Saturday, September 14, 2019

Time and Chance (1)

Ecclesiastes is a difficult book. Still, in my early twenties I kept coming back to it despite its apparent bleakness — or perhaps because of it. Its relentlessly frank take on the unhappy business of living in a fallen world was (and remains) refreshing, not in comparison to the rest of scripture, I now realize, but set against the bland and near-insensate Churchian conformity of post-hippie ’70s evangelicalism in which I was inadvertently immersed as a teen, and which had regrettably permeated my understanding of most of the New Testament and deadened my enthusiasm for its truths.

Happily, nobody in that crowd taught Ecclesiastes the way they taught Ephesians. Perhaps they forgot it was there.

Unexplored and Unexplained

So there it sat in my Bible, unexplored and unexplained, looking like it really didn’t belong there at all. It wasn’t history per se, it seemed a bit too tentative to be called doctrinal, and, while not entirely impractical, there was a notable absence of “God says do this!” about it. It came across more as fatherly advice than the lists of rules, rewards and punishments I found in the Prophets and Pentateuch.

Those were confusing times. The “edgy” Christian youth gatherings to which I was occasionally invited failed to deliver anything that resonated with me. The barely-sanitized bacchanalia that passed for authenticity among my peers was crude and childish. Adult meetings were definitely more orthodox but just as irrelevant and, in my estimation, at least twice as tedious.

Solomon, on the other hand, felt like the real deal. He wasn’t pointlessly novel or gratingly hip, and he wasn’t a stodgy old hypocrite.

Still, despite the appeal of Ecclesiastes, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. Much like the Song of Songs and Esther, its place in the larger canon of scripture did not jump out and declare itself. I needed to read more, study more and live more before I’d be able to even begin to wrap my head around it.

A little basic pattern recognition also helped.

A Familiar Character

The author of Ecclesiastes is a familiar character. He wrote the Song of Songs and most of Proverbs, and the story of his life and reign over Israel is told from 1 Kings 1-11 and 1 Chronicles 22-23 and 28-29, as well as 2 Chronicles 1-9.

But Solomon’s elevated station is rarely a factor in Ecclesiastes except insofar as it informs his observations about the world. He does not write as an elite for the elites, as an intellectual for his fellow scholars, or even as an Israelite for other members of his privileged nation, but rather as a human being for his fellow men and women.

Nevertheless, the age, wealth and power of the man were such that when Solomon declares, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun,” we believe him, or at least we believe he believes it. Unlike you and me, he was uniquely positioned by God to do exactly that.

I’d like to consider just one little phrase from the first verse today:
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
Depending on the version of the Bible with which you are most familiar, you may look up and say, “Huh?” to that.

Preacher, Teacher, Philosopher …

Some translations have “preacher”, others have “teacher”. One has “philosopher” and another “spokesman”. In fact, it is the Hebrew word underlying this English-language confusion from which we (very indirectly) get the title of the book. “Ecclesiastes” is a Latinized version of the Greek translation of the Hebrew qoheleth, which is the title Solomon appropriates to himself for the purpose of these twelve chapters of reflections. Try explaining that without cue cards.

Thus the Douay-Rheims Bible reads, “The words of Ecclesiastes, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” The JPS Tanakh 1917 simply gives up and leaves the Hebrew as is.

When we encounter a word that lends itself to such a variety of interpretations, it is usually an indication that nobody is really 100% sure exactly what was originally meant, and everybody is lining up to take their best scholarly shot at it. The word qoheleth appears exactly seven times in the Bible, all of them in Ecclesiastes, and all very obviously referring to the writer of the book, though often in the third person. It would therefore be rather difficult to populate a list of possible meanings by referring to its uses in other passages of scripture, since they do not exist.

Gathering God’s People

The title is said to be derived from the Hebrew verb qahal, which means to “call together” or “assemble”. Moses gathered together the congregation of Israel (same word) to hear the commands of God, and the word qahal is primarily used this way in the Old Testament. The purpose of gathering may be political, religious, legal or martial. Whatever the reason, it was necessary for a broad summons to be issued.

If you have noted the similarity of the Latin ecclesiastes to the Greek ekklÄ“sia (which means “assembly” or “gathering”, and is most frequently translated “church”), then you’ve probably gotten everything out of the expression that is most useful. Solomon is calling together the people of God to hear something important. He might have been preaching, teaching or reading the news; qoheleth would be equally appropriate to all. The title has less to do with the actual content of his message than it does with the act of doing the summoning. He is acting as the “gatherer” or “collector” of God’s people.

Gathering Truths

But there’s a second and often-ignored aspect to Solomon’s choice of nom de plume that interests me. Ecclesiastes is not just about gathering people together, but about the gathering together of truths. Ecclesiastes is all about seeking and finding. Here is Solomon’s mission in his own words:
“I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”
And again:
“Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things — which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found.”
Or, as he says in his last chapter:
“[T]he Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.”
“The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.”
So then, here is Solomon’s methodology: he sought, he weighed, he studied and he added things together. He was trying to get to the big picture about life by observation and deduction, as opposed to through divine revelation.

Searching with the Heart

Consider Solomon’s repeated frequent statements about how he arrived at his conclusions. He sought truth in the most natural way men can, as evidenced by his own words: “I said in my heart” (6x), “I applied my heart” (3x), “I searched with my heart” (1x), “my heart still guiding me with wisdom” (1x), “I turned my heart to know and search out and to seek” (1x), “I observed while applying my heart” (1x), and “all this I laid to heart, examining it all” (1x).

These repeated references to “heart” should not worry the more level-headed individuals among us: there is nothing ‘touchy-feely’ about Solomon. He is definitely not using “heart” as shorthand for his feelings or impulses. The Hebrew word leb refers to the center of a man’s inner life, including his intellect, will, understanding, memory, conscience and emotions. Solomon was not operating on intuition alone in his search for truth.

And let’s not be too quick to criticize Solomon for taking this sort of approach to his subject. Seeking after truth with all the tools God has given us is not to be sniffed at; and, after all, Solomon’s analysis has been preserved for us in the word of God. It must be worth something.

Divine revelation is certainly a more trustworthy and accurate source of truth than even the most perceptive human analyses, but it should be obvious that divine revelation has not always been available to the same degree to every man or woman in every generation. It is a treasure to be prized when we find it, but even those to whom direct revelation has not been provided have an obligation to seek out the truth available to them via observation of our world and through observation of ourselves, as creatures of God.

In summary, if we call Solomon a gatherer or collector, we might be closer to what is actually going on in the book than we are when we refer to him as either a preacher or teacher.

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