From:  Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life               Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2012

 

 

 

[Page 44]

 

 

Chapter Two:

The Paradox of Excess in Relaxation

and Work:

They Seem “Fulfilling” Yet Inevitable

Change Frustrates Their Enjoyment 

(2:1-3:17)

 

 

 

 

            Not everyone is a would-be “intellectual.”  (Perhaps the world is the better for it!)  Instead, for the bulk of the population, the life of pursuing pleasure or economic self-advancement seem far more appealing goals than the so-called “cultivation of the mind.”   The economic prosperity can make the pleasure easier to obtain, but either can become the preferred panacea for worldly happiness—depending upon individual temperament, of course.  Hence, if one did not share Solomon’s thirst for wisdom, it was important for his readers to recognize that the popular alternatives would not bring greater pleasure either.

 

 

 

 

The Flow of the Argument

 

A.   Dead end roads seeking happiness (2:1-3:17)

          1.  The emptiness of joy as an end in itself (2:1-11)

                    a.  The fundamental folly (2:1-2)

                   b.  Seeking happiness through drunkenness (2:3)

                   c.  Seeking happiness through what one accomplishes

    and possesses (2:4-8)

[Page 45] d.  Seeking happiness by excelling at everything

   (2:9-11)

          2.  The irony of our human accomplishments:  They

     produce nothing permanent nor bring lasting happiness

    (2:12-26)       

          3.  Even when we have these goals, we still have to come to

    terms with the fact of change:  within the context of

   apparent stability there still occur a multitude of changes

  (3:1-8)

 

B.  In spite of these inherent limitations on the joy that life can bring

          1.  God wants us to work (3:9-11)

          2.  And to enjoy the fruit of our labor (3:12-13)

          3.  But will judge us for our character and conduct (3:14-

             17), thereby requiring that both be placed within a moral

             framework

 

 

 

 

 

 

A.   Dead End Roads Seeking Happiness (2:1-3:17)

 

 

1.  The Emptiness of Joy as an End in Itself (2:1-11)

                 

 

            There is certainly nothing wrong with seeking happiness.  There is certainly nothing improper with an optimistic frame of mind.  In fact the scriptures endorse such an attitude toward life (1 Thessalonians 5:16; Philippians 4:4). 

            The regal cynic certainly would not have disparaged this either.  What he has in mind in his critique is when life is defined exclusively in terms of such factors.  The other scriptures concur in this judgment, pointing to the limitations and potential dangers that can occur in such a preoccupation:  We can’t permanently hide or avoid sorrow, as both this book and others remind us; indeed that which gives us the pleasure may even be the source of serious harm to us (Proverbs 14:13)—sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction are two obvious examples.

[Page 46]            There is the danger of redefining pleasure as meaning any pleasure and there are many unlawful ones that will degrade our spirituality and service to God (Hebrews 11:24-26).  They can even edge God out of our thoughts to the extent that we forget that our ultimate answerability is to Him (Luke 12:15-21, especially verses 19, 21).  

Having the wealth that went with his position, it was easy for Solomon and members of his court to fall into this trap of defining the “full” life strictly in terms of the immediate pleasures it brought.  In the prosperous western society of the late twentieth century this similarly happened.  New “toys” had to be invented—expensive “toys”—to fill the hours outside work.  Artificially inflated prices for products that differed little in quality or design from others had to be justified by the invention of a “marketing mystique” that made one think one was on the cutting edge of change.  When one was really only on the cutting edge of the latest fad.

            On a more limited scale, Solomon’s world had it too.  Goods brought in from a vast distance.  Clothing made of materials not available except when imported from hundreds or more miles away.  Rare foods, carefully preserved, to get them to the court while they were still at the peak of their taste.  Probably even entertainers of one sort or another who were risking the dangers of what was, to them, “foreign” travel in the hope of seeking new audiences and a full purse.

            None of this was bad, but the preoccupation with it was.  The fundamental folly (2:1-2) was summed up in the pointed query, “What does it accomplish?”  The search for ever more good times/pleasure (2:1) and laughter/joy (2:2) itself becomes a never-ending rat race.  It often grows out of a fundamental boredom with life due to our prosperity.[1]  We have nothing to worry about so we worry about the things that mean nothing of importance.

We are having an outrageously good time because we have spent a lot of money on it and because we are “supposed” to be having a good time—haven’t the media and the advertisements repeatedly pictured this as the epitome of pleasure?  Yet that doesn’t guarantee that we are experiencing any such thing.[2]

And even when we do reach those heights, truth be told, it is but a few moments of joy (be they hours, days, or weeks), but then life has to go on.  And unless there is some pervasive rationale for life, all that bulk of time that we simply spend “existing” rather than in “ecstasy” (sexual, recreational, or otherwise) becomes a curse and a burden. 

Either we find a reason for being or life itself is nothing but a living death.  That rationale may be the gospel, it may be humanitarian service to others, it may be social betterment—but somewhere and in some form it has to be or existence itself becomes a thing to be cursed and annihilation becomes a thing to be prayed for as a positive improvement.

            One way people seek happiness is through drunkenness (2:3).  The king confesses his own weakness on this score:  he attempted to be a drunk intellectual.  History has known more than a few of them.  Yet there is a painfully thin line here.  Do they drink to become happy or merely to escape life, because they have found that they can’t be happy? 

In this case the author was able to reign in his own excesses before they destroyed either him or his ability to function.  Unfortunately millions find that [Page 47]    impossible.  Many cultures have a tradition of restraint in drinking.  America, alas, has no such tradition.  And the lack of it gave justified impetus to the prohibition movements of the past.  (Which merely pushed the problem underground rather than solved it.)

            Others put a more positive interpretation upon the text. Duane A. Garrett argues that since Qohelet emphasizes that these efforts to gain pleasure were intellectually guided, then even the drinking was kept under control.  If so, then what happened would be an effort to see whether the finest wines of the day could give him full pleasure.  He sought the pleasures of qualitative indulgence (the best of wine) not quantitative (i.e., drunkenness).[3] 

Or as H. C. Leupold worded it, he “use[d] wine, not as a debauchee, but as a connoisseur.”[4]  He sought “to get the highest possible enjoyment by a careful use of it, so that appetite is sharpened, enjoyment enhanced, and the finest bouquets sampled and enjoyed.”[5]  His sin, if you will, becomes one of snobbery rather than excess.
            Perhaps.  

           

Another option is to seek happiness through what one accomplishes and owns and with an abundance of wealth, Solomon was able to do that as well (2:4-8).  His affluence allowed abundant expenditures on items to build up his personal and dynastic prestige.  His palace complex took no less than thirteen years to plan and build (1 Kings 7:1-12) and included a major residence for the daughter of Pharaoh whom he had married (7:8)—an act of honor not mentioned concerning any of his other wives and also illustrating how important he regarded the de facto alliance with Egypt.  After all Pharaoh had captured Gezer and given it as dowry for his daughter when she married Solomon (9:16).  He responded in kind. 

He also built major walls around Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddio, and Gezer (9:15).  He rebuilt Gezer as well as constructing new cities “in the land of Judah” (9:17-18).  He also built storage cities (for the wealth produced by the agriculture of the land) and military cities to house his armed forces (especially chariots) (9:19).

The potentially destabilizing impact of the vast forced labor squads necessary for such prolonged building products was removed by the successful effort to coerce the previously unconquered minorities of the land into providing labor (9:20-21).  To the extent that Hebrews were brought into the equation, they provided the military power for his army and supervision over the building squads (9:22-23).  (Passed over in silence is the inevitable heavy taxation that must have been required but, as they say, “that is another story.”)

And, of course, there was the temple that exceeded in glory even the vast amounts of effort that went into his own regal projects.

Vineyards are not mentioned in the historical chronicles as an emphasis of Solomon but compared to the building projects what was likely to be a rival?  On the other hand, David had had them (1 Chronicles 27:27) and Solomon’s desire to erect a powerful monarchy was hardly likely to permit them to remain at their current size; the regal ego surely required that they be expanded yet further.[6]  Song of Solomon 8:11 refers to one specific vineyard that Solomon leased out for a large [Page 48]    income.  With his wealth, there was hardly likely to be merely one.  It would not fit with his status.

The building of “water pools” with which to irrigate the vineyards and gardens (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6) represented a natural step that his prosperity made possible:  to assure their survival in seasons of modest rain.[7]  Song of Solomon 7:7 refers to “the pools in Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim,” which would suggest the building of urban reservoirs as well. 

Both Nehemiah 2:14 and 3:15 refer to such pools in Jerusalem that had survived the foreign deportation of the bulk of the population.  These would serve a similar purpose in time of drought or warfare.  The so-called “Pools of Solomon” near Bethlehem actually date to the Roman times, but they conceivably could have been built, at least in part, upon a much earlier and less elaborate system.[8]  (Though Solomon’s reign was remarkably free of major conflict, it was a matter of simple prudence to encourage “dual-use” facilities that could benefit in time of either natural or human inflicted catastrophe.) 

Similarly the reference to parks and gardens could have been an expansion of the work of Baal-Hanan, who had been David’s administrator “over the olive trees and the sycamore trees” (1 Chronicles 27:28).  If these had been strictly utilitarian at that earlier stage, the very desire to find something visually impressive on which to expend his wealth would have encouraged the building of far more regal facilities than had existed under his predecessor.

The term “parks” (2:5) is interesting because, in the Septuagint translation, it is the word (paradeisos) used to describe idyllic Eden (Genesis 2:8:  “garden”) and in the New Testament of the ultimate heavenly reward (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:4:  “paradise”).[9]  In short, the perfection of beauty and visual appeal, as well as meeting all the needs of its users.  It surely has the connotation of the best and most appealing and, presumably, rare and valued trees that could be moved to the appointed locations.[10] 

In the days of King Zedekiah of Judah, Jerusalem had a “king’s garden” (2 Kings 25:4).  Nehemiah 3:15 implies that a substantially sized “King’s Garden” had survived the many turmoils Jerusalem had undergone.  These later examples, of course, would have been puny compared to that maintained in the richer days of Solomon.

Vast wealth was the key.  His yearly income in gold alone was 666 gold talents (1 Kings 10:14), to which had to be added revenue from trading (10:15).  But he was not a hoarder.  He viewed the money as something to spend.  The above items represented both an ego trip and, at least in part, a prudent investment for both himself as well as future kings. 

Yet he also saw the money as something to be enjoyed as well.  “I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces.  I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kind” (Ecclesiastes 2:8).  It was said in hyperbole that he “made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones” (1 Kings 10:27). 

And with that abundance, he had it in his power to hire the best musicians and dancers and performers that money could buy.  It is hardly a flight of fantasy to [Page 49]    imagine them coming from afar without even being requested, drawn by the prestige of his court and the money he could lavish.                    

To the extent that a human being could claim it in that day and age, he “had it all.”  Everything that could be imagined.  Buildings, vineyards, gardens, and flocks, servants, entertainers, an immense exchequer of silver and gold.  Most humans are happy to be able to brag about one item on his list.  If happiness could be purchased by wealth, then he, of all, had the key to happiness.  Yet something inside still ached for he recognized he did not have what he truly needed.

           

Then there are those who seek happiness by excelling at everything they attempt and Qohelet tried that approach as well (2:9-11).  Whatever he wanted to do, he did.  More importantly he did them all well.  Few people can brag that whatever they attempt succeeds.  This king could.  Yet it left him with the gnawing recognition that good as all these things were, they weren’t enough.             

            All these things he thought might bring him permanent happiness and they failed.  If any man could buy happiness, he could.  Yet even his effort had fallen short of reaching that goal. 

 

          The text from our standpoint.  With the exception of drunkenness, there was nothing Solomon mentions that was wrong in and of itself.  In fact some of them were down right laudable in that they brought prestige to the kingdom he governed.

            What then was his problem?  Perhaps we can illustrate it from the parable of the rich man in Luke 12.  In his prosperity “he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’  So he said, ‘I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and me merry’ ” (Luke 12:17-19).  In his pride, God took his soul that very night (12:20).

            Commentators on that text have often pointed out the pervasiveness of that self-centered “I” that runs throughout the text.  The man was totally self-absorbed and self-centered.  Everything was for his benefit, his honor, his self-advancement, his pleasure.

            Re-read this section of Ecclesiastes.  Is not the mind frame the same?  What the writer did was for his own happiness and prestige and, only indirectly if at all, for others.  True, it could be rationalized, in part, as giving greater stature to the kingdom as well as to himself.  But is not that nationalistic element secondary to the purely personal?  And when the strictly personal overwhelms everything else, can happiness in any age be obtained that way?

            It is far easier to criticize others for their weaknesses than to recognize the same in ourselves.  Much of the New Testament criticizes such self-absorption.  “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12) is nothing less than the demand that we rise above our self-centeredness and consider the impact of our behavior on others.  “ . . . [I]n lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3) throws out a similar challenge to avoid becoming so preoccupied with our own interests that we forget that of others.  Solomon faltered at the challenge.  Is it any surprise that we do as well?     

 

[Page 50]

 

2.    The Irony of Our Human Accomplishments: 

They Produce Nothing Permanent nor

Bring Lasting Happiness (2:12-26)

 

 

            The author was proud of all that he accomplished (2:10), but as he meditated further he came to the painful recognition that it had been of no permanent benefit after all (2:11).  Note that he took the time necessary to come to a conclusion about the value and limits of his wealth.  Most wealthy individuals are so centered on the gaining of the riches that they do not evaluate its importance, significance, or what they plan on doing with it.[11]  Something within Qohelet’s basic character demanded that an explanation be sought, however. 

Why he came to his conclusion of the fundamental absurdity of the “rat race” to wealth he does not share with us.  As a historian, I can imagine him, on his travels through his kingdom, coming on the ruins of what some other local official had once built.  Standing there, thinking about all the work that had gone into it.  And then suddenly recognizing that one day his accomplishments would similarly collapse (or be torn!) into mere rubble as well.

            Whatever provoked the insight, he had come to recognize that whatever a king does could only be what some predecessor had already accomplished (2:12).  Oh, the scale might be different.  The cost.  The beauty.  But nothing truly different and permanent.

            Not that one might not try.  Just that it wasn’t likely to be.   Much later in the ancient world, the Greeks thought in terms of the “wonders of the world.”  Things that stood head and shoulders above all the others.  They could list only seven.  And of those only one (the pyramids) are still around for our eyes to behold.

            Just as wisdom can not leave anything permanent behind us, neither can wisdom protect us from the problems that affect everyone else (2:13-14).   Again, the writer was not naïve.  Some problems he was pretty much immune from.  No thief was likely to pull a dagger on him and rob him!  But, by and large, the same calamities that occurred to others could come upon him. 

            He could fall and break a limb or even die.

            He could come down with a disease or infection that would sap his strength and leave him weakened to the point of death.

            He could be deceived and waste his resources on schemes and ideas that benefited only the scoundrel who suggested them.  (Though, at least, because he was king, that rogue had better never come within his reach again!)

            Of what value is it to be great and important if one is subject to the same humbling circumstances of the rest of humanity?

            I wrote these words a week after a U.S. Senator running for re-election died in a fatal small plane flight.  Nearly four decades ago, an outstanding senatorial candidate in my home state of Virginia similarly perished.  If that Virginian had [Page 51]    been elected, he would likely have been Vice President or President by now.  If he had lived.

            If.

            Qohelet had come to the painful and sometimes overwhelming grasp of how conditional is everything in life. 

            At least by one’s accomplishments one may erect a “permanent” memorial in the minds of one’s countrymen—can’t one?  The king recognizes that he is smarter than others, yet it dawns upon him the question of what value that is if he is as easily forgotten as everyone else (2:15-16).  In Greek philosophy, we think of the “wise men” Plato and Socrates.  But beyond them there were many others.  A significant number of their names have been preserved.  But unless one is a specialist in philosophy or ancient Greek history, who remembers them? 

In our own age, the U.S. Senate has a hundred by and large able men and women at any given moment.  But in a century, how many of their names will be remembered?  Look back to the nineteenth century:  How many of the senators of that period do we recall?  We’d be lucky to remember a handful.  Smart.  Savvy.  Intelligent.  Models of success in their day.  Yet now forgotten.

            The same principle of being forgotten in spite of success is applied by the Psalmist to riches (Psalms 39:4-6).   How many rich people of the past do you remember?   With the relegation of the teaching of history in the public schools to minor importance, probably even fewer than those of my generation—and even then the numbers weren’t exactly large.  The Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts come to mind. 

There were others who were rich because of inventions and were remembered because of their innovations or technological breakthroughs (Edison and the motion picture and Ford with the modern assembly line are good examples.)  But now, even there, memories fade as the faces and stories behind the inventions disappear into a mist and then into nothing.

            As the king mused on such realities, he became thoroughly disgusted with life (2:17).  He recognized that though he had accomplished much good, there was absolutely no way to assure that those who ruled after him would preserve and build upon it (2:18-21).  Perhaps part of his mind resented passing on to another such hard earned riches when there was no assurance that it would be preserved the way it should be.[12] 

He recognized the blunt reality:  the next ruler could well be incompetent (2:19).  One might call this the “law of averages.”  If the extremely able rulers compose ten percent of the total, then the odds are 9 in 10 that the next one will merely be competent.  If that.  Will he be able to preserve your heritage?  Will he be able to build upon it and make it even better and greater?

            Don’t bet on it.  No wonder he despaired.  Furthermore, his punishment for following other deities in addition to Yahweh of Israel was to lose his kingdom (1 Kings 10:11), not that he would be removed from it personally but his descendants would suffer the loss (10:12-13).  Externally, Hadad the Edomite had old scores to settle with Solomon and his successors if he had the opportunity (10:14-22), and he attempted to do just that even while Solomon still ruled (10:25).  Then there was [Page 52]    Rezon who led a band of raiders who bothered Solomon throughout his reign (10:23-25). 

Domestically, there was Jeroboam who was commissioned by the prophet Ahijah, even while Solomon was still alive, to take over the rule of ten tribes after his death (10:26-39).  So seriously did Solomon take this threat that he unsuccessfully sought to have him killed, but he was able to gain refuge in Egypt and avoid that fate (10:40).  The first two figures appear to have been a nuisance throughout his reign and the threat from Jeroboam only appeared in the latter part of it.  Faced with such adversaries, Solomon would have been naïve not to have worried whether his successor would be able to hold onto what was being left him.  

            The simple fact was that no matter how easy Solomon’s accomplishments might appear to others, to him it was the result of hard thinking and hard work (2:22-23).  He had spent nights without sleep anguishing over his decisions (2:23).  The fact that they came out right did not change the hard thought and labor that had to be poured into them.

            And as he contemplated this reality, he learned the importance of enjoying life as an end in itself (2:24-26).  The joy of satisfaction of a job well done.  The glee at a long awaited goal finally accomplished.  Not self-centered hedonism in which sexual pleasure or the accumulation of power and wealth is the only end. 

The modern parallel would be a President who has finally passed an important piece of legislation after years of trying.  Or a businesswoman who has successfully doubled the size of her corporation and brought it to the forefront of its industry.  Honorable goals honorably accomplished.  That is what he has in mind.

            At this point we reach a verse that is far more perplexing, “For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God . . .” (2:26).  This sounds as if ones intelligence reflects one’s character.  The lack of it results in the lack of “wisdom” and the possession of it guarantees that one obtains “wisdom.”

Certainly there is an interaction between intelligence and character:  since no once desires to be consciously guilty of anything, there is the inevitable pressure to rationalize and intellectually justify one’s behavior, no matter how excessive or overtly immoral.  Hence evil behavior tends to corrupt one’s rationality and one’s corrupted rationality endorses one’s evil behavior—an evil cycle that can begin in either thought or behavior.

The problem with this as an interpretation of the current text (rather than as an observation on human behavior in general) is that the passage speaks of such a “sinner” as enduring a punishment in the current life, while other passages in Ecclesiastes make plain that the evil person may actually be triumphant.   Perhaps in this recognition lies the desire of certain interpreters to recast “sinner” in the current text not in a strictly moral perspective but in its root meaning of “missing the mark.”  Hence a person is self-condemned in a “pragmatic sense” as a sinner by being forced to do work that benefits not himself but others.[13]  After all, work is designed to benefit “us;” anything else “misses the mark,” misses the purpose and intent of the labor.[14] 

 

[Page 53]           The text viewed from our standpoint.  If Qohelet’s arguments are humbling to the extravagantly powerful and wealthy, they should be even more so to those blessed only with a middle-class income or less.  The simple fact is that we will not leave much behind to impact on others. 

You may have been a corporate manager for three decades.  Important to its operation, true.  Perhaps even pivotal to its survival.  Yet your decisions are likely to earn nothing more than a footnote and that only in an extremely specialized work dedicated to your company’s history.  Your painting won’t be hanging in corporate headquarters.  Your name won’t be handed down as the embodiment of corporate success.  Your accomplishments won’t become legendary.  Even at your level of authority and importance, you were but a wheel in a vast mechanism that made the business work and accomplish its goal.

This principle applies to intellectual types as well--men and women who, like Qohelet, are convinced that words are important and make a difference.  As I write these words, I’ve published some nine books.  [Now up to 15; the 16th scheduled for later this year.]  Two or three of these might still have some impact fifty years from now on those with a particular interest in their subject matter.  A hundred years from now they will be little more than illustrations of how students of the late twentieth century treated these matters. 

Perhaps through those who read the works in the interim, they may cause them to continue to have an indirect impact, but nothing more can be hoped for.  In one sense this causes despair even though it is nothing but blunt realism. 

From another standpoint, who can have even this limited an influence?  Only a small percentage, truth be told.  So there is reason to believe the work is of value but far from enough on which to build an inflated ego!

            If we define ourselves solely in regard to our business or intellectual life, there is no reason for anything but despair.  But we rescue ourselves from this trap by two important strategies.  The first is the one developed by Qohelet himself:  by stressing the inherent value and usefulness of what we are doing.  Earth shattering it may not be, but of moral or practical value it is. 

Furthermore, as Christians, we can utilize the additional strategy of lifting our eyes to eternity and looking upon this life as the antechamber to something far better and more important than anything this world can offer.  From both perspectives, this life has value and meaning.  The first, because of the good we can do in the here and now.  The second because it prepares us for the next life and whatever its opportunities and challenges may turn out to be.

 

 

 

3.     Even When We Have These Goals, We Still

Have to Come to Terms with the Fact of Change:

Within the Context of Apparent Stability There Still

Occurs a Multitude of Changes (3:1-8)

     

 

[Page 54]

 

            In the preceding section, the king had stressed the underlying stability of existence:  We can’t top the accomplishments of our predecessors any more than our descendents will top ours.  We labor long and hard yet we land up altering nothing of importance—or so it seems.  At the moment everything appears stable and unchanging.  Now he contrasts this reality with an equally true alternate reality, that of the perpetual and unending change that occurs simultaneously. 

            Elizabeth Huwiler argues that though some of the phenomena may be more enjoyable and positive than others, that none of them are intended to carry the connotation of something that is not inherently moral,[15]

 

Notably, the poem does not include “a time to be wise and a time to be foolish”; or “a time to be righteous and a time to be wicked;” or “a time to fear God and a time to sin;” or “a time to be lazy and a time to be diligent.”  Perhaps more significantly in light of what follows, Qohelet does not acknowledge “a time to oppress and a time to do justice.”  Although there are times for both pleasant and unpleasant activities, Qohelet never suggests that there is a proper time for injustice or wickedness.  

 

 

            Most of the changes mentioned in the text are quite obvious in nature.  You don’t plant at harvest time nor try to harvest at seed-planting time.  That would not only be silly but outright impossible.  Instead you take advantage of the “time to plant” to seed the ground and the “time to pluck” out when the harvest is fully grown (3:2).  In similar vein are such observations as “a time of war” (when it is thrust upon you or you have no alternative) and “a time of peace” (when the purpose of war has been fulfilled) (3:8).  Similarly there is “a time to love” (when people have treated you well) and “a time to hate” (their injustice at treating you ill and undeservedly) (3:8—though the two comparisons in one verse could both be to war and they would fit well in that context as well).

            Some of the other comparisons are not so transparent though all that is essential to grasp from the passage is that there is an appropriate time for various actions as well as an inappropriate one. 

            The time for “tear[ing]” versus “sew[ing]” (3:7) seems odd at first glance.  In the ancient Hebrew world garments were torn as a sign of great grief and sorrow (such as in Genesis 37:29 and 2 Samuel 13:30-31) and after the grieving was over it was time to repair the garment so it could be worn.[16]  (Unlike the modern world, clothes were too expensive to be thrown away except in extreme cases.)  In a modern context, it would fit quilting--“tearing” leftovers and old material into pieces and later “sewing” them into a quilt.   

               The time to “cast away stones” and “a time to gather stones” (3:5) is another example that first strikes one as a tad odd.  One ancient interpretation that still sometimes occurs is that there is a time to have sexual relationships with one’s spouse and times not to—the difference being whether she is or is not having her menstrual period.[17]  A more obvious explanation would be that there is a time to gather stones to build (one’s home or other project) and a time to throw them away (as no longer needed).  Here a very literal and obvious sense is retained.  Ecclesiastes [Page 55]    is not above symbolism but the sexual interpretation represents an unusually large stretch.[18]

 

The fact of the abundance of changes that can occur (and note that he spells out a goodly number in these two verses) carry with it two inherent messages.

            The first is an upbeat and positive one—if you wait long enough what you want is going to happen, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven” (3:1).  “Season” renders a Hebrew word referring to “a specific time” and “time” renders one meaning “an appropriate time.”[19]  Not every time is “appropriate” for a phenomena nor is it the best “specific” time, but when the two coincide the event occurs.  This is a principle of appropriate timing that would apply to individuals, to the church, and to nations as well.[20]  

Again generalization, but as such a very responsible one.  (Generalization because sinful humans don’t always wait for the right “time” in either sense.)  If you don’t like today, wait until tomorrow.  It’s going to be different.  These things are going to happen to both “you” and “me.”  Neither of us can escape a change in fortune.[21]   Eventually it will be the very reverse of today.  The dominant interpretation that Qohelet is manifesting despair is, in our judgment, a misleading conclusion; the very fact that there is change is grounds for hope for the suppressed, aggrieved, and injured.[22]

The author may be quoting or revising a pre-existing poem on the matter (3:2-8) or it may be based solely on his own perceptive observation.[23]  Perhaps he even remembers the words because they had proved so true.

            Some have seen in this text a fatalistic, deterministic inflexible kind of “destiny” that will assure that these things happen.  Others see in it the hand of God manipulating events to secure the changing circumstances.[24]  This is commonly stated in such a manner as to imply that He has foreordained and predestined the exact events and is acting to assure they occur.  That God can do such is certain,[25] but that is not the same as saying that it is under consideration in the passage or that He does such routinely.

            Indeed, there is no particularly strong reason to believe that either concept is in mind.  Here the concern is far more limited:  such things will happen.  Qohelet is not particularly concerned with the cause or reason for the dramatic changes; his concern is in the reality that they unquestionably will occur. 

 

            The second pivotal message conveyed by the cycles of life is a message of patience for the impatient.  There is a seemingly innate human tendency to think that because we can’t have something now, we’ll never obtain it.  Look at the list:  reaping, healing, building, laughing, embracing, gaining, reaping, loving.  The very fact that most such things require considerable time to occur undermines the confidence that they either will or even can occur:  They haven’t happened now—or at least an hour from now—and hope is abandoned!

Rulers learn the invalidity of the mis-reasoning involved in impatience no quicker than the citizenry at large.  Indeed, because they have so much wealth, as well as governmental position, they may find it harder to learn.  If “money can buy anything” it ought to buy it now.  But it doesn’t.

[Page 56]            Perhaps this is why both Ecclesiastes (7:8) and the book of Proverbs (14:29; 15:18) mention this theme of patience.  (Aside:  Proverbs is presented internally as the work of Solomon.  It is quite possible that in part it is also what used to be called a “commonplace book,” i.e., a collection of adages both written by Solomon himself and copied by him from the writings of his contemporaries because of their insight and perceptivity.  In other words, even if he didn’t personally write all the proverbs, he certainly did endorse them as true.)

Of course it’s far easier to teach patience than to practice it.  That is probably why other Bible books had to return to the theme on various occasions and why we continue to be plagued by impatience so many centuries later.  As theory it is fine; to practice it is a torment.  

            Although patience is the positive message from the unyielding reality of change there is also a secondary and equally present message of warning as well:  Walking hand in hand with the change is the fact that some of the changes we will dislike and even be hurt by.  Look again at the list he gives.  Death, destruction, mourning, losing, hating, war.  These things reflect injury not merely to the individual involved, but the entire culture and society can be at risk.

            Rulers would like their position and wealth to eliminate danger.  It can’t.  Death of family members will occur.  Hatred will occur.  War will occur—both in the sense of conflict with others and with other nations.  (In addition, nations themselves go through cycles of change just as individuals do.)[26]  These are things that money may postpone but no amount can permanently avoid or eliminate.

            Similarly today western society often falls into the trap of thinking it is their inalienable right to have good health and to live at peace.  But both require factors far beyond the ability of any individual or even nation to control.  The most peaceful intentions in the world will do no good if faced with a nation that hates yours and has the military means to inflict damage upon it.  The most healthful lifestyle will do nothing to protect you if, uknowingly, you are exposed to deadly chemicals.  “Rights” give placed to reality.  Grim reality.

            And the Bible is well aware that bad things happen to very good people.  Jesus was crucified though there was no just cause.   Paul endured repeated harsh treatment when he had done no wrong.

Christians today may suffer repression because they refuse to yield to the secularist pressures of a society in which there are no rights or wrongs and in which Biblical standards of morality have been repudiated.  And you are supposedly to smile and agree, “There’s nothing wrong with that.  Of course not!”  But the faithful still refuse to kiss the idol’s hand and vow loyalty--as the vultures of anti-Christian bigotry circle in the sky above.

            Yet the message of Ecclesiastes is that just as the good times pass by so will the evil times.  Time stands still for neither good nor bad.  Souls can be reawakened.  People can look in the mirror and finally realize how badly they have fouled their own life and that of others and decide:  “I can’t change what I’ve already done, but I can change what I will do in the future.”  When enough individuals do that, reformations—or revolutions—occur.  But either way, the stinking carcass of the past is buried.

[Page 57]            Hence we are left with the reality of change.  Perpetual change though at the moment it seems like things will never be different.

            It is typically hard for a nation at peace for a decade to imagine war.  It is equally hard for a nation wracked by a decade of civil war to imagine civil tranquility will ever return. 

It seems an “impossible dream” for a woman in her third bout with cancer to believe that this time the chemotherapy will work permanently.  It is equally difficult for a person who “has never been sick a day in his life” to realize that that  intense pain in his chest is the beginning of a major heart attack.

The regal author of Ecclesiastes makes no pretense to liking the fact that change will occur.  He makes no pretense to joy in the pain and sorrow that can come.  He simply looks at reality and faces it:  One part of life has been survived so the other can be as well.  The same is also true of us.

 

 

 

B.  In Spite of These Inherent Limitations

on the Joy that Life can Bring

Work Is Both God Ordained and Rewarded (3:9-17)

 

 

            First, Qohelet begins with the principle that God wants us to work (3:9-11). Biblically, it is pictured as a trait that goes all the way back to the exclusion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:17-19).  There was likely more pleasant and less strenuous work even in the Garden itself (which seems to be implied by Genesis 2:5), since God has rarely given blessings without accompanying responsibilities.  And it was a work/benefit correlation that continued through future ages as well.  Both out of necessity and out of principle.  In the New Testament era, even though Paul was an apostle and could have demanded that others provide for his support, his customary practice was to work to provide his own needs (1 Thessalonians 2:8-10; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10). 

Whatever our own inclinations or disinclinations, there is a Divine imperative at work.  Whether we can grasp the reason for work or not.  Whether we are pleased with work or not.  God expects and demands such of us.  If our limited human intellects waver in uncertainty, we must still give the right of way to the Supreme Intellect that can see far beyond the boundaries of our greatest comprehension. 

After all, He has given us a recognition of “eternity”[27] in our “hearts:” He has placed within us an inner recognition of it and the drive to understand it better—“to appreciate the beauty of creation (on an aesthetic level); to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world (on an academic and philosophical level); and to discern its purpose and destiny (on a theological level).”[28]  Augustine summed up the idea this way, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.”[29]

[Page 58]            In spite of this Divinely given “compulsion,” we can never fully grasp “the work that God does from beginning to end” (3:11).  We simply accept that it is there and that He knows best.  To word it another way, we work out of faith even when we can not comprehend its usefulness or desirability. 

            For a man claiming the wisdom of the author of this work, this represented a candid admission of his own limitations.  He knew, yet he had come to know how little he knew.   

            Work has its reward in the here and now:  temporal blessings.  These we should eagerly embrace as “the gift of God” though it be our own “labor” that has directly produced it (3:12-13).  “Nothing is better” than this (3:12) because the alternatives (despair, frustration, rage) accomplish nothing and deny us the legitimate enjoyment that comes our way. 

            The contrast is not between pleasure and religion, rejecting religion or relegating it to some unimportant place.  Rather the contrast is between dissatisfaction and despondency and the joyful life.  That which is good is to be enjoyed rather than daily crucifying ourselves on a cross of unfulfilled dreams.

            As monarch, the limitations of power were inherently frustrating.  Yet they were also the frustrations of every person in his kingdom.  The frustrations of being human and if he could not come to terms with them how could he expect his people?

            The life of happiness and contentment that he enjoins, however, is not self-centered.  It also includes “do[ing] good in their lives” (3:12).  Being of value to those around us as well.  Not hogging all the good things to ourselves alone.

Galatians 6:10 summed up the mind frame in this manner, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  Paul touched on this mutual benefit goal when he urged his readers to “pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).  True, we need to look out for our own self-interest--but not to the exclusion of everyone else. 

 

            Our earthly goals and labor must never be in a value-less setting.  God will judge us for our character and conduct (3:14-17), thereby requiring that both be placed within a moral framework.  Several themes leap out in this context.

            The first is that God’s purposes trump our own (3:14):  His purposes and intents are abiding.  Ours may change but His does not.  When push comes to shove, He wins (cf. Daniel 4:34-35).

            A logical outgrowth of God’s purposes continuing from age to age is that the fundamental forms of behavior and conduct that God judges--both to praise and to condemn--have always been the same and will always remain the same (3:15)

            Standards are idle words unless consequences flow from those standards.  Hence the authority of God’s values are enforced by His judgment based upon those criteria.   Yet even with Divine judgment, there is a paradox:  true, God judges (i.e., condemns) blatant “wickedness” yet even among those trying to do the right thing moral limitations and failures are found as well (3:16). 

            Finally, just as there is a time for everything in this life (3:1-8) there is a time for definitive and final Divine judgment as well (3:17).

[Page 59]       

This section of teaching is fascinating because of what is omitted.

            Although it recognizes the fact of sin in the righteous (3:16), how God deals with it is not discussed.  It is almost as if the author either rebels at the thought of what even the best of people actually deserve or that he is unaware of how it will be treated.  Probably the latter.

He is certainly alert enough to human imperfection to admit its existence, but makes no pretense of knowing how it will ultimately be dealt with when one dies—is there punishment coming or what?  Nor what all the forms of retribution may be even within the current life:  after all, the consequences may come in a multitude of subtle and sometimes ambiguous forms.  God acts, but we can’t always stand up and shout, “There it is!”

            In New Testament terms we think in terms of Divine grace dealing with our failures:  where human limitations trip us up, Divine forgiveness fills in the gaps when we repent.  Qohelet recognized the problem of human imperfection, but through the later scriptures we now have the answer to how it is dealt with among those who have fully committed themselves to God.        

            Similarly he recognized that a time of ultimate judgment was essential if God’s standards were to have any true force behind them (3:17).  Yet again he makes no claim as to where or how or in what manner that judgment will be made.  Nor the types of rewards or punishments that will flow from them. 

            In New Testament terms, of course, we have at least part of the answer to that question (2 Corinthians 5:10; Matthew 16:27; Matthew 25:14-46).  In the Old Testament the answers are, comparatively, fuzzy and rather unclear.  What Qohelet does not know he makes no pretense of providing the answer for; even the greatest of intellects does not have the answers for all questions.  And even if he had possessed them and expressed them in the clear-cut manner of the New Testament, would the anarchistic rebellious part of our personality have been any more willing to heed the warning?

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

 



[1] Leiman, 47.

 

[2] Cf. Barbara Bush, Walking in Wisdom:  A Woman’s Workshop on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 22.

 

[3] Garrett, 291.

 

[4] Leupold, 59-60.

 

[5] Ibid., 60.

 

[Page 60]    [6] Cf. Goldberg, 49.

  

[7] Cf. Ibid.

 

[8] Ibid., 49-50.

  

[9] Fleming, 694.

   

[10] Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 54.

  

[11] Leiman, 49-50.

 

[12] Ibid., 55.

 

[13] Schultz, 589.  Cf. Fleming, 695.

    

[14] For a strong case, however, that the text intends us to take the term “sinner” in its normal usage, see Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 64.

   

[15] Huwiler, 189.  J. A. Loader, Ecclesiastes:  A Practical Commentary, translated from the Dutch by John Vriend, in the Text and Interpretation series (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 35, takes a significantly different approach:  he argues that the examples simply describe what is, but the author makes no claim as to whether they should or should not be.

 

[16] Goldberg, 63-64.

  

[17] For an ancient midrash on the text, see the quotation in Ibid., 63.

  

[18] For an extended defense of the sexual interpretation, see Loader, 36-37.  For a survey of other interpretations, see Odeberg, 31.

     

[19] Tamez, 59.

  

[20] Young, 89.

  

[21] Leiman, 62.

 

[22] Cf. Eaton, 77-78.

  

[23] On the two possibilities, Fuerst, 113.

 

[24] Buck, 515, and Johnson, 102.

 

[Page 61]    [25] Leupold, 83, refers us to such texts as Psalms 75:2; Psalms 102:13; Deuteronomy 32:39.

 

[26] Leiman, 65.

 

[27] On how the addition of a different set of vowels to the vowel-less Hebrew can produce a different rendering, see Crenshaw, 97-98.

   

[28] Kaiser, 72.

  

[29] Augustine, Confessions 1.1, as quoted by Eaton, 81.