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Posts Tagged ‘Ecclesiastes’

A brief reflection offered to UWM’s Leadership Team

10 May 2021

John asked me to share something from the Old Testament’s ‘Wisdom Literature’. This happened last Thursday after I shared with him some anecdotes about teaching my ‘Escritos’ (roughly: ‘Old Testament sacred writings’) course at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia. I’m aware that these words will not be ‘inspirational’ in any conventional sense.

So allow me some non-conventionally-inspirational ruminations upon…

  • When God’s purpose is not to reveal doctrine in splendid clarity but rather to invite his people into a hard conversation.
  • What it’s like to teach at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia (and other places like it).
  • Why I loathe the expression ‘training leaders’ (and why most TEI missional scholars would lean away from ‘indoctrination’ and towards ‘constructive theology’…).

One very daring part of the Old Testament’s wisdom literature is the book called Ecclesiastes. This work’s principal speaker is named ‘Qohelet’ according to the Hebrew presentation, so I’ll use that name as a point of reference over the next minutes.

Qohelet starts, ends, and punctuates everything in between with the cry that ‘Everything is vanity!’ (הבל = a breath, momentary, absurd, incomprehensible, a bare illusion)

Along the way, Qohelet makes stupendous claims that are extremely difficult to partner with ‘biblical orthodoxy’.

  • Nothing has meaning.
  • Nothing produces any result/benefit/profit.
  • We’re no better than the animals.
  • Nothing ever makes a difference.
  • God loads us down with meaninglessness in order to weary or even to torment us.
  • And there’s no way out of this endless Doom Loop.

Then, just to keep us off balance, Qohelet pairs these ‘unorthodox’ declarations, which are spoken with brassy self-assurance, with other statements that are more comfortable for believing readers: 

  • ’So here’s what you do: Enjoy the food, sex, and shelter God has given you. They’re his gifts.’
  • ‘Do your best to keep God’s commandments.’

Yet in spite of this whiplash-producing juxtaposition of declarations, never has Judaism or the Christian Church given serious, sustained consideration to the possibility that Ecclesiastes might be anything other than Holy Scripture. What are we to do with that?

Here’s where my students are right now:

They’re working painstakingly through chapter 6 via a methodology we call ‘Theological Conversation’. Each student does a deep dive into one of the chapter’s verses and presents his or her conclusions. Another student is assigned the responsibility of first response. After that initial exchange, it’s no holds barred on conversation that ensues.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?

All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”

Ecclesiastes 6:1-12 (ESV)

Yet these aren’t necessarily Qohelet’s wildest statements. There are others, like these:

2.7 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

3.19-20 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.

And at the same time we’re trying to do justice to an assessment that shows up in the book’s epilogue, a kind of final summary … a tying up of loose ends.

It commends Qohelet for his expertise in shaping Israelites in the ways of wisdom. Then it adds this summary:

“Qohelet sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.”

Ecclesiastes 12:10-11 (ESV, lightly emended and emphasis added)

So why does an old dude like me continue to invest the countless hours of preparation that are required in order to lead students through arguably depressing and unorthodox literature like Qohelet?

Some days, I’m not sure….

On other, brighter and clearer mornings—and I’m happy to report that these are the more frequent ones—this is what I think I see:

  • I do it for the sheer, inexhaustible, compelling beauty of the biblical text. It feeds me. It’s an intellectual task and and an existential compulsion that I can’t find a way to walk away from. Maybe this what the editor of Ecclesiastes has in mind when he says that Qohelet spoke ‘words of delight’ and ‘words of truth’
  • I do it because I don’t believe Colombia’s emerging Christian leaders basically need a list of things they need to believe. Or, even if they do need that, they can get it from someone who’s not me. I’m not interested in ‘training’ them in any narrow sense. I’m interested in sharing life and study with them to see whether there’s any way I can shape them as human beings whom I’d like to share a beer with. And whom I would trust at my wife’s bedside after a cancer diagnosis.
  • I do it because I believe that both Yahweh and the canonical Scriptures are bold and confident enough to set the table for a believing people’s ongoing conversation, knowing that they will be led into all truth as they refuse to over-simplify the most important things and as they process life honestly as it comes. This feels authentic to me, true to both the nature of Scripture and to life as I experience it. Scripture seems not to insist that redemptive conversations be easy conversations nor overly pious ones, nor conversations where the outcome is known from before things heat up.
  • I do it because I think one of the things theological education must be is frighteningly unpragmatic. I can’t tell you how or and I cannot quantify in what measure Andrés … or María … or Paolo … or Diego … or Tatiana … have been changed by immersion in Ecclesiastes. But I know them. I share life and community with them. I look them in the eye. And I know in by bones that they are better … richer … more human persons and servants of Jesus for having walked this way. So I’m gonna keep doing what I do until God makes me stop.

I think that, for most (not all) of our UWM colleagues who are TEI missional scholars, we could change the ‘I’ to ‘we’. And I suspect we could do the same to include many of you.

‘Vanity of vanities!’, says Qohelet. ‘All is vanity!’

I believe him. But not completely. 

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According to the most plausible reading of this taxing work, Qohelet encourages his readers to understand that much can be known by the powers of human observation. Yet this potent capacity of studying how things work here ‘under the sun’ cannot relieve us of our despair.

By these lights, Ecclesiastes represents a subset of the human condition: we are glorious knowers indeed, yet even vanity threads its despairing weave through our lives’ intelligence so long as our perspective fails to access YHWH’s deeper purpose. That achievement is in truth a gift. It depends upon a relationship with one’s Creator that cannot be instigated or managed by the natural means available to women and men who crash against the sour limits of life here below. (more…)

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At times the power of a work remains latent until circumstances arrange themselves in such a way that it seems written for this moment. Such is the potency of the extended rumination that we call Ecclesiastes, after the odd name given to the presenting speaker. Worn-out moderns and post-moderns born into despair find in its pages a script of their own mind’s journey. (more…)

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