Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
It would be a problem if Wisdom Literature was written only for the wise! Rather, it is written from wisdom for wisdom. This is no paradox; it is divine pedagogy, in which form and content meet most felicitously. Habits of thought and practice not merely declared by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Rather, his very mode of instruction provokes readers, calls upon them, to prayerfully, reflectively develop a heart of wisdom. Wisdom Literature, therefore, demands wisdom, even as it instructs us in its practices. It helps us develop into the kind of people capable of reading and drawing benefit from its instruction, directing us to reflection and to our true Teacher. To put it as St. Augustine might, we are called to become the kind of readers we need to be—our text is schooling us, adequating us to itself.
Because a student is defined by zeal (studia), there is a prolegomena to any serious study.
Certain things can only be learned by those who desire to learn them. For instance, simply sitting in an ethics class does not make one student of charity. Many of the deepest truths require a preparing of the soil in which providence and a necessary volitional readiness intersect.
The young child who is too distracted, hungry, or emotional will struggle to do math. Even more radically, some of the most fundamental lessons and truths can only be learned by those who desire them, who have been made ready to receive them. This is because wisdom is not so much the acquirement of information, as a formation of the heart. As an aside, this actually implies that, in some respect, all of us in this life are not so much students as we are hopefully studying to become the students we need to be.
A boy who is infatuated with a young lady does not readily take real stock of her whole character. The official will not easily apologize and admit his faults. The farmer with methods that seem to have sufficed for years will not readily try something new. Tell them think this, not that is not very effective.
In each case, before one learns, one must first become teachable, adequated to the lesson. This of course has a certain flavor of contradiction because it suggests that to learn, we must first learn something! I do not propose to resolve this problem in its entirety. We can note, however, that we are regarding different orders and objects of learning. My main point is that Ecclesiastes and all authentic wisdom literature is structured in light of this problem. All true Wisdom Literature not only seeks to communicate wisdom but to prepare its readers to receive that wisdom. All Wisdom Literature is in this light preparatory. It is with this in mind that the Preacher orders his proverbs for us (Ecc. 12:9-11).
This suggests that information is not the chief mark of wisdom, that there are faculties and virtues which are prior to memory, quickness of judgment, cleverness, or mental horsepower. A student is not just an inert container for information. Nor are they a purely independent or self-sufficient learner. Even more significantly, we none of us without mental and moral prejudices.1 We all must become interpreters of the world, of ourselves, and the limitations of both world and self. It is with all this in mind that the Preacher calls into suspicion the project of wisdom itself!
The Preacher suggests that without this prior wisdom, without discernment, our studies are only vanity. Therefore, lest we confirm ourselves in folly, we need both help and discernment. We need grace to examine ourselves, as well as to recognize and submit ourselves to good instruction.
Ecclesiastes suggests this by decrying the limits of worldly wisdom. The Preacher is a man who has tried the ways of the world, who has tested all that comes under the sun and found it lacking. That which comes under the sun stands for something like the dominion or order of time and nature as such. The order of the sun is indeed ruled by various causes and principles, but not in such a manner as to provide sufficient and unfailing certainty for the man who desires happiness. The dominion of all things under the sun therefore represents an order in which even our wisest efforts can and will be frustrated. That which we do in this life can easily be overturned, will fall short, and often fails us in various ways (foreseen and unforeseen). That which comes under the sun cannot provide unshakeable stability. Nor can it satisfy our ultimate desires. The wisdom of this order is a mortal wisdom.
Thus, the Bible proposes to faith that there are truly divine thoughts, there is a wisdom which is from above. This proposition however is compelling only to one who believes all I have said about mortal wisdom.
It is worth pointing out now that my own writing here is an interpretation of the Preacher’s message. It is not merely a summary of what is said. I am drawing implications out of the text which are by no means explicit. This work of exegesis, done within the context of the church and scripture is precisely what enables us to enter into the wisdom tradition.
Yet by what authority do I do this? With what degree of certainty or confidence can such a reading be given? With limited space, I will offer a few preliminary answers. First, I do so by the authority of a text which stands within the context of other texts (that is, the Bible as a whole). I also join a long tradition, an extant community who reads both Ecclesiastes and Scripture as authoritative, inerrant, and manifold in meaning. I do this, therefore, by uniting myself to those who speak and listen with authority. And their authority is made manifest in the Wisdom which is above, which bears the triumphant marks of the conquering cross and a risen savior. I do this, by being buried with the Word in baptism, that dying to the world, his seed might mix with me in our mutual grave, and fruit might spring up from the soil renewed.
Echoing Gadamer, by entering this tradition, I can begin to make sense of the text (or discern its interpretative horizon) by negotiating between what is clear (certain general truths in scripture) and that which is less clear (the implications of the Preacher).
Wisdom literature, in this respect, by means of both form and content, actually invites readers to develop a habit of wisdom. Ecclesiastes demands engagement in the practices of discernment by means of community, reflection, comparison, analysis, and self-knowledge. The text thus rejects a simplistic sense of wisdom (wisdom as mere worldly know-how) and calls us unto spiritual and intellectual maturity. It does this however, not by mere exhortation, but through its formal structure and content—content which on face value does not easily cohere with other parts of scripture or with our expectations.
Every reading of Scripture in this respect calls us to die that new life might triumph in us. It is for this reason Bernard of Clairvaux described the opening of God’s Word as the breaking of bread (Luke 24:13-35). God’s Word has been broken and rent that we might enter in. And He himself is our chief Expositor. His body is broken for us, made manifest in the breaking, that through the interstices we might glimpse him, that meaning infinite might be made right sized for our nourishment, without forsaking its divinity, its mystery, its immeasurable incomprehensibility.
I will conclude here by noting that if the Preacher’s great conclusion is simply to fear God and obey His commandments, we must have a reason to think such is the real conclusion, the “end of the matter” (Ecc. 12:13). To do so, we must ultimately desire that end and be compelled to seek it. Thus, we have to reflect on the meaning of God’s judgment as well as what it promises (or threatens) (12:14). That is to say, our reflections must tend further than all that comes under the sun.
The man who yet believes that the prudence of the world (even all of its good and wise practices) make a sufficient covenant with his heart and the man who thinks that which is under the sun encompasses all there is, these men are not yet truly teachable. The preacher perplexes us both intellectually and prudentially that we might begin to gain a heart of wisdom.
We must not only seek the truth, but become people prepared to receive it. This takes grace, discipline, correction, even a kind of disappointment with life under the sun. We must learn to love the things that will make us happy. In this respect, God has hidden such things from the wise of this world (those blinded by the sun). He has revealed them to the foolish (those within whom the true Sun dwells). This does suggest that one of the chief tasks of good instruction, of wisdom literature is to make known our own folly!
1These three obstacles are listed in James Schall’s essay “On Teaching and Being Eminently Teachable” in On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs.