As we have seen the many ways in which the teacher can be pessimistic about the realities of the world around him, we move into this passage, highlighting the reverence that God deserves in light of humanity’s fickle behavior. The author of Ecclesiastes has been through trial and pain, his words of “wisdom” consistently reflecting his experiences. This little section in chapter five causes us to stop and reflect, to consider the larger context of the book, and to ask the question always worth asking: why?
While we see that either being wise or being foolish are both completely meaningless in and of themselves, over and over again in the words of every chapter, knowing this is Qohelet’s foundation helps to give us extra grip on handling these seven verses. Following the similar verbiage from Deuteronomy 23:21-23, both books coming from a shared history, these verses could be testimony themselves of watching those on the “inside” continuously “act a fool.”
The paradox in fearing God and knowing Him as friend can seem to come across as either/or, a sort of black and white, but these are not and should not be diametrically opposed. Yet, we tend to fly from one end of the spectrum to the other, overcorrecting and reacting to anything and everything with all or nothing. I haven’t yet read Jen Pollock Michel’s newest book, Surprised by Paradox, but her most recent article at Christianity Today helped me wrestle with this even more:
We read words like these in Scripture and damn ourselves, probably rightfully so. As a teenager, I made so many vows foolishly before God, begging for that one guy or whatever else you can think of and promising my forever faithful fire in exchange. While it’s laughable now to think of my impassioned asks, I do similar things in seemingly more appropriate adult ways, spewing thoughtless words out not only to God, but also to others. Much of even this comes out of a reaction to the way I felt in Church growing up, fearing God in a way that really meant acting in step with rigid rules and regulations. No matter which direction on the slippery sliding scale, I fall off.
Jesus, with His wisdom and Ecclesiastic sounding words, shares similar proverbs in the Sermon on the Mount. He, too, has seen the callousness of those who call themselves “insiders.”
The chapter finishes with some of our favorite words to throw out, like, “for where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” and, “do not worry about your life—seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.” These words bleed the similar helplessness I feel when given instruction I know that even my best vows won’t live up to. Yet, they also recenter the narrative of our lives to be in orbit around the better thing, in which following, all else falls into place.
When knowing and loving Jesus comes first, the grey matter in our life is worth wrestling through. When knowing and loving Jesus comes first, we find that wisdom has its place in what feels so meaningless. When knowing and loving Jesus comes first, we consider our actions not simply as a reaction, interrogating our deep seeded beliefs until what is true about Christ defines what is next. And, when knowing and loving Jesus comes first, even my failures as a known fool are found covered, worth found in a righteousness not of ourselves.
Therefore, fear God. Boldly.