THROUGHOUT THE BOOK OF PROVERBS, Solomon asserts that The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (4:7 ESV). He insists that receiving or seeking instruction and then heeding it is a lifestyle of wisdom, as in My son, be attentive to my wisdom (Proverbs 5:1). Solomon praises wisdom as most vital in Proverbs, but in Ecclesiastes, he seems to struggle with the gift God gave him. Though he has wisdom, Solomon bemoans his and man’s limitations, and yet he eventually perceives a parcel of hope in a life of wisdom and in a life lived in the fear of God.
Much of Solomon’s perspective concerning wisdom is experiential. As a ruler, his heart is guided by wisdom (2:3) as he sought to improve his kingdom and become great, to surpass all who were before me (2:9). For instance, Solomon admits that he built, planted, bought slaves and flocks, gathered gold and treasures and found pleasure in them (2:4-8). He also agrees that any man could find pleasure in his work, that this too is a gift from God (2:24; 3:13, 22). But Solomon then quickly concedes that he himself found all of these pursuits to be empty, a striving after wind (2:11). For him, having wisdom or exerting wisdom with all of his toil did not elicit a lasting peace or contentment. He sees that accomplishing more brings less reward in his journey for wisdom.
As Solomon labors to understand wisdom, he also contrasts it with foolishness. He readily acknowledges that wisdom is better than folly (2:13), extremely so because he juxtaposes it as light to darkness, as if there were no comparison. Later, Solomon says that the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (7:4). It’s as if the foolish man is so ignorant of life that he can laugh and cajole with no understanding of serious matters: The laughter of fools . . . is vanity (7:6) or a vapor, something without depth that will merely dissipate. This implies by contrast that wisdom does endure. Yet ironically, Solomon does equate the foolish with the wise in one thing—that they die the same death and leave nothing behind (2:16; 9:11), for all go to one place (3:20). This speaks more to his melancholy state of reflection though than to what wisdom truly is.
The most distinct theme of Ecclesiastes becomes clear as Solomon reasons through the meaning of wisdom and the meaning it has for his life—he regularly affirms that God is sovereign, both as creator and Lord. From the beginning of the book, Solomon acknowledges God, the one who gives man what he has, either good or bad (1:13, 2:24, 5:18), and the one who tests man (3:18, 7:14). But for Solomon, God, the giver of wisdom, also demands worship and obedience. Solomon must offer a pure sacrifice to God when he goes to His house or he too would be considered a fool (5:1). God is the one you must fear (5:7). It is here that Solomon knits his own understanding to knowing God, like in Proverbs 9:10, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Knowing God does produce wisdom. Solomon again says in Proverbs, Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning (9:9). However, Solomon also concedes that he, as a man, will never be able to understand all that he desires to, even the ways of God: then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (Ecclesiastes 8:17). Man simply cannot know everything, and perceiving that fact alone is also wisdom.
Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon persistently acknowledges not just God’s existence, but also His very presence and omnipotence. For Solomon, man’s desire for wisdom cannot be separated from knowing his Creator. Man may seek wisdom, desire instruction, and even heed what he learns, but his wisdom will always be limited. Solomon’s advice then to man is to live a life of temperance and to live in awe of God as we learn to know Him:
Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them (7:16-18).
THIS TIME OF YEAR seems to both sadden me and lighten my heart. In the school year, I grow sad because I realize that my time of influence with my students is even shorter. Only months remain, not an entire school year. Yet, I'm grateful for a two week reprieve. Not seeing each other for a time does help us appreciate each other more. I get to be a full-time mom in person for more than a few hours at a time. I'm not thinking of work to-do lists, which parent to call, which student to encourage, which grade to update, which novel to reread, which meeting to attend, which article to prepare. In the natural, my focus shifts. I have a feeling many of us have these halfway points whether in the course of the natural calendar, the work world, or in the spiritual sense.
So what is it that makes a halfway point so poignant?
First, it's a blend of a sense of accomplishment and an understanding that more remains to be done. For me, I become thankful. Yes, I can see that more work lies ahead, but I can also see that some things have come to completion, and it's not because of me. My accomplishments are not my own because I am God's creation, and He is working through me. "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works" (Psalm 73:28). In Hebrew, this word work means something that God has made or done. This is the same word used in the Genesis account, things that are created like ourselves. In the same way, as His created, we "bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!" (Psalm 103:22). We praise Him for for what He has created, that's us, and we praise Him for the works He creates through us. Psalm 90:17 reiterates this: "Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" Another way to read this within the context of the Hebrew meaning is "Let the beauty of God be upon us, and let the active work of our God be firm in us, so that our active work would be firm as well." It's really a simple idea. As I walk with God, the act of creation through my hands is like His act of creation. I am creating and working because I am in His image. And I am thankful that He chooses me to create and work.
Secondly, this halfway point is poignant because I have time to reflect. If I truly reflect—turn back and look again—I will hopefully see both my successes and failures and even moments that are neither. James 3: 13 asks "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom." In the Greek, work here means work that completes an inner desire or purpose. I hope I'm honest with myself, especially in the meekness category. I admit that my reflection often turns negative, yet that doesn't imply something horrible or discouraging. These are moments to renew purpose especially if the fall semester didn't go as I had hoped or planned. I intentionally think of which students I have truly helped, where relationship is strong, and yet I now have the time to consider how to better help those I didn't connect as well with. I'm often disappointed with myself for things I've said or situations I didn't handle with wisdom, but I know I'm learning alongside my students, and God is with me. As I reflect, I once again grow thankful.
And that may just be my point. I'm only halfway. Things aren't finished. I'm unfinished, but I'm thankful. "I give thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart . . . On the day I called, you answered me, my strength of soul you increased . . . for the Lord will fufill his purpose for me. Do not forsake the work of your hands" (Psalm 138:1,3,8).
OBEDIENCE IS A SERIOUS THING. The Book of Judges clearly speaks of an absolute obedience that brings peace and blessing. In Judges 2:1-4 and 6:8-10, God sent both an angel and an unnamed prophet to remind the Israelites that they had not obeyed His voice. What a distinction! Obedience is not just about obeying the laws or rules—it’s about hearing God’s voice. True, the laws that God gave His people are His voice at this time, along with His messengers, but would the people listen and walk in His way as their fathers had? (2:22). Previously in Deuteronomy, Moses explained that God’s law was no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land (32:47). Think of that. Your very life. But His people were forgetful and many times did not choose to listen, to follow, to obey.
Whenever a judge arose who was aware of God’s covenant and who led the people in hearing and obeying God, the people enjoyed peace in the land for a few years or even forty. Consider Gideon. Although he was timid in personality and quite unsure of himself at first, Gideon was able to obey God. Yes, he was the least of the least, and yes, he questioned God's angel, but once he truly knew God was speaking to him, he obeyed. What mercy. God allowed Gideon to question. God gave him time. God even allowed Gideon to test Him twice, and most amazingly, God equipped Gideon to bring deliverance to His people, for the Spirit of the Lord clothed and covered him (6:32). It's almost as if once he knew he was chosen, once he knew without doubt that God was with him, then Gideon was able to choose obedience with ease.
But Gideon wasn't the only one. Once God's angel appeared, Manoah and his barren wife obeyed God, followed the Nazirite vows, and were blessed with the birth of Samson and his siblings (16:31). Here, Samson was raised with a purpose--to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (13:5).
Yet Samson was far from obedient. He lied, murdered, retaliated, wreaked vengeance, manipulated, and contaminated, yet God was with him. Mercy again. He was destined from before conception to save Israel (13:5), and God used him as a tangible show of strength and power to weaken the Philistines and strengthen the Israelites. But Samson may not have fulfilled the breadth of God’s plan because of his poor choices (eating from a carcass and making himself and his parents ceremonially unclean, entanglements with three Philistine women, et al). These choices and others impacted his effectiveness—twenty years of peace versus forty or more (16:31). Most of all, I wonder if this mutt mix of obedience, forgetfulness, and sin symbolized his own people. Like them, He did not know that the Lord had left him (16:20) until too late. What could he have done, how could God have used him if Samson had wholly obeyed by hearing God's voice for himself?
THROUGHOUT THE BOOK OF JOB, the behavior of Job’s seeming friends parallels the highly religious and legalistic behavior of the Pharisees as described in the New Testament. Even the words Job uses to describe his friends’ advice mirror those Jesus used when he described the Pharisees as “hypocrites” and “blind guides” (Matthew 15:7; 23:13-28 [ESV]). This is not to liken Job to Christ however. The parallel lies in the fully human responses and motives of both groups of men and in the purpose of their presence in scripture, which are most easily seen in the attitudes, diction, and tone they employ.
Attitude and motive seem to rule the actions and words of Job’s friends and the Pharisees. Job’s friends, for instance, propose word after word of attack, maintaining that “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar sincerely believe that Job has committed sin and is being punished (5:17; 8:13; 11:13-14), so they feel justified in correcting Job and calling him to repentance. In a sense, these “friends” are motivated by pride because they feel they know God and how He must work. Their proposed solution to Job seems simple to them because they are the self-appointed righteous. Similarly in the gospels, the Pharisees are motivated by a sense of self-righteousness. For example, within the book of Matthew alone, the Pharisees repeatedly growl and scoff at Jesus and his disciples for not following Hebraic law. They complain that the disciples ate grain on the Sabbath (12:2), Christ healed on the Sabbath (12:10), and the disciples didn’t observe ceremonial ablution (15:1-2). The Pharisees act in pride as they are equally sure of the rightness of the law and their full knowledge of it. But, unlike Job’s friends who are not motivated by envy, the Pharisees also attack Christ’s authority because they claim either he doesn’t have any (7:28-29) or that Jesus is using Satan’s power to drive out demons (9:34; 12:24). This type of attack elucidates their jealous motives, for the Pharisees despise what they do not have, much as Job’s friends attack an integrity they don’t understand.
Another similarity arises in the diction and tone used by Job, his friends, and the Pharisees. Job classifies his friends as bitter mockers (17:2) since they treat him in an inferior way (13:2) and asks, “What does reproof from you reprove?” (6:26). His disapproval of them and their words is clear, and he responds in an argumentative and sarcastic tone, especially since they choose not to believe his repeated defense. For instance, Job declares them “worthless physicians” (13:4) and “miserable comforters” (16:2). His use of oxymoronic language conveys his disdain. Meanwhile, Job’s friends gawk at him as if he were a fascinating sea creature (7:12), something non-human on display. They call his responses “a great wind” (8:2), “babble” (11:3), “unprofitable talk” (15:3), and “wicked” (18:5; 20:5). Altogether as a group, Job’s self-righteous friends persist in this direct critical tone until the end of their barrage.
Though the Pharisees share a negative tone with Job’s friends, they confront Christ in a different manner—with questions or laws, intending to accuse him publicly and entrap him in debate (Matt. 12:10; 22:15). They then “conspire” in secret once away from his presence (12:14). Amazingly, they refrain from calling him names directly, yet the disciples know that the Pharisees are offended by Christ’s rebukes and by his parables (15:12). By the time Christ is arrested, the Pharisees and chief priests ask others to falsely accuse Christ (26:59-61), rather than be guilty of that themselves, as if using the mouths of others would keep them from the sin in their hearts. But, their full hatred is revealed as they denounce Christ as a blasphemer (26:65). This severely antagonistic tone, one that demands death, is far greater than Job’s friends’ cry for repentance.
As mere men, both Job’s friends and the Pharisees find agreement within a group, one that pursues the “letter of the law” and that shares equal pride in religion and in criticism of others. But theirs are empty words. Job and Christ would agree that their critics have no wisdom to offer, no eternal merit, yet there are two purposes for these adverse trials. For Job and Christ, the verbal and emotional attacks become part of their trial and testing—a refining process that strengthens the spirit and cements an intimacy with God. For Christians, without witnessing this opposition and their effects, we would not learn as clearly from the trials of either man. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons to be learned then from the criticism of others is the attitude of our heart. When we feel the sting of criticism or when we are aware that we have wrongly judged others out of our human wisdom, we can humble ourselves, repent, and remain steadfast in trusting God.
AS A SINGULAR TYPE OF OLD TESTAMENT ACCOUNT, the merit of the book of Job is based on process and its relation to change. As a narrative, the book chronicles a process that involves change for the person of Job—a before, during, and after. In fact, the book presents multiple processes: for Job, for his friends, for Satan, and for Elihu. However in Job, a process can result in a change for good or in no change at all.
For Job, life devolves before he says with confidence that he now sees God, more than just hearing about him in the past (Job 42:5 [ESV]). So, though Job begins life with material and familial prosperity and God’s favor, he does complain, question, and grouse about his circumstances for some time. By the time God speaks to him out of the storm (38:1), Job has determined that he cannot understand the workings and nature of God, and he’s at peace now in his complete trust of God (42:3,5). Job’s perspective of God and his relationship with Him has undoubtedly progressed through this series of trials.
Being able to change though does not imply that Job has been perfected. On the contrary, Job shows us his very human nature, both strengths and weaknesses. Yes, Job is steadfast, grateful, and full of praise by the end, but he is also critical, complaining, doubtful, and especially fearful. He exclaims, “For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (3:25). It seems that the frailties of his human character outnumber his strengths. So too appear Job’s friends.
At the beginning of Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar appear supportive of Job during his trials as they empathize and remain quiet in either shock or grief (2:12-13). Things disintegrate quickly soon after they hear Job’s first laments. For nine chapters, each man is sure of his opinion of Job and declares that Job has to have sinned in some way. What we know about these men is revealed in their actions, their direct criticisms. As Job continues to justify himself, their haranguing worsens until Elihu and eventually God intervene. From this point, the change in these men is drastic as God directly rebukes them all and demands sacrifice and prayer (42:7-9). They have experienced a change that closely mirrors the structure of Job’s process—a commendable beginning, difficult middle, and a fitting outcome. Like Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have undergone a life-changing process where they began well. However, unlike Job, they then broadcasted their sinful nature through pride and their legalistic views of God. By the end, they repent, and their lives are spared.
But there are those who do not change in the book of Job, where no process is evident. For instance, Satan’s role is crucial to the development within Job and even his friends, but his character remains wholly unchanged. No mention is made of him by name again after the first two chapters. Interestingly enough, Elihu also remains static. His presence brings about a change in the pattern of argument and possibly prepares Job and his friends for God’s visit, but we see no visible change in him through his rebukes of the men or his praise of God. Like Satan, he is not mentioned again in Job. Satan and Elihu act a part in a greater process yet never develop in themselves.
Job remains the central figure, the one who undergoes the most serious evolution. He can see God now with a humble heart and clear sight. The fact that he can change brings not just merit to the study of Job, but also hope, a hope that we too can change, mature, and come to know God in a deeper, clearer way.