Monday, July 9, 2012

Ecclesiastes and the Mess of Life: Good Therapy for the Fixer

I have been reading and re-reading Ecclesiastes to start my day and its message has been hitting me between the eyes.

Many of you – and I say you as I am a theologian not a counselor – got into counseling because you are fixers.  As an INTJ, I am a fixer too; that is the core of my personality type, looking at a problem and finding innovative solutions.

You and I want to see problems solved, people coming through hard times to wholeness, God’s power on display to heal and restore.  People are on a road from one place to another, learning to be more loving, to give more grace, to understand others better, and to handle difficulties in a way that leads through them to greater health.  And as a counselor, you are helping people move from one place to another, a new place that is better than where they have been in the past.

Let me say first off that I am all for it; there are places in my life that have been fixed.  These places are better than they were before.  I am growing. The power of the gospel is alive and well in me and is transforming day by day.  The other day, my wife was writing an introduction to a talk she was giving at church and she wrote about the person she was 20 years ago and the person she is today.  It was beautiful for me to hear as she read it over the phone for my input.  Because I have lived it with her, I have seen the changes.  I know it to be true.  Her growth is evident.

When we look at the book of Ecclesiastes, there are several ideas about its major theme.  The book is so depressing, so down, so different from the book of Proverbs or Psalms in its perspective that some Hebrew scholars have surmised that it was written by someone who had a different theology, even a radically different view of God than other parts of the Old Testament.  Or, perhaps, one really skeptical guy wrote most of it and later a more theologically orthodox editor came along and added the positive bits so we could keep it in the Bible – or something like that.  In this view, the book is full of contradictions and it is arguing that we will never be able to understand the world or God (Murphey, 1992).  I would encourage you to pick up the Bible and just read a few verses of Ecclesiastes to remind yourself of its tone. Choose any place you like in the book.

One commentator writes that he is glad to have found another skeptic among the writers of the Bible.  Life does not make sense, and you better have your fun when you can (Crenshaw, 1987).

A second view is the one championed by most evangelicals.  Basically, they argue that without God, the world does not make sense.  “The purpose of Ecclesiastes was to convince men of the uselessness of any world view which does not rise above the horizon of man himself.   It pronounces the verdict of ‘vanities of vanities’ upon any philosophy of life which regards the created world or human enjoyment as an end in itself” (Archer, 1994).  In this view, looking at the nature of life through the lenses of the life and resurrection of Christ changes everything about how we interpret the book. 

The eminent OT theologian Tremper Longman (1998) writes: “While Qohelet [author] sounds nonorthodox in light of the rest of the canon, he presents a true assessment of the world apart from God’s redeeming love.”  And: “Christians can experience deep significance precisely in those areas where Qohelet felt most oppressed.  Jesus has restored meaning to wisdom, labor, love, and life.”  Michael Eaton (1983; see also NLT Study Bible, 2008) writes: “What, then, is the purpose of Ecclesiastes?  It is an essay in apologetics.  It defends the life of faith in a generous God by pointing to the grimness of the alternative.”  Adding a Christian world-view to the interpretation is like a kid in art class laying different colors of cellophane over a black a white design to make stained glass. 

As a guy that has spent a lot of his time studying the New Testament, this sounds good on the surface.   Yes, the New Testament adds a lot to our reading of the Old Testament when we look at in the light of Christ.  But, I cannot think of another place in the Old Testament where I need to read things in light of Christ or a Christian worldview to make much of any sense of what is going on in quite the same way these commentators seem to apply to Ecclesiastes.    

I do not want to discount my fellow biblical scholars ideas – there is truth here – but when I let the text just speak for itself, I feel more like the first group of interpreters, most of whom do not view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God.   Like the book of Job, I can’t make easy sense of it being inspired by the same God I think I have come to know and love from the other parts of the Bible.  

There is an even greater problem.  Life itself.  The devastation life brings to us sometimes seems much closer to the truth of Ecclesiastes than I want to believe.   When my beloved assistant’s daughter was killed by a drunk drive a year or so ago, when my 65 year old uncle is taking care of his daughter’s child because his daughter has abandoned her own flesh and blood, when I visited the Rwandan genocide memorial with my friend Pius who lost brothers and sisters, when what I thought were God-given dreams and expectations come to nothing, the chorus “All is vanity” of the ERV or the, “Everything is meaningless” of the NLT rings through my head.  The arguments given to back this up seem very convincing indeed.  Living life, I am able to make some sense of Ecclesiastes.  This is what much in life actually is.  

Where do we go from here?

As a natural fixer, this is hard to do, but I am trying: I need to hold both the incongruity of life and the goodness and plan of God together.  Elizabeth Huwiler writes about the theme of Ecclesiastes: “A particular challenge for interpreters is the fact that Qohelet clings tenaciously to both claims: all life is hebel [vanity or meaningless], and yet joy is both possible and good.[i]  Ecclesiastes has genuine affinity with a modern society that is more and more at home with the incongruities of life and the difficulty or even impossibilities of finding answers.  

“Enjoy life to the full when you can, because you better believe some really hard stuff is coming just around the corner,” is not a message we are comfortable with in the church.  “We might have a victory today, but tomorrow you could get run over by a garbage truck and it will all be for nothing.” is not the message ringing from the pulpits of our pop-gospel prosperity teachers.  

As counselors, trying to be successful people fixers, we need to listen to this book just like we listen to Paul’s Romans 8:28.  In some way, the message is simple and clear.  The world is broken.  Sometimes life really stinks.  No matter how hard we try, how many hours we work, how many Bible verses we learn by heart, we will still be broken people living in a broken world.  Sin has ruined it all.  Now, that message fits in with all we know about God and a Christian worldview that we know from the rest of Scripture.

God, more that we could possibly imagine, knows how broken and beyond repair we all are.   He loves us anyway.  Someday, our Lord will come back in glory and all things will be put right.  Until then, especially as those trying to bring healing to those who hurt, we will have to try to be content holding the message of Ecclesiastes much closer to our hearts than is comfortable or safe.

1 Huwiler writes: “The anguish of Qohelet’s investigation of life is knowing that the following two observations about life are true at the same time. … The reader is challenged to allow the competing claims to be heard, and to find truth in the clash.”  166-67.

Archer, G. (1994).  A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (p. 525), Chicago: Moody Press.
Crenshaw, J. (1987). Ecclesiastes a commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Crossway. (2008). Introduction to Ecclesiastes. In the ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Books.
Eaton, M. (1983). Ecclesiastes: an Introduction and Commentary. In the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (pp. 74-79).  Leicester: IVP.
Huwiler, E. (1999). Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs--New International Bible Commentary (p. 164ff): Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Longman, T., III. (1998). The Book of Ecclesiastes. In New International Commentary on the Old Testament (pp. 39-40), Grand Rapids; Eerdmans.
Murphey, R.E. (1992). Ecclesiastes. WBC vol 23a. (1xviii), Dallas: Word Books.
Tyndale House. (2008). The NLT Study Bible. Carol Stream: Tyndale House.

Matthew Elliott
Author, speaker, and New Testament Scholar

No comments:

Post a Comment