Reading the Bible Against Yourself
If ever a book of the Bible were to gain the title "relevant" in our day, Ecclesiastes is that book. To everything our modern Western culture deems worthy as a pursuit for identity and satisfaction, Solomon simply replies, "I tried that, and it doesn’t work." We know he's telling us the truth when we read of his attempts. His attempts to find joy and purpose "under the sun" far surpass our efforts and resources. Therefore, we ought to listen to him.
As we listen, we find the brevity of life and the reality of death recurring in his thoughts, so much so that we soon begin to realize our hopelessness in finding anything in this life that will truly last. The lesson to be learned by the earthly realities of death and short life spans is that we cannot create our own truth or reality and expect it to last.
"For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten." (Eccles. 2:16)
Furthermore, who knows what will become of your accomplishments after you die? Will the succeeding generations honor your work, or will they demolish it? Will you be seen as a hero or a villain? Solomon wisely observed how "sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it" (Eccles. 2:20), and what respect does the one who did not toil have for the things he receives?
One other observation makes this point abundantly clear: "For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten" (Eccles. 9:5). You will one day be forgotten. No one will care where you found your identity, what cause you championed, the greatness of your possessions, nor the truth you believed.
With Solomon's wisdom in mind, we observe our culture with dismay. Today, our culture believes and promotes any and every 'truth' we create for ourselves. The cause they champion is the individual's cause, but this is all folly and vanity. Because there is no enduring remembrance of the ideas, truths and causes we as finite beings create, we cannot (and will not) find ultimate fulfillment in them. They will one day become as we: deceased. All our earthly joys are dying joys.
Instead of “grasping after the wind," trying to create our own lasting reality, we must find reality and truth which transcends our existence. We must find something sure and steadfast, never changing, uninfluenced by the winds of change; we must find the truth that is forever, and conform ourselves to it. It is here, by conforming ourselves to truth, we find our true identity – we become who we were made to be.
When we come to the Bible, the lesson from Solomon must be applied. We do not impose anything on the truth, to do so is to make the truth void. Indeed, bringing any idea from outside the Bible into the Bible makes the Bible's message obsolete, for any idea we impose becomes the authority to which we must bow. However, if we are to find true and lasting fulfillment, we must not import any human idea into Scripture, but rather we conform to it.
Whenever conformity is mentioned, the reality of failure to measure up is implied. If you must change to become like something else, you were obviously falling short of that model. When conformity to truth is needed, implied is the claim that we are not living up to the truth. However, we do not need to reason this way to come to the truth of Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2a)
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” (1 Peter 1:14-15)
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
We are naturally at odds with truth, and so we must be conformed to it. Therefore, we must always begin by reading the Bible against ourselves; we must have the attitude of Paul: “let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom 3:4a GNV). Certainly, Scripture encourages, comforts, and brings hope to our anxious hearts, but it cannot do that before it rebukes and condemns us. Scripture must first deal a death blow to our sinful hearts before it can apply its healing balm.
Furthermore, we must understand that the Bible was written for us, not to us. Paul did not write to 21st Century Christians, Jesus did not walk along the streets of 21st Century America, and Peter did not preach to 21st Century sinners. Their time was much different than ours, and so to read 21st Century Western culture into the pages of Scripture will lead to a different message than the original authors intended.
Of course, we apply First Century teaching to our 21st Century culture. For, although the cultures may be different, the hearts of the First Century are the same as the hearts today.
Think little of yourself and much of God. Judge yourself before God judges you. Let Scripture stand on its own, and the result will be the result God intended: conformity to the truth which remains forever. Therein our hearts will be made glad, for we will no longer be chasing an identity that will fail us, nor will we be grasping for joys that will one day die.