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The Wisdom to Know the Difference – Dr Susan Gillingham

 

I wonder if any of you were surprised by our Old Testament reading from Ecclesiastes. It could not be more different from the readings from Proverbs in the first two Sundays of term: in those readings, it was clear that the author believes God is close at hand and that he intervenes in the world; proverbial teaching on morality is positive, clear-cut and black-and-white: there are material rewards for good behaviour and punishments for bad, and trust in God gets special rewards. Our the two readings from Proverbs 3 and 4 which we heard in weeks one and two of term offered the following advice: ‘Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh, and refreshment to your bones’. ‘Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding’. ‘Get wisdom, get insight! Do not forsake her, and she will keep you’. ‘Hear my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many.’ ‘Keep hold of instruction, do not let go: guard her, for she is your life’.
The teaching of Ecclesiastes could not be more different. God is utterly transcendent and he does not intervene in the world; and what practical teaching there is offers more questions than answers. Good behaviour is rarely rewarded: faith in God has few advantages, and certainly does not result in his presence becoming close to us. Indeed, all that is left is to ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. Our reading today revealed just how pessimistic this world-view is: ‘Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say ‘I have no pleasure in them’. ‘Remember… before the silver cord is snapped, the golden bowl is broken..’ ‘Remember…. before the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit to the God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity’.
The rabbis used to say that Proverbs was written by Solomon as a young king, with all the enthusiasm, ambition and positive thinking of youth, and Ecclesiastes has the imprint of Solomon in his old age, with failing health, fear of death, and an uneasy faith. Although these books are very different, the reasons the rabbis gave for their differences are not very convincing. The two books have very distinct literary styles and the Hebrew in each of them is quite different It is hard to presume the same author influenced both books. Furthermore, it is hard to accept that those who are young never face profound doubts about faith in God, and, conversely, that those who are old do not possess a positive faith which is based upon a lifelong experience of God. But, nevertheless, I see why the rabbis distinguished between the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in this way: it is quite clear that anyone reading Proverbs comes away with the impression of a clear-cut affirmative faith, and anyone reading Ecclesiastes feels that sense of despair which is the result of posing unfathomable questions about God.

So what are these two books doing, side by side, in our English Bibles?

Before we look for an answer, we need to be reminded that these ‘opposing voices’ are not only represented in Proverbs and Job but are evident throughout the Bible as a whole. Within the Old Testament, the confident teaching of the prophets and the uncompromising teaching on the Law correspond closely to the more upbeat and unquestioning world-view in Proverbs; whereas the prayers of despair in the Book of Psalms and the questions about God’s justice in the Book of Job fit more with the more sceptical and pessimistic world-view of Ecclesiastes. The New Testament, too, has many examples of these two approaches to faith. Think of the extraordinary confidence in matters of faith and practice expressed within the letters of Paul – indeed, such as we heard in that second letter to Timothy tonight – and compare this with the accounts individuals searching, questioning and reaching out to Jesus in, for example, the Gospel of John: in the very first chapter we read of John the Baptist asking ‘Who are you?’; this continues through to the questions of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night (‘How can a man be born again?’) and, at the very end of the Gospel, we read of ‘doubting Thomas’ who will only believe in the resurrection if he place his hand in the marks of the nails in Jesus’s side.
If the Bible embraces both responses of faith, then surely there should be room for both in Jewish and Christian communities today. And yet it self-evident that this is far from the case. Those who are more open to doubt tend to find those whose faith is confident and strong too shrill and simplistic and superficial; and those whose faith is confident and strong find those who are more open to doubt and questioning too introverted and ineffectual. The challenge facing the church today – and one which impinges upon our chapel community here at Worcester as well as on the church at large – is how to become a ‘broad’ and ‘inclusive’ church which recognises and respects different expressions of faith.

How can we really achieve this? How can we as Christians learn to love and respect those whose faith in God is very different from our own?

A brief phrase, used somewhat differently in both Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes, might give some guidance here. It has occurred in all three Old Testament readings thus far this term. In Proverbs it is termed ‘the fear of the Lord’; for example, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ It is used again and again throughout the entire book -some fifteen times. What does it mean?
Primarily, ‘the fear of the Lord’ is about having a God-centred, not human-centred view of life: it is a faith about being focused on God, and not on ourselves. Trying to see ourselves and the world theologically, as God sees us, does not come naturally, but it can certainly re-shape our world-view, and it is probably harder for those who think they already have the answers than for those who know they have very few. Discovering that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ requires quiet reflective prayer; it requires listening to God before we purportedly speak about him. Small wonder that the book of Proverbs, with its tendency to assume it has all the answers, reminds us of this phrase so often.
Secondly, ‘the fear of the Lord’ is about recognising that nobody, however intelligent, however confident in faith, however skilled in debate, has all the answers: there will always be a mystery to life because it is always full of paradoxes and contradictions, and because life is a mystery the key to it is with God, not with us. ‘God only knows’ is a slick turn of phrase, but it’s one we all need to heed.
The book of Job, whose teaching falls midway between the utter confidence of Proverbs and the despair and scepticism of Ecclesiastes, is very much about learning that ‘God only knows’. Job 28 is one of my favourite chapters in the entire Old Testament. It is a reflective hymn on how wisdom and understanding has been hidden from us: ‘Whence comes wisdom? Where is place of understanding?’… Only God understands the way to it, and he knows its place’. The hymn ends with that familiar phrase: ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding’. The whole book is about the hero, Job, discovering the real meaning of what it means to ‘fear the Lord’ and so acquire ‘divine wisdom’ – which means knowing he, Job, does not have all the answers. So, whether taken from Proverbs or from Job, ‘the fear of the Lord’ is a warning for those who think they have all the answers: they need to discover a quiet humility in the presence of God.
So much for those who think they have all the answers: what of those whose faith seems to be one ongoing question about the meaning of life before God? Ecclesiastes has I another similar turn of phrase, although, perhaps predictably, it is used in a less assertive way. It is not the more intimate expression of Proverbs, ‘the fear of the Lord’, but a more nostalgic longing: ‘fear God’ (The more distant term for God is used in the Hebrew in this case.) Whereas the ‘fear of the Lord’ in Proverbs was to challenge the certitudes of faith, in Ecclesiastes ‘fear God’ is a way of bringing reassurance in doubt and uncertainty. ‘When dreams increase, and empty words grow many: fear God’ (5:7). ‘I know it will be well with those who fear God’ (8:12). ‘The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments’ (12.3, from our reading tonight). ‘Fearing God’ in Ecclesiastes, although taken from such a different perspective, results in the same conclusion as ‘ the fear of the Lord’ in Proverbs. It is about seeking out God’s perspective on life; and it is about recognising that it is only by living in awe of God the Creator that the mysteries of life on earth can in any way be resolved.
One of the most important challenges for us all, when at the beginning of this academic year we seek to establish a new chapel community, with a new chaplain, new members of choir, new parents, new fellows, new members of college and new students, is to learn how to live with those whose expressions of faith are very different from our own. Whether we are thinking of members of the CU, the chapel choir, the Catholic chaplaincy, or just middle-of-the-road church goers, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes when taken together should remind us that neither an upbeat nor downbeat response to faith should exclude the other. They can and should both be held together. Our challenge as a chapel community is to learn when it is appropriate to ‘comfort the disturbed’ and when it is better to ‘disturb the comfortable’.
I end with a prayer which has meant a good deal to the Provost and me at various moments when faith and doubt have each been challenged. It is known as the ‘serenity prayer’ – initially ascribed to Reinhold Niebuhr in the mid 1930s, written for Alcoholics Anonymous, but it is now known to have its roots back into the fourteenth century. It sums up so well the issues I’ve been trying to put before you tonight:
‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Amen.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
The Four Calls
The Spirit came in childhood and pleaded, “Let me in,”
But oh! the door was bolted by thoughtlessness and sin;
“I am too young,” the child replied, “I will not yield today;
There’s time enough tomorrow.” The Spirit went away.
Again He came and pleaded in youth’s bright happy hour;
He came but heard no answer, for lured by Satan’s power
The youth lay dreaming then and saying, “Not today,
Not till I’ve tried earth’s pleasures.” The Spirit went away.
Again He called in mercy in manhood’s vigorous prime,
But still He found no welcome, the merchant had no time;
No time for true repentance, no time to think or pray,
And so, repulsed and saddened, the Spirit went away.
Once more He called and waited, the man was old and ill,
And scarcely heard the whisper, his heart was cold and still;
“Go leave me; when I need thee, I’ll call for thee,” he cried;
Then sinking on his pillow, without a hope, he died!

Dr. Susan Gillingham, Reader in Theology, Worcester College
26th October 2008