Not in Vain

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate game-changer.

Some among the Corinthian Christians declared that the dead were not raised (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul writes strenuously in 1 Corinthians 15:1-57 to affirm the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the centrality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus to the legitimacy of Christianity, and the nature of the bodily resurrection of believers rooted in Jesus as the first-fruits of the resurrection. He speaks of the day of resurrection to come when all the dead will rise and the corruptible will put on incorruptibility and the mortal will put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:42-54). This, Paul declares, will be the ultimate victory over sin and death; this is the moment we have all been waiting for and for which we continue to wait (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

But what does Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our future resurrection mean for us now? In 1 Corinthians 15:58 Paul derives some present applications from the resurrection: be steadfast, immovable, and abound in the Lord’s work.

Why steadfastness and immovability? The Corinthian Christians had every reason to ground themselves in Jesus and His truth on account of His life, death, and resurrection, and they would face constant temptations from the world around them to compromise some of that truth. Paul says what he does to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 for good reason: in the eyes of the world the belief that Jesus has been made King because He was executed by the Romans as an insurrectionist but God brought Him back to life, transformed Him for immortality, and He now rules over everything from Heaven sounds nuts. The world remains convicted of what is generally a truth: once you’re dead, you’re dead. The notion that someone could be brought back to life from the dead never to die again (Romans 6:1-11), in worldly logic, is positively ridiculous. Those Corinthians who denied the resurrection were just maintaining the worldview they had obtained from their ancestors. Many Jews believed in resurrection but could not conceive of God coming in the flesh and dying. Yet, as Paul said, Christ crucified and raised grounds our confidence for living (1 Corinthians 1:18, 15:20-28). To deny those central truths would mean departure from Christ and from the hope of life in the resurrection in Him (2 John 1:6-9); so Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians, and by extension all Christians throughout time, to remain steadfast and immovable, ever affirming Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship no matter how insane such a view is to the world!

Paul also declares that the Corinthian Christians, and by extension all Christians, are to abound in the work of the Lord on account of His resurrection and the hope of our own, and that we can maintain confidence that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). In this way Paul shows how the resurrection has changed everything. King Solomon, a millennium before the Incarnation of his Descendant Jesus, proclaimed that everything “under the sun” was vain (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12:8). Everything was vain, a breath or vapor, because of the universality of death: you lived only to die and everything you ever did or were would be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). All the labor you worked would perish or its benefit given to a descendant who would squander it (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26). It is good to be wise, but the wise man dies just as the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). The oppressor and oppressed both die (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Solomon as the Preacher saw the futility of life subject to decay and corruption because the positive joy of it all was as ephemeral as the activities that spawned it.

To this day the Preacher is right about all things “under the sun” in their own terms: if we trust in this world only we will be frustrated and forgotten. Yet, as Paul makes clear, the resurrection changes everything. Hope in the resurrection gives meaning where the Preacher could only see vanity. “Under the sun” all things might be forgotten, but they are not forgotten by God; labor under the sun may seem futile, but on the day of resurrection, when all are raised and stand before God, all will be judged and will obtain what is coming to them on the basis of what they have done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). All things may seem futile when seen only in terms of this life but maintain some meaning when seen in light of the life to come in the resurrection: the oppressor will have to pay for what they have done to the oppressed, the wicked will obtain their comeuppance, the righteous will see their reward, and what was formerly a breath or vapor will remain forevermore (1 Corinthians 15:1-57, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Ever since Babel humans have been making monuments to their own greatness in their fear of death (Genesis 11:1-9); those remain futile endeavors, as vanity and striving after wind, lasting only for a moment before being forgotten, and the world moves on (Ecclesiastes 1:2-12:8). Yet all the labor expended in the name of God in Christ endures, for such efforts will not prove futile, a breath or a vapor, since our God is a God of resurrection. Our bodies may presently be subject to corruption, decay, and death; the day is coming when this corruptible will put on incorruption, and this mortal will put on immortality, death will be fully defeated, and righteousness shall reign (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Yet how can we know? God is presently building that new creation through the resurrection of Jesus and those who have put their trust in Him as their Lord, living in the “now” despite the “not yet” of resurrection and salvation (2 Corinthians 4:1-5:21, 1 Peter 1:3-9). In Christ we become a new creation, having obtained reconciliation with God, and our efforts expended for His Kingdom will remain eternally with that Kingdom (Matthew 6:19-21, 2 Corinthians 5:17-20). Let us therefore, as with the Corinthian Christians before us, remain steadfast and immovable in our confidence and conviction in Jesus’ Incarnation, life, death, bodily resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the expectation of the day of judgment and resurrection to come, and always abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that through Him and His resurrection all will not be in vain!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Overthrowing Conventional Wisdom

A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death, than the day of one’s birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

The Preacher has always been notable for his “different” views about life. He likes to overturn “conventional wisdom” to force his audience into thinking more deeply about the mysteries of life.

We see this tendency illustrated in Ecclesiastes 7:1 regarding life and death. We tend to favor the day of birth over the day of death, appreciating the hope and possibility of new life. The Preacher is not denying the value of new life; he instead focuses on the “merits” of the day of death. Death means the end of the futility, the vanity/absurdity of life; there will be no more physical pain, suffering, or any of the other miseries described as “under the sun.” Furthermore, for those who have lived well, and who have a good name, the day of death seals their reputation. Most people would easily accept the idea that one’s reputation is of more value than luxury goods; how many would accept the idea that the day of death is better than the day of birth?

All of chapter 7, as well as much of the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes, maintains a similar theme. Jesus Himself spoke in terms completely contrary to received wisdom (cf. Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26). There are many times when it is good to overthrow conventional wisdom: it often is based in presuppositions and perspectives that are limited and distorted.

Such is certainly true in the twenty-first century. Our society has developed a lot of assumptions, perspectives, and ideas that many recently have described, among other things, as “first world problems.”

When we hear about a child being diagnosed with a fatal condition or is dying, we are understandably distressed and sad. Nevertheless, the truly surprising thing is not that some children get ill and/or die, as many seem to think, but that so many more children are alive and healthy.

A lot of us, to some degree or another, have challenges with weight gain. The amazing thing is not that we so easily gain weight, but that most all of us have the resources allowing us to consume far more calories than any of us need on account of the amount of food produced annually. Many people in the world to this very day may be starving, and yet we have a superabundance of food.

Many people read the Bible these days and are horrified at the pictures of violence in the Old Testament and are disturbed at the prospect of hell for the disobedient and the unbelievers in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Yet the fact that people today can read those stories and be horrified is what is really astounding: for most people in the past, and sadly even for many to this very day, those pictures of violence were and are normal. The fact that so many take offense at the concept of divine justice or retribution says as much about those taking offense as it does about the concept itself: if one has never been oppressed, wronged, or persecuted in a meaningful and substantive way, it is pretty easy to think of divine justice as some form of injustice. Yet, for the majority of human history, the vast majority of people have understood, to some degree, what it meant to be wronged, mistreated, and/or oppressed, and the idea that God would make all wrongs right one day allowed life to maintain some form of meaning.

For that matter, our society seems to take as gospel truth the premise that we are developing and “progressing” as a culture, and often will point to some of these differences between our lives and the lives of our ancestors as signs of the “evolution” of our sensibilities. While it is true that life is different than it was in previous generations, and many aspects of life today are better than in times past, there are many problems we experience today that were not as prevalent in days past: social isolation, recognition of the value of others, honoring of commitments, and so on and so forth. Things are not inherently better or worse (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 7:10); they are just different.

These and many other forms of “conventional wisdom” must be overturned if we will keep a healthy perspective about life: many of the things we find problematic are not really “problems” in the grand scheme of things, and we must come to grips with the fact that on the whole, our lives are fairly charmed in comparison with the experience of most of humanity in its existence. It is good to be thankful for our blessings; it is quite another to become as spoiled brats on account of our blessings. Let us praise and honor God, mindful of how reality really works, understanding that many times we must not go along with what passes for conventional wisdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Limits of Study

And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

The words of the Preacher had been recorded and presented; the famous conclusion is nearing, declaring that to fear God and to keep His commandments is the end of the whole matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Yet, sandwiched between some words about the Preacher and this conclusion we have this declaration regarding books and study. Whatever does it mean, and what is it doing here?

Contextually, we do well to remember the situation of the day. There is no such thing as a printing press yet; a scroll (which was used then) was first hand written and then hand copied. Every time a scroll would begin to wear out it would have to be copied again. If there was a need for additional copies of a scroll, it would have to be hand copied for each. Any text that was not continually copied was destined for the dustbin of history– save for the few texts we have recovered from archaeological excavations, the reason that we have any text before 1450 is due to the copying of manuscripts generation after generation. There would certainly seem to be no end to this process!

As you can imagine, studying scrolls would be a difficult task, and it would not be any easier when sitting in rooms that might be a bit too warm or too cold, bereft of the “comforts” of a lot of modern pieces of furniture. There were no computers for fast searches or even concordances or anything of that sort. There were no swivel leather chairs. To devote oneself to study was going to involve much physical discomfort– that is the warning this man is providing for his son!

But this message is not just true for any other book of the Bible or regarding study in general; in fact, it is probably more true for, say, the 150 psalms, or one of the major prophets, than for the 12 chapter book of Ecclesiastes. So why is this message here of all places?

The whole book of Ecclesiastes does well at showing that no thing, when taken to the extreme, really provides the answers we seek in life. Pleasures– women, money, houses, plantations, servants, drink, etc.– do not ultimately provide any lasting and enduring satisfaction (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Knowledge and wisdom has the same end; death comes for the knowledgeable as well as the ignorant, for the fool just as the wise (Ecclesiastes 2:12-15). Many of the challenging questions about the “fairness” of it all and the prevalence of evil are reckoned as absurd, without sufficient answer to be discovered by man (Ecclesiastes 8:14, 17). When it comes to this life “under the sun,” we cannot point to any one thing and say that it will really provide all the answers, solutions, or purpose for life, no matter how hard we try.

It is quite appropriate, therefore, for Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be appended upon Ecclesiastes, for the messages are consistent. Just as there are limits to the value of pleasures, knowledge, etc., so also there are limits to the value of books and study.

We can only imagine what the author of this declaration would think about the world today. How many millions of books are out there on any number of subjects? Books, magazines, papers, and especially electronic media today run the gamut from highly simplified to highly technical, very general to quite specific, regarding any and every subject under the sun. 200 years ago there were many people who could be termed “Renaissance men,” having a conversant understanding of almost every subject. These days it is almost impossible to plumb the depths of the knowledge and studies regarding one particular topic! How many times have we heard that the sum of all knowledge in this world has doubled? And yet how much more is there left to learn?

This is a very important and serious subject on a spiritual level. We constantly hear how important it is for us to study the Scriptures, and indeed, it is very important to study the Scriptures (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Yet what is the point of studying the Scriptures– merely to increase knowledge of what God has said? We can study and study and will never entirely plumb the depths of God’s message. There is always more to learn; our understanding can always improve. Bible study is a critical part of learning about God in Christ, and even though we will never learn everything, we must still keep learning (2 Peter 3:18).

Yet, as with pleasures and knowledge, so with Bible study– it is not the ultimate purpose of our existence, and it can become weariness to the flesh. Learning of God though Scripture is reckoned to be a part of the life of the disciple, the lessons of which are intended to be taken into life and applied (cf. Hebrews 5:14). We are to study the revealed Word to learn more about the Incarnate Word in order that we might look more like Him (cf. Romans 8:29)!

We have unprecedented access to the revealed Word of God today– different Bible versions, Bible computer programs, and an ever growing body of writing that helps to make sense of the Bible. We ought to be thankful and take full advantage of these resources so as to learn the message of Scripture better. But if we learn about God in Scripture and it just remains an academic and intellectual exercise, and it does not lead to a life that better reflects the image of the Son, then the whole exercise has been entirely futile, absurd, and without profit in eternal terms. Let us remember that Bible study is a good thing– but it is not the ultimate thing. Bible study is designed to lead us to godly living and the practice of the Christian life. Let us study so as to live, and not live merely for study!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Remembering our Creator

Remember also thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

Many people tend to associate spirituality with mortality– belief about God must have something to do with the afterlife, and therefore, concern about doing what God says is motivated by a desire for a more enjoyable afterlife. If spirituality can be sequestered with dying, then, some would say, it should not be a concern for those who are in their youth, in their prime of life.

This is how not a few people live their lives. They figure that they will not be dying anytime soon. Attitudes in our society reinforce this– as a whole, society does not like talking about death and attempts to ignore that unpleasant reality at all costs. Thanks to medical and technological advancements death is not as pervasive in life as it was just generations before, and this facilitates, especially among the young, an almost complete lack of consciousness of their impending demise– and that it might be sooner than expected.

In reality, as the Preacher indicates, spirituality is more than just about the fact that we will all die. In Ecclesiastes 12:1 he does not emphasize for people to remember their Ultimate Judge in the days of their youth (although that would not be a bad idea, Ecclesiastes 12:14); he says to remember your Creator. To remember the Creator is to remember that you are the creation, that there is a Power out there stronger than you are. To remember our Creator is to remember our creation from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), and to remember that we are dust is to recognize that our pretensions of greatness are hollow and that the day is coming when we will be but dust again (Ecclesiastes 12:7). While remembering our Creator does remind us of our own mortality, it also compels us to remember that despite our desires we are not the ones really calling the shots. We are a part of God’s great and glorious creation; an important part, yes, but a part, and we would do well to remember our role in praising and glorifying the God who created us (Psalm 148:1-14).

Nevertheless, the Preacher’s words are motivated by his understanding of the imminent demise of us all. Ecclesiastes 12:2-7, often understood as referring to physical decay, probably has the day of death and lamentation as the true referent. In the passage the Preacher invites the reader to consider the day of his or her own death and the results it will bring. Death brings down the strong and mighty; it ends the daily rituals of life; all the pleasures and labor and desires are gone. In the end, it’s all over, and it is all absurd (Ecclesiastes 12:8). Things may continue as before (Ecclesiastes 1:4-8), but not for you.

Many times we hear the advice to “live each day as if it were your last,” and such advice, if directed in ways of righteousness, is certainly sound. But the Preacher wants us to go deeper than that. What will happen on the inevitable day of your death?

Family members will mourn and lament. You would hope that people who know you or know of you would be saddened a bit. There will be plenty of people making money– funeral arrangements, the handling of the estate, and so on and so forth.

Yet, odds are, the sun will go down and then rise on the next day, and everything moves on…without you. All that you are and hope and feel and wish– gone.

This is not meant to depress, although that might be the result. It is designed to be a wake up call. None of us are as important as we tend to make ourselves out to be. We are caught up in this absurd thing called “life under the sun,” and the best time we have is now. We are to remember our Creator in the days of our youth because for so many reasons those are the good days– the days of joy and promise (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10). They are not to be squandered in riotous living. Those who are wise will understand that it does not get any better– days of infirmity, on various levels, are coming, and then ultimately the end, if the end is not untimely, and there is never any guarantee (James 4:14).

Therefore, let us praise God that this is the day of His creation, and we should rejoice in it and in Him (Psalm 118:24). We do not know what will happen tomorrow, but we can remember our Creator today and to seek His will. The day of death and the end of our absurd lives will hasten soon enough. Let us seek God before it is too late!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Speaking and Hearing Evil

Also take not heed unto all words that are spoken, lest thou hear thy servant curse thee; for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22).

There is an ill that we have all experienced, that gets all of us flustered, and yet we have all done to others. That ill is speaking evil or cursing another.

There are all kinds of reasons for it happening. We offend people, intentionally or unintentionally, and mouths begin talking. We may be trying to help– or trying to hurt. Perhaps we have not done as well as we could at living the life we are trying to live. Unfortunately, some of the times when we are living the life we are trying to live, the mouths keep talking.

We all know that we should not– we should speak words that build up and encourage, and we should not be bitter in our words (Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31). But we are human– and we all are more free with our tongues than we should be (James 3:1-10).

The Preacher knows all of these things. And yet his counsel seems strange to us– do not listen to all of the words that are spoken (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Normally we hear exhortations to listen (James 1:19)– and we all know that even though we have two ears and but one mouth, the mouth tends to dominate over the ears. We tend to be better at talking than listening, so why should we not listen?

The reason for not listening also seems strange. We should not listen lest we hear “[our] servant cursing [us].” Granted, the Preacher is writing at a time when society was more stratified than it is now, and many people had servants. As a master, to hear your servant curse you would be one of the greatest insults and indignities.

But wait a second. If people are talking about us, shouldn’t we want to know about it? Wouldn’t we want to listen even more if such things take place?

Well, certainly, we want to know. But is it good to know? Is it good to consider how others have cursed us, regardless of their social standing?

The Preacher encourages us to consider ourselves as we answer. Have we not, at times, cursed others, if not by word, in our hearts? What would happen if they all knew what we had felt and/or said? How would we want them to respond?

We should not imagine that the Preacher is excusing anyone when they curse others. He is considering the way things are, not necessarily the way things should be. We do well, therefore, to truly heed the Preacher’s advice. It is counter-intuitive to not take heed to curses that are leveled against us. It is much easier to dwell on them and allow bitterness and/or resentment to grow.

Yet we must take stock. We are no better than others; others are not really better than us. We would never want others to hold our cursings, internal or external, against us. We do best, therefore, when we show such grace to others, recognizing our own failures!

We are given a choice in life– we can either bear the burden of every negative word we hear about ourselves, or we can decide to not give them any heed. The former leads to anxiety, anguish, and constant feeling of betrayal; the latter, despite being the harder road, allows us to live in some measure of peace with our fellow man.

We should not be so simplistic as to think that we are never the subject of evil thoughts or cursing, just as we cannot deny that we have had such thoughts ourselves. Let us keep the “Golden Rule” in mind (Luke 6:31), and not take heed to every word spoken about us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18).

We have a love-hate relationship with the Preacher and his message. We really cannot deny its substantive truth, but that does not mean that we have to like it. The idea that our lives “under the sun,” on the whole, is absurd, is deeply troubling to us. Yet the facts are in: all who live die, no matter how virtuous or sinful; you can accumulate much or little and you still cannot take it with you; despite our lofty rhetoric, generations still come and go, and most end up forgotten. And, perhaps most frustratingly for modern man, the pursuit of pleasures never end in true satisfaction.

Yet, in the face of all of this, many still want to redeem the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yes, people understand that satisfying desires for food, sex, money, fame, and the like ultimately do not satisfy, but there is the expectation that there will be some satisfaction in wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is deemed power; thus, the idea is, the more knowledge, the more power. Wisdom is understood also as a benefit to people, and if it is good for us, then more of it should make things better!

But the Preacher has some bad news for us. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge does not fare any better than the pursuit of other pleasures. Too much knowledge, or too much wisdom, can cause as many problems as too little.

There is a reason for the saying that ignorance is bliss. If we suggest it as an absolute truth we are foolish, for there are some things we ought to know and with which we must come to grips– God’s will, our ultimate fates in the flesh, the skills of our profession, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when we feel cursed because of some knowledge we have gained or some wisdom we have understood. We feel that we would have been better off without that knowledge or wisdom. In those circumstances, ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, for its part, often complicates. More fortunate and blessed are those who trust, say, in the divine operation and sustenance of the universe than those who end up rejecting the existence of God because of the challenges and doubts raised in investigating the nature of that operation. While it is true that challenges and doubts sometimes occur because of ignorance, they far too often are the result of digging too deeply into certain subjects concerning which we humans will never truly understand (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). Not a few heresies and false teachings have been launched on account of people professing “advanced knowledge” of things they really do not understand (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21), or on account of conundrums that come up because of deep investigation of an easily comprehensible statement. Forests are too often missed not just because of trees but because of bark patterns on particular trees!

We honor and praise wisdom, and we are right to do so, since folly should never be in style. But wisdom also has its dark side, and the Preacher understands this all too well. In his wisdom he plumbs the depth of the human experience and feels compelled to come to grips with its ultimate futility. We can experience his grief as he recognizes that the wise and the fool have the same end (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16), or that the fruit of his efforts will enrich another (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He desires what we desire– the ultimate justification of the wise and virtuous life– and yet is pained by the absurdity of life, where the wicked often prosper to the detriment of the righteous and all meet the same fate (Ecclesiastes 8:14). How much of what we call “wisdom” does not really taste sweet but bitter!

This is quite distressing to us, and yet it remains a good warning. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be considered as the pursuit of personal gain and satisfaction. It is not wrong to seek knowledge, wisdom, gain, and satisfaction, and they can provide much good. To believe, however, that any such thing represents the Ultimate Ideal in life is utterly misguided. We internally know, even if we do not always act appropriately on the basis of this knowledge, that money and pleasure is not everything in life or the ultimate goal in life. We must learn the same lesson about knowledge and wisdom. Instead, the Ultimate Ideal and goal in life is God and godliness, and we do well to revere Him and serve Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Just as we direct our pursuits of material resource and satisfaction in life toward His purposes and for His advantage, so must we direct our pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. And, just as we know that gain and satisfaction are not God, so too must we know that knowledge and wisdom are not God. There is an end to what we can know and understand, and we must trust in His understanding and His goodness (Deuteronomy 29:29).

To have knowledge and wisdom from God is good. To believe that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate ideals and end is folly. Let us keep wisdom and knowledge in perspective and trust in and serve God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Old Days

Say not thou, “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?”
For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Who has not heard of– or wished for– the “good old days”?

In the eyes of a lot of people, things were better in those “good old days.” A lot of people are confident that there was less sin and more righteousness in those good old days. People were more friendly, or more respectful, in the good old days. Life was easier and things were simpler in those good old days. There are a lot of people who think that it would be best to return to the “good old days”!

While some of these matters may have some validity– it may be that people were more respectful, or that life was easier in some ways– it misses the overall point. There is a major problem with the “good old days.” The “good old days” do not exist!

Humans have an ingrained tendency to remember the best parts of things and to forget the less pleasant elements of life. The Israelites, for instance, vividly remembered the food and drink they had in Egypt, but not so much the slavery, oppression, and hard bondage (cf. Exodus 16:3, 17:3). When faced with the challenges of the present it is easier to romanticize the past and pine for it, but the past was not nearly as rosy when it took place as it is glorified after the fact.

After all, were there not people in the 1950s who probably thought that things were better in the “good old days”? Would it not be the same in 1920? 1880? 1840? It would never end– things were always, apparently, better in the “good old days.”

All of this shows the wisdom of the Preacher. It is not wise to wonder why things were better in the past than they are in the present. The reason is that things are not inherently better or worse– just different.

Was sin less public in the past? It would seem so. But does that mean that there was really less sin, or that sin was just kept covered up and behind closed doors?

Was life easier in the past? Perhaps in some ways. Yet, then again, there were many diseases that caused great pain and distress that have since been cured, and tasks that used to take people days can now be done more simply.

Do there seem to be serious threats to our welfare today? Certainly; but there were serious threats in the past also. Fear of terrorism has replaced fear of Communism which itself replaced fear of totalitarianism and so on and so forth.

Are there major moral issues in the forefront of our culture? Most certainly. But there always have been. They may change based upon the season, but there is always something that needs to be addressed. Today’s disputes regarding abortion and homosexuality were similarly engaged in the past regarding racism, prohibition, and a host of other moral ills.

Since the Garden people have been sinning. There have been threats to life and happiness. There have always been reasons to believe that society/culture is going to the dogs. And yet there have always been people who have been willing to stand for what is right and good and holy (cf. Romans 11:5). Societies uphold and enforce some of God’s purposes while leaving others to the wayside.

People often take comfort by looking to the past and wishing for the “good old days.” The savage irony is that people in those “good old days” likely looked back to the “good old days” to them, and future generations will look back on these days perhaps as the “good old days.” It is not wise to dwell on what probably never really existed and which, regardless, cannot be resurrected. Instead, we must focus on the here and now. How can we promote the Gospel of Christ and make disciples among those who live in the early twenty-first century (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 1:16)? How can we be best conformed to the image of the Son in our own time (Romans 8:29)? How can we stand firm for the truth of God in our culture today, not in a culture that may be quite distant in the past (1 Peter 5:7-9)?

Yesterday, for better and for worse, is gone. Tomorrow will come, and it will have its sufficient troubles (cf. Matthew 6:34). Our responsibility is to live today and to serve Jesus today (Romans 6:16-23, Galatians 2:20). Let us do so!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Zealous For Good

And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good? (1 Peter 3:13).

We have again come to the time of the year known as “March Madness,” when the eyes of many in the nation are focused on the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. Even people who have not really followed the teams so far this season fill out their brackets, and millions tune in to see who will be upset and who will be able to win it all.

The passion that people bring to sporting events is, of course, legendary. In America, baseball and basketball are cherished sports, but nothing seems to inspire more passion than college and professional football. In most other countries it is soccer that inspires fanatic devotion. Untold amounts of money, energy, and time are expended in following and cheering on these sports teams.

And for what? Most of the teams, by necessity, lose. The focus then goes to the next season. But what happens when your team wins? You may go and get an honorary t-shrirt or hat or the like, but even here, the focus goes to next year. And then the year after that.

As the Preacher indicates, all is vanity, or emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:1). So it is with fanatical passion regarding sports– teams win, teams lose, and the world goes on, and nothing is really gained in the end. But this goes beyond mere sports– it is true with almost everything in life. Politics– actions are done, actions get reversed. Elections are won and elections are lost. The world moves on. Business corporations succeed. They stagnate. They fall. Others begin to succeed. The world moves on. All remains vanity!

How much human effort, energy, and resources are expended toward that which is ultimately futile? How many people devote all the energy they’ve been given in this short life to things that do not ultimately profit?

Believers in God, on the other hand, are invited to invest their time and energy into something that will endure forever– the Kingdom of God (Daniel 2:36-44). We are invited to lay up treasures in Heaven, where thieves cannot steal and moth cannot consume (cf. Matthew 6:19-20). We are able to participate in God’s eternal plan, promoting His purposes to those in His creation (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And then, when everything that humans have expended their effort to obtain is burned up into nothing, we have the opportunity to experience the eternal weight of glory with the Father forever (2 Peter 3:9-12, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17).

Therefore, we have been given the greatest encouragement, incentive, and purpose that could ever be. Whereas any effort we direct toward any other purpose or cause will not endure, our effort in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). All the gold in the universe will melt, but treasure in Heaven will be perpetual. When all is destroyed, it will not matter who won the Final Four, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup. All that will matter is whether we were found to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus Christ and that we were zealous for His purposes (cf. Matthew 25:14-46)!

It is easy to become zealous for sports, zealous for politics, zealous for business, or zealous for thousands of things “under the sun.” Yet our overreaching passion and zeal should be directed for the good– for the promotion of God’s message of salvation in this world, reflecting Jesus Christ to everyone in our lives. Let us be zealous for good, and not allow our energies to be misdirected!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone– melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts– employment, volunteerism, politics, etc.– will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity– futility– emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Myth of Progress

That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The past two hundred years have been a blur of technological development. Few are the aspects of life that have not been radically altered by recent innovations. Automobiles and airplanes have entirely changed how we transport ourselves and goods. The telephone, the computer, and the Internet have changed how we communicate with each other and how we are able to work. Heaters, air conditioners, stoves, ovens, microwaves, washers, dryers, and other forms of electronic equipment have made the daily activities of life that much more efficient. Advancements in medicine and science have led to better quality of life and a more enhanced understanding of the world (and the universe) around us.

When seen in terms of the whole of human history, all of these advancements have come in the blink of an eye. Ways of life that existed for hundreds or thousands of years have been irretrievably changed. These changes and advancements have led most in society to take an overly optimistic and rosy view of human potential. This has led to the myth of progress– the idea that our advancements in the arts and sciences are making us into wiser, better people than our ancestors.

In fact, we have become downright snobbish about ourselves. Consciously or unconsciously, we believe that we are superior to our ancestors. We judge all things by the standard of our own belief systems and cultural prejudices. We think and/or speak rather patronizingly about our ancestors: “they did not know any better.” “They did not have x or y technology that we have.” “We have come to a better understanding of these things.” In short, all of these statements betray the idea that we think we have progressed so far in the past few generations and thus we are superior. That which was accepted in earlier times was “primitive” or “old-fashioned,” and those terms are not used affectionately! How many young people out there believe that their parents are ignorant fossils– after all, isn’t 2009 so radically different and more advanced than, say, 1979 or 1989?

But there is an uncomfortable question we must consider: are we really progressing? There is no doubt that we are becoming more technologically sophisticated. No one will argue against the idea that our technology is allowing us to have a better understanding of the world around us. But does that mean that we as a species are really “moving forward”?

Despite all of this advancement over the past two hundred years, people in 2009 are still asking the same questions as their forefathers did in 1999, 1899, 1499, and 99. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? Why do people suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does evil exist? You would think that if we have really advanced so much over the past few hundred years that we would have made some progress on these questions. Yet the range of answers given are little different from those presented by the Greeks 2400 years ago or the Israelites 3000 years ago.

Furthermore, what are the moral challenges of our day? They do not involve people engaging in “ancient superstitions” as much as the same moral hazards that humans have suffered for generations. Drunkenness remains as much a problem today as was in Solomon’s day (cf. Proverbs 20:1). The pain and misery that results from adultery and other forms of sexual immorality is acutely felt today as it was in previous days (cf. Proverbs 5:3-14, 6:23-35). Divorce ruins homes like it did in the past (Malachi 2:16, Matthew 19:9).

We may not want to admit it, but our technological advancements have not led to that many moral advancements. In fact, our technological advancements have highlighted human tendencies toward sin. Computer technology was harnessed early and often to peddle pornography. Advancements in healthcare give excuse for a lack of self-control and self-discipline in dietary habits. Humans still hate each other, desire to hurt each other, and kill each other, and now get to use more sophisticated technology to kill more people more effectively.

As it has been said, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” The Preacher is right: there is nothing new under the sun. He is not arguing that people cannot discover new technologies or learn new things. He is simply stating a truism: in matters of existence, each generation follows after the past generation, and there is little real advancement. We can see clearly that despite thousands of years of human wisdom accrued by experience, each generation still has to go out and make many of the same mistakes as their fathers. And just as their fathers pleaded with them and warned them, so they will plead with and warn their children, and will likely have the same result!

Ever since the Tower of Babel, humans have wanted to believe that they are going up (cf. Genesis 11:1-4). In reality, humans are the same as they have always been. They are the fallen creation of God who require His love and mercy to be esteemed (cf. Romans 5:1-18). Let us keep a proper view of ourselves, and look to God who knows best!

Ethan R. Longhenry