Influence Beyond Aphorisms

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 10.10, 20
10 If the ax is dull
and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed,
but skill will bring success.

20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts,
or curse the rich in your bedroom,
because a bird in the sky may carry your words,
and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

Reflection: Influence Beyond Aphorisms
By John Tillman

Many biblical phrases entered English because the Bible is the most widely distributed and read book in history. Each year’s top-selling book comes in second to the Bible. They leave the Bible off the list since it would win every year.

Abraham Lincoln’s aphorism, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” remixes the teacher of Ecclesiastes. “If the ax is dull…more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.” (Ecclesiastes 10.10) “A little bird told me” also comes from this chapter. “A bird in the sky may carry your words…” (Ecclesiastes 10.20)

Escaping “by the skin of one’s teeth” comes from Job’s description of his life. (Job 19.20) “A drop in the bucket” comes from God’s description of the insignificance of national power compared to his power. (Isaiah 40.15) The terms “scapegoat,” (Leviticus 16.20-22, 26) “behemoth,” (Job 40.15) and “gird your loins” (Job 38.3; Jeremiah 1.17; Luke 12.35) all have biblical origins.

The Bible and Christianity’s influence has benefits. The widespread embrace of Christian concepts of equality, generosity, and service, makes today’s culture kinder, gentler, and more just. Society didn’t evolve this way. Christianity changed it.

This influence also has dangers. A culture steeped in Christianity produces “Cultural Christians.” Cultural Christianity is based on moralism enforced by social shame. When Cultural Christianity grows prideful, ambitious, and greedy, it grasps for the power of the state to enforce compliance.

But don’t we want a biblical influence on society that goes beyond quotes and aphorisms? Don’t we want just laws? Don’t we want moral order?

The Pharisees ruled their society with the strictest interpretation of biblical laws the world has ever seen. Jesus called them sons of hell and the devil. (Matthew 23.15; John 8.44) We could follow in the Pharisees’ footsteps, seize power, set up a “Christian” kingdom, and still be sons of the devil. History holds many examples of this as warnings.

The way of Jesus requires us to sharpen our axes by improving skills of witness and winsomeness. We must pull logs from our own eyes, improving skills of confession and humility. We don’t call down fire on our enemies. We pray for them. (Luke 9.54-56) We don’t allow violence in the name of Christ. We heal, rather than harm. (Luke 22.49-51; John 18.10-11; Matthew 26.51-54)

Influencing culture and politics is good. We should attempt it. But if we must abandon Christian principles to succeed, we are engaging in wickedness and all of our quoting of scripture will only amount to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse

The people who have dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 10 (Listen 2:33)
Psalm 64-65 (Listen 2:39)

​This Weekend’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 11 (Listen 1:40), Psalm 66-67 (Listen 2:42)
Ecclesiastes 12 (Listen 2:38), Psalm 68 (Listen 4:26)

Read more about Absurd Little Bird
However we stand for the truth, whether by sermon or satire, let us do so with integrity.

Read more about Facts and Harsh Realities
Sometimes the scripture being “true” just means it is spitting straight, cold, hard facts.

Absurd Little Bird

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 10.20
20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, 
or curse the rich in your bedroom, 
because a bird in the sky may carry your words, 
and a bird on the wing may report what you say. 

Reflection: Absurd Little Bird
By John Tillman

Who needs spying birds when digital devices are listening? In modern life, this proverb might say, “Don’t discuss appliances near Alexa or your entire Facebook feed will be filled with Samsung ads.”

The idea of spying birds is ancient. Most ancient versions are inspired by Ecclesiastes. The idea is so prevalent in culture that a faux-conspiracy group based on this was created. “Birds Aren’t Real” is a parody of conspiracy theory groups such as Qanon. It claims that birds are CIA spy drones.

It started in 2017, when Peter McIndoe was struck by the absurdity of conspiratorial nonsense spouted by opposing political protestors. The slogan he created as a spontaneous joke became a movement. Many people, particularly Gen Z adults, played along, staging real protests for a fake cause. Why?

An additional way to translate the teacher’s frequent refrain “all is meaningless” might be to say “all is absurd.” The teacher explored wisdom, foolishness, and madness. The absurdities of life can be troubling, especially when leaders, friends, and family seem to be in their grip. What benefit is wisdom when so many are willing to follow foolishness like that which inspired “Birds Aren’t Real?”

Many Birds Aren’t Real participants acted out of frustration with friends and family captivated by Qanon and other absurd conspiracy theories. Poking fun at these conspiracies with their own fake conspiracy helped them “laugh at the madness, rather than be overcome by it.”

Birds are real and they don’t inform on people. Ecclesiastes’ practical advice isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. The proverb is not warning us against government or corporate spying. The proverb also does not mean to avoid criticizing leaders, even though abusive leaders attempt to imply this. If criticizing the king was a sin we’d have to throw out most biblical prophets.

The proverb does carry many truths. Powerful people will always use information (or misinformation) to their benefit—for oppression or selling appliances. Words spoken in private will often be shouted from the rooftop. (Luke 12.3) We need to be people of integrity, speaking public truth rather than private slander.

Confronting lies is a necessity amidst the absurdity of modern debate. Our concern should not be our fate when leaders hear the truth, but our community’s fate if leaders deny the truth.

However we stand for the truth, whether by sermon or satire, let us do so with integrity.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse
The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 10 (Listen – 2:33)
Psalm 116 (Listen – 1:34)

Read more about Facts and Harsh Realities
The Bible acknowledges these harsh realities side-by-side with aspirational faith that justice will be done.

Read more about The Commission of Truth
Leviticus 5.1 identifies a unique kind of sin—the sin of not testifying to the truth when it is called for.