"Koheleth's Warning: Meaningless, Meaningless, All is Meaningless" (Part 1 of 8)

September 11, 2017

 

Ecclesiastes is a dangerous book. Some have called it a thinking man’s book and we all know that if you think too much, you're going to get in trouble, right. It's a controversial book. It's been called the strangest book in all the Bible. But I think, properly interpreted, rightly divided, Ecclesiastes represents an incredibly valuable critique on a lot of false thinking that pervades not only the world, but the Church. Ecclesiastes is a unique, almost autobiographical document of a man who was in an extraordinary relationship with God and toward the end of his life reflected upon all of his experiences, distilled that and conveyed to all those who would read what was, in fact, the most fundamental, important fact of life? What’s it all about, Alfie? ... as the song goes. That's the subject of Ecclesiastes. What is the profit in living? What is the profit? Wherein is the gain in our mortal existence? But it is a dangerous book not often broached in sermons or in Bible studies. It's so strange because it has a message that seemingly emphasizes meaninglessness, futility, vanity. What's the Bible talking about that for? The author evokes a religious skepticism -- even cynicism that many find strange -- and a sort of pessimistic fatalism that is without parallel  anywhere else in the Scriptures. But I believe that Ecclesiastes is a powerful critique, first of all to simplistic religious systems and theologies. And, secondly, it is a critique to naive human ambitions for fame and wealth and pleasure.  

 

Ecclesiastes has always been controversial, in Jewish circles and then in Christian circles. For one thing, the name YHWH, the Lord, is never mentioned in Ecclesiastes. Only the name Elohim, the creator God, is referred to. There is no mention of Torah, the Law. There is no mention of Israel and God's people. Some have said even rabbis have said that Ecclesiastes is contradictory to other Scriptures in the Bible. For example, Ecclesiastes 11:9, says "Be happy, young man, while you are young and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see." And yet, Numbers 15:39 says, "Do not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes." So, the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying "follow your heart and your eyes" and the Torah says "don't go after the lust of your heart and eyes." Seemingly contradictory. In fact, it's so paradoxical, that you see extreme interpretations of Ecclesiastes, literally from one pole to the other pole. I came across a reference in my study, for example, that Jerome (that great church father and translator of the Old Testament into Latin, into the Vulgate) used the book of Ecclesiastes to counsel a young woman from Rome that she should go into a monastic way of life because all is vanity. The world is empty and futile and, therefore, she ought to go and live a life of chastity and monasticism. And, yet on the other extreme, there are those who cite Ecclesiastes to say that we should eat, drink and be merry because that is God’s gift to us, to enjoy life. Now, talk about polarity. The same book, on the one hand, is encouraging monasticism and, on the other hand, seems to be encouraging hedonism. Ecclesiastes is a dangerous book; it must be rightly interpreted. 

 

The canonicity of Ecclesiastes has long been disputed. It was one of the very last books of the Old Testament entered into the canon. It was greatly disputed. There were many sages who said that Ecclesiastes "did not defile the hands," which was the Hebrew idiom meaning it was not inspired...it's not holy. And yet, a famous rabbi Akiva -- about a hundred years after Jesus -- stood up for Ecclesiastes, as well as the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon as we know it) and says that it does defile the hands, it is holy. It is inspired. And because of Akiva's reputation and influence, as well as because it was attributed to Solomon, Ecclesiastes was at last put into the canon of the Old Testament, the  Hebrew scriptures and then into the Christian Bible under the rubric of "Old Testament." 

 

Some, even today, question the providence and authorship of Ecclesiastes; some would say that when, as it is going to be interpreted here, when it refers to the king of Jerusalem, that the Hebrew there is obscure and should actually refer to a property owner in Jerusalem. Some despairing businessman near the end of his life in this Hellenistic period of the 3rd century grew despairing of religion and of his materialistic ways and he wrote Ecclesiastes. Some would say that Solomon is not the author but there is attribution to Solomon because much of the Wisdom literature of this period of which Ecclesiastes is a prime example is attributed to Solomon, even though he didn't personally pen it so it is a matter of attribution and not of actual authorship. But others would even tell us that the key epilogue added at the end of the text was something added later and was not part of the original text. But here is the point that I want to make for our purposes in this study: I want to say to you that I believe that Ecclesiastes is a complete document as it exists. It was written with a plan. It gives evidence of organization and that Solomon was the author. And I think it is safe to say that Solomon is the author, if not in the letter, at least in the spirit of Ecclesiastes. Solomon is the embodiment of the kind of Wisdom and futility spoken of in Ecclesiastes. Solomon is the paragon of wisdom but he was also the paradigm of vanity, of meaninglessness, in existence. And so, from our point of view, we will treat it as a complete document and we will look at Solomon as the author and the example of the way of life discussed in Ecclesiastes. 

 

The question that emerges is: Why study such a dangerous, peculiar, paradoxical book as Ecclesiastes? Very simple. The answer is in one word. Wisdom. Wisdom is the supreme skill in all the Bible. And Ecclesiastes speaks abundantly of Wisdom.

 

* This is an audio transcript, listen to the original message here.

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