Blogroll: Peter Leithart
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Our telling of the Prodigal Son parable usually (and rightly) focuses on the runaway younger brother: the lost son returns, and his father joyfully and graciously receives him. But the full story has an additional element: an angry older brother. Jesus uses the older brother to rebuke the religious leaders of His day for their stuffy self-righteousness. Today, the older brother also highlights the incredible opportunities that God has given to the Western Church in our post-Christian culture.
Let’s look a little more closely at the older brother. He comes in from the field, and he’s so angry at the celebration that he won’t even enter the house. When his father comes out to plead with him, the older brother accuses him: “Look, I have served you many years; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
On the surface, it sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Imagine you’re down at the corner pub, and all you’re hearing is the older brother’s side of the story. You might be tempted to wonder if he has a point. Maybe dad has been taking him for granted.
But hear his father’s response: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” Notice this: “All that I have is yours.” Son, you could have thrown this same party anytime. All of this, everything you see, is your half of the inheritance. It’s all yours. But there’s been a real lack of parties since your little brother left town, you know?
That puts a different complexion on things. At any point, the older brother could have chosen to kill the fatted calf and throw a party for his friends. Dad wouldn’t have batted an eye. Did he ever do it? By his own admission, not even with a kid goat, let alone the fatted calf. Little brother had his problems, but to give him his due, the man knew how to party. Older brother, not so much.
Viewed with Old Testament eyes, the sin runs much deeper than the older brother’s crankiness about his brother’s return. Going all the way back to Torah, the commands to celebrate and rejoice are frequent throughout Scripture (see Lev. 23:40, Deut. 12, Deut. 14:26, Deut. 16). In fact, failing to serve God with joy for all He has given is a serious sin, and the occasion for a covenantal threat: “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies, whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in need of everything….” Likewise in the wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes encourages us to enjoy God’s good gifts fully while holding them lightly.
What about the New Covenant? Jesus gives us the first clue with His rough treatment of the older brother. Far from steering us away from the Old Covenant practice of celebration, the New doubles down on it. Jesus Himself famously enjoyed a good feast (Luke 7:32-34), even going so far as to provide the best wine (John 2). Not content with that, He also taught us to celebrate when we suffer: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
James follows in Jesus’ footsteps: “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” We rightly interpret those commands to require a joyful heart even in circumstances of material privation, but too often we don’t think beyond that: if we rejoice on a bad day, how much more on a good one? If we should cultivate joyful hearts when we don’t have enough for a feast, what should we be doing when we do?
Paul speaks along similar lines: Not only do we “glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance,” but God “gives us all things richly to enjoy.” “Everything God made is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving, for the word of God and prayer make it holy.” Paul can be content in any state, he tells the Philippians, because he knows how to be abased and how to abound.
The older son has everything, except the ability to enjoy it. He knows how to be abased in his father’s service, but unlike Paul and Jesus, he does not know how to abound.
Our culture, the West as a whole, is the younger son. After a thousand years of Christendom, the West ran away from home with a bunch of Dad’s accumulated wealth. It has been frantically squandering the capital for centuries, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the spree can’t go on forever. The bills are coming due, and the principalities and powers circle like hungry sharks.
But the Western church is much closer to the older son. We haven’t run away from home, we’ve stayed loyal to Dad. So let’s ask ourselves: what should be happening back on the homestead while we pray for little brother to come to his senses?
Remember, all the father has also belongs to the older brother. Did he gratefully enjoy all that his father had laid up for him? Did he throw a party and share with his friends and neighbors? By his own admission, not even once. Let’s not be like him.
In the church, we are the children of the King of the Universe, the Father from whom the whole family in heaven and earth derives its name. The Father has committed everything to the Son, and we are complete in Him. The wisdom and wealth of our Father are available to us. The Spirit guides us. The Scriptures school us in ways of living that fit the world God made. All this wealth that we possess creates a striking paradox as our surrounding world departs from reality and becomes correspondingly impoverished.
On the one hand, we look dangerously retrograde. They have moved from being at war with morality to being at war with reality, and we look and sound like all the things they’ve been catechized to hate. On the other hand, even in an age where lying about basic realities is universal practice, the realities themselves do not go away. Their game of socially constructed make-believe has created a society where we who can deal with those “invisible” realities have superpowers. Their project is socially constructed; ours is not. They can’t afford to even admit the existence of the stepping stones we dance on. The minute they do, their whole project falls apart.
Behold the superpowers: we know that God’s created gifts have a particular character no matter what language games people play. Pine and hickory are not the same, and only one of them makes a good sledgehammer handle. Constraints are built into the world; God made different things different, and it is the glory of kings to search out all the variety God has given us. Your most extreme and consistent secular neighbor—the pink-haired member of the throuple that lives down the street—will probably not try to use pine for a hammer handle…not literally. But in a thousand metaphorical ways, he will do exactly that.
We, on the other hand, deal in reality. We know what a woman is, and what a man is. We know why we’re different, what that difference is for, and how to enjoy it for a lifetime. Our people, relating to men as men and women as women, know that sex is no more socially constructed than gravity. We understand that even the parts of gender relations that really are socially constructed rely heavily on created realities that are good gifts given to us by a loving Father: “All I have is yours.”
We don’t deny those realities; we celebrate them! They, on the other hand…the younger generation not only doesn’t get married and have kids, they’re having less sex than any generation in recent memory. Facing fewer sexual constraints than Caligula, they just can’t be bothered. It turns out, when you suck all the created difference out of the sexes, you suck all the joy out of relating to one another. Stuck in a world of arbitrarily complicated, commercialized, and joyless sexuality, told that they’re really just interchangeably androgynous meat legos (Mary Harrington’s term), young adults are opting out, and who can blame them? We, on the other hand…we have kids. Jeepers, do we have kids! As in Isaiah’s time on the eve of the Assyrian invasion, having children is a sign and a wonder, an overflow of joy and an embodiment of hope that can’t be faked (Isa. 8:18 and Heb. 2:13). We’re taking what the Father gave us, and throwing a party.
Let’s invite our friends and neighbors to the party! Despite the best consensus-manufacturing efforts, nobody actually is an androgynous meat lego, because that’s not what God made. Our neighbors are exhausted by their attempts to live in high defiance of reality. There’s a wide gap between the visible, obvious truth and what they’re allowed to think and say. Maintaining pretenses is just exhausting. And they are, in fact, exhausted. No wonder they give up.
In the face of that exhaustion, we offer respite that they can enjoy well before they begin to understand why they enjoy it. We should be savoring everything about the delicious sexual polarity between husband and wife, the constant movement and holy noise of our children, and our rambunctiously fruitful households. We should be inviting the lost and childless wanderers of our culture to come over on a Sunday afternoon and enjoy God’s good gifts with us.
And then think: in how many other domains do we have similar superpowers, if only we will live into the richness of what God has already given to us?
- We know that we were put here as the image of God to have dominion over the earth, to rule it wisely. We know that satisfaction in meaningful work is a gift from God, and so we embrace competence in everything we touch. Why not invite our neighbors mired in “b——t jobs” to join us in the satisfaction of meaningful work?
- We know that materialism and gnosticism are lies; humans are made of dust and breath. Our healthcare providers should be embracing the whole person as a creation of God, as ready to address a broken heart as a spasming muscle, poorly functioning organ, or broken bone, able to see the connections between them, and praying as they treat.
- We know that sin is more than just a social construct; warranted guilt is a moral injury, much too heavy a burden for anyone to carry. We know that Jesus handled it all on the cross, God is about the business of reconciling the world to Himself, and He has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. He commissioned us through the Spirit to forgive and retain sins (John 20:22-23).
- We know that our external, social struggles are artifacts of the lusts at war in our hearts (James 4:1). We know that changing structures can help but never solve social conflicts; conversely, we are in a position to address the real poison, which is in the human heart.
Many of these things come naturally just as we go about our obedient lives. We gather in worship, we sing the Psalms, we confess our sins and receive absolution from them. We love one another tangibly, in music and food, in word and touch, in care and kindness and forgiveness. We engage in meaningful work in the world, build houses and households, and embrace competence in everything we touch. These are things that human beings were made to need, and when we follow God’s instructions, those needs are met.
In Christendom, many of those needs were met by the general culture, which had been shaped by generations of Christian obedience to revealed truth. As our post-Christian culture rejects more of reality, it loses more common grace and becomes less able to meet, or even recognize, human needs. But within the Church, all that the Father has is ours in Christ. We should be relishing all of it, and the more publicly, the better.
Practically speaking, what does that look like? I can’t tell you exactly what you’ll experience, but here are some of the things that I’ve seen in my town:
- A pansexual neighbor took me aside one day to thank me for my marriage: “Thank you for just being together and being yourselves. You two give me hope.”
- I look around at my close community and see expertise in skills that matter: car repair, video editing, locksmithing, graphic design, carpentry,tree trimming, teaching reading, bodywork, tax preparation, nursing, crochet, baking, sewing…you name it.
- Compromised evangelicals envy the robust families and close communities: “I can’t work out whose kids are whose—it seems all the adults know all the kids, and any of your kids can go to any of the adults for help. It’s weird, but it’s a good weird.”
- Disease-terrified neighbors (yes, still!) will peek longly out their windows at your front yard feast or music night or church service: “It’s so life-giving to see the kids singing and dancing and you guys hugging and eating together and just not afraid.”
The whole Western Church has an opportunity here. Let’s not waste it!
Tim Nichols is a minister, teacher, bodyworker, martial arts instructor, and the co-author with Joe Anderson of Loving: Spiritual Exercises in Tangibly Loving Your Literal Neighbors, the Victorious Bible curriculum, and the forthcoming book Boniface in the Front Yard. He lives with his wife Kimberly in Englewood, Colorado.
Job appears in the Bible as a true story and it is regarded as such in other Scripture:
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful (Jas. 5:10–11).
Job, however, despite having the book named after him, being the protagonist, and having much to say, is not the key to the book’s significance in redemptive history. The key feature of Job that comes up later in the Bible, as well as explains things earlier in the Bible, is the introduction of Satan by name.
And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev. 12:9-11).
This passage alone shows that Job is regarded as portraying straightforward reality. Satan had an office in the heavens and he has now been deposed from that office by the work of Jesus Christ, who is now our advocate in the heavens.
But Job is not simply an instance or example of Satan occupying his former office. It is not merely recounting an event that demonstrates a truth. Rather, it is the beginning of a key component of God’s strategy to make good on his promise to destroy Satan while saving his hostages (Gen. 3:15).ENTICING SATAN TO THE GAME
Satan had been active before. He had (as explained in Revelation) worked through a serpent to cause Adam and Eve to break faith with God. Likely, he also worked especially hard on diverting Cain from trusting God (Gen. 4:7).
But the book of Job shows God deliberately enticing Satan into a contest. He even allows Satan to give himself a massive advantage comparing Job to Adam and Eve. Our first parents had everything, and Satan had to make the temporary prohibition of the Tree of Wisdom appear intolerable. In the case of Job, he got to inflict horrific deprivation by God’s permission and power. When Job passes the initial test, Satan gets God to turn Job’s own “body” against him, both his biological and social bodies.
Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 2:4–5).
Two things follow. First, Job gets painfully afflicted in his skin. Second, his “flesh and bone” speaks Satan’s words: “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die'” (Job 2:9).
The three friends then follow the pattern of Job’s wife. His “people” are Satan’s pawns.
Satan wants to prove to YHWH that He has no friends and can never have friends. And he hopes that Job will do more than disobey like Adam and Eve did. He wants Job to renounce and hate God.
And God starts it all. He singles out Job for Satan’s attention. Job never learns why these things happened to him. But, even we, the readers, learning about what was going on in the heavens, are not given an explanation. The story may be interesting, but if Job was told what had been going on, that knowledge would not answer his question. The riddles Job hears from God are also riddles to us. We never learn the reason God incited Satan to start this cause. The book of Job raises questions it does not answer.
Indeed, God seems to want Satan to believe that he instigated the contest.
Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason (Job 2:3).
But Satan never brought Job up! God was the one who did the inciting (Job 1:8).
We can understand why Satan wanted to prove something to God. But why did God feel the need to prove anything to Satan? And why does he treat Satan as if the initiative was his?SATAN LEARNS THE DANCE
Satan entered more contests with God and he didn’t always lose. We run into him by name in David’s reign (see 1 Chr. 21:1). He is mentioned as if we should already know who he is (which makes sense since Job introduced him to us). Satan successfully tempted David to number all Israel. Like the book of Job, that contest ends with an appearance by God himself (1 Chr. 21). David is restored, but it appears that Satan won that match to some degree.
At the time of the return from exile, the prophet Zechariah sees Satan accusing Israel through the nation’s representative.:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zech. 3:1–2).
That answer deals with Satan’s condemnation, though it is not a complete or satisfying answer. The angel of YHWH basically says that Satan must be wrong because God has preserved the nation and restored them. I am not sure Satan felt defeated. He may simply have believed that he had been delayed but could eventually prevail.
So here in Job is a story about a righteous Gentile king in what was probably the time of the Patriarchs, before the calling of Abraham. If God, pointing out Job’s righteousness to Satan, caused Satan to want a contest, what would happen when he hears that Abram has been chosen to bless all the families of the earth in his seed? Or when he hears that the Israelites are God’s special possession among all the nations of the earth? What started as an argument about a singularly righteous Gentile ruler could easily become an obsession over a chosen nation. And once Israel had a representative head, a king, that king would be a choice target for Satan to prove, this time, that God has no real friends. Thus, when the monarchy is established, the book of Job is written as part of the wisdom literature because it is especially relevant. Israel, and therefore Israel’s king, is the new Job and the new target.SATAN & JESUS
So when Jesus begins his ministry, Satan is present, by name (Matt. 4:10; Mark 1:13), as a well-known antagonist. He has already been introduced.
It is clear in the Gospels that Satan has learned the steps to the dance and this is just a new iteration. He tries to get Jesus to refuse God’s plan for an easier one (Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33), and then later goes all the way and tries to get Jesus to despair (Luke 22:3; John 13:27), working through his three friends like Job (Matt. 26:36ff).
Satan’s plan, however, is instrumental in bringing about his own demise and our salvation. God started everything, even while treating the games as being of Satan’s own devising. Ultimately, it was all of God’s instigation. He enticed Satan to doom himself.LEVIATHAN CRUSHED UNDER YOUR FEET
One of the reasons we know that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a theodicy, is that his argument (1-11) begins with a quotation from Habakkuk (2:4; Rom. 1:17) and concludes with a quote from Job (41:35; Rom. 11:35). But maybe there is more to it. Toward the conclusion of the entire epistle, Paul mentions Satan by name, seemingly for the first time: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20).
But maybe Paul has been alluding to Satan earlier. Paul quotes from the book of Job after repeatedly in only a couple of paragraphs declaring that Israel’s trespass has brought salvation to the nations (including Israel if they will repent). This is the climax to what he has been arguing all along, that human unfaithfulness and unrighteousness has brought about the propitiation showing God righteous and faithful (Rom. 3:1-8, 21-26; 5:16, 20-21; 9:14-24). Israel’s unrighteousness provoked the wrath of God but paradoxically placated it in the culminating trespass of killing Jesus.
As mentioned above, all the Gospels show Satan opposing Jesus. Eventually, after giving up on trying to offer him a path forward that avoided the cross, he led him to abandonment, betrayal, and the cross. Furthermore, Jesus told his Jewish opponents that they were in league with the Devil (John 8:44). Describing Israel’s sin as being the occasion for world salvation means that Satan’s plan has led to his own undoing.
Jeffrey Meyers has pointed out (part one) how God’s last speech about Leviathan points to his control of Satan. It is that speech that Paul recites (changing in from first-person to third) in his exultation over the wisdom of God who has “has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32).
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many pleas to you?
Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you
to take him for your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird,
or will you put him on a leash for your girls?
Will traders bargain over him?
Will they divide him up among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons
or his head with fishing spears?
Lay your hands on him;
remember the battle—you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is false;
he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before me?
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine (Job 41:1–11; emphasis added).
Job couldn’t “draw out Leviathan with a fishhook.” But God could and did, using Job as His first bait.
With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous (Ps. 18:25–26).
Whoever misleads the upright into an evil way will fall into his own pit (Prov. 28:10a).
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends (Ps. 7:14–16).
Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and writes at www.SolomonSays.net. He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.
Thanksgiving is warfare.
Gratitude is a weapon.
Wield it well.
Give thanks for the preparation. The hustle and bustle, the messy kitchen, the endless cleaning, the extra chairs, and stained tablecloths sing the song of hospitality. God desires that we prepare a place for friends and strangers, feasting and laughing, leisure, and games because Christ is preparing a place for us. Could it be that your home is the place Christ is preparing? The acts of preparation and hospitality are potent antidotes, waging war against the demonic notion of meaninglessness.
Give thanks for the smells that come billowing forth from the kitchen, for they pull and stretch our yearnings forward in time to the imminent feast soon to be enjoyed. This eschatological longing wages war on the lust of the flesh, those immediate desires that so often possess our affections and strip us of the joyous hope of what God has in store.
Give thanks for the rowdy fellowship around the table, the laughing, the stories, the mistimed jokes, and the unavoidable bodily functions that reverberate from the direction of the kids. Giving thanks for this is warfare against the disdainful and insufferable pride of life.
Give thanks for football. God graciously gives us the gift of leisure and rest. If it were not for his sovereign hand over creation, the anxieties of life would choke any ability to play or delight in the games God has created us to enjoy.
Give thanks for rest. As the tryptophan coursing through your veins takes hold and pulls you deeper and deeper into the embrace of the couch, give thanks. Give thanks for this slight taste of shalom. This rest mocks the dark powers of the world that seek to enslave you in a constant state of busyness and worry.
Give thanks for the mess. The remnants and debris left in the wake of feasting and fellowship, the wine-stained tablecloths, the greasy fingerprints on the walls and fridge, and the remains of food stuck in the carpet all testify that a war was waged against loneliness and despair.
Finally, my friends, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
We often hear that, along with Leviticus, Ecclesiastes is the “most peculiar book,” lurking in the Bible’s back alley.1 But it is high time that we retire this old dirge. God has concealed much gold here, therefore much glory is ours if we are careful to read Solomon’s wisdom with ears tuned to the melody of redemptive history and eyes opened to the glory of the Lord (Prov. 25:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). In fact, I want to suggest we should instead consider Ecclesiastes as the apotheosis of the old covenant. By way of sheer contrast, it offers more clearly the good news of the new covenant than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is a large feat; so, we will only here consider Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure in the second chapter as a test case to be applied throughout.
Ecclesiastes 2 must first be situated before interpreted. For structure is not antecedent to meaning; structure is meaning.2 Canonically, then, I suggest that Ecclesiastes be considered the first of Solomon’s four quartets, the quadriga of so-called wisdom literature, beginning his life-long reflections as king of golden-age Israel.3 Solomon offers to us the bare and unembellished literal sense. Outwardly considered, his kingdom looks like the height of glory; behind the curtain, however, are the wry thoughts of the king himself, his private commentary on the public splendor. In this way, old man Solomon is here, as Balthasar says, “critical transcendentalist avant la lettre.”4 Structurally, Ecclesiastes, like other books of wisdom, is enigmatic; however, as Ockham’s Razor—or perhaps Jordan’s Switchblade—tells us, it is most likely chiastic.5 As to the structure of the particular pericope under our immediate consideration (2:1-11), though, we are certainly dealing with a chiasm.
A. I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was a fruitless vapor (2:1).
B. I said of mirth, “It is mad,” and of merriment, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of Adam to do under heaven during the few days of their life (2:2-3).
C. I made magnificent works (1:4a).
D. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many a concubine, the delight of the sons of Adam (1:4b-8).
C’. So I became magnificent and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem (2:9a).
B’. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no merriment (2:9b-10b).
A’. For my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I turned about all my hands’ deeds and the toil I had expended in doing it; and behold, all was a fruitless vapor and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (2:10c-11).6
Before we consider the ideas of this passage, we note preeminently the translation of hebel, Solomon’s supposedly soulless grouse that is traditionally translated as vanity. Hebel, however, has a wide spectrum of usage throughout Scripture; and like most concepts in Scripture, it is better described than lexically defined.7 Words often mean much more than their lexical or etymological definition. Context and canonical usage must chiefly dictate the organic means for translating a biblical term.8 Thus, when one puts together all of the biblical data, hebel is best conceived of as that which does produces no effect.9 Most translations seem to get either side of this balance but over accentuate either the transcendental critique connoted by fruitlessness—i.e., meaningless (NIV, NLT), vanity (ESV, NRSV), pointless (BBE), or useless (NCV, GNT)—or the image connoted by vapidity—i.e., smoke (HCSB) or vapor as such (Meyers10). For this reason, I suggest that it is best we translate hebel as the quasi-kenning “fruitless vapor.”
We also note that, by the time that we reach Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, Solomon has well established the first conclusion of the book. After the proem (1:1-11), Solomon’s first chapter concludes that, though he has much wisdom, wisdom itself is fruitless vapor (1:12-18). Solomon is not here denigrating or detesting the wisdom that he asked for and received from Yahweh (1 Kings 3:3-15); rather, he bemoans the fact that wisdom per se does not scratch the existence itch, the restless-heart syndrome of humanity after Adam (1:16). That is, wisdom taught Solomon principally that wisdom does not decrease but only “increases vexation . . . [and] sorrow” (1:18) since it is inevitably ignored by the present generation or incredulously impugned by the next.
This context is key to understand what is going on in chapter 2. For here we pivot from the intellectual to the sensual. In our sanctified speculation, we imagine Solomon’s wisdom was leading him, then, to the proper conclusion; perhaps the restless heart does not find rest by peering into the deep roots of reality but by indulging in the good fruits of reality, seeking animal pleasure through imbibing earthly delights rather than seeking intellectual power through investigating heavenly designs. Yet again, the test fails: having found the rational sorrowful, he now finds the appetitive empty. Through the ravenous eye (2:3; 2:9; cf. 1:18), Solomon first stuffs his soul with the baser pleasure, the mere merriments of the “sons of Adam”—namely, women and wine (2:2-3).11 By doing so, Solomon is quite literally acting like a son of Adam. Consider early stories of Genesis, where the two preeminent sons of Adam, Seth and Noah, are corrupted by means of women (Gen. 6:1ff) and wine (Gen. 9:20ff) respectively. Multiplying these, Solomon then turns to focus on the more refined pleasures, the “magnificent works” suitable for a son of God—namely, the finest international goods for cultured enjoyment (2:4-9).
These labors of lust acquired, Solomon declares twice that he surpassed all who were before him in Jerusalem (2:7; 2:9); and indeed, he made greater works and acquired more wealth than either David or Saul; but this observation is too parochial, for he also brought greater regional and religious—regional because religious!—peace than either the old Jebusite warlords (Joshua 15:63; Judges 1:21; 19:11) or Melchizedek (Gen. 15:17-24; cf. 1 Kings 8:56; 10:1-10; 2 Chron. 2:12). All who were before him in Jerusalem were beneath him. Thus, the mutual magnificence of Solomon and Israel did in fact result in some reward for all involved (2:10-11).
Having allowed his unchecked eye to judge as acceptable any amusement under the sun like his mother Eve, Solomon then beckons our judgment to behold the judgment of these pursuits. Solomon admits that what appears to be expansions of his hands were really empty zephyr, “an expanse of spirit in a waste of shame” (Shakespeare, “Sonnet 129”). As if turning our face by force from gawking at his glut of glories, he directs our moral imagination by summarizing his exploits with a single word: toil (2:10; cf. 1 Kings 12:6ff). The word ringing immediately harkens us back, yet again, to Genesis—particularly to the futility of toil imposed upon the earth in Genesis 3:17 as a penalty for Adam’s sin. Solomon recognizes that he is doing what those without the hope of a life beyond the curse of death and decay do: eat, drink, and pursue merriment (1 Cor. 15:32). Caught in the middle of this covenantal tale, the Adamic king finds that any existence and any pursuit that is not lived under a new Adam in a new world freed from futility of toil and filled with the Spirit is a dusty denouement of fruitless vapor. Importing all of Havilah’s gold will not a new Eden make. The best that he can build is Babel redux. In sum, the pursuit of pleasure gives no “leverage” over life’s fruitless vapidity.12 Yet, it is precisely this kind of pursuit—and not the particular pursuit of pleasure or power or any other stimulant as such—that is the central problem in Ecclesiastes. No tonic can undo the toil of Adam’s sons.
Solomon is writing in the old world, bound under the cursed Serpent. But it was not always so. God designed this world to be the visible backdrop of the unfolding drama of the union of heaven and earth through its domestic (Gen. 1:28), agrestic (Gen. 2:15), and metallurgic (Gen. 2:11-12) cultivation, which was all an expression of man’s covenantal fidelity, his love for his Father (cf. Luke 3:38). Meanwhile, waiting for the man’s Spirit-filled reign and God’s rain, the earth—and Eve!—waited for Adam’s toil-less touch to burst forth delightful fruit within them(Gen. 2:5; 1:28; 2:25), which itself would be an aid to and evidence of doxology. Scripture portents this doxological potential of the earth in the image of an incubating mist (Gen. 2:6); but without the Spirit-animated Adam, the earth was consigned to hold its store inside a watery vapor (Gen. 2:7). Yet, when Adam came, instead of being subject of the Spirit’s rushing blessing, used to coax the pleasing fruit from the ground, he sinned and became the object of the Spirit’s stormy judgment, condemned to cut through thorns only to discover in the potentialized mist a fruitless vapor (cf. Ps. 1; Jer. 2). After Adam’s sin and God’s sentence, nothing under the sun now held the potential to bring the creation to full maturity and glory; indeed, mystery of mysteries–the hebel was not only outside but within man. Thus, there was no quantity or quality of external toil that could first undo the internal turmoil of Adam—nothing, that is, except a New Adam (Gen. 3:15).
This is the center from which Ecclesiastes centrifugally spirals, barely hanging on the fringes of grace’s gravity. Life did indeed go on after Adam’s apostasy but only as hebel. Even though God promised a Last Adam that would one day undo the hebel imposed, and Solomon is an Adam on the path to this Last Adam; in fact, one could even say that Solomon was the nearest thing to New Adam in the epoch of the Old Adam. For, he was the son of God by covenant (cf. 2 Sam. 7; Ps. 2; 89); he was a christ (1 Kings 1:28-53), a royal priest and prophet; he received the knowledge of good and evil by request (1 Kings 3:1-15); and when he was lifted up, he began to draw all nations to himself (1 Kings 10; cf. Ps. 72). Yet, all of Solomon’s earthly gain and glory only lead to the realization that behind his perceived lack was an even greater lack. The restless heart at the zenith of Old Adams, by acquiring the height of wisdom, grew ultimately restless because what his wisdom discovered was the need for an entirely renewed cosmos, a people filled with ruach and not hebel.
Herein, though, lies the wisdom of the wisdom. Solomon entices us not to “wait without hope”13 but rather, by contrast, to behold the beauty of the new covenant in the incomplete form of the old. For the Last Adam, the greater than Solomon, has come (Matt. 12:42); the curse of the ground has been broken (Zech. 14:20-21); the Spirit has been given to humanity afresh (Acts 2; Rom. 8:1-17; and the cursed powers of the old world have been completely de-potentialized (Col. 1:15). Reading Ecclesiastes, not according to the letter but according to the Spirit, shows us that the earth has been and will be fully and finally cultivated into a temple-palace for God and His people to dwell; for the coming of the Sun of Righteousness dispelled the fruitless vapor by making truly fruitful pleasures possible and, chiefly, by making truly faithful people possible. Rather than the vicious abuse of wine and women and wonderful works of cultural magnanimity, these may become what they were always intended to be: channels of doxological dominion under the freedom of the glory of the sons of God (Rom. 8:18-25). We are no longer bound to turn these means into ends because the hebel without and within is vaporized by the Spirit’s fiery presence in us.
There is also, though, we must admit, a real sense in which this story isn’t complete. Though the entire world is not now without the life-giving Spirit, there are entire realms of the world that are still in hebel-darkness. Those realms can be in the house next door or even in the next room. What’s more, even we who have the first fruits the Spirit still groan with the Spirit in prayer because what is already is not yet (Rom. 8:23-27). Though futility is finally undone, futility is not completely undone—what has commenced is not yet consummated. Indeed, we live in a world that still encourages us to make our lives into living hebels by the endless pursuit of pleasure. What is different is this: in the old covenant, the pursuit of terrestrial pleasures was necessarily hebel without any potential; but in the new covenant, a Christless pursuit of pleasure via wine and women and public works is potentially but not necessarily fruitless vapor. The fruitless vapor is taken away from these pleasures not because futility is entirely gone but because our restless hearts have found rest in by dwelling in and being indwelt within the Spirit’s realm, the Church, the microcosm where we learn how to properly enjoy the pleasures of earth, by giving thanks for them in the Eucharist. In Word and Sacrament we have something like a pedagogy of simplest pleasures—a good book, bread, and wine, surrounded by those we love. In the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, and with thanksgiving to the Father, we may take in all pleasures with true peace and joy, knowing that they are all gifts of grace. Would you like to know in part the wonder of a world without hebel? Kiss your wife, go to a symphony, or go drink a glass of wine; and say, “Thank you, Father. Thy kingdom come, Lord Jesus!” And even when we sharply suffer the not yet of the new covenant’s already, we also hold the sure hope and promise that, though all these joys are only shadows, and though all our toilsome sufferings feel like hebel, the Spirit of glory and grace is working in and through these pleasures and perils for our greater joy and glory (Rom. 8:28-30).
Gage Crowder is a classical school teacher and pastoral intern. He lives near Huntsville, Alabama with his wife and two children.
- Robert Altar, The Writings: Ketuvim, vol. 3, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Co., 2019), 673. ︎
- Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 148-153. ︎
- A thesis in itself, there is much here to unpack that is beyond the scope of this paper—let the reader understand. Of course, this claim flouts the canonical ordering of the book. But thankfully, there is inspired table of contents for us to abide by. Moreover, it assumes that Solomon wrote Job. Without space to defend this view, I’ll simply ask this question: who else could have written so wise a work? Finally, this statement suggests that Ecclesiastes is part of a literary whole not by mere redaction but by composition. If Ecclesiastes is the literal sense, Song of Songs is the allegorical, Proverbs the tropological, Job the anagogical. We will have to bring full implication of this idea to bear elsewhere. ︎
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theology: The Old Covenant, trans. Brian McNeil and Easmo Leiva-Merikakis, ed. John Riches, GL 6 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991), 130. ︎
- See David Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 192-198. ︎
- This translation is a literary mut born from Big Name translations, Jeff Meyers musings, Robert Altar embellishments, and everything in between. ︎
- The first time we see hebel is immediately after the fall, where it is a proper appellation of Adam and Eve’s youngest son Abel (Gen. 4:2). Of interest, we note there is a connection between the name and other Solomonic themes—(a) the curse on a fruitless ground, (b) a son that lives a life long enough to be described as a “vapor” (cf. James 4:14), and (c) the fact that he is a shepherd of the sheep. Later, hebel is an oft-employed term for idols (Deut. 32:21; Ps. 31:6; Is. 57:13; Jer. 10:15), idols which are consistently ridiculed throughout Scripture for their inability to give what is desired (Is. 44:9-20; Ps. 115:5-8; 1 Kings 18:20-40). Further, hebel describes entire empires: Egypt (Is. 30:6-7), Israel (2 Kings 17:15), and “all nations” (Jer. 16:19) ultimately offer only emptiness. In any case, what is emphasized and summarized by the singular term hebel is the object’s lack of fecundity—be it by length of existence or quality of existence. ︎
- Altar, “The Heresy of Explanation,” ibid. ︎
- Many thanks to Will Gunter for this pithy summary of the data. ︎
- Jeffery J. Meyers, Ecclesiastes Through New Eyes: A Table in the Mist (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2006), 42-43. ︎
- Though it is not explicitly stated until verse 8, “lay hold of folly” should harken back to Proverbs 3 and Song of Songs 7, where the act of “laying hold” is a sexual metaphor. Moreover, Folly, as personified in the book of Proverbs, is a sexual deviant. Historically, Solomon does this by acquiring his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). The concept of laughter in verse 2 could also be reference to “conjugal caress” (cf. Gen. 26:8; Song of Songs passim). ︎
- Meyers, Table in the Mist, 58. ︎
- T. S. Eliot, “East Coaker” from the Four Quartets, I.26. ︎
We have and we do, Lord God. Spring is calving season. Gestation is roughly 180 days. Your creation is wonderfully made!
We do not, Lord God. But we have created modes of conveyance that harness the power of many hundreds of horses. Horses now are no more than luxury articles in all but the most economically depressed countries.
26 Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars
and spreads his wings toward the south?
29 From there he spies out the prey;
his eyes behold it from far away.
30 His young ones suck up blood,
and where the slain are, there is he.
It was not by our strength, Lord, that the hawk ruled the skies. But you have allowed us to put predators in the sky that fly higher and slay whole armies from the wheeling heights. It is at our command that they raise up on high and rain down fire from above.
10 Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity;
clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
11 Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
and look on everyone who is proud and abase him.
12 Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low
and tread down the wicked where they stand.
13 Hide them all in the dust together;
bind their faces in the world below.
14Then will I also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can save you.
Lord, we have done this and more. No fleshly creature can stand before the wrath of our weapons of war and our methods of industry. We have leveled entire cities in a moment, as you did Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet we wield them not in your wisdom. With all this strength, still our right hand cannot save us.
The cheeky but earnest exercise above illustrates two key elements of the Lord’s reprimand to his suffering servant at the end of the book of Job. The first is the fact that the Lord’s response is framed as a series of rhetorical questions highlighting mankind’s failure to sufficiently realize the dominion mandate. The second element highlighted is that man’s relationship to God’s rhetorical questions is drastically different today than it was in Job’s day.
When Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from the Garden, the dominion mandate did not go away. God did not “move the goalposts.” The story of humanity’s dominion over the world is still the grand-narrative arc of this world. Man’s sin and the necessity for Salvation are the dramatic complication and perfection to that arc.1
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2) The Lord opens his salvo against the pride of Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar by quoting from his own passionate herald, Elihu (34:35 and 35:16). This phrase is best understood as a reference to man’s condition after eating from the tree of knowledge. God mockingly insinuates: “I thought your Father Adam ate from the tree of knowledge? How come you’re still so ignorant of this world I’ve made?” Eating from the tree of knowledge did not make us like God in power, because we were not yet ready to handle the tools of wisdom.
Every question that the Lord asks Job in the four chapters that comprise his response challenge and belittle man’s knowledge of and control over the natural world. The Lord’s monologue concludes with two extended poetic hymns on the Alpha and Omega of created strength: the land beast Behemoth – “first of the works of God” (40:19) – and the sea dragon Leviathan – “king over all the sons of pride” (41:34).2 Whether these were actual creatures that once existed, cryptozoological creatures that are currently hiding from us, or mythological creatures symbolizing the entire creaturely might on the land and in the sea3–any which way you cut it–the Lord is making the point that Job is not sufficiently in control of the earth. If he was, he would be able to wrest control from these titans. These creatures (real or mythical) mock man for his inability to take up his birthright of dominion over the earth and its inhabitants.
Revelation uses the same symbolic hierarchy expressed by God in Job when it juxtaposes a beast rising from the sea (13:1-10) with a beast rising from the land (13:11-18) as “ultimate” earthly challenges to the authority of the New Adam’s dominion on the earth. Revelation depicts these challenges to Christ as earthly powers that are puppets of spiritual forces. God’s challenge to Job similarly highlights the problem that if mankind cannot even tame the “natural” creatures, he is utterly defenseless before the sinister powers in unnatural rebellion against God. Isaiah, Amos, and the Psalms also speak of Leviathan in this double or even triple-register: creature, symbol of human pride, and doomed Satanic uprising. In this spiritual sense, then, God is pointing out that even if Job could answer the 67 rhetorical questions that he asks between chapter 38 and 41,4 Job still could not conquer Satan, who we know to be the worker of suffering in Job’s life. Literarily, this is dramatic irony5 of epic proportions. It is unclear that Job fully comprehends the revelations being made to him, but the vision of God in all his power is enough to at least convert him to the elevated state of humility that comes through “known unknowns.” Job puts it this way: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6).
So, what of the second point, that man is now in a different relationship to creation than he was on the day that the Lord addressed Job? To answer this, we must recognize that one acceptable construal of humanity’s history is as a massive, cosmological scavenger hunt: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov. 25:2). This verse presupposes that man’s relationship to nature is not static and that he will grow in understanding and power over the created order. Electric lights have caused the sun, moon, and stars to loosen their grip on the governance of man’s affairs. We are not completely free from their guidance and constraints, but the principle described in Exodus 23:30 seems to be in effect: “Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” Is it ridiculous for a postmillennialist to imagine a future hundreds of years hence in which humanity has taken dominion over the Sun in the particular form of a Dyson sphere powering the new Christendom into the next millennium, spreading the Church’s co-regency to the stars?
It might sound blasphemous to say that God’s questions, which were clearly rhetorical at the time, can now in part be answered in the affirmative. The way that I would answer that charge is that the line of questioning works on two levels. Even if man reached a level of technological advancement where he could master the rapid-fire catechism that God gave to Job, still he would not be able to save himself, as God indicates in Job 40:14. This is because our battle is not against the flesh and blood of the creation, but against the powers and principalities that Satan controlled until Christ’s victory. The technological advances that have brought mankind closer to being able to answer the Lord are not the result of a self-driven evolution, but are proof of the beneficial effects of new management. Christ’s re-making of mankind and the abolishing of Satan’s constant demands for satisfaction of blood-guilt have made it possible for man to accelerate the game of hide-and-seek that the Lord has prepared for us. And yet in none of this has he supplanted our need for a savior “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecc. 3:11).
Salvation is one area in which the game of hide and seek must always work in reverse; it is the Lord that finds us. Casting our minds forward to some notional future where man has subjected to his will the loftiest forces in nature (“the sons of Pride”), even then mankind will not be in a place to utter “blasphemous judgment” against the corrupting Serpent/Dragon (see Jude 1:9). It is only Christ’s victory against the Devil that has freed man to take mature dominion.
Jonathan David White is a 2021-22 Theopolis Fellow. He lives in Annapolis, MD with his wife and two sons.
- It is even possible to understand a portion of Adam’s motivation in eating the forbidden fruit as him attempting a shortcut to fulfilling the dominion mandate. Satan had promised that eating would make them like God. Surely Adam had been daunted by the charge given him to take dominion. Wouldn’t gaining God-like wisdom speed his trajectory to those lofty heights? Instead, it seems only to have been an insidious scheme to allow Satan to become the “god” of this world (2 Cor. 4:4 and Eph. 2:2). ︎
- I am reaching a little with the Alpha and Omega designation, but I draw this conclusion from the following details: Behemoth’s attribution of being the “first of the works of God” comes at the beginning of his hymn whereas Leviathan’s description as being the ultimate authority “over the sons of pride” comes at the very end of his hymn. The two hymns are bookended by these respective epithets.
- Jewish mythology ascribes dominion over the top tier of the three-tiered universe to a third created titan: the Ziz. The Ziz is a heavenly “sky lord” holding the key to dominion of the heavens just as the behemoth commands mastery of the land, and the Leviathan mastery of the deeps. Alleged references to this creature are discerned in Ps. 50:11 and 80:13.
- 67 is a rough count. It is difficult to determine the exact number of questions, as some are extended riffs on the same rhetorical challenges. Examining the ESV, BSB, KJV, and NASB, you get 62, 71, 85, and 65 questions respectively.
- Dramatic irony is a literary device in which the reader knows relevant details that one or more of the characters in the story do not. In Job’s instance, he is un-blissfully unaware of the contest in heaven that has given rise to his suffering. The Lord is able to crush the head of Leviathan, that old Serpent, the Devil. The Lord’s restraining power and full dominion are the only reasons that Job has not been utterly destroyed (Mal. 3:6).
Donald Wesley Patten, Catastrophism and the Old Testament: The Mars-Earth Conflicts (Pacific Meridian Publishing Co., 1988), reviewed by James B. Jordan.
In this book, Donald Patten contends that the planet Mars originally had an eccentric orbit that brought it into near proximity to the earth a number of times in ancient history. According to him, these “Mars fly-bys” account for a number of the miraculous events recorded in the Old Testament.
Whether Patten claims to be a Christian or not, I do not know. It is clear from the first chapter of his book that he accepts neither the Biblical account of the creation of the world nor its chronology of history. Throughout his book he ridicules orthodox interpretations of the Bible. His book is of interest to us for only two reasons: (1) it has had some influence in some Christian circles, and (2) it is an example of crack-pot exegesis of the Bible.
Patten’s work is typical of the kind of thing that results with people with fruitcake ideas run to the Bible to find evidence for their notions. I do not know whether Mars actually passed near to the earth in ancient times. I do know that the Bible provides no evidence for such a notion.
According to Patten, when Exodus 14:19-20 tells us that the Angel of God appeared as a pillar of cloud and fire, this refers to the fiery appearance of a volcanically active Mars passing near the earth. The pillar of cloud and fire that led Israel through the wilderness was Mars. Actually, the pillar was a manifestation of God in His glory, a glory created by the angels around His throne. This is what the Bible means by the term, not the planet Mars!
Similarly, when the Angel of God brought a plague upon Israel in David’s day, we again have a reference to Mars (1 Chronicles 21:15). No, the reference is to God’s own action. Remember that David was given a choice of which of three kinds of plagues he would have to undergo. God acted directly on this occasion, not the planet Mars.
The destruction of the Assyrians by the Angel of God in Isaiah 37:38 is also ascribed to Mars. No, God did it.
When Judges 5:20 says that the stars fought against Sisera, it refers to Mars. No, the stars here are angels, who brought the rainstorm that swamped Sisera’s chariots and enabled the Israelites to defeat them.
When the psalmist says that God rode on a cherub, it refers to Mars. No, it refers to God’s glory cloud-chariot.
The Leviathan in Job 41 is Mars. No, it is a great sea monster.
Naturally, the great Flood was caused by Mars, as was Joshua’s long day. Maybe they were, but the Bible says nothing about it.
Mars caused what he calls the “barbecue” on Mt. Carmel in Elijah’s day. No, God sent fire from His hearth, just as He did when the Tabernacle and Temple were initially set up (Lev. 9:24; 2 Chron. 7:1).
About the only thing that does not show up in this book is the appearance of God’s glory to Ezekiel. Maybe this was a flying saucer!
Patten’s slovenly work is, unfortunately, typical of a lot of revisionist work being done in ancient world chronology. Patten grossly misinterprets the text of the Bible, and so do most other catastrophists, including Velikhovsky. Given how little they understand of the Biblical text, we can have no confidence at all in their understanding of other texts from other cultures. Catastrophic revisionists are not reliable guides to the ancient world, and should be read with great caution.
James Jordan was scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.
For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a Sabbath of complete rest to Yahweh. – Exodus 35:2
The instructions for building the tabernacle end with a Sabbath command and the narrative about building begins with a Sabbath command, before it goes on to describe the labor of Israel on the house of God.
In between, the covenant is broken and renewed. The passage shows that the old covenant moves toward rest, while the new begins from rest. Israel’s Sabbath was the seventh day, but the Lord’s day is the first.
In the new covenant, the Lord’s day sets the pattern for our week of labor. That is, it ought to.
Do you work from a foundation of confidence in God’s gifts, or do you work as if it all depends on you and you’ll never catch up?
Do you go from the rest of the Lord’s day to resume a frantic pace, always on call, checking your phone every five minutes, busy, busy, busy? Do you even wait for church to end before you check your phone? Do your labor-saving devices make you busier? Do you find yourself doing three, five, eight things at once, none of them attentively?
The world around us is chaos and cacophony, but we are called to better things.
The Christian week is a melody.
Rest is the tonic, Eucharistic joy the key signature.
When your work sings songs of Sabbath, you become a witness to the gift of rest that is in Jesus.
High in the list of now forgotten sins is simony. It was not always so: the medieval schoolmen believed simony to be the worst of ecclesiastical crimes and waged a centuries long campaign to purge the Church of this financial and spiritual corruption. As the schoolmen robustly defined it, “simony is the deliberate will to buy or sell something spiritual or connected with a spiritual thing.” Under this definition would fall the attempt, even if unsuccessful, of trying to purchase ordination (“something spiritual”) or an annual stipend tied to a parochial appointment (“connected with a spiritual thing”). Once this definition was articulated, it became clear that simony could be committed in many subtle ways, and that Simon Magus was neither the only nor the first biblical figure to commit the sin named after him.
A contender for the first simoniac in the New Testament is Judas. In a passage often referenced in the Middle Ages, Gregory Nazianzus asserted that Judas had sold, not simply betrayed, Christ. After “simony” as a noun developed late in the first millennium, many schoolmen claimed that simony was indeed the specific crime Judas committed. In the thirteenth century William Perault explained how priests who celebrate Masses in exchange for money are worse than Judas. Judas sold Christ only once, and that when Christ was in his humble state of humanity. Yet now priests sell the glorified Christ many times over—and for a lower price than Judas! However, Simon of Bisignano thought it safer to say Judas committed not the crime of simony but of sacrilege since he did not believe Jesus to be God and thus had sold only the mortal body of Christ. The Jesuit Gibalinus agreed, and said that Judas’ sacrilege was of such a reprehensible sort that it only bore an analogical relation to simony.
The New Testament contains other figures accused of simony. It was commonly believed that Caiaphas, who presided over the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus, was a simoniac. The story is not told in the New Testament, but medieval authors relayed Jerome’s claim (based on an obscure passage in Josephus) that Caiaphas had purchased the high priesthood from Herod. Most other discussions of New Testament simony are found in spiritual exegesis of the money changers whom Jesus purged from the Temple. As Gregory the Great says: “What else is it to sell doves but to receive a price for the laying on of hands, and to put to sale the Holy Spirit whom Almighty God gives to men?” As such, throughout the Middle Ages simoniacs were often called “dove sellers.”
In the Old Testament there are sundry examples of simoniacal dealings. The second book of Maccabees tells of Jason who promised silver and other gifts in exchange for the high priesthood. Peter Damian accused Balaam of being a simoniac since in Numbers he was offered money to curse Israel. Saul perhaps committed simony in paying the seer to consult the dead Samuel. A minority of medieval schoolmen held that Korah committed simony when in the book of Numbers he rebelled against Moses and strove to control the priesthood by force. Yet while the schoolmen agreed that a simoniacal exchange could involve favor, obedience, or other gifts besides money, not everyone agreed that the violent seizure of spiritual things constituted simony.
The most commonly discussed Old Testament simoniac was Giezi, the servant of Elisha. After Elisha healed Naaman of leprosy in the second book of Kings, Giezi returned alone to Naaman and charged him payment for the spiritual service. Later when Elisha learned of this, the leprosy of Naaman struck Giezi. The schoolmen observed in this passage that while Simon Magus had attempted to purchase spiritual power, Giezi was involved in the selling of it. Consequently, many schoolmen made a further distinction. While in the broad sense a simoniac is anyone involved in purchasing or selling spiritual things, strictly speaking a “simoniac” is someone who sells, a “giezite” someone who buys, and a “korite” someone who strives to obtain spiritual things through violence.
There was a scholastic question whether Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave in Hebron constituted simony since everyone agreed that Church property, including gravesites, were “connected with a spiritual thing.” However, as Aquinas clarified, Abraham purchased the cave before it was consecrated and thus was not the first to commit simony. That dishonor would fall rather to his grandson.
The transfer of birthright from Esau to Jacob is a mystifying story. The biblical text clearly shows there was a priesthood before the Levites, and a Hebrew tradition held that from Adam firstborn sons possessed a priestly office. From Noah to Shem and onwards to Abraham, the priesthood was part of the birthright due to Esau. Another Hebrew tradition, known to medieval Christians through their standard Bible commentary, the Glossa Ordinaria (now available in English), held that the garments of skin given to Adam by God were priestly vestments, and that these same vestments had been preserved in the Noahic line. And so, when Esau sold his spiritual birthright for pottage, medieval schoolmen judged him guilty of simony.
Yet was Jacob likewise guilty for the purchase of the birthright? Here the verdict was negative. Jacob committed no sin in gaining the birthright. In one of the more subtle scholastic questions on simony, it is asked whether a priest who rightly had possession of a parish and its stipends could licitly give money to another priest who (falsely) claimed possession of the same parish. The answer was yes. Such a priest would not be committing simony since he already had rightful possession of the spiritual thing. The money was paid not to purchase something spiritual but simply to end the legal dispute and restore peace between the litigants. Likewise, Jacob did not purchase the birthright but redeemed what was already his by divine providence. Rachel knew of this special dispensation from when her twins struggled within her womb and God revealed to her that the elder shall serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). For this reason she was right to clothe Jacob with the priestly garments of Esau. Isaac later came to know of this dispensation when Esau returned from the field. Isaac was then struck with fear, and astonished exceedingly (Gen. 27:33). He made no attempt to rectify his blessing of Jacob because in that moment he grasped the mystery of the younger son that runs throughout Scripture, from Abel to Jacob to David: namely that the God who loved Jacob yet hated Esau (Rom 9:13) had ordained that the spiritual birthright would be transferred to the younger.
In a later age, Shakespeare’s King Henry IV speaks of those ruffians who “commit the oldest sins, the newest kind of ways.” So too in the Church there are always those looking for new means of turning a profit on God’s invaluable gifts. To such people the answer is always that of Saint Peter: Keep thy money to thyself, to perish with thee.
Samuel J. Klumpenhouwer
PhD, Medieval Studies
University of Toronto
Bruce Marshall once wrote that every young man who rings the bell at a brothel is unconsciously looking for God. While it is not necessarily true that the inward desire of every man is ultimately a thirst for righteousness, it is true that every sin is the disordering of a good desire.
Every strip club is exploiting the deeply felt desire for the unveiling of mystery. The strip club erroneously states that there is no mystery. It is a revelation deep fake. The burka erroneously states that all is mystery. In the conflicting pulses of rejecting limitation and desiring mystery, we can land in a ditch on either side of the road. We must learn to interpret the symbolic aspects of creation, especially in Divine revelation, so that we can grow in our self-understanding and contentment without damaging our divinely established boundaries.
The pagan imagination has always disintegrated the boundaries of sexual identity in order to achieve the pagan goals of mystery. “Is that a man or a woman?” is a compliment when the goal is mystery. For the Christian, this must function as more than a mere observation. We must ask what the current trans crisis seeks behind the darkened brothel door.
The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, ‘It is enough’: The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, ‘It is enough.’ – Proverbs 30:15-16
Excess is the path of death. The living alone are to know when to say, “It is enough.” Satisfaction belongs not to desire but to contentment—for desire to be satisfied, it must be stopped. All desire is truly the desire for the cessation of desire; but this can only be understood by the man who is willing to stop eating when need and sufficient pleasure have been met. To feed pleasure until pleasure says “stop” turns the soul over to devouring lust. Boundaries make satisfaction possible and without them, satisfaction will perpetually collapse under the weight of want.
Contentment and revelation are the things for which the desire for an intersexual state is yearning but will not receive. To utter the words “it is enough” is to erect a fence. To the rebel, this is a usurpation of the will deferring satisfaction. To the believer, this is the only means possible by which satisfaction could ever be attained.
Contentment is related to revelation in this way: the person who learns to place boundaries on desire is a person being catechized in the art of satisfaction and gratitude. Similarly, the person who learns that the ground of universal truth can only be found through the revelation of God will abandon the fruitless endeavor of locating truth in the intrigue of the indiscernible. Of course, there are things within the Godhead that are truly mysterious to us: the Trinity, the working of the Spirit in the sacraments, and the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. But it is when intrigue is the inevitable consequence of limitation that the mystery is proper. When intrigue is the goal in order to avoid limitation, disordering is the inevitable consequence.
In many ways, the icons of the trans movement are attempting to defy interpretation. In judgment, a thing’s identity is revealed. Revelation gives us interpretive dominion, a power that should rightly cause trepidation. However, for the Christian, revelation and interpretation are the ground of confession. To be told what a thing is enables the believer to confess after God what God has declared.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian arrives at the house of the Interpreter and is shown . . .
. . . the picture of a very grave person hung up against the wall, and this was the fashion of it: It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind his back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.
Then said Christian, “What meaneth this?”
[The Interpreter replied], “The man whose picture this is is one of a thousand; he can beget children, travail in birth with children, and nurse them himself when they are born.”
Notice the interplay of the possessive pronouns its and his. The reader is to comprehend something, not merely a someone. The something has an expanded capacity not possible for the solitary male. But as a symbol, it will only beckon the viewer to carry the illustrative meaning back into reality by interpretation of the symbol. To woodenly apply the literal meaning from the symbolic meaning to the actual in himself would be to collapse Christian’s boundaries. Preventing the border collapse of definition is why the Interpreter is so necessary; without him, the meaning would stay hidden in the realm of intrigue. The Word of God is pure revelation and as such sets the hermeneutic for how to discern the meaning from the intrigue.
Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress must learn that certain feminine qualities which are limited to the female of the species in a literal sense are symbolically representative of virtues that should be cultivated in himself while retaining his clearly defined status as a male.
The man who learns to make disciples and nurture those in his care properly appropriates feminine attributes while retaining the proper boundaries around his maleness. A man that is overbearing in leadership or a man that is overly detached is someone who believes he is protecting the borders of his masculinity from intrusion but has rendered the masculinity within the walls corrupt. The symbol of a nursing man teaches Christian this lesson and thus matures him as a man. Mature men rightly appropriate femininity without doing damage to the borders of identity.
And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me. – Isaiah 49:23
Learning to interpret the symbolic allows us to grow in our understanding of self without doing damage to the divinely established boundaries of our identities. Revelation communicates meaning by making the definition visible, in order that we might mature while not breaking beyond the bounds. Transgender ideology is an attempt to fast track a maturation apart from revelation and a proper conception of one’s identity. A man matures into kingship and prophecy, not by becoming effeminate, but by understanding how to appropriately engender aspects of femininity that would cause thriving for the man who stays within his borders. A nursing king is a mature man, whereas a chest-feeding male is a deconstructed man. His disproportionality makes him disfigured in both realms of masculinity and femininity.
As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. – Isaiah 66:13
When God engenders something feminine, He does so without deconstructing the ways in which He is still a He. We should mirror His embodiment within our limits. When the Church, a bride, fails to mature in her femininity, it is often because she adopts exclusively masculine traits, thereby becoming a butch Church, or she disintegrates the very definitions that frame her identity. The former is often attempted in order to guard against weak leadership. The latter is often attempted to pacify the watching world by downplaying God’s ordained boundaries.
Godly maturity appropriates opposite-sex traits from outside of one’s borders of identity in order to bring about a greater thriving within the set borders of manhood and womanhood. A nursing father and a childbearing man are Godly things when they are accomplished within the boundaries of masculinity and not by abandoning those boundaries. The Church is to be led by righteous men who individually embody the qualities of the Church’s collective identity as feminine. These men are to be nursing kings. To the extent the desirous, borderless trans movement shapes the Church, it will result in women leaders, weak men, and sterility rather than purity.
But when men become kings, they are ornamented with jewels and headdresses akin to the proper feminine appropriation befitting a priest. In order for it to be a right appropriation and not disintegration of identity, it must never deconstruct the borders. When understood this way, the Church can celebrate their kings as nursing fathers while rejecting any and all confusion about whether or not they are men. The mature and healthy Church is both gloriously feminine in its collective identity and led by mature, Godly, and masculine men.
Garrett Soucy lives in Maine with his wife and nine children where he is the pastor of Christ the King Church. He is also a writer and musician.
In a previous essay, I argued that the story which begins with Lot and culminates in Ruth’s great-grandson David follows God’s five-fold pattern of creative work as laid out by Jim Jordan: taking something in hand (in this case, the Abrahamic family), restructuring it, distributing the product of labor, evaluation, and rest.
But God’s pattern of work is not just a scheme for probing the structure of biblical narratives: it is the pattern for man’s work, a structure for probing whether our own work is well done. As such, man’s work includes an extra step: after taking hold of that which will be transformed, we give thanks, just as Jesus gave thanks for the bread and wine before dividing and distributing them.
So what of the story of Ruth? To the extent that the Lot-Ruth-David story is a narrative of God’s work, a word of thanks is unneeded. God is no man’s debtor; he need thank no one.
But to the extent that humans are at work in the story, we do find them expressing thanks.
When Boaz shows kindness to Ruth in the barley field (chapter 2), Ruth thanks him, a fact that’s easy to miss in most translations of Ruth 2:13. “Let me find favour in thy sight, my lord” (KJV) is a good literal translation, but the NJPS (Tanakh) captures the fact that this phrase is an idiom for expressing gratitude, not asking for favor: “You are most kind, my lord.”1
Here Ruth’s gratitude comes just where it is expected in the scene narrated in chapter 2: Ruth has taken her work in hand, beginning to gather barley. Then she thanks Boaz, before continuing to gather, which goes on until evening, when she threshes her gleanings, separating the grain from the hull. She takes the barley home and distributes it to Naomi, whose evaluation is one of joy and blessing on the field owner. Naturally, in the final step, the grain will be made into bread and enjoyed, giving strength for another day’s work.
This work cycle informs our reading of the larger narrative: it is, in a way, the book in miniature, a story of work, provision, and gratitude. So then, in the larger narrative, do we find gratitude expressed to God, the greater giver and provider? We do.
In the seventh and final blessing of the book, it is not a human who is blessed, as in the previous blessings, but the Lord Himself for giving Naomi a grandson, a redeemer.2
But why does the thanks come at the end of the story, after everyone has entered their rest? In Jordan’s scheme, thanksgiving is the second stage, not the sixth.
There are two ways to think about this fact. From one perspective, chapter 4 of Ruth really is an appropriate place for thanks: God’s work is complete; Sabbath is a time of thanksgiving.
From another perspective, the birth of Obed is not a final rest, but the start of a new cycle in the re-creation sequence. This son, now in the hands of Ruth and Boaz and Naomi, will become the grandfather of David, the New Man—another son of Abraham and son of Lot—who brings closure to Israel’s time of anarchy. The women of Bethlehem thank God in anticipation of what will come.
The book of Ruth invites us to engage in its narrative at various levels of completion and scale. The fortunes and doings of humans unfold under the providential disposition of God. The story of a local family finds its place in the continuing narrative of redemption. And not only is this chapter a stage in the larger story, but it recapitulates—and pre-capitulates— the biblical history in which it finds its place. The place of gratitude in this story invites reflection at all these levels. If our natural damnable condition is one of ingratitude (Rom. 1:21), a story of work that begins with gratitude, and of a redemption that culminates in gratitude, is a story where we should find our place, too.
Joshua Jensen translates and teaches the Bible in northeast Cambodia, where he lives with his wife, Amy, and their seven children.
- The same expression—“Let us find favour in thy sight, my lord”— is used by the Egyptians to thank Joseph after he has saved their lives in Gen. 47:25, and nearly the same expression is used by Hannah to thank Eli after his assurance of the Lord’s favor in 1 Sam. 1:18. In neither case is the speaker asking for favor (or more favor, as the NIV translates it). Not coincidentally, across languages, we find that expressions of gratitude often incorporate a word for “favor” or “grace,” as of course we find in Greek. The grammar of thanking, of course, varies across languages, and it should be no surprise that in ancient Hebrew a request-like form is used to express gratitude. ︎
- Blessing, of course, is the standard form used for thanking God in the Old Testament.
Recently I have begun to wonder if there is an “anti-history” impulse in Evangelicalism that overwhelms our doctrine of infallibility in Scripture. Is there something in our theology that produces skepticism about the historical claims of the Bible?
Evangelicalism’s fixation on personal conversion makes history seem insignificant, so that even a verbal commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture as God’s word is subordinated to our experience. This fixation appears whenever pastors and writers go to great lengths to make a passage of Scripture anti-Pelagian, rather than straight-forwardly reading the text in front of them.
Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 5:6. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” John Calvin wrote of this passage: “I regard that time to be meant, which precedes the reconciliation of each one with God.”
John Calvin’s interpretation is absurd. Christ does not die every time an unbeliever is converted any more than in “the Romish Mass.” When Paul says that Christ died “at the right time,” he means at or about 33 AD. Noah, Abraham and many others came to faith long before Christ died.
To make matters worse, John Calvin seems to know of better interpretations of what Paul is saying:
“The time of weakness some consider to be that, when Christ first began to be manifested to the world, and they think that those are called weak, who were like children under the tuition of the law.”
This better interpretation is not a sufficient explanation, but it is partially correct and recognizes that Paul is referring to calendar days in linear time. Paul has spent Romans 1:18ff arguing that both Jews and Gentiles (or “Greeks”) have been spiraling downward in self-degradation and blasphemy culminating in the propitiation in Christ’s bloody death. This matches Jesus’ own testimony that his murder would be the culmination of a list of greater and greater crimes through history (Matthew 21:33ff; 23:29-32). Since the greatest of crimes will be the propitiation (Romans 3:3-8, 21-26) there was more time given to Israel to repent (Matt 23:33-38). But the point stands that, like when God decided to flood the earth (Genesis 6:5-7), or the iniquity of the Amorites had reached their fullness (Genesis 15:16), Christ came at a time when humans had descended into unique wickedness. They were collectively “weak” and “still sinners” (Romans 5:6, 8). Yet God, rather than abandoning us when we were at our worst, used our worst to provide redemption for us. Now the downward spiral of Romans 1:18ff is reversed by an upward spiral (5:3-4) because the Holy Spirit has now been given to us (5:5).
Which brings us to Pentecost and John’s Gospel…
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (7:37-39 ESV).
John Calvin explained verse 39 by saying in part,
At that very time, the disciples had undoubtedly received the first-fruits of the Spirit; for whence comes faith but from the Spirit? The Evangelist, therefore, does not absolutely affirm that the grace of the Spirit was not offered and given to believers before the death of Christ, but that it was not yet so bright and illustrious as it would afterwards become. For it is the highest ornament of the kingdom of Christ, that he governs his Church by his Spirit; but he entered into the lawful and — what may be called — the solemn possession of his kingdom, when he was exalted to the right hand of the Father; so that we need not wonder if he delayed till that time the full manifestation of the Spirit.
This is not so bad as his take on Romans. But it is notable that, for Calvin, the method of salvation for all saved people—what is true of each one of them no matter where they are placed in history before or after Easter—is the all-important framework for everything in the Bible.
But that is not John the Evangelist’s framework. He doesn’t nuance anything. The Spirit has not been given yet. Yes, the fact that the Spirit fluttered over creation and a great deal of other data needs to be incorporated into a final formulation, but the Apostle John obviously thinks that Pentecost was a big deal. John Calvin thinks that a rehash of Pelagianism vs. Augustinianism is a big deal. Inserting personal regeneration by the Spirit that is nowhere in the text obscures John’s point that Pentecost was a world-changing event for which Christ died and rose again. Thus, The history of how God saved us, humanity, the world, continually gets dismissed in favor of how God converts, forgives, and renews each one of us.
How many other examples could I collect of this kind of thing in the writings of John Calvin and many others? I suspect the answer might seem similar to John 21:25.
We exalt the “order of salvation” (insufferably insisting on saying in Latin, the ordo salutis) over Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. Our personal experience trumps History.
Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and writes at www.SolomonSays.net. He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.
Gilder, George. Men and Marriage. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2023.
[1} By 1973, the hightide of second-wave feminism had flooded the beaches of American culture. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique eroded the shores of traditional female roles by naming and stirring up further domestic discontentment. Kate Millet wrote her dissertation-turned-book, Sexual Politics, which sought to overthrow the patriarchy with her Marxist revolutionaries through the National Organization of Women (313). Against the flood,, conservative George Gilder manned the dikes with Sexual Suicide in 1973. With the rise of intersectionality in third wave feminism, Gilder revised and re-titled the book Men and Marriage in 1986. Besides the 2023 Preface, Canon’s republication is the 1986 edition. While the stats are antiquated, his underlying principles and overall message are clear, and his prescience of future events based on trajectories have far exceeded what he probably imagined.
When Gilder first published Sexual Suicide and then doubled down in Men and Marriage, he infuriated all the right people, drawing the ire of the main players in the feminist movement and exposing the places in our culture where the latest iterations of feminism had taken root. Second-wave feminism fought for equality with men in the workplace and the sexual marketplace. Women wanted to be like men. While the elimination of the differences did not rise to the level that we see today, in which many are claiming that there is no such thing as a man or woman, the equality called for in second-wave feminism helped lay the foundations for what we are experiencing today. Women didn’t want the consequences of sexual promiscuity, and the creation of the birth control pill and swelling tsunami for the legalization of abortion gave their wombs the liberation to live sexually promiscuous lives.
Gilder’s book rightly aims at the foundations of the false worldviews of feminism by focusing on the differences between the sexes. In the Preface to the 1986 edition (included at the end of this republication), Gilder states that the purpose of his book is to deal with the drive to deny or repress the differences between the sexes (311). He says, “I asserted that ‘the drive to deny them–in the name of women’s liberation, marital openness, sexual equality, erotic consumption, or homosexual romanticism–must be one of the most quixotic crusades in the history of the species” (311-12). His purpose is clear and on point. Once the differences between the sexes are eliminated, civilized society crumbles.
Gilder explains some of the perils of androgyny as promoted by feminism in chapter 11. His conclusions concerning coeducation and its deleterious effects on boys (181, 187), as well as the distortion of femininity through its suppression by participation in sports designed to perfect the male body, were self-evident in the 1980s and have only been made more apparent in 2023. God’s created design of the male and female bodies embodies their purpose in his world. Men’s bodies, for example, have thicker skin and greater physical strength necessary to subdue the creation. Women’s bodies are softer and have wombs and breasts to nurture children. God equips us to fulfill our dominion mandate physiologically. We mature into our full potential only as we submit to the grain of creation, cultivating our masculine and feminine designs. To rebel is suicide, individual and societal.
Sadly, Western Culture birthed in Christendom must be reminded of basic biological differences and their implications. In Chapter 2, Gilder guides us through those differences and states many truths that would have been glaringly obvious one hundred years ago. Sadly, many in the church have countenanced the belief that the way we are created biologically doesn’t speak to our nature or the nature of our mission as different sexes. Many egalitarians and “thin” complementarians in the church are functional androgynists, claiming that differences are only in roles determined by bald fiat. Even though Gilder’s analysis suffers from being ill-founded (more below), his emphasis on fundamental biological differences is a good reminder for the church as much as for the broader culture.
For Gilder, the elimination of sexual differences inevitably leads to the breakdown of monogamous marriage. Sexual “freedom” has ill effects within the sexual marketplace, creating large gaps between the haves and have-nots. Women want to marry high-value men who are powerful and with whom they can find security. Men want to find fertile women, and what attracts them are the signs of fertility in physical features and age. (84-85) When women are liberated from the consequences of sexual intercourse, knowing that they will not carry in their bodies the results of their activity, they tend to give up their marriageable years, thinking that all the men with whom they sleep they can marry. What she is doing is giving her marriageable years–her fertility years–to promiscuous men. As her sexual value declines because of her lost fertility and its cues (physical features and age), a man’s sexual value tends to increase as he becomes more successful. Men become more powerful. Women give up their power. The most powerful men then have the largest percentage of women, whether through official or functional polygyny. Less powerful men are left alone (Chapter 6) or resort to homosexuality (Chapter 7). In contrast, enforced strictures of monogamy and societal mores create a more equal sexual marketplace.
As Gilder points out, the factors breaking down monogamy cannot be attributed to a single purpose. A woman’s hypergamous desire to “marry up” becomes more difficult as she earns a large paycheck. Making more than many men, she tends to see a man earning equal or less as beneath her and not being able to be an adequate provider and protector, increasing her likelihood of divorce if she settles for a lower-earning spouse (62-3, 68, 71). This is one stat that remains consistent from the mid-eighties until the present.
Other disastrous factor is when the government becomes the man-who-will-support-the-woman through the welfare system. When women can make money and be freed from their ghetto conditions by having babies without marriage, sexual promiscuity is incentivized, and monogamous marriage is discouraged. Men are not encouraged to take responsibility. Instead, lacking something and someone to work for that are his own, the man’s energies are turned to that which is unproductive and often destructive. Women are not encouraged to trust a man who may not be as reliable as the government. Consequently, they will continue to have babies and raise them in fatherless homes, repeating the cycle exponentially (Chapters 8 & 9).
History has borne out Gilder’s conclusions. Where sexual irresponsibility is incentivized, men and women tend to take the path of least resistance. We are fallen creatures whose sinful tendencies must be discouraged and curbed through godly structures and strictures. If society is to survive, we need mothers and fathers in the home, each assuming their responsibilities within a monogamous marriage (270).
Gilder also reminds us of a principle we know intuitively but have denied in promoting false equality between the sexes: Women are. Men become. There are some weaknesses in how he understands this, but the foundational principle, especially when applied to initial attraction, is solid. Manhood is not given. It is earned. “In all its specific expressions, manhood is made, not born” (11). Manhood is earned through competition and learning one’s place in the hierarchy: only as a man achieves manhood does he qualify for a quality woman’s affection (7). But women don’t understand this masculine anxiety to perform, because womanhood is given to them, not by a performance ritual but by virtue of their bodies developing and receiving their period (10). As pointed out above, Gilder rightly notes that men are attracted to fertility cues, so a woman doesn’t have to do anything initially to attract a man. She is.
Gilder’s conclusions on many matters concerning the differences between the sexes and the consequences of denying those differences are accurate. However, I don’t see how Gilder reaches some of his conclusions with his premises. His original approach to these subjects through anthropology, social sciences, and evolutionary biology instead of Scripture handicaps his book (xxix, 82, 87). The premise reduces men and women’s drives to a functional, biological determinism. Indeed, while we can learn much from these sciences even as fallen men, the only way to have proper knowledge is through the lenses of Scripture. Somewhere in the process of revising his work, Gilder, I believe, either came to or back to the faith. Some of the revisions in his 1986 edition reflect this, and the 2023 Preface makes his present perspective clear (xxix). Nevertheless, many of the observations don’t reflect a strong grasp of Scripture.
The glaring weakness of the book is its fundamental premise concerning the sexual and moral superiority of women over men by nature.
Imagine with me for a moment, if you will, if I said, “Jesus Christ is a barbarian who must be tamed by submitting himself to the sexual and moral superiority of his bride. The nature of the man is inferior in every way to the superior nature of the female inscribed in her body.” That would be scandalous and heretical. Scripture reveals that the male-female marriage paradigm is the marriage of Christ and his church (Eph 5:22-33). Consequently, our hermeneutic of intersexual dynamics must begin, continue, and end with this relationship. What Gilder is seeing, in many respects, is true. Men are untamed. Women are the gatekeepers of sex, and when they renege on their duties to guard their bodies, the results for themselves, men, and society are destructive. Women have a greater stake in the sexual game, being the ones fully committed in a sexual act that could result in pregnancy, carrying a child for nine months, undeniable maternity, and the responsibility to care for the child. However, these observable patterns aren’t the entire story. And Gilder says that these observable patterns of “nature” and “the facts of life” (which I understand to mean “design”) prove that women are not only superior in men to having babies, but they are also morally superior because they are females (chapter 1, 264, 266, 277). The way Gilder presents it, feminine sexual superiority is a feature, not a bug resulting from the fall.
Gilder’s view of women as presented in Men and Marriage borders on gynocolatry. In the opening, we might expect to hear, “In the beginning, God created the woman, and everything flowed from her superior position in the universe.” Women are the creators of civilization (4, 16). Civilization is based on female sexuality and biology (17). Men are not even a part of civilization unless forced to be so by women (73).
Men are barbarians (passim). Men aren’t human (11). Women are the measure of what “human” means, and men are only tamed and made human by marriage (18, 60). The woman in her body is original righteousness while the man is original sin. In historical theological terms, Gilder is Augustinian when dealing with men and Pelagian when dealing with women. Men are depraved by design. Women must fall from a state of grace (see, for example, the Prologue, “The Princess and the Barbarian”). The man’s sex drive is understood as de facto problematic and maybe even sinful per se. “He [the man] becomes law-abiding and productive, in essence, because he discovers it is the only way he can get sex from the woman he wants, or marriage from the one he loves” (60). While it is true that a man must initially prove himself to be married and thus have access to sex, the issue is framed in such a way to portray the man’s sex drive as something only tamed by a woman and not by himself. Before he meets a woman, the man is only a hormone-driven, lustful barbarian. He doesn’t have a mission beyond getting sexual release. His mission is subordinated to his sexual lust and, thus, subordinated to the woman and her mission.
This is problematic on a few levels. First, when we read the paradigmatic story of marriage, we discover that the man was created first, had a mission, and the woman was created to help him with his mission. She was to be in submission—under his mission. He was not created after her to submit to her and her mission. The woman was made for the man, not the man for the woman (1 Cor 11:9). Because she was created as an extension of the garden (Song 4:12, 15, 16; 5:1), the woman becomes a part of his mission to guard and tend (Gen 2:15). He is to cultivate the woman. She is not the total focus of his mission (though she embodies it in many respects) because they share a common mission bigger than either of them as individuals. Far from submitting to the woman’s long-term sexual horizons, the woman is called to submit to the man in marriage to work toward a common mission of which her sexual purpose is vital. While Gilder emphasizes the necessity of men and women in marriage to build society (“the dominion mandate”), his fundamental premise undercuts it.
A second problem arises, putting an undue burden of responsibility on women. Women have moral responsibility, to be sure. But the way Gilder frames their responsibility, they become solely responsible for civilization because men are by nature barbarians and may claim no moral responsibility unless the woman fulfills her headship role. This is precisely the opposite of God’s design. The woman falls when she is unprotected by the man. He is to be the leader. This is the basis of the patriarchy that Gilder says is inevitable. (254) What follows from Gilder’s fundamental principles is a matriarchy and not a patriarchy. Men must follow what some have called “the feminine imperative” because it determines everything in the world.
A third weakness concerns the “Women are. Men become.” principle. As mentioned above, this is a solid principle, but it is a solid principle that mainly concerns the laws of attraction in intersexual dynamics. The way Gilder presents this principle (even though he doesn’t use the phrase that I do) is that this is a truism in every aspect of the relationship of men and women throughout the lifespan of their relationship. This suggests that women don’t need to develop character or do anything to make them worthy of praise. There is no burden of performance on them. However, Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 31 is praised for her character and the works that spring from that character (Prov. 31:10-31). Womanhood is granted by creational design, but the woman must take that gift and develop it into a fruitful character. Her youthful beauty will fade as vapor (Prov. 31:30). Her ever-maturing character will be an inward beauty that shines through everything about her (1 Pet. 3:4). Like the man, the woman must be sanctified just as Christ is doing with his church (Eph. 5:26). Men and women don’t have the same burden of performance, but each has a burden of performance.
Gilder’s conclusions don’t align with his premises, in my opinion. If women are the source and formers of civilization, it would stand to reason that men would be at best, expendable, and single-mother homes would be ideal. Gilder recognizes that fatherless homes are detrimental. (Chapter 8). But why? Is it only because the woman has tamed the man? If that is the case, why can’t she tame sons without the presence of a father?
Also, if men need to be tamed by women to submit to feminine long-term objectives, why is it not good for boys to be coeducated with girls and taught by women instead of men, as he advocates in chapter 11? Cut out the middleman. Literally. Girls are distracting in education, but they are the civilized ones, the real humans. Men must learn to conform to their civilized way of acting. Gilder’s conclusion is a non sequitur from his premise. He is right about everything he says concerning the perils of androgyny and fatherless homes. His premises undercut his conclusions.
The book is focused on men and marriage in such a way that one could infer that women don’t need anything from marriage. Men are the needy ones. Men’s sex drive must be tamed along with their barbaric, unproductive lifestyles. Though women can be led astray, females only need to realize their original righteousness and be ready to sanctify the man to make him a productive member of society. However, the Scriptures present the woman as much in need of marriage as men. In some respects, women need marriage more than men because they are relatively weaker and need the protection and security from a faithful man. Throughout Scripture, God commands that women such as widows need special attention because of their vulnerability. Even more fundamental than this, a woman also needs the sanctification that comes through submitting herself to her husband as her head, as the church does with Christ.
Men and women need one another in a complementary fashion, both of us having strengths and weaknesses that fill the gaps in the other. The superiority that Gilder attributes to women should be attributed to God’s design for marriage itself. It is in men and women submitting to God’s institution of marriage, not in men submitting to the long-term horizons of female sexuality, that we will build and sustain godly societies and avoid sexual suicide.
Bill Smith is pastor of Cornerstone Reformed Church in Carbondale, IL.
 Many of these thoughts were developed in private conversations with Pastor Rich Lusk. Where his thoughts end and mine begin, I can’t tell. However, Pastor Lusk should not be blamed for any deficiencies that may appear here.