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Grace Q&A Part 1: Understanding Ecclesiastes

November 9, 2016

Professors at Grace College chat as they stroll down the sidewalk through a green campus.

Two Grace professors have coauthored a new interdisciplinary book on Ecclesiastes titled Fear God and Keep His Commandments: A Practical Exposition of Ecclesiastes. It examines Ecclesiastes not only from a theological perspective but also from a psychological one. Authors Tiberius Rata, professor of Old Testament studies at Grace Theological Seminary, and Kevin Roberts, professor of counseling at Grace College, spoke with Mark Mellinger of Bott Radio Network. Rata and Roberts oversee their respective programs at Grace College Online.

An edited transcript of the interview follows. Part two is also available.

Mark Mellinger: Ecclesiastes is a bit of a mystery. It’s a bit of a paradox to those of us who have been in the faith, I think, whether it’s been a long journey in the faith or a short journey in the faith.

So Tiberius, I’ll start with you. It seems like the point of view that Solomon consistently expresses is negative, at least throughout most of the book. This sort of flummoxes you when you start reading it. What does this teach us?

Tiberius Rata: I think it teaches us that we need to look at it from the perspective of Solomon.

Why is Solomon writing the things he is and why does he take sometimes a very pessimistic view? I think it’s because Solomon gets to the end of his life and realizes that he did not fear God, and he did not keep His commandments. If we think about his life, God appeared to him twice, and God gave him wisdom as he requested.

But after that, Solomon systematically and consistently disobeyed God. He went against His law by marrying foreign women and by worshiping their gods, and 1 Kings clearly says that God was angry with Solomon. So Solomon is not writing from the perspective of a man who knew God and obeyed him.

He writes from the perspective of a man who knew God but chose to disobey him.

Mellinger: So that being the case, Kevin, I want to bring you in on this discussion as the psychologist. What would your diagnosis be? Is he having what we’d commonly call a midlife or a maybe a late-in-life crisis? He realizes he’s been a failure and he’s depressed about it?

Kevin Roberts: I do think psychology kind of offers some models on this — the whole idea of psychosocial development and how somebody progresses throughout their life.

One of those says that from the 30s to the late 60s you have generativity — a need to nurture and guide young people and contribute to the next generation — versus stagnation. How do you end up stagnant in life? You self-indulge. You do things for yourself with your own interests in mind. [Solomon’s] consistent pursuit of that ends up resulting in someone being dissatisfied. This isn’t going to provide meaning and purpose. All the pleasures of this world … were not going to satisfy him.

Mellinger: Tiberius, you were saying that when we hear Solomon in this book, he is speaking from the perspective of one who was very wise, was very gifted by God, but just squandered it and experienced the disappointment that comes from disobedience.

So how do we know which utterances of Solomon then qualify as wisdom or a solid truth that we can learn from? And which might just be a result of his own flawed perspective that we really shouldn’t learn from?

Rata: That’s a great question. The reformers have taught us that Scripture interprets itself with Scripture.

In other words, we can’t just look at the book of Ecclesiastes and develop a theology of life. We have to look from Genesis to Revelation. We have to look at what other Scripture says. We have to look at the fulfillment of Christ, of Him coming and redeeming us from the meaninglessness that Solomon experienced.

We have to be mindful of what we call progressive revelation. The Bible did not end with Solomon, and it did not begin with him. So we have to look at what we call a biblical theology of what he’s talking about.

I think the book teaches us overall that apart from a correct relationship with God, everything is meaningless. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter how many things you build. Apart from a correct relationship with God, everything will be meaningless.

Mellinger: And do you believe that is the perspective from which he is writing then, in this book? Is this Solomon writing ironically?

Rata: He was wrong in disobeying God. That’s why he ends up in chapter 12 saying remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the evil days come (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Why does he say that? Well, when he was young, he remembered the Creator, but then he forgot about him.

So when he gets to the end and says fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13), I really do think that he does see the light in a sense … at the end of his life. Now, I might be wrong. He maybe doesn’t really repent.

But these words at the end seem to indicate that there is a change in him, that he does say fear God and keep His commandments. And again, he doesn’t say fear God and keep His commandments because I did it. Follow my example, no. Fear God and keep His commandments even though I did not keep them.

Learn from my mistakes. And in this case, people who try to find fulfillment apart from a correct relationship with God can learn from Solomon how not to waste their lives and follow God and obey Him, fear Him and keep His commandments.

Mellinger: [You use] a term called Hedonic adaptation. That sounds big, but I want you to unpack that. This is what was going on with Solomon.

Roberts: There are a series of researchers over recent years who have started the process of studying Hedonic adaptation.

And most of the research has been on covering negative experiences we have. We all have a certain level of happiness or contentment. And if … you go out today and you buy a new car, you might really enjoy that car, and you might really think that it will bring you a certain amount of joy for a certain period of time, and you’ll eventually go back to that set point.

And when the negative events have happened in life, we eventually go back to that set point. [With] positive events, we come back to that set point a little quicker.

I can pursue all of these pleasures in life and make it about my own personal pursuit of those pleasures, but they will never satisfy a longing that is a God-shaped longing. This is how we were created, this is how we were made to be, and you can’t violate that.