Sunday, July 10, 2011

In defense of Ecclesiastes

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.
James 1:5

And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
Ecclesiastes 1:17-18
At Trinity Pres we're doing a Sunday school (I'm sorry, "education hour") on Ecclesiastes and James. Not much has been written comparing and contrasting James and Ecclesiastes. I think the above quotes should make it clear why not.

Inevitably, there are some in the class who are immediately concerned with whether or not there are contradictions in the Bible. Stalwart defenders of the truth must chime in with their rationalizations of any and all differences between one book and another. It simply will not do to let the tension stand.

One of the most remarkable things about Scripture is that books like Ecclesiastes made it in. Also on my list of favorites for similar reasons are Esther, Job, and Song of Solomon. It really seems like the very middle of the Bible is packed full of stuff to throw people off (the Psalms themselves are often no exception). (Proverbs, I suppose, is not so challenging.)

But, like it or not, these books made it in. If there's one sense in which I really want to stress the authority of Scripture, it's in this sense: no matter how much you want to, you can't take this stuff out. And there's one very important corollary of this principle: you can't make the Bible work out neatly. If the Bible isn't making you squirm, you're probably not reading it carefully. And I'm not talking about the kind of guilt-driven squirming that sermons are meant to provoke; I'm talking about the kind of squirming you do when you realize that what you thought you knew doesn't work out.

For this reason, as I saw this morning, it is often the case that Ecclesiastes has to be defended against those who take the Bible the "most" seriously--that is, those who hold to the strictest form of inerrancy, or infallibility, or whatever kind of theory of biblical authority most closely fits with the kind of harmonizing that squirmy evangelicals tend to do.

Questions rush to the first accessible rationalization possible. "Isn't Ecclesiastes saying that without looking to God for wisdom, life is all meaningless?" And then, "Shouldn't we look to the end for the real message, where it says, "Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone"? Isn't it fascinating that those who would be the first to say that all of Scripture is authoritative are also the first to skip to the last six verses of Ecclesiastes? Is the whole book up to that point just one big set up for a rather trite little punchline?

Here's why I think the rest of Ecclesiastes (you know, the first twelve chapters) matters. First, it is comprehensive in its assessment of human life. Let's run through the basic argument of Ecclesiastes and see how it works. In 1:2-11, Qoheleth ("the Teacher") describes an entire cosmology of meaningless repetition--"Vanity of vanities...! All is vanity...." In 1:12-18, he sets up and knocks down the two main pillars of meaning for human beings: first, our work, and second, our wisdom. What value is there in all of our deeds? "All is vanity and a chasing after wind." What value is there in wisdom? "This also is but a chasing after wind." The argument then takes a cyclical form throughout the rest of the book, thus echoing the core message of 1:2-11. In each cycle, Qoheleth takes a pass first at toil, and then at wisdom, and after each pass concludes that all is vanity. Each cycle concludes with a moderately optimistic yet somewhat sardonic summary, as in 9:7-10:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
"There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going." The words reverberate throughout the whole book. This is a comprehensive deconstruction of all of the ways we seek to find meaning. In light of this critique, perhaps the trite ending of Ecclesiastes is fitting; it almost reads like a sick joke, and that may be just what Qoheleth would have wanted.

Once we have realized that Ecclesiastes is relentless and comprehensive in its critique of human existence, we must then take its argument seriously. Which brings us to a second point. How does Qoheleth mean to convince us of his argument? Observe: the entire argument of Qoheleth is based on a careful empirical study of the world. Not empirical in the modern sense; no scientific experiments led him to these conclusions. Rather, this study is that of a man who has every resource available to him and tries everything to find what is meaningful in life. None of it is.

It is important to realize at this point that Qoheleth is not saying that life is meaningless without God. God's existence, and even his Providence, is assumed throughout. The argument of Qoheleth is not a critique of God; for that, see Job. Rather, the argument is against all human efforts to find meaning, even in that which God has given us.

Moreover, the argument critiques traditional notions about God's justice. The righteous suffer, says Qoheleth, and the wicked prosper. There is no end to all the oppression and evil that is done under the sun. One man toils all of his life to build up wealth, and a fool inherits it. The wise work hard for their wisdom, yet the same fate befalls both the wise and the foolish. Surely this is vanity, and a chasing after wind.

Recently I visited the Holocaust memorial museum in Washington, D.C. Is there any more powerful reminder of how vain our human efforts really are? What does man get from his toil? What did we get for all our technological and economic progress during the Enlightenment? Millions of dead bodies in gas chambers. Millions more dead on the field of battle. Europe in ruins. And what do we have now? For all of our efforts to change the world, so that nothing like that could ever happen again, what now? Is there any end to the genocide? Is there any end to war? Surely the righteous have suffered, perhaps more than the wicked. And for the rest of us, at least we can eat our bread with enjoyment, and drink our wine with a merry heart. This, too, is vanity, and a chasing after wind.

Does all of this contradict James, or indeed the entire gospel message? I confess I don't know what to say. To the arrogant modernist, content to believe in science and progress, my gut reaction is to say, "Yes, it is a contradiction, one which you cannot hope to grasp with your pitifully naive view of human capabilities." The entire gospel message is born out of futility. God himself came to us in the flesh, and we killed him. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. God himself is subjected to futility, and this is a contradiction which no one can understand.

To the Christian, what can I say? Do I need to say anything at all? Ecclesiastes is true; isn't that enough? If we can't say true things about the world, then our religion is completely useless. Here we have an incredible gift, one which can challenge any person at the very core of her being. Perhaps we should start by allowing it to challenge us.

Whatever we do with this book, we need to recognize first the absurdity of trying to ignore it out of reverence for it. That is the fatal error with grand theories about biblical authority. For the sake of biblical authority, Christians will fight to protect the Bible from itself. If there is such a thing as a "biblical worldview," perhaps it is really the result of the mind having been turned over, tossed about, and torn up into pieces by the relentlessly enigmatic puzzle that is Scripture.

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