Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Ecclesiastes Essay part 4

Structure and message
Commentators seem unable to interpret the relationship between structure and message in Ecclesiastes far beyond identifying separate voices and significant words.[1] Critics agree that the frame narrator provides an introductory summary to the book (1:1-11[2]), a concluding epilogue (12:8-14[3]), and a lone verse in the centre of the book (7:27a[4]). De Jong further identifies an alternating pattern of observation and instruction[5] in the core. This reader finds a loose extended chiastic (ring) structure in Ecclesiastes, of which the frame is merely one element. Hence it must be understood that Ecclesiastes’ message is not found exclusively within the frame[6], or entirely within the speech. De Jong’s structure[7] is adapted and expanded below:

A 1:1 introductory prologue
B 1:2 motto
C 1:3-11 Song of cycles of nature and society
D 1:12-4:16 observations: wisdom, pleasure, oppression, toil, loneliness, succession: hebel
E 5:1-9 instructions: fear God – listen to God; fulfill vows
F 5:10 - 6:12 observations: wealth; common problem to lack contentment: hebel
G 7:1-22 instructions: keep the end in mind; God’s sovereignty; fear God, not man
H 7:23-8:1 central observations including frame narrator’s voice at 7:27
G’ 8:2-8 instructions: be cautious in relations with king and regarding the future
F’ 8:9-9:6 observations: injustice; common destiny to join the dead: hebel
E’ 9:7-10 instructions: be joyful for God has approved what you do; do what you find to do
D’ 9:11-11:8 observations and instructions: be prudent applying wisdom to overcome hebel
C’ 11:9-12:7 Song of youth and death
B’ 12:8 motto
A’ 12:9-14 epilogue and conclusion

One example must suffice as evidence for these claims of structural parallels, although more could be given if space permitted. In section F, Qohelet observes (6:3),
‘A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.’
Then in section F’, he observes (8:12),
‘Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him.’
These are the only uses of the word ‘hundred’ in Ecclesiastes, distinguishing the parallel sections: the first exposes the futility of long life without joy, the second examines the futility of long life without justice; both consider the effect of death; both provide a ‘better’ option. Significantly, they also provide structural grounds for excluding an overall pessimistic interpretation. In his early observations[8], Qohelet complains of the meaninglessness of a life cut short by death, but here he shows that death is not the real problem: it is a lack of joy or a lack of justice. In his surrounding instructions, Qohelet solves this problem, instructing the reader to find joy in God’s gifts (E’)[9], to be satisfied that there will be a proper time for all judgment (G’), and to fear God and respect his sovereignty (E and G).
This structure helps us interpret the flow of Qohelet’s argument. The beginning, end and central passages of this chiasm serve to define the structure and to emphasize the message. This is vital for understanding the message of Ecclesiastes, because it provides the author’s counsel regarding Qohelet’s words.
The prologue gives the reader a foretaste of Qohelet’s speech[10], beginning with his motto (1:2),
‘ “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
  says the Teacher.’
and the first question Qohelet attempts to answer (1:3),
‘What do people gain from all their labors
  at which they toil under the sun?’
These verses delineate the direction and scope of Qohelet’s speech. He will look for gain obtainable through toil. The following verses typify Qohelet’s observations: the cycles of nature (1:4-7) and society (1:8b-11) are ‘wearisome’ (1:8a). The prologue elucidates his pessimism, but the prologue is not the epilogue: while these verses introduce the content of Qohelet’s speech, they do not show the conclusion.
Sections D through G balance observations of life as futile and fleeting with instructions to take God seriously. We do not go to God’s house to barter with sacrifices, but to listen to his word (5:1). Whatever vows we make to God, we must keep quickly (5:4). We look not for the gain we might get (5:10-12; 6:7, 9) but occupy ourselves with the good we have already been given (5:18-20). Qohelet’s preoccupation with death leads us to fear the sovereign God (7:14). In fearing God we will ‘avoid all extremes’ of Qohelet’s pessimistic observations, ‘grasp’ the point of his condemnation of earthly idols and ‘not let go’ of his recognition of joy’s source (7:18).
A tighter chiastic structure is observed in the central passage (H) immediately surrounding the frame narrator’s comment at 7:27a, elucidating the significance of the seemingly random frame narrator interjection.

A 7:23-24 Wisdom’s explanations are beyond Qohelet’s reach
B 7:25 Qohelet determines ‘to search out … the scheme of things’
C 7:26 Qohelet finds bitterness contemplating the woman who is a snare
D 7:27a Frame narrator quotes Qohelet identifying his discoveries
C’ 7:27b-28 Qohelet searched but did not find, contemplating the lack of upright women
B’ 7:29 Though created upright, men have gone ‘in search of many schemes’
A’ 8:1 Wisdom’s explanations brighten the face of the wise

Qohelet’s discoveries are important, but flawed. The reader is reminded of the ostensible Solomonic authorship with the ensnaring woman, reminiscent of Woman Folly from Proverbs 9:13-18[11]; and with the absence of righteous women, a possible reference to Solomon’s pagan wives (1 Ki. 11:1-6)[12]. The passage warns of corruption, matching Qohelet’s search for the scheme of things with mankind’s search for many schemes. Wisdom has brought frustration to Qohelet but provides a cheery countenance to the wise. Hence, in this climactic passage the frame narrator’s voice draws our attention to Qohelet’s dilemma: embedded in the centerpiece of the book we find criticism of Qohelet and his more negative observations, accompanied by a simple promise of the joyous benefits of true wisdom.
In sections G’ to D’ we find Qohelet’s pessimistic observations decreasing in intensity and frequency (hebel only occurs six times, compared to 21 times in the earlier parallel sections). These negative observations are mitigated by instructions to be prudent in relations with the king (8:2-5) and in making choices regarding the future (2:5-8). They are also allayed in the final carpe diem passage, an instruction: ‘Go… with a joyful heart,’ because ‘God has already approved what you do,’ so ‘always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil’ (9:7-8). Our joy is based in God’s attitude towards us, an expression of our righteousness before God and our holiness through his grace. This beautiful instruction is given, paradoxically, in proximity the refrain, ‘all the days of this meaningless life … under the sun … all your meaningless days’ (9:9). Again we see Qohelet’s negativity with regard to earthly idols. Some critics interpret these enjoyment texts as signs of resignation.[13] However, 9:7-10 is an assurance that joy is possible despite Qohelet’s discoveries, even as one admits their validity (11:8):
‘However many years anyone may live,
  let them enjoy them all.
But let them remember the days of darkness.’
This is confirmed in the song of youth and death (section C’) by the repeated instruction to ‘be happy’ and receive ‘joy’ while young.[14]
Unfortunately, the meaning of the concluding epilogue, particularly 12:9-12, is disputed. Qohelet is described as wise (12:9), his written words are ‘just… right’, ‘upright’ and ‘true’ (12:10). While apparently a positive description, some see this as damning with faint praise, given Qohelet’s earlier self-criticism (7:23)[15]. The above analysis of the central passage provides weight to this negative critique. The ‘words of the wise are like goads’ (12:11);[16] but the simile may be interpreted positively as a motivating incentive[17] or negatively as that which tears the flesh[18]. Qohelet’s speech likewise contains uncomfortable words, but if understood correctly it will motivate us in a godly direction.
The conclusion of 12:13-14 is clear:
‘Now all has been heard…
Fear God and keep his commandments,
  for this is the duty of all mankind.’
These verses cannot be dismissed as the postscript of a pious editor since they conform to the instructions in the first half. According to Delitzsch, the command to fear God is ‘the kernel and the star of the whole book … which mitigates its pessimism.’[19] We must conclude – with the frame narrator’s benediction upon us – that the essential message to take from Ecclesiastes is to live in reverent fear and humble obedience – to enjoy life under God, rather than under the sun. Ecclesiastes teaches us ‘how to enjoy well.’[20] This is ‘positive teaching’[21], an ultimately optimistic, joyous message.
Ecclesiastes 12:14 completes the message with a reminder that God’s judgment, though inscrutable and beyond human wisdom, is sure and final:
‘God will bring every deed into judgment
  … whether it is good or evil.’
This is the same message that Jesus took up in his Parable of the Rich Fool[22], when he warned, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15; cf Ecc. 2:25-26; 4:4-6; 5:10-16) and placed Qohelet’s musings into God’s mouth, ‘ “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” ’ (Luke 12:20; cf Ecc. 1:18-19; 2:26; 5:15-16; 6:12). With the promise of personal[23], divine judgment, proffering both reward and penalty, the frame narrator answers Qohelet’s complaint of the futility of life. Death may seem the end, as Qohelet mused in his final song (C’), but the final judgment of God will show that his sovereignty prevails eternally.

[1] Webb is one of the few to utilize structural analysis consistently in drawing conclusions, and this reader will follow his lead.
[2] Enns p. 124-125. Some critics treat only 1:1 as the Frame narrator’s voice.
[3] Delitzsch vehemently opposes the inclusion of 12:8 in the frame (p. 808), and other critics limit the significant verses pertaining to the book’s message to 12:13-14.
[4] Dillard & Longman p. 250, Enns p. 124
[5] Webb p. 86
[6] as with Dillard and Longman’s analysis, where Qohelet’s speech is seen as merely a ‘foil’. (Dillard & Longman p. 254)
[7] Webb p. 87
[8] section A, see Appendix A
[9] Webb states that the ‘enjoyment texts’ are only within De Jong’s observation complexes (Webb p. 88), but this reader identifies slightly different passage boundaries with an instruction discourse regarding joy at 9:7-10.
[10] Enns p. 124
[11] these are the culminating verses of a wisdom passage expressly attributed to Solomon.
[12] Write relates this comparison to 7:26. Wright p. 1177
[13] Enns p. 126, Webb p. 88
[14] Since the picture of old age presented metaphorically in this song (121b-5) is one of extreme frailty, this reader considers most of the average present-day life span to be ‘youth’ in Qohelet’s terms.
[15] Dillard & Longman p. 254
[16] There is some disagreement as to whether this applies to the words of Qohelet contained in Ecclesiastes or those attributed to Solomon elsewhere. Delitzsch p. 809
[17] Eaton p. 154
[18] Dillard & Longman p. 254
[19] Delitzsch p. 814
[20] Welton p. 185
[21] Dillard & Longman p. 253, 254
[22] Luke 12:13-21
[23] Delitzsch p. 816

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