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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.