WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

ECCLESIASTES: PART THIRTEEN

                                                PRESENTED ON 08-02-14

 

       To date we have covered eight chapters of Solomon’s thoughts as recorded in the Biblical document called Ecclesiastes.  The word Ecclesiastes is derived from the Hebrew title for this book which is kohayleth.  The Hebrew kohayleth appears to mean “to assemble” and can also mean leader, speaker, teacher or preacher of the assembly.  Some rabbinic literature actually treats kohayleth as a title for Solomon.  

       So the title of this book appears to simply be saying that here are words spoken by a speaker to an assembly. These are the words of kohayleth.  Some commentaries simple use the word kohayleth when referring to Ecclesiastes or the writer of the narrative found in this book.  As we discussed extensively in the first sermon in this series, Solomon is clearly identified as the kolayleth behind the words of this document.

       In the first eight chapters of this book we saw Solomon commenting on a variety of issues with the overall theme being that we need to pursue knowledge, understanding and wisdom.  A secondary theme that comes across in the first eight chapters is that life appears fortuitous.  Things largely happen by chance and whether we are righteous or unrighteous, wise or stupid, rich or poor, we will experience times of joy, times of sadness and all the other dynamics that make up the human experience.

       Most of all we all will experience death.  Solomon appears to dwell a lot on the fact we humans are all in the same boat when it comes to our having to die and leave behind the experiences of life.  Solomon appears at times to have trouble accepting this.  As we saw in some of his comments in chapters one through eight, Solomon seems somewhat puzzled and disturbed by the fact that the same dynamics of life pretty much equally befall the righteous and the wicked.  Beginning in chapter nine, Solomon appears to reflect on what he has so far said as recorded in chapters one through eight.  

       Ecclesiastes 9:1: So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him (NIV).

       So I reflected on all this, attempting to clear it all up. I concluded that the righteous and the wise, as well as their works, are in the hand of God; whether a person will be loved or hated – no one knows what lies ahead (NET).

       The words “I concluded that” do not appear in the Hebrew text, but are supplied in the translation for clarity.  You will find frequently in translation from the Hebrew and Greek into English that translators will insert words or whole sentences to better render the intended meaning.   So here we see Solomon reflecting on all that he has said to this point in an attempt to clear it all up.  He concludes that what the righteous and wise do are in God’s hands and that no one knows what lies ahead.  Solomon then returns to a theme he had expressed in chapters one through eight.

       Ecclesiastes 9:2: All share a common destiny--the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.

       In the Masoretic Text, which is the Hebrew text used by translators who translate directly from the Hebrew into English, the phrase “the good and the bad” is not there.  The Hebrew reads “the good, and the clean, and the unclean.”  The Greek versions of this passage read “the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean,” etc.  Here is another example of translators supplying additional verbiage to clarify what is being said.  Since Solomon is contrasting clean and unclean, offering sacrifices and not offering sacrifices, taking oaths and not taking oats, the translators of the Hebrew into Greek felt contrasting good with bad better rendered the thought Solomon was expressing.  Most English translations follow the Greek in rendering this passage.

       Now you may question that when translators add or subtract words or phrases from the original text aren’t they altering the word of God?  It must be understood, however, that we don’t have any original texts of the Scriptures.  What we have are copies of copies of copies.  All translations of the Biblical Scriptures are based on the oldest extant copies of the Scriptures and not on any original texts.  There are no original texts of Biblical Scripture that are known to exist.

       When translators translate from one language into another, they strive to be as true to the text they are translating from as they can be.  However, translation from one language into another involves more than word for word renderings.  It involves translation of meaning as well.  Translators make every attempt to find words in one language that best express the meaning of the passage they are translating.  In the case of Ecclesiastes 9:2, it was felt that contrasting good with bad better expressed the thought of Solomon in view of what he says in the rest of verse two.  

       Now there are times when doctrinal considerations skew the thinking of a translator into rendering a passage in a way to reflect a particular doctrinal position.  By and large, however, this is not the case and where it is the case; other translators usually correct such translations to better reflect the meaning expressed by the author of the text.  You especially see this in modern translations such as the New English Bible (NET) where the translators have gone to great lengths to determine what the Hebrew and Greek texts reveal.   However, even here, you will find theological predispositions determining how a word is translated.  A case in point is the very next verse.

       Ecclesiastes 9:3: This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead (NIV).

       This is the unfortunate fact about everything that happens on earth:the same fate awaits everyone.  In addition to this, the hearts of all people are full of evil, and there is folly in their hearts during their lives – then they die (NET).

       I consulted about a half dozen translations of this passage and they all render sentence one as “This is the evil in everything that happens.”  In looking up the Hebrew word translated “evil.” It is apparent this word means “evil” or something equivalent such as affliction, calamity, wretchedness etc.  Solomon, in speaking of the destiny or fate that awaits us all, which he goes on to identify as death, appears to consider this an evil, an affliction, a wretched state of affairs.  In so doing, one could ascribe to Solomon a bitter attitude toward God for things being the way they are.  The NET translators apparently did not want to suggest that this may be Solomon’s attitude so they softened up what Solomon said by rendering this Hebrew word as “unfortunate fact”

       It appears, however, that Solomon, while not necessarily having a negative attitude about the fate of man, does expresses a certain frustration with the fate of man as will come across as we move through his narrative in chapter nine.

       Ecclesiastes 9:4-6: Anyone who is among the living has hope --even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.

       This is a interesting analogy:  A live dog is better than a dead lion.  Even though a dog can’t begin to compare with the size, power and general magnitude of a lion, a living dog is still able to physically and cognitively function while a dead lion can’t do either.  So it is with us humans.  When we are alive, we are physically and cognitively active.  We engage in the full range of human emotions.  Once we die, it’s all over.

       Now some have taken this passage to indicate that Solomon saw no life after death.  Some believe he saw life limited to this physical existence.  But note that Solomon says that “never again will they have part in anything that happens under the sun.”  The phrase “under the sun” appears a number of times in Ecclesiastes.  It appears that Solomon, in his comments on human behavior and human destiny is seeing and limiting such comments to the physical realm and is not at all dealing with the afterlife.  Solomon is dealing with the transitory nature of this physical life and because he sees this physical life as very transitory, he says the following:

       Ecclesiastes 9:7-9:  Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun-- all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

       The word translated “meaningless,” is the Hebrew word hebel (heh'bel.  This word appears 38 times in Ecclesiastes.  As I explained in some detail in sermon one of this series, hebel, indicates vapor, fog, steam, breeze and breath.  The word describes something that is transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived.  The word can be used to connote nothingness or emptiness.  It appears Solomon uses hebel to signify the transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived things of this life.  This certainly appears to be the manner in which Solomon is using this word in 9:7-9.  The NET translation renders verse nine in this manner:

       Enjoy life with your beloved wife during all the days of your fleeting life that God has given you on earth during all your fleeting days; for that is your reward in life and in your burdensome work on earth.

       Solomon is instructing that because this physical life is so short lived, life should be lived to the fullest. The Hebrew word translated “lot” in the NIV and “reward” in the NET has among its various meanings "to receive an allotment or inheritance."  Solomon appears to be saying for all your hard work in this physical life, you should reward yourself with good food and drink and not go around with your head hanging down.  By instructing the reader to be clothed in white and have your head anointed is to say “go through life with your head held high and approach life in a positive and joyous manner.  Enjoying life and making the most of life is an ongoing theme in Ecclesiastes.

       Ecclesiastes 2:24-25: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

       Ecclesiastes 3:12: I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.

       Ecclesiastes 5:18: Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him--for this is his lot.

       Ecclesiastes 8:15: So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

       As already mentioned, Solomon repeatedly uses the term “under the sun” in his narrative.  This indicates He is seeing things and discussing things from the standpoint of our temporary very fleeting sojourn on this earth.  The writers frequent use of “under the sun” is his way of limiting the things he speaks of to the physical realm in contrast to the spiritual realm which is above the sun where God’s dwelling place is somewhere in the vastness of space.  He continues this theme of making the most of life in saying the following:

       Ecclesiastes 9:10: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

       Apply yourself in life.  Take advantage of opportunities.  Whatever you do, do it with vigor and enthusiasm.  Once this life is over and you go to the grave, you will no longer be able to do anything.  You are dead and in death there is no working, planning, knowledge or wisdom.  Again, it must be kept in mind that Solomon is looking at life from a physical perspective.  He is not dealing with the non-physical dimension of life that NT writers deal with and that Christ died to facilitate for humanity. 

       The Hebrew word rendered “grave” in 9:10 is Sheol.  This word appears dozens of times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  While most Bible translations render this word as “grave.”  Some translations, such as the KJV and NKJV render it as “hell.”  Since many in the Christian community believe hell is a place of punishment for the "unsaved dead," many Christians see Sheol as a place of conscious awareness.  Therefore, while Sheol is considered a place of death for the physical body, the soul or spirit of the so called unsaved dead is believed to live on in a conscious state in Sheol.  Those who embrace this view believe Solomon is only referring to the material body being dead in Sheol whereas the immaterial soul or spirit continues to be alive in Sheol

       I could present several dozen OT passages that dispel this view but I will here only present what Job has to say about Sheol.

       Job 17:13-16:  My days have passed, my plans are shattered, and so are the desires of my heart.  These men turn night into day; in the face of darkness they say, `Light is near.' If the only home I hope for is the grave (Sheol), if I spread out my bed in darkness,  if I say to corruption, `You are my father,' and to the worm, `My mother' or `My sister,' where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me?  Will it go down to the gates of death (Sheol)? Will we descend together into the dust?"

       Job was experiencing great suffering. His three friends were trying to make him believe there was hope. Job sees no hope. He only sees Sheol awaiting him. He places Sheol in the context of corruption and the activity of worms and he associates Sheol with descending into the dust.  For Job, returning to the dust is equated with going to Sheol. There isn’t a hint in anything Job says that would suggest Sheol is a place of conscious awareness let alone a place of eternal torment as is believed by many Christians.

       For anyone interested in a comprehensive discussion of the issue of Sheol you can go to my website and read part Two of my seven part series entitled “What Happens after Death.”  Solomon now, as he does so often, abruptly moves to another issue.

       Ecclesiastes 9:11: I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

       Time and chance happen to us all.  You may be a track star running in front of everybody in a track meet and suddenly your knee buckles and you fall to the track and never make it to the finish line.  Time and chance happen to us all. On our recent trip to the southeast, we visited Churchill Downs in Kentucky were each year is run the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl of horse racing.  As you enter the grounds and approach the entrance to the vast stadium that is Churchill Downs, you see a large statue of a horse named Barbaro.  In 2006, Barbaro decisively won the Kentucky Derby.  Several weeks later in running at the Preakness Stakes, he shattered his right hind leg and his racing career was over.  After repeated surgeries to restore the leg without success, Barbaro was euthanized and is today buried at the front entrance to Churchill Downs.  As with humans, time and chance happen to animals as well.

       You can be a brave and decorated soldier and be cut down in an instant by a bullet. You can be very wealthy and fall on hard times and end up on skid row.  You can be well learned but never seemly able to attain the expected reward commensurate with your education.  Solomon observed thousands of years ago that there are no guarantees in life.  Much of life is fortuitous.  Time and change happen to us all.  Solomon goes on to say:

       Ecclesiastes 9:12: Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

       We humans certainly are trapped by evil times.  In the economic crash of 1929, hundreds of thousands who had wealth became poor overnight.  A number couldn’t handle it or simple decided not to cope with it and committed suicide.   As we speak, hundreds of thousands of citizens of Gaza are trapped in a conflict generated by centuries of animosity between Jews and Arabs.  Gaza is only 25 miles long and 5 miles wide.  1.7 million people are crowded into this tight space.  They have no where to hide when bombs reign down on their city.  They are truly trapped by evil times.  Everyday there seems to be another killing or two in the inner city of Milwaukee.  Most of the people who live there want to live in peace.  Yet they are trapped by evil times. 

       Chapter eight ends with a story told by Solomon about a wise man and a city.

       Ecclesiastes 9:13-18: I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.  The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. 

       That words of wisdom are often despised is an ongoing story.  It has been repeated many times throughout history and is being repeated as we speak.  Rulers often fail to listen to wise advice. The rhetoric of rulers riles up the people to go to war and the people, like fools, go along with it.  Look at what happened In Germany.  Hitler would stand up for hours pontificating about how the German people were a superior race and how it was their destiny to rule.  Most of the people responded with approval and we know the rest of the story. Very few appeared to question the truth of what Hitler was saying and those who did were eliminated.  Words of wisdom were ignored.  If the quite words of the wise would have been heeded, World War 2 may never have occurred. This could be said about most wars throughout history.

       Solomon said that “wisdom is better than weapons of war, but the sinner destroys much good.”   Wisdom often takes a back seat to emotion. People become all emotional about their culture, ethnicity, religion and political system.  Rather than objectively examining the validity of their belief system, they submit to sinful leadership that railroads them into war rather than peace. 

       The way to peace is outlined in the Scriptures.  Jesus preached the Law of Love. The law of love, however, doesn’t just get facilitated on its own.  It takes humans making righteous choices to facilitate the Law of Love.  It takes humans being willing to forgive past offenses and seek the maximum welfare of their fellow humans. It takes humans willing to strictly adhere to a common moral code that would insure the safety, happiness and wellbeing of the human race.  It takes humans more interested in serving the needs of others rather than serving themselves. 

       The way to peace is manifest in Scripture but few there be that find it and still fewer that are willing to submit to the way of peace even when thy do find it.  Some years ago a song was written entitled “Let there Be Peace.”

Let There Be Peace on Earth and let it begin with me.
Let There Be Peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be!
With God as our Father, brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me. Let this be the moment now.
With every breath I take, let this be my solemn vow;
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally!
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!

       We may not be able to do a whole lot about the general lack of peace in the world. What we all can do is be a committee of one to do our best to facilitate peace in our own lives and in the lives of those we interact with on a daily basis.

PART FOURTEEN