Elaboration on Speaker and His Teaching (12:9-12)

12:9 And in addition, as a wise man Qoheleth also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, explored and put together many proverbs. 12:10 Qoheleth sought to find words of delight and faithfully wrote words of truth. 12:11 The words of wise men are like goads, and the collected sayings are like well-fixed nails; they are given by one Shepherd. 12:12 But beyond these, my son, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is weariness to the body.

The very first verse of Ecclesiastes has already introduced the speech as “the words of Qoheleth.” So the three occurrences of the phrase “says Qoheleth” (1:2; 7:27; 12:8) are not really needed. Since Qoheleth is identified with King Solomon, each of the occurrences then has the effect of giving extra weight to what is just said as coming from a speaker with the credibility to say it with authority. And taken together (one right at the beginning, one somewhere in the middle, and one towards the end) they also indicate explicitly that “the words of Qoheleth” extend from 1:2 up to at least 12:8.

The phrase “And in addition” here then connects this passage to “the words of Qoheleth” marked out by the three occurrences of “says Qoheleth.” In other words this verse tells us more about the work of Qoheleth “in addition” to the speech just presented up to 12:8. It conveys that Qoheleth was a wise man, and besides giving this speech on the vanity of life under the sun, he also taught the people knowledge as well as put together proverbs based on reflection and investigation. The passage goes on to describe the nature, purpose and origin of Qoheleth’s teaching. All this further establishes the credibility of the speaker in light of the somber and sobering message just heard.

Qoheleth is said to have made an effort to use “words of delight” and was careful that what he taught were “words of truth.” As Crenshaw puts it, “The emphasis falls on elegance and truth: Qohelet devoted time and energy both to the aesthetic of his composition and to the reliability of what he said” (1987:191). As our exposition has shown, the manner Qoheleth appeals to the reason and the emotion through his use of prose as well as poetry is delightful in terms of artistry. But as we have seen, these “words of delight” are also “words of truth.” We testify to the truthfulness of his words in that our conscience do not argue with his assertions (correctly understood).

These delightful words of truth are meant to persuade the audience to a make a decision or to take a course of action, or both. For like goads made from nails fixed to sticks that shepherds use, Qoheleth's words and the “collected sayings” of wise men like him prod us to move in a certain direction. As for Qoheleth’s words in Ecclesiastes, if we are already moving in the direction he wants us to go, the prodding will hardly be painful. It simply nudges us to keep going in that direction. And the direction is to fear God and keep His commandments (12:13). But if we are moving in the opposite direction the prodding will be most painful. To avoid the pain we need to yield to the goading.

To further assure us that Qoheleth’s words are truthful, the claim is made that they are “given by one Shepherd,” namely, God. We are not told how Qoheleth’s words of truth are ultimately the words of God. But it means that the prodding effects of the words are ultimately the goading of God, the ultimate Shepherd. Qoheleth had actually made a parallel claim when he said, “God so works that man should fear Him” (3:14). The best way to test these claims is to compare Qoheleth’s teaching on the meaning of life with one which denies God and see which teaching, when consistently lived out, gives the deepest sense of fulfillment. A theory about the meaning of life that, when consistently lived out, brings despair is actually most harmful.

In light of competing teachings, the audience (often addressed as “my son” in the wisdom literature of the ancient biblical world) is warned to be careful of books that do not teach “words of truth.” For there will be “no end” to human speculations, and hence to “the making of many books,” about the meaning of life and other truths essential to living life to the fullest. Studying them wearies the body. Understood in context, the warning here is not against the writing and reading of books. Whybray captures the meaning well: “The reader is warned against poring over unsuitable literature, which will only weary him and do him harm” (1989:173).

This passage elaborating on Qoheleth as the speaker and the nature of his teaching is written in the third person. Who wrote it? Obviously it is the same person who first introduced Qoheleth as the speaker (1:1), and who punctuated the speech with the three occurrences of “says Qoheleth” (1:2; 7:27; 12:8). The present writer sees no good reason to assume that just because the passage is in the third person Qoheleth could not have written it himself. And he has good reason to believe that, in this context, if Qoheleth would elaborate on himself and his teaching, he would do so in the third person. For Qoheleth makes much use of personal experiences and observations as a means to persuade his audience. And by presenting himself as a reliable teacher in the third, instead of the first, person he places himself “in the realm of history and sets a degree of objectivity and distance between the reader and the Teacher, a distance that would not exist if the entire book were written in the first person... [and] thus lifts the book above the level of personal reflection and presents the Teacher as an authority whose words ought to be heard” (Garrett 1993:262).

Conclusion and Call to Decision (12:13-14)

12:13 The end of the matter, (when) all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is every man. 12:14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.

For our purpose, it does not really matter whether the third-person statements are written by Qoheleth or not. Even if they are not, we could still and should in fact read these final two verses of Ecclesiastes as part of Qoheleth’s speech that began in 1:2. For if the speech ended abruptly with the encapsulation of the theme in 12:8, the audience would ask, “All is vanity... So what?” Though, as our exposition has shown, the answer—to fear God and keep His commandments—has already been given implicitly as part of Qoheleth’s rhetoric to prepare the audience mentally and emotionally for the final exhortation to do just that, it still has to be given explicitly. For without a concluding exhortation in direct response to the theme of the speech, the speech is incomplete.

As a matter of fact if Qoheleth were presenting the speech extemporaneously, the next thing he would have said following 12:8 would essentially be what we read in these two verses. But since this is a written speech, originally to be read out to an audience, Qoheleth (if he wrote the third-person statements) makes full use of the written medium to strengthen his case through a third-person elaboration on himself and his teaching, before making the final appeal to the audience to do what he has been implicitly prodding them to do. Qoheleth is indeed a master in the art of persuasion.

The conclusion, says Qoheleth, in light of all that has been heard, is indeed what has been anticipated all along: fear God and keep His commandments. By now there is no need to defend this conclusion. What is new is the revelation that “this is every man.” We have translated the Hebrew clause quite literally because no idiomatic translation in English can do it justice. The construction of the clause is similar to that of “I am prayer” (Ps 109:4). According to Fox, “The effect of this construction seems to be an intensification of the equation: Not only am I prayerful, I am prayer itself.” We would call someone who regularly prays like this Mr. Prayer, just as we would call someone who has so completely given himself to the cause of the environment, Mr. Environment (“He is environment”). Similarly, “this is every man” means that “this—the fear of God and obedience to his commandments—is the substance ... of every person” (1999:362). In other words, this is what being human is all about. It is the very essence or purpose of human existence. No wonder when a human being violates God’s commandments and commits something unconscionable we would say, “He is not a human being!”

This explains why “God so works that man should fear Him” (3:14). And why life does not really make sense until and unless we live according to this purpose. In our exposition we have already discussed how the fear of God contributes in different ways to the meaning of life. What needs to be added here is that the fear of God provides a transcendent purpose for living under the sun. A transcendent purpose is certainly more worthwhile and meaningful than one which is not. And human beings do express the need for such a purpose. As sociologist Peter Berger puts it, “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. (This is not a theological statement but an anthropological one—an agnostic or even an atheist philosopher may well agree with it.) It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good” (1999:13).

Theologian McGrath confirms that even prominent atheists like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx do not deny the fact that human beings do seek for transcendent meaning; they simply sought to explain away this human desire as “nothing more than a coping mechanism thrown up by the human mind to shield us from the unbearable pain of knowing [from their atheist point of view] that life is pointless” (2002:11-12). Even if it is indeed purely a “coping mechanism,” being able to cope with reality is still better than bearing the “unbearable pain” of meaninglessness. And what if Qoheleth is correct, that this “coping mechanism” is not just an invention of the human mind but also an intention of the divine will?

If Qoheleth is correct, “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.” This judgment is here given as the basis (“For”) to heed his exhortation to fear God and keep His commandments. Since this judgment is comprehensive, especially since even “every hidden thing” will not escape scrutiny, it has to be a judgment after death. Furthermore, only a belief in such an inescapable judgment would be adequate to move one’s conscience to take Qoheleth's exhortation and God's commandments seriously. If Qoheleth did not have in mind a judgment after death, his exhortation to fear God rings hollow.

Also, the human heart cries out for a final accounting of all that is done under the sun. For unless good deeds are ultimately vindicated and bad deeds incriminated, our sense of justice is violated, and like a movie that ends with the villain vanquishing the hero, life does not make sense. Only with an assurance of a final and just accounting do we have an idea of how the story of life under the sun ends, and ends meaningfully. Only then do we know something of the significance, or meaning, of what we do in this world. With the disclosure of this transcendent ingredient to the meaning of life, Qoheleth ends his speech.


Anonymous RevK said...

Appreciate this.

6:31 AM  

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