Day Four: Where is God?

Day Four: Where is God?

Dropping all of the questions arising from the first two verses in Ecclesiastes is a significant weight to jettison.  The questions matter, but being bogged down does little in the way of freely reading the speaker’s/writer’s words.

Instead of a reductionist perspective and dissecting every word, let’s read the entire first chapter and see if this sheds some light on where Ecclesiastes is leading us.

After reading Chapter One I am struck just how different Ecclesiastes begins compared to almost every other book in the Bible.  The focus is not on God–the focus is on people–specifically the speaker.  The phrase, “What’s in it for me?” came to mind as I reread the first chapter.

From this perspective the very thought expressed in the second verse, “Meaningless! Meaningless!…Everything is meaningless!” is even more impactful.  If you believe Yahweh authorized, inspired and even guided the writing of Ecclesiastes, it would appear Yahweh is not afraid of being questioned and doubted.

While many Psalms carry forward this same hopelessness and cries for God to step in and eradicate the pain of a suffering servant, here we witness a person discussing “wisdom” and finds it lacking.  And, the speaker of Ecclesiastes finds the person/entity to blame: it’s God.

“I devote myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!” –Ecclesiastes 1:13

But, the speaker does not stop there: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  What is twisted cannot be straightened, what is lacking cannot be counted.”

Is this an indictment of God’s creation?  It would appear the speaker is not choosing to take the blame–his own actions making him culpable for the meaninglessness of life.  He does not say, “I am twisted.  I am lacking.”  Why would a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent Yahweh create a flawed creation?  The “why” questions begin to unfold, but let’s finish the chapter, and what a finish it is:

“For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Whoa!  Stop right there!  Are you saying the more I learn in the form of “wisdom”–something appearing to be an objective according to Proverbs and much of the Bible’s teachings–is possibly “bad” for the human soul?  Why would a loving Yahweh burden–even trick–His creation?

This final statement in chapter one recalls something a good friend of mine–an evangelical atheist–spoke of when he was deeply into studying the Bible:

“What caused me to lose faith was studying the Bible.  The more I read, the more I studied…even the more I prayed and meditated, I came to believe there is no God…just people wishing there were such a thing.”

He will note the contradictions in Scripture rampant through the Bible, the lack of any factual proof of Genesis, Exodus and Jesus and the reality people’s interpretation and subsequent denominations prove the Bible’s lack of credibility as “God’s word.”

And, the final words in Ecclesiastes seem to support this “the more you study, the more challenging faith is” reality for so many former and current, skeptical believers.

The question continuing to circle in my thoughts is a question for Yahweh: Why would “You” write this (or authorize it)?

There are enough reasons to doubt the existence of a god/gods without the Bible itself fueling the doubt, right?  In the clearly present doubt-filled words of Ecclesiastes in chapter one there is one certainty: this is not your “typical” book in the Bible.  Where is this leading us–the readers?

And, where is God?  Where’s the “Thou shalt not” or “Believe in God or you will burn in hell” statements and commands?  Why doesn’t God make things clear–instead Yahweh seems to be muddying up the water.  Is God trying to deceive us–to tempt us–into not believing based on His own authorized revelation?  It seems like Yahweh may have ducked out for a little too long while the scribes were jotting stuff down.

What is going on here?

Something is going on here much different, possibly more honest in presenting the truthful doubts of humans.  But, that’s the big picture, for me, of Chapter One.  Now, let’s go back through the chapter–verse by verse–and see what reductionism may uncover.

Day Three: The Meaning of Life is “Meaningless”?

Day Three: The Meaning of Life is “Meaningless”?

In the first verse we have already encountered several important questions:

  1. Who wrote Ecclesiastes?
  2. Does it matter who wrote Ecclesiastes?
  3. What does Quoheleth mean?

We have tried to avoid following predetermined, intentional paths utilizing a certain retrofitting within the various translations of Hebrew words.  The reality of personal biases, prejudices, intentions and purposes in the hearts and minds of translators cannot be tossed aside.  It seems translating Hebrew to English opens the door for fitting translations to certain beliefs, religions and specific denominations.

We have already experienced this.  Verse one was a challenge to simply remain objective as a reader.

Now, like stepping off a cliff into an abyss of interpretive challenges we are faced with a new Hebrew word we will again struggle to understand: hebel.

The word is significant.  Depending on how scholars count the word, hebel is used as many as 38 times in Ecclesiastes.  And, how the word is interpreted can lead us down different paths.

The words designated in verse two of Ecclesiastes, as reflected in the ESV follows:

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

In the ESV and NASB translations, the word “vanity” is used as the English translation for the Hebrew word hebel.  But, in the NIV and NLT versions hebel is translated as meaningless.  The Good News translation utilizes the word “useless.”

This seems to also have another correlation with the name/title of the writer/speaker in verse one: Preacher with vanity (ESV and NASB); Teacher with meaningless (NIV and NLT); and Philosopher with useless (Good News.)

Wait a minute.  This is the Bible we are reading.

Life is useless?  That does not sound like something you would expect to find in the Bible, right?

Life is meaningless?  That, too, does not sound like something we would expect to find in the Bible.  How could life be meaningless?

How about vanity?  God seems to favor the humble.  A vain person would appear to be out-of-step with Yahweh.  “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Now there’s a possibility based on expectations of the Bible.  It’s got to be “vanity” because Ecclesiastes is part of the Bible.

Vanity would seem to fit wonderfully if you begin reading Ecclesiastes picturing a wise, old Solomon, now repentant after a life in which he turned from Yahweh for a lengthy time, enjoyed worshiping some other gods, spent time with his hundreds and hundreds of concubines and basically did whatever he wanted.  He was king–and a very powerful, rich king.  The story of Ecclesiastes would seem to fit nicely with Solomon, who was now sharing his story of returning to faith in God.

Mystery solved!  Or, is it?

But, is this what Ecclesiastes is about?  Solomon’s repentance?  If so, why doesn’t Solomon “confess” and do what his father David did publicly, as recorded in the Bible?  David said publicly he sinned, heck, he wrote songs about “sinning” against Yahweh.  The writer/speaker in Ecclesiastes does not use their name–they remain anonymous.  Does anonymous confessions work with Yahweh, especially in the Bible?  If Solomon is so wise, repentant, inspired and learned from his father and the “kings” before him, why doesn’t he say, “Hey, this is Solomon, and I’ve been a very bad boy.”

Again, we are confronted with the challenge of preexisting expectations.

If you are a Christian and see the Bible as wholly and totally the literal word of God, you are likely to follow this course of belief in Solomon as author and the book as thoroughly repentant, regardless of the questions we have already posed.  If you have this perspective, a repentant Solomon makes sense.  It makes spiritual sense.

It fits.

As one of my Christian friends said when confronted with the questions I offered: “God would never authorize and dictate a book starting out saying “Life is meaningless!”  No way!  That’s not what God would do!”

But just because a person believes Ecclesiastes to follow this storyline and purpose, does that resolve the questions posed?  And, as a reminder, we haven’t even got to verse three.

Let’s take a moment–and a deep “breath”–and go back to hebel, again peeling back the onion of translating the word to English.  And, here we find something possibly unexpectedHebel is not concretely translated as “vanity.”  Hebel refers more concretely in an English translation to: “mist”; “vapor”; or even “breath.”

Say what?

In our mission through Ecclesiastes we are already hearing “Houston…we have a problem.”  This is not going to be an easy walk through the woods.  The woods are deep, the path unseen and the compass seems to be going haywire.  This is only the second verse!

Again, taking a deep breath, looking through the mist to find meaning, instead of answering every question before we continue our journey, simply walking forward–bravely and with open minds and hearts.

In fact, let’s walk through the rest of the first chapter, together, and see how these different translations possibly connect to what the speaker/writer is saying.

Day Two: Does it matter who wrote Ecclesiastes?

Day Two: Does it matter who wrote Ecclesiastes?

At this point, I must answer “No.”

Not that the writer’s identity would not have some value–it would.  But, spending significant time attempting to reach a conclusion when other’s have tried much longer and more diligently takes us away from the goal of reading Ecclesiastes “as is.”

While many religious people attempt to link it directly to “King Solomon” the pressures against a writing by Solomon are significant–based on the writer’s own words.  The distinctive style of the Hebrew language used and the writer’s admission many kings had preceded the speaker/writer places far too much pressure to attempt to force-fit King Solomon into the position of writer of Ecclesiastes.

And, does it truly matter who wrote Ecclesiastes?   Here again, Ecclesiastes points back to a divine inspiration for the words–as does much of the Bible. And, based on the Bible as a whole, anonymous appears to be the best fit for acknowledging an author.

Who wrote Ecclesiastes?  I do not know.

Almost all of the Biblical “books” are anonymous.  Over time, various church authorities and leaders have attempted to assign specific writers to books in the Bible, but the proof is lacking in almost every case.  Even books mentioning a specific writer (“Paul” as an example) can come under fire for being truly written by a specific writer.

Does Ecclesiastes lose its value if we do not know the writer?

Again, for me in the context of this initial journey through the writing, the answer is “No.”

The initial journey is a reading of the book without reliance on commentaries as the directional force(s) of interpretation.  Words matter, as noted, so trying to peel the onion of meaning from the original language remains the challenge of interpretation.

Being “unaffiliated” helps, too.  By not attempting to defend any specific religion, belief, denomination or faith frees us somewhat of many of the restraints.  But, we all have our own biases and prejudices of interpretation, so we must be aware of this reality and diligent to ensure our objectivity (as much as possible) in reading Ecclesiastes.

Tomorrow, we will discuss one of the most oft used words in the book.  This will challenge our thinking and hope to remain objective in the journey.  One word can change things quite a bit, especially a word used repetitively in the writing.

Tramping along other’s path’s may have enormous value, but let’s walk through this first reading without the benefit of other’s signposts.  Agree?

Otherwise, our walk with Qohelet may be of less value…or even “meaningless.”

A Seeker’s Journey Through Ecclesiastes: Words Matter

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Day One: Words Matter

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” – Ecclesiastes 1:1 ESV

Our journey begins through Ecclesiastes.  And, in the first few words we are given some clues to the writer of the book.

Or, are we?

A quick review of the major translations shows some disagreement in the designation of the speaker of the words in Ecclesiastes.  The ESV translation, based on the Hebrew word qoheleth, pops up in the translation noted above as “Preacher.”

The NIV translation, based on the same Hebrew text refers to the speaker as “Teacher.”

The KJV uses “Preacher” as does the NASB while the NLT uses “Teacher.”  The Good News version throws us another designation: “Philosopher.”

PreacherTeacherPhilosopher: does it really matter?

Because we are relying on a translation into English, let’s see how the two most utilized descriptive words are defined, Preacher and Teacher, in Merriam-Webster’s English Dictionary:

Preacher – to make a speech about religion in a church or other public place : to deliver a sermon: to write or speak about (something) in an approving way : to say that (something) is good or necessary: to write or speak in an annoying way about the right way to behave.

And the full definition “to preach:  to deliver a sermon;   to urge acceptance or abandonment of an idea or course of action; specifically :  to exhort in an officious or tiresome manner

transitive verb

1:  to set forth in a sermon <preach the gospel>

2:  to advocate earnestly <preached revolution>

3:  to deliver (as a sermon) publicly

4:  to bring, put, or affect by preaching <preached the … church out of debt — American Guide Series: Virginia>

 

Teacher – “: a person or thing that teaches something; especially : a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects”  And the full definition:

1:  one that teaches; especially :  one whose occupation is to instruct

2:  a Mormon ranking above a deacon in the Aaronic priesthood

 

 

A teacher “teaches” defined as:: to cause or help (someone) to learn about a subject by giving lessons: to give lessons about (a particular subject) to a person or group

1: to cause or help (a person or animal) to learn how to do something by giving lessons, showing how it is done, etc

a :  to cause to know something <taught them a trade>

b :  to cause to know how teaching me to drive>

c :  to accustom to some action or attitude <teach students to think for themselves>

d :  to cause to know the disagreeable consequences of some action <I’ll teach you to come home late>

 

2:  to guide the studies of

 

3:  to impart the knowledge of <teach algebra>

 

4a :  to instruct by precept, example, or experience 4b :  to make known and accepted teaches us our limitations>

 

5:  to conduct instruction regularly in <teach school>

 

 

While there are parallels between what a Teacher and a Preacher may do, there are differences.  The concept of a Preacher easily “fits” the mold of a sermon–a religious oration designed to lead people to a specific conclusion.  Matthew Henry, author of one of the most utilized Bible commentaries clearly connects the idea of Preacher to a sermon and a man: Solomon.  Mr. Henry’s belief points toward an older and repentant Solomon writing about his life in the narrative of a sermon to guide others to God–something Mr. Henry asserts Solomon had slipped away from but was now returning, “recovered from his backslidings.”

 

 

But, closer inspection of the word qoheleth appears to point toward a different designation, that of a Convener or Collector.  Those words point in other directions, especially when we consider who this Preacher, Teacher, Convener, Collector may be.

 

 

Within a few words we learn a lesson: words matter. Translations have their own biases, prejudices and even intentions and purposes.  Following one translation without considering the original language, context and even time of the writing will lead a reader to where the translators choose to take them.

 

 

Reliance on any of these designations takes the reader down paths that seem to “fit” various interpretations.  Preacher works well to make the meaningless discussions sensible if God is the answer–a sermon to point toward the only way for life to have meaning.  Teacher works somewhat in the same way, but changes the authority and specific intentions of what a “Preacher” offers in a sermon.  A “convener” and, even more so, “collector” points toward a very different type and even time of the writing and offering of Ecclesiastes to an audience of hearers/readers.

 

 

To avoid this immediate impasse and avoid taking a path that may swerve us from what Ecclesiastes is saying, the designation that comes to mind for me is “Speaker.”

Whatever is being said is being said, spoken by a person/writer(s)…a basic foundation for something we can agree on to move forward without limiting our journey through Ecclesiastes in the first verse…agree?

 

 

But, who is the “Speaker” of Ecclesiastes? There are definitely clues, right?  In the first verse the speaker is noted as “son of David, King in Jerusalem.”

 

 

The bandwagon of Bible scholars, while saying Ecclesiastes is written anonymously, point toward the likely speaker as Solomon, the son of David and the subsequent king of Jerusalem (following David) as chronicled in the Bible.

 

 

Again, the problem is the phrase “son of David” can apply to a descendant (ex: Jesus and Joseph in the New Testament)–many generations removed–or even a person simply following in the person’s footsteps.  Focusing on reading Ecclesiastes as a penitent sermon of Solomon is limiting and a path potentially proving immediately flawed after only a few words.

 

 

To make the concept of Solomon as the speaker also brings into question the lack of solid proof of the type of rich and abundant kingdom the Bible depicts for a king in Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C. during Solomon’s reign.   Minimal proof is evident of the existence of a “House of David” and only a stretch in archaeology to the architecture of Solomon’s building programs hints at the existence of a centralized ruling authority in the region in the tenth century.  Pinning the assumed inspired words of Yahweh on an unnamed writer is more than presumptive–it may even be reckless in seeking the wisdom and intention of Ecclesiastes.

 

 

If God inspired the writing of Ecclesiastes (one of our base assumptions) the fact God did not choose to name the specific speaker/writer may be a divine reminder to not get hung-up on the writer(s), but what is being said.  At a minimum, it speaks to the reality of anonymity–something almost all of the writings in the Bible share.

 

 

Instead of tying ourselves down to any one interpretation and path, how about let’s agree to not agree with a specific interpretation offered in the vast number of commentaries and move forward, simply listening to what this “Speaker” is saying?

 

 

A Seeker’s Journey Through Ecclesiastes: The Beginning of the Journey

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Why read Ecclesiastes?

For many, reading Ecclesiastes is like a novice climber trying to climb Mount Everest.  The book represents a significant challenge in interpretation.

Yet, like Mount Everest, it will not go away.

In the “About” section of the blog is a background of why I seek to journey through the seemingly depressing landscape of Ecclesiastes.  For me, the journey is real.  I am seeking to understand a “creator” and our place in the universe–and even more personal, my place in the universe.

One of the challenges of any process of seeking answers is to not step into the process holding preconceived beliefs and our own library of “answers” we are secretly carrying.  And, while many will say this is what they “believe” those beliefs may reflect biases and prejudices to an objective reading of Ecclesiastes.  This is not seeking answers–it is simply trying to support/defend what we/I already believe.

That is not the goal.

I do not belong to a particular religious denomination.  I am “unaffiliated.”  And, I am seeking answers to many questions I have never found lasting, sure answers.  While you may have very defined beliefs I would urge you to consider the journey without the baggage and enjoy the process of discovery in a very unique writing in the Bible.

In this sense, we are similar to Qohelet, the Hebrew designation of the speaker’s designation in Ecclesiastes.  And, where Qohelet goes, I/we will follow to see where his journey led him and leads us.

I hope you enjoy the journey.