Ecclesiastes in Ellen F. Davis‘ “Simple Gifts” (Getting involved with God pp. 104-120)

Some of us at St Dunstan’s (Madison, Wisconsin) have been reading Ecclesiastes together. Wondering how we might sum up what we’ve encountered, I reread Davis’ essay, which prompted the following.

“From the mainstream sages of Proverbs we may learn about the nature of ‘righteousness, justice, and equity’ (Proverbs 1:3), but Kohelet teaches us about humility. This is the core of his teaching: life can never be mastered, if ‘mastery’ means shaping it in conformity with our desires. It can only be enjoyed, when pleasures great and small come our way. Or, when enjoyment is not possible, then life must be endured. What Kohelet aims to instill in his students is the ability to receive the pleasures of life as the gift they are and to recognize God as sole Giver—‘For who eats or who feels anything, apart from him?’ (2:25).

“It is often said that the message of Ecclesiastes is best summed up as carpe diem, ‘seize the day.’ But the evidence belies that. The key verb in the book is not ‘seize’ but ‘give’, which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is ‘Receive the gift.’ We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God.”

Kohelet “specifically urges us to realize three forms of happiness in our lives: sensual pleasure (eating and drinking, sleep, sunlight), intimate relationships (friendship and conjugal love), and satisfaction in work.”

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (T. S. Eliot in “East Coker II”)

Very helpful, and noticeable overlap with William Brown’s description of the “fear of God” in the book (see June 12, 2020 post).

As is often noted, Kohelet (the teacher) slams the door on speculation re the afterlife (e.g., 3:20-21). In the context of the entire biblical witness, is this a defect? The teacher might argue not: why should we expect to receive/enjoy the afterlife if we’ve not learned to receive/enjoy this life?

The sharp tension in the book between the teacher’s theology (God is active; God “will bring every deed into judgment” [12:14]) and God’s inscrutability is like the tension in the petitionary psalms and Job. But the petitionary psalms typically call on God to conform to the psalmist’s theology, and Job—loudly, repeatedly—calls on God for an explanation. Why is the teacher silent? “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). To speculate: perhaps the teacher’s prayers are kept private. Perhaps the teacher regards teaching about or modeling prayer too likely to be mistaken for an attempt to wrest mastery from God.

Davis: “Kohelet has meditated long and hard on the first few chapters of Genesis,” noting hebel as also the name of Cain’s brother, and the role of death. We might also wonder about “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Kohelet (the teacher) has spent the book seeking knowledge through experience, with both negative and positive results. The negative: our ignorance is profound: the past (forgotten), the present (what God is up to), the future (the results of our actions especially). The positive: a stance or character that might be described in terms of humility, fear of God, receiving God’s gifts. The bottom line—in sharp contrast to the Genesis 3 story—“Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13).

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