Bible reading for April 14 -- 15
Apr 14 -- Ecclesiastes 1 and 1 Timothy 3
Apr 15 -- Ecclesiastes 2 and 1 Timothy 4
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)
VANITY OF VANITIES. Ecclesiastes was the first book of the Bible I ever read! As a non-Christian college student in the tumultous years around 1970, I vacillated between Marxism and eastern mysticism as my worldview. Like many I was hoping for "the age of Aquarius", but what I saw in the world was strife, selfishness, divorce, drug problems, political corruption, riots at home, and wars abroad. A Christian friend challenged me to read Ecclesiastes and so I bought my first Bible. Turning to Ecclesiastes, I resonated deeply with that phrase, "vanity of vanities." This little book of wisdom was the door that eventually led me to read and understand the gospel, and soon to put my trust in the Lord Jesus in 1971. Since then I have returned many times to reread Ecclesiastes.
CHASING THE WIND. The key word is "vanity" (Heb., hebel, pronounced "HEV-el"), which means a breath, vapor, or something unsubstantial or fleeting, which metaphorically means something which is futile, meaningless, or ultimately pointless. Its synonym in several places (9x) is "striving after the wind". Solomon is considering life for people "under the sun," that is, in this world and with "the few days of their life" (2:3). He notes how things do not seem to change with all the weary passing of time. Generations come and go. Great and powerful people, like Solomon himself, are often forgotten with the passing of time (see Ozymandias* below). But we must not think that this book was written only for unbelievers, in order that they might see the futility of life without God. It does that, and it did that for me. But it was written for believers, too, that they might have reasonable expectations about what they can gain in this life on earth.
LIVING WITH LIMITATIONS. Solomon is writing as a believer in God who seeks to apply wisdom about living in this world (2:24-26). He considers work, pleasure, possessions, happiness, time, skill, folly, beauty, friendship, insanity (and despair), and other topics. Behind all of this is the question, what can we expect from this life? What should we pursue? Are we promised wealth and plenty, or power and influence, or a life full of pleasure with minimal pain? Are we promised an easy and fulfilling job? Can we expect a happy marriage and godly children? Will we get all the answers we want? Will people listen to us, or even remember us after we're gone? Ecclesiastes is about the limitations we face in living in this world under the sun. As you read ask, what are the things in life that you have become disillusioned about? What questions are unanswered? What expectations are unrealistic? And how do these first two chapters of Ecclesiastes begin to address those?
"I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth." (1 Timothy 3:14-15)
ELDERS AND DEACONS (ch 3). Paul writes to Timothy about the standards which elders and deacons should meet. Though elders must adhere to and be able to teach sound doctrine, yet, most of these qualifications are moral and relational. This was needed then, and it is needed now! The early church was led by a plurality of spiritually mature, male leaders, and the terms "elder", "overseer (or, bishop)", and "pastor", were interchangeable words referring to the same office (see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet 5:1-3). The women referred to v 11 are the deacons' wives, or perhaps deaconesses. Since this was a ministry of benevolence which involved home visits and care of those in need, such as widows, this service (deacon comes from Gr. diakonia, "service") was probably best handled by husband-wife teams. So the early church had two offices: 1) Elders / Overseers / Pastors, and 2) Deacons.
PILLAR OF TRUTH. The Lord's church is a family to be nourished and protected, and an institution which holds forth and heralds the truth of God's word, that we "may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth" (v 15). This means that the local church is to be a place where biblical truth is held high, preserved, proclaimed, and supported with good teaching and application. Why not take time to pray for your elders and deacons, and ask God to strengthen each one of them in all the character traits you read in this chapter?
PREACH AND TEACH ON (ch 4). Paul writes, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (v 13). Not all false teachers that the early church faced promoted immoral or sensual living. Some promoted the opposite, namely, asceticism and rejection of what God has created (vv 1-5). This gives the appearance of godliness and sacrifice, but actually fosters pride (cf Col 2:23). True godly living involves giving thanks for what the Lord has given us, and using the creation in a biblical and prayerful way. Timothy was to teach and to model sound doctrine to the church (vv 6-16). Both sound doctrine and life application are important. Again, why not pray for your elders, that they would be able to spot false teaching before it takes hold in the church, and to know how to address those who propagate it. Pray for your church leaders to have self-discipline, insight, patience, courage, and gracious speech.
Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
By Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Image credit: drawing above of fallen statue of Ramses II (aka Ozymandias) at Thebes by Andre Dutertre (1820). About this newsletter: I post three times a week on my Bible reading, following the Robert Murray M'Cheyne (RMM) two-year reading schedule, as arranged by D. A. Carson. Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Another resource I recommend is the NET Bible with its excellent notes at netbible.org.