Abide: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

  • Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs can fall by the wayside when we study them in Sunday School. They don’t always fit into the narratives that we understand about dispensations of authority or give us sustained treatises in the way that a theologian might consider during personal scripture study. However, in preparing for this week, our team recognized the value of these books and understanding the literary, doctrinal, and other beauties that accompany these books. We’ll discuss these topics, and much more, in today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • Joseph Stuart: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs can fall by the wayside when Latter-day Saints study them on Sunday school. They don’t always fit into the narratives that we understand about dispensations of authority, or give us sustain treatises in the way that a theologian might consider during personal scripture study. However, in preparing for this week, our team recognized the value of these books and understanding the ways that the literature expresses doctrine and other beauty that accompanies the reading of these books. We’ll discuss these topics and much more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart, I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Maxwell Institute. Each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Joining us today is Dr. Catherine Gines Taylor, Nibley Postdoctoral fellow at the Maxwell Institute. Her two most recent publications include Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning from Brill, and Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity, co-edited with Carolyn O’Shea and Mark Ellison. You can hear more about that latter book on Maxwell Institute podcast number 129. Welcome, Catherine to the podcast.

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to join you both.

     

    Joseph Stuart: Kristian, the books that we are looking at this week are said to have been written by King Solomon. What should we know about these books?

     

    Kristian Heal: So, King Solomon is said to have written the Song of Songs in his youth, the Book of Proverbs in his middle age, and the Book of Ecclesiastes in his old age. This attribution’s not accepted in modern scholarship, but it is a useful way to think of these three books. They are the love songs of youth, the wisdom of maturity, and the reflections on death of an old man. The Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, has not been well received in the Latter-day Saint tradition, ever since Joseph Smith, perhaps following Adam Park commentary, declared it to be uninspired. It has, however, had considerable influence in the Jewish tradition, where it is read as an allegory of God’s relationship with Israel, and in the Christian tradition, where it is read as an allegory of Jesus, the bridegroom and the church. In the early second century CE, the great Rabbi Akiva is said to have commented that all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. However, even when not reading allegorically, the Song of Songs is a beautiful example of ancient love poetry, and worth reading, just for that reason.

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: You know, I recently had a beautiful interaction with the Song of Songs. I was in France over the feast of Mary Magdalene last year. And I was in the city of St. Maximin, Santa-Baume, and some friends and I had hiked up to the grotto for the feast day. The mass that day was overseen by the Dominican priests, and I was really surprised when I heard them reading text out of the Song of Songs. In many ways, some of these verses retain the early Christian notion that Solomonic writings provided a type of Christ in the text. I was surprised to hear in chapter three, where it says, “Upon my bed by night, I sought him whom my soul loves, I sought him but found him not. I called him but he gave no answer. I will rise now and go about the city in the streets and in the squares, I will seek Him whom my soul loves. I sought him but down to him not. The watchman found me as they went about in the city. Have you seen him whom my soul loves? Scarcely had I passed them when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, into the chamber of her that conceived me.” Interestingly enough, there are a couple of Early Christian theologians that pick up on this theme. For example, Ambrose from the fourth century, connects this text directly to Mary Magdalene. He said, “Because we see the heavenly mysteries represented allegorically on Earth, through the gospel, let us come to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, let us meditate upon how they thought Christ at night. And in the bed of his body, in which he lay dead, when the angel said to them, you seek Jesus who was crucified, He is not here, for he has risen. Why then do you seek the living among the dead? The tomb is not his dwelling, but Heaven is. And so one of them says, I sought him and I did not find him.” Or the theologian Cyril of Alexandria, during the fifth century, “who talked about the chamber of the Lord’s tomb, he is not here, for he has been raised. And they, the women, discovered guardian angels whom they asked, Where have you laid the Lord? Then when they left the angels, whom they were questioning, the Lord met them and said, ‘Rejoice, for this reason’” it says, “When I had passed them, for a little while, I found him who I will not let go. She grabbed his feet and heard, do not hold me. Finally, he called the gathering of the apostles to the house of the mother, to whom he announced the resurrection of Christ.” I find those verses holy and beautiful.

     

    Joseph Stuart: I have to say that I agree. And thinking about the next book we’re going to be looking at with the book of Proverbs. The last time that I saw Proverbs in the wild, was when I went to Hobby Lobby to find materials to help with my first graders diorama. And so there were signs that said, like in Proverbs 15, where it says, “A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath, start a youth out on his way, even when he grows old, he will not depart from it” in Proverbs 22. I think that because so many of these beautiful sayings fit on signs, or because they’re relatively simple to say that sometimes we sort of live, laugh, love this section of scripture, where we flatten it into a nice saying, without thinking of its broader context. What can you tell us about the book of Proverbs, Catherine?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Overall, in its purpose, it was meant to give instruction and insight to convey righteousness, and to admonish those who read it and understood wisdom in justice and equity and discernment. It was meant to aid in acquiring the skill of moral living. And of course, my favorite purpose for the book of Proverbs is to understand or to be able to read and see into the mysteries of God. Likewise, as Christine Yoder will point out, “the book of Proverbs acknowledges the ordinary as the arena in which we develop our moral character and work out our faithfulness.” As I see it, wisdom in the text of Proverbs has a couple of primary functions. It provides wisdom necessary for living, and that wisdom is seen as coming directly from God. But it is also wisdom that conveys God to the hearer and viewer. That reveals the divine in its very word and imagery.

     

    Joseph Stuart: So how does Solomon, or his supposed authorship, fit into this sort of Wisdom literature?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Solomon is seen as the father of Israel’s wisdom tradition, much like Moses is associated with the law, and David with the Psalms, and this collection is ascribed to him, even though not all of the material is written by him. Early Christian commentators were convinced of Solomon’s authorship in ways that modern scholars are not. Early Christians had no real concern over the dating of the text, or looking carefully at authorship or setting, but they did see Solomon as a type of Christ the Lord. “Thus, his words gained resonant import for them.” Commentators took this literature seriously, making nearly 700 comments on the text. And early commentators go out of their way to gaze deeply into the pool of Wisdom literature because they saw it as a way to access Christ. Even referencing John 16:25, where Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you in Proverbs, but the time is coming, when I shall no longer speak unto you in Proverbs, but plainly.” So, Proverbs is a book that orientates its reader to the kind of world that we live in. It is seen as a divine intervention. It’s easy to understand this perspective, because in the ancient world, life was precarious. Between mortality rates, unmitigated illness, poverty, all of the vanities of mortality, or even the passing away of life. You can see why people would want to gain as much wisdom in order to live well and worthily.

     

    Joseph Stuart: Thanks, that’s really helpful to think about Solomon in his place, especially in a time where mortality felt even more fragile than it does now. But is there a sort of dividing line in the book of Proverbs that scholars use to separate it into sections?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Yes, in chapters 1-9 we find the introduction. And here we find speeches in which a father is teaching his son to heed wisdom and eschew folly alongside some of the most beautiful and poetic speeches of a personified Lady Wisdom. We are introduced to Wisdom in chapters 1-9, while chapters 10-31 contain the oldest sections of the book. Hundreds of short pithy sayings, advice for daily life, advice on ways to please God. We also find sayings that were considered enigmatic, like riddles in order to share in the wisdom of God. The wisdom presented here is given in primarily relational terms. We enter the text in a familial setting, where a father instructs the youth and within the household where the mother is also signaled for her role in instruction. The world is presented as a polarized place, symbolized by two women. These two women are at the very heart of this book, we find woman Wisdom, and the Strange Woman, or Folly, boiled against each other. It can be tempting to critique the text here, as holding up patriarchal stereotypes that assume women are either wholly good, or entirely wanton. Assumptions like this, do no favors to Woman Wisdom. In my studies of her iterative and nuanced dissemination in scripture, and also in the aspirational lives of women throughout history, we find that she boldly steps out of the constraints of female stereotype.

     

    Kristian Heal: Looks like you identify with Woman Wisdom, just a little, Catherine. But maybe I’m missing things here.

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: I want to champion her whenever I can, yes.

     

    Kristian Heal: You have mentioned her a couple of times I’d love to learn more. Tell us a bit more about Woman Wisdom in Proverbs.

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Proverbs really gives the reader brilliant insights into how to navigate in the world. Even in attaining the attributes of the Divine. In Hebrew, this concept is called chokmah, often translated as wisdom and personified in the female form of Lady Wisdom, who avails herself and all the world, calling to those who will see her, hear her, know her and act with her in building a worthy life. She’s a complex character, she has a voice and a perspective that resembles the prophetic, even resembling divine intuition. She is a teacher who promises to generously reveal her ways to those who seek her. She is a tree of life, as described in chapter three, verse 18, to all who lay hold upon her. She empowers those who govern, and she speaks to the seventh pillared house in chapter 9, a number that signifies wholeness, we see her compared to precious gems, and I can’t help but see, that analogy is one that requires us to look closely, carefully to examine all the facets of her power and splendor.

     

    Joseph Stuart: So why is she embodied as Lady Wisdom?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: The concept and visualization of personification was a natural occurrence in the ancient world. It helped people understand abstract concepts, or even represented geographies. Usually, we find that personifications follow the convention of being female, though that’s not the exclusive rule. Personifications were meant to enlighten the viewer beyond just decoration or as a narrative placeholder. And Wisdom is here imagined as a personified and bodied female agent of God with attributes given by, and nurtured within the divine economy. She is intended to enliven and give meaning to God through relationships before material creation and organization. And we find in Proverbs that her presence persists in the world. There are visual representations of personifications that might be called to mind. For example, in Greco Roman art, I was recently reminded of the image of Pyches as personifications for certain cities. This is very common during the Roman era. They represent protection and abundance for that city. But we can also have more abstracted attributes for individuals. For example, sometimes you will find Roman emperors associated with the personification of Nike for their victories, or even the famous image of Tellus on the Arab caucus in Rome. She’s seated with baby Pooti, and lots of rain and poppies all around her, not just indicating plenty and abundance and fertility, but that these things come out of the Pax Romana, or the Roman piece under Augustus. Personifications are very vivid connections to layered, deep meanings, and they signify a lot more than what might be just on the surface in their embodied visual self.

     

    Kristian Heal: This is really lovely and sort of powerful to picture Wisdom, this thing that we are seeking that kind of guides us in our life that forms us as, as functional humans, as Woman Wisdom. What kind of things does Lady Wisdom or Woman Wisdom teach us?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: There are four poems or speeches either about or given by Lady Wisdom herself, and I think that’s a great place to really start listening to that voice. In chapter 1 of Proverbs verses 20-33, we find that wisdom takes to the street, she is crying in the street and in all of the chief places, she goes into the city gates and she calls to all that will receive her. She asks that they come in and attend to her and that she will pour out her spirit unto them. She also warns against refusing her, forgetting her and her counsel. In chapter 3 in verses 13-20, we find a description of Wisdom’s attributes, and we get the very well known phrase that she is, “more precious than rubies.” We see her working in concert with the Lord and founding the earth. In chapter 8, we find that one of the first things she teaches us is about her own origins. We find her voice as she teaches us, and I actually want to read part of it, not only because it is beautiful, but because we don’t often hear these verses as part of our regular Sunday School study. In Proverbs chapter 8, starting in verse 22, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his course, as the first of his works of old. In the distant past, I was fashioned at the beginning, at the origin of earth. There was still no deep when I was brought forth. No springs rich in water. Before the foundation of the mountains were sunk, before the hills, I was born. He had not yet made earth, and fields, or the world’s first lumps of clay. I was there when he set the heavens into place, when he fixed the horizon upon the deep. When he made the heavens above the berm, and the fountains of the deep gushed forth. When he assigned to sea its limits so that its waters never transgress his command. When he fixed the foundations of the earth, I was with him as a confidant, a source of delight every day, rejoicing before him at all times. Rejoicing in his inhabited world, finding delight with mankind. Happy is the man who listens to me, coming early to my gates each day, waiting outside my doors.” These verses have actually inspired my own work with late ancient Christian images of women, and how they are attuned to the iterations of Woman Wisdom, and they represented them in art. We also find Woman Wisdom described in chapter 9. We see the full fruition of her household, where she invites all to a grand feast of bread and wine. She distinguishes herself in this chapter from the Strange Woman. So, we get that clear foil of the Strange Woman set against Woman Wisdom, and it is from this point forward that the Strange Woman actually drops out of the text. And we’ll revisit Woman Wisdom now in an embodied iteration in Proverbs 31.

     

    Joseph Stuart: Thank you so much for sharing that. It reminds me of a beautiful chapter that you wrote for a book coming up in Maxwell Institute, entitled Ancient Christians, that you all will be able to consult in your Come, Follow Me study for next year. And speaking of ancient saints and thinking about the New Testament, you’ve already referenced that Jesus spoke about proverbs, if not quoted from the book of Proverbs, how else does Lady Wisdom appear in the New Testament?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Commentators on Old Testament texts were almost simultaneously commenting on New Testament texts. It’s easy to see some intertextual allusions and interpretations of Proverbs in the New Testament. One, for example, that is really taken up in the early church comes straight out of Proverbs 8:22. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” And early Christian commentators will connect to that, to Revelation chapter 3:14 and see in her even the bride in the apocalypse.

     

    Kristian Heal: I think there’s such potency in allowing Wisdom to be personified and articulating this personification of kind of Wisdom right there from the very beginning. So tell us about the lessons that Wisdom is teaching.

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: The largest body of sayings and wisdom that Lady Wisdom is iterating throughout this book are presented into the household in order to help people learn, to grow up, to move from the household into the world. And there are some really remarkable themes that come up in these sayings, ways to work with your wealth, the obligations of almsgiving, how to govern wisely and well. For example, in Proverbs 21:13, it says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” That’s a pretty profound admonishment. In Proverbs 22:1-2 “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches. Favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is maker of them all.” And then of course, via governance, in chapter 24:6 it talks about taking wise guidance in waging war when necessary, but to take abundance of counselors. In 24:6 it also gives advice on governance, by wise guidance, you can wage your war and an abundance of counselors, there is victory. The caution is to actually then be cautious, to take on multiple perspectives, to not rush into these kinds of decisions.

     

    Joseph Stuart: I’m seeing a stark line between wisdom literature and just stating facts. There seems to be some sort of real world application that goes with wisdom literature, it’s not just nice things to say, but saying this is how you survive in the world. And looking at Proverbs chapter 31, this is one of the most famous, or depending on your perspective, infamous chapters in Proverbs. And it seems that there are different ways to read the interpretation of the Virtuous Woman. How do you think about it?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: Proverbs 31 is really a collection of poems and sayings written in a sequential alphabetic acrostic and connected to a king named Lemuel, who received this wisdom from his mother. Here at the end of the book of Proverbs, we find then, a similar portrait to personified Wisdom that we saw at the beginning. Now fully grown up and disseminated into the Valiant Woman, the two kind of coalesce here. So these bookended female figures give us a thematic, inclusio to the entire book that helps us read about this woman of substance in chapter 31 in a better way. I want everyone to remember that these poems are meant to be read as idealized wisdom, and not to be weaponized against women in pedestalizing domestic subjugation in any way. The woman found in these verses of chapter 31 is Capable, and sometimes I think we diminish her description by calling her Virtuous and equating virtue merely with chastity. When I speak of virtue I mean of capability in every sense of the word. She has powerful means, she has material resources, and she has an authoritative voice. She plans and plants her fields. She is full of the attributes of strength and generosity. She takes up the spindle and distaff. The quintessential tools of creative efficacious fertile power that had been known from time immemorial in the ancient world. She is a matar familias, is a householder, par excellence whose influence spreads into all the world. In an exposition about this woman and an early church father, origin from the third century discusses her metaphorically as “the church”, he describes her as one who in her field possesses both the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, a woman of sound mind and strength, guarding the faith of her bridegroom as she awaits his return again from heaven. I think we can take her example here out of mere metaphor, and I don’t know about you, but I see women like this all around me in our faith tradition, who choose to embody these very attributes. Personally, one of my favorite verses about her is found in verse 26, and another actually in 31. Describing Woman Wisdom, “She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. Give her the fruit of her hands and let her works raise her in the gates.” And in verse 31, “Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her works praise her in the gates.” Make no mistake, Lady Wisdom claims what is hers without apology. Rather than becoming discouraged as we read through this chapter, looking at the superwoman model, and, you know, it’s tempting to see her as hardly human. I tend to see her influence as aspirational and even attainable. For me, these verses move beyond domestic or quotidian duties for real women and duly give laud and honor to the authoritative, loving voice, and salvific teachings of one in union with God.

     

    Kristian Heal: Catherine, so wonderful to hear you speak about chapter 31 of Proverbs. This is really just beautifully insightful for me, so thank you for sharing your thoughts on that chapter. Do you have any sort of final thoughts as you’ve spent time thinking about Proverbs, both for this podcast and sort of over your life? What are the other things that we can take away from this text?

     

    Catherine Gines Taylor: There are so many treasures here to be found for yourself if you really seek them. Wisdom as true to her word, she’s not to be feared. I think she brings forward that fear is foolishness. In my studies, I’ve also found a really wonderful and very early kind of bit of wisdom about this text, coming straight out of a father of the early church, Clement of Alexandria, who as early as the second century, commended the sayings of Proverbs as a mode of prophecy. He says, “they are turnings of words and true righteousness.” He saw them as “teachings that give subtlety to the simple and perception and thought to young catechumens and converts being taught before baptism.” Wisdom, and the sayings of Proverbs can sometimes be challenged because people say, “Well, I’ve done all of these things. And yet, I still find suffering in the world. I still suffer, things don’t always go my way.” So, I think it’s wise to remember that proverbs are not promises, but they are probabilities. I think it’s really nice that we have Ecclesiastes at hand next, to better understand this tension between wisdom and the way things sometimes work out in the world. One of my favorite Ecclesiastes verses is very much connected into what I’ve gained out of Proverbs, it says, “And I gave my heart to no wisdom, and to no madness and folly, I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit, for in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increases knowledge, increaseth sorrow.” I think those things come through lived experience, and by touching on what Wisdom really has to show us and teach us in the world.

     

    Joseph Stuart: And that’s a great segue to helping us to think about the book of Ecclesiastes. Kristian, could you give us an overview and introduction to the book?

     

    Kristian Heal: Ecclesiastes, known as Kehilla, in the Jewish tradition, is a startling book of wisdom. Walter Brueggemann calls it “a remarkable statement of candor that’s expressed with great courage.” So, what do we get in it? It formed with Job a pair of anti wisdom works almost. These are not books that reject wisdom, but books that question the certainty of the wisdom, tradition, and some of its conclusions as Catherine suggested at the end of her comments about the book of Proverbs. The inclusion of such books in the canon is an important feature of the Old Testament that we’ve noticed several times in our reading over the course of the year so far. The Old Testament is a scriptural library that seems to countenance dissent, and that is willing to present differing views side by side, whether they be different narratives of the same event, different versions of the same law, or these competing voices in the wisdom collection. Where Job is primarily concerned to respond to the two easy answers in the problem of suffering, Ecclesiastes engages with the problem of death, asking how the inevitability of death should affect the way we think about and live life. It’s hard to date the book, scholars have noticed that it is written in late Biblical Hebrew, heavily influenced by Aramaic and containing Persian loanwords. So some scholars date it to the Persian period, which is the fourth or fifth century BCE, while others date as late as the Hellenistic period so the third or second century BC, some resonances with ancient Near Eastern literature have also been noted. And the book is, as Marvin Sweeney observes, “identified as an example of the Royal testament or Royal autobiography” typical Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom genre, in which a king or other Royal figure summarizes his reflections on his life as a legacy or testament to be passed on to his descendants, heirs or successors. The effect of the book is achieved more by its lyricism and pathos than any sort of narrative structure. In fact, as John Collins observes, attempts to find the literary structure in the book have not been very successful. However, several structural and rhetorical elements have been observed. These include a clear editorial frame, a sense the book is divided into two distinct parts, several key phrases which repeat identifying that you’re in these parts, and concern over the finality of death, which runs through the book. The book may defy satisfactory scholarly analysis, but I think it is a very satisfying and in some ways, a very modern-feeling read. This is a book that can serve as a useful guide in an unsettled age. It is a book to read and reread. The temptation is to do something different. As Walter Brueggemann observes with connection to his church tradition, the conventional practice of the church is to select a few texts from the book that resonate with the church’s consensus, take this material out of context and ignore the rest. Instead, this is a book to grow and think with a book that demands to be read in its entirety as well.

     

    Joseph Stuart: Now, before we started the podcast, you said that Ecclesiastes functions as anti-wisdom literature. What does that mean?

     

    Kristian Heal: Wisdom literature, as Catherine has shared with us so well, is an articulation of the way to live the good life. And the beliefs about the world that follow from this practice is the distillation of experience. It’s pragmatic, and in a sense, almost scientific in as much as it observes what works, the causes and effects of behavior and advocates accordingly. Ecclesiastes responds with a further set of questions and observations. Wisdom may lead us to success, to happiness and prosperity. But Ecclesiastes asks, why what real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? Asks Ecclesiastes 1:3. The pursuit of wealth, status, success, wisdom or invention is all futile or vanity as the King James version puts it. “This collection of Wisdom sayings and teachings,” says Walter Brueggemann “ponder this the mystery of creation and life in the world and find that mystery, much more inscrutable and much less user friendly, than the old affirmative Wisdom Teachings of the book of Proverbs.” One message of this book is to accept the mysterious and inscrutable nature of the world, to accept the mystery of God’s ways. The fourth century Christian writer, Ephrem the Syrian, said that those who tried to understand God are like people shooting arrows at a mountain, it is a game that you can’t win, you’re just losing lots of arrows. Ecclesiastes has the same idea, the attempt to win at life, to control existence, to achieve certainty is all like shooting arrows at a mountain, it’s all vain, a futile exertion. Instead, we submit to the awesomeness of God, confess the mysteries of his ways and of this existence, and reset our lives and priorities accordingly. As Marvin Sweeney puts it, human beings must accept their limitations in understanding God and the world. But it nevertheless calls upon human beings to live life in the expectation that it is not futile, despite our inability to understand. So believing that life is both futile and not futile, is what I think BYU President Kevin Worthen calls “the messy middle.” A position in which it feels like we find ourselves straddling two divides that most believe are slipping further and further apart, as he puts it in his recent University Conference address. The first thing to do when we find ourselves in such a position is to contest the mystery. The next is to find a new way to think about the world and our place in it, to recalibrate as it were, our priorities and our goal.

     

    Joseph Stuart: I think that that’s a really profound thought. How has this approach to Ecclesiastes or reading Ecclesiastes helped you to find new ways to think about the world and your place in it?

     

    Kristian Heal: I sometimes feel like I have lived my life running from one milestone to the next, in the belief that at each point, I’ll find rest and happiness. When I’ve finished my mission. When I’ve graduated from college, when I’m married, when I’ve trained for my profession, when I have children, when I have a job, when that book is published, when I’ve secured my employment, when my children have left, when I’ve retired, then I’ll be happy. Ecclesiastes speaks out against the danger of deferred happiness. “Only this I have found is a real good that one should eat and drink, and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him, but that is his portion.” That’s Ecclesiastes 5:17. Ecclesiastes is not advocating a life of hedonism. This is not the doctrine of YOLO, of eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Rather, this is a mindful joyfulness in which one is present in one’s own life. Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread, and warned us that sufficient is the day unto the evil thereof, there is a presentness about living our lives in Christ. There is an antidote to this relentless pursuit of happiness that is always just around the next corner. What I hear in the book of Ecclesiastes, and in the teachings of Jesus is an admonition to slow down, to acquire and consume less, and to take time for joy. We live in a world that is constantly offering us imagined happiness, the happiness of other people’s imagined lives. When we don’t have it, we feel shame. If we do achieve it, we find someone else’s lives to covet and compare, shame and comparison are the thieves of joy in this story. Ecclesiastes instead tells us to please God, and He will give us the wisdom and shrewdness to enjoy our lives. What I hear is stop dooms rolling and start living. It is true as Marvin Sweeney notes that interpreters universally acknowledge that Kehilla calls upon its readers to seize the opportunity to live and enjoy life to its fullest. This is an important theme. However, he continues by observing that Kehilla also calls upon readers to do so responsibly with an eye to justice, and the avoidance of that which is wrong or counterproductive, because life, particularly youth, is fleeting, and old age comes upon one, to all, too quickly in the passage of time. So Ecclesiastes, in no way advocates any kind of nihilism. It simply recognizes the limits of what is actually valuable, or important or worthwhile. In a world that always seems to be in turmoil, and as we emerge from a global pandemic, it feels like the book of Ecclesiastes is a good place to spend some time right now.

     

    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week, y’all.

     

    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute podcast. Could you please rate review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @BYU Maxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu. Thank you and have a great week.