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)

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

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Sometimes the scripture being “true” just means it is spitting straight, cold, hard facts.

The Unknown Sage

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 9.13-18
13 I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.
17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded 
than the shouts of a ruler of fools. 
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, 
but one sinner destroys much good.

From John: The story of the unknown sage is probably a made-up parable, but I love wondering if it might have been true then or if it can be true today… We return to this devotional from 2022, praying that we will despise the shouts of rulers of fools rather than the quiet words of the wise.

Reflection: The Unknown Sage
By John Tillman

Who was this nameless poor man who saved his city from military aggression? What did he do? How did it save the city? We don’t know. That’s the point the teacher is trying to make. Wisdom is not always recognized or celebrated unless it comes from people we already think of as wise and worthy of respect.

The poor were then and are now considered by many to be unreliable, lazy, morally questionable. Even today, many people doubt the poor when they tell us about their own experiences. “Don’t give them money. They can’t be trusted.” Perhaps the better question we should ask is, who was the person in power who listened to the wisdom of the poor man? And how was he forgotten after wisdom he shared saved the city?

We often distrust the word of “nobodies.” When a recommendation, a critique, or an accusation is spoken we often say, “Who is this?” Buried in that question are assumptions. We distrust people based on status. We are suspicious of critiques from those “below” us who we suspect have inferior understanding. Positional distrust can cut across many categories, such as authority, status, wealth, age, race, gender, or denominational or political affiliation. “Her word isn’t trustworthy. She’s _________.” “Don’t listen to him. He’s _________.” It can cause us to read wisdom and call it foolishness. It can cause us to hear a blustering fool and call him wise.

The teacher describes the king of the city as blustering and shouting and says fools followed him. In contrast, the wise words of the poor man were quiet. Whatever weapons were bested by the poor man’s wisdom, they weren’t bested by force, volume, or vicious rhetoric. We would do well to retune our ears to listen for quiet yet powerful words.

Many places in our world are under siege—some literally, some metaphorically. Violent voices of brash, blustering, chest-beating, powerful leaders of our world shout out plans, war strategies, and lies.

May we listen to the lowly voices God chooses to send to us, speaking wisdom.
May we ask the Holy Spirit to give us ears to hear quiet wisdom that can silence weapons of war.
May we honor those who speak God’s quiet wisdom, both now and in the future.
May quiet wisdom be remembered long after the siege ramps of the violent are crumbling in dust.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him. — Psalm 96.9

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

​Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 9 (Listen 3:13)
Psalm 62-63 (Listen 2:44)

Read more about Servants in the Age of Showboats
We live in an age where the proud, unethical, immoral showboat leader is honored and glorified.

Read more about Cost of Immature Leadership
May we distance ourselves from rash, immature leaders…grow in our own leadership…showing empathy…and refusing to bow to or tolerate violence.

Joy Despite It All

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 8:10, 14-15
10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity.

14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.

Reflection: Joy Despite It All
By Erin Newton

When evil takes its final breath, we would rather bury it beneath the earth in an unmarked grave. No splendor. No memory should be afforded those who cause the suffering of others.

But that isn’t how it always goes.

There are grand ceremonies for people who have orchestrated atrocities. It doesn’t matter if the person was good; if they were popular, admirers flock to the funeral singing their praises. Leaders like Lenin and Stalin drew thousands of mourners who enshrined their bodies in continued reverence.

We cling to the hope that justice will be served—in this lifetime. We desire for all wrongs to be made right. Watching an evil person be celebrated is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, meaningless. It is absurd and confusing. It goes against all that we believe to be right and true.

I am glad these verses are in the Bible. It helps to ground me in the reality of our world. As we sing psalms that herald God’s justice and the inevitable judgment that will befall the wicked, sometimes we see nothing happen. A wicked person may live to be a hundred, while children perish at too young an age. Abusive men and women will live to see their hair turn gray and their eyes dim, while charitable and loving believers will watch their youthful bodies succumb to the ravages of cancer.

When we see this topsy-turvy injustice happen, we try to preach to our hearts that God will vindicate everything eventually. It is true, thank goodness for that. But what do we do now? How do we wake up each day knowing things will not go fairly?

Sometimes I read Ecclesiastes with pursed lips and an oft said “tsk, tsk” in judgment over what reads like instructions for a “you only live once” lifestyle. Eat! Drink! Be Merry! Enjoy your spouse! Get a hobby! (Perhaps a little Ralph Waldo Emerson— “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air’s salubrity.”)

Is this silly, unspiritual advice? Many of us have been taught the way of the cross, living a life of suffering, as the true spiritual way. But what of the resurrection? What of the re-creation that brings joy despite injustice?

Life is unfair, but we do not cease to try and love this life. He came to give us abundant life—here in joy and forever in his presence.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
He said to his disciples, “Causes of falling are sure to come, but alas for the one through whom they occur! It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone round the neck than to be the downfall of a single one of these little ones. Keep watch on yourselves!” — Luke 17.1-3

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

​Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 8 (Listen 2:41)
Psalm 60-61 (Listen 2:27)

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More Money, More Problems

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 6.7-12
7 Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, 
yet their appetite is never satisfied. 
8 What advantage have the wise over fools? 
What do the poor gain 
by knowing how to conduct themselves before others? 
9 Better what the eye sees 
than the roving of the appetite. 
This too is meaningless, 
a chasing after the wind. 
10 Whatever exists has already been named, 
and what humanity is has been known; 
no one can contend 
with someone who is stronger. 
11 The more the words, 
the less the meaning, 
and how does that profit anyone? 
12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone? 

Reflection: More Money, More Problems
By John Tillman

Jim Carrey has said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” 

A popular social media meme shows a person quoting the truism, “Money will not fix all your problems,” and a reply saying, “…no offense but…I don’t have a single problem money wouldn’t solve.”

Notorious BIG’s hit song tells us, “…the more money we come across, the more problems we see.”

The teacher of Ecclesiastes shows us that Carrey’s quote, the meme, and the lyric hold truth.

Ecclesiastes describes and laments the struggles of the poor, recognizing that wealth makes life more comfortable and poverty crushes the spirit. However, the teacher has experienced exactly what Carrey and BIG describe. Wealth and pleasure beyond anyone’s dreams came to the teacher, yet his spirit was still crushed with meaninglessness. Wealth does solve problems, but soon deeper problems are revealed. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is visualized as a pyramid. Basic needs, such as food and shelter, are the bottom, and higher-order needs are the top. This visual metaphor communicates that basic needs must be met before “climbing” up to pursue higher needs. However, this imagery may give a false impression that higher “spiritual” needs are less substantive or important.

Treating spiritual needs as if they are the tip top of some mountain that we pursue after sating other hungers is why our culture is starving in meaninglessness.

Spiritually, the base of our pyramid is to live not on bread but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4.4; Deuteronomy 8.3) This basic hunger of our soul has only one source—the teachings of Christ. “For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6.33) Physical need points to spiritual need. This is why we fast and pray. Physical lack reminds us of our spiritual lack and God’s grace to us in both.

Wealth doesn’t solve all problems or fill our deepest spiritual needs. That doesn’t mean telling the poor, “Money won’t solve your problems. Try Jesus.” (Mark 7.11-13) But it does mean that those who look like they have it all often are spiritually starving to death.

Problems, physical or spiritual, are inroads for the gospel. The more problems we come across, the more need of God we see.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Love the Lord, all you who worship him; the Lord protects the faithful, but repays to the full those who act haughtily. — Psalm 31.23

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

​Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 6 (Listen 1:44)
Psalm 56-57 (Listen 2:11)

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In the psalms, we enter the lived emotion of artists who bared their souls to God in prayers that were always intended to be performed.

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After a short hiatus, our podcast is back with an episode on what we can learn from Jesus’ hotheaded disciples. Don’t miss it.

Over the Brink of Success

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 2.10-11, 15-18
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; 
I refused my heart no pleasure. 
My heart took delight in all my labor, 
and this was the reward for all my toil. 
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done 
and what I had toiled to achieve, 
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; 
nothing was gained under the sun. 

15 Then I said to myself, 
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also. 
What then do I gain by being wise?” 
I said to myself, 
“This too is meaningless.” 
16 For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; 
the days have already come when both have been forgotten. 
Like the fool, the wise too must die! 

17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.

Reflection: Over the Brink of Success
By John Tillman

Proverbs gives us expectations about wisdom and its outcomes. The wise prosper, find success, and are satisfied. Then Ecclesiastes dumps cold water on our optimism.

People love stories from the brink. We’ve all heard testimonies from those who approached the brink through drug use, alcoholism, sex, greed, or violence. They reached the edge, saw emptiness, and turned back. Ecclesiastes feels like one of those stories. However, Ecclesiastes is not about reaching the brink of failure or addiction. The teacher plunges over the brink of success and finds an equally empty void of meaninglessness. 

“All is meaningless,” says the teacher. “Trust me. You think wealth will satisfy you? Doing what you love? A great job? Impressive accomplishments? Unlimited sex? Sorry, folks. I did it all and it’s all meaningless”

The word translated “meaningless” is difficult. Many Bible translations render it as “vanity.” It means something transitory or unsatisfactory. Its figurative meaning is like vapor or breath. Ecclesiastes clarifies, saying it is like “chasing after the wind.” Imagine grabbing a handful of smoke. The smell of it might still be on your hands and clothes, but there is nothing substantial there.

How can Solomon, the teacher of the book, say “all is meaningless”? Isn’t one of the strengths of our faith that it gives us meaning? Is Solomon jaded and dissatisfied? Did he misuse the unique wisdom God gave to him?

The teacher sees the world as it is, up close and to excess. Whether sex, wealth, or the wisdom (and foolish idolatry) of other cultures, Solomon drank deeply of it all. It was, at least partially, a lived-out experiment.

This experiment comes at a cost of grief. Humans bit the fruit in the garden because it was “useful for gaining knowledge.” (Genesis 3.6) Solomon takes a big bite of the world’s so-called knowledge, as do we all. 

It is uncomfortable to hear the success we long for is pointless, but it’s healthy. We can’t succeed our way to joy, pleasure ourselves into love, or spend our way into significance. Joy, love, and significance come to those who pursue the treasure of our gracious God, not the trophies of a ruthless world. (Matthew 13.44)

The wisdom of Proverbs and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes are not in conflict. Both call us to trust not in attaining success but in attuning our lives to God’s voice and our to actions his purpose.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. — Psalm 43.3

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

​Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 2 (Listen 4:03)
Psalm 50 (Listen 2:26)

Read more about Solomon’s Folly
Most people seek to retest Solomon’s findings. “Sure, sure, wealth and pleasure are meaningless,” we say, “but let me try.”

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