“I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees.… also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces…So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem …. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”
The preacher is depressing. But he teaches us a lesson like no other scripture. His treatise has been a bible class favourite for teaching on the vanity of life. But much of what he regards as vain are actually the gifts of God to those who walk with him. Creation details in Genesis and Deuteronomy come with divine empowerment to prosper and promises of the good life to those who walk with God. Genesis 1:28 and Deuteronomy 28:1-14
If we decide that God is not a peddler of vanity then we must look elsewhere for the problem with the preacher.
In The Great Partnership: God, Science and the search for meaning, Lord Jonathan Sacks recounted the story of a man who wrote to a Rabbi: “‘I need the Rebbe’s help. I am deeply depressed. I pray and find no comfort. I perform the commands but feel nothing. I find it hard to carry on.’ the Rebbe, so I was told, sent a compelling response without writing a single word. He simply ringed the first word of every sentence of the letter: the word ‘I’.” Lord Sacks follows it up by identifying the same predilection in the preacher, highlighting the number of ‘I’s in the scripture quoted above. The obsession with the self is the problem with the preacher. In that shortened scripture the preacher largely regarded as Solomon used the word ‘I’ 11 times (a lot more if quoted in full). When Solomon made the request that bowled God over, it was about service to community. 1King 3:5-13 By the time he got the blessing, service to community dovetailed to self-service. If anyone thought he could do God and humanity any meaningful service on the back of seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, such a person must be delusional. 1Kings 11:3
There was a sequence to the creation story. We are told God withheld rain from the earth because there was no man to manage its effect for Him. Genesis 2:5 Joseph went through hell and some place worse to get to his destiny. It turned out all the pain and suffering, restoration and glory were neither for nor about him. He and all the protagonists in his saga were divinely strategically engineered for the salvation of Israel and, ultimately, the fulfilment of the Abrahamic Imperative. We are workers in His vineyard, co-partners in creation.
Churches have become fora for gleaning keys to material wealth from scripture and almost every pastor is an expert at teaching you how to realise your desire for the good life. But the mission of the Lord Jesus is about service to another.
There are three accounts of Abraham attracting divine blessing upon his life. The first, the realisation of the promise of a son came about when he ministered to three strangers. Genesis 18 The second was at a point when events came to a head between him and Lot and they needed to separate. Abraham was the older and the one that had the promise of the land, but he ceded his right to first choice of location to his nephew. The silent witness to this transaction decided to bless Abraham for putting another first. Genesis 13:14-17 The third was when the sensual Lot ran into a spot of bother. Abraham rose to the occasion to free his nephew. He won the battle. When he was offered the spoils of war, he took some for his servants, tithe for Melchizedek, but nothing for himself. Genesis 14: 20 Immediately after this God gift-wrapped Himself to Abraham:
“After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” Genesis 15:1
There was something about this blessing that went beyond Abraham himself. The Abrahamic Imperative was about the salvation of the world, not just about the man or his progeny. Genesis 12:3 God has too big a plan on his drawing board to pander to selfies.
This message appears, however, to be lost on the church of God in Jesus Christ. Pastors have been busy building libraries (not to mention making a killing) with books on ‘self-advancement’ techniques: 10 Steps to Possessing your Possessions; Tithing Your Way to Riches and such other titles with a singular preoccupation: “The Self”. Churches have become fora for gleaning keys to material wealth from scripture and almost every pastor is an expert at teaching you how to realise your desire for the good life.
But the mission of the Lord Jesus is about service to another. In Isaiah he said: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;” Isaiah 61:1 and when he sent out his disciples on a mission, it was about others: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.” Matthew 10:8 In the parable of the kingdom those who got cleared for eternal life in him were those who clothed the naked, who fed the hungry and who gave shelter to the homeless. Matthew 25:34-40
The seeds of God in most people are withering under the concrete of greed, covetousness and post-Pentecostal avarice, to bud and bring forth fruits worthy of the approval of God.
He sounded a warning of the likelihood of a clash of interests between our calling and our desires. He said if we sought to follow him, we must be prepared to deny ourselves. He also warned that if we insisted on keeping hold of our lives, there was the danger we would lose it. In Luke he warned against an acquisitive mentality:
“And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Luke 12:15
Pastors and teachers of the word of God have a duty to wean the church off an obsession with the self. Scripture tells the story of those who get the desires of their hearts and are consequently afflicted with leanness of soul. Psalm 106:15 The possession of great wealth did not do much for the Preacher. There are enough stories of the world famous, mega-rich who commit suicide. God wants partners not leeches. In our homes, offices, on the streets and in our world in general, there are needs that are crying out for the seeds that we carry in us. The seeds of God in most people are withering under the concrete of greed, covetousness and post-Pentecostal avarice, to bud and bring forth fruits worthy of the approval of God.
Selfie theology has had its day.