Explanation for Sense of Vanity and Its Aggravation by Sense of Eternity (3:10-15) (contd)

continued from previous page

In other words, “God so works that men should fear Him,” means God directs or permits appropriate events to happen at appropriate times so that we would acknowledge Him and seek to live a conscientious life. This applies to every person, whether he is outwardly “religious” or not. Qoheleth recognizes that human beings have a predisposition to fear God. It is usually most manifest during times of adversity and least manifest during times of prosperity, and can even be suppressed both at the individual and the societal level. Human nature is such that we recognize our need for God only as a last resort, and this usually happens in times of adversity. Qoheleth is thus saying that God appoints appropriate adversities at appropriate times so that we may feel the need to live a God-fearing way of life.

But since human beings have the freedom to choose many have sought to evade this purpose of God, as in the case of people who practice divination and magic. This explains why Qoheleth has to remind us of the somber reality captured in the poem to unsettle our feelings and having done that, explain God’s purpose in the way He works in this world. By doing this he puts those who have not yet yielded to God’s purpose into the mood to reconsider their chosen path, as well as encourages those who have already done so. Knowing how difficult it is to get people to change their way of thinking and living, Qoheleth has crafted a speech with exceptional persuasive power. In this series of expositions we can only partially recreate this force as part of our attempt to recapture his rhetoric.

We have seen how, after he has captured our attention with the forceful announcement that everything is vanity (1:2-3), he engages our imagination by using a poem to vivify the idea of vanity (1:4-11), and then speaks to our emotion through illustrations from his personal experience to recreate the sense of vanity (1:12-2:23). When we are thus ready to begin reconsidering how we should then live, he appeals to our intuition by admonishing that, in light of the reality that everything is vanity, the most meaningful thing to do is to have enjoyment of life (2:24-26). For otherwise life does not make sense. Now having amplified the sense of vanity through another poem (3:1-8), and in the context of explaining God’s overall purpose (3:10-15), Qoheleth returns to the subject of enjoyment (3:12-13). How does his admonition to have enjoyment relate to God’s purpose?

In 2:24-26 Qoheleth affirmed that the ability to have enjoyment is “from the hand of God.” That means it is a gift of God, which He gives to those who are “good in His sight.” The meaning of 3:12-13 should be clear in light of our exposition on 2:24-26, as it says essentially the same thing. But some commentators refuse to understand the phrase, “and to do good in their lifetime,” according to its plain sense and usual meaning, as in 7:20 and elsewhere in the Old Testament. They argue that since the phrase is in the immediate context of enjoyment and “to see good” in one’s labor, and based on a similar Greek phrase, “to do good” must then mean something like “to experience good,” and not to do what is morally good (Schoors 2004: 37-38). They do not see the relevance of the plain meaning of the phrase here. But in 2:24-26 Qoheleth said that only the one who is “good in God’s sight” can have enjoyment and “see good” in his toils. And how can one be good in God’s sight without being morally good? Furthermore this phrase is embedded in the immediately larger context of explaining why we are “to fear God,” which is another way of saying, “to do (moral) good.”

Qoheleth is then saying, if the most sensible thing to do in response to the vanity of life is to enjoy life, and to enjoy life one must be “good in God’s sight” (2:24-26), then the most sensible thing to do is to “fear Him” (3:14b) and thus seek to “to do good” in his lifetime (3:12). So to make sense of life in light of its vanity we need to fear God. This is one way “God so works” to goad us to acknowledge Him. Qoheleth has not yet explained how fearing God and doing good actually leads to the enjoyment of life. But our conscience would not argue with him since it is inconceivable that one who lacks the fear of God and thus habitually does what is unconscionable could be truly happy.

Making sense of life through the enjoyment of what we do and have basically helps us to come to terms with the certainty of death. But we still need to come to terms with something else from which we also have no escape: the uncertainties of life. We have seen that it creates in us the desire to know and control the future. And that, since we cannot find out about the future nor do anything about it even if we could, this unpleasant reality evokes a deep-seated sense of insecurity. This feeling is heightened in bad times but forgotten in good times. To ensure that we are conscious of it so that he could address it, Qoheleth’s second poem reminds us that there are good as well as bad times. And until and unless we soothe this gnawing feeling, it will be hard to have real enjoyment of life (this idea will be elaborated when we consider 5:18-20). Instead, to numb the pain, we may be grievously preoccupied with pursuing pleasure or success.

According to Qoheleth, God allows us to experience this sense of insecurity so that we would fear Him. This is another way “God so works” to help us feel the need for Him. For only the fear of God enables us to replace it with a deep-seated sense of security. In biblical thinking, to fear God involves acknowledging who He is. And here God is explicitly described as being in full control over everything that happens. And though He works through adversities, His purpose is for our well-being, enabling us to truly enjoy life. That means, God makes everything appropriate in its time to accomplish His good purpose for humanity. The technical term for this is “providence.” So a God-fearing person who recognizes God’s providence is one who believes that God is not only in control over both good and bad things but also has his welfare in mind. So no bad things can happen to him unless God allows it and, even then, He does so because it is needed to serve a good purpose. Even if Qoheleth’s assumptions about God are not true, this means of soothing our sense of insecurity is still more appealing than divination and magic.

But many today would dismiss this belief in divine providence as “a crutch for the weak.” Throughout his speech, Qoheleth tries to help us see, by making us feel, that we are all weak and that we all need a reliable crutch. Every society has its crutches. In a premodern (and segments of a postmodern) society, the dominant crutch has been some form of divination and magic. Strictly speaking, divination is about gaining knowledge of the world through observing the workings of fate, the impersonal cosmic force that supposedly runs the world. Magic involves the use of techniques to manipulate this force to our benefit. Hence divination is the premodern counterpart to modern science and magic is the premodern counterpart to modern technology. And modern science and technology have confirmed Qoheleth’s view that divination and magic are sheer superstitions.

In a modern society, the dominant crutch is the idea of “progress.” As a balm to soothe the deep-seated sense of insecurity “progress” promises not just material, but also emotional, comforts. The incredible material comforts brought about by modern science and technology lend credibility to this idea. But “progress” has failed miserably in terms of emotional comforts, which matter more than material comforts. So beginning with the second half of the twentieth century, even modern people began to consider the idea of “progress” a modern superstition. By the end of the century Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto gave this report, which strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of many today:

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
The 20th century produced more creativity, more effort, more technical resourcefulness, more planning, more freedom, more power for good than ever before in human history.
It was also the century of the most destructive wars, the most inhuman massacres, the most barbarous tyrannies, the worst extremes of wealth and poverty, the foulest environmental degradation, the most trash, the cruelest disillusionment.
It promised so much and betrayed so many. The big mystery of the 20th century is: Why did progress fail?

This near poetic piece captures the sentiment of Qoheleth’s second poem well. Echoing and complementing this sentiment, prominent American writer Walker Percy asks,

Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?
Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?
Why has man entered an orgy of war, murder, torture and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very century when he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood? (1984: 3).

Trust in “progress” is essentially trust in human potential to solve every human problem. As British historian David Bebbington puts it, “Man, according to the idea of progress, has advanced not just in matters like technology and its improvement of material conditions. There has been progress also in the use of man’s intellect and, in many versions, in his moral capacity. Human history is therefore the account of the improvement of the human condition from barbarism to civilization” (1990: 68). In light of the deep-seated sense of insecurity, modern people need the assurance that things are getting better. But as the twenty-first century begins to unfold, the more knowledgeable and wiser one becomes, the more one despairs over whether the human race would survive another century.

As if anticipating this faith in progress as a crutch to evade God’s purpose that we should fear Him, Qoheleth in the next breath says, “Whatever comes to be, has already been; that which will come to be, already has been; for God seeks what has gone by” (3:15). This verse reiterates the sub-theme, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). As we have seen, this idea is embodied in Qoheleth’s first poem (1:4-8), which began with this line: “a generation goes and a generation comes, yet the world (including humanity) remains as ever.” There has been no real progress in the human condition. But this does not imply that history has no progress in the sense that it is moving towards a goal. For that would mean history has no purpose and hence no meaning. Qoheleth’s belief in divine providence implies that history has meaning.

It is pertinent here to note that, “the idea of progress, according to a widely accepted interpretation, represents a secularized version of the Christian belief in providence” (Lasch 1991: 40). And the Christian belief in providence is based on the biblical view of God as partially presented in 3:1-15. Now given the options based on modern science and technology, or their premodern counterparts, to come to terms with the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, would it not be wise to listen carefully and without prejudice to what Qoheleth has to say to us?


Post a Comment

<< Home