Coram Deo and Wisdom

Coram Deo, a fitting theme as we study the book of Ecclesiastes.  “Before the face of God.”  How do you live life?  As though God was very near, a real help in time of trouble, always listening, active?  Does He give your life meaning and purpose?  Does God care about you, is He just, and is He good?

We will only be studying the big picture, and hot topics of this book, taking 2-3 weeks to cover it; before we move into the book of Micah.

This study is very fitting in a season such as we find ourselves in; our source of wisdom matters, where we take our questions matters; how we seek to make meaning of our world and our circumstances is crucial–not only to our well being, but for the generation that is coming up after us.  

The Lord favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindness.

Psalm 147:11

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.

1 Corinthians 14:20

As with any book of the Bible, we ask: How does this book point us to Christ, helping us to understand God’s redemptive work, and His promise originally given in Genesis 3:15?  

In particular, we will ask: how does this book show us the natural human tendency to be like Eve, trusting our own powers of deduction and not wanting to turn to God for knowledge-but eating from a tree that can replace God and leave us feeling autonomous?

Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom books.  This can be deceiving if we think “well, everything in the book is wise, I can learn to copy this person, and do as he did…I can hold fast to everything found in Ecceslesiastes.”  Well, no, not quite.  

“Wisdom can be defined as ‘the quest for self-understanding in terms of relationships with things, people, and the Creator’ that moves on three levels.” 

Richard P. Belcher Jr. Finding Favour in the Sight of God: a Theology of Wisdom Literature. New Studies in Biblical Theology 46, edited by D.A. Carson.  (Apollos: Downers Grove, IL; 2018), 6.

From creation, from all of nature, we find wisdom that helps with survival and well-being; Juridical and practical wisdom helps with relationships and an ordered society; and theological wisdom which cannot be sought apart from what God has revealed. 

“God authorizes humans beings to go out into the world to investigate it, to draw conclusions concerning behaviour that leads to blessing, and behaviour that leads to negative consequences.” 

Belcher, 7.

The difference between a wise person and our Qohelet:  seeing verses trying;  recognizing vs. testing.  Qohelet cannot accept another’s word, he must try madness and folly for himself.  He wants to overdo everything to see the effect, rather than being taught.  Belcher, 6-7  

Style of the book

Framed Autobiography, with our author as “Qoheleth”, or preacher.  The narrator (writing in third person in 7:27) frames Qoheleth’s quest for wisdom and folly with an introduction and epilogue in 1:1-11 and 12:8ff.  This means we read this not as a presentation of wisdom, but as a presentation of Qohelet’s search.   

All throughout, Qohelet focuses on the negative.  We sometimes focus on the hidden gems that seem positive–most preachers do as they approach Ecclesiastes–but overall, Qohelet’s focus is on the negative; he believes God’s wisdom doesn’t work, he lives as though all you have is today and you better eat and drink and be merry, it is all you have.  Qohelet has no eschatology.  

Beloved, we ought to feel tension as we read–for Qohelet (as is the struggle of all mankind, see verse 1:13)  is trying to make sense of the world in which he lives.  We are meaning makers…we are in this same struggle.  The book of Ecclesiastes ought to help us see our own natural tendency to think and act autonomously, as Qohelet did; and the tendency to follow humanist philosophy, as Qohelet did.  Yet–we ought to hear the narrator who writes the introduction and the epilogue tell us to fear God and walk in His ways, obey His commands; and we need to recognize the difference.  

Faith vs. autonomy.  

This book is so very relevant in every generation–but in our own, we see so many struggles rooted in this desire to be autonomous.  We do not want to live as creators.  Evolution, meaningless atoms colliding, gender as social construct, justice as socialism, dignity found only in the image of God discarded, pride and arrogance rearing up from every friend with a differing opinion…  Will we seek wisdom as Qohelet did–and view the world so negatively, or as we have been commanded to (i.e. ‘seek Me that you may live’)?  As James tells us, there is godly wisdom and demonic wisdom, which do we choose to walk in?  Which do we seek?  How do we know? 

Ultimately, there is a writer of the Introduction and Epilogue, the epilogue affirms traditional Proverbs and teachings of Israel, while Qohelet has another view of “fear” and a desire to seek both wisdom and foolishness apart from God in order to make meaning of his world.  (we will discuss the view of ‘fear’ next week!)

Does he claim to have found wisdom, in all his searching and trying?  7:23, 28; 8:1, 17. Life is fleeting, like a breath, yes–but what conclusions does he run toward? And are these godly conclusions? As we study and see how “all is vanity” tends to be the natural human tendency, how can we learn to recognize what is godly, and what is not?

Scattered

God gives common grace, His Spirit is at work everywhere, He scatters wisdom and truth here and there; but to live off of that is futile, vain–even unbelievers recognize and feel this.  Some keep searching and do not appear to recognize this… And some, like Qohelet, despair and claim to hate life.  

Qohelet does not seek God; he lets his troubles dominate his thinking and seeking–so much so “that he questions the traditional view of divine retribution”  (Belcher 139).   When I read this–I thought “whoa! Aha!!!  Today still!”  So many Christians are leaving the church because they cannot believe God has anger or  wrath, they redefine sin, and say God loves love so much that He doesn’t care  about your choices, so long as you believe you are loving.  The author of the Bible Project even goes so far as to say hell is a human construct, that God has nothing to do with it, He would not create a hell, because He is a God of love.  This wisdom is not from above.

Much of what you see in Ecclessiastes is OPPOSITE of Proverbs, Psalms and other wisdom passages.  The point of Ecclesiastes is not to take it all in, memorize it and live by it.  It shows us the FOOLISHNESS of temporal wisdom, and temporal satisfaction; the vanity of life apart from the true fear of YHWH. 

As we read of Qohelet’s struggles, we can agree with the narrator’s epilogue–”well then, since life apart out of sync with God is so frustrating, let us fear God and keep His commands.”  How does this compare with Jesus’ teachings?  (try John 8:31-36, 14:15, 14:21-23, 14:27-31) 

So as we go through this week and next, if a proverb or psalm, or Job, or NT teaching comes to mind—please share!  This is a fun way to see the difference of humanist wisdom (life apart from the Fear of YHWH) and godly wisdom.

….this struggle is common in the OT.  Trying to understand the prosperity of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous is not an isolated problem…when the problems of life begin to dominate people’s thinking, they can lose the very foundation of wisdom in the difficulty of trying to explain life’s problems.  The book of Ecclesiastes sets forth Qohelet’s ‘under the sun’ struggle to show the danger of speculative, doubting wisdom and remind God’s people of the true foundation of wisdom; a reverent trust in God and His revelation.

Belcher, 186.

What dominates your thinking as you seek wisdom?  Are doubts leading you, are you listening to them rather than voicing them to God?

Before we begin to walk through the first several chapters (big ideas mainly), Psalm 73 as a FOIL.  Literary device.  On the one hand WISDOM and Fear of YHWH (Asaph in Psalm 73).  The FOIL would be speculative wisdom and fear of being near to a God who cannot be trusted, who seems to not offer false wisdom, and might change His mind (Qohelet in Ecclesiastes). Asaph or Qohelet. Please pause here to read that Psalm. The themes, the struggles, the words, the questions, and the despair are all repeated in Ecclesiastes. But Asaph returns to the sanctuary to seek wisdom.

Chapter 1

In which Quohelet declares “I’ll try folly!!!  I’ll try madness!!!”  The narrator sums up Quohelet’s findings in the first 11 verses, then presents Quohelet’s quest.    1:8…have we not all felt this???  Weary?  Yet we have the Spirit urging us to cry out Abba! Father! And “come Lord Jesus!’ as well as refreshing us, renewing us, reminding us that nothing will separate us from His love–not even earthly circumstances that are frustratingly vain and fleeting… He uses this word “vanity/fleeting” 38 times.

Qohelet seeks all the things, not just wisdom. He doesn’t shrink back from what God says is sinful, he tries that too.  Compare to Proverbs 1:7, 22, 29-33

What is his portion? (hint: not the same as the Psalmists who claim YHWH is my portion)  2:10; 3:22; 5:18-19; 9:6-9; 11:2

Qohelet is always asking “What profit?”  Commercial term, he cares for the bottom line, for top dollar.  There seems to be no earthly gain in following God’s design. 2:22, 3:9, 5:11

What does Jesus say to labor for?  What does He say we should store up for ourselves?

Q:  Why is 1:18 NOT exactly a trustworthy gem?  (see Psalm 119:97ff).  He claims this is grievous–how does this align with the task we are truly called to?  We are meaning makers, we are to seek out wisdom and knowledge–but we come to Jesus who says “Come to me, learn…My yoke is easy and My burden light.”  We sit at His feet without feeling the weight of the world, delighting to learn. We listen as Peter says “grow in grace and knowledge” and we do not reply “NO!  Knowledge and wisdom are grievous!”  It is true that as we have more knowledge of what is going on in the world, and how little I can do to change it, I can grow weary, I can despair.  But abiding in Christ assures me that I am not alone, His power is at work, He will grant me fortitude to walk with Him through this.

Chapter Two

2:1-2  Remember our verse above instructing us to be innocent of evil? Qohelet invites you rather to try it, its up to you, whatever you want.  Whatever you deem best.  You can’t know unless you try, right?  Materialists, humanists, agnostics will approve of Qohelet’s mindset, agreeing that you need empirical data before knowing.  You cannot trust authority in humanism, no one has the right to tell you.  You do you.  

But if you were created, by a Creator, does He have the right to tell you, teach you, guide you?  And if He says to walk in the light rather than darkness?  

2:3  how very Hellenistic.  Even up through Jesus’ time–to seek wisdom, to make decisions, to worship gods and goddesses,  men of high rank must be drunk, at a meal, with prostitutes…  I read a fascinating book about the history of this last spring.  There is no wisdom in these practices.

2:10 No self control, he withheld no pleasure from himself–yet it was all vanity.

2:14-17  Qohelet is reduced to asking: what is the point?  We all die!!!  Do you see Qohelet’s lack of eschatology?  He has no hope; yet we are a people of hope.  True Hope–not a hope that is fulfilled in this world, but one that reminds us we are created for the next; Christ in you the hope of glory; a hope that cannot be reduced to a slogan or platitude, but one that is your anchor in the storms of life.  We hope because we now God will fulfill His promises, rather than our humanist wish-dreams. Speculative philosophy has led Qohelet to hating life.  

2:18-23  Not only does he hate life, but he hates all “his toil.” He is having a grown up temper tantrum: no fair!!!!  He views justice very differently than the God of justice. It is somehow contemptible, hateful, and unfair that when he dies he cannot take all that he’s toiled for with him; or perhaps that he cannot live forever in his success. Every day is full of sorry and work is vexing; so he assigns to God that the only ‘reward’ is being able to eat and drink and find some little enjoyment.

And of course this too is vanity, vain, like chasing wind. 

Chapter Three

A beautiful poem on time, seems to agree with Proverbs on meaningfulness and purpose, and that there are appropriate times for varying actions.  Yet, can people do the right thing at the right time?  3:11…no.  NOPE.  The best you can do is try to enjoy yourself.  Or, live paycheck to paycheck and buy all the things and experiences on credit card because YOLO!

Very utilitarian; unless I am working toward a goal…unless this is ‘useful’ for making money and prospering in the flesh, why do it?  Qohelet even scorns laughter, pleasure; but God created both–and they are good.  At His right hand are pleasures forevermore; pleasures that have no negative or evil consequences.  Pleasures that will not lead to tears or remorse.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied, blessed, delighted.     

3:18  “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”  How often do we view life as a test from God?  How often do we ask ourselves to figure out what He is trying to teach us while in the midst of troubling circumstances?  Is this how Jesus taught us to view life?  And can we agree with Qohelet that we are but beasts??? 

Now, especially, it is important to recognize the difference between creatures created in God’s image, and those that are not.  1 Cor 15:39   “all flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts…”  Falling for Qohelet’s conclusions leads to Naturalism, and Materialism, and Agnosticism; a view that denigrates our bodies, and takes away our hope. 

We are whole people, have a wholistic view of your ‘self’…you are not just like beasts, you are not just a construct of thought and feeling.  It is not just the inner you that matters.  (remember our FOIL? Read Psalm 73:22)

Next week we will look through the remaining chapters for what Qohelet has to say about fearing God, justice, and his conclusions; comparing them to the conclusions of the Epilogue, and of the rest of the Scriptures.

Photo by Aaron Buren on Unsplash

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