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.

Awesome

Jesus Christ arose in Israel, mighty and awesome

Read: Deuteronomy 34

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10)

For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:12)

Reflect:

Moses was indeed a singular character. He was brought up in a palace, yet intervened for the life of a slave. He fled Egypt in fear of Pharaoh, yet returned to Egypt to confront him. Moses was a man of faltering lips yet God chose him to speak God’s laws to his people. Moses was a man of prayer and poetry, anger and frustration. He was a leader, continually facing opposition; a husband and father, whose wife was left behind. God spoke to him and his face was radiant; but he overstepped God’s instructions and God judged him.

The author of Deuteronomy’s epilogue says Moses was unique, but Moses was later surpassed by another. Jesus showed more mighty power and performed greater awesome deeds throughout his years of ministry. Jesus not only knew God face-to-face, he was the fullness of God’s deity in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), the radiance of God’s glory and exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus’ face, too, was transfigured by God’s glory, but Jesus never overstepped God’s commands. And Jesus was also judged: not for his own transgressions but for Israel’s, for Judah’s, for the Church’s, for mine.

And since Jesus rose again in Israel, the mighty power and awesome deeds of the LORD Almighty are preached to the ends of the earth, that all might see and know that the LORD is great.

crux:

Jesus Christ arose in Israel, mighty and awesome.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Thank you for speaking to me through the words of your prophet Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy. Thank you for the mighty power you exerted in Moses’ life. Thank you for the awesome deeds you did through Moses’ obedience. Thank you for the Law you gave through Moses, the law that exposes my sin and my great need for your Son’s sacrifice.

Thank you for not stopping with Moses but granting your Spirit of Wisdom to Joshua. Thank you for continuing your work with your people throughout the years until you gave us Jesus, your Son. Thank you for his ministry and service. Thank you for making it plain that he was a prophet far more mighty or awesome than Moses.

Thank you for your ongoing work in my life. Please grant me the wisdom of Moses and Joshua, that I may serve and love Jesus.

Amen.

Said

The LORD brings his people into his kingdom, as he has said

Read: Deuteronomy 31

“I am now one hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’ The LORD your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as the LORD said.” (Deuteronomy 31:2-3)

Reflect:

There is so much in these verses. Moses is 120 years old and other than his first 40 years, raised in an Egyptian palace, he has had a hard life: 40 years a wandering shepherd in Midian and another 40 years a wandering Shepherd of Israel in the Sinai desert. Yet Moses is still disappointed, even if also resigned, because the LORD has barred him from entering the land God promised to Abraham’s descendants. Moses, at 120, would still like another 40 years, adventuring in the Promised Land.

Later, much later, Moses would visit the Promised Land as he met with Jesus, his long-awaited Messiah, at the mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-4), as Jen Wilkin pointed out at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference. Meanwhile, God had a good plan for the immediate future: the LORD, together with Joshua, Moses’ apprentice, would cross over into the land ahead of the people. They would conquer the people of the land and wipe out all their despicable abominations of religious practices. The LORD himself would be with Joshua (31:23) as he took Israel into the Promised Land.

Today, I know that whether I see it or not, God is bringing and will bring all his chosen people into his kingdom, under Jesus our King. According to 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise … he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.” As I leave this land today, I trust God that he will finish any conversations I have begun, that he will grow any gospel seeds I have sown, for his kingdom and his glory.

crux:

The LORD brings his people into his kingdom, as he has said.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Thank you once again for the reassurance of your sovereignty. Thank you for the reminder that you order my life and you are capable of bringing your chosen into the kingdom of Christ Jesus your Son.

I pray for Ari, the Jew whom I met at McDonalds, to whom I explained the need to trust Jesus to reconcile him to you. I pray for the homeless woman I hugged, who just wanted shelter I had no means to give her. I pray for Liz and Sharon, the ladies who asked me what “gospel” meant as we visited Niagara Falls. I pray for Alistair, the gay man I met last night while we watched the sunset over the Toronto skyline from the Toronto islands, who feels excluded within the conservative culture of country Ontario. May you bring each of them into your kingdom, the kingdom of your Son.

I entrust them into your hands.

Amen.

Cursed

Jesus died under God’s curse to lift God’s curse from me

Read: Deuteronomy 21

If someone guilty of a capital offence is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

Reflect:

For some of the Old Testament, it can be hard to find the ‘Jesus Connection’. Not so here. These verses clearly refer to an execution in a similar manner to Roman crucifixion, by which Jesus was put to death.

This is odd, because according to the previous verse (21:21), and the rest of Moses’ sermons in Deuteronomy, Israelite executions were to be carried out by stoning. At the time Moses spoke these words, the Roman Empire did not yet exist as a political entity, let alone perform crucifixion. Yet Moses gave a clear description of the death of one cursed by God, a description that in effect prophesied the crucifixion of Jesus.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians quoted verse 23, to explain the purpose of Christ’s death under God’s curse:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is anyone hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:13-14)

crux:

Jesus died under God’s curse to lift God’s curse from me.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

Your grace and generosity in the gospel are clearly displayed here in Deuteronomy. Thank you for Paul, who explained to the Galatians (and to me) that if I rely on the works of the law to save me I am accursed, but that Jesus’ death under your curse lifts that curse from me.

Thank you for redeeming me from your curse, and offering me a life of blessing and honour for your glory. Thank you for your Holy Spirit, who lives in me by faith in Jesus Christ, just as you promised.

LORD, may I not be shy about reading my Bible in this busy airport. May I be confident to be seen studying your word, spending time with my Saviour Jesus. Do not let me fear judgement or rebuke, but help me to be fearlessly honest in this necessarily public worship today.

Thank you for your peace and joy in your gospel in the midst of a busy, noisy, crowded place.

Amen.

Prophet

God raised up Jesus Christ as his supreme Prophet

Read: Deuteronomy 18

The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. (Deuteronomy 18:14-15)

“I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.” (Deuteronomy 18:19)

Reflect:

Moses had earlier spoken of God’s choice of Joshua, the son of Nun, to succeed him (Deuteronomy 1:38), leading the people into the land to inherit it. God had told Moses to commission Joshua, to encourage and strengthen him (Deuteronomy 3:28).

Now, Moses tells the people that God will provide them with a leader like himself, a prophet, who will relay to them the messages of God. Moses may well have been thinking of Joshua, or of the long line of prophets that would following after him. But God placed these words into Moses’ mouth and God meant them to be also a hint of his final, supreme Prophet, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would one day dwell with God’s people in the flesh.

Jesus himself said, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me” (John 7:16), indicating in his following words that the one who sent Jesus was the LORD God. Jesus Christ is God’s Prophet because he spoke all God’s words and he spoke only God’s words.

Here, in Deuteronomy, I am warned to listen to Jesus, because God will judge people for failing to listen to his prophet. The same words were proclaimed by the voice of God the Father from heaven at Jesus’ transfiguration, when he was revealed in the fullness of his kingdom glory: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5; my italics).

crux:

God raised up Jesus Christ as his supreme Prophet.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You are Light and Word and Truth.
You spoke and your creation began.
You are the source and sustenance, the joy and delight, the plumb-line and straight-edge by which all else is measured.

LORD, you are Light and your Word is Truth.
You speak through prophets and you spoke through one supreme and ultimate Prophet, the LORD Jesus Christ.

He is your image, the full revelation of your divine essence, making visible the invisible.
He spoke only what you wanted him to say and spoke all you wanted him to say, including the words, “It is finished!” when he had completed the task you set before him at the cross.

Thank you for Moses, for Joshua and most especially for Jesus. Help me to listen to their words, to your words to me, spoken by them.

Amen.

Broken

I have broken covenant, but Christ died to mediate a new covenant

Read: Deuteronomy 9

Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. (Deuteronomy 9:6)

When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the LORD your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. … So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes. (Deuteronomy 9:16a, 17)

Reflect:

God’s love does not depend upon the righteousness of his people. It never has. This is just as well, because God’s people have never been completely righteous from their own efforts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sculpture of Hathor as a cow, with all of her symbols, the sun disk, the cobra, as well as her necklace and crown. Original photo by Gérard Ducher, Wikipedia Commons

Moses had only just received the written copy of the law of the covenant from God when the people of Israel broke that covenant. They worshipped an idol, a golden statue of a calf that Aaron had made, reminiscent of the false Egyptian goddess Hathor (see right).

Israel had literally broken the covenant, so Moses broke the stone tablets upon which the words of the covenant were written. Talk about an object lesson!

Thankfully, Moses did what the Israelites most needed: he interceded on their behalf in prayer to God, asking God to avert his wrath from his people, and not destroy them for their sin.

The truth is, I’m a stiff-necked person as well. I’d be in the same position as those Israelite idol-worshippers if it wasn’t for Jesus. Jesus is my mediator before the throne of God.

Romans 5:6 reassures me, “Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:8 adds, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

crux:

I have broken covenant, but Christ died to mediate a new covenant.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You make covenant and you keep covenant,
and when your people break covenant
you reconcile us with your righteousness.

Thank you for your loyal love for your people.
Thank you that, though I was an ungodly sinner, Christ died for me.
Thank you that Christ has mediated a new covenant whereby I am justified by his righteousness, in spite of my stiff-necked nature.
Thank you.

Please keep me from idols.
Keep me from worshipping your creation when I should be worshipping my Creator.

Help me to recognise idols for what they are when I see them:
When I see “healing crystals” for sale in some craft market, may I remember you are my Healer.
When I’m tempted to look for “validation” in feedback from others (my boss, my PD trainer, my husband, my Bible study small group, the likes on this blog), may I remember that you are my Judge.
When I seek satisfaction in my To Do List and my “accomplishments”, may I remember that you are my Joy.

May I worship only you and your Son who died for me when I was nothing but an ungodly sinner.

Amen.

 

Law

The LORD gave his people laws so they would live rightly

Read: Deuteronomy 5

Moses summoned all Israel and said:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today, Learn them and be sure to follow them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. (Deuteronomy 5:1-2)

Reflect:

As Moses begins his second sermon, having described the events and the God which brought the people to the edge of the promised land, he turns to the topic of the Israelites’ lives and behaviour once they enter this promised land. The LORD had made a covenant with Israel at Horeb, and that covenant needed to be kept in the promised land as in the desert.

The law Moses now expounds (in very similar words to Exodus 20) can be divided into two categories: the peoples’ relationship with the LORD their God (5:6-15) and the peoples’ relationships with each other (5:16-21, with a small mention of relationships with servants in 5:14 with respect to the Sabbath observance).

Actually, this is an interesting difference, because here in 5:14 the law is explained. The Sabbath was given so that they and their servants might rest. This is why Jesus Christ maintained that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath, even if that took effort (Matthew 12:12), because the Sabbath was made for man and not vice versa (Mark 2:27).

crux:

The LORD gave his people laws so they could live rightly with him and with each other in the promised land.

Respond:

LORD God Almighty,

You are God. By definition, by your very identify you are Creator and Controller, law maker and righteous law-keeper. You are just and merciful, holy and kind.

Thank you for giving your people rules to live by for a relationship with you. And than you for providing a way for us to be forgiven and reconciled to you when, inevitably, we broke your rules.

Thank you that these ten commandments still instruct us today. They may no longer demand obedience because Jesus fulfilled the law completely on our behalf. But they do tell me that you care about the way I pursue a relationship with you; you care about the way I treat other people. Thank you for showing me a better way to live my life, a way to love you and love others, by caring about your glory and their good.

Please help me to love you totally and to love my neighbours well. Thank you that I was able to love my son well today.

Amen.