Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor – Chapter 1 – The Background of Things and The Whole Self

qoholethI have loved digging into Ecclesiastes 1 during the past week!  I am really excited about this study and have been amazed about the depth of meaning that I have found in chapter 1.  Most of my teaching experience and educational background is focused on the New Testament – especially Paul and Revelation.  While I treasure all of Scripture and I am comfortable teaching and preaching from the Old Testament, it never really resonated with me like the New Testament.  But in reading and studying Ecclesiastes this past week or so, it has really grabbed hold of my attention!

Over the next few weeks, as the Wednesday Bible study group at HUMC takes a look at this book, I’ll be blogging about certain aspects or points that I don’t fully address in the lesson.  This could be because of time constraints or it could be little nuggets that just didn’t fit into the lesson.  If the first chapter is any indication, I will likely be posting about certain words and how knowing their Hebrew meanings can open up the text for us in ways that reading it in English simply cannot do.  That does not mean that the Spirit can’t speak to use through our English translations, it’s simply that knowing some of the background helps us to have a deeper understanding of what The Teacher (the writer of Ecclesiastes) was talking about.  You can access audio of the lessons along with the handouts I distribute on the Harrisburg UMC website.  Additionally, I’ll direct you to these outstanding posts by Richard Beck on his blog Experimental Theology (which is a great blog to bookmark).  It had already been decided that we would study Ecclesiastes when I came across these two posts, but they did motivate me to dig into the text a little deeper.

Post 1 on hebel (“vanity” or “meaningless” in most English translations)

Post 2 on Ecclesiastes and idolatry

For our first post on Ecclesiastes, I want us to take a look at three Hebrew words and how knowing several possibilities for translation might give us a fuller picture of what The Teacher is teaching.  Words are slippery things.  Too often we assume that when we read a word in Scripture, it has a fixed meaning.  This word means this, whatever “this” is.  So, we don’t often take the time or effort to think about the multitude of meanings that words like “heart” or “word” or “follow” mean.  And you can think about this without knowing the first thing about Hebrew or Greek, though I’ve found that studying those languages has helped tremendously.  The two words that I want us to look at on this post are: “things” (verse 8), and “mind” (verse 13).  There are plenty of other words that I could talk about, but I don’t want this thing to get too long.  And volumes could be written about each one of these (and already have, especially “for ever”, a word used in verse 4 that I was thinking about exploring on this post and then thought better of it).  I’m not going to attempt a full accounting of what the words mean in Hebrew.  I’m simply going to highlight one or two things that I found interesting in my study.  This, after all, is a blog, not a book!

First Word – In verse 8, the Teachers says: “All things are wearisome.”  The word “things” is a translation of the Hebrew word davarim, which can also be translated as “words”.  There is a connection to another word, d’vir (pronounced “duhvir“).  This word originally meant “the most holy place in the temple”.  It also had the connotation of “in the back of things” or “in the background”.  It’s a possibility that there’s a depth of meaning to this phrase that isn’t captured by the word “things”, which is about as basic and non-descript as a word gets.  It might be a big assumption, but it makes sense to me that it’s not only “things” or “words” that are wearisome to the Teacher, but the background of things, the meanings behind the meanings, so to speak.  A few verses later, the Teacher says: “I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.”  The Teacher hasn’t just examined “things” or “words”, but philosophies and ideas and the systems “in the back of things” and has come up empty (as far as we know at this point).  The Hebrew word davarim might suggest a depth of meaning and weariness that “things” simply does not.  Though as a disclaimer, I’ll say that I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any stretch of the imagination…

Second Word – In verse 13, the Teacher says the following: I “applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”  The Hebrew word here translated as “mind” is libi, from lev, which is commonly translated as “heart”.  Generally speaking, the Hebrews had a more holistic or cohesive view of humanity than did the Greeks, who were responsible for the other dominate worldview at the time and place Ecclesiastes was written.  Greek philosophy is still hugely influential in our world today and in the Christian faith.  The Greeks, again generally speaking, understood people in less cohesive terms, basically compartmentalizing aspects of the person.  Philosophies differed, but the some of the words that we use to describe ourselves have roots in Greek conceptions of persons: mind (thinking), heart (emotions), body (our physical selves), and soul/spirit.  You can probably include gut and brain as well.  We tend to separate thinking and feeling and acting in ways that would likely not have made much sense to ancient Hebrew people.  The word “mind” here doesn’t capture, in my opinion, the full commitment of the Teacher to his project..  The Teacher engaged his full self in this project – libi means heart/mind/will.  Where this connects for me is the fact that it has been pretty difficult for readers to decide what exactly the Teacher is doing – is this theology?  Philosophy?  Empirical “research”?  A spiritual reflection on existence?  A pessimistic rejection of wisdom?

My hunch: Ecclesiastes is a combination of all of these things.  And this book engages our minds, our hearts, and our souls.  Of course, these “parts” of ourselves cannot be so easily separated.  Ecclesiastes engages us a whole people, presenting us with some really difficult questions that aren’t ultimately settled within the book.  I think that the Teacher would say “that’s life…even the answers are fleeting…”

Next week we’ll take a look at chapter 2…be sure to check out the audio of our Ecclesiastes study and the class handouts on the church’s website at harrisburgumc.org…btw, we’ll likely start posting the lessons early next week…

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