“My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
The world is sin-cursed. Young men and women are diagnosed with cancer; small children are sexually abused; politicians accept bribes; married couples remain infertile; soldiers are killed by “friendly” fire; people are killed in car accidents for which they are not responsible; tyrants bring about pogroms and massacre; hurricanes cause destruction to lives and property; and reputations are destroyed when malevolent people falsely accuse and lie. The list could go on.
Who has not been touched in some way by suffering and injustice in this sin-cursed world? In the ancient world, suffering may have been described in different ways because of somewhat different circumstances, but the pain we feel as a consequence of living in a sin-cursed world is still a common human experience.
The Wisdom literature in the Bible is especially descriptive of the plight of human suffering. Unfortunately, the Church has often neglected or sometimes even abused the Wisdom literature found in the Bible. This careless negligence of Lady Wisdom has deprived the Church of some of the most exalted literature in the Bible, and perhaps in world literature, and also some of the most consoling sections of Scripture.
The books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are not meant to be treated in isolation from one another; rather, they are to be read in counterpoint. That is to say, these three books should be read together, as interacting voices in a dialogue.(1) Reading the Wisdom literature in this manner can exacerbate the tensions and voices discovered among the books.(2) Yet, the residual tension created by reading these books together, which reveals a severe description of life in a sin-cursed world with brutally honest questioning, finds its ultimate resolution and goal in Christ, who by the Apostle Paul’s own description, is the fulfillment of Wisdom.(3)
Retribution in Proverbs
First, in Proverbs, we have a very prominent theme that is known as the idea of retribution. Simply defined, it goes like this: God rewards men for doing good, but he punishes their evil deeds. This is a traditional view of retribution. Consider, for example, Proverbs 12:21 & 13:21:(4)
“No harm befalls the righteous,
But the wicked have their fill of misfortune.”
“Misfortune pursues sinners,
But the righteous are well rewarded.”(5)
Notice the contrast between the destinies of the righteous and the wicked in these verses. When Proverbs does take note of suffering on behalf of relatively good people, divine discipline may be imputed to the experience, and thus it can be calculated as a consequence of divine favor, i.e., God is construed as testing them:
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord loves as a father the son in whom he delights.” Prov. 3:11-12.
Retribution in Ecclesiastes
But note well, at this point another factor is introduced into the traditional notions of retribution (so evident and frequent in the book of Proverbs):(6) why do the innocent suffer? Life doesn’t make sense in this sin-cursed world. Enter Job and Ecclesiastes. Job is one of the most radical and profound books in the Scriptures. We will, however, leave it aside for another time. Ecclesiastes, nevertheless, will illustrate this factor well. The writer to Ecclesiastes notes that there are all kinds of inconsistencies in the world. There are “flagrant contradictions that cannot be explained away.”(7) Moreover, for those that have ambitious plans, Ecclesiastes warns them that they may be disappointed with the hand that life deals.(8)
Things don’t always work as our sense of justice indicates that they should. There is a real sense in which life in this sin-cursed world is “absurd” to our intuitive longing for harmony.(9) This arises “from a contradiction between two undeniable realities.”(10) The logic of the system of cause and effect in the world is often seemingly skewed. Moreover, there are forces beyond our control, indeed, beyond the horizon of what we can see and understand that often has the most profound effect upon the lives of human beings.
Ponder the following passage from Ecclesiastes, where the writer observes that the same destiny falls both to the righteous and the wicked:
My thoughts also turned to appraising wisdom and madness and folly. I found that
Wisdom is superior to folly
As light is superior to darkness;
A wise man has his eyes in his head,
Whereas a fool walks in darkness.
But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both. So I reflected: “The fate of the fool is also destined for me; to what advantage, then, have I been wise?” And I came to the conclusion that that too was futile, because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies, just like the fool! And so I loathed life. For I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is futile and pursuit of wind.(11)
Death is the great leveler. I would suggest that the writer in Ecclesiastes at this point is not merely describing his internal conflicted thoughts but the absurdity of the external world of which he is an observer. The world is absurd. Note the insistence of Ecclesiastes at this point about the transience of earthly glory.
This shocking estimation can be noticed throughout Ecclesiastes. According to the author, what is especially frustrating is not only the external description of this contradictory world, but the fact that one cannot understand how God is orchestrating it! Consider another example from chapter 8:
And here is another frustration: the fact that the sentence imposed for evil deeds is not executed swiftly, which is why men are emboldened to do evil – the fact that a sinner may do evil a hundred times and his [punishment] still be delayed. For although I am aware that “It will be well with those who revered God since they revere Him, and it will not be well with the scoundrel, and he will not live long, because he does not revere God” – here is a frustration that occurs in the world: sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that is frustration . . . For I have set my mind to learn wisdom and to observe the business that goes on in the world – even to the extent of going without sleep day and night – and I have observed all that God brings to pass. Indeed, man cannot guess the events that occur under the sun. For man tries strenuously, but fails to guess them; and even if a sage should think to discover them he would not be able to guess.(12)
This passage is vintage Ecclesiastes with its key statement: you cannot find out what God is doing under the sun! This is, in a word, the “shipwreck of the traditional view of retribution.”(13) Indeed, things are not always as they seem. There is here an emphasis on “the inversion of principles espoused by traditional wisdom.”(14)
At this point, regarding the notion of retribution, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes seem to have some irresolvable differences. Does this mean that we should extricate ourselves from this biblical tension of ostensibly irreconcilable voices in order to bring urgent scriptural (if only abstract) harmony between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? No. I think that the way forward is to acknowledge a unity in diversity.(15) In short, we need all the various and distinct voices and genres of Scripture to help us understand God, ourselves, and the world in which we live.
There is an organic unity in the Scripture; however, there is diversity within that unity.(16) God knows our needs. He accommodates to our need to hear the truth from many angles. For example, in the Scriptures, he gives us law, story, parables, short and long epistles, and Psalms of praise and lament along with many other types of literature. Each voice must be taken for what it is, but each voice must be taken seriously. In our attempts to search for unity in the Scriptures, we must be careful not to run roughshod over the distinct voices with respect to what both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are telling us with respect to retribution. Therefore, Ecclesiastes is a companion to, and not the enemy of, Proverbs.
In summary, Proverbs generally sees suffering as a consequence for sin; however, God may also send suffering as a test as well.(17) This is the traditional view. Even so, Ecclesiastes demonstrates that the even the virtuous in this earthly life may suffer in inexplicable ways since they are participants in a world that is cursed. Ecclesiastes especially describes a world in which the disruption of sin has brought reality into opposition with justice and truth. Both covenant breakers and covenant keepers inhabit a sin-cursed world filled with “absurdities.”
Although this tension introduces a mystery that will remain until the Second Coming of Christ, the way to hope and consolation is by focusing on Christ—who is not only the fulfillment of wisdom, he is superior to wisdom.(18) The advent of Jesus Christ at His first coming inaugurated His kingdom, a kingdom that will eventually right all wrongs. Focusing on Christ and His work as the consummation of wisdom helps saints find their bearings in the midst of this sin-cursed life, a life filled with absurdities.
Ultimately, as the Apostle Paul affirmed, “salvation found its goal and fulfillment in Christ. So too does wisdom.”(19) A day is coming when warm tears will no longer be shed, and when silent screams of unspoken pain will be bathed in the melodious Song of the Lamb as a vast, innumerable host sing:
Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have
ESV, Rev. 15:3-4
2 This is not to suggest that the books are not complementary and supplementary to one another, they are.[back to text]
3 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel & Wisdom: Israel’s Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life (New South Wales: Lancer Books, 1987), 149.[back to text]
4 Of course, the following verses, e.g., Proverbs 13:23-24 keep this principle from being what Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 573, calls, “a tidy calculus.” Moreover, Proverbs is not, as Kidner points out, An Introduction to Wisdom Literature, 118, “blind to the anomalies of life: it is aware of innocent people who meet a violent end (1:11; 6:17) or are cheated of their rights (17:23, 26; 18:5) or of their livelihood (13:23).”[back to text]
5 Jewish Publication Society Translation.[back to text]
6 This is not to suggest that there is merely a simplistic view of retribution in Proverbs; however, space constraints do not allow the author to develop this notion here.[back to text]
7 Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes (AB 18C; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 41-42.[back to text]
8 See William P. Brown, Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 149.[back to text]
9 Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down & A Time Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999): 30-50.[back to text]
10 Antoon Schoors, “Theodicy in Qoheleth,” in Theodicy in the World of the Bible (edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor; Leiden, Brill, 2003), 375.[back to text]
11 Jewish Publication Society Translation, 2:12-17.[back to text]
12 Jewish Publication Society Translation, 8:11-17.[back to text]
13 Roland E. Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC 23A; Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1992), 85.[back to text]
14 Martin A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 197.[back to text]
15 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005): 274-276. Vanhoozer is specifically dealing with the pressure theologian’s work under to find one voice that holds the distinctive voices recorded in Scripture together; nevertheless, his point is germane to my discussion here.[back to text]
16 This is a notion with a definite pedigree that is observable in Geerhardus Vos, in Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eerdmans, 1948). For example, consider his pedagogically instructive comments on page 16, when he says, “The main problem will be how to do justice to the individual peculiarities of the agents in revelation. These individual traits subserve the historical plan. Some propose that we discuss each book separately. But this leads to unnecessary repetition, because there is so much that all have in common. A better plan is to apply the collective treatment in the earlier stages of revelation, where the truth is not as yet much differentiated, and then to individualize in the later periods where greater diversity is reached.”[back to text]
17 For more detail nuance on how exactly retribution works in Proverbs and God’s involvement in those consequences, see Lennart Boström, The God of the Sages: The Portrayal of God in the Book of Proverbs (Coniectanea Biblica 29; ed. Tryggve N.D. Mettinger and Magnus Y. Ottosson; Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1990), 134-139.[back to text]
18 See Waltke, Book of Proverbs, 130-133.[back to text]
19 Goldsworthy, Gospel & Wisdom, 149.[back to text]
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 4, Issue 3.
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