Saturday, September 12, 2020

Time and Chance (53)

With the advent of the internet, we have become all too used to people sharing their opinions with us.

Editorializing is far from a new activity — human beings have engaged in it for millennia. What’s new is the sheer scale of useless bloviating made possible through social media. More information is fine, but information bereft of both authority and coherence is not worth the effort it takes to process.

Back in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher is about to tell his readers something similar.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 — Teaching the People
“Besides being wise, the 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.”
Knowledge Taught

Possessing knowledge is a great thing, and wisdom is of great benefit to the wise, but the light of divine truth does not shine into our lives only for our sake; it is intended to be shared. “Let your light shine before others,” said the Lord Jesus. People do not light a lamp to put it under a basket. Truth is not given to be hoarded and hidden. And so, besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge. Solomon shared the gift God gave him.

That knowledge is not confined to Ecclesiastes. There are indeed “many proverbs” in our Bibles to enlighten us, no less than thirty-one chapters of them in addition to the many proverbs found in this book. And while the Song of Songs is not strictly proverbial, it is certainly knowledge. All these are the Preacher teaching the people. Long in his grave, he has been teaching the world for these last 3,000 years.

Weighing and Studying and Arranging

These proverbs were weighed (the Preacher paid attention to knowledge obtained from others), studied (the Preacher thoroughly investigated what he read) and arranged (the Preacher put his findings in appropriate order).

This brings out an interesting feature of the wisdom of Solomon: he takes the best from others as well as from the discerning mind God gave him. If “all truth” is indeed “God’s truth”, we need not insist all of these proverbs originated with the Preacher. In fact they did not; other authors are credited. Proverbs 30 is an oracle of Agur son of Jakeh. Proverbs 31 is an oracle written down by King Lemuel, taught to him by his mother, and possibly taught to her by others.

Still other passages in Proverbs bear a strong resemblance to the wisdom literature of the great kingdoms of past ages. For example, Proverbs 22:17 through 24:22 is strikingly similar to the Instruction of Amenemope, an ancient Egyptian collection of wise sayings and general principles for living. Either Solomon or a later editor has referred to this passage as “the words of the wise”, which may suggest they were discovered elsewhere, studied, weighed, arranged and transplanted into scripture. A second section commencing with 24:23 through the end of the chapter is designated “sayings of the wise”, and precedes a series of proverbs clearly credited to Solomon.

Scholars have long debated whether Amenemope is nicked from Proverbs or vice versa. It may be as much as 500 years older, contemporary with Proverbs, or more recent. But given that Israel as a nation sojourned in Egypt for nearly 400 years, and that the Hebrews were welcome guests for a portion of that period, it should not surprise us to find similarities of both style and content in the wisdom literature of the two nations. In any case, I for one have no difficulty with the notion of the Preacher sourcing some of his wisdom elsewhere. We can be sure any such content was carefully edited, and that only those things consistent with the truth of God were incorporated into our Bibles. After all, the man himself tells us he did his work “with great care”.

With respect to the Preacher’s arranging of pithy sayings, that feature is evident in Proverbs but even more obvious in Ecclesiastes, as I have remarked repeatedly in this series. Proverbs form an integral part of the Preacher’s treatise. As two- or four-line bits of wisdom, they stand on their own, but it is when seen in context that they provide the greatest insight.

Words of Delight and Truth

In searching for the right words in which to pass on the knowledge he had acquired, the Preacher lists his two goals, and follows them in the next verse with two consequences. His purpose is to write the truth, of course, but to do it in such a way as to engage his readers. The phrase “words of delight” may suggest the Preacher was looking to produce a particular emotion in his readers, or it may also be read as “words of desire”, meaning the Preacher’s own desire to communicate what he was trying to say with the greatest effectiveness. In any case, he tells us he wrote the words of truth “uprightly”, or straightforwardly, without unnecessary embellishment. If there is eloquence here (and there is), it is not because the Preacher was seeking style points, but because it was natural to him. The most important thing he sought to do was to tell the truth.

Ecclesiastes 12:11 — Goads and Nails
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.”
Provocation and Retention

I suggested there are two consequences of the Preacher’s approach to the book. The first is provocation. Wisdom received is useless until we put it into action. The consensus of the translations seems to be that a “goad” is a primitive cattle prod, in those days usually a sharpened stick. Solomon’s words here and elsewhere were not intended for mere intellectual stimulation, or as insights without application. It is always the responsive action that is most desirable. So he writes about death in the last chapter not to be morbid, but to encourage young men to attend to the words of God while they still have something to give back to him voluntarily.

The second consequence is retention. The collected sayings are like nails firmly fixed. They are embedded. The proverbial form aids retention very effectively, and we must remember many or most of those who originally heard these words did not have a copy at home and could not read them in any case. This is perhaps why the Preacher uses proverbs here and there throughout the book to summarize his points: if his audience could not remember his entire discourse, at least they could take away his snappy synopsis.

Masters of Assemblies

In the KJV, the phrase “collected sayings” is regrettably translated “masters of assemblies”. To the great surprise of exactly nobody, commentaries from Replacement Theologians go to great lengths to try to apply the Preacher’s statement to church leadership. However, since the church is nowhere in view in the book of Ecclesiastes, it seems much more reasonable to read the word “assembly” as “collection”, meaning the collected proverbs to which the Preacher has already made multiple references. The Preacher is affirming the authority and dependability of the truth he has compiled, not suggesting that modern-day elders are good to hang things on.

Frankly, too much gets hung on most elders already.

One Shepherd

Finally, the “one Shepherd” reference is interesting. The Pulpit Commentary views this as “an important claim to inspiration”. I tend to agree. The Preacher himself has just gone to the trouble of letting us know he cannot possibly be the “one shepherd” in view. He is a shepherd, certainly, but one of many who speak through Hebrew proverbs. He is not the original “giver” of every bit of wisdom here; he is merely its collector, compiler and assembler. In the Psalms of Asaph, with which Solomon was surely familiar, the Shepherd of Israel is “enthroned upon the cherubim”. He is God himself. This seems the most likely intended meaning, especially when we consider the next verse.

Ecclesiastes 12:12 — Garbage In, Garbage Out
“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
If we do not see the previous verse as an important claim to inspiration, it is hard to explain this next statement. Why should the reader “beware of anything beyond these” with respect to wisdom for living, unless he had received everything he needed?

This caution should not be read as a denial of the validity of divine revelation beyond what had been received at that point — in fact, the whole book of Ecclesiastes cries out for more of that. Rather, it is a statement made at a certain point in time under the Old Covenant, intended, I believe, to deprecate the usefulness of the wisdom literature of the nations. The Preacher is saying that if there is anything good in what others have said to date, I have synthesized it here for you. There is no need to go looking to those reputed to be philosophers in the world’s opinion. There may be many books you could read about the meaning of life, but they will not add anything of substance to what I am offering. Studying is indeed a wearisome activity, so it is not worth one’s time to study inferior work.

Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

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