Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

source: lds.org

source: lds.org

I recently taught a lesson in Sunday School about Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. I didn’t really know too much about either book before the lesson, but as I researched, I was surprised that they even grouped these two books together in one lesson.

You could not find two books in the Bible so diametrically opposed to one another.

Proverbs is a positive book of poetic phrases that provide moral advice to help people achieve happiness.
“Trust in the Lord… and he will direct thy paths.”
“A soft answer turneth away wrath.”
“Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings, and the years of thy life shall be many.”
The bad guys won’t prosper and the good guys will be blessed.
Everything will turn out if you remain righteous.

On the other hand, Ecclesiastes is a man’s lamentations about the unfairness and futility of life. “The Preacher” (as we know him) seeks out wisdom and knowledge, he deals justly, he becomes extremely wealthy and prosperous, but he sees that it is all for naught.
The bad guys don’t always lose, the good guys don’t always win.
Life isn’t fair, and sometimes and it sucks.
All of my wealth and the good things I have done don’t matter because I am going to die and then all of the stuff I did will be gone and forgotten.

Let me give you an example of the language that typifies this book:

14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.
15 Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.
16 For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
Ecclesiastes 2:14-16

See what I mean?

I struggled with how I was to piece everything together – all of my research said that Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contradicted one another, but why would they even be included in the canon (and next to one another, no less) if they taught different doctrines?

So I searched the scriptures themselves, sought out verses where the two books seemed to conflict, and compiled the following list:

  1. “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.” Proverbs 3:13
    “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18
  2. “In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.” Proverbs 14:23
    “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:11
  3. “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it… The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him: but the desire of the righteous shall be granted.” Proverbs 10:22, 24
    “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Ecclesiastes 9:11
  4. “Whoso despiseth the word shall be destroyed: but he that feareth the commandment shall be rewarded.” Proverbs 13:13
    “There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 8:14

Whew.

How do you reconcile scripture that openly contradicts itself?

There had to be something else going on here, so I dove deeper into the meaning behind Ecclesiastes. What I found was enlightening.

There are a couple words and phrases repeated throughout the book of Ecclesiastes: “under the sun” is repeated 29 times and “vanity” is repeated 37 times (keep in mind this isn’t a very long book – only 12 chapters).

  • Under the sun – on earth, of the world, not of heaven.
  • Vanity – literal translation from Hebrew is “breath” or “breeze”, something temporary, fleeting, transient.

Now everything starts to come together.

The Preacher was lamenting mortal life, a temporal life, a life tied to this earth alone and not to God.

The point of Ecclesiastes is to demonstrate the futility of materialistic life. By using these phrases and words, the Preacher implies the transience of mortal life and the importance of reliance upon God.

Now we can see the true meaning of the contradictory scriptures listed earlier –
Wisdom of the Lord (scripture, science, history, literature) will bring you joy, not the wisdom of the world (trends, fads, gossip).
Labor for the the benefit of others and for the Lord, not for worldly gain or pleasure. Then your work will be worth while.
The righteous will be blessed – whether in this life or the next.
Life has no meaning or purpose unless one recognizes his Creator.

source: lds.org

source: lds.org

Now, Ecclesiastes isn’t all negative. Little discoveries of the importance of God are sprinkled throughout, reminding the reader to fear (respect) God and His teachings, but the Preacher makes his final point in the last chapter.

13 ¶Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12:13

That is the ultimate point of Ecclesiastes. We are here on earth to follow God and His teachings so that we can return to Him. If we do not hold true to His gospel, this life is a waste. We defeat the purpose of even coming here. But if we focus on our Father in Heaven and our Savior, everything is worth it.

We must constantly strive to center our lives on Christ. As the Preacher discovered, we may not see the rewards of our efforts in this life, but we will receive our eternal reward hereafter.

 

 

 

 
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2 thoughts on “Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

  1. Glad to see you engaging this book of ancient wisdom but sad that you are following an old trail through the book that doesn’t fit Kohelet’s real message. Ecclesiastes is a book about discovering what lasting benefit we can gain from our work. That is his thesis and he sticks with it throughout. The location where we do our daily work is on the earth or “under the sun.” That’s the only significance of the phrase and as Kohelet examines our work on earth he says, “my days were dedicated to a careful observation of all the work people do upon the earth, I hardly slept as I tried to discover intent for us but no one can fully comprehend everything that takes place under the sun. Even if a wise person claims to know what God is doing no one can truly know the mind of God.”

    As Kohelet studies everything we work at he discovers that when we work at anything with a future goal of achievement in mind it ends up being futile for our work is designed, by God, to never give us that kind of lasting satisfaction. God said in the beginning that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread” not “get ahead.” Even when Kohelet looks at wisdom as a pursuit he discovers “Even the pursuit of wisdom is futile for the wise person, like the fool, will also die and be forgotten.” There is no lasting gain in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge yet as a gift on this journey through life wisdom is greatly valued. Kohelet will say, “the wise can see where they are going but the fool stumbles along in the dark”, “wisdom is an inheritance” and “wisdom earns a person more respect that ten rulers in a city.”

    The classic mistake in reading Ecclesiastes is to miss the fact that Kohelet is looking at both sides of our work, at what we hope we can gain in the future and what it can do for us on our daily journey. Using the “under the sun” means “apart from God” argument does not clarify his messages, it simply covers up his wisdom and lets us move on other scriptures that are a bit more straightforward.
    Hope you keep reading the book.

    vance – http://www.artofwork.ca/meaningless

    • Vance, I think you and I agree. We are just saying the same thing in different ways. From what I understand, you are saying that Ecclesiastes is about how we need to focus on the present and how work benefits us in the here and now. Yes, work is meaningful and important, but not because of earthly results. Ecclesiastes is trying to help us to not focus solely on the material benefits of our labors, but rather on how our works transform us. We are the byproduct of our labors – that’s why building a life of wisdom, knowledge, and good habits is so important. Eventually in heaven we will look back and see how our works have changed us and blessed others. There we will see the fruition of the blessings promised to us in Proverbs.

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