The Royal Experiment

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.

Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God. 
Sometimes, in order to discover the truth, you have to step up and find out for yourself.
That was the conclusion of Barry Marshall, a young Australian medical resident, regarding his research into peptic ulcers in the early 1980s. 
A peptic ulcer is a rift in the lining of the stomach, duodenum, or esophagus.  The unwelcome result is chronic discomfort that registers somewhere between a dull ache and relentless burning.  Doctors have long been perplexed as to the origin of these sores.  By the end of the 20th century, they had settled on a handful of culprits:

  • Excess stomach acid
  • A stressful lifestyle
  • Irritation from eating spicy foods
  • Rooting for the NFL’s Detroit Lions 

Suggested therapies included drinking milk, embracing a slower pace of life, and toning down the fire of your favorite salsa.

Some researchers, however, wondered if ulcers might be due to the activity of microbes.  If that were true, all the classic remedies wouldn’t be cures.  They would simply be ways to pacify the stomach-churning symptoms.  But could bacteria actually survive in the acidic ocean of a human digestive system?

Marshall provided the definitive answer while working at Royal Perth Hospital.  He identified a new species of bacteria living in the stomachs of 13 individuals.  Significantly, all 13 patients had peptic ulcers.

Was it possible that this squiggly bacterium, Helicobacter pylori (or H. pylori), was causing the ulcers?

After two years of failed tests on mice, Marshall realized that the only way to know for sure was to experiment on a human being.  He decided he was just the guy to give it a shot. 

In July 1984, without even telling his wife, he choked down a beaker filled with countless billions of H. pylori.  In the words of journalist Steven D. Levitt: “Barry Marshall was probably the only person in human history rooting for himself to get an ulcer.”  He wondered how long he might have to wait before something happened. 

The answer?  Not very long.

Within five days he was vomiting up a storm.  After 10 days he biopsied his stomach and discovered that it had become a thriving metropolis of H. pylori.  Marshall ultimately demonstrated that H. pylori was indeed the cause of most peptic ulcers, and at least one form of stomach cancer. 

The upshot?  There was now an actual cure for ulcers, and not just a strategy for addressing the symptoms.  Antibiotics could relieve an incredible amount of suffering.

For his efforts in overturning conventional wisdom with innovative experimentation – not to mention his willingness to chug a bacteriological cocktail for the good of humanity – Marshall received the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine along with his co-worker Robin Warren. 

Sometimes, in order to discover the truth, you have to step up and find out for yourself.

That also proved to be true for the author of the book of Ecclesiastes.  The clues to his identity are found in the first verse of the first chapter: “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” 

Within the next few paragraphs, we will discover that this king is renowned for his wisdom, authority, and breadth of personal experience.  Who might fit that bill?  Traditionally, the choice has been Solomon, one of David’s sons who ascended to the throne in Jerusalem immediately after his father’s 40-year reign.  A majority of Jewish and Christian scholars over the centuries have assumed his authorship – and have likewise associated his name with the wisdom book called Song of Songs (sometimes known as Song of Solomon). 

If we’re willing to agree that the question of authorship is “interesting but not essential,” let’s look at something a bit more intriguing.  It’s the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is here translated “Teacher.”  In other Bible versions it is rendered “Preacher,” “Gatherer,” and “Quester” – someone who draws people together, searches out the truth, and reports what he finds. 

When the ancient Hebrew text was translated into Greek before the time of Jesus, the word Qoheleth became the word “Ecclesiastes.”  Thus, if you’ve never warmed up to that odd, 12-letter word that starts with “E,” you can always tell others that you’re spending the month of August checking out the Preacher Book – and you will be quite accurate.

So, what does the Preacher or Teacher decide to do?

Look at 1:12-13: “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.”  When Solomon looks around the world and notices everything that is happening “under the sun,” he wonders what it all means.  What’s the point of working?  What’s the point of trying to get rich?  What’s the point of falling in love?  Doesn’t death make all of this irrelevant?

Somebody should find out.  In order to discover the truth, somebody should step up, go everywhere, try everything, and see for himself if life makes sense. 

And he decides he is just the right guy to give it a shot.

Thus begins the Royal Experiment.  Solomon takes a deep dive into wisdom and study (1:17), surrenders himself to the pursuit of pleasure (2:1), makes multiple trips to the wine cellar (2:3), builds houses and gardens that might have been worthy of HGTV or the Magnolia Network (2:4-5), and accumulates slaves, herds, flocks, silver, gold, and of course a royal harem (2:7-8).

I know what you’re thinking.  This experiment sure seems a lot more fun than drinking a beaker full of pestilent bacteria.

Should we really applaud Solomon for trying to win the Nobel Prize for self-indulgence?

But keep reading.  Look at his preliminary conclusion in 2:17: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” The king has every resource and every privilege.  But none of it translates into peace of heart. 

In other words, the Royal Experiment does not turn out to be a joyful experience. 

Last week, when a single person won the $1.08 billion Powerball jackpot at a mini-market in downtown Los Angeles, did you sigh deeply, if only for a moment, and think, “Wow, that could have been me – and Lord, I promise that if I had held the winning ticket, I would have been so much more grateful and generous than that winner”? 

One reason the book of Ecclesiastes is in our Bibles is that someone – in this case, an exceedingly rich and powerful monarch – needs to have a little talk with us.

He needs to look us right in the eye and say, “No, your life would not be better if you had a billion dollars.  You wouldn’t be happier.  You wouldn’t be nicer.  Your bank account has nothing to do with the things in life that really matter.”

Which is another way of saying that we must always come back to the bottom-line concerning life under the sun:  Outside of God, Everything is Meaningless

That may be hard for us to believe. 

But the Preacher says, “Trust me.  It’s true.  And it’s not a bitter pill to swallow.”