Qohelet

Ecclesiastes presents the hard-won wisdom of an old king, a wise elder

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Read: Ecclesiastes 1:1

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

Reflect:

This year, I decided to focus my Bible reading, reflection and response onto the genre of “Wisdom” throughout the Bible. In January, I began with the book of Proverbs, which includes wisdom statements attributed to Solomon, the wise king, as well as several other wise people. That was before I started posting my meditations here at crux.live. Since then, I have meditated on:

  • John’s gospel, the most poetic of the four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and wisdom;
  • Song of Songs, the second biblical book associated with wise King Solomon, a poetic and wise exploration of romance, weddings, sex and love;
  • The letters of 1, 2 and 3 John, which also focus on love, the wise love of God which sacrifices all for the other;
  • The book of Matthew, the most Jew-centric of the gospels, which includes long sections of Jesus’ wise teaching;
  • Deuteronomy, which recounts Moses’ wise sermons to God’s people before they enter the promised land; and
  • The letter of James, the New Testament epistle which most resembles the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in style and content.

Now, I’m turning to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, the third wisdom book associated with King Solomon, although he isn’t named directly. Ecclesiastes, like the book of proverbs, can seem disorganised or even haphazard in its structure, because it treats many topics in quick succession. However, the LORD God is a God of order, and his written word is consistently well-ordered. I believe that Ecclesiastes has a strongly defined, coherent structure, one that is extremely common in biblical texts: the chiasm, or ring structure. The chiasm is a pattern of repetition, where the second half reflects the first, and the centre echoes the beginning and end, as can be seen in this structural outline of Ecclesiastes, that I’ve lifted from an essay I wrote half a dozen years ago:

A 1:1 introductory prologue
B 1:2 motto
C 1:3-11 Song of cycles of nature and society
D 1:12-4:16 observations: wisdom, pleasure, oppression, toil, loneliness, succession: hebel
E 5:1-9 instructions: fear God – listen to God; fulfill vows
F 5:10 – 6:12 observations: wealth; common problem to lack contentment: hebel
G 7:1-22 instructions: keep the end in mind; God’s sovereignty; fear God, not man
H 7:23-8:1 central observations including frame narrator’s voice at 7:27
G’ 8:2-8 instructions: be cautious in relations with king and regarding the future
F’ 8:9-9:6 observations: injustice; common destiny to join the dead: hebel
E’ 9:7-10 instructions: be joyful for God has approved what you do; do what you find to do
D’ 9:11-11:8 observations and instructions: be prudent applying wisdom to overcome hebel
C’ 11:9-12:7 Song of youth and death
B’ 12:8 motto
A’ 12:9-14 epilogue and conclusion

During my theological training, I studied Ecclesiastes and wrote the above-mentioned essay about its structure and message and I’ve just dug it out and re-read it. (I’m pleased to be reminded my lecturer gave me a high distinction.) My own scholarship has convinced me to vary my reading from my standard, habitual pattern of a chapter a day. Instead, I’m going to read Ecclesiastes section by section. Some sections consist of several chapters, others of only a few verses, but the Teacher’s argument will be easier to follow if I follow his textual structure.

So, the first section consists merely of a single verse, Ecclesiastes 1:1. It is the introductory prologue for the book. It reminds me of the initial verses in each of the New Testament epistles, in that it establishes the author’s identity and qualifications (cf Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 2 John 1:1, Jude 1:1 and Revelation 1:4 etc). Except that this phrase doesn’t specifically name the author; rather it gives a pseudonym, which the NIV2011 translates “Teacher.” In the same way, the apostle John referred to himself indirectly as “The Elder” in his second and third letters.

The Hebrew word translated Teacher is Qohelet, a noun built from the Hebrew verb qhl, which means “to assemble, summon, gather.” Qohelet is understood as a title indicating a person who assembles the people in order to speak to them, like Moses preaching in Deuteronomy, or Ezra reading the Law in Nehemiah 8. It may also refer to a person who gathers wisdom, in the manner of the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (Proverbs 25:1). Historically, then, Qohelet has been seen as a veiled reference to Solomon, who both summoned the Israelite leaders to the dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:1) and gathered proverbs (Proverbs 1:11; 1 Kings 4:32).

It is possible, however, that a later writer is assuming the persona of Solomon, or even compiling, editing and presenting Solomonic wisdom, as the men of Hezekiah did. However, the central section of the Ecclesiastes chasm (7:23-8:1), which again mentions Qohelet, is, I think, evidence of a stronger connection to Solomon. Qohelet is mentioned only seven times in Ecclesiastes: 3 times in the initial verses, once in the central verse 7:29, and three more in the final verses. In that centre passage, there is specific mention of the lack of upright women in the author’s environs as well as a warning of the dangers of women who ensnare men. Both of these references, I think, point to Solomon’s authorship of this book at a time long after he had married his hundreds of pagan wives, well after he had warned his son away from unfaithful women in his earlier collection of proverbs.

Thus, the author of the book is Solomon, son of David, king in Jerusalem, writing with the wisdom God granted him early in his reign so he could administer justice (1 Kings 3) as well as the wisdom he gained through long and bitter experience, including his idolatrous period. Or, if not Solomon, then someone else who deliberately took on the mantle of Solomon in this writing. Perhaps another king in the line of David, maybe even Hezekiah, a righteous king who reigned in Judah during the fall of the northern kingdom  of Israel (1 Kings 18-20), whose men collected and compiled Solomon’s proverbs. Or maybe Ezra, a leader of God’s people during the return from exile, a time when intermarriage (the taking of foreign, pagan wives), was evidence of the unfaithfulness of Judah, and a stumbling block to many reestablishing their relationship with God. Whoever the author, they have the authority of Qohelet, the Gatherer of wisdom and Summoner of the people.

So, why should I listen to this Qohelet, this Teacher, Gatherer and Summoner?

Firstly, because God has sovereignly ordained that his wisdom be included in Holy Scripture, and I know (from 1 Timothy 3:15-17) that all Scripture is breathed out by God, the very words of God to me. All Scripture is able to make me wise for salvation through faith in my anointed King, Jesus. All Scripture is useful, fruitful and profitable, teaching me doctrine, telling me off, re-directing my ways, training me with skills and equipping me for my everyday ordinary life of glorifying God and loving my neighbour which God has set before me.

Secondly, because the wisdom of such an elder, a person who has lived long, seen much and learned bitter lessons along the way has much to offer me. I shall benefit from the wisdom of the Teacher’s 20/20 hindsight.

crux:

Ecclesiastes presents the hard-won wisdom of an old king, a wise elder.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Thank you for the wisdom you have shared with me so far this year through your word, the Bible. Thank you for teaching others like Solomon hard life lessons so I may learn the ‘easy way’, from their example and teaching.

Thank you for the wisdom you gave Solomon to administer justice in his realm. May I be just in my dealings with my ‘neighbours’.

Thank you for the efforts of so many of your people throughout the years to teach and record wisdom: for Moses, Solomon, the men of Hezekiah and Ezra; and for the saints of the ancient and medieval church such as Augustine and Calvin; for godly Bible teachers today such as Don Carson and John Piper, Kristie Anyabwile and Jen Wilkin; and also for my husband Jeff, the pastor and preacher of my own local church. Please bless Jeff as he prepares and preaches his sermons faithfully each week. Grant him a special measure of wisdom and clarity as he preaches through the book of Revelation.

Please help me to be wise as I meditate upon the book of Ecclesiastes. Equip me to give you glory in my everyday ordinary Christian life.

Amen.

Teachers

The imperfections of my teaching are covered by the perfection of Christ

Read: James 3

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:1-2)

Reflect:

I’m on a break from teaching with the school holidays, so now is a good time to meditate on this verse, before I head back into my two teaching roles: teaching men to read and women to read the Bible.

James has a warning for me (3:1): that, as a teacher, I “will be judged more strictly.” It is absolutely imperative that I teach rightly and righteously.

In my reading, writing and spelling classes, this means teaching consistently the patterns of the English language: phonemes, graphemes, blending and segmenting and word classes, syntax and punctuation. It also means teaching my students as my ‘neighbour’ with respect, humility and compassion.

In my Bible study small group, I must prepare diligently so I know the text (2 Corinthians, next term) thoroughly and have allowed God to speak to me through the text before I attempt to help my group members hear God’s voice through his word. It again means treating my small group members as my ‘neighbour’ with gentleness, kindness and understanding.

In all this, there is a reminder that although the standard is very high, God knows “we will all stumble in many ways” (3:2). I am not perfect, not faultless in what I say. There is only one who was perfect, the greatest Teacher, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, for Jesus died to grant his perfection to me and to all who believe in him. [This is the doctrine of imputation of righteousness.] Trusting and relying upon Christ’s perfection, therefore, I set out to teach.

crux:

The imperfections of my teaching are covered by the perfection of Christ.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

I know I’m not perfect, and I’m certainly not a perfect teacher. I slack off, or have down days – sometimes even weeks or months where I struggle to feel the passion for teaching words and teaching your Word that I’ve felt before.

Thank you that Jesus was a perfect example of teacher for me to model my own teaching upon. Thank you that he was not just a model; thank you that he justified me and made me righteous.

May your Spirit empower my teaching. Make me bold, enthusiastic and godly.

Amen.

Favouritism

Christians must show unbiased love rather than favouritism

Read: James 2

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:8-9)

Reflect:

James presents a contrast between love and favouritism. Favouritism, as James explains in verses 2-4, is essentially discrimination – when one person is treated better and another worse, based upon a judgement of their status in society as a representation of their inherent worth. Love, however, is shown when the other person is treated the way the self wants to be treated; for the benefit of the other, even as all people (even if their emotions are so twisted that they despise themselves) seek to serve themselves and meet their own desires and needs.

So this is a very high standard that James commands of Christians. Like Jesus, James tells us we must love the other, the different. Whether our ‘neighbour’ (any person we meet) is of a different cultural or socioeconomic background; or of a different gender or practicing a different mode of sexual expression; or lives in a different family structure; or holds to a different political persuasion: regardless of our differences, Christians are to love others.

Neither are Christians to show partiality or preference for those more similar, or those whose attributes are more highly esteemed. Again, this is hard.

But Christians know all people were created equally in the image of our God. And we know that all people suffer in some way the effects of sin, so the image of God is marred in them. We know that God desires all people everywhere to come to repentance and saving faith in Jesus Christ. So as Christians, we must love all with God’s love.

crux:

Christians must show unbiased love rather than favouritism.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

I know you want me to love others and not show preference. This is very hard to do. Please help me.

Please help me to treasure other people as your image-bearers. Help me to have mercy on others for the way your image is marred. Keep me from egotistically thinking that your image is somehow less marred in me or in those I think are more like me.

Please help me to show the image of your Son in my life, in my everyday ordinary.

Amen.

Birth

My desires birth my sin; the Father’s decision birthed my salvation

Read: James 1

Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:17-18)

Reflect:

Two births are described here: the birth of sin, from evil desire and our (Christian) birth through the gospel. The former leads only to death but the latter prefigures the new creation. Sin is birthed by human hearts, but Christians are born as the heavenly Father’s firstfruits.

What does it mean that sin springs from the evil desires of the human heart? It means I cannot blame anyone but myself for my mistakes and bad choices, just as I cannot blame anyone else for my rebellion and disgrace. It was my fault that I went my own way instead of staying on the narrow way of Christ. It is my fault that I am frequently lazy, selfish, short-tempered or fearful.

What does it mean that new birth is a good and perfect gift from the Father? It means that I do not deserve new birth, I did not do anything to earn it and I could not do anything to repay my heavenly Father for it. It is free, ‘no strings attached’. It’s an outpouring of the LORD’s goodness and generosity, his loving-kindness and compassion, his mercy and grace, his choice and creation. I can do nothing to lose this new birth for I did nothing to win it.

crux:

My desires birth my sin; the Father’s decision birthed my salvation.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Please receive my apology: I am truly sorry for my sin, my evil desires, my wicked rebellion against you who are my God.

Thank you for your choice to give me a new life as your saved, redeemed, adopted, renewed child.

I love you. You are good and generous, and I have benefited mightily from your grace.

Please allow me to share your grace with others.

Amen.

Alive

The LORD’s people are alive forever

Read: Deuteronomy 32

On that same day the LORD told Moses, … “There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:48, 50)

Reflect:

What did the LORD mean when he said, “You will die and be gathered to your people”? How was Moses to be “gathered”? Surely in death he would be separated from his people, the Israelites who would enter the Promised Land without him. So how can I understand this prophetic speech by the LORD to Moses?

It is necessary first to understand that Moses’ people were not only the Israelites who travelled with him. They were also the Israelites who had gone before. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, together with Jacob’s concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah. The twelve sons of Jacob and Dinah, their sister. The 70-odd descendants who went down to Egypt and the tens or hundreds of thousands who left Egypt when the LORD opened the sea before them. These were Moses’ people.

And when the LORD gathered Moses to them, he did so to a living people; people who had died yet were (and are) still alive. As Jesus said (Matthew 22:31b-32), “Have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” God’s people are alive forever, because Jesus paid the price for our eternal life with his blood.

crux:

The LORD’s people are alive forever.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You are immortal, the Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, who was and is and is to come. LORD, you live forever.

Thank you for the gift of eternal life in perfect relationship with you, which you have given to me through your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you for your promise that I shall spend my eternity with you, in the radiant splendour of your Son, with all my Christian brothers and sisters, through faith in Christ.

Thank you for Peggy and Daryl, who share this flight with me and will also be alive forever in your presence.

Amen.

Revealed

Righteousness requires worship of the rightly revealed Redeemer

Read: Deuteronomy 29

When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. (Deuteronomy 29:19)

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Reflect:

The LORD my God is holy. This is an inescapable fact. So I must go his way, no matter how hard that is. There are serious consequences, for myself and for others, if I go my own way.

But what does this mean when it comes to, say, choosing a restaurant in which to eat my evening meal? Tonight I am eating at The Elm Street Restaurant, and I think it is will be the one pricey, high-class meal of my holiday in Toronto. I even ordered “sweetbreads,” something I have only heard about before on the Masterchef grand final. It was delicious, but was my choice to eat here and eat that evidence of going my own way, or was I legitimately going God’s way?

And earlier today, when I spent hours admiring Inuit art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, appreciating the magnificent skills which God has granted to people to re-create his creation … was I going my own way of God’s way?

Sometimes I think this sort of question is one of the “secret things” 29:29 talks about. But verse 29 also says the LORD has revealed what is required in the Law. The New Testament tells me this is ultimately through the revelation of Jesus Christ his Son. Jesus belongs to me and I belong to him, so I may be righteous in all these everyday ordinary choices, because Jesus followed the Law on my behalf.

crux:

Righteousness is not merely a matter of right choices but of worshiping the rightly revealed Redeemer.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Thank you for your many blessings to me, temporal and material as well as spiritual.

May I never be so caught up in the enjoyment of what my eyes see and my mouth tastes that I forget the overwhelming glory of you, the One who created all things and gave skill to the artist and chef. May I be ever thankful for your creative beauty that is reflected only dimly in the beauty of human artistry. Many I be a witness to your heavenly glory and not solely a consumer of human art.

Amen.

Became

By faith in Christ, we became the people of the LORD our God

Read: Deuteronomy 27

Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel: “Be silent, Israel, and listen! You have now become the people of the LORD your God. Obey the LORD your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today.” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

Reflect:

“You have now become the people of the LORD your God.” What a powerful identity statement. Proclaimed by both Moses, the political leader and the Levitical priests, the spiritual mediators, to the entire motley crowd of Jacob’s descendants. They needed to shut their mouths and still their inner monologues, because this was a crucial declaration.

“You have now become…” Past tense: the people have been freed, by God, from Egypt; have received, from God, the Law; and have made the tabernacle, according to God’s design. The people have been brought, by God, through the desert; have been led by the pillar of God’s presence, marked by smoke and fire.

Now they are changed, transfigured. They are no longer slaves. Now they are different: “the people of the LORD.” Now they are truly one people and they belong not to the slave-holding Egyptians, nor yet to themselves, but to the LORD, Yahweh, the I AM who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. This LORD is their God, in the closest relationship of kinship and belonging with his people.

What an amazing identity!

So now, because Israel “have now become the people of the LORD” they were to obey the LORD. The same logical flow is seen in the lives of the people of Christ. By faith in Jesus Christ, who died as a sacrifice to redeem me from slavery to sin, I have now become one of the people of the LORD my God, now to obey him.

crux:

By faith in Christ, we became the people of the LORD our God.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You are the LORD, Yahweh, the I AM who spoke to Moses so long ago from the burning bush. You are my God, the divine object of my love, worship, awe and reverential fear.

I belong to you. I am one of your people, because this is what you have made me through the gift of faith in your Son Jesus Christ.

Thank you for redeeming and delivering your people Israel from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to your land, there to obey you. Thank you for redeeming and delivering me from slavery to sin and the curse of the law and bringing me to my present circumstances, here to obey you.

Please help me to obey you and follow you, because I belong to you. Please help me to be keen to bring honour to your name through my choices and actions, especially as Amy and I travel today to Indianapolis for the Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference tomorrow. Please bless us!

Amen.