The Old Testament tells a lot of stories. Sad, heartbreaking stories; miraculous, uplifting stories; stories of life, love, friendship, and epic heroism. But behind all of the stories – behind the travels of Abraham, behind the trials of the Israelites, behind even the victories of David and the temple of Solomon – lies the Great Depression and land of the hollow men. Behind all of the stories lie the sin of Adam, the wail of Ecclesiastes, and the Valley of Dry Bones.
The sin of Adam haunts everything. Every painful birth, every thorny field, every inevitable death is a reminder that mankind and even the very ground itself is cursed: All men die eventually, and what then? Dust, mere motes of earth floating for a while in the breeze, waiting to be dispersed. The kingdoms of man, built with blood and sweat, will last but a little longer than those that built it. Everything fades.
And worst of all, nothing can be done about it. It’s possible to forget about it, for a time. It’s possible to lose sight of it in battle, in worship, in life. But it is always there when all the distractions have gone, waiting to be remembered again. And that’s what Ecclesiastes is: Ecclesiastes is the book that the wisest man in the world wrote when he ran out of distractions. Ecclesiastes is what happens when war, women, and wine lose their novelty, and the greatest intellect in the world is forced to look, really look at the world, and ask what good it all is.
And he comes up empty. He searches all the
world – wisdom and folly, indulgent pleasure and productive work, righteousness and sinfulness – and finds nothing but a huge, terrifying void. Mankind throws everything it has into life and fails to make a single dent in the ever-looming Nothingness. The sun rises on hopeless humanity toiling away at their meaningless existence and by the time it sets, there has been no change. Well, no change save one: everyone is now one day closer to death, to Sheol, to the place where good and evil alike must inevitably go, never to be seen again. Almost all of Ecclesiastes can be summed up in one verse: “What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.” Life is bent and meaning is missing, and the wisest man in the world cannot straighten the one nor find the other.
The wisest man in the world sets out to find meaning, and he comes to the conclusion that there is none. Existence is a dull, bleak thing, not to be thought of because the thinking of it is too terrible. Toil without result; Virtue without gain; Duty without reward. And Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of Israel offers a similarly bleak diagnosis. “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. He made me walk all around among them. I realized there were a great many bones in the valley and they were very dry… Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’” Israel, the Chosen People of God, the singularly blessed nation, is no more than dusty bones. Their hope has perished, and they are utterly cut off.
Skeletons, going through life hoping to one day not be skeletons… but knowing, at the bottom of where their hearts should be, that such a thing is entirely impossible. Skeletons chasing the wind, clutching at it with bony fingers, collapsing into the dust into which, with a little patience, they will soon dissolve. This is the state of the entire world before the first Christmas. This is the state of every man, woman, and child before Something New came into the dead, never-changing world and changed it forever.
Part two comes tomorrow. (Click here for part two: The End of the Great Depression)
“Never moving outside Scripture’s own footprint and reading as a disciple of Jesus himself, Mulligan offers an imaginative retelling of the ‘Peter of the Bible.’ Rather than a speculative filling-in-the-blanks, he offers a comprehensive portrait of Peter that is delightfully and skillfully woven together with the fabric of the New Testament. In what Jenson aptly categorizes as a form of lectio divina, Mulligan’s narrative is a sustained reflection on the text of Scripture.”
—Darian R. Lockett, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, CA
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