04 November 2022

Meaningless things.

Ecclesiastes 9.11.

“Time and chance” is how the King James Version renders עֵ֥ת וָפֶ֖גַע/et va-fegá, “a moment and an accident.” I tend to interpret it as dumb luck, ’cause that’s the concept the author of Ecclesiastes is going with. Dumb luck exists, and it’s why the best and brightest aren’t guaranteed success.

Ecclesiastes 9.11 NKJV
I returned and saw under the sun that—
The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all.

Yeah, our culture teaches otherwise. And no I’m not talking about our wider secular culture; I’m talking about popular Christian culture. Loads of Christians insist nothing happens outside God’s intricate plan for the cosmos. He’s got everything mapped out, everything under his thumb; even evil and chaos and destruction and sin are part of the arrangement. Dumb luck can’t exist in the realm of our sovereign God. There’s no such thing as luck. Everything’s determined, and everything happens for a reason.

They absolutely hate when I point ’em to Ecclesiastes. ’Cause it’s part of our Holy Spirit-inspired bible… yet its author relentlessly insists plenty of things happen for no reason. At all. It’s the entire premise of his book.

Ecclesiastes 1.1-3 NKJV
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
3 What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?

I’ve actually had people try to explain Ecclesiastes away, as if the book’s “pessimism” no longer applies or matters in the Christian era. The author’s a descendant of David who called himself קֹהֶ֣לֶת/Qohelét, “preacher.” Most folks assume it’s Solomon. And, Christians will tell me, Qohelét wrote it when he was depressed. Because he lacked revelation of God’s grand will of purpose, he didn’t know God has a plan for everything. So he wrote it out of his utter faithlessness. It’s in our bible as a warning to people who likewise lack faith. You know, like Job’s friends. Don’t be like those guys.

That’s just how dead set certain Christians are in demanding their worldview: Let’s overturn entire books of the bible by claiming they’re ironic.

But the reason the Spirit inspired this book, and the reason we kept it in the bible, is ’cause Qohelét’s right. He makes it clear God isn’t behind every fumble, every failure, every accident, every coincidence. God’s behind a whole lot of things!—but certainly not all. Some things aren’t him. Evil isn’t him, and claiming God causes evil to happen is pure slander. Common slander, but still.

To Qohelét, some things are just הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙/havél havalím, “vapor of vapors,” which the KJV calls “vanity of vanities.” It’s a Hebrew idiom meaning “the most evanescent of vapors.” You know how, on a cold day, you can see your breath, but it quickly disappears? This disappears even more quickly. It immediately disappears. It’s the breath of that breath: Here one instant, gone the next. Can’t hold it, can’t catch it, can’t chase it. It’s empty, unimportant, meaningless. “Vanity,” the KJV puts it—it’s less than meaningless, ’cause time spent on it is time utterly wasted.

Does anything happen for a reason? According to Qohelét, anything God does happens for a reason. But everything else? The vapor of vapors.

The false dilemma of sovereignty over everything… or nothing.

Here’s the problem: People are terrified of the idea things might be meaningless.

They hate the idea of random chance, dumb luck, accidents, flukes, or coincidences in the universe. They prefer to think—and are pretty sure they can find proof-texts which demonstrate—there are no such things. No chance, no luck, no fortune: Everything happens because God decides it does. Everything’s up to Providence.

Even disasters, death, mayhem, catastrophes? Yep, that stuff too: When a tsunami drowns a community, or an earthquake flattens a city, or a virus decimates a nation, these Christians are insistent God’s at the back of it all. Not nature, collapsing back into the chaos it was originally made out of, acting independently of God, sometimes obligating God to order it to stop. Mk 4.39 It’s God, they insist—killing people through “acts of God,” as the insurance companies call ’em.

To their minds, if God permits any randomness into his universe, it’d mean he’s not sovereign. Permitting other things to defy his will? Absolutely not. They can’t abide this. They don’t abide it—not in their employees, children, pets, or machines. If they were God, they’d control all. That’s the sort of God they want, so it’s the God they’ve mentally constructed.

They much prefer a God in absolute control… and yes, even if this God occasionally kills entire villages of innocent people. They’d much rather have a wrathful God than a weak one.

They don’t allow for any reasonable third option. Like God endowing his creatures with free will, then turning us loose to function on our own, with input and guidance from him. Like maybe, instead of programming us with right thinking by instinct, a set of commands we have to learn. Maybe some prophets to point us the right way. Maybe a special intervention from time to time, to set us straight, or to put our evil deeds to a stop.

Nope. To determinists, a supervisory God simply isn’t good enough. It’s as if God quit his job and handed us the reins: Chaos. Disaster. The very world they don’t want, and don’t even want to imagine.

Yet in the scriptures, that’s what we have.

God is behind many things. Way more than we realize. A lot of the events we might consider coincidence, actually aren’t; God was working ’em out. Sometimes God is behind the wind. Ex 10.19 But sometimes he’s not! 1Ki 19.11

How do we know whether he is or isn’t? He’ll tell us so. He informs his prophets he’s up to something, before the fact. Am 3.7 Any preacher who stands up after the fact, and declares, “Well, this city was struck by a hurricane because the people in it were coveting their neighbors’ giant flat-screen televisions,” isn’t functioning as a prophet; they’re guessing. And guessing wrong: God told them nothing, and it shows in their lack of compassion and other good fruit.

God permits accidents, coincidences, random events, chance, and luck. And reserves the right to interfere with them. He has free will too, y’know. Some “coincidences” are the result of Providence: “God-incidences,” as some Christians call ’em. (And no, stop calling them that. It’s stupid.) But the rest of them: Dumb luck. Not God.

Trying to find meaning where there is none.

The human brain is designed to figure things out. It recognizes patterns, makes connections, and comes to conclusions based on these connections. We “put two and two together,” as the saying goes, and hopefully come up with four.

In most people the brain does a fine job. In many, it works overtime: It recognizes patterns where there aren’t any, and makes connections where none exist. A few years ago Google, experimenting with pattern recognition software, showed off “Deep Dream,” a representation of the patterns the software “sees” in photos.

New York, filtered through Google’s Deep Dream. The Telegraph

We think it’s amusing (or creepy), but our brains do the very same thing all the time. It’s why clouds and rock formations remind us of other things. It’s why conspiracy theorists connect the dots. It’s why people believe in junk science and folk wisdom. We trust our thinking far more often than we ought.

So when Christians insist every coincidence has God behind it, these same Christians will foolishly try to interpret these coincidences. They’ll figure they “saw God winking at me,” as certain Christians put it, and try to deduce what the “wink” means. How’d God speak through the coincidence? What revelation did he give?

You see the fairly obvious problem: Christians will turn coincidences into augury. We’ll try to deduce God’s will from his “signs”—though these events aren’t proven to be signs.

Say I’m searching for a job. And the very minute I tell God, “I need a job; can you help?” I stumble across a help-wanted ad. Wow, what a coincidence!—must be God behind it. Right? Even those who do believe in coincidences will jump to the conclusion God is somehow involved.

Now, say the job is working in a bar. And say I’m a raging alcoholic. But I’m convinced all coincidences are God, so I’m gonna come up with some half-baked explanation for why God maybe wants me there: “True, I’m this close to falling off the wagon every day. But maybe God thinks I’m tough enough to beat this thing!”

Say I’m trying to figure out whether to marry a particular woman. And I find out, coincidentally, she wants to have five kids, and has already picked out their names, and she’s picked the same names I have! (Which at least means we’re suited to live in the same looney bin, anyway.) Again, if I’m convinced all coincidences are God, I might plunge forward into marriage—even though she’s divorced her last four husbands after only six months of marriage, and they all have restraining orders against her, ’cause she’s a bit stabby. But maybe I’ll be the exception!

Say I’m trying to figure out whether to assassinate an annoying politician. And I find out, of all places, he’s gonna be at my workplace during a campaign stop!

And I’ll stop there. People can’t see the problems of this half-baked reasoning till I throw outrageous examples like these at ’em. But it’s true in general: Coincidence is a lousy way to deduce God’s will. As conspiracy theorists regularly demonstrate, you can find coincidences anywhere. Just look hard enough. When you really want something to be true, you can find plenty of fake revelations to justify your nutty belief.

God doesn’t want us to deduce his will, but hear it. He’s given us bible. He’s given us prophets. He’ll even talk to us personally. We don’t need coincidences.

A corrective for foolish platitudes.

Assuming Christians bother to read the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes tends to polarize ’em. It contradicts all their favorite platitudes.

  • “Don’t be sad”? But there’s a time to be sad. Ec 3.4
  • “Why can’t things be the way they used to be?” Qohelét says that’s a stupid question. Ec 7.10
  • “Cheaters never prosper.” Sure they do. Ec 4.1, 7.15

And so on. For all the optimistic advice in Proverbs, you can find a lot of it countered in Ecclesiastes. (And interestingly enough, if Qohelét is Solomon, both books were largely written by the very same guy.)

Pessimists love Ecclesiastes because it’s so unrepentantly down. “Everything is vapor? Then what good is anything we do? Don’t waste your time.” Trouble is, pessimists will use it (and anything else they can get) to naysay and criticize everything, including good deeds. And Ecclesiastes isn’t entirely pessimistic. Qohelét finds value in enjoying life, Ec 2.24-25 obeying God, and trusting God to finally sort the universe out. Ec 12.13-14 The book isn’t without hope. But it’s meant to be a corrective: All the things we assume are meaningful, all the things we assign a lot of value and meaning and hope to, are nothing more than vapor.

And the rest of the scriptures teach us nothing lasts: One day, centuries after Jesus returns, God will destroy the world and replace it with New Earth. All the things we value will be burnt to ash. All our works will be tested by fire; few will survive. The problem is we don’t always believe that. We think everything has value. Everything has meaning. Even minor, dumb stuff.

Ecclesiastes is the corrective for that thinking: Nothing has meaning. All of it is minor, dumb stuff. “Don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff” is entirely biblical. “Everything happens for a reason” is absolutely not. Yet Christians skip the first saying and over-teach the second.

So let’s correct that thinking. Memorize “All is vanity.” Ec 1.2 Not because we’re nihilists who believe nothing has meaning, but because we’re Christians who recognize Christ is our meaning. His kingdom has meaning. And our junk—most of which has nothing to do with his kingdom whatsoever—does not.