We have already noted that the three main OT books of ‘Wisdom Literature’ might be compared to the building of a house. Proverbs tells us how to build well, and Job explores how we react when that house is suddenly struck by lightning. As we come to our third book today we have a very different scenario: our house is old, decrepit and falling to bits. How do we cope with that?
As with David and the Psalms Solomon is clearly the ‘patron saint’ of wisdom, although in what sense he was the ‘author’ of this book is much debated. We seem to have a narrator or editor, probably a fan or disciple of Solomon, who writes up his story and his musings in the third person in the name of ‘Qoheleth’. The Hebrew word means something like ‘one who gathers an assembly in order to address it’, and so is usually translated ‘the Teacher’ or ‘the Preacher’ in English Bibles. The story of Qoheleth is difficult not to identify with that of Solomon, but he is never named as such. It is virtually impossible to date the book, but it must be later than the time of Solomon.
It has been said that these words are those of a cynic. He has tried all that life has to offer, all its pleasures, excesses and delights, but found at the end of the day that they just do not satisfy. So the lasting message is that in returning to his childlike faith he finds wisdom, the best way to live. The book oscillates between misery and joy: having found pleasure and work useless, his advice is simply to enjoy food and work, which are a gift from God (1:24). This refrain recurs: in 5:18, having found wealth to be meaningless, we should simply enjoy food and get on with our work. Even wisdom itself comes under scrutiny, and in chapter 2 is declared a waste of time too, as both wise and foolish people come to the same end eventually. But wisdom is, we’re relieved to hear, all in all better than folly, even if only just.
The final verdict, and the great purple passage of the book, comes in chapter 12, where we are counselled to ‘remember our Creator’ while we can still enjoy life and have the faculties to do so. The symbolic description of the decrepitude of old age in 12:2-7 is devastatingly accurate. The bottom line, according to 12:13, is to fear God and keep his commandments, an instruction which reinforces the motto of all biblical wisdom literature, that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.
What does the book do for us today? It reminds us, first of all, that wisdom is not necessarily ‘nice’. It is not afraid to look at the realities of life head on, and to acknowledge that for much of the time it does all seem pointless. It never pretends that with God everything will be lovely, and it clearly comes out of a rich life experience which, although having left Qoheleth wiser, has also left him much sadder. Yet it is fundamentally a book of apologetics: it shows us life without God as fundamentally meaningless, and offers us an alternative which at least makes some sense, as it puts us in touch with a God who is repeatedly said to be generous. Qoheleth, during his lifetime, has tried pretty much everything, but returns to a relationship with God as the only thing which makes any real sense. This book, therefore preaches a significant message to our consumerist, cynical, experience-driven culture. God is the only one who can make any sense of all this, and who can make life in any way worth living.