Recovering Eden: An Interview with Zack Eswine (Matt Claridge)
In the church traditions I grew up in, a popular favorite was the “Gospel Song” Victory in Jesus. It still makes me cringe. The theology of the song is actually not terribly bad; it’s even a bit Calvinistic–“he sought me and bo’t me with his redeeming blood; He loved me ere I knew Him, and all my love is due Him.” And there’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrating the victory we do have in Christ over sin’s power to condemn us. Nonetheless, it is the poster-child anthem of triumphalistic Christianity. One reason for this, I believe, is the wedding of a lamely peppy tune with a spiritual context that subtly shifts the focus of the song from “His” victory to “My” victory. The song makes you feel good about yourself for all the wrong reasons. In that sense, the effect comes out Arminian in the end. The “I, I, I” peppered throughout the song becomes all consuming.
But my uncomfortableness with this song pales in comparison to the jarring and subversive intent of the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s subversive because it too is peppered throughout with “I, I, I,” but for an entirely different reason and with a totally different effect. It’s jarring because it cynically regards “victory” as an impossible outcome for anyone living under the sun. I loathe Victory in Jesus, but I’m scarred of Ecclesiastes. Its easy to poke holes in Christian triumphalism, but its difficult to find hope when we honestly face the brutalities and vanities of life. Ecclesiastes is a corrosive that is capable of not only undermining our American consumer paradise, but also vaporizing the shreds of Christian joy we maintain in this mad, mad, world. Enter Zack Eswine and his commentary Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes. In his hands, this dangerous acid of a book is handled with appropriate care and applied with appropriate force. In his hands, it becomes a gospel summons, not a gospel embarrassment. In this book, we find the appropriate place where we all ought to stand and live as fragile creatures under the fathomless Sun of Righteousness.
Were you assigned the task of commenting on Ecclesiastes or did you ask for it? If the latter, why?
I asked for it. Imagine the shock if your pastor stood in the pulpit this coming Sunday, opened his Bible and shouted, “Everything in life that you care about is nothing! It’s all meaningless! In fact” he continues, “I hate life. I hate it because of the grief we all experience in it. I’m bone tired of it! It seems like God has just given us all busy work. Seems like he just wants to frustrate us and he won’t even tell us plainly what we are supposed to make of it all. I tell you this morning that it would be better if none of us had been born than to have to go through this.”
At this point, some of us as Christians would be very concerned about our pastor’s state of mind or salvation. We would have very little patience to sit through this kind of human experience and might seek immediately to squelch it or to get immediately to the offer of the good news in Jesus. But the fact that God has inspired and given us such a preacher with such language, with no haste to get to the good news, is intentional and it instructs us about God. God has provided with this book a needed gift of grace for our neighbors who are unfamiliar with the Bible and disinterested or suspicious of Christian life.
What I mean is that a Christian who listens to that opening by the pastor might react with concern. But many neighbors who do not follow Jesus would respond with pleasant surprise. Their inmost feelings are given a hearing on the lips of the preacher. It is as if the preacher has read their hearts. The spokesperson for God seems to know their innermost and unvarnished sentiments. What’s more as the preacher shares his heart they see themselves in him. Never has a “god-talker” sounded so true, so honest, so knowledgeable, so relevant.
Ecclesiastes provides a needed primer for listening and talking humanly with our neighbors. These neighbors may have very little familiarity with the Bible but what they are familiar with is suspicion and caution regarding “church” and “religion.” They’ve been hurt by “god-talkers” or they know people who have. Or the “god-talk” they hear seems trite and irrelevant in comparison to the raw and real circumstances of their lives and in our world. The preacher in Ecclesiastes speaks to us, not as a churchy evangelist but as a human being who looks at the world, not as it is supposed to be, but as it is. His fear of God does not lead him to pretend away his questions or his pains and frustrations. His way of relating to the world is anything but trite.
I asked to comment on this particular book because I want to learn from God how to live this humanly as a preacher, how to hear my neighbor’s heart and my own this honestly, and how from there to point to the provision, character, redemption, wisdom and grace of God for the hope our hearts long for. Ecclesiastes is God’s primer for this kind of life and evangelism.
What does the title of your book, Recovering Eden, say about your approach and interpretation of Ecclesiastes?
As the preacher gives voice to the empty pursuits, injustices, and complaints of our earthly lives, he cycles back to repeat a conclusive theme over and over again. “There is nothing better” he repeats, then to enjoy the lot in this life that you’ve been given. The work you’ve been given, the food and drink that you have, the people with whom you share these good things with, the wife you love, this is a gift from God for your joy.
It is like the preacher in Ecclesiastes has been away from home for a long time. He comes back and everything has changed and this for the worst. His fond memories of the goodness that once was are shattered by the painful realities of what now is. This disorientation rouses his lament. But he keeps coming back toward the dream of what once was and he asserts that as the way that we take our stand now against the tide of emptiness and violence. No matter what happens during the seasons of this life, God’s good gifts of a place to be, a thing to do in that place, and a people to share it with, remains.
To me, this sounds like a lament for the Eden that was lost, and an assertion that what God gave us then, remains true for us today. Even though everything is meaningless and broken, we still can taste the goodness of His gifts to us. We can derive the joy He intends with food, family, work, and place. We do so as a feisty witness to something good that once was and that will one day find its restoration again.
I think I can say that one of the major themes you discover in Ecclesiastes is appreciating our “humanness.” This theme is also present in your book Sensing Jesus. What’s the significance of this idea in Ecclesiastes and your view of the Christian life?
In my book, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, I meditate on our temptation to fix-everything, know everything and be everywhere at once. We are applauded for such attempts, particularly as those who lead others, and yet, only God can fix everything (omnipotent), know everything (omniscient) and be everywhere at once (omnipresent). For example, we needn’t repent that we don’t know everything. We were never meant to know everything. Instead, we need to repent for trying to know everything, for trying to fix everything and for trying to resist the fact that we can only be one place at one time (even our use of social media cannot reverse the fact that we sit in one particular chair in one particular place in the world when we push “send.”) To embrace these noble limits is to glorify God by powerfully surrendering to our creatureliness, our being human and not divine. In this, the joy and sense of home that God intends for us is found and experienced through Jesus. I flesh out the implications for this for our daily life in ministry and the world. In short, I read my Bible with reading glasses. I pray with coffee breath. Even if spiritual awakening should break out in my town, I’d still have to take a bathroom break.
So, in Ecclesiastes, this preacher is a King. More than that, he wears the mantel of Son of David. More than that he professes to have had access to wisdom unlike any other of his time. And yet, Ecclesiastes is written in the first person. It comes to us as a testimony from a preacher who is a man, a human being, who shares his heart with us. It is almost like reading someone’s unedited journal. Not only does he shed his position and power in order to speak to us, he also commends that we discern God’s presence in our daily lot, and in our lot to enjoy the ordinary gifts of human life. The great answer to life under the sun is to live humanly in the fear of God as were meant to from the beginning. We do so in hope of the one greater than Solomon who has come, Jesus our wisdom.
With that in mind, we are tempted to believe that we should respond to the swirling worldviews, injustices, misguided uses of peoples and things by doing something large, famous and right now. But the preacher seems to say otherwise. Our great hope is found in recovering the ordinary, small, often overlooked gifts of God for human flourishing. By tending to our lot throughout the ebb and flow of delightful and disconcerting seasons, we continue to pursue what it means that we are human and that God is God, no matter what the cultural weather forecasts for us today.
By trying to engage the world as if we are not human and as if our ordinary lot isn’t God’s gain for us, we repeat Adam and Eve’s forfeiture over and again by trying over and again to be like God and do what only God can do. Ecclesiastes sets these truths in front of us boldly and plainly.
One could almost imagine a noble pagan being responsible for Ecclesiastes. His Carpe Diem mentality seems more at home in the jaded Greco-Roman world than a Judeo-Christian one. How do we redeem or integrate this focus with the rest of the Bible?
That is a good question. Perhaps we can begin an answer in this way. Because this book was written by Solomon himself or in Solomon’s name, we are already encountering a kind of message that stands squarely in the Judeo-Christian tradition. First, Solomon made tragic errors in his life. Ecclesiastes offers an implicit rebuke or corrective for these errors. Second, the King doesn’t talk like a King but like a man who is human, searching, and full of questions. On both counts, this is rare in the history of the world. Most Kings re-write their histories. Ancient nations hide the faults of their rulers and accentuate their conquests. But the Old Testament constantly reveals a storyline in which the faults of its kings and heroes are on full display so that we are left ultimately to look off of them and onto God our true hero and king. The carpe-diem sentiment, if it is there, comes to us clothed in confession, corrective and humility. Thirdly, the day or the moment that we seize is explicitly God given and saturated. There are things we are not meant to seize—they will not provide the gain or freedom we thought they would. Rather, our hope will only come as we entrust ourselves to the lot, the gifts, and the wisdom that God has given to us within the seasons of purpose that God works for us. In essence, what we are to seize moment by moment is God himself—we detect his presence and provision moment by moment, believing by faith, that He, and not the swirling miseries under this sun, will have the last word. Finally, we integrate Ecclesiastes by recognizing its place in redemptive history. What I mean is that it comes to us after the promise of a coming messiah has been made and before that messiah arrives. It therefore points us forward, as I hinted at earlier, to the one greater than Solomon who will come.
I personally think Ecclesiastes might be the hardest book of the Bible to preach. How would you recommend it be broken up into preaching portions?
I agree that it can challenge us and our congregations to preach through Ecclesiastes. Mainly, because as American Christians we are by and large unaccustomed to the wisdom literature of the Bible. So, the first time one preaches through this book, it might serve the congregation well, to survey the themes rather than plow through verse by verse. The chapter titles in my book offer a guide to what these over arching themes are. Then, come back to the book more fully later on in the life of the congregation. Or, if you pursue chapter-by-chapter or verse by verse, you might need to start with the end. That is, go ahead and alert the hearer to chapter 12 and to what the point of the book is by spending time on this as an opening sermon for the series. Then frame each subsequent sermon with this reminder of the point. In other words, with a pastoral mindfulness of how different and uncomfortable this book can be, approach the sermon series in a more deductive fashion even though the book itself is inductive in nature. If you preach in a setting that is not predominately made up of Christian hearers, it is probable that you can simply walk through the angst chapter by chapter building to the main point at the end, because oftentimes such hearers have more patience with less tidiness. What they hear will likely refresh and compel them to want to learn more about the God who can talk like this.
What are some good books to be reading alongside your commentary?
My writing style leans poetic. For a reader less accustomed to this kind of writing, a good commentary such as Philip Ryken’s or Derek Kidner’s will serve as a helpful verse by verse companion.
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.