.” He also writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter,” and “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

Well, which is it? Eat, drink, and be merry, or spend your time at a funeral home?

The answer is, I think, both—and each one because of the other. We ought to be joyful during our comparatively short time on earth, always knowing that we will die. In other words, we ought to make the most of the time God gives us. By the same token, knowing that we will die, we should not let our momentary pleasures so consume us that we live foolishly. According to Steven Covey, one of the seven habits of highly effective people is beginning with the end in mind. I think that is a fair summary of the Preacher’s message: Live with life’s end in mind.

How do we do so?

The first key is moral character: “A good name is better than precious ointment.” As we age, our powers and passions wax and wane. But one thing can grow constantly: our moral character and the reputation (“name”) that results from it. Is it good to enjoy life’s pleasures? Yes. Is it better to seek integrity and honor? Absolutely. A person who seeks character can enjoy life’s pleasures, but a person who seeks only life’s pleasures cuts himself off from the roots of moral development.

The second key is to pay attention to death. Death is “the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” John Donne once wrote: “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” The death of others should remind us of our own mortality and cause us to be more compassionate and generous in life to those less fortunate than we are.

The third key is wisdom. “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.” In our journey through life, we often need to make mid-course corrections. Sometimes we have the character to know we need to change and to do it without prompting. Often we do not. We need people wiser than ourselves to point out the error of our ways and to prod us in the right direction. Sometimes, such pointing and prodding are painful, but they are necessary pains.

In the end, then, we ought to be joyful of life and mindful of death—both at the same time, and each one because of the other.

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The Legacy of the King James Bible


Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). $15.99, 272 pages.

The Committee on Bible Translation of the New International Version (NIV) recently released a revision of that bestselling Bible. In an explanation of changes made to the NIV, the committee made the following remark regarding its revised translation of 1 John 2:16:

Has anyone really improved on the KJV [King James Version] rendering of these three expressions [i.e., lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life], to which the updated NIV returns? … The language still communicates, and the poetry and style to which the NIV has returned is magnificent.

I imagine that this statement warms the cockles of Leland Ryken’s heart. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Ryken in two classes at Wheaton College—British literature and Milton.) He has been a public critic of the NIV since writing “The Literary Merit of the New International Version” for Christianity Today (October 20, 1978), an article which concluded that the NIV had little of it. He is also a proponent of the “essentially literal” translation philosophy of the English Standard Version, on whose translation committee he served as literary editor. He has defended that translation philosophy in two books: The Word of God in English and Understanding English Bible Translation. According to Ryken, this translation philosophy undergirds the KJV and its modern progeny: the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—though not the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the ESV. These modern translations share the same philosophy as the KJV, but they also are conservative translations in that they seek to retain the vocabulary and cadence of the KJV, consistent with accuracy and readability, of course.

This year (2011) is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the KJV. In honor of that milestone, Ryken has published The Legacy of the King James Version, which outlines the KJV’s publication history, literary excellence, and cultural influence for a general audience. Ryken covers a lot of ground quickly and in an easy-to-read style, offering suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter as well as endnotes that point the reader to more detailed sources of information. If you are going to read one book this year in honor of the KJV, I recommend this one for its breadth of topic and ease of reading.

In the Afterword, Ryken proposes that “we should celebrate a victory, lament a loss, and resolve to hold on to what is excellent.” The victory is the four hundredth anniversary of the KJV, a translation that continues to sell better than most modern translations, routinely coming in at second or third on the sales rankings. The loss fourfold: (1) “we have lost a common English Bible in both the church and the culture at large”; (2) “the authority of the Bible went into eclipse when we lost a common Bible”; (3) “biblical illiteracy has accompanied the decline of the King James Bible”; and (4) we have lost “the affective and literary power of the King James Bible.” In light of this, Ryken argues that we should use those translations that, like the KJV, translate in an “essentially literal” and conservative fashion as well as read the KJV itself on a regular basis.

I don’t know whether I agree with Ryken’s recommendations, although I am using the ESV this year in my reading, writing, and preaching. But I can’t help and wonder whether another wholesale translation of the Bible into English or thoroughgoing translation of an existing one really benefits the readers. I know it’s good business, but is it good for anything else?

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If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Church’s Ministry to the Emotionally Disturbed


Check out my interview with Dr. Siang-Yang Tan, author of Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective. The topic of the interview is the church’s ministry to the emotionally disturbed.

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Vanity of Vanities (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)


Before you watch or read today’s devotional, read Ecclesiastes 1:1-2.

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If you were a highly successful individual, what advice would you give others to help them achieve the good life?

Walk the aisles of your local bookstore, scan its shelves, and you will discover book after book offering answers to that question. They reveal the seven habits of highly effective people, how to win friends and influence people, the secrets of finding the love you want and keeping the love you find, not to mention how to think and grow rich. Each one is written by an effective, friendly author who has been lucky in love. And if the author was not rich before writing the book, he or she probably has made a bundle post-publication.

What you will not find in any of those books, however, is what you find in the second verse of Ecclesiastes, namely, a healthy cynicism about life. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2).[1] The never-ending supply of self-help books blithely assumes that the good life is defined in tangible terms, as the acquisition of greater health, more wealth, and better relationships. The horizon of such books is earthly and temporal. But what if earth and the present time are ultimately unsatisfying? What if they are in vain? Those are the questions the Preacher dares to ask.

Who is this Preacher? He is not, as you might expect from his title, an ordained religious leader. In Hebrew, his title is Qoheleth (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). Etymologically, this title is related to the verb qhl, which means, “to gather,” and the noun qahal, which means “assembly.” So, as Choon-Leong Seow puts it, Qoheleth probably means “‘Gatherer’ or ‘Collector’—whether of wisdom, wealth, or people.”

Additionally, he is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “the son of David” refers to Solomon, except in three instances (2 Sam. 13:1 [twice] and 2 Chron. 11:18). Along with his father David, Solomon is the only king to reign over all Israel from Jerusalem; after his death, the kingdom divides into two hostile monarchies. And, as you read Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:11, you cannot help but notice the similarities between the Preacher and Solomon. Both are wise, both are wealthy, and both achieve great things in this life. Not surprisingly, then, both Jewish and Christian traditions identify Solomon as the Preacher. Oddly, though, Ecclesiastes does not. For some unstated reason, it evokes Solomon’s experiences without explicitly naming him.

Now, you might think that a highly successful individual like Solomon would have a bit more positive advice than this “All is vanity” business. And yet, who else but a person like Solomon could make that point with any credibility? Only the truly wise know the limits of wisdom. Only the fabulously wealthy know the emptiness of riches. Only the wildly successful know that such success does not necessarily make life good. The Preacher stands on the highest peak of human experience and realizes that it is not high enough to reach heaven and eternity.

Blessed, then, are those who, like the Preacher, are cynical about earth and the present time and look farther along the horizon for something more, for only they will find it.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Are Christians Fools? (1 Corinthians 3:18-20)


 

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Are Christians fools?

Critics of Christianity certainly think so.

In the second century, the Greek philosopher Celsus wrote that Christian evangelists sought to make converts of  “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children.”

In a story that ran in The Washington Post on February 1, 1993,  reporter Michael Weisskopf famously described politically conservative American evangelicals as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”

More recently, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins – leading proponent of the “new atheism” and a self-described “Bright” – said, “The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

In my opinion, these quotes tell us more about the critics than they do about the criticized. Celsus was an upper-class bigot and misogynist to boot. The day after Weisskopf’s story appeared, the Post ran a correction saying, “There is no factual basis for that statement.” One wonders how Weisskopf’s whopper slipped past the Post’s fact checkers in the first place. And Dawkins? In his review of The God Delusion, philosopher Alvin Plantinga wrote, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores.”

And yet, if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, Christianity’s critics may be on to something:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written [in Job 5:13]: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”;  and again [in Psalm 94:11], “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile” (1 Corinthians 3:18-20).

Does the Apostle Paul agree with Christianity’s critics?

From one perspective, Paul’s answer is most certainly “yes.” That perspective is “the standards of this age.” For Celsus, the standard was Greek philosophy; for Weisskopf, political correctness; and for Dawkins, evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, the standard shifts as the age changes, reminding us of the truth of Dean Inge’s statement: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Weisskopf and Dawkins don’t share Celsus’ classism and bigotry, thank goodness. Their egalitarian sentiments have been shaped, ironically enough, by the millennia-long leveling tendencies of following Christ, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).[1]

From another perspective, however, Paul’s answer is most certainly “no.” Christianity’s “cultured despires”[2] are wrong because their standards are wrong. And their standards are wrong because they take no account of Jesus Christ. Thus, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

If you’re smart, be a fool for Christ.


[1] See David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale, 2009), for a historical argument to this effect.

[2] The term is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s, not Paul’s.