Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

This book is one of the most marginalised of the Old Testament. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this. One in particular perhaps stands out for contemporary readers—its first words seem to question the basic understanding that many have of Scripture. Whether the modern reader goes to Ecclesiastes with certainty or in the hope of straightforward guidance, either way they do not get what they hoped for or expected. Instead they read:

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3 (NRSV)

It is not only the stranger to wisdom literature that would be surprised by vanity and meaningless as a point of departure. Any student of the Book of Proverbs would also think that there is a category mistake here. How can this be the same type of literature as Proverbs? Is it in fact the opposite? A worldview of vanity and disorder is surely antagonistic to the order assumed in Proverbs? To an extant this is the same issues covered in the previous post on Dialogue. Here we have simply stated the question at its most acute.

There are other challenges with Ecclesiastes but in this post we are going to consider this one issue; the apparent antagonism between not just Ecclesiastes and Proverbs but all three wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. I suggest some initial reasons, below, why the differences between these three books might not be as extreme as they first appear. We will then consider that their diversity in many respects matches what we find the biblical psalms.

An underpinning ethos of wisdom is the ongoing testing, refining and discarding of inferences based on observation. Contemporary analogues exist such as in science the notion of a working hypothesis and in philosophy the methodology of critical realism. Biblical wisdom, at least in part, seeks to establish how to live well based on wise reflection on the nature of creation. In this way, Proverbs can be seen to lean towards a wholehearted embracing of the efficacy of the wisdom method. We might even say it embodies a hermeneutic of trust. Ecclesiastes comes to a different conclusion after trying variations of approach. Both books, look to what is needed in addition to wisdom—Fear of the Lord—one as an opening assumption (Proverbs 1:7) and the other in conclusion after highlighting various problems (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The Book of Job tests a very specific assumption of reward which is found wanting. In Job the necessity of revelation alongside wisdom comes through an encounter with Job which silences his wise enquiries (Job 40:3–5). In their different ways all three books encourage wise reflection but also recognise its limits.

In addition, it is vitally important to acknowledge that none of the three wisdom books claim to be an end in themselves. This is true not only of the biblical wisdom but in addition to wider Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature. In short, such literature is not an end in itself, it is an educational resource and approach to living. The individual literary units are not to be blatantly or blandly applied to life situations. The Book of Proverbs provides the most succinct indication of this in its twin proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,

    or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly,

    or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Proverbs 26: 4, 5 (NRSV)

In many respects the three wisdom books exemplify the three categories of psalms identified by Brueggemann. He articulated what has been recognised as a very fruitful paradigm which connects the ancient psalms with the modern life of faith. Put simply the psalms can be classified into three categories of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Brueggemann uses the term typology of function recognising that the hermeneutical connection between then and now operates at a very human contextual level.

We can conclude by noting that in this way:

  1. Proverbs is a book founded on order. The author is oriented and trusts that wisdom works day-to-day because of the existence of a creator and their implicit trust in him. Many psalms have a similar underlying basis. The author of Proverbs, and its accepting reader, would feel comfortable singing hymns of trust and faith to God.
  2. Ecclesiastes is a book in which the orderly nature of life and extent to which trust in God can deliver the good life is being questioned. In modern parlance a hermeneutic of suspicion is operative. The sort of suspicion we all encounter in the dark moments of life—the death of a loved one, the failure of a relationship or the loss of health. These are the moments in which the laments of the Psalter or the cynicism of Ecclesiastes eclipses simple trust. They are the moments of exile, whether real or metaphorical. Trust is still key but it is not longer simple and unquestioning
  3. The Book of Job is a book of movement. It starts with the questioning cynicism of Ecclesiastes. It proceeds with some received wisdom being painfully showcased as wanting. It concludes with an answer which is not rational but revelatory—a revelation of God that demands reorientation.

We will return to Eccelesiastes in future posts. It is my hope that the second part of this post will be developed into an academic publication in due course.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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