Soundings

EMPTY LIVES

Jun 2004    

PART 9 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 4:7-16

ONE of the most poignant songs by the country-rock group Eagles is the 1973 hit “Desperado”.

It portrays a lonely, desperate man who spent his entire life chasing after fame and wealth, not realising that “the things that are pleasing him can hurt him somehow”. His insatiability has blinded him of the good things that life has already provided for him: “Now it seems to be some fine things have been laid upon your table, but you only want the ones that you can’t get.”

In many ways he is like the person that the Preacher describes in 4:8-9. These verses sketch a compulsive money-maker, a tragic figure who is virtually dehumanised by the impulse and craving for wealth and success to which he surrenders. This passage does not devalue meaningful work. The Christian tradition understands work to be God’s design for human beings and the central obligation of human life. The Christian faith also teaches that we have the God-given right to accumulate the products of our labour. There is therefore a proper perspective to the acquisition and possession of material wealth, based on the Christian understanding of creation and the doctrine of divine providence.

The Christian faith also understands work as vocation, that is, as a special role that God has intended for humans to fulfil. Work therefore, as our service to God, is accorded the highest dignity in the Christian tradition. But, like all of God’s good gifts to humankind, work can be abused, and attitudes towards it can be perverted.

For the man described in these verses, work has become his sole goal in the life, the very purpose of his existence. In other words, work is for this man an idolatrous obsession. He works hard and relentlessly accumulates immense wealth and builds massive impenetrable walls around him and isolates himself from those who love him. But alas, neither work nor wealth brought him contentment (v 8).

The Preacher continues to explore the twin themes of success and loneliness by turning to those in power. The Preacher tells of the “old but foolish king” who was supplanted by a “poor but wise youth”, only to find that he too fell into disfavour (13-16). There are people in the world who would stop at nothing to be in a position of power. Jesus spoke of the man who would lose his soul in order to gain the whole world (Matt 16:26). The Preacher warns that those who strive to attain power may find that they have reached the pinnacle of human glory, only to be stranded there.

Everyone in a position of power or in high office can testify to the fact that it is lonely at the top. People at the top are lonely partly because of their position – their responsibility is such that they have to walk the tightrope of not being too aloof and the need to maintain a certain distance. They are lonely because of the difficult decisions that must be made and the fact that the responsibility stops with them. All these things contribute to their isolation and loneliness.

Alongside this is also the insecurity, due in most cases to the fickleness of people. An ambitious person may rise to fame sensationally, but his popularity is fleeting. One moment he is a popular public figure, the next he is nothing. One moment he is a hero, the next a pariah. As Derek Kidner has put it, this passage shows that such an ambition is “yet another of our human anticlimaxes and ultimately empty achievements”.

The Preacher makes the point that work, wealth and power are no substitutes for love and companionship. “Two are better than one”. “A cord of three is not quickly broken”. The Preacher offers several reasons why friendship and companionship are to be preferred. A friend can offer help when one is in trouble (4:9-11), and companions offer collective security: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (4:12). Finally, companionship guarantees strength (4:12b). Charles Swindoll summarises this well when he writes that a companion provides:

Mutual encouragement when we are weak,
Mutual support when we are vulnerable,
Mutual protection when we are attacked.

But for the Preacher friendship is important not just for utilitarian reasons. Friendship is an important aspect of the life of every human being, for we are all created for relationships, for community. God has not made us to be alone. He has made us for companionship.

Recall the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2. As John Milton has pointed out, every step of the way, God pronounces His creation to be good. The only thing that He pronounced “not good” was the loneliness of man. The Bible promotes friendship, and nowhere is this more profoundly depicted than in the life of Jesus and in His relationship with His disciples. We dare to call Jesus our “friend” because He has first called His disciples “friends” (John 15:13). Jesus gives to friendship a new character because He calls tax collectors and sinners His friends, and extends His friendship even to Judas who would betray Him.

What Jesus revealed in His relationship with His disciples offers a profound insight to the Christian understanding of friendship. In friendship-love there is a giving and receiving in freedom and spontaneity. In this mutual reciprocity of friendship is to be found a dual recognition: that we can give our love to others and that we are in need of affirmation and love from others. What is demonstrated in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples is that friendship-love makes universal love possible. Jesus schooled His disciples in universal love and prepared them to demonstrate this love in a group of close friends.

As Bernard Häring, the astute Catholic moral theologian, puts it: “If we honour the least of our brothers and sisters as friends in Christ, then and only then can we speak of universal love.”

Let me end with the final stanza of “Desperado”.

“Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate.
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you.
You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.”

Dr Roland Chia, Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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