Most folk probably associate the Rolling Stones more with “Sympathy for the Devil,” than with historic Christianity, and few of us would expect to learn any theology from them but I noticed recently that in “Ventilator Blues” Mick and the lads hit a strong Calvinist note:
Ev’rybody walking ’round, ev’rybody trying to step on their Creator. Don’t matter where you are, ev’rybody, ev’rybody gonna need some kind of ventilator (“Ventilator Blues,” Jagger/Richards/Taylor; 1972)
According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, who calls himself Qoheleth (the title of the convener of the covenant assembly), the Rolling Stones got it right.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Eccl 2:11).
In Southern California, as in other parts of the world, the freeways are full of fast-moving, cars carrying successful people to important jobs and places. My gym is full of middle-aged folk (of which I am one) huffing and puffing trying to mitigate the effects of the fall. The media buzz of email, phone calls, and television is unending. In the end, however, Qoheleth says that it is all wind-chasing and vanity. How ever fast we live, drive, and exercise, most of us will “need some kind of ventilator” (cf. Eccl 9:5).
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity (Eccl 3:19).
As Qoheleth makes clear, in contrast to what we do, what God does endures (Eccl 3:14) and that there will be an end to every life (Eccl 8:8).
In the Day You Eat of It
Nor is it difficult to find evidence of continual defiance of the Creator. As the song says, everyone is trying to “step on their Creator.” We know the source of this problem. Contrary to Rome, which teaches that Adam was created with the inclination to sin and that inclination was restrained by a “super added gift” of grace so that Adam’s was fall from grace, Scripture teaches and we confess that God made Adam “good” (Gen 1:31). Rome teaches that Adam was not just to be glorified, i.e., to live with God in eternal blessedness, but rather they teach that he was to be “divinized” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §398).
We confess, however, that before the fall, Adam was not defective or inclined to sin in any way. This is why we say that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness; that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 6).
God made Adam to know his Creator, to obey him, and having passed the test set before him, to be glorified, not divinized. Our problem has never been lack of deity. It was disobedience.
In that covenant of life or works or nature (our theologians have used all three to mean the same thing), God established the law: love God with all your faculties and love your neighbor as yourself. He summarized the law in one command: “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” and attached to it a certain penalty for its violation: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).
By virtue of his good creation, his righteousness, Adam had within him the power to obey the law. So Heidelberg Catechism Q. 9 says, “…God so made man that he could perform it; but man, through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience deprived himself and all his descendants of this power.” Until the last century or so, this is how most of our Reformed forebears understood Adam’s condition before the fall and the mystery of the fall.
As God threatened, by our law-breaking we earned corruption and death. What had been a matter of freedom and joy became evil and hard (Gen 3:17). We began to return to dust (Gen 3:19). Before long, rebellion against God was so widespread that we brought upon ourselves a cataclysmic judgment (Gen 6-9). In our sin, we rebelled against God and sought to replace him and his law with ourselves and our own law. We tried to become autonomous.
We once mourned the existence of sin and death, we recognized that humans are rebels and sinners in need of grace and salvation. We recognized our need to be justified and sanctified because we recognized that there is a Creator who has revealed a universally binding law: Do and live (Luke 10:28). We used to describe the Christian life as “mortification,” the “dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism, 88).
By contrast, today our rebellion against God and its consequences seem to be universally celebrated. We no longer worry about sin and salvation. The mirror no longer frightens and disgusts us. Thomas de Zengotita is certainly right when he says that, like Narcissus, we are so infatuated with what we see that we have decided to clone it! For Moderns, sin is no longer the problem; the law is the problem. If we move the markers, no one ever goes out of bounds. Children no longer lose at games and everyone goes home a winner. We have declared that there is nothing wrong with us that a little therapy can’t fix.
As I have already suggested, there is nothing really new about the Modern impulse to deify ourselves. This is what Adam attempted, what Rome teaches, and this has been our natural inclination since. In the pre-modern world, however, there was at least some shame attached to sin. In Modernity, however, the entire enterprise has been to do away with God. Hence the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) declared the death of God long before Time Magazine found out about it in 1967. In his place we have endeavored mightily to put ourselves. Before Modernity, our philosophers and theologians, however errant they may have been in other ways, began with God as their starting point. There were great debates about what he had said, but there was no question that he had revealed himself.
In the Modern period, that certainty was shattered by a deep and fundamental doubt about whether God has really revealed himself. It has been replaced by another “certainty,” that God is not (Prov 14:1) or at least he is not such that we must begin with his authority and revelation. The French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” Descartes effectively re-wrote Scripture: “In the beginning I created reality and formed God from my imagination.” Since the eighteenth century, most of Modern philosophy and theology, even those who call themselves “postmodern,” has traded Moses for Descartes. “Trying to step on their Creator” indeed.
So, like the Stones, Qoheleth sang the blues and justifiably so, but he did more than that. He also sang a sort of shadowy Gospel song. It begins as a minor theme in the early chapters of Ecclesiastes. For example he says, “he put eternity into man’s heart….” (Eccl 3:11). It is sounded again in the middle of the book (Eccl 8:12) and is made explicit at the end of the book. He says, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:14). The gospel, in broad terms, as it comes to expression in Ecclesiastes, has to do with eternal judgment. Some take Ecclesiastes to teach a non-Christian view of man, heaven, and hell; that this life is all there is, but such a reading of Ecclesiastes misses the point of the book. Qoheleth tells us the truth about sin and its consequences for human existence. It is true that we shall all die, but that is not all there is to be found in Qoheleth. There are also the righteous and the unrighteous, there is eternity and there shall be a day reckoning when the injustices of this life shall be made right and there is a living God who shall bring righteousness to pass in history.
As members of the new covenant, as those “upon whom the end of the ages has come,” (1 Cor 10:11), we can see a little more clearly than Qoheleth what this means. We know that it is our Lord Jesus, who was “born under the law,” (Gal 4:4), who obeyed for us, who was crucified and raised for us (1 Cor 15:1–4). This Jesus shall return in judgment (2 Thess 1:7–10) to deliver his people, to consummate his promises, to inaugurate the final state of existence and the glorification of his people (Rom 8:30). Those who have trusted in Jesus have nothing to fear in the judgment. Thus, our catechism asks,
Q. 52: What comfort is it to you that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?
That in all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head, look for the very One, who offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory
Do not overlook the fact that the judgment is described as a “comfort” to believers. The Heidelberg Catechism uses the word “comfort” six times and each time it refers to the assurance of salvation. Just as in Ecclesiastes ours is a life of sorrows and persecutions, but the entrance of eternity into history is a blessing for believers, for whom Christ has offered himself, from whom he has removed the curse and for whom he will come as a judge and redeemer. For Christians, the return of Christ is good news.
For us who by faith are united to Christ the end of all things has begun but we have not yet come into full possession of eternity. We still have this life to negotiate. Pending Christ’s return, the day and hour of which only God knows (Mark 13:32) most of us shall find ourselves in an antiseptic hospital room, suffering the indignities of medical treatment and finally death. That is sufficient cause to sing the blues. The reality, however, should also cause us to put our life in proper perspective.
Our culture promises us satisfaction if we keep the right diet, drive the right car, sleep in the right bed, make the right friends, and have the right job. It’s possible to find satisfaction and even joy in those things, but the Stones still have a point. These things, however good they may be in themselves, do not address our most basic need: righteousness before God and living with him in eternal blessedness. These good things don’t change the fundamental reality: “Don’t matter where you are, ev’rybody gonna need some kind of ventilator.”
The question is not whether we’re going to die. Rather the question is how are we going to live in the light of that fact? The New Testament addressed directly two non-Christian approaches to life. In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul spoke to the Athenian Philosophical Society which was composed mainly of Epicureans and Stoics. The Epicureans were skeptical about eternity, heaven, and hell so they organized life around the quest for refined pleasure. James Bond’s request for a vodka martini, “shaken, not stirred” is a good example of this philosophy. The Stoics, on the other hand, organized life around the quest for contentment gained through reason and aligning themselves with the nature of things. The popular “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People series is a good example of the influence of Stoicism in our time.
The Apostle Paul’s first response to these philosophies was to preach the law, to point out that we all have a true, non-saving, knowledge of God and his law that leaves us without excuse (Acts 17:22–31; Rom 1:18–2:16). He preached the coming judgment of the world and called them all to acknowledge the greatness of their sin and misery. The second part of his sermon was to preach the good news of the resurrection of Christ. As often happens, some of them regarded the resurrection as foolishness (1 Cor 1:21–25) but some by the grace of God, some of them put their trust in Christ (Acts 17:32–34).
The cold truth is that most of us shall end up on a ventilator and die. The proper response, however, is neither despair, nor skepticism but a sober reckoning with the truth. The proper response is to sing the blues, to recognize the greatness of our sin and misery (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 2), to repent of our rebellion and unbelief and then to sing the gospel song: “O’ Death where is your victory, O’ death where is your sting?” The proper response is to turn to the Savior who, by his obedience to the law and death, has earned life for all who believe. He has removed the sting of sin and death from us (1 Cor 15:55–56) and given us hope and a reason to live well in this life. Having sung the blues, that ancient blues man Qoheleth, looking forward to that day when the tomb would be found empty (Mark 16:6) also sang, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near” (Eccl 12:1).
This essay first appeared on the Westminster Seminary California website in 2006 as part of the “Faculty Reflections” series.