Ecclesiastes and the Sovereignty of God

Several months ago, a co-worker loaned me the book A Time to Be Born - A Time to Die, by Robert L. Short. I was so enamored with its insight into Ecclesiastes that I purchased my own copy.

Recently I have been involved with a debate concerning Calvinism over at Vox Popoli. Short’s commentary on Ecclesiastes makes such a strong case for Calvinism that I want to share it, here.

Herewith, pages 84-90. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you ought to purchase your own copy. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but it is available from various resellers on Amazon.



    Man's most subtle idol--and therefore the idol most destructive to man and difficult to root out of his heart--is himself. Even when all of the “things” of the world which men can worship and serve as gods--fame, wisdom, wealth, love, health, power, possessions, sensual pleasure and the rest--even when all of these fail to provide the satisfaction men seek from them, and in this way prove themselves to be “false gods,” men can still feel they have their own strength, or “inner resources,” to fall back on:

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate;
    I am the captain of my soul.

These lines from the nineteenth-century poem “lnvictus” express perfectly man’s basic sin of “pride”' (or “self-deification”), the basis for
all of man’s disobedience to God.
    Ecclesiastes, and the New Testament with him, are quite sure that, as Jesus could say, “No one can serve
two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This means that if finallyI am the master of my fate and captain of my soul,” then--logically enough--God cannot at the same time be my master and my captain. Or, to extend this logic one step further, if I should still insist that both God and “I” are my masters, then--because no man can serve two masters--God and I would have to be one. In other words, I would have to be God! But this is just what I’ve always wanted!
    Man has always wanted to be his own god or “master”' because after all, if he is confident of anything it is that
he has his own best interest at heart. Of whom or what else can he say this? But as far as the Bible is concerned, man’s self-deification or “pride” or desire to be his own master is man's basic--or “origin-al”--sin in two ways: First, it is the sin with which all men origin-ate or come into life; men do not begin their lives with a basic trust in God but always begin by trusting primarily in themselves. And, second, it is precisely on the basis of this sin that all of men’s sins have their origin. The poetic story of how this sin came about was fashioned and placed “in the beginning” of the Bible in order to tell us that self-deification is indeed our basic sin:

Now the serpent . . . more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made . . . said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of the tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:1, 4-5).

Bonhoeffer explicates this crucial passage of Scripture in this way:

Instead of accepting the choice and election of God, man himself desires to choose, to be the origin of the election. . . . Instead of knowing himself solely in the reality of being chosen and loved by God, he must now know himself in the possibility of choosing and of being the origin of good and evil. He has become like God, but against God. Herein lies the serpent's deceit. . . . the good and evil that [man] knows are not the good and evil of God but good and evil against God. They are good and evil of man’s own choosing, in opposition to the eternal election of God. In becoming like God man has become a god against God.

To put it another way, man’s own choosing, his “free will,” is really only a euphemism for man’s most subtle form of idolatry--self-deification. If I can
freely choose good or evil for myself, then I am finally “the master of my own fate.” And since one’s final “master” is by definition one’s god, and a man can have only one master or god, then I must therefore be my own god. In insisting on my own autonomy or “free will” I have actually “become a god against God.” Thus it is man’s own idolatrous desire to “be like God” that forces him to claim God’s free will as his own, to deny his own total finitude and hence to deny that only God is God.
    There is no biblical author who lays heavier stress on the fact that man is in no way God, but that only God in heaven is God, than Ecclesiastes. This is why Luther could say, “This book ought really to have the title, ‘Against the Free Will.’” “No other writer,'' says biblical theologian Bernhard Anderson, “puts more emphasis on the sovereignty of God.” The term “sovereignty of God” points to the biblical belief that it is God alone who is in charge and in control, who is “sovereign,” over absolutely everything that happens--past, present or future. This means that in this view it is also God who causes what men call “evil” and it is God who is behind all of man’s feeble little choices or “decisions,” including the choices arrogant man arrogates to his own “free will.”
    That this is Ecclesiastes’ view is so apparent that it cannot be obscured by even the worst or most archaic translations available of his book. The famous poem of “the times and seasons” (3:1-9) is a case in point. From the more traditional renderings that there is “a time to kill,” “a time to hate,” a “time for war,” etc., a reader can easily receive the impression that there are indeed times when it is proper for men, in their “freedom,” to hate, to kill, to go to war, etc. But it is Ecclesiastes’ meaning that the various times and seasons of all life are never dependent upon the “free will” man thinks he has, but are totally dependent upon the truly free will of God. We have therefore said in our translation that there is “a time
of . . . ,” rather than using the traditional “a time to. . . .” For there can be no doubt that this brings us closer to what Ecclesiastes is actually telling us. As R. B. Y. Scott points out:

The various actions named are carried out apparently at man's volition--all but the first. The times of his birth and death are not his to decide, and this gives us the clue to Qoheleth’s meaning. Just as surely as birth and death, so all other events and human actions take place when and as God deems them fitting. . . . What happens to man is predetermined by God, and man is in no position to argue with omnipotence.”

    The very fact that man’s smug self-righteousness or “self-deification” or “pride” or “free will” is man’s deepest and
final stronghold against God, accounts for the completely merciless and unrelenting No! Ecclesiastes hurls at this deadliest of all of man’s idols--man himself . His book is largely a remorseless polemic against the pride of man in general, but also against the way in which this pride had become a virtual doctrine of lsrael’s “wisdom schools” in particular. This school of thought is best represented in the Old Testament by the friends of Job, who were quite sure that Job had “freely” brought all of his troubles on himself and that all he needed to do to correct things was “freely” to pull himself up by his own spiritual bootstraps. But Job--and especially Ecclesiastes--know this is not the way life operates. Ecclesiastes was at odds with the wisdom of the schools because he saw them as being supremely overoptimistic about man’s own abilities and this at God’s expense. The “wise man” at whom Ecclesiastes is sniping not only claims to be able to “unscrew the inscrutable” and fathom the unfathomable mysteries of God; this unwise “wise man” also claims to have control over God. Such is the case with all men of “free will.” They themselves become the “prime mover,” God being only the helpless re-actor to the action men themselves initiate. Theologian Walther Zimmerli puts it this way:

Ecclesiastes is the frontier-guard, who forbids Wisdom to cross the frontier towards a comprehensive art of life. He secures the right interpretation of the sentence: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”. . . . He who fears God knows that God is the Lord, and that, if it is God’s will, even the highest human Wisdom can break down and become deep foolishness. The fear of God never allows man in his “art of directing” to hold the helm in his own hands. Wisdom . . . is possible when it is willing to seize only the portion and not the whole--when it is willing to enjoy the gift that God gives today and will not try to make God’s promise an item in the calculation of man's life. The fear of God remains open to God Himself--the free and living God. Hence Ecclesiastes reminds Wisdom of its place before the creator.

Ecclesiastes was a “wise man” himself, but a “chastened” wise man. That is, his conclusions abut man’s inability to save himself through either his own wisdom or his own actions were learned the hard way--by going all the way down these dead-end streets himself, the same way he learned of the”vanity” behind all of the vanities he tested. In Ecclesiastes’ “attempt to master the world ‘by wisdom,’ which means ‘by knowledge and active life,’ he encounters the reality of the creator more clearly than any other Israelite wise man before him. Everywhere he meets with a reality that is determined and cannot be apprehended. Behind all this determination and all this ability not to be apprehended it is God, who cannot be scrutinized, who is free, who never reacts, but always acts in freedom” (Zimmerli).
    In this struggle of one man, Ecclesiastes, against the proud self-idolization of the men of the wisdom schools, it is possible to see a rehearsal of remarkable likeness to the struggles that took place later when Jesus opposed the Pharisees, when St. Paul opposed the “Judaizing” elements in the early church, and when Luther opposed the medieval church. Common to all of these conflicts was the one question: Who
finally is man’s master? Man himself or God? But what is even more remarkable is the way in which this same struggle takes shape today. As we have seen, it was belief in God’s deity that first freed man from the enslaving “powers” of the world and thus enabled man to put nature to work for him. But once this process of “secularization” has been set in motion by faith, it can continue without faith. When this happens, man becomes completely alone in the universe--no gods, no God, only himself lost in the utter darkness of the surrounding void. Modern scientific man knows that he is completely a pawn of nature; he knows that even in his “own” controlling, all of his smallest actions are themselves finally controlled by blind, impersonal “laws of nature.” In this thoroughgoing “determinism” modern man and Ecclesiastes are very much in agreement. Both can actually see, with their own eyes, that they are not in control of their own destinies, but rather that they themselves are controlled by forces other than themselves. But whereas Ecclesiastes, on the basis of his heart, believes that God is that “Other” behind the “predestination” of the world, modern man--totally dependent on his eyes and thus having lost all heart--sees nothing but the indifferent clockwork of nature. Hence modern man is thrown completely back on himself to find any meaning in life. If man’s existence is to have any meaning at all, man himself must now create this meaning. And thus modern man is trapped in a paradoxical situation: while he correctly sees that he is only a tiny, finite part of nature, at the same time he is forced to believe the lie that he himself is “the Creator.” For as Camus could clearly see, “To kill God is to become God oneself.”
    But modern man can live only on one side of this paradox or the other, although he truly believes both sides to be true. Naturally his first inclination is to think the best of himself, and so he sees himself as his own meaning-giver. On the basis of one alien ideology (or “wisdom”) after another, modern man himself becomes the world’s savior in his “autonomous” attempts to perfect the world by giving it unity and coherence. The result is not man’s liberation as was hoped, but only the increase of his servitude. For man, who is imperfect, is made the slave of an alien system of perfection.
    The “dethroning of all autonomous wisdom is also the concern of Koheleth, when he indeed acknowledges wisdom within its limits as a high good, but at the same time throws a fierce light on its ‘vanity’ so far as ultimate questions are concerned, by his profound meditations on the power of God in creation” (Eichrodt). Because of its purity and remoteness from faith, it is
science which today best personifies man’s “autonomous” or self-proud wisdom. And therefore just as Ecclesiastes could act as a stubborn, “frontier-guard” against the presumptuous wisdom of his own time, as Zimmerli pointed out, so the “wise men” of today are still pointedly confronted by Koheleth's sharp and unyielding No! For it is indeed true that Ecclesiastes is out to dethrone all autonomous wisdom, and that means

to draw the boundary between the areas where scientific method is appropriate and where it is not, that is, to pronounce the “vanity of vanities” on human endeavor. This is possibly the most useful function that Koheleth's words could discharge in our times. Amid the confusions of what is now universally called a “scientific age,” the astringent “vanity of vanities” is urgently required that men may know where and where not the application of scientific technique and judgment is appropriate. Koheleth sets the limits. No science may provide a man with that which is ultimately profitable and worth-while, or with that which provides final satisfaction and meaning. Science may press out to the boundaries, but beyond there is a larger value, a fuller worth, and a dimension of experience, which are just not amenable to scientific investigation. . . . Scientific inquiry is concerned with matter of fact and not the determination of value, or profit, as Ecclesiastes would have said. Civilization will be eclipsed if technical capacity is pursued for its own sake, as an end in itself. . . . Still more will civilization be eclipsed, should the methods of science, because of the prestige which their success in their proper fields has brought them, ever come to be applied in areas of life where they are inappropriate. (Johnstone)

This “eclipse of civilization,” which even now is in the process of occurring, is the result of the constant meaninglessness to which modern man is exposed in his attempt to “go it alone”--the attempt to rely finally on his own wisdom for providing the world with ultimate meaning. And hence the collapse of this side of the paradox that modern man holds to be true, the side that insists that he must be his own meaning-giver, forces him to live on the paradox’s other side, the side that says that there is no God and that man is only an animal. And when man thinks of himself as “only an animal,” he will begin acting like an animal. This is the deterioration of modern man’s presumptuous wisdom into the chaos and despair of
nihilism, and is the very same deterioration St. Paul was describing when he wrote:

Claiming to be wise, they became fools. . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. . . . Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. (Rom. 1:21-22, 25, 28)

Ecclesiastes never uses the word “nihilism,” but he has a word of his own for it--”bestiality.” Indeed Ecclesiastes has himself often been accused of being a nihilist precisely because he sees
man in and of himself as being a totally finite animal:

For man is controlled by fate exactly as animals are controlled by fate; and one final fate awaits them both--death! They both draw the same breath of life; and man’s advantage over other beasts is nothing, for all is a breath that vanishes. (3:19)

But “Ecclesiastes is anything but a nihilistic agnostic” (von Rad). For he knows that man is that creature of God with whom God has created a special relationship: man can “acknowledge God,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. And thus for Ecclesiastes as well as for Paul it is only this very acknowledgment that can save men not only from the enslaving myth that their own “infinite” wisdom can supply them with meaning, but also from the “bestial behavior” caused by this proud belief’s inevitable fall into nihilism:

In this wicked behavior of men, I reflected, God is limiting them in order to show them their own finitude and their bestial behavior to each other. (3:18)

According to Bonhoeffer, “nihilism” is the underlying characteristic of modern man. No doubt this is true. There is also no doubt that Ecclesiastes, being so intimately acquainted with the “ins and outs” of nihilism, can give us great insight not only into how modern man got in this situation, but also how he can find a way out.
    But modern man is also
religious, is he not? Indeed he can be. But the fact is that the more basic cultural religion of “Man the Self-Sufficient” so permeates the life of modern man that even his so-called “worship of God”--as well as his “theology”!--is deeply infected with it. Modern man’s “religiosity” is largely just that--a thin religious veneer behind which he still trusts primarily in himself as “the master of his own fate, the captain of his own soul.” Ecclesiastes reserves his strongest terms for those who mask an ultimate trust in themselves, their own ability to win God’s favor, behind an outward show of piety. He calls them “fools” (5:1). The poster in the picture I have used to illustrate this verse is a perfect contemporary expression of the “religious” self-righteousness so abhorrent to Ecclesiastes. Like St. Paul, Ecclesiastes is unrelenting in his attack at this point because he sees clearly that the “religious” man is fundamentally different from no one else: The very last thing anyone wants to relinquish before God is the idol of one’s own “free will,” one’s own righteousness, one’s own control of one’s own destiny. The “religious” man is just a bit shrewder in his attempts to remain his own master: “What I am may be God’s gift to me . . . but what I make of myself is my free and big-hearted gift to God. Therefore God is in debt to me.” Naturally this point of view, which gives men control over God, will always be more popular than the biblical attitude on the subject, namely: “Who could ever give God anything or lend him anything? All that exists comes from him; all is by him and for him” (Rom 11:35,36 The Jerusalem Bible).
    And yet, even though Ecclesiastes would thoroughly agree with Jesus that “No one is good but God alone” (Mk. 10:18; cf. Eccles. 7:20), like Jesus, Ecclesiastes can then turn right around and tell us in the strongest terms to “shape up,” just as though we were all freely capable of “doing good” ourselves. For it is obvious that Ecclesiastes was an advocate “
of a positive involvement and participation in life. We find in this book a resolute opposition to any suggestion of quietism” (Edgar Jones). How then can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory demands, the demands to live as though it all depends on you, but believe that it all depends on God?
    Ecclesiastes himself shows us the way. His answer is given to us in a single demand that is constantly repeated throughout the Bible, the demand that we “fear God.” For Ecclesiastes, as well as for the rest of the Bible, “the fear of God” is a single power cell with both positive and negative poles. Positively, it means to
obey only God. For Ecclesiastes “the conclusion of the whole matter” is to “Fear God and obey his commandments! For this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Negatively, to “fear God” means to expect “trouble” if we do not so obey. “He who obeys the command will avoid trouble; for the wise man knows there will be a time of judgment” (8:5). (“Trouble” and “judgment” are to be understood here as occurring within a man’s lifetime. Ecclesiastes, remember, is not at all sure what--if anything--lies on the other side of death.)
    On the basis of this understanding of what it means to “fear God,” we can now see that the biblical ax is laid to the root of all human pride or boasting or self-righteousness adhering to men’s obedience to God. This happens in three ways: First, the
heart’s way: the fear of God alone. Obedience to God is brought about not by our own free wills, but in a way that “leaves us no choice” (2 Cor. 5:14 NEB). We must obey God if our hearts are to “avoid trouble”; and if we must, there is no place for pride in our own wills. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). For God meets us not as a harmless beggar, but rather in the same way that men are confronted by “the Godfather”: he makes us an offer we cannot refuse! This is exactly why St. Paul, an incorrigible old rebel exactly like the rest of us, could finally say, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). “Even if I preach the Gospel,” he says, “I can claim no credit for it; I cannot help myself; it would be misery for me not to preach. . . . I do it apart from my own choice . . .” (1 Cor. 9:16, 17 NEB). When President John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a hero in the Second World War, he replied, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” This is also the precise way in which one always becomes a man of faith. For it is not without first going through the harrowing, involuntary experience of having the original, false foundation of one’s life unceremoniously demolished, that one can then cling to God alone as one’s foundation. This is why Norman Snaith can say:

The less a man knows in his own experience of the saving work of God, the more he emphasizes the human element; the more he knows of the grace of God, the more he speaks of it as being decisive in his own life.

    Second, the way of the
head: the fear of God alone. For if we are to obey only God, which means also to trust only in him, then we can understand quite logically that in trusting finally in our own righteousness, or even in our own abilities to be righteous, we have thereby failed to trust only in God, to “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Mt. 6:33). Third, the way of the eyes: the fear of God alone. Our eyes tell us that the modern scientist is correct--that whatever “power” or “powers” are finally in charge of the universe, they are in charge of all of it and not just a limited part of it. These forces work with a visible constancy and orderliness and universality that for these reasons we can trace and use and depend on every day of our lives. Ecclesiastes believed this final “universal Power” was the living God, who just because he was God was completely in control of all things. But in this faith he found confirmation from his own eyes. And thus obedience only to God meant obedience to the sovereign Power behind the universe, rather than obedience to some helpless, second-rate mini-god, who was simply forced to do the best he could in view of a mysterious phantom called man’s “free will.” “This I saw and clearly understood,” says Ecclesiastes, “that the righteous and the wise and all that they do are controlled by God’s hand. . . . All things come to all men from a source beyond their control, just as the same fate can come to any two men . . .” (9:1-2).
    For these reasons, then, we can understand how another old rebel, Ecclesiastes, was able to avoid the “obedience” which is undermined by pride in itself, and instead hold fast to the pleasure principle of truly
humble obedience: “Live as though it all depends on you, but believe that it all depends on God.”

blog comments powered by Disqus