Yesterday I was looking through Ecclesiastes, which is a mostly confusing bummer of a book. Some highlights:
- Everything is meaningless.
- For people and animals share the same fate — both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless!
- We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us. And this, too, is a very serious problem. People leave this world no better off than when they came. All their hard work is for nothing — like working for the wind. Throughout their lives, they live under a cloud — frustrated, discouraged, and angry.
I could go on (and on and on). Reading, I thought to myself, What am I supposed to do with this?!
“When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”
When I was in high school, I used Cliffs Notes. They distill complex works of literature like Shakespeare, helping readers understand themes and plot and individual turns of phrase.
I was an English major and I’m not ashamed to say I used them. I didn’t buy Cliffs Notes to cheat or get out of reading — I still read the original texts. I wrote my own essays. Using an extra tool helped give me scaffolding. Then I could understand the author’s intent, use of language and symbolism, and enjoy the work as it was written. I needed a better understanding of something that was written centuries before I was born, because it was complex and rich.
Me reading the Bible: “Huh?”
I have been digging into different ways of reading the Bible. One of the most important components is having a better understanding of the context of the various books and letters.
People spend their entire lives studying the Bible, and I feel overwhelmed at the idea of attaining any sort of scholastic mastery. The book spans thousands of years and dozens of writers. It was written in and to cultures that are wildly different from our own. The more I learn about how the original readers of the texts would interpret it, the more lightbulbs go on.
Unlocking the Bible, just a little
Take the book of Ecclesiastes, for example. As I was reading David Pawson’s book, Unlocking the Bible, I learned more about the book.
“This book of philosophical speculation comes from King Solomon, who has reached the end of his life and is disappointed, disillusioned and hopeless. … This book shows the limits of human wisdom and is a salutary reminder of the sort of person we will become if we don’t discover God’s way to live.”
The context Pawson provides helps to reconcile the back-and-forth in the book of Ecclesiastes — as well as understanding comments like, “So don’t be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself?”
Add to my confusion the fact that I thought Solomon was this good, godly king. He was the wisest man and also built an extravagant temple. Shouldn’t Solomon be more pro-God at the end of his life?
I kept digging and learned that although God gave him wisdom and fame and riches (see 1 Kings 3), Solomon also disobeyed God. He took on foreign wives who brought their own gods with them.
In the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon looks over his whole life and concludes that the best way is to fear God. His final words are these:
Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.
The necessity of scaffolding
Nearly every question I have about the Bible has been asked before. I am not so original, so smart, that I am coming up with anything new. (Maybe Solomon was right and there really is nothing new under the sun!) As a result, I can stand on the shoulders of the scholars and historians who have learned much more than me.
To research and learn about the historical context of the Bible is not unspiritual, nor is it opening up a can of worms against one’s faith. Instead, research allows the words of the Bible to come alive in the age in which they were written.
The Bible didn’t land here like a meteor. It was written by actual people, thousands of years ago. The scaffolding of commentary and historical analysis is a great help.