Monday, May 22, 2017

Reading Through the Book of Ecclesiastes

JobThis week I am reading through Ecclesiastes accompanied by , The Cornerstone Biblical Commentary – Ecclesiastes, by Tremper Longman III. Ecclesiastes, along with Job, provides an alternative view to Proverbs. Wisdom does not always bring success. It has limitations. Something more is needed to give ultimate meaning to life. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the commentary are in blue below…

The main theme of Ecclesiastes is that life lived without God is futile. Longman thinks the Book of Ecclesiastes containing two voices. One is the voice of an anonymous wise man. That voice is heard in the prologue and epilogue of the book. The second voice is the teacher who is being refuted, or sometimes clarified, by the wise man. The "teacher" is portrayed in terms of Solomon, a very unsuccessful wise man, whose investigation of "life under the sun" finds that it is meaningless, difficult, and futile. But the anonymous wise man, in the end, returns to the basic idea of Proverbs that meaning in life is found in the fear of the Lord and keeping His Commandments.

Apart from God, life is meaningless. This warning serves to undermine the tendency of all God’s human creatures to create their own meaning for their lives. Wisdom, relationships, power, money, influence, and other areas are all put under a microscope, and the conclusion is that “all is meaningless” without God. Ecclesiastes, 255

At this point, Jesus experienced the meaninglessness of this world in a way that Qoheleth could not imagine. Jesus did this in order to break the curse of that meaninglessness in our life. His resurrection infuses life with new meaning. In short, Jesus, the Messiah, is the answer to the problem expressed by the Teacher’s cry, “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”  Ecclesiastes, 260

In the prologue (1.2-11) the anonymous wise man refutes the idea that any meaning and purpose in life can be found apart from God. He uses the wind and the evaporation cycle as examples of how things in this world just go round and round and never get anywhere. If we are trying to create our own meaning in life we will find none.

The tone is somber and expresses the conclusion that while there is a lot of activity in the world, it is tedious. To use a modern image, we are like rats on a wheel, running constantly but getting nowhere. Ecclesiastes 1.2-11, 264

1.12 begins the section in which the teacher begins his search for meaning "under the sun." He wants to investigate a way to find meaning apart from God. In chapter 2 he investigates pleasure, work projects, and wisdom as things that could give his life meaning. He finds that pleasure-seeking only complicates life. Wisdom and work are good things, but all their benefits are negated by death. They may create good outcomes in life, but there is no guarantee that they will continue to the next generation. His advice to enjoy life and work are thin consolation to the meaninglessness that death brings.

Modern pleasure seekers need to listen closely as the Teacher announces his intention to investigate pleasure for possible meaning and then tells us his sad conclusion: the “good things” in life turned out to be meaningless. In the final analysis, they are useless. While there may be a momentary thrill in pleasure, there is no lasting significance. Therefore, pleasure is not ultimately satisfying. Ecclesiastes 2.1-11, 268

The unit ends with a strong expression of the Teacher’s exasperation (2:17). It says that he came to “hate life” because it is full of trouble and ultimately meaningless. Not only will death come to both wise and foolish, but both will be ultimately forgotten (2:16), a fate that is equally tragic to the Teacher. Ecclesiastes 2.12-17, 271

He reaches his negative verdict for a reason similar to that of the previous section. Death renders one’s work worthless. In the light of death, there is no ultimate meaning to one’s work...He cannot control his wealth beyond the grave. Ecclesiastes 2.18-26, 271

In chapter 3 the teacher bemoans the fact that, though God has given us a glimpse of eternity, we do not have enough of a glimpse of it to make it meaningful in our lives. Wisdom depends on knowing the right time to do something, but we don't have sufficient knowledge to be able to understand the times and act on them. He continues on that lack of justice in this world removes meaning from life. Even if one tries to set things right, who knows if that will be continued after one's death? Thus, in chapter 4, he despairs that it would probably be better to never have been born. He consoled himself that relationships make life better. It's better to have many friends, but even that does not make life meaningful. One can gain power in order to try to change the world, but even that will be forgotten.

This is why the Teacher refers to the “burden” that God has placed on humanity. Having a sense of something beyond us, but no ability to get at it, is exasperating to the TeacherEcclesiastes 3.1-15, 276

When the Teacher sees the oppressed, it does not prompt him to action; rather, he concludes that death is better than life. As a matter of fact, he says that it would be best not to have been born. Non-existence is preferable because one wouldn’t have to experience life at all. Ecclesiastes 4, 279

In chapters 5-6 the Teacher makes several observations about the hopelessness of finding real meaning "under the sun." To him, even God is distant and dangerous, and not much help. Oppression is everywhere and makes this difficult life even harder. One could live life for money, but money creates worry, extra responsibility, and parasites who try to live off of the one who has it. Ultimately we all die and can't take it with us anyway. His conclusion about life seems to be, "Life is hard and then you die."

When a hierarchical society like Israel’s goes haywire, the consequences can be more than frustrating. Everybody, from lower functionaries to the king himself, seeks their own good, and the common person gets the short end of the stick. The Teacher brought up this issue to remind us again just how difficult life is. Ecclesiastes 5.1-10, 287

Even if someone dies with lots of money, they can’t take it with them to the grave (5:15). It will do them no good there. In 5:16–17 the Teacher comes to the conclusion that hard work for the purpose of earning money or amassing wealth is pretty much a hopeless endeavor. People end up with nothing one way or the other. Ecclesiastes 5.10-6.9, 290

It is a sad tragedy when, after nine long months of expectation, a baby is born dead; but the Teacher says that that loss is nothing compared to the plight of the person who lives without finding meaning. The stillborn would have no consciousness of its loss, but the struggling long-lived person would not only ultimately die but also have to experience the sadness of life. Ecclesiastes 6, 292

In chapters 7-8 "a confused and struggling Qoheleth" (308) strings together some proverbs about how to navigate through this meaningless and difficult life "under the sun." He urges a realistic look at life that recognizes that death is coming, we all act foolishly, the world is not fair and we cannot control the outcome of our actions. He advocates not getting overly committed to anything, including goodness and wisdom, because you can't do it well enough and it does not guarantee success anyway. When one eliminates relationship with God from the equation the best we can do is distract ourselves.

Exactly what would constitute a good reputation for Qoheleth is not clearly stated, but we might imply from his own behavior that it means, at least in part, taking a long, hard look at reality and living in the light of the fact that everything is meaningless under the sun.  Ecclesiastes 7, 295

Wisdom is indeed hard to find, indeed impossible for unaided humans. However, wisdom can be found if one finds God. Qoheleth’s frustration does not lead him to recognize and express such a sublime truth. Qoheleth remains a confused wise man. Ecclesiastes 7, 302

The search is intense, but the discovery is disappointing. No matter how much wisdom one has, that person does not know everything. This limitation is a great disappointment to Qoheleth. Ecclesiastes 8.16-17, 308

In 9-10 Qoholeth observes that death comes to all no matter how they live life. He sees life, and maybe God, as being unfair because the same end comes to all and good deeds and wise actions are not always rewarded. Accidents and the foolish actions of others can negate wise plans and actions. Nevertheless, it is better to be wise and not make life unnecessarily hard on oneself. Qoholeth does point out here than any worldview that cannot provide ultimate meaning in the face of death is worthless.

Qoheleth describes death as the ultimate end for everyone, an end that renders every accomplishment in life without value. In addition, he talks again about human inability to control one’s fate and determine the right time for an action...Why do the righteous, those who follow God, get no better treatment than sinners who ignore him? Ecclesiastes 9, 310

No matter how much good or benefit can be achieved by the wise, it can all be undone by the presence of just a pinch of sin. Ecclesiastes 10.1, 314

Qoheleth has repeatedly acknowledged the providence of God. God knows the times (3:1–15). He is in charge of how events work themselves out. On the human side, however, we are ignorant. Time and chance rule all (9:11). We do not know what God has in store for us now or in the future (9:1). In such a world (“under the sun”), our good, constructive intentions can turn disastrous, and wisdom is of limited value as we struggle with the “accidents” of life. Ecclesiastes 9-10, 317

In light of death and the unfairness of life, Qoholeth advises us to diversify our actions, work hard and make our wise investments while young. He recognizes that God will judge all our actions, but does not seem to see anything beyond death. He concludes, sadly, that life has no ultimate meaning.

The Teacher is skeptical about life to be sure. From a human perspective, all of life is random and uncontrollable, but that should not lead to passivity; it should lead to action. Ecclesiastes 11, 324

While a person ages and grows near death, the world still goes on. The most catastrophic event of our lives—its end—will, Qoheleth imagines, have virtually no effect on the world. Ecclesiastes 12.1-7, 329

Fortunately, this is not the conclusion of the book. The narrator takes us back "above the sun" to the revelation of the Torah and prophets. Real wisdom is found in relationship with God. He will provide the "tree of life" to those who trust Him in His coming kingdom. Death will be defeated.

The frame narrator, who is the controlling voice of the book of Ecclesiastes, concludes the book. He has exposed his son to the “under the sun” thinking of a confused wise man in Israel. He has not written him off by any stretch of the imagination. Qoheleth rightly understood the frustration of a world under the effects of the Fall. Life is hard, and then we die. However, the frame narrator has not let the story conclude with an affirmation of the meaninglessness of the world—he has rather reaffirmed the need for a good relationship with God and in so doing has reaffirmed the entire body of authoritative literature that we today know as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.  Ecclesiastes 12.8-14, 334

Ecclesiastes forces us to take a realistic look at the things that we use in life to give us meaning. Anything that passes away with death cannot provide meaning. We have a better look at what is beyond death than Qoholeth did because Christ has won the victory over death. Ultimate meaning is found in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This, only, gives meaning to our lives "under the sun."

Because of his death and resurrection, we may indeed find meaning in life in this world, even though we experience its hard knocks. Even though death still affects our lives, we know that Jesus has defeated death so it no longer holds us forever. He died so that we may live. 334

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