Reflections on Ecclesiastes

In my Psalms and Wisdom Literature class today we covered the book of Ecclesiastes. As I pondered the theological message of the book of this book, and then glanced ahead in our notes to Song of Solomon, which we will cover tomorrow, I came to appreciate in a new way the sheer honesty of the Bible. It is so unlike what you would expect of a typical “religious” book. It devotes huge chunks of time to topics like the vanity of life, and sex. Amazing! It is so kind of God to give us a book which is so authentic to human experience. Some thoughts:

1. If the Bible’s authority applies to both the content as well as the method of theology (something I have become more convinced of in the last year and a half), then it is worth considering how this aspect of Scripture should affect what goes on in the pulpit, and in systematic theology books. It seems to me that the Bible’s ruthless honesty can deliver us from pseudo-spirituality, from neat answers to complex problems, from simplistic grids, from thinking in only one way, from stapling formulas onto what should not be formulaic.

2. At times, Ecclesiastes almost feels as if its bordering on a nihilistic/postmodern/existential/despairing interpretation of life. 1:14, for example, is a pretty remarkable claim: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” I don’t think that, taken as a whole, the book does succumb to nihilism, because of passages like the conclusion (12:13-14). Nevertheless, it has some strong statements about the vanity of life, even life lived wisely (1:16-18, 2:12-17).

As one who has personally struggled at times with the existential feeling that life is random and chaotic, I appreciate the book of Ecclesiastes perhaps more than any other book in the entire Bible. It tells me: Christianity is big enough to account for that aspect of life. It is aware of the problem, and it has something to say about it.

3. Ecclesiastes (especially right after studying Job!) teaches me about the limits of human knowledge. As Dr. Collins (my professor) put it today, “the intelligibility of the world is always tantalizingly partial.” Ecclesiastes is a reminder that we see parts, not the whole – that we won’t be able to explain everything. But an exhaustive understanding is not a prerequisite for trusting God. The parts of reality that we do see are enough to teach us to enjoy life for what it is (9:7-10, 11:9), and walk in obedience to God (12:1-8, 13-14). Put most simply, what I learn from Ecclesiastes is that the point of human existence is not to figure life out (cf. 8:17!) – its to trust God and obey his commandments (12:13-14).

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