TODAY’S READING: Ecclesiastes 7–12
The Old Testament typically makes rich guys the hero. In the Old Testament, patriarchs (Abraham) and potentates (David) received obvious financial blessing as a sign and means of God’s blessing. Ecclesiastes is problematic then, for it pushes back on the prevailing Old Testament trend that God blesses the righteous materially. The reality of Ecclesiastes is that bad things happen to good people. This is true in missionary life. Sometimes horrible things happen to missionaries. Sometimes missionaries are raped, sometimes their children die. Sometimes they are tortured or killed. It’s naïve to think that obeying the call to take the precious gospel of grace to all peoples means immunity from trouble or that only the good times will roll.
Robert Bruce was a missionary to Iran in the 1860s. He labored long and hard and saw very few people come to Jesus. He wrote back to his supporters: “I’m not reaping, I’m not sowing, I’m not even plowing…. I’m just gathering rocks from the field.” Though the church is but a few thousand, the largest indigenous church on the Arabian Peninsula is the one in Yemen. I think of the famous quote by Ion Keith Falconer upon arriving in Yemen in 1885: “I have but one candle of life to burn, and I would rather burn it out in a land filled with darkness than in a land flooded with light.” Falconer’s candle burned for two years. He died in 1887. In 1921, his mission was expelled and the first church was not planted until 1961, seventy-four years after his death. Both Bruce and Falconer would agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes that everyone will die and that no human has power over death (8:8, 9:5), but they would disagree with the pessimism of the book, for on our side of the Easter story death has no power over those who believe in resurrection.
Today, the fastest growing per-capita church in the world is said to be the Iranian church, and the first little indigenous church in Yemen is said to have been started by a Yemeni led to the Lord by a Yemeni led to the Lord by a Yemeni led to the Lord by a Yemeni led to the Lord by Falconer. Bruce and Falconer could work hard, see no (or few) results, and die in peace, for they knew that life can indeed follow death. Both Bruce and Falconer now rejoice in glory and I imagine they stand at the pearly gates welcoming every Yemeni and Iranian believer that dances through those heavenly doors.
Ecclesiastes ends with a promise: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13–14). Ecclesiastes warns us and warms us. We are warned that life is short, all men indeed die, and every act will be seen and judged. We are warmed to action, for every little deed matters and it matters after we are dead. Seeds we plant now may fall into the ground and die, but if they die, they will spring up, perhaps long after we are gone, to bear fruit. In this sense, when read with a missionary lens, Ecclesiastes is not depressing, but inspiring: Because death is certain, I’m going to live to the full for the glory of God in Tajikistan. Because God sees every secret act, nothing is wasted, so labor now has meaning in the future. I will labor with wisdom and diligence caring not if I see the harvest, but taking great care that I plant in the way that harvest is guaranteed. Because reverence of God and obedience to His commands are the critical thing, I’m going to simplify life to a single-eyed focus on the basics: to love God with all my heart and to love His unreached peoples as myself. My short temporal life has no time for anything else and my long eternal life has no other base.