Editor's note: Ray Waddle explores the fascination that the book of Ecclesiastes continues to have for generations of Bible readers in his story “Turning to Ecclesiastes” in The Lutheran. Waddle is the author of Against the Grain: Unconventional Wisdom from Ecclesiastes (Upper Room Books, 2005). The book is a series of reflections and impressions based on the entire book—a verse-by-verse commentary. Here are two excerpts:
“With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God”—5:7.
One of the most powerful phrases in the whole Bible shows up tersely here at the end of the sentence: Fear God. It appears four times in the Book of Ecclesiastes like an urgent bulletin.
Bad associations cling to the words “Fear God.” It conjures up stubborn religious stereotypes, too many angry TV sermons, too many humorless church marquees on narrow country roads. “Fear God” goes against the expectation of religious life today, a God-is-love theology, with access to God’s will and timetable. “Fear God” is not visitor-friendly. It sounds threatening, indiscreet, like a case of bad manners. In a competitive religious landscape, fear of God isn’t an easy marketing move.
But the phrase is unavoidable. It’s common sense. Fear God: the Bible is dominated by it. It is found in Old Testament and New. It serves as a measure of the distance between Creator and creature, between God and me.
Paradoxically, it tightens the human connection to God, lets us know where we stand. The English word “fear” doesn’t really cover it. The Hebrew phrase for “Fear of the Lord” carried a strong mix of awe, holiness and gratitude, not just fear. Awe is the brain-hammering experience of the holy, in all its sudden blinding surge. Despite the connotations, there’s something liberating about “Fear God.” This fear is our friend. It simplifies life, removes clutter. As the Book of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So much flows from that—the Ten Commandments, reverence, alertness, caring about neighbor. These are practical things. There’s no need to live in the dark—or in mere fear—after all. Fear, the awesome kind, is the only sensible attitude to carry around on earth.
“When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out”—8:16-17.
Is Ecclesiastes the strangest book in the Bible? Only one other book might compete for the title—the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament. Revelation may be the most quoted and least read book in scripture, full of florid imagery of God’s future judgment, the sufferings to come, the glories that Jesus will establish, the New Jerusalem and New Earth.
The Book of Revelation is promoted as the great arsenal of apocalypse. Lately it has been ransacked to provide plot points for the rising genre of frightening movies and novels that warn in scary detail about the end times. Lost in the noise are the levelheaded surmises of mainstream scholars, who long ago concluded that Revelation is a visionary book encapsulating the fears and hopes of First Century Christians facing persecution in Rome—not a detailed blueprint for 21st century Armageddon.
Besides strangeness, Revelation and Ecclesiastes have this in common: both were late entries into the biblical canon. In the case of Revelation, some Christians refused to accept it into their Bible for 400 years. Its authorship was uncertain, its imagery was jarring and out of sync with the rest of the New Testament.
Otherwise, Ecclesiastes stands opposite to Revelation in most every other regard. Ecclesiastes does assume the future judgment of God—he says so. But he refuses to speculate the details. He refuses to unleash scenarios of future cataclysm and consummation. By abstaining, by holding his cards close, Ecclesiastes left no quotable legacy of misunderstanding. He offered no apocalyptic material that could be exploited or abused for purposes of spiritual manipulation or fraud. He never played into the history of false warnings that have confused and disillusioned so many generations who put their trust in overzealous peddlers of doom, embroidered by misuses of the Book of Revelation.
It’s as if Ecclesiastes anticipated Jesus by 300 years—the Jesus who said he would return but who warned against idle speculation about things that only God can know, like the timing of the last days and final judgment. (Matthew 24:34-36 and Mark 13:30-32)
Ecclesiastes put it his own way in his own time: “However much they toil in seeking, they will never find out ...” The world would be a less anxious place if his words had found their way long ago into humanity’s troubled religious imagination.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers