May 17, 2009

External Props

2009 1513 page22 capHILE DOING MY DEVOTIONS IN THE ARAMAIC PORTIONS OF DANIEL (2:4–7:28), I came across a text that hit me as never before, though I’ve read it many times before. In Daniel 5, during Belshazzar’s feast, a hand appears and writes words that the frightened king can’t understand. After the wise men are unable to interpret it, Daniel comes and the king says to him: “I have heard of you, that you can give interpretations and explain enigmas. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom” (verse 16, my translation).
Clothed in purple, a chain of gold, third in the kingdom? Big deal. For some reason the sad and pathetic irony of these promises seemed sadder and more pathetic than ever, and maybe that reason is the current economic meltdown. Belshazzar promises glory, wealth, and power in a kingdom about to collapse. Third ruler in a government that wouldn’t last the night? What an apt symbol for our times, in which the foundations of so much glory, wealth, and power are crumbling beneath our quivering toes.
Like everyone else (with few exceptions) I’ve been feeling the squeeze, and like everyone else (with no exceptions) I have no idea how all this is going to pan out, at least not in the short term. It’s nerve-wracking, frightening, and painful; it’s been a lesson to me, too, about just how tied in I am to the external world.
2009 1513 page22We exist in the material realm: the realm of things, of money, of material goods. We all do. The question is, How, as believers, do we relate to them? Sure, “the love of money 
is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10, KJV), and though I never thought of myself as loving money, I now realize how much I love being able to pay all my bills, love being able to help my kids through college, and love not having to worry about losing my house. One doesn’t have to be Aristotle to work through the syllogism: I love paying my bills, I need money to pay my bills, hence, what is my relationship to money?
As an Adventist who takes our end-time scenario seriously, I’ve always believed that economics will play a key role in the last days. Whether what we’re facing now will lead directly to the Big Kaboom, I haven’t the foggiest. But what this crisis has shown me, and I hope others as well, is just how unstable and fleeting all the external props are. Even in something as ultrasecular as The New Republic (March 18, 2009), in the context of the meltdown, Leon Wieseltier wrote: “The external world is no longer a source of strength.”
For us, it never should have been one to begin with, yet it seems inevitable that it would be, to some degree. After all, who doesn’t find comfort when the externals—finances, academics, possessions, positions, relationships, and the like—are going well? Do we not praise the Lord for these things when they come? Didn’t God promise His ancient people, if faithful, many material blessings, external props as it were? In the Bible physical and material blessings have always been just that—blessings from God.
But how do we relate to them? The economic mess has shown me just how frightfully tied in I am, and perhaps inevitably so, to these props. But it’s also shown me more clearly than ever that they are just that, props—things that can vanish as fast as they come. However this crisis ends, I pray that it will help me, and others, remember just how fleeting these props are, that they’re not worth selling our souls over (no matter how easily we can), and that our real 401(k)s better be in heaven where greedy bankers can’t dwindle them away.
Clothed in purple, a chain of gold, third in the kingdom? It’s easy to see how trivial all those props were. The challenge, now, is to see our own. 
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.