The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes in Context - Part II
Everything I've said so far is important background for understanding the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. We noted earlier that Israel was given rather straightforward directions in the Mosaic law. She was also promised abundant blessing when she obeyed the law and frightening curses if she chose to transgress God's covenantal stipulations (Deuternomy 27-29). This, too, corresponds with how children learn. For example, a little boy learns that it is wrong to do something that puts a sibling or friend in danger of harm. "Don't do that!" the Parent commands. But when the boy grows up and is put in a place of leadership, say, in the military, he will discover that it is often necessary to send some of his men on a dangerous, even fatal mission, in order to accomplish a greater goal. The wisdom literature of the Bible recognizes that ruling involves wise discernment and decisive action in life and death situations. After asking for and receiving wisdom from God Solomon's first dilemma called for him to decree death to the infant son claimed by both prostitutes (First Kings 4:16-28). The decree was not carried out, of course. But, on the face of it, for a king to command such a thing seems to violate the law of God. And yet it was the wisest thing to do in that situation.
As Israel matures and begins to reflect up the complexities of life and the challenges of ruling a nation, she discerns that everything is not so black and white, and that God does not simply reward obedience with material blessings and disobedience with poverty and calamity. No, life is more complex than that and God's ways are often quite paradoxical because his explicit intentions are not available to us.
The riddle character of life reflected in the use of riddles in the wise man's reflection on the world and life. Solomon's explanation of the purpose of his proverbs includes a summons to the wise: "Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a dark saying, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6). The word "proverb" translates the Hebrew word maschal, which is a rather broad term that is used to describe short, pithy riddle-like sayings (what we call "proverbs") as well as longer, more complex stories—what we might call "parables." In every case, however, this maschal literature of the wise has an enigmatic dimension to it. The meaning lies beneath the surface. The fool, who only looks at the superficial, surface meaning, will not understand. One must be wise to understand the sayings of the wise, or maybe better, if one diligently ponders and searches for the meaning of these dark sayings one will attain wisdom (Proverbs 2:1-9).
This means that the dominant literary mode of expressing the reflections of the wisdom teachers requires more than a superficial reading. Riddles take time and effort to solve. Unfortunately, some who comment on Ecclesiastes don't move beyond a superficial reading and conclude that Solomon has become despondent and given up on life or that he has written what amounts to an exposé of the unbeliever's perspective on the world and life. But this is a failure of the imagination. Such an interpretation may also say more about the interpreter than the text. A wise man will resonate to Solomon's frustration with the ephemeral character of life under the sun. The superficially pious calls for positive attitudes and cheery one-dimensional slogans about life and the world. But the wise man knows better. He has experienced Solomon's theme: "Everything is vapor." And armed with this, therefore, the wise man is ready by faith to rule the world.