Ecclesiastes 11

For Thanksgiving, I studied Ecclesiastes 11.  What I got out of the chapter (based on my consultation of commentaries) was the following:

1.  On vv 1-2: We should give to charity or invest because we can gain positive returns from so doing.  If these verses are about charity, then their meaning is probably that God might reward us for our generosity, or that people we help will be more likely come to our rescue at a time when we need them.  If the verses are about investment, they are probably saying that we should make investments to gain a return, as well as diversify our investments rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket; if disaster hits, we’ll find that diversifying our investments was a wise decision.

2.  On vv 3-6: But Qoheleth does not really believe that doing the right thing always brings good results.  In his mind, we can’t control what happens.  We don’t know the future, nor do we understand how or why certain things occur in the natural world.  What God does is a mystery.  We see this point also in Ecclesiastes 3:11; 8:17; and 9:12.  Although the world is not predictable, however, we should still work hard, for at least then there is a chance that we might succeed.  A point that I have repeatedly gotten out of Qoheleth is that practicing wisdom is not fool-proof, for time and chance can bring misfortune, even to those who do the right thing.  But doing the right thing at least increases the probability that things will go well for us.

3.  On vv 7-8: Enjoy life while you still can, for the days of darkness (old age and death) will be longer than the days of life (light).  To demonstrate that Qoheleth equates light with life and darkness with old age and death, the Jewish Study Bible cites the following passages: Ecclesiastes 6:3-4, 6; 7:11; 12:1-2.  This message coincides with Qoheleth’s lack of belief in an afterlife, which leads him to conclude that this life is all there is, and so we should enjoy it to the fullest, while we still can. 

But how did religious interpreters who believed in an afterlife interpret Ecclesiastes 11:7-8?  Ecclesiastes Rabbah 11:6-7 interprets this passage to mean that the Torah is light, and yet our lives have many days of darkness, for the study of the Torah in this age is futile and dark compared to the Torah study that will exist in the Messianic age.  Ecclesiastes Rabbah subverts the meaning of Ecclesiastes 11:7-8.  The biblical passage says that we should enjoy this life (light) because days of darkness (old age and death) are coming.  But Ecclesiastes Rabbah interprets the passage to mean that this life is the darkness, whereas the afterlife in the Messianic Age is when Jews will have true light. 

Pope Gregory the Great (sixth century) had a similar approach to Ecclesiastes 11:7-8: In Moralia Job 2.9.92, he interpreted it to mean that we shouldn’t value the present life so much, for it is transient and temporary.  Qoheleth’s whole point is that we should enjoy and value this life because it is temporary, but Gregory draws the opposite conclusion from Ecclesiastes 11:7-8.  For Gregory, the point of the passage is that we should focus on the afterlife. 

The third century Christian thinker Gregory Thaumaturgos, by contrast, said that Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 indeed means that this life is all there is.  But this Gregory says that these were the sentiments of the non-believer, not something that Christians should accept as authoritative.

4.  On vv 9-10:  Our youth passes by quickly, and so we should enjoy it rather than holding on to sorrow and evil, which can hurt us.  While we should enjoy life and its pleasures, however, we should remember that God judges.  There are times when Qoheleth doubts that God judges, but Qoheleth also affirms that God does so (see my post, Ecclesiastes 8).  As Tremper Longman notes, following pleasures and the desires of our hearts can lead us into wrongdoing and hurt us if we are not careful (see Numbers 15:39), but there is such a thing as appropriate, responsible enjoyment of life’s pleasures.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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