This is the second part of our discussion of Ecclesiastes. By way of reminder, the style of Ecclesiastes (which we began discussing here) is “Framed Autobiography” with the Intro and Epilogue by one author; and Qohelet’s quest for “wisdom, folly and madness” as he makes meaning of the world he lives in from 1:12-12:7. If you haven’t read the first post, please do!
We are covering the big topics in only two weeks, and therefore this is not a verse-by-verse post.
This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughtout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope…Ecclesiastes. 9:3-4
No eschatology (discussed last week); no hope; Qohelet has adopted a materialist/naturalist view of the universe. This is all that there is. Hebrews 6 tells us of those who taste of the Spirit but never know Him; this is an example–the partial, temporal, earthly experience of His common grace only leaves us feeling that ‘all is vanity.’ They are stuck with an ‘under the sun’ worldview or mindset.
How does verse 11:8 fit in? If a man lives a great many years, let him rejoice in them all? But, all is vanity, and he hates life. He is mixed. He is not steadfast.
Compare 11:9 with Numbers 15:39 and Jeremiah 17. Qohelet has already made it clear to us that he hates life, despairs often, and believes everything is vanity, meaningless. Yet here he calls old men to rejoice. There is no heart of wisdom to ‘number your days’ in a godly fashion. This is not in accord with Jesus calling His disciples to be faithful knowing He will return at any moment (see here). He says to rejoice now because the end is futility.
He then tells young men to “follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes.” Not the verse we want spoken out of context to our children! This is a call to materialism at its finest. YOLO! Run up the credit cards! Chase after what is fleeting because what else is there to do! Trust your heart, your feelings are “who you really are” (not image of God, no biological reality, no social responsibility, no thought for the steadfast love of the Covenant-Keeping God, YHWH.). We cannot agree with Qohelet, and that is why this struggle is pictured so vividly here in Scripture.
The struggle is real. Trying to make meaning of life apart from knowing God and being known by Him leads always to futility. Peace and joy and purpose come from “seeking the ancient paths” and “seeking Him that we may live” and knowing the One True God!
Numbers 15 (and other OT passages) tell us to follow after YHWH rather than our hearts; when He cleanses and purifies us, we are willing to put to death whatever in our hearts is contrary to His Glory. When our desires are freed from slavery to sin (John 8; Romans 6) then we are truly free to enjoy following after God with our whole heart!
Jeremiah 17 reminds us that with an iron stylus, diamond tipped, our sins are written on our hearts. Follow your heart means keeping walking in your sins (pop back over to John 8:31ff to remind see how Jesus taught on this. You are a slave to sin unless He frees you. Your desires are running amok unless He frees you. (See also Philippians 3:18-19; Titus 3:2-7–enslaved…).
Fear of God
For Qohelet, fear of God is as you would fear a lion about to pounce on you, not the awe and wonder and worship due to YHWH as we gaze upon His glory and splendor and majesty.
Look through these verses: 3:14; 5:6; 7:18; 8:12-13
Qohelet cautions us about being wise or good, why? What New Testament Epistles come to mind as you think “hmmm, is this how I should live?” He is cautious, because again–being wise and righteous is just as meaningless as being foolish and wicked, Qohelet only sees with his eyes, and since death comes to both, why bother? He never views life from an eternal perspective (2 Cor 4).
As you begin Ecclesiastes 5; Compare to Hosea 14:1-2 where we see the beauty of words. Qohelet is silent, not out of worship or devotion but ignorance of God’s goodness.
To Qohelet, God is far, impersonal. Not near. Rather than cry out, pour out your heart, join in corporate worship…shut up, be afraid…bide your time till you can leave and go eat and drink… How would Ezra compare with this? Is God’s desire to dwell with His people? Qohelet does not recognize this. Psalm 138; 73:28!
Qohelet uses name “Elohim” but never YHWH. Why? Because the nearness of God is frightening, there is no love, no honor, no desire to be in His presence.
Qohelet is afraid of Divine Retribution 5:6; 8:12f; 7:18. Yet, God can not be trusted here and now because life is not fair. Thus we fear by trying not to draw His attention…just eat drink and enjoy yourself as best you can, and stay out of His view if possible.
5:10-end if ever you wanted a passage to justify (falsely) the YOLO and “live for today” mindset here it is. Yet, we would be foolish to buy into it… Proverbs tells us “Do not trust in riches” and Qohelet leads us to think “…quick, use them!!! Buy all the things!!!!” Is this the voice of faith, and of one who delights in YHWH? (no)
In Chapter 8, after discussing his ceaseless desire to chase enjoyment (not joy mind you; and not the blessings of God) Qohelet reiterates that God’s blessings are random and wisdom is not trustworthy. Qohelet’s humanist standpoint leads to meaninglessness, and another speculative reason not to come near to God, to seek Him, to know Him. We know we can trust Him; but listening closely to speculative wisdom would lead us to the same angst and despair as Qohelet.
Chapter nine opens with Qohelet despairing once again: Why be wise, or good? You are in the hands of God, and have no idea how He will treat you. There is no certainty concerning God’s character, because the world around seems so unfair.
Qohelet would rather honor and fear Chance, Fate; which all the surrounding culture firmly believed in. These sections are particularly helpful to our understanding the need to daily abide in Him rather than running away when our hearts (desires, will, reasoning) leads us to question God’s character. Remember the FOIL of Asaph in Psalm 73, who went through a similar season, and found shalom when he returned to the sanctuary and declared that the nearness of God is his good.
Beginning a Biblical View of Justice
Our discussion of this topic will continue through our study of Micah; here we make a beginning. We are going to begin today in Ecclesiastes 3:16: In the place of justice and righteousness there is wickedness.
Turn to Amos 5:11-15; 18-24. The Day of YHWH. Vengence belongs to God, and He is patient; the day will come. Justice is always coupled with Righteousness. No Biblical justice apart from righteousness. It is not up to our feelings, our definitions, or even our desire for equity. Even when Jesus teaches His disciples, He tells them to “judge with righteous judgement.” Many think Biblical Justice includes only “judge not lest…” But that is one facet, one part, not the whole.
3:16-4, no justice on earth, no point to righteous living–just enjoy yourself–God is not near; He will do something in the end, but He is not a help, He does not act. You are on your own…and so again, why choose righteousness when the outcome is the same for righteous and wicked? Just weigh your options, do what suits your fancy, and stop the vanity of trying to be wise or righteous. 🙁
Justice 3:16 Qohelet sees no justice, and if we are honest, we too see a lot of injustice. This makes sense to us in Christ, because we know that only those who love God can walk justly (even Hammurabi only came so close…). Remember, justice and righteousness are inseparable.
It is not only God that Qohelet holds responsible, it is also the earthly rulers. In Ecclesiastes 5:8 he cautions against being shocked at oppression and injustice because rulers are too busy scratching each other’s back, they are a part of the problem. This is not justice, like Qohelet we should not be shocked, but what conclusions should we draw? Should this lead us to share Qohelet’s indifference?
Peter Kreeft, in his book Back to Virtue, says there are many misunderstandings, just as believing (see page 66): Justice is mathematical, impersonal; external and social. We can remind ourselves then that justice involves our inner man; it is not impersonal for God is not impersonal, and is not social in the sense of being decided on or in the hands of society–God determines what is Just, not the masses.
So, Biblical Justice includes Deuteronomy 24:16; 32:41; Romans 12:19; Ezekiel 18; Jeremiah 31:30 (Please read those before continuing). In Qohelet’s time, Israel was to establish both civil law, and temple worship; intertwined. Different in NT, with the Kingdom of God–His Church–scattered among the nations.
The Church is not to try to take over or create one nation; nor should the Church give its role (to spread well-being and flourishing in the Gospel) to the State. Rather, civil law is to correct imbalances, punish evil, restrain evil, and praise good. Church has the role of being salt and light, spreading His healing. Government not to be therapeutic or religious or to treat their citizens as government-owned-property. True ‘injustice’ goes against not just civil law, but also God’s morality. Earthly justice is good, but cannot save us, or own us, or cause flourishing. As seen in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, civil authorities promote good by restraining evil, and praising what is good.
In a fallen world, we will see oppression; we will see that wisdom does not guarantee a specific outcome; we will experience the rivalry that exists among neighbors and co-workers; we will be let down; will be perplexed (2 Cor 4, “but not despairing…” such a good chapter to ponder!) How will we, if we have faith in the One True God, respond?
Chapter 10, a few proverbs that ring true according to the rest of Scripture; but again, Qohelet’s conclusion to all that he seeks and sees: eat, drink, and now verse 19 money becomes the answer to everything…
12:7 ends Qohelet’s rant; he finishes with “at the end of your life, before you die, remember God.” Is this wisdom? He already noted many times that you do not know when you’ll die, and when you do, will God love or hate you? And what is the point, for we just return to dust, enter the grave like a beast and are no more.
12:8, change of voice, this begins the epilogue. He sought delightful words. Did he find them?
Verse 11, all true wisdom, scattered everywhere, available to all, given by one Shepherd. But–endless excessive devotion to books is wearying… (Many a Puritan died believing this after the fact). Remember Jesus’ invitation to come learn from Him, to continue in His words, to abide in Him; it is a light burden, our learning is not a punishment or a grievous task. How can we go about this?
From the narrator framing Qohelet’s quest: God really is the Judge, fear God and keep His Commandments. (Again, John 14-16!)
Though where did Qohelet always jump to in his conclusions: be afraid of God, do what you want–because really it is all meaningless, he hated life, everywhere everything was vanity, and perhaps on your deathbed you can ponder God. All you have is the here and now, no future, no hope; so try to enjoy something.
Yet, we are a people of hope.
HOPE! Qohelet says there can be “nothing new” God says “behold I am making all things new!!!” (Belcher 149) Qohelet negates the possibility of God doing anything new. He says “nothing new under the sun” and we say God may have something we have not yet seen! The New Covenant in Christ Jesus is certainly a lot more exciting than Qohelet’s ‘under the sun’ worldview.
The entire book points us to the darkness and meaninglessness of life apart from God’s redeeming love. In this, we can find ourselves pointed back to Christ, thankful that we are rooted and grounded in Him who claims He will lead us by the Spirit, teach us, and bring us safely home.
For Further Reflection:
Turn to 1 Cor 1:18-23 to note that though even Paul could quote worldly philosophers (Titus 1:12 or Acts 17:28) yet he did so rarely; and the Spirit led him to write that worldly philosophy and wisdom will generate within you a perspective that is opposed to the gospel (see also the caution in Colossians 2:8).
And so the weariness of creating many books may very well relate to the weariness of writing to people along worldly lines… Creating your own “commonplace book” of the world’s ideas is not the best use of our time, energy, mind, etc… Your heart will be moulded by what you delight in, what you inclined your heart toward.
Remember for Paul, wisdom is: 1 Cor 1:24; Col 2:3!
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash