A couple weeks ago I sent a church-wide email with resources for tending to our mental health. I had received it from Messiah University, and I adapted it for our church. I sent it along because God cares about our mental health. I heard back from a number of people expressing their thanks because 2020 has taken its toll on many of us. We hear Jesus say to us, as he does in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life abundantly,” and many of us are thinking, “Jesus, I hear you, but this madness of 2020 has thrown me for a loop.” We might not feel like life is abundant or joyful. Or that it is not as joyful as it could be.
Thankfully, there is hope! In our study through Ecclesiastes, for the last few weeks we’ve been in a long section of advice for wise living. It runs from Ecclesiastes 7:15 through the end of chapter 10. This week we are studying 8:16-9:10, where the Teacher, the writer of Ecclesiastes, has advice for wise living that has some great teaching about joy when life is difficult.
My seminary OT professor Dave Dorsey translates it this way: “16 When I sought to become wise and to understand what goes on in this world, I realized that even if a person were to stay awake day and night, 17 he would never be able to know God’s plan. No human being can comprehend it. Despite all his best efforts, a person cannot discover it. A wise man may claim to know it, but he doesn’t.”
The Teacher’s comment in verse 16, about staying awake all the time, reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer had been reading a book about Leonardo da Vinci. The book claimed that da Vinci practiced something called Polyphasic sleeping. It’s real thing, and my guess is that a lot of you are Polyphasic sleepers. I basically am, though not on purpose, as Michelle will tell you. What is Polyphasic sleeping? It is contrasted to monophasic sleeping which is getting all your sleep in one period of sleeping per day. Then there is Biphasic sleeping, which is when you have two sleep periods per day. Polyphasic sleeping is when you spread out your sleep over more than two periods per day. Anyone do that? Lots of naps! Or maybe like me, with the ability to fall asleep on the sofa pretty much whatever time of day it is?
While it is not certain, there is some evidence that Da Vinci might have practiced an extreme version of polyphasic sleeping called the Uberman Sleep Cycle, which is taking six 20 minute naps equally spread out over your day, giving you a lot more time to be productive, especially in the quiet hours of the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping. In the Seinfeld episode, Kramer begins to follow this sleeping plan. Kramer excitedly tells Jerry, “That works out to two and a half extra days that I’m awake per week, every week. Which means if I live to be 80, I will have lived the equivalent of 105 years.” While this isn’t being awake all the time, like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes describes, the Uberman Sleep Cycle certainly would give a person a lot more time to try to figure out God’s plan!
It doesn’t go so well for Kramer, who ends up falling asleep all the time, everywhere, and hilarity ensues. It also doesn’t go so well for the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher says that even if we could stay up day and night all the time, never sleeping, wracking our brains to figure out the world, even then we would not be able to discover God’s plan. No one, not even the wisest people can claim to know God’s plan.
What plan is the Teacher talking about? You and I might think, “Wait… Don’t we kinda know God’s plan?” Yes, we know the larger story that we read about in the Bible: the Creation of Humanity, the Fall of Humanity, the Redemption of Humanity, and what will happen one day in the future, the Consummation of all things. The big piece of that story is the Redemption piece. First God brought redemption primarily through the family of Abraham and the nation of Israel, through whom he promised to bring blessing to the whole world. With the exception of a few great leaders like Moses, Joshua and David, that plan didn’t work out. Israel did not live out their God-given mission to be a blessing to the whole world. So God brought global redemption through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, followed by his Spirit living with and empowering his church. This is the part of the story that we still live, the Redemption story, and we play a part in it. We know all this plan.
So there is a sense in which we can say to the Teacher, “Teacher, things have developed quite a bit since you wrote your book,” and I believe the Teacher would be genuinely surprised and amazed, especially hearing about Jesus, the promised Messiah, the Savior, and the Holy Spirit. But then after hearing us talk about Jesus and the Spirit, I think the conversation would go quiet for a moment, as we waited for the Teacher to respond. Would he say, “Ok, you’re right, a lot has developed in the last few thousand years, and now I need to go back and write the Revised Edition of Ecclesiastes.”?
I don’t think he would say that. I don’t think the Teacher needs to update his book. In fact, I think the Teacher, though he would be extremely excited to hear about Jesus, the Teacher would say, “What I’ve written here in chapter 8, verses 16-17, still holds true. The plan we don’t know about and will never know about, is the timing of our future. We do not know when we will die.”
That’s true. Also, there are other parts of God’s plan that we do not know. For example, Christians through the years have tried to figure out when Jesus will return. They have claimed to be able to read the signs of the times, or to have a unique interpretation of the Bible, or some will go so far as to say that God himself told them when Jesus will return. They’ve all been wrong. Jesus agreed with the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, when Jesus taught, “No one knows the day, time or hour” of his return.
We have to admit that we simply don’t know some parts of God’s plan. And that lack of knowing can make us uneasy. We want to know!
I am fascinated by the concept of time travel. Think about how many books, movies and TV shows feature time travel. What about you? Would you go forward or backwards in time? Which time would you travel to? To the time of Jesus? There’s no doubt it would be astounding to be there as Jesus walked and taught and did miracles. It also might be frustrating, though, because most of us don’t know the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic! Before I get too far off topic, think with me about this question: why is time travel such an intriguing concept? I think time travel taps into our uneasiness with not knowing the future, our struggle with not being able to control that part of life. We want control! We want to feel the certainty of knowledge. Or at least we think we’ll feel better if we know how things turn out. But would we feel better?
As far back as Shakespeare’s MacBeth, people were speculating that if we knew the future it would ruin us. This fascination we have with wanting to know the future just might reveal a deep discontent inside us. We think that if we could go back in time, we could fix mistakes, or avoid pain. And we think that if we could travel to the future, or maybe know the future, such as the day of our death, we could avoid it. But this is not possible, the Teacher reminds us. So what we can do? The Teacher is a step ahead of us. Check back in for tomorrow’s post as the Teacher guides to ancient wisdom.