Scholars divide the books within the Bible into groups depending on their topic and approach to the issue they address. One particular group that always interested me is called wisdom literature. Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, the Book of Job, etc. belong to that group. As you can guess, wisdom literature teaches what is counted as wisdom at least in ancient times, if not in our times. But even for our modern times, some of the issues explored in wisdom literature are firmly established topics within philosophy, the field that addresses some of these wisdom-related issues. The wisdom in the language of the Bible is not about an expertise in any given field, say, in arachnology or in carpentry. Discernible patterns of the Bible about wisdom are simpler. Wisdom is a quality that provides us with the opportunity to live mindfully of God and with the awareness of the true nature of reality. It is a way of living well and to the fullest. Obviously, a well-lived life in the scripture does not necessarily mean being wealthy or being busy all the time.
I have always found wisdom literature fascinating due its teachings and its tone. The Book of Job for example imaginatively and poetically explores what evil has to do in the world of a good God. The Book of Ecclesiastes narrates the reflections of a person who seeks the meaning of life and what he learns from his search. It is also a book known for its so-called pessimism, but its practical wisdom is not really about complaints or blame. Here I want to paraphrase and summarize the Ecclesiastes’ basic teachings. Now obviously, a summary omits certain things from the text and paraphrases the language for the sake of concision and clarity. So I will omit certain details, but if you want to dig deep, you are more than welcome to read the whole book. Also, notice that the order of assertions here does not necessarily correspond to the order in the book. So here we go.
First Assertion: Be mindful of God and honor him; honor societal authorities.
One of the prominent topics in the book of Ecclesiastes is being mindful of God and obeying the authorities within societies. Honoring God is expressed as fulfilling our vows to God but also as remembering God in the heat-filled life of our youth (which is difficult to do) (Ecc. 5:1–7, 12:1). God is our creator, and everything we receive comes from him. The Lord gives and takes away. Honoring societal authority is expressed as the proper treatment of authority within a society. The book says, “Obey the king’s command,” but it develops that advice in several directions. Obeying authorities is qualified as the teacher says, “Do not stand for a bad cause.” The teacher also sends an implicit warning to the authorities when it says, “There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt” (Ecc. 8:9).
Second Assertion: Time has value, and the timing of decisions matters.
According to Ecclesiastes, everything should be done in its time: “A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.” Although the author does not clarify it, the text suggests that the value of time stems from the fact that one day we will all stand in the Creator’s presence to give an account of our lives (Ecc. 3:15–17). God will call everyone and every deed to judge. Time is a tool in God’s hands to test us (Ecc. 3:18). Time, whether it is the time of death or creation, is in God’s hands, so there is no need to fret over our missed opportunities. As he says, “There is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God.” So time has to be used to live fully, to live with contention, and to do good while enjoying the fruit of the work. In the context of the previous assertion, this teaching does not let us isolate and idolize the work or enjoyment from life into some ultimate meaning.
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