Monday, April 06, 2009

Ecclesiastes: The Setting

Among the ancient Israelites, there were three kinds of spiritual leaders:

1. There were the priests, the kohanim.
The priest was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. He stood between God and the Israelites, offering the sacrifices that were prescribed by the Torah of Moses. Above all, it was the job of the priest to teach the Torah and to make sure that the Israelite nation observed it. A few passages that illustrate this:

In Leviticus 10:11, the Lord said to the priests, you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.

When Moses blessed the tribe of Levi--the tribe the priests came from--he said to the Lord: He teaches your precepts to Jacob, and your law to Israel (Deuteronomy 33:10).

In Ezekiel 44:23-24, the Lord issues a job description for priests: They are to teach my people the difference between the holy and the common and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean. In any dispute, the priests are to serve as judges and decide it according to my ordinances. They are to keep my laws and my decrees for all my appointed feasts, and they are to keep my Sabbaths holy.

The priest was expected to know the Law, to teach it, and to ensure that the Israelites lived by it. If there was any question about what the Torah said on some disputed matter, the priest was like an umpire. He knew the Scroll and could make the call.

2. A second group of leaders were the prophets. The Israelites called them the nevi'im.
Unlike a priest, a prophet was not born into that position. No one was a prophet because he was part of a certain family. Instead, people became prophets because they were specially chosen by God to fill that role.

Another difference was that, unlike the priest, the prophet did not look to the Torah for his message. Of course, if he was a true prophet, then his message was consistent with the will of God. But the prophet did not offer sacrifices at the altar, and he didn't teach the Torah.

Instead, the prophet spoke a message from God as the Lord himself provided the words. Again, the contrast: The priest relied on a book for his words; the prophet received from God an immediate word, a message that came directly from the Lord. Hundreds of times in the Old Testament, the prophets begin their sermons by saying,

Thus says the Lord, or

Hear the word of the Lord.

When prophets speak of where they got their messages, they say, The word of the Lord came to me.
A prophet did not speak on his own. Rather, it was God who was speaking through the prophet. The Lord simply used a human being as his mouthpiece. Most often, the message was an accusation or a warning. The message of the prophet was, Turn away from idols and immorality, and turn back to God.

3. A third group of leaders among the Israelites were the wise, the khakhamim.

(There are certain Hebrew words that you don't want to say with someone standing directly in front of you. Khakhamim is one of those words. The kh stands for the letter that, when pronounced, sounds like you've got popcorn stuck in your throat and you're trying to get it out).

The wise man or woman, also known as a sage, was a person who closely observed life. The sage was careful to notice how things in the world work, or don't work. She noticed the attitudes and the habits that lead to success; she also took note of the attitudes and habits that lead to failure.

Based on her observations, the sage would come up with clever, memorable ways of expressing those insights. These little capsules of wisdom were called proverbs. The sage would recite old, traditional proverbs, and maybe even some new ones that she had come up with, to teach young people, to pass on to them the insights that come only from experience.

Sages, wise old men and women, filled the role of teacher to the younger generation. Inexperienced people need to learn how to get along in life, how to live wisely, how to avoid the pitfalls of foolishness, and above all how to succeed in life. The sage was the person in the community who served to accomplish that goal.

Three kinds of spiritual leaders in ancient Israel. The Book of Jeremiah refers to these categories. It speaks of the teaching of the law by the priest . . . counsel from the wise, . . . the word from the prophets (Jer. 18:18).

The overview can help us see the place the Book of Ecclesiastes. It doesn't reflect the concerns of a priest. Nor was it written by a prophet. Instead, the book falls into the category of wisdom. To be more specific, Ecclesiastes represents one of the two different kinds of wisdom writings found in the Old Testament.

Our great American psychologist William James once said that there are basically two kinds of people. There are tough-minded people. And then there are tender-minded people.

The tough-minded person asks the practical question: How does it work? What makes it go? The tender-minded person asks the reflective question: What's the point?

The tough-minded person wants to get things done. The tender-minded person wonders if this the right thing to do.

One wants to move, to act; the other wants to think, to speculate.

I suspect that William James would be the first to admit that his division of all people into two groups is a bit arbitrary. But he would also say that there's a lot of truth to this. His distinction can help us when we think about the two different kinds of wisdom writings in the Old Testament, because they reflect his two different categories.

That is to say, there is a type of wisdom writing in the Old Testament that is very tough-minded, practical, interested in how to live a successful life. And, there is another type of wisdom writing that is tender-minded, reflective, interested in the deeper, more-complex questions of life.

The first type, practical wisdom is found above all in the Book of Proverbs, which is a wisdom manual for how to live your life. Some proverbs are warnings:

Like a gold ring in a pig's snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion (11:22).

Other proverbs encourage us to value the things that really matter:

A good name is to be chosen rather that great riches,
and favor is better than gold or silver (22:1). If you earn a good reputation, you can go far.

And, all of this is seen by the Proverbs as being vitally important:

In the path of righteousness is life,
but the way of error leads to death (12:28).

The second type, speculative or reflective wisdom, is found in two books of the Old Testament: the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.

1. The book of Job explores this unanswered question: in a world created and controlled by a good God, why do terrible things sometimes happen to the best of people? In God's universe, what is the reason for undeserved suffering?

2. Our book, Ecclesiastes, explores this question: Given the injustices of life, the crookedness of the world, the uncertainty of things, and the reality of death, what is the point of living?

I wonder, What are some of the ways that people today answer that question? What do our contemporaries usually assume is the purpose of our lives?

Source: Part of this post comes from my memories of a speech by the late Robert Gordis. I listened to it so many times, it just became a part of me. During my student days at Harding Graduate School in Memphis, I would regularly listen to different cassette tapes from the School's fantastic library. I didn't know Rubel Shelley or Wolfhart Pannenberg or Carol Osburn or Robert Gordis. But it was like I knew them because I heard some of their best stuff over and over again.

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