1st Study: Intrepretation of Wisdom Literature
As we begin this bible study on the Book of Ecclesiastes, we will have to address one of the biggest misconceptions about the book. What does Solomon actually when he says that life is All of Vanity and everything has been done Under the Sun?
We know that the book of Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom literature and like its cousins (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, & Song of Songs), the meaning of the words in this section can’t be taken just at face value. The meaning lies beneath the surface and has an enigmatic quality to it.
Pastor Meyers writes this in his book about how Wisdom Literature is misinterpreted:
“This means that the dominant literary mode of expressing the reflections of 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 expose of the unbeliever’s perspective on the world. This is a failure of the imagination. Such an interpretation may also say more 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 man calls for positive attitudes and cheery one dimensional slogans about life and the world, but the wise man knows.” pp.35-36
Those were strong words about the misinterpretation of Wisdom Literature like Ecclesiastes and the last sentence of that paragraph really stood out as the most reflected in our modern life.
Whether pious or not, our culture thinks wisdom is someone or something that is always cheerful and has a catch phrase or slogan for every situation in life. Well, Ecclesiastes is definitely counter-cultural to the culture’s view of wisdom.
Ecclesiastes begins with a couple of phrases that Solomon writes quite a bit throughout the book. In 1:2, he mentions, “Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity.” and in 1:3, he mentions, “Under the Sun.” Understanding the true meaning of what Solomon is trying to say with both of those phrases are key into unlocking the real wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
When Solomon says, All is Vanity, he is not using our modern definition of vanity which means conceited, vain, or vacuous. But the word in Hebrew for Vanity is hebel. It actually means a vapor, a puff of air that disappears, or a mere breath. And when he also says, Vanity of Vanities, is the superlative expression that reminds us life is the supreme vapor. It will always elude your grasp when you try to catch it. It will always escape from your efforts when you try to attain it.
Also, in some Bible Translations the word “meaningless” has been used instead of “vanity.” Life is not meaningless and that’s the last thing Solomon wants to convey.
Moreover, when Solomon says, “Under the Sun” he is declaring our perspective as man from which everything is only vapor. Our viewpoint of life comes from the ground-level and is actually under the sun and trying to gain leverage from that viewpoint the wise man understands he will never have any control over that. But, if man believes in God and trusts Him to help us navigate through vaporous nature of life.
I believe that is a sobering thought for modern man. Because we are control freaks by nature. I like the way Pastor Meyers writes it:
“We think that life can be programmed like a computer—that all we need is the right technique. If we just find the proper method we will have control. This is true in government, science, and social work. It is the quest we pursue in our families and other relationships. The search for the power—the hunt for control over our destinies–never ends. At root, this is pagan. It is a pagan drive to find the secret (or right technique) that will allow man to manipulate reality to his advantage. Unfortunately, the unlocking of this secret is inappropriately described as “wisdom.” pp.40
Well, I thought before we get into the actual chapters of Ecclesiastes, I wanted to address the unique nature of reading Wisdom Literature.
I will end with a couple questions for you to think about this week. I would love to receive some comments on the answers these questions.
1) Do you think life is a vapor? Or is life something to be controlled and navigated?
2) Have you ever read a book (fiction or non-fiction) where you thought the meaning of it was one thing and you found out later it actually meant something else? Did your view of the book changed because of that?