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Ecclesiastes and the

Perpetual Paradoxes of Life

 

 

 

by:

 

 

Roland H. Worth, Jr.

 

 

 

© 2012

 

 

 

Reproduction of this book for non-profit circulation by any electronic or print media means is hereby freely granted at no cost—provided the text is not altered in any manner. 

 

If accompanied by additional, supplemental material—in agreement or disagreement—it must be clearly and visibly distinguishable from the original text.

 

 

 

All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®.  Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  

 

 

 

 

 


Contents

 

 

                                                                                                                                      Page 

Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .         1

 

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .        5

The Claimed Personae of the Author

            Anti-Solomonic Arguments

The Author as Teacher and Questioner

Internal Tensions:  Contradictions or

Admitting Rival and Equally True Realities

and Generalizations?

Outline and Interpretive Approach

 

 

Chapter One:  The Paradox of Intelligence and Knowledge:

We Idealize Them, but They are Unable to Bring Full

Satisfaction in a World of Perpetual Change (1:1-1:18) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .     29

 

 

Chapter Two:  The Paradox of Excess in Relaxation and

Work:  They Seem “Fulfilling” Yet Inevitable Change

Frustrates Their Enjoyment  (2:1-3:17) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   44

 

 

Chapter Three:

The Paradox of Happiness:

We Seek It This Side of Death Yet So Many Things

Can Destroy It (3:18-5:9) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   62

 

 

Chapter Four:  The Paradox of Wealth:

It is Both Desirable Yet Potentially

Tormenting  (5:10-6:11) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   74

 

 

Chapter Five:  The Paradox of the Desired  

Versus the Needed (6:12-7:14)  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    83

 

 

Chapter Six:  The Paradox of Restraint:

The Need for Moderation Versus

the Reality of Its Violation (7:15-8:9)  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    95

 

 

Chapter Seven:  The Paradox of Evil:

Even Though It May Triumph,

It Does Not Have to Crush Us (8:10-9:12)  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110

 

 

Chapter Eight:

The Paradox of Wisdom in Rulers:

Ideal in Theory but Hard to Find

in Practice (9:13-10:20) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  119

 

 

Chapter Nine:

The Paradox of Business Commitments:

Work Hard but Remember Your

Religious Duties As Well (11:1-12:14)  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   130         

 

 

Bibliography   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   149 

 

 

 

 

 


Internet Preface

 

            Back in the late 1980s or so my mother argued that I should write something “that will make money.”  True I was getting books published, but since they were targeted at a “scholarly” market and, as is usually the case, the sales were only modest.  (Odd:  back in the 1970s I was writing material only modestly lest “sophisticated” for a “popular” audience in a religious journal.)  It made me good to have my name in print and it felt good to be of some intellectual stimulation to others, but as the apostle wrote “the laborer is worthy of his hire.”  So I had no disinclination to making a more reasonable return on the many hours invested in research and writing.

             But what?  For some reason the best Biblical theme I could come up with was the book of Ecclesiastes, hardly the book likely to come to most people’s minds!  Anyway, I wrote my treatise and submitted it to two or three places and it went nowhere.  Looking back at it, I now realize it “danced with lead boots,” i.e., was probably the worst piece of extended prose I’ve ever done.

            Years later I was giving more thought to Ecclesiastes and thought I could detect an arrangement of themes that would make it more germane to everyday living.  That resulted in the following manuscript.  Alas, it found no publisher either even though its analysis is a world better than that found in the original.

            So that it might find a usefulness to others I am posting it on the internet with the offer to others to freely reuse the material.

            As to the outline of contents I suggest:  It may be wrong, but Solomon, or the wisdom scholar, or the wisdom scholar who was working on Solomon’s staff as an adviser was clearly a man of superior insight:  He had at least a vague outline in his own mind of the central points he was trying to develop; he was too intelligent to do otherwise.  To treat the text as a kind of undigested “glob” is manifestly unfair to the man’s intelligence.

            Unlike my four thick “Torah Commentaries” on First Corinthians, I rarely made anything beyond minor adjustments here and there in the text.  I think it serves its purpose reasonably well without further expansion.  If others should feel differently, perhaps I will change my mind on that in the future and do a thorough revision.  Yet I have so many books that need to be either completed or recast—this one seems very low on that priority list.

            Finally, a personal note.  This volume—in its sermonic form—represented the last significant number of sermons I am likely to ever do.  (Since then there has only been a short sermon or two when the preacher is out of town on vacation.)  I have a serious heart problem.  Quadruple bypass and a double by-pass.  One-and-a-half blood vessels (i.e., one vessel is grafted into another) is all that keeps my heart going.  And I notice some of the medicine I take is labeled for “congestive heart failure.”

            One of the brethren noticed I was rubbing my chest during one of the Ecclesiastes series of sermons and I had to confess that it was getting harder and harder to deliver a lesson.  So these marked my last “official” sermons, so to speak.  Now I speak for a modest twenty minutes or so, when I do at all, for my chest makes [Page 2]    life extremely unpleasant for me if I do more.  And is not all that happy with that modest effort either.

            Still trying to figure a way to get around those limitations, but haven’t figured one out yet.  But one thing the heart doesn’t keep me from doing is writing, though even there it can get distinctly unfriendly at the amount of tension and anxiety that can be produced when laboring through particularly difficult and troubling subjects.  But the work ultimately gets done anyway. 

To be of service to the Lord in some modest manner.  That’s what the last half century has been all about.  As I tried to get it through to my listeners on varied occasions:  the Lord doesn’t demand that we succeed.  He does demand that we try.  And that is what I intend to continue.  

 

Roland H. Worth, Jr.

Spring 2012             

           

 

 

 

Original Preface

 

 

            My earliest datable memories are from elementary school in 1952 and I was drawing a car with the name of “Ike” on the side.  (For younger readers, he was the Republican candidate in that year and broke the two decade Democratic hold on the White House.)  In 1956 there came the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of the Nasserite regime in Egypt and I was fascinated by the political squabbling over the propriety of the invasion.  That was the year I read The Bridge over the River Andau (if I remember the title correctly), a work on the Hungarian revolution and its suppression by the Russian Communists.

            In following years there came a variety of other works.  Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative (on the virtues of a very different concept of government than the one now taken for granted), Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (on the virtue and potential of the free market economy), and the fascinating The New Class by the vice-president of Communist Yugoslavia.  He spent most of the following years in jail as the result of that and other writings.  The idea that any revolution simply substitutes one oppressing class for another was simply too much for Communist ideologues to accept.

            It didn’t take very many years for me to realize that, as an individual, I was never going to have much of an impact on politics and how issues were decided.  It was then that I vowed that the one thing I could do, I would do:  keep up to date on evolving political issues, be alert to the arguments pro and con.  In other words, even if I couldn’t change the course of events, I could at least protect myself against being conned by the politicians.  (At least too often!  Or too easily!)  I’ve lived by that rule during the decades since.

[Page 3]             I’ve seen men of principle in both major political parties and characters who would disgrace “most wanted” notices at the Post Office.  I’ve seen passionate debates on major political issues in which genuine convictions were clearly on display.

Yet I’ve seen passionate debates in which the final legislative product (for example, obligatory extended family leave time by corporations) was only of minor value to most workers while the liberals bragged about how “much” they had done and the conservatives bragged about how “much” they had averted.  Both sides went home smug and the typical worker had a “benefit” that most couldn’t afford to take advantage of.  In many ways the “ideal” political issue:  much huffing and puffing and avowal of principle and human interest and ideological commitment while the result changes little and for few people.

            The author of Ecclesiastes, in his cynicism, would have loved it.  It so perfectly fits his clear concept of the ironies and paradoxes of life.

            Which is, perhaps, one of the reasons I enjoy the book.  When you get to a certain point in life, you begin to see beneath the surface.  Not all the time and not always deeply enough.  But deep enough and you’ve lived a sufficient amount of time to realize that there is an absurdity in life that can easily become the definition of human existence itself.

            The great triumvirate of my life has been the study of the gospel, of history, and of politics.  In regard to religion, I spent over two decades in a combination of full time and part-time/occasional preaching.  In regard to history, I’ve written several books on the Pacific War of 1941-1945. 

And I’ve had a fascination with how the “religious” and the “secular” overlap and interlock.  Hence I wrote a volume on  Church, Monarch, and Bible:  The Political Context of Biblical Translation, in which I attempted to show how politics and religion interacted in the first great age of vernacular translation, the sixteenth century.  In my two exhaustive volumes on the economic, religious, cultural, and historical context of the book of Revelation (The Seven Cities of the Apocalypse and Roman Culture and The Seven Cities of the Apocalypse & Greco-Asian Culture) I weaved together into a mosaic these and other areas of ancient life as well.

            In the book of Ecclesiastes we come face to face with first-hand ancient political reality.  The writer presents himself not as a mere secondary figure in the nation but as the king and he has clearly “seen it all.”  He has eaten deeply of the glory of power.  And it has left him with indigestion—despair, frustration, and wonderment at the folly of the human race.  (And, implicitly, of his own.)

            Those who have reached at least middle age and who love politics—and it deserves far more love and respect than most people are willing to give it—will feel at home.  They’ve seen what that ruler had seen.  They’ve felt the frustration.  And they, too, have wondered:  “Is this the way it has to be?”                 

            In presenting our analysis, we have attempted to interpret the teachings of the books within a political, religious, and psychological framework.  A political one because a ruler functions in such an environment and the author presents himself as a king.  In a psychological context to better understand the human emotions and impact of his insights.  Both on himself and how our own contemporary age has had [Page 4]    to learn and relearn the validity of the perceptions that he records in his work.  Sometimes we’ll blend these ancient and modern elements together and in other cases distinguish them—whatever seems to best fit the text and the flow of our discussion.

            In elaborating on these points we repeatedly make passing reference to events and books that I have read through the decades.  I remember key ideas from many and when I know I have gained the thought from some specific source I attempt to provide an indication of this.  On the other hand, for many of them I do not have the foggiest idea of the titles or authorship of the works where the information came from. 

Hence the necessity of referring to them vaguely rather than with specificity.  Learning comes not from the ability to recite an unending list of names but from the ability to retain the facts, ideas, and principles you’ve accumulated from a lifetime of reading.  Many books are cited by name and these are primarily the commentaries that have supplemented my own studies in the preparation of this work.  If this book proves useful to the reader—and I would not have written it unless I hoped it would do so—it will be because of the ability to tap deeply into both types of data.

            This volume makes no pretense to examining all of the interpretive options that are available nor the often vexed technical questions that face the close student of this Old Testament book.  Rather we have focused on “spinning out” our proposed interpretative scheme for the work and supplemented this, where appropriate, with varied types of materials from these sources that are marginal to our primary interest.

            The text we will use is the New King James Version of the Bible.  There are several fine Bible translations available but this is the one I personally feel most comfortable with.  (It has been an interesting lifetime odyssey:  from the Revised Standard Version [before its more recent mutilation in the “New” NRSV] and then to the New American Standard Bible and, finally, to the NKJV.)  The thrust of the arguments will vary little if one uses other translations, of course.  The best way to approach our study is by reading each section of the text first in your own preferred translation and then the analysis as we present it.  The wording may well vary a bit, but the general thrust of our exegesis should remain essentially the same.