Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Last Enemy

A friend recently asked me some questions. Here's my reply:


1) Regarding Ecclesiastes, we have to step back and consider the interpretive framework we should use for this book.

i) The perspective of the book is explicitly and predominantly descriptive and empirical. The narrator speaks from the viewpoint of a keen observer. This viewpoint is expressed in the constant refrain regarding that he’s “seen under the sun.” Although personal experience is a source of knowledge, it’s very limited. You hit a wall. You can only see so far.

ii) Put another way, the observer can only judge by appearances. Hence, the book stresses the inscrutability of divine providence. It often seems so random (e.g. 9:11).

iii) Yet that’s not all there is to it. There’s a contrast between appearance and reality. Not that appearances are illusory, but misleading. Incomplete. They don’t tell the whole story.

Take the climactic theme of divine judgment in 12:14 (cf. 3:17-18; 11:9). Appearances notwithstanding, what we do in this life does make a difference in the long run. 

iv) Some liberals think the epilogue was tacked on by a pious editor to salvage the orthodoxy of the book. But epilogue isn’t an anomaly or afterthought. The book is studded with reverent references to God, including the “fear of the Lord” motif (3:14; 5:7; 8:12; 12:13).

There’s a doctrine of providence (3:1-14). 12:13-14 moves in the same ambit as 5:1-7.

So this is part of the book’s dialectical contrast between appearance and reality. Between the limitations of observation on our side of the sun, and the Maker of the sun–whose intentions elude human inspection or detection.

12:13-14 reflects the final viewpoint of the narrator. What he’s been building up to.

v) Consistent with this general approach, the narrator describes the fate of the dead from the standpoint of the living. What appears to be the case when you die. But that must be counterbalanced by eschatological judgment: 3:17-18; 11:9; 12:13-14.

2) Regarding Job:

i) In narrative theology we need to distinguish between the normative viewpoint of the narrator and the perspective of the speakers or characters within the narrative.

ii) A Biblical narrator has various techniques for obliquely expressing his viewpoint. A contrast between apparent and hidden plots. A contrast between normative and foil characters. Dramatic irony.

iii) Everything a given speaker or character in the Jobian narrative says isn’t presumptively true. Indeed, a major purpose of the book is to expose the falsity of what certain speakers say. To disprove Satan’s contention. To expose the shallow outlook of Job’s friends.

iv) Job himself was sick and grief-stricken. Men in that condition often make intemperate statements.

In the course of the book there’s some progression in Job’s understanding, but there’s an ebb and flow. Moments of lucid insight before he sinks back into bafflement and despondency. He briefly rallies, then reverts–in a recurrent cycle. His exclamations often express moods rather than truths. We must interpret the narrative in light of the prologue and epilogue.

3) Concerning Isa 38:18, the speaker is Hezekiah, not Isaiah. A king, not a prophet. It’s an expression of Hezekiah’s gratitude. Thankful to be delivered from the jaws of death, given his palpable fear of death.

But there’s no presumption that Hezekiah has any particular insight into the nature of the afterlife. He’s not God’s mouthpiece. He’s just a Jewish monarch.

4) Concerning Ps 88 and other psalms:

i) Ps 88 starkly expresses a sense of divine abandonment, and uses picturesque imagery to illustrate that theme. That’s subjective. How he felt at the time.

iii) But objectively speaking, God did not forsake him. Indeed, I doubt the psalm was written in the midst of his ordeal. Although the psalms use passionate language, that doesn’t mean they were written in the white heat of passion. The psalms are highly artistic literary productions. It requires a certain level of composure to write them. A certain distance or detachment from the immediacy of the event. You have to be able to collect your thoughts.

Ps 88 was probably written in retrospect. A commemoration and mediation on what he went through.

iii) When OT saints are under conviction of sin, in conjunction with a life-threatening illness, they express doubts about what awaits them. Will they face divine judgment? Will they be in a position to praise God? Or will they be shamed? Will they suffer the lot of the wicked?

On their deadbed, or what they take to be their deathbed, the saints are often apprehensive. As they look back over the life they led, they become acutely aware of their cumulative transgressions. Death becomes a forbidding, foreboding prospect–not because they doubt God, but because they doubt themselves. Not because they fear oblivion, but because they fear punishment. Will they die out of favor with God? All their buried insecurities rise to the surface. Guilt. Long-forgotten sins. Lost opportunities to make things right. Too late to make amends. 

It takes faith to overcome our fears. We must consciously and constantly remind ourselves of God’s promises. Cling to the promises. And that’s harder for some believers than others. That’s exacerbated when we are physically weak. When we feel vulnerable. Is sickness itself a mark of God’s disfavor? These misgivings can afflict God’s people in their extremity. Especially in their extremity.

Modern Bible readers may find it harder to identify with these sentiments because modern medical science buffers us from our mortality. Most illnesses aren’t terminal illnesses. And we’re often insulated from death. Many people die in hospitals or nursing homes. We don’t live among death the way our forebears did. We don’t have that constant reminder.

1 comment:

  1. “When OT saints are under conviction of sin, in conjunction with a life-threatening illness, they express doubts about what awaits them.”

    Do you think that is normative for NT saints as well, or has additional revelation about the nature of justificatory faith made assurance far more attainable, even perhaps normative?