[K:NWTS 11/1 (May 1996) 14-22]
Although he probably was not a Christian, John Steinbeck once wrote a novel called The Wayward Bus that offers an interesting critique of people in the twentieth century. Steinbeck presents a diverse group of people who are traveling on an old bus from the town of Rebel Corners to Los Angeles. Assembled on this bus are a salesman, an old grumpy man, a stag party stripper, a waitress, a businessman, his wife and daughter, the bus driver and his garage handiboy.
On the way to their destination, the bus driver, under instructions from the common mind of the group, tries to take a short cut from the main road and the bus ends up stuck in the mud. As the driver wanders off, telling the group that he is going for help, the passengers are left to themselves and they take shelter in a nearby cave.
Now written on the top of that cave in large, capital letters is the word "REPENT." The word had been written, says the narrator, by a wandering preacher who had, "Let himself down with a rope to put that great word in black paint, and he had gone away rejoicing at how he was spreading God's word in a sinful world."
Here then are these passengers, representing a broad cross section of America, staring directly at this word "REPENT" as they exit the broken down bus which has fallen short in its attempt to deliver them to the City of Angels.
And yet, hardly anyone pays any attention to it. They are completely oblivious to it. In fact, only the businessman even glances at the warning, and that only for a split second. He wonders instantaneously who had financed such a venture, perhaps a missionary he concludes, and then the thought is gone.
The people are completely oblivious to this word because it does not speak to them. It is part of a dead language. It is part of a pre-modern language. This word is not a part of their vocabulary for it belongs to another age. It belongs to an age when people believed in another world, when people believed in heaven and hell. But for the people in the cave the word "REPENT" carries no meaning. They believe that there is only one reality—the here and the now!
You see, they have no eschatological consciousness and that makes them indifferent to this word and its message. You only repent; you only change your life and your ways; you only turn from sin and turn in new obedience to God if you believe in reward and judgment in another life. Repentance implies that our lives have meaning and that history is moving towards a goal, the climax of all things and the beginning of another world.
But these people have no faith in another world. To survive, they have willingly entered into a cave—Plato's cave, if you will—thinking they have eyes to see in the darkness. All the while, they ignore the eschatological message given to them.
Now this brief story from Steinbeck presents us with an ideal foil because many so-called Christians today are telling us to ignore the eschatological message of the Bible. In particular, the pressure is being applied to the church in regard to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Many individuals in Christendom are telling us that such books as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon have no interest in a future life. According to these people, the books of Wisdom have no interest in heaven or hell. Rather, Biblical wisdom literature only has regard for the present—the here and now.
For example, that was the opinion of my professor who taught the class on the wisdom literature at Duquesne University. My professor believed that the wisdom literature has no interest whatsoever in a future life. Rather, the goal of wisdom was living to your potential here and now. And you do that, you live to your potential here and now, by experiencing a full range of emotions daily—you laugh, you cry, you hug. That is what the wise person does in experiencing the full range of human emotions day by day.
Consequently, my professor believed that the glory of God should not be the primary motivation in living one's life. When you make a decision, you think about the upside for yourself, you do not think about glorifying God. Nor do you think about the reality of God's judgment as a motivation to refrain from sinning. Instead, you think, "How can I feel better today? How can I reach my potential today?"
Along these lines, one of the many theologians my professor quoted was Walter Brueggemann and his book on the wisdom literature, In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith. In that book, Brueggemann wrote:
The life which wisdom sees as the goal and meaning of human existence is the well-being of the community and each of its members, i.e. shalom. Moreover, 'peace' for the whole community is intensely here and now. There is no 'reward' in heaven, no deferred dividend . . . This anticipation of an extrinsic goal, heaven, which has sometimes dominated the church has also played a great role in western culture. It is one of the sources of uninvolvement and social indifference. Wisdom represents a protest against such a deferred goal. It is pragmatic and impatient. It affirms that life's values are embraced or rejected here and now. Any talk of the will of God which doesn't lead to life for the community here and now is idolatry (pp. 15-16).
So, you see, Steinbeck's passengers are not alone in thinking that this present reality is the only reality. There are theologians in Christendom saying that the wisdom books of the Old Testament teach the same thing. They are telling us, "Forget heaven, forget hell, forget judgment and forget reward! They do not exist. All that exists is here and now, and the Bible is telling us that in the wisdom literature. And if we believe otherwise, that is idolatry. If we read Job, or Proverbs, or any other wisdom book of the Old Testament and we interpret the message eschatologically, then we have forsaken the true God for the worship of an idol."
Obviously, conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Christendom is at odds with such a view of life. We believe that our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. And we believe that living wisely always has reference to God and to the future. This life is but a breath, and then the breath is gone. But during the time we are on this earth, we do not strive for earthly treasures. Rather, we strive for everlasting treasures in that we have been born from above in and through our Savior Jesus Christ.
So there is the conflict. Some theologians are saying that the Bible is teaching us from the wisdom literature to ignore heavenly things, to ignore future things. Are they right? Are we wrong? Does the wisdom literature have no interest in the future? Are we to abandon all thoughts of another world if we are to live wisely? In seeking to answer these questions, I would like to examine the eschatological message of one of the wisdom books—the book of Ecclesiastes.
It is of the utmost importance for us to determine the author and the setting of the book if we are to understand its redemptive significance. In this regard, the opening verse of Ecclesiastes supplies us with the author. These are "the words of the preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem." Simply put, the historic church has always believed that these are the words of Solomon.
Knowing that, we next need to ask ourselves what characterized the historical situation during the time of Solomon's reign. The setting for the reign of Solomon comes into focus in 1 Kings 8. In this chapter, we are told that Israel had finally received the blessing that God had promised to her (vv. 54-56). The Israelites were in the land. Their enemies had been defeated. The holy city was theirs. The temple had been completed and the ark was in their possession. God had blessed them and given them rest. It was a time of peace, permanence, and prosperity. This is what Solomon tells the people in a loud voice, "Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised" (v. 56).
In such a setting (i.e., one of rest and prosperity), you see the utter need that the Israelite people have for wisdom in that they have never been in this situation before in their history. This is all new to the people of God. Previously, they had been slaves in Egypt. God had redeemed them from Pharoah, but they were still not in the land. Then, they were in the land, but their enemies were not defeated. They were given a king, but they had no temple. But now, finally, everything has come together. They have a king, they have the land, they have the temple and the ark, and they have rest from their enemies.
Consequently, this new situation created the need for wisdom for the Israelites found themselves confused as to how they should live. In light of this new setting, the supreme question in the minds of the Israelites was, "How do we now live in light of the fact that the promises have been fulfilled?" We know how to live when we are on the run. We know how to live when everyone's beating up on us. But how do we live now?
This, then, is the message that God gives to his people through Solomon. But what is shocking is that we look at Ecclesiastes and we realize that its message is one of frustration and despair. "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (1:2).
What has led Solomon to this conclusion? It is death. The reality of death has led Solomon to this conclusion. Yes, God had given his people rest, but something was still missing because people were still dying. Wise and godly men who obediently kept God's law were still dying. It is not just the stupid who are dying; it is the wise and stupid alike who are dying; and still other people are ill and suffering at the doorstep of death. We can hear the cry of the people, "Lord, we didn't think it would still be like that since the promises have been fulfilled."
Solomon realizes that something is still missing. Something's not right because all classes of people are still perishing, wise and stupid, young and old alike. What we have, then, in chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes is this—Ecclesiastes 12 serves as a microcosm of the whole, giving as it were in a brief section, a summary of the whole book.
This chapter begins with Solomon, the preacher, exhorting a young man. He is speaking to this young man and he tells him, "Remember also your Creator. " The force of this imperative is to remind this young man that the end of his days is connected with the beginning of his days. From dust he has come, and to dust he will depart. Solomon wants this young man to enjoy the blessings of the present day, but yet, at he same time, he wants this person to consider his frailty and the fact that death lurks around the corner.
The fuller meaning of this imperative—"Remember also your Creator"— is found in the three qualifying "before" clauses (vv. 1, 2, 6). In these three verses, Solomon presents three situations which will inevitably await this young man in old age. In v. 1, Solomon tells him to "remember also his Creator" before the evil days come in which no delight is to be found. That is, the evil days will bring with them the loss of power. For example, previously, as a farmer, you could carry a fifty pound bag of feed under each arm, but now you struggle to carry one. Previously, you could work from dawn to dust, but now you need a nap or two to get through the day. There is no delight in this time when your power is fading.
In v. 2, the "before" clause centers around the coming of stormy weather for those in old age. The frailty that accompanies old age is like a storm front that comes and never leaves. For example, as soon as your injured arm gets better, your leg hurts. As soon as your leg gets better, your back hurts. If it is not one thing, it is another. It is as if a storm front has settled over you in old age and as soon as one storm is gone, another comes.
The third "before" clause in v. 6 points out to this young man that death may be without warning, cutting short the enjoyment of the present day. The broken cord and the crushed bowl picture the final extinguishing of the light of life in the body. With death, the well is shattered and the water coming from it is no longer available to be drawn up or carried.
These three verses, then, present variations of the same truth. Solomon is warning this young man he will not always remain strong. Death is coming. This young man must remember his Creator for from dust he came and to dust he will return.
Solomon completes this thought by adding a parenthetical section in vv. 3-5. He is again speaking about the onslaught of death. Here the overriding thought is that death is stalking. Death is pursuing the young man and there is nothing that he can do about it. It is a fact of life.
Solomon is exhorting this young man not to run away from this fact of life. Death and decay are going to stalk you and they are going to catch you. You are going to go to the dark house, the "eternal house" (as it reads in v. 5.)
So what has happened here in Ecclesiastes 12? Why this despair? Why this relentless emphasis concerning death? Solomon's readers need to learn the value of wisdom for if everyone ends up dying in the end, what is the use of wisdom? Solomon himself had asked for wisdom and had gotten it from God. But now he is saying, if everyone ends up dead, what use is there in being wise? If this is the case, if life is a death march to the dark house from the day that we are born, then all is vanity. "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity."
Herein lies the brilliance of this book and its message. Through negation, Solomon has prepared the saint who reads this book in every age to learn what true wisdom is. Through negation, he has prepared believers of all ages for the coming of the Wonderful Counselor, Jesus Christ. The words in Ecclesiastes prepare us for Christ in a negative way just as they prepared the Jews in Solomon's day.
The key to understanding this book is its redemptive setting. Remember that Israel had entered into rest for the first time. Everything seemingly was theirs. They were in the land. Their enemies were defeated. The temple was built. The promises were being fulfilled. The author of 1 Kings 4:25 tells us that every man in Israel was under the shade of his own fig tree. The expectation of such a man in such a setting would be that all of his problems had ended. Here was life at its best.
But suddenly, this Israelite realizes that his problems are still there. His family and his friends are still dying around him. The man realized that what he has hoped for is still something temporal. It is that realization that is devastating! Can you feel the despair? "This is what I put my hope in? This is nice, but I was expecting a little more—I was not expecting to die!"
The problem the Israelite still faces, despite all the blessings that he had been given by God, is that of sin and death. Unless one comes to defeat sin and death, life has no meaning. The collapse of wisdom stares the Israelite in the face unless something is done. Wisdom has no meaning here and now unless sin and death are vanquished.
So what Solomon through negation has done is to point to the answer. The answer is found in the coming of the Messiah and his resurrection from the dead. God has sent his Son. This Son—through his active and passive obedience, through his resurrection from the grave—has defeated sin and death.
The vanity of life is answered only in the resurrection. To fear God and to keep his commandments does not solve the problem. The good Jew did that, but the problem of sin still remained. Inspired by God, Solomon is telling the Jew of his day: if you are content with what God has done short of the coming of the Messiah, then your life has no meaning. Instead, place all of your hope in the future coming of God. You are alive even now by faith in the coming Messiah and he is the reason and the source of why you fear God and keep his commandments. In other words, faith in the Messiah's work in the future is the basis of all Old Testament wisdom.
But having said that, what about us, roughly three thousand years removed from the days of Solomon? Does wisdom still have an eschatological focus for us? Yes, it does. We, the church, the new Israel of God, find ourselves in the same empty situation as some did in Solomon's day. If we are totally satisfied with this life and do not hunger and thirst for the consummate righteousness of heaven, we will succumb to the same vanity that overwhelmed the Israelites in Solomon's day. Yes, wonderful blessings are ours presently though the person and work of Jesus Christ, but his coming again to sum up all things still remains. In our redemptive situation presently, we blessedly participate in Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension, but our focus is still on the future as we await the return of the Son from heaven and the consummation of the age. Is that not our prayer daily—that our Lord would come quickly so that sin and death would be no more and we will receive true and final rest with God forever?
Truly, may God save us, the church, from imitating those people in the cave who have turned their faces from God's eschatological word. We too are on a journey from Rebel's Corners to the City of Angels, but our eyes are focused on our risen Savior in heaven as we strive daily to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Wisdom is eschatological in that we find our lives in Christ, that one who has defeated death. And it is out of our union with him the risen Lord, that our lives have meaning, that wisdom has value, that our labor is not in vain. Is this not, my friends, what Paul tells us at the end of his great chapter on the resurrection of Christ? In I Cor. 15:56-58, speaking of the resurrected Christ and what he presently means to us, Paul solves the riddle of the despair of the book of Ecclesiastes:
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work in the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
True wisdom is eschatological because true wisdom in every age rests and resides in Jesus Christ, that one who because of his resurrection participates fully in the eschaton even now.