Psalm 74:10–17; Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:8; 2 Corinthians 11:12–15

Originally published 6/12/2017. Revised and updated 6/11/2019.

Psalm 74:10–17: While Israel waits for its prophet, our psalmist expresses his frustration by questioning God about why he is apparently hesitating to prevent his enemies from insulting even him, never mind destroying Israel’s temple:
Until when, O God, will the foe insult,
the enemy revile Your name forever?
Why do You draw back Your hand,
and Your right hand hold in Your bosom? (10, 11)

He goes on in the next stanza to express his undying faith in God’s ultimate rescue by reviewing the many great things God has accomplished since Creation itself:
Yet God is my king of old,
worker of rescues in the midst of the earth.
You shattered the sea-god with Your strength,
You smashed the monster’s heads on the waters.
You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,
You gave him as food to the desert folk” (12-14)

Alter informs us that these references to the sea-god and Leviathan are the old Canaanite creation myths that God has supplanted in his singular act of creation. Our poet turns from creation myth to nature as he recounts God’s actual creative power expressed in Genesis:
You split open a channel for spring and brook,
You dried up the surging torrents.
Yours is the day, also Yours the night.
It was You Who founded the light and the sun.
It was You who laid down the boundaries of earth,
summer and winter, You fashioned them.” (15-17)

Having written that, our psalmist undergoes an important psychological transformation. The act of reflecting on God’s creative power and all that God has done down through time has diminished his anger. This is a lesson for us. When we are discouraged and think that God has abandoned us, it’s useful to reflect on God’s creative power and even on the creation story. In that reflection we realize that of God has overcome far greater evil forces than those we confront. This is the God who created the world, and we can take hope that in his power he will act on our behalf—or even on our nation’s behalf as the psalmist does here.

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:8: Tradition has long held that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, but more recently scholars have concluded that a “son of David” named Qoethleth, the “Teacher,” wrote this short book. In any event, it looks like the Moravians are going to rush us through this book that seems so cynical on its surface, yet contains innumerable truths that are completely relevant today. Perhaps it is here where the immutability of human nature and behavior across three millennia is on is starkest display in the OT.

The opening verses set the tone and theme of the entire book, which is the relentless cyclicality of nature contrasted against the ultimate futility of human endeavor. Basically, everything we think we have accomplished during our lives ultimately comes to nothing. Some call this cynical; I call it realistic:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises. (1:2-5)

Our own generation, which believes it is  inventing and deploying new technology to change the future and “improve” humankind, would do well to reflect on Qoethlet’s assertion that it’s all been done before:
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,

    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us. (1:9, 10)

The Jewish editors who determined the order of the Hebrew Scriptures did us a favor by placing this book immediately following the endless aphorisms of Proverbs by observing that seeking wisdom is not the necessarily fruitful enterprise the authors of Proverbs think it is:
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. (18)

I think we learn this today by realizing that while the fruits of technological wisdom have great upsides, they have equally great downsides, as witness people using Facebook to livestream murders or a president raining us with unceasing tweets.

But if seeking wisdom is an empty exercise, Qoethleth also sees no upsides in self indulgence. He catalogs the many great things he has done through his life, including building houses, planting vineyards, creating gardens and parks, building irrigation projects, buying slaves, and acquiring many possessions, gold and silver. He points out that “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me.” (2:9) In other words he put his wisdom into practice.

But when he reflected on all his accomplishments, they amounted to nothing at all: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (2:11)

He becomes philosophical and “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (2:12) He concludes that whether wise or fool, “I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them.” (2:14) The futility of seeking wisdom overwhelms him as he displays the classic symptoms of depression: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (17)

One wonders how many of us, if we truly reflected on what we have accomplished on our own, would come to exactly the same conclusion? In the end, there is only one path and that is the path that follows God. As far as Qoethleth is concerned, enjoying life and enjoying God is our sole purpose in life, for “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him  who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24) The reality is that it is “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy.” (2:26) What we think we accomplish on our own without God is simply “vanity and a chasing after wind.” (2:26)

The final part of today’s reading is the famous stanza that remind us that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (3:1) Rather than quoting the verses here, I suggest listening to the Byrds or Joan Baez sing the song.

The beauty of this poem is that under the seeming chaos of quotidian life there is an underlying, God-created order. It is our duty to step back from the daily tumult and reflect on the great gift of human life that God has given us.

2 Corinthians 11:12–15: The Moravians make up for today’s lengthy OT reading with just a few verses from Paul. He is still fulminating about the “false apostles” that seem to have gained ascendancy in Corinth. He plans to do everything he can to stop them in their tracks: “And what I do I will also continue to do, in order to deny an opportunity to those who want an opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about.” (12)

He not only aims to halt their depredations by cutting off their opportunities to preach, he accuses them to be “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” (13) And then the harshest criticism of all—that they strongly resemble Satan’s ability to deceive by outward appearance: “And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness.” (14, 15a) Paul is sure they will eventually get their just desserts: “Their end will match their deeds.” (15b)

Notice that Paul is not planning to do them harm; he only seeks to deny them the “opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about.” (12) Paul certainly understands that vengeance belongs to God. He also recognizes that the most effective way to prevent false prophets is to deny them a forum to speak. As always, careful discernment of the theology underlying the message rather than enthusiastic acceptance of a charismatic preacher is key.

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