Monday, April 30, 2012

Wrestling With Ecclesiastes, Part III - Observing Life Under the Sun

Table 1:
The Ancient Hebrew View of the Universe
(see footnote 30)
This is the third post in a weekly series called, 'Wrestling with Ecclesiastes.' I've always found Ecclesiastes to be a very difficult book to understand, so this past semester I took the opportunity to focus on it in one of my classes. In this blog series I'm sharing some of what I've learned. For the first two posts in the series, go to the following:

Part 1 - The Teleological Suppression of the Eternal: Rethinking Absurdity in The Teacher's Perspective

Part 2 - Foundations: Author, Structure, Genre

Today's post is, I believe, the most important key to understanding Ecclesiastes. I've titled this post, 'Observing Life Under the Sun' because that is what I think Ecclesiastes is, a catalogue of observations by The Teacher about life under the sun. Read on to find out what I mean.

When we get looking at Ecclesiastes it becomes clear that the work of The Teacher is one of personal empirical observations.21 The Teacher's language is filled with these verbs of observation, with The Teacher himself as the subject (mostly, but not limited to, the first person singular voice). Some key phrases are: ‘I saw,’22 ‘I gave my heart,’23 ‘to seek,’24 ‘to explore’ (1:13; 7:25), ‘I spoke with my heart’ (1:16), ‘my heart saw’ (1:16), ‘I gave my heart’ (1:17; 9:1), ‘I spoke in my heart,’25 ‘I explored in my heart’ (2:3), ‘I will see’ (2:3), ‘I turned’ (in the sense of ‘considered, looked at, reflected on,’ 2:11, 12), ‘I knew’ (2:14; 3:12, 14), ‘I found’ (or ‘to find’ with The Teacher as the subject),26 and ‘I said’ (8:14; 9:16). Further, the pronoun ‘I’ occurs on its own, usually as an intensifier of a first person verb, 28 times in the book,27 and the noun ‘heart’ with the first common singular pronominal suffix attached to it, occurs 18 times.28

But these personal observations are intentionally limited. The qualifying phrases ‘under the sun’ (29 times),29 and ‘under the heavens’ (3 times, 1:13, 2:3, 3:1) occur throughout the book, for a total of 32 combined occurrences of the synonymous phrases. As The Teacher makes his observations, he does not do so as a prophet, from the top down, letting special revelation about ultimate reality refine his observations. Rather, he deliberately observes life ‘from the ground up,’ or ‘under the sun.’ Table 1
 displays the Hebrew view of the universe, and offers insight into the world that The Teacher is observing. For the purposes of this present study, it can be noted that the ‘under the sun/under the heavens’ qualifying phrase radically alters The Teacher's perspective.31 This is not to question the validity of the book, but it does radically effect its interpretation. As he makes his observations, The Teacher is choosing to do so with a sort of ‘tunnel vision,’ simply soaking in what really happens in the world and offering reports. For one thing, this insight has great bearing on the so-called contradictions throughout the book. Michael V. Fox observes:
The contradictions in the book of [Ecclesiastes] are real and intended. We must interpret them, not eliminate them. To be precise, [The Teacher] is not so much contradicting himself as observing contradictions in the world. To him they seem to be antinomies, two equally valid but contradictory principles. He does not resolve these antinomies, but only describes them, bemoans them, and suggests how to live in such a refractory world. The contradictions do not make the book incoherent. On the contrary, [The Teacher's] persistent observation of contradictions is a powerful cohesive force, and an awareness of it brings into focus the book’s central concern: the problem of meaning in life. The book of [Ecclesiastes] is about meaning: its loss and its (partial) recovery.32
To be sure, the book of personal observations under the sun is the key to this, and other key themes throughout the book. As we will see in a later post, it is only in the epilogue that this ‘under the sun’ limit to perspective is removed.


21 Michael V. Fox interestingly notes that, “[The Teacher's] epistemology as a whole has no parallel in other ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature, which, contrary to a widespread view, is not empirical” in “Qohelet’s Epistemology.”HUCA 58 (1987), 137.
22 1:14; 2:13, 24; 3:10, 16, 22; 4:1, 4, 15; 5:12, 17; 6:1; 7:15; 8:9, 10; 9:13; 10:5, 7
23 1:13, 17; 8:9
24 1:13; 7:25, 28; 12:10
25 2:1, 14, 15; 3:17, 18
26 7:27, 28 (3x), 29; 12:10
27 1:12, 16 (2x); 2:1, 12, 13, 14, 15 (3x), 18 (2x), 20, 24; 3:17, 18; 4:1, 2, 4, 7, 8; 5:17; 7:25, 26; 8:2, 12, 15; 9:16
28 1:13, 16 (2x), 17; 2:1, 3 (2x), 10 (2x), 15 (2x), 20; 3:17, 18; 7:25; 8:9, 16; 9:1
29 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16, 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:12, 17; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15 (2x), 17; 9:3, 6, 9 (2x), 11, 13; 10:5
31 I am indebted to Richard P. Belcher for first pointing me to the prevalence of, and importance of this phrase in Ecclesiastes. In his Ph.D. dissertation, supervised by Tremper Longman III and with Peter Ens as a secondary reader, he writes, “Although [The Teacher] carries out his search from a wisdom standpoint, his limited under the sun perspective effects his conclusions concerning divine retribution. Much like the author of Psalm 73, he struggles to understand why certain things happen in this world. Whereas the author of Psalm 73 needed a renewed understanding of God to break from from his struggle, [The Teacher] needs the epilogue to remind him of the revelation of God” Richard P. Belcher. Divine Retribution in Ecclesiastes: An Analysis of the Deed-Consequence Relationship With Implications For the Interpretation of the Book. (Ph.D. Dissertation, Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, PA: ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis, 2000), iii; For a fuller fleshing out of this idea see Ibid., 253-255; For others who share the perspective that the phrase ‘under the sun’ denotes a limit to perspective, see, for example, Longman, Ecclesiastes, 39; Michael A. Eaton. Ecclesiastes: An Introduction & Commentary. (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, Gen. Ed. Leicester, Eng; Downers Grove, ILL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 15-50.
32 Fox, A Rereading of Ecclesiastes, 3.

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