Ecclesiastes 12:8-14

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Today we come to the end of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and apart from the first verse, this section appears to be an epilogue, contributed by a different voice than Qohelet’s.

I include 12:8 in today’s reading because it does not belong with the section on old age and death which we read yesterday. It is a natural conclusion to Qohelet’s writing, forming an ‘inclusio’ with 1:2. This statement – that everything is hebel – has been the motif we have heard throughout the book. It means that we can’t hang onto anything; memories and even life itself disappears like smoke into the atmosphere. Nothing lasts, nothing is substantial or satisfying, nothing makes sense or can be relied upon. The conclusion itself is that there is no solid conclusion! As we have been saying throughout the last four weeks, we may want to argue with this as a fact, but we can’t argue with Qohelet’s feeling.

In 12:9 a narrator emerges (cf 1:1), describing Qohelet as more than a wise man, but also a teacher of knowledge and composer of proverbs (cf 1 Kgs 4:32), who sought delightful words to record truth correctly. This raises questions for me as a reader: did Qohelet find delightful words, or even truth? In our reading we have mostly encountered words of pain, ugliness, and contradiction. Perhaps our narrator is giving a subtle critique of Qohelet here. He sought, but he did not find (cf 7:23-28; 8:17).

What is a goad? This Hebrew word is only used one other time in the Bible, in 1 Sam 13:21, where it is clearly some kind of work tool; it was a long pointed stick used to prod sheep and other animals to move, just as we use the verb ‘goad’ when talking about provoking a person to do something. So the words of the wise prompt the reader to action, but they do so by inflicting pain. This fits well with the teaching of Qohelet in Ecclesiastes. Wisdom teachers, under God the Shepherd (cf Ps 23:1), are like under-shepherds prodding us along to right action (cf 1 Pet 5:1-4).

However, the narrator goes on to warn his son (cf Prov 1:8; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1 etc) that these books of wisdom are never-ending and that excessive study of them is exhausting. Hey, no arguments here – I am very tired after four weeks of hard work in Ecclesiastes! His conclusion – yes, he has one, in contrast with Qohelet – after all has been heard, is to fear God and keep his commandments. That is, as Qohelet had also urged (cf 5:7; 7:18; 8:12), respect and honor God, and demonstrate this subservience before God by keeping his commandments. Suddenly I feel we are back in Deuteronomy again (where we will return on Monday), hearing that this is humanity’s chief end. Again, as Qohelet warned (cf 11:9), God will bring every deed, both good and evil, into judgment.

There is a sense in this section that the narrator is both commending Qohelet’s wisdom, but also warning that it must be seen against orthodox teaching. If we weren’t sure earlier whether it was alright to argue with the words of this book, we can be positive now. God means to push and prod us toward right living through this word. All are subject to God’s judgment (Rom 2:1-16; Rev 20:11-13) but those whose names are written in the Book of Life will be saved to live with God, whom they love and honor, forever.

Prayer: Lord God, I honor you. Help me to hear your word, to discern its truth, and to be motivated to right living by it. Thank you that although the Bible is sometimes difficult to understand, there are feelings I can relate to, and clear teachings that I can follow.

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Ecclesiastes 11:7 – 12:7

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This is the last section of the book before we come to the epilogue. Fittingly, it concerns old age and death. In this context, Qohelet explains how we should live while we are still young and ‘in the light’.

In 11:8 he mentions the ‘days of darkness’ which come along as a person gets older and her eyes begin to fail (cf 12:2-3). The beautiful poetic language of 12:1-7 describes what happens in old age: apart from loss of sight, there is physical weakness and ‘bentness’, loss of hearing, early rising, increased fear, less going out, fewer friends, and failing desire. The imagery of 12:6 illustrates the moment of death itself. At this moment, the dust from which humans are formed returns to the earth and the breath returns to God (cf Gen 2:7).

Because these things will happen, Qohelet urges an enthusiastic approach to life before they do (cf 11:1-6), while light is still sweet and eyes can see (11:7). First of all, he recommends joy and happiness (11:8-9). Secondly, he encourages that we go after the things we see that make us happy, and turn away frustration and pain (12:9-10). Finally, he charges us to remember the one who created us (12:1), God. (The verb used there [i.e. ‘create’] is only ever used with God as its subject; there is another word for ‘make’, used in 11:5, which can be used of humans also.)

But there are a few caveats. He doesn’t want us to forget that there are dark days ahead, and that what we have now, in our youth, is hebel and will pass away (11:8,10). We cannot hang onto our youth and strength, as they are fleeting and momentary. Also, God will bring us into judgment for the paths we choose (11:9); the implication is that we should choose our paths wisely as we follow the desires of our hearts.

There is so much contrast in this section to what Qohelet taught earlier that some scholars have suggested that words were added by a different writer. For example, here he says that life is sweet, but earlier that it was better to be dead (eg 4:2-3). Here he says to think of the future, but earlier that we should ignore it and just enjoy the moment (eg 3:22). Here he says that God will bring us into judgment, but earlier that there is no justice or afterlife (eg 3:20; 6:6,12). What is going on here?

It seems from these apparent contradictions that Qohelet himself, just like us, is struggling to know what is truth. (Another possibility is that he changes his mind over the course of writing, and this is a progression of thought.) This encourages me that the way we have approached the book is correct: that Qohelet wants us to argue with him, to think about what he has written, and listen to its truth but always chew on that grain of salty nuttiness which grates. This is God’s word, and he wants us to know that it’s alright to have questions and arguments, and even faith in our doubts. We are neither to cut Ecclesiastes out of the Bible, nor accept everything it says on face value. Above all, as the book will go on to say, we are to remember and fear God, our Creator.

Prayer: Maker and Redeemer, there is a lot about this life that confuses and scares me, and a lot in your Word that I don’t understand. Help me to trust in you, to remember you, to fear you, and to live the life that you have given me while I still can.

I always try to keep faith in my doubts, Sister Berthe.

Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

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This short chapter has two sections, but 11:7-10 is part of a poem which continues to 12:7, so we will deal with those verses in tomorrow’s post. The first part of the chapter is a set of proverbs which relate to chance and predictability, work ethic, and risk-taking.

The first verse is a common expression which has been interpreted in different ways (cf NIV translation). Although it may refer to generosity, it makes sense in the context to think of it in the sense of taking a financial risk, such as trading at sea, in the hope of reaping a reward. In the same vein but with a totally different slant, Qohelet recommends not ‘putting all your eggs in the same basket’, but rather spreading your investments so that if there is some failure in one area due to natural disaster, another area may yet thrive. (Although it is equally possible to interpret 11:2 as being generous to others, if 11:1 was thought of in that way too.)

Already in the environmental theme, Qohelet’s train of thought continues down this track in 11:3 with two simple observations of reality. When clouds are full, it rains; when a tree falls, it lies where it fell. His point, perhaps contrary to 11:1-2, is that we can predict the future with some small degree of certainty at least. However, sometimes this ability to predict hinders rather than helping us. For example, a farmer who can see from the clouds that it is about to rain doesn’t go out to harvest; or the wind might stop him from scattering seed, for fear that it will not be planted evenly.

It is the whole context of 11:1-6 that indicates to me that Qohelet sees this cessation of labour, because of prediction, as negative rather than a positive from wisdom. (Also, the warnings in 10:15,18 about laziness, cf Prov 22:13; 26:13.) Here in 11:6, he encourages the reader to sow and not rest, whether morning or evening, because either or both might be good. The flavor of the passage is to try, to do, to work, in the hope that whatever you do will pay off. Take risks!

But there is also the sense that we can’t be confident that whatever we do will work out. There might be a natural disaster, the seed might be scattered, the bread might not return. Our investments may fail. We humans cannot know the path of the wind any more than we can know how babies are created inside the womb. But God knows all these things, because he is their creator.

The message, in a nutshell, is that we should take risks in the hope of return. But we should also recognize that things won’t always work out well. (Read this John Piper article on the topic of risk if you want to think about this further.) The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is full of heroes who took risks that paid off: Ruth, David, Esther, Daniel, Peter, Paul. God himself took a risk by sending his Son over the waters. That risk failed in some ways (in that not everyone received him, John 1:10-11) and succeeded in others. What risk is God calling you to take today?

Prayer: Here I am, Lord, with all that I have. Help me to trust in you as I risk it all for you and your sake.

Ecclesiastes 10 (Part 2)

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Today we continue through Chapter 10, looking at the themes of (1) upside-down societal structures, and (2) laziness and work. (The other themes of this chapter were explored yesterday, so if you missed that post you could go back and read that too.)

In 10:5-7, Qohelet begins discussing an ‘evil’ he has observed, which comes about by an unintentional error of a ruler. It is the elevation of a fool to a high post, while the rich man sits in a low estate; he gives the example of slaves on horses while princes walk. This is upheaval of the social order. The theme returns in 10:16-17, where he pronounces woe on a nation whose king is only a young man, and feasting happens in the morning (which would result in drunkenness, and therefore sloth, for the rest of the day). He prefers a blue-blood king, and feasting ‘in its time’ for strength.

We already mentioned about the fool yesterday, but didn’t discuss Qohelet’s preference for wealth and nobility. As an Australian, famous for our ‘flat’ society, this grates on me. I want social upheaval! The Bible overall generally roots for the underdog too, and the elevation of those who are normally at the bottom of society (cf 1 Sam 2:8; Luke 1:52-53). But in contrast, my father remembers with pain what happened in Hungary in the 1940s and 50s, when the soviets intentionally turned society upside-down; the monarchy was abolished, his wealthy family was made to learn manual trades, and people with no education were suddenly elevated. The same thing happened thirty years later in Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the cities, with mostly an educated population, to become forced rural labour, and particularly targeted professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers for cruelty. Which is the greater social evil: to keep slaves in their low place, or to intentionally destroy a society by up-ending it?

The theme of laziness flows on from 10:16-17, noting the princes who get drunk in the morning and therefore are fit for nothing for the rest of the day. But it is spelled out more explicitly in 10:18. As a fool is tired out by working and therefore he doesn’t know how to get to the city (to buy food? to work?, cf 4:5), so also a house is destroyed by laziness. It is only through toil that money can be earned to buy bread and wine, which brings laughter and joy. (The ‘but’ in some English versions of 10:19 is not helpful here, and is better translated as ‘and’.)

However, toil is not always smooth. 10:8-9 list a number of ways that a worker can be injured. It could be that 10:11 is also part of this list of laborers, but it fits better, structurally and linguistically, with 10:10. As the woodcutter must sharpen his axe for better success, so also the snake-charmer must use his tongue before he is bitten. The point of this section is that a worker should use wisdom in their toil.

We can learn from this chapter that work is good and important, but that it must be done sensibly and in the right way for greatest success. This is true at both an individual and a social level. Laziness will lead to hunger and your house – literally and metaphorically – falling down.

Prayer: God, help me to work hard and to work smart. Protect me from sloth and from silly accidents.

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Ecclesiastes 10 (Part 1)

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In our chapter today we have a diverse collection of proverbs with no single discernible unifying theme or structure. However, there are some overlapping ideas that keep cropping up: wisdom versus folly; relating to rulers; societal structures; work, laziness, and accidents. I will attempt to cover these topics thematically (rather than going verse by verse) over today and tomorrow.

10:1 relates back to what we just read in 9:18 (and actually belongs there better, instead of starting a new chapter). The idea is that a lot of what is good – perfume or wisdom and honor – can be destroyed by something small. We have seen that happen in the lives of individuals, churches and nations. Qohelet is not giving advice here, simply stating a reality.

He goes on to comparing the wise with fools (10:2). Although foolishness is easily observed (10:3), still a fool can be appointed to a high position (10:6). I have tried not to show overt political opinions in this blog but I can’t help thinking of a certain (ex-)world leader who demonstrates this sad truth, and also 10:12b-14. It is impossible for me not to think of him as I read about speech that begins with folly and ends with evil madness, multiplying words so that no one knows what’s coming or where it will end, which eventually consume him.

The same person comes quickly to mind when I read 10:4, although this is not the import of the verse. Here Qohelet is again giving advice to officials who work in the royal court (cf 8:2-4). When your boss gets angry with you (literally, ‘the spirit of the ruler rises up against you’), don’t leave. The second half of 10:4 literally says, ‘healing puts to rest great sins’. It is difficult to know exactly what Qohelet had in mind, but it seems to me that he is recommending conciliation in the face of offensive behavior by a ruler towards his subordinates. In other words, play cool in any aggravated situation; keep the peace rather than fighting back or quitting in the moment.

In the last verse (10:20), he instructs the reader – I think still keeping the court official in mind, but it could be more general – not to curse the king (or the wealthy), even in thinking or in private, in case the matter gets back to the ruler. This is a tough rebuke to me. I often find myself, in private, disparaging or despising leaders who affect my life, whether politically, or organizationally. Perhaps I am not literally cursing them, but a better attitude would be to pray for those in authority over me.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to take this advice to heart as I relate to those in authority over me. Give me patience and coolness, give me love and an understanding heart. Let not my foolish words or sinfulness destroy what good my community is trying to do. : Trump So Many Words: Humorous Birthday Greeting Card Featuring  Donald's Presidential Eloquence in Action Again, with Envelope. C4878BDG :  Office Products

Ecclesiastes 9:11-18

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The passage we are reading today is simpler in structure than the past few days, with two main subsections: firstly about the cruelty of fate (9:11-12), and secondly about the victory of quiet wisdom over foolish strength (9:13-18).

Verse 11 marks a definite shift from the previous section, as indicated by the first few words, yet it also still follows on the idea of 9:1-3 that chance – and death – overtakes everyone, regardless of who they are. Just like fish and birds caught in a snare, so are humans suddenly and without warning trapped by bad events in our lives. It happened to Job, it happens to many people we know, and even to ourselves. As a simple example, so many people have been unwittingly trapped into or out of a country by the coronavirus shut-downs. Qohelet observes that, just as the righteous is not always rewarded with a long life, nor the wicked punished, as human wisdom dictates, so also the fastest person doesn’t always win the race, nor does the strongest person win the fight. More poignantly but perhaps with less visual punch, nor does the wise or discerning person necessarily receive more wealth.

This thought leads Qohelet into his next contemplation, as he imagines a poor wise man in a besieged city. Our natural expectation is that the strong king with his great armory should be able to dominate this small city with few men. But somehow (in keeping with what we just saw in 9:11), he is outwitted by the poor man’s wisdom. Sadly, despite his unlikely victory, the poor man was not remembered (cf 9:5).

Nevertheless, Qohelet reflects that wisdom is better than strength and battle-weapons, even though the poor man’s wisdom was despised and no one listened to him. (I wish we knew more about the story to find out how he won that battle even though no one listened to him.) He goes on to assert, perhaps contrary to his own story, that quiet wise words are more listened to than foolish leaders’ shouting. How I wish that were true! In my personal experience it tends to be those with the loudest voices who are listened to; in our groups and organizations we need to practice listening to and amplifying the quiet words of the wise. In multi-cultural contexts, I would add that we need to be sure to listen to those who do not easily speak English.

The last phrase of 9:18 is also a great warning. The normal translation of this Hebrew word is ‘sinner’, but it could also be ‘one who misses the mark’ (cf Jdg 20:16), which may be a more helpful translation in this context which is not really about sin and evil but more about warfare. The resulting meaning would then be more like, “The one who gets it wrong destroys much good”. Therefore, be wise, and get it right!

To conclude then: Seek to be wise, because wisdom is better than strength and can conquer, contra expectations. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that wisdom is going to win every time; bad things can still happen to wise and knowledgeable people, and you may not be listened to anyway.

Prayer: God, my life is in your hands. Give me wisdom so that I can do good in my community. Help me to listen carefully to the quiet and to the poor.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-10

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In this section things don’t get any rosier than they were in the previous chapter. In fact, I would argue it is even more depressing, especially 9:2-6, probably the darkest section of the book and even perhaps the whole Bible.

Qohelet’s basic argument is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a good or an evil person, a lover or a hater, religious or irreligious: everyone is going to die and there is no reward for how we lived ‘under the sun’. It’s worse than that, because the human heart is full of evil and madness – which explains why the world is so horrible and there is such suffering here.

Still, he states, it’s better to be alive than dead (in contrast to what he said before in 4:2), because at least you can know something when you’re alive, even if what you know is that you’re going to die. But the dead have nothing, no love or hate or anything that exists, for all time; not even the memory of the dead lasts.

In 9:7-10 there is a small shift towards positivity, but it doesn’t last long. Echoing the hint of God’s providential sovereignty in 9:1, Qohelet challenges his readers to go, eat and drink, with joy and in a good heart. The white clothes and oil-anointed head are about living as if life is good, not like you’re in mourning. He also advises considering this life which is given with your spouse (Hebrew has ‘wife’) whom you love, but again reminds the reader that this life is hebel: devoid of purpose or substance. While you are alive you may as well work and think and know, because after you die you will have none of these.

In this context, can we really enjoy life? Is Qohelet being sarcastic? Or is it a genuine charge to enjoy what we have while we have it, because it is not going to last? How should we respond to such depression? First of all, I would suggest, just sit with it. Sit with Qohelet. Sit with your friend who is also struggling in the darkness of despair. Sit with the sense that life has no purpose or meaning and is not going anywhere. See that the righteous and the good and the religious suffers and dies just the same as the wicked and the sinner and the atheist; God does not protect one more than the other from coronavirus or tsunami or cyclone. And in this context, be thankful for and enjoy the good things you have: food, drink, a spouse or friend, life itself.

And now, think of the areas where you disagree with Qohelet. Is the memory of the perished forgotten? No, we remember them and others will remember us. Are there no wages for the dead? Other passages of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, argue otherwise (eg Ps 49:10-15; Dan 12:2; Matt 5-6; Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 3:14). Is my enjoyment in this present life all I live for? No, not only is there reward in the afterlife, but I live for the enjoyment and service of others, particularly the Lord Jesus (cf Col 3:17, which I am strongly reminded of when I read Ecc 9:10). Jesus himself did not look with despair at his short life, which began and ended with suffering, but rather ran his race for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). He felt anguish, sure, to the point of sweating blood, but he was faithful to the task to which he was called. He, not Qohelet, is the author and perfecter of our faith.

Prayer: Lord God, sometimes when I look on this life, full of my and others’ suffering, I am tempted to despair. And yet, I am alive, and I can rejoice and be thankful in this. Help me to live not for myself, but for others and especially for you. You are the one who gives my life meaning.

Ecclesiastes 8

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The main new theme in today’s section is authority, or lack thereof. Qohelet then returns to the theme we looked at yesterday, comparing the wicked with the righteous. There are many ideas in this chapter which are repetitions of motifs already sounded earlier in the book: wisdom, futility, allocated times, and enjoyment of the simple things of life.

8:2-5 deal with the king and how to relate to him. It does not feel in these verses like Qohelet is still identifying as the king, but rather he is now standing alongside us ‘commoners’. Essentially the message is to be obedient and respectful, both because of prior commitments and also future results. There is no point in arguing anyway, because the king will do what he wants. This, Qohelet argues, is wisdom. There is general agreement with this sentiment in scripture (eg 1 Sam 24; Rom 13:1-5), but also occasions on which dispute with the king is acceptable (eg Ex 1:15-22; Acts 4:18-20) or even expected (eg 1 Sam 22). In today’s world, Qohelet’s wisdom still stands, but also with the caveat that sometimes, in some circumstances (cf 8:5), challenging the king or other authorities is the right thing to do.

In 8:6, which flows on directly from the previous verse, we return to the thinking of 3:1ff. Wisdom enables a person to know the right time for every action; wisdom also brightens a person’s perspective on life (8:1), which can otherwise seem so tragic. The problem is, the wisdom which enables us to understand the present and know the future is painfully elusive (8:7-8,17).

Even the king has no authority over his day of death, just as no one can contain the wind or release herself from warfare (8:8). Nor will the wicked person escape from their deeds – or will they? In 8:10, Qohelet notes with apparent sadness – it is hebel also – that wicked people are able to go to the holy place and be praised in the city. There is a great tension in these verses (8:10-14): Qohelet seems undecided whether the wicked will escape judgment (8:11-12,14) or will suffer punishment (8:13). Likewise, he says both that those who fear God, the righteous, will have good lives (8:12), but also that they sometimes get what the wicked deserve (8:14). He cannot grasp these sad realities, they are hebel. This whole discussion harks back to the previous chapter (7:15).

Qohelet cannot unravel this mystery, and so simply resigns himself to it, commending enjoyment of the tangible aspects of life: eating, drinking, joy. The sad reality is that the wisdom needed to understand why life happens the way it does is unattainable. Even though she sees every work of God, and searches out what is happening, even the wisest person is not able to grasp what is really going on ‘under the sun’. There is no human answer to the biblical and all-too-human questions ‘Why?’ and ‘How long?’

This chapter does not hold out any particular hope. Submit to authority, even if you don’t agree with it, and enjoy what you can see, touch, and taste. No one understands why there is so much suffering and injustice. That’s it. I don’t like it, and I am looking for an escape, some solid conclusion, but there is none to be had here, only the repeated announcement that it is all hebel. We can sit with that, sit with Qohelet and our own souls and the souls of others, as we contemplate this darkness.

What did Jesus think of this book? He does not quote from it, and nor does the rest of the New Testament. But some of Paul’s writings reflect ideas from Ecclesiastes. He agrees that life on earth is futile, if there is no future to be looked forward to, but that Christ’s resurrection has changed that perspective (1 Cor 15, especially vv17,32,58) – Christ, the wisdom of God and the power of God (1 Cor 1:24,30). With Christ as our wisdom we may be able to find meaning in life.

Prayer: Lord God, there is so much about this life that is difficult to understand, especially when evil men rule and prosper. Let me be one who fears you, and help me to enjoy the good things in this life which you have given to me. Give me wisdom to understand the times.

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Ecclesiastes 7:15-29

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The second half of this chapter is similar to the first half: it feels like random disconnected thoughts, but on deeper study, really there is a strong theme of comparing the righteous and the wicked; the wise and the foolish; and the other ideas are about words and women. But the sections are threaded through each other.

Qohelet starts with the age-old question: why is it, contrary to even his own wisdom, that we sometimes see the righteous suffer and die, but the wicked have long lives? He has no answer but to declare it hebel, a frustrating nonsense (7:15). He also hints that fools, too, die early. Qohelet therefore advises moderation for those who fear God, moderation even in righteousness and wisdom (7:16-18). There is no one on earth who is so righteous that they never sin (cf Ps 53:3). Not reaching for that perfection may actually make you a better person in the long run. Do you agree with Qohelet? The rest of scripture advocates striving for perfection (eg Matt 5:48); but on the other hand, not being the obviously most holy person might make friendship seem more attainable for others. Perfectionism, even in morality, is not healthy when stress is created by the failure to live up to the ideal. Likewise, excessive wisdom causes headaches, as Qohelet already warned in 1:18.

Of course, wisdom is more to be sought than folly. It makes a person stronger (7:19). However, there are some things that cannot be discovered, try as hard as we might (7:23-25). 7:23 is connected with 7:24 by the word ‘far’, which is obscured in some translations. Wisdom was too far for Qohelet and could not be found, despite much searching. However, there are a few things he could find (7:27).

First of all, in the verses I skipped (7:21-22), he discovered that it is good not to ‘give your heart’ to every spoken word. We know how often we have spoken negative words about others; therefore we can expect negative words to have been spoken about us, even by those we might consider ‘beneath us’. Don’t pay attention to it, Qohelet warns. Reflecting on my own life, how profound is this simple teaching! I still remember negative words that were spoken over or to me when I was a teenager, and they impact who I am today. Reader, hear the word of the Lord to you today: Let it go.

Finally, there are these difficult verses at the end (7:26,28-29). Was Qohelet a misogynist? Quite possibly, given his historical period, and especially if these words are Solomon’s, who himself was ensnared by women (cf 1 Kgs 11:4). But let me also reassure you about 7:28, which has been translated with an interpretation in many English versions. A wooden, literal translation of 7:27-29 says:

See this I found, says Qohelet, one by one, to find an explanation. While my soul was searching, I did not find; one human among a thousand I found; but a woman among a thousand I did not find. Only see this I found: that God made human(ity) upright, but they sought many inventions.

It is difficult to understand, which is why some versions insert something like ‘upright’ or ‘righteous’ to make it sound like Qohelet found only one righteous man among a thousand, but no righteous women. But that word is not there in the original Hebrew phrase. It is perhaps the translators who are misogynistic, not the Bible’s original text. Qohelet was not seeking a righteous man, according to the context; he was seeking wisdom. If there is any judgment about men versus women, it is that there are more wise men out there. But even that is difficult to assert, as he doesn’t use the gender-specific term for man at all, only the generic word for ‘human’ (and also the specific word for ‘woman’).

How shall we conclude? As women, let’s respond positively to the challenge! Let us be the wise (and/or righteous) woman that Qohelet couldn’t find. In this way we become strong, rather than rejecting the whole text because of some words we don’t like. But let us also recognize that we are not going to reach perfection; wisdom is far, and perfect righteousness is non-existent in humanity. Thank God that Jesus was perfect on our behalf (cf Heb 10:14).

Prayer: Lord God, I pray for wisdom in order to do and to be good. Help me to ignore words that are unhelpful.

Ecclesiastes 7:1-14

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A quick reading of these verses gives the impression of random thoughts, but apart from the first phrase that doesn’t fit the rest completely well, there are some strong themes which create a unified paragraph: death and sadness vs birth and joy; wisdom vs foolishness; patience vs anger; accepting God’s sovereignty.

It may seem surprising that Qohelet prefers death, mourning, and sorrow, over life, feasting, and laughter. But the reason is clear: it is in these aspects of existence that we are more likely to find wisdom. Sadness is actually better for one’s heart than joy, and we learn a lot more from a rebuke than a foolish song. Have you ever pondered why someone – you, maybe – actually likes watching drama just as much, if not more than, comedy? Why is it that I can lose myself and release my own stress and sadness by entering into the suffering of someone else, even a fictional character? Qohelet compares a fool’s laughter with the sound of thorns being burned up under a pot as it cooks; it just disappears, like smoke, with no purpose and no weight. But a serious matter touches our hearts with much more power and lasting impact. Contemplating death can profoundly affect the way we live our life, and creates a wise approach to it. 

Wisdom is of much benefit in living. It provides benefit, and a protective shade that preserves the life of the one who is master over it. But it must be sought; wisdom does not necessarily come without effort or experience. Think of how much knowledge we gain through the experience of being in a dangerous situation, like a fire or flood. And it can be lost, through bribery and extortion, or through lack of patience. Qohelet compares a ‘long’ spirit with a proud spirit, with the idea that someone who is patient and humble will fall into the camp of the wise.

The last two verses of this section (cf 7:10 also) are about accepting God’s sovereign will, whether it is good and yields prosperity, or whether it is bent through adversity. When things are going well, Qohelet advises, let it be good. But on bad days, recognise that God made these too. It doesn’t mean that we can find out why, however, nor discern what will happen in the future. Knowing that God is the author of both good and bad is not always comforting; in fact, it can be the opposite. But the alternative is even worse; that we are at the mercy of capricious or evil powers, or that there is no meaning to our suffering at all. At least by knowing we are in God’s hands, whether for good or ill, we can be confident that there is a purpose to the day of adversity. This is what kept Jesus going on the road of suffering (cf Heb 12:2).

Prayer: Lord God, I am in your hands whether things are going well or going badly. Help me to trust you even in suffering. Let me learn patience and wisdom for living this difficult life under the sun.

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