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Before probing the argument of Ecclesiastes 2, I must pick up one line from chapter 1. Setting himself to explore by wisdom “all that is done under heaven,” the Teacher concludes, “What a heavy burden God has laid on men!” (Eccl. 1:13). Some might think this utterance springs more from bitterness than from faith, but at least it demonstrates that Qoheleth never descends into atheism. Yet those who read Ecclesiastes within the framework of the whole Bible cannot fail to see something more. This side of the Fall, God has indeed imposed on the created order an intentional discipline, a purposeful curse. Paul understands this and may be thinking of Ecclesiastes when he writes, “For the creation was subjected to frustration [or futility, or vanity, or meaninglessness], not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:20–21).
So now the Teacher begins his exploration of various domains:
(a) He pursues pleasure and wine (Eccl. 2:1–3). It is not that pleasure is never pleasurable, but that the more you chase it the more it disappears before your face, and you are “chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 1:17). It is such an ephemeral and unsatisfying thing for people to pursue “during the few days of their lives” (Eccl. 2:3).
(b) So he turns to building a vast estate, with all the pleasures tied to success and money. He is honest enough to testify that his heart took delight in his work, and this delight was the reward of his labor (Eccl. 2:10). Yet he looks back on his projects, at everything he had “toiled to achieve” (Eccl. 2:11), and he knows they have no eternal significance; they too are “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:11). He has to leave them all behind, whether his heir is a wise man or a fool (Eccl. 2:19).
(c) Even the pursuit of wisdom seems futile (Eccl. 2:12–16). Both the wise and the fool end up dead; neither will be remembered very long after death. Qoheleth does not deny that wisdom is better than folly (Eccl. 2:13), but insists that death swamps both. Wisdom and folly do not exist by themselves; there are only wise human beings and foolish human beings, and all human beings die.
Yet the preliminary evaluation at the end of the chapter (Eccl. 2:24–26) anticipates arguments still to come. There is God-given pleasure in work and food and drink. Part of the problem lies in trying too hard, in trying to extract from these pleasures more significance than they can provide. They are genuine pleasures from God, and to “the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness,” while the sinner’s life is profoundly meaningless.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Leviticus 19 is the repeated clause, “I am the LORD.” In each case, it provides the reason why the Israelites are to obey the particular command.
Each must respect his mother and father, and must obey God’s Sabbaths: “I am the LORD” (19:3). They are not to succumb to idolatry: “I am the LORD” (19:4). When they harvest, they are to leave enough of the produce behind that the poor may find something to eat: “I am the LORD” (19:10). They are not to swear falsely using the name of God: “I am the LORD” (19:12). They are not to play foul jokes on the handicapped, such as cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block in front of the blind: “I am the LORD” (19:14). They are not to take any action that endangers a neighbor’s life: “I am the LORD” (19:16). They are neither to seek revenge nor bear a grudge against a neighbor, but each is to love his neighbor as himself: “I am the LORD” (19:18). Upon entering the Promised Land, after planting any fruit tree they are not to eat its fruit for three years, and then must offer all the fruit to the Lord in the fourth year, before eating the fruit from the fifth year onward: “I am the LORD” (19:23-25). They are not to mutilate or tattoo their bodies: “I am the LORD” (19:28). They are to observe God’s Sabbaths and have reverence for his sanctuary: “I am the LORD” (19:30). They are not to resort to mediums or spiritists: “I am the LORD” (19:31). They are to rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, and revere God: “I am the LORD” (19:32). Foreigners resident in the land must be treated as one of the native-born: “I am the LORD” (19:33-34). Business standards must be aboveboard: “I am the LORD” (19:35-36).
Although some of the commandments and prohibitions in this chapter do not end with this formula, they are nevertheless blessed with the same motive, for the closing verse wraps the chapter up: “Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD” (19:37).
Moreover, judging by the opening verse of the chapter, the formula “I am the LORD” is in fact a reminder of something longer: “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’” (19:1). We have already meditated a little on what holy means (cf. April 8). Here, what is striking is that many of these commandments are social in their effect (honesty, generosity, integrity, and so forth); yet the Lord’s holiness is the fundamental warrant for them. For the covenant people of God, the highest motives are bound up with pleasing him and fearing his sanctions.
19:1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God.
5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from his people.
9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life1 of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
19 “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.
20 “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; 21 but he shall bring his compensation to the LORD, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. 22 And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.
23 “When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.2 Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. 24 And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. 25 But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the LORD your God.
26 “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. 27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.
29 “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. 30 You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.
31 “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.
32 “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
35 “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. 36 You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin:3 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 37 And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the LORD.”
23:1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.1
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness2
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,3
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely4 goodness and mercy5 shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell6 in the house of the LORD
24:1 The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof,8
the world and those who dwell therein,
2 for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.9 Selah
7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is this King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle!
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory! Selah
2:1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.1 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines,2 the delight of the sons of man.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment3 in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him4 who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
4:1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
6 If you put these things before the brothers,1 you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive,2 because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them,3 so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.