A brother sen[t] the following questions for me to answer.
Rev. G. M. Ophoff,
I read with considerable interest your article, in the February 15 issue of the Standard Bearer, entitled, “The Author of the Book of Ecclesiastes.”
In general, I agree with your conclusions, especially in regard to the Solomonic authorship of the book. I believe that the article is very instructive and therefore serves toward a better understanding of the book of Ecclesiastes. There are, however, a few questions that I would like to have answered. They are as follows: In the first place, how must we explain Solomon’s experiment from the ethical-moral point of view? Could he give his heart to know madness and folly without committing sin? Or was he in some way excusable? In the second place, was not this whole experiment incompatible with his great wisdom? Did not even the most simple child of God in the Old Dispensation know that madness and folly implied sin? May we not then conclude that Solomon, with all his profound wisdom, knew that far better and that therefore such an experiment was entirely unnecessary either for him personally or for our instruction? Finally, how are the questionable actions of Solomon to be explained in the light of his wisdom which God gave him? I refer now to such things as over-taxing the people for the sake of maintaining his extravagant way of living, his marriage of so many wives and especially his turning away from the Lord to serve the idols of his heathen wives in the last years of his life.
I realize that it is impossible to answer all the questions which might arise in simply one article. I am also aware of the fact that the matter in question does not categorically fall under the heading of your article. They are, nevertheless, questions which arise in the study of the book of Ecclesiastes and therefore closely related to the subject about which you wrote. Would you therefore kindly consider these questions and answer them in the Standard Bearer? I would appreciate it very much and I believe it would be profitable to the readers.
Your Brother in Christ.
A thoughtful reading of our book does indeed provoke just such questions. My correspondent desires that I answer them. I herewith do so the best I know how.
Question: How must we explain Solomon’s experiment from the ethical-moral point of view? Could he give his heart to know madness and folly without committing sin?
Reply: My correspondent does certainly not mean to ask: Since Solomon, in common with all believers had but a small beginning of true obedience and thus was always increasing his guilt even in the performance of the very best of his works, how could he perform that very good work of giving his heart to folly and madness that in his own language “he might see what was good for the sons of men,” without at all sinning.
If this were the thrust of the question, my answer would be simply: No, assuredly, he could not. For the best works of God’s believing people are tainted with the issues of the flesh.
The stand of my correspondent is, it is plain, that Solomon’s doing, his giving his heart to know madness, was as such sinful, even deeply sinful perhaps, like murder and theft, so that what he wishes to know is: How could Solomon with impunity, be it for the purpose of advancing true knowledge (that is, seeing what is good for the sons of men), make experiments as such sinful and that thus involved him in sin? May a man ever experiment with sin, however good his purpose? May he abandon himself to a life of iniquity to see whether such a life is spiritually profitable? Is this even possible either for a believer or for a wicked man? Would the wicked one actually be interested in seeing what is truly good for the sons of men and could the believer get himself to revel in sin that he might see? My correspondent’s answer to these questions is, of course, an emphatic no. And this is also my answer. Well then, if the experimenter of our book should have to be found guilty of this, how, in this case, could it be maintained that he is a firm believer in God, a man of deep religious convictions? How could it then be accounted for that our book was given a place in the canon of the Scriptures? Such and similar questions arose in the mind of my correspondent in his study of our book. This can be expected. As I just said, the doings of our experimenter provoke just such questions. Let us see if we can remove the difficulties that here present themselves. I believe this can be done by a careful examination of the preacher’s report concerning his experiments and in the way of setting forth these experiments in their true light.
The preacher tells us that he proved his heart with mirth (chap. 2:1). He withheld not his heart from any joy. Whatsoever his eyes desired he kept not from them, his purpose being to see what was good for the sons of men (2:10).
The first question confronting us is whether the Preacher is here telling us that what he did was to follow pursuits, drink of pleasures, indulge in gratifications, as such sinful and therefore forbidden. In answering this question, we must allow the Preacher to tell us just what his proving his heart with mirth and his laying hold on folly consisted in. It consisted, according to his report, in the following actions: giving himself to wine; making him great works; building him houses; planting him vineyards, making him gardens and orchards, and planting trees in them of all kind of fruits; making him pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees; getting him servants and maidens, and having servants born in his house; having great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before him; getting him also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces; getting him men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts (2:3-8).
Were these doings of the Preacher, was this his labor and the joy that he derived from it as such, sinful? According to the Preacher, nothing could be further from the truth than to say of it that it was. Of the rejoicing of his heart in this labor he says that it was his portion in it (2:10); that there is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor (2:24); that this was from the hand of God (2:24); that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of his labor; that this is the gift of God (3:12, 22; 5:18, 19, 20); that an untimely birth is better than the man who begets an hundred children, and lives many years, yet without his soul being filled with good (6:3). He even commends mirth, because a man has no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and be merry; “for that shall abide with him of his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun” (8:15). This series of thoughts —thoughts that pervade the whole book—is comprehended in a final copious conclusion that reads: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (9:7-10).
Such is the counsel of the preacher, which he himself also lived, through his having kept himself occupied in a manner described in chapter two. And of this counsel as well as of all the teaching contained in our book, he says (12:9, 10), “And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.” How far from the truth then that in the Preacher’s own mind his occupations and the pleasures which he derived from them—those doings of his which he names in chapter two, in a word, his experiments or tests which he relates in this chapter—stood out in his mind as being in themselves sinful and thus forbidden. According to the Preacher, these doings formed a labor that was by itself altogether lawful in God’s sight. It was a work that the Lord had given him to do; and the pleasure which it yielded him was a good gift of God. And his counsel to his fellowmen is that they, too, make their soul enjoy good in their labor and regard this good as God’s gift to them.
So if this labor and the pleasure it afforded was actually sinful by itself, then the Preacher was a man who abandoned himself to a disreputable way of life not only but who in addition was so lacking in moral sense that he perceived not that he did wrong and that the resultant pleasures were sinful. Or if he did have understanding of this, he deliberately falsified as a teacher of men. Then his counsel is not only bad, but it is a counsel of which he knew that it is bad. Then his statement to the effect that what he wrote is upright, even words of truth, is not only false but a deliberate lie. It all comes down to this that if this lab our by itself is sinful, we are simply at a loss to know how to explain the inception of our book into the canon of the Scriptures, unless we want to say that the church made a grave mistake. But if so, what becomes of the promise of Christ that He will lead His church into all truth.
So the question confronting us is this: Was this labor and its resultant pleasures as such sinful? The thing for us to do is to subject the Preacher’s narration of his labor to a careful analysis; then we will know. Says the Preacher: “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men. . . .” (2:3). The text in the original reads: “Then in my heart I made deep search, to rein my flesh in wine, my heart guiding in wisdom. . . .” All interpreters are agreed that what the Preacher here tells us is that he did not plunge himself into unbridled sensuous intoxication, but that he behaved himself with wisdom and thus in his use of wine certainly practiced the required moderation and this in order that he might not disqualify himself for testing with calm reflection and in a composed way whether real contentment was to be secured by sensual joy. Now a moderate use of wine certainly is not as such sinful. According to Scripture, wine is a good gift of God; and likewise the sensual pleasure which a moderate use of it affords. It is only the immoderate use of wine and the resultant drunken madness that Holy Writ denounces as sin.
Such then is the construction to be placed upon the above-cited statement. It shows that these other statements—I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure—may not be taken to mean that the Preacher indulged in forbidden sensual pleasures or that, though these pleasures by themselves were lawful, the Preacher, in pursuing them, failed to control himself but, overstepping his bounds, wholly abandoned himself to a life of sensual gratification and that this was his sin. Had he lost himself in these pleasures—pleasure by themselves lawful—he would have destroyed himself. Then what would have become of his resolution to see, through these experiments, what was that good for the sons of men? As to the other occupations of the Preacher that he tells us about—His making him great works and the like—not one of them was as such sinful. Certainly such doings as building houses, planting vineyards, getting servants and maidens, and gathering gold and silver are not as such sinful. In the case of the Preacher, it was a labor that his hands were finding to do. It was a labor of which he was persuaded that it had been laid upon his hands by the Lord. And so it had. Because Solomon had not asked for himself riches, wealth and honor, but wisdom and knowledge that he might judge the people of Israel, God gave him, in addition to wisdom, riches and wealth, such as none of the kings had had that had been before him, neither any of the kings after him would have. In agreement herewith, the Lord had increated in the Preacher’s nature such traits as a love of wisdom, sense of the beautiful in nature and art, and a love of splendor and dignity. It was to these traits that he gave expression in all his enterprises. This certainly was not as such sinful of him.
So if this labor of the Preacher was nevertheless sinful, it was this solely on the ground of his not having performed it out of faith. And if his pleasures—the sensual delight that his moderate use of wine and food afforded him—were sinful, they were this because, being a child of darkness, he was not thankful. But the Preacher was a believer. His very experiments were works not of skepticism but of faith—of the faith that affirms that “the whole of man is to fear God”. Upon the foundation of this truth he proceeded. It must not be supposed that he began as an atheist and ended up as a believer; that, after having tried out everything else and found them wanting, he concluded that the best he could do for himself is to fear God and, as so concluding, just simply believed.
Why then did the Preacher call these labors and pleasures of his vanity, folly, madness, vexation of spirit? Not because as such they were works and pleasures of sin but for another reason. It is precisely because the preacher wants this strictly understood that he affirms over and over that a man’s labor and the pleasure it affords him is the gift of God. The doctrine contained either in this book or in any other book of the Bible is not that to reach a high state spiritually and intellectually the normal occupations and lawful pleasures of this earthy must be abandoned; but the teaching is that these occupations and pleasures must be retrieved from the sphere of darkness and restored to the service of God. Therefore the counsel of the Preacher is not only, “Rejoice, O young man in the days of thy youth. . . .” but also, “but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment,” and “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil” (11:9; 12:14). Herewith the first question of my correspondent—the question: “Could he give his heart to know madness and folly without committing sin?—has, I believe, been answered. The Preacher could and did give his heart to know folly without committing sin because this giving his heart to know folly did not bring him under the necessity of abandoning himself to a way of life in itself sinful and forbidden. All that it required of him is that he perform the work that his hands found to do and that he test the lawful pleasures that this work afforded him.
Now sin, the sinful way of life of the godless, the works of unprincipled men, is, to be sure, folly, madness. But the message of our book is not that sin is madness. What the Preacher has before his mind, when he exclaims, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, madness,” is the whole busyness of life, the practicing of trades and crafts, the cultivation of science and art, the pursuit of wisdom, in a word, all human endeavor and achievement of whatever character of unbelievers and believers alike. All this labor even apart from its moral worth, is in itself vanity, folly, vexation of spirit, that is, according to the text in the original, a feeding upon or desire after the wind. And it is this because it is essentially profitless, gainless, devoid of true progress, and thus utterly futile (chap. 1:3). Therefore, speaking now of himself, the Preacher declares that he causes his heart to despair of all the labor which he has taken under the sun. He hates life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous to him: for all is vanity and a feeding upon the wind (2:20, 27). Mark you, it is man’s busyness under the sun, of which the Preacher speaks; namely, of the earthly busyness of this life.
Why now is all this labor—the Preacher’s own and that of mankind in general—so profitless and thus so vain, futile? The preacher advances several reasons, the principal one of which he states in this language: “That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered” (1:15). The parallel passage reads: “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which He hath made crooked?” (7:13). Thus the straight is crooked, God making it so, how and on account of what, the Preacher does not say. The teaching of our book must be rounded out here by a reference to the facts of the fall, of the doom of punishment, and of the subsequent operation of the curse of God in the sphere of this earthly. Some tokens of the presence of this new and perverse order of things, observed by the Preacher, are: all the oppressions that are done under the sun; the oppressed being without a comforter, and power being on the side of the oppressor (4:1) ; the violent perverting of judgment and justice (5:8); a just man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man prolonging his life in his wickedness (7:15); just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; and wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous (8:14); one event—going to the dead—coming alike to all—to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrifices not (9:2); the race not being to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither bread to the wise, nor yet riches to the men of understanding, nor yet favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happening to them all (9:11); folly set in great heights and the rich sitting in low places (10:6); and finally, servants riding upon horses and princes walking as servants upon the earth (10:7).
So has the straight been made crooked indeed. And man by all his labors does not rectify what is unjust in this world, deliver from the curse of God, free human existence from the wrath of God by which it is pervaded. For God has made crooked the straight. Despite all man’s efforts, the curse of God continues to stalk the earth and the revelation of His wrath from heaven persists. Thus human effort attains to no true success either in a practical or theoretical relation. Neither does it attain to enduring wealth of happiness. For everything that is accomplished under the sun is subjected to the curse of temporality. And at this stern barrier all efforts after the attainment of durable happiness utterly fails. The satisfaction that is striven after is as the wind. The happiness sought is but a momentary delusion. The great void in human existence remains. This being true, to what real purpose then is all man’s labor? To no purpose whatever. It is utterly vain. This is the message of our book. Not to see this is to miss the point, in the whole argument.
But if matters stand thus, if all the works that are done under the sun are vanity and vexation of spirit, why should a man work at all? Because he must. It is his portion, his lot. It is doing that which his hand finds to do. True, it is vexation of spirit, is all this labor; but “this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be afflicted therewith” (1:13), in order that man, His believing people, may in the school of experience come to realize more and more keenly that all this labor and the pleasure it yields is in itself vanity indeed, that by it man attains to no true success and happiness, that thus the whole of man is to fear God. Certainly, it is not necessary to show from the Scriptures that it is exactly in the school of hard experience that God’s people learn all their great and valuable lessons, and that the prophets and apostles of God received their great revelations. So does God make all this labor, by itself vain, to work together for good to them that love Him. As they develop spiritually in this school they say with growing conviction and understanding: “Truly, the whole of man is to fear God. The language of the Preacher ceases to puzzle them. They know whereof he speaks when he says: “I said of laughter, it is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?” and “I looked upon all the works that my hands have wrought. . . . and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit. And all their labor, however vain in itself, is a good work of which the Lord will not be forgetful. And they may count themselves co-workers with God in the sphere of His covenant. This, I believe, answers the second question of my correspondent. The third question I will answer in the next issue of our magazine.