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.

Creation and Wisdom

In an earlier post we considered how wisdom literature grew from an oral tradition in which simple proposals about the nature of the world were tested by the life experience of those who heard them. Those ideas that were found to be useful survived and often evolved over time. Some of these ‘hypotheses’ became proverbs and other short pithy statements about life. In this sense human reason and observation, rather than revelation are to the fore in the origins of Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom. Appreciating this point of departure for biblical wisdom is essential for legitimate interpretation of this genre.

In the later stages of the development of Israelite wisdom it became interwoven with the wider principles of Israelite religion—in some respects the questioning which lies at the heart of the genre enabled wisdom literature to question the other parts of the canon. This inter-wisdom and intra-canon dialogue will be considered in our next post.

Later wisdom reflection attempted to critique religious dogma using the observations and reasoning of the wise. Often this collision of wisdom reasoning with revealed truth concerned creation, both in terms of the origin of the world and the sustaining of it by God. That there is one God and that this God is the creator of the universe is fundamental to Israelite religion. This did not stop the wise questioning God’s very character and nature as they attempted to explain the day-to-day. Despite this questioning, the worldview that the cosmos was made by Yahweh, the God of Israel, is an underpinning assumption of biblical wisdom literature.

The biblical wisdom books present three very different ways in which creation, and therefore creator are examined. In their different ways, each of the Hebrew Bible’s three wisdom books answers the question: “What kind of creation do we live in?”.

The Book of Proverbs sees creation as fundamentally ordered. The premise which underlies its very nature is the original conception of wisdom—that the world in which we live can be understood by careful observation and wise reflection. It assumes that the world is organised, logical and open to rational thought. Although we have said that wisdom literature’s concern with creation is not all about the origin of the world, Proverbs explores a central role for wisdom at the origin of the world:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,

    before his deeds of old;

I was formed long ages ago,

    at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,

    when there were no springs overflowing with water;

before the mountains were settled in place,

    before the hills, I was given birth,

before he made the world or its fields

    or any of the dust of the earth.

I was there when he set the heavens in place,

    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above

    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

when he gave the sea its boundary

    so the waters would not overstep his command,

and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,

    rejoicing always in his presence,

rejoicing in his whole world

    and delighting in mankind.

Proverbs 8:22–31 (NIV)

The Book of Job has creation at its very centre. For much of the book, Job is to the fore as creature and throughout God is under trial as creator. As this work reaches its climax, God is not vindicated by rational argument but by nothing less that God unfolding to Job his perfection as creator.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels
 shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

Job 38:4–11 (NIV)

In this way, the Book of Job might be said to draw a limit to the extent to which wisdom can answer the deepest questions about creation. The Book of Ecclesiastes strays further from the order of Proverbs and questions just about everything to such a degree that the fundamental premise of wisdom is challenged to the core. What kind of creation do we live in? Ecclesiastes answers: “one that often seems ‘crazy’”.

Our next post develops this questioning dynamic of wisdom further. There we shall consider how the diversity of the three biblical wisdom books invites all those committed to Yahweh to continue questioning, albeit from a premise of Fear of Yahweh.