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Sunday School Lesson 31: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

Posted by Jim F. on August 5, 2010

I laughed when I saw what this lesson covers, “only” slightly less than 16,000 words in Proverbs and slightly more than 23,000 words in Ecclesiastes. If we have the full 40 minutes, that means we should try to cover the content of about 1,000 words per minute (assuming that we don’t have opening or closing prayers and that we don’t do any introductions or visiting—and that Sacrament meeting ends as scheduled). Obviously we cannot look at everything in these books in Sunday School class.

Equally obvious is that if we spend fifteen minutes to an hour a day studying the assigned material, we will be able to get read both books. But it will be difficult to spend much time actually studying them.

Because it is so seldom read and talked about, and because it is such a beautiful book, I am going to focus my study notes on Ecclesiastes. This time, however, my notes will consist primarily of a synopsis of how I read Ecclesiastes rather than questions about it. I hope my notes will help you study that book during the week before the lesson.

To use these notes to study the Book of Ecclesiastes, read a chapter and give an explanation of what that chapter means. It will probably help if you write down your explanation, at least in rough form. Only then compare your explanation with mine. Where do we differ? Does that difference help you see an ambiguity in the text that you’d not noticed? How does your understanding of the chapter improve on mine? Does mine improve on yours in any places.

Then ask yourself about the truth of what the author, Koheleth, says. Is he right about the uselessness of human existence? Is it possible to reconcile his understanding of the meaning of our lives with the restored gospel? If so, how? If not, why not? What is missing?

How can the book of Ecclesiastes be comforting? How can it strengthen us? Or is it simply good literature, but “a downer?” If it is the latter, why has it been included in scripture for thousands of years?

Overview

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are in a genre called “wisdom literature.” In the Hebrew Bible, they are part of “The Writings.” The Hebrew Bible has three parts:

  The Law or Torah Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  The Prophets Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings—the prophetic history that puts the teachings of the prophets in context—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi
  The Writings Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles

 

The section called the Writings contains a variety of things, but it includes a good deal of wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes), which appears to be the oldest genre of writing that we have in the Bible. To some degree, the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible represent the three most important sources of Hebrew teaching: the priests, whose primary function was temple worship and who taught the people their religious duties; the prophets, who brought revelation from the Divine and who, as we have seen, were often critical of the priests; and the wise men. The Old Testament doesn’t say much about these wise men (though see Jeremiah 18:18 and Ezekiel 7:26, where they are mentioned), but it contains a great deal of their teachings. Unlike the teachings of the priests and the prophets, wisdom literature has less to do with such things as Israel’s status before God, Israel’s covenant, and temple worship than it does with the practical requirements for a good life. It may be that much of the wisdom literature does not have a specific author, but begins, grows, and is refined as it is passed from generation to generation until someone commits it to writing.

There is also wisdom literature in the Apocrypha: the Wisdom of Sirach (also called simply “Sirach”) and the Wisdom of Solomon (also called simply “Wisdom”), as well as in parts of the other books of the Apocrypha. During New Testament times, Jews and Christians alike often referred to the Wisdom of Solomon. They seem to have considered it canonical scripture. For example, Paul quotes from or paraphrases it in a number of places such as Romans 1:19-23 (compare Wisdom 13:1-9 and 14:22-31), Romans 1:26 (compare Wisdom 11:15-16 and 12:27), Romans 1:29-32 (compare Wisdom 14:23-26), Romans 5:12 (compare Wisdom 2:24), and Romans 5:14 (compare Wisdom 1:14).

In wisdom literature, Wisdom (the Hebrew word is okmāh) is often personified as a woman, in fact, as a female deity. It was assumed that kings should be wise men (as well as priests). David was (2 Samuel 14:20) and, of course, Solomon has been taken to be a paragon of wisdom (1 Kings 3:6-14). The book of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and a large portion of Proverbs,  are traditionally attributed to Solomon, though he may not have written all that is attributed to him. According to the Talmud (an ancient Jewish commentary on the meaning of the Law), the book of Proverbs was compiled during Hezekiah’s reign. 

The word “wisdom” doesn’t have just one meaning in these books. At its simplest, it means “knowing how to get by” or “shrewdness.” (Some of the stories we read earlier, such as that of how Jacob got his father’s blessing in the place of Esau, were probably intended to show, among other things, that Jacob and Rachel were shrewd. Shrewdness was a valued trait.) The word “wisdom” also means “having sound judgment” and “having moral understanding.” We see both of these kinds of wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Finally, “wisdom” can denote the ability to think about profound human problems, the kind of wisdom that we see in Ecclesiastes and Job. As you read from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or other books of wisdom literature, ask yourself what kind of wisdom is under discussion at any given place.

Proverbs

Here is a way to divide up the instructions of the book of Proverbs:

  The introduction 1:1-9:18
  “The proverbs of Solomon” 10:1-22:16
  “The sayings of the wise” 22:17-24:34
  “The proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah copied out” 25:1-29:27
  “The words of Agur the son of Jakeh” 30:1-33
  “The words of king Lemuel” 31:1-9
  Praise for the ideal wife 31:10-31

 

Of course, though some of the sayings and discourses of Proverbs were ancient proverbs in our sense of the word (“common folk-sayings”), not all are. More of them are wise counsel put into poetic form.

Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most beautifully written books in the Bible, but it is an unusual book of scripture, for it focuses on what seems to be the meaningless of our lives and the impossibility of understanding them. Koheleth, the pen name of the author of Ecclesiastes, is no Polly Anna. He sees the injustice and pain in the world and does not gloss over them, but he also refuses to let that injustice and pain turn him to despair. (Koheleth means “one who assembles a group,” for example a teacher or a preacher. Sometimes translators call this book “The Preacher.”)

As you read Ecclesiastes, use the outline after this paragraph to help you make sense of it as a whole. What is the author’s main point? Do his arguments about the vanities of life make any sense to you? Are they helpful to you as you think about your life? Can you think of someone to whom the teachings of this book might be helpful? How? If you were asked to do so in fewer words, how would you explain the point of Ecclesiates?

Here is a way to divide the book of Ecclesiastes:*

  1:1 Title
  1:2 General theme of the book
  1:3–2:26 Solomon’s confession
  3:1–22 Human beings under the law of time
  4:1–16 Life in society
  4:17–5:8 The advantage of silence over unreflected speech
  5:9–6:9 On wealth
  6:10–12 Transitional unit
  7:1–9:10 The experience of life and death
  9:11–10:20 Wisdom and folly
  11:1–6 The necessity of taking risks
  11:7–12:7 The necessity of enjoying life
  12:8 The general theme of the book
  12:9–14 Epilogue

 

*This is from A. Schoors. “La structure littéraire de Qoheleth,” Orientalia lovaniensia periodica 13:91-116 (1982).

Knowing the division of the book into these parts isn’t crucial to understanding it, but sometimes it helps to understand a particular verse if we know the larger section of which it is part. I’m sure that others have divided the book differently than Schoors, or described the divisions differently, but Schoor’s way of dividing it is convenient for reading and seeing how particular parts relate to others.

Chapter 1

This chapter is Koheleth’s introduction to the theme of the book. He is going to take us through his experience of life so that we can understand the conclusion to which he came. He begins by telling us that everything in life is vanity (literally “breath”—verses 1-2) and that the same things happen over and over again, in an endless, meaningless repetition (verses 3-11), with the result that there is no point in trying to change things or trying to understand why things are as they are (verses 12-18). The more wisdom you have, the more you’ll suffer grief (verse 18). In a sense, Ecclesiastes is an anti-wisdom book. It is the work of a wise man telling us the uselessness of his wisdom.

Chapter 2

The author began by telling us that learning is vanity. In this chapter he tells us that worldly pleasures are. In verse 1 he says that after discovering the uselessness of knowledge, he decided to turn himself to pleasure. In verse 2, says that laughter turned out to be mad or senseless. In verse 3 he says he experimented with the effects of wine and discovered that it only turned his wisdom into folly. Then he describes the great things he constructed and the wealth he accumulated (verses 4-10). But they, too, were no more than an ephemeral breath (verse 11). Having tried wisdom, madness, and folly, the author tells us that even if wisdom is useless, it is better than the other two. At least the wise man knows the uselessness of his wisdom (verses 12-14). But no one remembers the wise man any more than he remembers the fool—both die and are gone. Seeing that, he hates life (15-17). He hates the work he has done (18-23) and decides that the wisest thing to do is to indulge in pleasure (24-25). He ends with a verse comparable to Mormon’s “and thus we see,” reflecting on the decision to indulge in pleasure: God gives to each according to His wisdom, so it is vain to seek pleasure (26).

Chapter 3

Expanding on what he said in 2:26, the author says that the times when things happen are given by God, not decided by us, which means that what we will and decide has little if any effect on the grand scheme of things (1-15). Where there ought to be righteousness, there is injustice (16-17), so we see that men are, in reality, little different than beasts (18). The same thing happens to human beings that happens to beasts: they die and turn to dust and we don’t know what becomes of them after that (18-21). So there is nothing better than to rejoice in what we have done—though, as he has already shown us, that too is nothing (22).

Chapter 4

In 3:16, the author talked about justice and injustice. He turns back to that subject and tells us that seeing the tears of the oppressed and the power of the oppressors, he thought that the dead and the unborn were better off than the living (1-3). Turning back to individual endeavor, he notices that our work creates rivalry with our neighbors and decides that it is better to get half as much quietly (in other words, with peace of mind) than to have a great deal through hard work and striving (4-6). The miserly person who depends on his riches will be lonely and useless (7-8). Companionship is better (9-12). But the companionship of kings is vain, in other words, we ought not to choose our companions with an eye to their power or social standing or the degree to which they respect and flatter us, since all are equally useless (13-16).

Chapter 5

Seeming to continue to talk about the person who depends on his own work and riches, the author tells us to remember that living as we ought is more commendable to God than the sacrifice (temple worship) of a fool (1), and he warns against repeating the same requests over and over again in our prayers, for the Lord knows what we need (2-3). He reminds us to keep the vows we make (4-5), and he summarizes verses 2-5 by reminding us of the uselessness of repetition and warning us against making excuses for our failures (6-7). In verse 8 he warns us not to be surprised at corruption in government, but to remember that there is someone higher than political leaders who will judge, and in verses 9-17, he tells us again of the vanity of riches. He ends the chapter by coming to the same conclusion he came to at the end of chapter 3: we ought to enjoy our lives and the fruits of our labor, and we ought not to worry about the shortness of life since God has given us whatever joys we receive in life. They are nothing, but that doesn’t prevent us from enjoying them.

Chapter 6

Koheleth describes what life is like if you have riches but cannot enjoy them (1-9) and reminds us that it is useless to struggle against the misfortunes that befall us (10-12).

 Chapter 7

In verses 1-12, the author give us a series of proverbs that tell what the good things in life are, and in verses 13-14 he tell us that we should submit to the will of God. Then in 15-22 he gives us some rules for living, but he reminds us that the search for wisdom is vain (23-25). He ends with a condemnation of bad women (the opposite side of the praise of the good woman in Proverbs 31:10-31).

Chapter 8

After a tribute to the wise man (1), Koheleth gives advice about how to relate to a king (2-9). Though the advice was important to people living in a time when the king could make or break anyone, even on a whim, it may seem no longer useful to us. But it is not difficult to see how to generalize it as advice about how to deal with those who have power over us, whether in the government, in our jobs, or in church. In verses 10-15 the author returns to one of the themes he takes up repeatedly in various ways: though he knows that “it shall be well with them that fear God” (12), there are wicked people to whom things happen as if they had lived righteously, and righteous people to whom things happen that would seem to be the fruits of unrighteousness. (Compare 7:15.) The only answer he can see is to enjoy the life that God has given one, whatever it is (15). Though he uses the phrase “to eat, and to drink, and to be merry,” he doesn’t seem to be recommending sensualism as much as he is recommending that we accept what God has given us and enjoy it. Koheleth’s conclusion to the problem is that we cannot understand the ways of God (16-17).

Chapter 9

The author continues the point with which he concluded the previous chapter: there is no explanation for the vicissitudes of our lives (1-6). (Since the chapter and verse divisions were not created until hundreds of years after the book was written, in truth, the writer just continues on the same theme.) This means, as he has said before, that we should enjoy whatever it is that God has given us (7-10). Of course, even as we enjoy the gifts we have received, we know that our skills do not decide what rewards we will receive (11-12). The pleasures, wealth, and other worldly things we receive are not our reward for righteous life. Then Koheleth points out that wisdom is both useful and unappreciated by giving an example (13-16), and he concludes by contrasting the quiet wise person on the one hand and the noisy fool, as well as the sinner, on the other (17-18).

Chapter 10

The writer continues to contrast the wise man and the fool (1-3). Then he again raises the problem of dealing with rulers, many of whom may be fools but they are fools who have power (4-7). Some have suggested that “the rich” in verse 6 refers to the spiritually rich. An alternate spelling of the Hebrew word would yield that reading. Others have suggested that it means the rich and that Koheleth is merely showing that he is from the upper class and thinks that they have a natural ability and right to rule. However, the latter interpretation isn’t consistent with Koheleth’s views about the distribution of wealth and wisdom (that they are not distributed according to merit). Though verses 8-11 appear to be only practical advice, we might wonder why that advice is inserted here. One answer is that they may be practical advice aimed at those who must deal with a foolish king. In verses 12-15, the writer returns to comparing the fool and the wise, and in verses 16-20, he returns to his discussion of government, pointing out the effects that it has on the governed.

Chapter 11

Koheleth advises us to do as much good as possible, for given the uncertainty of life, we do not know who it is we need to help nor when we will need to be helped in return—however many good days there are, there will also be many dark ones (1-8). Then, giving advice to youth, he says that they should enjoy the pleasures of youthful life, but at the same time they should remember that God will judge them for what they do (9-10).

Chapter 12

There are many interpretations of verses 1-8, but there is general agreement that they describe the inevitability of aging and its decay.

A note about translation: The word “while” at the beginning of verse 2 should be translated “before,” the word “not” should be removed from the verse, and the word “nor” should be changed to “and”: “Before the sun, or the light, or the moon or the stars be darkened, and the clouds return after the rain.”

Some interpret the keepers of the house as the legs, the grinders as the teeth, and those who look out as the eyes (3). Others take the keepers of the house to be the hands and arms, and still others understand them to be the household servants. The same variety of interpretations is true of each other element in these verses: some take them to be metaphors for the body and others take them to be more literal descriptions of those in the house of the old and dying person.

Verses 9-10 give a conclusion to the book as a whole: The wise will teach many things. In fact there is no end to the advice books that wise men could write. But true wisdom can be summed up briefly: fear God and keep his commandments. This is what Koheleth has been trying to show by recounting the inexplicable vagaries and difficulties of life: Ultimately we cannot understand why we prosper nor why we fail to prosper, so we cannot be the masters of our fate. All we can do is trust God. Though he does not repeat it here, Koheleth has also come to one other conclusion, namely that we should enjoy the lives God has given us.

13 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson 31: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes”

  1. [...] to this post at Feast Upon the Word. 0 people like this [...]

    • JBer said

      Thank you for the lesson on Proverbs & Ecclesiastes. It was so very helpful and informative. The doctrinal principles were very sound as well as “Gospel” teachings. Thank you!

  2. Cherylem said

    Jim,
    thanks for these notes. I am teaching this lesson next Sunday (not tomorrow) . . . maybe I can add something here on Proverbs.

    Cheryl

  3. Dan Bluth said

    Today is my first-time as viewer and asker-of-questions. (I appreciate the efforts expended here; all participants seem to be like me, seekers – yet much more erudite. I’m grateful.)

    What of Margaret Barker’s (and, by citing her, other Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship contributors’) inclusion of “wisdom literature” as things lost during Josiah’s reforms (vis a vis Sunday School Lesson 30)?

  4. Linda said

    Thank you so much for the information. I did a good bit of research when I read this for my blog. I did not find much from an LDS perspective. Your insights were very helpful. I was very inspired when I read Ecclesiastes and wrote several poems that helped me interpret Solomon’s (?) mindset. You might enjoy them. Thanks again for the website. Linda

    • Jim F. said

      Linda, glad to hear that this site is helpful to you. Keep coming back and add your own thoughts when you can. And thank you for your poetry!

      Those who don’t know how to get to her poetry, click on her name in her response. That will take you to her blog, where you’ll see a tab for poetry.

  5. Dan B. said

    Jim F. states, “In wisdom literature, Wisdom (the Hebrew word is okmāh) is often personified as a woman, in fact, as a female deity.” Dr. Margaret Barker (1) blames pre- (during Josiah’s “reform”) and post-exilic Deuteronomist redactors for removing celestial Wisdom from our MT-based KJV and upstaging it with The Law, or torah. Older, First Temple-based knowledge and revelation (directly from Elyon and his Son, Yahweh – even perhaps including his Asherah, or Wisdom herself [see Daniel C. Peterson (2)], were supplanted by ritual and perfunctory performance. Thus, even to LDS christendom’s knowing smile (or pretended horror), the Old Testament that we read (and study together each week) may not be “translated correctly” after all. As Sergeant Phil Esterhaus of TV’s Hill Street Blues would say, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

    Notes:

    (1) See an excellent review of her work in Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and its Significance for Mormon Studies.” FARMS Occasional Papers 2, 2001 (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/papers/?paperID=6); also “Biblical Scholar Presents at BYU,” Insights Volume – 23, Issue – 4 (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/insights/?vol=23&num=4&id=353)

    (2) Daniel C. Peterson, Nephi and His Asherah, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 9, Issue – 2, Pages: 16-25, 2000 (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=9&num=2&id=223)

    • Jim F. said

      Dan B., thanks for the links. All of those are worthwhile. I don’t know how many of our readers want to go into the kind of depth to which Barker will take them, but I’m sure there are some, and your links will be useful to them.

      • Dan B. said

        Jim, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I do recognize many of your readers may not pursue the topic(s) I’ve cited. I’m no example-scholar, but it behooves us all to understand more of the politics, geography, archeology, and convoluted history of these wonderful O.T. scriptures. I meant only to encourage, not to detract from the blog.

        Dan B.

  6. Jim F. said

    Dan B., I wasn’t politely chiding you. I understood you to be encouraging rather than detractding from. Keep at it, please.

  7. oto cu gia re…

    [...]Sunday School Lesson 31: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes « Feast upon the Word Blog[...]…

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