Tag Archives: hopelessness

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.

The Gloom and the Glory


Christmas is meant to be a joyous time. It’s hard to get away from people without them saying something like, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” But what about those who can find no reason to be merry or no motivation to be happy? Solomon wrote, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda,” (Proverbs 25.20, ESV). In other words, pressing a person to be happy, whether through song or through words, can be cruel like stripping them of their coat when it’s freezing outside, or even irritating and explosive.

It isn’t that people don’t want to be happy during the holidays; it is that there is so much going on in their hearts and minds that it makes Christmas a time of darkness rather than of light. Real life isn’t like the Hallmark Christmas movies. Things don’t always work themselves out by Christmas morning. Peter doesn’t always make it home early to make some Folgers coffee that wakes up the family.

Widows and widowers have lost their life-long spouse. Parents have lost their children. Children have parents who are oversees fighting wars. Families are homeless. Families are watching loved ones fighting cancer or some other disease, hoping for one last Christmas. Fathers and mothers are without a job and cannot afford even the meagerest of Christmas gifts for their children. Families are torn apart because of harsh words spoken years ago or even just yesterday. Many are dreading visiting family knowing that someone they love will be passed out drunk before Christmas dinner is even served.

If we were to stop and think for a moment, we’d realize that these are the people are the people who can really understand Christmas the best. Who better to understand the marvel and beauty of light than those who are in a dark place?

Today is the first Sunday of Advent; it is a time when we remember what it was like to expectantly wait for the coming of the Messiah, not knowing when it may be. Today we have a date in mind when expectation will cease and celebration will begin: December 25. There was no such date for the Jews. Their date was simply known as “someday.” From the time of Adam and Eve, it was “someday.” Through the time of Abraham, Moses, and David, it was always “someday.” Someday never came though. Solomon took the thrown. After Solomon, Rehoboam split the kingdom because of his hubris. Jeroboam immediately led the northern tribes into idolatry, while the southern two tribes we less idolatrous. The northern tribes fell further and further into disarray as king after king lost control of the country. It was to these people that Isaiah wrote in the ninth chapter.

This morning we are only looking at the first two verses in this chapter. The first reality that we look at is the gloom of the people. As we get into more of the history of those to whom Isaiah wrote, we will see that they indeed lived in great darkness. The second reality is the glory that was promised to come to those who lived in gloom. Finally, we will see the gospel of hope. The gloom, the glory, and the gospel.