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Job and Ecclesiastes: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Both Job and Ecclesiastes are books pertaining to the same concept and both, in the end give the same answer, though they come at it from different angles. Job initially and traditionally has been read or taught of as though it is about human suffering. Ecclesiastes is traditionally read and taught as dealing with a similar subject: the meaning of life (which to the writer seems to be: there is no meaning). It is pointless, worthless, or absurd.[1] Yet these are secondary issues being addressed. The main issue with which both Job and Ecclesiastes are dealing is how the reader should respond to God when faced with these secondary issues. As J. H. Walton points out, “the book [of Job] is more interested in one’s view of God than in one’s understanding of suffering.”[2] This may seem like an insignificant difference, but it is indeed a great difference for it shifts the eyes from the sufferer/hopeless to God.

This is quite evident at the very beginning of Job. After introducing Job and his righteous character, the writer immediately turns his focus to God and the angelic assembly. Satan joins the assembly and through conversation accuses God of injustice.

Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the works of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face,” (Job 1:9-11, ESV).

These verses are the point of Job. God does not seem to be playing by the rules. He is bribing people into being righteous by protecting them and giving them good gifts. Who would not want to live righteously if God promised them such wondrous gifts? Yet the opposite would be true for those who do not receive protection and gifts. Why would they want to be righteous before a God who treats them like dirt and ignores their plight in life?

Then again, Ecclesiastes sets its sights on the worthlessness of everything! “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” (Ecc 1:2, ESV). Everything one does in life amounts to nothing. There is no value in it. One can work hard all his life earning millions of dollars yet die just like everyone else. Like the poorest of the poor he dies and carries none of his riches with him. In a couple of generations, he is forgotten and his money is gone. It’s not just treasures though, but wisdom. The wise end up in the same boat as the foolish. The worker and the slothful are not that much different after all. What is the point of it all? Why is God playing such a cruel joke on everyone?

Both Job and Ecclesiastes then are speaking toward the same subject: theodicy. According to John Davies, “Theodicy is discourse about the justice of God in the face of indications to the contrary—the presence in the world of evil in all its forms.”[3] In other words, if God is just why is there suffering and evil, which tends to lend itself to many an atheist’s rejection of there being a God at all. Neither Job nor Ecclesiastes seek to answer the question of suffering and evil, but they do seek to answer the indictment that because of suffering and evil God must be unjust or that God simply does not exist.

Job’s argument, while it can be misunderstood, is much clearer than Ecclesiastes’ argument. Yet both become a bit clearer when one remembers the type of literature that these two scriptural works are: wisdom literature. Keeping that these are works of wisdom will help keep the mind focused upon the wisdom within each book. Yet not all wisdom is equally good or equally valid. Both Job and Ecclesiastes end with the main point: only God’s wisdom is good and right.

To get to this point, Job takes us through wrong wisdom first. At first one will find Job’s wife coming to him wanting him to curse God and die (2:9). Notice Job’s response, “But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak,” (Job 2:10, ESV; italics mine). This is bad wisdom coming from the wife’s mouth. She is being foolish. Then come the three older friends of Job along with Elihu who is much younger. Each of these three older friends have taken upon themselves worldly wisdom. This is what Walton calls the “retribution principle.”[4] This basically states that God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful. That’s how things work in this world. Therefore, since Job is suffering, he must have been unfaithful in some way. The only way to stop the suffering is for Job to offer sacrifices and/or confess his sins, open or hidden. This line of thinking is not much different than worldly wisdom today. The idea that God will strike one down with lightening or that they are suffering because one hasn’t said their prayers or gone to church lately. So they return to church for a week or two hoping that God will be appeased and their marriage will be fixed or that job will be found or life will simply be easier than before. It is such a small view of God and this world whether in modern times or in Job’s day. “In this way, Job’s friends can be seen as those who are advancing the case that the adversary asserted.”[5] God simply does not play by the rules; He is cheating the system.

Job comes back against such attacks on his character claiming that there is no hidden sin and no blatant sin either. He has lived the righteous life. He refused to admit to something he did not find himself guilty of. If he must suffer for living righteously then he will suffer. He will not give up living the upright life. “Whatever doubts he harbors and whatever accusations he hurls against the Almighty, as inappropriate and inaccurate as they may be, what is important for the book is that he retains the integrity of believing that righteousness is more important than rewards.”[6] Never does Job doubt the importance of being righteous.

Elihu, the youngest of the friends, finally speaks to Job. Though he is young, he gets much closer to godly wisdom than the older, more experienced men. Yet, he does not go far enough. Elihu, who may be the world first true theologian,[7] seeks to explain God’s actions synchretistically. He still utilizes the “retribution principle,” but according to Walton, “He expands the retribution principle so that it not only describes the remedial consequences of past actions (reward for righteousness, punishment or suffering for wickedness) but also now allows that suffering may be disciplinary and thereby preventative as it functions to restrain someone from following an unacceptable course of action.”[8] This is much closer to what pastors and church-goers lean toward. Why do bad things happen? It’s either a punishment on the unbeliever or its discipline on the believer. Yet through it all, God gave a different answer.

The final chapters of Job are filled with question after question that Job cannot answer. And one reads, “Then Job answered the LORD and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:3-4, ESV). Still more questions, though Job had gone mute. The point of God’s questions? It was not that God is so big and so great, how dare Job ever question Him! Rather it was to show Job that only God can do what God does. All that God does He does from His wisdom. The question that Job kept asking was, is God just? But the question is not, “Is God just?” but “Is God wise?” For a wise God must be just. If we can trust God’s wisdom and live accordingly (Prov 3:5-6), then we can trust God’s justice. Even when we do not understand why He does it, we can be confident that He does it in good and right wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is not much different, though it reads quite differently than Job. Is it right for God to expect people to live righteously only to die just as those who lived rebelliously? Is it just for a wise man to die like the foolish man? “Everything is absurd because there is no payoff for anything we do. The main reason why this is so is that death cancels out any such potential of profit.”[9] The writer initially compares life to the stream running into the sea, but the sea never fills up. It is like striving after wind which can never be caught. It is all pointless and hopeless because, as the “No Fear” T-shirt of the 90s said, “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”

Yet there are indications within Ecclesiastes that Solomon has a focus. He is headed in a very clear direction, but one must be astute to that. It does not help that translations, which are by necessity interpretations by the translators, do not explicitly show this, translating the same phrase one way in certain passages and another way in the final passage. “I perceive that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man,” (Ecc. 3:12-13, ESV). The word “everyone” in verse 13 is kol-ha’adam in the Hebrew, kol meaning all (encompassing), ha-adam meaning the man. It is easy to see it being translated as everyone (all the man/men). It is done this way in 2:13, 5:19, and again a very similar translation in 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart,” (ESV; italics mine). Yet, it is translated differently in 12:13: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” (ESV; italics mine).

Peter Enns points out that when one understands kol-ha’adam the same way in each passage as being the whole duty of man, one begins to see how the book ties together. The whole of man (the very goal of man) is to enjoy the food and drink of his toil. The whole of man (the very goal of man) is to die. Yet the Preacher bemoans both of these goals. As if, is this really all there is to life? Yet when one reads Ecclesiastes 12:13, one ought to get a different feel. Indeed, there is more emphasis in this verse than in the other kol-ha’adam verses (3:13, 5:19, 7:2). Solomon emphasized the word “this” as if he has reached the pinnacle and understands now “this is the whole duty of man!” Those other “duties” are under the umbrella of this duty. What would that duty be? “Fear God and keep his commandments.”[10] “Qohelet [Preacher in Hebrew] is wise, to be sure. As he says, pleasure and death are real and are portion of everyone [kol-ha’adam]. But there is a deeper, more fundamental obligation upon this earth, which is to fear God and keep his commandments. This is truly for everyone. . .”[11]

Fearing God, if one remembers is “the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7, ESV), and “the beginning of wisdom,” (Prov 9:10, ESV). As with Job, so with Ecclesiastes, one ends with the wisdom of God. That is the answer to suffering and hopelessness, understanding that God is wise in all He does even when one does not understand why He is doing what He does. Incidentally, Habakkuk attests to the negative end of this, but delivers the same truth. “Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? [sounds like Ecclesiastes] For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the seas,” (Hab 2:13-14). Immediately he states however that the nations are refusing the glory and instead would rather have their shame (cf. Hab 2:16). As one reads through this short prophetic book, he cannot help but get an understanding that while Habakkuk did not know what God was doing and thought Him to be unjust (like Job and Ecclesiastes), as God revealed to him His plan, Habakkuk’s complaints turned to praise.

In the end, the believer cannot help but think of all of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. Why did God do such and such and allow this and that? It seems wrong and unjust. Yet one sees then that God is wise. His plan is intricately woven into the fabric of this universe and humanity. In the end, one must admit as Job did, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:4, ESV). Since God is wise, He is just. One need not fear though He suffers or sees all life to be pointless. For this reason one can, “know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom 8:28, ESV). So again, these books—particularly Job and Ecclesiastes—are about our response to God: the trusting and fearing of God and His wisdom.

[1] Peter Enns, “Ecclesiastes, the Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 129.

[2] J. H. Walton, “Job, the Book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 339.

[3] John Davies, “Theodicy” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 808.

[4] Walton, “Job, the Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 340.

[5] Ibid., 337.

[6] Ibid., 338.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 338-339.

[9] Enns, “Ecclesiastes, The Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 129-130.

[10] Ibid., 125-129.

[11] Ibid., 129.

Samson Vs. Ruth

During the period of the judges of Israel, one will certainly find a time when the people of Israel did what was right in their own eyes and thus what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. While each judge seemed to have their flaws, hang-ups, and sins, Samson takes the cake. He is not so much a leader as he is a product of his times. Around this same time, though we aren’t sure of the actual time frame, another man from Judah lived with his wife and two sons. Due to a famine, the family went to live in Moab, where it would seem the Moabite women were right in the eyes of his sons, and each son took a wife from the people of Moab. Surprisingly however, Ruth the Moabite was much closer to being a true Israelite than Samson.

The lives of Samson and Ruth could not be more different. Samson was born to a family of the tribe of Dan. His birth was prophesied by the Angel of the Lord, not once but twice. He was to be a Nazarite from birth, thus he was not to cut his hair, eat or drink anything that had grapes, not touch the dead or even be in the presence of that which has died. It was clear that Samson was to be someone special to the people of Israel. Ruth on the other hand was born in Moab. While no one knows anything about her childhood, one can look to her country and see that they were not friendly towards the Israelites. It was Balak, prince of Moab, who called on Balaam to curse the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings. It was Eglon, King of Moab, who oppressed the Israelites and was outwitted and assassinated by Ehud, the left-handed Benjaminite. Moab was birthed from the loins of Lot and his daughter, thus making it a land forever known for its incestuous beginnings. The people worshiped Chemosh, a god whose name meant “conqueror” but was said to be an abomination of Moab (1 Kings 11:7). This was the life of Ruth–born into a land hostile toward Israel and worshiping false gods. One would not expect her to be of any import in the story of Israel.

Samson grew up, surely having heard of his prophecy and knowing that God had personally set him aside. Being young and hearing such news would have most likely left him puffed up. As Paul would later say about pastors/leaders: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil,” (1 Tim 3:6, ESV). This certainly would be the case with Samson. Though a Nazarite from birth–one that is set aside for God–he had no time to take God into account. His only desire was for his own pleasures. He did not delight in God, but delighted in himself.  Yet Ruth was attracted to this God that she did not know. Though she was free to go back to her home after the death of her husband, Ruth stayed with Naomi, her mother-in-law. Orpah, her sister-in-law, had no problem going back home to get remarried. Yet Ruth did not simply ask to stay, but begged to stay with Naomi. “But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you,'” (Ruth 1:16-17, ESV). Not only did she claim Naomi’s God to be her own, but called upon Him using His covenantal name as witness, in essence giving her own vow before the YHWH. She intended to keep covenant with God and with Naomi, while Samson only kept covenant with his whims and lusts.

One sees this as he reads about Samson’s marriage. He finds a Philistine woman–the people who were at the moment oppressing his own people–whom he finds attractive and so wants her for a wife. He also begs, but his begging’s motivation is fueled by lust. Even when his father and mother tried to talk him out of marrying their enemy, he would not listen to them, but instead he responded with “Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes,” (Judges 14:3, ESV). It is not difficult to see that he was not in love with her, but in lust for her, for when she betrayed him by telling the answer to his riddle, he left her only to return when he was feeling amorous (14:19-15:1).  To take a step back, before the wedding he was on his way to see her when a mountain lion jumped out at him and in his strength he killed it. According to the Nazarite law, he was to present himself washed, shaven, and begin his vow again having been in the presence of death. He did not do these things, but continued on his way. Later on his way to the wedding, he saw the carcass with a beehive containing honey. He took of the honey and ate it, thus once again becoming unclean, and also having shared it with his parents, making them unclean. Thus not only dishonoring his Nazarite vow, but dishonoring his parents.

Ruth however sought to show love and compassion to her grieving mother-in-law. She allowed Naomi to rest and mourn, as she worked to get food on the table. Unlike Samson, Ruth was actually doing what was right. When she went out, she did just as Naomi told her to do. Rather than do what was right in her own eyes, she did what was right in God’s eyes (Lev 23:22). Boaz, upon hearing about her life, gave an incredible witness and blessing to her in saying, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, whose wings you have come to take refuge,” (Ruth 2:11-12, ESV). While Samson disregards his vow, Ruth not only kept her vow, but actually was consistently following, whether intentional or unintentional, the commands of the LORD.

Samson understood his strength was unlike anyone else’s and desired to show it off. To do so he would put himself in dangerous situations being extremely outnumbered, walking through enemy territory at midnight, and continuously going to Delilah for sexual liaisons knowing that she had men waiting for him to ultimately give away the secret of his strength. He killed thousands of Philistines, which would have made him unclean and needing to restart his vows, but he did not.  All of these actions were done out of pride and done in ways that made a spectacle of himself. He was not so much interested in being God’s leader and deliverer, and yet certainly was interested in the gifting that came with the job.

Ruth was a woman of humility. She was not only of humble means but of humble heart. Even as she courted Boaz, she called herself servant (Ruth 3:9), laying at his feet in a posture of humility showing her willingness to let him do with her as he saw fit. She followed after the advice of both Naomi and Boaz, as Naomi told her where to go to glean the wheat, and as Boaz told her to follow close to the women and not to depart from his fields.

Due to Samson’s pride and disregard of God’s calling, the Spirit of God left Samson and he fell into the hands of his enemies. They poked out his eyes and made him their slave. Though he would avenge himself, not the Lord nor the Israelites, but himself, he would die a slave rather than a deliverer (Judges 16:28-30). Ruth on the other hand, died a prosperous woman and the great-grandmother of King David.

It is clear that Samson while a man from Israel was not a true Israelite, faithful to the covenant of God. Yet Ruth, while a woman from Moab, embraced the God of Israel and the people of Israel becoming part of the lineage of the Messiah who was to come. Samson forsook the Torah while Ruth made it her own. May every believer seek to imitate Ruth in her obedience of faith.