Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 26, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Ecclesiastes 3:12
Once upon a time there was a tree, a tree preserved, like sleeping beauty, inside a large greenhouse. It was a dead tree, a tree trunk, a trunk that once belonged to a flourishing western hemlock, a tree that had fallen over in the forest long ago. An artist named Mark Dion had a vision. He and his team dragged the dead tree out of the forest and brought its 60-foot-long trunk to the City of Seattle. On the corner of Elliot and Broad Street, they built a greenhouse surround it, a sleeping beauty coffin. On one level, the goal was to demonstrate how even a dead tree can become a life source for new growth for the flourishing ferns, slugs, and fungus that would come to make this trunk their home. The trunk would become what's called a "nurse log," nursing new life as it begins to grow.
But on another level, it's all an elaborate illusion because this dead hemlock trunk, without the forest to support it, cannot be a nurse log. So, to replace the forest inside that greenhouse, there is an army of humming humidifiers, industrial aluminum duct work, and a power guzzling water filtration climate control system, a carefully curated terminal life-support system. It's not a nurse log; it's hospice care, hospice for a hemlock. And on a deeper level, that is what the artist Mark Dion is driving at. He says, "It's not exactly a feel-good work of art. You should look at this and get the impression of someone in the hospital under an oxygen tent." He wants his art to make a statement that despite all our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it's virtually impossible to get it back again. This display is part of the Seattle Art Museum, and it's called the Newcomb Vivarium. Newcomb, the name of a generous donor, and vivarium, a term here meaning "life enclosure."
So picture a line of school children on a field trip, walking the bustling city street, and they enter the enclosure, the vivarium, to view the decomposing log masked with ferns, slugs, and fungus kept alive by a whirring, wheezing, power sucking life support system. And it makes you wonder if the children might not have been better served by a field trip to a real forest. Because in a real forest, it would have become a real nurse log surrounded and supported by the Creator's uncanny life springing up all around from the forest floor. The fallen tree would've participated in new life for 500 years. But on the corner of Elliot and Broad Street, it's not a nurse log; it's hospice for a hemlock.
So Mark Dion, that artist I mentioned who created the Newcomb Vivarium, he observed something in our way of life—something that poses a danger. So he was moved to create a scene that might preemptively cut us down a little. The same could be said for the inspired artist who crafted the rhetoric of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.
The book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally attributed to the wise Jewish King Solomon. Solomon has carefully reflected on his past life. He's observed himself and others, hustling and bustling on crowded street corners, and he's concluded that humankind suffers from its own form of heart rot. Solomon believes that we are decaying from the inside out because he sees us trying to curate ourselves like little gods. But in truth, we are mortals in the hands of our Creator. And so Solomon was inspired to chop us down, before we collapse on our own. He uses two rhetorical tools to do the chopping. The first tool is the Hebrew word "hevel," a word he uses over 30 times in the book, variously translated as vapor, vanity, absurdity, fleeting, fruitless, meaningless. The second tool is a phrase that is sometimes translated as "chasing the wind" or "vexation of spirit," or my favorite, "shepherding the wind."
Five hundred years ago, the great Bible scholar Martin Luther gave a series of lectures on the book of Ecclesiastes. Luther imagines, an aged Solomon, having gathered the wisdom of his lived experience now gathers his friends and countrymen around him for something like an after-dinner speech. Luther believed that Solomon's purpose was not simply to cut us down to size. Luther believed Solomon's divinely inspired purpose was ultimately to put us at peace, to lay us to rest with his speech. Through Solomon, God wants to give us a quiet mind in the everyday business of this life so that we live contentedly in the present, without care or yearning about the future—living by faith in God as God ultimately reveals Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ. But to get us there, to shepherd us toward faith, He must do some chopping first.
So I invite you into Solomon's vivarium. Step off the busy and bustling street for a moment and listen to the words of his speech recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes—the words of the speaker, the son of David, the king in Jerusalem:
Vapor, vapor says the speaker. Vapor of vapors. Everything is vapor. What does a person gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun. Generations come and generations go, yet the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets and it hurries back to the place where it rises again. The wind blows to the south turns and blows to the north round and round it goes, ever returning to its course. All the streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place where the streams came from, there they will return. All things are wearisome more than one can say. The eye never has enough seeing; the ear never has its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything about which one can say, "Look, here is something new. This is something new." It was here already, long ago. It was here before our time. There is no remembering of the men of old, and even those who are yet to come, they will not be remembered by those who follow them. I, the speaker have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I have set my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.
It is an unhappy business God has given the children of Adam to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun and look—all of it is vapor, a shepherding of the wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight. What is lacking cannot be counted. I had said to myself, I have attained great wisdom, surpassing all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience in wisdom and knowledge. And I have applied my heart to know wisdom as well as madness and folly.
Yet I perceived that this also was shepherding of the wind because with much wisdom comes much sorrow. The more knowledge, the more grief. I said in my heart, Come now I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good, but this also proved to be vapor. Laughter, I said, is folly. And what does pleasure accomplish? I tried, I tried cheering myself with wine, embracing folly, my wisdom still guiding my mind. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for the children of Adam to do with the few days of their lives under heaven. I undertook great projects. I built houses for myself. I planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and filled them with all kinds of fruit trees. I made reservoirs for myself to water groves of flourishing trees. I acquired servants-manservants and maid servants. There were servants who were born in my house. I owned more flocks and herds than anyone else in Jerusalem before me, I amassed gold and silver for myself, the treasures of provinces and kings. I got singers, choirs, both men and women, and a harem of mistresses as well—the delights of a man.
And so I became greater in Jerusalem than anyone else before me. And in all this, my wisdom remained with me. I did not deny myself anything my eyes desired. I refused no pleasure for my heart because my heart took delight in all my toil because this was my reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and all that I had toiled to achieve, look, all of it was vapor, shepherding of the wind.
Hospice for a hemlock. Climate-controlled hospice care for a hemlock rotting on a busy street corner is an artful absurdity, but commend that same tree to rest on the forest floor in the uncanny wisdom of its Creator, and it will know abundant life. Picture an old, dying tree that's still standing. Only 5 percent of its trunk is still living tissue; 95 percent of it is dead where it stands. But when that tree falls to the forest floor into the capable hands of God, it has new life. Some people assume that the dead log itself is a life source, but that's not the case. It's power to nurse new life doesn't come from within, but from without. Water, bacteria, fungi transform it into a nurse log, a veritable Garden of Eden and a glimpse of God's new creation.
What you and I call, "life," when we say we're "doing life," or when we talk about someone who's having a "crisis of midlife," or when I talk about what I hope to do with my life, or you speak of your goals in life or your dreams in life or going on the journey of life—when you and I talk about life, what we're talking about is not yet true life. It's only mortal life. It's a glimpse of life. It's life curated and enclosed by death, and death is not natural for us. Death isn't a part of life. It's the opposite of life. Death is what has happened since we destroyed the system, a life-giving faith in God. Death is a consequence of us curating ourselves as gods. God the true God has graciously cut down our self-confidence so that we wouldn't fall away from Him forever. To save us from hell, God temporarily gave us over to death (see Genesis 3:19). And there's more! There's more because God sent His Son to become a human. The heir of Solomon, the son of David, the true King in Jerusalem—God's Son, Jesus, hung to die on a dead tree. Jesus carried the deadly consequence of our self-confidence, and then He rose from the dead.
He broke through that absurd greenhouse glass so that you could let go of it. Let go of your isolated, enclosed, power-sucking, curated life. Let go and rest! Rest on the forest floor, surrounded and supported in the more than capable hands of your Creator. Jesus is calling to you now. He says, "I tell you the truth. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But when it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life, his mortal life, will lose it. And whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. And where I am there will My servant be also" (John 12).
Hating your life in this world means two things: first, escaping the vivarium, leaving that curated life enclosed by death and second, resting in the hands of Jesus on the forest floor, surrounded on all sides by the uncanny indestructible life of your Creator.
When Jesus returns one day to set the world right, as the prophet says, "You will go out with joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you and all the trees of the field will clap their hands" (Isaiah 55). On that day, you will rise to true life, abundant life. And even now with Jesus, you can be like a nurse log, with life that doesn't come from within but from without. From God's Word of life, who gives life as a gift. As a nurse log, you can give others life. But you can't rely on your own strength. You can only fall into the arms of Jesus and receive the life He gives as a gift. So have no fear, little hemlock. It's your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.
And pray with me. Lord Jesus, sustain us by Your Word and Your Spirit in this mortal life. Give us Your peace that surpasses all human understanding and striving. Make us grow and bear fruit like the Garden of Eden and the dawn of Your new creation, because You live and You reign with the Father and the same Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for June 26, 2022
Title: Nurse Logs
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting today with Dr. Tim Saleska. He's a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and teaches about life with God as He's revealed Himself in Jesus, and especially through the Old Testament. Thanks for joining us, Tim.
Tim Saleska: I'm very happy to be here, Mike. Thanks for having me back, actually.
Mike Zeigler: Yes. We talked about Samuel, and now we get to talk about Ecclesiastes. And Ecclesiastes, it's a book unlike any other in the Bible. But for many Christians, it might be unfamiliar. They might not have read it. It might be strange when they do read it, or even unsettling. And I've heard you say that you've been unsettled by the book of Ecclesiastes. Why is that?
Tim Saleska: First of all, it's strange because many, if not all, of the major themes that you see in the other Old Testament books and, certainly, the New Testament books, are not there. So you do not see any talk of God's covenant with His people. You do not see any of God's divine actions front and center, like in the Exodus, or when you read the former prophets. You don't see anything about the workings of kings and prophets, the things that we're familiar with in the stories of the Old Testament. And you certainly don't see anything like the kind of preaching you see in the prophets. So the major themes are not there. And that strikes a lot of people who are familiar with the rest of the Scripture as strange. What do we do with a book like this?
Mike Zeigler: Here's a simple question: why is the book named Ecclesiastes?
Tim Saleska: All right, good question. That comes actually from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word. So the Hebrew word at its very base is the Hebrew word, "Qohal," which means "to gather." So "Qohelet," you can almost hear is the noun that comes from that: "Qohelet." The Greek term for "to gather" is "ecclesia." We know that as "church," but in secular Greek, it's an "assembly of citizens." And in Ecclesiastes is "one who is a member of that assembly" or a "citizen." I do not think that translating it as the "preacher" really gets at who this person is in quite as well a way as just "Ecclesiastes" or the "assembler," or the "gatherer," which sounds strange, I know. So that's awkward and that doesn't work, but that's basically what the name is all about.
Mike Zeigler: So, as you said, the big story of Scripture, that God's going to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham and his family, and the king that will come from that line, the Messiah, that's not there in the book. But it does speak, maybe, what life looks like outside of those promises, and therefore many modern readers can relate to that. It also challenges modern beliefs though, even modern beliefs that Christians have come to hold. How does the book do that?
Tim Saleska: So, the thing about Ecclesiastes is that God is very much there, but what you're dealing with is the hiddenness of God. God's hiddenness is the big issue or problem, as I see it, when I read Ecclesiastes. And if we get far enough, we can talk about the view or perspective that Ecclesiastes gives us in contrast to Job, for whom God's hiddenness is also a problem. But he experiences God's hiddenness in a different way.
Mike Zeigler: So, for Job, the problem is God's hiddenness in suffering. For Ecclesiastes, the problem is God's hiddenness in ...
Tim Saleska: Job experiences, as you said, God's hiddenness as terrible suffering. What's the theological significance of his suffering? He doesn't give up belief in God, but he sees that God is angry at him. And you can read that throughout his book, throughout his words. He interprets his suffering theologically as God's wrath. Notice when you read Ecclesiastes, God's wrath is almost virtually absent from the book. So, he experiences God's hiddenness not as suffering. In fact, he's doing anything but suffering. He's very famous and rich, just like Job was. Remember, very rich, very prosperous. He's not suffering at all; he's on top of the world. But he experiences God's hiddenness as this sense of, what I'll say for lack of a better word, meaninglessness, absurdity in life.
Mike Zeigler: As Christians we are taught to look to God as One who intervenes, who answers prayers, and Ecclesiastes is confronting us with the fact that, at least from our ability to perceive it with our eyes and our senses, it looks like God is not involved, or He's absent from ...
Tim Saleska: Correct. When he looks at the world, he too perceives little in it which tells him of God. All he finds in it is contradictions, which do not fit in with God. Why should the just people, the people who are "good people" suffer? Why do all the evil people prosper? That's a contradiction. See, there's no predictable pattern. You can work hard all your life and something happens, and you lose it all, or whatever. See, there's no safe calculus between the way you live your life and the rewards that you'll get. It's overturned all the time.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, he says "I've seen a righteous person perishing in their righteousness and a wicked person flourishing in their wickedness."
Tim Saleska: That's right. See, yeah. The oppressors are always on top. No one hears the cry of those who are being oppressed.
Mike Zeigler: So it doesn't make sense that if we believe in a wise, just, good, loving God set the world up, the world doesn't run like that's true.
Tim Saleska: So, he describes a world that is enigmatic, discordant, and contradictory. It is the world in which we live. And I think that Ecclesiastes opens the eyes of a lot of Christians who may be very comfortable. We, middle-class, we're comfortable; we have a lot of money; we don't suffer from war; we don't suffer from hunger. If we get sick, we have access to doctors and medicine and all those kinds of things. We sometimes have huge blind spots about the real suffering in so much of the other world, and we're not mindful of the kind of injustices that are built in in so many ways that you can't escape.
Mike Zeigler: What's the unique job that Ecclesiastes does for us when you look at the whole word of Scripture?
Tim Saleska: So, Ecclesiastes serves to put me in this position of uncertainty vis-a-vis my relationship with God. And that's why it has to be read within the context of Scripture, because it drives you to ask the question, "Where do I find certainty?" Because Ecclesiastes says again and again, just because you're righteous, doesn't mean you're going to prosper. That's the message that he keeps showing us, revealing. So, what makes you think that's going to happen either in this life or in the life to come?
Mike Zeigler: Okay. So as a Christian, we come at the book knowing the truth of the promises that God gives in Jesus. God so loved the world that He gave Jesus so that we might not perish but be saved. And so Ecclesiastes is sort of alerting us to the fact that the ship we're on is sinking, and we need to let go of that ship so God can rescue us into something better.
Tim Saleska: Yes. So, we are only going to find certainty when God actually has spoken to us and tells us something. So, we go to where God has revealed His intentions for us, and that's quite outside of the framework of the Law, and in the Word that He has revealed to us in His Son, in the Gospel. So the Gospel is outside of the Law. And St. Paul makes that very clear when he says in Romans 3, "There is a righteousness that is not part of the Law, the righteousness that is through faith in Jesus Christ." That's a whole different ballgame. And that's where we find our certainty.
Mike Zeigler: Right. Thank you for joining us today.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Come, Follow Me, the Savior Spake" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)