Lesson 7: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach


Ecclesiastes: (12 chapters; Ca. 300 B.C.)

In verse 1 the author identifies himself as "Qoheleth" or "the Preacher" and says he is a "son of David" and "king in Jerusalem," that is, Solomon. This is generally understood as a literary device to attribute a new work to a well-known author such as David or Solomon.

The theme of the book is the purpose and value of human life. It is stated briefly in the opening three verses, "Vanity of vanities and all is vanity." The author stresses the emptiness of human life because death may come at any time and deprive a man of everything he has. The same fate awaits both the good man and the wicked man--death. His advice is to work hard, enjoy life in moderation by eating and drinking. The present moment is all man has so he should enjoy it the best way he can, but never forget that it will all end in death. Man should honor God, and accept life as a gift.

Ecclesiastes presents the author's reflections on life. The structure is not clear, but he offers reflections on things that affect all men: the world, the sun, the ocean, the seasons of the year, human speech, wisdom, enjoyment of food, drink and sex; hard work, wealth, suffering, death, women.

The author tends towards pessimism, but not without a certain sense of humor. In all things he is respectful of God, but God's purpose in human life is mysterious to him. The key to understanding this practical book of the Bible is to be found in the theme that human life is empty (= vain). Why? For Qoheleth, it is empty because nothing is permanent.

The author sees earthly advantage in wisdom, but he is also troubled that, in the long run, the wise man is no better off than the fool. Why? Because they both end up in the grave and no one knows what will happen after death. Qoheleth is mildly pessimistic but at the same time he places his trust in God. His view is incomplete because he does not know about eternal life which will be clearly taught and given by Jesus Christ.

The Preacher sees that nothing in this life fully satisfies the craving of the human heart. This profound insight prepared for the revelation of Jesus Christ about the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

The Song of Songs: (8 chapters; 5th or 4th century B.C.)

The author is unknown. In the first verse the Song is attributed to Solomon as a literary device, like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Wisdom. But the author may have incorporated some ancient lyrics going back to the time of Solomon.

The Song of Songs is a celebration of the loyal and mutual love that leads to marriage. Human sexual love is prized in the Song as a great good, and is implicitly looked upon as a gift of God who is never mentioned explicitly in the Song. In a fuller sense, the Song is about the love of God for his people and their love for him. It is for this reason that it is included in the Bible. The Song does not follow any definite or logical plan of development. It is rather a collection of songs or poems united by a common theme of love.

The two basic and traditional ways of interpreting the Song of Songs are the literal and the allegorical. Literally, it is a love poem, full of powerful imagery and symbolism, singing the praises of sexual love between a man and a woman.

In the Christian era the Song has frequently been given an allegorical interpretation by mystics and masters of the spiritual life, such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross, whose Spiritual Canticle is based on it. From this point of view, the lover and his beloved stand for God and his people, or Christ and the Church, or Christ and the individual soul.

Describing the relation between God and his people in terms of married love has a valid pedigree in the OT, for example, in Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The use of marriage as a symbol is found also the NT (Matt. 9:15; 25:1-13; John 3:29; Eph. 5:23-32; Rev. 19:7ff). In the liturgy of the Church, the Song of Songs is frequently applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Wisdom: (19 chapters; ca. 50 B.C.)

In this book, wisdom means fidelity to the Law of God as revealed to Israel through Moses and the other prophets. Wisdom is a gift of God. The wise man leads a righteous life in this world and for this he will be rewarded by God in the next life with immortality. The book of Wisdom is an apology for the superiority of the revealed religion of Israel over all other religions and philosophies.

The book contains three parts: 1) the first five chapters offer a meditation on immortality; 2) chs. 5-9 are an attempt to define the true wisdom of Israel which leads to immortality; 3) chs. 10-19 offer a theology of history from Adam to Moses, showing how God protected and saved those who were faithful to the Law. In the middle there is a lengthy attack on the idolatry of the pagans (chs. 13-15); the purpose here is to warn the Jews against getting involved in pagan idol worship.

The book of Wisdom is the last book written in the OT. The revelation of the immortality of the human soul is the most important point; but the book does not say anything about the resurrection of the body, an idea expressed in the books of Daniel and 2 Maccabees.

In the second part of the book, wisdom is personified and made an associate of God in the creation of the world; the same idea occurs in Proverbs and Sirach. The third part presents a meditation on the activity of God in history in the form of a theology of history.

The book of Wisdom offers a strong polemic for the faithful Jew (and Christian) against paganism and secularism. The main ideas are: 1) Immortality is the fruit of fidelity; 2) wisdom is a gift of God and he bestows it on those who pray for it; 3) the Lord alone is God and so the worship of idols is utter foolishness and stupidity; 4) the Lord God of Israel is the Master of history and protects those who are faithful to him.

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus): (51 chapters; ca. 180 B.C.)

Like the book of Proverbs, the theme of this book is the great value of "wisdom" which consists primarily in the fear of the Lord. Wisdom for Sirach is found primarily in the Law of Moses and in keeping the Ten Commandments of the Covenant.

The Prologue in ch. 1 shows that wisdom comes ultimately from God and consists in "fear of the Lord," which means awe, reverence and respect for the God of creation. Chapters 2-23 and 25-42 offer much practical advice for wise living; much of it is based on and borrowed from the book of Proverbs. But Sirach develops his ideas more at length than does the book of Proverbs, for he offers short little essays on various practical subjects, such as how to train children, how to choose friends, how to guard one's speech and tongue, etc. Chapter 24 offer a beautiful hymn to wisdom in which wisdom is personified and made a companion of God from the beginning.

Chapters 44-50 are based on the history of the great men of Israel, from Enoch to Nehemiah. They are praised and presented as models to be imitated in the pursuit of wisdom.

The key to understanding Sirach is that the author identifies wisdom with the fear of the Lord. He further states that wisdom is to be found in the observance of the Law of Moses. As in Proverbs, personified wisdom holds an important place.

The doctrine of Sirach is traditional: there are two classes of men--the wise and the foolish, the good and the wicked. With regard to the retribution for good and evil, he is quite traditional and seems to hold that it takes place in this life. He is not clear about reward and punishment in the next life.

The book of Sirach is not quoted in the NT but many influences can be detected in the Gospels and in the letter of James, especially on such ideas as wisdom, correct living, and prayer. The author is unique in the OT by calling upon God as "my Father" (23:1; 51:10), an invocation which was used frequently by Jesus and bequeathed to us by him in the "Our Father."

For many centuries this book was called "Ecclesiasticus," that is, the book used in the Church. It was given this name because of its frequent use in the early Church in the instruction of the people.

Reading Assignment

Read the four books covered in this section. Also, read a commentary on the Song of Songs.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of about 1000 words on wisdom in the Old Testament; or on the literal and allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs; or on the personification of wisdom in Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach and its influence on the New Testament; or on the meaning of human life in the book of Ecclesiastes.

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