James: A transitional primer to begin to point Jewish people to the fulfillment of the law, Jesus (Proverbs of the New Testament)

This is a partial draft version of an article I am writing on James. It is not yet finished, but has enough information in it so far that it can be valuable as is until I can finish it.

Introduction:

I have been thinking about the book of James for a long time. Specifically I attended a translation workshop on the book, helped Mixtec speakers translate it into Tezoatlán Mixtec and Ayutla Mixtec of Mexico and have checked the book as a consultant in several other Mexican languages. All the preparation, exegesis, study, translating, checking, etc. brought about having a number of questions about the book and its purpose. The most basic issue, and a key to resolving many of the other questions and translating the book accurately, is trying to determine who James’ intended audience is.

Some of the answers to this question of the target audience, and the ways this has affected how I understand the rest of the book is significantly different than many commentaries I studied, and very different than most sermons people have heard.

Some of the things I discovered, deducted, are so different that some may say, “What? That is not right! That is not how I understand the book, or that portion of the book!”  I only ask that you keep an open mind as I set forth the things I have discovered as a result of helping to translate James into a different language, seeking to understand the logic and purpose of the book, and also what I have gleaned from further studies and several different authors. If in the end you do not agree with my conclusions, that is of course fine, I just ask that you consider the book from this unique perspective.

Who is James writing to?

As mentioned, a key to understanding the book of James is trying to determine who he is writing to. Who is his audience? After much study, it was determined that most likely his principle audience is Jews, as he states from the very beginning in 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Literally he says he is speaking to Jewish people.

However, some have taken this phrase as his way of speaking of the “new” Israel, with Christians as the people God has now chosen as His special people. Adding to this interpretation, they say, is that at James’ time, there were not twelve tribes of Israel. Ten had been carried away to Assyria around 720 BC, and only two confirmed tribes are left. However, the fact that James adds, “scattered among the nations” could cover even some people from the “lost” tribes, some of which, though living far away, may retain some of the Jewishness, and who are still heirs in a special way of the promise God made to Abraham. To dismiss the possibility that James is actually focusing on other Jewish people, and changing his words so that his words are directed to the new spiritual Israel seems to be a stretch. So let us see what significance James’ words have if we assume that he is speaking to his fellow Jewish people, and focusing his letter on their Jewishness, and not necessarily aiming everything at Christians, specially Christian gentiles.

James can be viewed as a transition primer, or a bridge from being a “good” Jew to leading them to faith in Jesus. He treats the most basic parts of faith in God, obeying God and living as God taught. James is taking on the misguided idea that just because they are Jews, they are God’s people and saved, without regard to how they live. Like Jesus said in John: “Don’t think that since you are descendants of Abraham, that you will escape.” He wants the listeners to live like God wants, like their ancestors had taught them, without overly focusing on Jesus. Yet!

To get their lives right according to what their Jewish faith teaches, he wants to start with the right foundation. James sets the firm foundation: to follow the two greatest commandments, just as Jesus taught them: “To love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”  It would be nice to see James, part 2, where one might expect that he would get to the main point, writing more directly so that they will realize that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that is in the Old Testament, and guide them to give their lives to Him. Then they would understand, as Hebrews explains, and as Paul shows with many OT prophesies, that Jesus is the only way to become right with God. In fact, if would be more logical if James came before Hebrews in the New Testament. James prepares them to have a closer relationship with God, to obey Him and to love Him and others, then Hebrews goes “straight to the chase” about how Jesus is the whole point of the Old Testament. James essentially wants them to be like the Bereans, to search the Scriptures and find that Jesus is the truth, the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

James focuses on their Jewishness like Jesus did

To help understand the form in which James presents his advice and teaching in this book, and to reinforce the idea that it is directed primarily to Jews, consider how Jesus taught his Jewish audience, what things he focused on and said, several which have been already mentioned. Consider especially how Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, people who were sometimes proud, hypocritical and did not always show love to others, issues James is dealing with in this book. Or how John the Baptist spoke to his Jewish audience, or even Peter in Acts, talking to the Jewish people.  In James, while some or even many are Christians, he is not focusing on this, he is focusing on their Jewishness, just a Jesus did with the people He spoke to.  James is rebuking the people for actions and attitudes which are very similar to the ones Jesus was concerned with.

Hypocrisy: Say you believe in God but no follow His commands

Mat. 23:23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Examples in James and/or Proverbs)

Mark 7:6-8: He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

Showing preference

Mat. 23:6: they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues”;

Luke 14:8-10: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”

Luke 14:12-14: “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”

Add a few corresponding examples of verses from James.

Brothers

Related to this question of who James is directing his letter to is the concept of “brothers”, a word he uses at least fifteen times in this short book. (1:2a: Consider it pure joy, my brothers,”)  As a translation consultant, I check what are known as backtranslations, where someone from a minority language translates the text of the revised and checked translation of a Scripture book “back” into Spanish. For example, a translation in Mixtec may say, “Kúꞌu̱ nda̱ꞌo ini Ndios saꞌa̱ ña̱yuu ndéi ña̱yuú yóꞌo”, and the backtranslation would be: “God loves very much the people of this world.”  I have seen a number of backtranslation of “brothers” which say, “brothers and sisters who believe in Jesus.” Now this would be okay if it was a letter written by Paul to Gentile Christians, but, is it okay for the book of James which I posit was written to Jewish people, many of whom where not Christians, or at  the very least, immature Christians with extremely limited knowledge of Jesus?

It was very common for letters written from a Jewish writer to other Jews to use the term “brothers.” In the New Testament, when one of the apostles is speaking to a group of fellow Jews, it is common to use brothers. In Acts, Peter uses this kind of relational vocative a number of times, for example: Acts 2:14: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem”, 2:22: “Men of Israel”, 2:29: “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried”, in 3:12 “People of Israel….” 3:17: “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” 4:8: “Rulers and elders of the people!”

While it is true that brothers is also used in Acts to refer as “Christian” brothers, fellow believers, in the context of James, it seems more appropriate to assume that he is writing mainly to fellow Jews, his people, his brothers (and sisters). James, in Acts 15:13 addresses the Jewish assembly with the following way: “Brothers, listen to me.”

Paul is an interesting case in Acts, for many times he knows that he has a mixed audience, speaking to both Jews and Gentiles. In 14:16, in the synagogue, he starts out saying: “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!” Then in vs. 26: “Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles,”. Then as he comes to his “climax” he combines them all by saying, “Therefore, my brothers,”. In Acts 22:1, as he is about to share his testimony in Jerusalem to mainly Jews, he starts out saying: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” And in 23:1, defending himself before the Jewish council: “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” Finally in 28:17: Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers,”.

Paul speaks mainly to the Gentiles in the majority of his letters, with a focus on confronting false teachings, many which come from the Judiazers, and trying to build up the church to maturity. Romans is usually the book many point to where Paul seems to have a mixed audience in mind, trying to explain what God did through Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles, with some sections an obvious message to the Jews, and others to the Gentiles. 

At least three of the non-Pauline books also focus their message in on the Jews. Hebrews speaks directly to Jews, but more directly than James, explaining, like Paul, that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Jewish laws and prophecies. 1 and 2 Peter is similar, speaking encouragement to Jewish Christians who are suffering.

Paul compared to James

In considering how the audience and themes James is focusing on is very different than the issues Paul was addressing, it is valuable to discuss Paul’s message to the Gentiles, since James, as has been noted, is not focusing on the Gentiles, but the Jews. Paul has a two part program when speaking to the Gentiles. First and foremost is to present Jesus as the only way to God, God’s way to become right with Him, the perfect sacrifice for sin who died in our place. While we were yet sinners He died for us. He reconciles us to God, He is our righteousness, the fulfillment of all the OT prophecies. He is the foundation, the most basic part of the message. The only faith that leads us to God and eternal life is in Jesus. Trust in Him!

However, Paul is dealing mostly with Gentiles whose whole life have been the complete opposite of doing God’s will, a lifestyle of abandonment to sin and mostly ignorance or disdain for what God commands. Paul knows they need a transformation of the heart and mind, not only to put their trust and faith in Jesus but also the power to live a life pleasing to God. He knows and teaches that this is only possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Because of the radical change needed from their old life to their new life, they also are in desperate need of solid teaching on how to live. Throughout Paul’s letters he has at least twelve lists of three or more sins that his experience with the Gentile people he has ministered to need the most correction. Every such list except for one includes at least three sexual sins (deals with sex in James?) , and they all also include many relational sins, how to get along, especially when you have new immature congregations that include both Jews and Gentiles, a significant clash of cultures and backgrounds.

This all is complicated by the Judiaizers, who, also knowing how “pagan” the Gentiles are, thinking that Jesus is not enough, are trying to change their “religion”, from pagan to Jewish proselytes, which include a lot of outward rules and laws like circumcision, food regulations, celebrating the Jewish festivals, etc. They are basically treating Jesus as an add-on to making the Gentiles into Jews.  Paul rejects this, of course, proclaiming that Jesus is the one and only way to God, and instead of trying to change their lives by changing their religion, he sets out intensely teaching them, “Now that we have faith in Jesus, how then shall we live via the power of the Holy Spirit?” Thus the 12+ lists of the predominate sins he sees them dealing with as he goes from place to place and new church to new church.

James is coming at this from a different perspective. The main people he is writing to, Jews, are the heirs of God’s promises. They have the background of God’s laws and for the most part know how He wants them to live. However, because of some of the factors mentioned earlier, they have drifted away from His perfect law and instructions, be it because of the flesh or Gentile, worldly influence. So he is asking the people to come back to God, to rebuild that foundation that their people have had since Abraham, and as they do this, they will see the need of Jesus. Not Jesus as an add-on to the law, but as the fulfillment of the law, the One the law has been pointing to the whole time. They of course will also need the Holy Spirit to make them new creatures like everyone else, but James writes as though they do have an excellent foundation from which to start from, and if they understand  it correctly, it will help lead them to Jesus, both for salvation, and also for a transformed life.

James is very different than other New Testament books

To show even more some of the differences between James, Paul and other (Gentile-directed) letters in the New Testament, below is a chart of some key words used in a number of NT books of similar size, specifically the keyterms Jesus, Christ and Gospel. The number count is based on the occurrences in the more literal King James version:

Book (KJV)JesusChristGospel
Galatians194414
Ephesians21534
Philippians22429
Colossians8292
1 Thes18166
1 Tim15171
1 Peter11274
James220

As noted in the chart, the Jesus and Christ are only found twice in the book of James, and both times together. 1:1: James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” And 2:1: My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.”

Note that many other words Paul regularly uses are not in this book. As mentioned, Hebrews is different in that there is little dispute it is written primarily to Jews, as is the case with 1-2 Peter. But even in these writings, the primary audience is obviously Christians who are suffering, not Jews and their particular issues.

What are the causes of the problems James addresses?

We can theorize of what influences are affecting the people James is speaking to. If they are living where there are synagogues and significant influences of legalism and the type of issues that Jesus faced with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the people may be going “through the motions” of obeying the law and traditions outwardly, but not living for God in their daily lives, their hearts being far from him. The more likely scenario would be that these Jewish people are living among the Gentiles and are drifting away and being corrupted by the Gentiles just as had happened to their ancestors. Could they be falling into idol worship and many of the sins that the Gentiles revel in?

In contrast to Paul, who is speaking to Gentiles who grew up doing these types of sins, and who see nothing wrong in doing them, James is speaking to people who theoretically know how God wants them to live, whose law, assuming most know more or less what it says, prohibit all these sins. But quite possibly, because of Gentile influence and sinful natures, they are dabbling in these pagan sins. The Jews are mostly aware that they are breaking God’s laws when they sin like this, while the Gentiles think it is all normal to live such a life.

As a result, James purpose in writing the book is to lead them back to even the most basic teachings of how God wants them to live and to relate to Him.  Every single verse in James is directly related to his purpose. With the overall goal of eventually bridging this to faith in Jesus.

References from the Old Testament

Like Paul, James also uses references from the Old Testament in his teaching and correction. James, in Acts 15 and writing the letters to the Gentiles, states that: For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.” The idea being that at least some of the Gentiles who are converts and God-fearers (i.e. Cornelius) know a fair amount of the Old Testament and so it can be used to teach certain truths about God to them as well as to Jews. I have mentioned all the similarities to Proverbs, James covering similar themes as Proverbs. James also lists a number of Old Testament heroes:

Abraham, someone Paul talks about a lot, in 2:21-23: “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called Godʼs friend.”

Job in 5:11: “You have heard of Jobʼs perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”

Elijah in 5:17-18: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”

Rahab in 2:25: “Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road.”

Add here a discussion of Proverbs and how it compares to James, or add this info earlier or tie it to the theme section.

Key words: God (20), Lord (14), faith (16), brothers (15), law (10), Wisdom/wise (7) (3:13-18) Tongue, humble/humility pride/proud, Scripture (4), Religion-Paul does not talk this way. Believe (5), truth: (3) Proverbs (7),  bless (3) Proverbs (23), Proverbs fear (25), Proverbs wicked(91), knowledge(40) and James know(6), anger 27:4, 30:33 and James 1:19-20,

Themes

Sex, lots in Paul, lots in Proverbs, not in James?

Tongue

The tongue is mentioned a lot in Proverbs and James. Besides talking a lot about lying, Proverbs 13:3 says, “Those who control their tongue will have a long life;  opening your mouth can ruin everything.” 15:2: “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing, but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness.” 15:4: “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” 18:21: “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.” 21:23: “Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.” 25:23: “As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger!

In Proverbs:

Gossip: 11:13, 16:28, 18:8, 20:19, 26:20, 26:22

Lots of verses for: Speak, lips, words, answer

In James

Tongue 3:1-12

Speak: 1:19, 2:12, 4:11

Word: 1:18-23

Wisdom: 3:13-18

God, Lord(95 times in Proverbs, 14 times in Proverbs)

Faith  16X in James,  17X faithful, unfaithful in Proverbs

Love lots in Proverbs, in James, 2X those who love God, 1 love others.

Sin James 9, Prov. 23

Relational problems: i.e. anger, favortism

4:1-2: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” They Humiliate the poor, (“But you have insulted the poor.”) rich mistreat the poor and their workers, condemned and murdered innocent men, Favoritism: ““Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.

4:11 “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it.

1:19-20: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

2:1-4: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

3:9: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”

3:14-18 “No bitterness and envy in wisdom, peacemakers, impartial, don’t be angry.

Add Proverbs relational problems

Anger in P: (15X) 5:17, 14:4, 15:1, 20:2, 20:16, 21:14, 22:3, 22:24, 27:4, 27:12, 27:13, 29:8, 29:11, 30:33

James 3:2: “To say something stupid is the easiest sin to commit, with the least amount of steps to bring it to fruition, it is almost instant. Every other sin needs a few more steps to bring it to fruition. So that is why if a person can top this almost instant sin, they should be able to stop a sin which takes more steps to complete.”

Law 1:25: “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

2:8-9: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

2:10-12: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,”

Judge James (5X should not judge, 5X God is judge) 213 (X2), 4: 11 judgment

Prov. King should judge fairly (3X), Judgment (=discernment) 15X

Humble/humility pride/proud

Boast Pro. (3), James (4X)

Patience/patient both 4-5X

Evil James 10X, Proverbs 45X

Mercy about 4 each

Tomorrow James 4:13 and Prov. 27:1

Prayer Jms. 5:16, Prov. 15:8, 29

Vocatives:: 2:20: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”, 4:4: “You adulterous people“, 4:8: “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” 4:13: “Now listen, you who say,” 4:14: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” 5:1: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.”

Proverbs: My son(s), others? 1:22, 8:5 you simple ones, 8:4 To you, O men,

Listen… Both have a number of these!

Works vs. Faith in the eyes of legalistic Jews.  True faith is shown by good works, and also (3:13) true wisdom is shown by good works. James is pulling ideas from Proverbs. Could the Pharisees who became Christians feel proud because of their superior knowledge over the normal Israeli Christians? (3:14). This refers to faith in God, and is very different from Paul’s teaching about saving faith in Jesus.

Shema is a Jewish term for believing in God, this may be the “faith” that he is focusing on, or possibly the faith/trust in God like Abraham had, but not focusing in on faith in Jesus as Savior.

Riches: Proverbs 11:28: “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.” 18:23 “A poor man pleads for mercy, but a rich man answers harshly.” 22:1: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” 23:4: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.” 23:5: “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” 27:24: “riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” 28:6: “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse.” 28:11: “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him.” 28:20: “A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.” 30:8: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.

Verses of loving God, then verses of loving others

Keith Green wrote a pamphlet called “What so great about the Gospel,” saying that until people realize how sinful they are, they will not see their need of Jesus.  Maybe that is part of what James is doing. We need to see how far we have gotten from God and His law. Once we do that (and this is what he shows in James), then we will realize our great need for Jesus.

Ecclesiastics: The consequences of living a life apart from God

Why is this book in the Bible?

Some ask why the book of Ecclesiastics is even in the Bible? It is kind of depressing in places. But I believe that is the whole point. One way to summarize the book would be to say: “The consequences of living a life apart from God.” If we just live life and take God out of if, some of the things he expresses in the book would be things that we would experience and feel. And we see “God removed” a lot in this world. Even in our own lives, the farther and farther we get away from God, the more we get depressed, the more we focus in on the injustices, the bad. We begin to see life as a burden instead of seeing God in His creation and His glory in so many things.

Ecclesiastics can also be summarized by stating that it presents a worldview of those who ignore God or leave Him out of their lives. We see this so much in our world today. So much hopelessness, suicides, so much bad that is happening in our world. The sentiments echoed in this book are the philosophy and state of mind of so many people. But thank the Lord that we do have a hope. We have a sure firm foundation. As a result, the things that it talks about that bring fear or despair, they will not affect us if we put our faith in Him.

Intro to the book, the author

Ecclesiastics is the Greek name for this book. It is from the Greek, ekklesia, which means church, or assembly, people getting together to worship. The book also refers to the teacher, the leader, the guide, the sage. He is sharing wisdom from a religious perspective.

There is no consensus as to who wrote the book. Most scholars think it was king David’s son who also became king, Solomon, or that the person who wrote it acted like he was Solomon. As is the case for most of the books of the Bible, many theories are put out there as to who wrote it and why. To continue talking about the book, I will assume it was written by Solomon.

If Solomon is the author

1 Kings 3:7-14 is the good place to start: “Now, O LORD my God, you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom. So God replied, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life! And if you follow me and obey my decrees and my commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.”

Solomon’s petition, when God asked what he wanted, was for wisdom to govern this people. God is pleased with this request and promises to give him more wisdom than anyone ever has had or ever will have.  Of course it is not the wisdom that God has, it is finite, and it is for a specific purpose. As we read through the book of Ecclesiastics we see that there are times when Solomon wishes he had even more wisdom. That is seen in quite a number of verses, for there are still many, many things that he does not know or understand, and that frustrates him at times. Again, that is true because the wisdom God gave him was for a specific purpose, and not divine, all-knowing wisdom. It was not to the extent, say, that he could answer all the questions God posed to Job in Job 38-41.

We know that despite all this wisdom, there are examples of him doing some very unwise things, such as at the end of his life marrying many foreign women who worship idols. 2 Kings 11:1: Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. 11:4-6: In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the LORD his God, as his father, David, had been. Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the LORD’s sight; he refused to follow the LORD completely, as his father, David, had done.

Solomon took his eyes off the Lord and put his attention and efforts to the false gods of his wives, and we know that these idols cannot give peace, the kind of peace and comfort that only knowing and serving God can give. Those who turn their back on God can become completely confused. The same thing can happen today as we think of the many false gods of this world that people look to instead of the One True God. These false gods do not satisfy, and can lead people down all kinds of paths that are destructive, and can negatively affect their mental health. We can see that happening to Solomon in this book.

I would like to highlight some of these passages where Solomon is expressing what it is like to life a life without God, without His peace, His joy, His comfort, His hope. He tries to understand the world without considering God, or, as we will see, even at times considering God part of the problem. The “god of this world” can confuse us and make life seem worthless. It is probable that Solomon did not understand much about spiritual warfare, or the role of the devil in this world. It is not talked about too much in the Old Testament, other than Genesis 3, Job 1-2, the passage from Isaiah 14:12, etc. In contrast there are well over one hundred verses or more in the New Testament talking about the god of this world, the prince of this world, the confrontations Jesus had with evil spirits, the power satan has over people (Acts 26:19), the devil, the principalities and the powers, etc. For the most part, the people of the Old Testament did not understand this, thus did not understand why there are so many injustices in this world.

Cycles can be good or depressing depending on your perspective

The book starts out, specifically in 1:4-9, talking about things that, depending on your perspective and heart, can either be amazingly wonderful things that God has created and ordered or really tedious depressing cycles that do not go anywhere or accomplish anything. We can think of these verses as referring to circles. Circles that can be good or depressing depending on your perspective. Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.

“Generations come and go. The sun rises and sets then does it all again the next day. The wind blows south then north, in circles. Rivers run into the sea but it is never full.” How does Solomon view these “marvelous, wonderful” happenings? Wearisome beyond description. Never satisfied. Never content. Repeating itself. All down before! Nothing truly new! This is actually a perspective that some have of this world. Their souls are tainted by all the suffering, injustices and wrong in the world. This is especially true when people leave out God or blame God. Again, this is the main theme of Ecclesiastics. What the world is like, what our life is like, if we leave God out of it all.

Chapter three, in one of the best known passages in the book, Solomon reflects on the cycles/circles of a time for everything: a time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.

In English many poems rhyme. In Hebrew, one way to get this type of poetic affect is to use parallelism or contrasts. For example, Psalms is full of this, like God being high and lifted up. Two concepts that are practically synonymous. Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus, among others, also uses Hebraic parallelism. In Solomon’s list here, he is using contrasts to form his poetic prose: born/die, plant/harvest, kill/heal, etc. In the following verses he states that while God does make all things beautiful in His time, he concludes in vs. 12-13 that: there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. Solomon is observing the world, and while He knows there is a God, and He has a plan, much of life seems a burden and so people should try and be happy and enjoy themselves. While the theme is living a life without God, at other times it seems like he believes God has ordained to make life difficult, then at others, that fearing God is the best thing.

If Solomon wrote this near the end of his life, then he knew what it was like to be close to God, and what it was like to be far from Him. But if he did come back to God in the end (which even the evilest king Manasseh did, 2 Cron. 33:12-17), then the book of Ecclesiastics could be understood as being written at times from the viewpoint of recognizing God as God, but at other times, what it is like to live a life without taking God into account. At times we see God in a good light, while at others we note a type of fatalism, seeing God as ordaining a rough life and there is nothing we can do about it, as in 3:10: I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. We see quite a lot of bitterness entwined in this book, bitter at God for the way things seem to happen in this world. Despite His wisdom, many times he still just does not get it!

The heavy burden of having too much wisdom

Another thing that jumps out in Ecclesiastics are all the issues that come to his life because of all the wisdom he has. Usually we think of wisdom as only a positive thing, but there can be a lot of bad side-effects of having that much wisdom. Many of these negative aspects of wisdom jumped out to us as we were working on the translation into Mixtec. For example 1:16-18: I said to myself, “Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.” So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind. The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow.

It says he learned everything from wisdom to madness and folly. He was learning not only good amazing things, but also all the awful stuff that there is to be learned. Another way to state this is: “I know all the good, but I also now know all about the evil and vile things of this world.” This is also a dangerous issue that our world is facing today. All the things we are or can be exposed to via television, the internet, video games, social media etc. Shows like “Criminal Minds” and the like expose us to the most awful sides of human nature. Many dark thoughts and ideas enter into our minds. Not to mention many movies, current events and human behavior that the vast majority of people in the past were never openly exposed to. We live in dangerous times, In that aspect, we are probably more “learned”, shall I way “wise” to such a wide array of goings-on than even Solomon. So many things that in the very recent past we could never have even imagined.

Solomon did not always like all this extra wisdom and knowledge that he obtained either, calling it madness and folly. It is like chasing the wind (especially trying to be as wise as God in a positive way). Such wisdom increased his sorrow and grief. As mentioned earlier, his wisdom was for a specific task, to be a good king, and he would never know “everything”, and that became frustrating to him. But not only that, he would learn things that he probably, like many of us, wished he had never been exposed to. As king, he had to judge cases where he learned some of the worst things that people can do. As 1:18 states, he would had rather been in ignorance of these things than to have to consider all the absolutely dark and evil things that people come up with and do.

This lament about having access to all these things probably includes his own pleasure. I have tried everything, had everything a man could possibly want or desire (the most desirable women, riches, power, fame), but none of it truly satisfies (without God). These are some of the negative sides of wisdom, and most likely something that was weighing on him, especially if he looks at it from a human perspective and not God’s. The same thing can happen to us. All these things we are exposed to can weigh us down and depress us. It is hard to escape from it. As king, Solomon was exposed to the best and the worst that the world had to offer. And it obviously negatively affected him as well. One of the most revealing commercials of our culture, and something Solomon faced, is the mantra: “I want it all, and I want it now.” (Even though there was no Dr. Pepper in Solomon’s time.)

The most wise, but still frustrated for all he still does not understand

7:23-25a states: I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. This verse really brings out his frustrations of only having limited wisdom, wisdom in order to be able to do what God called him to do, and not all-encompassing wisdom, say like the wisdom God has. His wisdom was to govern the people, but there were boundaries to this wisdom. He was wiser than any person living at that time or anyone who would ever live, but he probably still knew next to nothing about spiritual warfare, the depths of the human heart, the answers to the questions in Job 38-41, how to understand a woman, etc. This was very frustrating to him. He wanted wisdom and deeper understanding about many things which were not part of his calling.

Wisdom is not the most important thing, it does not fill the “void”

He was trying to understand things which surpassed or were outside the boundaries of the wisdom God had given him. Wisdom in and of itself cannot satisfy. It cannot fill the void. It cannot replace God in ones life.  So as he got farther way from God, especially in the later part of his life, wisdom, pleasure and all the things he had access to could not satisfy him, could not fulfill the deepest longings of his heart. The same with us. We all have that “void” in our life that can only be filled by God.  Most try to fill it with so many different things (both healthy and unhealthy), but in the end, we will only feel hollow until we put God in His rightful place in our lives. There are many things that we will never understand until we are face-to-face with the Lord. Then we will realize that all those things didn’t really matter anyway. The only thing that matters is knowing Him and being with Him.

Fear God, you will be better off (than I have been recently)

Another theme of the book is fearing God, a concept mentioned six times.  8:12: But even though a person sins a hundred times and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off.  If Solomon wrote this book, and he wrote it toward the end of his life, then he knows the difference between a life lived fearing God, and one lived not fearing God. A hollow life that follows idols which would indicate a time in his life when he did not fear God. A time when he got completely off-track, and that kind of life would lead to a doom and gloom attitude and viewpoint. But now, near the end, he seems to have come to his senses to say that those who fear God are better off.

Eternal life

One final theme I will mention (and I am leaving many out) is the concept of eternal life. Many passages in Ecclesiastics give us the impression that Solomon did not have a strong belief in or understanding of eternal life. This seems to be true of much of the Old Testament. They almost never refer to heaven like in the New Testament, the place that you are waiting for that will bring you into the eternal presence of God. There are many verses in the Old Testament about going to Sheol, which does not seem to be a very hopeful place to go. Solomon gives us the idea that you might as well enjoy life here since Sheol is not going to be much fun. 9:3-4: It seems so tragic that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. That is why people are not more careful to be good. Instead, they choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!

If a person lives a life without God, without hope, what do they have to live for? Just enjoy things as much as they can while they are alive? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. This was not only true in the past, but many people in our day feel the same way. In the face of that worldview, may those who know God be a light to show others that there is another way, there is hope, there is something more once we die. Of course we need to continue to reinforce our own faith, to cultivate a strong foundation so that we do not lose hope when things get difficult.

The most important thing: Best to fear God and obey His commands

Solomon ends the book, after talking about a life lived for the most part leaving out God, or a life seeing God as a burden, by saying what one should do. Instead of doing what I did, do this. This could be considered his final conclusion, his main point of the book. Don’t live life like I did for a while, leaving God out of it and doing my own thing. I had access to wisdom, power, riches, fame and all types of pleasure but lost sight of the most important thing. I got bitter in regards to God.  12:13-14: That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. Life can become very depressing if we focus on the evil, the injustices, the questions that fill Psalms, Proverbs and Job where they ask why do the wicked seem to prosper more than the righteous. We can turn our backs on God and get bitter towards him, like what seemingly happened to Solomon. In spite of what we see with our eyes, let us follow this last advice to fear God and follow His commands and not get captured by the snares of the devil and the worthless things of this world.

The rest of the story

In the New Testament we get the rest of the story, of how Jesus came to show us the truth, to fill us with his Holy Spirit and true wisdom. We can be filled with the power to overcome sin, to serve Him and have the blessed assurance of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. All the wonderful things we have access to because of what Jesus did for us.

May we never attempt, to any degree, to leave God out of our lives or let any root of bitterness take hold of us. Keep following Him, fearing Him, obeying His commands and guarding all that Jesus and the rest of His followers teach us in the New Testament. In this way we do have access to more wisdom than Solomon if we apply it to our lives and keep God as the most important part and never turn our backs on Him.