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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ecclesiastes' Postscript

I promise that I'm almost done talking about Ecclesiastes.  Really.

By Ecclesiastes' "postscript" I'm referring to these last words of the book (12:9-14):
Not only was the Teacher wise,
but he also taught knowledge to the people;
he carefully evaluated and arranged many proverbs.
The Teacher sought to find delightful words,
and to write accurately truthful sayings.

The words of sages are like prods,
and the collected sayings are like firmly fixed nails;
they are given by one shepherd.
Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
There is no end to the making of many books,
and much study is exhausting to the body.

Having heard everything, I have reached this conclusion:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
because this is the whole duty of man.
For God will evaluate every deed,
including every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Most scholars, whatever their commitment to orthodoxy, regard this section as written by someone other than the person who wrote the bulk of the book—an editor, if you will.  Unfortunately, as scholars so often overconfidently do, they argue that it is written by a later editor because it cannot have been otherwise.  And that's stupid.  A former professor of mine, Duane Garrett (who happens to be the most reliable biblical interpreter I know), concisely describes in his commentary on Ecclesiastes how it is very possible for Solomon himself to have written the introductory and concluding material in a different voice (262-264).  On the other hand, just because Solomon could have written this section doesn't mean he did.

There are two reasons why I think that 12:9-14 were written by a later hand.  The first is that 12:8 ("Absolutely futile! . . . all these things are futile!")—which is an echo of 1:2 immediately after a final word of advice and a relentless, poetic depiction of death—is a more fitting ending to this book as a literary work than anything I can imagine.  The second is that the substance of the summary advice in the postscript (i.e., the last paragraph quoted above) seems to be careful to highlight part of the Preacher's message and neglect the rest.  In other words, it's the summary that someone else wants us to see in the book, not a summary of what all is there.

However, even if the postscript is written by someone other than Solomon, the book as we have it is the only version we know, and this is the version that was considered to be the inspired word of God by the rabbis whose tradition the early Christians followed.  That means that even if the last two verses of Ecclesiastes are a skewed summary, they are a divinely inspired skewed summary, which means we had better pay close attention to why God skewed it.

In several places in the book the Preacher urges his listeners to fear God (3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12).  I think the most illustrative is in 7:15-18.  There the Preacher gives the surprising instruction not to be too wicked but also not to be too righteous, to hold on to both extremes and stay in a murky moral middle, neither too bad nor too good.  And this is what he says the person who fears God will do.  It's hard to think of any parallel for this definition of fearing God anywhere else in the Bible.

However, it might make more sense if we think of why the Preacher thinks God is worth fearing.  God is the one who has ordained both a time to kill and a time to heal (3:3, 11).  That means that it is God who chooses when people return to the dust from which they were created (3:17-20).  So if death is something to fear and avoid for as long as possible to try desperately to enjoy life under the sun, then God must be feared as the one who chooses the day of one's death that he might prolong it as long as possible.  To be excessively wicked is to risk his wrath (8:13).  But to stand out in society as more righteous than everybody else is a death wish too—enough prophets have been killed to prove that.  So "fearing God" for the Preacher means keeping your head down, humbly trying to avoid conspicuous and dangerous behaviors on all sides that could bring about an untimely death.

But you don't get this sense in the postscript.  That author urges us to fear God by keeping his commandments—the latter a pervasive biblical concept that appears nowhere else in Ecclesiastes—because it is incumbent on everybody.  This is foundational wisdom teaching (see two posts ago).  The postscript's author also warns us that God brings every act to judgment.  This is an idea that Solomon stresses in this book as well (3:17; 11:9).  But Solomon defines God's judgment as death that comes upon every person; no one can avoid it, at least in part because there is no one who hasn't sinned (7:20).  The implication in the postscript, however, is that the reason we are to keep God's commandments is to avoid his condemnation and live, which is also a concept shot through Hebrew wisdom literature (see e.g. Ps. 1).

In Ecclesiastes Solomon pushes Hebrew wisdom to its fullest extent and exposes its limitations.  The author of the postscript, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, brings the discussion back to the core of wisdom by identifying the elements of the Preacher's teaching that connect to traditional wisdom and interpreting those elements in traditional ways.  As I argued in my last post, Solomon's exploration in Ecclesiastes helps us to see more clearly the need for the New Covenant and point out the fatal flaws in any philosophy without meaningful eternal life.  But the postscript reminds us of the value of Hebrew wisdom itself—if we humbly trust God and obey him, we will live, though it took the work of Christ to show us how that could be and what it would mean.

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