a faith crisis in the Bible (and don’t let some 60s hippies tell you otherwise)

a faith crisis in the Bible (and don’t let some 60s hippies tell you otherwise) June 15, 2015

EcclesiastesIn 1965, the Byrds had a big hit with a song written by Pete Seeger and based on chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes: “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Everything on earth has its time and place—its “season,” as the writer (Qohelet) puts it.

There is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time for war, and a time for peace, etc.

The Byrds’s tune features great harmonies and gives off a feel-good-be-at-peace-with-the-world-Zen vibe. You know. The ‘60s.

But these ancient words are anything but harmonious and peaceful. We are seeing a faith crisis happening right in front of us.

The “seasons” of life Qohelet speaks of aren’t a comforting thought. Rather they are completely out of human control—birth and death; war and peace; mourning and dancing. These are things that happen to us, ready or not. We do not choose them.

More to the point, for Qohelet the absurd inevitability of life is painful–even more so because he blames God for setting things up that way. (See passages like 1:15 and 1:12, where Qohelet, very early on in his opening remarks, clues the readers in that God is a problem for him.)

Qohelet doesn’t mean that God orchestrates the very details of our lives, but that the events of our lives fit into a “grand design,” a macrostructure from cradle to grave that is outside of our control.

Along with birth and death, war and peace, mourning and dancing, Qohelet lists a total of 14 pairs of activities in verses 2-8, and none of them are aimed at making us feel good.

And whatever notions one might still have that Qohelet is all about peace, love, and harmony dissolve when we come to verses 9-11:

What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

The opening question is rhetorical. The answer is “nothing.”

There is no “gain” from all our toiling, from all the busy-work God has tasked us with, because at the end of the day, God is the one who determines the “seasons” of life—or as he puts it here, “He has made everything suitable for its time” (“suitable” meaning something like “well-ordered” or “appropriate”). There’s nothing we can do to alter that grand scheme.

Qohelet isn’t cheery. He is despondent. What is life all about if our daily buzzing back and forth doesn’t really make a difference?

And, as if to frustrate humanity further, Qohelet tells us that God has made humans conscious of “a sense of past and future.”

Human beings are unfortunately conscious of the passage of time; we can extrapolate on and on, both back in time and forward. We are beings capable of reflecting on the great expanse of human existence.

But this ability to ponder the passage of time does us more harm than good. We still can’t find out what God is up to. We can’t our arms around it.

God is no friend to humanity, as Qohelet sees it. God orders and appoints times, from which there is no escape, and laboring, which brings no profit. This is just the way God wants it, and to top it all off, he gives humanity the ability to comprehend the expanse of time and the futility of it all.

Still, Qohelet finds a way forward, though here we come to another often misunderstood passage in Ecclesiastes (3:12):

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live. Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

There is “nothing better” than enjoying yourself while you’re alive. This isn’t particularly pious, and it isn’t a silver lining.

It’s a confession of resignation: the best we can do is find some joy in the every-day.

Verse 14, as if Qohelet even delights in driving home a difficult point, brings even further clarity to the general point he has been making throughout this passage.

I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.

This isn’t a pious confession of God’s sovereignty, folks. He’s still pessimistic.

The frustrating way God has set up the world will last, rest assured, as we can’t add to or take away from one square inch of it. And God does this so that we should “stand in awe of him.” Just back away and cower.

Qohelet gives here his blunt, even unsettling, observations on what he thinks God is doing. Some might question why a book like this is in the Bible, but I’m glad it is. In it we hear our voices of sadness, depression, frustration, and doubt echoing back from 2500 years ago.

The book gives no quick remedy. It tells us, though, that life is not always grand–and that we are not alone in saying so.

This post is adapted from my commentary on Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 2012)

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  • “This isn’t a song, guys. It wasn’t written down so we could all go [sings] ‘A time to do this; a time to do that.'” – Dan MacDougall, Professor of Biblical Studies, Covenant College, 1994

  • Sheila Warner

    Ecclesiastes is quite depressing, isn’t it? Poor guy who wrote it probably never had the love and support of anyone around him. No concept of a greater good. Pretty descriptive of down days I have, when I think nothing is worth it. Thank God for the cross, which shows us a better way.

    • newenglandsun

      My Biblical Hebrew professor didn’t think Ecclesiastes was depressing at all. She thought it was quite uplifting and ecstatic.

      • Muff Potter

        Although I wouldn’t use ‘uplifting’ and ‘ecstatic’ as descriptors, I do agree with your Prof. that Ecclesiastes is not as depressing as some would have it. For me it just points out the signposts on the road of life and what we do with them is our own affair. I don’t see it as a ‘faith crisis’.

        • peteenns

          Both of you fine gentlemen will have to point out the uplifting parts to me. I must have missed them 🙂

          • Muff Potter

            Sorry for the confusion Dr. Enns but the word ‘uplifting’ is attributed to newenglandsun’s Hebrew Prof., not me. Truth be told? I’m an open theist (a la Pinnock & Boyd) and I find the Book of Ecclesiastes no more depressing or inducing of a faith crisis than the roulette wheels at the various Native American gaming casinos in my area.

          • peteenns

            Good one, although I see Qohelet more as reflecting faith crises back to us rather than inducing them.

          • Muff Potter

            Fair enough Dr. Enns. And just so we’re clear, I very much enjoy reading your articles because they’re accessible to us lay people.

  • Kim Fabricius

    Great post (says this — if I remember correctly — 60s hippy).

    Yeah, you gotta love Qoheleth, the Preacher without bullshit, the fly in the ointment of the Bible. No relationship with God as with Moses or Jesus; no word from God as with the prophets or Paul; not even any wrestling with God as with the Psalmist or Job. A God who encourages us to pray, calls us to transformational action, makes us feel accepted and loved? Forget it. This is a deity who keeps shtum, galactically remote and terminally enigmatic. (Unsurprisingly, Ecclesiastes was an inspiration to Melville when writing Moby-Dick.) So just the ticket for an evangelical youth group.

  • Daniel Pape

    Instead of asking everyone to learn to pronounce “Qohelet,” can we agree to refer to the author as proto-Kierkegaard? Do you think Kierkegaard noted the resemblance? It would explain his discontent if he realized that his thoughts had already been in print for over 2000 years… 😉
    On a more serious note: could today’s church utilize Ecclesiastes to promote depression awareness?

    • James M

      “Kierkegaard” – both parts of him – is unpronounceable. Besides, Ecclesiastes is not a 19th-century Lutheran book; it’s pre-Christian & Jewish.

  • Peter Berian

    Dear Pilgrims … “Test all spirits” … And … If one Believes and Obeys in Love and Perseverance without adding or subtracting from God’s Word then that one belongs to God and will be selected by Jesus when He returns. All individuals that does what is posted here are members of God’s one true church. This one true church hasn’t met yet … It will meet for the first time when Jesus returns and gathers all these individuals and presents them to the Father. Pilgrims … stay in the Word till then. Amen. a watchman of His Word.

    • charlesburchfield

      but don’t quit your day job! k?

      • Guthrum

        Good point.
        By the way, if anyone knows of any good, legitimate internet jobs please reply with links. I am looking for something that would pay $300-$500 a month part time.

  • James

    Still, the pessimism of Qohelet is not void of silver lining. After all, it is with God “in heaven” that he has to do. Sure he doesn’t understand or appreciate the human condition as he knows it “under the sun”, but he protests in the presence of his maker and judge. That’s better than many modern folk who have little inclination to “fear God and obey his commands.” (12:14)

    • peteenns

      Fox and Seow in their commentaries do a good job explaining what those terms mean.

  • Mark K

    I wanted to post sooner, but the flashbacks kept me away. No, I mean AWAY. Now, Professor Enns, what interpretive strategies and principles would you say the Byrds employed?

    And why so discriminatory? Where’s the love for the Turtles, Monkeys, Tommy James, Herman’s Hermits, Supremes, Temptations, early Beatles? I know there are many more, but I can’t find the rest of my four track tapes right now.

    • charlesburchfield

      tune in, turn on, drop out….resurface in the 1980’s, become a coked up yuppy, drop out again, get into rehab/AA. One day atta time sweet jesus!

      • Guthrum

        And then come back now as some trans whatever.

        • charlesburchfield

          not sure how you mean that.
          seems like in the last 60+ years since I was born one has to wear many hats, experiment w many ways to find peace w one’s sense of who one is rather than going along tio get along.

  • berryfriesen

    You’ve not convinced me of this crisis of faith, Peter. The teacher effectively debunks the viewpoint that life is a project–something an individual accomplishes and achieves by dint of skill, effort and cunning. That may seem like a counsel of despair to our Western ears (and perhaps to the Greek ears of the writer’s time), but did it reflect a crisis of faith to those schooled in the wisdom tradition? After all, didn’t that tradition look to future generations when assessing the value of a life?

    Here are bracing and confident words (from chapter 9 NRSV) that spring from a seasoned faith in YHWH.

    “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun . . . the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, but time and chance happen to all.”

    • peteenns

      What you cite here doesn’t support your thesis. You can see my argument in my commentary. Also the commentaries of Fox and Seow.

      • berryfriesen

        Peter, my quote is an example of what you call a carpe diem passage, right? And you rightly say we should not imagine that the teacher’s attempt to make the best of life’s randomness overcomes his debunking of life illusions.

        Okay, I’m persuaded by that point (if it is the one you are making).

        Still, between the teacher’s disillusionment and his attempt to make the best of life, I see a message that bespeaks faith to our modern Western ears: don’t despair just because you cannot make sense of life within the parameters of one, separate life. God’s purposes unwind over a much longer frame than one life and involve many others beside yourself.

  • Peter, For me, Qohelet’s life journey is the most “real” in the Bible. Years ago, after reading Ecclesiastes many times, consequentially pointing to the book’s hopeless refrain as a reason for my own lack of faith, I somehow missed out on allowing the last two verses to speak to me on equal footing as the rest of the writing. “Fear God and keep His commandments”–how can this incredible journey of reasoning and logic end like this? Then, I remembered, God does not ask us to reason our way to worship and respect Him, but to simply have faith. And faith is not simple by any means–having faith in this world is the challenge of life as noted by Qohelet. Thanks always for your excellent perspectives. Best, luke

  • Hi Peter,
    I am glad to meet someone else who takes Kohelet at his word. In a world where God has intentionally sown thorns and thistles and has saddled us with a life full of problems and pain it is far too easy to give the religious answers and ignore reality. Kohelet is quite clear, time and chance do happen to us all (can you have thorns and thistles without time and chance?) and bad times fall upon good people. God has broken the world to hedge us in push us towards relationship instead of self-centredness.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I love this book, always have. I was reading Camus at the time I first read it fifty years ago and the thought occurred that Qohelet was the first Existentialist. It could be a primer. But the book took on greater significance for me personally after a long struggle with alcohol. The pages turned like reading my drunk-a-logue. All I sought and thought of as good was eventually taken and just the emptiness was left, both of their value and my actions. Through the intervening years I am still shocked each time by the Christians that do not like this book, and seemingly not because they truly understand it but because it seems so whiney.

    • I’m not shocked. The book is out of sync with the way many American Christians would prefer to frame their faith journey. The writer doesn’t spare them from the uncertainty and incongruities that are unacceptable to the American attitude of relentlessly seeking pleasure through consumption and apathy. It leaves the reader with a sense of unease – the truth breaking through all pretenses of having it all together.

    • charlesburchfield

      i think ecc. Is to the bible what that whole chapter that should be written for the manic depreressive alcoholic is to the big book. Thank god for ecc. Gravitas & the honesty of bible compilers to put it in. I am BTW bipolar alcoholic.

  • I always got the feeling Qohelet and I would get along well. Jennifer Michael Hecht in her book “Doubt” has a great section on Ecclesiastes which I would commend to anyone. It definitely doesn’t lend itself to any neat answers or tidy resolutions that can go on a positive-thinking calendar. It’s much more in line with Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

    Or even the theme song of Malcolm in the Middle (“Life is unfair…”).

  • Poetreehugger

    I too am glad the book of Ecclesiastes is included in the bible, so that beyond the simplistic platitudes people sometimes like to quote at you, there stands this dark monolith of a message that says Oh Crap!
    I enjoyed the book Ecclesiastes by Peter Enns, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the right word…was satisfied with how it rings true, seems honest about the world as some of us have experienced it, or see it.
    I somehow find it comforting to think the things we do are on some level “utterly futile” and will ultimately be forgotten entirely, as Qoholet says. In the same way that I find comfort in the thought “the next five thousand years will go by anyway.”

  • ravitchn

    Much of the bible is contradictory because different authors and different communities of Jews and Christians had different concerns. Confining ourselves to the New Testament. All scholars know that the events of Paul’s life in the book of Acts contradict the words of Paul himself in the Epistles. The earliest gospels, Mark and Matthew describe Jesus giving his disciples the bread and wine but making no mention of them being told to continue this process. Luke has Jesus telling them to repeat it, while the gospel of John has no bread and wine episode at the Last Supper.

    • charlesburchfield

      …these things are foolishness to the worldly wise. The bible isn’t a text book or a rule book I think. I never used it as such. When I was having a crisis in my twenties the holy spirit came to me. Music, nature, dance, theatre, literature, visual art is more of an immediate hit to being tuned into what god & jesus is about I think. You linier squares have a hard time w the bible I notice. Visual learners just intuitivly groove inna zone!

      • ravitchn

        Did the Holy Ghost scare you good?

        • charlesburchfield

          no ravi that’s not cool. play nice or go some where else!

  • Benjamin Wortham

    One of my favorite texts. It appeals to the dark side of my poets heart. I’m always disappointed that the darkness of this text is rarely confronted head on in sermons as well as the words of Jobs wife, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die”. If we don’t wrestle with darkness and doubt, how can we know light?

  • Guthrum

    There was a best selling song in the ’60’s that asked “is that all there is ? ”
    We often ask ouselves that in the day to day routines of go to work, come home, go to bed, go to work. We search for meaning. We are caught up in so much that is not important. We get stressed out over unimportant things.

  • Kill it, Dr. Enns! Kill it with a stick!

  • I wouldn’t say faith crisis, I’d rather say life crisis. Theology crisis if you like, or intellectual crisis.
    The faith in God isn’t a question here. Qohelet does at no time question the existence of God. And Qohelet does not live in times when people were up to be friends with Jesus or the like, there as a clear hierarchy: God above, we below.
    But people thought that the good will be rewarded in life for their goodness and evil people will be punished in life. It’s similar to the book of Job, which also challenges this thought.
    Qohelet lives in times when the pious, the Jews (he lived in times of Alexander the great if I remember right) were living in a land occupied by foreign forces, who had other gods and put pressure on the Jewish religion to convert. And also imagine what occupation means for ordinary people. It isn’t nice to say the least. They have to live with what the powerful, the Seleukids and the Ptolemaics did in their land…
    He makes clear that the thought: The good will be rewarded is obviously not how God rolls, so his conclusion is to be happy as good as possible. I don’t think this is a resignation of faith, it is maybe more a resignation of trying to understand God. But God Himself is not questioned.