Saturday, January 04, 2020

Time and Chance (17)

I do not own or read many Bible commentaries.

Why? Well, I find commentaries tend to sway me toward specific interpretations of the text. That makes them bad places to start the search for truth — for me at least — because they rarely lay out all possible options for me to consider. Further, these selective impressions about meaning may or may not be well informed, linguistically accurate, carefully thought out, or consistent with the rest of scripture. Some are and some are not. The sheer number and variety of impressions gathered by different writers from any given passage demonstrate that not all can be correct, though some are definitely better than others.

So I prefer to read a passage multiple times, pray through it and mull it over, then do word studies and comparative analyses to develop an opinion about its meaning on my own. Reaching for a commentary is a very last resort. Confirmation, maybe.

We are now at the end of Ecclesiastes 4, and have arrived at what is probably the most obscure passage in the book to date. In this case, I didn’t just reach for one commentary, I broke with my usual practice entirely and pored through more than twenty hoping for a little clarity. These four verses are not easy and my usual tricks don’t work.

The Commentators Diverge

And yet, where this chapter is concerned, few major commentaries are terribly helpful. Darby, Kelly and Scofield don’t seem to want to go there. Perhaps for them the passage was not an area of interest. Other expositors give you walls of text which are mostly fantasy (Expositor’s, Gill). Still others offer terse four-sentence summaries that tell you nothing beyond what is actually written (Gaebelein). Joseph Parker takes all four verses allegorically, which is worse than useless. And James Gray’s Concise Commentary is uniquely concise in that it says nothing at all.

Well, at least I looked. Let us return to our ruminations on the last few verses of Ecclesiastes 4 and we’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14  The Story of Two Kings

The Preacher is telling us a story:
“Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor.”
But the story is not as straightforward as it first appears. The difficulties in understanding what the Preacher is saying are considerable.

Ambiguities and Possibilities

Rather than spelling out in every case whether it is the youth or the old king in view, the Hebrew is riddled with ambiguous pronouns. Each translation team seems to resolve these differently, which then changes the narrative. I’m giving you the ESV here. Other translations diverge significantly.

Then there are ambiguous tenses, which leave us debating whether the Preacher is referring to something he actually witnessed, to some ancient historical event, or whether he is just making general statements about politics and human nature. The various possible historical identifications (Joseph/Pharaoh, David/Saul, etc.) all have significant failings. Joseph went from prison to the throne, but was not born poor. Neither was David, and he never went to prison. Moreover, while Saul was old and foolish, we get no sense that Pharaoh was. I doubt the Preacher was trying to conjure the memory of either story. The Targum applies the story to Abraham and Nimrod, which involves a lot of extra-scriptural fantasizing. Introducing Mordecai or Rehoboam here, as some do, makes no sense, since Solomon lived prior to both, and it does not seem likely he is drifting into prophetic voice.

If You Have to Choose ...

Finally, there is the question of whether “his own kingdom” is a different kingdom or the same one as that of which he becomes king. Is the poor youth who becomes king a citizen or an alien?

What can we clear up? Well, the word “better” here means “agreeable” or “pleasant”. So if you have to choose between being poor, young and shrewd, or else being rich, old and hidebound, definitely go with the former combination. That part is not hard. The young man’s wisdom is not only better for him, as we will see, it is better for the people he will govern.

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16  Lots of People, No Collective Memory

What’s next? Well:
“I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
On the basis of his clever dealing, the youth is able to rise from obscurity, poverty and oppression to replace the old and foolish king.

An Old Story

This is an old and familiar story, and it does not matter if the Preacher was thinking of a specific historical occurrence or simply the general principle. People are always looking for the next big thing, and the younger the better. Absalom had great appeal to the Israelites because he listened to his father’s subjects, cleverly told them exactly what they wanted to hear, and sowed discontent among the working men, which led to a successful coup. Many other young and popular rulers have come to power under similar circumstances over the course of history.

However, despite this particular young man’s popularity and success, and despite presiding over a vast domain (“there was no end of all the people, all of whom he led”), his moment did not last. “Those who come later will not rejoice in him.”

This is certainly a perceptive statement.

Rewriting History

Our assessment of the “great men” of the past very much depends on the political trends of the current year. If socialism is in and capitalism is out, then Karl Marx was a visionary. Stalin, while perhaps a little too harsh, was surely on the right track. And hey, that old Che Guevara t-shirt is fashionable again. If nationalism is all the rage, then our heroes are the Churchills, the Thatchers and the Reagans. If globalism is our thing, maybe Tony Blair or Barack Obama are more our style. Then again, if we see globalism as a looming evil, then these former world leaders were villains, traitors or dupes.

History is a living thing, written and rewritten according to the whims of the present. The public are fickle creatures, and popularity and power are fleeting things.

The Best of the Bunch

Let me finish with John Peter Lange, who, of all the commentators, probably puts it best:
“That fortune often shows itself deceptive and unreliable enough in civil life, and in the highest spheres of human society, is illustrated by the double example of an old incapable king whom a younger person pushes aside, and that of his successor, an aspirant from a lower class, who, in spite of his transitory popularity, nevertheless falls into forgetfulness, like so many others.”
I’ll go with that.

Getting Practical

Regardless of the way we read it, there are a handful of practical lessons which may be consistently drawn from the story:
  1. Paying attention and being smart will get you further than power and resources that are not used effectively.
  2. Succeeding in life is not always about who you know.
  3. People are fickle, and always attracted to the latest thing.
  4. What is trendy and popular now will not necessarily play well historically.
  5. The “conventional wisdom” is often illogical and self-defeating.
The Preacher’s conclusion? “Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.” We could not agree more.

1 comment :

  1. I would say there is such a thing as overanalyzing a situation. That, in my opinion, seems to be the case here.

    Plainly, the passage makes a simple distinction that probably everyone can agree with. It requires no particular profundity or esoteric ability to discern here a pretty trite observation.

    I.e., if you are young and smart, even if poor, you can still be much more capable than a wealthy person born into power, especially if that person is not especially bright and might even be a fool.

    In my humble opinion it is somewhat a waste of time, or boredom, or academic affectation to suggest that this is an insight even worth mentioning. Just because it is in the Bible does not mean it has any deep standing but it allows you to deduce that someone was under pressure to write something that would allow him to earn his keep and by showing that he was capable of writing to begin with (a rarety in those times).