This is the unedited version of my intro to Ecclesiastes the death of meaning, god & self: part 2. I’ll probably sanitize it a bit for Sunday but this is it in the raw.
“Watch your step when you go to the house of God, for understanding is more favored than the offering of sacrifice of fools, for they do not know even how to do evil. Be not rash with your mouth, and let your heart not hurry to utter a word before God. For God is in the heavens and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business and the fool’s voice with much talk. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it, for there is no pleasure in fools. What you vow, fulfill. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and do not fulfill. Do not let your mouth make your body offend, not say before God that it was a mistake. Why should God rage over your voice and ruin your handiwork? For in many dreams are mere breath and much talk. Instead, fear God.” Ecclesiastes 5:1-7
The madman cried: “Where has God gone?” “I shall tell you. We have killed him…you and I. We are his murderers.” -The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche
“When Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead”, he was not proclaiming that he had become an atheist. What he did mean was the death of all totalizing ideologies, that is, ideologies (theological or secular) who claim to be the overarching principle that explains everything. He proclaimed the death of all all kinds of ‘reductionisms’ – religious or scientific, that reduces everything to one formula, with their notions of rational certainty, cocksureness and universality – shutting down questioning and critique.”
When the Preacher says, “Be not rash with your mouth, and let your heart not hurry to utter a word before God.” We are confronted with a command that is immensely important, especially in today’s fragmenting, disintegrating and prodigal religious culture.
People are leaving the ‘church’ in alarming numbers and many are doing so because they have concluded that too much of our talk is ‘mere breath’. The rejection of truth for many isn’t necessarily an abandonment of the idea that there are true things, but the conclusion that much of what is presented as truth often doesn’t seem to bring about any real sense of meaning. I think we’re in an era of the weariness of words.
The Preacher described it this way: “…let your heart not hurry to utter a word before God.”
A “hurried heart” is not a place from which we should speak before God, be it to Him or about Him.
Later he says: “Beware of making many books there is no end and much chatter is a weariness of the flesh.” (12:12). Endless opinions in a vast sea of ideas has produced an ocean of meaningless flotsam and jetsam. The ‘chatter’ isn’t touching people’s souls and their hearts and minds have grown tired of religious platitudes, bumper sticker responses and shallow answers in the face of the maelstrom, mystery and majesty of the world.
The Preacher ponders the improbabilities of life after death when he says: “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Ecc. 3:21). We know that Christ has answered that mystery, there is, but for the sake of wrestling with the meaningless living that takes place so much around us, let’s ruminate a minute.
How would you live your life today, if there was no afterlife? Would you change anything? Would you savor the moment more? Would you kiss the cheek of your spouse longer, hold your child tighter, or embrace the day with renewed seriousness and gratitude?
Maybe the Preacher is more concerned about how we have neglected the sacred goodness God has called us to attend and imbibe all around us? Maybe His ‘Eat and Drink” pontifications are prophetic words of embracing the possibilities of joy and meaning waiting to be discovered and savored in our lives? Maybe some saints can get so heavenly minded that they can’t see the glory of God’s goodness right in front of them? Could it be that the Preacher is saying that many of us see a fire consuming creation instead of hearing the voice of God in the flames of the bush, telling us to take off our church shoes and touch the earth again?
Instead of church being a company of disciples, a term meant to describe humble seekers and learners, it has become a room of dissertation and examination for know-it-alls, do-gooders and better-than-thous. The preacher calls their bluff when he cries: “I saw all the works and ways of God, and it became clear to me that no one is able to grasp fully this mystery called life. Try as we might, we cannot discover what has been done under the sun. Even if the wise claim to know, they really haven’t discovered it.” (8:17)
All such things are meaningless, all the pretentious presentations of God…must…die.
Did you know that the biblical God can die and it’s a liberating death? Resurrection is the promise of new life, a new understanding, a new day and a new world. To cry god is dead is not a defeat but for many a victory! Their false God has…died.
The Preacher speaks a word of silence into the cacophony of religious chatter going on in the ‘house of God’. He goes after the ‘vows’ being made, the hypocritical assumptions, conclusions and commitments that perpetuate a life of intention but unattended realization.
He cries bullshit!
When the Preacher says: “Do not let your mouth make your body offend,…” he is telling us to grab the emergency break on all our over-commitments.
He’s yelling “Stop!” “You are overselling and underperforming!” Don’t believe your own hype or all the hoopla and hallelujahs offered so easily in the house of worship. Honest and vulnerable cries of faith is one thing, but mumbling mantras of over-memorized worship proclamations is sacrilege. Meaningless speaking, singing or sacrifice is the worship of fools and such religious pageantry is a pious charade that evokes the “rage of God”.
Like a shunned woman, a betrayed wife or shamed lover…God will not be twaddled with. His jealousy is volcanic, His holiness unleashes plagues on those who peek into the ark (1 Samuel 6:19). Death to those who handle Him like a trinket, good luck charm or genie bottle (2 Samuel 6) and liars still fall dead in the presence of the holy Ghost (Acts 5).
These are not the threats of a divine egomaniac or unhinged Almightiness, they are the thunder and lightning against head, heart and hand blasphemy. To stand in the presence of the eternal, omnipotent power and love with unwiped hands, unzipped pants and half-assed commitments is to betray everything sacred.
In a day when the Divine Name is the exclamation point on the end of a crude sentence, maybe it is time to hush ourselves. Like Israel maybe we should choose to no longer speak the holiest of names so quickly? To refrain from the crass familiarity that breeds contempt and complacency when what is sacred is treated like poptarts, hairspray and the goofiness of infatuation instead of the deep and passionate whispers of tender and jealous fidelity.
The Preacher screams at us to put a sock in it…before we speak ourselves into a life we have no intention of living. Such a witness is worthless and if you won’t keep the vow, than for heaven’s sake…don’t speak the vow!
Maybe being given the freedom to be silent in church isn’t a judgment on being a woman, as so many today seem to imply? Maybe it’s a liberating gift to tell some of us that you need not make any commitments in church? No need to incriminate or explain yourself. No rededications and redactions just…be. An invitation to rest in the grace that knows your deepest, most true self. A command to believe the Lord hears the real you, the prayer unspoken, the groaning of God within your often conflicted and complicit self. Maybe silence before Him is the same gift He will give you? To stand before the eternal judge and find silence in heaven just might become the greatest gift of grace any human has ever received.
To some of you these words might shock and offend you, but to others, they are like an escape clause in a life lease that you know you can not pay.
You know your own heart. You are fully aware of your waywardness and worldliness. You know the secrets of your soul, the appetites of your lusts and the damnable desires for ease, distraction and dilly-daddling that plague your so called religious life.
You have been searching for a way out of this pre-arranged marriage that somehow you got shanghaied into during some low point in your desperate life. You now regret the commitments made when you were mentally and emotionally vulnerable, you know that you were lying, even if it was a well intentioned one. You would of drank a 40 ouncer of Clorox if you thought it would of eased your pain or saved you from the hell you had created or were experiencing in your life. But you didn’t really know what you were getting into and now you are trapped.
But now you hear the Preacher proclaiming a sermon that you would walk down the aisle to…if you could just find the courage within your conflicted soul. You see that the altar is full of overburdened believers confessing their religion. You see them standing up with joy on their faces, sanctimonious sins washed away and the chains of guilt and pressure laying broken at their feet. They are being baptized in grace and you long for the waters.
The Preacher has unleashed a chapel shaking revival and the old church of Ichabod is now full of Atheists and heaven’s angels are rejoicing! The choir is banging their tambourines, the front row is full of people clapping, dancing and shouting “god is dead!” “god is dead!”…because only false gods die for good.
In a scrambling rush, every hypocritical, whitewashed tomb of a saint is grabbing their unread bibles and hightailing it out of the church calling down curses on those rebels, reprobates, apostates and heretics!
All that is left is Jesus and his reborn…singing songs, drinking wine and eating bread in spirit and truth.
There standing on the threshold of old chapel is Jesus waving goodbye to the fleeing offended and singing an ancient line from the Roman coliseum that good old Polycarp ironically jabbed the Emperor with…“Away with the atheists”.
Image: Edvard Munch, Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche (detail), 1906; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.