42. Two

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 42 :  The Strength of Two

Eccles 4:9-12 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I find there are times when I am challenged by my casual approach to Scripture. When I first looked at these verses, I thought, “Whatever made Solomon jump to thinking about companionship?” and it wasn’t until I looked again at the context that I realised that these verses flow on in small section that starts, Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone” (v.7,8) and yesterday we considered the frustration  of that man as he worked with no one to hand it on to. But now Solomon thinks on and essentially declares, “It’s not good to be alone.”

He lists the benefits of not being alone. First two working together can achieve far more than two individuals working alone. Second, if one stumbles and falls, it is good to have another alongside to help you up. Third, when it’s cold at night, it is good to have one to warm you. Fourth, when you come under attack it is good to have another alongside you to stand against the attacker with you.

Yes, these are the obvious benefits of not walking through life alone. It may refer to friendship, it may refer to having a partner in business or it may refer to having a spouse. There are many circumstances in life where two together are better than being alone, yet sadly in our day, I believe loneliness is growing. With the fragmentation of families there are individuals separated off from the group and that makes the loneliness even harder. In a permissive age there are those who have been encouraged to express their difference but who have found that doing that has isolated them from many others. I was part of a conversation only yesterday that was talking about tattoos which have become very common, and yet despite that, they still act – in many people’s eyes at least – as a brand that separates out and declares that this is a certain sort of person who is wanting! So many things in modern life, it seems, separate and divide and cause loneliness.

Possibly one of the most obvious ways in our modern society is what used to be called ‘courting’. How alien that concept seems to have become in a world where it seems it is common to not even wait for the third date to end up in bed. Yet sexual intimacy has proved to be elusive for many. Sex isn’t necessarily intimate; it can be purely exploitive, and we feel used. The excitement of once-forbidden fruit lasts only a while and then the couple realise they are miles apart; there is inner loneliness, even though there is outer closeness.

The advice I used to give to young people, and still do if they are willing to listen, is develop your relationship in three slow stages. First of all get to know each other by just being with each other, talking and sharing and finding out about each other, i.e. build the social aspect of the relationship first. Second, if the couple are Christians (and if they’re not I have no hope for their long-term relationship, and if one is and the other isn’t, generally, don’t walk this path together) then develop your spiritual relationships together – read the Bible together, pray together, go to church and worship together, and seek God’s will together and serve God together. Then, and only then, if these two facets of your relationship together indicate you are compatible, you talk about life-long commitment and only when you are committed for life, do you develop the physical side of your relationship.

Our modern society is full of young people who are essentially lonely, even though they go to clubs together, bed together and whatever else together. I have been there and I have seen it and that is how it is for so many young people who are desperate for closeness, desperate for real intimacy, desperate for trust and desperate to find real love, which is all about commitment as well as feelings, and yet the way that the world proclaims is not bringing home the goods!

I said as an aside earlier, and you may not have liked it, that I have no hope for a long term relationship without God. Yes, there are married couples who have lived it out for decades without God, but increasingly that is becoming a rarity with the pressures of modern life. Solomon’s enigmatic final phrase hints at the truth: A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” What is the third strand? God, of course!  With God genuinely in your relationship you have a real fighting chance of have a good life together ahead.

But why do Christians get divorced, I hear you ask, before I finish. Consider Jesus’ words: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Mt 19:18).  If we have allowed ourselves to get into a place where we have been hardened (and it may only be one in the partnership) so that we are no longer open to hear God’s counsel, either directly or through a counsellor/leader, then yes we will end up divorcing, but that is a path where we have hardened God out of our experience, which is why just now I spoke of having God genuinely in your relationship. These are serious matters in these days of anguish and loneliness.

42. No Escape

Meditations in Job : 42.  No Escape

Job 16:6 Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away

Within the various ‘speeches’ in the book of Job, we find various themes or refrains being repeated. It’s a big book with many words, so it is indeed helpful to be reminded from time to time the same things. Job has just been expressing what he feels about his friends but now he moves on to express again something of the sense of hopelessness that he feels, locked in to what is happening to him, unable to do anything about it.

This sense of helplessness is common to sinful mankind living in this fallen world. In its simplest form we find it when we go to the doctor and he tells us that we have ‘a virus’ and so all we can do is go away and rest. We can’t just get rid of it. We may try and suppress the common cold, but we are stuck with it until it works its way out. We break an arm, say, and we are stuck with a plaster caste until it heals up, and that takes weeks! We give way to some wrong act and are caught. Now there is the process of law which grinds on. We wish we could turn back the clock so that it had never happened but we can’t and so we are stuck with it. Then there are the prisons of living in a deteriorating body or a body that just doesn’t function fully or properly. There are the prisons of addiction and we wish we had never started down this path, but now we are trapped in this prison. Or there is the prison of simple poverty or debt and we can see no way out. As we look on these things, we realise that, humanly speaking, there seems no way out.

Job clearly felt like this.  Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away.” (v.6). Whatever he says does nothing to relieve him of his pain and if he stays quiet, it is still there. He feels utterly exhausted and there is nothing he can do to change it: “Surely, O God, you have worn me out; you have devastated my entire household.” (v.7). It has affected the whole of his life and so there is nowhere to turn for respite. How terrible it is when families are split up and you find yourself in devastating circumstances when you really need the comfort of the family, but there is no one there for you! How many children in the West today are with only one parent and feel bereft when the trials of life hit and they long for the other one to be there for them.

He declares this is the work of God, which in some senses makes it worse for there is no escape from His divine, sovereign will: “You have bound me–and it has become a witness; my gauntness rises up and testifies against me.” (v.8) You have bound me! This is no accident of life; this is a sovereign work of God. Bound? Tied up in this situation so there is no escape. It has become a witness? The fact that he is locked into this position of suffering, unable to do anything about it, suggests that all it not right in his life. His friends suggest it is because of sin.  My gauntness rises up and testifies against me! His obvious appearance speaks volumes.

He continues: “God assails me and tears me in his anger and gnashes his teeth at me; my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes.” (v.9) He feels that God is angry with him and is tearing him to shreds, and is glaring at him. The result of the Lord’s activity, he says, is that, “Men open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.” (v.10) He is a laughing stock, he says, and everyone says the same thing.  He is sure that this is God’s work: God has turned me over to evil men and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked.” (v.11) When God moves it has practical outworkings in our everyday lives. God has given Job over to others it appears. He further describes what he feels: “All was well with me, but he shattered me; he seized me by the neck and crushed me. He has made me his target; his archers surround me. Without pity, he pierces my kidneys and spills my gall on the ground. Again and again he bursts upon me; he rushes at me like a warrior.” (v.12-14) His life had been fine until God moved against him and like a wrestler threw him down, or like an archer pierced him with many arrows. It seems like He comes at him again and again in a whole variety of ways.

Now this is certainly not the most enlightening of Scripture but it does reveal the sense of awful, almost fatalistic, inability to escape from these apparent attacks from the enemy. This suffering of Job is not merely like having a headache; he is covered with sores, you may remember, is in immense discomfort and pain, looks terrible and is the scorn of all who pass by and see him. It is a reminder to those of us who may have friends who are going through hard times, not expect them to “snap out of it”. It is quite likely that they just can’t do that! They feel totally unable and whatever victorious viewpoint we have arrived at in our Christian lives, THEY may not be in the same place, so ‘praising the Lord’ or whatever other medicine you use, may be just be outside their reach at the moment; later on they may be ready to receive help and climb out of the slough of despair, but for this moment, they may be stuck there and just need your comforting presence.

I like the story I once heard on a well known TV series in the past: a man was walking down the street at dusk when he fell into a very deep hole left by the road workers. He cried out for help but there was no one there. A little time passed and he heard footsteps. A doctor arrived and peered down at him. He scribbled on a small pad and threw down a prescription and walked off. The man felt utterly alone. Just then he heard more footsteps and a Rabbi peered over the edge of the hole. “Rabbi, pleased help pull me out of the hole,” the man cried. “My son, the hole is too deep,” the Rabbi replied, “I will go away and pray for you.” And with that he left. Time passed and he heard more footsteps. To his delight, when he looked up the man saw his friend, Joe, peering down. “Joe, help me out,” the man cried. Suddenly the opening of the hole was darkened as Joe jumped in. “Joe, what are you doing? Now we’re both down here?” the man asked. “It’s all right,” said Joe, “I’ve been down here before. I know how to get out.”

It’s not smart or even critical words we need when we’re ‘in a hole’, it’s loving friendship, that understands and accepts. If only Job had received that!

17. Needs within Despair

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 17

Job 6:14 A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Our opening verse today sums up what follows. Job has just expressed his sense if inability to help himself. This is an important point for those of us who would call ourselves ‘friends’ or even ‘comforters’. In the depths of despair, our friend feels utterly unable to do anything about it. I have rarely experienced depression, but on the odd occasion when it has occurred, I have been aware that there was no point someone saying to me, “Come on, snap out of it!” You just feel utterly incapable of doing anything that will change what you feel. Now that may not be so in reality but that is what you ‘feel’ at that point. Job identifies himself as a ‘despairing man’. That is what he feels – despair – a sense of utter loss and hopelessness. Have you realised that these studies are not only about how to be a comforter, but also about the depths that human experience can go to?

What is Job’s primary need in this state of despair? Devotion of his friends! What does devotion mean in this context? It means stick-ability! The ability to stay close to our friend! Now that needs thinking about. Our friend has gone down into the depths of despair and they feel alone, utterly isolated in their blackness. What they need is a sense of someone alongside them, there in the blackness, someone who understands it and is there for them, utterly accepting and without judgment. I have commented before about a girl I knew who was in the depths of mental illness, in the blackness of utter confusion, and yet, as I related to her, I sensed the presence of the Lord with her, right there in the midst of that confusion, a loving, caring and accepting Presence, there for her. Can we be Jesus to our friend in these circumstances? Only with the grace and enabling of God!

That is what Job needs, but what has he received? See how he continues. He paints a vivid picture: “But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams, as the streams that overflow when darkened by thawing ice and swollen with melting snow, but that cease to flow in the dry season, and in the heat vanish from their channels.” (v.15-17) Oh, what a condemnation of us perhaps! My brothers are undependable. Job wants people he can depend upon, people who will always be there for him, but they are not like that, these ‘friends’. They are, he says, like streams that get filled and deep in the winter but in the summer dry up and disappear.

He paints the picture some more: “Caravans turn aside from their routes; they go up into the wasteland and perish. The caravans of Tema look for water, the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.” (v.18,19) He imagines Arab caravans in the wilderness, searching desperately for water in these streams, but there is done, just like he’s searching desperately for a life-giving resource in his friends. He sees how those Arab traders respond to their plight: “They are distressed, because they had been confident; they arrive there, only to be disappointed,” (v.20) just like he had been. When his friends had turned up there had been confident hope, but as Eliphaz started out, he was disappointed. He concludes: “Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.” (v.21). They had come and seen him and saw him as ‘ something dreadful’ and their hearts fell and they were fearful. What, they thought, had happened to him? What had God done to him? And they jumped to wrong conclusions.

As he thinks about this, he muses, what have I ever asked from you except simple friendship: “Have I ever said, `Give something on my behalf, pay a ransom for me from your wealth, deliver me from the hand of the enemy, ransom me from the clutches of the ruthless’?” (v.22,23). Had he ever made demands of them that required them to pay out, or come to his aid against enemies? No, never. He only asked for simple, accepting friendship. Look, he says, I’m open for you to show me if I am genuinely wrong: “Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I have been wrong.” (v.24). I realise that honest words can be painful, but I’ve listened to what you’ve said and you prove nothing: “How painful are honest words! But what do your arguments prove?” (v.25) Why are you bothering to try and correct the words of a despairing man, words which you want to write off as just meaningless like wind : “Do you mean to correct what I say, and treat the words of a despairing man as wind?” (v.26). This seems so heartless that you give me the impression that, “You would even cast lots for the fatherless and barter away your friend.” (v.27).

And then he makes a final plea: “But now be so kind as to look at me. Would I lie to your face?” (v.28) Please, look me in the face. I’m trying to be honest, I wouldn’t lie to you, I would tell you if I had sinned (implied). He goes on, “Relent, do not be unjust; reconsider, for my integrity is at stake.” (v.29). Please, step back from this stand you’ve taken against me, be fair, because this is my integrity and my reputation you are talking about here. And finally, “Is there any wickedness on my lips? Can my mouth not discern malice?” (v.30) Please, listen carefully. Am I saying anything that is patently wicked? Have I not always been careful what I say, please be gentle with me!

These are the pleas of this man of integrity whose only ‘sin’ is to be in the midst of immense suffering for apparently no reason. The reason, as we had the privilege of seeing, is that he is going through God’s testing process, but it’s a process that doesn’t only test him; it also tests his three friends! If we are such a ‘friend’ we need to realise that when our friends are in trouble, it is also a test for us!