We all probably imagine someone we look forward to meeting in heaven (yes, I know it starts with Jesus). But whose agenda would you like to get on? If there’s one character who stands out in my mind, it is the writer of Ecclesiastes. I’m not sure who I should ask to see. He identified himself in vague terms (Qohelet), and teased us with the phrase “son of David, king in Jerusalem,” but we’re not sure. Is it Solomon’s or someone else’s address I should look up?
I want to meet him for a number of reasons. In the first place, he caused no little consternation in my life when I chose to preach Ecclesiastes. “How dare you,” some congregants in Europe said. “How can you take the musings of some self-indulgent narcissist into the pulpit?” Some of my elders were miffed. One pleaded that I cut my losses. Another left the church. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered.
I’d like to know if Qohelet was smiling down from heaven. Did he feel my pain? I think he will say—“It’s too bad they couldn’t handle life’s realism, hiding under their grandstanding and fake virtue signaling. Did they ever bother to read the last chapter? Did it cross their minds that it was God who actually wrote the book? My life was the material, but moving the pen was all him.”
I would also like to compare notes with him. I wonder how much of what he experienced in his long life is what our culture is experiencing in these long days. There’s no question his was an age of decadence. It was Israel’s golden era. Times were good. Gold was abundant. Silver was valuable only for trash receptacles, ash trays, and packaging for aerosol sprays.
In the opening chapters, Ecclesiastes is an account of his years on a hedonic treadmill. He approached pleasure like a scientist in a lab, researching to find out the limits of one’s indulgence and where it takes a person. He had it all—power, money, sex, servants, drugs, a palace…his opulence was mind-bending. Did he own terriers?
My guess is he might say—“It’s too bad more of you did not read my book and take it as a warning. You would have noticed how often I used the word hebel (i.e. vanity, vapor, meaningless). You think I was glorifying a life bent on hell when I was actually alerting you to the fact you need to get off the treadmill before it is too late. All of this energy amounted to a chasing after the wind. Decadence and its disabling attachments hollows out a soul. It did mine.”
This is what Ross Douthat is forewarning in his new book, The Decadent Society: America Before and After the Pandemic. Like Israel in the days of Solomon (assuming this is Solomon), we are at peace, rich and secure in our physical comforts. Our lives appear to be flourishing like Solomon’s did. But look closer. Our lives have many of the same characteristics that marked the writer– “stuck, tired, distracted, repetitive, irritable, bored, and boring, and just comfortably numb.” Or as Douthat puts it, “growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.” And just as Solomon’s decadence led him into a certain territory of meaningless darkness, so ours is headed in the same direction.
Finally, I would like to probe more deeply into what he saw as the solution. He might point back to the wisdom he expressed throughout his book and say, “If only you would listen. Here’s what the wise get—
-moments move in a timely manner—make the most of time, for before you know it, it will be gone -chap 3
-don’t sacrifice relationship for your career—what you have gained will soon be left behind, and you will die a lonely person -chap 4
-quit giving so much attention to politics—have you noticed how transient power is, how fickle people are, and how quickly today’s heroes are tomorrow’s sclerotic discards? -chap 4
-give up trying to be in control—control is Someone Else’s job—so relax, eat and drink and smell the roses-chap 5
-stop playing it safe-get out of your safe harbor and out into the whitewater-life is too short to avoid a sense of daring -chap 11
-serve God while you can, beginning with now—age and the looming frailty will only diminish the opportunities you once had -chap 12
-crying out for justice is good, but cease playing God in people’s lives. Everyone suffers some brokenness, some pain, and carries some responsibility in this world of vapor. But a time is coming when God will put everything right” -12:14
But then I think he would pause and go deeper—much deeper. He would take us to what is missing most in an age that has rejected God’s authoritative word and replaced it with one’s autonomous, idolatrous self: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man” (12:13).
I think we will spend all of eternity learning what this means. Like the writer, we will conclude on this side—as well as on the other—that In the end, this is all that matters. This is the summation of humanity, the “soul of godliness”—to hold God with reverence and with awe.
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