Ecclesiastes - Reality & Wisdom in the Midst of the Unrealistic & Foolish
Updated: Jan 3, 2019
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.
For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for "'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, "'For we are indeed his offspring.'
Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
An Introduction to Ecclesiastes
Life, death, love, hate, family, work, wealth, time and terror. The mysteries of fallen human existence are self-admitted and well documented, and because of our appetite for social media who we are and what we are capable of (both good and bad) are just simply, as they say "out there." For most Americans we are living life pretty close to how we want to live it. And for most of us, we are asking just about every question under the sun, while pretty much having access to everything under it as well. But once we have exhausted our vain dabbling into secular existence, when we have finished filtering all of life and people through our lens of negativity and pessimism, and when we are finally worn out and sick to death of wallowing in our self-loathing and self-pitied pride - Ecclesiastes will tell us there is something different and there is something more! We ask, "What is it?" Ecclesiastes will tell us - there is God. Because there is God there will be justice and peace one day. At the end of the day we humans do not know all the answers nor do we even ask all the right questions. But please believe me it does not mean there are no answers even to the wrong questions. That is why Ecclesiastes calls us to look for reality and wisdom in the midst of the unrealistic and foolish - because God is the answer.
The Historical Context to Ecclesiastes
One: The Name
The Hebrew name was the phrase from chapter 1, verse 1, "the Words of Qoheleth (the preacher), the son of David, king in Jerusalem."
The book was called "Ecclesiastes," which is a Latinized form from the Septuagint. This is the Greek term for "one who assembles," and from the root "to call out."
· Literal Meaning - a teacher or preacher who assembles an audience.
· Metaphorical Meaning - a gatherer of truth.
· Post-Modern Meaning - one who gathers different opinions and decides which more accurately fits personal narrative.
Two: The Veracity
Ecclesiastes is a distinct example of unorthodox wisdom literature. It is an extended treatment of a subject and, like Job, often challenges orthodox wisdom and traditional teachings. It is part of the third division of the Hebrew canon called "The Writings.” It is also part of a special grouping of five small books called the "Megilloth" or "five scrolls." Each of the five were read at an annual Jewish feast day. Ecclesiastes was read at the Feast of Tabernacles.
Because of the skeptical tone and somewhat pessimistic nature of this book it was rejected by the conservative rabbinical school of Shammai but advocated by the liberal rabbinical school of Hillel. This discussion continued even until the time of Jamnia after the fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70-90). These ongoing concerns and discussions furthered the acceptance and canonization process of Ecclesiastes and several other books of the OT as well. Some of the reasons and concerns that caused hesitancy for these books were…
· Ecclesiastes - bitter, negative, non-traditional spirit
· Song of Songs - open affirmation of physical or sexual love
· Esther - no mention of God or Jewish Temple
· Ezekiel - his Temple was different from Moses'
· Daniel - concerns over the apocalyptic prophecies of chapters 7-12
Ultimately (as we know), Ecclesiastes and the other books mentioned were all accepted and were all canonized. Ecclesiastes was finally accepted because of its strong connections to the attributes of Solomon, and, for all of its no-traditional wisdom has a very traditional conclusion that makes real and relatable connections to human experience. The book also reveals the confusion and the grind of the real-life faith struggles for the Jewish community. Having said that, it is very interesting to see all skepticism and pessimism from Ecclesiastes truly reflected in similar struggles for the post-modern age (of which we live).
Three: The Literary Style
Ecclesiastes is not only a collection of wisdom material; it is also a narrative. It is more like a life's journal than a structured literary work. It is similar to rabbinical teaching style called "pearls on a string." Pearls of wisdom that help one process life, realizations, actualities, inevitabilities, and finally the grand acknowledgement of the existence and sovereignty of God.
To be understood in context, Ecclesiastes (like the book and story of Job) must be interpreted as a whole - not as a cut and paste Twitter quote. Obvious is the author’s sarcastic (almost bitter) look at the irony of life without God. A key phrase used for this is "under the sun," (used 31 times). This repetitive theme sustains the focus on the human tensions of both the illusions and delusions of the human existence (until the chapter 12 epilogue of course). Clearly the writer insists the reader take a sober and honest look at the irony of life without God.
The book of Ecclesiastes is also characterized by polar opposites (contrasting parallels). For example:
· wisdom vs. folly (foolishness)
· good vs. evil
· light vs. dark
· love vs. hate
· life vs. death
· this world (temporal) vs. the world to come (eternal)
Finally, Ecclesiastes is written in the style of Old Testament Wisdom Literature (monotheistic, judgment day, future hope, goodness and fairness of God, revelation [Scripture] is true and secure.
Simple, the book is anonymous. However, there are credible Jewish traditions that say Ecclesiastes was one of three books written by Solomon. Song of Songs when he was young, Proverbs when he was middle aged, and Ecclesiastes when he was old cynical and bitter. It’s obvious that Solomon is obviously the literary subject of chapters 1-2 because of references to wisdom, wealth and position. But there are also serious hints within the text that he is not the true author. One being that his name is never mentioned, the second, found in chapter 8, where advice is given on how to act and not to act in the King's presence.
Five: The Date
Most bible scholars and historians will offer a suggested writing date for Ecclesiastes and then change it. The most common suggestions date the writing at anywhere from 500 to 300 B.C. However, there are two issues related to its writing date: when the book was composed, and when it was put in its final canonical form. The historical setting must be after Solomon's day, because he is used as a literary object lesson in chapters 1-2. The final form of the book points to a later date, because the stylistic form of the Hebrew is post-exilic but before 400-300 b.c., but the use of Aramaic words and expressions would seem to push it back to an early one.
Back and forth the debate goes. There are literary parallels in Phoenician wisdom literature of about 600-400 b.c., and then there are allusions to Ecclesiastes that appear in the writing of Ben Sirach, Ecclesiasticus, which was written about 180 b.c.
Important to note that there have been several small parts of Ecclesiastes found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. These have been dated as late as the second century b.c.
Six: The Theology
The very fact of this book's presence in the Canon seems to imply that God does not reject the sincere, doubtful seeker - the person with more questions than answers. The asking of ultimate questions is not discouraged.
Ecclesiastes assumes the existence of God and is written within the stream of the Old Testament faith. Evil is a result of mankind's fall, not God (Ecclesiastes 7:29; 9:3). This is not the world God intended it to be!
God's ways cannot be known. Mankind can struggle for meaning in life, but it cannot be found without God! It doubts the easy orthodox views on the afterlife and doubts mankind's ability to know God, but still God is gracious and present. The world, as it is, is unfair and cruel; there must be something more, if God's promises are true! Be content with life—it is from God. Enjoy it when and where you can (2:24-26; 3:12, 13, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9). Simplistic answers that do not fit life experiences are "no" answers. We must face the reality of the meaninglessness of life if indeed there is no God.
Seven: The Main Message
The main message of Ecclesiastes is to show the futility of human existence apart from God. It is a natural apologetics to convert self-sufficient materialists or secularized intellectuals. Many rebellious converts have confessed that in the days of their infidelity and excess, Ecclesiastes exercised a mysterious pull on them, in expressing the emptiness of life and redirecting toward God. Here is an example of this reality...
"If the vanity of all reality is truly the preacher's own conclusion, it is only because he initially limits his observations to a reality without the God of the Old Testament; then when he finally introduces God as source, solution, and sovereign do the pessimistic views and sarcastic expressions of life disappear and are replaced by a more orthodox attitude articulated in the final epilogue of chapter 12, verses 13-14."
A good portion of Ecclesiastes has the feel and vibe of being agnostic towards God and the afterlife in the sense that it commits so much time processing the questions of current and temporal reality. That ultimately is the beauty and wisdom of the Ecclesiastical set-up! The author wisely waits patiently to the end to ask and answer the questions of the ultimate and eternal reality.
For Jews, it showed the error of simplistic overstatements made by traditional theologians (the two ways). For godless pagans, it shows the bankruptcy of earthly life without God. Most often easy answers to life's questions are usually wrong.
There is a beautiful mystery even for faith! There is mystery in life, in nature, in humanity, and in God. The key is found in actual faith, not just the knowledge of faith; in family, not possessions; and in God, not human wisdom or actions. The simple pleasures of life: family, work, friends, food provide happiness in this life. The next life is veiled, but God is there! A revelation of life does not reveal all - but God's revelation of life in Christ will.
We are going to find reality and wisdom in the midst of the unrealistic and foolish. Here is our focus for that mission the next few weeks.
· The Illusion of Happiness and the Delusion of Satisfaction
· The Real Struggle to Faith and Obedience
· Contentment in the Pleasures and Pressures of Home and Family
· The Search for One's Meaning and One's Life Work