Dr. Ron Gleason
Have you gotten “cabin fever” yet? Are you frustrated with the quarantine, the lack of freedom to do what you normally do, and the continuing lack of toilet paper? Did you ever think that you would have to stand in line at Sam’s Club, while they were only allowing fifteen people into the store at a time? Many are very frustrated these days for a number of reasons and on a number of levels. “Is there either rhyme or reason to what we are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic?” they ask. Yes, there is both rhyme as well as reason, but we must be willing to look in the right places.
Many hundreds of years ago, Martin Luther (1483–1546) said this about the book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes: “This noble little book should be read by all men and women with great carefulness every day” (E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1869], 32, emphasis added). Today, most people, including many evangelicals, would have trouble even finding that book in the Bible, let alone be willing to read it carefully every day. Why did Luther make that statement? What is so special about Ecclesiastes that someone of the stature of Martin Luther would make such a recommendation?
That’s a great question and there is a good answer to it. Our problem is that for the longest time people in our local communities have not wanted to hear anything from the Father, or from the Son, or from the Holy Spirit. We have sought true wisdom in all the wrong places. Ecclesiastes is a book in the Old Testament that is classified as “Wisdom Literature.” The Hebrew word for “wisdom” is a moral term. It is a word that points us to correct moral decision-making and aids us as we navigate the shoals and sandbars of life.
Unfortunately, since many contemporary pastors are striving to be “genuine,” “relevant,” and “transparent” they have failed to preach and teach books such as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and the Ten Commandments. In our time, all of those books have been sorely neglected and have become “orphans” in the Bible. The upshot of this neglect is that people in general and God’s people in particular are no longer guided and guarded in their decision-making. These books are truly indispensable for all of humanity because they deal with all of life.
For example, Proverbs never takes the reader to “church.” Rather, it speaks to the reader about the mundane occurrences in everyday life. In the first seven verses of Proverbs 1, no less than seventeen (!) words are used to describe the value of wisdom. Proverbs employs the word “wisdom” thirty-eight times and Ecclesiastes uses the same word twenty-eight times. Both are beneficial for the believer as well as the non-believer. Both are how-to books and Americans are keen on living the practical life—at least that what we say. Proverbs takes the reader into the marketplace and talks about ethical business practices. In addition, a father very practically teaches his son about the “adulteress” and the “forbidden woman,” who might have well-proportioned flesh (or, she’s been for cosmetic surgery) and who might be physically attractive but her ways lead to death. Proverbs 11:22 reminds us that a true woman will be one of discretion (“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion”). How should we respond to wealth, to work, and to words? What should humanity expect from the constant scheming of wicked people? How ought we to understand various “calamities”? Proverbs answers these—and many more—questions. Further, this is how-to advice inspired by God and sent from heaven. It instructs all mankind on how to keep God, the Lord of Creation, central throughout one’s entire life.
The book of Ecclesiastes opens by identifying the human author as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” For this reason, the human author is identified as Solomon. But the opening also explains that these are the words of Qohelet (or, Qoheleth). What does that word mean? Some translate it “Preacher,” others “Teacher,” and still others simply leave it untranslated. It does have another meaning, and this is the one I intend to use here because it is a legitimate translation: Convener. Why does that translation make more sense than the others?
In his position as king, Solomon wore many hats and incorporated many roles and functions in ruling the people. According to Isaiah 49:23, kings/rulers are to be the “guardians” or “foster fathers” of those entrusted into their care. That is a powerful lesson for our elected representatives today, but that is not the point here. The point is this: Since the opening words of Ecclesiastes refer to “the words of Qohelet(h),” they clearly lay emphasis on the function of the speaker. Solomon is the “Convener” and he is to speak to all of humanity about true wisdom and about making good moral choices (Robertson, The Christ of Wisdom, 211).
We know from the Bible that Solomon was very wise. In fact, 1 Kings 3:12 informs us that God gave him a “wise and discerning mind,” so that none like him would arise and that all before him would pale by comparison. Therefore, Qoheleth, the wisdom figure par excellence in the book of Ecclesiastes, speaks to all mankind about some of the cold, hard realities of life and how to cope with the harshest issues of those realities. He reminds us all that frustration, hard work, oppression, real or perceived injustices, setbacks, changes of plans, loss of money, loss of a job, and even quarantines are all part of mankind’s existence in a fallen, sinful world. Of course, if you don’t believe God exists, then you will be left to flounder about searching for answers in a world that you believe has no purpose, no meaning, and is “random.”
Qoheleth, however, states that there is a way to deal with life’s frustrations. He knew, because he had it all and had tried many different things to find joy, meaning, purpose, significance, and happiness in life. Solomon was indeed a man who had been around the block numerous times and who had tried many different venues searching for meaning. For a while, he even tried it without God. He is telling us what a huge mistake that was. He ends Ecclesiastes by giving us the “punch line” for how mankind ought to live. It is a simple, plain, and straightforward summary: “The end of the matter; Fear God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole of humanity. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13–14). That is a literal rendering of the Hebrew text. Most translations state that it is “the whole duty of man.”
Thus, the overarching intent of this wisdom book from the Old Testament is to provide some wisdom and insight on how to cope with the inevitable frustrations of this life. This means that what Qoheleth is teaching us is not the musings of some “motivational” speaker, nor is it the “take-it-or-leave-it” advice of some psychologist or counselor. Rather, it is an admonition to “reset” or “restart” our lives with a new direction. He calls us to restructure our lives according to the basics of human life as originally designed by the Creator. It is significant just how many biblical truths found in the book of Genesis recur in Ecclesiastes. In other words, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have graciously given us Ecclesiastes to ease us into a healthy, wholesome outlook on life as it really is. That is to say, it shows us what reality looks like and how life truly unfolds—for everyone.
We are told that “there is a time, an appointed hour, for everything” and that God has made “everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl. 3:1, 11, 17). That reminds us that the third chapter of this book is more than the lyrics of a song by The Byrds. We might have forgotten God’s words. Therefore, I want to urge you to take the time during this quarantine to rethink, restart, and reset your life. Read through the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and listen to what the true and living God has to say to you.
Allow me to close with these words from the German Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. He writes, “God’s sovereignty in history is hidden; it mocks the most clever and profound human criteria and confronts man with impenetrable riddles. But in that which seems senseless to man, like an agonizing round of affairs, God is mobilizing history for this great future” (Gerhard von Rad, God at Work in Israel, 168). Give that some serious thought as you “reset” during this quarantine.
Dr. Ron Gleason is a graduate of The Citadel, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the Free University of Amsterdam and the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Doctoraal in Christian Ethics) and holds a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Systematic and Historical Theology). He has been a pastor of a Dutch-speaking church in Holland, of Bethel Canadian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, CA, and is currently the church planter for Covenant Presbyterian Church of the Low Country (OPC) in Bluffton, SC. He is a former tanker and instructor of tank gunnery at the US Army Armor School in Ft. Knox, KY and has forty years of pastoral experience.