Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: Tension and Balance

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes1, two of the principle books in the ‘writings’ (or ‘wisdom literature’) of the Hebrew Scriptures, exist in tension with each other. This tension, although it appears to put the two books in opposition to each other, can be interpreted as a balance rather than a conflict. The book of Proverbs is seen as the voice of tradition in Israelite wisdom, and seems to lay out rules one can live by to guarantee a happy, peaceful life. The interwoven themes of the benefits of righteousness (wisdom) and the destructiveness of wickedness (folly) delivered in pithy aphorisms reinforce this perception and have made it popular in Western culture. If one looks closer, however, the message of Proverbs, in all its parts, is obviously not monolithic, and it is possible to approach the text in a manner that posits a broader purpose for the book.

Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, might be seen as a sort of rebellion against the traditional wisdom of ‘do good and live.’ It makes assertions that the pursuit of wisdom is meaningless, because ultimately the wise and the foolish meet the same fate. It too, though, has a broader purpose. Although it is quite rightly seen as a challenge to tradition, it isn’t an outright rebellion and rejection of that tradition. After consideration of some scholarly views of the messages in these books, it may be possible to interpret them in a way that emphasizes their similarities rather than differences, and that helps us understand how both of them can fit into the same canon

“The righteousness of the upright saves them, but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes.” (Proverbs 11:6, NRSV) This verse characterizes much of the message of the book of Proverbs. It is in a sense a message of pragmatic morality, a moral code, i.e. ‘do these things and you will live long and prosper; don’t do these other things, or you will die young and impoverished.’ Obviously this is a highly simplified picture of Proverbs, but one that captures a good deal of what the book seems to say. In the first nine chapters, this message takes the form of a series of extended exhortations and warnings, calling the reader to the study and pursuit of wisdom, and the abandonment of folly. Along with these exhortations, it employs a female personification, Wisdom, calling people to listen to her, and to partake of a ‘feast’ she has prepared, to enjoy the benefits of her counsel. Folly is also personified, but the participants in her feast face death and Sheol.

The bulk of the book, what Ronald E. Murphy in his book The Tree of Life calls “the two Solomonic collections” (Murphy, 19) (i.e. Prov. 10:1-22:16, 25:1-29:27) carries on the message of the benefits of wisdom with its large set of aphorisms. These aphorisms, although they deal with a varied set of circumstances, also deliver the general message that the wise/righteous will prosper while the foolish/wicked will be frustrated and ultimately destroyed. The other, smaller collections of sayings within the book carry on this message. The book is finished with a model of a good wife,which although it lauds righteousness, does not exactly fit with the general pattern one sees throughout the rest of Proverbs.

While it may be one’s first impression that the message of Proverbs is a moral code laid down as a set of hard and fast rules for living, it may be too shallow an impression, as Murphy suggests:

“It is too facile, although quite traditional, to characterize the Book of Proverbs as a compendium of ethics, of Israelite morality. This view is strengthened by the optimistic note that sounds frequently in the work: wisdom (justice) prospers, while folly (wickedness) self-destructs. As a result, the book has been very popular in Western culture . . . for the timely truths it is seen to convey . . .” (Murphy, 15)
Murphy goes on to say that this popular view clouds what he sees as Proverbs’ “true subtlety.” Murphy recognizes the existence of a moral code that provides an underlying structure for the book, but claims that the real aim is formation of character, moral training. He says that it doesn’t command, but rather tries to persuade.

Another approach that ‘softens’ the message of Proverbs is taken by W.S. La Sor, D.A. Hubbard and F.W. Bush, authors of Old Testament Survey. Their view is that the aphorisms, at least, should be taken as generalizations stated as absolutes due to the dictates of literary form. These generalizations are not to be applied without consideration, but rather should be used discriminatingly:

“Knowing the right time to use a proverb was part of being wise: ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.’ (25:11) Implicit, then, to a correct understanding of wisdom was the awareness of its limits. As effective as the proverbs were as a guide to success, they could be misleading if viewed as magical sayings which would always and automatically bring results. The best spirits among the wise warned against such presumptive self-confidence and made room for God to work his sovereign surprises: ‘A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.’” (La Sor et al., 558)
This is an interesting view which allows some leeway in interpreting Proverbs. This can help us understand how a book like Proverbs can fit into the same canon as Ecclesiastes. La Sor, Hubbard and Bush maintain that the failure of the followers of this wisdom tradtion to recognize the true nature of Proverbs’ instruction led to the reproof found in Ecclesiastes.

‘The wise have eyes in their heads, but fools walk in darkness.’ Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. (Ecc. 2:14-17, NRSV)
This passage illustrates an important theme in the book of Ecclesiastes. A pessimism towards the benefits of wisdom gives the impression of the rejection of the tradition represented by Proverbs. This challenge to conventional wisdom has led to a view among some scholars that the book does in fact represent a break from tradition, a rebelling and questioning that creates a sort of crisis in ‘wisdom’ thought. Murphy acknowledges this view, and questions it: "It is a commonplace belief that Qoheleth1 goes against traditional wisdom, that . . . wisdom has entered a crisis situation . The issue here is a correct evaluation of {the author’s} dispute with traditional wisdom. Is it simply bankrupt, and hence to be shelved?" (Murphy, 55) Murphy believes that what some call a “breakdown of the act-consequence view of retribution,” (Murphy, 57) is not really what the author is interested in. The author, according to Murphy, is more interested in talking about the mystery of God, specifically God’s judgment. The author, being steeped in Israelite culture and belief, still believes in the judgment of God. To him it’s an indisputable fact. Despite this faith, however, the author of Ecclesiastes could not get any comfort from it. God’s divine judgment is a mystery to the author, and it is impossible for him to understand what God is doing. “The divine judgment is obviously not what the tradition had always accepted as ‘just.’ But {the author} was not one ‘to contend in judgment with one stronger than he’ (6:10), that is, with God.’ (Murphy, 57)

LaSor, Hubbard and Bush take the view that Ecclesiastes is meant to make a positive contribution to the spiritual lives of those who read it. It does this by “stressing the limits to human understanding and ability. Thus, even {the author’s} verdict about the vanity of much of what is viewed as dependable he would have considered a positive contribution to human insight.” (LaSor et al., 596) Far from trying to tear down what came before, Ecclesiastes aims to give a balance to what had become a lopsided view of the role and value of wisdom.

What then is the balance between the tradition of Proverbs and the challenge of Ecclesiastes? The apparent tension between the books begs to be addressed, especially if one is to think of them as two members of the same canon. The Hebrew canon was put together over hundreds of years, with what must have been much debate and scrutiny. How did two books with seemingly conflicting messages end up together in what many have seen (likely including the compilers of the Hebrew scriptures) as an overall unified message? With sympathetic readings of both texts, and a desire to find some point of unification between the two, it is possible to obtain that balance between them. Proverbs, the voice of tradition, can be viewed as a generalized text, meant to persuade the reader into a righteous way of life. When applied with discernment the precepts can lead to good results. Ecclesiastes is meant to prevent us from taking the message of Proverbs too far. More than that, Ecclesiastes is a call to recognition of the fact that bad things do happen to good people.

This was an essay I wrote in 2001 for a University of Toronto class called Scripture in Christian Tradition.

1In Hebrew, Qoheleth. Both Ecclesiastes and Qoheleth translate roughly as ‘congregation’.

All Citations from:

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, American Bible Society, 1989

Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, Doubleday, 1990

W.S. LaSor, D.A. Hubbard and F.W. Bush, Old Testament Survey, Eerdmans, 1982

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