February 4, 2013
The Book of Job is written in Hebrew poetry that depends upon sense and repetition and not upon sound for its beauty. It is a great work of literature and defies strict classification. It combines epic poetry, drama and debate with an intriguing plot and profound dialogue. Not surprisingly, the book has been much admired by some of the greatest minds. Thomas Carlyle said, ‘It is a noble book’, Alfred Lord Tennyson described it as ‘the greatest poem of ancient or modern times’ and Martin Luther said, ‘It is most magnificent, sublime, as no other book of Scripture.’ It has been placed on a par with the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare as one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time.
But Job is more than a great work of literature – it is also a work of philosophy. It asks the questions that philosophers have pondered throughout the history of mankind: Why are we here? What is life about? Where did evil come from? Why do good people suffer? What is God’s involvement in the world? Is he interested and does he care?
Job covers all these themes, but especially the question, Why do good people suffer? Job was clearly a good man, but experienced the most appalling tragedy. The book addresses the issue of why this should be.
Job is also a book of theology. Philosophy can deal with the big questions in an abstract manner, but theology relates these questions to God. It is important to note from the outset that only those who have a particular view of God have difficulties with the fact of suffering. If you believe that God is bad, then there is no problem about suffering, because you would expect a bad God to make you suffer. Only if you believe that God is good do you have a problem. Furthermore, you may believe that God is good but weak, and so is unable to do anything to help you. Again, on the grounds of logic, you should then have no problem with suffering, since a weak God can sympathize but cannot help. Only when we believe that God is both able to help and good in his nature do we have a problem with suffering.
Many ‘modern theologians’ try to avoid the problem of suffering by denying one or the other of those two things: they reason that either God is bad and is playing tricks on us, or he is too weak to affect anything. But it is clear that the author of the Book of Job believes:
- that there is one God.
- that he relates to his creatures.
- that he is the almighty, all-powerful Creator.
- that he is good, caring and compassionate.
Yet at the same time the book describes Job’s situation, which seems to fly in the face of such beliefs. The reader is left to see how Job deals with this conflict and how God makes himself known in the midst of it.
January 28, 2013
Many common phrases in the English language come from the Book of Job. Someone who shows fortitude in the face of great suffering is said to have ‘the patience of Job’. People whose words make the sufferer feel worse are called ‘Job’s comforters’.
The Anglican funeral service uses a line from the early part of the book: ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (AV). Music lovers will be familiar with the refrain, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ (AV), which Handel used in the Messiah. But despite people’s familiarity with a few verses from Job, the book as a whole is not well known. Most people fail to understand the purpose of the book, and are thus unable to put the parts that they do know into an appropriate context.
The Book of Job may be one of the oldest books that we possess today, though it is not easy to date it. We know that it comes from Abraham’s era, because so many details in the book could only fit that period. The author uses the name ‘Yahweh’ to refer to God, just as Moses does, but there is no trace of the Exodus, the Covenant of Sinai or the Law of Moses, which were so fundamental to the Old Testament.
Readers of Job are immediately faced with a question that determines the way in which they read the book. Is it fact, fiction or a mixture of the two – ‘faction’?
Those who believe it to be fact emphasize that other biblical writers treat Job as a real person. Ezekiel lists him with Noah and Daniel as one of the three most righteous men who ever lived. In the New Testament, James refers to Job’s perseverance as an example for his readers.
Furthermore, the opening chapter tells us that Job lived ‘In the land of Uz’. Although the whereabouts of Uz is uncertain, we can be confident that Job lived in the Mesopotamian Basin, around the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates beyond Damascus.
In addition, the story line suggests a real person. His reactions to the disasters that he faces are realistic and the descriptions of his personal feelings seem authentic. His discussions with his wife are what we might typically expect, and the comments of his friends and the arguments that follow seem true to life. His ownership of significant numbers of livestock is normal for a wealthy farmer.
Many are unconvinced by these arguments. Despite the plausibility of so much of the book, the reader has a sense that there is something that doesn’t seem to ring true to life.
For example, take the events of the first chapter. There are four consecutive disasters, with each leaving one survivor who returns to Job to describe the incident. It is stretching credulity to think that all four disasters have just one survivor and that each would choose the same words: ‘I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’
Also the happy ending seems contrived. Job loses all his children in the first scene, yet in the last he has exactly the same number of new children – seven boys and three girls. We are clearly supposed to rejoice in the happy ending, almost as if the loss of his former children is insignificant to him. It makes us ask the question, ‘Is this too neat for reality? Are we supposed to take this as fact?’
Questions about the factual basis of the book are also raised when we consider the speeches, for each one is written in Hebrew poetry. We have already noted in Part I that poetry is an artificial form of speech. It would not be used in conversation, and certainly not to discuss the weighty issues considered by Job and his friends. Yet all Job’s ‘comforters’ speak in superbly crafted poems, which begs the question, ‘Who committed the poetry to paper?’ Either all his friends were brilliant poets with outstanding memories, or we will have to think of an alternative explanation.
The only solution that makes sense is to say that the Book of Job is faction – that is, it is based on fact, but the facts have been enlarged and embroidered. So Job is a real person who has to make sense of disaster and ongoing suffering, alongside a belief in the God of the Bible.
So the Book of Job is similar to some of the plays of William Shakespeare, who took the basic historical facts about people such as Henry V and produced plays that emphasized the inner motivations of the characters. A more modern example would be Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, based on the life of Sir Thomas More. Bolt captures the essence of the issues that the man faced, but the audience knows that the end product is not the same as the real events.
September 24, 2012
Solomon had collected and collated proverbs, but he had delved into too many other philosophies as well. Here was a man who had read too much and had become disillusioned in the process. So much of the emptiness in the Book of Ecclesiastes comes from these other philosophies. The book shows the limits of human wisdom and is a salutary reminder of the sort of person we will become if we don’t discover God’s way to live.
God has included this strange book in the Bible because it allows us to examine the wrong ideas alongside the good and true ones. It faces us with the pessimistic and fatalistic view of life, showing us the best that human thinking can provide.
It tells us that if we don’t understand the meaning of life from heaven’s angle and from the angle of the next world, we finish up disillusioned, disappointed and depressed.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t leave us with the pessimism of this book. The New Testament tells us that Christ is our wisdom. Through him we find out both why and how we should live life.
John 17 tells us that true life is to know him. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the One who ensures that life really does have meaning and purpose.
September 17, 2012
The other passage
that has a strong sense of the presence of God is in chapters 11 and 12. The Living Bible translates it as follows:
It is a wonderful thing to be alive! If a person lives to be very old, let him rejoice in every day of life, but let him also remember that eternity is far longer, and that everything down here is futile in comparison.
Young man, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it! Do all you want to; take in everything, but realize that you must account to God for everything you do.
So banish grief and pain, but remember that youth, with a whole life before it, can make serious mistakes. Don’t let the excitement of being young cause you to forget about your Creator.
Honour him in your youth before the evil years come – when you’ll no longer enjoy living. It will be too late then to try to remember him, when the sun and light and moon and stars are dim to your old eyes, and there is no silver lining left among your clouds. For there will come a time when your limbs will tremble with age, and your strong legs will become weak, and your teeth will be too few to do their work, and there will be blindness, too. Then let your lips be tightly closed while eating, when your teeth are gone! And you will waken at dawn with the first note of the birds; but you yourself will be deaf and tuneless, with quavering voice. You will be afraid of heights and of falling – a white-haired, withered old man, dragging himself along: without sexual desire, standing at death’s door, and nearing his everlasting home as the mourners go along the streets.
Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is broken at the cistern; and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. All is futile, says the Preacher; utterly futile.
But then, because the Preacher was wise, he went on teaching the people all he knew; and he collected proverbs and classified them. For the Preacher was not only a wise man, but a good teacher; he not only taught what he knew to the people, but taught them in an interesting manner.
The wise man’s words are like goads that spur to action. They nail down important truths. Students are wise who master what their teachers tell them.
But, my son, be warned: there is no end of opinions ready to be expressed. Studying them can go on forever, and become very exhausting!
Here is my final conclusion: fear God and obey his commandments, for this is the entire duty of man. For God will judge us for everything we do, including every hidden thing, good or bad.
There are some helpful points to note in this last passage of the book:
Solomon urges his hearers, especially those who are young, to remember God. This advice probably came from his own experience – the Song of Songs has no mention of God, for example. He is saying that he would not have faced the trauma of wondering what life was all about if he had only remembered God earlier in his life.
He urges his hearers to fear God. The wisdom literature of the Bible constantly tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. If we truly fear God, we are not afraid of anything or anyone else. We must fear God, because he is going to ask us for an account of the life he has given us.
Jesus told his followers not to fear those who can kill the body but rather to ‘Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell’ (Luke 12). If people outside the Church don’t fear God, it’s because people inside it don’t fear him either.
Solomon knew that he had not obeyed God as he should. Nevertheless he tells his readers to be careful to obey God. He now knows that God’s laws are given for our good, not to spoil life but to help us to make the most of it. He talks of this as ‘the whole duty of man’ (chapter 12). Our responsibilities are more important than our rights.
September 10, 2012
The unresolved questions of the book sometimes give way to optimism. Our ignorance need not lead to despair; it may be that we are ignorant because no one knows, or because God knows but we don’t yet see it ourselves. Whenever Solomon brings God into his thinking, he becomes more positive. There are two passages in Ecclesiastes where this is especially true.
The first is in chapter 3. This is the best known and most frequently quoted section of the book. Its verses have often been used as titles for novels and films. It is a poem with a lovely rhythm, reminding us that there is a time and place for everything.
God is sovereign,
Sets the seasons:
Date of birthday,
Day of death.
Time for planting,
Time for reaping;
Time for killing,
Time to heal.
Time for wrecking,
Time for building;
Time for sorrow,
Time for joy.
Time for mourning,
Time for dancing;
Time for kissing,
Time to stop!
Time for finding,
Time for losing;
Time for saving,
Time for waste.
Time for tearing,
Time for mending;
Time for silence,
Time to talk.
Time for loving,
Time for hating;
Time for fighting,
Time for peace.
Have your fun, then,
But remember …
God is sovereign;
Most readers miss a key verse when the poetry ends and the text returns to prose. We read that God himself ‘has made everything beautiful in its time’. So the overall emphasis is not upon human decision but divine decree. The New English Bible translates the verse as follows: ‘Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses.’
It is this perspective that brings light to our pessimism about life. When we believe that our lives are in God’s hands and that he knows the right time for us to dance and to weep, then we see that the things that happen to us are not chance, but part of God’s choice for us. He is weaving a pattern out of our lives.
Some believe that this approach is fatalistic, that it suggests an impersonal fate that nobody can affect. But this is quite different from God freely choosing what he allows to happen to us. Our free will never overrides God’s. He will be at work in all things to achieve his purposes. He calls us to choose his way, surrendering our wills to his sovereign control. We are both accountable and responsible for the lives we live.
This approach to life is reflected elsewhere in the Bible. We are encouraged to see all the plans we make in the light of God’s sovereign will. All plans are made ‘God willing’. My father had a favorite saying: ‘Life is long enough to live out God’s purpose, but it’s too short to waste a moment.’ This is the message of chapter 3. Our times are in his hands, and he will decide what is best for us in the future.
September 3, 2012
Solomon’s opening statement is a profoundly negative one: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! … Everything is meaningless!’. The word translated as ‘meaningless’ could also be rendered as ‘emptiness’. Here’s a man who gets to the end of his life and says that it’s all been pointless and useless.
It is important to remember that Solomon was a king who had the power to do anything he wanted and the wealth to indulge every whim. The book mentions the huge range of activities in which Solomon engaged in an attempt to find the happiness that eluded him.
He tried science and agriculture, even breeding his own cattle. Then he moved on to the arts. No doubt he inherited a love of music from his father. He built some great buildings. He gathered pictures from around the world and placed them in a gallery. Then he turned to entertainment, with court comedians visiting him in his palace. But none of this satisfied him. He was involved in business, and amassed a fortune in the commercial world. He tried pleasure – food, wine and women. Still dissatisfied, he turned to philosophy and bought many books, including some from Egypt. They stimulated him but failed to meet his deepest needs.
There was nothing wrong with these interests in themselves, but they failed to provide what he was looking for. His life was filled but not fulfilled, and at times he wished that he was just an ordinary man.
We can explain his failure to make sense of life. The nub of his problem was that he has observed so much but had perceived so little. He had tunnel vision – he was looking at life through one eye, as in a telescope, but he had no depth and no perspective.
There were two limitations in particular:
On 28 occasions he uses a phrase to describe the location of everything he saw: it was ‘under the sun’, a phrase that occurs nowhere else in the whole Bible. If our vision is limited to this earth and this life, we will never understand what life is all about and what makes it worth living. We will have to depend upon finding fulfilment in the fleeting pleasures that the world can offer.
Solomon also uses the phrase ‘while we are still alive’. He assumes that death is the end of meaningful, conscious existence. He has no thought of the afterlife, which can give perspective and meaning to the years of life that we are allotted.
Our modern age shares some of Solomon’s tunnel vision. It often observes the world in scientific terms that assume that there is no God and no life to come. Science can tell us how the world came into being, but not why. Solomon needs to look at life from a different angle, but this will only come if he looks at it from God’s viewpoint.
Next week’s Bible study is: Ecclesiastes Part 4
August 27, 2012
The book’s author
This book of philosophical speculation comes from King Solomon, who has reached the end of his life and is disappointed, disillusioned and hopeless. When we read Solomon’s three books, it is easy to tell how old he was when he wrote them. The Song of Songs was written when he was a young man, deeply in love. Proverbs is the book of a middle-aged man trying to stop his son from falling into the same errors that he himself succumbed to. But in Ecclesiastes we have the writings of an older man. Confirmation of this is found in a verse towards the end of the book, in chapter 12: ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”’.
As an old man, he has reflected deeply upon life. He is fond of the phrase, ‘I saw …’ The insights in this book are the result of his observations.
The book’s style
Solomon gives himself the Hebrew title Qohelet, a word that is translated in various ways: ‘preacher’, or ‘philosopher’ or ‘lecturer’. But the best translation is ‘speaker’, particularly as this is also the title of the person who presides over the debates in the House of Commons, and so conveys very well the way in which the book is written. For it is written in the style of an old man presiding over a debate – a debate that is going on in his mind. Like every good speaker, he allows the pros and the cons to be given equal opportunity. So the motion that life is not worth living is followed by a motion proclaiming that it is.
As such, the book is contemporary for all centuries, as people have always engaged in similar debates, especially as they reach their forties and ask, ‘What is it all about?’ Some people make radical changes in their lifestyle because they feel that they are missing out on life.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is asking some big questions. What is life about? Is life worth living? How can we make the most of life? He is asking the right questions, even if he hasn’t found the right answers. His concerns and answers oscillate throughout the book. His message is sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic. His mood is at one time uplifting, then depressing. The book’s merit switches from the profound to the superficial and back again.
Next week’s Bible study is: Ecclesiastes Part 3
August 20, 2012
The Book of Ecclesiastes includes some statements that many would regard as debatable. Consider which of the following you would agree with:
- Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same.
- A man is no better off than an animal, because life has no meaning for either.
- It is better to be satisfied with what you have than to always want something else.
- A working man may or may not have enough to eat, but at least he can get a good night’s sleep. A rich man has so much that he stays awake worrying!
- Don’t be too good or too wise. Why kill yourself? But don’t be too wicked or too foolish either. Why die before you have to?
- I found one man in a thousand that I could respect, but not one woman!
- Fast runners do not always win the race, and the brave do not always win the battle.
- Put your investment in several places – in many places, even – because you never know what kind of bad luck you’re going to have in this world!
There’s a saying which is especially true for our study of this book: ‘A text out of context becomes a pretext.’ In other words, we must see how the text functions within the book in which it is found before we quote it. The above statements were part of the writer’s reflections, but they must not be taken out of the context of the book as a whole.
Ecclesiastes is probably the strangest book in the Bible. Although it is easy to understand, it says the most outrageous things. In places it reads like the mottoes on slips of paper that we find in Christmas crackers. In other places it has a poetic quality. These lines from the English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, could easily have been written by the author of Ecclesiastes:
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
For men at most differ as heaven and earth,
But women, worst and best, as heaven and hell.
Pelleas and Ettare
Authority forgets a dying king.
Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be.
In the Valley of Cauteretz
Because right is right, to follow right
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.
But despite its strangeness, Ecclesiastes has a very contemporary ring to it and features many of the philosophical ideas of our own day:
- Fatalism: whatever will be, will be.
- Existentialism: live for the present moment – who knows what the future will bring?
- Chauvinism: men are better than women.
- Hedonism: living for pleasure.
- Cynicism: even good things aren’t what they seem.
- Pessimism: things are bound to get worse.
July 9, 2012
What should we make of the Book of Proverbs? Let us begin by asking whether it achieved its objective. Israel was now in a position of peace and prosperity. Solomon realized that they could lose all this so easily (although he didn’t realize that he himself would cause that loss).
In chapter 14 we are told that ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people’. Solomon collected the proverbs into a book because he knew that without wisdom it would be impossible for Israel to remain in peace and prosperity. But Israel largely ignored the wisdom they received; they moved further away from God. Indeed, even Solomon didn’t live by his own wisdom.
There is a great deal in the New Testament that builds on the Book of Proverbs and focuses on the theme of wisdom. The book is quoted 14 times directly, and there are many other occasions when it is alluded to.
In Luke 1 we read that John the Baptist came ‘to turn … the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous’. Jesus spoke with such wisdom that his hearers asked where he got this wisdom from.
Most people are familiar with the Wise Men who followed a star to Bethlehem. Whilst they have been commonly regarded as Gentiles, it is more likely that they were descendants of the Jews who had been left behind in Babylon after the Exile. They had remembered the prophecy of Balaam, that a star would arise out of Israel to be the King of the Nations (Numbers 24), so when they saw it they followed it. Their presence in Matthew’s birth narrative says much about the importance of Christ’s incarnation.
Jesus was said to be ‘filled with wisdom’ as a child (Luke 2). In his public ministry he said that the Queen of Sheba came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, but now One greater than Solomon had come (Luke 11). When Jesus was criticized for eating and drinking, he replied that ‘wisdom is proved right by all her children’ (Luke 7).
Reflecting on the life of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1 that ‘Christ is our wisdom. He has become for us wisdom from God’.
The wisdom of God is seen supremely in the cross. The world says that dying on a cross is sheer folly. But Paul says that what was foolishness to the world was the wisdom of God.
Within the New Testament epistles there are many direct quotations from the Book of Proverbs. Paul writes in Romans 12: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’.
Peter frequently quotes from Proverbs. For example, in 2 Peter 2 he quotes from Proverbs 26: ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.’ Peter’s exhortation to his readers to ‘fear the Lord and honour the King’ comes straight out of Proverbs 24.
In Hebrews 12 the writer quotes from Proverbs 3 with respect to God’s discipline of his children: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’.
In Proverbs 30, Agur asks the question, ‘Who has gone up to heaven and come down?’ Jesus answers this very question in John 3, when he speaks of his own journey from heaven to earth.
But the Letter of James is where the Proverbs are especially used. This epistle has been called the New Testament version of Proverbs, since it is so similar in style. It moves swiftly from topic to topic with little sense of order, just like its Old Testament counterpart. Some of the themes in James come from Proverbs, not least a devastating analysis of the evils of the tongue and a description of the benefits of wisdom.
Proverbs may seem a strange book to be included in the Bible, but closer inspection shows that its place is thoroughly justified. It deals with some of the major themes of Scripture, it is quoted and alluded to by other parts of the Bible and is an important part of the Christian’s arsenal in his or her fight against foolish living. But it is not an easy book. Care must be taken in reading it, and many of its lessons will find us out.
July 2, 2012
The Hebrew word that is translated ‘friend’ also means ‘neighbor’. It refers to all non-relatives who live within the immediate circle of one’s relationships. The advice of the book contrasts with today’s depersonalized world where true friendship is rare.
Good neighbors promote peace and harmony, are reluctant to quarrel and are disarmingly kind. They are generous in their judgements and always willing to give help when needed. They appreciate the importance of silence and privacy. They say ‘No’ to unwise agreements.
Proverbs teaches that a few good friends is better than a host of acquaintances. A good friend can be closer than a relative.
A good friend has four qualities:
Loyalty – will stick with you, no matter what.
Honesty – will be frank with you and tell you the truth.
Consultancy – will give you advice. An opposite viewpoint may be what is required.
Courtesy – will always respect your feelings and refuse to trade on your affection.