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Grace Q&A Part 2: Practical Application of Ecclesiastes

November 9, 2016

Two male professors at Grace college discussing their book in an academic office.

A book titled Fear God and Keep His Commandments: A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes looks at Ecclesiastes not only from a theological perspective but also from a psychological one. It is authored by Grace professors Tiberius Rata, professor of Old Testament studies at Grace Theological Seminary, and Kevin Roberts, professor of counseling at Grace College. Rata and Roberts oversee their respective programs at Grace College Online.

They spoke with Mark Mellinger of Bott Radio Network to discuss Ecclesiastes and their work. The second part of the interview follows. Part one of the edited transcript is also available.

Mark Mellinger: We’ve been talking about Solomon. This was a man who was a king, who was blessed with so very much and squandered it at the end. Much of Ecclesiastes is really a lament about the life that he ended up living. But it’s not all bad — there are some instructive lessons here.

Is it true that if we’re walking with Christ, we can find some degree of eternal value and satisfaction in the pleasures that He grants us and the accomplishments He enables us to achieve here in life?

Kevin Roberts: I would say that, for me, you have to start from the perspective of “keep first things first.” And our relationship with God becomes the first thing. And once it’s the first thing, you can then enjoy those pleasures. But when you try to make those pleasures replace the first thing, which is God, we end up having idols, whether that be money, whether that be in our sexuality, whether that be addictions of all different types.

When we replace things from our physical environment and make them first things, pain and suffering is going to follow.

Mellinger: Can we say that generally an indicator that we have done that — that we have replaced God as the first thing in our lives and we’ve brought these other legitimate wants and desires to places that are just wrong — would we say that the best indicator is that we will sin to get them?

Roberts: For years, I’ve worked with people with alcohol problems. And people will do all kinds of awful things to get their drugs, and when they’re clean and sober, they’ll never act like that. But we’ll go to all kinds of extremes to get … that high or that experience that we want because we think somehow this is going to satisfy us, but it doesn’t.

It cannot replace what our purpose is, which is to glorify God. And ultimately, [people] become very dissatisfied, very depressed and very down because it will not satisfy the soul.

Mellinger: Tiberius, help me understand the first part of chapter 7 in Ecclesiastes where Solomon seems to be saying that melancholy can be good — that being honest about the reality of pain in life can lead to a God-pleasing thoughtfulness.

Tiberius Rata: He makes the statement in the beginning of chapter 7 that “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4). Basically, the idea is that, while food goes through the stomach, sober reflection goes to the heart. And when we think about the end of life and death, we are reminded that we are finite and our earthly pilgrimage will indeed come to an end at some point.

He goes back to what he does in the book of Proverbs where he compares and contrasts the wise and the fool. The wise and fool, they both have a heart. But one seeks a place where the heart will basically just seek enjoyment, while the wise will seek to contemplate life.

Mellinger: Interesting that he also, Kevin, warns us against self-righteous religiosity. And this correlates with a marker of psychological health that you call social interest. Can you explain that?

Roberts: The best way to describe social interest is to really think of the “one another” statements from Scripture that we see in the New Testament. It really relates to bearing one another’s burdens, caring for others … and oftentimes putting them before ourselves.

The Scriptures say “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). And really what it comes down to is what’s motivating you in that righteous behavior.

Are we motivated to be righteous for our own self-glory? Or are we motivated by the righteous behavior for God’s glory? And if it’s for our own, we know in Scripture how Christ handled the Pharisees. He responded very strongly against them for their spiritual pride.

Mellinger: Is it fair to say that a more obedient Christian is generally going to find life less frustrating than Solomon? And one reason I’m interested in asking you this is because you spent part of the book talking about the evidence of physical changes in the brain.

Among those who prayerfully seek wisdom from God, they appear to have a better ability to respond to life’s curveballs.

Roberts: What happens when someone is committed to prayer throughout their life? What we’re seeing in the brains of people who have committed their life to spending time in prayer, we see physical changes in the frontal lobe.

Now, the frontal lobe of the brain is often considered our executive control center. It’s what helps us with impulse control, and it’s what helps us manage a little bit of our emotions and our behaviors. With the people who are practicing these spiritual disciplines, what we see is a thickening of that part of the brain — it actually enlarges the frontal lobe.

What that means is, with time, you increase the ability to use your executive functioning in a meaningful way. And what I mean by that is … using improved discernment — maybe not doing the thing you shouldn’t be doing. We’re also maybe reshaping our brain to be better equipped to follow Him and to be used by Him for His glory.