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Truth in Paradox, More Thoughts on Ecclesiastes

January 30th, 2009 by Jason · 3 Comments

I’ve been continuing to do some thinking on the book of Ecclesiastes this week.  It’s not the most straightforward book from which to teach, and at first I was worried that in committing to spend a few months in it, I’d end up simply circling depressing and hard questions.  Not that it’s bad to sit with those questions, but teaching on them for several weeks would be hard, and it’d be frustrating if I was unable to find any of the wisdom that’s supposed to be in wisdom literature.  Thus far, though, I’ve found a wealth of wisdom in Ecclesiastes.  Last week’s discussion on the fear of the Lord proved fruitful and now I’m finding more than I expected in the contradictions that are central to the book.

I’ve found that most interpretations of Ecclesiastes tend to impose an order to the tangle of Qohelet’s paradoxes.  Medieval critics read it as an illustration of why life “under the sun” was meaningless and hence the need for asceticism and focusing on the immaterial world.  Luther saw in Ecclesiastes a demonstration of the bankruptcy of secular thought, the futility of agnosticism.  The trend continues today with most interpreters trying to find a system of thought that explains Qohelet and levels out the contradictions (e.g. Tremper Longman’s commentary on the book).  The problem with most interpretations of Ecclesiastes is that they hold on to one strain of Qohelet’s thought and are forced to say that the contradictory statements are cynical, insincere, or added on by a more “orthodox” redactor.  What if the central message of the book is in the contradictions?  What if, instead of trying to figure out the “problem of Ecclesiastes” by finding a method to Qohelet’s madness, we approached it from our own experience?  What if, by trying to level out the inconsistencies, we muddy and mute the message?

The contradictions in Ecclesiastes certainly ring out loud and clear when you read them together.  Qohelet (the “preacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes), in the same breath, extols the value of wisdom and its bankrupt value (Ecc 9:16).  He declares the dead to be better than the living and the never-born better off than both, but then asserts “a live dog is better off than a dead lion” (Ecc 4:2; Ecc 9:4).  Even the recurrent theme that the book is so well known for is given as a paradox: eat and drink with gladness for God has approved what you do … enjoy “all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun” (Ecc 9:7-9).  Over and over Qohelet points out the hebel (uselessness/meaninglessness/vanity/absurdity) of life in the face of death and injustice, and repeatedly Qohelet also affirms that life is God’s gift and should be enjoyed as we able.

It’s not immediately clear how to read these startling opposites and hold onto both.  It’s tempting to read Ecclesiastes in the linear and sensible way of most interpreters.  This method produces problems, though.  To take an analogy from painting, it’s akin to mixing together red and yellow paints and ending up with something different altogether: orange.  Or, more accurately perhaps, it is waiting for yellow to dry and then painting over it, simply blotting it out with red.  There’s a different paradigm I came across, from music, that has proven more helpful: when two notes are played together, both fill up the space and remain distinct in such a way that something new emerges, a chord.  This chord “contains both differentiation and union,” notes Johnston (in his Useless Beauty commentary) and provides a metaphor for a new interpretive strategy.

The strange thing about wrestling with the paradoxes in Ecclesiastes, is that we know experientially the paradoxical nature of life to be true: the joy that strangely surfaces even in sorrow, the reality of both laughter and tears, the goodness of a meal with friends while knowing the horrible facts about hunger.  It doesn’t mean it’s been easy to learn that paradox is at the center of so much of life.  I’d almost go so far as to say it’s the most important and most difficult aspect of “growing up.”  I certainly haven’t arrived at an acceptance of contradiction and paradox.  In fact, I keep trying to wrestle some meaning into my life, to take life by the horns and tame it into something manageable and predictable, to save myself from its useless unpredictability by making sure I work hard enough to make a difference, blog often enough to say something worth saying, save enough to make me safe, and blah blah blah.

Perhaps this is why I keep finding myself drawn back to Ecclesiastes.  It’s a clear-eyed reminder of my mortality, of life’s messiness, of the absurdity of my pride.  It also rings authentic.  I find life has a cheesy inauthenticity and empty hollowness when the messiness of life is ignored, when injustice and pain are whitewashed with simple platitudes.  Pollyannaism pop culture calls it.  Utopia of the masses Marx calls it.  Equally, though I find the outlook of the cynic, who says “to hell with it all, everything, good and bad, is but a pissing in the wind,” untenable.  The cynics outlook doesn’t take seriously doctrine of common grace, which is best described by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem, Aurora Leigh:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Qohelet has his own way of describing this common grace: “that each should find satisfaction in their toil—this is a gift of God” (Ecc 3:13).  As Johnston puts it, “Qohelet offers an alternate form of wisdom, one that both corrects and recenters the dominant wisdom of his day.”  The dominant strain of wisdom, like that seen in Proverbs, is about figuring out how we order life; what we can do to wrest some order from the chaos.  Qohelet’s challenge to that message is to remind readers that life has been called good (Genesis 1:31); it is a given from God and thus we are to enjoy our work and play as we are able because they are a divine gift from God.  This concurrent uselessness and giftedness of life of life pushes us to “be” and not just “do.”  Life is to be celebrated with joy in the midst of hebel, but not according to it.  Denying the reality of either, living according to the superficiality of one or the cynicism of the other, runs roughshod over the paradoxes of life in the same way many interpreters do over Ecclesiastes.

That doesn’t mean that living in the tension of life’s paradoxes makes us settled or justifies life’s messiness.  Injustice is still unjust, death still sucks, and we still hope for the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God to come now.  It’s tempting to jump to the end of the story, to skip lament and move straight to resurrection, and thereby forget the tension in the “already” and “not-yetness” of the Kingdom.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it well in a letter he wrote as he sat in a Nazi prison camp awaiting his sentence:

My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament, and in recent months I have been reading the Old Testament much more than the New. It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world….  In my opinion it is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New Testament.

Tags: theology

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Teevan // Jul 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    A profound and enlightning article. The importance of paradox, ambiguty and confusion is often forgotten by those who rush for the answears. These things themselves are part of the Lord’s plan. I often forget this myself

  • 2 Pastor Colonel Tom // Apr 26, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Retired after 29 years in the AF (Security Forces) and now a pastor.
    God does have a sense of humor.

    I am teaching through the book for the first time, and it is NOT easy.
    And my Masters Class on hermeneutics gives me just enough new information and exegetical tools to make me “dangerous.”

    Excellent, thought provoking and balanced insights. Thanks, in Him. PCT

  • 3 G Hale // Apr 10, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Having read Ecclesiastes several times (hoping different versions would shed some light on it), and even after reading this and other commentaries, I still can’t grasp it being part of the scriptures. It seems to speak against faith and more to absolutes. Having said that, I agree with what Ecclesiastes says but feel I have abondoned faith for fatalism which Ecclesiastes seems to me to promote.

    Great job on the commentary even though I choke on it as well in some areas but thats just me. Regardless of my confusion (that we’re told is of the devil absolutely), Jesus is still Lord!