feature articles

Irony of Ironies


This past August my family and I visited Orlando, Florida.  We stayed in two different resorts, each with their own water park.  We visited some friends as well, and enjoyed a relaxing day at the beach.  However, the main attractions, at least for our children, was to be a day at Legoland theme park, mainly for our son, and a day at Disney World, mainly for our daughter.  Due to the thorough research of my wife, we were able to brave the scorching heat; equipped with moisture-wicking attire, water-bottle carrying fanny-packs, cooling towels, and battery powered water-misting devices.  So, in spite of the sweltering heat, the notoriously long lines, and the low, constant groaning of our American Express cards, we were able to enjoy a rather memorable family vacation.

The irony of ironies is found in the fact that we took our vacation in the midst of a preaching series I was giving on the book of Ecclesiastes.  Even a cursory reading of this book will avail the Preacher’s great motif; vanity of vanities, all is vanity!  It is not hard to see that the Preacher, Solomon, is uncompromising in his efforts to force his readers to look upon the rather grievous nature of life here under the sun.  Though Disney in August felt very much like life directly under the sun, this is not the heart of the irony.  

Instead, the heart of the irony lies in the striking contrast that I was subject to during our vacation.  While, on the one hand, I was visually inundated with happiness–– endless images of Disney characters and rides, the very benchmark of theme park utopia, not to mention the tickling of my, and more effectively, my children’s ears, with the workings of a subliminal masterpiece of carefully woven-together Disney sound bites; on the other hand, I was simultaneously hearing the echoes of Solomon’s words in my head.  In such places as Legoland and Disney World, there seems to be absolutely no room for the sufferings or injustices that Solomon relentlessly observes.  Even in Disney movies, once the evil characters are introduced, the good guys come in, battle against the forces of evil, find themselves with the odds stacked against them, and somehow––because good always triumphs over evil––they defy the odds, defeat the villains, save the day, and, of course, get the girl.  Only in a perfect world; only in the movies, and it seems, only in Disney World, do such flawless balancing of the scales of justice occur.  

Not even Solomon, who was the wealthiest man alive, could have imagined such levels of escapism.  As chapter two of Ecclesiastes declares, he also spared no expense in pursing pleasure, that is joy or delight.  But even before the end of this chapter, he concludes that these pursuits are merely vanity.  

But what exactly does he mean when he says vanity?  The Hebrew word that is translated vanity is hebel, and it means mist or vapor.  Hence, life under the sun is like mist or vapor.  That is to say that it is light and without substance.  It is here for a moment and then evaporates into nothing.  While words like vanity and meaningless do rightly convey some semblance of the idea, the literal word and its meaning strike a far more resounding chord, especially when compared to that which does not quickly fade, but in fact, remains.  

This idea can be considered from yet another vantage point.  In addition to the observation that Solomon’s motif: vanity of vanities may well be a parody of the reverent Old Testament priestly motif, namely: holy of holies, it also conveys this idea of substance.  The Hebrew word for holy is qadosh, and its literal meaning is weighty, i.e. having substance.      

Thus, when Solomon repeatedly concludes that life under the sun is vanity, that is to say, vaporous, he is conveying its utter lack of substance, or to put it another way, he is saying that it is weightless; a concept that stands in stark contrast to the weighty nature of God’s holiness and glory. 

Now if one couples this with another contrast, namely the rather clean and neat applications of wisdom given in the book of Proverbs––much of which is attributed to Solomon––to that of the painful realities of life addressed in Ecclesiastes; the place where Solomon’s theology crashes into his experience, where he tirelessly assaults his readers with his witnessing of the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering, the rampant injustices all around him––and us––and the utter inevitability of death, one can begin to paint a picture of the troubled waters that make up this book.  In asserting that Ecclesiastes was the truest of all books, Herman Melville, in his novel Moby Dick, described it as “the fine hammered steel of woe.” 1

Of course, this book of woe––this ethos or worldview, stands in direct contrast to that of theme park escapism; particularly Disney World and that of Walt Disney himself.  From the moment we entered the park I couldn’t help but notice, that with equal effort, the very air we breathed was tasked with conveying the vision of being in a fantasyland filled with wonders, adventures, and no shortage of happy endings; the place, as all Disney enthusiasts know, where dreams come true; a place that spares no expense to avert our eyes away from the many atrocities that Solomon refuses to ignore.

Now recognizing that in every age the Christian church has endured persecution, many have observed that modern day America is somewhat of an anomaly, due to its unique isolation from such oppressions.  However, even with this heavy shielding, from the moment I wake up in the morning I can see the vaporous nature of life under the sun bleeding through the carefully woven tapestry of our agenda-driven media.  

By way of example, even something as normative as a trip to the gym can bombard me with such vaporous trivialities.  I can choose to be lulled into a workout trance with the background music, or fed from a seemingly endless source, via the treadmill televisions, a veritable plethora of trivialities intricately laced with the liberal ethos.  However, I can opt instead for some biblically grounded podcasts that either feed me the Word of God in lecture or sermonic form, or inform me of current events from a biblical worldview.  Not surprisingly, all of these serve to confirm Solomon’s worldview, which, in spite of his unwavering commitment to recognize the many injustices of life and the overall fruit of human depravity, in no way diminishes his view of God’s providence.  In fact, he emphasizes that God’s providence, though incomprehensible to us, is nonetheless sovereignly administered.  Thus, even in our rather isolated context of American living, as Christians, we can and must choose to open our eyes and see the many injustices that validate the futile and vaporous nature of life under the sun. 

By way of contrast, the spare-no-expense efforts to whisk us into wonderland began long before entering the park.  Even as we approached the highway exit we were ushered in, not by mere billboards, but with extravagant marquees spanning the four-lane highway, and numerous attraction-teasers dotting the approaching landscape.  Even Disney’s parking lot was charged with the job of cultivating the atmosphere, for one does not park in lot A or B etc., but instead in either the hero or villain lots.  From there you are picked up by trolley, which takes you to the ferry, where you enjoy a slow-paced ride across the lake; likely with the intent of heightening your anticipation; all the while taking in the iconic Magic Kingdom Castle.  

As you enter the park you can’t help but notice the exhausting efforts to convert anything they can into something that resembles Mickey Mouse ears.  Walking down Main Street Disney, you are caught up in the environment, which is filled with unique looking restaurants and shops bursting with Disney memorabilia, workers who are all too happy to take your family photo, Disney characters posing for photo-ops, and numerous other workers busying up the streets with mini-shows and activities.  You’re in!  Suddenly you’re wearing a set of Mickey ears and sipping on an extra-large Disney Kool-Aid.  You’ve stepped out of reality and into the Matrix.  Here, it seems, Neo took the blue pill!      

Now while my description is, of course, intentionally dramatic, it is also purposeful.  Through it I hope to convey the point that there is great effort expended to create a realm that is utterly intolerant of such a harsh reality as is depicted by Solomon.  However, since I had not yet succumbed to the full effects of the Kool-Aid, once in, I did find myself further contemplating how 1950’s America, the era into which Disneyland was born, was both influential to, and influenced by Walt Disney himself.  I don’t think it much of a stretch to presume that in general people were perceived to be good; a likely byproduct of another interesting contrast: a culture saturated in Christians morals, while simultaneously anemic on Christian doctrine.  Acknowledging, the potential offense of this statement, I want to clarify that it is intended solely as a generalization; largely regulated to the general populous of the day and should in no way reflect a comprehensive assessment of the church.  Certainly this era is replete with significant theological developments, and many giants of the church were working in this time.  Men like J.I. Packer, F.F. Bruce, Edmund Clowney, Carl F. H. Henry, Meredith Kline, George Eldon Ladd, John Murray, and Francis Schaeffer to name but a few.  Therefore, recognizing that this statement does paint with a broad brush, a look at popular television shows such as Leave it to Beaver, which became an iconic exemplification of the idealized life of 1950’s suburbia, will help to confirm this.  However, a more poignant example comes from the preceding decade in the Disney classic––Pinocchio.  Here, in this beloved piece of Disney infamy, watchers of the film are duped into embracing the sage wisdom, not of Solomon, but of Jiminy Cricket, who tells us that in any situation, all we need to do is to simply let our conscience be our guide. 

Of course, as Christians this just won’t do.  If we understand ourselves to be sinful, fallen creatures, it would be rather unwise to simply trust our conscience.  The biblical worldview bears this truth out.  Mankind is in fact, sinful and we do indeed live in a fallen world; a world filled with injustice, a world that is, to use Solomon’s verbiage, vaporous.  

And yet we are called to glorify God in all we do even in this fallen world.  While the New Testament declares that we are to glorify God in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31), particularly in how we live in response to the good news of the gospel, namely with a life of gratitude,2 Solomon’s assessment, while not given in light of the full revelation of the gospel in and through the incarnate Christ, is that this is to be done by employing wisdom; chiefly expressed through the enjoyment of God’s gifts given to us here under the sun: food and drink, and marriage and family given as primary examples.  

While it is clear that the principal conclusion of Ecclesiastes; the end of the matter if you will, is to fear God and to keep his commandments, all while remembering that his judgment is coming; one could also observe two seemingly opposing themes in the book, namely the vaporous and futile nature of life under the sun, and the commanded response to this––joy!  He calls us to enjoy God’s gifts.  Even here one must see the striking irony of these opposing themes, for they do in fact form a rather unlikely pair.  Yet, in the biblical wisdom of Solomon, we can and must walk out our chief purpose as image-bearers, namely glorifying God and enjoying him forever (WSC.1).  And we must do this while practicing full observance of the many expressions of depravity commensurate with the vaporous nature of life under sun, rather than pursuing joy by turning a blind eye to such oppressions and sufferings.

So ironically, contrary to the Western, and specifically American ethos, which endorses the expenditure of gobs of money on entertainment in general and to create such places of pure fantasy and escapism in particular, we are called to glorify God by embracing a robust enjoyment of his gifts in the very midst of this vaporous life here under the sun.  

Certainly Christ’s own actions exemplified this.  Rather than avoiding the prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors; those whom society ostracized, as was the practice of the Pharisees, Jesus waded deep into their very context.  Rather then averting his gaze, he not only looked upon their brokenness, he also touched it; he extended his healing hands to them––to us; a most undeserving people.  And with this Jesus calls us to follow him with the command to take up his cross.  This is exactly what Jesus says in Matthew 16:24 and I would offer William Hendriksen’s poignant paraphrase of this verse, particularly in light of the place of trials and suffering in this life.  In his efforts to do justice to the grammar he translates the verse as follows…

“If anyone wishes to be (counted as) an adherent of mine, he must once and for all say farewell to self, decisively accept pain, shame, and persecution for my sake and in my cause, and must then follow and keep on following me as my disciple.” 3

Add to this, for example, Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “…In this world you will have tribulation…” (ESV), and it becomes increasingly difficult to eradicate suffering here under the sun.  

Moreover, we can observe that while scripture does speak of Jesus as a man of sorrows, it also declares his joy.  It is certainly reasonable to conclude that even in his humiliation, Jesus experienced joy in his ministry.  His whole ministry glorified the Father; in fact he describes doing the Father’s will as his very sustenance (John 4:34).  And we know that unspeakable joy awaited him in his exaltation.  As the writer of Hebrews describes it, he endured the cross for the joy set before him (Heb. 12: 2), yet again articulating this contrast or irony of joy in the midst of suffering.  

When the Church walks out this command to enjoy God even in this fallen world, and in so doing, glorify him, she becomes a living, breathing apologetic for not only God’s existence, but also his providence, mercy, grace, and love.  In fact the church should well reflect all of God’s attributes.  In addition, she becomes the witness to God’s redemptive work lavished upon her in his Son, and the ambassador of the new humanity; inviting the lost to be grafted into her.  In essence, she heralds our status as joyous in the midst of circumstantial sorrow.  That is to say, our joy is grounded in our adopted status as sons and daughters of God; a status, which privileges us to call him Father, rather than in our subjective and often fickle emotions.  Genuine Christian joy is grounded in our status––our identity in Christ, not in our circumstances.  

So while it may well be ironic that Solomon, on the one hand, counsel’s joy in the very midst of this vaporous and futile world, while mankind, on the other hand, often fundamentally defines joy as the very absence of such futilities; it is not surprising.  

May we, as the church, walk in such grounded joy here under the sun, so as to glorify God, declare the good news of redemption, and affirm that God, despite the apparent chaos and futility of life in a fallen world, remains sovereign.

Sola De Gloria

 

1. Quoted in: Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Ecclesiastes: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 197.

2. I would encourage a look at the Heidelberg Catechism, which is shaped similarly to the layout of Romans.  Paul, and the catechism both first declare our guilt, then God’s grace, and lastly our response of gratitude.

3. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1973), 656.