We’re nearing the end of the school year (phew!). One of the courses that I get to teach most Spring semesters is Introduction to Old Testament Poetry, which covers Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song. We just finished the unit which covers Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These books, which both deal with wisdom, are incredibly different in how they deal with comparable questions. In many ways, Ecclesiastes is the “Anti-Proverbs,” but one of the places that you can see this the most is in the question of consequences.
In Proverbs, if you do the right thing everything will work out well for you: you’ll be wealthy, wise, etc., if only you’re godly! Perhaps the best example of this comes from the end of chapter 11:
The righteous is repaid on earth, how much more than the wicked and the sinner! (Prv 11.31).
Because of this connection between righteousness, wisdom, long life, and wealth, if you’re poor, or bad things happen to you, it\’s because you\’re stupid, ungodly, or both:
The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked will be extinguished (Prv 13.9).
Certainly, that’s the approach of Job’s “comforters,” who quote proverbial wisdom and use this reasoning in their attacks (cf. Job 21.17
But Ecclesiastes says that these truisms don’t work out because of the incredible power of injustice. This injustice and oppression is a frequent refrain that frustrates the hopes and securities of wisdom or wealth or godliness:
Again, I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them (Ecl 4.1).
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them (Ecl 5.8).
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart (Ecl 7.7)
People are greedy, unjust, and oppressive. If you read through Ecclesiastes, you see that—often—the government itself (often seen in the position of the King) is to blame for this injustice. Because of this system of oppression luck has more to do with the outcome of a person than their wisdom, hard work, or godliness.
Oh, Ecclesiastes still thinks that these things matter: if a man is lazy, his rafters will sag (10.18
), and wisdom is better than folly (2.13
), and may even make one more powerful than rulers (7.19
), but—other times—wisdom doesn’t save you from the rulers (9.13–16
), because one sinner destroys much good (9.18
This “Yes, but…” is the key to reading Ecclesiastes. We live in a world contaminated by sin where the natural consequences of things have been perverted, where injustice, sin, and death reign. Much of the meta-narrative of Ecclesiastes is a refutation of the “God’s Good Earth” theology to show that we no longer live in the Garden, but a world torn by sin. But recognizing and admitting this fact is unsettling! We instead prefer to think that—because we are so often rich beyond the standard of the rest of the world—Proverbs was right: We earned this! We worked hard for this! This is ours! Luck had nothing to do with it! And, sometimes that’s true, but most of the time there are far more influences on our lives that we sometimes want to admit.
One of the things that can trip us up, is the very system of oppression and greed that Ecclesiastes talks about throughout (such as in the passage I cited). Time and chance may happen to us all, but they happen more to some than others.
But I have to admit that the end of the semester musings aren’t the only thing that made me reflect on this concept and how we often want to believe that we live more in a Proverbs-style life than one of Ecclesiastes. I read Kyle Korver’s reflections
on his own personal struggle with this question and then I read the responses of some of my friends and I realized that many of the ways people approach the question of “privilege” comes down to a basic understanding of how direct a correlation there is between effort and outcome, between action and consequence: the exact interaction we see in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes!
In other words, reading Ecclesiastes helps us recognize that a little evil can go a long way and has a disproportionate power over the outcome of events (10.1
Interestingly enough, Korver notes in a different place, this exact issue
. When folks insist on things like “white privilege” folks which fit that demographic can react badly because we work hard; our lives were hard; and we didn’t grow up rich! We want to think that–whatever position and success we have–it’s because of our own smarts and savvy and sacrifice. We want to believe in a Proverbs position because we have and therefore we want to believe it’s because of ourselves and our choices (this, by the way, is the main reason that the Sadducees
didn’t believe in Fate).
But time and chance happen to us all. And Ecclesiastes demands that we consider that—maybe just maybe—it’s not because we were wise, but because our parents were and we are just the fool who inherits the consequences of their wisdom (2.19–21
). Certainly, we can pass on poverty and bad consequences just as easily as riches and good ones.
But whether we recognize the influence of our parents on our own lives, our own success, or our own failure, we need to recognize what Ecclesiastes says: systems of injustice exist, they can destroy the good we do, and that our inheritances can tip the scales of chance for or against us. And once we realize that, maybe Korver’s points about race don’t seem quite so strained as we may have first believed.