I am currently reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and I am going through it slowly. It is a book that I want to digest rather than read in one sitting (even though school will start soon and I will not have as much time for pleasure reading).
What interested me last night was J.I. Packer’s presentation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. First of all, I was surprised by Packer’s openness to the different dates that scholars assign to the book. Usually, he seems to be dismissive of liberal historical-critical scholarship, so his statement that even conservative biblical scholars argue that the book was written far later than Solomon was unexpected. Packer still believes that the book reflects Solomon’s views, but he is open to the possibility that Solomon did not write it. I have not read the conservative scholars he named, but they probably believe that Ecclesiastes is late because of its late Hebrew.
Second, Packer offers his view of Ecclesiastes in his chapter on God’s wisdom and ours. His overall point is that Christian wisdom does not mean that Christians understand why everything happens or why God does things the way that he does. Actually, when we look at life, it looks on the surface to be rather meaningless, redundant, and empty, as Qoheleth says on a number of occasions. The reason that life appears this way, according to Packer, is that God does not openly intervene in the world, at least not in a manner that is always obvious to us; rather, God hides himself in many instances. For Packer, Christians do not necessarily know the “big picture” that accounts for every detail of life, but God has given them rules on how to navigate their way through the journey. He compares wise Christians to drivers, who do not understand everything on the road, and yet they have skills and instincts that help them get to their destination in a safe manner. Packer believes that Ecclesiastes teaches this point because it talks about the apparent meaninglessness and redundancy of life and yet ends with an exhortation to fear God and obey his commandments.
What do I think about this? I do not thoroughly dismiss it, since we do not understand why every detail of life occurs or exists. Natural disasters and accidents seem to take the lives of the good and the bad, and yet I have still heard people give testimonies that convince me that a supreme being watches over us and is involved in our lives. Moreover, even the secular world acknowledges some standard of right and wrong, of good and bad, even though life can appear random at times.
I wonder what Packer means when he says that God’s laws help us to navigate our way through life. He observes that Ecclesiastes acknowledges the fact that the wicked sometimes prosper while the good suffer or meet a bad end. Of course, Packer believes that the highest goal in life is knowledge of God within a relationship, not necessarily earthly success, so maybe he does not believe that God’s laws will always preserve our lives or bring us gain in the here and now.
Does he do justice to Ecclesiastes? I do not know, for Qoheleth is complex. The way I have read this book of the Bible is as follows: the author does not believe in an afterlife (which was interesting in light of the Hellenistic context that many scholars assign to the book), making many aspects of life meaningless, empty, and unfulfilling. People inevitably die, and that gives him a new perspective on the things that he has been chasing. And, while he is discussing meaninglessness, he observes other things beyond his temporary pleasures (dulled by the inevitable prospect of death) that lead him to ask “What is the point?” There are things in the natural world that appear meaningless, as if they are going nowhere. The world does not appear to be a just place, since the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Qoheleth’s conclusion is that we should enjoy life while we can and fulfill our function of fearing God and doing his commandments. Then, right when I think that I have figured out the book, he says that God will bring all things into judgment. Here, he may be open to an afterlife, since he does not think that God always judges people in the here and now. So how am I now supposed to understand the “all is vanity” parts, or the parts that say that human beings have the same fate as beasts (death)? Many scholars argue that Qoheleth was pessimistic and that some editor added the more optimistic ending. Maybe, but I want to understand the message of the book as a finished product. I am not sure how convinced I am by Packer’s model, but at least he tries to show how a single author could be frustrated and yet hopeful at the end.